Home > Magical Midlife Dating (Leveling Up #2)(9)

Magical Midlife Dating (Leveling Up #2)(9)
Author: K.F. Breene

Until now, a week after Jess had shown up at his bar to meet the world’s worst online date.

He stared down the street as the sunlight seeped from the sky. No snow covered the ground, but the dropping temperatures suggested a light dusting wasn’t far off. No tourists sauntered down the sidewalk toward the old, Gothic-style house. Few people visited at this time of year, and those who did would prefer to drink inside than take walks in the cold.

Usually Niamh would still be manning her rocking chair on her porch, her pile of stones orderly and within arm’s reach. That woman had great aim and good distance. The police had shown up dozens, maybe hundreds, of times to warn her away from throwing rocks at people…

It was a wonder they never arrested her for it, although she typically only targeted curious tourists (Earl being the exception). Most of the trouble in this town came from visitors, or at least the trouble the human police were expected to fix, so maybe the officers were grateful to her for scaring off strangers. Hard to say.

Niamh’s absence meant she was otherwise occupied. Austin had come from the bar and her usual seat was empty. She didn’t shop, preferring to pay people to deliver groceries, therefore she must be at Ivy House.

Had she gotten the normal command, the one he was so good at ignoring, or had hers been a plea, too? A desperate need for help.

Begging.

He let out a breath, willing himself to start up his Jeep and head out. He was nearly positive the summons hadn’t come from Jess, but the change in potency, and the genuine worry he could feel riding the wave…

He let out an agonized breath.

It had sunk down deeply and grabbed the roots of him.

If Jess was in some kind of trouble, he wanted to help. She was fighting for her place in this life, and he’d be damned if he’d turn his back on her. He wanted her to succeed with everything in him. She’d been forced to start over, and instead of slinking away like he’d done, hiding in a small town that posed absolutely no challenge for his skill set and experience, she’d reached for the stars.

It was commendable. She was commendable. She’d shown him that life didn’t end in the middle—chances could still be taken, new opportunities embraced.

Seeing her accept her new role, and all the baggage that came with it, had inspired him to make changes of his own. Once she was squared away and safe, whether the house released him or not, he’d move on and finally become the alpha he was meant to be. He’d start again, and this time he’d do it right.

The huge house sat within its magical shroud of shadow, pushed back from the street and laughing at him. It had figured out the right tactic to get him to do its bidding.

He hated that damn house.

“Is this the way to madness?” he asked himself in the quiet Jeep. “Is pitting oneself against a magical but ultimately inanimate object what made the others crack?”

Because cracked they had. None of the other guardians could be mistaken for sane, and he might be well on his way to joining them.

Another throb of desperation rattled through him from the house, from Jessie—or at least about Jessie—breaking him down beat by excruciating beat.

“Fine.” He stepped out of the Jeep, still no doors or top regardless of the season. He never felt the cold. “You win this battle, but I will win the war.”

And now he was talking out loud to a house.

Shaking his head, he muttered, “So help me God, if I start asking people to randomly call me by a different name, that’s it. I’m out.” He walked up the drive, glancing around to make sure no one was around to witness his one-sided conversation.

Blooming flowers leading to the large front door saturated the air with a lovely fragrance. Edgar’s prowess as a vampire might’ve faded with time, but his green thumb surely hadn’t suffered. Austin didn’t think vampires had any magical growing power—if anything, it seemed like the opposite would be true—but no other flowers were blooming in town, it being winter. He must’ve done something to keep these in a constant state of springtime.

One foot on the tweed mat, he put his fist up to knock, ignoring the iron gargoyle-head knocker.

The knob turned, and the door slowly swung open. No one stood inside.

If tourists really knew what this house was capable of, no way would they come looking.

Fighting the heebie-jeebies, he stepped across the threshold and looked around the empty and silent space. Two doorways on either side led to front-facing sitting rooms, both empty. Beyond, two empty stairwells curved up to the second floor, forming an archway, through which an empty hallway led to the back of the house.

“Okay, then,” he said into the hush. “You’ve let me in—now tell me where to go.”

He waited a moment for something to happen. Regardless of the magic running through its veins, though, it was still just a house, not a person. It couldn’t talk. It couldn’t point.

“Thought so,” he said, about to go find Jess when a sound from the second floor caught his attention. It sounded like small feet shuffling against wood, then carpet—and it was moving closer.

Something unseen crept down the stairs.

Uncomfortable shivers skated across his skin. He remembered the sort of defenses this house had enacted when they’d gone to battle to take it back. Maybe it couldn’t talk and point, but it could certainly kill those who did.

