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The woman strolled into Waverly Gibson's bar at 2:44 a.m., red-haired and silent, and Waverly had been doing her best to make a fool out of herself ever since.

Red—as Waverly had dubbed her—grabbed a seat at the bar and lifted a finger to draw Waverly's attention, as if Waverly hadn't noticed her the moment the door swung open. Waverly glided over to take her order. When Waverly delivered the drink, Red gave her a nod and a grunt of thanks, then drowned her attention in the beer and in her phone.

So Red needed her space. That was pretty typical for their Tuesday night clientele, when they had any, so Waverly followed standard operating procedure: leave the patron alone and clean the hell out of the place.

She dusted a neglected shelf and glanced at the birthmark on Red's cheek. She scrubbed out the fridge and studied the way Red's hair glowed like molten metal in the ambient light. She found a treasure trove of untouched bottles in a back cabinet and traced the lines of Red's forearms disappearing beneath rolled-up sleeves.

Red could lift Waverly with those arms. Hoist her right up on the bar and...

Red cleared her throat. Waverly lifted her eyes to Red's face and found her leaning over the bar, one arm folded on the lacquered wood, the other holding her empty glass aloft. Shit.

Waverly hurried over. "Refill?" She glanced at the clock. "Last call."

"Sure, fill me up," said Red. This time, when Waverly slid the glass in front of her, she took a sip and met Waverly's eyes. "What were you thinking about before?"

Waverly giggled before she could stop herself, a sudden burst of nerves making her feel lightheaded. "Oh, you know. Just... spacing out."

Red's mouth twitched. "And staring at my arms?"

"They're nice arms!"

Red looked down at her arm resting on the bar. She lifted it, held it out in front of her and flexed her fingers wide. She shrugged. "They do all right."

Waverly wondered exactly what those arms and hands did, and how she might go about convincing Red to do those things to her.

"Is the place usually this dead?" asked Red, snapping Waverly out of her fantasies.

"For 3 a.m. on a Tuesday?" said Waverly. "This is a crowd."

"This is company," said Red, grinning. "Three's a crowd. I just hope I'm good company."

"Well, you're not drunk and hitting on me. That's a mark in your favor."

Red took a sip of her beer and shook her head. "Damn, there go my plans for the evening."

Another giggle bubbled up in Waverly; she almost choked trying to fight it back. "Don't let me ruin your night," she said.

"I don't think you ever could." Red extended her hand over the bar. "I'm Nicole, by the way."

"I'm Waverly." Nicole's grip was firm, her fingers slender and strong; Waverly's heart pitched a riot within her ribcage. "If you don't mind me asking... what brought you in here? This is usually 'drowning-my-sorrows' time."

"Who says I'm not drowning my sorrows?"

When Waverly raised one eyebrow, Nicole chuckled. "Okay, okay. Honestly, I just found out my new project's going to be a little more complicated than I thought. I went for a walk to clear my head, saw this place open..." She shrugged.

Waverly hummed while Nicole took another sip of her beer. "What's your new project? Can you tell me?"

Nicole set the beer on the bar with a clack and shook her head. "Even if I could, it's my turn to ask a question. What brought you in here?"

"I work here!"

"Yeah, but what led you here? What brought you to this bar in downtown Vancouver, standing here at absurd-o-clock, chatting with my sorry ass?"

"So far, I like chatting with your sorry ass," said Waverly, leaning on the bar. "As for what brought me here... I guess the short answer is that American colleges don't pay for themselves."

Nicole winced. "Yeah, that’ll do it. What are you studying?"

"Ancient languages. And history." When Nicole's eyebrows jumped, Waverly grinned. "What's that face for?"

"What, I can't be impressed by the smart, pretty bartender?" Dimples puckered Nicole's cheeks.

"Flattery won't get you out of tipping, you know."

"Oh, I wouldn't dream trying to stiff you," said Nicole, with a wink that hit Waverly square in the gut. "You closing soon?"

Waverly shrugged. "I'll close up behind you when you're done. Take your time."

"If you keep talking to me, I'll never leave. How am I supposed to drink with you distracting me?"

"Maybe I should leave you alone, then, get you out of my hair faster."

"Then I definitely won't tip you well." Nicole licked the sheen of beer from her lips, and Waverly's own lips fell open as she did. Nicole shook her head. "You're staring at me again."

"I—I'm not, I'm—I have to clean!" Waverly rushed away, turning as fast as she could to hide her cherry-red cheeks. Nicole laughed as she went, and Waverly imagined all the ways she could make Nicole be quiet.

She hurried away faster.

It was Waverly's turn to be the subject of study; every time she glanced at Nicole, whether she was putting chairs up on tables or mopping the floor, she found Nicole's eyes on her. Waverly's gaze snapped away each time.

