Home > Magical Midlife Madness (Leveling Up #1)(5)

Magical Midlife Madness (Leveling Up #1)(5)
Author: K.F. Breene

“Now,” Ms. Murphy said in a singsong kind of voice, pointing at the small round table in the kitchen before heading to a bright red electric kettle sitting on the counter. “So you’re goin’ ta take the post, then?”

“The caretaker job,” I said lamely, still unpacking what she’d said. “I have the caretaker job. Just for a while.”

“Well. Ol’ Edgar will be excited for that. He hates Earl, so he does. Absolutely can’t stand the man. I think he does, at any rate. I can’t listen to him for long. That Edgar would rot the ears off ye, so he would. Sure, you’re half deaf just standing near ’em, that’s how bad he is. Pure thick-headed, too. Mean as a badger when he wants ta be. Ah well…” She pulled down a little milk jug and put a slosh of milk into it, then proceeded to grab a silver teapot and drop one tea bag inside. Waste not, want not, I supposed. She stopped in her preparations and turned back. “Will ye have a sandwich, ye will?”

“Oh no, thanks. No, that’s okay,” I said, remembering the warning and trying to ignore my aching stomach.

“As sure, go on.”

I smiled politely. “That’s okay, honest. I’m fine, I just—”

“Go on. You will. Just a wee bite…”

I put up my hand and forced a polite laugh. “No, it’s okay. Thank you for asking.”

“Go on.”

“No, it’s—”

“Go on.”

“No, I—”

“As sure, you might as well.” She headed to the fridge.

My stomach growled and the old woman must’ve heard it because she nodded.

“Sorry, I didn’t get your name…” I asked, slinging my purse around my knee.

“Niamh.”

I leaned forward. “Neve?”

“N-i-a-m-h,” she spelled. “Niamh.”

“Ne-ahve.”

“Close enough.” She’d taken various items out of the fridge and started assembling sandwiches. When the electric kettle clicked off, Niamh poured the hot water into the metal teapot and dropped the lid. She carried everything to the table as I half rose.

“Can I help with anything?” I asked.

“No, no, not at’all. Sit, sit.” She pushed the plate of four sandwiches my way, all of them consisting of bread, ham, cheese, and a smear of butter. They hadn’t even been cut in half.

Once the tea had been poured, and doctored with milk and a little sugar, Niamh finally shifted her focus back to me.

“So. Ye’ve come to watch the house, have ye? Why is that, now?”

“I heard there was an opening and decided I might like…” My words died within Niamh’s shaking head. “What’s the matter?”

“There’s no point making up stories. What’s the real reason?” Niamh asked.

The wind went out of my sails and I sighed as I picked up a sandwich. “I got a divorce and couldn’t stomach living with my parents for more than a couple of days. In a nutshell. I remembered this house from my childhood, and when my friend mentioned her aunt needed a caretaker, voilà. Here I am, ready for a new experience and maybe a little adventure.”

“A little adventure, is it? Hmm. You are in charge of your own fate, I suppose.”

“Aren’t we all?”

“Of course we’re not, what are ye on about?” She huffed. “Some people are like tumbleweeds—go where the wind shoves them. Not me, I’ve always gone my own way. Until I got here. Now I do absolutely nah-thin’. I hang around all day. Have a wee drinkie at night. It suits me right down to the ground for now. Couldn’t be happier.”

“That’s good. Nice area, huh?”

“Pure dumpster fire, this place.”

I smiled at the joke, then realized it wasn’t a joke and looked down at my dry sandwich.

“Not just anyone can be a caretaker in that old place, ye know,” Niamh said. “Takes a special person.”

“Oh yeah? How come?”

“The house is prickly. Those who serve it are prickly.”

Clearly she didn’t like Mr. Tom any more than he liked her.

“It’s just for a while, until I get my bearings,” I assured her. “I let Diana know to tell her aunt.”

“Yes, yes, I heard. But Diana doesn’t fully understand the forces at work here. She’s that tumbleweed I was on about. Blithely rolling along. You’re different, you are. You’re fighting against the current now. It’s time.”

The small hairs stood up on the back of my neck and along my arms. I swallowed down my bite and took a deep breath, not sure why.

“The house welcomed you last time you were there, isn’t that right?” she asked me, and it felt like a hush blanketed our conversation.

My eyebrows drifted upward of their own accord.

