A Gentle Rain

( 17 )

Overview

A Connecticut heiress. A Florida Cowboy. Her heart. His secret. And the very special family she's come home to find. Kara Whittenbrook is an unlikely heiress. Down-to-earth and lovably quirky, she's never fit in with the stodgy 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 ...
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A Gentle Rain

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Overview

A Connecticut heiress. A Florida Cowboy. Her heart. His secret. And the very special family she's come home to find. Kara Whittenbrook is an unlikely heiress. Down-to-earth and lovably quirky, she's never fit in with the stodgy 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.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780976876076
  • Publisher: BelleBooks, Incorporated
  • Publication date: 11/15/2007
  • Pages: 345
  • Sales rank: 788,543
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 8.90 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Read an Excerpt

Prologue

Kara

My birth, 1974

In my mother's innocent world of Saturday morning cartoons, babies wearing name sashes fluttered about a cartoon garden after being delivered by a heavenly stork. Lily Akens had no reason to doubt the obstetrics of a TV show.

My teenaged father, Mac Tolbert, knew better, since he often helped birth calves and foals at River Bluff, his family's northern Florida farm, but he didn't know how to warn my mother about the process. Besides, he wasn't certain human babies were born the same way as livestock.

He could only assume a baby came out from the same spot where the boy put it in.

"Lily, L-lily, don't c-cry," Mac stuttered, kneeling over her helplessly in the sweaty, sub-tropical darkness, swatting at mosquitoes that flitted in the beam of his shaking flashlight. Tall pines shifted above them in a swampy breeze. Bullfrogs chortled in the creek bottoms. Somewhere in a sumpy ditch, an alligator grunted. The dark forests of inland Florida breathe and talk at night, drawing mysterious memories from the porous limestone bedrock. Though far from either ocean, the air carries a faint hint of saltwater.

"But it hurts!" Lily sobbed, pounding her palms on her distended stomach. Her cheap, flowery mumu was soaked with fluid and clotted around her thighs.

"I t-think it's s-supposed to hurt," Mac told her. "Maybe you should stand u-up. Like a m-mare."

"I don't think I can! Oh, Mac! It hurts so bad! Mac! Something's trying to come out of me down there!"

Trembling, Mac pointed the flashlight between her legs. Horses and cattle were born front feet first, as if diving into the world. Mac looked closely but saw nobaby hands, just the bloody pate of a tiny head. It terrified him, but he hid the emotion. He had to be strong for Lily. They were different from other teenagers; they had taken care of each other since childhood. "It's just the b-baby." He sounded more confident than he felt. He knew how to turn a breeched calf or foal but could not imagine sticking his big hand inside Lily.

"Mac! It's moving!"

He grabbed her hands as she sat up. She rocked and he held her. The heels of her tennis shoes plowed furrows in the soft, damp loam. Lily began to yell. After what seemed like forever she went quiet and collapsed against him. "The baby fell out," she moaned. "Why doesn't it flap its wings? Something must be wrong with it. Oh, Mac."

My father turned the flashlight between her thighs again. He and my mother stared in horror. Neither had seen a newborn child, before. I was not a cute little doll or a smiling cherub. I was nearly purple. My head was misshapen. Bloody mucous plastered a feathery dab of red hair to my skull. I opened my shriveled mouth and took a big yawn of air. To them, the effort looked like a dying gasp.

They bent their heads over me and cried.

Searchlights pierced the woods. Mac's older brother, Glen, found them first. "What the hell have you done?" he said.

Mac and Lily sobbed. Before they could hold me even once, before they could realize I was alive and normal, I was taken from them.

I would be grown before I knew Mac and Lily existed. Grown before I knew they had birthed me in the wilds of Florida. Grown, before I knew they had wanted me.

Grown and orphaned before I was born into my parents' lives again.

Ben

The day my life changed, 1977

My baby brother, Joey, was born smiling. I knew from the get-go it was just a matter of time before he died, but life is a long, slow river if you don't give up hope. The black cypress rivers of our Florida--of the real Florida, not the Mickey Mouse plastic-flamingo Florida--promise people they'll live forever. That's why so many old people move here.

Pa and me sweated it out that day, waiting for Ma to give birth at a government clinic. We stood outside in speckled pieces of oak shade under a flat-out blistering sun in the middle of the South Florida swamps, wiping cold dew on our faces as it dripped from the clinic's air conditioner. We spent the rest of our time slapping mosquitoes and dodging wasps that lived in the saw palmettos. It felt like there was nothing else around us but forest and gators. I tried not to complain because Pa said not complaining was the cowboy way.

He'd driven Ma and me over two hundred miles due south from the beef ranch near Ocala where he worked as foreman--we lived there cheap, in a rusty double-wide dented by a tornado--just so she could get treated for free on the Seminole reservation.

Pa was half-Seminole, so he could get Ma into the clinic for nothing, even though she was white. He had his cowboy pride, and taking hand-outs from Grandpa Thocco's people was better than taking hand-outs from strangers.

Here was the crazy thing: There we were in the piss-poorest part of nowhere, where the Indians still lived in thatched huts called chickees, and tourists still paid to watch Seminoles like Grandpa wrestle gators.

But drive northeast two hours and you could watch rockets head for the moon. Drive southeast about an hour and you could sit on a beach in Ft. Lauderdale watching nearly naked college girls.

I was nine years old, it was 1977, and I wanted to see me some college girls in string bikinis. But I was stuck outside that clinic, with Pa.

"Look there," Pa whispered, thumbing his straw hat back from his forehead. He'd been pacing for hours. Pacing and smoking and looking at the clinic. I was glad something finally distracted him. "Yonder. At the edge of the oaks."

I squinted under my palm and saw wild horses peeking at us from behind the trees' Spanish moss. They were lean little mud-daubers, but they sniffed the air with royal attitude. "Them hosses ain't much to look at," Pa went on, "but don't you forget the sight of 'em, Ben. They're Crackers. Like us."

In our part of Florida, lots of things were called Cracker: Fried gator tail, Indian cornbread, tin-roofed houses, tough little horses, longhorn cattle, wild pigs, and kiss-my-ass poor people. It wasn't about color, and it wasn't about creed. It was about survival. Survivors were Crackers.

"Those hosses come from the old Spanish stock," Pa said. "Like Mustangs out west. There's nothing prouder or smarter or tougher on four hooves. Some of 'em even got fancy gaits, like the Spanish hosses straight off ships way back, hundreds of years ago. Not many of 'em are left now. They make fine cattle ponies, and some can run like the wind. It'll be a shame if they die out."

"Let's catch us some," I whispered. Like Pa, I was keen on saving what we could be proud of.

He nodded. "When I earn up enough money to buy us a ranch, we'll get us a whole herd of Cracker horses."

That promise stuck in my mind. His dreams were mine. If he couldn't make 'em come true, I would. "We'll sure do that," I agreed. "Us and the new baby. Hope it's a boy. Or a girl who likes hosses, at least."

"Mr. Thocco," the doc called out.

Me and Pa went running. The doc stopped us at the clinic door. He was a big, chunky dude with thin, blonde hair and a raw mole on his cheek. Blonde and fair-skinned is a bad combination under the Florida sun. He wiped sweat off his face despite the air conditioner. He faked a smile at me. "Son, why don't you take a little walk while me and your daddy talk?"

I gave Pa a determined look. Cowboys didn't take walks.

