It was the same question Ruby and Penny had bombarded him with multiple times over the last week. He hated saying no to the girls, but when they asked to go to one of the local haunted woods set up, he couldn’t say no fast enough. Braeden might have loved dressing up for Halloween and handing out candy to all the awesomely dressed kids, but he absolutely hated the scary part of the holiday. He wasn’t a scaredy cat; he didn’t mind horror movies or scary shows. The music almost always gave away when there was a jump scare. In person, that wasn’t the case. The one time he bent to peer pressure and joined his friends in a haunted house, he nearly punched one of the actors because they got too close. Now that he was older, he had no doubt his fight reflex had gotten stronger, especially where his girls were concerned.
“The website says no kids under ten.”
He didn’t like lying to his kids, at least not about something so stupid. Admitting his fear wasn’t an option, though. If he said it out loud, he knew word would get around, and he’d never hear the end of it. Until now, he’d been able to avoid being put into a situation he’d regret.
“No. The website says they don’t recommend kids under ten, but that we can totally go as long as we’re accompanied by an adult.”
Cheese and crackers, he never should have taught them how to read.
“That’s basically the same thing. You don’t have an adult that can accompany you.”
Ruby looked at him, her eyebrows furrowing. She looked a lot like her mother when she looked at him like that. It was like she could see right into his soul and tell that he was a big old weenie. It was totally disconcerting. Penny, on the other hand, was a bit oblivious to it all.
Right now, he loved that about her.
“Why can’t you go with us? You’re like an adult.”
What was that supposed to mean? Was she saying ‘like’ as in he wasn’t really an adult, or was she saying ‘like’ the way teenage girls add the word to every sentence? And why was he too chicken shit to ask her? His seven-year-old daughter scared him almost as much as walking through haunted woods did.
“Did you ask your mom?”
Ruby rolled her eyes. “Duh. We asked her first. She’s got plans with Auntie Savannah and Auntie Brooklyn. We even asked Uncle Oli, but he’s busy too. Why can’t you just take us? Uncle Declan is taking Wyatt and CJ, and Uncle Gabriel is taking Ryan and JJ. We’re the only ones not going.”
“Well, there’ll be a lot of times in the future where you’ll be the only ones not going to something. Might as well get used to that now.”
“DAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAD,” Ruby growled. “Why are you being weirder than normal about this? Are you scared or something?”
“Pssshah…of course, I’m not scared. I’m just…”
Damn it. Ruby was too much like her mother for his sanity. And for his ego. He couldn’t admit she was right. How could he steer this conversation away from his irrational fear of in-person jump scares? How could he bribe her into keeping her instincts to herself? There had to be something his little girl wanted more than going to the haunted woods.
“How about I take you ladies shopping instead?”
A giant smile graced Penny’s face. “Yes!”
While a glare marred Ruby’s. “No!”
“Come on, Roobs. You know there’s something at Target that you’ve got your eye on. I’ll buy you both whatever you want to make up for not going to the woods with your cousins.”
“That’s not going to work, Dad. I just want to go to the haunted woods. I’ll even use my own money to buy my ticket. Pretty please just go with us? I’ll hold your hand and keep you safe. It’ll be fun, I promise.”
The look on Ruby’s face was one that got him every damn time, and she knew it. Braeden couldn’t say no to her. Not when she looked at him like that. And not when her sister joined in on the action. He was going to the haunted woods whether he wanted to or not.
A Week Later
“Daddy, this is the best thing ever! Thank you. Thank you,” Ruby squealed as she bounced along the path leading to the entrance to the haunted woods.
Braeden was sweating out of nearly every pore, and they hadn’t even started through the scary parts yet. His hands were clammy, his undershirt sopping wet. He cursed the day he accidentally let his little girls watch a scary movie. It should have traumatized them, but instead, it was traumatizing him. And he couldn’t even let on a little that he was shaking in his boots. His brother-in-law Declan would pounce on any sign of weakness, which would only make the situation worse.
