Vacancy, Writing

The Weary Traveler – An Excerpt

The first book of the Vacancy trilogy comes out on 2/24, and if you’re deciding whether to pick her up (for FREE if you wait til the 24th or 25th to snag her), maybe this will help. Here’s the first chapter.

Chapter 1 – Vacancy

“I just need somewhere to stay.”

It’s not a very consequential thing to think, I just need somewhere to stay, especially when driving blindly down an unfamiliar and unlit road while torrents of rain pelt one’s windshield, but Lorelei Fischer had the good sense, or perhaps just the dumb luck, to speak this thought out loud.

Words have more power when spoken aloud—this is one of the Big Three when it comes to magic and its rules—and maybe Lorelei knew this somewhere deep down in a dormant hidey-hole of her unconscious. Humans often did know these things without really knowing them in the colloquial sense of the word. It was equally possible, however, some otherworldly power had coaxed the words out, leaving Lorelei none the wiser to any divine intervention. Otherworldly powers often did impose their will on the unsuspecting and did so more frequently than the unsuspecting ever thought. Or maybe our heroine just had an odd habit of talking to herself.

Whatever the reason, when Lorelei spoke the words, the ones asking for a sanctuary from the storm, both literal and metaphorical, lightning bolted through the black sky and illuminated a sign at the side of the road the young woman would have otherwise never seen. This coupled with a moment of abnormal stillness in the rain and wind lasted just long enough for her to read the script painted on the placard:

Moonlit Shores Manor
For The Weary Traveler

And the very fortunate, smaller sign that clung just below on two thin chains:

Vacancy

She made a sharp turn off the paved road onto a gravel drive nestled into the woods just beyond where the sign pointed. Now within the forest that had run alongside the highway, the worst of the rain was shielded by thick branches overhead, but her car was plunged into an even darker darkness. Her foot hesitated, letting off the gas as she inched forward, then she shook her head and drove on.

Moonlit Shores Manor sounded like a perfectly acceptable place, she told herself, despite being out in the middle of, well, wherever the hell she’d ended up. Maybe it would be run by a tiny, wrinkled woman and her gaggle of cats; someone kind and concerned but intuitive enough to know when to not ask questions. As her car snaked between tall pines, Lorelei squinted into the void beyond her headlights. Maybe there would even be fresh-baked, homemade cookies. Her grip on the steering wheel loosened, and a smile twitched at the corners of her face at the mere thought of chocolate chips.

But then she saw it.

Moonlit Shores Manor was, in fact, an immense, daunting, hulk of a place. Its eaves disappeared up into the black sky, and elaborate molding sunk down over the front windows like the heavily-lidded eyes of a skeptical stranger. It stared back, inspecting her as much as she did it, and she became grossly aware of her own presence and how her headlights cast themselves on the manor’s face. The car rolled to a stop in the gravel lot at its front, the only one there, and she killed the engine.

As the dome light came on inside, Lorelei’s reflection suddenly looked back from the windshield. The circles under her eyes were deep and dark, all of the makeup Kristi had so skillfully applied to her face that morning wiped away. The curls her friend had also done had fallen, leaving it in long, messy waves. Hazel and pale, her eyes chided her for not being where she ought to, so far east the coast was probably just over the next ridge. Had that been the plan? Was she intending to just drive right into the ocean and then, what, keep going?

Well, it couldn’t have been seeing as she had no plan other than to get away, to leave everyone, even William, behind. A vision of the garment bag in her trunk flashed through her mind, but before guilt could take over, she pushed open the car door and fled out into the rain.

Lorelei hesitated on the creaky boards of the covered porch, a welcoming glow coming from behind the skinny windows on either side of the double door entry. She shifted her bag over her shoulder and took a breath. No, this was okay—dare she think fortuitous even. It was a place to stay when she was lost in a storm, and that had to mean something.

Of course, it didn’t actually have to, but Lorelei didn’t know that in almost exactly the same way she knew to speak her needs out loud.

With a too-loud groan of the heavy doors, Lorelei found herself standing on the threshold of Moonlit Shores Manor, a caress of warmth on her face and the brisk wetness of the storm at her back. Dancing light illuminated the walnut wainscoting and damask wallpaper that ran around the foyer. Her eyes swept over the space, as large as the entire living room from where she’d come and exponentially grander, and then up the dual staircases at either side of a long and empty reception counter.

The second floor was open to the entry, a catwalk running its length from staircase to staircase, but there was no one looking over the banister at her from the shadows just as there had been no one behind the desk. But there was life here, Lorelei knew, and she squeezed the strap of her bag tighter. She opened her mouth to call out, but the door thudded to a close behind her, the echo rattling through the foyer and shutting her in.

The new quiet in the wake of the rain filled with domestic sounds, the settling of a foundation, the crackle of a fire, the tick of a clock. On the wall hung a big box of a timepiece with an ornate face and hanging pendulum. She stepped up to it to see the time, the numbers marked in numerals that had to be Roman, but were so fanciful she couldn’t quite make out what it said.