"Naw," Pa said. "Ben's a man. He knows how to listen."

"All right." The government doctor didn't beat around any bushes. "Your wife's fine. But you've got yourself a baby son with a lot of medical problems."

Pa lost some color under his dusky skin. It went from oak to pine. That scared me. "What kind of problems?"

"He's got a heart condition. It'll get worse as he grows up. I'm sorry, but my best guess is he won't live more than a few years."

My knees went weak. Pa put a cigarette between his lips and lit it with a lighter shaped like a horse's head. His hand looked steady but the flame shimmied. "That the worst news?"

"No sir, I'm afraid not. Your son's ... he's what we call a Down Syndrome child."

Pa pinched the cigarette between a thumb and finger. "What the hell is that?"

"He's ... retarded. Feeble-minded. 'Mentally handicapped' is the polite term for it now. The retardation could be severe, or it could be mild. Either way, it's not good."

I thought my heart would stop. A retard. I knew about retards. I'd seen 'em at the shopping centers in Ocala. Retards drooled on themselves and made stupid faces. You had to work hard not to stare at them. It was rude to stare, Mama said.

But everyone knew a retard was something to hide away so normal people weren't forced to look at it. Retards weren't real people. If one was born in your family, it meant something was wrong with your whole bloodline. If you were a horse or bull, no one would want to breed their mares or cows to you, after that.

Pa slowly dropped the cigarette on the sandy ground then crushed it with the scuffed toe of his boot. "I gotta see for myself."

The doctor ushered us in. There was just a cramped front office and three little rooms off a narrow hall. A Seminole nurse with blotchy brown skin and tight black hair glared at us from a cluttered desk. After all, we were kin to a retard.

The floor was linoleum and everything smelled like cold metal and liniment. I wanted to vomit. The doc pointed toward one door. "Your wife's in there." He pointed at another door. "The baby's in there."

"Wait here," Pa told me. He headed for Ma's room with the doctor behind him.

I walked toward the second door. "Don't you go in there, boy," the nurse called. "You don't want to see that poor little ugly baby."

"He's my brother, lady, and you shut the hell up."

I'd never spoken to a woman like that, before. I'd been raised right. But I'd never been the big brother of a feeble-hearted idiot before, either. Shame and pride fought it out inside me. I started defending my baby bubba from the first, even when I wished he'd never been born. I went in his room.

He was wrapped in tight sheets inside a small metal crib with a see-through dome. An oxygen tank fed air into it, hissing like a snake. I clutched the crib's side, swallowed my bile, and slowly, squinting in fear, peered down at him.

He looked back, or tried to, as best any baby can focus.

His head was too big, and his face was flat. His eyes slanted like the eyes of a Chinese boy I'd seen at a rodeo in Tallahassee. He was scrawny. His skin had a weird blue tint.

But he wasn't ugly. He had mine and Pa's black Seminole hair. He had Ma's cute, brunette-white-girl nose. He had my serious look on his face. And he smiled. He smiled at me.

I put my forehead against the clear dome that separated him from me, and I cried. It was the first and last time I'd let him see me shed tears over him. That's when I realized: He's a Cracker horse. I have to see him as special, and that means worth saving.

Pa came in eventually, looked the baby over without a word, then finally spread one big, callused hand on the crib's dome. He put the other hand on my shoulder. I felt a tremor in it. "What d'ya think, Ben?"

"He's a Cracker," I said hoarsely. "If we don't give him a chance to prove hisself, who's gonna?"

Pa squeezed my shoulder. "Then we're agreed. Your Mama'll be proud of you. Proud of us both. She loves him."

"Then so do we," I said.

"There are places you can send this baby, Mr. Thocco," the doctor said behind us. "The state runs some institutions where he'll be cared for. There's no cost, if you put him there. Would you like to discuss a place for him to..."

"His name's Joseph," Pa said. "It was my granddaddy's name."

"A place for Joseph..."

"Joey," I said. "He's got enough to do without toting a long name. Don'cha think, Pa?"

"Joey," Pa agreed. Pa and me traded another nod. Joey would need all the help we could give him. It'd take two men and a Mama to carry Joey along. I steeled my spine. We could do it. It was the cowboy way.

The doc kept trying. "A place..."

"Yeah," Pa said. He turned to the doc with a face that could set concrete. "We call that place 'home.'"

We took Joey and Mama home to Ocala the next day. We made the best of it. And you know what? Joey was worth the best. Even though me and Joey would end up alone in the world a lot sooner than I knew. Even though finding a home for us would take more sacrifice than I realized.

I never again wished he hadn't been born.

But sometimes, I wished I hadn't.

* * * *
Part One
"Until and unless you discover that money is the root of all good, you ask for your own destruction. When money ceases to become the means by which men deal with one another, then men become the tools of other men. Blood, whips and guns--or dollars. Take your choice--there is no other."
--Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged
* * * *

Chapter 1

Kara

Dos Rios Preserve, Brazil

I loved the story of my birth. Mother and Dad told it to me so many times, it became a fable. The fairytale of my own life.

There they were, Charles and Elizabeth Whittenbrook, a wealthy and esteemed couple, two of the world's most acclaimed environmentalists, credited with saving large sections of the rainforest.

They'd married "late in our youth," as Dad liked to say, and they were finally pregnant with their long-awaited and much anticipated first child, yours truly. They were extraordinarily happy at their Brazilian refuge, Dos Rios, deep in the heart of the Amazon, awaiting the birth.

A radio call came to the preserve's office. The child of a local Indian family had been injured. Could my parents help? Naturally, though Mother was nine months' pregnant, she and Dad packed medical supplies and set out on horseback. They saved the child's life and prepared to return home.

Suddenly, Mother went into labor. The tribe made her comfortable on a woven reed mat in the shaman's hut, and there, beneath an Amazon moon, I was born. As Mother lay holding me in her naked arms, a tribal elder presented her and Dad with the rarest of gifts in honor of my birth--a baby hyacinth macaw.

Mother, in her impeccable English voice, with her love for the novels of Jane Austen, announced that I would be named Karaja, in honor of Brazil's best-known native tribe, but that the honorary bird would be named Mr. Darcy, as per Jane Austen's famous character in Pride and Prejudice.

My delighted father carried the placenta of my birth to a nearby river and ceremoniously presented it to the river gods, as instructed by the shaman.

"It was a blessing of the gods that neither I nor the shaman were eaten by piranhas during the ceremony," Dad always said with a smile.

With a melodramatic story like that as a launching pad, I should have grown up to be the leader of a brave resistance or the demi-god of some powerful cult. But I didn't. Imagine if Marilyn Monroe had had a daughter, and that daughter grew up to be a perfectly nice, accomplished, smart, well-adjusted person, and yet ... the daughter knew she would always be a dim bulb compared to her mother's shining star.

That's how it felt to be my parents' daughter.

Brilliance is always relative.

I grew up stuttering and chubby. It didn't help that Mother and Dad were famous environmentalists, and it didn't matter how rich they were. Not even fame and family fortune protects those of us who start out being perceived as different from the majority.

At boarding school I was known as P-P-Porky Whittenbrook. Later, when I overcame the stutter, I was known merely as Porky. At Yale I became a semi-vegetarian. Fin was fine. Fur was foul. I lost most of the weight and was then known as Carrot Whittenbrook. Did I mention my frizzy red hair?

