THE WEATHER WAS raging. We were in the throes of a classic November windstorm, with gusts predicted to clock as high as seventy miles an hour, not uncommon during autumn storms in Western Washington. Sustained winds had already reached a steady thirty miles per hour, and outside the trees swayed, lashed by the wind, as rain sleeted down sideways. A number of people didn’t believe me when I told them that it rained sideways here, but anybody who had ever lived in the Pacific Northwest could attest to the phenomenon.
I was standing at the counter, staring out into the yard, hoping that all our trees would hold steady. There were several that I was suspicious of, but I hadn’t had the chance to have an arborist in to look at their root systems yet. We’d just have to cross our fingers and hope. That was another lovely product of our storms here—downed trees, power outages, and landslides. Every year several people were killed by falling timber when the ground became saturated and the shallow roots gave way.
“Steaks will be ready in ten minutes.” Max was out on the back patio, grilling steaks and corn on the cob. He had waved me off when I asked if he wanted to cook them inside. “If I can’t handle a little rain, I’m not the weretiger I claim to be,” he had said. After ten minutes, he had put on a rain poncho and looked altogether miserable, but he wasn’t giving up.
Aegis took an apple pie out of the oven and slid in a pan of biscuits. He was wearing my retro-1950s ruffled polka dot apron that I had bought, hoping to entice myself into cooking more. The apron hadn’t proved incentive enough to lure me into the kitchen, but Aegis looked adorable in it. He happily tied it on over his black jeans and muscle shirt, making for one very cuddly goth.
Sandy and I were also in our element. Max and Aegis had designated us the drink department.
“Margaritas?” Sandy asked.
I shook my head. “Hot rum toddies.”
She glanced outside. “Yeah, the rum wins out.”
As I stirred the base—water, butter, brown sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves—she opened a bottle of dark rum. As I moved the pan off the flame to add the alcohol, she shook her head.
“More.” She gave me a long look.
I added another splash.
“More.” She motioned to the bottle and it jerked in my hand, tipping back into the pan.
I laughed and gave up, upending the bottle into the base. I returned the pan to the flame and gently stirred the contents, then lowered the heat to let it simmer for a few minutes. I ladled the drink into a mug and handed it to her. She sipped and gave me a nod of approval.
For once, she wasn’t wearing her usual getup of yoga pants and a crop top. Sandy was a gym bunny, rich enough to buy and sell most of the town. She loved her designer bags and sunglasses, but getting her out of her gym clothes was like trying to keep a fish alive out of water. But given the storm, she had opted for a pair of jeans and a powder blue turtleneck that set off her spun-gold hair.
“So that’s enough booze?” I restrained a grin.
“No, but it will do.”
Laughing, I turned off the flame and leaned back against the counter. It was true—Sandy and I liked our booze. Our witch’s blood gave us a high tolerance to alcohol, though we were also party girls at heart. But the past year, our primary parties had been at home with our boyfriends.
A brilliant flash of lightning split the sky, illuminating the kitchen. I shivered as a crash of thunder began to rumble so long and loud that the windows rattled. It felt like the thunderbolt was never going to end, but when it did, a massive deluge of hail splattered against the deck.
Max let out a curse from the patio. Aegis hurried out to help him carry in the food, and by the time they had carried everything inside, they were covered with tiny chunks of ice.
“Freaking hell, it’s coming down out there.” Max’s hair was plastered to his head, and he had a couple bright pink spots on his face where the hail had stung him. “The storm’s really picking up. I’m going to secure your barbecue so it doesn’t go flying across the yard. In this rain, I doubt if the briquettes would start a fire if they fell out on the grass, but there’s no point taking any chances.”
He headed back outside, moving the grill so that it was resting under the eaves of the house. Short of chaining it down, there wasn’t much else he could do.
Inside, Aegis and Sandy arranged the food on the table as I poured tall mugs of the hot buttered rum. By the time Max returned, the biscuits were ready. I grabbed the remote and lit the battery-operated candles in the center of the table. While I preferred flame to batteries, I wasn’t betting on having power by morning, and flameless candles were just safer in a power outage.
