Home > Magical Midlife Madness (Leveling Up #1)(11)

Magical Midlife Madness (Leveling Up #1)(11)
Author: K.F. Breene

Austin’s voice boomed out over the bar. “Last call!”

“Oh thank God.” I leaned heavily against the edge. “I can’t take much more.”

“You need to work on your tolerance. You’re pitiful,” Niamh said, reaching over me for the wine bottle.

“No, no!” I held up my hand. “No, no. I’m good. I’m done. I have to get home at some point.”

“Ah go on. Sure look, you’re almost there. Just a wee drop left. Go on, might as well.” She upended the remainder of the bottle into my glass.

I’d tried to go home three times by this point. Each time the window had eluded me, mostly because Niamh kept refilling my glass before I could get my bill. I was beginning to realize that if I wanted to make a clean getaway, I needed to move much faster.

I closed an eye to look at the empty bottle. It was not the same bottle of wine I had started with, although it had luckily been halfway empty by the time it was put in front of me. It could’ve even been the bottle I had poo-poo’ed earlier. The good news was, I no longer tasted it. Bad news was, cheap wine gave fierce headaches, and tomorrow would be no fun.

“I thought I was good at this. I’ve had a lot of practice.” I blew out a breath, and if that breath had been directed at a candle, the flames would’ve burned the whole place down.

“Not enough practice,” Niamh said as people drifted or staggered out of the bar.

“I need to go.” I took a sip of the wine, swayed, caught myself. I ran the back of my hand across my mouth.

“Finish up. Time to get out,” Austin said, his deep voice filling up all available space.

A moment later, I heard, “You ready to go?”

I jumped and turned at the same time. How had he gotten behind me?

That’s when I noticed the mostly empty bar. Only a few stragglers were left, finishing their last drops. Time had slipped away from me. Paul was rinsing beer mats.

“I’m good. Honest.” I pinched the stem of the glass, intending to push it away. Miraculously, it ended up against my lips. I finished the sip-turned-gulp I did not need. “I’ll do it.”

“Do what? Get lost or fall on your face?” he asked with a wry grin.

“I never fall on my face. On my butt, yes. My side, sure. Down some steps and onto my back? That has happened, yes. But never on my face. I”—I raised my finger—“am a professional.”

“Go home, Bridie, you’re drunk,” Niamh said.

“Yes, I am and it’s your fault.” I directed my point at her. “What’s your story, Bridie, you going home?” If I didn’t pee now, I’d have to use the bushes later. In this state, I’d probably fall on my back and pee all over my shoes.

“There’s…ah…” Austin scratched his nose, and I could tell he was trying to hide a smile. “There’s a bathroom just down the stairs, there.”

I had a feeling I’d said that last bit out loud.

“You did,” he said. “And that bit, too. I don’t think your verbal filter is working.”

“I do know where the bathroom is, good sir, I thank you. We are well acquainted, John and I.” I gestured like he was a knight and I was a lady. Half of that was probably correct. “But you do not need to walk me home. Thank you, it’s very gent-le-man-ly—phew, that was a long one—but I am well versed in navi… in getting home.” All that almost sounded like English. I was doing just fine. “Also, I need to pay my bill.”

“Your tab is covered, and you do need an escort.”

“Nia-vvvve will watch me. She is a record holder for rock throwing, I am nearly positive.”

I slid off the bar stool, hit the floor wrong, and pitched forward. I adjusted my weight, because this was not my first rodeo, and would’ve swayed to a stop if a strong hand hadn’t wrapped around my upper arm.

“Unhand me, you fiend,” I mumbled, wondering which movie that was from. Or if it was from a movie at all. I suspected it was, if only because I felt certain a sword would have completed the scene.

“Sounds like it probably is,” Austin said, standing close. “Normal people don’t talk like that. Or use swords.”

“Dang it.” I clicked my teeth shut and curled my lips together. I didn’t need any more words slipping out.

“Go ahead and take her.” Niamh waved me away. “I need to grab a…guy for…something.”

“She is my hero,” I said, pointing toward the bathroom. “Just need to…”

Austin released me, but from the way he held his body—ready to lunge into action at any moment—he was clearly wondering if I’d pitch forward onto my face.

“I’m good, I’m good.” I held up my hands then grabbed my purse. “I’m a forty-year-old woman. I know how to handle a buzz.”

