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Wide Open Spaces

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***

Who doesn't know what I'm talking about
Who's never left home, who's never struck out
To find a dream and a life of their own
A place in the clouds, a foundation of stone

Many precede and many will follow
A young girl's dreams no longer hollow
It takes the shape of a place out west
But what it holds for her, she hasn't yet guessed


She needs, wide open spaces
Room to make her big mistakes
She needs, new faces
She knows the high stakes

-Wide Open Spaces, The Chicks

***

Summer 1998

 

Of all the things Waverly expected to see when she returned home for the summer, the new ranch hand was the absolute last on her list.

 

Once she’d finished unloading the last of her things from the back of her red Jeep, Waverly quickly changed into clean clothes, dug out her riding boots from the bottom of the closet in the front hall, and headed for the barn. With how busy the year had gotten, she hadn’t been able to come home as often as she would have liked, and the sunny day was just begging for a ride.

 

Without stopping to think about it her feet adjusted to the uneven ground on the well-worn path that led to the barn from the small farmhouse where she’d grown up. As she walked, she noticed that someone had finally gotten around to mending spots in the short, wooden fence that were either rotting or missing entirely when she’d last visited, and she wondered if Gus had finally hired someone to help her run the farm like she’d been insisting she would.

 

It had been nearly eight months since Uncle Curtis died, and Waverly knew that Gus was having a hard time running things on her own. She and Curtis had been partners in every sense of the word, splitting up responsibilities to make sure that everything got done, and their system had worked like a charm until the morning Curtis’s long-suffering heart just couldn’t keep up with him anymore.

 

Waverly was hit with a pang of sadness as she thought about her uncle. He and Gus had taken in Waverly and her sister Wynonna when, fifteen years ago, their father and oldest sister were killed in a car accident. At only seven years old, Waverly’s world was turned upside down, but Curtis proved to be a better father than she could have ever imagined.

 

It was thanks to Curtis that Waverly went away for university. It was thanks to his encouragement that she majored in Classics and History, instead of going against her instincts to major in something more “marketable.” If it weren’t for her aunt and uncle, in fact, Waverly couldn’t imagine how her life would have turned out.

 

She paused and leaned against one of the wooden fenceposts, staring out at the pasture where the cows were grazing in the late spring sunshine and letting her mind wander.

 

After only a couple minutes, Waverly was yanked back into the present when she saw an unfamiliar figure on horseback appear over the hill. She couldn’t make out much beyond a flash of bright red hair and an equally bright checked shirt, until the horse turned to the side and-

 

She was a woman.

 

Decent farmhands were few and far between in Purgatory, never mind women. In fact, Waverly couldn’t think of a time she’d ever met a female hand. Then again, Gus was the only woman in the Ghost River County who ran her own operation, so why wouldn’t she hire a woman to help out? Intrigued, Waverly quickened her pace slightly, hoping to run into the mystery woman somewhere along the path.

 

Waverly greeted Buttercup, the horse she’d been riding since she was ten, with a pat on the nose and an apple from the canvas bag she’d slung over her shoulder before leaving the house. Anxious to get out in the sunshine, Waverly quickly saddled the black mare and led her out into the pasture.

 

As she firmly planted a foot in the stirrup and swung her other leg over the horse’s back, Waverly realized how much she was actually looking forward to the summer. As Buttercup began walking their favourite route around the property, Waverly reveled in the peace of her surroundings.

 

While still keeping her eyes peeled for the Mystery Woman, of course.

 

Waverly let her mind wander again as she guided the horse slowly in the direction of the nearby pond, but it didn’t wander far before returning to the woman she’d seen out on the ridge.

 

Almost as if the universe were listening in on her every thought, as she rounded a bend in the path and the pond came into view, she spotted the same chestnut-coloured horse wandering around the edge of the water, only without anyone in the saddle. A quick look around revealed the rider seated in the shade, propped up against a thick tree trunk and deep in a book. 

 

Waverly paused, very abruptly realizing that she didn’t have anything resembling a plan. Luckily, the footsteps of another horse caused the redhead to look up, searching for the source of the disturbance. Waverly raised an awkward hand in greeting and attempted to smoothly dismount Buttercup, only to lose her footing and stumble as soon as her feet hit the ground.

 

Shit! ” Waverly exclaimed as she flung her palms out to break her fall. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw the redhead drop her book and scramble to her feet in a flash of colour. She was by Waverly’s side in a moment, dropping back down to her knees beside her.

