Carson Merrill loves only one thing more than Lone Creek Ranch—high school sweetheart Jessica Tate. He has plans to marry her, until one fateful night a devastating accident nearly kills her brother, James, and claims the use of his legs. Jessica flees to Nashville, blaming Carson for her brother’s paralysis, and avoids him—and James—for more than a year. Jessica returns to Lone Creek as one of the top producing land developers in the area, and she has one goal—to banish Carson forever from her memory while taking what he still loves—Lone Creek Ranch. But God has other plans—to draw the two together in a development project that will satisfy both their desires, and help them to reclaim the love they once shared.
The low rumble of a black SUV drew Carson Merrill’s attention from the paddock and the horses waiting to be fed. He lifted his gaze to the horizon where a tempest of dust swirled against an expanse of cloudless blue sky. A gleam of metal caught the sunlight, and Carson’s gaze narrowed. He dropped the hay bale from his shoulder and shielded his eyes, hoping the glint wasn’t what he thought it was.
He swallowed an oath and brushed soiled palms against the thighs of his faded jeans before adjusting the brim of his hat. The words he muttered carried on the warm spring breeze.
“What’s she doing here?”
The oversized SUV with polished chrome wheels screamed wealth and privilege as it turned off the main road and wound down the long gravel drive toward the entrance to Lone Creek Ranch.
Carson’s gut clenched when the truck eased to a stop and the driver’s door swung open. Music spilled from the cab to mar the morning calm. Navy spike-heeled pumps peeked first, followed by long, shapely legs clad in a snug pencil skirt. Blonde hair bobbed in a sassy blunt cut as Jessica Tate unfolded herself from the driver’s seat.
She found her footing and turned with a flourish to face Carson. Her smile exposed straight, white teeth that Carson knew had once been encased by an arsenal of metal braces. He’d gotten his upper lip pinched in them—more than once.
Jessica propped designer sunglasses on her head to gaze at him with eyes the blue-gray color of a restless ocean wave. “My, but it’s a positively gorgeous morning. Wouldn’t you agree, Carson?”
“Depends.” He cleared the bile from his throat, tapped the toe of one scuffed boot, and turned to work the hay loose from its bindings as the horses inched in for a better look at Jessica. He couldn’t blame them. She was more than…appealing. “What brings you here after so much time…after more than a year?”
She frowned, her lips pursing into the perfect little pout, and smoothed a speck of lint from her linen blazer. “Well, that’s certainly not the greeting I’d hoped for.”
“Sorry to disappoint.” Carson loped toward the paddock fence, putting a healthy distance between them. The subtle scent of her perfume danced on the breeze. The hint of vanilla was familiar, but the rest of her…the hair, the clothes, was different…more polished. Her nails were manicured, her fingers adorned with gold—all except her ring finger. Mirrored sunglasses held perfectly highlighted hair in place, tucked back behind ears dripping with diamond studs. Carson frowned, remembering long, sun-bronzed tresses that once tumbled over her shoulders to kiss her waist; faded jeans that hugged endless, toned legs in all the right places. “But I’m sure you’re used to it.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Jessica asked as he swung a leg over the paddock fence.
Carson paused, resting on a fence post. “Didn’t you share that sentiment a while back, when you pelted me with a grooming brush in the barn? If I remember correctly, after nearly blinding me with a shot to the eye, you made it very clear that I’m an expert at disappointing.” He rubbed his face, reliving the sting.
“What do you want, Jessica?” He swung his other leg over the fence and hopped down, then laughed as she gaped at the boundary between them. “Why have you come back here—to Lone Creek?”
She struggled to keep her balance in the ridiculous pumps as she marched to the paddock gate, threw open the latch, and slipped through to follow him. She smoothed fingers through her hair and tugged the skirt back into place.
“You’d better close that.” Carson nodded toward the open gate, pulling his gaze from her legs. “Troublemaker will run if you give him the chance.”
“Troublemaker?” Jessica took a huge step back when the stallion nudged and snorted.
Carson laughed as her blue eyes widened and she gave a little yelp. “Relax. He won’t hurt you.”
“I know. He just startled me.” She frowned, but turned to latch the gate. Then she stroked Troublemaker’s flank and smiled when he whinnied for more. “You always were bossy, Carson.”
“Well, isn’t that the pot calling the kettle black?” Carson removed his hat, swiped his forearm across his brow. The sun warmed things up to a slow swelter, yet Jessica stood by the gate, stroking his prize horse, cool and unruffled in the form-fitting suit.
Carson cleared his throat and drew his gaze away from the curve of her waist, the creamy skin that peaked from the jacket’s collar. “I asked you a question, Jess. What do you want?”
