Welcome to the sneak peek of Kiss at Midnight, my upcoming Rachel Branton novel. This is the first book of a romance series in a small town called Forgotten, a fictional Midwest town set near the border of Kansas and Nebraska. This town has a history, businesses, and everyone you meet in the book has a story. The first book begins with a bit of mystery and follows Hailey Waters and Dylan Morgan. A new couple will be the focus of each book, but you’ll still catch up on other characters when you read them. No cliffhangers! So without further ado, here is your sneak peek!
The bus shook as it clattered over a rusty bridge that spanned a dry stream. A green and white sign rose up, clearly visible through the left window: Forgotten 30 miles. There were other cities on the sign as well, but she ignored them. She’d loved the name Forgotten from the moment she’d heard it, and seeing the destination on her ticket this morning at the bus station had made her feel safe. The small town was in Kansas, some few miles over the Nebraska border, far away from her old life. Forgotten sounded like a place to start over, a place where she could leave behind the person she had been and become the woman she knew inside, the one who spoke her mind, wasn’t afraid, and would never stay in an unhealthy situation because of that negligible thing called fear. She’d cried for nearly the entire ride so far. Mostly because she knew that if she had found her courage earlier, her entire future would be different than it could ever be now. But there was no going back, only forward. That was what she was doing. She’d go to Forgotten and remake her life. Maybe then she could forgive herself. Pain washed over her at the thought, fresh and raw, biting deep like a wound that would never, ever heal. And it wouldn’t, of course. She knew that. But she had to survive . . . somehow. Happiness was optional. When her old life caught up to her—and of course it eventually would—she would be in control. Or could she hide forever? It might be possible in a town called Forgotten. She gently rubbed at her right wrist, which ached badly, the skin tender and bruised. One more scar that would hopefully fade into the past, along with the bigger one cracking her heart. Her despair was enough—almost—to wish the fogginess she’d briefly found comfort in hadn’t lifted. But the awareness had gotten her this far, and she was grateful. Soon she’d be able to rest. Maybe in Forgotten she could forget, if only for a while. Her head pounded, which was partly because of the accident, and her aching body screamed for relief. So dizzy, she thought, gripping the armrests. She leaned back in the comfortable, high-backed seat and shut her eyes . . . and let it all go—the past, the betrayals, and most of all the heartache. “Miss?” came the voice of the bus driver sometime later. “This is your stop.” She blinked her eyes open. “My stop?” She felt confused as she looked around. What was she doing on a bus? “Forgotten,” he clarified. “I’m sure that’s what your ticket said. The stop is on the outskirts of the city, and it’s not much of a station, but there’s a bathroom and a place to sit. You can wait out of the sun until your ride comes to take you into town.” She had no idea what he was talking about, but she did remember she had been heading to Forgotten. From where she’d come, she didn’t know. She rose, clutching the backpack on the seat beside her that seemed to be her only luggage. She was sitting near the front of the bus, so she walked toward that exit. She could see herself in the huge mirror over the driver’s head that allowed him to observe the passengers at will, though there were only a handful of people still on the bus. Her long blond hair, pulled up in a messy ponytail, looked odd somehow, not from the escaping hairs but by the fact that she didn’t recognize the hair style . . . or really her entire person, yet she knew it was her. She had blue eyes with deep shadows under them, a slender figure except for her middle where her yellow summer dress seemed to hide a few extra pounds. That long, flowy, shapeless dress didn’t stir a single memory, but she liked it. The grizzled bus driver cleared his throat. “Someone’s coming to pick you up, ain’t they?” Did she looked so helpless that he had to ask? She didn’t feel helpless. She was strong and ready to face the world. She tossed her head, as if her hair were loose and flowing around her. “How far is the town?” “Sixteen or so miles straight ahead. Shorter if you cut across the fields.” He eyed her sandals doubtfully, as if implying they were unpractical for cross country, though they barely had two-inch heels. “I’ll be fine, thank you.” He shrugged. “Don’t have much call for people going to Forgotten. That’s why we don’t drive all the way into town.” She nodded as if she knew what he was talking about and exited the bus. The late-morning sun shone brightly down on her, but it was May and not that hot. The air smelled fresh and new. She glanced back to find the bus driver staring at her uncertainly, as if afraid to leave her here alone. She waved at him and turned her back to the bus. The door squeaked shut and the engine sounded loud as it pulled away. The bus turned right on the adjoining road and soon disappeared from sight. She studied the ribbon of road stretching out before her as far as she could see. It appeared a lot longer than sixteen miles. Better to face that after a bathroom break. The man hadn’t been joking about the station being small. It was little more than a wood hut with a big gap where a window might have once been. A short bench took up the back wall, and there was a heater, which seemed to be broken. The bathroom connected to the other side of the structure but had only one stall and no soap in the sink. At least the water worked. Searching her backpack, she found an empty plastic bottle wedged next to a box of feminine hygiene pads. Too bad there wasn’t an extra pair of shoes. After filling the water bottle at the bathroom sink, she started down the road.
