Origins (Page 9)

"The pleasure is all yours. I know it’s a good merger. Practical and low risk with plenty of opportunity for growth."

"Thank you, sir," I said. "And I am so sorry about Rosalyn’s dog."

Mr. Cartwright shook his head. "Don’t tell my wife or Rosalyn, but I’d always hated the damn thing. Not saying it should have gone and gotten itself killed, but I think everyone is getting themselves all worked up over nothing. All this discussion of demons you hear all over the damn place. People whispering that the town is cursed. It’s that kind of talk that makes people so afraid of risk. Makes them nervous about putting their money in the bank," Mr. Cartwright boomed, causing several people to stare. I smiled nervously.

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Father acting as host and shuttling people toward the long table at the center of the room. I noticed each place was set with Mother’s delicate fleur-de-lis china.

"Stefan," my father said, clapping his hand on my shoulder, "are you ready? Y have everything

ou you need?"

"Yes." I touched the ring in my breast pocket and followed him to the head of the table. Rosalyn stood next to her mother and smiled tightly at her parents. Rosalyn’s eyes, still red from crying over poor Penny, clashed horribly with the oversize, frilly pink dress she was wearing.

As our neighbors took their seats around us, I realized that there were still two empty seats to my left.

"Where’s your brother?" Father asked, lowering his voice.

I glanced toward the door. The band was still playing, and there was anticipation in the air. Finally, the doors opened with a clatter, and Damon and Katherine walked in. Together.

It wasn’t fair, I thought savagely. Damon could act like a boy, could continue to drink and flirt as if nothing had consequence. I’d always done the right thing, the responsible thing, and now it felt as though I was being punished for it by being forced to become a man.

Even I was surprised by the surge of anger I felt. Instantly guilty, I tried to squelch the emotion by downing the full glass of wine to my left. After all, would Katherine have been expected to come to the dinner by herself? And wasn’t Damon just being gallant, the good elder brother?

Besides, they had no future. Marriages, at least in our society, were approved only if they merged two families. And, as an orphan, what did Katherine have to offer besides beauty? Father would never let me marry her, but that also meant he wouldn’t let Damon marry her either. And even Damon wouldn’t go so far as to marry someone Father didn’t approve of. Right?

Still, I couldn’t tear my eyes away from Damon’s arm around Katherine’s tiny waist. She wore a green muslin dress whose fabric spread across her hoop skirts, and there was a hushed murmur as she and Damon made their way to the two empty seats at the center of the table. Her blue necklace gleamed at her throat, and she winked at me before taking the empty seat next to my own. Her hip brushed against mine, and I shifted uncomfortably.

"Damon." Father nodded tersely as Damon sat down to his left.

"So do you think the army will be all the way down to Georgia by winter?" I asked Jonah Palmer loudly, simply because I didn’t trust myself to speak to Katherine. If I heard her musical voice, I might lose my nerve to propose to Rosalyn.

"I’m not worried about Georgia. What I am worried about is getting the militia together to solve the problems here in Mystic Falls. These attacks will not be stood for," Jonah, the town veterinarian who had also been training the Mystic Falls militia, said loudly, pounding his fist on the table so hard, the china rattled.

Just then, an army of servants entered the hall, holding plates of wild pheasant. I took my silver fork and pushed the gamey meat around my plate; I had no appetite. Around me, I could hear the usual discussions: about the war, about what we could do for our boys in gray, about upcoming dinners and barbecues and church socials. Katherine was nodding intently at Honoria Fells across the table. Suddenly I felt jealous of the grizzled, frizzy-haired Honoria. She was able to have the one-on-one conversation with Katherine that I so desperately wanted.

"Ready, son?" Father elbowed me in the ribs, and I noticed that people were already finished with their meals. More wine was being poured, and the band, who’d paused during the main course, was playing in the corner. This was the moment everyone had been waiting for: They knew an announcement was about to be made, and they knew that following that announcement there would be celebrating and dancing. It was always the way dinners happened in Mystic Falls. But I’d never before been at the center of an announcement. As if on cue, Honoria leaned toward me, and Damon smiled encouragingly.

Feeling sick to my stomach, I took a deep breath and clinked my knife against my crystal glass. Immediately, there was a hush throughout the hall, and even the servants stopped midstep to stare at me. I stood up, took a long swig of red wine for courage, and cleared my throat.

"I … um," I began in a low, strained voice I didn’t recognize as my own. "I have an announcement." Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Father clutching his champagne flute, ready to jump in with a toast. I glanced at Katherine. She was looking at me, her dark eyes piercing my own. I tore my gaze away and gripped my glass so tightly, I was sure it would break. "Rosalyn, I’d like to ask your hand in marriage. Will you do me the honor?" I said in a rush, fumbling in my suit pocket for the ring.

I pulled out the box and knelt down in front of Rosalyn, staring up at her watery brown eyes. "For you," I said without inflection, flipping open the lid and holding it out toward her.

Rosalyn shrieked, and the room burst into a smattering of applause. I felt a hand clap my back, and I saw Damon grinning down on me. Katherine clapped politely, an unreadable expression on her face.