Prologue / Coward's Way Out
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Copyright © 2016 by Khristina Atkinson

April 1876 – Bardstown, Kentucky

Lexi rested on the grass next to Silas as they stared up at the sky through the branches of the trees. Several eastern bluebirds overhead chirped a musical melody as they danced from limb to limb. The horizon was mostly a clear cerulean, but a stream of billowing white fluff came into sight. His right hand intertwined with her left. She released his grasp and put her head on his chest to get a better look at a cloud she swore resembled a horse. He admitted they appeared completely void of form, but let her continue with her excited chatter. She pointed out the shape, and he made an effort to conjure her vision.

Lexi loved being at their magical place. When she spoke, Silas hung on her every word. She relished his company and spent every moment she possibly could with him. She never had to guess his feelings. He expressed them freely and fell hopelessly, completely, eternally in love with her when his mother moved back to his grandfather’s farm three years before. He was fifteen and she was fourteen at the time. He recently had been presented with the opportunity to express those exact sentiments to her as his new fiancée. The words were released during his proposal, and now each time he saw what he adoringly referred to as her exquisite face.

Lexi quickly learned Silas’s entire life story during their first encounter. He never held anything back from her. His father, Ernest, described as a stubborn man who refused to seek treatment from a doctor until his condition developed beyond help, died of pneumonia. His mother, Judith, always hated the city life in New York, where her husband worked as an accountant, and longed to move back to the town she loved so dearly as a young girl. His grandfather, Tobias Lawson, was grateful that his grandson now resided under his roof. He had someone to not only help him out, but leave the farm to one day.

Lexi lost her own dear mother only a few months before Silas came to town. Leandra had been ill for several years. Doc Quentin diagnosed her with a weak heart. The essential organ finally stopped beating one day. She missed her mother terribly, but was comforted in the knowledge she would no longer suffer.


Lexi enjoyed walking through the woods that separated her father’s property from the Lawson farm. One sunny day, she spotted Silas fishing at the pond she frequented. His eyes as blue as a forget-me-not drew her in as she came closer, but he was very pleasant to look at even from a distance. When he noticed her, a genial smile played across his face. She strolled over to him as though they had known each other their entire lives and began talking. They became instant friends and hung out together every day during the summer months.

Silas confessed she took his breath away at their first chance meeting, and nothing could ever compare to her beauty. He only stood about three inches above her at the time, but now had grown a good six inches higher in stature. She considered herself too thin, but he firmly believed her to be perfect in every way. His compliments always flowed abundantly about her auburn hair being radiant in the sunlight, or how her green eyes reminded him of emeralds with tiny gold flecks that sparkled as light touched on them. The glow of her features was part of the reason he loved to rendezvous by the pond. He further romanced her by declaring she lit up the world whenever outdoors and considered her the brightness in his otherwise dismal life.

Silas was now the handsomest boy in town. The honor once belonged to Cooper Grayson. Cooper and Silas were very similar in height and build—over six feet tall and noticeably muscular. When compared to Silas’ medium brown hair, Cooper’s was a much darker jet-black color. Lexi loved to stare into his enticing eyes that were a deep, striking blue before he left her behind.

Cooper traveled all the way to San Francisco after he turned eighteen in April, only one year prior. He freely admitted he considered Bardstown too boring and wanted to find a more exciting place to live. Before he departed from Lexi's life, he flirted every time she strolled through the door of his family’s store. She figured he acted the same way with all the girls, but could not help having a huge crush on him. The day he left town, she found herself in a sullen mood. She actually missed him terribly the first few months he was gone, and he still invaded her thoughts every now and again.


Cooper’s sister, Viola, was the same age as Lexi and mercilessly strove to land Silas as her beau. Her rival for his affection had the same dark raven hair and gorgeous iris blue eyes as her brother. She could never compare to the girl as far as looks were concerned.

Viola would bat her long lashes and engage Silas in conversation, even though he entered the store with Lexi at his side. He did not even seem to notice the attempts to lure him away. His interest proved to be solely in her, and his actions made her appreciate his devotion.

Soon after Cooper was gone forever, Lexi permitted her relationship with Silas to develop into a serious commitment. When she turned seventeen in March, he presented her with a small diamond ring and asked her to marry him. She only agreed after he promised to wait until her next birthday for the wedding to take place. She would have a year to get used to the idea of matrimony. Eighteen seemed an appropriate age for her to become a wife.