“Diana’s aunt thought Diana might grow accustomed to that house, but no such luck, no. Too timid, if you ask me. Clever, but no real…” She fisted her hand. “Independence of thought. Diana is happy to follow the pack, like I said. She’s not cut out to lead.”

The conversation had lost me. I nodded noncommittally and hurried up with the sandwich.

Niamh took a sip of her tea. “Peggy doesn’t have any children, you know. That’s Diana’s auntie. The house didn’t choose her, either. Soul crushing, that. The house always goes to a female heir, and it should’ve been Peggy. Didn’t fit in around here as well as she’d hoped. Almost a plain Jane. She took it hard. Still, a few million in the bank isn’t so bad, is it? She married well and made sure he died off quickly.” Niamh pursed her lips. “She’s got a nice little life now. Money might not buy happiness, but it sure helps with an escape route.”

I stared mutely for a moment, once again struggling to unpack all the crazy that was being thrown at me. Was being bananas a requirement to living around here?

“I thought… But…” I regrouped and started again. “Peggy does own the house, right? She just also lives in Europe?”

“Yes, she does. She does own the property, yes. And all the surrounding wood. Wants nothing to do with it.”

“Oh, I see.”

“No, you don’t.”

And that was my cue.

“Okay, well.” I took a sip of my tea to wash down the last of the sandwich, stood, and gave her a pleasant smile. “Thank you for the tea and sandwich. If you wouldn’t mind getting me the key, I’ll go get familiar with the house.”

Niamh watched me stand, her eyes calculating. My smile faltered. My eagerness to check out the house, and get the hell out of this one, was whittling away at my patience.

Finally, she climbed to her feet, leaning heavily on the table to do so. “Sure, yeah, o’course. Let me just go grab it. Wait a minute there, you.” Her body crackled as she finished straightening up, but her walk didn’t seem impeded by old bones.

I wished I could glide half so well. Or was as trim.

Time to get serious about losing weight, toning up, and claiming my body back. If this woman could do it, clearly it wasn’t an age thing. It was a motivation thing. Well, color me motivated.

“Here.”

I jumped and spun for the second time that day. How did these people manage to sneak up on me so easily? Was there something in the water?

Niamh held out a manila envelope. “There’s a few bits and bobs in there for you. If I were you, I’d let the house grow on you first before ye go hokin’ through everything. That is…if it does grow on you. It’s fickle, as I said, and some things you won’t want to find right away.”

That thrill of excitement arrested me again. I could not imagine what things I would not want to find. For so long, life had been on autopilot—wake up, be domestic, go to sleep. Those chains had finally been broken. Although the unexpected could be found behind every door at my parents’ house, it wasn’t exactly exciting - more like quietly horrifying. I had a feeling it would be different at Ivy House. There, the horrifying things would at least be loud.

I took the envelope, feeling the weight of the key inside.

“And don’t let that Earl give you any grief, either, the silly el’ sod. He hasn’t had a master in so long, he’s grown fat and lazy. It’s about time he earned his keep.”

If Earl lost any more weight, he’d float away.

I paused for a moment, remembering something earlier in the conversation. “You knew I was here before, when I was a kid. Why—how is that?”

A little smile crawled across her lips. “I’ve lived here a long time. A lot of the town has. We’ve seen the grape-bearing weeds grow up around us, the town change from honest folks to handsy tourists. I remember wondering if Peggy had been right about Diana, only to see her and her parents legging it out of the house three days after arriving. Three of you were running. One was being dragged. You. That’s why you stuck in my head. I hadn’t noticed you before that.”

Memories drifted in as Niamh led me to the door and gently shoved me out. I did remember being dragged, but that was by Diana. I couldn’t recall her parents being in much of a hurry. They were upset that Diana was upset, sure enough, but not because of the house.

Right?

“I’m headed to the pub at eight. Meet me out front if ye want to go. I can introduce you to the locals,” Niamh said as I crossed the street.

I gave her a noncommittal wave before meeting Earl—Mr. Tom—on the stoop, exactly where I’d left him. The rock Niamh had thrown had rolled up against his polished black boot. He must have stood there, unmoving, for at least an hour.

“Did you get the key?” he asked, eyeing the envelope.

“Yes. Thank you.”

He didn’t move out of the way. “Are you sure? If she didn’t approve of you, you would not have left with the key.”

“Yeah, it’s…” I shook the envelope. “It’s in here.”

   
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