Perhaps it’s just that Waverly never had a reason to notice before, but Purgatory has a sizable LGBT population – definitely disproportionate to what the average LGBT population might be in a town this size, or so Waverly estimates. Or perhaps the lack of new blood in town, men or women, has some of the lonelier bachelorettes reconsidering their options. And Nicole Haught is one hell of an option.
The coffee shop is half-full when Waverly meets Nicole there, a week after she first storms into Nedley’s office and makes her intentions clear as day. Nicole is already waiting at a table, looking at something on her phone. The dimple-creasing smile that spreads immediately over her face makes Waverly blush as she approaches, one hand fiddling with the strap of her purse. “Hi,” she says.
“Hi,” Nicole says, gallantly standing up. “Can I get you something to drink?”
“Oh, it’s okay,” Waverly says.
“Come on. My treat,” Nicole says, ducking her head a little, dimple winking enticingly at Waverly.
“A latte, please,” Waverly says, smiling down at the table. She holds the table while Nicole heads over to the counter. Nicole looks good in civilian clothes, simple black jeans and a cream cable-knit sweater that makes the red of her hair shine softly. Waverly watches as she leans one hip against the counter, waiting for the barista to finish making someone else’s drink. When the girl returns to the register, she can see Nicole point to the menu, and then fish a few bills out of her front jeans pocket.
And then – the barista twirls one finger through the end of her ponytail, head cocked to the side, encouraging smile tilted up at Nicole as she tucks a couple dollars in the tip jar. Waverly can’t hear what’s being said, but the barista lets out a coquettish little laugh before disengaging to make Nicole’s order.
Nicole waits patiently by the pickup area, arms folded, occasionally glancing at Waverly as if to check in with her and reassure her she’ll return soon. The barista calls out Nicole’s name, setting down two paper cups and lingering a bit while Nicole claims them. Again that twirling finger, something that has Nicole checking the side of the cup in her right hand. She leans over the counter – Waverly almost looks away, second-guessing herself and everything about this supposed coffee date – but whatever Nicole murmurs turns the barista’s smile into something more forced. Still, she watches Nicole with something like hopeful interest as she returns to Waverly, and Waverly has to pretend at the last moment that she can’t see the barista’s eyes tracking to her and frowning.
“One latte,” Nicole says, setting it down. She’s careful to place her own coffee on the table so that one side of the cup is always facing away from Waverly. It’s not hard to guess what might be there, and sure enough Waverly glimpses the three-three-four pattern of a phone number when Nicole discards her cup in the trash.
Outside of the coffee shop, Nicole hesitates, one hand swinging by her leg. Waverly wants to grab that lonesome hand and walk down the street with Nicole to let everyone see how happy she is, but it’s all so new and kind of delicate. And there’s something to be said for the intimacy of a secret, the way there’s something that only two people in the whole world know making it that much more precious and unique. But soon. Waverly’s not sure what this weird pressure all through her chest means, but she likes it, and she’s sure it won’t be able to stay inside of her for much longer without bursting out on its own.
The restaurant is very nice, much better than anything they have in Purgatory. Waverly doesn’t want to admit it, but there’s a certain sense of security to being almost an hour’s drive from Purgatory, where no one knows who they are. Nicole looks absolutely thrilled to offer Waverly her hand to help her out of the car, giving her adoring glances as they wait for the maître d’ to escort them to their table, and so Waverly keeps it to herself that she’s really not ready to be out in public with Nicole where people they know could see them. Instead she chooses to enjoy sitting at a secluded little table for two, lit by honest-to-god candles instead of the little electronic ones that simulate the flicker. The table is small enough that their feet touch underneath, and Waverly lets her hand rest delicately just on top of Nicole’s.
“Bottle of wine?” Nicole suggests.
Waverly pouts. “We have to drive back. If you want, I can drive.” She’s used to being the responsible one and the offer comes easy.
“No, you should enjoy yourself tonight. You deserve to treat yourself,” Nicole says. Her hand, previously turned palm up to idly stroke at Waverly’s fingers, stills. “If you wanted, we could get a hotel. Stay overnight.”
Waverly really wasn’t prepared for that. She wants it, but it scares her at the same time. Maybe Nicole sees it on her face, because she smiles gently. “How about just a glass each. We can relax, and by the time we’re done we’ll both be good to drive.”
