Chapter 1: New Beginnings
Nicole stepped on the pier and breathed in the salty sea air. She knew that this would probably be the last time she would be able to fill her lungs with the heavy ocean air. She never had a feel for the sea. That was one of the main reasons she joined the Marines in the first place. She thought that by choosing the Marine Corps over the Navy, she would spend her entire enlistment in a desert or have her boots firmly on the ground at the very least. No one told her that she would have to spend large portions of a deployment attached to an amphibious ship that would transport her and her unit to whatever location they were most needed. She hated it at first. She couldn’t stand with the swaying of the ship and she hated the cramped nature of life aboard a vessel at sea. But as time passed, she actually got used to the occasional voyage by ship. Nicole knew that she would miss the quiet nights when she would stand all alone on the flight deck. She would look out into the pitch blackness of the open sea and gaze upon the millions of stars that she never would be able to see back in port in Norfolk.
But Nicole Haught’s time in the United States Marine Corps had come to an end. She would miss it all. But between the irreparable injury she had sustained to her lower body and the PTSD, both sustained when the CH-53 helicopter that she had been riding in had a massive systems failure, losing all of its hydraulic fluid, sending the aircraft and all of its occupants crashing to the water below, there was no place for her in the military any more. She had been medically retired, which hurt her heart but she realized that it was far better than being carried in a flag covered coffin to a funeral no one would attend.
She had no family. She was the only child to parents who had died before she had even reached 13. Nicole bounced from group home to group home until she was old enough to enlist. From the first day of boot camp, she had excelled. She loved life in the Corps. She had full meals, got to see new places, and most importantly she had finally found a family. She loved the camaraderie and the structure that the Corps had to offer, things that she had been missing most of her life. After her accident, the red-headed enlisted Marine laid in her bed in the hospital in Europe for months, wondering what would become of her life in the Marines. That question was answered in the form of what she liked to call her “break-up email”. If she was honest with herself, Nicole knew it was coming. Separation orders were inevitable. She hoped and prayed that they wouldn’t come, but she knew that there was no way she would be able to go back. She was too damaged to be an effective Marine. But Nicole just didn’t know who she was if she wasn’t a Marine. It had become her identity. It was who she was.
Nicole didn’t really have a home. During her time in the service she had mostly lived on base. All she had to her name was a seabag full of civies and her black and red Harley Davidson Road King. Like most young enlisted Marines, she had saved up her first few paychecks and blew it all on a motorcycle. But the difference was that Nicole cared for her bike more than anything because it was the first real thing that she had ever owned for herself. It was her prized possession that she always kept in pristine condition. She knew that when she returned to the States, it would be the only thing that was waiting for her.
Nicole had absolutely no ties to any place. She knew there would be no signs welcoming her home and no one waiting to greet her as she stepped off the pier. She had left on her deployment happily engaged to the person she thought was the love of her life. She had a beautiful girl that she had met when when her squad had taken her out to the only bar in Emerald Isle, NC. When she had first laid eyes on Alex, Nicole swore to herself that she was going to grow old with the beautiful angel. She had proposed one starry night on a completely empty beach and the couple spent the next two days barely leaving their bed. That was right before she left. But the email containing the separation orders wasn’t the only breakup email that she received while lying in that hospital bed in Europe.
Nicole remembered how down she had been when she first got injured. She remembered how she missed her platoon, missed her friends, and missed her home. She missed holding Alex in her arms as they would cuddle in their bed on Sunday mornings. When she saw the notification for the email from her fiancee, her heart nearly leapt out of her chest. She hadn’t heard from Alex since before her accident. But as she read, her mood began to change. Looking back at that moment, Nicole could swear that she was able to point to the exact moment where her heart ripped in two. The email started with how much Alex loved Nicole and how before she could see them spending a long happy life together. But when Alex received news of Nicole’s injuries, doubt crept into her mind. She convinced herself that there was no way that she could handle the months and months of therapy that the young Marine would require and she knew that Nicole would never be the same. She would never be her Nicole again. She said that she was not strong enough to be there for Nicole. The injured Marine read the words over and over and knew that it wasn’t the truth. She knew that the love of her life had found someone else while she was away. It happened more often than she would like to think. She had seen it time and time again with the other guys in her platoon. Deployment was hard on relationships. And although she had seen it happen before, it hadn’t made it any easier. At that time, the tough red head didn’t think she would survive that heartbreak.
