Nicole sat up a little straighter in her saddle as she rode Trigger into town, rolling down the sleeves of her white cotton shirt to hide her thin wrists and the scars over her arms. The horse snorted, rib cage expanding under her as he sighed.
“So talkative today,” Nicole muttered to her steed, voice purposefully low. Her hand tightened on the reins as she passed the Sheriff’s office, the other hand resting on her trouser covered thigh. Brown eyes flicked over to the window where the wanted posters hung, holding her breath for a moment every time just like always. Her eyes scanned them quickly before looking away, letting out a small sigh of relief.
She looked over at the Saloon and saw one of the girls, Eliza, standing out front, waving a fan and leaning against the rail holding up the roof. Her breasts were pushed dangerously high in her dress, corset tight around her waist. When she saw Nicole, recognition lit in her eyes as she smiled and waved, breasts bouncing with the slight movement. Nicole couldn’t help but smile and tip her wide brimmed hat at her.
Nicole’s Pa would have smacked her upside the head for getting distracted by a pretty girl. Again.
Her Pa always told her that happiness wouldn’t find her, she would have to find it herself. ‘A pretty girl ain’t gonna just show up on your doorstep, son,’ he would tell her, tobacco juice leaking from the corner of his lips as he chewed. ‘But you also gonna work until you die so get used to the idea a’ dyin’ alone. Not many out there friendly to your...tendencies.’
Nicole just shrugged it off as another piece of useless advice her father gave her. She continued to flirt with the daughters of the other ranchers, picking wildflowers and delivering them to their windows. She and Daisy May lost their virginity to each other in the spring, when the wildflowers bloomed brightest and the grass was tall enough to hide their slick bodies as their fumbling, inexperienced hands discovered each other.
Her Pa taught her everything she needed to know about ranching. She could rope calves, break wild horses, build any fence or barn. She was set.
If only she was a boy.
Her father knew from the time she was young that Nicole wasn’t a typical girl. She preferred pants to dresses and would rather run around in the dirt than play with the dolls her Ma had made her. As a father who always yearned for a son, he had no problem treating her as such. But the rest of the world wasn’t as understanding, it seemed.
Nicole tried to be okay with it, but her overconfidence tended to get her in trouble.
Trigger’s sigh brought Nicole out of her thoughts and she steered him towards the General Store. She swung herself off of his back and tied his reins to the post before patting him on the neck. Her Colt Revolver laid heavy on her side as she adjusted her gun, fingers curled in the worn leather of her belt.
Her boots echoed against the wood porch of the store as she stepped up, eyes looking down the street one more time before she entered the store.
Old Man Franklin behind the counter didn’t even acknowledge her. His wrinkled hands shook as he put envelopes into their proper slots behind the counter, joints thick and gnarled with age. Nicole squinted as she slowly strode up to the counter, waiting for him to notice.
The General Store doubled as their Post Office. One of the disadvantages of a small town like Purgatory.
Franklin muttered quietly to himself as he sorted the mail, until Nicole lost her patience and finally cleared her throat. Still, nothing. She sighed and adjusted her suspenders before rapping on the wood of the counter. He didn’t even notice, still muttering to himself as his shaking hands holding the envelope missed the correct cubby hole.
“Sir,” Nicole said, hoping to get his attention. He continued muttering to himself. Nicole raised her voice a little and tried again. “Sir! Old Man-...Mr. Franklin!”
The man jumped like a tiny cricket and turned around, large owl-like eyes blinking at her from behind thick spectacles.
“Oh, hello-” he squinted at her for a moment as he walked up to the counter between them. “Ma’am?”
Nicole just clenched her jaw and forced a small smile. “Can I see your catalog please?” she asked, voice loud so he could hear. “I want to order some house plans!”
He hummed as he reached beneath the counter for the catalog. “House what?”
Franklin slid the thick, worn catalogue across the counter towards Nicole, and she smiled her thanks. He was still staring, scrutinizing her as she opened the book. She felt a piece of her red hair fall from where it was tucked into her hat.
“So, ma’am then?” Franklin asked, as Nicole flipped to the section she knew she needed and didn’t even bother looking up at him.
“My money’s just as same either way, ain’t it?” she drawled.
Franklin sputtered just as the front door of the General Store slammed open and they both turned to see a large man stomp his way in. Henderson. Nicole had heard about him from the girls at the Saloon. He had a permanent scowl on his face and a patchy beard marring his features. He was chewing tobacco loudly, some of the juice leaking out and soaking into his beard and stained shirt.
The girls hated him. They said he was dirty and rough, and always drew straws as to who had to deal with him.
Nicole turned back to the catalogue, flipping past the houses with two stories or far too many ornate bibs and bobs for her liking. She just needed a simple home. Nothing fancy. Anything would be better than the shack she currently had that was basically falling apart. Even for one person it felt cramped.
She finally landed on a simple home with a porch on the front and a porch on the side, a sitting room, separate bathroom and bedroom, along with a kitchen. It was perfect in its simplicity. Looking at the plan numbers, she looked back up at Franklin.