Waverly tries not to exhale in relief. She doesn’t want to hurt Nicole but – well, it’s new. They’re new. She squeezes Nicole’s hand, trying to show her that she does want to. Just not now. But one day. She can feel the certainty of it like a tug in her gut, pointing her towards an inevitable conclusion. But that’s kind of scary to think about, so she smiles in return and when the waitress arrives, orders the sweet pea agnolotti with chanterelle mushrooms and a lovely glass of white to keep it light.
They linger over their food, talking for a long time after their wine glasses run dry. Hidden by the tablecloth, Waverly likes running her foot up Nicole’s calf, the way it makes Nicole’s pupils dilate and focus intently on her. It’s quite a thing, to have those soft brown eyes looking at her with unabashed lust. It’s with some effort that Waverly pulls herself away long enough to go to the bathroom. She pauses as she rounds the corner on her way back to the table, seeing the waitress by their table, leaning a little on the edge, looking down at Nicole with a giggly expression. And that move – what is it with women twirling fingers through their hair?
Nicole is leaning back in her chair, legs crossed at the knee, hands folded in her lap, and a polite expression on her face while she says something. Waverly has to admit, the hint of thigh peeking out from under the hem of her dark blue dress is very alluring, just like the lines of her collarbones, melding up into the graceful line of her neck. The fall of her hair over her shoulder makes her eyes look even darker. Waverly has half a mind to stomp over and flip the table. Nicole clearly came to this restaurant with company, and they’ve been nothing less than flirtatious all night. But instead she waits until the waitress departs, and then slinks back to the table, sliding into her chair. Nicole visibly brightens up at the sight of her, which is incredibly flattering, and Waverly can feel her bad mood dissipate.
“Dessert?” Nicole asks.
Waverly thinks about the waitress and the way she let one foot kick up behind the other, toe resting point-down on the floor. “I think,” she says, once again letting her foot rest against Nicole’s calf, “I would rather get it to go.”
Nicole definitely takes her meaning if the slight widening of her eyes is any indication, and she motions for the check.
The annual 4-H fair is a cornerstone event for the community. Every farmer in a hundred-fifty-mile radius brings their livestock to be judged. There’s also a giant produce competition (current title holder: Old John Mallard who brought in a 1,373 pound squash five years ago and has never let anyone forget it since), a couple of carnival rides, barrel racing, herding time trials, and every fried food known to man. It would be the perfect chance to walk around with her girl, maybe ride the ferris wheel, share a fried dough, watch Wynonna waste money on beating rigged games she swears she can win. But big crowds and alcohol and competitive cowboys makes for a brew that sometimes froths over into fights, and that means Nicole is on duty for the long weekend.
Waverly wanders the fair grounds with Wynonna, only occasionally crossing paths with Nicole. Each time she gets a polite nod and a tip of Nicole’s hat, and maybe a flash of that honey warm smile. Once she says a hello in passing and Wynonna tries to entice Nicole to have a beer, mostly for the cheek of it, since they all know very well Nicole won’t drink on duty. “Maybe afterwards,” she says, and they continue on so Wynonna can go get a deep fried pickle on a stick.
The next lap around Wynonna is being rather violently ill into a garbage barrel in the livestock building while Waverly patiently holds back her hair. She glances around since they’re still in Nicole’s part of the fairgrounds and if she has to listen to Wynonna heave onto a pile of trash then at least she can look at her secret girlfriend.
That white Stetson doesn’t quite stand out among so many cowboys and rodeo riders, but the shiny badge is harder to miss, and it’s currently bobbing deferentially at a woman leaning on the railing of a goat pen. The woman must be one of the farmers, bringing her herd in to sell their hair and milk and enter them for judging.
Wynonna makes a horrifying sound halfway between a yelp and a retch as Waverly’s fists tighten involuntarily.
“Sorry, sorry,” Waverly says, running a soothing hand down Wyonna’s back so she’ll go back to her vomit. Now the woman is pointing at Nicole’s hat and Nicole is taking it off and Waverly just barely avoids yanking Wynonna’s hair clean off her scalp.
The woman takes the proferred hat by the brim, turning it in her hands, cooing over the badge. And then she snatches it away from the fence, revealing a naughty goat with its tongue still reaching for the hat. Both women exclaim over the hat, the farmer apologizing profusely as she thrusts it back into Nicole’s hands. Nicole turns it around too, now inspecting it for damage. Waverly can see Nicole frown, but then she gives the farmer a reassuring smile. A little tight around the corners, but familiar to Waverly nonetheless. She’s felt the effects of that smile herself, how it makes her feel relaxed and safe and like Nicole will take care of her. And now this farmer is shyly looking down at her feet and then at the goat, who is still waiting expectantly by the fence, as though a little patience will be rewarded with the return of the hat.