I was grown before my peers called me only by my given name, Kara Whittenbrook. By then, the psychic damage was done. I had become one of the world's few shy heiresses, and a bona fide recluse who preferred the rainforest to the so-called real world.

Plus I hated both pork and carrots.

Mother and Dad didn't quite know what to make of me. They'd hoped I be a queen bee, not a reclusive worker bee. "Where's your passion for leadership?" they asked. "What is your grandest dream?"

"To earn two doctorates and re-invent the Dewey Decimal System before I'm thirty-five?" I had no grand dreams. And I always posed my goals like a question.

"That's not what we mean."

What did they mean? I never understood. Goals that seemed so easy and off-hand to them required all my devotion. I slaved as an undergrad and even harder as a graduate student. At the preserve, where I catalogued the customs, language and rituals of Amazon tribes, I was a frenetic little sponge of over-achievement, absorbing, relating, and meeting goals with feverish determination.

I didn't have time to be a dreamer.

I was an accomplisher.

Didn't my dual masters degrees in library science, world cultures and language matter? And what about my Juilliard-trained harp playing, and my skill at cooking? All seemed to be no more than precocious cartoon drawings Mother and Dad patiently displayed on their refrigerator door.

In their minds, librarians, harpists and cooks don't save the world. Unless you count writing harp solos and creating culinary masterpieces with soy cheese as milestones of human achievement, I hadn't been put to any real tests.

Until now.

* * * *

The human body looks so alien in charred pieces.

I stared numbly at the carnage of my parents' small plane among the giant trees and ferns of Dos Rios' most remote region. Mother and Dad could not be dead. They were immortal. At least, I had always thought so. I was wrong.

"What would you like us to do first, Kara?" a guide asked gently.

"Collect the remains gently," I told him. I spoke to the tough gauchos and Indian trackers in soft Portuguese, the language of Brazil.

"Turn away, don't look anymore. We will do this for you. And for your parents. An honor for us."

"Thank you, but I have to help. I'm their daughter."

The strong, bronzed men nodded. For a moment I turned my face toward the sweaty brown neck of the small horse I'd ridden to the crash site. Inside, I fractured into a thousand grieving parts.

Connecticut

Mother and Dad's memorial service

"Let us b-begin," I said. My voice shook. Abject shame rose inside me. My stutter was back. It surfaced occasionally and with no warning, but I hadn't suffered an outbreak since grad school, and I was thirty-two now. I thought I'd finally outgrown it. But no.

I took my place at the front of a historic Connecticut church filled with several hundred of the world's richest mourners, many of them my relatives. I felt awkward and unnatural in an impeccably respectable black wool dress with matching pumps and demure heirloom pearls. I tried a second time. "Let us begin."

What was that odd scent? Grief. Grief and fear? No, just the synthetic fragrance of white winter funeral roses flown in from Holland by the thousands. Just the raw tang of blood in my sinuses after weeks of tears.

Stop thinking so hard. Take a breath. Don't stutter. Don't.

Bodyguards and Secret Service agents lined the church's back walls. Two former presidents, several former vice presidents, and one member of England's royal family--a cousin on my mother's side--occupied a front pew near Dad's older brother, my uncle, Senator William Whittenbrook.

Uncle William smiled at me beneath puffy eyes. He, at least, mourned along with me. But all the rest--those rich, powerful and mostly conservative people--stared up at me sternly. I could hear their collective thoughts.

Why did Kara bring that bird?

"Boink," Mr. Darcy said, loud enough for the mike to pick up. The memorial congregation stared at Mr. Darcy and waited for me to take command of his irreverence. Connecticut is not comfortable with large, unpredictable macaws. I covered the microphone. "Control yourself," I whispered to Mr. Darcy. He cackled.

My pre-recorded harp solo filled the large sanctuary. O Coração da Terra. Portuguese for Heart of the Earth. Photographs of Mother and Dad began to appear on two large screens that flanked me. They were tall and elegant. In one picture, I stood between them, a stocky little redhead in hiking shorts and an organically tie-dyed native t-shirt, all freckles and squinty grins.

When the memorial slide show faded to black, Mr. Darcy uttered another rakish cackle. "Ho, Ho, Ho," he said loudly. Macaws are among the smartest of the large, Amazonian birds. He'd picked up a rich variety of lingo from the preserve's staff and visitors. I shushed him. He made a burping sound.

"Welcome, friends and f-family," I began again, my voice quivering harder. "I'd like to start by quoting one my mother's favorite sentiments, from Jane Austen: 'They are much to be pitied who have not been given a taste for nature early in life.'

"Mother's life was d-defined by her love for nature--nature of so many kinds, not just the obvious magnificence of our green Earth, b-but human nature, intellectual nature, and the nature of love between a man and a woman. She adored my father, and he adored her, and I'm happy to say the two of them adored me, their only child. For which I feel blessed."

Mr. Darcy snuggled his head against my upswept red hair, as if trying to comfort me. I cleared my throat. "One of my Dad's favorite quotes came from our distant cousin, Theodore Roosevelt. 'To waste, to destroy our natural resources, to skin and exhaust the land instead of using it so as to increase its usefulness, will result in undermining in the d-days of our children the very prosperity which we ought by right to hand down to them amplified and d-developed.'"

The crowd remained grimly patient. "Or, as Dad would have me tell you," I went on, "'Sentiment without action is the r-ruin of the soul.' A quote from the famed environmentalist, Edward Abbey."

More patient silence. Leaders of industry don't smile at nature-loving lectures. Uncle William looked sympathetic yet impatient. Enough, he mouthed. He patted his heart. Affection, yes. Tolerance, no.

But I couldn't stop. "Perhaps nothing represents my parents' love for the rainforest better than the way they lived their l-lives," I rattled on, my voice breaking. "This one s-story illustrates that beautifully. The story of my birth. There they were, my mother and dad, a wealthy and esteemed couple..."

I couldn't do it. I couldn't share that personal story with people who might only roll their eyes at the melodrama or tsk-tsk at Mother and Dad's recklessness.

Mr. Darcy took my devastated silence as some sort of signal. He leaned down from my shoulder. He cocked his neon-blue head at the mike, nibbled it with his large, frightening beak, then sang a lyric from one of Mother and Dad's favorite comic songs, a little Monty Python ditty.

"I'm a lumberjack, and I'm okay," he warbled in an eerie approximation of a British drag-queen accent. "I put on women's clothing, and hang around in bars."

Everyone but Uncle William gasped. Uncle William hid his smile behind a hand.

I bent my head to Mr. Darcy's. Then I laughed until tears streamed down my freckled cheeks. Then I sobbed.

Then I said firmly into the microphone, "Mother and Dad are dead, you understand? Dead. I helped pick up the pieces of their bodies. I was honored to be there for that duty, no matter how much the memory haunts me.

"But what will the world do without them? What will people like you do without people like them to remind you that there are higher callings that demand the courage to say, 'No, this will not be a matter of making money?'

"Why don't you cry? Why do you all just sit here politely, pretending that you cared about Charles and Elizabeth Whittenbrook when most of you barely knew them and didn't respect their work? Oh, yes, I know you give lip service to the environment, you make donations and write them off your taxes, but when push comes to shove you always choose to make money, first.

