The sun is high and her thighs are weakened by the long ride when Nicole finally drops boots on Purgatory dirt.
It’s small, is the first thing she thinks, and it’s hot.
It’s damn hot.
She takes her wide-brimmed hat from her head, wiping the sweat from her brow on her tanned forearm, before she replaces it and takes a look across the street surrounding her.
It’s quaint, Nicole thinks. Small, but not so small that they don’t need another lawman, hence Nicole’s uplift from the last town.
She bites her lip as she squints from one side of the Main Street to the other, a few curious eyes following her as she leads her horse over to a stall to tether her while she takes a look around.
“You must be new in town,” a young woman says as she walks to greet Nicole. She’s pretty; dark hair and a confident walk. “I’m the Sheriff's daughter. Well, the new Sheriff.”
There’s something slightly regretful in the way she says new Sheriff that settles uneasily against Nicole’s skin, but she doesn’t push and ask.
There’ll be time for that later.
“Nicole Haught, ma’am,” Nicole says as she removes her hat and inclines her head. “I’ll be the new Deputy Sheriff, so I’m sure we’ll be seeing a lot of each other.”
“You’re the new Deputy?” the young woman asks, surprised. “Well, I’ll be.”
“I know some folks might have a problem with it, but I promise you I’m just as capable of having your Daddy’s back as any man,” Nicole says seriously, bracing herself to deliver her defence, but to her surprise, she doesn’t need it.
“I don’t doubt it,” the girl says with a kind smile on her face. “You strike me as very capable, Miss Haught, but even if you weren’t, you’ll still be a damn improvement on the law in this town that isn’t my father.”
“Why, thank you, Miss….” Nicole trails off, waiting for her new acquaintance to fill the space with her name.
“Nedley,” the young woman finishes as she reaches out her hand for Nicole to shake. “Chrissy Nedley.”
“So, your father must be….”
“Randy Nedley,” Chrissy replies as she nods. “That’s him. I can take you to meet him now, if you’d like?”
“Oh, I wouldn’t want to bother him just now,” Nicole says as she looks up to the sun. “It must be about noon. I’m sure he’s off stealin’ a bit of quiet in the shade somewhere.”
“Asleep, more like,” Chrissy replies with an eye-roll. “He won’t mind, though. Truth be told, I think he’s been a bit excited since he got the post with your acceptance in it.”
“I confess the same myself,” Nicole says with a smile as she ducks her head, and Chrissy smiles at the genuineness in her gesture. “I mean, I’ve heard good things about your father. I’m lookin’ forward to working with someone like him. A decent man.”
“He seems like a stubborn asshole at first, but he’ll soften up,” Chrissy offers with a wink. “I promise. Now, you want me to show you around, or….”
“I’ll introduce myself to your old man soon, and I need to find a place to stay, but I’m wonderin’ if you might be able to point me in the direction of your watering hole?” Nicole asks as her thirst takes prime place in her head. “I’m so damn parched.”
“Oh, of course you are,” Chrissy answers, admonishing herself. “Good Lord, what was I thinkin’. Now, the Saloon Bar is where the locals go, but if you’re wanting something a little more….refined….the young lady who runs the local apothecary serves drinks for those wanting an atmosphere with a little less swearin’ and fighting, if you need a break from that during your day.”
“How’d a young lady find herself running a little business here?” Nicole inquires politely as they begin to walk across the street. “Is it a family business, or….”
“Not exactly,” Chrissy says with a frown. “The store was in the family, but….listen, Miss Haught, there are a few things you’ll fast learn around this town, and truth is, I’d rather you hear them from someone who’s not taken by drink or hate.”
“Such as?” Nicole asks curiously as she falls into an easy step with young Miss Nedley.
“Well, there are families that run towns like this, right?” Chrissy says carefully. “Your old town like that?”
“Yeah,” Nicole replies cynically. “Just like that.”
“Well, this one's no different, although there’s been a bit of a shift over who’s in charge here in the last few years,” Chrissy says, and Nicole can tell how delicately she’s choosing her words. “Our old Sheriff, he was a drunk and a bastard, but people respected him for the most part. His family’s been here for decades, by the name of Earp.”
“Earp?” Nicole asks, tasting the flavour of the word on her tongue.
“Earp,” Chrissy confirms before she continues. “Now, Ward was a piece of work, but he and his wife had three little girls. Their mother left shortly after the youngest - she’s my age - was born, leaving him to raise the three of them. He didn’t do much raisin’, left that up to the oldest sister, and they did okay until a few years ago.”
“When he….” Nicole asks delicately.
“Yeah,” Chrissy says a little solemnly. “When he died. Now, I don’t know if Daddy wrote to you and told you what happened when you offered to take the job, and I can guarantee you’ll hear thirty different histories of the Earps before the day is done, but Daddy’s version is what really happened.”
“He told me that there was an accident,” Nicole says carefully as they near a store with a window lined with sparkling glass bottles. “That the local gang came for him in the middle of the night, and their sister was killed, along with the Sheriff.”
“Did he tell you about the middle sister?” Chrissy asks with a sad frown on her brow.
“That she picked up the Sheriff’s gun to protect the smallest one, and….” Nicole answers slowly, hoping Chrissy will finish the line so she doesn’t have to.
“Shot her father by accident,” Chrissy says gently. “Yeah, that’s it. Her oldest sister was killed in the skirmish, too, poor thing. Thank god Daddy arrived with back up, he was the Deputy then you see, before anything else happened or anyone else got hurt, but the damage was done by then.”
“What happened to them?” Nicole asks, her voice keen. “The two girls?”
“Wynonna,” Chrissy says with a regret-heavy sigh. “She’s the oldest now. She hasn’t had it easy since. A few people wanted to have her locked up for what happened with her daddy, but I think that’s manure, if you’ll excuse the expression. She was a child when it happened, and the way Daddy tells it, they would have made away with the youngest if Wynonna hadn’t stepped in.”
“They didn’t, though?” Nicole questions, taking her hat off to survey the rows of bottles as she listens to Chrissy beginning to round her story off.
“They didn’t,” Chrissy says with a smile. “They backed the hell off when they saw kid Wynonna staring them down the barrel of Ward’s gun.”
“What happened to her?” Nicole asks, interested. “If they didn’t throw her in jail?”
“She had to grow up with the stigma of killin’ her own father, trying to help raise her kid sister when she was barely older than a kid herself. They went to live with a friend of the family’s for a while, until Wynonna grew up enough to shift them back home.”
“Jeez,” Nicole appraises as she processes the story in her head. “What do you make of her... Wynonna, did you say it was?”
“The town hates her,” Chrissy answers with a frown before her face changes and she looks to Nicole with a smile. “But I think she’s a hero. She’s got more than a few demons herself, but her sister’s a gem, the whole town loves her, surname or no, and that ain’t due to no one but Wynonna herself.”
“What’s she like?” Nicole asks as she looks over the top of the bottles and catches a flash; a passing glance of a gaze that stops her heart for a second.
Of the most beautiful girl she’s ever seen in her whole damn life.
“The younger sister?” Chrissy replies with a grin, not missing the way Nicole watches the young woman on the other side of the glass window with a slightly starry expression. “You’re about to meet her. Go find that out for yourself.”
