Strawberry Ridge, Book 1
Release Date:

Sep 12, 2024



More From Susan →

The Prodigal Brother Returns


Susan Lute

It’s time to go home…

Sixteen years after being kicked off the family ranch, widower Blake Lohmen is called home. There’s been an accident and his family needs his help. The timing’s not ideal. A children’s book author, he’s on a tight book deadline and responsible for the care of his wife’s much younger brother. But maybe this is his chance for Blake to make the amends he’d promised.

Following a divorce, traveling nurse and single mom Malorie Harper is not in the market for a man. She and her twins desperately need a change of scenery so she eagerly accepts a summer job offer at a Colorado ranch. The cute small town and gorgeous pastoral scenery framed by mountains feel like a balm to her soul. But on her first day, she walks into a family brawl where her patient nearly falls out of bed while aiming a right hook at her twins’ favorite author.

The uncertain beginning suggests a new chapter for all of them, but can Blake overcome the past, and will this steadfast cowboy help Malorie rediscover love?

Enjoy an Excerpt →

Other Tule AuthorsYou'll Also Love:

More Tule TitlesYou Might Enjoy:

Start reading this book:

Chapter One
Blake Lohmen was a wreck. It had been a long drive to Colorado and back to Sedona, but how could he say no to Timmy when the twelve-year-old wanted to go to Camp Elwood, a two-week summer camp for neurodivergent kids, so badly? Two weeks was a good test to see how they both would do with Timmy being gone for that long.
As he dropped his travel bag on the bench in the entry, he took a tired breath. It was good to be home in the house where he and Tina had made a home for her brother while they worked hard with therapists to give him as normal a life as they could. Before she’d died two years earlier, he’d made a promise to his wife that he had to keep, no matter what it took. All right, two promises, but the second one hadn’t made it to the top of his list and would still have to wait.
Ensuring Timmy lived his best life was much more important than any relationship he didn’t have with his brothers. So, he’d made the eight-and-a-half-hour drive, one way, to fulfill the kid’s first request to go to camp on his own.
He would do anything for the kid. So long as Timmy was happy, Blake was pretty much on board.
It’d taken him a long time to get his grief and temper under control, even with Tina’s support. He would not go back to being the angry, defensive man he was before Tina and Timmy had come into his life. Not as long as the kid needed him.
Leaving his bag where he’d dropped it, Blake went to the kitchen to start the coffee machine and make a sandwich. While he kept his hands busy, he ignored the fact that he’d come closer to the Triple L than he’d been in sixteen years. After he’d gotten Timmy settled at the camp, he’d started back in the early hours that morning, not stopping for much more than gas and to get something he could eat in the Willys Jeep he’d rebuilt as part of what Tina had dubbed his road to recovery.
The route to and from Talamasa had taken him within twenty miles of Strawberry Ridge and the horse ranch his parents had built together. And where he’d pulled a stunt that could never be forgiven. Not by him and not by his brothers. He passed the exit to Strawberry Ridge without slowing down.
Sitting at the table with the ham sandwich and the cup of coffee he’d made, he glanced at the small kitchen that was all Tina’s doing. She’d loved everything southwest. The house reminded him so much of his dear departed wife. So much so that he couldn’t think of changing a thing.
