Excerpts for Atonement


From the middle of the corral, Dillon Lawson tugged gently on the halter rope, urging the filly in a circle. She was a beauty and he couldn't help feeling a sense of pride in her. The filly was smart, too. He'd known that the moment he'd looked into her eyes after she was born.

He'd named her Bright Beauty, struck dumb by the miracle of birth and the courage he'd seen in the foal as she'd stumbled to her feet for the first time.

Now as she trotted the tight circle around him, he could feel her gaze on him. The breeze lifted her red mane and she seemed to prance as if wanting to please him.

His heart swelled. His father wouldn't have approved of the way he'd gentled her. Burt Lawson "broke" his horses, the same way he'd tried to break his sons. The thought brought with it fresh pain. For whatever reason, their father had always been meaner to Ethan. It was why Dillon had spent years trying to protect his brother-only to fail him in the end.

Not even this beautiful Montana spring day or the filly he'd nurtured since birth could keep his mind off his brother-and the upcoming one-year anniversary of Ethan's death. Dillon wasn't sure what was worse, the guilt that he'd let his brother down or the grief of having lost the last member of his family.

"Ethan!"

With his mind on his brother, Dillon thought he'd only imagined the voice. He looked over, surprised to see a woman he didn't recognize at the corral fence. He lived so far out of town he seldom had strangers come in off the highway. Nor had he heard anyone drive up. He did a quick glance to the yard. No vehicle. Where had she come from?

His gaze returned to the woman. She'd climbed up the corral fence and now clung to the top rail. A mass of curly dark hair floated around a face dominated by huge blue eyes. That was all he was able to take in before she spoke again.

"Ethan." She said the name like a curse. He'd thought he must have heard her wrong the first time she'd said his brother's name. This time he heard anger in that one painful word. Anger and disappointment.

A chill ran the length of his spine.

She thought he was his brother.

That realization came like a kick to his gut. He slowed the filly to a stop and pushed back his Western straw hat. A warm sun slipped toward the west, making the breeze that blew down from the Crazy Mountains suddenly feel cold. The snow-fed breeze was a reminder that this was Montana in the spring and, like life, it could change at a moment's notice.

Dropping the halter rope, he took off his hat and, stepping toward her, tried to clear his throat. A lump had lodged there. If this woman had mistaken him for Ethan, then she must not know about his death.

As he drew closer, the woman's eyes narrowed. Her anger confused him. But then again, who knew what his brother had been up to before he died? Ethan had always attracted trouble like a magnet to metal, and Dillon had known little about his brother's life the past few years. That was the way Ethan had wanted it.

He was within a few feet of her when he saw her eyes fill with tears, then all the color suddenly bled from her face. She teetered on the corral railing for a moment before starting to slump backward in a faint.

Dillon took two long strides, bounded over the corral fence and managed to catch her before she hit the ground. Holding her in his arms, he looked down at her and felt his eyes widen.

The woman was pregnant. Very pregnant.

Her thick lashes fluttered. Those big blue eyes opened and zeroed in on him.

The roundhouse slap she gave him was hard and did more than surprise him.

"You bastard."'

"You've made a mistake," Dillon said. "The mistake was ever falling for you."

He shook his head sadly. "I'm not who you think

I am."

"You 're telling me? Put me down."

Dillon did as she'd ordered and watched her struggle to get her feet under herself. Seeing him had been a shock for her, that much was clear. And yet she'd come here looking for him, as if..

He frowned as he tried to make sense of this. Ethan had been dead a year tomorrow. Why would she think he was Ethan? Not to mention? He stared at her swollen belly. The woman looked as if she might deliver that baby at any moment.

"You knew my brother?" he asked suspiciously.

She had dropped her large shoulder bag. She now bent to pick it up from the dirt before turning to glare at him. "I just want my money," she said as she slung the bag over her right shoulder.

