This is the final book in the Vacancy series, so as you can imagine, there might be spoiler-y type material going forward. If you’re cool with that, read on, but you might prefer reading an excerpt from the first book in this series, The Weary Traveler.
Chapter One – Fun
The box that had been hefted onto the front counter of Moonlit Shores Manor was addressed to Lorelei Fischer. It was helpful when the recipient was clear, unlike the last package that had been meant for her but had the name smudged. That had gotten her into, and then out of, a whole heap of a mess before tossing her right back into another one.
But magic will often do that, especially when curses are involved.
Magic can and will often do many things, things that no one is expecting. This is not one of The Big Three Rules, and, in fact, is not a rule at all but rather just a concept that is understood by those in the know. Six months earlier, Lorelei would not have been one of those knowing people, but now as she watched Helena, the mail carrier with massive, grey wings tucked in tight against the harsh cold of a winter that seemed to never end, deposit a handful of letters beside the package, she was beginning to get it.
A sharp breeze sailed in behind Helena, and Lorelei dropped a reflexive hand onto the desk to catch her paperwork. She meant to smile, really, but her face couldn’t seem to afford it, cost being what it was. That was an actual Rule, that all magic has a price, and she was still paying for the little bit she had unwillingly done. Helena didn’t seem to mind Lorelei’s grimace. In fact, she probably preferred it.
Aly pounced onto the package and waited for her daily treat. The mail carrier pulled out a scrap of some dried meat and the alalynx took it, fluttering her speckled grey wings and giving her a chirpy meow. This box was much larger than the last, no fancy ribbon to speak of, but an abundance of clear packing tape was applied to each edge. Though it was markedly different than the neat parcel that had been walked in through the manor’s doors three months ago, Lorelei still had a healthy fear of the thing.
Then she shook herself of her terrified paralysis when Aly’s tail swished out of the way to reveal the box had come from her own mother. It was addressed to a waypoint for mail to be exchanged into the charmed world from those outside it, those who lived amongst or were human, written out just like she’d instructed her mother to do. Lorelei fell back onto her stool: even the slightest bit of relief seemed to knock her out nowadays. “Oh, Helena, I thought this was going to be way worse.”
The woman raised a grey eyebrow and one of her equally grey wings seemed to twitch along with it. She took the outgoing mail and turned to leave, but she did offer Lorelei a nod which was leaps and bounds of progress. Lorelei knew fending off an evil entity together would bring them closer. At least, it kind of did, but then she only kind of helped with the fending—that is, if getting manhandled by that entity’s henchman counted as helping.
Lorelei hadn’t been exact in regard to her whereabouts—telling her mother that she was living and working at a bed and breakfast for supernatural creatures where her human identity had to be kept secret would have only made the woman worry—but she’d told her enough to keep her satisfied. Yes, she was taking care of herself. No, she hadn’t been kidnapped. Yes, she would send a picture, and look, see, there’s a real front desk here and everything. No, she wasn’t in the throes of a mental breakdown, not anymore. Yes, she understood why she was being asked that, how could she forget she’d run away on her own wedding day? No, she didn’t need to be reminded, it was impossible to forget despite how hard she’d been trying.
Absurdly enough, magic itself was, in some ways, holding her hostage and driving her to the edge of her sanity, but that wasn’t magic’s intent—even if it did have an inkling things would be pretty sordid for a while—and intent is everything. That’s the first Rule, after all, and if you’ve been reading, you already know all that, but that’s the unfortunate thing for Lorelei Fischer and every heroine like her: they just don’t know they’re in books.
“Oh, great, mail’s here!” Grier was still pulling his sweater on over his head as he ran down the stairs. He had been quick to heal from the injuries he’d sustained two weeks earlier, quite a feat after being pummeled with stones half his size. He swung around the banister and up to the counter, making Lorelei drop her hand on the paperwork yet again to keep it from flying off.
“Expecting something?” She straightened the doctored records and glanced at him wearily. He looked like he might have grown an extra inch overnight, or he really needed to comb his mass of dark curls—both equally possible for an eighteen-year-old lycan.
He spent a moment longer than normal looking back at her as if he might say something, then shook his head and flicked through the letters, good eye reading over the addressees. “Guess not.” His wholly white eye tracked onto the box as if it could see right through the layers of packing tape, and for all Lorelei knew, he was developing that ability right along with the height and muscle. “This looks interesting though.”
“My mom’s boyfriend is apparently moving in, and they’re converting my old room into a gym, so I have to store my own junk now.”
Grier scoffed. “Gross.” He didn’t have the best history with parents and their significant others, but when one turns you into a lycan, you can’t really be expected to like boyfriends coming around wanting to be your new dad. “Well, let’s see what’s in it.”
