She's a dreamer. He's a realist. Somewhere in the middle is love--and danger.
After her husband's death, Catherine Brooks is ready to go back to work--almost. She volunteers at a shelter for homeless teens, Lost Angel, thinking it will ease her return to the classroom. There's nothing easy about irascible shelter manager Luke Starns, though. His cool detachment rubs her the wrong way, especially when he warns her not to get too attached. Still, the soft heart she senses beneath his stern exterior keeps her coming back--and his face pervades her thoughts.
It's not that Luke finds Catherine's easy charm and free spirit unappealing--quite the opposite. Life on the streets is hard, and discipline is the only ladder that'll get and keep these kids out of trouble. He knows what it's like to care too much, only to have the rug yanked away. He tells himself he's simply trying to save her the same heartache.
Yet Catherine has him rethinking his approach to life. Just as he lets his guard down, though, a murderer begins stalking the mean streets near the shelter, putting everything they care about at risk. Including their lives.
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June 06, 2011
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Excerpt from Where Dreams Begin by Phoebe Conn
Luke stood as Catherine came through the door. Her gently draped slack suit was the color of ground cinnamon and the perfect complement to her deep auburn hair and brown eyes. Fashion meant nothing to Luke, however, and the expensive tailoring of her clothes and the casual elegance of her shoulder-length hair only served to convince him that she was yet another woman with more money than sense. Unfortunately, their kind showed up whenever Lost Angel got a mention on the local news.
At first, he'd actually believed the sophisticated women could contribute more than money, but when none had lasted more than a week or two, if that long, he'd lowered his expectations accordingly. Because Lost Angel extracted the same dreadful toll on volunteers that it took on its directors, they were always in short supply, and he was forced to welcome each and every one.
He doubted his faded Madras sport shirt and comfortably worn jeans would impress her, but when the kids coming there had only a few changes of clothes, he didn't need suits. He noted the simple gold wedding band on Catherine's left hand and assumed she'd taken the precaution of leaving her diamonds at home. She'd shown considerable courage by not simply circling the graffiti-scarred block where their converted church stood and driven home.
He still had to dig deep for a smile. "Good afternoon, Mrs. Brooks. We've had nearly fifty calls today and half a dozen others stopped by to inquire about volunteering. Were you also inspired by Channel 4's piece about us on last night's eleven o'clock news?"
Catherine took the straight-backed chair he indicated and then replied in a voice that was soft and pitched low. "I'm sorry. I seldom watch the late news. It was a feature in the Los Angeles Times that piqued my interest."
Luke dropped back into his chair. He picked up his pencil and tapped the eraser against the desktop in a muted tattoo. "That was months ago, Mrs. Brooks, so it couldn't have prompted much in the way of interest."
Catherine cocked her head slightly and tucked her hair behind her ear. "Do you usually make fun of volunteers?" she asked.
Luke threw down the pencil and added high-strung to the list of faults he'd assigned her the instant she'd slipped through his door. She had a death grip on a slim black leather handbag that didn't appear to contain anything more substantial than her car keys, cell phone and Visa card. He doubted she would even make it through the interview, let alone return to do any useful work.
"Please forgive me. It's been a long day," he stressed. "Whatever inspired your visit, it's appreciated. If you read the Times' article, then you know how desperate our situation truly is."
He ticked off the statistics on his fingers. "One out of every four runaways in America comes to Los Angeles. A large percentage have been abused and actually believe if they escape a miserable situation at home and make it to Hollywood, they'll quickly become the next Brad Pitt or Keira Knightley. There's also a large number of kids leaving foster homes with nowhere to go. Both groups are preyed upon by the unscrupulous scumbags who either want to sell drugs or use the kids for sex or, in most cases, both.
"This old church was on the verge of being condemned when we took it over, but with our limited funding, it's all we can afford to rent. I'd like to believe we've actually done some good, if not nearly enough. Now all I can promise is a lot of tedious paperwork, absolutely no benefits and nothing in the way of pay. If that sort of drudgery actually appeals to you, Pam will give you an application on your way out."
Catherine scanned the office that was little more than a whitewashed cell. It was furnished with a battered desk, computer and mismatched file cabinets, but no attractive artwork, live plants nor personal items. The single window provided an unappealing view of the building's weed-strewn parking lot.