God, he missed her. And not just because, from the day they’d met, she’d been his cheerleader. It was lonely without her here to laugh with and to make sure he was wearing clean socks. When he was working on the next Timmy, the Superhero book, it was easy to forget things like doing his laundry or cooking dinner on the days when it was his turn.
His sole agenda while Timmy was gone for the next ten days was to come up with a good plot line—which was eluding him—for the next book in the ongoing series. With Timmy’s livelihood in jeopardy and the money for his therapists that Tina had left running out, he was determined he and Timmy weren’t going to end up homeless because he had to sell this house to make ends meet. What he needed was to secure Timmy’s future with royalties from his next book.
Taking the sandwich and coffee with him, Blake went to his office and booted up his laptop. There was nothing like the present to get started. If he could just come up with a working title that inspired a middle-grade story. Timmy, the Superhero and the . . .
It’d always been so easy to write the next book. This one was like banging his head against the wall.
His cell rang. Blake glanced at the number and debated blocking the caller. He hadn’t gotten a call from that number in sixteen years.
Finally, he picked up. “This is a surprise, Jonas.” It wasn’t easy to keep his tone civil.
“Hello, little brother.” Jonas had always been better at holding on to his temper, except for that last day when he and Nathan had kicked him off the Triple L.
Back then, big brother had been in law school. Blake, seething at being sent away from his home, but knowing he more than deserved his brothers’ anger, spent the next years taking any job his GED and growing up on the horse ranch would get him.
“I haven’t heard from you since Mom’s funeral.” Blake couldn’t have hidden his contempt, even if he wanted to. “Why are you calling now?”
“You need to come home. Nathan’s had an accident.” Jonas never was one to pull his punches and from the unbending note in his voice, he wasn’t about to start now.
Closing his laptop, Blake leaned forward with his elbows on the desk. “What happened?”
“He was bucked off his new stallion and fractured his pelvis.”
Blake closed his eyes. Then, unable to sit still any longer, he stood and went to the kitchen. Hand on his hip, he paced back and forth from one end of Tina’s favorite room to the other. “How bad is it?”
The last time he’d seen his brothers was after they’d laid their mom to rest, and he’d wrapped their dad’s prized truck around the big oak in the back pasture. Nathan wouldn’t even speak to him. When Jonas ordered him off the ranch, Blake had been angry and hurt, and still half-drunk.
But he wasn’t that immature seventeen-year-old kid anymore.
“Bad enough that according to the doctor, he has to be on complete bed rest for at least two or three days, and off work for eight-to-twelve weeks.”
Blake stopped pacing and stared at the red rock formations he could see through the kitchen window. He took a breath meant to calm him down, but filling his lungs did nothing of the sort. “I’m sorry Nathan’s hurt, but what does this have to do with me?”
“I need you to come home and take over running the ranch.” Blunt and to the point as always, Jonas didn’t encourage further discussion on the subject of whether Blake could refuse to go back to the Triple L.
Tina had always said what was on her mind too. He loved that about her. Until the end, she’d stuck to her guns. She didn’t say when you can or when the time was right, he should reach out to his brothers. She’d just said gently, Do it, because if he didn’t, he would never forgive his seventeen-year-old self.
Blake wasn’t ready. Jonas just assumed he would set aside the life he’d made and come running when big brother called. The audacity of it resurrected the old anger.
Jonas had always thought he had all the answers. Well, not this time.