We were eating in the kitchen rather than at the dining room table, because the dining room table was piled high with linens and china, in preparation for our guests who were coming in tomorrow. But for tonight, the Bewitching Bedlam bed-and-breakfast was ours and ours alone.
Well, that wasn’t exactly true. Mr. Henry Mosswood was holed up in his room. Our semipermanent lodger had opted for dinner alone with Franny, our house ghost. The two had somehow ended up in what I assumed was a doomed-to-fail love affair—they didn’t talk much about it so I wasn’t sure exactly how far it had progressed. None of us understood how they were making it work, but it wasn’t any of our business and I did my best to keep my nose out of it.
Another massive lightning bolt forked across the sky. I held my breath, counting. One and two and three and—boom. The house shook and I grabbed hold of the table.
“Holy crap,” Sandy said.
Outside, hail began to bounce on the ground again.
I picked up my buttered rum, taking a long sip to soothe my nerves. “The storm is supposed to be rough, but I didn’t think it was going to be this bad. I hope everything’s okay up at the school.”
Sandy’s legal ward, soon to be her adopted daughter, lived at the Neverfall Academy for Gifted Students, a magical boarding school for witches. Children of all ages, from all parts of the country, attended the academy, from Hexengarten to grade 12. One of the largest and oldest educational institutions for members of the Otherkin community, Neverfall was also one of the most prestigious.
“Jenna is probably safer than we are. That place was built to withstand an earthquake up to a nine-pointer. So it should be able to withstand a thunderstorm.” Sandy buttered a roll and bit into it, a look of bliss washing across her face. “Aegis, if you ever decide to give up the music business, you should open a bakery. I’m not kidding—you are the best baker in town.”
Aegis waved her off, but he his grin told me he was gratified.
“I actually worked as a baker, about two hundred years ago. It was ideal because I worked the night shift and baked all the bread before morning. They never figured out I was a vampire, and thanks to my sourdough and rye, that shop made a killing. When I left, they begged me to stay. They offered me twice my salary because they knew they weren’t going to find anybody as good as I was. At least not in that area.”
As we dug into the steaks, the wind outside grew stronger. The gusts were sending branches sailing through the yard. At one point I glanced out to see a trash can go racing by. I thought I’d managed to secure them, but apparently not.
“It hasn’t stormed this hard in a while,” I said. “Even the storm that Fata Morgana brought with her wasn’t this strong.”
“If the weather doesn’t let up, you two should stay here,” Aegis said. “It’s a rough night to go driving around the island.”
We lived on Bedlam Island, a small isle out in the San Juans off the coast of Western Washington, near Lopez and Orcas islands.
Bedlam—both the island and the city that pretty much sprawled across it—boasted a population of 6,000, give or take a few. While a number of the other San Juan islands were actually protected from extreme weather, Bedlam was farther north, angled perfectly to receive the brunt of weather coming down through the Haro Strait. The island was like a storm magnet. All the magical power acted like a lightning rod for bad weather. We got heavy snow in winter, and wild windstorms in the autumn.
Founded by witches, Bedlam could cloak up to prevent too much unwanted attention. But generally, we were open to tourists, though most were from the Otherkin community, and a ferry ran from the northeastern part of the island over to Bellingham, once an hour every hour from five a.m. until two a.m. But tonight, it wasn’t running anywhere, given the rough waves on the sound.
“Did the weather report say how long it’s supposed to last?” Sandy finished her dinner, and carried her plate over to the counter. “Anybody ready for pie?”
At that moment, the lights flickered and went out.
“Well, at least we got dinner before the power went out.” I crossed to the counter, where I had already laid out another array of flameless candles. I used the remote to turn them on, as well. “I’ll go start the fire in the parlor. It’s going to get chilly really quick in this drafty old mansion. Aegis, can you check with Henry to see if he’s all right? I’m pretty sure Franny’s up there with him, but make sure everything’s okay. I gave him a flashlight and a couple battery-operated candles earlier this afternoon.”
Aegis pushed his chair back and stood. “I’ll be right back. I’ll also light the candles in our room. Do you want regular ones, or fake?”