“Waverly Earp, I have the pleasure of introducin’ Daddy’s new deputy,” Chrissy says by way of a greeting as she drags a slightly shellshocked Nicole into the shop behind her.
It’s beautiful, the small narrow shop. Immaculately clean with rows and rows of bottles containing liquids and herbs Nicole only recognises the names for half of.
It’s white, but not clinically so; it’s warm, welcoming, and it smells like a scent Nicole will eventually come to associate with home.
One end of the long room has what looks like Waverly’s medicinal offerings, with herbs of various assortments hanging from the ceiling, while the other appears home to a small bar, one or two people currently sitting, nursing something that looks liquid and delicious and cold .
“Hi,” Waverly says kindly, wiping her hands on her apron before she turns to Nicole with a smile that puts the sun to shame. “Waverly Earp. It’s a pleasure to meet you, Deputy….”
She’s wearing a soft white dress with a laced corset over the top, sensible but not demure looking, and to Nicole’s eyes, an absolute vision. Her arms are bare, and her skin is deeply tanned, and her hair is pulled into a loose tie on the top of her head, several runaway strands falling around her eyes.
She holds her hand out for Nicole to take, just like Chrissy had only a few moments ago, but there’s something so significantly different about this gesture to the one before, even if Nicole can’t put her thumb on it now.
Or later this afternoon.
Or this evening.
Or the several that follow.
Nicole does a double take, pausing with her hand halfway to Waverly’s, a blank look passing over her face, but it’s not out of place, because Waverly does, too.
And it’s not in a way where she’s pausing, watching Nicole, too. When she looks at Nicole, properly looks at her, she’s just as lost in the sight of Nicole as Nicole is of her.
“Haught,” Nicole breathes as Waverly’s hand closes the distance and slides into her own, warm and perfect. “Nicole Haught.”
“Nicole,” Waverly answers a little vaguely, like she’s trying to recall a memory to go with Nicole’s name, and the feeling of her hand in Waverly’s own.
A memory or a dream or a premonition, even.
“That’s a beautiful name,” Waverly says a little distractedly, like she’s trying desperately to reconcile whatever she’s currently feeling with some type of reason. “I feel as though I’ve heard it before. Have you ever come to town previously?”
“No ma’am,” Nicole says with a blush as Waverly’s hand holds against her own.
“Are you sure?” Waverly asks again, her face lined in a frown as she concentrates. “I feel like….no, that’s ridiculous. You’d remember if you’d been to Purgatory before, of course you would. I must be going mad.”
“You feel like what?” Nicole questions curiously as her thumb strokes over Waverly’s palm softly. So subtly Waverly could forgive it as a twitch if she wanted to.
“No, it’s silly,” Waverly says as she shakes her head, dismissing the idea.
“I don’t think anythin’ you say is going to be silly,” Nicole replies, smooth without meaning to be, but the compliment is enough to get Waverly to look at Nicole again clearly.
“It’s only….” Waverly says shyly, pausing as she tries to align her words. “I feel like we’ve met before. I feel like I know you.”
Nicole’s heart skips, and then swoops, and then rises as Waverly looks at her, because they haven’t met before, she knows they haven’t, because she would remember someone like Waverly Earp, but that doesn’t stop the feeling that while they haven’t met before, she still feels like she knows Waverly, too.
She feels familiar.
And she smells like home .
“Maybe you dreamed of her,” Chrissy offers with a smirk as she looks between the two of them. “I’ve heard of things like that happening before. I mean, you’ve got a hell of an inventory here, Waverly. It must affect you, bein’ around this stuff all day?”
“I must have,” Waverly says a little airily still, her eyes moving over Nicole’s face like she’s trying to jog a memory.
Finally, her eyes fall back to Nicole’s, and at the sight of Nicole’s slightly smitten smile, Waverly beams .
Which, of course, is the perfect time for a cocky, entitlement-driven distraction to walk through the door in front of them.
“Afternoon, darlin’,” a young man with a too-white smile and a too-shiny gun on his hip says to Waverly as he completely ignores both Nicole and Chrissy to lean against the high countertop.
Waverly gives Nicole’s hand one last brief squeeze before she drops it gently to address their Johnny-come-lately.
She’s not sure what pisses her off more: his arrogant swagger, the way he says darlin’, the fact that he made Waverly drop her hand, or the idea that sun-perfect Waverly Earp might be otherwise spoken for.
By this asshole.
Her heart climbs up into the base of her throat and her hands tighten around the leather of her belt as she waits for Waverly to return the endearment, or not.
“Hi, Champ,” Waverly answers politely, but neutrally, as she looks down to busy herself with something behind the counter, an action she hadn’t bothered with for Nicole and Chrissy.
“Oh, that’s cold,” Champ replies as he smirks heavily. “You don’t got anything warmer for your future husband?”
Nicole’s heart drops, through the floor and into a shallow grave, before Waverly scowls heavily and turns to look at Champ.
“Champ,” Waverly says, sighing like she’s more than fed up, which makes Nicole’s heart ease a little, before Chrissy snorts and talks over them both.
“I didn’t know you’d resorted to kidnapping in order to get a girl to marry you, Champ,” Chrissy offers sarcastically, and he throws her a dark look as Waverly laughs softly.
“I’ll wear you down for second date one of these days,” he says, winking at Waverly before he leans back like he thinks the job is done.
“Yeah, ‘cause wearin’ a girl down is such a nice way to start a relationship,” Nicole sighs with an eye-roll, catching Waverly’s smile at her defense.
“Who the hell are you?” Champ asks roughly as he turns to Nicole, taking stock of her for the first time. He gives her the once-over, frowning slightly when he absorbs the gun at her hip and her decidedly non-feminine clothing.
“That’s your new Deputy Sheriff, Champ Hardy,” Waverly says sternly at his tone of disrespect. “Mind your damn manners.”
“Nedley hired a lady deputy?” Champ asks incredulously. “God, he must be desperate. I guess that’s what happens when the old one was-”
“I bet she could kick your ass with her hands tied behind her back,” Chrissy cuts over him firmly, closing off whatever insult he was about to send the way of Waverly’s father. “You’d do better to offer her more respect, Champ Hardy.”
“Whatever,” Champ says dismissively. “When she’s got a badge, I’ll listen. Until then…”
“What do you want, Champ?” Waverly questions, her growing impatience becoming clearer and clearer.
“I want a second date,” he repeats, completely oblivious to Waverly’s clear discomfort. “I managed to get you on a first, even if you didn’t…”
“Hey,” Nicole says crossly. “If you’re about to say what I think you are, keep your damn thoughts to yourself.”
He narrows his eyes at Nicole then, turning to properly appraise her. His gaze moves slowly up and down the length of Nicole’s body, taking in her clothes - well made, but not representative of what women wear in this time at all - her height, the bend and confidence of her own frame, before something flashes across his eyes.
Understanding, she thinks with a cold jolt. He can tell I’m interested.
“I don’t think it’s your place to comment on what Miss Earp and I did or didn’t do,” Champ says with a cocky smirk as he straightens up to his full height, taking a step towards Nicole.
