Chapter One, continued...
Whatever retort Honey was about to huff was swallowed at the sight of the town square. Four tall Christmas-looking trees were festooned with a white web-like substance, while large, colorful spiders dangled from their branches. Most of them were sapphire blue, but bright pink, shiny purples, and electric green ones appeared scattered in the midst.
A white gazebo at the center of the square was draped with black cloth, and piles of pumpkins were scattered by bales of hay lined up to provide seating for an outdoor concert.
The little red barn in the corner looked more like a broken down crypt in a haunted cemetery, and gravestones marred the area surrounded by a broken down picket fence.
“Here we are,” Troy announced, parking the truck next to the creepy barn.
“We’re not staying there, are we?” Honey gaped at the furry wolf with red glowing eyes howling between the gravestones. Its jaws snapped and it rose on two legs and snarled, as if about to pounce.
Next to it was a zombie struggling to get out of a grave. A black cat hissed and arched its back, its eyes glowing green.
Honey glanced in the backseat and swallowed a breath of relief. Both Sara and Mattie were fast asleep.
“Nah, we’re just stopping by to pick up a pet for the kids,” Troy drawled as he hopped from the cab.
No way was Honey getting out now. The sun was setting, and the eerie glow of the sky beyond the buildings made the square feel spookier than ever.
Troy opened the passenger door and hooked her by the arm.
“Can we just get to the Rise & Shine?” Honey’s teeth chattered. She would have texted Max if she hadn’t been so upset that he’d sent this country yokel to the airport. The problem with having as much money as Max had was he hired everyone to do the little things a loving, caring husband and father would have done.
If he really couldn’t wait to see the kids, he would have been at the foot of the runway waiting for them.
“Trust me, you’ll want to see this.” Troy hefted her off the passenger seat and set her in front of the barn with the graveyard. A sign read, “Petting Zoo” and someone had added the words, “Pet or Die,” underneath it.
“I don’t think so.” She dug in her heels and glared at the man who was at least a foot taller than her and had her by a hundred fifty pounds. “I’m calling Max right now. How do I know you’re not some serial killer sent to kidnap me and the kids? Maybe Max isn’t even in town. Maybe he’s still at the airport waiting for us.”
“This is the first stop.” Troy remained firm and unyielding, blocking her way back. “Go into the barn and pick out a pet. I dare you, city girl.”
City girl? Was this an insult around these parts? And what happened to the supposed small town charm and friendliness?
“Tell me this is some kind of joke. I’m tired. Hungry. Got up at three this morning. Feet are sore. Need a shower and you want me to pick a pet?”
“Sounds about right.” Troy practically swallowed his words. “Go ahead. Do it for your little ones.”
She took a step forward as a couple with two boys strolled out of the haunted barn, laughing and comparing their stuffed monsters.
“Hi there,” the woman said, eyes twinkling. “You should see what all’s in there. Stuff you’d never find at a department store or anywhere online. Made right here by the Blue Brigade. All proceeds benefit a charity for fresh water in Africa.”
Honey looked over her shoulder to see if there was anyone else within hailing distance. Once she realize they were talking to her, she smiled and said, “Oh, hi.”
The man who held the two boys nodded by way of introduction. “I’m Mason Riley, wife Adrianne and my two sons. Welcome to Sapphire Falls.”
“Honey, uh, Myers. Kids are asleep in the truck, but nice to meet you.”
“Are you related to—” Mason paused, waiting for her to fill in the blanks.
“No one,” she stammered. “I’m with Max Wolff?”
“Ah, the Wolffs! Fine family. Live a few miles out past the river bend.” Mason tilted his head in the presumed direction of the Wolff family homestead. “Well, see you around.”
“So nice meeting you.” Adrianne waved. “Stop by the Scott’s Sweets booth sometime and have a toffee or chocolate turtle on me.”
“Uh, sure, thanks.” Honey wasn’t about to stop at any sweet shop, especially ones with toffee or chocolate turtles.
After the family sauntered down the path toward the gazebo, Honey breathed in and out, slow and steady, prepared to do her part in contributing to charity and giving her kids something to play with.
