Waverly sighed, eyes pulled from the book in her hand to movement outside the window.
“Mother! Gus! She’s here,” Waverly called, disappointment in her voice.
She heard her aunt call back, “She’s here? Is she here?”
A flurry of movement surrounded Waverly, from the sounds of her mother and aunt moving to the door and servants hastening to wrap up their tasks and follow.
But Waverly took her time, gingerly marking the worn page of her book, before just as gently, placing it aside on the table. She slowly rose to her feet, the sound of her sister’s voice reaching her ears, and meticulously straightened her dress before finally striding toward the entry.
Her mother and aunt’s happy greetings carried inside, followed by her sister’s terse replies.
Wringing her hands, Waverly finally rounded the corner, her sister coming into view through the open door, stepping out of an embrace with her aunt before kissing her hand.
Waverly came to a stop, sheepishly standing just outside the door, hoping to draw as little attention to herself as possible. She watched as Wynonna greeted each of the servants in turn before lastly turning toward Waverly.
“Hello, Waverly,” Wynonna stepped forward to kiss her forehead, before pulling her into a brisk hug.
Wynonna’s arms only stilled for a split second as they wrapped around her and then quickly withdrew, her sister’s hands then running down her arms before stopping at her hands. Wynonna pointedly stared down at Waverly’s left hand, clasped in her own. Her sister’s thumb carefully brushed over Waverly’s fourth finger, just between her knuckles.
“No ring yet? Aren’t you getting a little old, Waves?”
“You’re one to talk,” Waverly scoffed, her sister dropping her hands. “And don’t you think I’d written to you if there was news like that?”
Wynonna pushed past her with a small shrug, “Could’ve fooled me. Haven’t heard from you since I left, have I?”
Waverly’s cheeks burned under the stern scrutiny of both her mother and aunt. With a shake of her head, her mother followed after Wynonna, both of them calling back and forth about dinner. Waverly determinedly looked anywhere but her aunt.
“Is that true?” Gus asked.
Waverly squirmed, fidgeting with the folds of her dress.
“Waverly,” Gus prompted.
With a sigh, Waverly finally looked up to see her aunt’s narrowed eyes unblinking as they looked back at her.
“It might be… true.”
“Hmpf,” Gus clicked her tongue before crossing her arms. “I suppose I’m not going to find out why, am I?”
Waverly shook her head.
“Fine. But you best join us for dinner. Won’t have you reading through it while your sister’s here,” Gus scolded before turning on her heel and marching back inside.
As she was instructed, Waverly seated herself at the dinner table, though not a moment before one of the servants told her it was ready.
Her aunt and mother were pestering away with questions. As usual, Wynonna failed to have an ounce of decorum, chewing with her mouth open and answering as she chomped away. Waverly shuddered to imagine what would’ve happened had she done the same.
“Have you heard from your friend, Miss Haught at Stetson House?” Gus asked.
As Waverly reached with her knife for some butter, Wynonna pulled it away, sliding it across the table toward her own plate. With her knife hanging idly above the table, Waverly rolled her eyes at her sister before clanking the utensil onto her plate.
“Here and there,” Wynonna replied, mouth full, and shrugging at Waverly as if nothing had happened. “Why?”
Waverly huffed, “I told you aunt, Miss Haught wrote me just after Uncle Curtis passed.”
“I know, I know,” Gus scowled at Waverly before turning back to Wynonna. “She wrote me too. Such a sweet but… curious thing. Funny how lonely she seems for the most eligible young woman in Purgatory.”
Wynonna just hummed in response, and Waverly wouldn’t have been surprised if she hadn’t heard a word her aunt said as she roughly coated butter on every inch of her roll.
Gus continued, “But she’s so isolated, so alone for someone with a large contingent of relations left in spite of her loses. Though I imagine she spends most of her time fending off their requests for money.”
“I wrote her while I traveled back,” Wynonna replied, mouth full of food. “I’ll probably stop in to see her tomorrow.”
“Are you going to let her know you’re visiting?” Waverly asked.
Wynonna shook her head before taking a large drink from her glass. “I have an open invitation at Stetson, you know that Waverly.”
“Yes,” Waverly huffed, finally stealing the butter back and, for good measure, taking the bread basket and moving it as far from Wynonna as possible. “But wouldn’t it be kind and considerate to let her know you’re coming.”
Wynonna laughed, digging into her food again, “Oh don’t worry, Haught and I are a ways beyond kindness.”
Nicole looked up from her book at a knock on the door. She held her breath, expecting an aunt, uncle, cousin, or some other, more distant, relative to have popped in unannounced.
With it past dinner, it was a little later than she would generally expect one of them to visit—but, some days, she wouldn’t put anything past them. She hastily set aside her book to reach for her pocket watch, checking the time.
Straining to hear the visitor, she tucked her watch back into her pocket, bunched up her skirt, and stood, inching quietly to her closed study door. Ear lingering just an inch from the door, she waited, jumping at the jarringly loud, nervous laughter that met her ears.
“Dammit Jeremy,” she muttered to herself, moodily moving back to her chair and flopping back into it, the unusually high-pitched voice of her footman carrying easily through the walls.
Though nerves were generally a problem with Jeremy, there was only one individual that brought out that octave in his voice: a particular servant from Wyatt Hall.
Nicole picked back up her book, only able to turn back to the page where she left off, before there was a knock on the door.
“S—sorry ma’am,” Jeremy stammered loudly, clearly still under the influence of the man downstairs. “The servant from Wyatt Hall brought you a note. He’s waiting, in case you would like to reply.”
Setting her book aside again, Nicole took the note from Jeremy, fighting her own excitement over seeing her name in familiar handwriting. She reached for her paper knife, slitting the seal.
Please accept my sincerest apologies for my delay in correspondence. I hope you do not take it to mean your condolences were any less appreciated—I am ever grateful to have a friend like you in times such as these. Your fond memories of my uncle were a welcome reprieve from my grief.
I am, however, writing for another reason. My sister has undoubtedly written to you about returning home, and she arrived this morning. She intends to call on you tomorrow but felt it was unnecessary to inform you as such. I wholeheartedly disagree and understand if you prefer her to call at another time. Please advise if you would like her to visit at a less impromptu time, and I shall do my best to intervene.
Hoping you are well,
Nicole looked up, fighting the smile on her face, “Jeremy, please have Chrissy pack two of the buns she made for Mr. Jett to take back to Wyatt Hall, and then please go keep Mr. Jett company while I draft a response. I was correct in assuming Wynonna would arrive home soon.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Jeremy nodded, unable to contain the wide grin on his face, before turning toward the door.
She smirked before calling after him, “Oh! And Jeremy, steal something sweet for the two of you while you wait as well.”
“Thank you, ma’am.”
Nicole moved to her desk, eyes still lingering at the signature at the bottom. Once seated, with ink and paper in front of her and a pen in hand, she wrote:
There is absolutely no need for you to apologize. You have enough to carry on with, without any undue guilt for something so trivial. Nevertheless, I am glad to hear my simple words could bring you some small comfort at this trying time.
I was indeed aware of Wynonna’s return and, knowing your sister, fully anticipated such a visit—do not inform Wynonna, but I had Chrissy bake some of her favorite Chelsea buns just yesterday. I would be delighted to have her company, and I hope you might be so inclined as to join her. However I do understand, completely, if you hadn’t the time.
Just in case, these two are just for you—don’t you dare share with Wynonna. I would send some with her tomorrow, but I doubt they would last the journey back to Wyatt Hall in her hands.
Hoping to see you soon,
“It’s good to see you, Haught,” Wynonna grinned, before Nicole found herself pulled into a tight hug.
Nicole patted her oldest friend on the back, soaking in the comfort with a deep breath, before pulling back, “You too.”
As Wynonna shed her overcoat, Nicole grinned in Waverly’s direction, extending her hand, “I’m glad you—”
She was cut off by Waverly failing to hide a giggle behind her hand.
“What?” Nicole asked, slowly pulling her hand back, unusually self-conscious by the way Waverly’s eyes traveled from her face to her boots and back up, laughter increasing in volume.
“You two make quite a pair. Matching and all,” Waverly giggled.
Nicole and Wynonna simultaneously turned toward one another, looking each other up and down. As usual, they were both dressed in white button shirts, waistcoats, and boots; furthering the image, each wore an identical shade of charcoal gray in their waistcoats and skirts. The only difference was the buttons hanging open on Wynonna’s vest.
Wynonna plopped down on the nearest padded bench, “I don’t think you knew this baby girl, but Haught here deserves all the credit for this fine look. She had her tailor make my first set of clothes for my birthday, what? At least ten years ago?”
“Is that true?” Waverly asked, tucking her skirts under as she gracefully sat next to Wynonna.
“It is,” Nicole chuckled, settling into a chair across from the sisters. “I don’t know how long ago it was but we were still in school. I only did it so she’d stop stealing my clothes. And returning them reeking of beer.”
Wynonna rolled her eyes and huffed, as she poured herself some tea, “Dresses are the worst . Can’t do a damn thing in them.”
“All too true,” Nicole agreed, taking the kettle, pouring a cup and handing it to Waverly before pouring one for herself. “I’m so sorry to hear about Curtis.”
“Thank you,” Wynonna replied softly, stirring in some sugar. “He was a good man.”
Nicole lifted her cup to her lips, eyeing the way Wynonna frowned. She had suspected her friend was taking the news worse than she would admit. Before taking a sip, Nicole paused, lowering it back to its saucer.
“He was indeed,” Nicole agreed. “And I think it’s a miracle he lived as long as he did given all the worry we caused him.”
Wynonna laughed, tea trickling out the side of her mouth. Waverly rolled her eyes at the way Wynonna inelegantly wiped it aside with the back of her hand, but Nicole chuckled.
“Do you remember, the look on Curtis’s face when he found us in trousers?”
Nicole laughed, “I remember the scolding more.”
“What happened?” Waverly asked, lifting her teacup to her lips.
“We had snuck out and lost track of time at this inn and Curtis came stomping in at 3 a.m,” Nicole admitted, hiding a smile. “We were there, playing cards, smoking, and drinking with some soldiers from the 33rd.”
“Reprobates,” Wynonna snickered, “Curtis called them. Lousy bluffers are what I called them. How much money did we win off of ‘em?”
“A couple pounds at least,” Nicole laughed, shaking her head. “Poor soldiers. They needed it more than we did.”
The afternoon passed all too quickly for Nicole with catching up, more memories of Curtis, and Wynonna regaling them with stories from her adventures from Spain to Greece.
But Nicole couldn’t help but notice how Waverly kept to herself. Whenever Nicole tried to draw her more into the conversation, she deflected, instead engaging Wynonna again. It was an ongoing carousel to which Nicole was sure Wynonna was oblivious.
Once Wynonna excused herself to thank Chrissy for the buns, Nicole saw an opportunity.
“How are you?” Nicole asked softly, eyeing the woman across from her.
Though Waverly was one to hold herself in her a reserved and rigid manner, there was an extra stiffness to her today that Nicole couldn’t place.
“Splendid,” Waverly replied immediately, lips twitching into a tight smile.
Nicole rolled her eyes, “How are you really?”
Waverly looked away, eyes darting to the partially open door.
Nicole slowly rose and crossed to the bench across from her, leaning into Waverly. She gently placed one of her hands over Waverly’s, drawing Miss Earp’s attention back to her.
“Does this have to do with Wynonna?”
Though her tight-lipped smile shifted to a grimace, Waverly stubbornly shook her head, eyes watering.
With a gentle squeeze, Nicole tilted her head, “You gain nothing by lying to me, Miss Earp. You do know that?”
Waverly smiled softly, the first real one Nicole had been graced with since both Earps arrived hours ago. A single tear escaped, and Waverly hastily wiped it away before flipping her hand, wrapping Nicole’s in both of her own.
“I do. It’s silly, really, but I always thought—”
“I charmed Chrissy into giving me the rest of the buns. Sorry Haught,” Wynonna gloated, arms occupied by a large wicker basket.
With her eyes happily scanning the treats that overflowed her basket, Nicole was sure Wynonna missed the way Waverly inched away from Nicole, gently returning her hand back to her lap and occupying her own with her teacup.
Nicole fought to hide the disappointment on her face, not just at the growing space between her and Waverly, but in knowing her afternoon with the Earps was coming to a close. It didn’t help that there was something about Waverly, and the way she seemed unusually reserved, that made Nicole wish for some more time with just the younger Earp.
“You ready, Waves?” Wynonna asked.
“Oh! Um, yes.” Waverly hastily finished her tea before standing.
“It was great to see you, Haught. If you decide you need a break from the invalid life—”
“Wynonna,” Waverly hissed.
“No, it’s okay,” Nicole chuckled uneasily and shrugged. “It’s true.”
“See,” Wynonna whined, elbowing her sister. “Anyways, if you need a break from yourself, come over to Wyatt Hall anytime. Or maybe I can coax you into an evening in town.”
Nicole hesitated, “Yes, um, maybe. Some time. Soon.”
Two days later, Wynonna snickered from her spot on the bench as she read from the letter in her hand, back resting against the armrest and feet up on the padded seat.
Nicole had been pleasantly surprised to have Wynonna visit each of the past two days and join her for lunch. But she suspected Chrissy’s baking had more to do with it than her company.
Wynonna tossed the paper aside, “He wants £1,000. No mention of what for, how he’d repay you, or offering to pay interest. And I thought some of my family was gormless.”
“You laugh, but I’m the one they think is dim,” Nicole fumed, getting to her feet.
It was bad enough her family continued to think that she was an absolute imbecile without her friend chortling along at the notion. She snatched the letter from the floor and threw it in the fire, freezing at her own actions.
Her heart raced as flame caught the paper, the edges curling and charring as they were consumed.
What if the paper flew back out? What if it sparked? What if it caught on the rug?
Mind continuing to race, her hand twitched in the direction of the oversized water bucket on the hearth, but her wide eyes never left the burning sheet until it was reduced to ash.
When it finally crumbled, lost amongst the logs that fed the fire, she sighed, running a shaking hand through her hair, grimacing at how damp it felt closest to her face.
Nicole shook her head, a bead of sweat dripping past her ear, before she turned back to Wynonna.
“Did you hear me, or do I need to call Jeremy for some salts? Oohhh or better yet, brandy?”
“W—what?” Nicole answered, swallowing hastily to clear the shake from her voice.
She moved back to her seat, feeling the back of her shirt and waistcoat sticking uncomfortably. Nicole twisted, peeling it away from her skin under the guise of adjusting her chair. But she cringed when she realized it turned her back to the fireplace.
“Is it too hot in here? It is. I’ll just put out the fire.” Nicole shifted, poised to rise from her chair but froze when she saw the odd look Wynonna was giving her.
“I was saying that Waverly was asking about you today. I told her to come along, but she didn’t want to encroach.” Wynonna rolled her eyes before smirking. “And you’re one to talk you’re always Haught. But leave it, it’s quite blowly today.”
Nicole settled back into the upholstery, her eyes flicking once more towards the flames. She swallowed hard, then forced her focus back to her friend. “Waverly is more than welcome anytime, just as you are.”
“I know, I know,” Wynonna grunted. “Put it writing? Then maybe she’ll believe it’s acceptable social decorum.”
Nicole nodded absentmindedly, fingers wrapping around the armrests as she fought the urge to turn and check the fire once more, “I can write her. Yes, I’ll do that.”
“A letter for you, Miss Earp.”
Waverly looked up from her book to see Robin at her side. She shook her head, not having heard him enter into the sitting room.
“Thank you, Robin,” she smiled, accepting the letter, heart skipping a beat at the handwriting.
With Robin’s footsteps fading, she allowed herself a moment for her eyes to trace the compact, distinct handwriting that had penned out her name. Waverly fought a smile before looking up and scanning the room. She was by herself, what did she have to hide? She rolled her lips before allowing herself to embrace the emotions that a simple letter from a particular person could bring.
With a shaky inhale, she turned it over and broke the seal.
It was a pleasure to see you and your sister a few days ago, but I do regret how our afternoon ended. I suspect, had Wynonna not interrupted, we were about to venture into a far from silly conversation.
Perhaps we can continue it over tea, this coming Monday?
Hoping you are well,
Waverly twisted her hands in front of her as she waited at Nicole’s front door. She bounced on the balls of her feet, tempted to run as if she hadn’t been there and hadn’t been the one to pull the bell.
Just as she turned, fully intending to act on that thought, the door opened behind her.
“Miss Earp!” Jeremy greeted. “It’s great to see—you, well, your back. I can only see your back.”
Waverly whipped around, feeling her cheeks burn.
“Why were you facing that way?” he asked.
“Oh, um,” her eyes bulged as she scrambled for a lie, “I was just admiring that…”
She trailed off, turning halfway back around and sputtering out the name of the first object that she saw, “...that tree. Yes! That tree is magnificent looking. Stately. And there was a bird! On a branch! From this distance, I couldn’t make it out what species it was, but you missed such a breathtaking sight!”