“It is when the only thing that happened on a date that I only agreed on in order to get you to leave me alone was that you forced a kiss on me when you walked me home,” Waverly replies in a smooth, forced calm, her jaw clenched with her frustration.
And Nicole wants to hit him right here, in Waverly’s beautiful little store, this instant, for his disgustingly disrespectful tone, but she doesn’t, because she knows it isn’t what Waverly would want. It would only reduce her to as much of a thug as he is an asshole, and that is not the first impression she wants to leave Waverly with.
“There you have it,” Chrissy says finally as she glares at Champ. “Now move on, would you? We were having a lovely time without you.”
“Guess I’ll just come back tomorrow, then,” Champ replies with a cold smile. “You’ll say yes one of these days.”
“Don’t hold your breath,” Waverly answers with a heavy sigh.
He pushes away from the countertop before he stands back to look at the three women.
“Ma’am,” he says as he tips his hat to Waverly and Chrissy. He doesn’t extend the farewell to Nicole, opting to throw her a sickly demeaning smile instead before he turns with a flourish and leaves.
“God makes ‘em all, doesn’t he?” Chrissy offers with a heavy sigh once he’s finally gone. “That boy is exhausting .”
“Absolutely exhausting,” Waverly says as she breathes deeply, almost appearing to savour the air, fresher for his absence.
“Does he do that every day?” Nicole asks, a little disbelieving as she watches the weight lift off Waverly’s shoulders.
“Every day,” Waverly replies, sounding beyond tired at Champ’s perseverance.
“And you’re not…” Nicole tries to ask politely, wanting to confirm what she thinks she knows based on that little peacock display: that Waverly’s not involved with him. That there isn’t an interest there that might otherwise make her unavailable for…
For what, Nicole isn’t sure, because she knows who she is, she knows what she likes, but she knows that is so far from being openly accepted, especially in a small town like Purgatory.
And even if Waverly is available, so to speak, there’s absolutely no guarantee that she would even entertain being courted by a woman, although there’s something in the softness of her gaze, and the way that she almost looks at Nicole like maybe this is what she’s been waiting for her whole life, she just didn’t know it, that gives Nicole hope .
“Interested?” Waverly asks cynically as she raises an eyebrow to Nicole. “Not at all. Never have been. I really only said yes because he said he’d leave me alone if I did. Which he hasn’t.”
“I can probably do something about that, if you like,” Nicole offers, and there’s kind of a double depth or interpretation as to how she can do that.
Because she can tell him to back off, rough him up a bit and tell him to stay the hell away because Waverly isn’t interested, or she can give him a different reason to back the hell off.
She can tell him to stand down because Waverly is spoken for.
“Really?” Waverly asks hopefully as her eyes light up. “I mean, I’d love that. He drives half of my afternoon customers away every day, and he drives me sideways, but…you don’t have to. I mean, you’re new to town. Aren’t you supposed to figure out if I’m worth the trouble?”
“Even if he wasn’t a general menace, I already know you’d be worth the trouble,” Nicole says smoothly, sending Waverly her brightest grin so Waverly isn’t left with a scrap of doubt as to what Nicole means.
She can vaguely see Chrissy out of the corner of her eye, smiling kindly at their interaction with a slightly knowing expression on her face, and Nicole almost can’t believe her luck at having a potential ally and friend so easily in a town as small as this.
“You’re very sweet, Officer Haught,” Waverly replies around a soft blush. “If you managed to give me even a few days’ reprieve, I’d be mighty thankful. More cold drink than you could stomach, any time of the day. Speaking of which, god, you must be thirsty as anything.”
Nicole can see her shaking her head at her own thoughtlessness, not that Nicole thinks that it is for a second, before she floats down to the bar end, reappearing a few seconds later with two chilled bottles that make Nicole salivate at the sight.
“On the house,” Waverly says, grinning broadly as she slides the glass bottle in front of Nicole.
“Oh, I couldn’t,” Nicole replies as she shakes her head and reaches into her pocket for something to pay Waverly with, trying not to glare too hungrily at the cool drink.
“I insist. It’s the least I can do,” Waverly says quietly as Chrissy moves away a few steps to give them a moment to themselves. “I know you don’t know yet, or maybe you do, but we don’t have a hell of a lot of people jumping the gun to stand up for us, my sister and I. It’s…”
She trails off softly before she bites her lip, adorably, worrying a few strands of her hair with both hands before she stops fussing. She lays both hands palm down on the bar before she looks up to Nicole with an expression that makes Nicole’s chest ache .
“Truth be told, I don’t know what it is,” Waverly says with a sense of melancholy that Nicole senses - almost knows for a certainty, such is the weight of its grip around Waverly’s neck - has been there her whole life.
She looks to Nicole again, clearly, easily, before she smiles at her and Nicole feels the weight shift .
“It’s been so long since it happened, I can’t remember what it’s like.”
“So that’s Waverly Earp, huh?” Nicole asks with a heavily distracted note to her voice as she and Chrissy leave Waverly’s shop.
“That’s Waverly Earp.” Chrissy nods in confirmation.
“She’s…” Nicole tries to start, but she has absolutely no idea how she’s going to finish.
Because she’s only known Waverly Earp for a little over an hour now, but she feels like her life has changed swiftly on its axis, creating a line in the dirt.
Years before meeting Waverly Earp, and years after.
She doesn’t know Waverly, not yet, not beyond the fact that her smile looks like it could bring someone back from the dead, and her hands smell like herbs and rain, and her eyes are kind, when she thinks you deserve them to be so.
“She’s a special girl,” Chrissy says with a slightly knowing smile, completely lost on Nicole, who's still wrapped up in the thought of Waverly and her delicate, but purposeful hands.
“She certainly seems so,” Nicole replies as she turns to take one last look at Waverly with her hands flat on the countertop.
She’s not expecting Waverly to be watching her still, but she is, seemingly as intrigued by Nicole as Nicole is by her.
Nicole raises her hand, giving Waverly a small, shy gesture of goodbye, which Waverly returns with an equally shy movement and a brilliantly controlled smile, like she was trying to keep the fact that she was happy contained, or a secret from others watching.
“Not very many people give her a chance once they hear about her sister and her father,” Chrissy says sadly. “It says a lot about your character that you’re willing to, Miss Haught.”
“Lord, it’s not even her sister’s fault, let alone hers,” Nicole says as she shakes her head and attempts to comprehend how anyone in the whole entire world could not want to give Waverly Earp everything they could, let alone the decency of not blaming her for her sister’s, or father’s, sins.
“You and I know that, but a lot of these small-minded folk don’t think the same as you and me,” Chrissy replies, sighing heavily. “It means a great deal, to think Waverly might have someone else in her corner. Lord knows she needs it.”
“It’s the least I can do,” Nicole says with a frown as she looks from Waverly’s shop around the Main Street. “People are really that simple thinking?”
“I’m afraid so, Deputy,” Chrissy answers regretfully. “Welcome to Purgatory, where the sins of your parents are your own.”
“Terrific,” Nicole says balefully. “Well, at least I can keep that Champ character from harassing the poor girl every day.”
“That might be a harder task than you’re anticipating,” Chrissy returns wryly. “He’s had his eye on that girl for years now.”
