Synopsis | Reviews | Excerpt
- 2007 Romance Writers of America RITA Finalist
- Best Published Book (Grand Prize) and Best Mainstream from the Heart Romance Writers Chapter Lories Contest
- Best Contemporary Fiction of 2007 from RRT
- Romantic Times Reviewer's Choice Award
- Finalist - Foreword's Book of the Year Awards
- Reviewer's Choice Award-www.singletitles.com
- Reader's Guide
Kara Whittenbrook is an unlikelyheiress. Down-to-earth and lovably quirky, she's never fit in with the stogy Whittenbrook clan of Connecticut. Growing up at her parents' rainforest preserve in Brazil, she has a quaintly off-beat view of life. Now her beloved parents have died in a plane crash, and Kara's learned a stunning truth.
She was adopted.
Her birth parents are Mac and Lily Tolbert. They live and work on a backwoods cattle ranch in northern Florida. Ranch owner Ben Thocco is running out of time and money. He's going to need a miracle in order to save the ranch and care for the likable crew of unusual hands he employs, including Kara's parents and his own fragile brother Joey.
Kara, using a fake identity on the advice of her lawyer, gets a job at Ben's ranch in Fountain Springs, Florida, where her adventures include entering an unpredictable mare in a local horse show.
Source: Renee Reads Romance Blog/Library Thing Early Reviewer
Reviewer: Renee W.
...another heartwarming engaging story.
Source: Library Journal
Reviewer: Kristin Ramsdell, Romance Columnist
A touching, exquisitely written book. I loved it
Reviewer: Lettetia Elsasser
Bravo, Ms. Smith; another jewel in the crown of a master at her craft.
Reviewer: Stacy Cooper
A Gentle Rain by Deborah Smith is everything a good book should be.
Source: The Romance Reader
Reviewer: Cathy Sova
Deborah Smith returns in top form with A Gentle Rain, a heartbreakingly beautiful story of love on several different levels. Once again, Deborah Smith shows why she's widely considered to be one of the finest authors in print today. A Gentle Rain is the best romance I've read all year, and with only five days left in 2007, that pretty much says it all.
Source: RT BookClub
Reviewer: Jill M. Smith
The remarkable Smith has written a story full of compassion and kindness. There is no finer or more evocative storyteller than this beloved author, to whom characterization is a fine art. Told from alternating first-person viewpoints, this voyage of self-discovery also examines love in all shapes and sizes. It's profoundly magical.
Reviewer: Lucele Coutts
In true Deborah Smith style, the reader is led smoothly into this charming, but heart-rending tale, allowing each character a very special place in it, although Kara and Ben are the stars, and one can't help but fall in love with all of those special people, who are seeking to make a place, not only for themselves, but for each of the others, when money rears its ugly head to make real problems. Another real winner!
What I saw in the Florida woods was a sight I'll remember the rest of my life. It was the kind of sight that becomes a story you tell around the fireplace with the lights low. The kind of sight that proves how, ever once in a while, a magic lightning bolt makes ordinary life pretty extraordinary. The kind of sight where you'll always end the story by saying, That's when I fell in love with her.
Here's what I saw:
Two mad, bloody Pollo brothers, one with a long knife cut across his left forearm, the other with a shoulder wound the exact width of the gray mare's teeth.
The gray mare standing on guard with her ears flat back on her scarred head and a man-eating look in her eyes, even though she was trapped with all four legs still tangled in a wad of thick muscadine vines.
A beautiful little redhead sittin' astride the gray mare's back.
Which, itself, was hard to believe. Not to mention the fancy, jeweled knife the redhead raised in one hand.
And the giant blue macaw perched on her shoulder.
The redhead had managed to get a nylon lead tied to the gray mare's halter to make a loop of reins. A miracle. She sat the mare like nobody's business, her rein hand low and calm on the mare's withers, her back straight, her head up, her strong legs hooked strong around the mare's sides. Wisps of curly red hair floated around a face you could take home to Mama and then on to bed. I couldn't quite catch my breath when I looked at her. It took me a minute to wrap my mind around the whole concept. "You okay?" I called.