After many long months recovering in the hospital, Nicole was finally given her discharge papers from the hospital. When it was time to head back to the states, Nicole knew that there was no way she would be able to get on a plane. Every night she woke in pools of sweat, screaming from the replay of that night in her head. Her PTSD was too bad and she didn’t know if she would ever be able to step foot on a plane again. So she caught a ride back on a ship headed back for the States. She hated being back underway but anything was better than having to be in the air.
As Nicole stood on the pier, breathing in the salty ocean air, her mind flashed back to that night on the beach under the stars. She felt the tear roll down her cheek as she reminisced about what would have been one of the happiest nights of her life.
“Get it together Marine,” she yelled internally at her outward display of weakness. With that one tear, she made up her mind to get as far from the ocean as possible. She couldn’t take the constant reminder of her broken heart with every lungful of salty air she inhaled. So Nicole hefted her bag over her shoulder and double timed it to the long term secure parking. There she saw her baby, covered and waiting for her return. At least something was. She uncovered her bike and stuffed the cover and her bag into the storage compartments. She straddled the machine and turned the key, the loud purr of the engine being one of the happiest things she had heard in months. Nicole pulled on her helmet and kicked off. She headed past the gate guard and down the highway, not knowing where she was going, just knowing that she was headed west.
She could hear her name being yelled, but she couldn’t make out who was yelling it. It sounded like Gus, but she didn’t see her aunt anywhere. The sound was getting louder and louder, but the source was still a mystery. But then she felt the hand on her shoulder shaking her and she woke to find herself face down in a pile of books and notes.
“Waverly, it’s time to get up. You’ll be late for your shift at Shorty’s.” Gus looked down at her niece and smiled. She knew that Waverly worked way too hard, much harder than someone her age should work. Between her work at the bar and school, she didn’t have much time to just be young. Gus felt for the young girl. Waverly had a drive to learn everything she could but had to bartend at Shorty’s to pay for school. Any other time that she had off she spent helping Gus run the farm. Gus hated that she needed Waverly’s help but she just wasn’t able to afford the handymen that Purgatory had to offer and ever since her husband Curtis had died, she just couldn’t take care of everything on her own. Waverly’s older sister, Wynonna, helped whenever she could but that wasn’t very often. Wynonna had enlisted in the Navy and spent most of her time deployed on a ship. She would come home when she had liberty, but that wasn’t very often. Definitely not often enough to help Gus take care of the farm. So it all rested on Waverly’s small shoulders. Gus hated that she had played her part in stealing some of the girl’s youth by piling the burden of the farm on her. She loved her niece and she knew that young Waverly deserved better.
“Waverly, you work too hard. You need to take a break...get away.”
“Gus, you know that there is no way that I am giving up school and you the farm, so I don’t see me getting a break anytime soon.” Waverly slowly started to stand up and stretch. She slowly walked towards her closet to retrieve her Shorty’s uniform “I’m fine, Gus.” She stopped short of the closet door and spun around to face the older woman. “Really.” She said in a reassuring way. The younger girl crossed the room quickly to hug her aunt. She hugged her for a long moment before breaking the embrace and looked up with the sweetest smile on her face. “If you are really worried about me, you could always make me a cup of coffee in my travel mug. I know I am going to need it today.” Waverly smiled and winked at her aunt.
“Of course Waverly.” The older woman kissed her niece on the forehead and walked out of the room towards the kitchen.
As Gus walked out, Waverly sighed. She was so tired that she could hardly stand up. She would never tell her aunt but the constant waking at 4 am to complete all of the random chores that needed to be done around the farm, then spending all day on her online school work, and finally heading to Shorty’s to sling drinks behind the bar was starting to break her. Some nights she would sneak off to the women’s restroom just so she could have a moment to break down. She definitely had no social life. There just wasn’t any time for that. Waverly dreamed of a life without all of her obligations. She dreamed of a life with fun, a life with travel, a life with love. She sighed in defeat and sighed in exhaustion before she willed herself back to the closet to put on her uniform.