“I haven’t spoken to or heard from either of you in sixteen years. And if I remember correctly, when you kicked me off the ranch, you told me never to return. And now you want me to drop everything and come save your asses?”
He wasn’t looking for an apology. Blake readily admitted he’d earned what he’d gotten.
“Come on, Blake. You’ve done nothing with your life—”
Blake’s jaw clenched. “Nothing?”
“I’ve checked in on you from time to time over the years and from what I’ve been able to discover, you didn’t stay in one place long. You haven’t gotten any kind of job that pays decent money. Just the occasional odd jobs. Stop being a screwup. Come home. The ranch needs you.”
That just went to show how uninformed Jonas was. Those jobs, mostly tour guide excursions, good sales figures from his books, and what Tina made as a special ed teacher, had kept them afloat and helped them buy and pay off this house. And those tour guide jobs—it turned out he was good at them—and book sales would continue to keep him and Timmy going. If he could just come up with the next story.
So, not we need you. Just the ranch needs you.
Bull hockey! Timmy needed him more, end of story. His detail-oriented brother hadn’t dug deep enough. He only knew about the years when Blake had tried to drown the memories when they got too heavy and then moved on. He didn’t know about the day he finally looked in the mirror, found a scruffy stranger looking back, and said, enough. He didn’t know that his homeless brother had done everything in his power to get rid of that scared, screwed-up kid. Or about Tina, and Timmy, and the Timmy novels, and how they had changed his life. Or that he was a widower now with responsibilities of his own to take care of.
Jonas didn’t know all that was left on his crooked road to recovery, sweetly sponsored by Tina, who’d given him the motivation to keep going, was to make amends with his brothers. She would want him to make the most of this moment. Suddenly, with the beauty of the red rock towering across the landscape pushing at him, ironically enough, perhaps it was time.
Blake ran a hand through his hair. There was a raging river under their bridge. “I don’t think so, Jonas,” he said, too tired now to think it all through and come up with a workable plan. “You don’t want me there, and I don’t need anything from you.” Not for himself. Not for Timmy. And not to prop up the money he earned from the Timmy books.
“You’ll get a steady salary while you’re here, but first there’s something else you need to know.” For the first time in his life, Blake heard defeat in Jonas’s voice. “The ranch is failing financially. You always helped Mom with the ledgers. I’d like you to take a look at them while you’re here. Nathan’s done the best he could, but it’s going to take all of us to breathe life back into the place. If we can’t, we’re going to lose all that we have left of Mom and Dad.”
That managed to put Blake’s anger on pause. He went silent for a long minute. Things must be bad for Jonas to swallow his pride and reach out and ask for help from the brother he’d ordered off the ranch and then mostly forgot existed.
“Does Nathan know you’ve called me?” He pressed the phone closer to his ear.
This time it was Jonas who drew out the silence. “No.”
For whatever reason, standing at the window, seeing Tina’s beloved red rocks, and hearing that the Lohmen boys were about to lose their parents’ legacy, that did it for Blake. He said with an edge, “I have to close up the house first, but I’ll be there tomorrow night.”
Not giving his brother time to acknowledge his concession, Blake hung up. Sixteen years ago, they’d all been too young to cope with the loss of their parents—their dad when Blake was fifteen, then their mom when he was seventeen. But they were grown men now, and Tina was right. He couldn’t let them make all the rules.

