Monday 11 August 2014

#CBR6 Book 84: "Dream A Little Dream" by Susan Elizabeth Phillips

Page count: 400 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Rachel Stone's car breaks down on the edges of Salvation, North Carolina, the one place on the planet where the most people hate her. Rachel's former husband, the Reverend Snopes was a hugely popular tele-evangelist who conned people all over the country out of their life savings, making Rachel his scape goat when he got caught. He died in a plane crash fleeing the country, but Rachel knows there are five million still left unaccounted for, and as she currently has about eleven dollars to her name and a five-year-old to support, she was hoping to sneak back into town to search their old house for any clues to where the money might be hidden.

Gabe Bonner is a broken man. His wife and little boy were killed by a drunk driver some years back, and he wasn't living in Salvation when the Snopes lived there. Hence he doesn't know who Rachel is at first. He has no sympathy when her car breaks down next to the drive in he's trying to restore, though, and wants her off his property. Her boy, Edward, is tiny, sickly and cowardly, but still a painful reminder of the child Gabe lost. Rachel is stubborn, feisty and far too skinny, yet Gabe finds his body responding to her for the first time since his wife died. All the more reason that he wants the Stones to go far away. Instead, he finds himself persuaded to hire Rachel to help him with the restoration work, and puts her up in his dead grandmother's house.

Rachel doesn't really care that most of the townsfolk hate her guts. She understands why they feel so betrayed, and that nothing she can say or do is going to change their minds. She was young and impressionable when she met the Reverend Snopes, and couldn't believe her luck when he selected her as his wife. Once married, she quickly lost her illusions and her faith when she discovered what he was really like. Because of Edward, her little boy, she couldn't leave him, worried that she'd lose in a custody battle. Now she's a cynical and pragmatic woman, willing to do anything to keep her boy safe and well-fed, even if she has to steal and cheat.

Deeply depressed after losing his wife and kid, Gabe has given up his career as a vet, but returned to his home town of Salvation to be closer to his remaining family. Everyone treats him with kid gloves, only Rachel bothers to call him on his anti-social behaviour. She understands his grief and depression, but refuses to let him destroy himself with pity and self loathing. Both wounded, Rachel and Gabe are drawn to each other and try to fight their attraction. It's quite clear to Rachel that Gabe still mourns his family deeply, and he seems to be the only one who doesn't like her little boy. What future could she have, in a town that hates her, with a man still stuck in the past?

As premises go, I actually thought Dream a Little Dream had the best premise of all the books in the Chicago Stars series. It's also one of the few books that doesn't directly in some way involve football players. Gabe is the brother of Cal Bonner (from Nobody's Baby But Mine). He's got tons of emotional baggage, just like Rachel. Even when he knows he's being unreasonable, he can't stop himself from comparing little Edward (who keeps insisting that people call him Chip) with his dead son, and the sickly, anxious child keeps falling short in his estimation. He sleeps with a gun under his pillow, sometimes deeply tempted to end it all. He's restoring the drive in mainly to have something to do, but until Rachel comes along, it's quite clear that he's only going through the motions.

I really liked Rachel, who never wanted the flashy lifestyle that being Mrs. Snopes brought. She hated being dressed up, displayed and forced to watch her husband's scams, but couldn't leave for fear of losing her beloved child. She doesn't want the missing money for herself, but to secure a future for Edward, and has nearly starved herself sick by the time she gets to Salvation in order to make sure he has enough to eat. She suffers the insults, abuse and even death threats from the venomous townsfolk, but also makes a friend in Kristy, the church secretary.

Kristy is one half of the book's secondary romance. Cal and Gabe's youngest brother, the angelic-looking Reverend Ethan Bonner is Kristy's boss, and she's loved him since she was a teenager, while he barely notices that she exists, even as she organises pretty much all aspects of his personal and professional life. Her friendship with Rachel gives her increased confidence, she decides to get a make-over and quits her job. When the meek and pliable Kristy suddenly starts wearing short skirts and flirting with some of the other guys in town, Ethan starts to see her in a completely different light, and realises that perhaps the happiness he's been looking for has been under his nose all along.

Partially because both protagonists were so damaged and had so much to work through, this book really worked for me. There is also a rather silly subplot involving Rachel possibly having faith healing abilities, but I didn't think it was focused on in any great deal and the main story here are two people slowly getting over their dark pasts and finding happiness with one another. Edward is a cool kid, happily not even vaguely plot-moppety and it upset me that Gabe took so long to treat him nicely. In tone, this is absolutely the darkest of the Chicago Stars books, but its' probably also one of the reasons I liked it so much.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

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