She turned back around and saw Jeremy nodding along raptly. If he didn’t fully believe her, his kind smile didn’t give him away.
“Would you like to come in?” he asked, stepping back and pointing inside. “Miss Haught was quite pleased you accepted her invitation.”
Between the statement that Nicole was excited to see her and the notion of spending alone time with Nicole, Waverly’s nerves swelled with each step. She undid her bonnet and then smoothed out the front of her green dress as Jeremy led her into the sitting room.
“Miss Earp, ma’am.”
Nicole was seated in a chair, turned slightly toward the fireplace with the paper in her hand, but at Jeremy’s voice, she quickly tossed it onto an end table and stood to face them.
With one look at the genuine smile on Nicole’s face, Waverly felt a wave of calmness wash over her, as if all her nerves had been left in the hallway.
“Thank you, Jeremy. Can you get us some fresh tea?” Nicole asked.
While Jeremy picked up the teapot and retreated from the room, Nicole closed the distance between them. Her smile grew with each step until Waverly’s favorite dimples were on display. Waverly took in the pale blue waistcoat Nicole had donned, that complemented her navy skirt, and briefly wondered why Wynonna stuck only to such dark neutral colors.
But any thought of her sister vanished when Nicole stepped closer and extended a hand in greeting.
“Miss Earp,” Nicole beamed. “It’s so good to see you again.”
Waverly hadn’t quite appreciated their difference in height the other day, having only sat next to Nicole, but standing here, looking up at her wasn’t a bad vantage point at all.
She took Nicole’s hand and shook it gently, enjoying the touch of her skin, warm from the fire, “Please Nicole, call me Waverly. And I must say I’m delighted you invited me back.”
Nicole squeezed her hand lightly, thumb grazing the back of her hand, before guiding her toward the bench she’d sat on last week.
“I fear I do owe you an apology—”
But whatever Nicole wanted to apologize for was cut off by Jeremy returning, with a full pot and a tray of biscuits.
“Thank you, Jeremy,” Nicole stated, letting go of Waverly’s hand to smoothly take the tray that was precariously close to tipping over as Jeremy placed the pot down.
With the tray safely on the table, Nicole busied herself with pouring a cup for each of them as the door clicked closed.
“I doubt you have anything to apologize to me for Nicole,” Waverly prompted.
“Right,” Nicole nodded, finally returning to her chair. “I’m sorry it’s been so long since we’ve seen each other—well before last week, I mean, I… I, um, don’t venture out much.”
“That’s okay,” Waverly assured. “You know, when you came to tea, with me and my family… after Wynonna left so suddenly, you—you probably had no idea at the time, but you made my whole world a little bit brighter that day. I remember it very fondly.”
“I do remember it,” Nicole grinned. “Quite fondly as well.”
Eyes drawn to the dimple visible on Nicole’s cheek, Waverly took a small sip of her tea, before adding, “As enjoyable as it’s been to correspond with you, I wish we hadn’t waited so long to see each other again.”
Nicole fidgeted before rubbing her neck, “Me neither. As I said, I do regret it.”
Waverly looked down at her lap, fearing that, while Nicole’s voice sounded genuine, her nervous body language seemed to indicate that she felt differently.
“When you didn’t invite me here again or come ‘round again, I thought it was, um, silly and foolish of me to hope to see you again,” Waverly admitted, sadly. “You are… Wynonna’s friend, after all.”
“Waverly… please look at me.”
When she didn’t, she heard Nicole rise and sit next to her, just as she had the other day. Waverly hadn’t seen where Nicole discarded her cup, but suddenly both of Nicole’s hands hovered over her own, before one gently and, seemingly cautiously, dropped to her forearm.
Waverly finally forced her gaze back to Nicole.
“It wasn’t,” Nicole assured, eyes wide. She licked her lips before continuing, “I have wanted to see you again, every day since. I am not only Wynonna’s friend but yours as well. Always yours.”
“Are you sure?”
Nicole laughed softly, fingers gently brushing at the sleeve of her dress, and the warmth from her touch sinking through the fabric, “Absolutely. There’s a chance I enjoy your company over hers.”
“Oh now, what was it you said to me the other day? You gain nothing by lying to me either, Miss Haught,” Waverly teased. “Particularly false flattery.”
“I certainly do not,” Nicole agreed with a small nod. “But I am genuine in my assertions Waverly—just don’t tell Wynonna. She would be insufferable if she knew.”
“Isn’t she already?” Waverly huffed.
Nicole nodded as she chuckled, fingers trailing along her forearm again, “You have a standing invitation to visit anytime too, you know? Just as your sister. Though she told me you’d likely want that in writing.”
Waverly rolled her eyes, “I suppose a verbal agreement will do.”
“So,” Nicole prompted briskly, tossing the last of a biscuit into her mouth. “What were you going to tell me the other day? That really, in all likelihood, is not silly.”
Waverly took a large sip of her tea, using the action as a reprieve from answering Nicole’s question.
The afternoon had been lovely and had passed all too quickly. Nicole stayed in her spot, beside Waverly, listening raptly to every word she said; Waverly’s only regret was that she hadn’t learned much more about Nicole. And maybe that Nicole hadn’t forgotten where their conversation had left off last time she had visited.
But, as Waverly soon needed to return to Wyatt Hall for dinner, she saw an out. Biting her lip, she set her empty cup aside, “Oh Nicole, it’s been such a wonderful afternoon, and I would hate to spoil it.”
“And you wouldn’t,” Nicole assured, hand grazing her forearm again. “But if you’re not comfortable discussing it today… how about next time?”
“Next time?” Waverly smiled.
“You’re always welcome here, Waverly. Did you forget that already?”
Waverly shook her head, sheepishly.
“Shall I write it down? Just in case. Or I can send Jeremy over with a note tomorrow, as a reminder.”
Nicole’s teasing smile, with a dimple displayed once again, emboldened Waverly.
“So it would be okay if I returned… say tomorrow?”
Nicole shifted closer, hand sliding down her arm in a way that made Waverly’s skin tingle.
“Absolutely,” Nicole beamed.
“Waverly! Hey, Waves!”
She wasn’t far from Wyatt Hall when she heard a familiar voice calling her name. She shook her head, clearing it from where her thoughts had been on her entire journey back from Stetson: on Nicole.
With a sigh, Waverly turned around to see Wynonna, hurrying up the road in her direction.
“Where were you?” Wynonna called.
Waverly slowed, under the pretense of allowing her sister to fully catch up, wondering what Wynonna’s reaction would be if she were honest. But it was too much to hope that Wynonna wouldn’t find out through her friend.
When her sister reached her side, Waverly finally answered, “Over at Stetson House. I had tea with Nicole.”
“Oh good, she needs the company,” Wynonna replied before putting an arm out to stop Waverly, quirking an eyebrow. “Had you actually met her before? Before last week?”
“Once,” Waverly admitted, fighting a grin as she looked down. Feeling Wynonna’s eyes on her, she sighed, grabbing her sister’s arm and pulling her along to continue up the road toward their home. “Years ago. Just after you left the first time to travel, she invited me over for tea and… well, I had said no, that I didn’t think I was up to venturing out at the time. But she came over herself. And surprised me. We had tea with mother and Aunt Gus, but then we walked the property together. Just her and I. It was the first time I had been outside in a fortnight. I think… I think we were both lonely and it was nice to be in the company of someone who understood…”
Waverly trailed off, before shaking her head, “But we’ve corresponded on and off ever since. Where were you?”
“Oh just in town,” Wynonna deflected, before coming to a stop again. “I am sorry, you know. For leaving. I—I should’ve taken you with me. That time and the others. I shouldn’t have run off and shut you out as I did.”
Waverly sighed, grabbing her sister’s hand and tugging her along once more. “If you keep stopping, we’ll never make it home. And it’s been forgiven. Ages ago.”
“Then why didn’t you write me?”
Waverly’s heart tightened at the vulnerable note in her sister’s voice. With her hand still wrapped around her sister’s, she felt Wynonna’s pace slow as if she wanted to stop again.
But Waverly trudged forward, picking up her pace to widen the gap as she dragged her along so that Wynonna wouldn’t see her face.
“You didn’t either.”
“Good afternoon, Waverly,” Nicole smiled, offering her hand.
“Good afternoon to you too,” Waverly beamed in return.
Unlike the day before, Waverly’s nerves were minimal, barely noticeable in comparison to her excitement at seeing Nicole again.
Nicole led her back to the bench, this time immediately seating herself at Waverly’s side.
“So, that we neither run out of time today nor threaten to end this afternoon on a sour note,” Nicole began, briskly, pouring a cup of tea, “let’s get this less-than-silly conversation out of the way.”
Nicole handed over the cup with a wink, and Waverly felt her cheeks burn.
She sighed while Nicole poured her own cup. Though yesterday and last week she had been nervous to speak on this topic, something had shifted in her emotions since she left Stetson yesterday. Waverly no longer feared vocalizing her feelings, but rather was uneasy in how Nicole might react.
These visits had been like a breath of fresh air, a comfort that Waverly didn’t know she had been missing. And she had only just found it. How could she risk tossing it all aside so quickly?
“Hmm,” Waverly hummed, shaking her head.
“It’s okay, you don’t need to tell me. But I thought it may be some comfort to get whatever it is out of your head.”
Nicole’s obvious compassion, evident from her tone to her concerned facial features, including a thin line on her forehead, had Waverly on the precipice of divulging everything.
But when Nicole’s warm hand grazed her wrist, Waverly settled for a portion of the truth.
“I… I miss Uncle Curtis.”
Even though that wasn’t half of it, her voice shook vocalizing those few words for the first time. Because Curtis didn’t mind if she read through dinner. Or that she liked helping the servants with outside chores. And he certainly didn’t mind that she didn’t care for a single suitor that had been invited to tea by her mother.
She didn’t realize her hands were shaking until Nicole gently pried her teacup from her fingers and set it aside. Silent tears streamed down her cheeks as Nicole moved closer. She willingly followed as Nicole guided her into her side and didn’t protest when Nicole wrapped her arms around her shoulders.
Waverly leaned closer, her arms bunched awkwardly between them as she sobbed, “He’s just… gone. And I’d give anything to talk to him just one more time.”
Nicole tapped her foot impatiently on the floor. Usually, she would just be annoyed by the absurdity of the frequency of these recurring visits. But now, because her uninvited visitor happened to be running late, she had the joy of being humiliated too.
With his pocket watch out, the doctor at her side took her pulse. She flinched and fought the urge to entirely pull away from his grasp, disgusted by the deliberate way his thumb brushed the back of her hand.
“Do you have any, uh, plans to voyage outside of this house, Miss Haught? Maybe even a holiday?” he smirked, knowing the answer to his question already, as his hand moved from her wrist.
Nicole wanted to slap the watch from his hand, but settled for returning her own to her lap as he clicked his pocket watch closed and tucked it in his pocket.
“I’ve been saying she needs a night out on the town with me,” Wynonna replied smugly from her place, feet kicked up on the armrest of the bench in the sitting room with her head resting on the seat.
“I think Miss Earp is right to suggest something as simple as that. The only trauma that remains is in your mind, Miss Haught, as I’ve been saying for years.”
Nicole fidgeted in her seat while Wynonna swung her legs down, concerned blue eyes holding Nicole in her place. “Shall it be arranged? You’ve got doctor’s orders and all.”
“You see, I think she just needs taking out of herself. Perhaps she spends too much time on her own.”
“She is right here,” Nicole muttered, crossing her arms.
Dr. Belgnome didn’t seem to hear her, or he pretended not to as he continued, lingering at her shoulder, “Was she, uh, ever introduced i—in the assembly rooms in Purgatory?”
Wynonna stood, eyes narrowing, “No. And you know why.”
Nicole stood too, “I can speak for myself, you know.” She glared at Wynonna before turning to the doctor. “You might recall. Given the many years my aunt has had you go through this charade. Since the accident, my ever thoughtful family has been very wary of fortune hunters. However, I am fully capable of making such decisions for myself. Regardless, to be perfectly clear, I have zero interest in it.”
Dr. Belgnome ignored her, walking closer to Wynonna, “Wrapping people up so cozily at home isn’t always as kind as it might seem, certainly not for those inclined towards the melancholy. Sometimes, the best thing one can prescribe isn’t medicine, but… some changes. A change of scenery. A change in company.”
Wynonna turned, grabbing the bell off the table and ringing it.
“Yeah, yeah, we get it. I’ll drag her out of this house if I have to,” Wynonna replied, as Jeremy skidded into the room, buttoning his overcoat. “See Dr. Belgnome out, will you Jeremy?”
“I’ll—I’ll see you again soon, Miss Haught.”
After the door closed, Nicole returned to her chair, elbows on her knees and forehead in her hands.
She jumped at the gentle hand on her back.
“It’s just me,” Wynonna soothed.
Nicole inhaled deeply through her nose and leaned into the comfort her friend brought.
“How often does he come by?”
“Once a fortnight,” Nicole sighed, running her fingers from her temples to the middle of her forehead before sitting back, hands dropping to her lap; Wynonna’s hand fell away at the movement. “My aunt puts him up to it. And pays for his visits. The family undoubtedly wants to know if and when I’m on my deathbed so they can attempt to lay hands on all the money they want.”
“I forgot what a quack he is, mincing walk and all. Odd little man.”
Nicole nodded, finally sitting back and allowing herself to lean against the backrest.
Wynonna rounded the chair before kneeling in front of her, “I didn’t like how he was looking at you…”
Nicole rolled her eyes, “I didn’t like him caressing my hand, or the way he was breathing on me.”
Wynonna stood slowly, before retreating back to her seat, “Which aunt is this? That set this up? Have her send for Dr. Day or someone else instead.”
“And face the inquiry into why?” Nicole grumbled. “No, it’s easier this way.”
“The entire tribe. My aunt. The McBlakes, the Gardners, the Svanes.”
Wynonna mumbled, “I like to forget you’re related to the Svanes.”
“This is why I’m such a disappointment,” Nicole sighed, ignoring Wynonna’s comment. “Or would be to my parents, if they were alive. Not only am I an invalid, but I’m failing to carry on the tradition of strategic marriages.”
“Come on Nic, you’re a clever and obstinate woman of substantial…” Wynonna trailed off before spreading her arms out as if to make a point. “...seriously substantial independent means. Tell Dr. Belgnome to fuck off next time he comes knocking.”
Nicole nodded, half-heartedly.
“But—he does have his uses,” Wynonna mused. “We’re getting you out of this house to get our drink on! Doctor’s orders.”
“Wait here, John Henry.”
Waverly hurried from the carriage to the door. Her shaking hand repeatedly pulled on the bell until Jeremy appeared at the door.
“Oh! Good evening, Miss Earp. I thought—”
Waverly cut off whatever Jeremy thought as she pushed into the entry, “Wynonna. Is she still here? She never made it home.”
“Oh no! Her and Miss Haught went into Purgatory.”
Waverly stopped in her tracks, turning back to Jeremy and eyeing him shrewdly. It wasn’t like Nicole to just up and leave her home. Not so suddenly. Waverly was only here yesterday, and Nicole made no such indication she was going into town.
“It’s nearly midnight. When did they leave?”
“Hours ago, ma’am. I can pass on a message to your sister when they return if you’d like or—“
Waverly pushed past Jeremy once again. This time, she was drawn back outside by the sound of an approaching carriage. She squinted into the darkness, wrapping her quivering arms around herself to fend off the chill in the air as her eyes followed the movement of a shadow as it steadily drew closer.
She felt herself sag in relief when she finally saw Randall, Nicole’s groom, at the reins of the approaching carriage. Henry hastily moved the Earp carriage up, allowing Nicole’s to pull up closer to the door. Before it had fully come to a stop, the door was thrown open, and Wynonna tumbled out and, by some miraculous stroke of balance, managed to avoid falling face first onto the cobblestones.
Waverly rolled her eyes, as Wynonna laughed at her luck, brushing her wild, free-flowing hair from her face. Nicole stumbled out, not nearly as clumsily as Wynonna, but not with the grace that Waverly was accustomed to. Though Waverly could’ve strangled her sister for the distress she caused her, it was worth the worry and worth the trip to Stetson to see Nicole with a top hat on her head and overcoat slung over her arm.
“Johnnnn Henry Holidaaay! What are you doin’ here?!” Wynonna called. “Oh, hey! Waaaaves!”
Her sister stumbled in her direction, Nicole closely behind her.
“Oh! It’s Waverly!” Nicole slurred. “Miss Earp! You’re out late.”
“I am because someone didn’t come home,” Waverly growled, glaring at her sister.
“Oh. But I’m home now,” Nicole admitted innocently, pointing at her house.
“No, not you Nicole,” Waverly sighed; it was hard to keep up her anger at her sister with Nicole being quite so adorable. “Wynonna! I was worried! You didn’t come home, and you didn’t send a note. I was worried something had happened to you on the walk back. Or that something happened here.”