Shorty’s never got extremely busy. Purgatory had way more drunks that just wanted someone quiet that would keep the glass full than it did young people who wanted an active bartender. But on Saturdays the atmosphere changed enough that Waverly stayed busy the whole night. She never really minded not having much down time because it always made her shift go by much faster. But it also meant that Waverly had to deal with getting hit on by many of the young single men (and some not so single) guys in town. Guys like Champ Hardy.
“Come on, Waverly. Why won’t you just go out with me. It’s not like you have any better offers and you know there isn’t a girl in Purgatory who wouldn’t give anything for a night with “The Champ”.” His cocky sneer made her sick to her stomach. “Most of the guys wouldn’t stoop so low as to take a chance on an Earp, but I can see past your name,” he leaned over the bar to look at her body, “because of that stupendous ass of yours.”
He was a pig, but he had a point. Some days Waverly felt so lonely. She worked so hard that she yearned for someone to hold her when the pressure got to be too much. She hated to think that one day the pressure would be too much and he would wear her down but she knew that it was inevitable. There weren’t a lot of people who wanted someone like her. Not just because she was an Earp, but most of the guys in Purgatory didn’t want what they called an “egghead”. They wanted the dutiful girl, not the intelligent, independent girl who wanted more from life. And Waverly Earp would never be that girl.
Deep down, Waverly knew that if she stayed in Purgatory, her best chance at someone to come home to was to settle down with Champ. He was supposedly the best catch in the Ghost River Triangle. Waverly knew that unless she left, she was destined to an unhappy life as Mrs.Champ Hardy. She could taste the bile rising in the back of her throat when she thought about her likely future. With every passing day, she could feel her dreams of an exciting, passion filled life drifting further out of her reach. Maybe all that she dreamed of just wasn’t in the cards for Waverly Earp.
Nicole had been riding for what seemed like years. She didn’t really have any clue where she was headed. She just kept driving. The young Marine figured when she came across the right place to stop, she would know it. But nowhere that she had passed through had the right feel, so she just kept going. She hadn’t felt that free in a long time. But Nicole was searching for somewhere, maybe someone, to call home. She wanted to feel that special feeling of having a family again.
It was starting to get dark. Nicole’s eyelids were getting heavy and her stomach growled to remind her that she hadn’t eaten in over 24 hours. She knew she would have to stop soon. As she drove, she saw a sign ahead of her. She couldn’t help but chuckle to herself when she got close enough to read it.
“Welcome to Purgatory. You’ll never want to leave, huh? Sounds like a real special place.” She pulled the bike alongside the welcome sign. “Such a charming name for a town,” she joked.
It then hit Nicole why she was drawn to this town. During her time on board one of the many ships she had been on, she had encountered a female Petty Officer with the same love for motorcycles that she had. She became quick friends with the young woman and they would spend off hours in the mess comparing bikes. She always teased the sailor about her last name as she found it to be quite unusual.
“So Earp, you find any cattle rustlers roaming the flight deck?” She would tease as she passed her new friend.
“Hilarious, Haught stuff.” Wynonna would reply with the nickname she had given the Marine.
Nicole cherished her friendship with Wynonna. She hated when she had to depart the ship, being a Marine she never stayed that long on board. She felt like the sister that the red headed Marine had never had. They would talk about their motorcycles, but also about home life and dreams for the future. Nicole would listen intently as Wynonna would talk about the little town of Purgatory and her aunt’s farm. She remembered how her friend told her that if she was ever passing through, she should stop and at least grab a drink from Shorty’s, and if she had had too much Gus would put her up for the night.
While she wasn’t so sure about asking a complete stranger for a place to stay the night, Nicole could definitely use a break from the vibrating seat of her motorcycle, her ass had been numb for hours. A drink and something to fill her stomach sounded pretty good at the moment. So she revved the engine of her bike and headed to the center of town to try the bar her friend had suggested.
Waverly may have started to give in to the constant advances of Champ Hardy but he was far past intoxicated and there was no way she was giving in that night. She had stopped serving him hours ago, but somehow it seemed he was getting even more drunk, which meant he was getting even more obnoxious. The small bartender could handle her own when it came to the town drunks, but that didn’t mean they didn’t get on her nerves.
“Come on Waverly,” Champ slurred his words.
“Go home, Champ.”