“I want Lone Creek Ranch, Carson.” She struggled to keep up with him as the heels of her pumps snagged pasture grass. “I want the land it sits on.”
“What?” He choked, sputtered, and swung around so fast he nearly collided with her. Vanilla mingled with spring hay and dank cow manure. “Why?”
“I’m in the business of land development now, Carson, and this area is untapped.” She swept a hand across the horizon framing an endless emerald pasture back-dropped by smoke-hazed mountains. In the distance, water danced beneath sunlight as it raced along a generous creek. “Lone Creek Ranch is prime land.”
“No.” He held up a hand to stave off any further discussion. “Forget it. My answer is no.”
“Oh, for goodness sakes, Carson.” She rushed after him, her fingertips grazing his shoulder. Her touch scalded, and he shrugged off the sensation and quickened his pace, his long strides attacking the ground. “You can’t manage it alone. You need—”
“Don’t tell me what I need, Jess.” His voice was a low, dangerous growl as he entered the cool shade of the barn. “Lone Creek Ranch belongs to me now…and my brothers.” It had for nearly a year, since his mom passed on. Dad had been gone much longer.
Jessica waved her hand with a flourish as she struggled to keep up with him. “Funny, but I don’t see your brothers here. How long has it been, Carson, since they’ve been home to help carry the load?”
“You’re one to talk.” Carson’s eyes burned as he stared her down. “You left me, and you left James when he needed you most. Neither of us has seen you around here for over a year. Where did you run to, Jess?”
“This isn’t about my brother.” Her chin came up, and she tossed her hair back as her gaze challenged. “Besides, you’d know where I’ve been if you bothered to call.”
“You said you didn’t want me to. Was that just a line, Jess? Was I supposed to read your mind and know you really meant something else?”
“Of course not.” She sighed and tugged the collar of her jacket. “Look, Carson, I’m not here to rehash the past. I want Lone Creek Ranch. I’m prepared to make you a very generous offer.”
“I’m not interested in your offer, or anything else from you.” Carson’s blood boiled. He wondered if she could see smoke pouring from his ears. He clenched his fists at his sides. “Get off my land.”
“Carson, wait!” Her voice raised a notch as she crossed her arms. “Be reasonable, please.”
“I like that, listening to you beg.” He speared her with his gaze. “But this conversation’s over, Jessica. You’d better slip back into your shiny SUV and drive your self-centered, snooty little attitude back to town.”
“You heard me.” Carson pointed toward the road. “Leave, before I say something I’m sure to regret.”
She readjusted the sunglasses propped on her head and waited a heartbeat, two, before taking a step forward and jabbing a finger into his chest. “Haven’t you already done that, Carson?”
“Have I? Are you sure about that, Jess?” He turned his back to her and stomped past freshly-mucked stalls, fists clenched again. He wove his way to the cramped office in the back left corner of the barn and slammed through the door. A gelding palomino, Lucky Lou, lifted his head and whinnied in protest from the stall across the aisle. And Sunshine, due to foal any day, paced restlessly in the largest stall, her belly round and swollen.
Carson kicked the door shut. A moment passed, when all he heard was the rush of blood through his ears and Lucky Lou’s nervous grunts. Then sharp heels tapped against concrete, and he drew a deep breath as Jessica strode toward the door. He bit back an onslaught of ugly words when she gave the splintered wood a light rap.
“I’ll go, Carson,” she called, her voice muffled through the wood. “But I’ll be back.”
He counted to ten, his hands fisted so hard his knuckles whitened. Then he blew out a heated breath, slumped into the battered leather desk chair, and tossed his hat onto the scuffed metal file cabinet, doing his best to ignore Jessica. An ivory square of paper fluttered as she slipped a business card beneath the door. He recognized her flourish of handwriting in the number she’d scrawled across the back.
It had a lot of zeroes—more than he’d seen in a long time.
“Here’s my offer.” Her voice carried a smooth molasses drawl. “Call me when you cool off and come to your senses.”
“Don’t hold your breath.” Carson covered the card with the toe of his boot and ground it into the soiled tile. “The earth will freeze over before I let you get your hands on Lone Creek Ranch.”
(Q1) Lost in Lone Creek is based on Romans 8:25. What do you think the verse refers to? What is hoped for, yet not seen? How is this verse relevant in today's world?
(Q2) Carson and Jessica are both fairly stubborn. How does this get in the way of their relationship? Has your own stubbornness ever hindered you? If so, explain.
(Q3) Do you think Jessica is justified in blaming Carson for her brother's accident? Why or why not?
(Q4) What does Carson's concern for Emilee tell readers about his character?
(Q5) How does communication help Carson and Jessica heal old wounds? How does discussing James's accident bring about change?