I’m excited to show you this sneak peek of This Feeling for You, my next book in the A Town Called Forgotten small-town romance series under the name Rachel Branton, coming December 1st. Each book is a stand-alone, but the entire series covers the same characters in the same town, so reading all of them does give you a little more insight and foreshadowing of what is to come. The cover reveal and order links coming soon. (This image has nothing to do with the cover, lol!)
This excerpt is unedited, so there will be additional tweaks and edits before the book is published. I’ll update the edited version here next month. Hope you enjoy this sneak peek!
UPDATE: Cover reveal is now up!
Maggie Tremblay knew she shouldn’t have performed the song. Tasting the words and breathing the memories always brought the intoxicating mixture of joy and pain that carried her back through eighteen years to that magical day.
Usually, she indulged only on the rare solitary hike in the isolated hills of Forgotten, or in her shower after a bad day, with the television turned all the way up in the next room—as long as there were no overnight guests at her bed and breakfast café. Only then would she let herself remember and wonder why she hadn’t recognized the importance of that day in Trenton or glimpsed the regrets that would haunt her for a lifetime.
Maggie had been caught singing the song in the kitchen of her café the evening before Hannah Waterford’s August wedding, and one thing had led to another, and somehow she’d ended up agreeing to sing for the wedding celebration. Maybe it was because the wedding was on the thirteenth, the luckiest number in Forgotten, or maybe because the wedding dinner Maggie was responsible for was turning out perfectly, or maybe because Hannah had become more friend than employee and Hannah was so obviously in love.
Whatever the reason, Maggie had agreed. Because at that moment she’d wanted to remember, to go back to the day that had forever changed her life. The day that had launched her successful—albeit very short—singing career and the choice that had taken away the man she would always love.
On that day so long ago, she hadn’t known the regrets she’d agonize over. Youth was her excuse—and her disbelief in love at first sight. After, she’d gone on with her life, as people had to do. She no longer wasted time on what ifs—or mostly she didn’t. Those thoughts only broke through her barriers when she gave into the song.
On those days when loneliness crept into the fabric of her chosen life, she pushed the emotion aside. She couldn’t have possibly felt so strongly about someone after so little time together. It wasn’t conceivable. She had to be remembering the day in error.
Whatever the past and her regrets, Maggie was happy now. She loved Forgotten, Kansas, population three thousand and eighty-six. She loved the way everyone knew her current life and cared about how she was doing. She was amazed at how people pitched in when anyone in town needed help. She liked the handsome cowboys who asked her out to county fairs and rodeos and treated her like a queen. She appreciated the country attorneys who liked to drive her to nearby Panna Creek for a nice dinner without expecting anything but a smile and good conversation in return. She loved talking with her customers, and even enjoyed the Ladies Auxiliary, who gossiped as much as they helped anyone.
No one questioned her life before she came to Forgotten thirteen years ago. The past outside the town was not important. Only what she did now—who she was now. She was Maggie, owner of the Butter Cake Café that also doubled as a bed and breakfast with three rooms to rent, only one of which had a private bathroom. She was an employer, friend, and town leader. She made the best gooey butter cake in the entire county and people came from neighboring cities for her steaks and soups. It was a good life. She didn’t want anything to shatter her peace, especially something related to the song that she’d agreed to sing in front of everyone in a weak moment.
“Maggie, what’s wrong?” Hannah asked, touching her shoulder and bringing her thoughts back to the present.
Maggie looked up from her tablet on the café counter, where she had been staring at the shares on Hannah’s Twitter feed, fighting the clenching of her gut. Both her full-time employees, Hannah Morgan and Keisha Jefferson, were looking at her, their expressions concerned, and she needed to say something in response.
She waved a hand that felt stiff, as if it didn’t belong to her. “Nothing. I just didn’t know so many people would see me singing. It’s been two and a half weeks since the wedding, and people are still sharing it and commenting. It’s a little embarrassing.”
No one had asked Maggie if they could record her at the wedding, but she should have known someone would do so. These day, all the generations were caught up in technology. Why, oh why had she given in to the idea?