She looked down at me without a bit of fear, and she didn't lower the knife. "That depends on who you are and why you've joined this discussion." Like the exotic blade, her voice wasn't from these parts. "These two gentlemen insist this mare belongs to them. But I have my doubts."
"You're right. That mare comes from my ranch. I've been trackin' her all morning. Name's Ben Thocco."
"Ben Thocco." She cocked her head and studied me with new regard. Like she might not stab me, after all.
I pivoted toward the Pollo's. "You boys are about to have a problem, here. And the problem's gonna be me."
Brave talk, but the Pollos craned their bearded necks like copperhead snakes who've been poked with a rake. I'm six-one and skinny. They're six-five and not. "Me and Juicy wuz attacked," Inny snarled. Inny and Juicy. Daddy Pollo was the Marko. Why he named his boys Inny and Juicy was anybody's guess.
I figured it for character traits.
Juicy thrust up his knifed arm. "Yeah, we got attacked by that little bitch of a woman and your bitch of a mare, when we was only tryin' to help."
"Aw, now you've gone and used bad language on top of bein' horse thieves." I pointed at the ground. "Good God, Inny, whatever you do, don't step on that. I think it's poisonous."
Being an idiot, Inny couldn't resist looking down. I took the opportunity to elbow him between the eyes. Here's a little professional fight tip I learned in Mexico: The big bone in your elbow is better weapon than the little bones in your fist. Inny went down for a nap.
But that still left Juicy, and he was the smarter of the two. "I'm gonna kill your ass," he promised, coming at me. "And then I'm gonna knock that knife-happy bitch off her high horse."
I kicked Juicy in the knee, but that just slowed him down. He got me with one punch to the shoulder, and while I was trying to find my arm he clamped a hand around my throat. I sank two fingers in the soft spot under his armpit and tried to pull out a top rib the hard way, but that just seemed to tickle him. My knees buckled and I started to see black specks about the time Juicy said, "Oommph," and let go of me.
He swung around with a long, bloody gash already showing on his back. My redhead—yeah, even half-strangled, I thought of her as "my" redhead—stood there wielding that mean filet knife of hers. Things stopped being fun for me, then, because Juicy raised an arm to slam the living life out of her, and I couldn't make my legs work well enough to stop him.
"Run," I managed to tell her.
"Never," she answered. She raised her knife. I loved her then. Right then. That's when I fell in love.
A big hand came out of somewhere and clamped hard on Juicy's fist. A second later, three-hundred pounds of Juicy got slung against the nearest tree. Juicy slid to the ground and sat there, blinking. It was clear he had some thinking to do while he sorted through what was left of his brain.
The redhead froze. She stared up at someone behind me. I turned, rubbing my throat. Mac stood there. He patted the air at her. "It's all r-right, little g-girl," he stuttered. Then he blushed, because he hated to stutter in front of women and strangers. He ducked his big head and looked away.
She kept looking up at Mac like she'd never been rescued, before. "What's your name, valiant knight?"
Mac was so flabbergasted by being called valiant and a knight he said, "Mac. Mac Tolbert, little girl," without stuttering.
This look came in her eyes. She had blue eyes, and they turned bluer. "Sir Mac," she said slowly.
"Poor baby!" Lily came limping up the deer path, wringing her hands. "Poor baby! Poor baby." The mare, the redhead, me, Mac. We were all her poor babies. But she had eyes only for the redhead. "Are you all right? What's your name, poor baby? My name's Lily."
Sad blue eyes. So blue. "My name is Karen," the redhead finally said. "Karen Johnson." Like she had to think about it, and it was hard to get out.
Behind us, the gray mare snorted.
Like she knew something we didn't know.
A legitimate tow truck operator towed my hatchback to a garage in the nearby town of Fountain Springs. The mare was unhurt, and so was I. Inny and Juicy Pollo were not so fortunate. They were on their way to the doctor's, then jail. Ben Thocco looked a little worse for wear, but said "Aw," and looked away when I tried to thank him.
