If Wishes Were Horses
by Curtiss Ann Matlock
(Avon, $5.99, PG) ISBN 0-380-79344-X
Nobody, and I mean nobody, writes regular people into romance the way Curtiss Ann Matlock does. If Wishes Were Horses is a worthy successor to last year's sensational Love in a Small Town, filled with the same warmth and humor. Its down-to-earth characters are imbued with a grace and style all their own. I loved them instantly.

The story opens with Etta Rivers, age twenty-six and six months' pregnant, preparing to bury her husband. As Etta points out, "It was not so much her husband dying in another woman's bed that had sent her into shock, but his dying at all. Roy had been only thirty-five years old, and while he had been in many a woman's bed, he had never died on her before."

Etta has more to face than just the humiliation of Roy's death and her own grief. Soon the creditors start arriving. Roy, it seems, liked to gamble and spend, and Etta has no way to pay off all these bills. The cruelest blow is the loss of her beloved horses, taken by a local man as payment of a debt. Only one runty three-year-old colt is left.

Etta prepares to somehow carry on. With the help of her friend/housekeeper/surrogate mother Latrice, she manages to get Roy buried and keep her head held high in front of the assembled townspeople. On the day of the funeral, a new creditor arrives. He's Johnny Bellah, former rodeo cowboy-turned horse trainer, and he's holding an IOU for $850 from Roy, won in a poker game.

Johnny is a homeless drifter, a man with a bum knee and a fondness for whiskey. When he meets up with Etta, he's got eight dollars to his name. He's a good horse trainer, though, and when Etta agrees to let him sleep in her barn and use her corrals to train a few local horses, it seems like a fair trade for the debt owed. Then Johnny gets a good look at Little Gus, Etta's remaining colt, and recognizes the potential underneath the nondescript exterior. Here's a horse that could be a champion racer or rodeo mount.

Etta isn't willing to trust what Johnny says. No matter that she's attracted to Johnny. No matter that his eyes follow her around. She's six months pregnant with a dead husband, whose big-time spending habits and faithless love got her into this mess. Her own daddy was a rodeo drifter who was never around when the chips were down. No way is she going to lose her heart to this no-account cowboy who will no doubt up and leave when the urge strikes.

Johnny is just as leery. He's a man with astonishingly clear self-appraisal; one who knows he's unlikely to settle down in one spot and fully understands why. No woman has ever made him want to sink roots. It's not likely that Etta will be the one to change him. So, for now, he'll train Little Gus and the other horses and do what he can to help her get on her feet.

The story undergoes a gradual shift as Etta, who gave Johnny a sanctuary of sorts in her barn, finds Johnny bailing her out on a few occasions. Darn it, she thinks, this is just what she didn't need another man taking care of her, especially one that might be gone tomorrow. Johnny, meanwhile, finds a delight in taking care of the independent Etta. As these two gradually let down their defenses, the bonds grow stronger and the longing between them sizzles.

Latrice makes a memorable secondary lead. Under Matlock's skillful pen, and the clever setting of the late 1950's (I'm guessing here, it wasn't made quite clear) we get an intriguing look inside the life of a black woman in the days before the civil rights movement. While most of the townspeople would like Latrice to remember her "place", she's really the backbone of the family and Etta knows it. And her secondary romance with a former Negro League ballplayer named Obie adds dimension to the story.

The story has lots of additional facets. Etta's relationship with Roy is presented in a way that makes it perfectly logical that she'd stay with him, cheatin' heart and all. Johnny wants Etta, but he's too proud to want Roy's house or land. Little Gus turns out to have all the potential Johnny envisioned, but will he win at the track? Johnny faces his whiskey demon as he attempts to win Etta. Even the woman in whose bed Roy died comes into play. This isn't just a romance, it's a large slice of life. Make that a meat-loaf-and-mashed-potatoes slice; comfortable and oh, so satisfying.

You won't find millionaires or supermodels between the pages of If Wishes Were Horses. Oh no. This is something far more valuable: real romance, between people so genuine they could be our neighbors. Come to think of it, I wish they were.

--Cathy Sova

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