Dream a Little Dream (Chicago Stars #4)


by Susan Elizabeth Phillips

Chapter One

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.

"Mommy?"

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.

She glanced down at the sleeveless blue chambray dress that hung from her bony shoulders. The dress was faded, much too big, and she'd had to replace one of its six red buttons with a brown button after the original cracked. She'd told Edward she was making a fashion statement.

The Impala's door squealed in protest as she opened it, and when she stepped out onto the blacktop, she felt the heat radiating through the paper-thin soles of her worn white sandals. One of the straps had broken. She'd done her best to sew it back together, but the result had left a rough place that had rubbed the side of her big toe raw. It was a small pain compared with the larger one of trying to survive.

A pickup truck whizzed by but didn't stop. Her wild hair slapped her cheeks, and she used her forearm to push away the tangled strands, as well as to shield her eyes from the billow of dust the track kicked up. She glanced over at Edward. He was standing beside the bushes with Horse tucked under his armpit and his head bent at a sharp angle so he could stare up at the yellow and purple star-burst-shaped sign that soared above him like an exploding galaxy. Outlined in lightbulbs, it contained the words Pride of Carolina.

With a feeling of inevitability, she lifted the hood, then stepped back from the gust of black smoke billowing from the engine. The mechanic in Norfolk had warned her the engine was going to blow, and she knew this wasn't anything that could be fixed with duct tape or a junkyard part.

Her head dipped. Not only had she lost a car, but she had also lost her home, since she and Edward had been living in the Impala for nearly a week. She'd told Edward they were lucky to be able to take their house with them, just like turtles.

She sat back on her heels and tried to accept the newest in a long string of calamities that had brought her back to this town she'd sworn she'd never return to.

"Get out of there, kid."

The threatening sound of a deep male voice cut through her misery. She stood so fast it made her woozy, and she had to grab the hood of the car for support. When her head cleared, she saw her son standing frozen before a menacing-looking stranger in jeans, an old blue work shirt, and mirrored sunglasses.

Her sandals slipped in the gravel as she flew around the rear of the car. Edward was too frightened to move. The man reached for him.

Once she'd been sweet-tongued and gentle, a dreamy country girl with a poet's soul, but life had toughened her, and her temper flared. "Don't you touch him, you son of a bitch!"

His arm dropped slowly to his side. "This your kid?"

"Yes. And get away from him."

"He was peein' in my bushes." The man's rough, flat voice held a distinct Carolina drawl, but not the smallest trace of emotion. "Get him out of here."

She noticed for the first time that Edward's jeans were unfastened, making her already vulnerable little boy look even more defenseless. He stood frozen in fear, the rabbit tucked under his arm, as he stared up at the man who towered over him.