He didn’t seem to appreciate the flameless candles. They went against his sensibilities. But I had heard too many reports of houses burning down when careless people left the real ones unattended. A fireplace was different. They were built for containing a fire, and a good screen kept the embers in. Clean it once a year and you were generally home-free.
“Fake, and be glad that we have them. Check on Bubba too, and Luna.”
As Max and Sandy cleared the table and cut slices of pie, I found a flashlight and, turning it on, headed into the parlor. After turning on the candles that lined the shelves, I knelt by the fireplace. I had already prepped a fire, and now I reached out, holding my hand toward the wood. I closed my eyes and whispered, “Fire burn bright” and the flame flickered to life in the kindling. Within moments, a merry fire was crackling away, safe behind the metal screen.
Max and Sandy carried the pie into the parlor, and then Sandy returned to the kitchen to bring in the rest of the hot buttered rum. We curled up next to the fire, waiting for Aegis. He returned, Franny floating behind him.
Franny had been trapped in this mansion for over 200 years. She had died at a young age, at twenty-four, when she went tumbling down the stairs. We had discovered that she had been cursed—bound to the house—but we still hadn’t figured out how to break the hex yet. Meanwhile, she wandered around in her blue muslin gown, doing her best to mesh with our lifestyles. She loved to read so I had set her up in the library with a computer that I kept on twenty-four seven, an e-reader app, an account for an online shopping site that I could monitor, and I had rigged it all with voice software so she could turn the pages and select what books she wanted to read. It seemed the least I could do for her, given her circumstances.
“Henry decided just to go to bed. He’s all right. He’s got his flashlight and candles. He said to wake him up if anything monumental happens.”
Franny let out a disgruntled snort. “This little storm is nothing. You should have seen some of the storms that raged when we first came to the island.” She floated over to the window, looking out. “I used to love storms when I was alive. They always made me feel so awake and aware.” She turned around, hugging herself. “I miss feeling the rain on my skin. Don’t ever take things like that for granted. When you lose them, and you know you’ve lost them, it can make life seem bleak.”
I was used to her angst, but I wasn’t used to her being so philosophical. Franny was, in the nicest terms possible, a habitual complainer and a perpetual victim. In fact, sometimes I thought she wasn’t happy unless she was complaining.
“Is everything okay?” I scooted over, making room for Aegis. He sat down beside me, wrapping his arm around my waist and giving me a kiss on the forehead. His lips were cool, almost icy, but I was used to it. Dating a vampire had taken some getting used to, especially for me.
Franny shrugged, but she didn’t turn around. She seemed glued to the storm. “I suppose. I suppose it’s as good as it’s ever going to get, given my circumstances.” She let out a sigh, then glanced back at us. “I think I’ll go rest. Good night.” And with that, she vanished into the wall.
“Where does she go when she disappears?” Max asked.
I shrugged. “I have no idea, and I’ve never asked. The question has always seemed invasive to me. She seems awfully solemn, though, not at all her usual self. I wonder if she and Henry had an argument.”
“It can’t be easy, being in love with somebody when you’re a ghost and they’re corporeal. I mean, is there any real future for them? I wonder if she’s beginning to realize the obstacles they face.” Sandy paused, then lowered her voice. “Do you think she can hear me?”
I shook my head. “Franny’s very good at tuning out. I can’t be sure, but I think she has enough sensibilities not to eavesdrop. Why?”
“I had a sudden horrible thought. You don’t think she’d ever encourage Henry to kill himself so that he could be with her, do you?” She looked almost ill at the thought.
I blinked. “What kind of late-night horror show have you been watching? Of course she wouldn’t do that.” I paused for a moment, then added, “At least, I don’t think she would.” I turned to Aegis. “What do you think?”
He held up his hands, leaning back. “Nope. Don’t get me involved in this. I am not about to speculate on something so horrible. Franny’s a good egg, and Henry’s pretty damned smart. That’s all I’m going to say about the idea. And I suggest that we drop it right there.” Aegis was pretty laid-back but when he put his foot down, he put it down hard.
“Fine,” Sandy said. “Just don’t blame me if something happens.”