"If you really want to honor my mother and dad, you'll find some way to save even one small part of this good, green Earth and the people who love it as much as they did. Save something precious from the short-sighted selfishness that pervades our lives. That's what I intend to do. And if any of you think I'm a foolish dreamer, just like Mother and Dad, you can just..." I bit my tongue. I wouldn't lower myself to be that crude.

But Mr. Darcy would. "Kiss my ass," he finished.

Grief has a sound. It's a shout of rage and the song of a promise. It's the ringing call of passion. It's capable of transforming us, even when it stutters or utters obscenities via a macaw.

I wanted to be transformed.

Ben

Jacksonville, Florida

"Ben, you've kept your brother alive all these years," the cardiologist said. That's amazing, considering his odds. But this time, there's nothing else you, I or medical science can do for him."

"Doc, that's not true, dammit, and you and I both know it."

The doc sighed. "Heart surgeons won't even consider a Down Syndrome patient for a transplant. Insurance companies? Forget it."

"If I could find some way to get the money--"

"It's not about money, Ben."

"Doc, everything in this world's about money, one way or the other. It's what greases the wheels. It's the system. Look, I've read that a heart transplant for my brother could cost a quarter-million. I can sell a piece of my ranch, raise that much cash--"

"It wouldn't matter if you were the richest man on the planet. Joey's not a good candidate for a transplant. It really isn't about the money."

I'm a hard ass. Hard man. They say. Pa died in a ranch accident when we were kids, then Mama when I was sixteen and Joey just seven. I had to run off to Mexico with Joey to keep him out of an institution.

We spent ten years in Mexico, and I saved enough money to come back home and buy a ranch. What I did to earn that kind of money was honest labor but an embarrassment that haunted me still. What I said about working the system? Yeah. It's all in how you play the game, and how the games play you.

Now the nest egg from Mexico was running out, time was running out, and Joey was running out. I wanted to smash the doc's window with a fist. Instead, I looked out that skyscraper window over downtown Jacksonville.

I stared east at the broad, sunny promise of the St. John's River, Florida's Mississippi, some call it. Like I might take Joey fishing in the tidal marsh one more time. Like maybe he'd die happy if he caught another flounder.

I felt like my heart was dryin' up inside me. I wished I could take it out and trade it to Joey. "How long has he got, Doc?"

"I hate to tell you this, but patients with his test results don't live more than six months to a year."

I looked out the window for a long time before I could trust myself to speak again. The doc let me be. Finally, I said, "Joey coulda had surgery when he was a kid. His heart coulda been fixed, if it'd been diagnosed early enough." I paused, gritting my teeth. "If he hadn't been the son of poor people."

The doc sighed. "Yes, that's true. I'm sorry."

"See, Doc? It's always about money, some way or other."

"Point taken."

I faced him. "Make me a promise. Don't tell him what you just told me. I don't want him to know."

"All right, Ben. You have my word. But you need to share this diagnosis with someone you trust. Don't try to deal with it alone."

I gave him a thin smile. "I've had a lot of practice dealing with things alone."

The doc wrote out some new prescriptions and told me to up Joey's oxygen as needed. He also slipped a pamphlet about hospice care in my hand, but I threw that in the trash on my way to the waitin' room.

"Chocolate turtle caramel with peanut butter sprinkles," Joey said happily, as I rolled him through the parking deck. "That's what I want today, Benji."

Benji. Like that dog in the movie. He'd called me Benji since he was six years old. My name was the first word he spoke.

"You got it, bro." Whatever he wanted. We always stopped for ice cream after a doctor's visit. A thought hit me: This time next spring, Joey won't be here to eat ice cream.

"What's wrong, Benji?"

I stopped the wheelchair. "Aw, I got something in my eye. Gimme a second. I'm rubbin' it out."

Sometimes you get help from unlikely angels. I needed angel-help right then, and it came. Across the parking deck, the back doors popped open on my big-ass red truck. Mac and Lily had spotted us.

Maybe angels don't look like tall, middle-aged cowboys with jowly faces or short, middle-aged housekeepers with a bum left leg, but that's what Mac and Lily looked like. They'd worked for me ten years, and they were like family. They loved Joey, and Joey loved them.

"Now, you're all better, aren't you, Joey!" Lily called, throwing out her arms. She limped our way through a flock of seagulls and pigeons pecking at some suburbanite's thrown-out french fries. The birds didn't even spook. They recognized kindred spirits.

Lily patted Joey's head and fed him a piece of fresh gum from a supply she kept in the pockets of her blue jean jumper. Lily had one fashion style--blue jean jumpers covered in embroidered daisies. She stored gum for Joey. The oxygen made his mouth dry. The gum helped.

He chewed a wad of gum and grinned. "I'm all better, already! Time for chocolate turtle caramel with peanut butter sprinkles! Let's go, Mac!"

Mac gave a solemn nod. You couldn't get big, gentle, stuttering Mac to talk much in public. What the hell are words good for, anyway? If I'd learned anything from running a ranch staffed with folks like Mac and Lily, it was that walking the walk is a whole lot more important than talking the talk.

I pulled Joey's oxygen tank out of its holder on his wheelchair, Mac scooped Joey out of the wheelchair's seat, then the two of us hoisted him into the truck's front passenger seat. Lily set the tank in the back seat and adjusted its tube so Joey wasn't like a poodle on a short leash. I folded the wheelchair, put it into the truck bed, and shut Joey's door.

Mac maneuvered himself back into the truck alongside Lily, I climbed in the driver's side, and we were ready to head for home.

"Ice cream!" Joey yelled again, grinning and wheezing. I poked a button on the CD player so he could listen to a Harry Potter audio tape for about the millionth time.

We headed back to the ranch. Just like on every other doctor's visit to the big city.

Right.

I steered hard along I-10 west. If you drive towards the sunset on that super highway, about two-thousand miles later you can drink a beer beside the Pacific in California. In the mid-1980s, when I ran to Mexico with Joey, I-10 was like me, just a fresh-faced teenager--four lanes of new pavement racing across the top of the state. Some of it went through forests so lonely I could smell the lost history in 'em.

Now I-10 was just another big road ignored by a world of fast-moving strangers. Poke a stick in the ground and another strip shopping center'd take root. They grew like weeds next to the new subdivisions. All the newer highways led to the beaches or Disney World. It was like Old Florida didn't exist, anymore. Everything ran past it.

I wished me and I-10 could keep going west. Instead I cut south toward the familiar hinterlands of home. Palm trees turned into pines. Fancy lawns into broad pastures. Sushi bars into barbecue joints. Billboards started selling tractors and Tony Lama hand-tooled boots instead of skidoo rentals and surfboards. The sticky air of a north Florida spring gushed through the truck's cab. The deep swampy woods took us under its wing.

Live oaks, some of them older than the Fourth of July, spread limbs the size of my body over the road. Purple wisteria was blooming. And wild azaleas. Here and there, some white oleanders and pink hibiscus flowered in front of little houses and tornado-bait trailers. And everything smelled like hidden water.

Inland Florida is pockmarked by limestone springs so deep no one knows where they end. Maybe they go all the way through to China. The mystery of water.

Joey's favorite ice cream place, Cold N'Creamy, was in an old strip of shops next to a rusty gas station in the middle of nowhere, about halfway between Jacksonville and the ranch. When we pulled up, we stared at the landscape.

"What happened to all the orange trees?" Joey asked.

