Dream a Little DreamBy: Susan Elizabeth Phillips
My heartfelt appreciation to the following people for their help with this book: Dr. Margaret Watson, veterinarian and romance author, who let me repeatedly interrupt her writing time to ask questions; Jimmie Morel (a.k.a. Lindsay Longford) and Jill Barnett for their thoughtful critiques; and John Roscich, who once again helped out my characters with legal advice. (Bill them, please. Not me.) A big thank-you to everyone at Avon Books, especially Carrie Feron, for the support. I’m proud to be part of the Avon family.
Susan Elizabeth Phillips
c/o Avon Book
1350 Avenue of the Americas
New York, New York 10019
The last of Rachel Stone’s luck ran out in front of the Pride of Carolina Drive-In. There on a mountainous two-lane blacktop road shimmering from the heat of the June afternoon, her old Chevy Impala gave its final death rattle.
She barely managed to pull off onto the shoulder before a plume of dark smoke rose from beneath the hood and obscured her vision. The car died right beneath the drive-in theater’s yellow and purple starburst-shaped sign.
This final disaster was overwhelming. She folded her hands on top of the steering wheel, dropped her forehead on them, and gave in to the despair that had been nipping at her heels for three long years. Here on this two-lane highway, just outside the ironically named Salvation, North Carolina, she’d finally reached the end of her personal road to hell.
She wiped her eyes on her knuckles and lifted her head. “I thought you were asleep, honey.”
“I was. But that bad sound waked me up.”
She turned and gazed at her son, who had recently celebrated his fifth birthday, sitting in the backseat amidst the shabby bundles and boxes that held all their worldly possessions. The Impala’s trunk was empty simply because it had been smashed in years ago and couldn’t be opened.
Edward’s cheek was creased where he’d been lying on it, and his light-brown hair stuck up at his cowlick. He was small for his age, too thin, and still pale from the recent bout with pneumonia that had threatened his life. She loved him with all her heart.
Now his solemn brown eyes regarded her over the head of Horse, the bedraggled stuffed lop-eared rabbit that had been his constant companion since he was a toddler. “Did something bad happen again?”
Her lips felt stiff as she formed them into a reassuring smile. “A little car trouble, that’s all.”
“Are we gonna die?”
“No, honey. Of course we’re not. Now why don’t you get out and stretch your legs a little bit while I take a look. Just stay back from the road.”
He clamped Horse’s threadbare rabbit’s ear between his teeth and climbed over a laundry basket filled with secondhand play clothes and a few old towels. His legs were thin, pale little sticks hinged with bony knees, and he had a small port-wine mark at the nape of his neck. It was one of her favorite places to kiss. She leaned over the back of the seat and helped him with the door, which functioned only a little better than the broken trunk.
Are we gonna die? How many times had he asked her that question recently? Never an outgoing child, these last few months had made him even more fearful, guarded, and old beyond his years.
She suspected he was hungry. The last filling meal she’d given him had been four hours ago: a withered orange, a carton of milk, and a jelly sandwich eaten at a roadside picnic table near Winston-Salem. What kind of mother couldn’t feed her child better than that?
One who only had nine dollars and change left in her wallet. Nine dollars and change separating her from the end of the world.
She caught a glimpse of herself in the rearview mirror and remembered that she’d once been considered pretty. Now lines of strain bracketed her mouth and fanned out from the corners of green eyes that seemed to eat up her face. The freckled skin over her cheekbones was so pale and tightly stretched it looked as if it might split. She had no money for beauty salons, and her wild mane of curly auburn hair swirled like a tattered autumn leaf around her too-thin face. The only cosmetic she had left was the stub of a mocha-colored lipstick that lay at the bottom of her purse, and she hadn’t bothered to use it in weeks. What was the point? Though she was twenty-seven, she felt like an old woman.