She knew the answer, of course, she’d been convinced by love. Hannah and Dylan getting married after all they’d been through was inspiring and romantic . . . and utterly, disgustingly, annoyingly sweet. How could you not join in?
“It’s only five thousand shares.” Hannah smiled as she tucked a wisp of hair behind her ear that had escaped her blond ponytail, her voice dismissive, as if that number were nothing.
To Maggie it sounded like a lot. But to be honest, Maggie didn’t really know. Back in the day, social media hadn’t been a thing. She should have known that as the ex-wife of a Nebraska senator, Hannah’s post about her wedding so soon after the dissolution of her unhappy marriage would have attracted notice in the media. Hopefully, it would die down soon. Maybe it wouldn’t even reach many people outside the US—if Maggie was lucky.
Keisha snorted and her hazel eyes sparkled. “And a million views on YouTube. She leaned over the tablet, opened the website, and typed in a few words to find the video. “And they’re comparing both your singing and guitar playing to the original artist. She’s a Canadian singer, GiGi Blay. That’s a real compliment! I listened to her recording last night, and it’s true. You sound just like her—or maybe even better. She’s so young. Or was back when she recorded it. There aren’t many pictures of her.” She drew back to let Maggie see the million views on Hannah’s post.
Maggie stifled a groan, which made Hannah laugh. “Don’t be a grump,” she said. “It’s about time everyone in Forgotten knows how well you sing. I’ve been saying for months that you have the best voice. You should be recording songs, not slaving away here at the café.”
“What do you mean? I love my café.” And Maggie did. So much. She had no desire to return to that other life. Unless . . . unless she could go physically back twenty years, and that wasn’t happening any time soon. Time machines did not exist.
“I’m just hoping the real artist doesn’t sue, or something.” Keisha pulled a yellow apron over her white blouse, the combination of colors bright against her bronze skin and dark brown hair, now drawn up in a ponytail. She hadn’t used hair relaxer in a few months, as she often did, and the new growth close to her scalp was full and curly, and a little bushy, just the way Maggie liked it. “Hannah might be forced to take it down.”
“We’ll face that if it happens.” Hannah started for the kitchen. “I’ll get the afternoon bread started so it can rise during the lunch rush.” She was the only one who could make the bread besides Maggie. Together they’d perfected it, and the Butter Cake Café sandwiches had improved over the past few months since her employ. Maggie was going to hate losing her when a teaching job finally opened up in Forgotten or nearby Panna Creek. The week Hannah had been gone on her honeymoon had been challenging enough.
Maggie nodded. “Thanks.” She kept her voice light, but inside she felt sick. A million views.
But why did it matter? It wasn’t as if he would see. Even if he did, he wasn’t in a position to care.
Keisha studied her with serious hazel eyes. “Don’t worry. In a few more days, no one will remember. It’ll probably disappear, and I bet Hannah would take it down if you ask.”
Right. And that was exactly what Maggie would do. She forced a smile and powered off the tablet. “Looks like your first pre-lunch customer is here. No talking about this, okay?”
Keisha nodded and put on her flirty face. She got more tips than anyone at the Butter Cake Café, though lately Maggie had been feeling some distraction in her service. She’d have to ask about that soon.
One customer turned into three and before Maggie knew it, she was thick in the middle of the lunchtime crowd. The three of them could handle it easily, even with the construction workers building the new Noodleroni factory west of main beyond the grade school. Once it and the accompanying housing development was completed, the population in Forgotten would go up by a few hundred. Most people were excited about the addition, including Maggie. She’d had full occupancy in her rental rooms up until a week ago, which had really helped her bottom line.
When the lunch rush ended, she drew off her apron and headed out of the kitchen. Hannah was taking a break at a table where her new husband, town vet Dylan Morgan, was still eating lunch. Keisha was at another table talking to her uncle, Mayor Josiah Campbell, who was on a bar stool finishing his own meal.
“Lunch was wonderful as always,” Josiah said to Maggie in his warm voice. Setting down his napkin, he stood, towering over them. He took Maggie’s hand in his very large ones, his ebony skin as dark as hers was pale. “I’ve been meaning to tell you that your song was beautiful. You’ve been hiding this talent from us, but we know you now.” He winked. “In fact, Olivia is already plotting how she can get you to perform at her next evening soiree for her out-of-town friends.”