Lorelei rubbed her eyes and shook her head—what, now she couldn’t tell time? Well, add that to the list with keeping commitments and adequately notifying participants. She blinked back at the face, but the hands still seemed wrong somehow. It was late, she knew that at least, but maybe also early. She’d lost track on the drive, it had been at least a day, and before she could dwell much longer on whether this whole walking-into-a-strange-manor-at-a-questionable-time thing was a good idea, she took a few steps deeper into the foyer and peeked through an open set of doors.

A popping and crackling fireplace lit and warmed the room from the far end. The firelight’s glow fell onto a cozy space filled with over-stuffed bookcases, plush, antique seating, and spindly-legged side tables, so busy she nearly missed the figure inside. A silhouette was illuminated by the low fire, sitting in a rocker that creaked rhythmically with the muffled sound of rain outside. The figure was hunched and small and unmoving save for that slow, measured rocking. Lorelei sniffed the air: a bit of ash, old books, pine-scented cleaner, but no cookies.

She took a step into the room, mouth dry, and cleared her throat.

“Hello there!”

Lorelei swung around to see the tall, shadowy figure of a woman in the doorway she had just passed through.

“Welcome, welcome.” She motioned to Lorelei to follow her back into the foyer, and with the flit of her robe’s tail she disappeared around the corner, her voice trailing after. “It’s so late I didn’t expect anyone to show up—and in this weather!”

Lorelei glanced back at the form in front of the fire, undisturbed, then returned to the entry. Nothing like how she’d imagined, this woman had smooth, radiant skin with a mane of thick, black hair cascading over her shoulders. Her movements could only be described as floating as she slipped around the counter and pulled her silk robe a bit tighter.

“Storm’s nasty.” Her heavily-rimmed eyes swept over Lorelei’s soaking form. There was a crack of thunder, and the foyer lit up with a blinding whiteness. Lorelei gasped then hurried to cover her mouth, and the woman chuckled, a comforting, throaty sort of laugh. “Are you from around here?”

“A little ways west.” She pointed over her shoulder as if that told the whole story and immediately felt like an idiot.

“Ah.” Full lips twisted into a warm, toothless smile. “So, do you have a reservation?”

Lorelei’s heart dropped right into the pit of her stomach, and had it been feasible, the manor would have echoed with the splash.

“You don’t need one,” she said quickly. “We always manage to find the space for everyone, but some folks like to call ahead for special accommodations. So, you are…?” She was rustling papers under the counter, then made a face, and ducked beneath it.

“Lorelei.”

“A lorelei?” The woman popped back up with a grin. “Well, I’ve never met one before.”

“Oh, okay? Um, Fischer.”

“Ms. Fischer. Right, right.” The woman ducked back beneath the counter and mumbled more to herself than anything. “I just need you to sign in, but the damn guest book…I swear it was right here this morning, but this is what happens when Grier is left in charge of the front desk. Do you have any pets or other live creatures to declare?”

When she blinked her catlike eyes over the edge of the counter, they caught the candlelight and shimmered with amber and gold flecks. Lorelei shook her head.

“Lovely,”—and she disappeared again—“Ren will appreciate not being woken up, the grumpy, old—oh!” She popped back up and dropped a thick book onto the counter with a resounding slam. “There she is!” With a great huff, she blew a wavy strand of hair out of her face and winked.

“I’m sorry.” Lorelei took a step back. “I know it’s late.”

“No, no, not at all. We’re here for exactly this sort of thing. It’s just that we lost our receptionist over a month ago, and I seem to be falling behind more than I’m catching up.” She chuckled in a weary sort of way. “You’re not looking for a job, are you?”

Lorelei stood quite still and blinked down at the mess on the other side of the counter, papers that had spilled out on the floor and a small stack of handwritten notes with no discernible organization. It was strange—strange at least to Lorelei who didn’t know about The Rules or how any of it worked—how as she stared at this woman she didn’t know, in the dead of a blustery, frightful night, soaked to the bone and horrified at what she’d done to end up there, the thought popped into her head, bright and beautiful and good, that staying there—genuinely staying there forever—was absolutely what she had to do.

It was also strange how reminiscent of one of the Big Three rules this was which more or less amounted to the fact that there is a cost for everything, magic included.

“What am I saying?” The woman laughed in her throaty way and flipped open the massive book. “You’re on vacation, and here I am trying to rope you into work. My apologies.” She thrust a pen into Lorelei’s hand and pointed at the top of the page. “If I can just get you to sign here, we’ll sort everything else in the morning. I bet you’re exhausted.”

Exhausted. The word melted into her as if speaking it aloud had made it that much more true—which, of course, it actually did—and her vision blurred as she glanced down at the page. Name, easy enough. Mode of Transport, strangely worded, but all right, then finally Reason for Visit.

The image of all of her family and friends settled comfortably into pews suddenly filled her mind. Their faces began annoyed, grew into bewilderment, then landed on horrified. Lorelei shook her head so that the vision would fly right out her ears, and she scrawled getaway in the space.

