Welcome to the small town of Forgotten, where people are more concerned about who you are now than what you might have left behind. Everything About You (A Town Called Forgotten Book 4) under the name Rachel Branton is finished and is being edited right now. Here is an UNEDITED sneak peek!
Each of the novels in this series are stand-alone books, and you can read them in any order. However, the characters are like an extended family and often appear in many of the books, so by reading all of them, you can catch up with what your favorite characters are doing now.
Pre-order links coming soon, and will be released the first part of December. Thanks, and be sure to leave me a comment!
“Laina Andrea Cox, get down from that ladder this instant!”
Laina cringed inwardly at the indignation in her mother’s voice, but it had been three weeks since the accident, and her sprained ankle was feeling a lot better, even if her broken arm would take a bit longer. At her apartment she’d even begun taking off the heavy walking boot and doing a little home physical therapy. If only she could do the same for her arm because the pink florescent cast was driving her crazy. At least, for the most part, she no longer had to wear a sling.
“It’s not my fault I’m short,” she said, climbing awkwardly down the rungs while balancing the box containing a pair of size ten square-toed cowboy boots on her casted right arm. The boots made her slow and cumbersome. “You’re the one who gave me these genes.”
“I am not short,” her mom retorted. Pamela Cox was nothing if not a stickler for the truth.
“So? You still gave me the genes. I didn’t get them myself. And there are no shorties on Dad’s side of the family. Only your mom.” Laina smirked at her as she handed the box to Easton Ramos.
“You shouldn’t talk back to your mother,” the old rancher chided. He pulled off the lid with a sniff of satisfaction. The aroma of leather wafted from the box, bringing to mind the pair of old work boots she’d ruined in the accident. “Ah, it’s been too long since I had a new pair of boots,” Easton added, giving another deep sniff.
Laina smiled at his pleasure. Boots weren’t the only non-tool item they sold at Hammer and Nails, but they were one of the most popular. They were right up there with nails, screwdrivers, and batteries. “You deserve new boots with how hard you work.”
“I reckon you’re right, but I’m still going to miss this old pair.” He glanced down at his feet, where his old boots were so creased, they had broken in spots. Laina knew he’d resoled them twice already, and in her estimation, he should have bought new ones six months ago.
“Luckily this brand is easy to break in.” Laina pulled the boots from the box and gave them to him, taking the box in exchange. “Why don’t you wear them home? You can put them on while I ring you up. Will it be cash or charge?” She didn’t wait for an answer because all the old-timers in Forgotten used cash. She’d try to get the old boots from him to throw away as well. If she didn’t, he’d be tempted to stretch them out a bit longer, likely causing himself discomfort and even pain. She knew this because her parents were that way, and they were a good decade younger than Easton.
“Laina,” Pamela admonished her, tucking one side of her short blond hair behind her ear. “Easton can very well decide for himself when to break in his new boots.”
“Right, but I wanted to see him in them.” Laina smiled at both Easton and her mother as she slipped behind the register. “There is nothing like a man in a new pair of leather boots.”
This had the desire effect, and Easton dropped his thin frame to the bench they kept by the boot display and began removing his old boots. Never underestimate the power of a woman’s admiration, even for a man close to seventy who’d never married.
“That’s okay, Pam,” Easton said. “I wanted to make sure they fit anyway. You know how these manufacturers are these days. They up and change the size just to make people feel better about eating too much.”
Laina stifled a laugh as Pamela responded, “True, but these are the same, I assure you.”
Easton finished putting on the boots and stood for their admiration. When he pulled out his wallet, Laina reached across the counter for the old boots. “Here, let me place these in the bin for you. I know you won’t need them for mucking out in the winter, since you have your waders for that.”
He hesitated, then nodded. “Thank you, Laina.” As he turned to go,” he added, “Go easy on yer mom. She’s just watching out for you. And stop driving so fast, or next time you might get yourself killed.”
“My gas line stuck,” she said for what seemed like the millionth time. She did have a tendency to drive fast, as her record of tickets and high auto insurance testified, but she’d never had an accident until Beatrice, her yellow Beetle, decided to murder her. Thankfully, Bea was in the wrecking yard now, and Laina had put the insurance money toward a newer Volkswagen Bug that she painted a dark metallic pink and called Pinky.