Nicole stiffened, blinking quickly as she surveyed her home. Shivering, Waverly shook her head, unsure what that was about, before turning to her sister.
“Wynonna! Do you have anything to say for yourself?!”
Her sister giggled, “I got Haught out of her house!”
Even in the darkness, Waverly could see Nicole’s face rapidly pale as she abruptly hurried past, dropping her overcoat on Waverly’s shoulders. Nicole continued inside, saying something to Jeremy that didn’t quite reach Waverly’s ears.
“I’m goin’ home,” Wynonna stated, vaguely pointing in the direction of their carriage.
“What about Nicole?” Waverly pointed at the door, increasingly exasperated with this situation, as the sleeve of Nicole’s coat swung wildly at her movement. “She seems upset. What happened?!”
“Stay with her? If you want?” Wynonna shrugged, before turning toward Henry. “I’ve got a whole dresser of night things in the guest room across from Nic’s.”
Waverly grumbled but turned on her heel, surprised to see Jeremy right behind her.
“Oh, um, do you think Nicole will mind?” she asked, fighting the urge to pull Nicole’s coat tighter around her. “I was worried by how she went inside.”
“Not at all,” he smiled, ushering her in and removing the coat from her shoulders. “Miss Haught had me ready the room your sister referred to just in case, as well. I can show you there.”
“Sure…” Waverly trailed off, scanning the entry before Jeremy showed her to the stairs. “Where is Nicole?”
“She went to uhhh, she’s, um, checking on some areas of the house before turning in,” she heard Jeremy stammer behind her.
At the top of the landing, she turned back toward him, unsurprised to see his panicked disposition.
“What aren’t you telling me, Jeremy?”
He clapped his hands together and beamed, “Nothing, ma’am! Not, uh, not a thing.” He quickly pointed down the hall, “That door on the right is yours, ma’am. I’ll send Miss Nedley up in a few minutes to check on you and see if there’s anything you require. And…”
He trailed off, fidgeting with his sleeve. Waverly ran a hand over her face, tired and unsure what to make of Jeremy’s antics.
“And tell Nicole, I’d like to see her? Before she turns in,” Waverly filled in.
Jeremy nodded before hurrying down the stairs, “Absolutely ma’am.”
With a sigh, Waverly continued down the hall to her room, surprised to find a small fire in the fireplace and two candles illuminating the room.
Wynonna hadn’t lied about the dresser of her things. Waverly was surprised to find two nightgowns, two sets of Wynonna’s day clothes, a pack of playing cards, and a full flask amongst the contents. She moved closer to the fire for warmth while she changed.
Chrissy knocked on the door, not a minute after she had redressed, but Waverly was set for the night. Waiting for Nicole, Waverly perused the small bookcase in the room, dragging a finger across the spine of each book as she read the title.
“Those are the only ones Wynonna ever read—it seemed fitting that I store them in what essentially amounts to her room.”
Waverly jumped, not having heard Nicole enter the room. She turned, heart racing, with a hand on her chest.
“Jesus, Nicole, you scared me.”
Between the darkness outside earlier and being preoccupied with her sister’s antics, Waverly hadn’t noticed that Nicole had donned her light blue waistcoat again. It was quickly becoming her favorite color on Nicole, but seeing it hung open, with the top few buttons of her shirt undone and sleeves pushed up, certainly didn’t help to calm Waverly’s racing pulse.
“I’m sorry, I knocked, but I don’t think you heard,” Nicole smiled sheepishly, stepping further into the room, with a candle in hand. “Are you okay? Chrissy said you didn’t need anything but—”
“It’s so kind of you to ask, but I don’t need a thing. Are you okay, though? I was worried… seeing how you rushed inside earlier.”
Nicole nodded, but Waverly didn’t miss how her smile faded, “Yes, of course. I had some tasks to attend to in here, that’s all.”
Waverly bit her lip. She knew there was something more here and not sure how to approach… whatever this was that she was missing. Sighing, she closed her heavy eyelids, resigned to get to the bottom of it in the morning when she was more alert.
“I’m sorry for keeping you up,” Nicole continued. “Do you mind if I put out the fire before you go to bed?”
Waverly paused, eyes narrowing as she watched Nicole, already striding to a large water bucket on the hearth and setting her candle aside. Nicole picked up the likely heavy bucket with ease, dousing out the fire. Confused by the way Nicole lingered by the fireplace, as if to ensure the flames were truly out, Waverly shook her head before grabbing her own candle and carrying it to the nightstand and crawling into bed.
Nicole still puttered by the fireplace for another minute, twisting to look at all angles of the grate, before setting the bucket aside and reaching for her candle. She made a detour to blow out the one on the far side of the room before striding to the side of the bed.
“Are you sure there isn’t anything you need?” Nicole asked.
Waverly shook her head as she settled beneath the covers. “Not a thing. Unless you want to put out that candle for me?”
“Absolutely, Waverly,” Nicole beamed. “My room is just next to yours. If you need anything, anything at all, come wake me, okay?”
Waverly nodded, and Nicole blew out the candle on the nightstand.
With the only light in the room coming from the candle in Nicole’s hand, Waverly was mesmerized by the way the flickering flame illuminated Nicole’s face.
Nicole leaned closer, smile radiant, “Sleep well, Waverly.”
“You too, Nicole.”
Nicole turned away, and Waverly heard the door click closed. Feeling inexplicably disappointed, Waverly leaned back against the pillows, listening to Nicole’s footsteps fade and the gentle thud of a door closing.
Waverly shifted, head falling deeper into the soft pillow and closing her eyes.
She had nearly drifted off to sleep when she heard a door open nearby and footsteps pass in the hall, retreating down the stairs.
Waverly frowned to herself, looking up at the canopy of the bed. It had to have been Nicole, she thought. She would’ve heard anyone else come up the stairs.
No more than a minute or two could have passed until she heard Nicole traipse back up the stairs and back into her room. Waverly sighed turning and closing her eyes again.
Just as she found a comfortable position, she heard Nicole’s door open again, followed by footsteps down the hall and fading back down the stairs once more.
Waverly sat up, debating checking on her friend, but no sooner had she fumbled in the dark for the nightstand, trying to find matches, than she heard Nicole in the hallway again, quickly striding back to her bedroom.
Waverly froze, ears straining and mind wondering if Nicole had finally gone to bed. She counted in her head to 84 before she heard the door open again and Nicole’s footsteps in the hall. Huffing, Waverly resumed her search, fingers finally wrapping around a box of matches.
Once she lit the candle on the nightstand, she moved from her bed to the door, cracking it slightly. No noise met her ears, and she couldn’t see anything in the darkened hallway. Waverly opened the door more fully, bringing her candle with her, and turned to Nicole’s room; though she was sure she would’ve heard if Nicole had returned.
The door was ajar, so Waverly pushed it open. With her candle held high to best use the small flame to illuminate the room, as she surveyed it, seeing no sign of Nicole. Retreating back into the hallway, she waited.
It wasn’t more than another minute before she heard footsteps on the stairs and saw shadows form from the glow of a candle.
“Waverly! What are—“
“No,” Waverly interjected. “What are you doing, Nicole?”
The sight of Nicole in her night clothes, a sheer button short-sleeve shirt, the top two buttons undone, and matching pants that stopped just below her knees, her red hair hanging down just past her chin, was nearly enough to distract Waverly from her curiosity. With a shake of her head, Waverly forced her eyes up as Nicole stammered.
“I’m, um, uh, double checking that fireplaces were put out. Actually, let me check yours again too.”
Nicole disappeared into Waverly’s room, leaving her confused in the hallway.
“Don’t you trust Jeremy? And your other servants?” Waverly asked, when Nicole reappeared, seemingly satisfied.
“Oh, of course,” Nicole nodded, brow furrowed as if that was a silly question. “Goodnight Waverly.”
Before Waverly could say another word, Nicole’s door gently closed, blocking the redhead from view and leaving a confused Waverly in the hallway.
Though tempted to knock on Nicole’s bedroom door and demand answers, Waverly turned back to her room before inspiration struck.
None too gently, she closed the door to her room, hoping the sound would carry through the walls and remained in the hallway.
Sure enough, only another minute passed before the door opened again, allowing Nicole to stride purposefully into the hallway, candle still in hand. But she came to a sudden halt with Waverly blocking the hall, the flame on her candle dancing and flickering with the abrupt movements.
“Are you checking the fireplaces again?” Waverly asked, eyes narrowing.
“No I was—“
“Don’t lie to me, Nicole.”
Nicole seemed to visibly deflate, shoulders sagging, “No. I wasn’t.”
“Then, what are you doing?”
Nicole murmured something that in spite of their close proximity Waverly couldn’t hear.
“I was… I was going to check that all the candles were out,” Nicole admitted reluctantly. “I don’t remember if I lit one in the sitting room today.”
“What were you doing before? I’ve heard you go up and down these stairs three times already tonight.”
“I’m sorry I kept you up, I didn’t mean to.”
“That’s okay,” Waverly assured. “But what were you doing?”
Waverly let the silence go for a minute until it was apparent Nicole wasn’t going to answer her.
“How about I go with you?” Waverly asked softly. “We’ll check every single room, if you’d like.”
“You don’t have to do that. Go back to bed.”
“But I want to. You need rest too, Nicole.”
With a reluctant nod, Nicole led her down the stairs.
They went through every room, including the kitchen, ensuring each candle, each used match, and each fireplace were devoid of flame. Waverly couldn’t help but notice how Nicole verbalized aloud, as they moved from room to room, each location that they checked.
Before they returned upstairs, Nicole even did a second look in the sitting room, lingering by the fireplace, before Waverly took her hand and turned her to the stairs, this time articulating it herself.
“Nicole, there isn’t a fire in the sitting room fireplace. The sitting room candles are out.”
Though Nicole didn’t reply, Waverly thought she nodded, if her shadow was any indication as they walked up the stairs, still hand-in-hand; but it might have been a trick of the dim light from their candles.
In the upstairs hallway, Waverly blew out her candle, speaking aloud her action for Nicole.
“I should check the study again,” Nicole said, wide eyes drifting back to the stairs. “Do you need the light to find your way back to bed?”
But Waverly tightened her grip on Nicole’s hand.
“It was okay, Nicole,” Waverly assured. “I looked myself. We both did. It was so dark, we surely would’ve seen the glow, from flame or embers.”
Nicole tensely nodded, but Waverly was certain the second she returned to her room, Nicole would be downstairs again.
“Do you want me to stay with you?” Waverly asked. “Or do you want to stay in the room with me? I can remind you, if you need. Because we checked everywhere, did we not?”
Nicole nodded slowly, “We did. You—you don’t need to, Waverly. It’s okay.”
“I know I don’t need to, but I want to. If you’re okay with it.”
Nicole looked longingly at the stairs, but Waverly gently ran her thumb along the back of Nicole’s hand, drawing her attention back to her.
With a nod, Nicole’s eyes slipped closed, “We checked it.”
“We did,” Waverly confirmed. “Let’s get you into bed, okay?”
Nicole nodded again, eyes opening. Waverly took the candle from Nicole’s hand and gently navigated to Nicole back to her own room. With her feet dragging, Nicole dropped her hand once they crossed the threshold before slipping between the covers of her bed.
“Stay, please?” Nicole murmured, looking over toward the door where Waverly remained.
Nicole slid across the bed, creating space. Waverly set the candle on the nightstand before she crawled into the bed. Feeling Nicole’s eyes on her, Waverly turned and blew out the candle.
She waited until the orange glow of the wick faded to ash before she turned toward Nicole. In the dark it was hard to be confident, but Waverly was sure Nicole was still looking at the wick.
“Hey, they’re all out, okay?” Waverly replied, turning to lie on her side, facing Nicole.
Nicole nodded, hand somehow finding Waverly’s under the covers. In spite of the clamminess of Nicole’s palm, Waverly locked their fingers again, thumb resuming its movements on the back of Nicole’s hand.
“It’s okay,” she soothed. “We checked the study, we checked the sitting room. Didn’t we?”
Nicole nodded, eyes still wide with worry when they slipped closed.
Waverly continued, softly repeating all the rooms they had checked until she heard Nicole’s breathing even out.
Thank you as always to my wonderful beta, @LuckyWantsToKnow, who is subjected to my Sophie Rundle obsession.
If you’re going to be at EHCon this weekend, I’ll be there too! I’m a con newbie, so please say hi and if I look lost or confused, that’s just par for the course. EHCon bound or not, if you want to find me on Twitter: @DubiousOrange17.
Waverly twisted and stretched as she woke. She froze when she opened her eyes; the unfamiliar surroundings serving as an abrupt reminder that she was not alone in this bed.
Except that she was.
With one look at the empty half to her left, she realized Nicole must already be up for the day. With a sigh and another stretch, Waverly pulled back the covers and rolled toward the edge of the bed, spying a note on the end table with Nicole’s tiny handwriting visible. She quickly snatched it and read.
Thank you for your patience last night. I am sincerely sorry for the trouble I caused you and for keeping you up.
I did fetch your clothes for you—they are on the chair by the window—and the water in the basin is clean.
I hope you will join me for breakfast when you wake, so I can apologize more fully in person.
Waverly hastily dressed and made her way downstairs to the dining room. Nicole was there, eyes down and attention consumed by a lengthy letter on the table.
“Good morning,” Waverly called, coming to a halt just inside the door.
“Good morning!” Nicole beamed, a hint of guilt lingering in her eyes. She quickly rose to her feet and closed the distance between them. “Did you sleep okay—after I kept you up that is? I am quite sorry—”
“It’s okay, I didn’t mind. But yes, I slept well,” Waverly paused, before taking Nicole’s hands in her own. “I am rather worried about you though, did you sleep okay?”
Nicole didn’t quite meet her eyes when she nodded, letting one her hands fall from Waverly’s grasp as she led her to the table.
“I did, actually it was the best sleep I’ve had in quite awhile. But there’s nothing to worry about. I’ll have Jeremy get us some fresh tea.”
Waverly allowed Nicole to change the conversation, chatting happily about her evening with Wynonna through breakfast. But when Nicole led her to the sitting room, she broached the subject again.
“Do you do that… every night before bed?”
Waverly linked their fingers after seeing how Nicole tensed at the question. She led her to their bench by the fire and ran her thumb along the back of Nicole’s hand.
“You don’t have to tell me, I was merely curious… and you were right the other day. As hard as it was, admitting how much I missed Curtis, it was better in the end. Once it was out of my head and shared with someone who cares for me.”
Nicole forcibly swallowed and her eyes darted to the fireplace before she nodded. “Did… did Wynonna ever tell you how my parents died?”
Waverly’s insides squirmed with guilt. Though she knew Nicole grew up with her aunt and uncle, she hadn’t even wondered.
“No, she didn’t,” Waverly admitted, tightening her grip on Nicole’s hand.
Turning her back to the fireplace, Nicole twisted to more fully look at Waverly.
“I was just a kid, but there… there was a fire…”
“Oh, Nicole,” Waverly breathed, pulling Nicole’s other hand into her own and locking their fingers.
Nicole shook her head, face twisted while her eyes filled with tears, “It—it’s okay. It was a long time ago. But it burnt down my childhood home. It killed my parents… and all but one of their servants.”
“And that’s why you check everything?”
With her head down, Nicole nodded. In spite of the angle, Waverly was sure she saw at least one tear drip down Nicole’s cheek.
“I… I couldn’t live with myself if something happened to Jeremy or Chrissy or—”
Nicole choked on a sob, overcome with emotion.
Waverly released their hands to pull Nicole closer to her, cradling the redhead in her arms.
Waverly sat in her chair at the table, dinner untouched, as she listened to some trivial conversation between her sister and aunt.
“I assume the whole thing hasn’t been properly addressed?” she finally interjected.
“What thing?” Wynonna asked, fork halfway to her mouth.
"You. Staying out. All night. Without a word.”
“Wynonna has assured me, in the future, she will let us know in advance or send a note,” Gus replied.
“It was only midnight, though wasn’t it?” Mother called.
Wynonna smugly lifted her goblet to her lips.
Waverly rolled her eyes and sighed, “If we knew she was going to be out that late, this would be a much different conversation. For all we knew, you could’ve been beaten up or robbed. Or worse.”
“Beaten up?” Mother chortled.
“Now that you say it,” Wynonna stated, setting her drink back onto the table. “Haught did hit me in the arm last night. I might even have a bruise. Why don’t you go back to Stetson and give her this lecture?”
“She used to come in at all hours,” Mother added. “It’d be a miracle if she was in for breakfast.”
“Perhaps, you’d like to apologize to the servants—at least John Henry—for keeping him up.”
“Actually, I believe you kept him up, Waves. I didn’t ask my servants to wait up.”
“Our servants,” Waverly huffed.
Wynonna sighed, lifting her drink again, “Oh, it’s about that. Of course, it is.”