She was just putting away the mop when Nicole called from across the room. "I'm heading out, barkeep! Come lock the door behind me."

"Bossy," muttered Waverly, swiping Nicole's generous tip from the bar and approaching the patron in question, who was leaning just inside the door with her hands in her pockets.

"You going to be okay getting home?" asked Nicole, when Waverly stopped a few feet away from her. "I could walk you."

"That's very reassuring, coming from a stranger I just met," said Waverly. Nicole grimaced, and Waverly reached out, her fingers just grazing Nicole's arm. "I appreciate the thought, but I'll be fine."

They waited, studying each other. Waverly's watch counted the seconds, its tiny clicks puncturing the silence between them.

"So... before you go..." Waverly fiddled with her sleeve. A question danced on her tongue: can I get your number? Fear reined it in and a different plea escaped her. "Promise me you'll be back sometime? Next drink is on the house."

"Trust me," said Nicole, and like a match held to the fuse of a firecracker, the smile that accompanied those words set Waverly ablaze. "You'll definitely see me again."

Waverly dragged herself out of bed late in the morning, tiptoeing past her father's door, avoiding the creaky plank that just couldn't stay quiet.

The kitchen welcomed her. Soft light spilled through the curtains and the old clock on the wall tapped out the languorous passage of time. Her first sip of caffeine hit her body like fat dropped into a hot pan. She set to work: chopping, stirring, frying. When Charlie Gibson stumbled out of his bedroom later, yawning and unshaven, she beamed at him.

"What's all this, kiddo?" He took a seat at the table and tried to straighten his hair. He failed.

"Breakfast," she said. "I wanted to do something nice for you." She abandoned the stove for a moment to set a cup of coffee in front of him, already fixed with sugar, which he liked, and almond milk, which he was beginning to appreciate for her sake.

He stared at his coffee, at the food, at his daughter. "What did I do to deserve a kid like you?"

She plated everything: perfectly-browned veggies, steaming grains, the eggs she'd caved in and cooked because he'd already bought them and he loved them. "Nothing except be the best dad a girl could ask for."

He sipped his coffee and squinted at her over the rim. "What do you want?"

"I don't want anything. Can't I just make a nice breakfast for the two of us?"

"Of course you can, sweetie, and you have, many times. But what do you want?"

She grimaced. "That obvious?"

"You're many things, but a good liar isn't one of them." He tucked into his food, gesturing at her with his fork. "Go on, tell your old man what you're after."

She bit her lip. "I want to transfer schools."

He froze, fork halfway to his lips. "What? Why?"

"We can't afford it anymore. Don't." She snatched his hand, cutting off his argument. "I know our finances better than anyone. We can't afford it."

"I'll take out more loans for you."

"Dad! Absolutely not!"

He stared at her hand on his. She watched him: tightening jaw, curling brows. He shook her fingers away. "You should be able to go to whatever school you want. Achieve whatever you want."

"I wish I could, but... that's not real life. Look, I've been thinking about this since I lost the scholarship. If I want to afford these payments... I have to do this."

Dragging his hand down his face, he slumped back in his chair. "This is my fault."

"It's not anyone's fault. Yours least of all."

Charlie shook his head. "It's nice of you to say so, kiddo, but this is my fault." He closed his eyes and sighed. "All I've ever wanted to do is take care of you. Keep you safe. Happy."

"I am happy. Wait, don't—"

He shoved his chair back and rocketed out of his seat. "I'll be in the office."

"Dad." She tried to follow him. "Daddy!"

But Charlie had already gathered his mug and swept out of the room, disappearing into the office and leaving his half-eaten breakfast behind.

He was avoiding her. Waverly marched down the sidewalk to the coffee shop near her house, backpack heavy on her shoulders, scowling all the way. Her dad was avoiding her, all because she was being financially responsible and trying to avoid tumbling headlong into crushing debt like so many of her American classmates.

Well... former classmates.

She blew through the front door of the shop, got herself a drink, and flung herself into a seat. She snapped open her laptop. Her fingers hammered its keys. She set her cup down after every sip with an impact strong enough to shake the table.

Partway through the process of gathering each and every form she'd need to fill out in order to drop out of her current school and start applying for new ones, the bell over the front door jingled.

She glanced up. Her jaw dropped. Nicole—hot Nicole, flirty Nicole, what's-a-woman-like-you-doing-in-my-bar Nicole—glided from the door to the counter, flashing the barista a bright smile.

Waverly watched her each step of the way. Her eyes mined the terrain of Nicole's silhouette, dredging up treasure after treasure: the way she shifted her weight from foot to foot as she waited by the register, the tendons in her hand as she fished for her wallet, the dimpled smile as the barista handed over her drink.

