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2012-01-05 | |
Sunlight dappled the rough-hewn beams of the expansive kitchen of Abbott Manor, where I was employed as a groundskeeper. I sighed in
contentment as I gazed out the thick windows at the verdant rolling countryside surrounding the home. Although meticulously kept up by Mrs.
Duckworth, the Abbottsâ devoted housekeeper, I could see motes of pollen floating through the bright rays. The homey, comfortable setting
reminded me of the Veritas Estate, where pollen from the magnolia trees would drift through the open windows and coat an entire room in a thin
layer of dust.
âCan you pass me the knife, Stefan?â Daisy, one of the young housemaids, asked as she flirtatiously batted her eyelashes at me. Daisy was a
local girl occasionally employed by Mrs. Duckworth to come in and assist in the kitchen for the day. A short girl with curly brown hair and a
smattering of freckles across her upturned nose, she reminded me of Amelia Hawke, one of my childhood friends from Mystic Falls. Amelia would
now most likely have children Daisyâs age, I realized.
âWhy, of course, Daisy darlinâ,â I said in my exaggerated Southern accent, bowing deeply to her. Daisy always teased me about how American I
sounded, and I enjoyed our lighthearted exchanges. They were playful and innocent, a reminder that words didnât always carry an ulterior motive.
I pulled a knife from a drawer and passed it to her as she plucked a cucumber from a large wooden bowl and set it down on the table, biting her
lip in concentration.
âOw!â Daisy yelped, yanking her finger away from the cucumber and hastily bringing her hand to her lips. She turned toward me, blood oozing
from the wound.
I felt my fangs begin to bulge from underneath my gums. I gulped and stepped away, trying to stop the transformation while I still had the chance.
âStefan, help!â Daisy implored.
I staggered back as the scent of blood invaded my nostrils and seeped into my brain. I could imagine how sweet the liquid would taste on my
I grabbed a napkin and thrust it toward her. I squeezed my eyes shut, but if anything, it only made the metallic scent of blood more potent.
âHere!â I said roughly, blindly shaking the napkin at her. But she did not take it, so I opened one eye, then the other. Daisy was standing there,
her arm outstretched, but something about her was different. I blinked again. It wasnât my imagination. Her mousy brown hair had transformed into a
shiny red copper, while her full cheeks had slimmed into an angular face that had only the faintest dusting of freckles across the bridge of her nose.
Somehow, Daisy had disappeared, and a new figure stood in her place.
âCallie?â I croaked, steadying myself against the wooden table. Callie Gallagherâfiery, impetuous, fiercely loyal, and dead by Damonâs handâ
was right in front of me. My mind was whirling. What if she hadnât really died? Could she somehow have escaped to England to start over? I knew it
didnât make sense, but she was right in front of me, as lovely as ever.
âStefan . . .â she whispered, tilting her face toward me.
âCallie!â I smiled as my fangs receded. I felt a quickening in my chest, a shadow of the human emotions that Callie had helped me remember. I
reached out toward her, brushing my hand against her shoulder, allowing my nose to inhale her apple-and-hay scent. But as soon as I blinked
again, to take her all in, everything about her changed. Her lips were parted too widely, her teeth too white, her eyes bloodshot. A lemon-and-ginger
fragrance wafted through the air.
I blinked in horror. Fear ran through my veins like ice. Could it be . . .
It was Katherine. Katherine. The first woman I ever believed myself to fall in love with. The vampire who stole my heart only as a means to steal
my soul. âLeave me be!â I called raggedly, scrambling backward so quickly my foot caught on the table leg. I steadied myself. I knew I had to get
away from her. She was evil. Sheâd destroyed me. And yet, she looked so lovely. A mischievous expression danced across her face.
âWhy, hello, Stefan,â she said in a dulcet tone as she advanced toward me. âDid I scare you? You look as if youâve seen a ghost!â
âYouâre dead,â I spat, still unable to believe she was in front of me.
She laughed, a sound as warm and enveloping as whiskey on a cold winter night.
âWasnât I always? Itâs good to see you. You look well. Although maybe a bit too pale,â Katherine admonished.
âHow did you get here?â I asked finally. Her body had been burned, buried in a Virginia church an ocean away. And yet, it was undeniable that
she was standing not two feet from me in the Abbott kitchen.
âI needed to see you,â Katherine said, biting her lower lip with her perfectly white teeth. âIâm terribly sorry, Stefan. I feel we had so many
misunderstandings. I never truly explained myself or my nature to you. Do you think you could ever forgive me?â she asked.