Before he could grab the scissors out of the cup behind the counter with his ever-lengthening reach, she slapped his hand away. “No, it’s private.”
Grier pouted again then held up a single finger. The tip of his nail grew in front of her, thick and pointed, and with a wicked smile, he plunged it into the box.
“I didn’t know you could do that!”
“Me neither til the other day.” He tore through the overzealous layers of tape in an instant, but Lorelei regained herself and grabbed the box out from under him.
“Aw, come on. You said we’re friends, so we don’t have secrets.”
“Yeah, but we’re not best friends, just like you said,” she reminded him dryly. “If you’re so interested in the mail, you can dole the rest of it out to the guests. I also need you to grab some salt from the barn to prep the walkway. Ren says we’re getting one more big storm.” Grier grumbled, but took the stack of mail and headed off for the dining room. Lorelei cleared her throat, stopping him mid stride. She pointed back for the stairs. “You’re the one who woke up late. You can eat breakfast after the mail’s been sorted.”
He looked at her incredulously—the boy never stopped eating—and then he whined in that way she’d expect from when she first met him and he was scrawny. “You used to be a lot more fun, ya know that?”
Lorelei clenched her jaw, pulling her eyes away to look down into the untouched cup of coffee on the desk. Her reflection looked right past her, like some melancholy woman from an Edward Hopper painting, and she finally felt how much her frown actually hurt. Swallowing back the quip she wanted to throw at Grier about how shit everything had been lately, she instead threw him the scone Hana had given her earlier.
Grier caught it in his mouth like a frisbee, grinning sharp teeth around it, dropped one envelope on the desk, and sprinted back up the stairs.
Alone again in the quiet of the foyer, Lorelei picked up the letter he left. Her eyes widened at the wax seal fastening the back, denoting that it came from Moonlit Shores City Hall. Charles Blackburn, the mayor—well, former mayor—had died right in their sitting room only two short, and yet excruciatingly long, weeks earlier, and just because there was no body didn’t mean there were no questions. And frankly, she wasn’t even sure there was no body, she just hadn’t seen it since it dropped to its knees, blood pouring out of its neck.
She popped open the seal with a roiling in her stomach.
“Helena has been in.” Ren’s voice sent a jolt through her despite how ever-calm it was. At the counter, much taller than even Grier, stood an elf, pale and even more somber-faced than Lorelei herself, though that was more natural on his kind, she supposed. He looked down a long and tapered nose with eyes grey like a misty morning that betrayed nothing.
“Ren, you scared me.” She pointed at him with the envelope. Elves moved silently despite their size, and Ren almost always failed to announce himself.
“Apologies.” He placed a hand on the counter, each long finger tapping down in slow succession, deliberate, though if she didn’t know better, she would have thought he was drumming on it the way someone who wasn’t an elf might: anxiously. “That,”—he tilted his head slightly and peered at the envelope—“I believe is mine.”
She flipped it over again. No, it was just addressed to the manor. Looking back up at the elf, she could see something had changed on his face. He’d leaned forward ever so slightly, and his fingers raised and dropped again as if he wanted to snatch it away. Now, that was interesting, and she could appreciate something interesting going on that wasn’t a prelude to disaster. “Why do you think this is for you?”
“I have been anticipating post from the city, that is the Moonlit Shores seal, and the expected delivery date is today.”
“Oh.” He was always too damn logical. “But what is it?”
Ren paused. The elf’s words were rarely quick, instead deliberate and astute, but his pauses were never as heavy as this. His eyes flicked down to the counter, and his silvery brows knit.
“Oh, my god, you’re going to lie to me.” Lorelei crushed the envelope to her chest. This was the most entertainment she’d had in weeks.
Hawk-like, his gaze was on her again. “Elves do not lie.” Then he grunted in the back of his throat—he had actually been doing a lot of lying recently. “Not unless we absolutely must.”
“You sure don’t lie well.” She held up the letter close to her face and wiggled it, thrilled the contents didn’t have to do with the mayor’s—or anyone’s—death. “So, what’s inside?”
“Good morning!” Ziah’s voice sailed out and down to them from the landing overhead. She was carrying her planner, bursting with excess papers, and walking even quicker than normal, heels clicking rhythmically. “Are we all having a blessed day?”
Lorelei gasped, both from hearing the code word, blessed, and from the envelope being plucked so succinctly from her hand. Ren leaned in close, his voice uncharacteristically low. “We must convene today in the barn.”