Across the road from the Cold N'Creamy, acres of old orange groves had been scraped bare. A sign in the middle of the sand and tree stumps promised a new golf community for active adults by J.T. Jackson Development. Orange Tree Estates. J.T. Jackson, whoever the hell he was, had cut down a grove of orange trees to build a gated subdivision named after oranges. Even by Florida standards, that took some big balls.

Joey's dying. I can't worry about orange trees.

"This is what they call 'Progress,'" I said. "Welcome to it."

I aimed the truck toward a handicapped space in front of the Cold N'Creamy. Close enough for Joey to walk. Any time we could leave the wheelchair behind, he was happy. I was two seconds from the parking spot when a silver Jaguar cut me off.

Come on. You drive a Jaguar, a convertible Jaguar with the top down, you're showing off already. Don't make it worse by being a jerk.

I whipped the truck into a different space. "Y'all just sit tight. We'll do take-out today. I'll be back in a minute."

"That's not fair," Joey said loudly. "That man parked in our spot. We've got a tag." Joey pulled our handicap tag off the rearview mirror. "A tag." He waved it at me, wheezing. I could feel Lily and Mac looking at me from the back seat. They knew how people can be toward their kind. Mean-spirited, taking advantage. I always spoke up for them and the others at the ranch. It was my job.

"All right, gimme a minute." I wasn't too happy to play Superman that day. Superman could keep Joey alive. I couldn't.

I caught up with Mr. Jaguar as he thumbed a couple of quarters into a Jacksonville Florida Times-Union box under the Cold N'Creamy's faded awning. Big guy, balding, wearin' a year-round tan with a fancy golf shirt, creased khakis, and a diamond-lined watch I could trade for a new barn and have money left over. "Friend," I said, "I sure could use that parking space you just took."

He pulled his paper out of the box before he looked me over. He had eyes like a pit bull. He smiled. "There are lots of other spaces in the lot. Help yourself. Friend."

"But see, friend, I got this problem. I've got a brother who can't make a long walk, and you don't."

He chuckled. "Well, friend, here's the thing. I own all this now." He circled a finger, meaning the shops, the skinned land across the street, the air, the world, me, whatever. "And you don't."

I slid my hands in my front jean's pockets. Best to keep my fists out of this. "Aw, now, you don't want me to lecture you about the law regardin' handicapped parking spaces, do you, friend?"

He laughed. Then he held out the paper. "See this headline? Developer Brings Future To Northern Florida. That's me. J.T. Jackson." He slapped the paper on my chest. "There you go. My treat. Read it. You just don't know who I am."

Then he turned and went in the Cold N'Creamy without looking back. His mistake.

I toted the paper to the truck and tossed it on the front seat. I looked at Mac. "That logging chain still in the tool chest?"

He nodded, cocking his big, jowly face at my tone. Lily put her hands to her mouth. Joey's eyes went wide. They knew me too well. I popped the lid on a metal tool chest in the truck's bed and pulled out thirty feel of chain about as thick as my arm. A minute later I had the chain hooked to the Jaguar.

I geared the truck down to low, gunned the engine, and let it have its way. My truck could pull a fully loaded, four-horse gooseneck trailer without a hiccup. Pulling a Jaguar? No sweat.

By the time J.T. Jackson came running out of the Cold N'Creamy with his cone in a wad, I'd dragged his car across the street. It looked pretty cozy under the frazzled shade of the one old orange tree his crew had left there, surrounded by black silt construction fence.

I tossed my chain in the tool box then climbed back in the truck. Trying to look more nonchalant than I felt, I propped an arm out the open window. There are times when a man's got to feel the wind on his elbow.

J. T. Jackson ran up to my elbow yelling a lot of things I wouldn't repeat in front of ladies or long-haul truckers. "Cover your ears, Miss Lily," I said over my shoulder. Lily did. "Joey, don't you pick up any new words." Joey grinned. But I could feel Mac's boots shifting behind my seat. Men talking trash in front of Lily made Mac mad. Me, too.

J.T. Jackson jabbed a hand at the magnetic sign on my truck's door. "Thocco Ranch? Ben Thocco? I won't forget you, you dumb-hick cowboy. You'll be sorry. You don't know who you're dealing with!"

"Friend," I told him. "Your mistake is, you don't know who you're dealing with."

And I drove off.

* * * *

By the time we got to the ranch, Elton Arnold, the right honorable sheriff of Saginaw County, was sitting on my front porch drinkin' sweet iced tea and scowling at Gator, who dozed by the porch steps. Gator was, after all, a five-foot alligator. I put Mac and Lily to work gettin' Joey out of the truck. I could see the three of 'em were scared. "Aw, it'll be fine," I promised 'em. But I went to the porch alone.

"Elton." A tip of my bare head.

"Ben" A tip of his Stetson.

"Gonna arrest me for towin' a Jaguar?"

"Naw, but next time, walk away. J.T. Jackson donated to my re-election campaign."

"So did I."

"Yeah, but your check was three figures, and his was five."

"Aw, shit. Sorry, Elton."

"I called Glen for help. I knew you wouldn't do it."

Mac's older brother. "I'd rather go to jail."

"Glen's a S.O.B., but he don't want his brother's keeper locked up." Elton snorted. "'Cause then Glen might have to look after Mac himself. So he saved your behind. He made a call and smoothed things over. He's buddies with J.T."

"Like I said, I'd rather do time."

"Ben, you know better'n that. What would your baby brother and this motley bunch of moon-gazin' ranch hands do without you?" Elton finished his tea, stood and looked at me kindly. "Take help wherever you can get it, son. You know what the Bible says: Pride goeth before a fall."

"Yeah, but money cushioneth the landin'."

"Ain't it always so?" The sheriff smiled and clapped a friendly hand on my back on his way past. "You might not be a rich man, but you're a free man. This time. Be happy."

He left me standin' there.

A free man.

Right.

* * * *

Chapter 2

Kara

Whittenbrook estate, Connecticut

Sedge Trevelyan was the reason my grandfather, Armitage Whittenbrook, never disinherited Dad. Grandfather certainly wanted to. Dad was a tree-hugging hippie long before hippies began hugging trees, and it cost him Grandfather's love. Even as a Yale student in the 1950s Dad organized nascent ecology movements. It was lonely work for a Whittenbrook. Uncle William, cheerful and fun-loving, was the favored younger son. Grandfather Armitage openly despised Dad's efforts at being a "nature lover." He routinely cut off Dad's money and threatened to leave him out of his will.

Sedge, a family lawyer who oversaw Dad's trust fund, quietly circumvented Grandfather's methods and kept some money flowing to Dad's work. Very upper class British and very reserved, Sedge seemed an unlikely advocate for rebellion, unless one knew his personal history. He was a direct descendent of Charles II via one of that randy English king's many seventeenth-century mistresses. Truth be told, Sedge was a full-fledged earl in the British peerage, but he never used the title. Whatever social standing he'd inherited meant nothing to him; by the time he reached prep school he had been cast out as a gay son. Being gay trumped being aristocratic. On his own, he worked his way up in law and business.

To me, Sedge was a surrogate grandfather who handled all problems, large and small. Though he was eighty now, and had turned the details of my family's estate management over to his hand-picked staff, he still advised me. He championed my small causes just as he'd championed Dad's big ones.

