Almost Home
by Barbara Freethy, contemporary (2000)
Avon, $6.50, ISBN 0-380-79482-9


Hurrah! After the disappointing The Sweetest Thing, Barbara Freethy returns to top form with Almost Home. AH may be yet another Ain't Cowboys Romantic! yarn with a cowboy hero whom I'm not sure loves female of the equine or human variety more, but skillful storytelling makes AH a notch above the TV Script Of The Week drama it can be on a bad day.

Paradise is a small town in Kentucky where everyone is nice, pleasant, and polite. If you believe that, you haven't been watching TV enough. Katherine Whitfield comes to Paradise to search for her biological father. You see, she grows up under the care of her stepfather and she and that man aren't exactly close. Kate wants a family, one closer than the one she has at the moment. When she finds a letter - unsent - from her mother to her biological father in the woman's hope chest, Kate is delighted. Her father doesn't know she exist! Surely then, the man would welcome her back.

Along with the letter she finds some napkins and matchbooks from a place called Golden's Cafe in Paradise. Instead of hiring a private investigator like all rational women should, she hies off to Paradise.

She knows her father has a name starting with J. So our heroine goes around asking every man whose name starts with J just that. "Do you know a woman called Evelyn?" she asks (Evie's her mother). Questions like this would definitely stir a hornet's nest.

And bonus prize comes in the form of Zach Tyler, our usual horse-loving, hard-headed Good Cowboy with a Past. His father is a conman and the town associates his father's sins with him. When Katherine's car collides with Zach's horse trailer, it's the start of a beautiful relationship.

Actually I am prepared to consign Kate into Twistsville. Going around asking questions with the subtlety of a tank barraging into a house isn't what I call smart, especially when she is barging into married men's lives. Likewise, she rejects candidates on the basis of looks - he's not handsome, not my father, can't be! - and she is a total wimp at times. Zach is a stereotypical hero, the usual cowboy-with-a-stubborn-streak variety, and even at the last page I'm not too sure whom he will save from a fire - Kate or his prized thoroughbred Rogue?

But the storytelling is superb. I keep turning the pages long into the night, intrigued. Who's Kate's father? Will Rogue win the Derby? Will Kate and Zach end up together? Questions like these keep me reading. And yes, Kate and Zach's relationship is indeed well-done, disappointingly familiar characterization notwithstanding. Every word throbs with affection, sexual tension, and old-fashioned romance. While I'm not convinced that the happy ending is just that - they will definitely have issues to iron out after the honeymoon - it is wonderful getting there.

There are some elements that can be done better too, such as the fact that even though I'm told all the time that the townsfolk of Paradise revile Zach, I am shown only one bad guy that treats Zach like dirt. Everyone else treats him just fine. Eh?

And there's an irritating secondary plot about a bored wife who, at the end, learns that she should just shut up and be content with her stuffed shirt of a husband. I appreciate that stories I read may not coincide with my personal prejudices and preferences, but really, to be happy that one's husband is a workaholic bore who is actually aghast at the idea of a lil' rumpy-pumpy on the office desk? You've got to be kidding!

Despite all the kinks, Almost Home is a great story, in fact, a wonderful story where romance is the forefront and family plays a major role in the theme. In a genre increasingly saturated by blondes running away from gangsters or other Tom Clancy dramatics, to read such a wonderfully romantic story is a pleasure enough for me to overlook the flaws. Just dig in and enjoy, that's what I did.

Rating: 86


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