"I was hoping for something more directly related to serving the teenagers," she argued persuasively. "I know Lost Angel provides clean clothing as well as hot meals."
With long, dark lashes, she had a fawn's touchingly innocent gaze, but Luke doubted she was stupid, and he'd already brought the interview to an end. Without shame, he chose the quickest way to be rid of her. "Do you have children, Mrs. Brooks?"
For a brief instant, Catherine's gaze strayed toward the cracked linoleum. "No, but I am a former teacher."
"Really? Where did you teach?"
"I was in the English department at La Ca�ada High School before I married, and I loved the lively interaction with the students. It was the best part of the job."
Luke nodded thoughtfully. "I'm sure it was, but our teens bear absolutely no resemblance to the pampered college prep crowd living in La Ca�ada. Once you've spent a few minutes with some of our kids with purple Mohawks, nose rings and hideous homemade tattoos, you'll quickly get over any need to spread your frustrated maternal warmth here."
Catherine reached out to pluck his nameplate from his desk, then replaced it with a loud thud. "With such an impressive string of degrees, I'd expect you to come up with something less obvious. Have you simply had a bad day, Dr. Starns, or are you deliberately being nasty?"
That show of spirit took Luke by surprise, but it also provided ample evidence that she was used to getting her own way. In his book, it was another strike against her.
"Bad days are the only kind we have here at Lost Angel," he swore darkly.
"Then why do you stay?" Catherine countered. "Were you homeless yourself at one time, or do you simply enjoy playing the martyr?"
Luke recoiled slightly, then decided Catherine wasn't nearly as fragile as she looked. He left his chair and circled the desk, prompting Catherine to rise and face him. She stood five feet ten inches tall in her flats, but even barefoot, Luke grazed six feet, and his scuffed loafers added another inch. As he moved near, he surveyed the difference in their heights, but he had no intention of defending his views more forcefully than she would care to see.
Luke watched her raise her chin to maintain a challenging stare and added obstinate to his growing list of complaints. "Mrs. Brooks," he began, fully intending not to merely throw her out of his office but to forbid her return. Then it occurred to him that he ought not to let her off so easily. Encouraging a woman with her delicate sensibilities to volunteer was almost diabolical, but he just couldn't resist, and a quick grin erased all trace of hostility from his expression.
"Forgive me if I've misjudged your commitment to Lost Angel," he said. He crossed the room to the door and swung it open wide. "I'll have Pam add your name to the list for Monday's training session. Unless, of course, you've something else planned for the day?"
"Nothing I can't postpone," Catherine assured him on her way out.
When Catherine crossed the parking lot a few minutes later, she was proud of herself for standing up to Luke Starns but badly disappointed her first interview since college had gone so poorly. She'd been completely baffled to find such a caustic individual running Lost Angel and sincerely hoped that after she'd completed whatever training he might provide, they could simply avoid each other.
As she walked toward her Volvo, a plump girl with a long, thick mop of corkscrew curls came toward her. She was dressed in a chartreuse T-shirt and bib overalls. A scruffy marmalade cat with tattered ears peered out of the canvas bag slung over her shoulder. She appeared to be a regular at Lost Angel, and while Catherine unlocked her station wagon, she remained by the door.
"Hi. You got some spare change? My cat's hungry," the girl greeted her.
Catherine doubted Lost Angel encouraged panhandling on the premises, but the scrawny cat did look as though he could use a meal. She opened her purse and pulled out a dollar bill. "Von's has their house brand on special at four cans for a dollar."
"Great. I'll stock up," the girl replied. She tucked the money into her bib pocket and quickly jogged away, forcing her bedraggled pet to endure a wild, bumpy ride.
Catherine slid behind the wheel, and as she turned the key in the ignition, she caught a glimpse of Luke Starns at his window. He shut the blinds before she could wave, but she felt as though he'd caught her cheating on an exam. She could readily imagine the harsh lecture he would deliver on Monday, but she wouldn't have to listen.
Lost Angel had not turned out to be what she'd expected at all, but her first visit had been oddly exhilarating, and she felt she owed it to herself to give it a second try. After all, a volunteer position wasn't like a real job, and if she didn't feel as though she were making a valuable contribution, she could always quit. There was only one problem with that strategy, however: she'd never quit on anything.