Silas first needed to seek her father’s permission to court her and kept finding an excuse to put off their talk. He, of course, was scared to death of Heath Donovan’s legend. Her father stood about a head taller than most men. At the young age of nineteen, he witnessed a much older fellow leer at her mother and determined the once-over was inappropriate for a married woman. The situation escalated into a fight in which he knocked his opponent out cold with one swift punch from his large fist.

The men in town did not dare cross him after the altercation. Silas’ grandfather was a good friend and had once commented to her fiancé, “I pity the poor boy who ever falls for the fair Lexi. I’m sure Heath will kill any male who has the gall to glance his daughter’s way.”

Silas had given Lexi the ring over four weeks prior. She kept it safely hidden in a box inside her top dresser drawer. He promised to speak to her father that very day. She traveled along as he made a trek into town for some supplies to make certain the conversation took place. He planned on the long-awaited visit as soon as he escorted her home. She hoped he would finally be able to follow through.

Cooper, of all people, was outside his family’s general store, and Lexi spotted him coming her way. Before she could react, he took her in his arms and planted a passionate kiss on her lips that she never wanted to end. She stared into his magnificent blue eyes. Too much time had passed since their last coquetry. She suddenly realized how much she longed to see him again.

He beamed a giant grin as he spoke. “Lex, you are definitely a sight for sore eyes.”

Lexi had always wondered what it would be like to lock lips with Cooper. Now she knew. The kiss was utterly amazing.

Silas cleared his throat. The sound forced her back to reality and made her remember the man who she committed to. She pulled away brusquely and unleashed a scolding.

“Cooper Grayson, you’ve been gone a whole year, so I suppose you wouldn’t know Silas and I are a couple. I’d appreciate you showing more respect in the future.”


Lexi’s objection did not deter Cooper. He still gazed at her to memorize every detail of her beautiful face that he missed for so many months. He had not been back in town for very long, but his very first undertaking was to check his sources about her availability. None of them knew of an attachment.

“I guess an apology is in order. How long have the two of you been courting?”

Her cheeks turned rosy red. “Silas is going to ask Papa’s permission today, and our engagement will be official.”

Cooper wished them well, and let the pair be on their way. As soon as they entered the store, he headed for the livery stable to saddle his bay horse and take off for a visit with Heath Donovan. He was going to be one step ahead of his competition.

Cooper arrived at the Donovan farm and charmed the socks off Lexi’s father. He was quite pleased with himself when Heath readily concurred with his opinion about the two of them making a perfect couple. Her father even invited him to wait for his daughter to return home to give her the good news in person.


Lexi was very proud of Silas. He intended to bite the bullet and follow through on the heart-to-heart with her father. Still, she could not help drifting off every now and again during their ride home to reminisce about her romantic kiss with Cooper. She had to will her mind to come back to the real world and concentrate on her fiancé. He was the one who she promised to marry.

As the wagon advanced closer to the house, Lexi caught sight out an unfamiliar horse tethered right outside the barn. Due to the unexpected guest, she informed Silas that he would have to wait another day. If he lost his nerve again, she might have a shot with Cooper.

She chastised herself for the foolish notion. After her assurance to her best friend, the make-believe perfect suitor from her youthful imagination was not going to deter her. He already abandoned her and the town once before.

She set foot inside the front door and paused at the image of her father, drinking in the middle of the day with her former crush as if they had a reason to celebrate. “Lexi, dear, come join us. I have wonderful news. Cooper explained that he considered pursuing a relationship with you before he left for California, but believed you were too young at the time. He’s ready to settle down, and we’ve both agreed you’re old enough now. I just gave him my permission to court you.”

Lexi often fantasized of this very moment happening before the object of her infatuation ran off. Cooper was perfectly aware of her current situation. He used the information obtained from her earlier to his advantage. She could feel the anger rise inside of her.

“Do I have a say or not?”

Cooper smiled seductively. “Lex, you and I always had a connection. You know it’s true. I wanted to get your father’s approval before we started spending time together. I thought about you constantly while I was in San Francisco. You’re the main reason I returned home.”

Cooper could certainly be charismatic. Lexi fondly reminisced about their flirtation in the past. The kiss they shared earlier was more scintillating than the sweet several she experienced with Silas. Nevertheless, she wanted to smack the smirk right off his handsome face.