“Sandy’s been watching a lot of Ghost Inspectors.” Max laughed. The weretiger was bulky, or rather muscled, and when he laughed, his neck muscles popped. “I swear she’s been binge-watching it for the past two weeks. How many seasons of that show have they made, anyway?”
Sandy stuck her tongue out at him. “Eleven. And I’m on season eight, so I have three more seasons to watch. You’ll just have to deal with it.” Max had recently moved in with Sandy, and even though she owned a sprawling estate, the two were in the throes of growing pains as they learned to live together. They were engaged, but neither one liked to compromise.
I lay down on the rug, staring at the ceiling. I loved this—cozy evenings spent with Aegis, Sandy, and her fiancé. Parties were fun, but I preferred small gatherings of people I loved. My former life seemed far removed—all of my former lives, really.
I was 388 years old, and I had lived a number of lifetimes within that block of time. Some of them blurred together, while others stood out as stark and harsh. But they had all played a part in bringing me to Bedlam. To who I truly was—Maudlin Gallowglass, High Priestess of the Moonrise Coven, witch, and owner of the Bewitching Bedlam bed-and-breakfast. And right now, I was the happiest that I had ever been.
I turned to Aegis. “By the way, how’s Bubba? Did you find him and Luna?”
Bubba was the cjinn with whom I had shared most of my life. He was a big fat sassy orange cat. Originally from the realm of fire, cjinns were rare over here. Basically a djinn born into a cat body, cjinns were both delightful and dangerous.
“He and Luna were stretched out on your bed. They didn’t seem perturbed by the thunder at all.”
I snorted. “It figures. Not much bothers Bubba. I’m glad they aren’t freaked, though.” After a pause, I added, “Anybody want to play a game?”
“I’d rather just sit here and watch the fire and talk, if you don’t mind,” Sandy said. “I’m not feeling particularly festive. Or maybe I’m just lazy. After the Samhain ritual the other night, I’m pretty wiped out. I’m surprised you aren’t more exhausted, considering you had to lead it.”
Sandy was one of the higher-ups in the Moonrise Coven as well. We were expected to lead group rituals for the entire town on the quarter days—the solstices and equinoxes. When it came to the cross-quarter days, the coven celebrated them privately. But that still meant an incredible amount of planning, and energy expended during the ritual itself, four times a year, every year.
“I guess I’m still coming down off the adrenaline rush. Plus, we’re headed into the holidays so I don’t have time to let my energy flag. We’ve got nonstop guests booked through the end of the year, starting tomorrow. It will be good for our bank account, but I’m going to be run ragged. Add to that, the coven has to prepare for the Bedlam Yule ritual. I just don’t have time to be tired.”
But as I started listing off the things on my to-do list, I felt my enthusiasm wane. I loved having a bed-and-breakfast. That was one of the reasons I had moved to Bedlam. But the realities of owning a business proved far more involved than the fantasy. Plus, I hadn’t counted on being elected as High Priestess of the coven. And given all that had happened over the past year, including a few dead bodies along the way, it was a wonder that I was still bouncing around as much as I was.
“I take it back. I don’t want to play a game. I just want to crawl under the covers and hide.” I flashed a smile at Sandy, and she laughed.
“I wondered when you would finally realize how much you’ve set yourself up for. Maybe you need to hire more help. Kelson does a wonderful job, but even she’s going to be hard put to keep up with things if the next few months are as busy as you say they’re going to be.”
Aegis stretched. He would have yawned, except vampires didn’t breathe. “I’ve been telling her to hire another housekeeper for the past six months. We can afford it—I’ll pay for it, and Kelson will welcome the help.”
“Why don’t you? There are enough people on this island who are looking for part-time work that you should be able to find somebody without any problem. What about Snow White?”
I blinked. “Sandy, the last person I want to hire is an ex-porn star who literally jumped out of the pages of a storybook. Although, I have to say, what she’s doing now is a whole lot better than what Ralph had her doing.”
“Oh yeah? What’s Snow up to?”
“She’s helping out at the library, reading to some of the younger kids for story time.”
The Snow White incident, as we called it, was better off left in the past. Except you couldn’t leave something in the past when there was no way to send it back to where it came from.