 

“Oh my god, are you okay?”

 

Her voice was much softer than Waverly had expected. As she sat properly on the ground to assess whether or not she was injured, she took a moment to get a better look at the other woman. She’d taken her red hair down from the braid Waverly had seen earlier in the afternoon, and waves cascaded over her shoulders as she leaned forward to check if Waverly was all right. Her eyes, brown and soft, were wide with concern for the woman who had just fallen right out of the saddle in front of her.

 

“I think I’m fine- ow!” Waverly yelped as she attempted to move one of her ankles, only to be met with a flash of pain from what was probably a sprain.

 

“Sounds like you might’ve hurt that ankle,” The other woman said, raising her eyebrows slightly in amusement.

 

“I’ll be fine,” Waverly grumbled through gritted teeth. “At least until I get back to the house.”

 

“Need a hand?”

 

The redhead stood up and extended both of her hands out towards Waverly to help her up from the ground. Waverly sheepishly accepted the help, her cheeks flushing pink as she smoothed back a few strands of hair that had come loose from her messy bun. She winced as she tried to put weight on her ankle, but found the shooting pain prevented her from doing so.

 

“D’you need a hand…gettin’ back up there?” The other woman gestured towards Buttercup, her own face flushing slightly.

 

“Shit…” Waverly muttered as she realized she wouldn’t be able to get back on the horse easily. “If you don’t mind…”

 

“Of course.” She smiled reassuringly, a dimple popping out in her left cheek, and offered an arm for Waverly to lean on as she limped around to the other side of her horse.

 

“You’re Gus’s new…ish…hand, aren’t you?” Waverly asked, figuring she should at least introduce herself to the woman she was now leaning on for support.

 

The redhead laughed and nodded. “Been here since February, but yeah. I’m Nicole. And you must be…Waverly? I promise I’m not a creepy stalker or anything,” she added quickly, “Gus just talks about you. A lot.”

 

As Waverly put her right foot in the stirrup, the opposite side she was used to, she was glad to have the extra set of hands helping her keep her balance. Her injured ankle threw her off as she gingerly swung her left leg back into the saddle, and she felt lopsided as she settled with her left foot resting only slightly in the stirrup.

 

“Let me grab my, uh…let me grab the horse and I’ll head back with you.” Nicole said quickly. She picked up the book she’d left under the tree and mounted her own horse quickly, turning back toward Waverly.

 

“We can take it slow going back, yeah?” She said, gesturing towards the path. “Don’t want to jog your ankle or throw you off balance.”

 

Waverly did most of the talking on the ride back to the farm house, finding that it helped take her mind off her now-throbbing ankle. Nicole was quiet as Waverly talked about her courses and her career plan, and Waverly could sense that as she spoke, the other woman was listening intently. She kept her eyes on Waverly as much as possible, and Waverly never once saw her eyes glaze over with disinterest, as was often the case when she got too into the specifics of her history studies. Before she knew it, they were arriving back at the barn.

 

“Careful on that dismount, Earp,” Nicole said in a gentle, teasing tone as she dismounted smoothly and came around to help Waverly off her horse. “Here, I got ya.”

 

As it turned out, getting off the horse was much more of a process. Waverly was able to swing her injured foot back over Buttercup’s back easily enough, but putting even the slightest amount of weight on her ankle proved to be nearly impossible.

 

Sorry! ” Waverly yelped as her balance faltered and she fell awkwardly into Nicole’s arms. Her face flushed bright red as she fished her right foot out of the stirrup, aided by Nicole’s strong arms around her, and stabilized herself.

 

“Go sit down,” Nicole said, pointing to a wooden bench beside the open barn door. “I’ll take care of your tack and mine, then we’ll take a look at that ankle. Do you think it’s swelling?”

 

“It probably is,” Waverly said through gritted teeth as she hobbled over to the bench, “My boot’s probably keeping it down.”

 

Nicole worked quickly, and Waverly found herself mesmerized by how easily she was able to lift and hang the heavy saddles, almost as though they weighed nothing at all. When everything was put away and the horses were happily back in their stalls, Nicole offered Waverly her hand once again and helped her limp back to the farm house.

 

Waverly sank into a chair at the kitchen table and removed her riding boot from her good foot before she began to gently work the boot off her injured one. As soon as the boot dropped to the floor with a resounding clunk , Waverly’s brief flash of relief was replaced by an uncomfortable sensation that she knew had to be her ankle swelling up, finally free from its prison. Trying not to move it around too much, Waverly got a proper look at the injury and winced at the swollen ankle.

