Champ drove through the town that would be his home for at least the next few months. He had been to Purgatory before to visit friends or to play football and hockey against the local team, but now it was going to be his home. He was scheduled to meet his friends at the local bar and then he would be staying with them until he found a place of his own.
He found the sign for Shorty’s and pulled into the nearby parking lot. He couldn’t imagine, in that moment, how his life was about to change.
Champ walked through the door to Shorty’s and stopped suddenly. He gasped as he looked upon the most beautiful girl he had ever seen standing behind the bar. She had long, wavy, brunette hair that hung loose around her shoulders. Her “Shorty’s” crop top showed off just a hint of toned abs above a pair of short denim shorts. He recognized her as one of the Purgatory High cheerleaders who had caught his attention over the years, but he didn’t know her name.
He adjusted the trucker cap on his head and did his best to brush any wrinkles from the western shirt he was wearing. As he walked toward the bar, the girl turned toward him, smiling brightly. He felt his heart start beating wildly, the same feeling he would get before the gate opened for a bronc ride.
“Welcome to Shorty’s,” the girl greeted warmly.
He tipped the brim of his hat and winked at her. “Thank you. Can I get a beer?”
“Got ID?” she asked, eyeing him curiously.
He pulled out his license and showed it to her.
“Barely legal,” she commented with a wink. “James, is it?”
“My friends call me Champ,” he said. “Rodeo and then football and hockey championships. I just graduated from Ghost River High.”
“Oh, our big rivals. I was a cheerleader at Purgatory High. You were the quarterback, right? That’s why your name seems familiar.”
“That’s me. Set a couple state records last year.” He regretted it as soon as he said it. Why was he bragging about his football record to a cheerleader for their rival team?
The girl hummed skeptically. She put the beer down in front of him.
“Your name?” he flirted.
She laughed. “Waverly. What brings a star quarterback to Purgatory?”
“I just took a job at the McCready farm for the summer as I try to figure out next steps now that I graduated.”
Champ laughed lightly. “I’m not really the books type. I was hoping to go pro with the rodeo, but a fall in my last event put me in concussion protocol early in the season, so I’m done for the year.”
He caught a hint of concern in Waverly’s glance, so he quickly continued. “I’m cleared now. I’ve had a couple of those. No big deal, really. But now the season is already well underway and I have to save up some money before I get back out there. My buddies, Pete and Kyle Yorke, work for Mr. McCready and told me he was looking for another farmhand. They got me the job.”
“Oh, you know Pete and Kyle? How is it we haven’t met before?”
“I grew up a couple towns over, but our fathers were old friends and hunting buddies. We’d all go camping and hunting together every summer.”
Champ glanced over his shoulder to see Pete and Kyle had taken a table and were waiting for him. “I better get over to the boys. Can I maybe take you to dinner sometime?”
“I’d like that,” Waverly said as a flush formed across her cheeks. “Call me.”
She quickly wrote her number on a bar napkin and handed it to him. He took it and tucked it into his shirt pocket.
“Until then.” Champ took her hand and kissed it gently.
As he walked off, he turned back and winked, flashing a bright smile at the girl who was watching him.
“Dude, what was that all about?” Kyle said with a knowing smile.
“Waverly is the most popular girl in town," Pete added. "Her sister and I dated for a bit. It got a little weird after my birthday last year, tho. She left early and I’m still not sure what happened.”
Champ thought he saw a flicker of guilt cross Kyle’s face, but it was gone just as quickly.
“Summer’s almost over,” Waverly mused, as she rested her head against Champ’s shoulder.
They were sitting on the rooftop of the McCready home watching the sunset. An open bottle of bourbon that Waverly had snuck from her uncle’s liquor cabinet sitting between them. Curtis was away at the state fair, showing off his prize tomatoes, and Gus was working late at Shorty’s.
“Yeah.” Champ couldn’t quite figure out why she was stating something so obvious nor why she sounded almost… sad.
“I’ll miss you.”
“Miss me? Babe, are you going somewhere?” What is she getting at? he wondered. “Aren’t you doing your college classes online?”
“Me? Yeah. But I thought you were leaving at the end of summer.” Waverly turned toward him, her eyes betraying her confusion. “That’s what you said when we first met.”