"Your money? Are you talking about the insurance money?" The check had come only a few days ago. Apparently his brother had taken out a halfmillion-dollar policy on himself and made Dillon the beneficiary. Ethan had always been full of surprises. This woman was apparently another one.

"Insurance? Is that what you call it? Just give me what's mine and I'm out of your hair for good," she said, and glanced toward the mountains as if she couldn't bear looking at him any longer.

Sweetgrass County was rimmed with snowcapped mountain peaks, making some people think it was paradise. Dillon was one of those people. The moment he'd seen the Crazy Mountains, he'd known this was where he wanted to settle-rather than the logging town in western Montana where they'd grown up. His brother, Ethan, had hightailed it the moment he turned eighteen and apparently had never looked back.

When her gaze returned to his, Dillon saw that she hadn't been admiring the breathtaking Montana scenery. She'd apparently been trying to tamp down her anger-and failing.

"Why don't we go into the house?" he suggested. "I think we can settle this easy enough. Just let me get the halter rope off my horse-"

"If you think you can sweet-talk me, you're dead wrong. And you sure as the devil aren't seducing me. Not again." Her hand went to her stomach and he felt his heart drop.

She wasn't really going to try to convince him that she was carrying Ethan's baby, was she? He'd never been the brightest kid in school, but this one was a math no-brainer. Even if the woman did look as if she could give birth any moment, his brother had been gone twelve months tomorrow.

"Look, I'm not sure what your story is, but that baby you're carrying? It isn't-"

"If you dare say it isn't yours?" Her right hand dipped into her shoulder bag. An instant later he was staring down the barrel of a .45.

CHAPTER TWO

Dillon raised his hands and took a step back. "Take it easy. Like I said, if you'll come in the house, I can take care of this. But first, put down the gun. There's no call for any gunplay."

This was not her first rodeo, Tessa Winters thought as she took in the cowboy. She'd come all this way on a hunch that Ethan might have gone to Montana, but she'd still been shocked when she'd actually tracked down the lying bastard.

"You won't be charming your way out of this."

He shook his head. "Not my intention. If you put away the gun, I'm sure we can resolve this."

She eyed him warily, torn between her anger and his apparent calm. There was a time when she would have weakened. That time had long since passed.

Her gaze narrowed as she realized that he must have come straight here after he'd run out on her. His big hands were callused and his skin was tanned, as if the man had actually been doing some honest physical labor.

Looking at him now, she couldn't help but think about the first time she'd seen him. With his tousled sandy-blond hair and big blue eyes, he'd been the most handsome cowboy she'd ever run across. Like now, he'd been wearing a Western shirt that accentuated his broad shoulders and slim hips, and jeans that- Tessa shook off those dangerous thoughts and reminded herself what was at stake here. He might look good-the physical Montana lifestyle had made him even more attractive-but under the facade was a liar, a coward and a thief.

"Please." He motioned to the gun. "You're making me nervous."

"You should be nervous." But she lowered the gun.

"Okay," he said, slowly putting down his hands. "Let me see to my horse and then we'll go up to the house and take care of this." He climbed the corral fence and approached the wary filly slowly.

Tessa could hear him talking softly to the horse as he removed the halter rope, then stroked the filly's neck. Her ire rose as she saw how gentle and loving he was to the horse. It hurt even more to think of how easily he had abandoned her and their child.

When he finished with the horse, he climbed back over the fence and motioned toward the house. She followed. Distrustful as to what he was up to, she kept her fingers around the grip of the .45 in her bag. He thought he knew her, but he had no idea who he was dealing with. Pregnancy had changed her in more ways than one.

Tessa felt like a loose cannon, and knew a large part of it was the hormones her doctor had warned her about. Given the way she was feeling, it surprised her that more pregnant women didn't kill the men in their lives.

Truthfully, she was so angry with Ethan that she didn't know what she would do. She'd spent six months telling herself to let it go. Forget about him and the way he'd conned her. Finally, she'd given up kidding herself. She had to look him in the eye one more time before she could let it go. Probably bringing the gun hadn't been her best choice, though. But she wanted him to know that she was dead serious.