When they were alone, her mother turned to face her, the counter between them. “That’s it. You go home,” she ordered. “I told you yesterday to stay home until your boot and cast comes off, so why are you even here?”
“Wyatt had to go out on a plumbing call. You know he needs the money with the baby on the way. With Dad in Lincoln at the hardware show and you watching Trish’s kids, I was the only one he could call.”
“I guess. But you are entirely too reckless about your injuries.”
“It was just a pair of boots,” Laina muttered only partially under her breath.
“Oh! And who dragged out the ladder? That thing is heavy. I don’t know how you managed with one arm.” Her mother rounded the counter and grabbed Easton Ramos’s old boots, plopping them unceremoniously into the trash container.
“It wasn’t a big deal.” Laina had rocked the ladder partway across the floor, and Easton had helped her with the rest, but those details would only make her mom more concerned.
“What if you had fallen off the ladder?”
“I didn’t,” Laina said. “And I can’t afford to stay home any longer. I need a paycheck.”
Her mother reached out to her, suddenly all sympathy. “Aw sweetie, your dad said you would still get paid.”
“You really can’t afford that.” Hammer and Nails was a family-run hardware business owned by her father, and her absence meant her parents and younger brother had to work longer hours and customers had to wait more often. Anyone they might hire in the interim would barely learn the ropes enough to be useful before she would be back.
“We can too. Besides, that’s why I’ve been coming in more to help out, and that costs me nothing compared to getting you back on your feet.”
“You shouldn’t have to come in more. I am perfectly capable.“ Not to mention bored out of my skull sitting home, she thought silently. She loved working at the store and helping our customers, most of whom she’d known all her life.
“No work until that cast is off, “ Pamela said firmly. “I am worried enough that you only came home for a week to recuperate.”
“Yeah, but I live in the apartment above Grandma’s garage. That’s practically as good.”
“I can’t check on you myself there, and you know Judith no longer climbs stairs.”
Laina did know which was the main reason she had built and moved into the apartment in the first place. Well, that and the low cost for privacy.
Her mother placed both hands in her shoulders, looking down into her eyes. “Please, go home and get off your feet. I worry about you. I keep thinking . . . you almost died.”
Tears formed in her eyes, and Laina nodded, knowing when she was beat. Her parents had lost one child in Afghanistan eleven years ago, her older brother who had left home after high school when she was barely fourteen, and she’d seen how destroyed her mother became when he hadn’t come home.
“Okay, Mom,” she said, giving her a real smile instead of a smirk. “And thanks. I know it may not seem like it sometimes, but I appreciate all you’ve done for me.”
The worry creases on Pamela’s brow eased. “Okay, then.”
Laina started walking toward the back room. She’d bought new boots with a heel high enough to match the walking boot so her step wasn’t uneven, but she still clunked awkwardly over the floor. Turned out that not being able to bend her ankle affected her gait more than she’d known. The dress boots weren’t as comfortable as her work boots, but breaking in a new pair would have to wait.
A customer came into the shop at the same time the phone began ringing, but her mother’s glare sent Laina onward. Right now carpool pick up time at the school was in progress, and it was their slowest time, but it would get busy again soon. Hopefully her younger brother would return from his service call to help her mother with the customers.
She peeled off the navy Hammer and Nails polo and began awkwardly pulling a gray sweatshirt over her white tank top—not an easy task with her rather bulky fiberglass cast.
“Here, let me.” Her mother helped Laina pulled the sweatshirt over the cast, having either helped or abandoned the customer to follow her to the back room.
“Um, look, honey. I wasn’t going to bring this up until later, but Dad and I have been working on someone to pitch in while you’re out of commission.”
“Really? Who?” There was zero likelihood of finding anyone in this tiny town of Forgotten, Kansas, population three thousand, seven hundred eighty-six, who wouldn’t give her mother more headache than Laina currently gave her, ladder stunts and all.
“Remember Joseph Lawson, the guy who trained Dad and sponsored our store when we first got started?”
“You mean the guy dad’s always talking to on the phone? The one with hardware stores in Lincoln?”
