A Connecticut heiress journeys to a
“cracker” cattle ranch in search of her mentally handicapped
birth parents. She never expects to find a home, a family
and a new purpose in live, or to fall in love with the
ranch’s part-Seminole owner, a cowboy struggling to care for
his handicapped ranch hands and his Down syndrome brother.
Kara Whittenbrook is an unlikely heiress. 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.
The setting of A Gentle Rain (northern Florida) is very
special to me. I spent many childhood summers there at the
beaches, and many happy times as an adult visiting my
in-laws in historic St. Augustine. Another element of the
novel is barrel racing, which is also dear to my heart. As a
teenager I and my handsome palamino, Reb’s Buck, competed in
local horseshows all over northern Georgia. We never won
many ribbons, but we made a lot of memories.
1. In A Gentle Rain, Florida rancher Ben Thocco
employs a group of mentally handicapped ranch hands. In
recent decades the mainstreaming of handicapped people has
become the norm. Do you think more progress can be made in
2. Kara Whittenbrook only learned she was adopted after her
adoptive parents died. Are you for or against open adoption
3. When Ben learns that Kara is a wealthy heiress, he
wonders if a man and woman can be equal partners when their
money status is drastically unequal. Do you think it's
still difficult for men to have less money and/or be less
famous than their wives?
4. When you think of Florida, do you think of cattle
ranches? Discuss your Florida perspectives and experiences.
5. Kara, like her adoptive parents, is committed to
environmental causes. What are you views on environmental
6. Kara is a moderate vegetarian who eats dairy and fish,
but no beef, chicken or pork. Could you be happy eating
7. Have you ever eaten alligator meat?
8. Do you imagine that extremely wealthy people are happier
and more relaxed than the rest of us?
9. If you suddenly won the lottery, what would you do with
10. Kara keeps a pinch of her parents' ashes in a gold
locket she wears. How do you feel about the modern practice
of keeping and displaying loved ones' ashes? Do you have
any personal stories to share?
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
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
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
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
"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
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
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
"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,"
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
"Mr. Darcy is blue macaw. Does Rhubarb try to eat
"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
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
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
hausfrau. She accepted me as if I had sprung
from the ground like a wildflower whose seed she'd forgotten
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
"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
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
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
"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
"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
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
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
"There's a holding pen by the main barn," he drawled.
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
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."
"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
"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
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
"She didn't try to bite you, not even
"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
"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.
My heart stopped. Spend the night. I looked up at Ben
But he, instead, looked at his brother. "That's what you
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
Star Wars theme."
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."