Home > Magical Midlife Madness (Leveling Up #1)(12)

Magical Midlife Madness (Leveling Up #1)(12)
Author: K.F. Breene

He turned away, anger and frustration raging through him. He’d put his blood, sweat, and tears into sanctifying this town as an independent entity. He’d battled more alphas than he could count, keeping them away from his territory. He’d taken out clans sent for him, withstood higher-level magic, and taken away the sly knives of assassins hired to put him in the earth. And he’d done it all to protect the people of O’Briens.

But if that house chose someone new, everything would change. The new chosen would have the power to tear down the borders he’d struggled to maintain, leaving them vulnerable to magical folk on a mission. Those wishing to align themselves with the new master of Ivy House were likely to trample peaceful residents in the wrong place at the wrong time. Battles would kill innocents in the crossfire.

He’d promised to protect these people, and no big city Jane was going to stop him.

Niamh watched Austin Steele strut out the nearest exit, going after the hilarious, headstrong Jane who would do nicely. She wasn’t, in a million years, someone Niamh would’ve picked for the job. Not in a million. She was…ordinary. Average. Just a normal Jane in middle life.

But therein lay her magic, which was the very reason Niamh was not in charge of choosing for the house.

When Jessie’s life had fallen apart, she hadn’t crawled under a rock in a puddle of tears. She’d risen up, grabbed life by the balls, and said, “Screw this. I’ll find something better.”

She’d finally punched fear in the teeth, taken a random job in a secluded town, and marched on in with her head held high.

Looks were deceiving, because that wasn’t ordinary. It was extraordinary.

She had fire, that one. She’d come out with a perfect stranger on her first night in town, challenging her comfort zone. She’d stood up to the biggest, baddest alpha shifter these parts had ever seen. And she’d ended the night by sneaking out to drunkenly stumble home by herself, refusing to rely on anyone else to see her to safety.

Niamh chuckled. Tonight had been a hoot.

Jessie had not kept up with Niamh, drink for drink—thankfully, or she would’ve died of alcohol poisoning—but she hadn’t folded in the towel, either. She’d taken it at her own pace.

Yeah, Jessie would do nicely. All she had to do was find the heart of the house again. Without help. And then the house would make its choice.

A couple of young guys sat in the corner, sucking up the last of their way-too-strong drinks. Paul slowly finished up his duties before moving around the bar to put up the chairs. He knew why Niamh was lingering behind.

“Hundred bucks in it if you want to help,” she told him as he passed. “All you gotta do is help carry him.”

Paul’s eyes tightened.

“Two hundred.”

“Austin Steele doesn’t want people poaching from his bar,” Paul said.

“I’m not poaching. I’m going to see if anyone wants a ride. If one of ’em takes me up on it, then I’ll go home with him. What I do with him at home, like hand him over to a very thirsty vampire who I have lost a bet to, is no one’s business.”

“Then what do you need me for?”

“You have a car, don’t you?”

“Yes…?”

“Yes? You’re not sure?”

“Yes. I do.”

“Yes, you do, what?”

The kid started visibly shaking. He’d run away from his wolf pack when he was just shy of fifteen. He’d been the orphaned runt. The weakest link. He’d been starved, tortured, picked on, and belittled. Running had taken great courage, because if he hadn’t reached the town limits before his pursuers—if he hadn’t reached Austin Steele—they would’ve made his life so much worse. Death would’ve been a blessing for the poor kid.

But he had reached the town limits. And when his wolf alpha, who’d thought he was the toughest, strongest thing on four legs, ran up against Austin Steele, the old fool had turned tail and ran for the first time in his life. He’d swaggered over, and he’d scampered back, limping and baying and missing an ear and an eye.

No one took down Austin Steele.

Niamh had designated herself as the bad cop to Austin’s good-guy hero, and she tried to push the kid’s buttons any way she could. One day she knew he would push back. Or throw something at her head. Or mutter a nasty name. Anything. Niamh had seen late bloomers before, and this kid was definitely a late bloomer. All he needed was a little confidence. Until then, she kept him so focused on her he forgot to be scared of anyone else. When he wasn’t scared, he didn’t get picked on. Simple.

“Yes, I do, missus,” Paul replied. “But I thought you said you were going to see if the guy wanted a ride?”

“I am. Different sort of ride, Paul. Keep up. You’re old enough to understand the birds and the bees.”