“Is she now?” Maggie would find a way to be busy that night. If there was one thing in Forgotten that she didn’t like, it was Olivia Campbell. But like everyone else in town, Maggie put up with her because she loved and admired Josiah and Keisha.
Josiah’s bright smile widened knowingly. “Don’t worry. I’ll give you the heads up the minute I hear of the date. I’m assuming you’ll have other plans that day.”
His chuckle was infectious, and Maggie laughed. “I’d appreciate that.”
Josiah gave his niece a pat on the shoulder. “You come see me when you get a minute, okay? You know where my office is. We’re family, and that will never change.”
“Okay.” Keisha held her smile until he left the café. “Wish he were related to me by blood,” she muttered, “instead of through that snotty wife of his. Seriously, the only thing she’s ever done right is to marry Josiah. To his detriment, I might add. Well, and she had Charlie. I thank God every day that he’s turning out like his dad. I don’t know why Josiah stays with her.”
Maggie had already heard hints that a break was on the horizon, but she wouldn’t share that information with Keisha or anyone, even if she echoed the sentiments. Josiah wasn’t one to give up easily, though, and he’d already fought more for his marriage than anyone she knew. Maybe he’d work things out.
“I’m going upstairs for a little nap,” she said to Keisha. “Text me if it picks up too much.”
“Oh, I’m sure it’ll be dead until dinner,” Keisha said. “It’s Tuesday. But okay.”
Maggie went around the counter, passing the small copy room she’d installed for guests, and made her way up the stairs leading to the next floor. She felt tired, which was normal after the unsettled night she’d had worrying about the song post. And restless night or no, she still had to be up by five-thirty every single morning except Sundays when the café was closed. Some Sundays she could sleep in as late as eight or nine if she didn’t have boarders.
She had only one guest now—Connor Davis, a savvy developer who was over both the new pasta factory and the housing development. Apparently, the trailers where the imported workers slept on-site weren’t quite up to his standard for his weekly visits to Forgotten. He arrived every Sunday night and left every Tuesday or Wednesday morning depending on his purpose. He’d also temporarily installed various managers or investors in her rooms over the past three months, which gave her a boost of funds. Since he was using a lot of local boys for the job site, helping all of Forgotten, she was inclined to be nice to him.
He was also good on the eyes, and they had passed more than one private breakfast in each other’s company downstairs in her dining room. He was well-read, polite, and his flirtatious manner was flattering. Once or twice lately she’d begun to wonder if maybe something more might come of their relationship. But he was at least five years younger, and not the kind of man to be satisfied with small-town life. Her life here was set, and she wouldn’t move or give up her independence, but there were other options she’d consider—these days many couples commuted for relationships.
Her personal suite was at the end of the hall, comprised of a bedroom with a large walk-in closet, a connected bathroom, a large sitting room, a kitchenette with a microwave and mini fridge, and extra storage. In the beginning when she’d first come to Forgotten, the space in the remodeled frontier-style house had seemed incredibly large after the tiny apartment where she’d grown up and the flea-bitten motels she’d stayed in over the years while trying to break into the music business. It was even nicer than the better hotel rooms she’d been able to afford at the end. She’d used all the rest of her savings to remodel and launch the Butter Cake Café, and it was the one thing in her life she didn’t regret.
Well, there was a second thing she’d never take back, but she wasn’t going to think about that other one right now.
She opened the door with a key from the pocket of her jeans and hurried inside, immediately kicking off her sandals and sinking onto her vibrant mauve couch that might not be the height of fashion but was so comfortable she didn’t care. It wasn’t as if she invited anyone here these days. This was her private place where she could relax the confident face she presented to the world. It wasn’t a false face by any stretch, but it wasn’t exactly the whole truth either.
She pulled the three separate elastics from her black hair and scrubbed her hands over her scalp, separating the ebony strands. The heavy length of her hair sometimes caused headaches, but she’d solved that by pulling up a third of her hair high on her head, adding that to a third in the middle, and finishing it all into a final elastic at the nape of her neck. That spread out the weight. The hair on her neck was a little hot for summer, but tolerable for the first week of September that was already showing signs of cooling off.