“Can I get an order form please?” she asked, still making her voice as low as possible without sounding comical.
Henderson sidled up next to her at the counter. Nicole’s nose wrinkled in disgust as his large, lumbering presence and the smell of sour body odor and tobacco certainly invaded her space. With a grunt, he pulled the catalogue from under Nicole’s hand. She shot him a look, but he didn’t even seem to notice she was there as he aggressively opened the catalogue.
“I need an order form, old man,” he said, more tobacco juice leaking from his mouth. He pulled a crumpled up newspaper clipping from his pants and put it on the counter as he snatched the order form Franklin was handing to Nicole. Franklin didn’t miss a beat as he reached for another and passed it to her.
Nicole picked up a pencil and filled it out with the information of the house plan she wanted, along with some of the basic supplies, and pulled a rolled up bundle of cash from her side bag, darting a watchful eye to the man next to her. He seemed distracted himself, messily copying an address from the newspaper clipping onto an envelope.
They both passed Franklin their papers at the same time, Henderson just grunting and turning on his heel. “See ya later, Ol’ Man.”
Nicole scoffed and set her roll of money on top of her form. Franklin continued to mutter to himself and looked over all the forms. Nicole pulled the catalogue back over just to give herself something to do until Franklin told her she was set. He made a small noise of surprise and Nicole looked back up at him.
“Problem?” she asked.
Franklin frowned up at Nicole and adjusted his spectacles. “I jus’ don’t know what you’d be needin’ this for.”
Nicole frowned. She was used to these kinds of asinine questions. Purgatory was a small town where everyone knew everyone’s business. Except for Nicole’s since she made a point to not talk to anyone.
“I jus’ need it. E’eryone does,” Nicole shrugged.
“Don’ seem right,” Franklin said with a shake of his head.
Nicole shook her head, just as confused as ever. “I need somewhere to put my stuff,” she said with a wide gesture of her hands.
Franklin recoiled, muttering to himself. “Disgustin’.”
“Is my money good?” Nicole sighed, hooking her thumbs into the front of her belt. “‘Cause if it is, I’m leavin’.”
Franklin continued grumbling and waved her off as he hobbled and turned back towards the mail slots. Nicole tucked the loose strand of hair back up into her hat as she walked out of the store and into the sun.
Trigger snorted and nudged Nicole’s torso with his giant head as she untied his reins. She looked over at the Saloon where Eliza still posed. Throwing Nicole a wink, she tilted her head to the side for Nicole to come in. Setting a charming tilt to her lips, Nicole lead Trigger over to the Saloon, standing at the bottom of the steps to look at Eliza.
“You coming in, cowboy?” Eliza asked, eyes practically dancing with the possibilities.
“Not today,” Nicole said, her lips stretched into a wide smile as Eliza gave her an exaggerated pout.
“Not even for a little bit?” she said, as she straightened Nicole’s already straight collar.
“Maybe tomorrow,” Nicole said. Trigger pulled impatiently at his reins and Nicole sighed in embarrassment.
Eliza put her hand on her hip, trying to subtly lift the hem of her long skirt. “I’ll keep you to that.”
Nicole snorted and got onto Trigger, adjusting herself on the saddle. “You’re trying a little too hard there,” Nicole teased with a wink.
Eliza rolled her eyes and shooed Nicole away with her fan. “Get outta here. Until tomorrow.”
“Alright, alright,” Nicole said, tipping her hat at Eliza. “We’ll see.”
She nudged Trigger in the ribs and he started moving, hooves kicking up the loose dirt under his feet.
“See you tomorrow!” Eliza said to Nicole’s retreating back. She threw one last smile and wave over her shoulder, face instantly hardening as she turned back around. The people that milled along the streets gave her curious looked. Most didn’t bother to hide their whispering and pointing.
Purgatory was a small, quiet town. But one that harbored its fair share of secrets. Everyone had one, everyone had something they were hiding. While they would talk amongst themselves about it, they’d never tell someone else. Never snitch.
Nicole was just fine with that. The less people talked around about her, the less likely they found out about her past.
The sun was at its highest in the sky when there came the distant sound of a wagon rolling down the road in the distance. Nicole looked up from the fence she was building, leaning against the newly sunken post with the mallet hanging at her side. Her muscles burned and she could feel the sweat dripping down her face and threatening her eyes. She quickly wiped her face with the back of her sleeve, her hat getting pushed askew as she squinted into the distance.
The mail wagon hardly came out in these parts, so Nicole figured it might be her house plans and supplies. She let her mallet fall to the ground and started the walk towards the road.
Her property was offset from the road just enough that she didn’t have to worry about people riding past it all the time, but she could still monitor it from anywhere on her property. It wasn’t much, just a small one room house with a bed, fireplace and stove. She had a back house and a barn and just enough acreage for a few cows and chickens, which was all she needed to make do. But she was ready to expand, and a nicer more spacious house was the beginning.