I found myself nodding, despite my hatred for what sheâd done to me. I knew I needed to flee, but I couldnât look away from Katherineâs large
eyes. I wasnât being compelled. It was worse. I was being driven by love. I tentatively reached out and allowed my fingers to graze her skin. It was
smooth, and instantly I was consumed with the need to touch her again and again.
âSweet Stefan,â Katherine cooed, as she leaned toward me. Her petal-soft lips brushed against my cheek. I leaned in, succumbing to her
lemon-ginger scent. My desire, suppressed for twenty years, was unleashed. I didnât care about the past. I didnât care what sheâd done to me or my
brother. I wanted her. My lips hungrily found hers, and I kissed her, sighing with happiness and contentment.
She pulled back, and my gaze lifted to her face. Her eyes were bulging, and her fangs were glinting in the sunlight.
âKatherine!â I gasped. But I couldnât escape. Her icy-cold hands were around my neck, drawing me into her, and then I felt a searing pain at my
throat. I tried to turn away but the pain went deeper, farther into my body until it reached into the depths of my soul. . . .
Everything around me went dark.
And then I heard a sharp, persistent knocking.
âKatherine?â I groped around in confusion as I realized I was bathed in sweat. I blinked. Above me was the sloped roof of my thatched cottage.
Sunlight streamed in through the cracks in the ceiling.
The knocking continued.
I scrambled from my bed and pulled on my breeches and shirt. âCome in!â I called.
The door swung open and Mrs. Duckworth bustled in, concern stamped on her round, red face. âYou all right, then?â Mrs. Duckworth asked.
âFine. Just a dream,â I said, shifting uneasily from one foot to another. Was it just a dream? I hadnât thought about her in ages, but in my dream,
Katherine had seemed so real, so alive.
âHaving a nightmare, you was,â Mrs. Duckworth said knowledgeably, crossing her arms across her expansive, matronly chest. âI could hear you
yelling outside the door. And you gave me a right fright, Iâd thought you were attacked by one of them foxes from the woods. Mrs. Medlock up at the
Evans farm said one got a few of their chickens the other day. In broad daylight, too!â
âA nightmare . . .â I repeated, as I steadied myself against the wooden post of my bed. The sun was just beginning its descent and the forest
outside my window was blanketed in an amber light.
âYes,â Mrs. Duckworth replied patiently. She was wearing a starched white apron over her blue-and-white-striped dress, and her gray hair was
pulled back in a severe bun. Sheâd been a servant at the Manor for over twenty years, and oversaw everything that went on in the house with a
motherly concern. George Abbott always joked that she, not him, was truly in charge. Seeing her calmed me, a reminder that the events were all in
my head, and that I was safe here. âI just hope the missus didnât hear you. Wouldnât want her to think you was haunted.â
âNot me,â I said impatiently, picking up my bedclothes and tossing them back on the bed. I didnât like the implication of Mrs. Duckworthâs
colloquialisms, or that she was never quite able to produce a grammatically correct sentence. âYou mean the cabin is haunted. Which itâs not,â I
âNo, I meant youâs haunted,â Mrs. Duckworth said sagely. âYou must have something in your mind thatâs troubling you. Not letting you rest.â
I looked down at the rough, uneven floorboards. It was true. Even though I had fled from home, I was still haunted by visions from my past.
Sometimes, when I dreamt of Damon and myself as children, racing horses against each other through the Virginia woods, the dreamscapes were
pleasant. Other times, they reminded me that even though I was destined to live on Earth for eternity, a part of me was always in hell.
âNo matter,â Mrs. Duckworth said, crisply brushing her hands together to create a loud clapping sound. âI was coming to fetch you for Sunday
supper. The boys canât stop asking for you,â she said, an affectionate smile on her face as she spoke of Luke and Oliver, the two young Abbott
âOf course,â I said. I loved Sunday suppers. They were casual and noisy, filled with delicious food and good-natured bickering between Luke
and Oliver. Their father, George, would bounce four-year-old Emma, the youngest Abbott, on his knee, while their mother, Gertrude, would smile
proudly at her brood. Iâd sit at the far edge of the table, thankful that I, too, was part of the tableaux. They were just a normal family, enjoying a typical
Sunday. And to me, there was nothingânot the finest mansions in San Francisco or the glittering, champagne-soaked balls of New York Cityâthat
could possibly compare.