“Oh, a car? How modern of you!” The woman closed the book and turned from the counter to pluck an antique-looking key from a single hook on the wall. “Follow me.”

Lorelei hardly noticed her duffel bag being taken from her as the woman led the way up one of the gently creaking staircases to the catwalk above. They took a turn down a narrow hall, passing another set of stairs that led straight up into darkness. Ahead, candles burned dimly in sconces along the wall with a warm glow. She almost reached out to one but stopped herself—they couldn’t be real, it was just her sleepiness getting the best of her.

The woman took her down another corridor and stopped before a door in its center. The number above read 210, but then Lorelei squinted at it and pushed up onto her toes to see there was a tiny one half fraction just beside it. She was about to ask what that meant when the woman swung open the door and announced that they’d arrived.

“Breakfast is between seven and nine in the dining hall, but I’m assuming you’ll sleep in, so I’ll make sure something gets put aside for you.” She flicked a switch, and the room filled with a gentle blue glow. It reminded her of the exact light that came from the living room when Lorelei was tiny and sneaked out of her bed to sit on the top step and listen to the staticky buzz of the television downstairs until she fell asleep. The light fell over a bed, a dresser, a nightstand, and a stack of the fluffiest blankets she’d ever seen on a rocking chair in the corner.

The woman’s eyes turned to Lorelei, and she could feel them, the skin on the back of her neck prickling but not unpleasantly. “Is there anything I can get you tonight before I leave you?”

The words hung in the air, and Lorelei found herself staring back for a minute longer than what she knew was socially acceptable. She shook her head, her face warm.

“Well, if you do think of anything, Ms. Fischer, I’m Ziah.” She deposited Lorelei’s bag on a rack beside the door then pressed the key into her hand. There was a static zap as the metal touched her palm. “We’re all very happy to have you join us here in Moonlit Shores.” She gave her a last smile and turned back to the hall.

Lorelei squeezed the old, brass key, so big it was almost comical. The metal was warm in her hands, not what she expected, and sent a hum through her arm straight into her chest. “Wait.”

Ziah stopped on the threshold, glancing over her shoulder.

“Um.” Lorelei’s heart sped up. “Were you serious? About needing someone to work here, I mean?”

“Ah, yes, but,”—Ziah shifted in the doorway—“I didn’t mean to offend you. I do apologize.”

Lorelei waved with her free hand. “You didn’t. It’s just that I’m looking for a change, and if you’re taking applications…”

The woman’s eyes scanned her up and down. “You really mean it?”

Lorelei nodded, as sure as she could have been about anything. “Yes, I do.”

With magic, everything is about intent, so says a third of the Big Three, and so with that intention, spoken allowed, a Thing was put in motion. Somewhere in the manor, a guest who had been toiling exhaustively finally fell asleep.

“You’re running.” The woman’s voice was a whisper now, that sultry, welcoming tone gone. “You left everything, and you’re scared. Scared enough to be absolutely perfect.” This time when she smiled, her teeth were a little whiter and a little sharper.

Blinking, Lorelei pressed a hand to her forehead, trying to steady the room. She didn’t remember when it started spinning, but it was. “What was that?”

“You’re very tired.” Ziah grabbed the doorknob. “We’ll talk about the position in the morning. Sleep on it, but don’t forget. I’d like to see where this goes.”

Lorelei stared at the door long after it closed. Had she really just offered to take a job here? Where even was here? It didn’t matter, she supposed, since the coffee shop would surely replace her when she didn’t show up on Monday—it would be easy enough to find another failed art student looking for work. And what was running a check-in counter if not the same as being a barista just without the constant smell of burnt beans and slightly off whipped cream? But still…

She took a few steps back and fell onto the bed. She didn’t notice that her clothes and hair were dry, but she did notice the scent of lavender rising up to meet her from the downy comforter. “What am I doing?” Her own voice sounded far away, her eyelids too heavy to keep open. “Everyone’s going to be so mad.”

There was a noise in the corner of the room. The blue glow shined behind her eyelids, the bed cradling her, willing her to sleep, but she listened very hard. Something scurried—or fluttered, she couldn’t tell which—to the room’s other side. Just a mouse, she convinced herself, and even if it skittered under the covers that would be fine as long as it let her sleep.

Ziah’s words ran through her mind as she slipped into that space between waking and dreaming: Lorelei, never met one before, and she managed a meek laugh.

Rain pelted the window above the bed in a steady hum, one last roll of thunder rumbling far off over the ocean. In her mind she heard distant voices as she slipped into sleep as if her dreams were rehearsing. There was quiet laughter, then an even quieter gasp, and a tiny wisp of breath on her ear.

Then just before she went completely out, one of the voices rang clear, “Oh, my! This one, she’s…she’s human!”

***

If you enjoyed that, there’s a whole novel more! Pick up Vacancy Book One: The Weary Traveler now!

A list of trigger warnings for this and all my other books can be found here.

Synopses for this and all my books can be found here.

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