Then Nicole turned, eyes sweeping the room, and spotted Waverly.

"Waverly?" she said, her smile unfurling like a wind-laden sail.

"Hi! Nicole, right?" Waverly gave a little wave, then realized what she was doing and dropped her hand into her lap.

"You remember me!" Nicole crossed the shop to stand above Waverly's table. Waverly peered up at her and bit her lip: the blustery weather had run its fingers through Nicole's hair and she looked an awful lot like she'd been...

No, nope, definitely not. Waverly shoved that particular image into the filing cabinet marked "for later" and pulled out her patented friendly smile. "You're hard to forget. Do you want to sit?"

"You sure? You look busy." Nicole gestured to Waverly's computer with the hand clutching her coffee.

"Please, I need a distraction."

Nicole pulled out the seat across from Waverly and settled herself in it, laughing. "I don't know how good I am at distracting people. Usually I'm the one keeping people on track."

"Trust me, you're very distracting," said Waverly, leaning on her upturned hand. An easy smile slid onto her lips; for a moment, as the match to Waverly's smile spread on Nicole's face, Waverly felt as though they'd slipped into another world, just the two of them, and the urge to lean across the table and kiss the smile from Nicole’s lips nearly overpowered her.

She caught herself and forced herself back to reality. "Um, so... how are you?"

"Fine," said Nicole, sipping her coffee, eyes still smiling at Waverly over the cup. "Better than you. You seem a little frazzled."

"I am frazzled." Waverly plopped her head into her waiting hands. "I'm trying to transfer schools, which is a lot of work on its own, but on top of everything my dad is being a giant baby about it."

Nicole lifted one eyebrow. "Is it a money thing?"

"No! Well, yes, but..." Waverly groaned. "I want to transfer somewhere cheaper."

"And his problem with that is...?"

"He feels like I'm giving up on my dreams. But I'm not! I mean, sure, none of these new schools are my dream school or anything, but I'm still getting a degree. And I won't be paying off debt until I'm fifty!"

"Always a plus," said Nicole, with a smile. "It sounds like he just wants the best for you."

"I know," said Waverly. "He's a dad, it's what they do." She held her cup in both hands, spinning it between them. Staring down at it, she missed the flicker on Nicole's face.

Waverly lifted her eyes to Nicole again. "He thinks he's responsible. Like if he made more money or something, I'd have everything I ever wanted. But it's just... life, you know? He didn't ask to be a single dad."

"I'm sure he's doing the best he can," said Nicole. A tiny furrow appeared on her forehead, a familiar indicator of the question fermenting in her mind. Waverly sighed. "You can ask."

"What?" A blush dusted Nicole's cheeks.

"About my mom. It's okay."

Clearing her throat, Nicole stared down at the table, then looked up at Waverly from beneath her eyelashes. "What happened to your mom?"

"She died when I was little." Waverly eased the lid of her laptop closed. "I don't remember her much. Just bits and pieces. Dad didn't keep any photos so I don't even know what she looks like."

"Your grandparents don't have any pictures of her?"

"I've never met them, as far as I know. They didn't want anything to do with us, after." Waverly drew a shaky breath, held it in her lungs until they burned, and let it loose. "But it's okay. I'm his family and he's mine."

"It sounds like he loves you a lot," said Nicole. She rubbed the back of her neck. "Do you ever think about finding your mom's family?"

Waverly reached for her cup. The coffee had cooled, splashing lukewarm on her tongue. "I don't need them."

"What if they reached out to you?"

"I don't..." Waverly frowned. "I don't know."

"No, wait, I'm sorry." Nicole reached across the table, her hand settling on Waverly's wrist. Her skin was dry, her hands a little calloused, and the weight stilled Waverly like silencing a shrieking violin string. "I shouldn't have asked."

Nicole tried to pull away but Waverly pressed her own hand over Nicole's. "No, it was fine. I just never thought about it. Because... if they wanted to, they would have." She gazed down at their hands, at Nicole's cradled between her own, and retreated. "Anyway, can we talk about literally anything else? What about you?"

"Me? What about me?" Nicole glanced at the watch nestled on her wrist and grimaced. "Ah, sorry... I actually have to get going."

"Really?" Waverly watched Nicole stand and adjust her clothes, tugging her jacket back down. She felt compelled to follow, as if Nicole was the moon and she was the ocean at the mercy of Nicole's gravity. It took every bit of strength she could muster to stay in her seat.

"I've got a meeting with my boss," said Nicole. Her eyes went distant for a moment, picturing the dreaded meeting, and she lifted her hand and dragged her fingers through her hair.

The sight boiled Waverly from within; pressure built inside her, the question she had wanted to ask the night before rising and rising like a hot air balloon until she blurted out, "Can I have your number?"