“Right. He has two stores there and one in another town. Anyway, his son has been managing a store but needs some hands-on plumbing experience in order to move up their corporate ladder. Joseph asked your dad if his son can work with him and Wyatt for a few weeks—and in the store of course. That was Dad on the phone just now, calling to say he’s confirmed everything. In fact, Seth will be arriving today. You remember Seth from when you were in high school, right? We used to spend quite a bit of time with his family back in the day. In fact, he’s the boy who stayed with us a couple months when his parents were in Europe.”
Seth?” Memories did come rushing back at the name, but they weren’t good ones. “Oh yeah, I remember him hitting on Trish constantly.” Laina picked up her bag and edged toward the door. Seth had also kissed her at midnight at the Spring Planting Dance before cutting out on her. “If he’s already a manager, shouldn’t he have learned enough about plumbing to help his customers?”
Her mother frowned. “Ah, maybe try to give him a break. We owe a lot to Joseph, and besides, I remember you used to get along well with him, whatever you’re thinking now. And he’s more than experienced at least with working in a store, so it works out perfectly for us.”
A little too perfectly to Laina’s way of thinking. It had her mother written all over it. “I see. And Dad just happened to be in Lincoln this week for the show.”
“You need to keep an open mind. Seth’s single, you know. He’s going to have his own store soon, so he’s got good prospects.”
Laina’s heart fell, hitting the bottom of something inside her. Now she understood. This wasn’t just about keeping her safe while she healed, her mother was taking advantage of the situation to do a little matchmaking. Laina was twenty-five with no boyfriend and no solid prospects in sight, and that drove her mother crazy.
Ordinarily, Laina would appreciate the setup, but this was Seth Lawson they were talking about. Plus, she was growing a little tired of being the only living sibling not married and starting a family. There was nothing wrong with her. She dated a lot, had a few boyfriends over the years, and had made good friendships, but she just hadn’t found the right one. Every man she’d considered seriously had left town, at least one inviting her to go with him. She’d refused because her dream meant staying in Forgotten with her family and running the store.
“I’m sure Seth is great,” she lied. Looking back now, she believed Seth had been lazy and incapable, and really not all that cute from the pictures they had of him. Her confidence as a teen must have been at an all-time low if she’d thought he might actually be the one. No way.
To make matters worse, there wasn’t a single thing she could do about him coming to town except to stay out of sight as much as possible.
“I’d better rest,” she said over her shoulder as she clumped to the door.
Instantly, her mother was all concern. “Are you sure you’re okay to drive?”
“Yes.” She wasn’t supposed to with the walking boot, but she did it anyway. At least her good foot could ride the break whenever she needed. “I’ll see you later.”
Way later. Like Sunday dinner, which, since today was only Wednesday, would give her four full days to avoid Seth.
Despite her annoyance, a sense of contentment welled up in the parking lot at the sight of her low-miles 2016 Beetle waiting for her in the parking lot like a welcoming friend. Pinky was a manual transmission, of course, not an automatic, because all good cars were. She’d even paid extra to paint the originally black car the fluorescent dark pink of the 2017 Beetle because they hadn’t made that one in a manual transmission. In her opinion, the black interior went perfectly with the pink.
Her mother stayed in the doorway watching until she left the parking lot, and Laina tried not to jerk the car as she awkwardly shifted. She was a little uneven on the gas thanks to her boot—and only very briefly repented of her manual transmission choice—but she made it safely out onto Main Street. She didn’t go home, however, but further down the road to the Butter Cake Café where she could grab a snack before the afternoon crowds hit—and maybe find a little sympathy from Keisha Jefferson who worked there. Keisha had been first on the scene after the accident and with her now-fiance, Xander, had freed Laina from her old yellow Bug. Laina would forever be grateful, and in the past weeks, the women had restarted their high school friendship.
Laina had a bit of trouble changing gears with her casted arm as she entered the parking lot, but finally she clumped into the back door of the Butter Cake. Keisha was arranging pans of gooey butter cake, for which the café was famous, in a cupboard behind the counter, and another customer was eating a meal on the barstool closest to the register. Laina felt a slight rush of embarrassment when she saw that it was Jeremy Wilson, the man she’d kissed so passionately at the Harvest Festival kissing booth—mostly because Xander had made a show of buying all of Keisha’s kissing slots, disappointing Jeremy, who’d come to her line. It had been one fine kiss, though.