“Well, yeah, when we first met, I planned to move on at the end of summer. But then I met you.” He looked at her and flashed a broad smile. “I have the hottest girl in town, good friends, and a good job. I am in no rush to move on.”
“Yeah, babe. Hopefully I’ll get back on the rodeo circuit next year, but Purgatory is my home now.”
Waverly leaned forward and kissed him. He reached his arms around her and pulled her close.
“Hey, I’ve been working on a new song,” Waverly said as they pulled apart. “Wanna hear it?”
“It’s kinda about you.”
“Are you sure about this, babe?” Champ asked nervously, as he unbuckled his belt.
“It’s my eighteenth birthday, Champ. I finally am moving into my own apartment. I totally think we should do it.”
Champ laid down on the tattoo artist’s table and pulled down his jeans. He pulled his boxers down enough to expose his hip where they had agreed to get the matching tattoos. Waverly had suggested a small dove, just a simple black outline.
“Ready?” the artist asked.
“Yeah, go ahead.”
That artist dipped into the ink and started the tattoo.
“Oh, mother fu—” Champ exclaimed through gritted teeth.
The small tattoo stung a lot more than he was expecting. He gritted his teeth, not wanting his girlfriend to think of him as anything less than brave. Thankfully, it was over in a matter of minutes. The artist cleaned away the ink and blood and then covered the tattoo. They quickly cleaned away the items they used for Champ’s tattoo and prepped for Waverly’s.
“My turn,” Waverly said cheerfully.
Uh huh, you smile now, but just wait, Champ thought to himself as he watched her hop up onto the table and pull up her pant leg so she could have the tattoo done on her ankle.
"I thought we were getting them in the same spot," Champ whined.
"I decided I wanted to get it where people could see it," Waverly said with a smile.
He couldn’t help but stare incredulously as she barely flinched as the artist began their work. She even asked the artist to add an olive branch in the dove’s beak.
“High pain tolerance,” she commented with a shrug as the tattoo artist was cleaning up.
Champ just shook his head, amazed at the girl in front of him.
“C’mon, babe. Let’s go get some pizza and head back to your new apartment to continue celebrating your big birthday.”
He wiggled his eyebrows suggestively, earning a giggle in response.
Champ and Waverly were sitting on the couch in her apartment above Shorty’s, where he was basically living at that point, curled up together under a blanket. Waverly leaned into him, strumming her new guitar, a Christmas present from Champ, as she experimented with a new song she was working on. The song was about a farmhand and the town sweetheart.
“I’ve been thinking,” Champ began.
“Picture it, babe.” He held out his hands, diagonally across from each other, with the thumbs at a right angle to the other fingers, as if creating a frame. “We save up some money and head down to Mexico. We can open up a bar in Buenos Aires.”
“That’s in Argentina,” she corrected gently.
“Argentina, Mexico.” He blew a raspberry. “We go somewhere down south and open up a little bar on the beach.”
Waverly leaned into him and hummed in thought. “There’s a lot of history down in those countries. I’ll be done with my degree in a few years. Then a Masters. Maybe I can do my PhD down there.”
“Huh? Why would you want to do that?”
Champ was genuinely puzzled. He was talking about running a beachside bar and living a life of leisure. Why would she want to keep studying if they could do that? He was a man. He’ll provide for her.
“We’re still young,” he continued, brushing off Waverly’s talk of school. “But we can do this. We’ll have a bar on the beach and when we’re not working, we can just spend our time laying out and making out on the sand.”
“It’s a nice dream,” Waverly mused.
She returned to strumming her guitar as she tried out different lyrics about a little bar by a beach, jotting them down in a notebook as she went.
“C’mon, babe, it’ll be fun,” Champ pleaded. “The boys are throwing some burgers on the grill and they have a cooler full of cold beer. They’re even planning to build a big bonfire.”
“Fun for you, maybe,” Waverly said through a sigh. “I have a paper due next week, Champ. You go have fun with Pete and Kyle.”
“But babe, you haven’t hung out with me and the gang in a while. The guys’ girlfriends will all be there. I’ll be the only one alone.”
“I hung out with you downstairs just last weekend.”
“You sat at a booth reading about that stuff that happened in the past…”
“History, Champ. It’s called history.”
“You were reading all about history while we played pool. You barely talked to us.”