She stopped when she realized she was humming the song under her breath. This feeling for you took me by surprise. Makes me question who I am and who I want to be . . . Her lips pursed over the sound, shutting it away, and she stretch out on her couch and closed her eyes. Just a little nap would calm that jittery feeling inside her.
She wished she could talk to Charlotte, Forgotten’s midwife and her best friend. Charlotte was the only one who knew anything about her past, and maybe she’d be able to shed a little commonsense perspective. Out of all the people and songs in the world, her tiny performance shouldn’t bother her this much, so why couldn’t she let it go?
The memory of those million views drove her not to call Charlotte, but to the laptop she kept on the coffee table. Sitting up, she pulled it onto her lap and stretched her legs out on the couch cushions. She’d check her email to make sure nothing had come of the exposure. Not her Butter Cake Café email that she used now, but the old personal email she made sure to clean out every six months. There had only been twenty emails the last time—all spam. Even most of the spammers had given up on the address now, which said a lot. Maybe it was time to finally let the email account go. She hadn’t received a fan email in at least seven years.
This time there were only nine spam emails—but there was a tenth one that set her heart thudding. She opened it with a mixture of dread, which she understood, and excitement, which she did not.
Hey G. Where are you, girl? Saw you singing on YouTube. You thinking about making a comeback? I can help. I still got the contacts in the music industry, and you still got it, babe. Always did. Let me know. No hard feelings here. Axel
So the clip had caught the attention of Ontario viewers, if that was still where Axel Zyon lived. She wondered if it had been suggested to him by the video platform or if someone had recognized her—or at least the song—and informed him because of copyright issues. Only he knew that she still owned all of her songs and that she hadn’t continued licensing anyone to use them, despite his urging over the years. It hurt too much.
“Not at my age,” she muttered to him.
His name brought up no additional emotions inside her, which had always been part of the problem. Axel had been her agent and friend, but he hadn’t been the man she loved, and she couldn’t pretend otherwise. So she’d done the only thing she could at the end—she’d hurt him, both emotionally and financially, by leaving. Could he really have forgiven her? She hoped so, but that didn’t mean she’d go running back to Canada. No, Kansas was her home, or at least Forgotten was. Fewer people might know her name now, but they knew the real her.
Should she write back? For several minutes she considered deleting the email as she had the other nine spam emails. That would be normal in his world, but this was Forgotten, and she was now a small-town girl with small-town manners.
Hey, Axel, she typed. I’m definitely not planning a comeback. I’ve got a great business, and life is good. But I want you to know I appreciate all you tried to do for me. I was a mess back then, and I’m sorry. I hope you are doing well. You deserve it.
She thought a moment before signing it with her real name, Maggie, instead of her stage name, GiGi, or the pet name of G that he’d called her. Maybe this soft response would go a short way toward making up for the terse emails she’d sent to him the first few years after she’d left, if she’d answered at all.
She shut the laptop and lay back on her couch, settling into the soft folds, closing her eyes. She still wanted to talk to Charlotte, but that could wait. And maybe if an email from Axel was the only fallout from the video posting, she wouldn’t ask Hannah to take it down. Her friend was so happy with her new husband, and Maggie didn’t want to cast a shadow over that.
She had dozed off, her hand resting on the gold pocket watch she always wore on a chain around her neck, when her phone began to buzz on the coffee table where she’d left it. Reaching clumsily for it, she spied Keisha’s phone number.
“Yeah?” she asked, her voice clogged with sleep. How long had she been out?
“Um, there’s a man asking for you. Can you come down? He’s someone I’ve never seen before.”
“Did he say what it’s about?”
“No. Should I tell him to leave you a note?”
Maggie sighed and swung her feet to the ground, tucking the pocket watch inside her blouse where it nestled in the valley made by her breasts. Out of sight, but always close to her heart. “No. I’ll come. It’s probably the new county health inspector. I’ll have to deal with it, or they’ll pester me. Offer him a piece of butter cake. I’ll be right down.”