* * *
A sweet smell pierced her unconscious dream. She wanted to lie in the sweetness forever, her body cradled in warmth. But the clump-clump of footsteps dragged her closer to consciousness. With that awareness came the sensation of itching—her arms and legs, mostly—and an odd dryness caught at her throat. She moved slightly, and something sharp poked her back. “What are you doing here?” demanded a voice she didn’t recognize. Definitely a man. She felt more than saw him bend over, sweeping off her covering. An unreasoning fear rose in her chest, threatening to choke her. She opened her eyes—and saw the man’s face above her, peering down curiously. The fear receded, as if belonging to another life. Above the man, bare rafters crisscrossed the ceiling. She appeared to be lying in a pile of hay. Hay? “It’s okay.” His voice was softer now, less demanding. He brushed more of the hay away and extended a hand to help her up. Ignoring the hand, she pushed herself to a seated position, away from the offensive object poking her in the back—a pitchfork apparently. More hay streamed from her body. With a calculated move, she reached for the pitchfork under the hay. Aiming it at the man, she jabbed it once in his direction. “Back off,” she warned, pleased to see him back up a couple steps. “What? Are you kidding?” he demanded, his face more puzzled than angry. “I’m not here to hurt you. I was offering you a hand.” He had a nice face, with a clean-shaven, square jaw that spoke of strength, and brown eyes that didn’t make her feel like running. He was lean and handsome, though, and this she didn’t quite trust. “But I do need to know what you’re doing here,” he added. “Here” was in a barn or a loft of sorts. Bright sunlight streamed through slats at the far end of the loft that covered a large window but still let in enough light to illuminate the area. Behind her rose a tall pile of hay—a veritable mountain of it. All in neatly stacked bales, except the mound that made up her bed. A vague memory of tugging hay from the bales danced in the back of her mind. With the memory came an ache from her finger. She brought the hurt finger to her lips, sucking gently. Her lip was cracked, and the motion hurt more than soothed her finger, so she drew it away. The man’s gaze didn’t leave her face. “You’re not from around here, are you? Did your car break down or something? Are you hurt?” He spoke as if talking to a frightened animal. She didn’t know whether to applaud his efforts or feel offended. When she didn’t answer, he asked, “Where are your shoes?” She looked down to see that she wore only a yellow summer dress. Her bare feet were swollen and itchy like her arms where the hay had rubbed against her skin. “They got wet,” she said, her throat hurting from dryness as she spoke. They’d also been muddy and completely useless, but he didn’t have to know about that. Trying to get to town, especially after she’d cut across a field and attempted to wade through a river, hadn’t worked out as well as she’d thought. She kept her hands firmly on the pitchfork and tried to stand. Now that the sweet-smelling hay was off her body, she was cold. “Can you please put that thing down?” he asked in the same steady voice. “I’m not going to hurt you. And if I were, I’d use this.” He opened his denim jacket to show a handgun in a shoulder holster. In her mind she envisioned pinning him against the wall with the pitchfork and taking his gun, but her limbs wouldn’t obey her. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d eaten. With an internal sigh, she carefully laid the pitchfork to the side, still within reach. The man took two steps toward her and squatted down, studying her. He wore khaki pants, work boots, and a snug green T-shirt under his jacket, which he filled out nicely. That made sense if this was his barn, though he didn’t seem like a cowboy. His brown hair was short in the back and sides but longer in front, looping over a bit messily to one side. If they’d met under different circumstances, she might have tried flirting with him. “I’m Dylan Morgan,” he said. “What’s your name?” She’d opened her mouth to respond when she realized she didn’t know. But how could anyone not know their name? She remembered nothing except stepping off the bus, walking for miles, and a swift-moving river. He smiled now, rocking back on his heels. “You do have a name, don’t you?” “Hay,” she said, her voice coming louder, sounding hoarse. She’d meant to ask him why she was in the hay, but that was stupid. She already knew he