The wagon stopped just as she made it to the edge of the road. The driver looked down at his ledger, his smooth face scrunching up as he ran his finger down the list. He scratched at the patchy stubble on his chin and looked back up at Nicole.
“‘At’s me,” Nicole confirmed as he thrust the ledger at her.
“Sign ‘ere,” he said as he jumped off of the covered wagon. “I ‘ave to say, I’m glad’a be rid o’ this one. Wouldn’t stop complainin’.”
Nicole signed next to her name and handed him the ledger with a frown. “Complainin’?”
“Yeah. Yer in for a handful,” he said before banging on the carriage door. “Come on ‘en.”
Nicole could do nothing but stare, confused as to how her house plans could be a handful in any way. Maybe he’d just been in the heat too long and was acting looney. Her confusion only deepened when the carriage door swung open and a girl stepped out.
A pretty girl.
A beautiful girl.
Dressed in a simple blue calico dress with honey brown hair done in a braid only to be twisted and pinned to the back of her head, Nicole couldn’t help but stare. She was petite with sun kissed skin, and nervous hazel eyes looked up at her as she stood in front of the carriage. Nervous eyes that betrayed the purposeful hard look she was trying to give off. Nicole noticed her jaw was tight, lips pressed into a hard line as she looked Nicole over.
She managed to pull her attention away from the woman and look back at the driver. “What’s this?” she asked.
“Well that ain’t no way to talk ‘bout a lady,” he said, voice cracking just a little. “I mean, she’s a bit on the skinny side but I’m sure you can fatten’ ‘er up a little.”
The woman scoffed and Nicole blushed. “No, I mean...I didn’t have-...why is she ‘ere?”
The driver sucked on his teeth and shrugged. “Yer the one that ordered her.”
Nicole’s first reaction was a guffaw of a laugh. Loud and grating and harsh in a way that made the driver cringe, but the woman’s face softened just the slightest. Nicole wasn’t sure why the smallest twitch of this girl’s face was wholly distracting but she found herself forgetting what what she was saying for a moment until she heard the driver suck his teeth again.
Her eyes flickered back to him and Nicole shook her head. “I ordered house plans. Plans. Not a housewife.”
The driver pointed at the description of the order next to her name in the ledger. “Says right ‘ere. Wife.”
Nicole snatched the ledger from him and looked at the flowy writing scratched next to her name. She couldn’t read very well, but she could read ‘wife’ plain as day. She cursed and rubbed the back of her neck as the driver snatched his precious ledger back. How did Old Man Franklin manage to mess this up? She took the hat off of her head and looked down at it, as if it would help her get some clarity in the situation.
“So, I’ll just get a’goin’,” the driver said. “I’ll leave ya’ll to your newly married bliss.”
He winked at Nicole and her cheeks flushed even deeper. “N-no! We’re not. She’s not my w-wife,” Nicole stuttered. The woman stifled a giggle behind her hand and Nicole didn’t think could blush anymore, but she proved herself wrong. She took a deep breath.
“I didn’t order a wife,” she defended weakly.
The driver smiled, clearly amused. “Now, listen’, I ain’t judgin’ you. Jus’ get ‘er to yer home.”
“I’m not-” A frustrated sigh blew some of Nicole’s hair away from her face. “I don’ want ‘er. Take ‘er back from where she came from.” The woman let out a high, haughty laugh and Nicole blushed. “No offense, ma’am.”
The driver interrupted, motioning for Waverly to go with Nicole with big sweeping moves of his arms. “I can’t I’m ‘sposed to deliver a girl. I deliver a girl. No exceptions.”
“What am I suppose’ to do with ‘er?”
“I don’ know-- you ordered ‘er,” the driver said, already moving back to the seat of his carriage.
“I’m standing right here!” The woman said with a small, defiant stamp of her foot, arms folded tightly in front of her. “And no one...ordered me.”
Nicole remembered herself and took her hat off, bending a little towards Waverly. “You’re right, ma’am, so sorry.”
The woman’s eyes softened when they landed on Nicole, corners of her lips turning up in the barest hint of a smile. Nicole found the air around them blistering with heat suddenly. Her collar felt too tight on her neck despite the fact that it was already unbuttoned by the top two buttons.
“Waverly,” the woman blurted suddenly. Nicole just stared at her for a moment as she waved her hand and started over. “You can call me Waverly.”
Such a nice name. It sounded like something she’d heard in one of those poems her Ma used to read her every night.
She smiled. “Miss Waverly it is then,” she drawled. Waverly blushed and the heat felt even more sweltering. She pulled on her open shirt collar and watched as Waverly’s eyes followed the movement.
For a moment, Nicole found herself distracted before the useless delivery boy spoke again. “It’s customary to tip, ya know.”
Nicole’s face hardened as she looked back at him, sitting back in his carriage. She dug into her pocket and pulled out a nickel. She went to hand it to him but pulled it back as he was about to grab it. He cussed under his breath.
“Tell me where the house plans and supplies you delivered earlier went,” Nicole demanded with a raised eyebrow. The boy leveled her with an angry look before muttering.
