Alice at Heart

Charming Grace

The Crossroads Cafe

Diary of a Radical Mermaid

On Bear Mountain

A Place to Call Home

The Stone Flower Garden

Sweet Hush

Sweet Tea and Jesus Shoes

When Venus Fell

A Gentle Rain
by Deborah Smith
(Belle Books, $16.95, PG) ISBN 0-976-87607-8
Deborah Smith returns in top form with A Gentle Rain, a heartbreakingly beautiful story of love on several different levels. Kara Whittenbrook is the daughter of wealthy, world-famous environmentalists, who are loving, devoted parents to their only child. Kara’s upbringing, a combination of boarding schools and life in a jungle compound, has brought her two master’s degrees but no all-encompassing purpose like that shared by her unconventional parents. Nor does the red-haired, slightly plump Kara have any real sense of connection to the patrician, uber-rich Whittenbrook clan of Connecticut, most of whom disdained her parent’s work. Kara can cook, ride, play the harp, speak six languages, and is a trained librarian, and at thirty-two her life stretches ahead of her in a long road of mild happiness cataloguing the cultures of the Amazon, an assistant to her parents.

In the blink of an eye, everything changes. Her parents’ plane goes down in the Amazon, and Kara is left to face the future alone. While sorting through her parents’ effects, she is stunned to find adoption papers. Kara’s biological parents are Mac and Lily Tolbert, who live and work on a ranch in northern Florida, and they are both mentally handicapped. With the help of Sedge, the English man-of-affairs who champions her within the Whittenbrook family, Kara decides to try to meet them. Unsure of her welcome and how she wants to fit within their lives, it’s as “Karen Johnson”, itinerant artist and harp player, that she sets out for the Florida backcountry. Only Mr. Darcy, her pet talking macaw, accompanies her.

What Kara finds surprises her. The ranch is owned by Ben Thocco, a kind man with an enormous burden on his shoulders. Ben’s beloved younger brother, Joey, has Down Syndrome and a bad heart that is getting weaker. Ben has been Joey’s sole support since their parents died when Ben was sixteen and he took him to Mexico rather than see him institutionalized. Ben ended up making a career for himself as a professional wrestler called El Diablo. Now Ben is struggling to hold onto the cattle ranch he purchased, make a good life for Joey, and provide employment for several other mentally-challenged adults - including Mac and Lily.

Into this mix steps Kara, actually sitting on the back of a runaway horse from Ben’s ranch that has caused her car to crash. Lily and Mac take an instant shine to her, and before she knows it, Kara is staying at the ranch, doing the cooking and cleaning and getting to know her unsuspecting parents. Ben knows there must be more to this woman than meets the eye, but she seems sincere, and he’s wildly attracted to her. Kara wonders if Ben is truly the El Diablo of her teenaged fantasies, but she’s more impressed with the man who cares for his “family” so carefully; a family that now seems to include her as well.

As Kara is drawn ever deeper into the workings of the ranch, the enormous fortune at her disposal is a helpful burden. With the money, she can secretly “fix” some of Ben’s problems, such a preventing the neighboring ranch from being sold to a developer who will bulldoze the land. But Kara, as she grows to love Mac and Lily, must decide where she wants to fit within their lives, if at all, especially since they deny ever having a child. And her fortune may well scare Ben off completely, once he finds out she’s a Whittenbrook.

There are other subplots in the story, involving an abused Cracker mare (a native breed Ben is trying to save) purchased at an auction where she was destined to become dog food; Glen Tolbert, Mac’s controlling older brother who is also his legal guardian; and the aforementioned developer and his nasty daughter, who takes every opportunity to taunt the “retards” of the ranch. Kara and Ben have their hands full, and when the Cracker mare’s full talents finally come to light, Kara also finds a way to shine.

A Gentle Rain isn’t without a few flaws. The villains are almost cardboard in their nastiness, and the environmental message can get a bit heavy-handed at time, but overall, this is a lovely, touching story of two people finding love in an unexpected place. It’s also the story of love within a family, however that family may have come to be. As Kara finds her place within the family at the ranch, readers will come to love them just as she does. She even finds that her Whittenbrook family has a few loving surprises for her when the chips are down. As for Mr. Darcy, the talking blue hyacinth macaw, he nearly steals the book with his pithy comments. (His conduct at the memorial service for Kara’s lost parents, attended by a host of stiff-necked Whittenbrooks, is absolutely priceless).

The love story between Ben and Kara unfolds slowly, as the author allows them to get to know one another. The story is told in the alternating first-person viewpoints of Ben and Kara, an unusual choice that absolutely works here. It’s a delight to get inside the heads of both leads, and we’re carried along with them as they dance around love and then fall right in. Deborah Smith is beyond any amateurish “I’ll never love again” nonsense, thank goodness; these two know exactly how special this is and are more than willing to risk their hearts. In a word, it’s beautiful.

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. Readers, help keep this woman in print and buy a copy of this book. Consider it a gift to yourself as we ring in the New Year. You won’t be disappointed!

--Cathy Sova

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