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Elizabeth Conners sat behind her desk at the Family Psychology Clinic. The office was comfortably furnished, with an oak desk and chair, a couple of four-drawer oak file cabinets, two oak side chairs and a sofa upholstered in dark green fabric sitting against one wall.
Oak-framed pictures of the town in the early nineteen hundreds decorated the interior and a green-glass lamp sat on the edge of her desk, giving the place a casual, old-fashioned appearance. The office was neat and orderly. With the number of cases she handled, it was imperative she be well organized.
Elizabeth glanced at the stack of manila files on her desk, each one a case she was currently working. For the past two years, she had been an employee of the small, privately owned clinic in San Pico, California. Elizabeth had been born in the town, mainly an agricultural community, situated near the southwest end of the San Joaquin Valley.
She had graduated from San Pico High, then gotten a partial scholarship to help pay her way through college. She had majored in psychology at UCLA, earning a master's in social work, making extra money with a part-time job as a waitress, as she had done in high school.
Two years ago, she had returned to her hometown, a quiet place of refuge where her father and sister lived, though her dad had died last year and her sister had married and moved away. Elizabeth had come to recover from a messy divorce, and the quiet life away from the city had helped bring her out of the depression she had suffered after her marriage to Brian Logan had fallen apart.
In contrast to the hustle of busy Santa Ana, where she had been working, San Pico was a city of around thirty thousand people, of which half the population was now Hispanic. Elizabeth's family had been among the original founders back in 1907, farmers and dairymen back then. During her childhood, her father and mother had owned a small neighborhood market, Conner's Grocery, but after her mother had died, her father had sold the business and retired, and Elizabeth had gone off to school.
She reached for the file on top of the stack on her desk, preparing herself for her upcoming session that evening with the Mendoza family, conducted in their home. The file contained a history of drinking and family violence that included an incident of child abuse, but the violence seemed to have lessened in the months the family had been in counseling.
Elizabeth fervently believed the sessions were helping family members learn to deal with each other in ways that did not include physical violence.
Leaning over the file, she tucked an annoying strand of dark auburn hair behind an ear and continued to scan the file. Like all of the Conners, she was dark-haired, slenderly built and a little taller than average. But unlike her sister, she had been blessed with the clear blue eyes of her mother.
Which meant that every time she looked in the mirror, she thought of Grace Conners and missed her.
Her mother had died a painful death from cancer when Elizabeth was just fifteen. They had been extremely close and the difficult months of caring for, then losing her had taken its toll. Elizabeth's blue eyes were her mother's legacy, but the memories they stirred were so painful that sometimes, instead of a blessing, her best feature seemed more of a curse.
Elizabeth sighed as she reached the end of the report, closed the file and leaned back in her chair. She had never expected to return to her hometown, which was flat and dusty and most of the year far too hot.
But sometimes fate had different notions and here she was, in a rented apartment on Cherry Street, doing the kind of work she had been trained for, and though she didn't particularly like living in the homely little town, at least she felt good about her job.
She was thinking about her upcoming session that night when a soft knock sounded at the door. She looked up to see one of the boys she counseled walk into the room. Raul Perez was seventeen years old, on work leave from juvenile detention, to which he'd been sentenced for the second time. Belligerent, surly and difficult, he was also smart and caring and loyal to his friends and the people he loved, and especially to his beloved sister, Maria.
His concern for others was the reason Elizabeth had agreed to do his counseling sessions without a fee. Raul had potential. He could make something of himself if he was given the right motivationif she could convince him that his life would never improve as long as he involved himself in alcohol and drugs.
Burglary had been the result, of course, as it often was with kids like Raul. They needed money to buy the drugs and they would do whatever it took to get them.
But Raul had been drug free for over a year and he had told her that he meant to stay that way. There was something in his intense black eyes that made Elizabeth believe it might be true.
"Raul. Come in." She smiled at him warmly. "It's good to see you."
"You are looking very well," he said, always extremely polite.
