Home > Magical Midlife Love (Leveling Up #4)

Magical Midlife Love (Leveling Up #4)
Author: K.F. Breene

One

Who was coming to stab me?

I stood stock-still next to the newly closed winery tasting room at the end of the town’s main street, wrapping my gargoyle magic around me like Jasper had taught me, trying to blend into the building. Hard-eyed men and women walked down the sidewalk on the other side of the street, their movements full of lethal grace. It didn’t take a genius to know they were part of Austin’s budding pack.

Was one of them wielding the knife?

An older woman walked down the sidewalk my way, and I controlled my breathing and sucked in my gut, pushing against the wall. Neither of those things were necessary for the gargoyle magic to kick in, but given I couldn’t get the hang of disappearing, I figured it wouldn’t hurt.

The strap of her purse slung across her full breasts and rested on the side of her soft stomach. Each relaxed hand was empty. No weapons were strapped to her thighs or her back. Not like that was a normal thing in the middle of town, but still…

Out of shape, older, no weapons—she didn’t look dangerous. Which made her exactly the sort of person Jasper would hand a knife to and set on my trail. The rules I’d created for this particular training exercise were brutal. If whomever Jasper had set on me found me, I’d have to just stand there like an idiot while they jabbed me in a spot my magic could heal. I’d had Jasper pick the assailant so I wouldn’t be able to cheat and hide if I saw them coming.

The two people he’d chosen for the previous weeks had found me, and their apologies hadn’t meant much when the knife was going in. This was my third attempt.

I would do it this time, I could feel it!

The woman paused two buildings down. I concentrated a little harder on blending into my surroundings. My stomach churned.

Jasper had said I’d get a feeling in my gut—was this it? Or was I just anxious about getting stabbed?

She bent to a half wine barrel filled with blooming zinnias, marigolds, and morning glories; bright pops of color. Spring was moving into O’Briens, soft and sweet and lovely. Spring break was next week, and my son was coming to stay.

I hadn’t seen Jimmy in person in over six months. A wave of excitement rolled through me, but I squashed it down, trying to focus.

“Well, well, well…”

I snapped my head away from the woman, only to see my nemesis approaching.

Sasquatch, whose real name I had forgotten in favor of the name I’d given him, had shaggy, greasy hair sticking out at all angles, a scraggly beard reaching down past his neck, and clothes covered in stains. He stopped near me, and the smell of feet wafted up from his well-worn black boots.

We’d been at odds since my first night in town—he’d made a disparaging comment to me at the bar, and Austin had punched him clear off his stool. The pattern had repeated itself plenty of times since.

I narrowed my eyes at him. “Get out of here. I’m busy.”

“Busy with what? Standing around looking useless? You do that all the time; why is now any different?” His eyes darted to the older woman down the way, just straightening up.

Was Sasquatch in the know? Jasper usually picked my opponents from the bar, which was Sasquatch’s second home. Since no one willingly talked to him, he listened in on everyone else’s conversations. Maybe he’d heard Jasper hire the woman…

Regardless, I clearly needed to find a new place and try again. If this idiot could see me, the whole town could.

I stepped away from the wall. “Get out of my way.”

He stepped with me, a smug grin on his face.

My world drained of color as he reached around to his rear jeans pocket. His muscles loosened and then contracted, a pocketknife coming around in his stubby fingers. He pulled out the blade.

“Oh no,” I breathed, freezing. “No…”

I could magically blast him like a bug. I could unravel his skin from his bones and let his blood leak down onto the sidewalk. I’d been afraid of him once, but now that I’d mastered (most of) my Ivy House magic, he was nothing more than a nuisance.

Still, there were rules. I couldn’t retaliate.

A jack-o’-lantern grin slid across his face. “Oh yes. Yes.”

His knuckles whitened on the hilt.

“Why’d he pick you?” I asked through numb lips, looking between that knife, the blade a bit dirty and rusted, and his awful smile.

“Right place at the right time.” His eyes twinkled with malice.

“You’ll pay for this,” I seethed.

“No I won’t. I accepted an approved job.”

The older woman passed us by, her pleasant smile turning to a look of alarm when she noticed the knife. I’d picked a terrible location to fail at my magic. With any luck she was magical, and the only person she’d tattle to was Austin. I didn’t feel like lying to the police. Again.

“If you hit back, it’ll be against town law, and the alpha will have to put you in your place. He’s made it very clear he doesn’t play favorites. He won’t ruin his reputation by ignoring an attack on one of his people…” Sasquatch’s smile was triumphant. “Not even for you.”