When Iâd come to Abbott Manor last fall, I had only the shirt on my back and a horse Iâd won in a game of cards at a portside bar just outside of
Southampton. Sheâd been a black beauty whoâd reminded me of Mezzanotte, my horse from my Virginia childhood. Iâd named her Segreto, Italian
for secret, and we spent the month roaming the countryside before arriving in Ivinghoe, a town about fifty miles outside of London. Looking for
someone who would purchase Segreto, Iâd been directed to George Abbott, who, upon hearing my carefully crafted tale of woe, had offered me
both the price of the horse and a job as caretaker.
âYou best hurry up,â Mrs. Duckworth said, interrupting my memory. She strode out of my cottage, closing the door with a thud.
I glanced hastily at my reflection in the looking glass that hung over my simple chest of drawers. I quickly slicked my brown hair back and ran my
tongue over my gums. My fangs rarely made an appearance anymore, at least not in my waking hours. Iâd even taken to hunting my prey with a bow
and arrow, then draining the blood into a glass and drinking it as I relaxed by the fire. I remember how my friend Lexi had tried and tried to get me to
take goatâs blood tea, back when I was a young vampire, wreaking havoc on the city of New Orleans. Back then, Iâd resisted, thinking goatâs blood
was an affront to what blood should taste likeârich, sweet, human.
If only she could see me now, I thought ruefully. I sometimes wished that she was here, especially during the long, dark nights. It would be nice
to have someone to talk to, and Lexi was a true friend. But she and I had parted ways upon reaching Britain. Sheâd decided to go on to the
Continent, while I chose to stay and see what the country had to offer. It was just as well. Although weâd parted on good terms, I could sense
sometimes she grew impatient with my melancholic disposition. I didnât blame her. I grew impatient with myself, too, wishing that I could simply
move on. I wished I could flirt with Daisy without fear of my fangs making an appearance. I wished I could discuss my former life in America with
George without letting slip that Iâd been alive during the Civil War. And I wished, more than anything, I could erase Damon from my mind. I felt that
being by myself and on my own two feet was what I needed to move forward. Until one nightmare would send me back into my misery.
But only if I let it. Iâd learned that memories were just thatâmemories. They had no power to hurt me, unless I let them. I learned that I could trust
humans. And late at night, my body warmed by badger blood and listening to the sounds of the forest come to life, I felt almost happy.
There was little excitement and adventure. What there wasâand what I was thankful forâwas routine. The job was much like what Iâd been
doing in my youth in Virginia, back when Father had been priming me to take over Veritas Estate. I bought livestock, oversaw the horses, and
mended anything that might need fixing. I knew George approved of my work, and we were even going into London tomorrow to discuss the
finances of the farm, a true sign of his trust in me. In fact, the entire Abbott family seemed to like me, and I was surprised to find how much I liked
them. I knew in a few years Iâd have to move on, since theyâd soon notice that I wasnât aging as they were. But I could still enjoy the time I had left.
Hastily, I pulled on a merino-wool jacket, one of the many items of clothing George had given me in the few short months Iâd been at Abbott
Manor. Indeed, he often said he thought of me like a son, a sentiment which simultaneously warmed and amused me. If only he knew that he was
actually a few years younger than me. He took his position as a father figure seriously, and although he could never replace my real father, I
welcomed the gesture.
Not bothering to lock the door to my cottage, I strode up the hill to the house, whistling a nameless tune. Only as I got to the chorus did I realize
its originâit was âGod Save the South,â one of Damonâs favorites.
Grimacing, I mashed my lips together and practically ran the remaining steps to the rear door of the manor. After twenty years, any recollection
of Damon was as sharp and abrupt as a clap of thunder on a dry, hot summer day. I still remembered himâhis brooding blue eyes, his lopsided
smile, and his sarcasm-tinged Southern accentâas vividly as if Iâd only seen him ten minutes ago. Who knew where he was now?
He could even be dead. The possibility sprang into my mind out of nowhere. I uneasily shook off the thought.
Arriving at the house, I swung open the door. The Abbotts never kept it locked. There was no need. The next house was five miles down the
road, the town another two beyond that. Even then, the town only consisted of a pub, post office, and train station. There was nowhere safer in all of
âStefan, my boy!â George called eagerly, striding into the foyer from the sitting room. Giddy and already a little drunk on pre-supper sherry,
George was flushed and seemed even more rotund than last week.
âHello, sir!â I said enthusiastically, glancing down at him. He stood at only a little bit above five feet, and his bulk seemed to be his way of making
up for his short stature. Indeed, sometimes I worried for the horses when it struck Georgeâs fancy to go for a ride in the woods.
But even though the other servants occasionally mocked him for his unwieldy body and fondness for drink, I saw in him nothing but friendliness
and goodwill. Heâd taken me in when I had nothing, and not only had he given me a roof over my head, but heâd given me hope that I could find
companionship with humans again.
