Home > Magical Midlife Madness (Leveling Up #1)(8)

Magical Midlife Madness (Leveling Up #1)(8)
Author: K.F. Breene

“You’re too nice, so ya are. That’s yer problem. If you’re not happy, figure out why and change it.”

“Yes, well, after a certain point, it became easier to stay together than to break up. And also, if I’m being honest—”

“I hope so. Liars just waste my time.”

“—I was scared to leave. He made the lion’s share of the money and I’d been with him for half my life. It’s daunting, going out on your own. Calling it quits on something you thought would be forever. I felt like I was giving up. That maybe I should just keep trying. I don’t know. But when he finally ended things, all I felt was relief.”

She huffed. “While you were paralyzed with fear, your happiness suffered. That’s a call to courage if I ever heard one.”

“Well…I don’t know about paralyzed…”

“You’re free now, at any rate. Better late than never. Did that useless gobshite make you dinner at least? Or polish the silver arrowheads? We might need those soon. If we have to take down the uncrowned alpha, we will take down the uncrowned alpha. I do not look forward to it—he is exceptional for his kind—but he does have age working against him. We can manage if we have’ta.”

It occurred to me belatedly that she wasn’t talking about Matt, and also that she was talking gibberish. Freaking bananas, the whole lot of them, but it struck me that they had a similar vocabulary. Maybe it was something in the wine.

I played it safe. “He made me dinner, yes. It’s not really his job, though. He’s—”

“It is absolutely his job. What else is he good fer? Besides lazing around. No, no, you make him work, so you should. Really give him hell. It’s good for him.”

As we approached the end of the main drag, she pointed to the right instead of walking straight ahead to a cute little hotel bar I’d seen coming in.

Our destination was a dive bar with a warm orangey glow emanating from the many open windows and two doors. A few motorcycles leaned against their kickstands out front but most of the parking spots were empty.

“Now,” Niamh said in that sing-song voice.

“This is where the locals go?” I asked, following her into the establishment.

A pool table took up the center of the main room, the balls currently in play with two scruffy characters holding cue sticks. The bar lined the far side with a young guy standing behind it and a few guys on the stools pushed up to it, each separated by a seat or two. Down the way there was an open door leading to another room, recessed by a couple of steps. I could see the hint of a pool table beyond it.

Niamh made a bee-line for an empty stool at the end of the bar farthest from the door. I eyed the few tables in the back and down the way before following, claiming the stool between Niamh and a really hairy guy with a pug nose, rosy cheeks, and eyebrows that could really use a trim before they grew legs and crawled off his face.

The young bartender wandered over, visibly swallowing as he did so. “Hello, Missus O’Connor.”

“Well, Paul, howr’ya? How’s it goin’?” She positioned herself just so on the seat.

“Good, tha-thank you.” His gaze shifted to me. “Hello.”

“Hi,” I answered, polite smile in place. He seemed to relax slightly.

“Do you have a wine list?” I asked.

“Sure.” Paul dragged out the word as he turned, looking along the back of the bar, then turned back. “Can I see your I.D.?”

Startled, because it had been quite a while since I’d been carded, I hesitated.

Niamh leaned onto her elbows, eating up a little of the distance between them. “Paul, what age are ye?”

“What?” he asked and his eyes widened, like he’d suddenly found himself looking into the eyes of a predator.

“What age are ye?” she asked again, slower.

“Twenty-three,” he answered.

“Twenty-three, what?”

He hesitated for a moment. “Twenty-three, missus.”

She nodded once. “And is this woman older than you?” She gestured to me as she said it.

“Yes. Missus!” His face flushed, and I felt mine do the same. “No offense,” he said to me.

“And you are old enough to drink, I presume?” she pressed.

“Y-yes, missus.” From his tone, it was obvious he knew where this was leading.

My face burned hotter and I reached for my purse. Poor Paul needed a safety line. He clearly didn’t have Mr. Tom’s ability to deal with the likes of Niamh. Few people probably did.

“No, no, Paul is right on the cusp of this one.” Niamh leaned a little farther over the bar. “I can see it.”

“It’s just that Austin Steele says that if the person looks under thirty-five, I’m supposed to card. And well…she does, so—”

“It’s okay, Paul.”

A deep timbre pulled my focus from the buck-toothed kid. A broad-shouldered man with dark brown hair cut close on the sides and longer on top strolled toward us on the business side of the bar. His nondescript, long-sleeved beige shirt did nothing to make him blend in—this was the kind of man who stood out, and the knowing smirk on his handsome face told me he knew it.

