Vacancy Book Two: The Wayward Deed comes out May 19th, 2021, free with Kindle Unlimited or just $3.99. As the sequel to The Weary Traveler, you might encounter some minor spoilers by reading what follows if you haven’t read the first book in the Vacancy trilogy (also free on Kindle Unlimited or $2.99), so if you don’t want the villain from book one revealed or any other story arcs spoiled, stop now! Go read the excerpt from The Weary Traveler instead! Otherwise, finding out the main character and the boy she likes both survive the first book in a series shouldn’t shock anybody, right?
Chapter 1 – Tampering
Lorelei Fischer stood at the front desk of Moonlit Shores Manor engrossed in a book. This book was magical, which is to say it was exactly like every other book in existence, but also exactly unlike most other books in existence in that it was actually, honest to the gods, enchanted. Though a number of books are enchanted with moving words and moving pictures and sometimes even moving pages, this was something Lorelei wouldn’t have believed if she’d been told two months prior. But she also wouldn’t have believed being told she was about to run out on her own wedding up until about an hour before she actually did exactly that, so really, she had come quite a long way in the believing department.
But anyway, back to the book. Its pages depicted Lorelei’s place of employment, its layout in delicately-lined detail from multiple angles by floor, type of quarters, prevailing action, occupancy, and then a fifth way that she hadn’t quite figured out yet. That last one always seemed to show up when her hands weren’t quite as clean as they ought to be when she touched the cover. Currently, the book was open to a spread of the common chambers, the main floor’s sitting room, the dining room, the conservatory, the foyer and stairways up to private sleeping quarters, the kitchen, and even the boring bleakness of the white room. The configuration of the chambers, at least on this level, were familiar, but when she flipped to a different page filled with bedrooms or another with the winding corridors of the basement, the image was always just slightly different. That was the problem when inhabiting living architecture: the plans of the place moved as well, and committing the whole thing to memory was only possible in that as soon as you learned it, it was outdated.
But Lorelei wasn’t committing it to memory just then. She instead peered closely at two figures that were traversing the basement corridors. The guest book to Moonlit Shores Manor showed the reader where its occupants were at any given moment too, but the details were obscured, and the forms were nothing more than little hash marks with arms and legs and, when warranted, a tail. She was so focused on the two as they crossed the threshold into a bedroom, that she barely registered the creak of the oak front door, so similar to the manor’s typical if enigmatic sighs and grunts. Lorelei’s demeanor shifted from curiosity to a quiet yet intense annoyance as she watched the figures in the book, and because of this she also did not notice the heavy footfalls coming into the foyer right toward her.
This was all exceptionally stupid considering how close Lorelei had recently been to dead and that the someone who had almost made her that way had equally heavy footfalls too. She did have a certain amount of trust in the man who told her it would be weeks before that threat could even deign to come back, though. And that trust persisted even when her irritation with him spending all of his damn time in the basement with somebody else was piquing.
It was only when a fat stack of mail was stuffed between her nose and the guest book that Lorelei was startled back into the realization that she was meant to be working which included watching the front door and excluded spying. Usually.
Helena was right on time, as always, wearing half a grin out of obligation and half a grimace out of compulsion. Lorelei was used to her wild, grey hair and the fact she stood several feet taller than average, but the wings impressed her each time, even when folded gracefully behind the mail carrier’s back.
Lorelei attempted to exchange pleasantries as she did every morning despite getting nowhere and handed off the outgoing mail. Helena ignored her, but did offer the alalynx a treat from her satchel. The two were kindred spirits of a sort, at least Lorelei liked to think of it that way—each was one thing, a person and a cat, and each had their own set of feathered wings.
The alalynx chirped, pupils constricting as she munched the kibble right from the mail carrier’s hand, the only thing that truly made Helena grin, and then the woman left. Lorelei rubbed the winged cat’s head, received a contented purr in return, and then the alalynx curled herself back up on the counter. She was pretty standard as far as cats went with a whitish coat and light grey points to her paws, tail, snout, and ears, but the dappled grey wings were getting much bigger and threatened to assist her with feline mischief as she grew. Thankfully, the alalynx was also embracing a feline sleep schedule and managed to stay mostly out of trouble for about sixteen hours a day.
Lorelei flipped through the newly-delivered mail. Mr. Chebix had yet another letter in a teal envelope that made her fingertips go numb, the bill for water, sewage, and spent jinxes from the municipality of Moonlit Shores was a tad thicker than usual, a giant box that jingled had come for Ziah from someplace called YuleCo, and the manor was already receiving pixie control advertisements for next spring despite that the first snow had yet to fall.