“It’s about respect for other people—”
But Wynonna cut her off, “Whatever it starts off as, it always comes back to that.”
“No, it doesn’t! Well, why wouldn’t it? Am I supposed to take it lying down, the fact that my sister—you certainly wouldn’t—has cheated me out of what is rightly half mine!”
Wynonna shook her head, focus returning to her food, “It was never half yours. Since dear old daddy left it to Curtis and since our uncle is dead no one will know why he made the decisions with the estate that he did.”
Waverly rolled her eyes, pushing away from the table, “Oh sure. Of course, you don’t. You expect me to believe Curtis didn’t tell you any of this.”
Wynonna looked up, blue eyes wide as she shrugged, “He didn’t. Believe what you want. I’m just as indignant over this whole thing as you are. Do you think I’d rather be here or… anywhere but Purgatory?”
Standing up and flinging her napkin on the table, Waverly huffed, “Right. Sure. I’m going back to Stetson.”
She strode to the kitchen, “Rosita pack my trunk. Robin, if I write a note, can you take it ahead to Miss Haught to let her know I’ll be staying there for a few days. I’ll explain it all better when I get there.”
The next day, Wynonna was halfway to Stetson House before she abruptly turned around, twirling the cane her friend had given her as a parting gift the last time she left Purgatory.
If Waverly wanted away from her, she’d honor her wishes—but she was making it quite challenging by staying with her best friend.
Maybe she’d go visit the Gardners for a few days, until Waverly came around.
She hadn’t taken more than a dozen steps back toward Wyatt Hall when she heard approaching hooves. Wynonna didn’t bother looking back, only directed herself to the side of the road to allow them to pass.
Lost in her own thoughts and weighing what to do about Waverly, Wynonna missed the sound of the horses and a carriage slowing next to her.
Wynonna took one look at the man seated in the open gig next to her before huffing and returning her attention to the road in front of her, picking up her pace.
“Mr. Svane,” she replied stiffly.
“I was just on my way to call for you at Wyatt Hall. I was hoping we might have a word.”
Wynonna came to an abrupt stop, the carriage doing the same, lurching with the suddenness, “What do you want?”
“Easy, Levi,” Mr. Svane scolded his driver, before turning back to Wynonna. “I wanted to see if you had thought any more about our conversation the other day in town. I rather thought you’d be easier to deal with, given Curtis and I had already finalized this deal to lease a portion of your land.”
“There’s nothing except for your word that Curtis had made any deals with you, Svane. You don’t have contracts, you don’t have signatures, frankly, you don’t have squat.”
Robert hopped down from his gig, straightening his overcoat, unnecessarily heavy for the weather.
“You know how your dear uncle liked to operate, Wynonna. Didn’t see all this paperwork and contracts and such to be necessary. He felt the handshake of a man and his word were all the agreement he needed.”
“Forgive me, Svane,” Wynonna spat, not an ounce of apology in her tone, “but you seem to be in quite the position to take advantage of that. But what I do know, is that Curtis said no to your request for Waverly’s hand. Twice. So how many other ‘agreements’ did you push until he said yes?”
Robert smiled, baring his teeth in a way that made Wynonna shiver, instead forcing herself to stand further upright; a fruitless attempt at closing the distance between their mismatch in heights.
“That is true. I did ask to marry Waverly. I might do it again, actually, now that I have a new audience,” he shrugged, as if he were indifferent in the matter; but the way his eyes lit up at Waverly’s name made Wynonna’s stomach churn. “But, if you were to renege on the agreements that were previously made… well… there shall be. Consequences.”
Wynonna glared back at him, but she didn’t like the way he adjusted his coat again or the glimpse she was afforded of the revolver hanging from his belt.
“Are you threatening me?”
“No. I’m merely reminding you that I am not someone to mess with. In case you may have forgotten that during your travels. Say, how is Mr. Dolls?”
Wynonna’s knees buckled, and lungs tightened.
With another smile, and knowing the answer to his own question, Robert tipped his hat in her direction, “Miss Earp, I’ll give you another week to come to your senses, but my patience is waning.”
With a wink, Robert hopped back into his carriage, yelling at Levi to move onward. The wheels and horses kicked up dust, leaving Wynonna speechless on the side of the road.
“Thank you for letting me lie low here for a few days.”
“Of course,” Nicole smiled. “You’re always welcome here. I do mean that.”
It had been quite lovely, having someone else here, for the few days that Waverly had stayed at Stetson House. Normally she was left to rattle around on her own; with Waverly’s packed truck by the entry, she would be again soon.
It wasn’t just Waverly’s company that she was reluctant to give up.
Waverly helped her double check each room each night before they turned in, reminding Nicole that each flame had been put out before her overactive mind could race to check. These past few nights, with Waverly by her side, she had rested better than she had since the fire.
It might not have hurt that they had woke up each morning, increasingly closer and snuggled together, in spite of the respectable distance Nicole ensured that they started with.
Waverly blamed it on how cold she usually got in the night. Nicole, to herself, blamed it on her increasing infatuation with Waverly… and just maybe Waverly was finding some attraction to her?
But she wouldn’t hold her breath on that notion. Far be it the first time she made that mistake.
Nicole shook her head.
“And I hope you know how much I’ve enjoyed your company,” Nicole added, before taking a sip of tea. “I am quite reluctant to let you go.”
“I’ve enjoyed it too,” Waverly sighed. “And a part of me doesn’t want to go back.”
Nicole bit her lip as she placed her teacup back on its saucer. Though Waverly had mentioned a bit of her fight with Wynonna, she felt that she was missing something.
Waverly sat aside her own cup, fidgeting with the front of her dress. “You won’t think too poorly of me, will you? If I’m honest?”
“I would never.”
Waverly rolled her lips before one of her hands found Nicole’s, their fingers automatically linking as they had so often throughout the past few days.
“I just… I never thought that Wyatt Hall would be left to Wynonna outright. I suppose it was naive to be so certain of that, given that I’m a woman… I just thought Curtis knew how much it means to me…”
Waverly sniffed, fighting the tears that filled her eyes.
“...but he made the right decision,” she admitted, voice cracking and tears spilling over.
“Oh Waverly, how could you say that? You don’t believe that, do you?”
Waverly nodded, vision obscured by her own emotion, “I do. Because I think it’s my fault that he’s dead.”
So I maybe didn’t intend to take a week off after EHCon, but I may have (read absolutely did) come back from Canada to a shit storm at work that I may have drowned in that last week… just a little bit… and maybe couldn’t keep my days of the week straight. But I’m back, with a little bit of sanity left.
In better news, I had an absolute blast at EHCon and it was awesome to meet so many amazing people. Including my super patient beta @LuckyWantsToKnow.
And if you’d like to find me on Twitter: @DubiousOrange17
A month after Waverly returned to Wyatt Hall, Wynonna found herself in a booth at the inn, beer in front of her while she absentmindedly shuffled a deck of cards.
“Mr. Svane,” Wynonna replied curtly, not bothering to look up.
“Ah, or would you prefer Mrs. Dolls? Even though you didn’t quite get that far, did you?”
Wynonna tensed, her attention finally shifting to the Robert as he towered over her.
“Might we have a word? In, ah, private?”
To Wynonna’s frustration, Robert eased into the seat across from her, smug smirk on his face as he took off his hat.
“Come now, surely Michelle raised you better than this.”
Wynonna narrowed her eyes, “What is it with you and my mother?”
“She likes me,” Robert grinned with a shrug. “She always has done.”
“Waverly doesn’t,” Wynonna stated baldly. “So I can’t imagine what interest you could have in marrying her?”
“Oh, it’s interesting you bring that up,” Robert leaned in, raising an eyebrow. “I’ve decided, since you do not wish to cooperate with the agreement Curtis and I had, I would like Waverly’s hand.”
“Then I can have the portion of land Curtis agreed to. And all the rest.”
“Isn’t that convenient?” Wynonna rolled her eyes.
“You might wish to think it over, Wynonna,” Robert whispered, leaning closer. “You see, regardless of your word, I will have her. Should you not agree, I’m afraid it might get… messy. With you out of the way, I would have the pleasure of bending Michelle’s ear, and we both know how highly she thinks of me. Now, I don’t want it to come to that. And I know you probably want to continue with your travels to Paris, or Moscow, or Rome, or wherever you go to get your mind off your dead fiance. So, I will be kind enough to give you a fortnight to think it over.”
Robert stood, picking up his hat, smirk firmly in place, “Tick tock.”
“Mother! Aunt!” Wynonna called, closing the front door behind her. Hearing no response, she tried another, “Waverly?!”
After Robert left her in her booth, she hastened home, fearful to let Waverly out of her sight. She strode down the hallway and into the sitting room to find her aunt and mother snoring in front of the fireplace.
“Jesus Christ,” she muttered, running a hand through her hair. “Ma! Gus!”
They woke up simultaneously, with a grunt from Gus and an extra snore from her mother.
“Good morning,” Wynonna smirked, as her mother wiped some drool from her mouth.
“Why are you shouting?” her mother whined, closing her eyes again.
Gus yawned, “She’s likely over at Stetson House.”
“Yes, she’s been over there quite often of late,” Gus sleepily replied. “Morning, noon, and night. I’m sure it does a world of good for Miss Haught.”
“Did you know this?” Wynonna asked, turning toward her mother, who opened one eye.
She shrugged, stifling a yawn of her own, and closed her eyes again, “Took you long enough to notice.”
Wynonna turned on her heel and stormed down the hall and back out the door.
“God damnit Haught.”
Nicole sat back in her seat, freshly poured tea in hand, and eyed the way Waverly’s focus fluttered between her arms and her chest. She hid her smirk behind her teacup as she took a sip.
Surely it wasn’t just her imagination that these glances from Waverly had seemed to linger on, longer and longer since Waverly had stayed at Stetson.
Nicole lowered her cup, catching Waverly’s eyes remaining on her lips.
It was too much to hope that Waverly would bring this up on her own, or be so brazen as to admit her feelings. Cocking her head to the side, Nicole searched for a benign way to test these waters.
“Have you ever kissed anyone?”
Waverly jumped, nearly upending her own teacup in surprise.
“Wh—I—um,” Waverly stammered, shaking her head before sitting her cup aside on its saucer, vision drifting to the floor. “No.”
Nicole eyed Waverly’s shaking hands before softly replying, “Perhaps you wouldn’t tell me if you had.”
“I asked you,” Nicole smiled.
“Good lord,” Waverly laughed shakily. “How did we get onto that?”
Nicole paused, unsure whether or not to push the issue. Though she wouldn’t ever want to put Waverly in an uncomfortable position, she desperately wanted to know if they were on the same page. To know what they were doing—or at least Nicole had to know what she was doing.
Seeing how Waverly’s eyes returned to her lips, she pushed forward.
“Have you never wanted to?”
Waverly shrugged, eyes drifting to the floor once more, “Only to see what it was like.”
“Have you?” Waverly deflected, a nervous smile tugging at her lips as their eyes met.
Waverly nodded, vision sliding to her lips once again.
With a deep breath, Nicole admitted, “Yes.”
With a soft smile, Nicole breathed, “Every time you visit me.”
Nicole could practically hear the wheels in Waverly’s brain churning as her hazel eyes widened, spreading further and further as the realization of Nicole’s words washed over her. Nicole watched as Waverly’s eyes darted between her own and her lips.
“What do you mean?” Waverly breathed.
Nicole paused, she knew Waverly had followed but was unsure what sort of confirmation she needed. She leaned closer before gently reaching across the space between them, thumb barely grazing Waverly’s parted lips.
“Surely you know what I mean,” Nicole murmured, pulling her hand back, allowing her pinky to brush against Waverly’s cheek. “And I think you feel the same way about me.”
Waverly leaned forward subtly, seemingly unwilling to allow Nicole to break the connection between them.
The clock ticked softly, filling the silence between them as Waverly’s jaw continued to drop. Seeing nothing but softness in Waverly’s eyes, Nicole rolled her lips before continuing.
“I think you’re a little bit in love with me.”
Nicole’s stomach twisted, fearful she pushed too far, as she watched Waverly’s lips open and close without a sound.
“Are you alright?” Nicole asked, worried as she leaned back.
Waverly rolled her lips inward before nodding.
Concern growing, Nicole added, “Have I overstepped the mark?”
“No,” Waverly answered immediately, her firm tone bolstered by a small shake of her head.
But the lack of substantial response from Waverly did little to settle the anxiety brewing in Nicole, “I’ve offended you.”
“I’ve embarrassed you.”
Waverly’s eyes closed, “No, no, no.”
“I have,” Nicole admitted, turning away from Waverly and shaking her head as Waverly’s repeated “no”s echoed in her ears. “I’m so sorry, I—”
“No, Nicole,” Waverly interjected, hand finding Nicole’s wrist. “You… you haven’t misread it. I—I do have… very warm and… tender feelings for you.”
It wasn’t just the words, but the way Waverly’s face softened, eyes crinkling as she smiled at the admission, for hope to chase away the nerves that surged through Nicole. Tears leaked from the corner of Waverly’s eyes, and when Nicole reached for Waverly’s hands, she found them shaking.
“You don’t need to be frightened.”
Waverly shook her head, seemingly to not trust her voice.
Nicole shifted closing any space between her and Waverly before gently wiping the tears from Waverly’s eyes, “What are you scared of?”
Nicole’s hand trailed down Waverly’s cheek as she waited for an answer.
Waverly’s mouth opened, but they were interrupted by heavy footsteps approaching the closed door. Nicole was startled by Jeremy’s voice echoing through the empty house.
“Miss Earp! Excuse me, Miss Earp!”
“Back off, Chetri!”
Nicole sprung back at the sound of the door being wrenched open, putting space between her and Waverly. She missed the comfort of Waverly’s slightly cool skin beneath her fingertips but swallowed her selfish feelings as she shifted her attention to their unexpected intruder.
Nicole felt her cheeks burn under Wynonna’s gaze, her narrowed eyes darting between Nicole and Waverly on the bench.
“Did I interrupt something?”
“No,” Nicole lied.
Wynonna’s wild blue eyes locked on her, betrayal etched in every feature.
“Oh for heaven’s sake!” Waverly snapped, hand wiping at her eyes. “She was comforting me. I was upset.”
Wynonna quirked an eyebrow as she turned to her sister, “Comforting? Looked closer to courting to me.”
Wynonna rolled her eyes, looking around the room and tapping her foot before locking eyes on Waverly again. “That’s what it is, isn’t it? When you’ve been coming over here to tea, Waves?”
Nicole sighed, “Wynonna—”
“No,” Wynonna interjected, pointing a single finger at Nicole. “I thought you had limits.”
“Limits?” Nicole snarled. “What is that supposed to mean?”
She felt a small hand on her chest and didn’t realize until blinked the source into focus that she had risen and was hastily closing the distance between herself and Wynonna. Had Waverly not interfered they would probably be standing boot-to-boot.
“Waverly, wait in the entry. I’ll have a word with Nicole then we will return home,” Wynonna ordered.
“No! I’m not leaving you two to do... God-knows-what.”
Wynonna pursed her lips before pushing past Nicole to grab the bell on the end table, ringing it before Nicole snatched it from her hand. No sooner had Nicole returned it to its place on the table than Jeremy skidded into the open door frame, grasping the edges to remain upright.
“Mr. Chetri, please escort my sister downstairs and have Henry ready the horses. We’ll be heading back to Wyatt Hall shortly.”
“Oh, um. Yes,” Jeremy stammered clearly unsure whether to accept the order or not.
Nicole gave him a subtle nod in affirmation. Her heart broke at the crestfallen look on Waverly’s face when it didn’t go unnoticed.
“Yes! Absolutely, Miss Earp. I shall alert him!” Jeremy replied, eyes lighting up about his orders. “After you Miss Earp,” he bowed in Waverly’s direction, failing to hide the giddiness on his face.
Nicole felt like she had been kicked in the stomach as she watched Waverly go, snatching her bonnet off the bench. As she walked away, her shoulders were slumped, hand still swiping at her streaming eyes, and left without another glance in Nicole’s direction.
When the door clicked closed, Wynonna rounded on Nicole.
“I thought you of all people would know better than to bring her into your…” Wynonna trailed off, hands gesturing wildly.
Nicole took a step closer, “Into my what, Wynonna?”
“Are you going to make me say it?” Wynonna spat.
“Absolutely. Because I don’t know what you’re insinuating?”
“That you’re skilled in loosening unsuspecting corsets and it would be in your best interest to keep your hands off my sister’s.”
Nicole took a step back, shaking her head. “It’s convenient, you’ve never given a damn about that, but when it just might be your sister—and it’s not —” Nicole fought the hopeful “yet” that echoed in her mind and caused her heart to clench. “—everything changes. Some kind of friend you are.”
“It’s far more complicated than that, and you know it.”
“No. I don’t. Because of all people, you know the bullshit I put up with… from everyone.”
