Home > Magical Midlife Madness (Leveling Up #1)(17)

Magical Midlife Madness (Leveling Up #1)(17)
Author: K.F. Breene

“Miss—”

“Yes, yes, okay.” I took the travel mug, pulled off the lid, and looked down at the green liquid. “Is this wheatgrass or whatever that is?”

“I couldn’t say, miss.”

“Are you trying to kill me, Mr. Tom?”

“No, miss. And you can just call me Tom. I think you’ve earned it.”

He wasn’t helping me put the brakes on weird. He really wasn’t.

I remembered the body Edgar had dragged across the grass. The kid hadn’t been dead, sure, but I did not want that to be me. Those rocks had felt bad enough on my feet. “You take a sip, then.” I handed it back.

He took a sip and grimaced before reaching it toward me again. “It doesn’t taste good, but it’ll do the trick. She is really very good.”

I resumed care of the travel mug and turned to look at the scene carved into the landing as I took my first sip. The bitter taste made my face screw up and my stomach swim, but I finished it before handing it back. Time would tell if I’d chugged poison. Given the way I was already feeling, the end might be welcome.

“What room will you move on to next?” he asked, stepping back.

I shook my head, pulling my gaze away again. I couldn’t just stand in the foyer and stare at the carvings all day. I had to get moving.

“I’ve been right. I might as well head left.”

Each room was lovelier than the last. The furniture was just as I remembered it from my first visit, stately and homey at the same time. Given no one had been around to use it, the thirty years that had passed hadn’t aged it. I trailed fingers across smooth wood arms or tops, felt the crushed velvet of seats, fluffed already fluffy pillows on couches.

Oil paintings stared down at me, men and women from centuries ago, transporting me to a different time. Wallpaper covered some walls, the style incorporating raised elements that gave it texture. Everything in Ivy House was different, unique, but somehow it blended together perfectly.

In the last room on the ground floor, I just stood in the middle of the gorgeous burgundy rug, surrounded by wooden chairs in a ring, and stared out the window at the labyrinth beyond the garden. I felt peaceful in a way I could only remember feeling when I had held my son, rocking him back and forth, comforted by my overwhelming love and his baby-soft skin. This house felt like home. It felt like I wanted to stay. Maybe forever.

“Do you know if this house is for sale?” I asked Mr. Tom, staring at me from the doorway.

I didn’t even know how I knew he was there, staring at me silently like a creeper, since the doorway was behind me. I just…did. He was intruding upon my chi. The chi of this room. He didn’t belong.

Yet.

I shook the weird thought away, feeling a little strange, and turned to find him exactly where I’d sensed he’d be. One foot in the room. The other out. Looking at me like I’d sprouted a third eye.

“The house is passed. It is not sold.” He entwined his fingers.

“Auntie Peggy has no kids, though, and she never comes here. Surely she’d entertain an offer? How much is real estate in this neck of the woods?”

“Ivy House is owned by the person most fit to own it. Everyone else is just a steward.”

I sighed. “Did you take a class on being unhelpful or something? It feels like we’re having two different conversations.”

“I did not, and we are.”

“You could probably teach a class like that, though,” I muttered, turning away so I couldn’t directly see him. It was probably for the best I didn’t get my hopes up, anyway. This house was enormous, the grounds even more so, and I didn’t even know how much of the woods she owned. Not to mention the place came with a gardener. I couldn’t exactly pay Edgar without having a job myself. It was a foolish pipe dream. I just needed to be happy in the moment and carry on.

“Are you interested in a little lunch, miss?” Mr. Tom asked. “Or a snack? Dinner isn’t far off, but it isn’t for another couple of hours.”

I ran my hand across the top of a chair and then skimmed it over the bookshelf against the far wall. I’d long since taken off my gloves. I hadn’t found a speck of dirt.

“You’ve done a good cleaning job,” I told him. “It must’ve taken you a while.”

“The time flew, I assure you. There is nothing quite as sad as a neglected home.”

I shooed him in front of me. “Have you done the whole house?”

“Not the whole house. I do not know of all the…little nooks and crannies.”

“Like the trap doors and secret passageways and stuff?” I followed him to the glistening kitchen.

“Correct. I have found but two.”

“Really?” I sat at the little table in the enormous kitchen, following his gesture. “How long have you been here?”

“Fifteen years, now.”