Nothing to be afraid of here. Everything was fake. Those were animatronics. Powered by electricity. See? The zombie kept moving up and struggling, but then slumped down again. The wolf snapped its jaws three times with every turn of his head. She could hear the whirring motors and see the wires threaded to the barn. So what if it was dark inside? There had to be instructions for leaving money and someone there to make sure no one stole all of the stuffed monsters.
Then why was she shaking at her knees as Troy pushed her up the path, past the picket fence made of bones? Oh gawd, no! Was that a chattering jaw half buried in the dirt?
She stepped through the door which creaked and into the dim light of the barn. It was dark and silent, but as her eyes adjusted, her pulse calmed and she explored the “pet store.”
The Blue Brigade, whoever they were, had created a spooky ensemble of homemade monsters—each one unique and colorful. Vampire bats wearing rainbow shirts, teddy bears with fangs, mummies wrapped with tie-dyed bandages, and black cats of all sizes and shapes. Various “price tags” of suggested donations were pasted below each item, and an antique steel milk canister where people could put their cash or checks stood near the exit.
She appeared to be the only person inside the barn, but the corners were dark, and someone dangerous could lurk behind the crates. She’d better grab something quick and leave her donation, except everything was so damn cute!
Honey wandered deeper into the small barn. If she was going to brave the dark, haunted petting zoo, she had to get something special for Mattie and Sara. Those kids deserved this vacation almost as much as she did. All their father did was shower money on them, but no amount of money could substitute for his presence or buy the kind of love that went into making these monsters.
As for her? She’d been relegated to nursemaid, servant, housekeeper, gardener, cook, and chauffeur soon after Mattie was born. She’d thought divorcing Max would mean more time—well, she did regain the time she used to spend on ironing his shirts and running to the dry cleaners, and she had stopped wasting her voice nagging him about paying attention to her and the kids, but … living in separate apartments had meant another set of bills to pay, accounts to square away, separate insurance policy, health care benefits coordination and still, no time for herself, much less for dating.
This vacation wasn’t about her, Honey reminded herself. It was for Mattie and Sara to experience a Sapphire Falls Halloween. It was for them to spend with their father while she wandered around the small town and caught up on naps at the bed and breakfast.
She stopped in front of a wooden crate. The cutest zombie Raggedy Ann and Andy dolls smiled their jagged, bloody mouths at her. They had marker drawn scars and patches of their hair were blackened and torn, but they weren’t too ghoulish for a pair of toddlers, and they were cute.
Honey collected the two dolls into her arms and dug through her purse for her wallet.
“Raarraah!!!” A firm hand grabbed her and a knife stretched over her head.
Honey screamed and dropped everything. Her legs turned to jelly, and her heart flew from her throat.
A vampire bat spread his wings over her. His fangs dripped with blood, and he backed her into the wall, scattering a pile of beanbag gremlins.
“Help! Help!” Honey screamed over and over again, but what would Troy do? Nothing. He was the one who trapped her here. The nice family was a set up designed to lure her in.
Oh no! Mattie and Sara were alone with a maniac. Where the hell was Max? Did he invite them to this bucolic town to trap them? Maybe do away with them?
Once and for all?
Honey butted her head into the vampire’s jaw. She punched his chest and kicked him, but he grabbed her hands and lifted them above her head.
Panic set in. How was she ever getting out of this alive?
“Take my purse. Take my money. Just let me go, please. Don’t hurt me. Please don’t hurt me. What have I ever done to you?”
“You divorced me.”
Rachelle Ayala is a bestselling author of contemporary romance and romantic suspense. She writes from sweet to steamy and believes that everyone should find love as often as possible, even if it's within the pages of a book. Rachelle is working on a sweet series of romances with pets and firemen, Have a Hart Romances, and one full of bad boys, Bad Boys for Hire. She also writes sports romances in both football and baseball, as well as many holiday romances, both sweet and spicy. She has won the 2015 and 2016 Readers Favorite Gold Award and the 2015 Angie Ovation Award.