âSpot of sherry?â George asked, pulling me out of my reverie.
âOf course,â I said amiably, as I settled into one of the comfortable red velvet chairs in the sitting room, a small and homey space with Oriental
rugs covered in dog hair. Gertrude Abbott had a soft spot for the farm dogs, and would let them inside the Manor whenever it rainedâwhich was
nearly every day. The walls were covered with portraits of Abbott relatives, identifiable by their dimples. That made all of them, even a stern portrait
of Great-uncle Martin, who stood watch over the bar in the corner, seem almost friendly.
âStefan!â A lisping voice shrieked as the two Abbott boys tumbled into the room. First came Luke, devious and dark-haired, with a cowlick that
simply wouldnât behave no matter how much his mother pushed it down against his forehead. Oliver followed, a seven-year-old with straw-colored
hair and skinned knees.
I smiled as Oliver threw his arms around my legs. A stray piece of hay from the barn was stuck in his hair, and his freckled face was smudged
with dirt. Heâd most likely been out in the woods for hours.
âI hunted a rabbit! He was this big!âOliver said, breaking away and holding his hands several feet apart.
âThat big?â I asked, raising my eyebrows. âAre you sure it was a rabbit? Or was it a bear?â Oliverâs light eyes grew saucerlike at the possibility,
and I stifled a smile.
âIt wasnât a bear, Stefan!â Luke interjected. âIt was a rabbit, and I was the one who shot it. Oliverâs bullet only scared it.â
âDid not!â Oliver said angrily.
âDaddy, tell Stefan! Tell him I shot it!â
âNow, boys!â George said, smiling fondly at his two young sons. I grinned as well, despite the pang of regret I felt stabbing into the core of my
being. It was such a familiar scene that I knew played out in houses all over the world: Sons squabbled, rebelled, and grew up, and then the cycle
repeated all over again. Except in the case of me and my brother. As children, weâd been exactly like Oliver and Luke. We were rough-and-tumble
and unafraid to knock each other down, because we knew that our fierce, undying loyalty would spur us to help each other back up moments later.
Before Katherine had come between us and changed everything.
âIâm sure Stefan doesnât want to hear you boys bickering,â George added, taking another swig of sherry.
âI donât mind,â I said, ruffling Oliverâs hair. âBut I think I need to enlist you to help me with a problem. Mrs. Duckworth said thereâs a fox in the
forest whoâs been stealing the chickens from the Evansesâ coop, and I know that only the best hunter in all of England will be able to bring down the
beast,â I invented.
âReally?â Oliver asked, his eyes growing wide.
âReally.â I nodded. âThe only person who can possibly take him down is someone small and quick and very, very clever.â I saw interest flicker
across Lukeâs face. At nearly ten, he most likely felt too grown-up to take part, but I knew he wanted to. Damon had been similar at that ageâtoo
sophisticated to be caught enjoying the games that weâd all play down by the creek, yet terrified of missing out on anything.
âAnd maybe weâll take your brother,â I said in a stage whisper, winking as I caught Georgeâs eye. âThe three of us will be the best hunting party
this side of London. The fox wonât stand a chance.â
âSounds like a fine adventure!â George said grandly as his wife, Gertrude, walked in. Her red hair was pulled back, emphasizing the widowâs
peak on her fair forehead, and she was carrying their four-year-old daughter, Emma, on her hip. Emma had fine blond hair and enormous eyes, and
often looked more like a fairy or a sprite than a human child. She flashed me a large grin and I smiled back, feeling happiness radiate from the
center of my being.
âWill you come, Daddy?â Oliver asked. âI want you to see me hunt.â
âAh, you know me,â George said, shaking his head. âIâd only scare the fox into the bushes. Heâd hear me coming from a mile away,â he said.
âStefan could teach you to be quiet!â Oliver lisped.
âStefanâs already teaching this old man to run his farm,â George laughed ruefully.
âSounds to me like weâre all telling stories tonight,â I said good-naturedly. Even though the work was demanding, I truly enjoyed the time I spent
on the farm with George. It was so different from how Iâd felt at Veritas, working under my own father. Back then, Iâd resented being kept on the farm,
instead of being allowed to go to the University of Virginia. Iâd hated feeling like my father was constantly judging and appraising me, wondering if I
was worthy of taking over the estate. But with the Abbotts, I felt like I was appreciated for the man I was.
I took a deep sip of sherry and leaned back into the chair, shaking off the final unsettling images from my earlier nightmare. Katherine was
dead. Damon might very well be, too. This was my reality now.
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