As he swept back out of the room, leaving no trace he had been there at all, Ziah alighted the foyer, and sure enough Byron Rognvaldson was following right behind. “All’s well,” she told her quietly, coming up to the counter. “Do you have the—”
“Yes!” Lorelei handed off the stack of doctored paperwork she’d been harboring that morning. “It’s all there, should be a great place to start.”
“Wonderful.” Ziah flashed her full smile at Byron when he stepped down into the foyer. It could melt anyone, and even Byron was no exception. Her long, dark ponytail fell in thick curls over her shoulder as she hugged the documents Lorelei had finished altering that morning to an ample chest. “We have so much to go over. Why don’t we head on into the office?”
Byron nodded right away, so agreeable yet unnerving at the same time. He wore a blue and white striped sweater and dark khakis, his hands in his pockets and his hair combed and tied neatly at the nape of his neck. Without the smirk, the dark overcoat, or the darker intentions rolling in his pupils, it was practically surreal to look at him. In fact, he was almost handsome, though it was the resemblance to Conrad, high cheekbones, green eyes, a tapered, hard jaw, that inspired those thoughts. But the parallel came to an abrupt halt when Lorelei’s feelings cropped up. For Conrad they were complex, but for Byron they were simple: the elder Rognvaldson brother inspired only abject terror.
She could feel a phantom spike at her throat every time she saw him, heard the words he’d whispered to her, I’m going to have so much fun with you, on the tip of his tongue whenever he spoke. The Byron who now walked the manor’s halls likely had a much more wholesome idea of what fun was than the one who had killed Mr. Carr and Charles Blackburn, sicked a giant viper on Hana, nearly crushed Grier to death, and relished his own brother’s misery. But this version of Byron wore cargo pants for all the gods’ sakes, and now they were stuck with the once-maligned and murderous warlock because, whatever he once was, the man remembered absolutely nothing, and how can one be held accountable for things they don’t even know happened?
Ziah led Byron into the small office behind the reception desk. He grinned at Lorelei as he went, but she could only gape back at him, unblinking, squeezing up against the counter to give him as much space as possible. She swallowed and nodded, managing to make a noise that sounded vaguely like a greeting, albeit one under considerable duress.
After the door shut between them, she let out a long sigh. It had barely been twenty-four hours since he’d woken, but she couldn’t imagine any amount of time that would make Byron Rognvaldson striding through Moonlit Shores Manor feel normal.
The curse Lorelei had tricked Byron into putting on himself had blown every memory right out of the warlock—he was only left with the ability to speak and function as normally as a patient with amnesia. He didn’t recognize Lorelei or any of the others, and of course had no idea how or why he was in the deepest subbasement of the manor when he woke two weeks after being put under either.
Lorelei had to think fast when that happened. She was babysitting his body when he finally opened his eyes and asked who he was. His name had come out of her mouth, foolishly perhaps, but then her sharpened lying skills whirred to life.
“You fell,” she had said, going over to where he was sitting on the ground before the furnace. “Down the stairs. You told us you were just checking on the heater but didn’t come back.”
“I feel like I’ve been asleep for a long time.” Byron rubbed his head, taking a bleary look around, eyes landing on the orange flames behind the boiler. “The furnace. The furnace of…where exactly am I?”
Lorelei swallowed, easing herself down a pace or so beside him. “You really don’t remember?”
He cast his eyes back on her, green, every dark cloud that had rolled in them the last time they were open, gone. That had been Zyr, the ancient fae trapped inside him, threatening her and everything she cared about with complete destruction. “No, nothing,” he told her. “You said my name’s Byron?”
She stood, careful, and put her hand out. He took it and got to wobbly feet, but there was no flash between them, no moment of recognition at their skin touching. The fear in her stomach lessened, but only just. He was still much taller than her with broad shoulders and magic that could turn her to mush in a second—at least she assumed he still had that. “Yes, Byron. And you’re in a bed and breakfast. The subbasement, specifically. You must have really hit your head hard.”
He rolled his shoulders and pat at his jacket like he was making sure he was still intact, and there was a crinkle. Lorelei’s breath hitched as he pulled out the deed, folded and stowed in his inner pocket, followed by the skeleton key. She wanted to snatch them both away and run up the stairs, locking him in, and now she wished more than anything she had done it, but she was too terrified then. And too stupid.
“I’m this Byron Rog-Rogn—this guy?” He showed her the deed and pointed to where the owner of Moonlit Shores Manor was listed, the line that Charles Blackburn, former mayor and Byron’s own victim, had modified and sealed with his municipally-bestowed enchantments to be legally and magically binding.
“Yes,” she answered in a wavering lilt. “Yes, sir.”