“Maybe, just maybe, you could consider that I’m trying to save your idiotic ass. Curtis was murdered for turning down marriage requests for Waverly. You might as well start digging your own grave next to his if you two continue on like this. Or did it occur to you what might happen to her?”
“Oh, that’s rich,” Nicole laughed hollowly. “It’s about Waverly. And since when do you give a damn about her, Wynonna? You leave her here time and time again to run away from your own shit. She doesn’t have the faintest clue why, and you don’t even bother to write.”
Wynonna’s eyes flashed, “Don’t talk about what you don’t know.”
“I know plenty,” Nicole snarled, taking another step back. “But it’s good to know your loyalty has limits, Earp.”
With shaking hands, she picked up the bell and turned on her heel. She rang it once as she strode to the door, nearly hitting Jeremy on the other side with the abruptness in which she opened it.
“See her out Jeremy,” Nicole nodded curtly before hurrying to her room with the bell still in hand.
“Waverly, what are you doing?” her sister called out the window as the carriage drew even with her.
Waverly rolled her eyes before she turned away and continued walking down the road. “Being alone. I wanna be alone.”
After her ignominious ejection from Nicole’s house, Waverly had stormed away, not bothering to wait for her sister as Wynonna’s and Nicole’s loud voices echoed after her. The idea of being trapped in a carriage with her sister made her blood boil.
Her hands balled in frustration, knowing that she didn’t truly want to be alone. She wanted to be back at Stetson House with Nicole.
Waverly had been so, so close to admitting her infatuation with Nicole, and it would be a miracle if Wynonna made it back to Wyatt Hall without Waverly throttling her in the close confines of the carriage.
“Why? It’s all dusty.” Though her eyes were fixed straight ahead, Waverly imagined her sister’s nose scrunched up at the idea. “Just get in the chaise.”
“No, thank you.”
Out of the corner of her eye, Waverly saw Wynonna throw up her hands in frustration before poking her head further out the window, “Fine. I give up. Henry, can you talk some sense into my stubborn sister?”
The carriage slowed enough for Waverly to draw even with the front, where John Henry sat.
“Miss Earp, don’t you want to ride—”
But with one stern look, she cut him off.
“My apologies, ma’am. Should you change your mind, I will bring this carriage to a halt… and will persuade your sister into riding up here with me, should you prefer solitude.”
Waverly nodded, taking a deep breath and forcing her frustration with her sister aside, for John Henry’s sake.
“Thank you, Henry. I do appreciate it.”
And she truly did, but she stubbornly walked the rest of the way back to Wyatt Hall.
Only a few minutes had passed before Wynonna impatiently took the reins of their carriage and unceremoniously kicked John Henry out to escort Waverly the rest of the way.
It felt like babysitting, and it did little to subdue Waverly’s temper. Because who did her sister think she was? She had been back in Purgatory all of five minutes, but here Wynonna was interfering in her life as if Waverly was a child and oblivious to what was in her own best interest.
When she and Henry finally made it back, she stomped into the house. She tore her bonnet from her head as she bolted to the stairs, thankful her sister wasn’t in sight.
But she had only pushed open the door to her room when she saw Wynonna, spread across her bed, head resting at the foot, with her dirty boots propped up on Waverly’s favorite pillow.
“Get out,” Waverly huffed, gesturing to the open door.
“Are you doing this to get back at me?” Wynonna asked, eyes locked on the canopy of the bed.
Waverly slammed the door shut before turning toward her sister, “Oh yes, because it’s all about you, isn’t it Wynonna?”
Wynonna’s head quickly turned in her direction, eyes narrowed, “What?”
“Nevermind,” Waverly sighed, crossing her arms.
Her sister rolled her eyes, twisting back to her original position. “Just… if you’re mad or upset or whatever at me, take it out on me. Not Haught.”
“I may not always have the highest opinion of you, Wynonna, but do you really think I’d do that?” Waverly replied, reluctantly closing the distance between herself and the bed.
Wynonna shrugged, mumbling.
Waverly sighed again sitting on the bed to toe off her shoes and then leaning back to lie next to her sister, “Shockingly, I didn’t hear that.”
“I don’t know what you would do. I don’t… or it seems like I barely know you at all.”
“You left. Twice.”
Waverly tried to keep the accusation from her voice, but it seeped in despite her best efforts; it was hardly her fault Wynonna didn’t know her. She turned onto her side facing Wynonna, tucking her hands under her head.
“I’m sorry I didn’t write,” Waverly admitted, softening her voice.
“I’m sorry I didn’t either... but something else is going on? Something unrelated to all that? Isn’t there?”
Waverly shook her head, ignoring the ache in her chest.
“Wave, it’s okay to just be honest,” her sister continued, turning toward her as she rolled her eyes. “For once.”
“Fine…” Waverly trailed off, not knowing where to begin. “I spent years watching daddy and then Curtis’s every move, every decision when it came to the estate. Curtis even encouraged it. He’d invite me into business conversations, in spite of the way the other men scoffed at my presence. And Curtis valued my input on decisions... I thought, or I assumed rather, that he would leave the estate to me… “ Waverly rolled onto her back, trying to fight the tears that were filling her eyes, “... because you haven’t even been here for years and it’s never meant a thing to you, but it’s all yours. You’ve always been the special one, going to school and then traveling… while I just got to be Waverly.”
“Who everybody loves because you’re so wonderful… and I think Nicole really likes you too.”
Waverly scoffed, shaking her head as she replayed her glimpse Nicole’s nod of encouragement to Jeremy to escort her out of the sitting room earlier. The immediate dismissal, not even to her own face, stung as if without any admission of reciprocal feelings from Waverly, Nicole was pushing her out of her life.
“Don’t worry, I didn’t ruin your chances,” Wynonna added, awkwardly slapping at her shoulder. “We’ll talk about that later… but you could do a lot worse, baby girl. If she’s what you want.”
The tears Waverly had been fighting finally escaped at the old nickname, she nodded, not trusting her voice to say anything else.
“But this is our home. What makes you think I can do this, run this place, without you?” Wynonna abruptly sat up, swinging her legs off the bed. “So, what do you know about Curtis’s business with Robert Svane?”
Wynonna pulled on the bell outside Stetson House. After it rang twice, she tugged off her gloves while she waited for Jeremy.
Through the window panes, she could see his startled reaction as he approached.
“Oh, Miss Earp! Um—”
Wynonna cut off his stammering, “Is Miss Haught in?”
“Well, yes… but now is not the best time…”
The worry in Jeremy’s eyes made Wynonna’s stomach churn. She pulled her hat from her head as she stepped inside, Jeremy willingly moving aside, “What's happened? Is she checking under the furniture for matches again?”
“No, not today. She’s, um, well, I’d tell you to see for yourself but she explicitly told me to bar you from the premises until further notice.”
“Where is she?” Wynonna asked, shoving her hat, gloves, and cane in Jeremy’s direction. “I won’t stay if she doesn’t want me to.”
Jeremy was clearly torn between his orders and his concern for whatever state Nicole was in, stammering and stuttering as he anxiously shifted his weight from one foot to the other.
“Look,” Wynonna huffed, “you know that I know how to talk her down from this nonsense. And clearly whatever you tried hasn’t worked, which is why you’re so worried.”
Jeremy nodded slowly.
“Where is she, Chetri?”
“The sitting room, ma’am,” Jeremy nodded in the direction of the room.
Wynonna marched down the hallway, hurrying to the door.
“Miss Earp,” Jeremy called after her.
Wynonna paused, turning just before the entry.
“Do let me know if I can help,” he nodded sheepishly, hands twisting nervously around Wynonna’s belongings.
“I will,” Wynonna nodded. “She’ll be okay, Jeremy. She always is in the end.”
He smiled nervously, before turning away. With a deep inhale, Wynonna faced the door, anxious for what might be revealed on the other side. With a firm turn, she tugged it open and stepped inside.
Nicole wasn’t immediately in sight, not in her usual chair next to the fireplace, which Wynonna noted wasn’t lit. Eyes scanning the room slowly, she found her friend at the top of a ladder next to the floor to ceiling windows that looked out onto the front of the estate. With a dirty rag in hand, Nicole was barefoot, dressed in trousers and a stained nightshirt. Her hair was wild and unruly, sticking up in all directions.
Shutting the door behind her, Wynonna cleared her throat to announce her presence, not wanting to startle Nicole.
But focused on her task at hand, running her rag along the track of the windows, Nicole didn’t hear her. Wynonna crossed the room until she was at the base of the ladder. But her friend still didn’t notice her presence. With a sigh, Wynonna grabbed the ladder.
Wynonna cleared her throat again, louder than before. The ladder shifted with Nicole’s surprise, and Wynonna tightened her grip.
Nicole twisted dangerously from her position as she looked down, seeming startled that she wasn’t alone. Wynonna frowned at the bags under Nicole’s eyes, evidence that her friend likely hadn’t slept in the three days since Wynonna was last here.
“What are you doing?” Wynonna asked, genuinely unsure why her friend was up a ladder.
Nicole shook her head, returning to the task at hand, before she grunted, “Checking the windows. That they unlock easily. And that they don’t get stuck.”
“Couldn’t one of your servants do this?”
“Well, one was told not to let you in, so I’m not sure,” Nicole huffed, running her grease rag along the windows track.
“Fine, come down from the ladder and I’ll leave.”
Nicole snorted, “Yeah, I’m sure you will.”
“I will, I’ll even send Waverly over here instead.”
Nicole’s arm slipped, rag bouncing off the window and leaving a dirty smudge in its place.
“How is she?” Nicole asked, eyes wide as she shifted, precariously leaning over the side of the ladder to look down at Wynonna.
Wynonna tightened her grip as the ladder swayed, feeling a splinter break her skin.
“Come down, and I’ll tell you.”
With a frustrated huff, Nicole tucked her rag into her pocket before backing down the ladder, jumping the last two steps.
“How is she?” Nicole repeated, rubbing her neck.
Wynonna eyed the dirty smears that were left behind, before turning and plopping down on a chair.
“Clean up first.”
“Wynonna,” Nicole growled.
“Nope,” Wynonna shrugged, making herself comfortable. “You’re going to go wash. I’m going to have Jeremy clean up that smudge you made and then put away the ladder. Then we’ll have a nice chat.”
Nicole swelled, an argument quickly on her lips, “But—“
“No ‘buts’ Nicole,” Wynonna sighed. “You took care of the lowest windows already, did you not?”
Nicole nodded apprehensively.
“Good. If there was a fire, unless you expect to run, grab a ladder, and then climb up and out one of the upper windows, why do those matter?”
Her friend seemed to deflate, the rationality in Wynonna’s argument winning out. Nicole eyed the mark she made on the window and cursed.
“Let me clean that first. It’s my fault, Jeremy shouldn’t have to—“
“Come on, Haught, you’re dead on your feet. I don’t want to have to break your fall off that ladder.”
“Okay,” Nicole mumbled, turning toward the door.
“Good!” Wynonna grinned smugly from her spot.
Nearly an hour later, Nicole made her way back to the sitting room, hair down and still damp from her bath. She had nearly fallen asleep in the water and wanted nothing more than to crawl into bed, but her worry over Waverly prevented her from kicking Wynonna out.
She glanced at the window, stomach twisting guiltily as she noticed both the smudge and ladder were gone. Even the indents in the carpet from the ladder’s legs had disappeared.
Tired feet dragging, she practically collapsed onto the bench across from Wynonna, eyes closing as she braced herself. Through the lump in her throat, she could only manage one word.
“She’s fine,” Wynonna replied, but her tone forced Nicole to pry one of her eyes open.
“She’s worried about you, you ass. And thinks you hate her. You owe me for the mood I’ve put up with from her the past few days.”
Nicole recoiled, tired eyes suddenly wide, “Owe you?! You started all this nonsense.”
Wynonna lifted both her hands, palms out, “Okay, maybe not the best choice of words.”
Rolling her eyes, Nicole felt sick with the knowledge that Waverly thought she hated her. Her eyes slipped closed again, and she leaned further into the cushioned seat. Her heart broke as the image of Waverly, disappointment evident in her body language, from her eyes and frown to the way she seemed to fold in on herself, walking out of her sitting room days ago.
I could walk back to Wyatt with Wynonna and apologize, she thought. But what if she doesn’t want to see me? What if she hates me for—
“I’m sorry,” Wynonna huffed, interrupting her thoughts. “I shouldn’t have acted the way I did… it’s just—it’sWaverly, you know? I’m allowed to be overprotective when it comes to her.”
Nicole didn’t have the energy to open her eyes as she processed Wynonna’s words, but she guessed that if she were to see Wynonna, her friend would have her arms crossed stubbornly across her chest, lips pursed to the side.
“Are you now?” Nicole sighed, hand coming to her forehead. Her fingers rubbed at a spot above her right eye.
Wynonna whined, “Yes, and I know she doesn’t like it, and I have been gone too long to have earned that right but… she’s my baby girl. And I’d die if anything happened to her.”
Nicole forced her eyes open at the sincerity in the last sentence. In spite of the past few years, Nicole remembered when they were in school, how fondly Wynonna spoke of her sister and how terribly she missed her. But even in the time that had passed, there were still moments when that endearment and love cracked through the tough facade Wynonna maintained.
“I’d never hurt her, Wynonna,” Nicole murmured. “You know that. And you know this is different… I care about her. Surely if you don’t trust me, you trust Waverly’s hea—” Nicole’s throat tightened; even if Waverly’s heart had held her in that regard, she may have ruined it all entirely, “...her instincts.”
With a deep breath, Wynonna nodded reluctantly, “I do. But I meant it that you need to be careful too. I know you’re discreet but ...”
Wynonna trailed off, and Nicole sat up straighter, forcing her exhausted mind to concentrate.
”How close are you with the Svanes? With Robert specifically?”
Nicole shook her head, trying to understand where this was going, “Not very. Not since my uncle died. He came ‘round to visit him and my aunt on occasion.”
She watched as Wynonna seemed to gather herself, her friend rolling her lips, “He wants to marry Waverly… and I’m certain he killed Curtis.”
Nicole groaned, scratching out her third attempt at a letter to Waverly and tossing her pen aside, not caring about the drops of ink that fell from the tip across one of her previous failed attempts.
Her exhausted mind was reeling, attempting to make logic of everything Wynonna had revealed.
Crumbling her paper and throwing it aside, Nicole pulled another closer. She reached back for her pen but paused, arm suspended above her desk. Rolling her lips, she let it fall to the table, mind racing from memories of playing cards with Dolls, and Wynonna’s grief when he passed, to hearing Curtis roughly brush aside questions about his business with Robert Svane. But Robert asking for Waverly’s hand and his threat to Wynonna made her empty stomach roll.
Focus on Waverly, she thought, shaking her head.
Finally picking up her pen, she hastily dropped it into her ink and scrawled across the page.
I am so terribly sorry for how you left here last. Seeing how I so thoroughly disappointed you, I have been in a host of miseries since we last saw one another.
I know this is no substitute for my presence—and I have much more to say. But I’ll call at Wyatt Hall tomorrow to attempt to make amends for what I fear I’ve ruined entirely.
Sincerely and affectionately,
Wynonna impatiently rapped on her study door as Nicole signed her name.
“How long does it take to write a letter?” Wynonna moaned.
Sighing, Nicole hastily folded and closed her note before getting to her feet. She jumped back as the door opened, nearly hitting her as she approached.
“Sorry,” Wynonna grimaced. “Thought you might have fallen asleep.”
Nicole held out her letter before abruptly pulling it back, Wynonna snatching at the air between them.
“I need to see her, I’m coming along.”
Nicole grimaced at the whine in her voice, fighting to keep her eyes open.
“I’m not carrying you there, Haught,” Wynonna stated, but Nicole didn’t miss the note of sympathy in her voice. “Get some sleep, come over tomorrow, and we’ll figure this out, together. All three of us.”
“B—But—“ Nicole yawned.
Wynonna plucked the letter from her hand, “REST. We’re going to need you at full strength.”
Nicole nodded reluctantly, rubbing her eyes, “I’ll be there first thing.”
Wynonna pursed her lips before asking, “Does… does she know?”
“Does who know?”
Wynonna waved the letter, “Waverly. Does she know about… why… “ Wynonna sighed. “Why I never know if I’m going to come here and find you greasing windows, or on your hands and knees checking under the rugs for matches?”
Nicole wrung her hands, “She does… sort of.”
Wynonna frowned, “It’s gotten worse… hasn’t it? Since I was in Purgatory last?”
Nicole nodded, vision drifting to the floor, “Yes. I… I don’t understand it… it’s as if the more time that passes the worse it gets. And… I hate it but the more I fight it the worse it gets.”
“It’s okay, we’ll figure it out,” Wynonna wrapped an arm around her shoulders, steering her toward the stairs. “But if you’re serious about this, with Waverly, she deserves to know it all.”
