Stanton Thundler has been looking forward to the haunted hay maze ever since his coworker’s boyfriend promised everyone tickets. When he gets there, the place doesn’t disappoint. He laughs, screams, and hollers with the rest of his buddies…until he lingers over a display too long, takes a wrong turn, and ends up separated from his friends. Stanton doesn’t mean to bump into the slender hottie and knock him into a puddle of mud.
Francois Toulouse is irritated when he’s ordered to go to a coven near Amarillo and inspect their beef. The only thing he knows about cows is how to cook them so they taste amazing. Then he learns a seer has foreseen that he’ll meet his beloved there. The human Fate chooses for him is not what he expects. Stanton is big, brawny, dirty, and a polar opposite to Francois’s fastidious tidiness and sophistication. Still, Stanton was his beloved…
To Stanton’s surprise, Francois asks him out. While he’s flattered, he declines. What would be the point when even Stanton can see they have nothing in common?
Doing his best not to bounce in his seat, Stanton Thundler picked at the fraying knee of his jeans to release the excess energy instead. He stared out the window where he sat in the passenger seat of his best friend’s pick-up truck. Anticipation thrummed through him.
Stanton turned his attention to Jerome, his brows shooting up. “Yeah, I thought—” Then he spotted the twinkle in his bestest buddy’s dark eyes as well as the huge grin on his face and realized he was teasing him. Scoffing, Stanton rolled his eyes as he reached over and bumped his fist into Jerome’s upper arm. “Dork.”
Still grinning, Jerome winked at him.
Appreciating his friend’s teasing, Stanton finally gave in to his excitement and began bouncing his leg. “I haven’t been to a haunted maze since—” He paused, frowning. His excitement ebbed as he recalled his past.
“That long, huh? Me, too, man.” Jerome reached over and patted his thigh. “Awful nice of Rhyme to give us all tickets, isn’t it?”
Stanton nodded, appreciating the subject change. He hated thinking about his family. Any time thoughts of his father—Nope. Not gonna think about him.
“I looked up how much tickets are to this place,” Jerome continued. “He’s either loaded or is well-connected with the owners.”
Something in Jerome’s tone caught Stanton’s attention. Did his friend look concerned? “What do you mean?”
Stanton half-turned in his bucket seat and scratched his shoulder against the backrest. He didn’t worry about money too much. Since he shared an apartment with Jerome, his buddy helped him with bills. Stanton wasn’t rich by any means, but he met his obligations, and Jerome had even shown him how to budget so he could save money for retirement every month.
“I mean the tickets Max gave everyone at work are all-access. You can ride the hay wagon through the haunted forest, go in the hay maze, and it includes ten game tickets... all without paying.” Jerome’s eyebrows furrowed, and his thick brown lips pinched together in an expression Stanton recognized as worry. “They’re sixty-two bucks each.”
“Wow. That’s a lot of money for an evening of fun.” Stanton cocked his head, mulling over what Jerome had told him for a moment as his buddy continued to drive them to the ranch. He didn’t get it. “Why would they offer something like that? How much is just access to the haunted hay maze?”
Stanton hadn’t been aware that the ranch offered more than that. Of course, after Rhyme had told him he would give all Max’s co-workers tickets—those who wanted them anyway—he hadn’t looked into it further. Max’s boyfriend had assured Stanton that their hay bales were stacked over seven feet high, which meant they would tower over even Stanton’s six-foot-five height.
Or is Rhyme Max’s partner now that they’re living together. Oh, maybe that’s why he’s being so nice.
Before Stanton could voice his thought, Jerome told him, “The tickets for just the haunted hay maze are twelve bucks.”
“Yup. The average time it takes to get through the maze is an hour and twenty minutes. It’s huge.” Jerome glanced his way before telling him, “And the haunted forest ride takes almost an hour, too. This is a huge operation for them and brings in thousands each October.”
“Holy shit,” Stanton mumbled. “Guess I should have checked out their website.”
Jerome chuckled softly. “On top of that, they have game booths where you can play for stuffed animals or goldfish or other toys, although that’s geared mostly for kids.” Reaching over, he punched Stanton’s upper arm playfully. “Think your beta fish would like a playmate?”
Stanton laughed. “Naw. Billy would eat’em.”
As Jerome snorted, Stanton spotted the turn for the ranch. He straightened in his seat and gazed out the window. His concern over Rhyme’s motives slipped from his mind as he grinned with excitement.
“Damn, they’re busy,” he commented as he spotted the dozens upon dozens of vehicles parked in the left field. There were people milling around the edge of the field where a road disappeared between the trees. “Oh, look.” Stanton pointed, grinning. “There’s the tractor Rhyme mentioned.”
Jerome nodded as he turned into the field. Rolling down his window, he waved at Murdoch, who was a friend of Rhyme’s and a fellow wrangler. The man appeared to be directing visitors on where to park.
“Hey, Jerome,” Murdoch greeted, smiling and tipping his hat in a friendly way. He ducked down a little, allowing the six-foot-one man to see into the cab. “Evening, Stanton.” Then Murdoch straightened and pointed to the right. “Vernon and Lloyde arrived just ahead of you. I put them over there with Lilibeth and George. They’re still milling around their vehicles, so I figure they’re waiting for you.”
“Thanks, man,” Jerome replied, waving again as he started his truck slowly across the field in that direction.
“Oh, hey.” Murdoch jogged the couple of steps to Jerome’s open window as he stopped the truck. Resting his tanned hand on the frame, he glanced between them before asking, “Are Anthony, Benjamin, and Esmerelda still working at your construction company?”
Jerome groaned. “Yeah. Please tell me they aren’t here tonight.”
Murdoch’s lips twisted into a grimace. “Fraid I can’t. They arrived thirty minutes ago. If they received the same passes Rhyme gave you all, they could be anywhere by now.”
“Thanks for the warning,” Jerome stated, shaking his head. “Not sure how they even knew we were coming here tonight.”
Shrugging, Murdoch told them, “Rhyme will handle it if you have any trouble with them.” Then he backed away, turning toward another vehicle coming up behind them. At the same time, he hollered, “Have fun anyway.”
When Jerome began the truck creeping forward again, Stanton admitted, “I told Esmerelda we were coming tonight.”