“Good idea. Nothing like your gooey butter cake to butter someone up.” Keisha’s voice lowered. “Especially when he’s tall, dark, and gorgeous.”
Maggie laughed. “Maybe he’ll leave you a good tip or ask you out.”
“Not my type.” The comment made Maggie wonder what Keisha’s type was. Until recently she’d energetically dated men from all over the county, but of late, she’d stopped accepting any offers. Was that when her unsettled behavior had begun? Something’s bothering her, Maggie thought. Something more than her aunt’s annoying behavior. Should she ask about it or wait until Keisha came to her? Maggie would have to give it some thought.
She slipped on her sandals and hurried to the door, locking it behind her. It wasn’t until she reached the stairs that she remembered her hair. Well, it shouldn’t matter that it wasn’t tied back. She wasn’t currently working, and the inspector would have to understand that.
As she reached the dining room, nodding at a solitary group of people eating at one of the tables, she saw the man on one of the barstools. He had very short, dark brown hair like a businessman, and his crisp gray shirt, black slacks, and shiny black shoes added to the impression. The set of his wide shoulders, however, was different—squared and straight like a military man.
He turned at that moment, and her breath simply stopped. It was him.
The room began to fade around her, and she reached out to steady herself on the edge of the counter. Only he remained solid, like an anchor in her confusion. She breathed in deeply. Was her mind playing tricks? He couldn’t be here. It had to be a mistake.
He popped up from his chair, as if ready to salute. It was the same face: square jaw, cleanshaven jaw, well-molded lips, and dark blue eyes that had captured her from the first. He was older now, but his dark hair held no traces of gray.
No, she thought with a touch of desperation. It can’t be him. She couldn’t—wouldn’t believe. He was an American, but the chances of Garth Dalton being in Forgotten were astronomical. It was one of the reasons she’d chosen the small town.
To hide? No, to find a way to live, to go on. And she had.
The room stopped spinning. “May I help you?” she asked.
“Maggie, don’t you recognize me?” His wide smile cut through the shield around her heart like a sharp knife through her best gooey butter cake. It was him.
“I’d know you anywhere,” he continued. “You look exactly the same as the day we first met.” His chuckle reached all the way down inside her, stirring . . . something. “Well, different blouse. That day it was yellow, wasn’t it? Your favorite color.”
She didn’t look the same, of course. Eighteen years had a way of taking its toll. But at that moment she felt she was still the young girl who had fallen for the American Air Force pilot stationed briefly in Trenton Canada while preparing for his new assignment in Afghanistan, a joint US venture with Canada. Now he was here, in her town, her café. Her heart had no protection for this.
“Garth Dalton,” she said, her voice surprisingly steady. “But . . . what are you doing here?”
“I saw you singing on the Internet. One of the guys texted me about it. Blew me away, seeing you like that. Brought it all back. I had some time, so I made a few calls, grabbed a flight, and here I am. What, don’t I get a hug?” He took a tentative step toward her, his arms open.
As if a hug would help her floundering heart. Why didn’t the ground just open up and swallow her? It would be easier. Far easier. Did he know the song was inspired from words he’d said to her on that magical day? Did he remember?
She had no choice but to step forward into his embrace, to pretend they were casual friends. She’d try to keep it to a half hug, exactly like the second and last time they’d met, surrounded by soldiers and his family. What on earth was he doing here? Why had he come at all?
Despite her effort, his arms closed around her in a real hug—tight enthusiastic, and breath-stealing. He smelled the same as she remembered, and his touch felt exactly the way it once had. His closeness threatened to break down her remaining barriers. This was what she wanted—his arms around her, their bodies sparking fire. Was she still up on her couch dreaming? That had to be it. Yet he felt so solid, so . . . like Garth.
His lips touched her cheek, igniting a need so deep inside she didn’t know if she’d ever be able to excise it again. She wanted to grab him tighter and tell him all the things she should have eighteen years ago.
But she couldn’t. There had been too much time, and the last she knew, he wasn’t a free man. Clamping down on her emotions, she drew away.
“It’s nice to see you,” she said coolly—or tried to say coolly. It came out a little too bright and happy, as if she’d been waiting for this day for eighteen years.
Maybe she had.