“That’s not true. I talked to you and them before I did my reading. We talked while we all ate. Then you played pool and darts with the boys, so I read downstairs to support you rather than coming up here to study. When the boys left, we came up here and fucked.”
“You can’t tell me you didn’t enjoy that last part, hey? Maybe we can do that again instead of hanging with the boys?”
He leaned toward her from behind her chair and kissed her along her neck and shoulder. Maybe if he kissed her enough, she’d realize how he felt for her. The weekend before was the first time they had sex in a few weeks, and he had to admit it had been good. Just thinking about it was turning him on, painfully so.
“It was fine,” she said with a shrug. “We fucked and then you fell asleep and I still had to study. This paper is worth more than half of my grade.”
“Babe... can’t you feel how much I love you?” He leaned his crotch toward her, knowing she could feel the bulge that had grown in his jeans.
Waverly sighed. “Fine. Just a quicky, tho. I really have to finish this paper.”
“Cool,” he said, quickly starting to remove his clothes.
Late spring brought with it a return to the rodeo for Champ, who continued to work part time on the Mc Cready farm when he wasn’t traveling. Summer was just around the corner and the weather was warming up.
“Now that I’m back on the rodeo circuit, it’s just a matter of time before my luck improves,” Champ said confidently. “If I can win a few big prizes, I should be able to save up enough to open that little bar in Buenos Aires with my buddy.”
Waverly was silent so Champ continued. “You’ll see, babe. It’ll be awesome. My buddy is already down there, and he says it’s like a party every night. You can stop studying all that stuff about the past and live in the present, with me, just like we talked about.”
“Champ.” Waverly’s tone caught him off guard, almost like she was angry. “I like studying history or, as you call it, ‘all that stuff about the past.’ The bar is your dream, not mine.”
“Since when, babe? We talked about it last Christmas. I thought you liked the idea.”
“You talked about it last summer. I considered the idea of continuing my education down there. I still have several years to go before I’d be ready for that.”
“You spend too much time with your books.”
“Champ,” Waverly warned.
He moved closer to her, thinking a hug might calm the situation. He wrapped his arms around her and began leaving sloppy open-mouthed kisses along her neck and shoulders. She leaned to the side which he took as an invitation, not noticing her discomfort.
“What are you even reading, anyway?”
“I’m studying for my anthropology exam next week.”
“Anthro-what-y?” He leaned over her shoulder and looked at her book, before pointing at a picture. “That a skeleton in the picture there?”
Waverly just sighed.
“C’mon, babe. Why don’t you turn off that brain of yours and quit reading about bones. You can check out my boner, instead.”
“Champ, I need to study.”
Champ huffed and moved to the couch in the small apartment. He began pulling his shoes on.
Waverly rarely seemed to have time for him anymore. The more she studied, the more they seemed to be growing apart. When they first met, it seemed like love at first sight. He knew he was one of the most attractive guys in Purgatory — girls were always throwing themselves at him when Waverly wasn’t around — and she was the most attractive woman. They were clearly the perfect match. Their relationship had burned hot and fast. But something had changed between them.
“I’m going to go hang out with Kyle and Pete,” he muttered.
He walked out the door, not even sure if Waverly had heard him.
It had been a few days since Champ stormed out of Waverly’s apartment and he hadn’t been back since that night. He had been sleeping on Pete and Kyle’s couch and it was like it was when he first moved to town — nights spent drinking beer, watching sports, and playing video games. He had exchanged a few texts with Waverly, but they had been short.
“Babe” he said quietly. “Wave?”
He sheepishly approached the bar where Waverly was preparing to open for the day. He pulled a bouquet of flowers from behind his back and offered them to her.
“Champ,” she said. “I’m sorry for the other day. I have just had a lot on my mind.”
“I am sorry too. I shouldn’t have pushed you. I know school is important to you. It’s just that you have been so stressed and I wanted you to relax.”
She took the flowers and leaned over the bar and gave him a quick kiss on the cheek.
“There’s something I need to tell you,” she continued. “I haven’t been sure how…”
“You’re not dumping me, are you? I won’t push you about studying anymore.” He couldn’t imagine losing her. She was his everything.
“No, I’m not dumping you,” she assured him.
He let out a breath he didn’t realize he was holding.
“But, the thing is, I got a full scholarship for a real college starting in the fall. That’s why I have been studying so hard. I want to be sure I am caught up with where I should be when I start.”