 

Ouch.” 

 

Nicole let out a low whistle and Waverly looked up to see that the redhead had returned with supplies to wrap her ankle.

 

“That looks pretty nasty,” She said, pulling up a chair across from Waverly. “There’s even a little bruising right along here…”

 

Nicole’s hands, like her voice, were softer than Waverly was expecting. She was careful not to touch the injury any more than she absolutely had to as she wrapped an elastic bandage securely around it and secured it with two metal clips.

 

“There,” She said, admiring her handiwork. “I’m no doctor, but I’ve done this once or twice myself. You should probably get it checked out tomorrow, though, just to make sure nothing’s broken or torn.”

 

“Girl, what did you do?

 

Gus walked into the kitchen just then. Her eyebrows shot up in surprise as she took in the scene at the table.

 

“I had a bit of an incident with one of the horses,” Waverly said sheepishly. “Nicole was just helping me tape up my ankle.”

 

“Looks like she did a pretty good job,” Gus said as she also took a look at Nicole’s handiwork. “I’ll drive you into town in the morning to get that looked at. Nicole, hon, you want to stay for dinner tonight?”

 

“I appreciate the offer, but I really should get going,” Nicole said as she stood up from the table. “Gotta go feed the cat before she takes matters into her own hands.”

 

“She seems nice,” Waverly said quietly once Nicole had closed the door behind her. 

 

“She’s a sweet girl,” Gus said with a quick wink in her niece’s direction. “A little lonely, I think, but she’s a good worker.”

 

“Quick with the first aid, too,” Waverly said with a grin.

 

“I think you two are gonna hit it off.”

 

***

 

Nicole lived in a small house she’d found for rent just up the road from the farm. As she pulled the keys out of the ignition of her truck, she sighed and leaned forward, resting her forehead against the wheel.

 

She really wasn’t prepared for Gus’s niece to be so beautiful.

 

After she and Shae had broken up— again —right before Christmas, Nicole swore to herself that she wasn’t going to get involved with anyone else until she got her act together. She was a different person than she’d been when she’d first met Shae three years ago; Nicole felt like she needed to get to know that person better before she let herself fall for anyone else.

 

Except then Waverly Earp had to go and literally fall off her damn horse.

 

Nicole unlocked her front door and was immediately greeted by Calamity Jane’s irritated meows. She bent over and gave the fluffy ginger cat a quick scratch, trying to push whatever feelings she might have briefly had for Waverly Earp out of her mind.

 

Once Calamity was fed, Nicole turned to her own dinner plans.

 

“Well, shit,” she mumbled to herself as she opened the fridge, where an assortment of condiments, a jar of pickles, and a six-pack of beer stared back at her. “I knew I’d forgotten to do something.”

 

While she waited for the oven to heat up so she could cook the frozen pizza she’d found, Nicole went into the living room. Bypassing the TV, she rifled through her cassettes until she found the one she was looking for.  She stuck the tape in her stereo, turned the volume up, and went back to the fridge for a beer.

 

A familiar drum intro rang out in the living room, filling the small space of the first floor.

 

I know what you're thinking, baby

I used to be just like you

You move when she's not looking, baby

One sugar ain't enough for you

 

Nicole hummed along with Melissa Etheridge as she sipped her beer and sat down to make a grocery list for the next day. She wondered if she would be running into Waverly often at work; she hadn’t had a chance to ask about the other girl’s summer plans.

 

Just because she’d all but sworn off dating, that didn’t mean she couldn’t still be anxious to get to know Waverly better. 

 

Nicole enjoyed her job and working for Gus, but she would be lying if she said things had been more than a little lonely once the chaos of moving and starting a new job had died down. Calamity Jane, while adorable, was hardly the conversation partner Nicole was looking for.

 

I like the way you look

I know you like me

But one and one and one

Baby, makes three

Stop playing those eyes

If you want me to keep

Your little secret

Little secret, little secret

Yeah

 

Nicole could barely hear the phone ring over the music. She turned down the volume on the stereo before reaching for the handset—she’d forgotten it was Wednesday.

 

She and her older brother talked on the phone every Wednesday night, and they had done so ever since Nicole moved out on her own. They had been close growing up, but grew even closer once Nicole found herself with no money and no place to go at only seventeen years old. 

