Origins (Page 7)

Damon wiggled his eyebrows and let out a low whistle. "Y know how I feel about strong women,"

ou he whispered.

"Damon. Be appropriate," I said, slugging him on the shoulder. After all, he wasn’t on the battlefields anymore. He was in Mystic Falls, a town where people liked to eavesdrop and loved to talk. Had he forgotten so quickly?

"Okay, Auntie Stefan!" Damon teased, raising his voice in a high lisp. I laughed despite myself and slugged him again on the arm for good measure. The punch was light, but felt good–a way to unleash some of my annoyance that he was able to escort Katherine to the dinner.

He good-naturedly slugged me back, and we would have broken out into an all-out brotherly brawl if Damon hadn’t pushed open the wooden door to the Mystic Falls Tavern. We were immediately greeted by an enthusiastic smile from the voluptuous, red-haired barmaid behind the counter. It was clear that Damon had made himself at home here on several occasions.

We elbowed our way to the back of the tavern. The room smelled of sawdust and sweat, and men in uniform were everywhere. Some had bandages on their heads, others wore slings, and some hobbled to the counter on crutches. I recognized Henry, a dark-skinned soldier who practically lived at the tavern, drinking whiskey alone in a corner. Robert had told me stories about him: He never socialized with anyone, and no one ever saw him in the light of day. There was talk that maybe he was associated with the attacks, but how could he be, if he was always at the tavern?

I peeled my eyes away to take in the rest of the scene. There were older men tightly grouped in a corner, playing cards and drinking whiskey and, in the opposite corner, a few women. I could tell from the rouge on their cheeks and their painted fingernails that they weren’t the types to spend time with our childhood playmates, Clementine Haverford or Amelia Hawke. As we walked past, one of them brushed my arm with her painted fingernails.

"Y like it here?" Damon pulled out a wooden

ou table from the wall, an amused smile on his face.

"I suppose I do." I plunked down on the hard wooden bench and surveyed my surroundings once again. Being in the tavern, I felt I’d stumbled into a secret society of men, just one more thing I knew I’d have little chance to discover before I was a married man and expected to be at home every evening. "I’ll get us some drinks," Damon said, making his way to the bar. I watched as he rested his elbows on the counter and easily talked to the barmaid, who tilted her head back and laughed as if he’d said something hilarious. Which he probably had. That’s why all women fell in love with him.

"So, how does it feel to be a married man?"

I turned around to see Dr. Janes behind me. Well into his seventies, Dr. Janes was slightly senile and often loudly proclaimed to anyone who’d listen that his longevity was due exclusively to his prodigious indulgence in whiskey.

"Not married yet, Doctor." I smiled tightly, wishing Damon would come back with our drinks.

"Ah, my boy, but you will be. Mr. Cartwright at the bank has been discussing it for weeks. The fair young Rosalyn. Quite a catch!" Dr. Janes continued loudly. I glanced around, hoping no one had heard.

At that moment, Damon appeared and gently set our whiskeys on the table. "Thank you," I said, drinking mine down in one gulp. Dr. Janes hobbled away.

"That thirsty, huh?" Damon asked, taking a small sip of his own drink.

I shrugged. In the past, I’d never kept secrets from my brother. But talking about Rosalyn felt dangerous. Somehow, no matter what I said or felt, I still had to marry her. If anyone heard even an inkling of regret from me, there’d be no end to the talk.

Suddenly, a new whiskey appeared in front of me. I glanced up to see the pretty bartender Damon had been talking to standing over our table.

"Y look like you need this. Seems you’ve had out a rough day." The barmaid winked one of her green eyes and set the sweating tumbler on the rough-hewn wooden table in front of me.

"Thank you," I said as I took a small, grateful sip.

"Anytime," the barmaid said, her crinoline skirts swishing over her hips. I watched her retreating back. All the women in the tavern, even those with loose reputations, were more interesting than Rosalyn. But no matter who I glanced at, the only image that filled my mind was Katherine’s face.

"Alice likes you," Damon observed.

I shook my head. "You know I can’t look. By the you end of summer, I’ll be a married man. Y ou, meanwhile, are free to do as you please." I’d meant it to be an observation, but the words came out as a judgment.

"That’s true," Damon said. "But you do know you don’t have to do something just because Father says so, right?"

"It’s not that simple." I clenched my jaw. Damon couldn’t understand because he was wild and untamable–so much so that Father had entrusted me, the younger brother, with the future of Veritas, a role I now found stifling.

A sliver of betrayal shot through me at this thought–that it was Damon’s fault I had to shoulder so much responsibility. I shook my head, as if trying to remove the idea from it, and took another drink of whiskey.

"It’s very simple," Damon said, oblivious to my momentary annoyance. "Just tell him you are not in love with Rosalyn. That you need to find your own place in the world and can’t just follow someone’s orders blindly. That’s what I learned in the army: Y have to believe in what you do. Otherwise, ou what’s the point?"

I shook my head. "I’m not like you. I trust Father. And I know he only wants the best. It’s just that I wish … I wish I had more time," I said finally. It was true. Maybe I could grow to love Rosalyn, but the thought that I could be married and have a child in just one short year filled me with dread. "But it’ll be fine," I said with finality. It had to be.