“That’s great, babe. Are you going to Ghost River U?”
“University of British Columbia,” she muttered.
“In—in BC? That’s…that’s so far.”
“I’ll be home for Christmas. And we can Facetime and talk all the time.”
Champ felt like he had been punched in the gut. Sure, he had traveled for a few weeks at a time with the rodeo, but Waverly would be gone for months. Could they survive long distance?
Champ smiled as he heard the incoming Facetime tone on his phone. He said goodbye to the guys at the bar as he ran up the stairs to Waverly’s apartment, where he had been staying since she moved away to school. Waverly had been back for a week over Christmas break, but they hadn’t had much time together. She had stayed with her sister on the family homestead rather than at the apartment, except for one night. He had enjoyed that night, as they reconnected for the first time in over three months. But, things had seemed off between them, Waverly had seemed distant.
The distance only continued when Waverly returned to school. Their calls and texts had become less frequent and less personal. When she had first moved away to school, they had sent each other plenty of suggestive texts, and pictures to go with them, and had occasionally tried phone sex. But things were different this time. The spark and playfulness had gone from their conversations.
He answered the call as he reached the door.
“Hey babe,” he said, a big grin across his face. “I’ve missed you.”
He opened the door and went inside. He kicked off his barely-tied boots and sat down on the bed.
Something in Waverly’s tone, in the way her gaze was anywhere but toward the screen, caused a sinking feeling in his stomach.
“Babe, is something wrong? Are you not feeling well?”
Waverly sighed. “Champ, we should talk.”
This can’t be good , he thought as the sinking feeling in his stomach started to feel like the Titanic’s last moments.
“I don’t think I’ll be coming home over the summer,” she continued. “I got a job here doing research for my ancient history professor. It will pay me enough to stay here and I’ll get college credit for it. It also will help me when I apply to the Master’s program.”
“You’re not going to come back at all? Maybe we can meet up halfway. I think there’s a rodeo not far from Vancouver over the summer. Maybe I could qualify for it…”
“Champ,” she cut him off. “I…”
She went silent for a moment.
“I can’t do this anymore,” she finally said quietly.
“What? Is school getting too tough, babe? You should come home. I’ll take care of you.”
“No. It’s not that. It’s…” she paused again, gathering her thoughts. “I should have said something when I was home over Christmas. I was feeling it then, but I just wasn’t ready to admit it.”
“I don’t understand.”
“I mean I can’t do this — us.” She sighed. “I’m sorry, Champ.”
“Babe, what about all our plans?” He was panicking. “What if I move out there? I am sure I can get a job in Vancouver. Maybe doing construction or tending bar or something.”
“It’s not that. We’ve just… grown apart. It’s not even you, it’s me. I’ve changed. Living in the city here, studying what I’m passionate about. I want more from life than working at Shorty’s or even a bar in Buenos Aires. I want to study and research and travel the world. You’re a great guy, Champ, we’re just not great together.”
“Is there another guy?”
“I would never cheat on you, Champ!” Her tone was angry.
He realized he had crossed a line, especially knowing he had a couple of indiscretions of his own. But those were just drunken hookups. And she'd always forgiven him. Maybe that was what made him suspicious. There was something about how Waverly answered that just seemed off. She didn’t sound like his Waverly.
“But there is someone else?”
“I—I don’t know. I mean, no, I’m definitely not seeing anyone. But you are the only guy I’ve ever dated and, well, it’s just so different out here. I am just now learning about myself. About who I am and what I want. I need to figure out myself.”
“Wave, baby, I love you. Please don’t do this.”
“I’m sorry, Champ.”
“I’ll wait for you…” he started.
But the line was silent, the call ended. He stared at the screen on his iPhone, unable to move. He wasn’t sure whether to sob, or scream, or break something. Instead, he did what he always did when he wasn’t sure how to cope — he went downstairs to drink away his feelings.
“Never mind, I'll find someone like you,” Champ sang along to the jukebox, drunkenly and very offkey. “I wish nothing but the best for you, too. ‘Don't forget me,’ I beg.”
“Champ!” Wynonna hissed. “Enough with Adele’s greatest heartbreak hits on the jukebox. You are depressing my customers. If I hear one more depressing song, I’m cutting you off.”
“She dumped me, Wynonna,” he all but howled. “Your sister dumped me. Over Facetime. She didn’t even tell me face-to-face."