With a sigh, Nicole reached for the banister, turning back to her friend, “I know. Thanks, Wyn. And tell her… that I…”
She swallowed the lump in her throat, failing to finish her sentence, but Wynonna nodded regardless before she turned away.
Wynonna called over her shoulder, “I missed ya. Chetri, if she doesn’t go to bed, come chase me down. I’ll hogtie her if I have to.”
Nicole sighed, turning in her half-asleep state. The pillow remolded, soft material cradling her head like a cloud. She smiled into it, inhaling deeply before she drifted back to sleep.
She froze at a soft, muffled giggle next to her.
Pulling her eyes open, her vision was filled with Waverly, hazel eyes dancing, and a blanket pulled up to cover her mouth.
“I’m sorry,” Waverly grinned, letting the blanket fall to reveal that she was still in her day clothes, a green dress that Nicole may have admitted was her favorite. “You’re adorable when you sleep.”
“You’re here… “ Nicole trailed off, brain sluggish as it woke.
“I am,” Waverly smiled, eyes crinkling. “I got your letter and couldn’t bear the idea of you waking up alone, still in a ‘host of miseries.’ So I made Wynonna come back with me.”
“Wynonna’s here?” Nicole sat up slightly, peering around her bedroom.
“No, she’s downstairs.” Nicole fell back into the pillows to see Waverly roll her eyes before adding, “Probably trying to coax poor Chrissy into baking.”
“Sounds fitting. Shall we go to Chrissy’s aid?”
“In a minute. I was… hoping we might clear something up first.”
“Okay…” Nicole trailed off, shifting to sit upright. “And what might that—oof!”
Waverly had surged forward, lips meeting her own with enough force to knock Nicole soundly into the pillows once more. Her lips moved seamlessly against Waverly’s, heart swelling. Automatically, Nicole’s arm had wrapped itself around Waverly’s waist, gently pulling her closer. Only once they were pressed firmly front to front did Waverly pull back.
“Do you still fear you’ve ruined everything?” Waverly teased.
Nicole apprehensively ran the tips of her fingers across her lips, half worried she was still asleep and this was all a dream. “If this is a one-time thing, then maybe?”
Waverly rolled her eyes before leaning in and soundly kissing her once more.
Nearly an hour later, Wynonna paced back and forth across Nicole’s sitting room while Waverly and Nicole sat cozily on the bench. The pair had only, finally, descended from Nicole’s bedroom a quarter of an hour ago, and Wynonna finally brought her sister up to speed on the latest marriage request… and maybe some things she should’ve told Waverly long ago.
“Let me get this straight,” Waverly began, brow furrowed, “Dolls was going to marry you?!”
“Did you miss this whole ‘fortnight to live’ nonsense?” Wynonna huffed.
Her sister rolled her eyes, “Of course not, but it’s all important. More so than you realize.”
That stopped Wynonna in her tracks, “What do you mean?”
“Answer my question first.”
Wynonna tapped her foot impatiently, looking to her friend for guidance. With a sad smile, Nicole nodded, encouraging her on.
“Yes,” she admitted reluctantly, resuming her movement. “But the day before he was set to ask Curtis, he died in a freak accident during military training… But I’d wager Wyatt Hall that Robert was behind it given the way he’s teased me, tormented me with it since.”
The crease in Waverly’s forehead deepened, “Did Robert show any interest in you?”
“Wait, you said you’d—“
Her sister waved her off, “It’s relevant, I promise.”
Wynonna fidgeted with her pocket watch before answering, “After I got kicked out of school, he sought me out… a couple times. Mother invited him to tea once too. But the interest was never returned. And then I met Dolls… “ Wynonna swallowed the lump in her throat, hastily tucking her watch away as she focused on Waverly. “What does this have to do with anything?”
Waverly spoke slowly, almost tentatively, “What do you know about the state of the estate when father died?”
Wynonna halted, “Nothing. How would you know? You were only… four?”
Waverly nodded, “But Curtis filled me in. Daddy had taken out a loan with Robert to cover debts on the estate and offered Willa as collateral.”
Nicole swore and mumbled, “How old is that guy?”
Waverly nodded again solemnly, “Curtis said Robert must’ve been more interested in Willa than collecting his money because he didn’t bother to add a clause or stipulation in the event of her death. So when both father and Willa died in that carriage accident, Wyatt Hall became Curtis’s. It took him years, but he was able to pay off the loan to keep Robert off his back. I guarantee Robert thought he could marry you to get the land he feels was meant to be his.”
“So, he killed Dolls to keep his chances alive with Waverly?” Nicole asked. “Because he knew if Wynonna married, her husband would be next in line for the estate after Curtis died.”
“I believe so,” Waverly grimaced. “I know you’re tempted to not take Robert’s threat seriously, but we must and we must figure out a plan. How do we keep you alive?”
Wynonna started pacing again and heard Nicole chime in softly once more.
“How do we keep both of you safe?”
They talked in circles through dinner, trying and failing to form any sort of plan. They only finally called it a night when Wynonna made her way back to Wyatt Hall before nightfall.
Nicole found herself back in the sitting room, absentmindedly staring into the flames dancing in the fireplace with Waverly pressed against her side. Their hands were entwined between them, and Nicole ran her thumb across the back of Waverly’s knuckles. The soothing action did little to calm her nerves. Nicole’s pulse flickered just as rapidly as the flames as she searched for how to broach the one subject she nearly always avoided.
“I’m exhausted,” Waverly sighed, leaning further into Nicole. “Shall I put out the fire and we go to bed?”
Nicole licked her lips, sitting more upright, “In a minute. I need… I need to tell you something.”
Waverly turned, fire reflected in her hazel eyes as they searched Nicole’s. “What is it?”
“I… I told you about how my parents died?”
Waverly nodded, squeezing her hand.
Nicole cleared her throat, attempting to clear the shake from her voice but failing, “I have… I have only ever told Wynonna this but… “ she trailed off before whispering, “I think I started the fire.”
“What do you mean?” Waverly asked, eyes wide.
“I—I should’ve been in bed, but I snuck into my father’s study. A few days before, I had been in there with him and a book caught my eye, but he said I was too young to read it. It was dark, so I lit a candle to find the book and—and…”
Nicole didn’t realize she was crying until she choked on a sob, hot tears tracking down her cheeks. She saw Waverly’s lips move but whatever it was that she said didn’t reach Nicole’s ears. She shook her head, drawing a deep breath before continuing.
“I don’t remember blowing it out. I don’t remember what I did with the match. If I put that out or did something else with it or dropped it somewhere. It could never be determined where the fire started, only that it was on that side of the house. I just… I’ll never know if it was me… if it’s my fault that they’re dead.”
Nicole moved willingly as Waverly tugged her into her arms. She gave in, one of the few moments where she allowed herself to collapse under the burden of her guilt and grief, each an ever-present weight on her each of her shoulders.
She wasn’t sure how much time had passed while she cried before she realized she must surely be crushing Waverly. As she shifted to move away, Waverly held her in place, a gentle hand running through the back of her hair and down to her back.
“Oh darling,” Waverly whispered, “shhh, it’s okay. You’re okay. You were just a child, Nicole…”
Nicole grimaced, sniffling as she wiped at her nose with the back of her hand, “I still should have known better.”
“How old were you?”
“Six,” Nicole sighed, sitting up. Waverly’s arm slid from her back, but Waverly slid closer, wrapping it around her shoulders instead. “Old enough to know better.”
Waverly pursed her lips, “Maybe. But I know you, Nicole. You are anything but careless.”
Nicole shrugged, impatiently wiping at the tears sliding down her cheek, “You… you don’t think too ill of me, do you?”
“Ill of you? I don’t think I ever could.”
“But it’s all my fault.”
“And you punish yourself each and every day for what may or may not have happened. You’ll never, ever know for certain Nicole. But I trust you even if you don’t yourself.”
Waverly leaned in closer, lips brushing her cheek as her hand slid through Nicole’s hair again. She felt strands come loose from her tight curls and turned to connect their lips before Waverly could pull away.
Waverly watched as her sister stared off, forefinger impatiently tapping on her goblet and dinner untouched.
“If you don’t want me to go, I won’t,” Waverly said, breaking the tense silence and then dabbing at her lips with her napkin.
Wynonna’s tapping faltering, only momentarily while she nodded, “No, go.”
“Are you… “ Waverly trailed off, biting her lip.
It was the day before Robert’s deadline, and there was so much more Waverly wanted to say or ask but didn’t dare in front of her mother and aunt.
Though her, Wynonna, and Nicole had spent nearly every waking moment plotting, minus a few well-deserved breaks for Waverly and Nicole in the privacy of Nicole’s bedroom, they still hadn’t come to any conclusions on how to act. The anxiety had reached a boiling point in just the past 48 hours as their time grew more desperate.
Waverly was certain her sister’s mind was racing, grasping for any straw of a plan she might be able to concoct.
“... are you sure?”
Her sister forced a smile, finally bringing her goblet to her lips before replying, “Absolutely. Send Haught my well wishes.”
Waverly stretched in Nicole’s arms, turning to face her. She snuggled in closer, inhaling deeply.
But she froze at the faint traces of a particular smell she breathed in.
She wrenched her eyes open, pulling her face back from Nicole to tentatively sniff the air.
She sat up, hastily shaking Nicole’s arm.
“Nic. Nicole,” she hissed.
Nicole groaned, rubbing a hand across her face as Waverly swung her legs out of bed. Once on her feet, Waverly paused, watching Nicole slowly wake up but fearful of how Nicole would react if she dared mention the smell lingering in the air.
Biting her lip, she sharply poked Nicole’s forearm, “Nicole, I think I smell smoke.”
Nicole’s reaction was worse than Waverly anticipated. She watched helplessly, as Nicole scrambled to rise from the bed, feet tangling in the sheets. In her haste to free herself, Nicole flailed violently, crashing off the side of the bed.
Gasping, Waverly ran to the opposite side of the bed to see Nicole, still tangled in the bedding, nose in the air like a dog searching for a scent.
“I smell it too,” Nicole gasped, eyes wide. “But we checked, Waverly, we checked every room.”
“I know, I know, but we need to go,” Waverly pleaded, reaching for Nicole’s hand.
Nicole hurried to her feet, kicking the sheets aside and pulled her to the door.
In spite of the time of night, the hallway was illuminated by a flickering orange glow carrying up the stairs, with a thick cloud of smoke hanging above.
“Cover your mouth and nose,” Nicole ordered, doing as she instructed with the neck of her nightshirt. “And stay low, below the smoke.”
Waverly nodded, pulling up the top of her nightshirt, and squeezing Nicole’s hand.
Hunched over, Nicole led them down the hall, and they descended to the lower level, the ominous crackling of the fire growing with each step. The heat from the blaze licked at Waverly’s skin, sweat breaking out on her forehead before they reached the landing.
“Get out!” Nicole yelled, nodding toward the front door.
“I’m not leaving without you!”
“Go! I’ll wake the servants and be right behind you!”
Though her stomach twisted guiltily as she thought of Chrissy and Jeremy, Waverly pulled Nicole along toward the door.
Nicole reached around her, shoving the door open, “Get away from the house! I’ll be right back.”
Before Waverly could protest, Nicole turned, rushing back into the flames. Waverly tentatively stepped backward, the cool night air soothing her flushed skin. She backed away, a shaking hand lowering the neck of her nightgown before she collided with something solid.
She turned quickly, to see Henry behind her and a panicked Randall at his side.
“Miss Earp, are you okay? Where’s Miss Haught?”
“She went back in… “
Randall pushed past them, hurrying into the flames.
Henry gently steered Waverly away from the house, flames glowing in the windows, shedding his jacket, “Let’s get you back, away from the danger.”
Waverly shook her head, tears obscuring her vision, as Henry led her back from the blaze.
“Shouldn’t someone ride into town? For help?” Waverly asked.
“Fish already did, he should be back with support at any moment. Other outdoor servants are readying water,”
“Can you help them?”
“Yes, ma’am, I wanted to ensure your safety first.”
Henry turned, running off into the dark while Waverly waited, eyes locked on the door as the minutes ticked by.
There was a flurry of movement and shouting around her while she coughed, but Waverly was oblivious to all but the door and the band of worry tightening around her lungs with every passing second.
Finally, she saw movement in the entry. As portions around them crumbled, two people stumbled out, each hunched over and straining as they dragged something behind each of them.
Waverly cried in relief as the fire illuminated Nicole’s red hair, and she hurried closer. The flickering flames illuminated two people on the ground that Nicole and Nedley pulled further from the blaze. As Waverly approached, one of the figures on the ground stirred.
But her happiness was cut short by a painful bellow of grief that cut through the night from the man next to Nicole.
It’s been a long, weird, and all-around draining week and if it weren’t for Earpers/this community, I don’t know where I’d be. If you’re reading this, seriously, thank you so much. It’s still crazy to me that anyone wants to read anything I’m throwing out into the world.
Nicole’s hands shook around her cup of tea.
The sun was still low in the sky and had only just peeked across the horizon when Henry drove her and Waverly back to Wyatt Hall.
She found herself sitting to the side of the room in Wynonna’s study. Henry, Fish, and Randall stood in front of the desk facing Wynonna.
“You’re certain?” Wynonna asked, attention rapt. “Certain it was Robert Svane you saw leaving Stetson House?”
“Absolutely,” Henry nodded. “Hard to miss a carriage like that. Nedley and I heard a commotion and went to investigate. When we did, we saw the carriage rushing away from the estate and flames in the windows.”
Fish nodded in agreement too, fidgeting with his hat, “I used to work for the Svanes, ma’am, I’d recognize his servant Levi anywhere, even in the dead of night. He’s a, er, friend of mine and I passed them on the road into town when I was riding for help.”
Wynonna looked over at Nicole, “Is that true? He used to work for the Svanes?”
Nicole nodded numbly, fighting a cough.
Her lungs still burned from her time in the smoke, and the skin on her hand was hot and marred beneath the cold, wet cloth covering it, from reaching into the flames to pull out her servant. But that little pain paled in comparison to the grief that was thick in her throat and heavy behind her eyes.
“You didn’t think that information could have been beneficial before?” Wynonna glared at her.
“It didn’t occur to me,” Nicole rasped, shaking her head.
She couldn’t believe she hadn’t. Bile crept up her throat, because if she had thought of it then maybe Chrissy wouldn’t be—
“Beneficial?” Fish questioned.
Wynonna sighed, “Never mind. Thank you, all of you. This is truly valuable. Henry, can you help Nicole’s outdoor servants get settled? And ask Robin to do the same for Jeremy and the rest? They’ll be staying here for the foreseeable future.”
“Thank you. Get some rest. All of you. And Nedley… I’m so sorry for your loss.”
Tears fought their way through Nicole’s stoicism at the memory of Chrissy’s still body, skin licked by the flames.
“Thank you, ma’am,” Nedley replied gruffly before turning away quickly; Nicole suspected she wasn’t the only one who was fighting a losing battle with her grief.
Fish clapped him on the back before the three men left the room. Once the door clicked closed, Nicole slumped in her chair, finally giving in to the emotion and fatigue that she’d held at bay since Waverly woke her that morning.
Even though the fire was long ago put out, the pungent odor lingered in her nostrils, on her nightclothes, on the thick overcoat someone had shoved on her at some point, in her hair. It was impossible to escape.
“Hey… Nicole, it’s okay, you’re safe. Waverly is too.”
She jumped at Wynonna’s hand on her shoulder and snarled, “But is Chrissy?”
“No. No, she’s not,” Wynonna sighed. “But this wasn’t your fault. Not if what the manservants say is true. Do you have any reason to doubt Fish or Nedley?”
Nicole shook her head, releasing a shuddering breath as she sat up, willing herself to regain composure.
“And I’d trust Henry with my life,” Wynonna mumbled, almost absentmindedly. “I wonder if we have enough to go to a magistrate?”
“The word of three servants against one of their colleagues, I doubt it,” Nicole sighed, wiping at her face.
“What did Fish do for Robert? Before he came to work for you?”
Nicole searched her tired brain, struggling to recall the answer to her friend’s question, head tilting to the side as she thought.
“I don’t remember… I assume general outdoor staff. Why?”
Wynonna shook her head, “Curious. Go clean up and get some rest with Waverly. You look wretched.”
“Better wretched than dead, I suppose.”
Nicole did as instructed, but sleep eluded her, in spite of the comfort of Waverly’s bed… and the relief of feeling its usual occupant’s chest rise and fall, tucked into Nicole’s side. So she was grateful when in mid-afternoon Wynonna burst into the room and urged them both to get dressed because she had an idea.
Dressed in borrowed, ill-fitting clothes, she found herself back in Wynonna’s study, afternoon light streaming into the usually dark room with its heavily stained walls. Too restless to sit, she paced behind Wynonna and Waverly’s seats, waiting for Fish to return.
Finally Robin knocked at the door, escorting a visibly nervous Fish into the room.
“Thank you, Robin,” Waverly said, breaking the solemn silence in the room, before he closed the door behind him.