The cowboy mounted the steps of the house and pushed open the door, holding it for her. Now he was going to act like a gentleman? She gave him a withering look as she entered. Behind her, she heard him step in and close the door.

"How about we discuss this over a cup of coffee?" he asked, but didn't wait for an answer as he moved past her.

She sighed, wondering how long he thought he could stall before she lost her temper. Since becoming pregnant, she'd found herself on a roller-coaster ride shifting between tears and anger, which had left her exhausted. But she was nonetheless determined. It was bad enough Ethan had seduced her with his lies, knocked her up and then taken off on her. Stealing her money, though? That had been the last straw.

Tessa looked around the old farmhouse, surprised to see how neat and clean it was, as she told herself that once she'd settled things with Ethan, she would get back to being calm, confident and in control of her normal self again. At least she hoped so.

"Who cleans your house?" she asked suspiciously as she stepped toward the kitchen doorway.

"I do," he said over his shoulder.

She watched him set about making a fresh pot of coffee. When had he learned to make coffee? Or maybe he'd known all along and, like everything else, had played her. Just when she thought he couldn't make her any angrier.

Looking away to keep from pulling the pistol and shooting him, she was shocked that the kitchen was as clean and uncluttered as the rest of the house. This was not the Ethan Lawson she knew.

Until that moment she hadn't considered that the reason he'd left her and the baby she was carrying was because he had another family back in Montana. The thought felt like one of his horses standing on her chest. She fought to take her next breath-and worse, not cry.

Was it possible the reason he was always broke was because he'd been sending the money he made home to a family? She hadn't thought he could hurt her any more than he had, but she'd been wrong.

"Who else lives here?" she asked, her voice breaking.

He turned to look at her. "Just me and a couple cattle dogs. Why don't you have a seat? Have you had breakfast? I could make-"

"I'm fine." She didn't even want coffee. And since when had Ethan learned to cook? She just wanted her money and she'd be on her way. Well, not quite. There was that other small matter, she thought, her hand going to the shoulder bag again.

He motioned her into a seat at the table and placed a mug of coffee in front of her. "I made decaf because of the.. " He waved his hand toward her pregnant belly.

"Baby. It's a baby, Ethan, and stalling isn't going to do you any good. Just give me my money-"

"Hang on a second." He left the room and she half expected to hear the sound of his pickup engine revving up outside as he pulled another disappearing act.

To her surprise, he returned a few minutes later with several photos and what appeared to be two newspaper clippings.

She watched him drop them on the table next to his coffee before he pulled out a chair across from her, turned it around and straddled it.

"Let's see if we can clear this up," he said, and shoved the photos and the folded newspaper clippings across the table to her.

She didn't even give the items a glance, wondering what he was up to. Whatever it was, it wasn't going to work. Had she really thought that by coming here she could settle this? With a curse, she started to get up from the table, her hand going to the gun in her bag.

"Please. I think this will help." He said the words almost as gently as he had spoken to the filly. Reaching over, he pushed the newspaper clippings aside to expose the top photo.

She gave him an impatient look. Then, settling back down with a sigh, she glanced at the snapshot lying on the table. Shock rippled through her. Her gaze shot up to him. He looked as if he was waiting patiently. She dropped her gaze to the photo again. Her fingers trembled as she picked it up to make sure her eyes weren't deceiving her.

The boys were about ten in the snapshot. Both were grinning at the camera, their cowboy hats pushed back. They wore Western shirts, jeans and boots, and stood next to what appeared to be an old barn.

Her gaze moved to the second photo, an older version of them. She lifted it from the table, still shocked to see the two identical faces. They appeared to be in their teens in this shot. They were dressed much the same as they had been in the other photograph, but in this one, neither was smiling at the camera.

"Identical twins," he said as if she hadn't already figured that out.

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