“You’re a forty-year-old woman drinking with Niamh. You’re a long way past buzzed.” Austin laughed, his smile infectious. It really brought out the best in his already perfect features. “You need to learn a better exit plan.”

“Don’t I know it,” I said, bouncing off a wall, stumbling down the stairs, and finally finding my way into the ladies’ room. “Why would Mr. Tom warn me about the sandwiches, but not the alcohol? That seems a grave oversight on his part.”

A younger woman gave me a dirty look as I emerged from the stall. I wasn’t sure why but I also did not care.

“Livin’ the dream. Haters gonna hate,” I said as she slipped out of the way. “Ballas gonna…” I shrugged, turning on the tap. “Spend money or somethin’, I don’t know.”

She huffed and left the bathroom. In the silence of her wake, I paused and the world floated around me in an alcoholic haze. I had my purse but not my sweater. Given I was mostly numb from the vat of wine I’d consumed, I was pretty sure it would take a blizzard for me to feel the cold. I could just slip out the back exit near the second pool table, away from prying eyes.

“Wait…here it is.” I found my sweater around my waist. “Miracle.”

Sneaky as I could be, I slipped out of the bathroom, only I wasn’t fast enough to avoid catching my toe between the swinging door and the frame. I struggled my way out, pausing just out of sight of the bar. Across the way, on the other side of the second pool table, gaped the exit.

I’d walked through some bad neighborhoods in my day, protected by nothing but a Swiss Army Knife, resting bitch face, and a no-nonsense attitude. No one ever bothered me.

Maybe it was because I looked homeless. Whatever the case, this was a tiny, dead town, even with Broken Nose Harry. I didn’t need to embarrass myself by engaging in small talk with a very attractive sober man. I’d likely do or say something stupid, and it would result in never being able to show my face in this bar again. Best not to chance it.

Eight

“What’s she doing?” Austin asked Niamh, hearing every word Jessie was muttering to herself beyond the wall, just out of sight. She clearly didn’t know she wasn’t out of hearing range for someone like him.

“Sounds like she’s trying to sneak out.” Niamh rattled her ice cubes around her glass. “Any chance for another—”

“No,” he said, seeing an elbow poke out and then get pulled back in. It was like she was playing a game of drunk hokey-pokey, a thought that almost tugged another smile out of him. “Has she explored the house yet?”

“Now, that information might cost another—”

“No,” he told Niamh again.

She sighed. “She just got there today, like I said, and she only remembers the broad strokes from when she was last there. She’s startin’ from scratch.”

“But you think she’ll find it?”

“She found it when she was ten before life trampled the imagination out of her, like. Her life experience will work against her, so it will. She will believe what she sees, most likely, and keep her eyes closed to the magic. That might prove to be enough of a barrier to keep her out.”

“And if it doesn’t?”

“Then the house will judge. It will be beyond you.”

He gritted his teeth. “Instruct Earl to give her no help. He should stand in her way, if need be.”

“All due respect, Austin Steele, but that house is out of your jurisdiction. It was here before this town, and will be here long after. It does not answer to you, and neither do those who protect it.”

Austin pinned the older woman with his stare, feeling the primal fire build within him. His power expanded, consuming him, easily topping the power radiating from her aged frame.

“I am not young, Mr. Steele,” she said in a deathly quiet voice. “Few of the original protectors have been. And yet, the house still stands. There is always someone to welcome in the new chosen. If you pit yourself against us, you will find yourself in a different sort of hell than you were expecting.”

Austin’s gut flipped. His resolve hardened. “I will not see my town turned upside down.”

“You will not have a choice.”

“I will if that girl fails.”

A sly smile pulled at the woman’s baby-soft skin. “She is no girl. She comes to us in the prime of her life, with all the illusions and naiveties of youth stripped away. She is intelligent, independent, and confident in her skin. The only way to derail her is to kill her, mark my words. And if you do that, all that you’ve worked for will be stripped away. She’s protected as a Jane. She is protected by that house. She is protected by us. In this, Austin Steele, you’ll need to find another avenue. Brawn won’t work. Neither will swinging your pecker around. You will either need to join us and protect her, keeping her on the right path, or step aside.”

He leaned in, almost losing control of his fire. “I will not join in the ruin of this town. You’re mad, old woman.”

“Then help steer her, child. Think with your head for once. Flex that muscle between your ears. She will need guidance. Put down your fear, and help minimize the effects of another chosen.”

   
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