His face reddened. Definitely a late bloomer.

Paul was silent for a long time, going about his business. Niamh eyed the guys in the corner, making sure they wouldn’t try to get away. But no, they were nursing their drinks, waiting to be kicked out.

“I don’t understand something, missus,” Paul said as he made his way back around the bar and took her glass. He emptied the remainder of the ice down the sink.

“What’s that, Paul?” she asked, slowly getting up.

“Austin Steele said he won’t protect that house. That he’ll have nothing to do with it. Even that he’ll try to stop the house from choosing someone.”

“Heard all that, did ye? Good at eavesdroppin’, then?”

“Well, if the house wants to choose Jessie, and he’s off getting her home safely—protecting her—doesn’t that count as working for the house?”

Niamh laughed. “You’re sharp, kid. Yes, it does. It absolutely does. But he needs to put in a lot more service than one measly walk home.”

“How much more? Missus.”

“That I don’t know. It usually depends on how much a person’s heart is in it. If he’s protecting her to get rewards, then he will be passed up. If he is doing it because he genuinely wants to see her safe, then it will take very little for the house to recognize his service and repay him in kind.”

“But doesn’t that mean he’ll be trapped in the magic too?”

Niamh couldn’t help grinning at that. The boy was surprisingly astute when he wanted to be.

“Yes it does, Paul. It certainly does.”

Nine

The cool mountain breeze washed over me as I slipped out of the bar, accidentally hitting the door frame as I did so. I bounced off, stabilized, and turned the wrong way.

“Oops,” I whispered, pointing at a guy down the way who’d noticed me. He was out there smoking, but he turned toward me a little as if to say something. I gave him a thumbs up. Then about-faced. It was always good to distract people when you were doing something stupid.

Headed the right way, I pulled out my phone and tapped into the GPS app. There were, like, three turns, but just in case, I wanted a little backup. I didn’t want Jeeves to come looking for me.

“Trying to ditch me?”

“Hah!” I kicked out on reflex, missed, shoved a solid wall of muscle, went nowhere, then kicked again, clipping a shin. Somewhere in there, I’d dropped my phone.

“It’s me, it’s Austin.” He danced away, agile for a guy so big. Or maybe just sober.

Hands out, adrenaline pumping the alcohol through my bloodstream a little faster, I lumbered after my phone like Frankenstein’s monster. It slid to a stop in the dirt beside a spiky weed with a yellow flower.

“I know,” I said. I checked my phone screen. Solid as a rock.

“Then why’d you kick me?”

“You surprised me. Like Chuck Norris.”

“What?” he said, walking in the gutter, giving me plenty of space. I needed it. The sidewalk wasn’t wide enough for my “straight” line.

“Chuck Norris destroyed the periodic table,” I replied.

“Huh?”

“He only recognizes the element of surprise.”

Light from a streetlight showered down on Austin’s face, showing a confused, cockeyed grin. “Did you hit your head on a rock while you were sneaking out?”

“No. I got caught in the door, though. Does that count?”

“Yes.”

Turn right in—

I silenced my phone but didn’t turn the GPS off. I shot Austin a narrow-eyed glare he probably couldn’t see—a silent warning not to lead me astray. It was out there, now. It hung between us in the air.

“Got it,” he said.

“Dang it. I hate when I say my thoughts out loud. This was why Matt always bitched when I drank.”

“Who’s Matt? The ex?”

“Yeah. Dumped me.”

“I’m sorry,” he murmured.

“Because I got dumped, or because I ended up as a caretaker for a big old creepy house?”

He paused for a moment. “Both. You think it’s creepy?”

“Of course I think it’s creepy. Don’t you?”

“Yes. So…” He stepped up on the curb.

I bumped into him on accident. “You’re in my space,” I said, weaving in the other direction.

“Sorry.” He stepped back down. “So you have no idea about that house?”

“No idea about what?” I stopped and faced him. Swayed forward. Swayed back. “Are there ghosts?”

I could just see his bewildered expression in the moonlight. “I…don’t honestly know. I’ve never heard…”

I waved the thought away. “I don’t believe in ghosts, but I would’ve looked for them if there had been reports.”

“No, I don’t think there are ghosts. Listen…it’s a dangerous house. You probably shouldn’t…go off the beaten track in it. Just stick to cleaning and you’ll probably be—”

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