“Yeah, well, I’m not terribly fond of the way he looks at her,” Nicole says with a narrowed eye as she watches Champ disappear into what she assumes to be the main watering hole. “It’s….”
“Predatory?” Chrissy offers, finishing Nicole’s sentence. “Yeah, I know. Daddy does, too. I think that’s why he sends me on errands that take me past the shop most days.”
“I’m glad she’s got someone else lookin’ after her,” Nicole says as she turns and looks at Chrissy. “You’re a pleasant surprise, Miss Nedley. I’ll count my lucky stars later that I had the good fortune to bump into you first.”
“As are you, Deputy,” Chrissy returns, blushing a little. “I knew a woman prepared to take on a job like yours was bound to be different, but you’re alright by me, too.”
They walk a little way back to check on Nicole’s horse, a beautiful, deeply brown mare, nickering it’s pleasure in seeing Nicole come towards it.
“Daddy should be about at the jail now, if you want me to take you to see him,” Chrissy says as she holds her hand out for the horse to sniff before she runs her hands down its neck. “And then I can take you to where he’s organised a room for you, and you can unpack and get yourself settled.”
“Only if you haven’t got somewhere else to be?” Nicole answers gratefully. “But I’m sure I’ll find my way if you do. This town ain’t so big that I won’t find it eventually, but I’d be thankful for the company.”
“I’ve got an engagement shortly, but I’ve got more than enough time to show you to him first,” Chrissy says with a smile, giving the horse one last stroke before she steps away. “And then perhaps I could show you to your accommodation on my way there?”
“Sounds sublime,” Nicole replies, returning Chrissy’s smile. “Now, before we meet him, tell me everything I need to know about your father.”
The walk to the jail doesn’t take them very long, it’s only at the opposite end of the Main Street, but Nicole is thankful for the opportunity to step out of the sun by the time they get there.
Nedley is stern, but Nicole can sense a kind side to him, even as he leads her gruffly around the jail. It’s reasonably sized, which Nicole was expecting given the relative size of the town, and it’s well-kempt, which, if Nicole’s honest, she wasn’t expecting.
Nedley obviously takes pride in the place, and pride in his ranks, and Nicole’s heart lifts a little at the prospect of working for someone like this.
He waves them both off, telling Nicole to familiarise herself with the town today, not to worry about coming back in, and that he’ll see her in the morning.
She hears his voice travel quietly to one of the other men in the jail as they leave, and she’s pleasantly surprised not to hear a joke or jape, but genuine relief in his voice.
“It true she managed to run that gang out of town in her last posting?” one of the men asks Nedley, his voice laced with disbelief.
“Sure as I’m standing here in front of you,” Nedley says with a hint of pride, as though he was impressed with his own recruitment of her. “Old Sheriff couldn’t praise her highly enough. Damn near begged me not to take her so she’d stay with him, actually.”
“But, she’s a woman,” one of the others says, still unsure.
“And what?” the first man replies. “I bet you a drink she’d knock your ass in the dirt before you could do as much as land a blow.”
“She’ll do,” is the last thing she hears from Nedley before they’re too far to hear him clearly. “Yep, she'll do.”
“Tell me more about Waverly’s sister,” Nicole says as they walk back from the jail. “Wynonna, you said her name was? What’s she like?”
“She’s a harder nut to crack than Waverly, that’s for sure,” Chrissy says a little cynically. “I don’t blame the girl, though, not after what she’s been through.”
“Is she…” Nicole trails off, not quite sure how to verbalise what she wants to ask.
Is she a danger, is she a risk, is she a wet stick of dynamite ready to blow?
“She’s a product of her history, Deputy,” Chrissy answers carefully. “She’s certainly no rosebud like Waverly is, but there’s good in her, I know there is. I’ve seen it in the way she acts around her sister. The lengths she goes to in order to make sure Waverly never wants for nothin’, that she hears as little of the poison this town spits about her family as possible.”
“Does she come into the town often?” Nicole asks, trying to gauge whether or not she’ll have the opportunity to meet her soon.
“Often enough,” Chrissy says back. “You’re bound to meet her in a few days. She calls in to see Waverly most days.”
“They don’t live together?” Nicole questions, trying to put as much behind the portrait she’s building of Waverly in her mind. “She and her sister?”
“Sometimes,” Chrissy offers with a frown. “Wynonna lives on the homestead, where everything…happened. I don’t think Waverly is awful fond of the place, even with her sister there. The shop has a small room above it, but it’s more than enough for her. I think she prefers to stay there when she can? She spent a good part of her childhood with Gus and Curtis, when Wynonna was…away for a little while, too. Although, she does spend a great deal of time out there with Wynonna now. I think she just prefers not to stay…”
“I don’t blame her,” Nicole says with a sympathetic sigh as they round the entrance to the place Nicole appears to be lodging.
“Trouble is,” Chrissy replies sadly, placing her hand on the rail of the stairs. “Most of this town does.”
“I know it’s nothin’ flashy, but hopefully it’ll be enough for you to make yourself comfortable in,” Chrissy says as she shows Nicole around her accommodation.
“It’s more than enough,” Nicole says thankfully, dropping the haversack containing her few belongings onto the decently sized bed. “I can’t remember the last time I saw a bed that wasn’t a cot. This is like heaven.”
Her room, larger than some of the small shack-excuses for houses she’s lived in, is one of half a dozen that make up a modest Inn, which sits nestled among the Main Street shops. The Inn belongs to Gus and Curtis McCready, who, Nicole has come to learn, are the family friends that took Waverly and Wynonna in and cared for them both. Waverly, especially, when Wynonna left town after the accident with her family.
The Inn opens from the street to a front desk, normally manned by Gus or Curtis themselves, that leads around to their private office, as well as the dining room, and, behind that, the kitchen. A stairwell on the bottom floor leads up to the second level, which is comprised entirely of private rooms, the entrance to Nicole’s at the end of a long hallway. It won’t be as easy to hide her comings and goings if she needs to leave during unusual hours, but it’s a damn sight better than sleeping under the stars in the cold.
“Daddy didn’t mention it, but he’s organised the charge of the lodging. You can talk to him about that tomorrow if you want to. He’s also arranged with Gus to make sure the room comes with a few meals a day. You’ll have to go down and fetch them, but the food’ll be hot, waiting there for you. You’re the only one with a key, too, other than Gus, for your own piece of mind,” Chrissy says as she walks around the room, making sure everything’s in order.
“That’s very kind of him,” Nicole answers with a smile as she walks over to the window, looking out and down onto the Main Street.
“I think he’s doing everything he can to keep you here, now that he’s got you,” Chrissy replies with a smile of her own. “Not an idiot, that man, no matter what some think of him.”
“Well, I appreciate the effort he’s gone through in order to organise this,” Nicole offers as she walks over to Chrissy to say farewell. “It’s a heck of a lot more than I was expectin’, if I’m honest. I was prepared to sleep rough for a few nights until I found somewhere with a roof over it. This is incredible.”
“I’m happy it’s to your liking,” Chrissy says fondly. “I’ll be sure to let Daddy know it wasn’t enough to scare you out of town. Nor your introduction to a few fellow citizens.”