Wynonna finally pushes up from the barrel, tossing her hair over her shoulder and wiping her mouth with the back of her hand. She exhales a breath lousy with effluvia and Waverly rears back. “Yeah, that pickle was pretty briny,” Wynonna says. “I gotta get the taste out of my mouth. Let’s go to the slushee stand.”
“I don’t think more sugar is the answer,” Waverly says, trying to keep one eye on Nicole and one on Wynonna. But Wynonna is already pulling herself together and marching off, and Waverly has no choice but to follow after.
There are times Waverly is really straddling the fence on just letting everyone know that she and Nicole are dating. Not that she thinks you can claim another person, like a dog marking her territory. But also that is exactly what she wants this other woman at the boot supply store to think because she has got her grubby little hands all over Nicole’s stetson and Waverly is thankful that she means that literally, not figuratively.
Waverly hops out of her jeep, eager to see her girlfriend since her shift is over and she just has to pick up her hat after a little maintenance from the goat nibbling incident. Fortunately it only needed a good cleaning and reshaping. Nicole hadn’t been looking forward to explaining to Nedley why she had to requisition a new hat. “And besides, I just got this one broken in just right,” she told Waverly when they met up after the fair for some hot and heavy making out at Nicole’s house.
Waverly walks in and finds the woman behind the counter in an all-too-familiar position, staring up at Nicole in full aw-shucks-officer mode.
“You sure?” Nicole says, gesturing to her hat, in gleaming mint condition, badge buffed up to a high shine.
“It’s really no problem, officer,” says Lindy, whom Waverly has seen flirt her way through half the rodeo circuit that comes through town. Mostly it’s just good business; they all bring their equipment to the boot store to get it serviced or replaced so they can get another taste of the cute little blonde with the tight tank top and potty mouth who bought them a drink at Shorty’s the night before. She takes their cash and sends them on their way. But here’s Lindy, telling Nicole, “Free of charge for Purgatory’s finest.”
Waverly does her best not to slide in next to Nicole like she’s showing off to Lindy that they fit together like two puzzle pieces. She can’t really complain about other people – other women - flirting with Nicole if no one knows she’s seeing someone.
To Nicole’s credit, she remains professionally polite. “That’s very kind of you, ma’am.”
“Please, call me Lindy.”
“Are we making introductions?” Waverly says, bounding up with as carefree a smile as she can manage.
“Oh, hi Waverly,” says Lindy, sparing her a glance before turning back to Nicole.
“Lindy did a great job on my hat, see,” says Nicole, turning it over to show Waverly the chewed part, now unblemished and neat.
“Like new,” Waverly admits.
“Be a shame to see you going around in a busted up hat,” says Lindy. “Uniform should be as nice as the officer.”
“Uh,” says Nicole.
“Well bye Lindy,” says Waverly.
Rather dumbly Nicole fits the hat back on her head with one hand and tips the brim at Lindy, then follows Waverly out to the jeep.
“Ready to go?” Waverly asks, swinging herself up on the driver’s side with a cheerfulness she doesn’t really feel.
Nicole still looks a little bit nonplussed about what just happened in the shop, but climbs in on the passenger side. “You okay?” she asks.
“Yeah, why wouldn’t I be?” Waverly chirps. She turns the key in the ignition so forcefully she almost snaps it off.
“You just seem a little…tense,” Nicole says.
Waverly has to try her key a second time before she properly gets the ignition to catch and the engine starts clicking. “Just had a long day.” She sits back to look at Nicole, still in her uniform, slightly rumpled after work, head turned in her seat so she can watch Waverly and wait for her to pour out the day’s stress. Nicole always seems perfectly content to listen to her – good days, bad days, the days in between. She once caught herself in a ramble talking about a trip to the grocery store and found Nicole still idly paying attention about her inability to find bok choy. She had wanted to blush and apologize but Nicole suggested they drive into the city if Waverly was still craving the rarer produce that tended to miss Purgatory, then snuggled deeper into the couch where they were scrolling through Netflix. It was simply done, an offhand comment in the course of the evening, but she listened all the same and they did end up going into the city next weekend, where Nicole remembered and they picked up the ingredients for a stir fry.