“It went to Harry Henderson.”
“Thank you.” Nicole slapped the nickel into his dirty hand with a sneer. She watched as he snapped the reins of his horses and pulled away. Watching his carriage get smaller and cursing his name was better than dealing with what was standing behind her. A woman, Waverly, who thinks she’s her wife. Apparently.
Nicole licked her lips and brushed her hat off on her pant leg. Now what?
Waverly cleared her throat and Nicole turned back around to look at her. She just noticed the carpet bag at Waverly’s feet, probably where all her possessions had been stored for the ride.
“So, I take it you aren’t the one who wrote for me?” Waverly said with a tip of her head.
“‘Fraid not, Miss Waverly,” Nicole said, blushing as she saw the amusement in Waverly’s eyes. “I mean, ‘fraid not as in-...not that I-...I just-...there was a mistake.”
“Unfortunately, it seems that way,” Waverly sighed. “You still haven’t told me your name.”
“Oh, Nicole,” she said, putting her hat to her chest and holding her hand out for Waverly. The bright smile that graced Waverly’s face blinded Nicole as she took her hand. Her hand was so small and soft and Nicole found herself embarrassed by how rough her hands probably felt to her. She started to pull away but Waverly squeezed her hand, holding onto it for just a second longer.
“Nice to meet you, Nicole,” Waverly said. She dropped Nicole’s hand and it felt limply back at her side.
Nicole looked back towards her property and crushed the felt brim under her hands. The day was already half gone and she definitely hadn’t made the progress on her fence she’d been hoping for. That plus the unexpected guest was really throwing off her day.
Thought she figured ‘guest’ was a strong word.
“Henderson ain’t that far away,” Nicole said, putting her hat back on her head. “I’ll go get my horse and we’ll head over there. Don’ wanna keep you from your husband any longer ‘an I already ‘ave.”
Waverly sighed. “Yes, well, I suppose I have no choice in the matter.”
Nicole frowned. “You do, Miss Waverly, if you don’ wanna go to Henderson jus’ say the word-”
“No, I must,” Waverly said quickly, some of the color leaving her face. “I need-...the money is needed. Far worse will happen if I don’t go to him.”
Nicole tipped her hat at Waverly and grunted lightly. “I’ll be on my way to get Trigger ‘en. Be righ’ back.”
She jogged towards the barn, not wanting to keep Waverly waiting too long. Though admittedly, she wouldn’t mind spending a little more time with her…
Nicole shook her head and cleared her throat. No, that was dumb. The last person Nicole needed to be making moon eyes over was the wife of Harry Henderson. The wife of anyone, really. She had resigned herself to a life of loneliness long ago. It was better off this way after all. Fewer people to get hurt.
She got Trigger from the barn, putting his saddle on him quickly before riding him back to where Waverly leaned against the fence.
“Sorry fer keepin’ ya waitin’, Miss Waverly,” Nicole said, dismounting. She held out her hand for Waverly, who pushed off the fence and smiled at her. Nicole couldn’t help but smile back, but she chose to ignore the sudden flutter of butterflies in her stomach.
“It didn’t feel like long,” Waverly said, as she picked up her bag from at her feet.
Nicole reached for the bag and set it on the saddle in front of her before reaching for Waverly’s hand. She easily lifted Waverly onto the saddle in front of her. She sat side saddle, her bag in her lap, and Nicole silently hated her predicament.
“It ain’t quite proper to be sittin’ this way with another man’s wife,” she muttered to herself as she gingerly reached around Waverly and took the reins. Waverly didn’t seem bothered, choosing to lean more into Nicole’s front, much to her dismay.
“I don’t mind,” Waverly said cheerfully. Nicole adjusted herself on the saddle and tried not to think about how Waverly smelled like fresh cut flowers and perfume.
“Alright, then,” she muttered as she nudged Trigger into walking.
They rode in relative silence for a while. Nicole was too focused on keeping her body straight in the saddle and not touching Waverly to form words. But it was proving a difficult task with Waverly in front of her and her arms bracketing her body to reach the reins.
“Thank you for giving me a ride,” Waverly said, turning her head to look at Nicole. Their faces were far too close.
“Ain’t no problem, Miss Waverly,” Nicole said with a polite tip of her head. “It’d be too far fer you to walk.”
“Just Waverly,” she said as she adjusted her bag on her lap. “You can just call me Waverly.”
“Miss Waverly does just fine,” Nicole replied. Familiarity can only lead to sticky situations. Nicole quickly veered the conversation in a different direction. “I’m sorry for the little detour on yer way to yer husband.”
“Well to be frank, I don’t mind the detour,” Waverly sighed dramatically. “Can’t say I’m necessarily excited about the match.”
Nicole shifted. It was rude not to ask Waverly to continue, but it would also be rude to mingle in the affairs of others. Her curiosity won out instead.
“Why would that be? Didn’ you write to ‘im?” Nicole asked as she ascended a hill, the Henderson ranch just becoming visible on the horizon. Wouldn’t be much longer now.