Laconic. Iconic. Humble. And extremely handsome.
A cowboy. I had met a real cowboy, who had rescued me in gallant cowboy style.
With the help of my birth parents. They did not know who I was, but I knew who they were. Now I was on my way to the Thocco Ranch, albeit in a manner I'd never predicted.
Dazed, I held a lead rope attached to the gray mare. I sat in the back of Ben Thocco's large, late-model pick-up truck with Lily beside me, both of us seated indecorously in the truck's bed, our backs against a tool chest.
Ben Thocco drove at a meandering pace geared to the mare's nervous walk. I estimated we had traveled two miles in just over an hour, the speed of a casual stroll on a gym treadmill. What struck me most was Ben Thocco's steady foot on the gas pedal, and his patience.
Mr. Darcy perched on my camping gear, harp, and other worldly belongings, which were piled at my feet. He stared hard at Rhubarb, a friendly dog by all evidence, who lolled by Lily's feet and lapped the air in Mr. Darcy's direction. "Creature," Mr. Darcy said.
"Rhubarb thinks your bird is a big, blue chicken," Lily said.
"Mr. Darcy is blue macaw. Does Rhubarb try to eat chickens—and macaws?"
"No. He takes care of them. At the ranch, he barks at hawks and raccoons that try to get in the chicken house. He even chased a wildcat off, once."
"Oh? There are still panthers in this part of Florida?"
"What's a panther?"
My heart sank. She was barely literate. "It's a type of wildcat."
"Oh! A painter. That's the way we say it."
"Painter," I repeated.
She smiled at me. "You're not from around here, are you? That's okay. Don't be embarrassed if you don't know how to talk."
She was simple but kind. I faced forward and blinked back the emotion of being both ashamed of her and ashamed of myself at the same time. "Don't cry," she said. "I know you must be worried about your car. But it'll get fixed." Lily took my hand. She patted it.
"I'm sure my car will recover. It's an old model. Quite battered. Hardly worth worrying about."
Lily leaned close and whispered. "Don't be sad 'cause you don't have a nice car. Nobody'll make fun of you. Me and Mac, we'll tell Ben. Ben won't let anybody make fun of you. Or your car."
I couldn't win this small battle of wits. She out-did me at every turn, merely by having a generous soul. My own soul felt quite mean and small, by comparison. We heard tapping on the window behind us. Lily turned and waved brightly. "Look at us, Mac! We're leading the gray mare, and she isn't trying to bite anybody! She likes Karen!"
I swiveled to smile gamely at Mac. He immediately ducked his head and turned away. My heart twisted.
My birth father was too shy to hold a conversation with me. But he had not hesitated to protect me from a brutal attacker. Did this sweet, paternal man mourn the daughter he and Lily had given away more than thirty years ago? I tried to see myself in him, but I couldn't. I felt sorry for him, embarrassed for us both, and angry at myself for wishing he was not the man who created me.
I darted glances at Lily. Her denim jumper had daisies embroidered on it. So did the white ankle socks she wore with bright yellow tennis shoes. I had never known an adult woman who wore white ankle socks other than when playing tennis or golf. She was childlike and charming, a plump fairytale hausfrau. She accepted me as if I had sprung from the ground like a wildflower whose seed she'd forgotten she planted.
I looked like her.
Maybe no one else noticed the resemblance, but I saw it from the first moment. Both of us were short and sturdy. I was taller, but not by much. We had the same curly red hair, though hers was faded and obscured by dull, gray strands. She wore it so tightly cut that it was little more than a fuzzy skull cap. She looked, in ways, suppressed. Afraid to stand up. Her eyes were stone-washed old blue compared to my younger eyes' hue, but it was the same blue, just different by decades and degrees. Her skin held freckles like gravy holds brown pepper. She wore no make-up. Her eyelashes and brows were nearly pink. I could have told her that stylists would dye them chocolate brown for her, like mine, but she would not have understood the point.