“Sit,” Wynonna instructed, waving Fish to a chair across from the desk.
He immediately complied, fidgeting with his hat.
“What kind of work did you do for Mr. Svane?” Wynonna asked without pretense.
Fish dropped his hat, and Nicole’s eyes narrowed at his degree of anxiety. A particular, less than respectable, detail of his previous employment flashed to the front of Nicole’s mind, and she came to a halt.
“Ambrose,” she added calmly. “Please speak freely here. Anything you say stays within this room.”
Wynonna twisted in her seat to regard her curiously, but nodded just the same.
The effect was immediate. Fish sagged in relief before picking up his hat.
“Thank you, ma’am,” he smiled at her before answering Wynonna’s question. “A little bit of everything, ma’am. How ever I could help Mr. Svane. At the end of my employment, I was training to be his groom.”
“How did your employment end?” Nicole asked, already knowing the answer.
Wynonna sat up at her question, attention fixated on the man across from her.
Fish looked sheepishly up at Nicole before directing his gaze at Wynonna, “I was fired, ma’am, for having… inappropriate relations with another of Mr. Svane’s servants.”
Wynonna spared the barest of glances in her direction before turning back to Fish, “What happened to the other servant?”
Fish grimaced, “He still works for Mr. Svane, ma’am.”
“Why? If you were both caught, why only you?”
“My… fella knows too much about Mr. Svane to be allowed to walk free. He was punished… cruelly. Mr. Svane would kill him before he gave him that same freedom.”
“Why didn’t he? Kill him?”
Fish twisted guiltily, “For control. Levi has no choice but to do whatever he is told. If he doesn’t, Mr. Svane has made clear he will torture or kill me. I wouldn’t doubt Mr. Svane targeted Miss Haught with similar motives… to get to you, Miss Earp, through the ones he knows you care about the most.”
“How perfect,” Wynonna muttered, before adding louder. “You said Levi was the one driving away from Stetson during the fire?”
“And Levi knows the dirt on Mr. Svane?”
“Yes, ma’am,” Fish confirmed, sitting further upright. “I only know this because he shared some of it with me. If Mr. Svane knew that I am aware of the things I am… I’m certain I wouldn’t be sitting here today.”
“Can you give us an example, Mr. Fish?” Waverly asked.
“Certainly,” he replied eagerly, before abruptly sobering. “Miss Earp, I apologize, but I believe you’re familiar with a Mr. Xavier Dolls?”
Wynonna stiffened before nodding.
“I’m afraid Mr. Svane was responsible for his death.”
Wynonna only nodded once before replying, “What would it take for Levi to share with us all he knows about Mr. Svane?”
Nicole faced the window in Waverly’s room, eyes fixated on the dark sky outside.
Though she couldn’t see more than a few inches beyond the panes of glass, she stared unblinkingly into the darkness.
“Just turn around,” Waverly urged.
“Are you dressed?” Nicole asked.
Though Waverly had stayed with her, in her own home, this was a new situation to navigate. She and Waverly shared a bed during Waverly’s visits, but Waverly had kept her belongings in the room next door, allowing them to maintain a certain propriety.
“No,” Waverly huffed, and Nicole caught the sound of fabric rustling somewhere behind her. “Are you sure you’re okay staying in my room?”
“Yes, of course, but I’m the one intruding on your space. Are you okay with me staying with you?”
“Absolutely. I know we haven’t been… together long,” Waverly answered, voice obscured for a second as if blocked by a garment pulled over her head, “but I was worried about leaving you alone after what happened last night. And I thought I might be able to offer you some… comfort?”
Nicole forced her eyes shut, closing them tightly, so even if she gave in to her urge to turn around and seek Waverly as she spoke, she wouldn’t see a thing, “I’m incredibly grateful, Waverly. I don’t know how long I might be here… so please, tell me if I am intruding. I’m sure I can be put up in another room or stay in town or—”
“Nicole, please open your eyes.”
“Yes, yes,” Waverly sighed, traces of exasperation in her tone. “I’m dressed.”
Nicole opened her eyes, finding that she had in fact turned toward Waverly. Illuminated in the soft candlelight, Waverly had changed into her nightgown, hair wrapped around her shoulder as she loosely braided it.
“Sit,” Waverly instructed, nodding toward the bed.
Nicole did as directed. Her feet carried her toward the bed as her hand tugged at the collar of her shirt.
Well not her’s. Curtis’.
With her belongings consumed by the fire, the servants had found this as a replacement for her smoke covered nightclothes, the only thing she had left from her home, until she could get into town to visit the tailor.
“Should I change or… ?”
“In a minute, I’ll look the other way if you want me to,” Waverly teased, finishing her braid and following her. “Sit!”
Nicole complied with a small smile, backing onto the edge of the bed. “Sitting!”
“I want you here. I’m quite happy you’re here, actually,” Waverly paused, turning her head slightly and grimacing. “I’m not at all pleased about the circumstances that led to it. Not at all. Ugh, please do not take it that way!”
“I’m not. I understand,” Nicole reassured, reaching out to pull apart Waverly’s white-knuckled hands and wrapping them with her own.
Waverly sighed in relief, “Good! What I am, quite poorly, trying to say is, I wondered if you might want to stay… “ Waverly trailed off, fingers fidgeting in Nicole’s. “...with me. On a more permanent basis.”
“Here? At Wyatt Hall?”
Waverly nodded, “I’m not asking for an answer tonight, okay? But consider it? As you plan your estate affairs.”
Smiling, Nicole nodded, pulling Waverly closer, “I will.”
Though Waverly smiled at the gesture, it quickly faded to a small frown, “I—I hate to ask, but are you… are you okay? You seem to be handling this all so… well? ”
Nicole considered the question, all-too-aware that typically at this time of night she would be making her routine rounds from room-to-room. She was surprised to find that she had little desire to do the same tonight at Wyatt Hall. It was as if between the ache of Chrissy’s death, the elation from Waverly’s unexpected offer, and her general state of exhaustion after all that had occurred in the past 24 hours, she didn’t have room for anything else.
“I am,” Nicole replied truthfully. “I’m as surprised as you are.”
Waverly bit her lip, “It’s silly, really, but I thought...”
“You thought what?” Nicole asked, squeezing Waverly’s hand.
“I thought… ” Waverly ran her hand through Nicole’s hair, down past her ear before her palm cradled Nicole’s cheek. “I just thought it was going to be a long night. And I may have brainstormed some… distractions. Just in case.”
Nicole leaned into Waverly’s hand, “Just in case?”
Waverly nodded sheepishly.
Nicole turned her head, kissing Waverly’s hand, “It’d be a shame to let these ideas go to waste.”
“I’ll save them for when I need them,” Waverly smirked. “Now, get ready for bed. Do you want me to turn away?”
“No,” Nicole admitted, hands sliding beneath the sleeves of Waverly’s nightgown. “Not unless you want to.”
Waverly shook her head shyly, stepping closer until the hem of her gown brushed against Nicole’s trousers. Nicole’s hands slid with Waverly’s movement, before coming to rest on Waverly’s waist.
Waverly skimmed her fingers across the fabric of Nicole’s too big shirt, bunched up from being hastily tucked into her pants.
“Shall I help you?”
Nicole nodded, mouth dry. She moved her knees further apart, allowing Waverly to step closer into her space, as the tail of her shirt slipped past the waistband of her trousers.
Nicole leaned forward, closing the remaining distance between her lips and Waverly’s as Waverly’s hands ascended, finding the first closed button on her shirt.
Though Waverly’s hands moved at an unhurried space, steadily and surely pushing one button after another through their fabric, the fervor of their lips was anything but calm and collected. Nicole had set a desperate pace, with one bruising kiss after another. When her shirt finally hung open, she nipped at Waverly’s bottom lip.
She felt the material slide off her shoulders as Waverly sighed, bending to connect their lips again. But Nicole pulled back when she felt Waverly’s fingers fumble at her back, where her corset would normally tie.
“Sorry,” Nicole smiled. “I couldn’t bring myself to pull it tight, with all the coughing earlier, so I figured what was the use?”
Waverly smirked, “No matter, just one less layer until I have you naked.”
Nicole’s fingers tapped a staccato rhythm on the side of the carriage, just below the window. Though the sharp noise was barely audible over the clap of the hooves and wheels clicking across the stone pavers, the movement continued to catch Wynonna’s eye.
“Haught, relax ,” Wynonna sighed, leaning further into the seat across from Nicole.
“Are you sure this is a good idea? Leaving Waverly at Wyatt? Alone?”
Wynonna rolled her eyes, “Yes. And she’s not alone. She has Henry, Jeremy, and Robin—all with strict orders to get her as far away from Ghost River County as possible if they notice anything… off.”
Wynonna watched as Nicole tugged at the collar of an overcoat of Curtis’, “It feels wrong. I should be with her.”
“No, you need to be here, with me. Remember? So that you, Nedley, Fish, and Levi—once Fish has… persuaded him… can go to a magistrate while I’m leading Robert to believe that Waverly is all his.”
Nicole visibly shuddered at the last line.
“I don’t like it either,” Wynonna admitted. “But what other choice do we have?”
“At the eleventh hour, none but to move forward with this, I suppose,” Nicole acquiesced, hand moving from her neck back to the window ledge..
The second the carriage came to a stop outside the inn, Wynonna was out the door, hopping down onto the cobblestones. Though her own servants knew better, Fish had eagerly met her at the door, receiving the brunt of its momentum to his ribs for his troubles. At his gasp of pain, she straightened up, pulling down her coat. Her eyes caught another individual approaching the inn.
She fought a grin as she turned to the carriage, raising her voice, “I shan’t be more than an hour, Mr. Nedley. If Miss Haught needs more time, I’m content to wait.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Randall nodded, before tightening his grip on the reins, snapping them quickly and urging the horses to continue into town.
Wynonna returned her attention to the figure approaching the inn. “Good morning, Mr. Svane.”
She watched as Robert’s eyes followed the back of her carriage, disappearing from view as it continued down the street.
“Good morning, Miss Earp,” he replied flatly, vision still on the street. “Have you new servants?”
“Oh, no. They’re Miss Haught’s. Haven’t you heard? Stetson House burned to the ground, the night before last.”
“Really?” Robert replied, tone apathetic as his equally indifferent eyes met Wynonna’s.
“Wouldn’t you like to know how your dear cousin is?”
“Obviously she’s well enough to be riding into town,” Robert sneered. “And certainly I would have already heard of her demise had it gone… less favorably.”
“ Certainly ,” Wynonna agreed.
Pulling his jacket closer, Robert nodded toward the door, “Shall we go inside? I have other business to attend to today.”
“Of course,” Wynonna smirked, striding to the inn, catching Robert with the door as she wrenched it open.
Nicole continued to tap away at the window of the carriage.
It was idle now, but she could hear her horses fidgeting, the carriage swaying ever so slightly with their movement, almost as if they were as restless as she was, impatient to continue moving again.
She could hear Fish’s voice, low and desperate, as he spoke to Levi. Though she couldn’t make out any words, Levi’s noises of hesitation, when he could get anything in against Fish’s monologue, only amplified her anxiety
Tempted as she was to speak to Levi herself, she wasn’t sure what more she could offer that she and Wynonna hadn’t already: money, protection, and an opportunity to live and work with Fish… with a blind eye turned to whatever the two men got up to together.
So Nicole fidgeted instead, the movement helping her feel as if she was doing something, anything productive, as she fought the urge to step out of the carriage. She agreed with Wynonna and Waverly that if anyone could sway Levi, it would undoubtedly be Fish, but it was agonizing to sit here and wait while the Earp sisters’ safety hung in the balance.
But a particularly discouraging note of panic from Levi had her on her feet, hunched over to avoid her head hitting the top of the carriage. With her hand on the door, she froze as she Nedley’s gruff voice reached her ears.
She fell back into seat at the anguish in his voice, deepening as he mentioned Chrissy’s name.
Though she strained to listen, she couldn’t make out every word. As Levi remained quiet, no longer sputtering and stuttering, Nicole fought the hope that snuck into her chest.
Nedley was silent, but Fish picked up where he’d left off, a terse whisper that sounded more like a hiss than words as it passed through the carriage. Nicole froze when she heard Levi’s voice again, tone indistinguishable.
She waited, holding her breath as her brain tried to place the gentle thud she heard outside her carriage. Mind racing, she leaned closer to the door, knowing the sound came from the same vicinity that the men were talking but jumped in surprise at a knock on the carriage door.
“Miss Haught?” Fish called.
Nicole swallowed, finally making her way to the door and pushing it open. She stuck her head outside expecting to see Fish but instead was met with an unfamiliar man with long, wavy, dark, gray-streaked hair. The man who could only be Levi, with Fish’s steady hand atop his shoulder, stood stiffly, hat in his hands and brown eyes wide as they darted between herself and their surroundings.
“Miss Haught,” he greeted, voice shaking.
He nodded, hands shaking around his hat, “It is a pleasure to meet you… Fish speaks so highly of you.”
“As he does of you,” she replied. “Have you—”
“Is what Fish said true?” Levi interjected, eyes nervously shifting to their surroundings as if he expected Robert to find him at any given moment. “What you’re… offering?”
“Yes,” she nodded firmly. “And if you’ve made up your mind, one way or another, it would be unwise for us to linger here much longer.”
“I have ma’am… I want to help.”
Wynonna took a slow sip of beer from her mug, leaning back in her chair.
“Well?” Robert prompted, ignoring the chair in front of him as he stood across from her; his knuckles were white with the strength in which he gripped its backrest.
Wynonna was surprised it wasn’t splintering under the force of his grip, but she rolled her eyes.
“Join me for a drink and sit . Or do you think it’s wise to leave such a poor impression on the sister of one whom you hope to marry?”
“I haven’t time for your games, Wynonna,” he sneered, stepping away from the chair. “If the answer is no, which I assume it to be, since you’ve kept me waiting this long, I’d rather move along with my day. I have plenty to attend to without running in circles, and I imagine, you have plenty on your plate as well.”
“Hmm,” she hummed, lifting her mug again. “I’m covering the tab so you may wish to reconsider.”
“That’s all you have to say? Then I best be off. Give your sister my regards, and I’ll see both of you sooner rather than later.”
Robert flashed his ominous smile, teeth-baring, before he turned. Wynonna’s stomach rolled, sick with the words she forced to her mouth.
“Oh, where are your manners Robert? I was merely hoping to better know the man who may , in the eyes of some, have a greater claim to Wyatt Hall than I.”
Robert froze, and Wynonna smirked.
“And, perhaps , discuss a possible dowry.”
Nicole smiled, listening to Levi answer a question from the magistrate who nodded along intently.
Initially, their visit had gone as she had feared, Mr. Moody listening carefully as she recounted the night Stetson House burned to the ground, but the magistrate turning a deaf ear to the testimonies of the three servants when they detailed Mr. Svane’s involvement.
Even Levi’s account of Dolls’ murder didn’t faze the man behind the bench.
However, the justice of the peace’s interest changed entirely when Levi detailed some of the crimes Mr. Svane committed against other magistrates. When Mr. Moody summoned a constable and ordered the arrest of Robert, she was finally able to breathe easier.
“I assume this man will be staying with you, Miss Haught?” Mr. Moody asked.
“Yes, sir. I am staying with the Earps at Wyatt Hall for the time being, but I have offered him employment, wherever I should choose to settle next. Should you need anything further, you can call on us there.”
“Very well,” he nodded, pen in hand as he wrote on the paper in front of him. “Best leave before Mr. Svane turns up here.”
“Yes sir, thank you sir.”
Waverly sighed, closing her book and putting it aside. She replaced it with a handkerchief Nicole had given her weeks ago, the only thing Waverly had from Stetson Hall.
“Are you alright, Miss Earp?” Jeremy asked from his position standing at the window, surveying all that he could from that particular vantage point.
The bright sun streamed in the window, indicating it was closer to noon than nightfall.
“I suppose as well as one could be under the circumstances,” she replied, voice cracking from lack of use. She gathered her skirts and moved to her feet, striding to stand next to Jeremy. “Shouldn’t they be back by now?”
“Hard to say. Did Rosita pack your trunk? Just in case?”
Waverly nodded, not trusting her voice.
“We’ll give them a little longer. But if they’re not back soon…”
She nodded again, choking on the tears she fought.
“Oh no, Miss Earp…” Jeremy’s arms flapped uselessly at his side, unsure what to do.
“It’s okay,” Waverly sniffled. “It’s hard not knowing what’s happening. And the thought that they could be hurt o—or already…”
She trailed off, unable to bring herself to question if Nicole or Wynonna, or both, were gone. Waverly shook her head through her tears.
They couldn’t be .
Jeremy smiled sadly, “If I know either of them, they’ll be fighting tooth and nail to come back to you. They certainly wouldn’t go down without a fight.”
Wynonna hid her grimace behind her mug.