Waverly sighed and played with the worn clasp of her carpet bag. “Not exactly. Daddy died and turns out he owed a lot of money to some bad men. It was either whoring or being sold off to the highest bidder. This seemed like the lesser of two evils.”
Nicole’s hands unconsciously tightened on the reins. It was against her principles to make a woman do something she didn’t want to do. Part of the reason she ended up in this god forsaken town to begin with.
“Miss Waverly,” Nicole started seriously. “Jus’ say the word-”
“Oh no,” Waverly said, grip visibly tightening on her bag as she shook her head. “I’m going through with it. I have to. I need the money, otherwise who knows what-” She paused and looked back at Nicole. “I’m sure it won’t be all that bad.”
As if on cue, Trigger stopped in front of Henderson’s fence. He had a nice cabin a little further back on the property, pigs and chickens roaming aimlessly around the front of the property. Nicole got off her horse and helped Waverly down, one hand on her waist and the other taking her hand in her own. Again, Nicole couldn’t help but think how soft her hands were. A thought that made her pull away just as Waverly’s feet hit the ground.
Waverly smiled at her in thanks, smoothing out her skirt as Nicole began the walk to Henderson’s front door. She was about halfway up the walkway, Waverly close behind, when there came a loud crack followed by a metallic ping. An overturned bucket besides the pathway suddenly flipped over, the dent of a bullet plain as day on its surface. Nicole’s hand automatically went to the gun on her hip, other hand reaching behind her and making sure Waverly was covered.
“Who dat on mah land?” a voice yelled from the house. The front door banged open, Henderson standing there with his gun pointed at them.
Nicole rolled her eyes. “I’m here with your wife, sir,” she said, forcing back the bile in her throat at calling him ‘sir’.
Henderson spit a wad of tobacco out of his mouth and it hit the dirt just a few feet away from them, the juice splashing and a drop landing on Nicole’s boot. She clenched her fists at the side and forced a small smile.
“My wife? What’r you doin’ with my wife?” he growled.
“There was a mistake with the deliveries,” Nicole said. “Can she come up to the porch now ‘er are you gonna try shootin’ again?”
Henderson just grunted and lowered his shotgun. Nicole stepped aside to reveal Waverly standing behind her, jaw set again like it had been when she first arrived at Nicole’s. The urge to reach out and comfort her was almost overbearing but Nicole followed her up to the porch instead. She watched Henderson carefully, as his eyes roamed over Waverly’s body and yellow stained teeth made up his smile.
“Now, did they drop off my house plans ‘ere?” Nicole asked, eyes still on Waverly as Henderson leered at her.
“I told ‘em to take ‘em back,” he said, completely uninterested in what Nicole had to say. “There prob’ly in town.”
Her annoyance bristled up her spine when Henderson leaned close to Waverly and she instinctively leaned back. His big meaty hand came up and stroked some hair behind her ear, his nails jagged and nearly black with all the dirt caked under them.
Nicole should just turn around and leave. She really should have. Nothing good would come from sticking around and none of this was her business. In any way. Even if Waverly was pretty with soft hands and a kind smile, throwing herself into a situation she didn’t want to be in. Nicole picked at the skin on her thumb with her pointer finger as he watched him grip the back of Waverly’s neck possessively and start to steer her into the house. Hazel eyes glanced back at her once more, big and scared.
“Stop!” Nicole blurted before she could stop herself. Henderson looked at her, smile turning to a scowl. Nicole licked her lips, straightened herself to her full height and stepped up to the man. “That’s no way to treat a lady.”
“She ain’t no lady, she’s my wife,” he said, more tobacco juice leaking from the corner of his mouth.
Don’t get involved. Don’t get involved.
She repeated the mantra that her Pa always told her.
Keep your head down. Don’t get involved in other folks’ business. Work hard and keep to yourself.
Nicole had ignored the advice before and it almost got her killed. She willed her legs to walk away. To turn around and go back to her own ranch. Her own business. But scared hazel eyes locked with her own again and she couldn’t do it.
“Mr. Henderson,” she started, thumbs hooked into the front of her belt buckle. She jerked her head to the side. “Can I talk with you away from the lady folk for a minute?”
Henderson looked amused. “Ain’t you a lady folk?”
“I ‘ave my own money, my own land and make my own decisions, that makes me folks you oughta give a listen to,” Nicole said, as her hand subtly moved back towards her gun. It was a risky move, but she just needed him to know she was serious. Years of being pushed around for her presumed gender had given her various ways to deal with it. Most of the time she was just met with confusion and people were too worried about being improper to ask, but other times it had become dangerous. To say the least.
He grunted and looked back at Waverly briefly before giving her a patronizing pat on her cheek and walking towards Nicole. He spit again, narrowly missing her boot. Nicole didn’t even flinch.
“I ‘ave a proposition for you, sir,” she started, voice deeper. “I’ll take the girl off yer hands. How much you pay for ‘er?”
Henderson frowned. “Wha’ makes you think I’d be willin’ to sell ‘er to ya?”
