© Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
What deep wounds ever closed without a scar?
~George Gordon, Lord Byron
Wathena, Kansas - July 4, 1900
CORAL DAVIES TURNED AWAY away from the tranquil Missouri River to look at the thousand or so people milling about the lawn and riverbank after a day of swimming and picnicking in the sweltering heat. Her heart beat frantically in her chest. The orchestra had started the last stanza of the national anthem before the mayor would read the Declaration of Independence. Everyone in Doniphan County had to be at the celebration, including every Kent and Davies keeping to separate sides of the pavilion and clearly on their best behavior since no altercations had broken out. Yet.
She could feel worry etching lines into her brow.
“Please, Coral, talk to me.”
Her attention shifted to Hiram Kent standing a few feet from where she was near the edge of the ten-foot-long pier. Her traitorous heart fluttered. Tie askew, shirtsleeves rolled up, dark brown hair mussed—he looked adorable, charming, and stubborn as always. After five months of clandestine meetings, not one stolen kiss. If that didn’t prove his honorable character, she didn’t know what would. Which was why she had to be the one to do the right thing.
She tapped her straw hat against her green-striped skirt and hardened her gaze. “I can’t keep disobeying my parents by sneaking off to see you. You have to leave. Go,” she ordered. “Jack said he’d beat you to high heaven if he saw us talking again.”
His chin raised like it did when someone told him he couldn’t do something. “I can handle Jack.”
She didn’t want to see what he looked like after he “handled” his cousin who had six years, twenty pounds of muscle, and at least eight inches in height on him. “Then go before my brothers see you,” she warned in a low voice.
“Earning a black eye from talking to a Davies will be worth it,” he said. “Because you are worth it.” He winked, and her resistance weakened. He stepped closer, leaving a hand-breadth’s distance between them.
While she didn’t retreat, she did grip her straw hat with both hands to keep from touching him. “You know we can’t be together,” she whispered.
“No, I don’t.”
Even in the dimming sunlight, she could see unabashed adoration in those sultry dark eyes that had haunted her dreams and waking thoughts ever since the St. Valentine’s Day Sock Hop. Ever since she agreed to “Fine, Hiram, one dance,” despite him being a Kent and her a Davies. While Hiram was the most popular guy in Wathena High School, without a mean bone in his body, considering the hatred their families shared for each other, he wouldn’t have asked her to dance if he hadn’t wanted to.
If he hadn’t liked her.
As she liked him.
He held out a torn sheet of paper. “Write to me. Please.”
She didn’t have to take it to see he’d written down the address for the University of Missouri boardinghouse where Jack also lived. “If I write to you, everyone in town will know. Every. One.”
“I don’t care who knows.” A muscle at his jaw flinched. “I love you, Coral, and I know you love me, too, or you wouldn’t try to protect me.”
Her hat slid from her grip to the pier. Something—joy, fear, shock—gripped her heart. She liked him, felt giddy when he was near, but love? How could either of them know about love? They were eighteen, barely out of high school.
Hiram brushed his knuckles across her cheek then tucked behind her ear a red curl that had loosened from her braid. Her pulse pounded in her ears. He was going to kiss her. For anyone—everyone—to see.
She wanted him to. She didn’t.
Just once. Just once, for memory’s sake, and then she’d end it good and proper.
Argumentative voices rose over the orchestra, drawing her attention. Jack Kent and her brothers Gil and Whit shoved at one another as they ran down the pier while spewing what sounded to be invectives toward Hiram. Gil reached Hiram first. His fist connected with Hiram’s mouth. Jack grabbed Gil’s arm and kneed him in the groin. As the pair fought, Whit’s hands encircled Hiram’s neck, squeezing his throat, lifting him up off the pier.
“Stop!” Coral screamed.
Hiram clawed at Whit’s hands. He coughed. “Let—go—”
Coral jumped on her brother Gil’s back before he could punch Jack again. One arm around his neck, with her other hand, she yanked his hair, jerking his head backward. Gil howled.
“Get off me,” he yelled.
“I will once Whit lets go of Hiram,” she yelled back.
Whit dropped Hiram to the dock.
Hiram doubled over, hands on his throbbing throat, gulping for air. “That’s my girl.”
Coral slid of Gil’s back. She breathed deep. “Let’s relax and—”
“Relax?” Jack gripped Coral’s arms. “I warned you to stop leading him on.”
In one fluid motion, he swung her into the river. The left side of her head smacked the cold water before she could even scream. A sharp pain burst in her ear.
As Coral struggled to right herself, someone jumped in the water beside her. She gained her footing and stood in the chest-high water, gasping air, hair plastered to the side of her face, a buzzing in her left ear. She wobbled. Pulse pounded. Head ached. She wiped the dank river water from her eyes. On the pier, Whit and Jack— first time ever a Davies and a Kent unified—held Hiram’s arms behind his back.
Gil’s torso rose out of the water. He grabbed Coral by the waist.
She pushed him back and almost lost her balance again. “Stop, Gil. I can manage on my own.” She glared at Hiram. “I am not your girl,” she seethed. Never again. She turned to Jack. “Didn’t you swear to do no harm?”
His jaw set in a very tight line.
“I hate you, Jackson Kent,” she ground out. “I will hate you forever.”
“Don’t you ever come near me again, you hear?”
He gave her a smug grin despite his bloodied lip. “I can live with that.”
Coral turned away in disgust. With a hand over her ringing left ear, she trudged out of the river. She didn’t look over her shoulder to see who followed. As soon as she had the means, she was leaving Wathena to the Kents and the Davies and their stupid feud.