When Ralph Greyhoof had summoned Snow White and her band of dwarves out of the storybook, he had roped them into working as porn stars in his cheap homemade movies. Luckily, fate had intervened and Snow White and her band of merry men were no longer part of the sex worker industry. Come to think of it, Ralph Greyhoof had grown up a little bit too, although I never expected the satyr to lose his lecherous ways. It was just part of his nature.
I was about to say as much, when a tremendous crash shook the house. Jumping up, I raced for the stairs. The noise had come from upstairs and I was worried that Mr. Mosswood had taken a tumble, although that wouldn’t have been enough to create the shake that we had felt.
Aegis was hot on my heels, and Sandy and Max right after him.
When I got to the second floor, I saw that Mr. Mosswood was standing outside of his room, his flashlight trained on the trapdoor in the ceiling that led to the attic crawl space.
“The noise came from up there,” Henry said, pushing his glasses up on his face. He looked like he was right out of the 1950s, with thinning hair and round glasses. He reminded me of an accountant, but he was actually a historian who was writing a massive tome on the history of Bedlam. He was human, but he was born in 1840. Thanks to a curse cast on him when he was twenty-five, he was destined to never find true love, but to live for a very long time.
Aegis motioned for us to stand back. “Let me take a look first.”
Max joined him. “I’m coming with you, dude.”
Sandy and I stepped back against the wall along with Henry. We cautiously watched as Max gave Aegis a boost up to catch hold of the trapdoor’s handle. As he jumped down, holding on to the door, a folding ladder extended to the ground. But the moment the trapdoor was open, I could tell something was wrong. For one thing, I could smell the rain coming through the roof.
Aegis scrambled up, holding the flashlight between his teeth. Once he disappeared through the opening, Max followed him. A moment later, Aegis poked his head back through the hole.
“It looks like a branch blew off a tree and crashed through the roof. A big branch. It’s a mess up here, with debris everywhere, not to mention a couple puddles that are rapidly increasing in size. It’s pouring outside. If we don’t get this tarped off, by morning we’re going to have a flood.”
“I think we have tarps in the basement.” Even though I had hired contractors to renovate the mansion when I bought it, we had purchased a number of supplies, given Sandy and I had taken on some of the painting ourselves.
“I’ll get them,” Sandy said.
“Are you sure? It’s pretty dark down there anyway, and going with the flashlight isn’t all that easy.”
She shrugged. “I’m not worried about it.”
As Sandy headed off for the basement, I began to crawl up the ladder, dreading what I was about to see. Roof damage was always problematic, and when I had bought the mansion, the inspector had estimated I had about five years left before I would need to completely replace the roof. Visions of dollar signs floated through my head as I poked my head into the attic. Aegis held down his hand, and I took it, hoisting myself into the crawl space. Sure enough, there was a massive hole in the roof, with a very large Douglas fir branch poking through it. It looked like the wind had ripped it off a tree and aimed the projectile directly at my house. At least it had missed the bedrooms.
“This is not my idea of redecorating,” I said, staring at the branch. I reached out and poked it, reassuring myself that it was actually real.
“I suppose we’re going to have to look for someone to replace the entire roof,” Aegis said. “I want you to let me pay for it. The Bewitching Bedlam isn’t quite making its expenses yet.”
“That’s an understatement,” I said, stepping back as the rain began to really pour, quickly enlarging the puddles on the floor. In the dim beam of the flashlight, it was difficult to tell just how much damage there was. I hated accepting Aegis’s offer to pay for the roof, but I knew that I couldn’t swing it myself at this point. And my boyfriend was flush with money from all his years as a vampire. I hadn’t known that when we first met, but it was a nice perk once I found out.
Max returned with the tarp, and together, he and Aegis managed to cover what they could see of the hole, nailing the tarp as best as they could to the ceiling. I held the flashlight for them, praying that Aegis wouldn’t slip and impale himself on one of the branches forking off the giant limb. The last thing we needed was accidental death by tree.
Once they had finished, there wasn’t anything else we could do. Nobody would be able to get over here in the middle of the night, and with the power out, it would be dangerous on the country roads anyway. I let out a long sigh, more out of frustration than anything else, and scampered back down the ladder. Aegis and Max followed, closing the trapdoor as they exited the attic.