Nicole tightened her jaw, eyes darting over his shoulder to find Waverly looking at the two of them with never ending questions in her eyes. “I mean...she’s a bit skinny, ain’t she?” Nicole tried. “‘m sure you could find yerself a wife more fit to bear children.”
He grunted and looked back at Waverly, looking her up and down before looking back at Nicole. “I wan’ twice what I paid. For the inconvenience,” he said with a smug grin.
“How much would that be?”
Nicole tried not to blanch. That was all the money she had saved up since she got to Purgatory almost a year ago now. In one poor decision over a pretty girl, she was going to lose all of it.
“Fine,” she said, hesitating for only a moment before she reached into her boot and pulled out the wad she always kept there. Better on her person at all times so at least she knew where it was. She held it up between them, pulling it back just a little when he reached for it. She purposefully put her hand out between them for him to shake. “An’ you won’t be botherin’ me or her about this after. Clear?”
“Yes,” he said, as he took her hand. They shook, eyes never leaving each other and squeezing the other’s hand for all it was worth. Nicole was sure she had at least one broken bone in her hand now, but she noticed a small wince in his face as he pulled away so at least she gave what she got. He snatched the money from her, undid the roll and quickly counted the bills.
Nicole stepped around him and stood at the bottom of the porch steps, smiling up at Waverly. She tipped her hat and smiled softly as she spoke. “Miss Waverly, if I could accompany you back to the horse.”
Waverly frowned in confusion, looking between Nicole and Henderson behind her who was so busy counting the bills again to even look bothered. “But I...my debt-”
“Has been paid. In double,” Nicole added as an afterthought. “Now can we please get outta ‘ere so that he don’t decide to pick up his shotgun again?”
Waverly licked her lips and looked back at Henderson before walking stiffly off the porch and past Nicole. As she passed, her body brushed lightly against Nicole’s front, and her stomach flipped. Nicole swallowed thickly and pushed the brim of her hat up a little as she followed Waverly back to Trigger.
Stopping at the horse, Waverly spun back around with a determined look on her face. “Let me get this straight,” she said as she took a step closer to Nicole. Hazel eyes bored intensely into her own and was helpless but to remain standing there. “You paid Mr. Henderson twice what he paid for me... so that I didn’t have to stay with him?”
Nicole blushed. “Yes, ma’am.”
Waverly frowned. “And you did this without even asking me if it’s what I wanted?”
Nicole shifted uncomfortably and she rubbed the back of her neck. “I um...well I jus’ thought-...he was-...” Nicole sighed and her hands dropped to her sides. “Yes.”
Waverly’s look hardened for a moment and Nicole’s gut twisted. Suddenly she was surprised by a soft pair of lips on the corner of her mouth. There and then gone again in an instant. She blinked and looked down at Waverly, the only hint that the kiss had actually happened was the pink tint across her cheeks. If she had a mirror, she was sure her cheeks would be as red as if she’d been working outside without a hat all day, rivaling only her hair. Nicole was sure she could look at Waverly for hours on end. The way her nose curved and her jaw was sharp and led to the elegant lines of her neck.
She was taken out of her daze when Waverly poked Nicole hard in the middle of her chest. “Next time ask me,” she said. Her face softened again and Nicole was captivated. “But thank you.”
She watched in awe as Waverly climbed up onto Trigger herself, forgoing the side saddle and just sitting properly on him. She reached out for her carpet back and Nicole hesitated a moment before handing it to her. She looked at Waverly as she adjusted the bag behind her, Nicole’s hand on his reins as she wondered how long it would take to lead Trigger back into town instead of sharing the saddle.
“What are you waiting for?” Waverly asked, cocking her head to the side with her bag successfully secured to the back.
“Um, I’ll jus’ walk ‘em back,” Nicole said as she took his reins to lead him. Waverly tugged the reins back and turned Trigger so that Nicole was at his side again.
“Don’t be ridiculous, we’ve ridden on the same horse before we can do it again,” Waverly said airily, as a cheeky smile crawled onto her face. “You are my husband now, afterall.”
Nicole sputtered and shook her head, quickly regaining her senses. “I ain’t, Ma’am.”
She pulled herself onto the horse in front of Waverly, adjusting herself on the saddle and sitting up straight so that her body wasn’t touching Waverly’s. But even despite her best efforts, she could feel how Waverly was pressed against her from her lower back to between her shoulder blades. The spot on the corner of her mouth where Waverly had kissed her was still tingling.
“You paid for me. I’m yours now. That’s how it works,” Waverly said as she casually looped her arms around Nicole’s waist just as Trigger started trotting down the path.
“Miss Waverly, I’m drivin’ you into town and you’ll be on yer own from there. Clear?” she said as she turned at the fork in the road that would take them into town.
Waverly’s grip tightened on Nicole’s waist. “Wait--why?”
“I ain’t interested in a wife and it seems like you weren’t truly int’rested in bein’ one if you’re just doin’ it for the money,” Nicole reasoned. “I did it so you didn’ ‘ave to be tied to a dirty pig yer entire life. Now you can go home.”