“More than,” Nicole says. “And they’ll have to do better than Champ Hardy to send me packin’.”
“Pleased to hear it. I have to take my leave, unfortunately,” Chrissy says as she opens the small silver pocket watch at her waist. “But you’re okay here?”
“More than,” Nicole replies again with a thankful nod of her head. “I’m sorry to have kept you.”
“Oh, it’s no trouble at all,” Chrissy insists, swatting the insinuation away. “Truly, it’s a pleasure, Deputy. You’ve got the directions to our house if you need anything? You can probably convince one of the young boys to run out there if somethin’ comes up, but don’t want to come all that way.”
“I’m sure I’ll be just fine,” Nicole says easily, walking Chrissy to the door. “Thank you again for your kindness and the history lesson, Miss Nedley. It means more than I can say.”
“Any time,” Chrissy answers with a wink. “Oh, and Miss Haught? If you find yourself needin’ company at all, you know Waverly Earp lives across the way, above her shop.”
“She does?” Nicole asks, suddenly even more appreciative of the location of the Inn. “I must have lost my bearings. I thought it was further down the way.”
“Nope,” Chrissy says with a smile. “I’m sure she’d be more than happy to admit you if you find yourself adrift at all. If you can see a candlelight across the way, that means she’s there. The door to the room goes through the shop, although there’s another entrance on the backside of the building. Just knock and give her a holler, and she’ll come down.”
“I think I’ll wait and ask her permission before I appear on her doorstep after dark,” Nicole laughs softly. “Although, I appreciate your trust in lettin’ me know.”
Chrissy lingers overlong for a moment, and Nicole can tell she wants to ask something, and she’s pretty certain she knows what it is, although she’s not going to put her boot in it, just in case, so she starts with an indirect question.
“There something else you wanted to ask, Miss Nedley?” Nicole inquires gently. “By all means, do. I’d hate to keep you any longer if you have someplace to be…”
“I do…” Chrissy says slowly. “But…”
“You don’t want to offend me?” Nicole asks with a slightly amused voice. “I promise you won’t, I’ve got pretty tough skin. Go ahead.”
“Are you…” Chrissy starts before she trails off again. “I mean, before I ask, I want you to know it’s perfectly okay if you are - more than okay, actually - I think we could use a bit of diversity in this town, and….”
“Miss Nedley,” Nicole says softly, cutting off her rambling.
“Sorry,” Chrissy replies as her cheeks break out in a blush. “You don’t even need to answer if you don’t feel comfortable, or it’s not something you like to discuss, and I won’t tell a soul, if you do…..”
She twists her hands, and Nicole has to do her level best not to laugh, because she doesn’t want to offend her, not at all, but it’s hard not to when she’s caught in this much turmoil trying to ask one simple question.
“Are you….” Chrissy attempts again, and the determined look on her brow tells Nicole she’s going to get this out, come hell or high water this time. “Do you prefer the company of woman? As opposed to men, I mean. Are you….?”
“I am,” Nicole says a little nervously. Because she’s long since made peace with who she is, but others struggle to make that leap sometimes, and more often than not, her preferences, when revealed, lead to open hostility at worst, and avoidance at best. “I mean, I do. Is that….”
“It’s okay,” Chrissy says eagerly. “More than, in fact. I mean I’m not, but it’s fine. More than fine, I mean. Boy, I’m doing a terrible job of trying to ease your mind, huh?”
“It’s okay,” Nicole replies as her face flushes red. “You’re doing just fine. It’s not something I yell from the rooftops, but I don’t hide it. I don’t believe I should, come to that. I’m not embarrassed of who I am. Even if there are those that think I should be.”
“Well, I certainly don’t think you should be embarrassed. In fact, some days I can see the appeal. Especially when the alternative is Champ Hardy,” Chrissy says, smiling, and Nicole has the distinct impression that there’s something else she wants to say, because her smile keeps getting wider.
“Miss Haught?” Chrissy asks finally, and Nicole can’t help the curious turn of her brow when she responds.
“Miss Nedley?” Nicole returns a little formally, because she really doesn’t know what’s about to come out of Chrissy’s mouth.
“I wasn’t the one that told you this, alright?” Chrissy says as her gaze drops to her hands and she plays with the ring around one of her fingers. “Because I don’t even know if I’m right, but I think I am, I really do….”
“Chrissy,” Nicole says softly, at which she looks up to meet Nicole’s gaze. “The anticipation is boiling me alive.”
She doesn’t hurry over the final part of her sentence, though, and Nicole wonders what on earth it could be that it’s making her squirm like this, but that she’s not hurrying to clarify.
“Waverly Earp,” Chrissy offers finally as she looks to Nicole, and her expression is that of someone who’s just given her a key to the biggest treasure trove this side of heaven.
“I think that, maybe, she’s the same.”
She knows it doesn’t do to get her hopes up, really, she does know this, but it’s the hardest thing in the world not to.
Because Waverly Earp, who Nicole fell for the second she saw her, might be…like her.
She’s had her share of hopeless crushes, and a couple that turned out to be not so hopeless, and she’s felt deeply for girls before, but not like this.
Never so fast, either.
Because she’s barely known Waverly for a full day, and already she knows she’d stand in front of a cannon for her.
And maybe, just maybe, there’s the hope that, given time, Waverly might feel the same.
It’s late afternoon when Chrissy leaves Nicole to her own thoughts, far too early to settle in for the evening, so Nicole spends a little time rearranging the few small belongings she has in her new accommodation before she sets out back into the relative bustle of the Main Street.
She has a few things she wants to do before she does retire back to her room, and checking up on her horse is top of that list.
She’s served Nicole exceptionally well the last few years, as a companion and a partner, and Nicole’s not bothered to admit she’s more than a little fond of the animal.
Chrissy had led her and her horse to the livery stable down on one of the ends of the Main Street, almost on the edge of the town line, earlier in the day during their walk to the station, so it’s with ease that she follows their footsteps back to her friend.
The horse is more than a little pleased to see her, snorting and tail whipping as Nicole makes her way to the large stall that holds her.
“Hi, girl,” Nicole says soothingly as she runs her palm from the animal’s forehead down to its muzzle. “You missed me, huh? I missed you, too.”
“Fine animal you got there,” the woman who runs the stable says -- Mattie, Nicole remembers; Mattie -- as she walks towards them both.
“I won’t argue with you there,” Nicole replies, turning to greet Mattie. “She’s lovely, alright.”
“Well behaved,” Mattie says, walking into the stall with the horse, running her hand down the length of the animal before she encourages each of its hooves up off the ground so she can check on its shoes. “And well cared for, too. Shame there aren’t more like you, Deputy. What’s her name?”
“Lady Jane,” Nicole says with a light blush as she catches Mattie’s eye. “But I call her Lady, mostly. That’s what she seems to like the best.”
“You look like a Lady Jane, don’t you?” Mattie asks the horse, walking around the animal's body with plenty of room to spare, given the larger stall size.
“Thank you for having her here while Miss Nedley walked me around town,” Nicole says gratefully. “I wonder whether you might have a place for her on a more permanent basis? I’m not sure how long I’ll be here, but I’ve certainly got plans to stay for a while.”