He buried his head in his now heavily-tattooed arms that were crossed against the bar. It hurt to say it outloud. To admit that the woman he wanted to spend the rest of his life with had just figuratively walked out of his life and didn’t seem to have plans to return.
“She said she’s not coming back this summer. She got a job working for some professor. I think she met someone else, too.”
There was barely disguised pride in Wynonna’s eyes and the hint of a smile on her face. Whatever sympathy she felt for the brokenhearted man in front of her — and she was sympathetic to the drunken wretch because no one deserved to be dumped that way — she was proud of her sister for finally living her life for herself. Wynonna never thought Champ was the right fit for her baby sister, something she made clear to both of them on more than one occasion. But now was not the time to rub salt in his wounds; she wasn’t going to celebrate the news. Not yet, at least.
“She isn’t seeing anyone else, Champ,” Wynonna reassured. “You know Waverly would never cheat.”
“That’s what she said. But she didn’t deny she had met someone.”
Wynonna had visited Vancouver to spend a weekend with Waverly a few weeks earlier. She couldn’t disagree with Champ that her sister seemed to have met someone. There was something in the way she looked at her roommate; it was even more obvious in the way the other woman looked at her. The younger Earp had seemed different, freer and happier, when she mentioned the possibility that she would stay over the summer.
The tall brunette turned around to grab a bottle of top-shelf whiskey. She poured two glasses and placed one in front of Champ, before taking a drink from the other.
“You love her?”
It was as much a statement as a question. The distraught man nodded.
“Then don’t you want what's best for her, Champ?”
“I’ve always only wanted what was best for her,” he whined. “We had so many dreams for the future. We were going to be like Johnny Cash and June Carter.”
“You know they were both addicts and he had a bunch of legal issues when they first got together right?” When Champ stared blankly, she continued. “Look, to quote the song you were just singing, ‘sometimes it lasts in love, but sometimes it hurts instead.’ You two are still young. You are an attractive guy. You will find someone else.”
“I don’t know, Wynonna...”
“Hi Champ,” a blonde said, sidling up next to him.
“Why are you so down, cutie?” Stephanie purred, as she gently ran her hand up and down his arm.
“Waverly broke up with me,” he sniffled.
“She doesn’t know what she’s giving up.” Stephanie moved a little closer. “Maybe I can help you feel better?”
Behind the bar, Wynonna rolled her eyes and downed the rest of her whiskey. She snapped a quick photo when Champ leaned against Stephanie’s chest, letting her hold his head to her cleavage, just in case she ever needed to use it. After a moment’s debate, she opened up her messages and scrolled to her sister’s contact.
Wynonna: Champ’s been down here singing along to Adele, scaring off the customers. I was about to kick him out.
The reply came quickly.
Waverly: Go easy on him, Wy. I never meant to hurt him.
Wynonna: Don’t worry. Stephanie Jones appears to be “comforting” him.
Waverly: Color me unsurprised.
Wynonna: I’m proud of you, baby girl.
Wynonna: Now go get that roommate you kept making heart eyes at while I was there.
Wynonna’s phone showed three dots for a while as Waverly worked on her reply.
Waverly: It isn’t about her. Distance just made me realize it was time.
Wynonna: It was WAY past time.
Wynonna: But the suggestion stands. That girl is head over heels for you.
Waverly: Love you, Wy.
Wynonna: Love you, baby girl. I’ll come visit this summer.
She watched as Stephanie took Champ’s hand and led the downtrodden, drunken boy-man toward the stairs to his apartment.
Champ was there when it happened.
He was out working with the horses when he saw Curtis slump against the side of the UTV. The older man slid down, clutching his chest. Champ ran toward him, yelling for help.
“Mr. Mc Cready,” he yelled, as he reached him. “Can you hear me?”
Champ reached toward him, trying to feel for a pulse. He was suddenly regretting never paying attention when they had a CPR lesson at school. Fortunately, one of the other farmhands seemed to know what to do. He also cursed the poor cell service in Purgatory as no one could get a signal to call for an ambulance.
The farmhands loaded Curtis into the small bed of the UTV as one began CPR. Champ hopped in the passenger seat as Ambrose, one of the senior farmhands, drove. As soon as his cell phone caught a signal Champ was dialing 911. By the time they reached the farmhouse, an ambulance was well on its way.
