Origins Online - L. J. Smith Page 0,1

I felt suddenly embarrassed for him to see me caked in sweat and dirt. “We have stable boys for a reason, son.”

“I know,” I said, feeling as though I’d disappointed him.

“There’s a time and a place for having fun with horses. But then there’s the point when it’s time for a boy to stop playing and become a man.” Father hit Mezzanotte on the flanks, hard. She snorted and took a step back.

I clenched my jaw, waiting for him to tell me about how, when he was my age, he’d moved to Virginia from Italy with only the clothes on his back. How he’d fought and bargained to build a tiny, one-acre plot of land into what was now the two hundred acres of Veritas Estate. How he’d named it that because veritas was Latin for truth, because he’d learned that as long as a man searched for truth and fought deception, he didn’t need anything else in life.

Father leaned against the door of the stall. “Rosalyn Cartwright just celebrated her sixteenth birthday. She’s looking for a husband.”

“Rosalyn Cartwright?” I repeated. When we were twelve, Rosalyn had gone to a finishing school outside of Richmond, and I hadn’t seen her in ages. She was a nondescript girl with mousy blond hair and brown eyes; in every memory I held of her, she wore a brown dress. She’d never been sunny and laughing, like Clementine Haverford, or flirty and feisty, like Amelia Hawke, or whip-smart and mischievous, like Sarah Brennan. She was simply a shadow in the background, content to trail along on all our childhood adventures but never to lead them.

“Yes. Rosalyn Cartwright.” Father gave me one of his rare smiles, with the corners of his lips turned so slightly upward, one would think he was sneering if one did not know him well. “Her father and I have been talking, and it seems the ideal union. She’s always been quite fond of you, Stefan.”

“I don’t know if Rosalyn Cartwright and I are a match,” I mumbled, feeling as though the cool walls of the stable were closing in on me. Of course Father and Mr. Cartwright had been talking. Mr. Cartwright owned the bank in town; if Father had an alliance with him, it would be easy to expand Veritas even further. And if they’d been talking, it was as good as done that Rosalyn and I were to be man and wife.

“Of course you don’t know, boy!” Father guffawed, slapping me on the back. He was in remarkably good spirits. My spirits, however, were sinking lower and lower with each word. I squeezed my eyes shut, hoping this was all a bad dream. “No boy your age knows what’s good for him. That’s why you need to trust me. I’m arranging a dinner for next week to celebrate the two of you. In the meantime, pay her a call. Get to know her. Compliment her. Let her fall in love with you.” Father finished, taking my hand and pressing a box inside my palm.

What about me? What if I don’t want her to fall in love with me? I wanted to say. But I didn’t. Instead, I shoved the box in my back pocket without glancing at its contents, then went back to attending to Mezzanotte, brushing her so hard, she snorted and stepped back in indignation.

“I’m glad we had this talk, son,” Father said. I waited for him to notice that I’d barely said a word, to realize that it was absurd to ask me to marry a girl I hadn’t spoken to in years.

“Father?” I said, hoping he would say something to set me free from the fate he’d laid out for me.

“I think October would be lovely for a wedding,” my father said instead, letting the door bang shut behind him.

I clenched my jaw in frustration. I thought back to our childhood, when Rosalyn and I would find ourselves pushed to sit together at Saturday barbecues and church socials. But the forced socialization simply hadn’t worked, and as soon as we were old enough to choose our own playmates, Rosalyn and I went our separate ways. Our relationship was going to be just as it was when we were ten years younger—ignoring each other while dutifully making our parents happy. Except now, I realized grimly, we’d be bound together forever.

2

The next afternoon, I found myself sitting on a stiff, low-backed velvet chair in the Cartwrights’ sitting room. Every time I shifted, trying to find a