Waverly’s hands left her waist to cover Nicole’s on the reins. She moved Nicole’s hand to the left so that the reins steered Trigger around on the road..
“I don’t want to go home,” she insisted. “I’ll go back with you.”
Nicole scoffed and turned Trigger back into the right direction. “No, ‘m takin’ you back.”
“Nicole, there is no way on God’s green earth that I ain’t gonna pay back my debt, which is to you now. I’m staying.”
She jerked Trigger’s reins back the other way and the horse snorted in agitation.
“Consider it a gift,” Nicole said. “Now you can go home ‘n not worry ‘bout it-”
“I can’t-...go home,” Waverly admitted softly, her hands still over Nicole’s. “I don’t-...there’s nothing there.”
Nicole swallowed thickly, clenching her jaw and trying to think of another possible solution.
Waverly’s voice came small and broken. “Please.”
Nicole would have given her anything in that moment. This tiny, beautiful, and perfectly charming little stranger.
“You have the week to find somewhere to go,” Nicole said. She clicked her tongue and Trigger started back to her ranch. “After a week, you go.”
Waverly’s arms were back around her waist but in a hug this time. “Thank you thank you thank you,” she said into the back of Nicole’s shirt. Dainty hands gripped her shoulders as Waverly lifted herself in the saddle just to place a kiss on Nicole’s cheek. “Thank you,” she repeated, her breath blowing sweetly across Nicole’s cheek.
Her whole body felt like it was on fire.
“Yer gonna have to stop doin’ that, Miss Waverly,” Nicole said softly, ducking her head to hopefully hide her blush.
Waverly just hummed and settled back into the saddle. “Thank you for letting me stay with you.”
“Jus’ fer the week,” Nicole reminded. “Until you can fin’ somewhere t’ go.”
“We’ll see,” Waverly sing songed. “Can’t just leave my husband all on their lonesome, can I?”
“No. We know.” Nicole chuckled and shook her head. “An’ I ain’t your husband.”
“We’ll see,” Waverly repeated, just loud enough for Nicole to hear.
By the time they got back to Nicole’s property, the sun had started to sink below the horizon. It settled behind Nicole’s cabin, casting an orange halo around it as they rode Trigger up the main path.
The smile had been permanently on Waverly’s face since they had started their ride back from that horrible man’s house. Waverly was nothing but grateful to the odd and quiet person on the saddle in front of her. Admittedly Waverly had been quite...pleased when she stepped out of the carriage to see her there.
Tall, strong jawed and big brown eyes that Waverly never wanted to look away from. When she thought this was the person who answered the ad in the paper boasting a young, viable wife for only fifty dollars, Waverly was thrilled. The whole carriage ride from the Del Rey Ranch to Purgatory she had been riddled with anxiety that she would end up with a cruel husband. But there was no way this person with kind eyes and gentle hands could be anything but.
So imagine her disappointment when it was a mistake and her husband was a cruel looking man with teeth the shade of dead leaves.
But now, riding on the back of her gracious protector’s horse, Waverly couldn’t help but be reminded of the tales her Mama used to tell her about the knights of the round table. The valiant knights who protected the weak and bought them from their unfriendly looking husbands.
Not that Waverly was weak. Not in the slightest, and she would remind anyone that tried to argue.
She sat up a little straighter in the saddle and felt the cold metal of the small pistol she had taken from Bobo pressed against her sternum between her breasts, nestled away in case of an emergency.
Still, she wasn’t in a position to refuse the acts of this kind stranger.
Waverly did wonder what kind of cruel game fate was playing by bringing her back to Purgatory, a town she had left so long ago she barely remembered it. It felt more like a dream, one where she was running with her sisters through tall grass with the Homestead looming behind them. She wondered if that was still there.
As they got closer to the barn, Trigger began to trot again so Waverly held on to Nicole even tighter. She pressed her cheek between her shoulder blades, feeling the worn cotton of her shirt against her skin. The sharp musk of sweat was unmistakable but there was something under it that made Waverly sigh. Sweet. Like vanilla.
Waverly had only had the pleasure of trying it once when her Daddy had brought home some sweets he’d gotten from a Yankee traveling through town. But she remembered the sweet taste of it on her tongue and how it flooded her mouth.
“Alright, boy,” Nicole muttered to the horse as they got to the barn. Her voice rumbled throughout her torso and Waverly sighed. Nicole cleared her throat and shifted in the seat. “Um, Miss Waverly, I’ma need you to let go if I’ma get off this horse.”
“Oh, right,” Waverly said, regretfully dropping her arms from around Nicole’s waist. “Sorry.”
“No worries, ma’am,” Nicole said as she got off the horse and held her hand out for Waverly. She slid her hand over Nicole’s feeling how the callouses rubbed against her palm. Waverly suppressed a shiver and cursed to herself.