Nicole blinked. Then a smile spread on her face, sculpting dimples in her cheeks. "Give me your phone."

Waverly obliged, unlocking it and handing it over. Nicole tapped at it, then handed it back with a new contact: Nicole, with a sly looking emoji.

"What, no last name?" Waverly leaned forward on the table, arms folded beneath her chest. Nicole glanced down, reddened, and snapped her eyes back up. Waverly bit back a laugh.

Caught, Nicole shifted her weight to one foot, smiling at Waverly and shaking her head. "You're trying to get me in trouble."

"I'm not doing anything."

"Oh, sure." Nicole backed up from the table, holding Waverly's gaze. "You better use that number."

"Tell me your last name!"

Nicole reached the door. "If you call me, I'll tell you. Deal?"


Then, with a wink, Nicole was gone.

Even after Nicole left the coffee shop, her distracting influence lingered. Waverly spent the rest of her time in the shop filling out paperwork between daydreaming sessions full of brown eyes and red hair. 

When she arrived at her apartment, Charlie still hadn't returned home from work. That wasn't so unusual. He worked late often, racking up as much overtime as he could. Still. His absence felt pointed and personal, and even Nicole couldn't crowd him out of Waverly's thoughts.

At work, Waverly wanted to sulk, but couldn't. The bar was busy and the customers thirsty, and even if she was transferring to a cheaper school, her existing loans would start snowballing interest soon. The cheerier she was, the heftier her tips.

So she smiled and laughed, trying to imagine Nicole instead of the ruddy-faced man sliding off his stool in front of her. She locked up and headed home with her wallet as plump as a Thanksgiving turkey.

She used the drive to run through the conversation she intended to have with Charlie as soon as he stepped through the door. She selected her words and loaded them into her mental shotgun: Childish. Absurd. Overprotective. Controlling.

It all ground to a halt when she pulled up to the curb and caught sight of a slim, red-headed woman folded onto the front steps of her building, a brown envelope clutched in her hands.

Waverly hopped out of her jeep, her steps light. "Nicole!" she shouted, raising her hand to wave.

Then her mind caught up with her.

Nicole shouldn't be here. Shouldn't know where she lived. And she certainly shouldn't be looking at Waverly like that: pale, drawn and cold.

Waverly frowned, approaching Nicole as if she were a snake rising on its belly, ready to strike. As she walked, she eased her hand into her pocket, and as quietly as possible slotted her keys between her fingers.

She stopped at the foot of the stairs, level with Nicole. "Um, Nicole? What are you doing here?"

"Miss Gibson," said Nicole. "I was looking for you."

"Miss... I didn't tell you my last name. Or where I live." Waverly took a step back, cold fear trickling down her spine. "Are you stalking me?"

Nicole scoffed, waving the question away with the envelope. "No."

"Then you're going to have to explain what the hell is going on, because I'm about five seconds from calling the cops."

Something flitted over Nicole's face; she unstuck herself from her perch on the front stoop and made her way down the steps to stand on the sidewalk several feet from Waverly. "I was paid to find you."

Waverly squinted at her. "Like a detective?"

"No," said Nicole, fast and sharp. "I work for people who need things done, discreetly. This time, my job was to find you."

"Why?" Waverly glanced over her shoulder before eyeing Nicole again. "What's next? Kidnapping me?"

Nicole flushed, one hand curling in a fist. "No! That's not what this is. That's not what I do."

"Why are you getting mad at me?" asked Waverly, propping her hands on her hips and glaring at Nicole. "You're the one stalking people!"

"I didn't stalk you," said Nicole. Waverly opened her mouth to retort, but Nicole cut her off. "Think what you want; it doesn't matter. My job is to give you this." She held out the envelope.

Waverly eyed it. "What is it?"

"It's something my employer wants you to see."

"Okay, but why?"

"Everything you need to know is in here." Nicole waggled the envelope; Waverly took a step back.

"Who are you working for?"

"Just take the envelope," said Nicole.

"No!" Waverly crossed her arms. "You don't get to make demands here! You showed up at my bar. You flirted with me. And now you're the one sitting outside my apartment, uninvited, scaring the pants off of me. So you tell me who sent you or I really will call the cops!"

Nicole grimaced. "I'm not the right person to explain any of this."

"I really don't care," said Waverly. She pulled out her phone.

Nicole’s mouth pressed into a hard line. "There’s no need for that. Put the phone away and I’ll tell you. And stop looking at me like that."

"I'll look at you however I want," said Waverly, glaring. She keyed in 911, holding the screen in clear view, and let her thumb hover over the button to dial. "I'm waiting."

Nicole sighed. She straightened her shirt. She tucked her hair behind her ears. Then she held the envelope out in front of her again. "My employers are Willa Earp and Wynonna Earp. You're their little sister."