Sedge and I sat before the fireplace of the main living room at The Brooks--a cozy, rambling colonial cottage at the heart of the Whittenbrook estate. We were surrounded by posh leathers and woods. Logs crackled against the cold of a northeastern March. In the kitchen, Sedge's longtime other, Malcolm, sang a Gilbert and Sullivan verse to Mr. Darcy. Uncle William lived up the lane in Whitten House, the famed Georgian mansion our illustrious forebear, James Innesbree Whittenbrook, had built in 1702.

"Sedge," I whispered, my head in my hands. "I made a fool of myself at the memorial service. I insulted all those people in a moment of uncontrolled spite."

"They'll survive." Sedge swirled cognac in the snifter he held on the knee of his corduroy trousers. "I rather enjoyed Mr. Darcy's brief song. It was indisputably vaudevillian. I was reminded of Benny Hill on the BBC. And Mr. Darcy's parting shot was priceless."

"I stuttered."

"No one will remember the stutter, my dear. They'll remember your devotion and your eloquence."

"You really believe I did justice to Mother and Dad?"

"Yes. I saw a side of you I've never seen before. Passion. Conviction. Fearlessness. Why are you backsliding into uncertainty now?"

"I don't fit in here. These people aren't my 'tribe.' That's not their fault. I'm going back to Dos Rios. I'm a librarian and a cultural observer. An efficient manager and a wonderful organizer. I can help the preserve's researchers with various projects, write reports, cross-index all their books--"

"They're perfectly able to manage without you."

"Oh?" I arched a brow. "Who else can turn rice, bananas, collards and cassava root into an incredible meatless dish?"

"Kara."

"I'm not going to blossom into a charismatic activist like Mother. I'm not going to be an eloquent leader like Dad. But I can make a heckuva sprout salad."

"You made a promise to save a place--and its people--in your parents' honor."

"I meant it. I'm thinking I could set up a second refuge. Acquire some large tracts of the rainforest in Peru."

"That's simply a matter of spending money. Kara, the key to your promise at the memorial service is this: You. You have to find your own place, your own tribe. You have to take risks. Get out of your comfort zone. That's what your parents always tried to tell you.

"They raised you to accept and appreciate and protect ways of life very different from your own. You've never applied that wonderful lesson to the world outside the rainforest. You have to care. You have to step into a world unlike your own. Anything less is just an academic exercise and a pretentious use of your inheritance."

"Pretentious? I'd love to be pretentious." I stood. "Look at me." I indicated my blue-jeaned, sweatered self. "I can't even manage to be semi-pretentious."

"Now, really, Kara. How one looks has nothing to do with how one is."

"Sedge, there's something I need to tell you. When I scattered Mother and Dad's ashes in the rainforest, as they always said they wanted, I saved a little--" I lifted a delicate gold locket from my necklace, "--to keep here."

"Perfectly appropriate. Makes more sense than keeping their ashes in an urn on the mantel. I've never understood that custom."

"This necklace isn't just a sentimental keepsake. I have this strange, despairing need to be certain Mother and Dad really are part of me. That's why I'm wearing this locket." I held out my hands, searching thin air. "It's as if ... as if I've always felt orphaned."

He took my hand. "My dear, I assure you. You have always been loved. And you have always been a Whittenbrook. And you always will be." He sighed and rose to his feet. "It's a cold night. I'll get you a brandy. No more of these morbid thoughts."

I stood there thinking. What if I don't want to be a Whittenbrook, anymore?

* * * *

I couldn't sleep at all, that night. I didn't sleep much, anyway. I had nightmares about the crash site, and often woke up in a cold sweat. I thought I'd never sleep soundly again.

At four a.m. I sat cross-legged on the steel floor of Mother and Dad's walk-in safe, a vault built in what had once been The Brook's cellar. The steel floor was cushioned by a hand-woven Peruvian rug. I was dressed in organic cotton pajamas and an alpaca sweater. I recognized the contrast and the irony.

Trays of jewelry surrounded me; millions in fine gems and precious metals were at my fingertips, some of them important Whittenbrook heirlooms, others mere baubles given by friends, family, royalty, state leaders and captains of industry.

Uncle William stored his share of the ancestral loot elsewhere. My parents had rarely mentioned their personal hoard, which they'd intended to donate to museums or charities. I planned to pick out only a few mementoes. Then Sedge's staff could disperse the rest as Mother and Dad had wanted.

I pulled my father's boyhood stamp collection from a lock box in the wall. I leafed through a collection of handwritten notes he'd received from philatelist pen pals in the late 1940s when Dad was a young teen. I never thought of my parents as older than average, but they were both over forty when I was born in the mid-1970s.

So here were Dad's World War Two era pen pals: Churchill, Truman and Eisenhower. Oh, and here was one from a distant cousin of Dad's. That handsome war hero from Massachusetts. Jack Kennedy.

I put the letters down and sat there numbly. I had a prized childhood collection, too, which I'd carefully itemized, catalogued and stored at Dos Rios. But my collection consisted of posters, telenova videotapes and fan magazines featuring Latin American wrestlers. Lucadores.

Dad had collected stamps with Churchill.

I'd collected pictures of masked, bare-chested, tights-wearing wrestlers.

I got to my feet again and staggered to a wall. Another lock box protruded slightly from its berth. I pulled it out, set it on a small table, then poked a master key into its lock. I expected another stamp collection. Instead I lifted out a slender manila folder with a yellowing label across the top.

CONFIDENTIAL DOCUMENT

REGARDING KARA

I frowned. My parents had kept no secrets from me. None, certainly, that need be locked in a vault. I flipped the folder open.

I stood there for a long time, weaving slightly in place as I read and re-read my birth certificate. I tried to convince myself it was some joke, or hoax, or mistake. Jane Austen, however, reminded me that instincts speak far louder than turgid rationalizations.

As she said: Where so many hours have been spent in convincing myself that I am right, is there not some reason to fear I may be wrong?

These papers and their meaning were real.

Slowly my legs folded, and I sat down on the cold steel floor.

Charles and Elizabeth

Dos Rios Preserve, Brazil

1974

Haggard and red-eyed, Charles Whittenbrook waited beside a Jeep in the warm, foggy rain. He watched dully as a pilot landed a small plane on the refuge's airstrip. Sedge had traveled for more than twenty-four hours straight to arrive this quickly in the remotest region of western Brazil. He took Charles in a deep hug, despite the soft rain falling on their bare heads. "How is she? And how are you?"

"We are in complete despair," Charles said simply. "And filled with self-loathing."

* * * *

Elizabeth sat in a wicker chair on the screened porch of the preserve's main house. Wrapped in a blanket woven by the women of a local tribe, a blanket they had given her and Charles in honor of the coming baby, she gazed in stark misery, unblinking, into the dense, primordial forest.

Her auburn hair hung in unbrushed clumps around her pale cheeks. She held a Beatrix Potter book in one hand. She had bought all the classic children's books in anticipation, and every day for months she had read aloud to the child growing in her womb.

"It was a miscarriage, my dear," Sedge said gently, sitting across from her in a stiff chair cushioned in Carnivale colors. "It could have happened under the safest circumstances. Neither you nor Charles is to blame."

"A seven months' fetus is not a miscarriage. It is a baby. And it would have lived, had we not been so convinced we ourselves are immortal."

"My dear..."

"I am forty-one years old. I am a scientist. I know the risks at my age. How could I have been so reckless? There was no need for Charles and me to visit that village personally. We could have sent help for the sick people there. But no, there we were, bumping along on horseback. I should have known better, Sedge. I killed my baby."