She wore no jewelry except a tiny silver charm on a necklace. The charm was a daisy. Her brows arched like mine, her nose was short and slightly flared, like mine. Her mouth smiled like mine, assuming I ever smiled again sincerely.
But there was one major difference.
Lily was crooked. Or perhaps I was too straight.
Her face drooped slightly to the left, not in the severe manner of a stroke patient, but noticeably. Her left eyelid was lazy. Her left shoulder slanted down, with the right shoulder overcompensating by hunching upwards. Worst of all, her left foot dragged a single beat off rhythm, giving her lopsided, rolling walk.
What had made her this way? How many times had cruel people taunted her? What kind of names had she been called? Did those names ring in her ears when I came out of her body? Was she glad to see me go?
"We're home," Lily said, smiling. "Look around. I know you must be scared of this wild old forest. You haven't even looked at it. But it's safe. See?" She waved an arm.
I pulled my gaze away from her and blinked.
Ben Thocco's ranch emerged from a tunnel of forest at the end of a long, sandy lane bordered by pink hibiscus in every spot where the sun broke through the shade. The scent of fertile loam spread through my senses. The aroma of water pervaded everything. A covey of quail skittered across the lane in front of his truck. Deer raised their heads from nibbling the spring leaves. "We have lots of critters," Lily said. "I give them all names. That's Snow White and Mickey and Donald and…I think that's Cinderella, but it might be Minnie."
"You like the fantasy of Disney World?" I asked gently.
"Oh, yes! Ben took us once. Have you ever been?" I shook my head but she didn't notice; she was busy telling me the names of other wildlife in her own Magic Kingdom.
It was Shangri-la with cattle and palm trees. I'd traveled through a looking glass, leaving behind the modern Florida world of tourists, interstates, seashell shops and retirement communities featuring bingo, golf and shuttle buses to the Daytona 500. The Thocco ranch spread before my eyes with fascinating allure.
At the center of a shady, sandy yard stood a two-story wooden house with a tin roof and gray, rock chimneys flecked with oyster shell. The porches were wide and deep, scattered with everything from footstools to rockers to aged metal kitchenette chairs with cracked vinyl cushions.
Fat chickens roamed the yards, giving a small, sleepy alligator a wide berth but otherwise pecking and scratching, unconcerned. Vast pastures spread beyond a curve in a wide marsh. The pastures were dotted with red and white Hereford cattle and a sprinkling of horses. The marsh was decorated with seagulls. A cormorant plunged from the sky and disappeared into the dark water like a dive bomber.
I turned back to the main yard. Large, modern barns and sturdy work sheds raised their lightning rods from among giant oaks. The air smelled of fresh water, green forest, with the faintest whiff of manure and spring flowers. I inhaled deeply. Organic and real. A dozen white egrets made huge nests in one of the oaks, ornamenting it like huge doves in a Christmas tree. Multitudes of songbirds called their mates. Squirrels chattered.
I loved the place immediately.
Lily clambered from the truck, clasping the mare's lead line. "Look at you, poor baby! You're worn out from walking."
I stood. "Do you need help with her?"
"No, she's a good baby! She's just nervous."
"C-careful, h-honey," Mac said, as he eased from the truck's back seat, holding up both hands.
"Oh, Mac, don't worry. She's not interested in biting me. See? Karen's tamed her!"
I watched the two of them, my birth parents, working as a team to reassure each other and the skittish mare. The mare kept her distance at the end of the lead line but swiveled her gray ears at Mac and Lily while turning white-rimmed eye on me, Mr. Darcy and the rest of the world.
I was so caught up in the scene I didn't realize Ben stood beside the truck, looking up at me. "It's safe to come down," he said. "Don't mind the 'gator."
I jumped. Alligator? Had it crept up when I wasn't looking? No, the aforementioned five-foot-long alligator still lurked near a tractor shed, ready to slither off its sandy bluff into a wide, blackwater creek that meandered through the yard to the marsh. It must be the Little Hatchawatchee. Several house cats lolled in a shady spot near the base of a stubby sabal palm, watching the alligator and alternately, watching me. Turtle shells and deer antlers decorated the tractor shed with casual magic, as if they might be talismans. The alligator didn't move. Didn't blink.