The next day, before he turned onto the road that would take him to the Triple L, Blake stopped in Strawberry Hill, population 1,008—more than when he’d left sixteen years ago—for a bathroom break and to corral the resolve he needed to take on the role of the prodigal brother coming home. Especially since returning wasn’t his idea.
The town looked the same as when he’d left. Maybe a little more worn around the edges. It didn’t feel the same, though. When he was a kid, his parents would bring him and his brothers into town every Saturday for an ice cream cone at Sally’s. Even Main Street, which ran through the center of town, seemed quieter, a little deserted.
The Triple L was a short twenty-minute drive east toward the jagged mountains hovering in the distance. When he crossed over the cattle guard onto Lohmen land, it was another ten minutes before he parked in front of the main ranch house.
The place was just as he remembered. Board and batten still painted the warm brown his mother had picked out. Two stories with a wide veranda. There was a new barn he didn’t remember off to the side that matched the house. Chasing each other in the fenced pasture fronting the house were three of the Colorado Ranger horses that had been his father’s passion.
So, Nathan had maintained their dad’s passion, a point in his brother’s favor, which made Blake breathe easier. Maybe this reunion wouldn’t be so disastrous after all. And just maybe the ranch wasn’t in as much trouble as Jonas had suggested.
Blake thought the ranch was so cool when he was a kid. And honestly, he had to admit, he still did. He pulled in all the reawakening feelings and locked them away. He would only be here as long as it took Nathan to heal. As stubborn as his brother was, it might not be that long.
He knocked on the door—it didn’t feel right, just barging in as if he hadn’t been gone for so many years. The door popped off the latch and eased open. Following the sound of his brothers’ voices past the living room and, finally, into the dining room just off from the kitchen, he found Jonas standing over the hospital bed where Nathan lay. The blankets were rumpled, as if he’d tried to crawl over the rail that kept him from falling out. Jonas was holding him down by the shoulders.
So, not much had changed. Blake kept his distance, making his presence known by asking over his brothers’ loud argument. “What are you guys doing?”
Nathan pointed a shaking finger at Blake. “Get out of my house!” he yelled, the words slightly slurred. He fought to climb out of the bed, but Jonas pushed harder on his shoulders.
Despite his injury, Nathan was strong. Jonas glared at Blake. “Help me!”
He got on the opposite side of the bed and grabbed Nathan’s arm. “Your house? I don’t think so, brother.” Blake couldn’t help poking at the man who, ever since their dad died, only spoke to him when he was angry, or at present, doped up with pain meds.
“Not helping,” Jonas ground out.
Nathan aimed. Blake caught his brother’s fist in his open palm before he could topple out of the bed and cause himself more injury.
“That’s enough, you two,” Jonas ordered in his sternest voice.
Fighting Jonas’s restraint on his shoulders, Nathan tried to sit up, groaned, then flopped on his back. Finally, he asked Blake tiredly, “Why are you here?”
He stepped back to get a better look at Nathan’s face. He was older. Of course. But he had the same tired look about him that Strawberry Ridge did. Quickly, Blake took in the dining room and the kitchen. Nothing had changed. The kitchen was the same, with its terracotta floors, beige cabinets, and beamed ceiling. The same small table he’d sat at when he was a kid was pushed off the side to make room for the hospital bed.
He frowned at Jonas. How much financial trouble was the Triple L in?
“I asked him to come,” Jonas said calmly. Now that Nathan wasn’t trying to plant his fist in Blake’s face, Jonas pushed his hands into his jeans pockets.
Asked him? That was not how Blake would put it, but he didn’t argue the point.
Nathan wasn’t done with his objection. He raised himself onto his elbows. “Why?”
“Someone has to run this ranch while you’re down. The doc says it’ll be eight-to-twelve weeks before you’re back in business.” Jonas was using the be-reasonable voice he always used when he wanted to get his younger brothers in line. It was the same strategy that had gotten Blake to return.
Nathan shot Blake a dark look. Blake stared back. Yup, it wasn’t just the house that hadn’t changed.
Without breaking their stare-down, Nathan growled at Jonas. “We don’t need him. You can run the ranch.”
“I don’t have time. I’ll be moving my law office from Denver to Strawberry Ridge. I got you a nurse, who should be here soon, and Blake will take care of the ranch just fine.” Jonas tossed Blake the don’t-mess-with-me look that he’d perfected after their father died. “Won’t you, little brother?”
“Sure.” Blake shrugged. He would do what needed to be done as long as Jonas got it that Timmy came first, no matter what. At least now he was close enough to visit the kid while he was at the camp.
Nathan scowled. “Don’t I have a say in this?”
“No!” Jonas and Blake practically shouted together.
“Excuse me, but what’s going on here?”
Blake spun to face the firm, feminine voice. Cinnamon-brown eyes took a sweeping look at the scene unfolding in front of her, and, he had a feeling, found the Lohmen brothers and their roaring argument wanting. Shoulder-length hair swirled in curvy brown, shiny waves. Expressive lips pressed into a firm line.
“And who are you?” he asked quietly, though he thought he could guess. Only one person was missing from this disorderly party.
“The door was open. And I did call out several times,” she explained. “My name is Malorie Harper. I’m the private-duty nurse that Mr. Jonas Lohmen hired, and if I’m not mistaken, that man you’re fighting with is my patient, Nathan Lohmen.”
Wasn’t this a pickle? as Tina would say. He’d been caught again on the wrong side of what was right, even if Nathan had been the one to restart Blake’s anger by taking a punch at him. As was his habit, his first impression wasn’t good.

End of Excerpt

This book will begin shipping September 12, 2024

The Prodigal Brother Returns is currently available in digital format only:

ISBN: 978-1-964418-85-8

September 12, 2024

→ As an Amazon Associate we earn from qualifying purchases. We also may use affiliate links elsewhere in our site.