Snow. The days were growing cold, and though Lorelei couldn’t point out exactly where she stood on a map, if anywhere, she knew Moonlit Shores would have snow—the almanac Ren had given her was clear about that. There would be blizzards too, and during a blizzard there would be an attempt on her life, another thing made clear, if slightly less so, via a premonition given to her by a clairvoyant witch and television host called Betsy Jo LaReaux. To be entirely fair, she hadn’t said that attempt was coming this year, but with the way things had been going…
Lorelei shivered, shaking the memory of Betsy Jo gripping her hand and drawling into her ear about her future out of her head. She quickly trashed the pixie removal advertisement before Bur or any of the other faeries could accuse her of extermination and picked up the last package to be sorted, a perfectly square box wrapped in weighty, brown paper, and her anxiety was replaced with curiosity which is, for all intents and purposes, quite a good distraction.
The last piece of mail had an emerald ribbon tied about it, under which a card was secured. If it weren’t for the water staining the card’s outside, it would have looked as if it belonged on the set of a Christmas special. A gift, she supposed, but quite early.
The name and short note on the exterior of the card were illegible, but inside she read:
Tampering by any other than the intended target will earn the meddler grave disappointment and a gruesome curse.
Helena had already gone, but it would have been unlikely she could, or even would, clarify for whom the box was meant. Lorelei turned it over once in her hands and shrugged. They could figure out the intended recipient later, and so she went to secure it in the office behind the desk just as the door opened on its own and Ziah emerged.
“Schedule’s kind of tight,” Ziah was saying, her phone just visible up to her ear beneath her mass of black, wavy hair. She was dressed in a pencil skirt and heels, her winged eyeliner sharp enough to cut if you ended up in her way when she was trying to get things done. “I may have an opening on a Sunday.”
Lorelei shifted to the side, but Ziah didn’t go for the guest book. Instead, she laid out her fuchsia planner on the counter and flipped through its color-coded, post-it note riddled pages.
“How about seven Sundays from this weekend?” She chuckled then clicked her tongue. “Well, I did say a Sunday. I know it’s cutting it close, but that’s the last available.” Her amber eyes found Lorelei, and she made an incredulous face as if to say, Can you believe this asshole? Then she injected hospitality-worthy cheeriness into her voice. “Wonderful, I’ll see you then.”
She jotted a quick note on the pages for early January, drawing a little heart with an arrow through it beside the name. Lorelei assumed it was a private matter, and with Ziah’s heritage as a succubus, it was probably doubly so.
“Never ends, huh?” Ziah snapped her planner closed, and her eyes fell on the box in Lorelei’s hands. “What’s that?”
Right, the box—she’d nearly forgotten as her mind ventured awkwardly elsewhere. “A gift, I think. The to and from got ruined though.” Lorelei handed it off.
“Oh, well, this is lovely.” Ziah’s voice, even when she was shouting orders, was best described as a purr. It had a catlike, arresting quality that made one listen, and another enchanted quality that made one obey. But this time, as she turned the package over in her hands, she sounded a little less like herself.
“I bet it’s for you.” Lorelei leaned on the counter, twirling the end of her brunette ponytail around a finger. “Accidentally made another one fall in love.”
Ziah didn’t respond despite that this usually made her laugh. Instead, she examined the package a bit more carefully, lifting it to her ear. She shook it, and there was a tiny rattle.
A guest passed through the foyer headed to breakfast, and Lorelei offered him a greeting, but Ziah didn’t so much as glance at him which was odd considering how handsome the warlock was and the comments she made to Lorelei about where he could store his wand after he’d checked in a few days prior. But when he was gone, Lorelei realized it was perhaps the first time the two had been alone in quite a while—Ziah had been very busy lately, studying, she often said, and taking calls and appointments.
She leaned over the desk to glance up at the catwalk where the staircases to the guest rooms met above them, but it was as empty and quiet as the foyer. “Ziah, I have a sort of strange question for you.”
Ziah gave the box another shake and hummed at her inattentively.
Lorelei took a breath. She hadn’t told Ziah any of what had happened with Conrad and Byron a week prior, the almost getting stabbed in the throat thing, the brothers battling to near-death thing, not even the seeing Arista’s hidden banshee powers thing, and the truth was, she sort of didn’t want to. It seemed to make all of it, even the continued looming threat of Byron out there, somewhere, waiting, a little less real if it was all left unsaid. As time ticked on and things remained peaceful around the manor, the whole experience faded just enough to feel like something that was done and over as opposed to something hanging above all of their heads like a magicked-up chandelier in a poltergeist-filled manor.