Just a baby. Not big enough to do more than drag a rabbit into the water for dinner. As a child, I'd played with cousins of his, that size.
"Gator won't hurt you," Ben assured me as I started to climb from the truck. He insisted on lifting me down bodily, his callused hands under my elbows. "He's Possum's pet. Found him on the creek bank. Orphan. Gators ain't that bad."
I backed away the moment my earth sandals touched the ground. "I don't think members of the crocodilian species can, technically, be 'orphaned.' That's a mammalian sentiment."
Why that academic gibberish came out of my mouth, I do not know. Blushing, I looked up to find Ben studying me with solemn humor tainted by a somewhat grim frown. "Well, okay, but don't tell Gator he ain't warm-blooded. It'll hurt his feelings."
"I'll keep it to myself."
"Those are my workin' dogs," Ben said, directing my gaze to five shaggy cattle-herders with smart, pale eyes. "They're warm-blooded." They watched me as if I might need direction.
"And Rhubarb is?"
"He's my brother's pal. Got him at the animal shelter."
"Naw. Just smelled too bad for anybody else to take him."
Our attention was distracted when the gray mare bared her teeth at a cluster of excited men and women who hurried from the house and barns. She began to jerk the lead, skinning the nylon rope through Lily's hands. "It's all right, it's all right," Lily soothed, but as Ben approached the mare with his hands out the mare snapped at him, barely missing his fingers. "Easy, lady, easy," he crooned. "You already bit everything else on me. Don't grab another finger."
I took the lead rope from Lily. "Allow me, please." I led the mare away from the group, speaking to her in soft Portuguese. Mr. Darcy sailed from the truck to land atop the mare's silver-white mane, just above her withers. She halted, rolled her eyes, and twisted her head to gaze at him.
Mr. Darcy loved horses. He bowed low and rubbed his blue head on her neck. She sniffed him. He nibbled her muzzle with his curving black beak. Her eyes calmed and we walked some more, with me whispering to her. She bent her scarred head near me and flicked her ears curiously. I halted and turned to look at my hosts. "She's calm, now. Where do you stable her?"
Mac, Lily and assorted others—a group of ranch hands with one common trait being wide eyes—gazed at me with their mouths open. Ben, less easily impressed, tilted his head, sunk his hands into the pockets of his handsome, faded jeans—and studied me with suspicion, as if I were a new species of woman, armed with foreign languages and a horse-whispering macaw.
"There's a holding pen by the main barn," he drawled. "Follow me."
After the gray mare was happily ensconced in a small paddock with a tub of cool water and some fresh hay to nibble, I hung her nylon lead on a post, dusted my hands on my khaki hiking shorts, and pivoted to find my audience waiting. "Perhaps formal introductions are in order. I'm Karen Johnson. Traveling artist and harp player. A bit of a nomad, you could say. I'm visiting this part of Florida to paint pictures of the landscapes, people and animals."
Silence. I heard nothing but crickets and tree frogs for a few seconds. "You talk like Katherine Hepburn," the giant of the group said. I would learn his name later. Bigfoot.
"Who?" a fellow ranch hand asked. Later identified as Roy Rogers. He spoke through his spread fingers.
She has a harp," Lily announced. "Like angels play. And a pretty knife. Look." Lily pointed at the Brazilian gaucho knife sheathed on my chest. "She stabbed the Pollo brothers. Sheriff Arnold had to take them to the clinic to get sewn up on the way to jail."
This news earned me more craned heads and curious scrutiny. "Mi Dios!" a mustachioed cowboy exclaimed.
I smiled at him. "Su acento suena cubano. Si?"
He gaped at me, then looked at the others. "She can tell I came from Cuba! She reads minds!"
Ben held up his hands. "Awright, awright. Karen, this is Cheech and Bigfoot, and Possum, and Roy and Dale, and you know Mac and Lily, and in a minute or two you'll get to meet Miriam and Lula and my baby brother. And I'm Ben, yeah. Got all that? There'll be a quiz, later."