Champ jumped from the UTV and ran to the farmhouse, not even bothering to knock.
“Mrs. Mc Cready!” he called out. “Mrs. Mc Cready, come quick.”
“What’s all the shouting?” Gus asked as she emerged from the kitchen, drying her hands with a kitchen towel. “Champ Hardy, what are you doing in here with those muddy boots?”
“It’s Mr. Mc Cready, ma’am,” he said. “Something has happened. The ambulance is on the way.”
Gus went pale. She ran out the door, yelling for Curtis.
Within moments, the ambulance arrived. The paramedics quickly attended to Curtis, lifting him onto a stretcher and then into the ambulance. Champ watched as the ambulance drove off. He was conflicted — he owed so much to the Mc Cready's and wanted to go to the hospital. But he needed to finish attending to the horses and bring them in for the night before it was too late.
“C’mon kid,” Ambrose said, placing a comforting hand on his shoulders. “Let’s finish up what we were doing and then we can head to the hospital.”
“Yessir,” Champ nodded. “Let me just call Wynonna.”
“That is a good idea, kid.”
Champ didn’t have Wynonna’s number, but knew she was usually working at Shorty’s in the afternoon. If she wasn’t there, someone would know how to reach her. The bigger question lingering in the back of his mind was whether he should call Waverly. Would she even take the call? Before he could dwell on it, his call was being answered.
“Shorty’s, how can I help you?” The voice was unmistakably Wynonna.
“Wynonna, it’s Champ. Hardy.”
“Chump, why are you calling here?” she said acerbically.
“It’s Curtis. He… he collapsed on the farm. They think it was a heart attack. They are taking him to Purgatory General.”
“Well, shit. Thanks Chu… Champ.”
“Should I call…”
“Shorty, I have to go…” he could hear just before the line clicked.
Before he could talk himself out of it, he decided to call Waverly, knowing that Wynonna might be too distracted. He pulled up the once-familiar contact, one that he hadn’t used in well over a year, and smiled as he saw the angelic picture that came up. He tapped on her cell number, wondering if she would pick up.
“Hello?” the familiar voice said on the other end. It sounded like she didn’t recognize the number, like she had deleted his information from her contacts.
“I’m sorry to disturb you,” he said quickly, afraid she might hang up. “It’s just… it’s Curtis.”
“Oh my god,” Waverly said quietly on the other end. “Is he…”
“He collapsed. The paramedics came. They… they think it was a heart attack. I just wanted to let you know.”
“I… I have another call coming in. I better take it. It’s Wynonna.”
“I understand. Take care of yourself Waves.”
Champ joined the other farmhands on the UTV as Ambrose drove them toward the field. Just before he lost his signal, his phone dinged with a message.
Waverly: Thank you for letting me know about Curtis.
Champ was beside Curtis’ bedside at the hospital late that Friday when he saw her. It had been three days since Curtis’ heart attack. Gus had been staying by her husband's bedside, a small cot set up in the corner of the private room, arranged as a favor by a family friend who knew better than to get on Gus’ bad side. With Champ’s help, and a promise that he would stay by Curtis’ bedside and call if anything changed, Wynonna had finally convinced Gus to go home for a bit to shower, have a solid meal, and get some rest. That was several hours ago, and they were both expected back soon.
He heard the familiar voice that was like music to his ears before he saw her. Her voice was friendly, but he could hear the agitation beneath it, as she talked to one of the nurses.
“I’ll be right back,” he heard an unfamiliar woman say. Probably one of the nurses.
And then she was there, standing in the doorway. His heart raced and his mouth went dry. Their eyes met and a flood of memories, followed by visions of a future they had talked about, flashed through Champ’s thoughts. All their big moments, all their little moments. All their —or maybe they were just his — hopes and dreams. It was almost overwhelming.
“How is he?” she asked softly, breaking him from his reverie.
“Docs say he is stable, but he still hasn’t woken up,” he said.
Waverly moved toward Curtis’ bedside
“It’s good to see you, Waves,” Champ said wistfully. “You look good.”
“I…” she started.
“Waves,” the female voice from before called softly.
A tall, athletic redhead entered the room, drawing Champ’s attention. She walked up beside Waverly and reached her left arm behind her, wrapping it around her waist. As the smaller woman leaned into her, the taller woman gently kissed the top of her head. He couldn’t help but feel a rush of something, jealousy perhaps, race through him.