Though not talking about it could be equally taxing especially when the one person who really should have been talking to her wasn’t. But Conrad was apparently too busy, locked away in his stupid bedroom with his stupid girlfriend probably doing something equally stupid. Lorelei didn’t know, of course, that keeping her mouth shut could possibly be helpful since, according to the Big Three Rules of Magic, speaking something aloud gave it more power, but even if she did know, she would probably still be pissed off about the whole thing.
“Hypothetically speaking,” Lorelei began, “let’s say there was a human here, in this world, in danger of being killed by a warlock who could, I don’t know, convince a piece of wood to stab that human in the throat with his mind or something ridiculous like that. What could that human learn to do to protect her—or him—self?”
Ziah tilted her head, eyes still on the box. “Learn?”
“Yeah, like could I—or whoever—learn to also make sharp objects fly through the air?”
“Huh?” Ziah blinked as if seeing her for the first time. Her eyes, glassy a second prior, sharpened. “It’s not really possible for humans to learn magic, not without a spark. You could use a potion that someone else made, or maybe some kind of conduit, but organically? Well, you’ve either got the spark or you don’t.”
“What about, like, lycans and stuff?” She said the word carefully, checking that Grier wasn’t about to come bounding through the door. “They used to be human, and they learned to turn into dogs.”
“Dogs? Lycans are hexed to become wolf-human hybrid beasts. That’s a curse, and trust me, you don’t want to be cursed. As far as I know, humans born without a spark can’t ever really do magic.” Ziah’s attention fell back on the box, turning it over in front of her face, her words trailing off. “Except maybe through very dark means.”
“I’ve heard theories.” She was very quiet as she poked at the velvety bow. “They talk about it sometimes in the nether. The other daeva, the ones who like to make deals with humans, they have ways. Gruesome, frightening, deadly—wait, why?” Her head snapped back up, amber eyes narrowing on Lorelei. “You’re not afraid of us, are you, Lore?”
“No!” Lorelei raised empty hands. “Not you guys, not at all. I mean, this isn’t about me anyway, it’s just sort of a general question.”
That had been at least half true, a way of speaking at which Lorelei had gotten very good. She was the only human in Moonlit Shores as far as she knew, a town full of and catering to otherworldly beings, charmed folk they were often called. If it were discovered a human had infiltrated their hidden world, the local authorities would immediately throw her out—or worse—but fear of Ziah or most of her other coworkers at the bed and breakfast wasn’t a concern, especially not with the glamour the faery, Bur, had given her to mask her “human stench” to the few who could sniff her out. No, it was just the warlock called Byron Rognvaldson who had nearly slit her throat last month she was concerned about, but she had promised Conrad she would keep the fact his homicidal brother had shown up after a fifteen-year absence a secret.
“Anyway,”—she smiled, gesturing again to the package—“who do you think it’s for?”
It wasn’t usually so easy to redirect her, but Ziah’s eyes fell back on the box immediately and glazed over.
When she said nothing, Lorelei waved a hand before Ziah’s face, asking if she felt all right. When she did not respond again, Lorelei reached out and plucked the box from her hands.
Ziah lunged for the parcel, and Lorelei threw herself back against the counter. Gasping, Ziah covered her mouth, eyes wide. “That’s not good,” she whispered.
When the manor’s front door creaked open this time, Lorelei was much more perceptive, and she shifted a step away from Ziah. Grier, Moonlit Shores Manor’s bellboy and resident surly teen, tugged off his skullcap to reveal messy dark curls stuck to his brow with sweat despite the chill that blew in behind him. He rested his axe against the exterior and dragged himself inside, shrugging his coat off onto the floor.
Ziah cleared her throat, and at that he picked the coat back up and put it on the rack right beside where he’d dropped it. “Come here, please.” She curled a finger at him, and with a frown, he traipsed up to the other side of the counter, complaining about it being lunchtime. He was starving, literally, he said, to death. She ignored him and gestured to the box, instructing Lorelei to hand it off, so she did.
Grier balanced the parcel in one hand and rolled his good eye. Even though the other one didn’t have a pupil, all milky colored with a scar running through it from forehead to cheek, it looked equally annoyed. “Now what?”
Ziah touched a finger to her lips. “Strange. And you didn’t feel anything when you held it either, Lore?” Before she could answer that no, the box was just a box, Ziah snapped back at Grier, “Stop that!”