Charles, standing beside her chair, clamped a hand on her shoulder in comfort and rebuke. "No, we are both responsible. I should have known better, too. I encouraged you to go. I ... God help me, I thought, 'This is a tale we'll tell our child. How we took her with us on these missions, these humanitarian efforts.' God help me."

He cried quietly, still clasping Elizabeth's shoulder. She lifted one shaking hand to cover his, and shut her eyes. "Sedge, our child is buried in the forest. Buried in the forest. We were two days from here. We had no choice. We dug a grave on the edge of the salt lick where thousands of magnificent birds gather. An extraordinary place."

Charles got himself under control. "We intend to leave the grave where it is. No debate. That's our choice. Only we know where our child's body rests. But Father will insist on a memorial service in Connecticut. I won't deny him that honor. Nor will I deny him the right to tell me how my ideals and my foolishness have destroyed his grandchild. That's precisely what I'm telling myself."

Sedge stood. "You called me here because you trust me."

"Because you are more like a brother to me than a paid advisor."

Sedge accepted the praise without reaction. "If you do trust me, then take my advice. Do not tell anyone you lost this baby." Charles and Elizabeth stared at him. He went on, "Your father will never forgive you. He will be livid, and he will be vicious. You will be punished in a manner spectacularly favored by Whittenbrooks."

"For God's sake, Sedge, I couldn't care less about losing my inheritance."

Elizabeth moaned. "We hardly need my father-in-law's fortune to continue--"

"Think of the consequences. William will get the lion's share, with the rest scattered to dilettante cousins, and they'll buy up more companies and build more Whittenbrook mansions, and the money shall go to no good purpose except the furthering of Whittenbrook acquisitions."

"We're not going to lie just to guarantee my inheritance!"

"Do you or do you not wish to 'save the planet' as you are always putting it? Do you or do you not wish to be doting parents to a lovely child?"

Sedge frowned down at Elizabeth, whose hand had formed a fist on the Beatrix Potter book. "More than anything," she confirmed. "But I doubt we'll get pregnant again. The odds are against it. We had so much trouble this time."

"Do you want a child to whom you can leave your legacy? Some wonderful son or daughter who will be raised with your vision, your hope for this soggy old planet, your dreams? Who will receive a fair share of the Whittenbrook wealth and carry on your philanthropic use of it? Charles, do you?"

Charles fought with himself silently, then nodded.

Sedge sighed. "Then stay here for the next two months and tell everyone back in the States that your pregnancy is progressing beautifully. I'll report that the two of you were glowing pictures of expectant parenthood during my visit here, and--" he paused, studying them for any signs of weakening resolve, "--over the next two months I will find you a newborn baby to call your own. I promise you, no one will ever know the child wasn't born here."

Charles and Elizabeth stiffened in shock. "Let us discuss it," Charles finally said. Sedge nodded and left the porch.

Sedge waited nearly an hour without word. He made a gourmand's grimace as he sipped strong Brazilian coffee among the colorful tiles and rustic woods of the preserve's aviary. Dozens of injured or orphaned macaws and parrots eyed him from soaring perches.

A fledgling macaw, one of the hyacinths, fluttered down and sat on his coffee hand. The electric-blue youngster was no more than a foot tall, then. "Oi," the bird said. Even its Portuguese accent was perfect. A native Brazilian.

"Hello to you, in return," Sedge said. "You must be the amazing Mr. Darcy, about whom I've heard so much."

"Oi."

"Speak the Queen's English, not Brazilian Portuguese, you."

"Oi."

"All right, then. Oi."

Charles and Elizabeth entered the room. "We want a baby," Charles said.

Sedge nodded his approval. "You'll give some unwanted child a wonderful new life."

Elizabeth's throat worked. "Our baby was a girl, Sedge. With..." she raised a tired hand to her hair. "Red hair. Like mine." Her voice broke. Charles put an arm around her. She leaned against him.

"A newborn girl with red hair it is, then," Sedge promised. "I shall find the best."

Kara

The present

"I should have known they'd save the birth certificate," Sedge said wearily. "I urged them to destroy it, and they swore to me that they would."

He rode beside me in full winter tweeds and a mohair sweater, as if prepared to hunt down a stag on the heath of some ancestral estate or to chase me should I decide to nudge my Thoroughbred's flanks and bolt. The cold lay on me like a thick glove. I wore jodhpurs, boots and a thick sweater. No hat, no gloves.

I wanted to be numb.

"Perhaps they intended for me to find it, some day. Perhaps they intended to tell me I was adopted."

"And thus to admit to the world--not to mention the contentious and often competitive Whittenbrook family--that they'd lied about the birth of their child? They felt they saved you from a life as an unwanted baby. They felt they could offset their guilt by giving you the best life, the best opportunities, any child could desire. And they never wanted you to know the truth."

"Then why did they keep the adoption papers?"

"Frankly, I doubt they expected to die. Ever." He smiled sadly. "Thus, they couldn't imagine the papers would be left behind for you to discover." He hesitated, then: "I wish you could have seen their faces when I presented you to them in Brazil. It was love at first sight. It truly was."

"Did you purchase me for them? How much did I cost? Was I a bargain?"

"Please. It was, in many ways, a routine private adoption. I made some discreet inquiries via certain connections. I spoke to adoption attorneys across the United States. My liaisons informed me that an appropriate baby, healthy and newborn, was available in a small town in northern Florida. After that, the process was relatively simple."

I wound my hands tighter in the leather reins. My bay gelding, a fine hunter-jumper from Uncle William's stables, tucked his elegant head at my subtle command. I had, after all, trained in dressage with the head of the Brazilian Olympic Equestrian Team. I was a Whittenbrook. Whittenbrooks could sit a horse. At least, the real ones could.

"Did I have a given name?" I asked quietly. "Aside from 'Unnamed Female Child?'"

"Your biological parents gave you up immediately at birth. They did not name you."

"My biological parents. Sedge, I feel as if I was grown in a Petri dish."

"No, my dear. You were born the usual way. Quite healthy and quite normal and quite adorable."

"My birth parents were high school sweethearts? I saw their ages in the paperwork. Giving birth to me and then giving me away was their decision? Did you ask their lawyer whether they wished to keep me? Of course, at their ages I expect they were more interested in applying to college than marrying and raising a child."

He said nothing. The soft whisk of our horses' hooves in the snow was the only sound. "Was I ... Sedge, was I the child of some terrible circumstance? Do you think my birth mother was raped?"

"Oh, Kara. No, No. It was nothing like that."

"Then what?"

He stopped his horse, and I halted mine. I stared at his strained expression. The soft creak of fine English saddlery merged with the whoosh of our horses' breath. "Your parents were ... compromised. Unsuitable."

"Because they were underage?"

"Let me ask you something. There is no need for you to pursue this matter. You are a Whittenbrook, your adoption was perfectly legitimate, and there is no question that you remain your adoptive parents' heir. No one but you and I know the truth. Search your heart. Do you really want to know more?"

"Yes." No hesitation. "There are two other people who know the truth. My biological parents. They know they gave me away. Sedge, what if I have brothers and sisters?"

"You don't."

"So you have researched my birth parents in the years since!"

"When you turned twenty-one and came into your trust fund, your parents asked me to find them. To ascertain their ... fate."

My heart squeezed and released in tight knots. "You discovered that my birth parents turned out to be awful human beings?"