“Papa, would you mind if I go for a walk with Cooper, so we can have a little chat alone.”

Heath let out a hearty laugh and slapped Cooper on the back. “By all means. Let the courting begin.”

Lexi guided Cooper far enough away from the house for her father to no longer hear her objections and lit into him. “How dare you sneak to my home right after the conversation we had and do this to me! I informed you that Silas was going to stop by today! Did you conveniently forget?”

“Silas is not right for you at all, honey. He’s a small-town farm boy with no ambition. When I kissed you, I know you felt something too. Don’t you dare try to deny it.”

Lexi desperately wanted to set Cooper straight and declare her undying love for Silas, but her secret thoughts and hidden feelings surfaced the very moment she caught sight of him earlier. Silas was the best husband material the town had to offer until Cooper reentered her life. Given a choice between the two men, if she were completely honest with herself, her mind perceived the suitor standing in front of her would have been the ultimate prize. Her heart broke that she already pledged herself to another.

“If you’d only come back to town a month earlier, then perhaps you would’ve stood a chance with me. Silas gave me a ring for my birthday, and I agreed to marry him in a year. I plan on honoring my promise.”

Cooper grabbed Lexi’s left hand. “I don’t see a ring. Where is it?”

She hated the former man of her dreams was being so obstinate. Why did he insist on interfering with her life? “For your information, the ring is in my bedroom. I obviously couldn’t wear it until Silas got Papa’s approval of our decision.”

“You said he gave you the ring last month. Why hasn’t he paid your father a visit yet?”

Cooper was a little too quick to use Lexi’s own words against her. He had to ask the one question she wondered about herself. “I don’t know. I guess he was trying to work up enough nerve. My father intimidates most men.” The defeat in her ebbing tone did little to offer much confidence in her fiancé.

“Speaking with your father wasn’t too hard for me. I knew I wanted you, and I have his blessing. I’ll have a ring of my own for you soon. There’s nothing in the store eloquent enough for my bride-to-be, so I’ll order you something special. Would you like to help me pick it out of a catalog?”

Lexi’s memory drifted back to a particular day before Silas pervaded her life, and she started spending all her spare time with him. Her father had taken her into town, and she headed straight into the store in hopes of catching a glimpse of Cooper, but after she scanned the space, he was noticeably absent.

She marched over to the diamond rings to figure out which one he would give her when he proposed marriage. The whole scene had been quite lovely to picture in her mind. Mrs. Grayson kindly allowed her to try the rings on, even though she was only a young girl. She noticed the prices on a few of them.

“There are a couple of rings in the store that cost a fortune, Cooper.”

“Perhaps, I found enough gold while I was away, and now I’m able to afford something nicer for you, my dear. May I please stay for dinner? Your father invited me.”

She never could resist him. He had her exactly where he wanted within a few minutes. Heaven help her.

“Can I stop you? And you’re not fooling me. I’m perfectly aware the gold rush in California ended over twenty years ago.”


That evening after Cooper departed, Lexi reluctantly faced the cold hard facts about her precarious predicament. She and Silas shared a common trait. They were both lacking in courage. With no conceivable way to explain to her fiancé what Cooper had done, she could only concoct one possible alternative—run from her problem.

She did not care if the two men considered her a coward. She had devised a temporary way out of her troubles. Her grandmother, Margaret Weston, known as Maggie by anyone she ever encountered, lived not far away. Her father was too busy running the farm to ever visit.

Lexi’s grandmother had not been to Bardstown in quite a while. Maggie made the trip almost a year prior, but stayed for only a few days. She missed her new husband far too much to abandon him for an extended vacation.

Lexi honestly wanted an opportunity to spend time with her grandmother, but curiosity about where she lived also came into play. Surely, the larger city differed from the only place she had ever known and held opportunities for fun exploration. If she was old enough to court a man, then her age should not be used as an excuse to prevent her from traveling by herself. If her father protested, her argument served valid and compelling enough to get her way.

Lexi avoided Silas and Cooper over the weekend until she boarded the train on Monday. She had sent her grandmother a telegram about her impending arrival. The travel time from Bardstown to Louisville was only about an hour. She fidgeted in her seat as the excitement about her adventure could not be contained. 

Next: Chapter One / The Mistake

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