A corner of the paper had been torn away as the boy held the box up to his face, and he jerked back when Ziah reached over the counter for it. The two stared at one another for a long moment during which Lorelei felt just enough dread settle into her stomach to know that she should have done something a second sooner, and then Ziah hurdled right over the desk. Grier jumped back with a quickness he certainly didn’t have seconds before, crushing the package to him. The alalynx shot her head up and trilled.
Eyes wide, Lorelei darted around the edge of the front desk, but Grier was already sprinting for the dining room where the breakfast buffet was being picked at by tables full of guests. Ziah was flying after, all sense of decorum dropped as she lost a heel in her clamor over the desk. They burst through the room, Lorelei following and muttering apologies to the dwarf that had been barreled over, and continued on through the swinging doors into the kitchen.
Dishes crashed to the floor as Grier collided with the tiny form of Hana, carrying a tray of food to refill the buffet. Ziah’s bare foot landed in scrambled eggs, and she went skidding into the two, knocking them all into a pile. Lorelei stopped short just inside the doors, and they swung shut behind her.
Ando popped his head out from around hanging pans, both sets of his arms crossed. He shot an angry look at Lorelei as if this were somehow her fault, ignoring the apology she attempted to sputter and instead insisted they all needed to clean that up and then get the nether out of his kitchen. But the others were deaf to his shouting, Grier and Ziah blaming one another for the mess and slipping on slices of soggy toast as they tried to get to their feet.
Hana, though, was not scurrying about and cleaning up in her typical way. She was instead sitting on the floor, a piece of bacon draped over her shoulder, syrup streaking her pin-straight hair, and her dark eyes trained on the package that had landed in her lap. She held it up, marveling at the thing, crushed slightly but still intact.
Lorelei’s eyes widened, watching as the girl’s hand went for the bow to pull the whole thing loose, grave curse running through her mind. She tried to slip between Grier and Ziah to snatch it away, but the two were right in each other’s faces, snarling and blocking her in. There was a flicker of fire that alighted in one of Ziah’s hands, and then Grier’s form shifted so that a massive beast that was not wholly unlike a dog but much bigger was growling from the spot where Grier had just been standing. “Hey!” she shouted, looking from one of them to the other and throwing her arms out. “Calm down!”
“Bad magic.” Ando said in a voice that boomed into the kitchen ethereally, loud enough to make them all look. He stood behind Hana, having plucked the box away with a set of tongs, holding it at arm’s length. “You three,” he said with the authority of a chef whose kitchen had been violated for the first and last time that morning, “clean this up now. And you,”—he flicked the package over the others, and Lorelei caught it—“keep that away from them. It’s calling to the strongest being it can find. Hide it.”
She turned to leave, but Ando’s voice pierced the air once more.
“Not in your room,” he said as if knowing exactly what she was about to do. “Somewhere none of them will find it.”
Lorelei swept out the double doors, the package tight against her chest and her head down as she hurried back through the dining room. Half of the manor’s employees didn’t know she was human, and Ando was on Team In The Dark; he believed she was a fae being which was a bit different than being one of the charmed folk, so his trust in her over the others with the box perhaps made a sort of sense. She didn’t know what he truly was either, or Hana, his niece, for that matter, but he seemed wise enough to know what he was talking about and strong enough to keep the others at bay while she absconded with the package.
Her sigh of relief caught in her throat when she realized the foyer was no longer empty. Arista stood at the front desk, her tight frown drawn even tighter and frownier than usual. Beside her, the alalynx was now sitting and glaring at the woman contemptuously, ever Lorelei’s faithful companion. “I just had to check someone in.” Each word was like a cuff to the ear.
If there were someone at the manor Lorelei actually feared, it was Arista, half witch, half banshee, all boss. She had no idea Lorelei was human either and would have hated her for it. But Arista wasn’t scary because she could bind you up with magic or drain you of your blood—though those things were possible, and Lorelei had experienced tangentially the horror she could bestow—Arista was just sort of mean.
Lorelei stuffed the box up the front of her sweater while the woman adjusted her glasses. “Sorry,” she mumbled and hurried back behind the desk.
“I’d like to see you in my office after lunch, if you can find the time.” Arista swept off into the sitting room, and Lorelei panicked, but there wasn’t a long enough moment for her to consider what that really meant before the front door opened again.