I gritted my teeth. With hard work, plus help from Austin and Edgar—gardener, vampire, amateur doily maker, and interpreter of Ivy House’s magical books—I had turned the tide in my magical ability. Austin and I were now about even in power. If he tried to cow me for knocking this dirty butthead around, it would be a well-matched battle.

I didn’t want to put Austin in that position, though. His pack was barely contained chaos right now. Or so Niamh had told me. He had said he needed space from our friendship, which kept skirting the line of something more, and although we trained together every day, we hadn’t had a conversation that wasn’t directly related to training in a month and a half. Niamh, on the other hand, still visited his bar nearly every night, and she kept me up to date on the latest goings-on. Everyone had heard rumors of the great Austin Steele, the fierce polar bear shifter alpha, and shifters were flocking to O’Briens from all over the U.S. and Canada—some even came from other continents. They came to bask in his power, to (hopefully) share in his prestige. And some of them simply came to satisfy their curiosity, wondering if the rumors were true. Wondering if he couldn’t be beaten.

Whenever someone challenged Austin Steele, that curiosity was quickly sated.

His primary objective in securing this territory was to protect me. He was building a castle around my keep. I would not spit in his face by going against the laws that he needed to uphold to run this town. He was my alpha here, just as I was his alpha on Ivy House soil.

“You may not pay for this now, but you will pay for it,” I ground out, fisting my hands, bracing myself. “I’ll find a way that doesn’t violate the town law.”

“Yeah, right. Whatever.”

Terror constricted my chest as he shifted his weight and poised. His muscles bunched and that knife sped toward me, choking me up. The point pierced my side, a momentary flare of bright white pain before I snubbed out the feeling with magic. The blade squelched as he drove it all the way in, the hilt bumping against the circle of crimson quickly expanding on my white shirt.

There he paused, his glinting eyes connecting with mine. I distantly felt Austin drawing nearer, walking up the street, but the usual fluttering of my stomach was absent. Because I had a blade embedded in it.

“Well?” I asked quietly, anger flowering in my middle. “Do you plan to pull it out, or are you trying to give me rust poisoning?”

“That’s not even a thing for magical people, Jane.” He let go of the hilt and pulled his hand back, joy soaking into his features even as blood soaked my shirt. He clearly didn’t intend on pulling the knife out himself.

I didn’t feel the blade, and I was already working on damage control with my healing magic, but that didn’t stop the primal part of me from cringing in dread. A deep part of me still connected a stabbing with a grave. My mind edged into survival mode, each second that dangerous weapon stayed lodged in my flesh pumping out another wave of adrenaline.

I could easily pull it out, sure. I wouldn’t feel it. But half the time it didn’t hurt to work out splinters, either, and digging those out with a sewing needle had always been beyond me.

“Pull it out,” I said through clenched teeth, my hands shaking, not daring to look down at it again. “There’s nothing in the rules about you getting to leave the knife in.”

“Exactly. There’s nothing in the rules about leaving the knife in…or pulling it out, either.” Sasquatch just looked at me with that awful smile, enjoying my turmoil.

“The game is over.” Austin’s deep, rich baritone washed over me. I’d lost track of his approach.

Sasquatch jolted as though struck, his spine snapping ramrod straight, his beer belly popping out. He hadn’t noticed Austin coming at all. A moment later, he bent like a dying reed, drooping over and reaching for the knife.

“No, no!” I slapped his hand away, my reflexes faster than they’d ever been. My body stronger, too. Austin wasn’t just training me in magic. “Careful!”

Sasquatch staggered to the side before lunging back at me. “Alpha said the thing is done. Give me my knife!”

“Don’t grab like that. You’ll make it worse.” I slapped his hand away again and sent a tiny blast of magic to shove him back.

He flew off his feet and sailed ass over end toward the building, his back hitting first, his head pointed toward the ground. My power kept growing, and every time I thought I had a handle on my range, I went and blasted someone across the room. Or down the sidewalk, as the case may be. Oh well. It probably wasn’t the first time he’d been dropped on his head.

“Oops. Too much power,” I said.

Sasquatch struggled to his feet, hand to his cranium. He pointed a finger at me. “You saw her, alpha. She assaulted me. Aggressively! She broke the law. Punish her.”

Austin stepped back into the gutter. Power throbbed off his robust body. Hard eyes surveyed us from a harder face. This was Austin the alpha, not my friend and trainer. He was hearing a complaint from someone in his territory and discerning its merit before he reached a verdict. He was police, judge, and jury in this town, and he couldn’t afford to let someone upset the extremely precarious balance right now.

   
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