Her nausea had only escalated in her time here, doing her best to stall Robert. And the smug look on his face did nothing to help.
“What made you change your mind?” Robert asked, before draining the last of his drink and waving to the bar for another. “I find it hard to believe it was my charm.”
“You were right,” Wynonna shrugged. “I’d rather travel than bother with anything here. Now you can look after Waverly, Michelle, and Aunt Gus all by yourself.”
Robert straightened his coat, as his goblet was refilled, “I suppose so. When might you be, ah, setting off next?”
Wynonna grinned at the sight of a constable entering the inn, Mr. Moody trailing behind. The pair scanned the tables and booths before locking on Mr. Svane’s heavy overcoat.
“You know, you might be setting off before me,” Wynonna mused, lifting her mug to her lips as Moody and the constable moved to their table.
“What do you—”
But he was cut off by the constable leaning over their table, “My apologies, ma’am, but Mr. Svane, can you step outside with me?”
Mr. Svane turned sharply at the constable’s firm tone.
“I believe I was having a conversation here, Quinn. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ll meet you outside once I am done with my business here.”
“You’ll do it now.” Moody pushed closer, tone cold. “You see, I’ve signed an order for you to be arrested and hanged for arson and murder.”
“Arson and murder?” Svane scoffed, standing. “I don’t know what you mean.”
“I do believe you do,” Moody replied. “But that’s not all. Larceny . Now if you would like to keep an ounce of dignity in the few moments you have left, I suggest you follow Constable Quinn and me outside .”
Svane chuckled, pointing at Moody, “Larceny? You think, I stole that stone and coal off your land?”
“Quinn, arrest him,” Moody ordered, turning toward the door.
Waverly knew they had dawdled as long as it was safe to do so, but her shoes grated across the cobblestones as she walked to the carriage.
“I do apologize, Miss Earp,” Henry called down, already seated with the reins in hand; Jeremy had settled next to him, smiling too wide for the situation at hand. “I fear we cannot wait for them any longer. Not for your safety, ma’am.”
The sun was low in the sky, and it was a long shot that they would reach their destination before nightfall.
She sighed, taking Robin’s hand as he helped her up onto the step, “I know, I know.”
Once settled inside, Rosita poked her head into the carriage, “Would you rather I rode up top?”
She shook her head, “Join me, please.”
As soon as the door snapped shut, the carriage lurched forward, hooves clicking along the cobblestones.
“Are you okay?” Rosita asked gently.
Waverly twisted Nicole’s handkerchief between her hands, biting her lip in a futile effort to stop more tears from flowing. She shook her head, but Rosita seemingly understood, not filling the silence between them.
They traveled for a few minutes, jostled by the pace which Henry forced the horses to maintain. It hadn’t yet been long enough to reach the road to take them away from Ghost River, when Waverly was thrown out of her seat onto Rosita as the carriage came to an abrupt halt.
Had to give you all one last cliffhanger :). It’s bittersweet that we’re nearing the end of this for so many reasons, but if you’ve stuck with me so far, just sincerely thank you.
Extra thanks to my beta @LuckyWantsToKnow for helping to make this readable.
If you’re so inclined, you can follow me on Twitter: @DubiousOrange17
Waverly pulled herself off of Rosita, wincing at the way her fall had pinched her servant between herself and the seat, “Are you alright?”
Rosita straightened her dress calmly, “I believe so. Why have we stopped?”
“I don’t know,” Waverly asked, still on her feet.
Though she heard a commotion outside, from both the horses and shouting voices, Henry’s most distinct, she struggled to make out any words clearly.
“What in the—”
But she was cut off by a firm knock at the door.
With wide eyes, Waverly turned toward Rosita, unsure what to do.
“Miss Earp! It’s okay, it’s me!”
Waverly could’ve cried in relief at the sound of Nicole’s voice, the happiness in her tone evident through just those few words.
She turned to the door, pushing it open only to have it pulled from her grasp as it quickly swung the rest of the way, the hinges groaning in protest. A beaming Nicole immediately appeared in front of the exit, offering a hand to help Waverly down.
Still in shock at the recent turn of events, Waverly timidly reached out for Nicole’s hand, “Did you… I mean, what—”
But her fingers slipped through the air where Nicole’s hand had been. She blinked and found Nicole’s hands on her hips, lifting her easily out of the carriage. Waverly squeaked in surprise but found her feet on the ground.
The happiness and elation she found illuminated in all of Nicole’s features seemed to answer Waverly’s questions, but she couldn’t be sure. Not until Nicole said it.
Her stomach was a nervous mess. And not until she saw Wynonna for herself.
Nicole leaned closer, lifting Waverly’s hand in her own and kissing it.
“We did it,” Nicole answered with a smile, punctuating her statement with another kiss to Waverly’s hand. “I’m sorry we’re so late. Robert managed to slip out of the constable’s handcuffs… twice… Moody lost all patience and had him hung immediately. I never imagined we’d have such luck.”
Nicole squeezed her hand before kissing it once more, as if it was taking all her self-control to not use that same energy on Waverly’s lips.
“He’s dead?” Waverly questioned, shocked that that could’ve possibly been the outcome.
“He is,” Nicole nodded, lowering Waverly’s hand. “We waited to see it for ourselves. It’s why we’re so terribly late, I feared we missed you.”
Nicole nodded to the front of the carriage with a laugh, “You might have heard her and Henry shouting about our speed down the road… I’m afraid we may have startled him and your horses.”
Waverly breathed a sigh of relief, but it turned into a chuckle when Wynonna and Henry’s disgruntled volley of shouts reached her ears.
“You’re safe,” Waverly breathed, reaching out to cradle Nicole’s chin.
“You are, too,” Nicole beamed, leaning into the touch before pulling away, suddenly, seeming to recall where they were. She continued with a guilty smile, “Shall we break those two up so we can get you home?”
It was well past midnight before Waverly tugged a stumbling, slurring Nicole up to her room. Propriety had been less of a concern once back inside the walls of Wyatt Hall, but Waverly wasn’t sure that kissing Nicole senseless, as she had wanted to do since she first saw her framed in the entry to the carriage, would necessarily be highly regarded by the rest.
While Wynonna kept them up in celebration, inviting all the servants to join in on the festivities, Waverly settled for keeping Nicole at her hip all night. Her fingers firmly locked in Nicole’s likely would have done the trick, but she was sure to throw in a few looks and soft touches that kept Nicole’s focus from wandering too far.
But when Nicole finished the latest drink Wynonna had shoved in her unattended hand, Waverly pulled her away before it could be replaced with another.
Finally, Waverly pulled Nicole into her room before tightly closing and locking the door, blocking out the noise of the festivities downstairs. She turned, finding Nicole in her path.
Had Nicole’s senses not been impaired, Waverly doubted she would have had the time to appreciate that maybe she wasn’t the only one happy to be separated from the group. As it was, she was grateful for those few extra seconds to watch as Nicole deliberately closed the distance between them, a smirk on her lips, backing Waverly against the door.
Waverly tasted the beer on Nicole’s lips and pulled her closer, intoxicated by how it mingled with the madeira lingering on her tongue, and the sensation of Nicole’s long body pressed firmly against her own.
She fumbled for Nicole’s scarf, pulling it swiftly from the collar of her shirt before finding the buttons on her waistcoat, struggling to stay focused as Nicole’s lips moved to her jaw, working her way through Nicole’s clothing with determination.
Only once Nicole’s hands fruitlessly tried to create space between her back and the door to undo her dress did Waverly push herself off the wood surface. With Nicole’s lips and attention otherwise occupied, she shifted herself on the offensive, backing a nearly naked Nicole toward her bed, until Nicole’s legs hit the mattress.
Their lips continued their feverish pace until Waverly’s dress pooled at her feet and her corset was tossed across the room. Once there was nothing left between them Waverly pushed Nicole the rest of the way onto the bed, her lips making a clear path downward.
Nicole squirmed beneath her and Waverly smiled as she kissed every inch of Nicole’s skin, past her collarbone, between her breasts, and down her stomach.
But she froze when Nicole’s hand wrapped around the base of her neck, gently tugging her upward. Her attention shifted to Nicole, eyeing the way she bit her lip, her brow adorably furrowed as if she was fighting to keep her wits about her through the alcohol and her reactions to Waverly’s touch.
“Is this alright?” Waverly asked softly, crossing her arms on Nicole’s stomach and resting her head.
Nicole swallowed thickly before nodding, “I just—I need to ask you something.”
“What is it?”
Nicole bit her lip, chewing on it before responding, “Did you… did you mean it when you asked me to live here? With you?”
“Of course,” Waverly replied immediately. Her arms fell to the side as she inched up, longing to be closer to Nicole. “Did you not believe me?”
Nicole shrugged, eyes shifting their focus to the side of the bed, “No, it just didn’t seem like a real possibility. Not with Robert lurking around. But now… “
“But now that’s not a concern and you’re worried if the offer still stands?” Waverly guessed, a hand coming up to caress Nicole’s cheek.
“Yes,” Nicole sighed.
Nicole leaned gently into her touch, but her eyes remained off to the side, in spite of Waverly’s murmured, “Of course it still stands.”
With a deep breath, Waverly leaned in, placing a gentle kiss to the corner of Nicole’s lips before pulling back.
“Remember when you said I was a little bit in love with you?”
Nicole’s attention shifted abruptly to her before she nodded.
“I am every bit in love with you.”
Waverly nodded, fingers bouncing against the mattress, suddenly worried her confession was too soon.
But Nicole’s dimpled smile chased her nerves away, “I am quite a bit in love with you too.”
“Good,” Waverly beamed, pecking Nicole’s lips before starting her descent again. “Then you can show me how much once I’m done with you.”
Nicole tip-toed down the stairs, candle in hand. Though she used her free hand to guard the flame as she slowly maneuvered to the lower level of Wyatt Hall, it flickered with her movement, casting wild shadows on the walls.
With her feet finally on the landing, she turned, casting a brief glance toward the second floor and breathing a sigh of relief that she didn’t seem to have been followed.
She shifted the candle to her other hand, wiping her sweaty palm on her nightshirt before moving again.
It wasn’t that she didn’t want Waverly to find her but, after a long day, Nicole knew Waverly needed her rest. Just as much as Nicole needed this.
In spite of the different setting, her routine was jarringly familiar as she moved from room-to-room, checking fireplaces, checking candles, checking for matches. She finished two laps before finally returning to the sitting room at the bottom of the stairs.
She hastily moved directly to the fireplace, using the faint light from her candle to check the grate.
Heart racing, she turned on her heel, lifting her candle to better illuminate the space. Wynonna still dressed in her day clothes, curled up on a bench with her head on a pillow.
“Jesus, you scared me. Why aren’t you in bed?”
“Why aren’t you?” Wynonna asked, stretching.
Nicole ignored the question just as Wynonna had ignored her own. She turned abruptly, checking the fireplace again before moving to other corners of the room.
“I thought you were doing better,” Wynonna yawned, pulling the stopper out of a decanter.
Her stomach churned with guilt, but Nicole shrugged, not pausing her meticulous search. She continued, checking every inch of the room before turning to start another tour of the floor.
“Is this about today?”
She jumped, surprised to hear Wynonna’s voice at her shoulder, the flame on her candle dancing with her movement.
“Maybe a little?” Nicole admitted, her free hand running through her hair.
Unwilling to look at her friend, Nicole continued abruptly, hurrying back to the kitchen. But she scowled to herself when she heard Wynonna stumbling after her.
“Chrissy wouldn’t want you to do this, you know?”
There it was.
Nicole picked up her pace, trying to put as much space between her and Wynonna.
“Won’t ever know what she wants since we buried her today,” Nicole hissed. “Go to bed, Wynonna.”
But her friend didn’t. Instead, she felt Wynonna’s eyes on her while she did her third check of the kitchen.
When she finally finished, she turned to move to the next room, but she found Wynonna blocking her path, leaning against the door frame.
Wynonna’s eyes narrowed, “Are you going to say it?”
Nicole rolled her eyes, “Say what?”
“That you checked the kitchen. Didn’t Waverly say that helps? Or some shit?”
Nicole huffed, “I checked the kitchen.”
Wynonna shifted onto her toes, patting Nicole on the head, “Good job. Why didn’t you wake her? You know she wants to help. And doesn’t she make it… easier?”
“She does,” Nicole admitted, pushing past her friend.
“But what? Talk to me, Haught.”
Nicole turned on her heel, “I don’t want to bother her with this.”
“Bother her with it? It’s a little late for that, don’t ya think? She wants to help. Why do you think she wants you to stay here?”
Nicole deflated, “She talked to you about that?”
“Well, yeah,” Wynonna shifted awkwardly. “She thought she needed to ask my permission before she asked you… but she didn’t.”
Nicole nodded; she had wondered if Wynonna knew of Waverly’s offer, but it seemed ill-advised to ask and face Wynonna’s wrath without a place to go next.
Wynonna pulled the candle out of her hand, “C’mon, let’s sit.”
Wynonna led the way back to the sitting room, using Nicole’s candle to light two others that were scattered around the room. Nicole collapsed onto a chair next to the fireplace. Wynonna sat across from her, leaning forward with her elbows on her knees.
“What are you thinking?”
“Staying here. Permanently.”
Waverly looked up from her book to find Nicole in the doorway of the sitting room, a wrapped parcel tucked under each arm.
“Would you like to go for a walk with me?”
Waverly marked her page before tiredly wiping at her eyes.
It was only a little after breakfast, but her eyes were already heavy with exhaustion. Though Nicole hadn’t wandered through Wyatt Hall last night, she had been fidgety and restless in her sleep, keeping Waverly awake. At every thrash and turn, Waverly feared Nicole would abandon their bed to search the building on her own. Though Nicole had been better since Waverly woke to an empty bed and found Nicole and Wynonna a few weeks ago, there was still the occasional night where Nicole wouldn't wake her before traipsing throughout the estate.
“Where to?” Waverly asked, fighting a yawn.
“I want to show you something.”
The deflection caught Waverly’s attention. She frowned as she carefully eyed the packages in Nicole’s arms.
“On a walk?” she asked slowly.
Nicole nodded with a smile.
“I believe this is my land, Miss Haught. Not sure what you could show me that I’m not already aware of,” Waverly sighed, getting to her feet.
“I might surprise you.”
Once outside, Waverly offered to take one of the parcels for Nicole and was surprised when she obliged. With the box tucked on her own arm, Nicole took her other hand and led her hand-in-hand across the property.
Feeling more alert in the fresh air, Waverly let Nicole lead her in the direction of the servants quarters. But her eyes narrowed when she spied a thin trickle of smoke escaping the chimney of one she knew to be unoccupied.
“What’s going on? Who’s staying there?” Waverly asked.
Nicole smiled, “You’ll see.”
As they approached, Waverly could hear excited voices carrying through the open windows and door. Nicole dropped Waverly’s hand, hurrying forward to knock on the frame. The conversation from inside cut off abruptly at the knock, further puzzling Waverly, but Nicole beckoned her closer with a wide grin.
Robin appeared in the open doorway, eyes darting around nervously before they found Waverly. Whatever anxious state he was in dissipated, a warm smile spreading across his face before he turned, calling to someone else in the house.
Waverly finally made her way to Nicole’s side, just as Jeremy appeared next to Robin.
“Miss Earp, Miss Haught,” Robin smiled, bowing slightly towards each of them.
Nicole waved off his gesture as she adjusted the package under her arm, “Sorry to interrupt, I just wanted to bring you a housewarming present.”
At “housewarming” Waverly turned abruptly to face Nicole, but all she offered was a dazzling smile in return while Jeremy tore into the brown paper.
“What’s happening? Did you arrange this?” Waverly asked, grasping Nicole’s hand again.
They hadn’t taken more than a few strides away from Jeremy and Robin’s, but Waverly’s mind was racing.
Nicole only smiled mischievously as she straightened her hat before gesturing for the package Waverly held. “One more stop and then I’ll explain.”
Their next destination wasn’t far away, another quarters that Waverly thought to be vacant. But this time, Levi and Fish appeared to be its newest inhabitants.
After Waverly and Nicole left them with an identical housewarming gift, Waverly linked their hands again and tugged Nicole to a secluded part of the property.
“Did you do this?” Waverly asked.
Nicole nodded, her earlier confidence noticeably subdued, “I, um, I worked with Wynonna to set them up with… something more permanent.”
“What does this mean for you?”
“I, um… “ Nicole trailed off, her free hand rubbing at the back of the neck. “I was hoping I might stay here too. Though perhaps not in the servants quarters.”
Waverly pulled Nicole closer, “And where would you like to stay?”
If you've stuck it out to the end, sincerely thank you!!! It feels like an eternity ago that I posted the first chapter. My life has kinda gone on a bit of a roller coaster since and your comments/kudos have meant the world.
As always thanks to my beta @LuckyWantsToKnow for all the help and for top shelf friend-ing.
If you’re so inclined, you can follow me on Twitter: @DubiousOrange17