didn’t know. “Hay?” Dylan asked doubtfully. “Hailey,” she improvised. It felt right. “Hi, Hailey. Can you tell me what you’re doing here?” His eyes never left her face. They felt warm, and she was so very cold. “I don’t remember.” She couldn’t hold back the shiver now. He shrugged off his jacket, moving forward to drape it around her shoulders. So warm, she thought. Like his eyes. She wanted to trust him, but that was probably a terrible idea, and she’d go with her feelings over a handsome face any day. “What’s your last name?” She shook her head and didn’t respond. His brow furrowed as his eyes searched the hay around her, his eyes landing on her backpack. “You might have hit your head,” he said, more to himself than to her. “Or maybe you were wandering in the sun too long. Forgotten’s weather has been hotter this May than most other parts of the Midwest.” For a moment, she felt adrift, as if even the words eluded her comprehension. She shook her head to throw off the sensation. “I’m fine.” She pulled her backpack over one shoulder. It felt heavier than she remembered. Dylan offered her his hand again, and this time she accepted it. He tugged her up gently, and a rush of something dribbled down the back of her left calf. He let her go as soon as she was on her feet, and her legs nearly collapsed. “Woah,” he said, grabbing her elbow. “Easy now. Are you dizzy? We’d better get you into town. You probably need something to eat and drink.” She wanted water more than anything, but she simply nodded. “Thank you. I’d appreciate it.” He led her to an opening tucked in between the hay mountain and the wall. She was relieved to see it was a real staircase leading down from the loft and not a ladder. She wouldn’t be able to manage one of those now with the dizziness. She swallowed hard, and it felt like she’d gulped a mouthful of glass. “Go on down, if you want,” he said. “Or you can wait, if you need help. I have to throw down some hay while I’m here. I won’t have time to come back until evening, and the horses can’t wait that long.” She watched him open a trap door on the floor, grab the pitchfork, and start throwing the hay she’d slept in down through the opening. Taking an awkward step, she clung to the single banister near the wall. Something more dribbled down her leg. She was dizzy, her cheeks felt hot, and her stomach ached. The backpack seemed to weigh a hundred pounds. No way was she going to make it down those stairs herself. She was sure she hadn’t felt this way yesterday. What was wrong with her? Dylan repeated the hay throwing twice more through other trapdoors. He didn’t take long, but by the time he finished, her legs were threatening collapse. She wanted nothing more than to curl back up in the hay and return to her dream. Somehow, he made it to her side before she toppled over. “I’ve got you,” he murmured as his strong arms went around her. She had no choice but to lean on him as he half dragged, half carried her down the stairs. Stalls made up the bulk of the lower portion of the barn, only three of which were currently occupied, and these held beautiful horses, whose coats shone as if they’d recently been combed. One whinnied as she and Dylan moved over the concrete floor, but Dylan only called, “You’re welcome, Lady,” and didn’t pause. They did stop at the door of the barn, where, besides a short farmhouse situated across a large back yard, a whole lot of nothing met her gaze. She saw only acres of land, growing green stalks about a foot above the ground, and the ribbon of road winding through them. No wonder she’d stopped here. In fact, if Dylan hadn’t come along, she might not have found her way into town today. The sun wasn’t directly overhead, but she could feel its warmth on her face. She didn’t know if it was morning or afternoon but guessed it was morning if he was feeding the animals. “It’s only a little further.” He motioned to a dark gray vehicle that seemed vaguely familiar. Not a truck but an SUV. Instant terror rolled through her at the sight of the vehicle, but with the nearly the same speed the emotion was gone. She didn’t know this vehicle. It wasn’t after her. After her? The thought didn’t make sense. Even so, she was relieved that no one was inside. “You’re hurt,” Dylan said, his stare directed toward the ground near her foot where a few drops of blood had pooled. She followed his gaze as he looked back into the barn where more blood spotted the concrete. That’s when she remembered the stick from the river. “Oh, yeah. It’s a cut.” She lifted her dress a little to examine the cut on the back of her left calf. It looked worse than she remembered, covered in both dried and fresh blood. Blood caked on the back of her dress as well. “If you have a little tissue, that might help.” He bent over to take a brief look. “That’s a nasty cut. Needs more than tissue. There’s a first aid kit up at the house.” His gaze flicked in the direction of the farmhouse. “Can you walk that far on it?” She wanted to say no way, but if she did, he’d probably carry her—or take her in the SUV, where she’d leave even more blood. She let her dress fall back into place. “Sure.” The word came out as strongly as she’d intended, and it irritated her that his left brow crooked doubtfully. That brow was missing a slash of hair at an