“I think I only found two when I was here. That’s probably all there is, then.”

“Probably.”

His answer rang false, like a parent agreeing with a chatty child just to make them stop asking questions.

I leaned my face against my hand, belatedly realizing two things. The first was that I felt great. Just like new. Maybe better than new! My back, which sometimes ached for no apparent reason, felt perfectly fine. Not even a dull ache when I’d bent to sit. That was nice. And my joints hadn’t protested once since I’d downed the green drink, even though I’d been picking things up and checking things out. This was all in addition to my headache having completely cleared up. My stomach was just fine. I would have noticed sooner if I hadn’t been so entranced with the house.

I mentioned all of this with what I knew was a goofy grin.

“Agnes is about as talented as they come. A late bloomer, as it were, but a great addition to the town. Just don’t try the other one. She’s a lunatic.”

“Right.”

The other thing I noticed was that Mr. Tom was busy making me food again, and I didn’t feel bad about it. I hadn’t even asked what he was putting together. I’d just sat at the table like a child, waiting for what I was given.

What had gotten into me?

“So now that I’m here, I take up the cleaning mantle, then?” I asked, rising. I needed to at least look like I was an active participant.

“No, no.” He gestured me back down and stared at me until I complied. Which I did, as though I wasn’t really in charge of my limbs. “Other than the issue of scattering rocks and dirty clothes around, I doubt you’ll be any hassle—”

“Yeah, look, sorry about the rocks. I get a little mischievous when I’ve been drinking. I’ll tell Niamh—”

“You’ll do no such thing. She needs someone around who isn’t afraid of her.”

“Afraid of Niamh? Is she that persistent with the rock throwing?”

“There is no reason why you have to bother with the mundane work,” he said, either not hearing me or simply ignoring me. “You’ll have more important things to do.”

“Like what? I didn’t get a list or anything from Auntie Peggy.”

He delivered me a triple layer sandwich with all the fixings and a little salad on the side. I widened my eyes at it. He’d knocked that out incredibly fast.

“Wow, thank you, this looks—”

“We cannot know the tasks until they are assigned,” he said, taking a step back. “At this rate, it won’t be long.”

“Oh. Auntie Peggy sends a list or…”

He walked out of the room without a word.

I stared after him for a moment. Every time I thought I was getting a handle on his idiosyncrasies, he just went and blew my perceptions all to hell.

Without anything to clean, all I really had to do was look around the house. And maybe find more secret passageways.

Twelve

Mr. Tom waited on the recently swept front porch of the meanest woman he’d ever met in his life. Feral cats couldn’t compete with the bad temper of this woman.

“What do you want?” she said as she opened the door, her features closed down into a scowl.

“Was it some trauma in your past that made you so horribly unlikeable?”

“How about I give you some trauma?”

“Yes, exactly. That’s exactly the kind of answer I expected out of you.” Mr. Tom sniffed and clasped his hands behind his back so she couldn’t misconstrue his body language. Knowing her, it wasn’t out of the question that she would suspect an attack from him and return the imagined slight in kind. “I thought you would like to know—it won’t be long.”

“What won’t be long? Your personality change? I see you’re already dressing smarter.”

“As befits my position, yes. Your powers of observation are remarkable. Well done.” He looked toward Ivy House, a shadowed, crouching thing, yearning to reclaim its status in the magical community. Magical kings and queens would come calling to behold its magnificence. To behold the magnificence of its handler. The best and brightest from all around the world would petition to join Jacinta’s court. To share in the glow of her magic.

“How do you know?” Niamh asked in a low, thick voice. He didn’t detect any excitement at all.

“She sees the magic. In every room she’s been in, she has seen the magic.”

“Which rooms has she been in?”

“Downstairs, only. She is currently eating some lunch.”

“Is she looking for it? The heart, I mean.”

“Have you drunk away your brain power? She doesn’t know about it. She is looking for cobwebs and dust.”

“Cobwebs and dust?” Niamh crossed her arms. “Why in heaven’s gate would she be looking for cobwebs and dust? Are you already trying to shrug off your duties?”

“Because her job title is caretaker, you insufferable woman. She doesn’t realize she is at an audition. She thinks she has to clean the house and I let her believe as much today so she’d have a reason to look around. At least one of us is aiding the poor girl in her destiny. By the way, how’s the search for your rocks going? Any leads?”

   
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