Both Keisha and Jeremy looked up and smiled at her. “Hey, girl,” Keisha said. Her dark brown hair was straight on the ends while the top six inches was growing in curly since she’d stopped using chemical straighteners. Unlike Laina’s skin, which had grown pale during the past weeks of inactivity, Keisha’s skin was a beautiful, flawless brown, thanks to her half-African American genes.
“Hey,” Laina answered with a sigh.
“What can I get you?” Keisha asked.
Laina groaned and plopped her elbows on the counter and rested her chin on her hands. “A mother who doesn’t try to matchmake.”
“You too?” Jeremy chuckled. “Do you believe that mine actually had tea at my house today with a bunch of women? At my own house? In the middle of the day? I came in, and there they all were waiting for me.”
Laina let her gaze land on him, realizing she’d been avoiding his eyes. His mostly-straight blond hair looked better than it had a right to, seeing as he was a farmer and had obviously been wearing the gray knit hat lying on the counter—a good choice given the nip of mid-October cold that had settled over northern Kansas in recent weeks. Was he a little flushed? Did he ever think about their kiss? He’d seemed a bit dazed afterward, much like she’d felt, but they hadn’t really talked since, except for a couple of conversations here at the café or in the hardware store when they were surrounded by other people. No big change there.
“How did you get away?” she asked.
Jeremy rotated on his stool to face her, the breadth of his chest impressive. No wonder he’d won the hay tossing contest at every town festival for the past five years. “Well, I was full of grease after working on my combine all morning, so I said I needed to shower, and after, I just went out the back door and kept on going.”
Laina’s lower jaw dropped “Wow.”
“Your poor mom,” Keisha said, hand on her hip.
“Yeah, not even I would do something like that,” Laina agreed.
“I know, I know.” Jeremy turned back to the counter looking contrite. “But ever since my dad almost died in our alfalfa field, she won’t stop with the hints. It’s like she wants me settled in case he doesn’t make it the next time. At first I played along, but I’ve begun to think that our tastes in women are completely at odds.”
Keisha chuckled. “Your mama’s taste is a woman who can bear grandchildren. It’s not rocket science.”
“Plus, Ronica knows everyone in town,” Laina added. Ronica also knew what everyone was doing at any given time, though Laina wouldn’t say that aloud. They already knew, or at least Keisha did.
Jeremy rolled his eyes. “I can find my own dates.” He had a good smile, kind blue eyes, and was good-looking enough to turn heads, though knowing him as long as she had, it was odd to see him that way now. Years ago as kids, Jeremy had been a close friend of her older brother, Rodney Jr., or Rodney Jay as they called him, and she might have had the tiniest bit of a crush on him, but four years apart was like a lifetime back then.
“Well, I’m kind of in the same boat because I certainly don’t want to go out with a guy who basically dumped me as a teen,” Laina said. “But my sister is only two years older and has three kids already, so I have a lot to live up to. And did you hear that Wyatt and Cheyenne are going to have a baby?”
“Ronica told me.” Keisha gave Laina a knowing look, which made her laugh. Jeremy only sighed.
“You’d think that with four grandkids in the family, I’d be off the hook for a bit,” Laina added.
“Nope.” Jeremy dipped a french fry in sauce. “My three siblings in Panna Creek all have kids, but they aren’t close enough for my mother. It’s like now that the city parties are over for a while, she needs something more to do besides take care of her cow.”
“Well, Thanksgiving is coming up soon,” Laina offered in consolation.
He grinned, and she remembered their kiss again. Not half bad.
“So what am I getting you?” Keisha asked Laina, leaning over to rest on the counter.
“A roast beef sandwich with a side salad and a piece of butter cake.”
“I’ll take a piece of cake too,” Jeremy put in. “It’s a nice change from my mom’s Kansas dirt cake.”
Laina laughed. “I’d actually kill for a piece of that right now. Your mom makes the best in town.”
“That she does.”
Keisha was back in record time with her food. “So tell me,” she said as Laina picked up her sandwich, “who’s the lucky guy?”
