Home > Magical Midlife Invasion (Leveling Up #3)

Magical Midlife Invasion (Leveling Up #3)
Author: K.F. Breene

One

“The early spring is really helping, Jessie. Yes, I think the grounds will make a full recovery.” Edgar hooked his long thumbs, complete with out-of-control nails, into the band of his bright purple sweatpants.

Mr. Tom, the butler/property manager/misguided life coach, had finally gotten tired of buying bleach and changed the color of our house sweats from white to purple, an ode to my gargoyle form, and also a color that didn’t show bloodstains as well. Why Edgar needed sweats at all was beyond me. He rarely changed form, and even when he did, he became a swarm of insects and his clothes magically changed with him. But I’d learned the hard way not to question the logic of the original Ivy House team. Their answers were likely to give you brain bubbles.

I surveyed the colorful blooming flowers from my position at the back corner of the yard. They were everywhere—crowding the side of the house, pushing up to the edges of the vivid green grass, lining the hedge maze Edgar kept insisting I wander into for a few hours of “fun,” and now popping up between the trees at the edge of the woods. I knew there were just as many flowers on the other side of the house and scores of them swarming the front. Even if he hadn’t insisted I take a tour with him to check out the grounds, the sheer volume was hard to miss.

“Yes, they are really coming along.” I nodded dutifully, then chose my next words carefully. Edgar didn’t take criticism well. A couple of months ago he’d let a dangerous person onto the grounds unwittingly, and now he kept suggesting that I retire him every time he made a tiny misstep. Retirement for a vampire was death. The guy kept trying to get me to kill him. “Did you buy out the flower store, or…”

“Oh no, Jessie, don’t be silly. I don’t buy flowers—I grow them. I did buy out their seeds, though. I wanted to make sure I had enough.”

I nearly made the mistake of mentioning the basajaun, the violent, long-winded, hairy creature who’d helped me escape a group of mages in exchange for access to Edgar’s precious flowerbeds. He’d wiped them out, and Edgar had not taken it well. Clearly he worried the situation wouldn’t be a one-time deal.

“Ah. I think you do. Have enough, that is,” I said.

“Yes, that’s the other thing I wanted to talk to you about.” He pulled his thumbs out from the band of his sweats and clasped them behind his back. “I wanted to work on my preparedness. You know, prevent another goldfish situation.” He hung his head a little.

“The goldfish was depressed anyway, Edgar…probably, and no one blames you for accidentally killing it. Granted, yes, when you were changing the water, you probably should’ve known to take the fish out of the sink before pulling up the drain stopper, but mistakes happen. You didn’t need to get me the fish in the first place.” Sometimes it wasn’t easy to keep from criticizing.

“Well, be that as it may…” He paused, his eyes drifting across the many types and colors of flowers, seemingly planted with no rhyme or reason as to overall yard design. “I’m not one to point fingers, and I am a firm believer in innocent until proven guilty, but I wonder…” He ran a fang across his bottom lip. He’d stopped retracting them altogether. We had no idea why, but I’d had to forbid him from going into town where non-magical people might see him and freak out. If they didn’t believe in vampires before seeing him, they’d be forced to change their tune. “I’ve noticed a few…discrepancies in my flower design.”

Ah. So he had been thinking about design, he was just bad at it.

“What kind of discrepancies?” I asked as I felt a familiar foot step down on the walkway leading to Ivy House’s front door.

It was Austin, the enormous, vicious polar bear shifter who’d recently accepted the number one position on the Ivy House council. He’d also finally staked his claim as alpha of our immediate town and two of those surrounding us, a job he’d been doing without the credit for years. He’d only held the new post for a matter of months, and already crime was down by seventy-five percent in the new towns he had a presence in. No one wanted to mess with him, which made me that much happier he was on my side.

“Well…” Edgar bent a little at the waist, clearly uncomfortable.

Austin’s path changed; he was now coming around the house, headed for me. Maybe he was beginning to feel people’s positions on Ivy House’s property, something everyone else with Ivy House magic could do.

Butterflies danced in my stomach a little, the sensation followed by a burst of guilt. Ivy House had given Austin the ability to draw my magic out, something he was excellent at, given his natural talent for coaxing out the best in people, and my magic had been increasing in leaps and bounds. So the little joke I’d pulled on him yesterday—using my new ability for explosions to create a small blast next to him—had launched him over the treetops instead of just making him jump liked I’d hoped. A snap of power had turned into a gush of it, and poor Austin had paid the price.