“We’re pretty occupied,” Mattie says, gesturing around to the other stalls, which are all completely full. “But I’ll always make a place for a beautiful beast like this.”
They organise a modest weekly rate, and Mattie assures Nicole that she can come for Lady, day or night, so Nicole leaves a time later, both relieved and pleased to have found such a suitable lodging for her horse.
The street is quieter when Nicole makes her way back through town. Almost every person she walks past stops and stares at the newcomer, and she does her best to shoot a smile every which way, stopping to introduce herself to a few people she guesses are of significance in the small town.
She ducks her head into the saloon for a drink, shaking the hand of Robert Simons, Shorty to the locals, talking a while about the general atmosphere of the town before Nicole takes her leave of them, too.
It’s almost dusk by the time she makes her way back past Waverly’s shop, the sun dangerously low in the sky. Most of the other storefronts have already shut for the evening, Waverly’s one of the last with an open door.
The pink and purple light from the setting sun catches and holds in the numerous bottles in the front window, and Nicole moves towards the door with the intention of stealing one last glance of Waverly Earp before she turns in.
Waverly’s not by herself, though, she’s accompanied by a thin, stern looking woman whose face softens when she looks at Waverly’s, but hardens when she sees Nicole coming.
“Deputy,” Waverly says with a wide smile as Nicole walks in the door, removing her hat. “I was hopin’ you’d call by on your way past at some stage. I want to introduce you to someone.”
“I hope it’s not an inconvenience to call on you,” Nicole says apologetically. “I just wanted to make sure our friend hadn’t caused you any grief this afternoon.”
“Not a sign of him,” Waverly beams at her. “I was just tellin’ Gus here. Forgive me, Deputy Haught, this is my Aunt Gus.”
“Aunt is a loose term,” Gus says with a wry smile. “I’m a friend of Waverly’s family.”
“Nicole Haught,” Nicole replies genially, her mind spinning as she places Gus within all the small pockets of Waverly’s life that Chrissy had explained. Caregiver, pseudo-parent, Inn owner.
Nicole holds her hand out for Gus to shake. “It’s a pleasure, ma’am.”
“Friend of the family makes you sound like a casual acquaintance,” Waverly grumbles a little, her face turning in a frown that Nicole almost falters over because it’s that lovely. “You’re my family, too.”
“Of course I am, Waverly,” Gus replies as she pats Waverly’s hand on the countertop. “And no need to ma’am me, I’m certainly not a lady. It’s good to meet you, Deputy. Waverly here was just telling me all about you.”
“She was?” Nicole asks, a little surprised, looking to Waverly with a smile as she shakes Gus’s hand before dropping it.
“All good things, I promise,” Waverly says with a wink that makes Nicole’s stomach drop. “I was tellin’ Gus about your offer to throw Champ outside on his ass.”
“Oh, gladly ,” Nicole says as she moves in the shop a little more so she can lean against the counter next to Gus.
“That makes two of us, darlin’,” Gus growls under her breath. “We’ve been trying to bat that boy away from Waverly for years. He just don’t seem to understand what no means.”
“He might have a better idea once I’m done with him,” Nicole says back in a similar tone.
She looks up, conscious of how much she’s giving away regarding how keen she is to keep Waverly from him - safe from him, she corrects herself - and she’s prepared for a frown on Gus’s forehead if she puts two and two together.
Which, judging by the look of keen interest on her face, she might have, but there’s no accompanying frown, only a look of careful consideration.
“Thank you for preparing the lodging for me,” Nicole says in an attempt to steer the subject into slightly easier territory. “The room was a very welcome surprise, and a pleasant reprieve from sleepin’ rough.”
“No problem,” Gus replies, continuing to watch Nicole carefully, and Nicole thinks she knows what Gus is doing. She’s trying to get the measure of her. She’s trying to establish Nicole’s character. “Everything to your satisfaction? Young Miss Nedley told you about the meals, you’ll have to come and collect them, but they’ll be there for you if you want ‘em.”
“She did,” Nicole says gratefully. “I understand Nedley’s covered the cost from my wages, but just let me know if there’s anything else you’re needing, alright?”
“That’s very kind of you, but there’s nothin’ else for you to worry about, Deputy,” Gus replies with a hint of respect in her tone. “Besides, if you can keep that hound away from our Waverly, I’ll have to start payin’ you.”
“It’s no job,” Nicole offers as she looks to Waverly, and the shorter girl blushes a little beneath the attention. “None at all. My pleasure, in fact.”
“I’m sure it is,” Gus says carefully, looking between the two of them, and Nicole herself blushes lightly beneath the scrutiny.
“Anyway, where are my damn manners,” Nicole says as she scoops her hat off the counter. “I’m terribly sorry to have interrupted you both. Thank you again, ma’am.”
She hazards as long a look at Waverly as she thinks she can get away with given Gus’ careful eye on them both, and doesn’t miss the way Waverly’s face seems to fall, just a fraction, when she announces her departure.
“You’re not a bother,” Waverly says quickly. “Not at all, right Gus?”
“‘Course not, Deputy,” Gus replies, and Nicole looks for a hint of sarcasm, but to Nicole’s surprise, there’s nothing there. “Although, Miss Haught probably has a few other things to see to before she retires for the evening.”
“Of course,” Waverly says, shaking her head. “Of course you do, first day in town and all. I’m sorry, Nicole. Haught , Deputy Haught, I mean.”
“Nicole is just fine, Waverly,” Nicole says, laughing softly as she tries to suppress the grin at Waverly’s flustered ramble. “And I should be turnin’ in, I’m afraid. I’d hate to miss my first meal.”
Nicole is holding back as much as she can, expression-wise, eager not to give too much away too soon, but Waverly has no compunction to do the same, no effort whatsoever going into schooling the slightly disappointed expression on her face.
“Tomorrow, though,” Nicole offers in an attempt to make her smile again. Curious to see whether it will work. “I’ll call on you on my way to the jail in the morning. If that’s okay?”
“Of course,” Waverly replies excitedly. “Of course, that would be wonderful.”
“Only if I’m not…” Nicole offers, giving Waverly an out if she doesn’t want Nicole to swing by, if she’s reading the flutter she can almost see move across Waverly’s skin incorrectly.
“You’re not,” Waverly says with an eager smile. “I mean, I’d love for you to call on me. To call by, I mean. Darn, I….”
“I know what you mean, Waverly,” Nicole returns softly and without thinking she reaches across the counter for Waverly’s hand.
She’s closer than Nicole thought she was, having inched without conscious thought towards Nicole and away slightly from Gus, so she makes contact with Waverly’s skin sooner than she’s expecting.
It’s a touch, it’s one small tiny touch, but it stops Nicole’s heart all the same.
It’s a touch, but it’s more than a touch, too, because their skin meets, and suddenly, Nicole feels like she’s found something very, very old. Something buried in her blood her entire life.
And it’s risen at Waverly Earp’s call.
Waverly looks down at their hands, and Nicole’s not sure what’s happening in Waverly’s head, but it’s something akin to what’s happening in her own, if the glassy look in her eyes is anything to go by.
Waverly looks down at their hands, and then up to Nicole, her expression shifting, and for an instant, Nicole’s worried that she’s read this all wrong, so she goes to shift her hand away, but Waverly’s on top of her own stops her.