"Charmed," I said.
Silence. Some looked confused. Ben turned to them. "That means she's pleased to meet you."
People nodded. Ah hah.
"Benji!" a voice called. "I want to meet the girl who found our horse!"
Ben pivoted toward that voice. His tired, stern face instantly softened. I followed his lead, and my breath caught in my throat. A somewhat gaudy older woman, charm bracelets jangling on leathery arms, pushed a wheelchair toward us. In that chair sat a chubby, sweetly smiling young man with Ben's black hair but with features that clearly indicated Down's syndrome. His coloring was unhealthy and he inhaled deeply through the oxygen cannula at his nose. But his smile was magnificent.
"Karen, this is my brother, Joey," Ben said. "And this is Miriam."
"The mermaid," Miriam wisecracked around a chewed toothpick, then shook my hand.
I smiled. "I sat upon a promontory and heard a mermaid, on a dolphin's back, uttering such dulcet and harmonious breath that the rude sea grew civil at her song—"
Miriam yipped. "And certain stars shot madly from their spheres, to hear the sea-maid's music!" She put a hand to her heart. I nodded. She and I were simpatico. She glared at the stunned looks around us. "It's Shakespeare, you hicks. Us mermaids know these things."
Joey Thocco looked up at me with unfettered fascination. "You're a mermaid and a horse tamer?"
I squatted in front of him. "Well, I certainly can't claim to be all that. Hello. I understand from Lily that you're part-owner of this lovely gray mare."
"Yeah! Me and Mac and Lily, and everybody else, we put our money together and bought her! She was gonna be dog food, if we didn't."
"That would have been terrible. She's a wonderful animal."
"She didn't try to bite you, not even once?"
"No, but the day is young."
His eyes rose to Mr. Darcy, who was studying him from a fence post. "Is that your parrot?"
"Something like that. He's a macaw. A blue hyacinth macaw. Mr. Darcy, come say hello to Joey."
Mr. Darcy spread his blue wings and sailed downward. He knew how to make an entrance. He landed on Joey Thocco's right forearm. I quickly held out my hand. "It's all right, he won't claw—"
Joey burst into laughter. "I like him!"
Mr. Darcy leaned forward, tilting his head this way and that, peering at his new friend. "Boink."
Joey hooted. "Boink."
"What's he trying to say?"
"I'm not sure," I said. "But he likes you. I can tell."
"Boink, Mr. Darcy!"
"Awright, awright," Ben said grimly. "That's enough boinkin' for awhile. We've wasted half the day looking for this mare. And now I'm gonna drive Karen, here, to her motel. Then I'll find out what the garage in Fountain Springs has to say about her car."
"But she hasn't had any lunch, Ben," Lily said. "And we haven't heard her play the harp."
"Yeah, Benji," Joey said. "And I want to talk to Mr. Darcy about boinkin' some more."
Ben frowned. My heart sank. He didn't want to be bothered with me.
"I'm very glad to meet you all," I said quickly, "but I'll let you all go on about your day now. I'll check on the fate of my car, get settled in town, and—"
"She could spend the night in our guest room," Lily said.
"And I could talk to Mr. Darcy some more," Joey added. "Please?"
My heart stopped. Spend the night. I looked up at Ben hopefully.
But he, instead, looked at his brother. "That's what you want, bro?"
Ben lifted his dark eyes to me. "Does the bird know any words politer than 'Boink?'"
"He has an extensive, multi-lingual vocabulary, most of it quite tame but, indeed, some of it is off-color. He also performs sound effects, and he sings. Aside from lewd British comedy songs, his favorite tune is the opening bars from the Star Wars theme."
"Star Wars!" Joey shouted. "That's my favorite movie in the whole world! Ben!"
Ben Thocco tipped his head to me as if touching the brim of an invisible Stetson. Sometimes, partnerships are formed as simply as a song. "Welcome to the Thocco Ranch."