He hadn’t even acted mad. Of course, he’d also changed really quickly into his polar bear and just lain down, waiting for me to heal him. And even if he was mad, polar bears couldn’t talk. Probably for the best. The whole situation had been grisly.

“The thing is, it seems like someone is…taking the flower tops.” Edgar crossed his arms over his chest and tapped his lips with the aggressively long nail on his pointer finger. “It could be a deer, I suppose, because they do like flowers, but normal deer don’t tend to like magically treated flowers.” Edgar spotted Austin coming toward us and his eyes lit up. “Well, look at that, will you? The town’s alpha is coming to visit us. Aren’t we lucky?”

“He’s part of the Ivy House team, Edgar, you know this.”

“Yes, I know, but in the vampire clan I was never promoted high enough to meet important and influential people. I thought I’d die at this job before another heir was chosen. Until you come to your senses and retire me as you ought to, I will continue to bask in my good fortune.”

I rolled my eyes, then couldn’t help but smile as Austin drew near, his cobalt eyes shimmering with good nature and his movements easy and graceful, somewhat hiding his contained, explosive power.

“Hey,” I said, eyeing his white T-shirt, stretched across his shoulders and chest, defining his pecs before draping down his flat stomach. His snug jeans showed off powerful, robust thighs. No burned skin marred his muscular arms, thank God. I mean, I was a good healer at this point (I had to be), but still, that little joke had gone way overboard. “No house sweats today?”

His eyebrows rose in humorous distaste, but he didn’t comment, probably since Edgar was currently wearing them. It was no secret that Austin did not love the color change.

He stopped next to me. “I came to ask if you would help me with something this afternoon.”

“Yeah, sure, I just need to finish this walk around with Edgar. There’s a pressing matter that requires my undivided and urgent attention.” I smiled in jest.

“Oh no, Jessie, it isn’t that serious. Well…you know…unless it is theft, in which case…” Edgar put out his hands. “I’m no jury, but…”

The humor dripped out of Austin’s expression. “Theft?”

“Edgar was speaking to me about the flowers. Don’t they look great? In just a couple of months, he has replaced everything the basajaun ate.” I lifted my hand like Vanna White might’ve.

“There are way too many,” Austin said, not at all worried about criticizing the vampire. Which was well and good for him—Edgar had never asked Austin to kill him, to my knowledge.

“Yes, well, there were a lot of them,” Edgar said, bending again.

Austin cocked his head, surveying the property. “It looks like Ivy House is a flower farm for funeral homes…”

I elbowed him. “Or weddings and birthdays. Very cheery.”

“It’s just…” Edgar paused for a moment. “At the outskirts of the yard, where the flowers tuck into the wood, something has been eating the flower heads and tops of the stems.”

“Deer?” Austin asked.

Edgar turned a beaming smile Austin’s way, replete with multicolored fangs. The whitening strips I’d recommended he use had a hard time counteracting the habitual consumption of blood. “Great minds! I did mention it could be deer. Except deer don’t typically enjoy magically treated flowers.”

“That’s right, you cheat to win your flower festivals,” Austin murmured.

I stifled a laugh. Edgar used a magical serum to ensure the flowers grew beautifully regardless of the time of year, which meant he always won the county home and garden festivals against the non-magical competition. He maintained that anyone could use the special serum, but of course Dicks and Janes had no knowledge of the serum. Most of them looked down on Agnes’s New Age vibe.

“I haven’t had any reports of the basajaun being in town lately,” Austin said.

“Ah.” I shook my head and grinned. “Duh. I hadn’t pieced together he was talking about the basajaun.”

“Well, you know, I wouldn’t want to call an innocent creature down, so you can understand my hesitation to name names,” Edgar said, waving his hands in front of him. “But he does love my flowers. That was entirely evident in how thoroughly he ransacked them from the house…”

“I don’t think it’s the basajaun.” I slipped my hands into my jeans pockets. “I didn’t give him unlimited access to the grounds, and he has a very firm code of ethics when it comes to trades. He wouldn’t encroach on my territory without speaking to me first.”

“So you didn’t tell the basajaun he could happen by and have a snack whenever he’s in town?” Edgar asked tentatively.

“No. And like Austin said, no one has seen him. He’s up on his mountain, probably scaring hikers. It is highly unlikely that he is your flower thief. Besides, he’s nine feet tall and super thick—a snack for him is a lot more than a few flowers. It’s probably just a deer with deficient taste buds or something.”

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