He raised his brows at the paper and blew out a breath, nothing in his face pinched or angry. “Wow. And you?” He looked at her again, cocking his head like a befuddled dog trying hard to remember a command. “You’re my—”
“Employee,” she said quickly, turning away. “Let’s get you upstairs so someone can take a look at you.” She heard him following, boots heavy on the stone floor, so reminiscent of how he had followed her down the stairs two weeks earlier, malicious intent and memories intact.
“I’m sorry,” he said as if he really meant it. “I can’t believe I’ve forgotten it again already, but what did you say your name was?”
She paused on the stairs, gripping the railing with white knuckles and glancing back over her shoulder. “Lorelei.”
He was looking up at her intently, but with no malice, not even suspicion. “Lorelei,” he repeated. “Like the fae?”
Her heart dropped into her stomach. He had never said that word, fae, to her with anything but derision. When they first met, Byron had seen through the faery glamour that Lorelei wore, and he knew she was human—a secret he seemed to delight in keeping to himself and torturing her with its revelation.
“Lorelei Fischer, the lorelei,” she said. To almost everyone else, she claimed to be a lorelei which also happened to be her first name. And, as if magic couldn’t stop playing the joke on her, she still had yet to ever meet an actual lorelei, though that might have been for the best—she didn’t need the comparison.
“So, you are one?”
“A changeling, but yes.” That was the other half of her ruse. Being charmed was mostly hereditary, but changelings had human families, anomalies born with the spark, the essence that gave creatures magic.
“And I suppose you can tell me what I am?” He had on a crooked, almost charming smile.
“Wait—you remember magic?” She turned to him fully on the step.
He shrugged. “I know two plus two is four and my left from my right too.”
She hoped he couldn’t actually do any spells. “You’re a warlock,” she said. “A good one.”
Byron glanced to his own hand then pulled it fast through the air. Lorelei held her breath, but nothing happened. “Hmm, guess I’ve forgotten that too.”
There had been a little chaos after that, with Lorelei trying to clue the other manor employees in on what she’d divulged to Byron as she ran into them. They eventually fell into a shared lie—the simplest, cleanest one they could muster together—that Byron had always owned Moonlit Shores Manor, they were all his employees, and that he was a kind and friendly warlock. It didn’t come easy to anyone, especially not after being on the receiving end of his threats a mere two weeks earlier, but it was better than the alternative of him doing more of that threatening.
The biggest blessing seemed to be that Byron had lost all of his ability to cast magic. Truthfully, he never had it without Zyr, born sparkless like his human mother, but with the evil fae locked away, all of his abilities seemed locked away too.
While Ren had been tending to Byron’s bruises, someone had suggested housing the amnestic warlock in Conrad’s bedroom since it was empty anyway. Lorelei had snapped like a feral animal that no, they would absolutely not be doing that. Instead, she marched to the front desk, slammed open the guest book, and ordered the manor to conjure up Byron a lived-in suite. The manor complied with a groan that suggested she was seething too intently for it to do anything else, and so Byron had his room upstairs at the end of a hall, tucked away from everyone else.
Lorelei was unwilling to erase Conrad any more than he’d already erased himself, insistent he would be back, but her faith was wavering after two weeks of Byron’s magically-induced coma and another twenty-four hours of him up and about and still no sign of his brother. With Byron’s name on the deed of the manor and its grounds, Conrad’s purpose there was changed or, as painful as it was for her to admit, perhaps missing entirely. Conrad claimed he had left to search for a way to break through the protective shield that had been on Byron’s body during his coma, but the shield had broken itself, and Conrad still hadn’t come back.
They all expected the manor to begin bending to Byron’s will, whatever that became. For now, that was innocuous, but if the curse erasing his memories wore off and Zyr clawed his way back into the front of Byron’s mind—
Lorelei jolted upward, woken from her worrisome haze to see two women at the counter. Both had large, baleful eyes with dark pupils, and long, light hair in loose coils. “Sorry,” she sputtered back. “Welcome.”
Lorelei managed to exchange pleasantries and book them a room. Business as usual had to go on regardless of who was under the manor’s roof. When Grier came back downstairs after delivering the mail, Lorelei told him she would get the salt herself, glad for the opportunity to step outside while he showed their newest guests to their room. As Grier carried the bags, cranky to be taking yet another trip up the stairs, Lorelei looked over the women’s signatures in the guest book to make sure she had gotten everything correct—she was still a little flustered, and lately her work needed double-checking. Everything seemed in good order, their information filling itself in over the layout of their rooms in the enchanted book, until she saw under their names what the book knew about them, where they were from, and what they were. Lorelei had just checked in, and consequently met for the first time, two actual lorelei.
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