Now wasn’t the time to let herself get carried away with girlish fantasies. But she couldn’t help it. Nicole was so pretty and handsome and she wanted to knock her hat off her head while she ran her hands through those red strands. To feel her hands against more of her skin. And despite how Nicole was being so standoffish and respectful, she’d seen her face when Waverly first stepped off the carriage. Waverly could tell when someone fancied her.
So she would indulge herself and Nicole by letting her help her down from the horse even though Waverly could do it perfectly fine on her own. But Nicole’s hand on her waist and holding her other hand was too tempting to pass up.
“Waverly, please, Nicole,” Waverly said as her feet touched the ground. She kept her hold of Nicole’s hand, keeping her close as she looked up at her.
“Miss Waverly will do jus’ fine,” Nicole repeated with the small tilt to her lips that Waverly wanted to kiss away.
Waverly huffed and pretended to be put out despite how when she said Miss Waverly, the words tripped down her spine and settled low in her belly.
“I’ll meet you back at the house,” Nicole continued as she took Trigger’s reins in her hands. “I gotta get Trigger all settled in for the night.”
Nicole nodded at Waverly and headed back into the barn, leaving her out with the summer heat still settling heavy on her shoulders despite the sun’s rapid descent into the horizon. She looked like she couldn’t get away from Waverly fast enough and it just made Waverly want to follow her. Instead she turned back around and headed towards the modest cabin just a few yards away.
She could smell the freshly overturned dirt and the cows and it squeezed Waverly’s heart like a familiar feeling she hadn’t felt in years. Like a hug from a long forgotten friend. It felt like...home. It was a terrifying feeling, really. This wasn’t her home, she knew nothing of it. Still it felt...familiar in a way she hadn’t felt in ages. Certainly not on Bobo’s Ranch where she’d been holed up for years now.
When she got to the cabin, she gently pushed open the door and blinked as her eyes adjusted to the dark. It was small and modest, one room with a stove in the middle and a stone fireplace to the side. There was a simple table opposite the fire and in the far end, a small bed, tub, and mirror.
She looked around, noting the trunk at the end of the bed and the few books stacked on top of it. She set her bag down on top of the trunk and picked up one of the books, opening the first page to see a faded pencil inscription.
”My love for you won’t fade until the ink disappears from these pages. Your Love, S.P.”
The door to the cabin opened and Waverly blushed, quickly setting the book back down like she had never seen it. Nicole wouldn’t have seen Waverly looking anyways because she was hiding her face behind her hat.
“Are you decent, Miss Waverly?” she asked, her voice muffled by the hat.
“I am,” Waverly said with a smile. Nicole dropped her hat from her face and smiled back.
“Alright, well I’m jus’ gonna grab a blanket and be out in the barn-“
“What? Why?” Waverly asked.
Nicole looked at her like it was the most obvious thing in the world. “It’s one room.”
“So, there’s plenty of room in the bed-“ she blushed and looked away. “Or I could take the floor. Or the chair-“
“I’ll be sleeping in the barn,” Nicole repeated.
“Then at least let me sleep in the barn,” Waverly insisted. “You take your bed.”
Nicole chuckled and waved away Waverly’s idea like it was the silliest thing in the world. “I wake up early to work in the barn. I’ll just be wakin’ you up earlier than you have to. It makes more sense fer me to sleep in there.”
“You can wake me up so I can help,” Waverly says hopefully. “I want to help out while I’m here. Help pay off my debt.”
“I work alone, Miss Waverly,” Nicole said, picking up a spare blanket from the end of the bed.
Waverly felt the nostalgic squeeze at her heart again and she sighed. “I...that’s silly when someone wants to help you. But I can’t say I’m not used to it, my sister is the same.”
“Your sister seems like a mighty reasonable woman,” Nicole said with a nod.
Waverly couldn’t help but laugh, hand on her stomach as she doubled over. “You would never be saying that if you knew her.” Waverly shook her head. “Well, let me help anyways. Than you’ll get done with the chores sooner and there will be more time for...other things.”
“Other things?” Nicole tilted her head like a confused puppy, grown eyes soft. “Like what other things?”
“Other things like,” Waverly trailed off in thought for a moment, eyes drifting to the low ceiling before she continued. “Like reading or just...talking.”
Nicole actually laughed. An honest to goodness laugh at the idea of doing something other than work.
“That jus’ won’t do, Miss Waverly,” Nicole said. “‘M afraid it would jus’ throw off my whole day an’ I wouldn’t know what to do.”
“Nicole, you’re being stubborn,” Waverly pointed out good naturedly.
“My Pa used to call me a mule,” Nicole said with a wink. “So ‘m well aware. I’ll see you tomorrow, Miss Waverly. After chores I’ll go into town to get the house plans and supply back if you wanna go in to catch a train home.”
“I’ll go along with you for the company,” Waverly said with a small frown.
Nicole sighed in exasperation. “Night, Miss Waverly.”
“Goodnight, Nicole,” Waverly said.
Nicole looked at her one last time like there was something unsaid on the tip of her tongue. But instead she just tipped her hat at Waverly and started out the door. “Sweet dreams.”