angle near the end, she noticed, as if a scar prevented growth, though this far away she couldn’t be sure that was the reason. They started for the house, with her wobbling more than she could prevent until he steadied her again with his arm. The hard-packed dirt path wasn’t too hard on her feet, for which she was grateful. “I can take your backpack,” he offered. She shook her head, unwilling to let it go from her hands. As far as she knew, it was all she owned. “Let me know if you change your mind.” She peeked at his profile. He didn’t look angry, only intent on the house. Better yet, he hadn’t repeated his question about where she was from, for which she was grateful. She didn’t have an answer, not yet. But she would, because until she remembered exactly why she was here, she didn’t want to appear like someone who should be in a mental hospital. They hadn’t gone far when a dog came running to meet them, not from the house but from the fields, where it had likely been chasing a rabbit or a field mouse, or whatever they had in this town. What had the man called the town? She couldn’t remember, though she was quite sure she’d known yesterday. She couldn’t remember the man’s name either. The dog was a large gold one with furry ears, a Golden Retriever, she guessed, and though its face was sleek, its belly was hugely distended, as if it had eaten far too many fat-laden dinners. It gave a low woof and sniffed at her with great interest. “No.” The man leaned over to shoo the dog away. “Leave her alone. And if you’re looking for petting, you should have thought of that when I tried to feed you instead of running off after some jackrabbit.” Dylan, she remembered. The man’s name was Dylan. It was a nice, strong name. But why couldn’t she remember hers? Maybe she really had hit her head yesterday. Or maybe her name really was Hailey. Yes, she decided. It was as good a name as any until she searched her backpack for ID. The dog barked again and angled around to the man’s side. Or waddled because of its ungainly weight. Hailey found herself smiling. The house was old but well-kept, from the short and very green grass in the back yard to the fresh paint on the clapboards. Not a weed dared to grow in the modest flowerbed next to the cement patio, where a wooden picnic table beckoned to them. She wanted nothing more than to lie down on one of the benches and fall asleep in the sun. A disoriented flash came to her of lying down in a field. Yesterday, she thought. Must have been before the barn. Nothing more came to mind, though. Dylan let go of her to open the door with a key. No one else must be home, so maybe he’d been heading out to his fields or something. The dog, growing impatient, pushed past Dylan as the door opened and was waiting for them when they entered into a short hallway instead of the kitchen she’d been expecting. “Go get your food,” Dylan told the dog, who remained standing near him, wagging its tail and staring up with eager eyes. Dylan sighed and moved onward. Hailey walked carefully over the vinyl flooring that was cool on her feet. The hallway was lined with photos, and she scanned them as they passed. One of the larger photos, a vintage black and white, featured an old man with white hair and old-fashioned clothes standing by a street sign that read Forgotten, population 1400. Forgotten. She remembered the name of the town now. The knowledge brought her relief, even though she couldn’t remember anything before the bus. Whatever had happened to make her forget her own life, she’d meant to come to this town. Ridiculous laughter bubbled up inside her. She’d forgotten coming to the town called Forgotten. The word seemed to describe everything about her. Maybe the town was where she finally belonged. Finally? She had no idea what that might mean. Dylan stopped at the end of the hallway and bent over to pet the dog, despite his earlier comment about the animal losing out. He appeared to be enjoying it as much as the animal, and a strange longing crept up inside her. For a stark instant, she wished this was her house and her dog and her man. Her life. Was Dylan wearing a wedding ring? She strained to see and found him watching her. Her stomach at once felt fluttery inside. He thumbed over his shoulder. “The first aid kit is this way, in the kitchen.” He must think her a complete idiot. “I’d like to use the bathroom first, if that’s okay.” She lifted her chin a little, getting ready to insist if he protested about the dribbles of blood she was leaving on the cheap flooring, never mind that sections of it seemed to be missing or peeling up. “Sure. Bathroom’s that way, first door on the right.” He pointed down the intersecting hallway. “Let me know if you need anything else. I’ll be in the kitchen so this picky dog will eat.” Hailey didn’t know what to make of that. Dogs ate when they were hungry, didn’t they? It wasn’t as if they were children who sometimes needed coaxing. Warmth filled her chest at the thought, but no accompanying memories hinted at why she might feel that way. She edged slowly over the few steps to the bathroom, determined to make it without any more help from this stranger. As she stepped inside, she caught sight of Dylan still standing in the hallway, his eyes locked on her. He tipped his head, and