A tall figure entered with fair hair and a long coat. He pulled sunglasses off and blinked into the foyer, taking in the space as most did without noticing the person behind the counter right away. He examined the massive iron chandelier hanging from the second story ceiling, flickering with thick candles that never dripped, the matching set of French doors inlaid with frosted glass on either side of the foyer that opened into cozy spaces, the damask wallpaper, the walnut wainscoting, and the twin staircases running up on either side of the reception counter all before his steely eyes finally fell on her. She grinned a little wider, and he made a beeline for the desk.
“Welcome to Moonlit Shores Manor, sir. Do you have a reservation?”
His brow wrinkled, and she recognized that look immediately.
“No worries, you don’t need one; we always manage to find the space for everyone. How long did you plan to stay with us?” She shifted the box under her sweater and used her free hand to thumb through the guest book to the sign-in page.
“Oh, well?” His eyes darted across the foyer at a noise in the other room, then came back to settle on the alalynx who was stretching and fluttering her dappled, grey wings. “I’m not actually sure.”
“That’s fine, we have lots of indeterminates,” she chirped just as the doors to the dining room swung open to reveal Grier and Ziah looking irked and miffed in kind. Lorelei glared at them, and the two froze. “If you could just fill this out for me, I can find you a room.” She flipped the book toward him single-handed, and Grier made his way across the foyer, offering to take his bags. The teen’s sweater had a curious, bright red stain across it that looked not exactly like the raspberry jam it was. The guest looked him up and down. “There was a little mishap in the kitchen.” Lorelei waved Grier away. “Maybe you should go clean up, and put the axe away while you’re at it.”
The guest watched him go before carefully taking the pen and filling out his information. Lorelei flipped the book back toward her, read off his name, Jordan Carr, and thumbed through the pages to find the room the manor had chosen for him while Ziah came to stand behind the counter.
Before Ziah could get close, Lorelei snapped the book shut and pushed it into her friend’s arms. “Thanks for watching the desk, I’ll take our new arrival to his room.” She grabbed the key from where it had materialized in the velvet-lined shadow box on the wall and flitted off.
The man’s bags were light, probably enchanted to be despite being filled to the brim, and she hastened up the stairs with him behind, eyeing the foyer to be sure no one followed. On the landing at the second floor, she sighed. “Mr. Carr, is it?”
He nodded, his eyes wandering up the long, carpeted hall. Most people in their early twenties like Lorelei insisted on being called by their first names, but she could tell from the shine of this man’s shoes and the designer tag on his bag that he was definitively going to be a Mister. His eyes lingered on the candles in their sconces, dripping wax that never reached the floor.
“Enchanted,” she said with a smile, as if he wouldn’t know, and led him to his room. Just as she went to slip the key in, she paused and glanced up to the number above the door: 210 and a half, the same room she had been given when she’d first shown up on Moonlit Shores Manor’s doorstep.
Well, they were quite full, so no wonder an extra room had to be squeezed in. With a chuckle, she unlocked the door and placed his bag on the rack just inside. The room was lined with paisley wallpaper and metal, half-moon sconces, a modern, low-profile bed in the center, and sleek, black side tables, starkly different from the gentle blues and fuzzy blankets the room conjured up when Lorelei occupied it for a few nights months earlier. “Here we are, Mr. Carr. Lunch is at noon and dinner is between five and eight, and if you need anything,”—she got up onto her toes to spy the slimline telephone beside the bed—“There it is. You can reach us by phone. No number, just ask for the front desk, and it’ll connect you. Enjoy your stay.”
Lorelei went to wave as she stepped past him, but he awkwardly grabbed her hand, sliding a folded bill into it, not something most guests did. She was caught off guard and jerked back, dropping the box from under her sweater, and it bounced along the floor right up to his feet.
Mr. Carr bent down and picked it up before she could shout for him to stop. He lifted it, eyes on the slightly crumpled brown paper, torn at one corner, and the emerald bow that had gone askew. Lorelei held her breath, waiting for the worst, and then he simply held it out to her.
She watched him closely, his brown eyes neither glassy nor rabid, then flicked her gaze down to the box, balanced on his hand. When she took it, she saw he had an old wound across his palm, and when she deposited the key there, he winced slightly but otherwise didn’t lunge to get the package back from her. “Thank you, sir,” she said. “It’s a gift for a friend, and apparently I haven’t found the best hiding spot for it yet, but I definitely will.”
And just like that, Lorelei enacted all of The Big Three Rules of Magic at once—she set her intentions, said them aloud, and there would be a cost for it all.
If you enjoyed that, there’s a whole novel more! Pick up Vacancy Book Two: The Wayward Deed here!
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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