Laina looked at her blankly until Jeremy said, “The one your mom just set you up with.”
Laina set down her sandwich to explain. “Tried to set me up with. He’s the son of a hardware guy who trained my dad. They’re close, and my dad volunteered to teach his son about plumbing issues, which miraculously—” she made air quotes “—coincided with my recovery. So he’ll be working at the store instead of me until I get this boot and cast off. But he was horrible to me when I was fifteen, and I don’t expect much has changed.”
“I’m sorry.” Keisha leaned on the counter once more. “I know how much you love the store.”
“I do, and my dad’s pretty okay about me being there, but he does whatever my mom says, you know?”
“Smart man,” Jeremy said. “Happy wife, happy life, my dad always said.”
Laina rolled her eyes. “Yeah, but my mom has no clue about what went on between me and this guy. For instance, he could barely wield a hammer but was so full of himself about everything. He was always talking down about the hardware store as if his father’s work wasn’t the thing that gave him money for anything he wanted.” Laina picked up her sandwich again. “But if he’s at the store, that means I don’t have to be. So I can steer clear until Sunday dinner.”
“Ah, the sacred Sunday dinner,” Jeremy said. “A Forgotten tradition as important as any town festival my mother organizes.”
“Exactly.” Laina jutted her bottom lip. “I really love those dinners.”
Jeremy looked at her sheepishly. “I do too, especially when all my siblings come.”
“So now he’s spoiling family dinners and your time at the store.” Keisha tapped her fingers on the counter. “There has to be something you can do.”
Laina considered a moment. “Well, to get my hardware fix in, I think I’ll go home and put together a new rabbit hutch I cut out for my grandmother. Unlike a certain guy from my past, I know how to use a hammer. Or a drill, rather, since I’m using screws.”
“Might be hard with only one good arm.” Jeremy loaded his fork with gooey butter cake, making Laina’s mouth water.
She sighed. “True. Maybe I’ll go see that new movie in town instead.” New meant that it had finally arrived in Forgotten, which often happened much later than everywhere else for some reason.
Jeremy’s fork stopped in midair. “You mean the one with the horrific shark creature?”
She lifted her chin. “Too scary for you?”
“Yes, but I’ll go see it anyway. I loved the first one.”
“Well, I’ll go if I get brave enough to face that packed parking lot. It’s a hassle with my boot. I need a lot of leeway to make sure I don’t hurt Pinky.”
“Pinky?” he asked.
“Her new car.” Keisha gave an amused snort. “She names her cars.”
“Who doesn’t?” Jeremy said with a grin. “Tell you what, if you go to the movie tomorrow instead, I could give you a ride. It’s practically on my way, and I’d love to go.”
“Okay, sure,” Laina agreed. “Keisha, you and Zander should come too.” She picked up her sandwich again and took a huge bite before anyone could distract her. She gave a sigh. “Perfect.”
“No thank you to killer shark movies,” Keisha straightened as a dark-haired stranger Laina didn’t recognize entered the front door. He was extremely good looking and riveled Jeremy in the wide chest department. Most likely he was one of the construction workers working on the new factory.
Laina turned back to her sandwich, not bothering to make eye contact. What was the point? He’d be gone with all the other workers next year, not staying in Forgotten to raise half a dozen fat babies with a frizzy-haired hardware store employee.
“Hey, I’ve got an idea,” Jeremy said, scattering her thoughts with the comment.
“Oh?” she asked through another bite.
Behind him, the construction worker ordered something at the register. He had a chiseled outline, as if he’d just stepped from a fashion magazine. Maybe she’d invite him to Sunday dinner to make sure Seth knew that she wasn’t still stuck on him.
Jeremy leaned closer, calling her attention back to him. He smiled, as if he knew she’d been ogling the man behind him. Well, what if she had? It wasn’t as if she was married, as her mother kept pointing out.
“Maybe we could help each other,” Jeremy said.
“Oh?” She could smell something nice—maybe his aftershave?—and his lips were suddenly close enough to make her heart skip a beat as she remembered their kiss.
“Maybe . . . what do you think about pretending that we’re dating? It would stop both our mothers from meddling.”