“I got it,” the man said.

I wanted to stare, because there was a lot of this man to admire, from his confident strut to his raw intensity to his flat stomach and powerful thighs, but I didn’t want to get caught staring. He looked about my age, so it wouldn’t be creepy or anything (at least not any more so than the usual creepiness of staring at a stranger with one’s mouth open), but he probably had a ballooned ego given how hard he clearly worked on his physique, and I didn’t want to pump more air into it. I certainly didn’t want him to think I was interested—he was out of my league. Hell, he was out of my universe. Guys like him dated models who groomed themselves and wore cute clothes and didn’t forget to brush their hair before leaving the house. I didn’t have the energy for all that. If I had a bra on, I was betting aces.

I jerked my gaze left in an effort to feign indifference.

Only, now I was looking at the wall.

I pulled it down to the bar in front of me.

Only, the kid had never handed over the wine list, so I was staring at nothing again.

“Yes, sir.” Paul said, clearly relieved.

“Niamh, good evening,” the man said, stopping in front of us and bracing his hands against the edge of the bar. His muscles flared, straining his lightweight shirt.

My battle to avoid staring wasn’t going well, although I was hopefully doing it on the sly.

“Austin Steele, how’s things? Are ye well?” Niamh said in a pleasant-enough ramble, her frosty demeanor from a moment ago melting.

“And this is?” Austin asked.

I quickly tore my gaze down to the bar again, only belatedly thinking to whip out my hand and examine my nails. At least it gave me something to look at.

“This is the new caretaker of Ivy House,” Niamh said. “Just moved in today.”

Silence met her words for a long moment.

I chanced a glance up to assess the situation.

Cobalt blue eyes beat into me like a tribal drum, his unwavering gaze piercing. The last time I’d looked, his body had been in a jaunty sort of playboy lean, but it was now braced and taut, as though he were ready for action. Thick slabs of muscle flared along his middle. The raw intensity from a moment before seemed incredibly charming compared to his current situation. He looked predatory, almost, and incredibly imposing.

Tingles washed over my scalp and crawled up my spine. This man was dangerous, and not just because of his size. Something lethal and vicious sparkled in his gaze, hidden under his rough and tumble, handsome exterior. An unpredictability that set me on edge.

“How did you get the post?” Austin finally asked.

“She got a divorce, her kid went off to school, and this was better than living with her nudist fat father.”

The scary man in front of me suddenly took a backseat to my annoyance with Diana. I turned to Niamh, my face heating up again. “Diana is such a loudmouth!”

A crooked smile worked up her face. “Diana gave the whole scoop to Peggy, who couldn’t wait to pass it on. She couldn’t stop laughing when she was telling me.”

“So she’s not a—”

“Jane?” Niamh interrupted Austin. “Oh, she’s a Jane, no question—”

“No, I’m not,” I said. “I mean, sure, I’ll definitely sample the wine, but that’s because I like wine. When in Rome, as they say. That doesn’t make me a tourist. I came for a job. I’m supposed to maintain that enormous house.”

“No idea about this town at all,” Niamh went on as though I hadn’t spoken. “She needed to get out of her parents’ house, and Diana suggested this.”

I opened my mouth in defense, then closed it. What did I care what they thought? They could talk all they wanted—it really didn’t affect my situation.

“About that wine list?” I said.

“She did have a pleasant experience when she was here last, though. Ten, weren’t you, Jessie?” Niamh nudged me.

“Yeah, the house is cool. But the wine list…”

Austin turned and the muscles across his back flared with the movement. Scary or not, he was nice to look at.

He slid a laminated cocktail and wine list in front of me. “Paul, Magners with ice,” he barked. Back to talking to Niamh: “Has she explored the house?”

“She just got here this afternoon,” Niamh said. “She doesn’t know anything about the place.”

“And Earl?” Austin asked.

“He just skulks around with his dopey face, he does,” Niamh answered. “What a nuisance. No wonder the family he worked for chucked him.”

“He’s fine,” I said, feeling like I had to defend the guy. He’d made me dinner, after all, and brought it to me and everything. It had been incredibly kind of him, even if he was one of the strangest people I’d ever met. “Though what’s the deal with that cape? I’ve never seen someone wear a cape over an old tux. People don’t mysteriously go missing around him, do they?”

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