“But, um.” Waverly smiles again, this one tenderly real. She reaches over the gearshift to touch Nicole’s thigh, the khaki there still with some starch to it. “It’s getting better already.”
Nicole covers Waverly’s hand with hers and smiles back, ready to listen.
It’s not a great feeling, being outed to other people. Even if it was just Nedley; Waverly wasn’t ready and Champ took the decision out of her hands. She wonders if that’s ever happened to Nicole, who hasn’t made a secret of her orientation since she got into town. She hasn’t been leading any pride parades either (as if Purgatory would ever have a pride parade) but she didn’t play careful pronoun games when getting to know the town’s residents, which is how it spread from Judy Greerson at the grocer’s that Nicole had casually said “she” when referring to a past relationship. And then suddenly every eligible woman in Purgatory seemed to open her eyes to the possibility she might not be straight, or that’s how it feels to Waverly.
But the way Nedley just didn’t seem to care – not how Champ wanted him to, anyway – and thinking she’d lost Nicole before they could even really make a start together put a few things into perspective. There is no good reason not to walk down the street holding her girlfriend’s hand if she wants, or not to peck her on the cheek when they say hello and goodbye. When things have finally calmed down enough that they can think about having a date night again, they’re both not up to anything more than dinner and a movie at Purgatory’s tiny cinema where they get everything a month late. But they do have a weirdly good collection of classics to make up for never having current releases, so after a viewing of The Big Sleep, one of Nicole’s favorites, they wind up at the coffee shop down the block to warm up and talk a little bit since Waverly can’t stay over tonight with Nicole having to be at the station early.
“What do you want?” Nicole asks as they pick out a small side table.
“Hot chocolate, please. No whip,” Waverly says, and Nicole’s dimple creases pleasantly.
“Two hot chocolates. I’ll be right back,” she says.
Waverly watches her, chin resting in her palm. They’d snuggled in the back of the theater for most of the movie, Waverly leaning her head on Nicole’s shoulder, hands twined on Waverly’s lap, and the sensation of being quietly connected still lingers. But then she spots a familiar face – the same barista who gave Nicole her number last time, once again giving Nicole a rather hungry look of appreciation. By the time Nicole pays, picks up the drinks, and returns to the table, Waverly has been stewing for a few minutes and it’s hard not to send her best laser death eyes at the girl behind the counter.
Nicole sets down the hot chocolate and then scoots her chair over next to Waverly so she can sit with one arm thrown casually along the back of Waverly’s chair. Waverly likes it; it’s not something Nicole would have done before, when Waverly had requested they keep it low key. But now that they’re holding hands in front of people, Nicole will do that sort of thing – a touch on the small of her back, shoulders brushing, standing a bit closer than necessary when they talk. Waverly can see the barista sneaking glances at the two of them and decides to just make sure everyone knows once and for all. She turns her head to the side as Nicole takes a sip of her drink.
“You have…” Waverly says, pointing to her own upper lip.
“Oh,” says Nicole, shifting so she can reach for a napkin. But Waverly stops her with a squeeze to her thigh and leans in, chin tipped up to catch Nicole’s mouth. She kisses Nicole, right there in the coffee shop, warm and sweet and chocolatey, eyes fluttering closed for a moment. Then she pulls back and looks at Nicole, all soft from being kissed.
“Did you get it all?” Nicole murmurs.
Waverly flicks her eyes down to Nicole’s lips, where there was never any whipped cream to begin with. “No,” she says, and kisses Nicole a second time. Still short, almost chaste, since they’re still sitting in a public place. But enough to leave no doubt that they’re more than friends. Let Judy Greerson get an earful of this.
Waverly tries not to be petty, but she can’t help but sneak a glance of her own at the barista, who looks distinctly crestfallen. In a heartbeat Waverly flips from vindictive to sympathetic; it can’t feel nice to see someone you like kissing another girl right in front of you. But she has no regrets about it either.
“I know you have to go in early tomorrow,” Waverly says. “Maybe I could just ride in with you?”
“If you don’t mind getting up at six,” Nicole says.
“We should go to bed now then,” Waverly says, and even though she means it in the sleep way, she catches the double entendre as it falls out of her mouth and it’s far too late to stuff it back in. Nicole’s mouth twitches as she looks down at the table for a moment.
“Yeah,” she says at last. “Bed sounds good.”
They take the hot chocolate to go, and Waverly slides her hand into Nicole’s as they leave, as simple and easy as she’s ever done.