The idea was so perfect that Laina was stunned. “It could work.” She’d heard a rumor or two about them floating around after the festival, though it had died down quickly enough when no additional fuel had been added to the gossip fire. “We’d have to show up at a few places together.”
“Right, and we could still date others, if we felt like it,” Jeremy added.
His words seemed off, though she couldn’t pinpoint why because they made total sense. Of course they would want to leave themselves open for real love.
“Well?” His brow lifted, and his smile grew—inviting and a bit mischievous.
Laina laughed. “I think it’s perfect.” Then she shook her head and sighed. “But we’d never make it work. I can’t remember the last time I’ve been able to fool my mother about anything.”
His eyes went past her. “Speaking of mothers, mine just got here.”
“Better yours than mine.” Laina smirked before glancing back to see Ronica Wilson rounding the L-shaped dining room of the Butter Cake, apparently having come in the rear customer entrance. Her short brown hair was a bit messy, and her blue eyes blazed with anger.
“Jeremy Joshua Wilson,” Ronica said, sounding a lot like Laina’s mother. “What are you doing here when I had tea ready at the house?”
“I have a seed meeting to get to,” he said, standing. “This was on the way. Besides, there were too many people at my house.” Laina noticed the stress on “my,” but Ronica didn’t seem to hear.
“It wasn’t polite,” Ronica said. “I was ashamed to make apologies to all your guests.”
“My guests?” Jeremy’s voice was slightly aggrieved but a lot less so than Laina’s would be in the same situation.
Ronica’s face flushed, and she looked ready to say more. To Laina’s surprise, she found herself standing and saying, “It was my fault, Ronica. Jeremy and I needed to make plans for the movies tomorrow night. We both have a hate-love relationship with sharks.” That much was true, but the next statement fell out of her mouth before Laina could think it through. “I hope you don’t mind that we’re going out.”
Ronica’s mouth clicked shut abruptly as she stared at Laina. “You two are dating?”
Going to the movies wasn’t exactly dating, but agreeing to the terminology would likely get Jeremy off the hook. Laina nodded before the apparent shock in Ronica’s eyes brought a terrible thought. What if Ronica hated the idea? Hated her? Ronica was friends with her mother through the Ladies Auxiliary, of which they were all three members, and she’d never said anything against Laina, but she knew some people gossiped about her frizzy hair and too much makeup.
Then Ronica suddenly pulled her into a bearhug. “Why, that’s wonderful news! Absolutely wonderful!”
Were those actual tears in her eyes? Laina snuck a look at Jeremy, who looked like a deer caught in the headlights. Yet even as he registered her stare, his shock melted into a smile. “Right, uh, we’re going out. I was going to tell you.”
“Well, that’s fabulous news.” Ronica gave Laina a final squeeze before releasing her. You’ll have to come to dinner on Sunday to celebrate. I’ll make my best roast and Kansas dirt cake. Will you come?”
“Sure,” Laina agreed quickly. Dinner was perfect, in fact. That way she wouldn’t have to endure an evening of forced companionship with a man she hated.
Grinning at her own thoughts, Laina glanced over to see the construction worker by the register staring at her.
“Hey, it is you,” he said, moving in her direction. “You’re Rodney Cox’s daughter, aren’t you? I thought so when I walked in, but I wasn’t quite sure until you smiled just now. You always had that gorgeous smile.”
Laina stared at him, and he laughed at her obvious confusion. But with the laugh, memories came to her in a rush. “Seth Lawson?” she asked, not hiding her shock.
Seth, the once gangly son of her father’s friend, the snobby, pimple-faced kid who hadn’t been able to wield a hammer, the jerk who’d mooned over Trish, the scumbag who’d ditched her after her first kiss, and the spoiled daddy’s boy who was now coming to take her place at the hardware store.
“The one and only.” Seth opened his hands wide in front of him, not quite an invitation to a hug.
“Wow, you’ve changed.” The words escaped before she could stop them.
Seth smiled. “You took the words right from my mouth.”
She was about to say more when she realized both Jeremy and Ronica were staring at her expectantly. But try as she might, her words of introduction stayed in her throat.
Jeremy stepped forward. “Hi, Seth,” he said. “Nice to meet you. I’m Jeremy Wilson, her boyfriend.”
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