He took another couple steps so the banister no longer obstructed his view.

“Fu—” He jumped and quickly scooted back when he saw what was hobbling down the stairs.

He hadn’t seen these when they were first unleashed, and they’d been hidden away by the time he returned to the house. Now he understood why Jess was afraid for her life.

“Okay, okay,” he said, backing up quickly. “You’ve proven yourself.”

A large doll, its exact height hard to judge but probably topping out at his thigh, worked its way down the stairs. The little girl’s face, made of a different material than the plastic of the limbs, had rosy cheeks and a pouting mouth, twisted up as if she were about to cry. It looked like someone had ripped a child out of the nineteenth century, shrunk her, and stuck her in a dreamscape.

Saying it was haunting did not do it justice.

He stood tall when it reached the bottom, showing no fear, as befitted someone of his rank. Its little face tilted up to him, and it was all he could do not to grimace and kick it away. The doll pointed down the hall.

“Overkill,” he muttered to himself.

He got it. The house could point.

He took a step in the way the doll indicated, but it toddled forward, like a two-year-old. He couldn’t hold back the grimace this time. This whole house needed to be set on fire.

Down the hall the doll hobbled, its little feet, stuffed in plastic white shoes, making soft clacking noises as it went. On the rugs he heard its pitter-patter and committed it to memory. He didn’t know what these monsters were capable of, but if things ever turned, he wanted to be prepared.

Near the back of the house, he hesitated. He didn’t have a clear map of this place, but he did know a few of the prominent rooms, one of which was the Council Room, a space for the house’s heir to hold court, or so Earl had said. Jess would eventually lead her twelve chosen, the best and the brightest magical people in the world. Again, so Earl had said. Austin had no idea where she planned to lead them, or in what. The fact that Earl himself was part of the circle made the whole system suspect. Though Austin supposed only a person with a guaranteed spot would have been willing to loiter around the empty house for years, waiting for an heir who might or might not show up.

Austin had only glimpsed the room once, before Jess had come to town. He’d come over to check the place out, allowed in by Earl, but a terrible sickness had washed over him as soon as he crossed the threshold of this room. He’d barely made it outside to throw up. Earl hadn’t been long in shutting the door after him.

Only pleasant feelings radiated through Austin as he approached it now. Warmth, acceptance, and welcome.

Jaw aching from how tightly he was clenching it, he followed the doll until it stopped at the door. It bowed to him, of all things, before retreating from the door and scooting past him.

He gave it plenty of room.

Standing in the doorway, not wanting to cross the threshold in case the house got any more notions regarding his involvement, he looked inside and saw Jess standing in the center of a circle of ornate, high-backed wooden chairs. She stared at the wall opposite him, utterly still. Her hair was in a high ponytail that had let as much hair escape as it had kept contained. Her formfitting jeans hugged her curves, and her red hoodie collected just above her muscular butt.

“Hi,” she said without looking.

“Hey,” he answered, drawing her eyes as she turned around.

She gave him a once-over, her gaze lingering on his chest. “Nice shirt. That’s a good look for you.”

He glanced down at his snug white shirt. The only thing he could say for it was that it was clean and wrinkle-free. “Thanks. I was just escorted by one of your dolls.”

She shivered. “I’ve managed to get rid of two of them, but Mr. Tom keeps catching me before I can burn them in the yard. Once I’m better with this magic…” She drew her finger across her throat.

A chuckle bubbled out of him. She was utterly serious about burning the horror-show dolls, and something about that tickled his funny bone. The mirth was short-lived. He’d been right to come. Something was bothering her, the worry of it creasing her face and hanging heavy in her eyes.

“Do you need me for anything?” he asked. “Are you going to try flying again soon?”

She sighed and trudged out of the circle of chairs, her back bowed in defeat. “You can’t help me with flying. I’m supposed to train with Edgar and Mr. Tom this afternoon, but we don’t need you for that. To be honest, I doubt we’ll get very far with the book. Edgar is in the middle of a tricky passage that he can’t quite make out. The book is written in all five languages that he knows, mixed together, with one of those being Sanskrit. It’s such a stupid way to divulge information. It takes him forever to translate, then make sense of it. In fairness, though, I doubt anyone else could do it. He’s very patient. Regardless, I’ll probably just practice close combat with Mr. Tom while Edgar scratches his head.” She stopped at the window, not taking a seat in one of the two chairs facing a little wooden table, and looked out at the garden beyond.

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