“Till the morning?” Waverly asks Nicole with a quiet intensity that makes Nicole feel like there’s no one in the world but the two of them, no Gus next to them, or a single other soul in this whole town.
There’s something behind her eyes that Nicole hasn’t seen in a very long time, too, and it makes her heart skip heavily as she tries to remind herself how to breathe.
Hope, she thinks. It’s hope.
Gus clears her throat loudly somewhere a million miles away to her left, and it snaps them both out of their trance and back to set their heels on the earth.
“‘Til the morning,” Nicole says by way of confirmation, and she hopes the weight in her gaze says something else to Waverly, too.
She gives Waverly’s hand a gentle squeeze that Waverly returns with a shy smile before Nicole finally takes her hand back.
She doesn’t want to, though. She wants to leave it in the warmth of Waverly’s own. And never, ever take it away.
“The morning,” Waverly echoes as she drops her head and nods softly. She looks up, meeting Nicole’s eyes one last time, and the hope blooms louder and brighter in Nicole’s chest.
“Now, young lady,” Gus says, breaking the connection still strung out between the two of them. “Do you need an escort out to the homestead, or…”
“I think I’ll stay here tonight,” Waverly replies quickly, looking at Nicole as she does so, and Nicole has the distinct impression that it has something to do with that fact that she might be just across the street. “I mean, there are a few things I want to sort. I had a box of a few pickings come in today that need to be steeped straight away or they’ll ruin, so I’ll just shut the door and work away.”
“You’ll be alright?” Gus asks as she eyes Waverly with a maternal look of doubt.
“Of course,” Waverly answers easily. “You’re just down the way, like always. And Deputy….Nicole, won’t be far away, either.”
“This’ll keep,” Gus says, gesturing to the small parcel of food in a basket she has obviously brought Waverly for her evening meal. “If you want to come and have dinner at the Inn.”
“Gus, I’ve been here for how many years now?” Waverly says with a sigh. “Three? Four? I think I’ll be okay for one night.”
“I know you’re a damn adult now,” Gus replies with a similar tone in return. “But somethin’ in the air feels off tonight. I’d just feel better if I knew you were safe.”
“With that door bolted, I’m safer than in the damn jail,” Waverly says with a wry smile at the door. “Curtis made sure of that when I started sleeping upstairs.”
“I know,” Gus returns with a resigned tone in her voice as she gathers herself to leave. “I know you are, kid. Doesn’t stop an old woman from worryin’, though.”
“I’ll keep an eye on her, ma’am,” Nicole interjects gently, in the hope that it might ease some of Waverly’s aunt’s concerns. “I mean, I’m only just across the way. I’m sure if Waverly yells loud enough, I’ll hear it from there.”
“You’ve got a hell of a set of lungs on you, girl,” Gus says with a laugh as she looks to Waverly fondly. “Alright. But if you feel anything off, you holler at the deputy, okay? And you’ve still got your….”
“Under the cot upstairs,” Waverly nods in reply, and Nicole assumes they’re referring to some sort of weapon. “Clean and prime it every night before bed.”
“You’re Wynonna’s sister, alright,” Gus sighs finally before she pushes away from the counter. “Alright, ladies. I’ll take my leave of you. Deputy, I know I’ve known you all of a hot minute, but I’m dependin’ on you, alright? Maybe it’s just old age and a cautious mind, but the ground feels heavy tonight. I don’t like it.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Nicole replies seriously, because she knows this isn’t a responsibility given lightly, and it means Gus, in the short meeting they’ve just had, has seen something in Nicole that she’s willing to trust.
Or, at the very least, take a chance on.
“You can count on me,” Nicole says solemnly as Gus pulls Waverly into a rough hug over the counter before she pushes the door open.
“I hope so, Deputy,” Gus returns finally. “I really do.”
She’s gone with the gentle chime of the bell on the top of the door, and then, suddenly, Nicole realises the situation they’ve found themselves in.
Because she’s alone, with Waverly, for the first time. And she has no idea what to do now.
It’s not that she hasn’t done this before, the being alone with a girl thing, because she has. Not often, and not without a great deal of background work, but she has.
Waverly isn’t the first girl to have caught her eye, but she’s the only one that’s managed to reduce Nicole to a soft mess of romantic ideas and dreams in the space of just a few hours.
Nicole is pretty sure she could love her, if she doesn’t already.
“So,” Waverly says a little coyly as she reaches forward across the counter, not for Nicole’s hands necessarily, more to demonstrate where she’d like them to be. “You really have to go?”
“I really kinda do,” Nicole replies regretfully, and she’s already trying to fire through several situations where she can spend the evening here with Waverly, but she knows she needs a good rest.
She knows how important her first official day on the job is.
“Good Lord, I wish I could stay,” Nicole says, and she hopes that Waverly understands just how much she does want that. “But I’d better be getting back if I want to eat tonight. And I’m worried enough about tomorrow. At least if I’m asleep, I can’t be worryin’ myself sick, can I?”
“You know...” Waverly says with a smile before she trails off, distracted.
She ducks behind the counter, clearly looking for something, although what, Nicole has no idea. She moves up and down, muttering to herself before she exclaims brightly, and Nicole understands that to mean she has found whatever it was that she was looking for.
She holds a tiny glass phial up to Nicole with a blinding smile on her face before she reaches across the counter and presses it into Nicole’s hands.
“It’s peppermint oil with a tiny dash of chamomile,” Waverly says with a shy grin as Nicole turns the small object to and fro, watching the way the liquid moves inside. “Nothing untoward, I promise. If you take the top off you’ll be able to smell it.”
Nicole’s struck with the thoughtfulness of Waverly’s gesture, and for a moment it’s all she can do just to stare back a little blankly.
“It’ll help settle your stomach and ease your nerves,” Waverly offers by way of an explanation. “You don’t have to take it if you don’t want to. Or don’t trust it. I just thought….”
“It’s perfect,” Nicole says with a slightly thick throat, because it’s been a long, long time since anyone gave much of a damn about her. “Thank you. You’ll have to let me….”
“I’m not taking anything for it,” Waverly says sternly, and Nicole smiles at the steel in her voice, intrigued by it. “Consider your presence tonight, and in the morning if you still feel inclined, payment enough.”
“You’re sure?” Nicole offers, even though she knows the answer will be yes.
“Absolutely,” Waverly confirms as she nods. “Your money’s no good here, Deputy. Your company is, though.”
“Well, I’ve got that in spades,” Nicole says with a quick wink before she casts her eye to the now-setting sun outside. “Waverly, as much as I’d far rather…”
“It’s okay,” Waverly replies, and she’s calmer now, the disappointment in her voice is quieter. Like she knows Nicole will be back soon, so there’s no need to fret. “Go. I understand.”
“Tomorrow morning,” Nicole says with a wide smile, and it’s half a question and half a dream.
“Tomorrow morning,” Waverly sighs, blushing as she watches Nicole push off the counter top.
“Hey,” Nicole says as she stops with her hand on the door frame. “I’d love to learn more about the shop. And about you, too. Maybe one night I could come sit with you after closin’, and you can tell me a bit more about you.”
