Home > The Craving (The Vampire Diaries: Stefan's Diaries #3)(5)

The Craving (The Vampire Diaries: Stefan's Diaries #3)(5)
Author: L.J. Smith

For a moment the thought flashed through my head: How easy it would be to lure him out here. One more step . . . His corpulent body would provide me with enough blood to sate my hunger for days. I felt my jaw ache with the desire that would coax my fangs out, that would bring this man his death.

But despite the many temptations I’d faced tonight, I had left that life behind me.

“I was just leaving, sir. I’m glad your daughter is safe,” I said, taking a step backward toward the shadows.

The man put a meaty hand on my arm, stopping me. His eyes narrowed, and though I could have killed him in an instant, I was surprised at a sudden nervous fluttering in my stomach. “What’s your name, son?”

“Stefan,” I answered. “Stefan Salvatore.”

I realized immediately that telling him my real name like that was stupid, given the mess I had made of things in New Orleans and Mystic Falls.

“Stefan,” he repeated, looking me up and down. “Not going to press for a reward?”

I tugged on my shirt cuffs, embarrassed at my disheveled appearance. My black pants, with my journal tucked into the back pocket, were frayed. My shirt was pulled out and hanging in loose folds around my suspenders. No hat, no tie, no waistcoat, and above all that, I was dirty and smelled faintly of the outdoors.

“No, sir. Just glad to help,” I murmured.

The man was silent, as if he were having trouble processing my words. I wondered if the shock of seeing his daughter, bloodied and frail, had put him in something of a fog. Then he shook his head.

“Nonsense!” He clasped my right shoulder. “I would give anything to keep my youngest safe. Come inside. I insist! Share a cigar and let me toast your rescue of my baby girl.”

He tugged me into the house, as though I were a stubborn dog on a leash. I started to protest, but fell silent the moment I stepped into the grand foyer. The dark wainscoting was cherry wood. The stained glass windows that were meant to illuminate the doorway during the day sparkled even at night, their colors jewel-like under the gaslight. A giant, formal stairway climbed to the next floor, the balustrade looking as though it had been carved from whole trunks. In my human life, I’d wished to be a scholar of architecture, and I could have gladly studied this home for hours.

But before I could fully appreciate the entryway, the man herded me through a hall and into a cozy parlor. A roaring orange fire commanded attention on the far wall. High-backed chairs with silk cushions were scattered around the room and the walls were papered in pine green. A snooker set was discreetly placed behind a couch, and cabinets of books, globes, and assorted curiosities framed high casement windows. My father, a collector of books and fine objects, would have loved this room, and my chest tightened at the realization that I would surpass my own father in life experience.

“Cigar?” he offered, pulling out a box.

“No thank you, sir,” I said. The cigars were the finest quality, made from my home state’s tobacco. At one time, I would have been more than happy to accept. But even the sound of a bird’s beak scraping against bark almost overwhelmed my heightened senses; the thought of sucking in clouds of black smoke was unbearable.

“Hmmm. Doesn’t partake.” He raised a craggy eyebrow doubtfully. “You’ll not bow out on some spirits, I hope?”

“No, sir. Thank you, sir.”

The proper words came out of my mouth even as I paced back and forth.

“That’s my boy.” He prepared my drink, an apricot-colored liquid poured out of a cut crystal decanter.

“So you found my daughter in the park,” he said, offering me the brandy. I couldn’t help holding the sparkling glass up to the light. It would have been beautiful even without my vampire senses, scattering every stray beam like iridescent dragonflies.

I nodded at my host and took a small sip, sitting down when he motioned to a leather chair. The warm, sweet spirits poured over my tongue, both comforting me and making me feel strangely uneasy at the same time. I had gone from living in a park to sipping fine liqueur in a mansion with a very wealthy man in the course of one short night. And at the same time that I longed to sprint back into the darkness—the loneliness that pervaded my very being begged me to linger. I had not spoken to anyone in two weeks, but here I was, invited into a veritable palace of human activity. I could sense at least a dozen servants and family members in the few rooms nearby, their heady scent indistinguishable to all but myself, and the two dogs I knew were in the kitchen.

My benefactor regarded me strangely, and I made myself pay attention.

“Yes, sir. I found her in a clearing by the remains of the old Seneca Village.”

“What were you doing in the park so late at night?” he asked, fixing me with his eyes.

“Walking,” I said evenly.

I braced myself for what would come next, the uncomfortable series of questions that would assess my station in life, though my ripped clothes surely gave some indication. If I were him, I would have pressed a few dollars into my hand and sped me out the door. After all, New York was not short on predators, and though he couldn’t know it, probably could not even imagine it, I was the worst sort.

But his next words surprised me. “Down on your luck, son?” he asked, his expression softening. “What was it—tossed out of your father’s house? A scandal? Duel? Caught on the wrong side of the war?”

My mouth gaped open. How did he know I wasn’t just some vagrant?

He seemed to guess my thought.

“Your shoes, son, show that you are obviously a gentleman, regardless of your current, eh, circumstances,” he said, eyeing them. I looked at them myself—scuffed and dirty, I hadn’t shined them since Louisiana. “The cut is Italian and the leather is fine. I know my leather.” He tapped his own shoe, which looked to be made from crocodile. “It’s how I got my start. I’m Winfield T. Sutherland, owner of Sutherland’s Mercantile. Some of my neighbors made their money from oil or railroads, but I made my fortune honestly—by selling people what they needed.”

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