“Only if you come with me.” He gave her a drunk smirk.
“Champ, even if I did come home with you, you are way too drunk to do anything with me.” Waverly laughed and walked away. She peered over her shoulder and saw that he had yet to make a move towards the door. She knew she would have to deal with him until they locked the doors and all she could do was let out a sigh and keep serving the customers that had yet to reach their limit.
As she walked back towards the faulty beer taps, she felt as if all of a sudden time came to a screeching halt. The front doors to Shorty’s had opened and in walked a vision of beauty. As if she was in some cheesy 80’smovie, she swore she could hear the power ballad que up as she watched the red haired beauty enter the bar. Although she was dressed in jeans, a white t-shirt and black leather boots and jacket, Waverly swore she could see the magnificent musculature beneath. Waverly had never seen someone quite like her. Feminine and strong, she seemed to be perfection.
Waverly had to snap herself out of her trance. Time seemed to resume its normal pace once again. It didn’t bother Waverly that she found this young woman to be attractive. Her whole life she had appreciated the female form, but just as she had no time to date men, she had no time to date women either, so she had never actually explored the thought of dating women. But this woman was different. She was a unicorn, one of a kind. She had a special confidence that exuded from her stride. She was like no one that the young barmaid had ever laid eyes on.
Nicole pushed open the double doors to Shorty’s saloon. It wasn’t packed but there was a decent crowd for a Saturday night. A few people were playing pool and the rest were congregating around the bar where there seemed to be only one, very overworked, bartender. When Nicole laid eyes on the young bartender, she felt her heart skip a beat. She hadn’t felt even the slightest mend in her broken heart since she had opened the email ending her engagement. But a simple look at the midriff bearing angel pouring pitchers of frothy beverages for loud, drooling drunks, and Nicole felt as if a defibrillator had been applied to the heart that had stilled after it had broken.
Then she saw the tattoo covered pretty boy sloppily fawning and pawing at the obviously annoyed woman and Nicole’s White Knight complex sprung into action. She walked, but with a purpose, to the spot where the man was draped over the bar. She clapped her hand with some force down on his shoulder, which made him spin around in surprise. When he did he came face to face with the smiling red head.
“What the fuck? Who the hell are you?” Champ slurred his words and struggled to keep his head upright.
“I’m new and just thought that maybe you would come have a drink with me,” she smiled an even bigger smile, her dimples popping out.
“Look Red, that’s a great offer. But for one, you,” he looked her up and down and then gestured to her hair “aren’t my type. And can’t you see I’m working on something here.” He pointed towards Waverly.
“I get that buddy.” She clamped her hand tighter on his shoulder. “But this young lady doesn’t need your drunk ass hanging on her while she is trying to work.” She used her grip on his shoulder to direct him up from his seat. “And as much as I’m sure she would love to help you with your “little”,” she nodded to the area below his waist, “situation that I can assure you, based on your state of...lubrication... would not be a hard problem for her all night, she probably can’t help while she is working. So you can either come have a drink with me and let this lovely lady work,” she looked up at Waverly and flashed her a quick smile before returning her attention to the puddle of a man next to her, “or you can go home, sleep it off, and do your best to try and impress her when you are slightly less intoxicated.” She began to steer him towards a table away from the bar.
He took a few steps along side of her before he shook her off of him violently. “Get the fuck off of me.” He looked at Waverly. “I’ll catch up with you later, Waverly.” Champ staggered off through the doors of the bar. Nicole watched as he stumbled away and turned around to see that Waverly had gone back to tending a bar that seemed to have gotten exponentially busier in the past few seconds. The red headed Marine let out a sigh and decided to find an open table.
Waverly stared in awe at her savior escorting Champ away. That brief moment when the goddess dressed in denim and leather flashed her dimples and smile at the barmaid felt as if all the air had left her body. She wanted to know more about the mysterious stranger who had walked in her bar at the precise minute she needed her. She couldn’t wait for her to return to the bar so she could thank her but before the redhead had a chance to finish dealing with Champ, the bar had become overrun with patrons. Waverly knew she couldn’t take any more time to observe the other woman and started to pass out shots of whiskey and mugs of beer. She only hoped that she would get a moment to meet the object of her affection before she disappeared as quickly as she had appeared.