 

Liam was the only family member who stood by her when she’d been forcibly shoved out of the closet; he had immediately offered her a place to stay, and that act of kindness was the only reason Nicole was able to finish high school. Even though they lived far apart now, Nicole still talked to him every week, always anxious for updates on her five-year-old niece.

 

It didn’t take long for Nicole to bring up the fact that she’d finally gotten to meet Waverly, and she couldn’t help but blush when he let out a loud wolf whistle on the other end.

 

“Don’t you dare,” she said firmly. “She’s not even gay!”

 

“Isn’t that what you’ve said about…everyone you’ve dated? Literally everyone?

 

Nicole just grunted noncommittally. “Whatever. At least she seems nice, and I could use some friends here.”

 

“Look, Nic,” Liam said seriously. “I know you. You’re one of the most respectful people I’ve ever met, but it’s not gonna hurt you to be a little more forward. Plus, who wouldn’t want to get to know you?”

 

“You give me too much credit,” Nicole grumbled. “But thanks. I don’t mind it here, but a little dating would be nice,” she admitted. Nicole quickly changed the subject from her dating life to her niece, wanting to move on as quickly as possible before they got too deep into her dating life. 

 

Cassie would be starting school in the fall, and she was already over-the-moon excited about it. Since it was still early enough in the evening, she got to talk to Cassie herself for a few minutes; she was a very talkative child, and would have easily talked Nicole’s ear off all night if Liam’s girlfriend, Alison, hadn’t intervened, reminding her it was time for bed.

 

***

 

Nicole was up before the sun, as usual, the next morning. She didn’t allow herself to so much as think about Waverly until the cows were fed and hooked up to the milking machines, when she allowed herself a quick break to wolf down breakfast.

 

“Hey, stranger.”

 

Nicole jumped and looked over from where she was seated on the porch to see Waverly standing in the door.

 

“Waverly!” Nicole exclaimed. “How, uh…how’s your ankle?”

 

Surveying the brunette, Nicole could see that her ankle was wrapped up tightly in a very clinical-looking brace that couldn’t be very comfortable.

 

“Pretty nasty, to be honest,” Waverly confirmed with a groan. “If I’m going to have to walk around in this brace, I’m just glad my nails are done,” she added, her cheeks turning the slightest shade of pink. Nicole’s gaze flicked down to see that there was indeed a bright blue pedicure peeking out from beneath the brace.

 

“Looks cute,” Nicole said softly. She grinned, and Waverly felt her stomach do another backflip as she noticed the dimples that appeared in Nicole’s cheek.

 

“I should be inside and staying off of it,” Waverly said, “but I just wanted to say thanks for all your help yesterday. I swear, I know how to ride a horse!” She added with a laugh, “I was just…out of practice, I guess.”

 

“Oh God, don’t apologize!” Nicole exclaimed. “It happens to all of us; I mean, six months ago I dislocated my shoulder because my saddle wasn’t tight enough. Landed right on a patch of ice.” Nicole winced at the memory.

 

Waverly laughed, the sound like the sweetest music to Nicole’s ears.

 

“You should go, uh…get off that foot,” Nicole said, suddenly flustered. She stood up and excused herself hastily, and Waverly found she couldn’t take her eyes off the redhead as she hurried back towards the barn.

 

Much to Waverly’s chagrin, the next person to pull into the driveway was Champ Hardy.

 

She wasn’t exactly excited at the prospect of seeing her high school ex every day, but she understood that her aunt needed the extra set of hands. Even though the summer had barely begun, they already had to start thinking about stockpiling hay for the winter, and for all his shortcomings, apparently Champ was really good at taking care of one of their most important summer crops.

 

Still, that didn’t mean she had to like it.

 

Champ was just as thick-headed as he’d been when Waverly left town for university, and it took all of one afternoon working together for him to start hitting on her again, as though no time at all had passed. He kept talking about “sweeping her off her feet,” then pointing to her wrapped ankle with a stupid grin on his face, as though he thought he’d made some kind of wildly original joke.

 

Mercifully, Nicole had no patience for his attempts at flirtatious procrastination. If she hadn’t already done it by helping her with her sprained ankle, she certainly endeared herself to Waverly with the way she put Champ in his place—often and without hesitation. 

 

Sometimes, after she’d yelled at him for bugging Waverly in the barn, she would turn back over her shoulder and shoot Waverly a quick wink. Waverly’s heart would stutter and her stomach would flip, and she tried not to think too hard about what it might mean for herself. 

 

She had to admit…the extra second of attention felt pretty nice.