"Thank you." She thought that she did look good today, in crisp beige cotton slacks and a short-sleeved turquoise silk blouse, her shoulder-length auburn hair in loose waves around her face.
Raul sat down in one of the oak side chairs and Elizabeth sat down behind her desk. To begin the session, she started with a question about his part-time job at Sam Goodie's, janitorial and delivery work that would end when Ritchie Jenkins got back on his feet after crashing his motorcycle down at the end of Main Street. In another week, the job would be over and unless he found something else, he would be back in juvenile detention full-time.
"So, how do you like working at the store so far?"
He shrugged a pair of linebacker shoulders. "I like the musicexcept when they play country western." Raul was only about five foot ten, but he was stocky and muscular, big for his age since he was a child. He had glossy, straight black hair and dark skin, marred only by the tattoo of a skull on the back of one hand and his initials in blue under the skin beneath his left ear. The initials were a homemade job probably done in grammar school. She thought the skull must have been done during his last stay in juvenile hall.
Elizabeth looked at him and smiled. "I know you'll be out of work by the end of the week, but I have some very exciting news for you."
He studied her warily from his place across the desk.
"What is it?"
"You've been accepted at Teen Vision."
"I mentioned it a couple of weeks ago, remember?"
He nodded, his eyes fixed on her face.
"Since the farm is a fairly new facility, they only have room for twenty-five kids so far, but a couple of openings have come up and your application was one of the ones they accepted."
"I didn't put in an application," he said darkly.
She kept the smile fixed on her face. "I know you didn'tI did. I mentioned the farm to you when you were here before. You seemed interested. I took it one step further and applied in your name."
He was frowning. That wasn't good. The students who participated in the residential program at Teen Vision were there of their own free will. If he didn't want to be involved, being there wouldn't do him the least bit of good.
"The term lasts one year. You have to be between the ages of fourteen and eighteen and you have to agree to stay the entire twelve months or they won't let you in."
"I'm out of detention for good in six more months."
"You need to change your life so that you can stay out."
Raul said nothing.
"You would start next week. While you're there, your room and board would be completely taken care of. They even pay a small stipend for the work you do on the farm."
Raul grunted. "I know how much farm workers make. That's the way my family earned their living."
"This is different than being a migratory worker, Raul. You told me yourself you liked farming, being out in the fresh air working the soil. You could learn a vocation while you're there and you could get your GED. When your year is up, you could find a full-time job in agriculture or whatever you decide you want to do, something that would eventually make you a decent living."
He seemed to mull that over. "I need to think about it."
"All right. But I don't think you can make any sort of decision until you go out there, take a look at the facility and meet some of the instructors. Would you be willing to do that, Raul?"
He sat back in his chair, his eyes still on her face. "I would like to see it."
"That's great. Just remember, a place like that requires a commitment. It's a place you go in order to change your life. You have to want to do that. You have to want to start over and make a new beginning."
Raul said nothing for several long moments and neither did Elizabeth, purposely giving him time to think.
"When could we go?"
She stood up from her chair. "Do you have to work this afternoon?"
He shook his head. "Not until tomorrow morning."
"Good." Elizabeth rounded the desk and moved past him toward the door. She smiled and pulled it open. "Then why don't we go right now?"
The Teen Vision farm sat on fifteen acres of flat, arid land fronting Highway 51 a few miles out of town. It was a fertile piece of ground donated by Harcourt Farms, the largest agricultural farming company in San Pico County.
Until four years ago, Fletcher Harcourt had run the farm. After a nearly fatal accident that damaged the family patriarch's brain and left him in a wheelchair, his oldest son, Carson, had taken over the twelve-thousand acre operation. He had taken control of the company and assumed his father's once-powerful position in the community. Carson was well liked and generous. The attractive white stucco dormitory and outbuildings that housed Teen Vision had undoubtedly been funded in part by Carson's donations.