"No, not awful. Just unexpected."

"Unexpected? Please, the look on your face is terrifying in its sympathy. Please, just tell me what was wrong with them."

He exhaled slowly. "My dear, by all accounts they were and are lovely, gentle souls, and, to their credit, they have remained together as a devoted couple all these years. But I cannot tell you how they felt about giving birth to you, or whether you would matter to them now. And I cannot encourage you to seek them out. There's always the risk that they--or the people surrounding them--might try to take advantage of your status and wealth. There's also the risk that the sheer heartache might be more than you can bear. And more than they can bear."

"I may not be an iron-willed Whittenbrook, but I believe I can fend off a few familial parasites and gold diggers. Tell me what's wrong with my birth parents."

He shut his eyes for a moment, then met my gaze. "To coin one of the kinder terms, they are mentally retarded."

* * * *

I sat on the snowy ground beneath a winter oak. My gelding dozed, exhaling warm, white steam near my face. I had a somnambulant effect on horses. I spoke melodic Portuguese and native Amazonian languages to them, and they seemed to think it a secret code. South American horse whispering was my specialty.

As a very young child I sometimes dreamed beautifully odd dreams of moonlit woodlands filled with a kind of music, like shy drawls calling to me inside a waterfall. Mother said I was remembering where I came from in heaven, and Dad, carrying me high on his privileged shoulders, again told me the story of how I, Kara Whittenbrook, had been born in their arms beneath the exotic glow of a Brazilian moon, and how no one on earth could possibly love me more than they.

Was that much true, at least? That they'd saved me from an unloved life?

I put my head in my hands, mourning for Mother and Dad but angry at their deception. "I'm going to Florida and see what kind of people my birth parents are," I told the gelding. "I have to find out who I really am."

He nuzzled my hair and blew sweet vapor on me. Yes, I had a way with horses.

At least I knew that much.

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Sort by: Showing all of 17 Customer Reviews
  • Posted January 26, 2009

    Predictable but Heartwarming

    A Gentle Rain is just that ¿ a gentle, heartwarming story. Having lived in Florida most of my life, the author really does a great job of portraying the dichotomy of the state; `cracker¿ country versus Tourism. I have experienced both cultures and this book nails them dead on. The story is a bit predictable, but is told well with vivid descriptions of the characters, really bringing them to life, and some nice, but simple dialogue. I didn¿t really expect to like this book, but it had captured me within the first few chapters and had me laughing out loud one minute, tears rolling down my face the next. If you¿re looking for a simple, warm, easy read, and want to learn about Florida culture, this one¿s for you.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 2, 2007

    An Amazing Tour de Force Contemporary Romance

    ¿Deborah Smith¿s A GENTLE RAIN is a truly amazing tour de force, southern contemporary romance. 'BelleBooks/Nov. 2007' New England heiress, Kara Whittenbrook, who was raised in the Amazon, is devastated over losing both of her parents in a plane crash. However, even more upsetting is discovering she was adopted and that her birth parents are mentally challenged. Kara, under the assumed name Karen Johnson, goes to the Florida ranch where they work to meet them. She pretends she is a down- on-her-luck traveling gypsy, complete with harp and talking pet macaw, Mr. Darcy. When her car gets wrecked due to a runaway horse, she gets hired to be the cook on the Thocco Ranch. Ben Thocco is a half-Indian, hard-working rancher, who is always taking care of strays like the Cracker horses he raises and people with problems like Joey, his brother with Down¿s syndrome. Ben, who has very little time for a personal life, even feels the need to take care of Kara. However, Kara proves quite competent in not only taking care of herself but being extremely helpful to Ben and his unusual family. This couple rescues each other time and time again until they finally realize they¿re perfect for each other! In a world with so much strive, Deborah Smith¿s beautifully written novels are all about the goodness of the human spirit, triumphing over adversity but most of all finding true love in the most unlikely places. A GENTLE RAIN is a masterclass in great contemporary romance with its cast of endearing, misfit characters and heart-warming, unforgettable love story.¿ - Patricia Rouse, Rouse¿s Readers Groups

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted January 7, 2011

    HIGHLY RECOMMENDED - YOU MUST READ IT!!!!!!

    One of the best books I have ever read. Have read it at least twice a year since I discover it. It now resides at the top of my Top 10 Favorite Books!!!!

    READ IT TODAY IT'S TO GOOD TO MISS!!!!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 21, 2008

    Mama Knows best...an avid reader

    I'd give it 10 Stars. This is without a doubt the best book I have read in years. I just loved it. 'and I have so many favorite books!!' I've recommended it to everyone and so far all have raved about this story. You wish you knew people like these. My pick of the year. I read a book in a day and a half 'on average' and always read daily. I have so many favorite authors...yet this book was sooooooooooooo good. You have a smile in your heart after you are done.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 29, 2008

    MASTERPIECE

    This has to be the best novel that I have had the privilege of reading by Deborah Smith. I have read most of her books and each one is a work of art but this book just made me feel good. The characters are wonderful and I laughed more in this book than I have in any other book I have read. There were so many special and tender moments in this book too. You really do feel that there are special angels in this world for each of us and everyone is special, needed and can contribute in some way in society. I found myself trying to pick actors and actresses that could play the parts of Ben and Kara as well as Miriam and Lulu. This book would make a tremendous movie if Hollywood would take the chance. Ms. Smith you have outdone yourself this time and I look forward to your next endeavor!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 1, 2013

    Heartfelt

    Great story fun easy read especially if you love old florida

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 13, 2013

    I loved this book as it had a great story along with interesting

    I loved this book as it had a great story along with interesting facts about the Florida most people don't know about. Rich in history and great writing. You can see the saw palmetto and smell the creeks and rivers of my childhood. Loved it.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 10, 2013

    Love, Love, Love

    Loved reading this. It is such a unique story line with so much heart. Love the two main characters. They are made for each other. Nice to watch this story develop and grow.

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  • Posted November 15, 2012

    A MUST read.... I read at least 250 books a year of all genre.

    A MUST read.... I read at least 250 books a year of all genre. I ordered this by mistake (wrong author) and it is my favorite book that I have read in years (and I have a lot of favorite books). I have recommended this book to all my friends and bought at least 10 copies as gifts. In fact here today to order another copy as a "secret friend " Gift. Don't spoil the book by reading long reviews, just look at the stars and know this is a keeper. I wanted the story to go on and on..you really get "involved" with the charters. Enjoy

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 15, 2012

    Exquisite!

    The more I read of Deborah Smith's books, the more I love her! This book is so beautifully written, the characters, both the main and supporting are so well developed, their quirkiness so real and endearing and many a time, funny in a melancholic way. I will recommend this book to my circle of friends!!!!!

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  • Posted May 20, 2012

    First Read for me of a Deborah Smith Book. Loved It!!!!

    Very dimensional book and so good that I ordered 3 more. Exceptionally interesting characters and story line. While it was fun ~it was also heartwarming and spell binding. I passed it on and my friend also loved it.Hope the next book is as much of a pleasant escape as this one was.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 11, 2012

    Deborah Smith's A Gentle Rain

    Deborah Smith has such a wonderful way of drawing the reader in. A must read

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 10, 2009

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 7, 2009

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 12, 2009

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted March 23, 2013

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 25, 2013

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Sort by: Showing all of 17 Customer Reviews

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