she felt a rush of gratitude that he hadn’t pushed her for answers she didn’t know. She nodded back and shut the door. Inside the bathroom, she let his jacket slip to the floor and practically collapsed on the sink, pushing her mouth close to the tap and sucking eagerly at the water. It tasted warm at first but cooled quickly. Her throat burned and she choked a little, but the coolness was a balm to the dryness. It tasted wonderful, so definitely not the softened water many people had in their bathrooms these days. Or at least she thought they did. Maybe she didn’t know anything anymore. She didn’t stop drinking until her stomach felt full and a bit nauseated. Even then, she stood there, hunched over the still-running water. When her stomach calmed, she let another mouthful ooze down her throat before splashing water over her face. It wasn’t to hide the tears because she wouldn’t admit to crying. For long moments she stayed that way, splashing her face and drinking again when she could. Between sips, she examined the small bathroom. Next to the single sink was a holder with a blue toothbrush and a tube of toothpaste. Below the sink was a cabinet with a main cupboard and three drawers running down the right side. After briefly eyeing the clean but age-yellowed bathtub, she rejected the idea of filling it with delicious hot water to soak her scratched limbs and dirty feet. This wasn’t her house, and she wasn’t an invited guest. Besides, now that she was feeling stronger, she needed to get into town and learn why she was here. She met her own gaze in the mirror. Her face was bare of makeup and reddened from the sun. More hair had escaped the messy ponytail than remained in it, and pieces of hay still clung to the strands. By any standards, even her forgetful ones, she looked a mess. Another urge reminded her to use the toilet. She did so, retrieving one of the pads from her backpack. Just her rotten luck that it was her time of the month. Her body aches apparently weren’t only from walking and falling into the river. As she stood to flush, she noticed the thick bulge of something that sat at her belly under her dress. She’d assumed the pressure there had been from the ruched part of her dress’s waistline, but now she wasn’t so sure. Tucking her dress up under her chin, she discovered a tan money belt. Gingerly, she unzipped the main pocket to find that the thickness of the belt had nothing to do with the material, which was so thin as to be almost nonexistent. Instead it was the contents that made the bulge—a stack of hundred-dollar bills. She counted one hundred of them, which meant she had ten thousand dollars. For a moment, she stared at the money, a sick feeling growing in the pit of her stomach. Maybe she didn’t belong in the psych ward of a hospital but in a prison. Who walked around with that kind of money? She’d certainly have to keep her memory loss a secret now, at least until she figured out what was going on. Why couldn’t she remember? Replacing the money and letting the dress cover the belt once more, she methodically explored her skull, finding no telling lumps. Her body ached all over, but that wouldn’t make her memory vanish. Unless maybe the cut on her leg had become infected to the point where it was affecting her brain. But she remembered getting off the bus, the river, and pulling hay from the bales in the barn, so that didn’t make sense. Enough, she thought. This wasn’t getting her anywhere. She’d meant to come here, and she had to trust that knowledge. Maybe this was her life’s savings, not something she’d stolen. At least she’d be able to pay for new shoes and a place to stay in town until she found a job. Though without ID, a job might not be possible. Shutting the toilet lid, she sat on it and delved into her backpack to search for ID. If she’d hit her head, knowing her name might jog her memories. She found three hundred and twelve more dollars in the small pocket, plus a bit of change. There was no wallet, no ID, no cell phone and no used bus ticket, either, though she vaguely remembered having one. Next, she pulled out an empty plastic water bottle, a pair of shiny red gym shorts, and a black, impossibly large T-shirt with a lion on the front. A little plastic holder contained a hairbrush, a tube of lip balm, a tiny bottle of lotion, a toothbrush, and trial-sized toothpaste. She felt no connection to any of the items. She returned everything to the backpack. Then, on second thought, she pulled out the personal supplies and set them on the sink counter. She brushed her hair and put it back up in a ponytail, looping the hair through again halfway to keep it off her neck. Then she brushed her teeth, spread balm over her cracked lip, and patted lotion on her burned face. Her arms were also burned, and she used the edge of the hand towel she found hanging on a hook to dab cold water on her arms and neck before spreading on more lotion. Her skin felt much better already, though she’d be peeling soon. She cleaned up the stray pieces of hay and put them in the garbage next to the toilet. Grabbing Dylan’s jacket, she pulled it on again, relishing its warmth. Finally, she hefted her backpack, which felt lighter now that she knew its contents. So little to start a new life. But she was going to do just that.