He couldn’t let that happen. No one would ever know how much he was dreading the 30-minute walk through the woods they were about to go through. He just hoped he was a good enough actor to pull it off.
15 Minutes Later
“Aaaaaaah…son of a biscuit.”
A deep laugh from behind him had Braeden spinning around to stare daggers at the bane of his existence.
“Damn it, Declan, that’s not funny.”
“Are you sure about that?” Declan asked through peels of laughter.
Their best friend Gabriel tried to hold back his own laughter but wasn’t very successful.
“You guys are a bunch of you-know-what holes.”
The snickering behind him continued. “You make it so easy. You know we can’t help ourselves.”
Braeden turned back around so he could keep an eye on the kids and so his friends wouldn’t see how much their teasing bothered him. He knew he couldn’t be too mad at them. If he were in their shoes, he wouldn’t be able to help himself either. That was the worst part about the whole thing. He wanted to be mad at them for being jerks, but he couldn’t. Not really, anyway.
But that didn’t mean he had to like it.
“Wait until I tell the girls how mean you both were to me.”
“Are you really threatening to tattle on us to our wives?” Gabriel asked while Declan scoffed in response.
“Of course, he will. He’ll run home and tell Andi that we were mean, and then she’ll tell Sav and Brook, and we’ll get scolded like children. Just man up and take the ribbing, dude. It’s not that big of a deal.”
Before Braeden could respond, someone jumped out from behind a tree, waving a chainsaw around like a lunatic. Despite his best efforts to hold it in, Braeden let out a scream that was far higher pitched than even his daughters could have managed. His body tightened, going on high alert. He was ready to take care of the threat until Declan put a hand on his shoulder to steady him.
“Holy crap. You were really about to punch that poor guy,” Declan said, the amusement for earlier no longer in his voice.
“I told you guys. Poor guy, my hiney. He deserved a good punch to the throat for that crap.”
Gabriel laughed. “He’s just doing his job. You can’t be mad at him for that.”
“Well, I can’t be mad at my children for forcing my hand, so that means I have to turn my anger towards the random teenagers jumping out from behind trees. It’s the only way I’m going to get through this. Unless you want me to punch one of you each time one of these little jerks jumps out or gets too close.”
“That’s probably a better plan. Last thing we need is to have you get arrested in front of your children. We’ve only got another ten minutes or so anyway. How bad could it be?”
30 Minutes Later
“Damn it, Braeden, I think you gave me a freaking charlie horse.”
Laughing, Braeden took a sip of his wine. They’d gathered back at Declan and Brooklyn’s house so they could decompress after the horror show that was the haunted woods. The kids were beyond wired, and the adults were ready to relax. Congregating at one of their houses so the kids could tire each other out sounded like their best option or rather their only option. None of them wanted to head home and deal with two rambunctious children alone.
“You kinda set yourself up for that, Declan. You’re the one who said it wouldn’t be that bad,” Gabriel pointed out.
The glare Declan sent his way made Braeden laugh. He had a feeling his brother-in-law wouldn’t find that little reminder remotely helpful.
“But why was I the only one he hit? Why didn’t you take a few?”
Declan’s tone was whinier than Braeden was used to, and it delighted him more than he would ever admit. Of course, he’d never tell Andi that he was reveling in her brother’s misery. Misery that he caused.
Although, to be fair, he’d only punched Declan because he was the one making fun of him the most. It was the best way to get his payback without it being super obvious.
Gabriel shrugged. “You were on his right side. Should’ve asked to switch.”
Braeden was too busy laughing to notice the tiny bodies sneaking up behind him until their little hands brushed against his arms and back as they cried out, “Boo.”
“Son of a bee sting!”
Wine spilled onto the counter as his cup tipped over. The six kids behind him laughed hysterically, along with Declan and Gabriel. He was never going to live the night down, and he knew as soon as their wives joined them, he’d have three more people giving him shit for being scared.