“Only if I can learn about you, too,” Waverly offers in return. “I’d like that, Miss Haught. I’d really, really like that.”
“Only if you’re not sick of the sight of me by then,” Nicole says with a laugh, giving Waverly an out. Because she’s smitten as heck, but it doesn’t matter a lick if Waverly doesn’t want her there.
“I don’t think that’ll be possible,” Waverly replies, and for a second Nicole’s heart drops, but then she carries on. “Getting sick of the sight of you. I don’t think that’ll ever be possible.”
God, she’s so charming and she doesn’t even know it , Nicole thinks to herself as she watches the completely innocent look on Waverly’s face. How on earth did I get lucky enough to find myself on the same damn patch of dirt as her?
“Go, Deputy,” Waverly urges lightly, looking to Nicole with a pleased smile, and Nicole realises that she’s been caught staring. “I won’t have you unpresentable on my account for your first day.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Nicole says as she inclines her head and bows slightly, and Waverly laughs. “Tomorrow?”
“Tomorrow,” Waverly replies, and the light in her eyes is brighter than the stars outside.
Nicole diverts her walk back across the road via the bathhouse to get as clean and presentable as she can possibly manage.
She pays the tariff gladly with a little of the money she had been able to save and bring with her from her previous station, and the feeling of the steaming water over her road-tired muscles and dirt-dusty body is worth every coin.
It’s hard not to think of Waverly, with her touch still hot on Nicole’s skin, and there’s no harm in daydreaming, Nicole thinks to herself. So she does.
She realises that she knows next to nothing about who Waverly actually is. She has a rough idea of her history from a reasonably reliable source, but she doesn’t know who Waverly is just yet. But she’ll learn; she’ll learn everything if Waverly will let her.
And actually, she does know a few things, once she thinks about it. She knows that Waverly’s smile lights a room, even with the weight of her family history on her shoulders. She knows that she’s kind to strangers, and to others that don’t necessarily deserve it, like Champ.
She knows she’s fought an uphill battle since she was a small girl, and that her strength probably trumps Nicole’s own, tenfold.
And she knows she’s the most beautiful girl Nicole has ever laid eyes on.
She stays in the cast iron tub until the water is tepid and her skin is wrinkled and every inch of her smells like the salts and softer soaps left beside the bath for her, before finally she drags herself out and dresses to head back to the Inn.
The downstairs half of Waverly’s shop is unlit, and the door closed and bolted shut, but there’s a faint glow coming from the upstairs room that makes Nicole’s hands warm.
Tomorrow , Nicole thinks to herself. Tomorrow .
“You just about missed your evening meal, Deputy,” Gus says with a frown. “Don’t think we’re gonna keep cookin’ at night until you grace us with your presence.”
“Oh, no, ma’am, it’s not that at all,” Nicole replies, a little caught off guard. “I didn’t expect you to. I stopped by the baths, and I guess my saddle-sore body needed more soakin’ than I thought. I have a few scraps to eat upstairs. I hadn’t expected dinner to still be served.”
“That’s alright, then,” Gus says with a sharp smile, and Nicole knows from her expression it was a test. Just as much as her interaction with Waverly at her shop was.
“You won’t ever find me expectin’ special treatment, Gus,” Nicole offers by way of a reassurance and an olive branch, both. “I appreciate it to high heaven, but I’ve been looking after myself for a long time now. Truth of it is, I don’t think I’ve ever had anyone cook me anything proper since I was a child.”
She watches as Gus nods, seemingly pleased with her answer, and she’s about to take her leave and make her way into the dining room to see if there’s anything left when Gus’ voice stops her.
“You got a favourite?” Gus asks gruffly, but Nicole’s taken aback by the question regardless. “Thing to eat, I mean.”
“Uh,” Nicole says a little blankly, and it takes her a moment to actually think , before she blushes shyly. “Anything sweet, to tell you the truth. I’m not fussy, as long as it’ll make your teeth ache.”
“Sweet, okay, good,” Gus murmurs to herself as she looks back down at the ledger in front of her, and Nicole considers herself dismissed.
She’s a foot away from the next room when Gus speaks again.
“Waverly’s a good girl,” Gus says sternly, and Nicole’s beginning to see a pattern with this woman and her tone of voice. “She’s the best of us, in actual fact. You bear that in mind, whatever your intentions are, won’t you?”
“Ma’am, I….” Nicole tries to say before Gus cuts her off.
“I’m not interested in specifics, Deputy, they’re your business and yours alone,” Gus says seriously, and Nicole straightens her back automatically under Gus’s heavy gaze. “Just whatever you’ve a mind to do, make sure you see it through. And know I’m just as quick with a pistol as half the men in this town if I need to be.”
“I know you don’t want specifics, but you need to know that my intentions,” Nicole replies, holding her ground, “aAll of them are honourable, and they’ll be nothin’ short of what Waverly herself wants.”
“I’m glad to hear it, Miss Haught,” Gus says, using Nicole’s surname, and not her station, in a slightly softer lilt, and Nicole knows that’s what she was hoping to hear.
“I know she’s special,” Nicole admits quietly, and normally she’d be a lot more careful about being so explicit in regards to herself, but something tells her Gus values truth, so she opens her heart. “I’ve known her a few hours, and I know she’s special. If she’s so generous as to share more of herself with me, I’ll take every single drop, but if not, then the least I can do is keep assholes like Champ at bay to give her the opportunity to pursue what it is she really wants.”
“That’s right and proper of you,” Gus says in appreciation, and she doesn’t look up, but Nicole thinks it’s not for a lack or respect for her, but a precaution in Gus not giving herself away.
She doesn’t say much, but her words have weight, and they carry Nicole up the stairs and into a different world, that’s how meaningful they are.
“You might not know the girl yet, but I do. And I think she already is.”
Nicole’s more than a little exhausted by the time she finally lays her head down that night.
She had managed to scrape together a small, but filling, dinner from the dining room before retiring upstairs and readying herself for sleep.
Her clothes are neatly lined up for the morning. She doesn’t have a uniform, per se, but it’s a uniform in so far as it’s what she normally wears, day in and day out. Draped over the back of the chair at the small writing desk in her room are a pair of woolen trousers, an undershirt, a cotton button-up long sleeved shirt for over that, and a wool vest to top off the upper half of her body. Hanging off the side of the chair is her hat and her holster containing her pistol, with her boots on the floor beneath them.
Honestly, Nicole’s expecting sleep to evade her, as busy as her mind and unfamiliar as the territory is, but it doesn’t.
The soft smell of the soap and the general lightheadedness from spending so long in the warm water, and a few drops of Waverly’s little mixture in a cup of hot water from the kitchen, carry her swiftly off to sleep.
She’s never been a dreamer, her sleep light and broken, or too deep to remember, but the first night in Purgatory, she dreams .
Nicole dreams of the late, late afternoon sun, and light flares off of delicate glass bottles, and the prettiest girl she’s ever seen with a gold ring of Nicole’s own on a chain around her neck, nestled against her heart.
She dreams of warm hands in her own, and warmer flesh beneath her hands, and when she wakes, hours before dawn, the simple notion of those things, they fill her so heavy with hope that she doesn’t sleep again.