“Well…I’m not quite sure what to do now,” I said. “That was quite enough excitement to end the evening on, but I’m almost afraid to go to bed. What if the storm gets worse and causes more havoc?” Right about then, we heard a piercing noise coming from the yard. “Lovely, whose car alarm is that?” I glanced at both Sandy and Aegis. I didn’t have an alarm on my car, and I didn’t think Max did either.
“I’ll go check. Chances are something brushed against the door,” Aegis said.
“I’ll go with you in case it’s mine,” Sandy said. She drove what looked like a retro hippie bus, but it was an expensive one and about as green as a car could get—both environmentally and in color.
As they started downstairs, I looked at Max.
“Seriously, you better stay here tonight, given the state of the storm. If it’s bad enough to throw a branch through my roof, you know trees are going to be down on some of those roads that lead to your place. The guestroom is all made up, so you guys can sleep there.”
“Where’s Kelson? I haven’t seen her all evening,” Max said, following me toward the guestroom.
“I gave her the night off, considering she’s going to be busier than hell the next few weeks. I hope she’s okay. I haven’t heard from her since she took off for the movies.” I pulled out my phone, punching in her number. After three rings, it sent me to voice mail and I left a message asking her to call me.
After making sure that there were battery-operated candles in the guestroom, I laid out the bathrobes that Sandy and Max had left at my place. They stayed here often enough that we finally encouraged them to bring pajamas and robes from home and leave them for when they needed to stay.
Aegis and Sandy returned, looking glum.
“Well, my van is trashed. One of the trees lining the driveway toppled over onto it. Damn thing is crushed.” She shook her head. “That cost me a fortune to have retrofitted. I’m going to have to have it completely rebuilt. Either that or I just commission a new one.”
“How’s the storm?” There was no way to console her. That van was her baby, and she had guided the mechanics who worked on it in everything from what she wanted under the hood to the exact color to every single option that she had chosen for it.
“I’m hoping that we’re near the peak,” Aegis said. “We can’t afford much more damage. This is one of the worst that I’ve seen, and I’ve seen storms over my lifetime.”
“I’d swear those are hurricane-force gusts out there,” Sandy said. “It was hard to stand up out there. I think I’ll give Jenna a call, just to make sure that she’s okay. I know Neverfall is built to withstand a war, but you never know.”
As she moved off to the side, I walked over to the window to stare out into the darkness. The entire neighborhood was black. It suddenly occurred to me to report the outage, and I pulled out my phone. I kept the power company’s number in my contacts, just for times like these. I placed the call, waiting and punching in the numbers as the options kept coming. Finally, the automated voice on the other end told me that my outage had been reported, and that most of the island was without power. There was no estimated time of restoration.
I was about to tell the others when a shriek echoed down the stairs.
“What the fuck—?” Aegis whirled around.
“Was that Bubba?” I raced toward my bedroom, slamming open the door. But Bubba and Luna were there on the bed, staring at me with looks of alarm on their faces.
“Mr. Mosswood? Are you all right?” Sandy knocked on his door.
“I’m fine,” Henry said, poking his head out. “Who screamed?”
“We’re not sure. We were worried it might be you.” I popped back into my bedroom. Looking at Bubba, I said, “Listen, Bubs, you and Luna stay here. Don’t go prowling around, okay? It’s a dangerous night.”
Bubba let out a purp. “Murrow.”
That was Bubba-ese for “Okay, I promise.” I shut the door after making sure the doors to my balcony were tightly shut and locked. Then, returning to the hall, I found that Aegis and Max had gone down to the first floor. Cautiously, Sandy and I followed.
Once downstairs, we searched through the house, but we couldn’t find anything. But the shriek lingered in my ears. We had all heard it—I knew it wasn’t my imagination.
“Maybe it was a cougar—there are cougars in the hills here on the island. Also, plenty of shifters. Maybe somebody is hurt out there in the storm.” Sandy pressed up against the kitchen window, staring out into the rough-and-tumble night.
“Possibly.” I joined her. “But we’re going to have to wait until tomorrow to find out.” And right then, I realized we were in for a long, exhausting night.