Elizabeth had met Carson Harcourt several times since her return to San Pico. He was tall, blond and attractive. At thirty-six, after several brief relationships, he remained unmarried, though with his considerable wealth and social position, he could certainly take his pick of the women in town.
She was thinking of Carson as she drove her nearly new, pearl-white Acura through the front gates of Teen Vision and was only mildly surprised to see the man's silver Mercedes sedan pulling out of the parking area. He stepped on the brake as he drove past her, bringing the car to a halt, swirling a cloud of dust around them. Carson rolled down his window as if he didn't notice and gave her the famous Harcourt smile.
"Well, Ms. Connerswhat a nice surprise. Looks like I'm leaving at just the wrong time." Carson had always been friendly. She had sensed he might have an interest beyond just being social, but if he did, he had never pursued it.
"It's nice to see you, Carson." She tilted her head toward her passenger. "This is Raul Perez. I'm hoping he'll be one of the farm's new enrollees."
"Is that so?" Carson ducked his head to get a look at the boy. "They do some good work here, son. You had better grab the chance while you've got it."
Raul said nothing, as Elizabeth could have guessed. With the money and power Carson Harcourt possessed, he represented everything the boy rebelled against.
" She glanced around, taking in the group of boys hoeing the fields, the two boys laughing as they poured grain into a trough to feed the farm's small herd of four white-faced Hereford cattle. "This was very generous of you, Carson."
He shrugged. "Harcourt Farms likes to give back to the community whenever it can."
"Still, you've really done something good here. Someone else might not have been so supportive."
He smiled and glanced out at the fields, then back to her again. "Listen, I've got to run. Got a meeting with some labor union guys in town." He ducked his head to look past her to the boy. "Good luck to you, son."
Raul just stared and inwardly Elizabeth sighed.
"One more thing," Carson said to her. "I've been meaning to call you. I wanted to talk to you about the Teen Vision Benefit on Saturday night. I was hoping you might go with me."
She was stunned. Carson had been friendly, but nothing more. Perhaps he had discovered her interest in Teen Vision. Though she had never actually been to the farm, she knew the wonderful work being done and believed strongly in the project.
She cast him an assessing glance. Since her divorce, she'd rarely dated. The dark days after she had discovered Brian's infidelity left her wary of men. Still, it might be fun to spend an evening with an intelligent, attractive man.
"I'd like that, Carson. Thank you for asking. It's black tie, as I recall."
He nodded. "I'll call you at your office, get directions to your house so I can pick you up."
"All right, that sounds good."
He smiled and waved, rolled up the window of his Mercedes and drove away. Elizabeth watched him a moment in the rearview mirror, then stepped on the accelerator and drove through the gate into one of the spaces in the dirt parking lot and turned off the engine.
"Well, we're here." She smiled at Raul, who was staring out the window toward the group of young men working in the fields. A distant tractor threw up a plume of dust while a cluster of dairy cows stood on a hill waiting for the evening round of milking to begin.
Looking nervous and younger than his seventeen years, Raul cracked the door on his side of the car and climbed out into the afternoon heat. In the area between the parking lot and the house, the director of Teen Vision, Sam Marston, walked toward them.
Sam was average in height and build, a man in his early forties rapidly going bald who had shaved the sparse hair off, giving him a modern, stylish appearance. He was a soft-spoken man, yet there was a sense of authority about him. He waved a greeting as he walked up to where they stood.
"Welcome to Teen Vision."
"Thank you." She had met Sam Marston when she first moved back to town, knew his remarkable work with delinquent boys. "I know your time is limited. I thought I could come back for an official tour later on."
He understood what she was saying. That she wanted him to spend this time with Raul. "You're welcome anytime," he said with a smile, then his attention shifted to the boy. "You must be Raul Perez."
"I'm Sam Marston. Let me show you around, and while we're at it, I'll tell you a little about Teen Vision." Ignoring Raul's look of alarm, Sam slapped a hand on the youth's wide back and nudged him forward, forcing Raul into step beside him.