“How is he?” the woman asked.
“Stable,” Waverly answered softly.
Champ knew he was staring at the women and Waverly must have felt it because her gaze drifted toward him. There was something in her eyes that he couldn’t read as their eyes met. She looked up toward the woman beside her and smiled, then back to him.
“Champ, this is Nicole. My,” she paused for the slightest moment before continuing, “girlfriend. Nicole, this is Champ.”
The redhead, Nicole, turned toward him and extended a hand. She had a bright smile and dimples. Her brown eyes were warm and friendly. Under other circumstances, he would find her sexy.
“Nice to meet you,” she said warmly. “I’ve heard a lot about you.”
That makes one of us , Champ thought. A flurry of emotions rushed through him. Sadness, disappointment, jealousy. It was like a punch in the gut he hadn’t expected. But he refused to let them see how it was affecting him. He reached out and shook her hand firmly.
“Yeah, nice to meet you,” he said with a half-smile.
An awkward silence descended among them.
“I… uhhh… maybe I should go,” Champ said finally. “Wynonna and Gus should be back soon. I promised I’d stay but if you are here, I don’t need to be.”
“Are you sure?” It was Nicole, not Waverly who spoke up. “I know he means a lot to you. You don’t need to leave on our account.”
“Yeah,” Waverly said with a smile. “If you want to stay, it’s fine.”
Champ was about to say something when he was interrupted.
“Baby girl, is that you?” Wynonna charged into the room, scooping Waverly into a big hug.
“How's it going, Haught Dog?” Wynonna turned her attention toward Nicole.
Waverly introduced Nicole to Gus. Champ stood off to the side, feeling awkward, as the women exchanged pleasantries. He looked down, averting his gaze as he waited for them to finish. As his eyes drifted down, something — or the lack of something — caught his attention. Waverly’s ankle was missing the dove tattoo she had gotten on her eighteenth birthday. In its place was a lotus flower. He looked closely and could almost make out the outline of the dove that had been covered by the larger tattoo. He felt like the wind had been knocked out of him.
“How long are you in town?” Gus asked. “Where are you staying?”
“Just for the weekend,” Waverly said. “We both have to be back at work on Monday.”
“Look at you all grown up,” Wynonna teased. “And you’re staying out at the Homestead. I already made up your room when you texted.”
“And you,” Wynonna turned to Nicole. “You and me, we are going to have a little Waverly-free bonding time while you are here and I'm going to make sure you are still treating my baby sister the way she deserves to be treated.”
“’Nonna!” Waverly shoved her sister’s shoulder before blushing and mumbling, “she does.”
Champ’s eyes met Gus’ and he knew the woman could see his discomfort as Waverly talked about Nicole.
“Champ, why don’t you head on home, son,” Gus said with a reassuring hand on his shoulder. “Thank you for sticking around today.”
“Thanks Mrs. Mc Cready. Let me know if you need me to come back.”
“You go enjoy your weekend and don’t worry about it.”
Champ nodded and then turned toward Waverly. He smiled slightly, not sure what to say.
“I’ll, uh, see you around,” he finally managed.
“Hey, Rosita,” Champ said as he took a bar seat at Shorty’s. “Whiskey, neat, please.”
“You look like someone kicked your puppy or something,” the brunette said.
“Waverly is in town,” he sighed. “With her new girlfriend.”
“Girlfriend?” Rosita quirked an eyebrow as she slid a drink toward Champ. “It’s a double. Extra shot is on me.”
“A tall redhead who is smoking hot,” he said with something between a laugh and a snort. “That’s all I know about her.”
“Yo Champ!” Pete called from the pool table. “Come join us.”
“Go,” Rosita suggested. “Take your mind off of things for a bit.”
“Thanks. Can you bring us a pitcher when you have a minute?”
Rosita was right — playing pool and darts and drinking beer with Pete and Kyle and some of the other guys in their friend group was a good distraction. At least it was for the first hour or so he was there. Until they walked in.
“Well look who the cat dragged in?” Shorty exclaimed.
Champ looked up from where he was lining up a shot at the pool table to see Waverly and the redhead at the door. Shorty was walking out from behind the bar with his arms wide and a huge smile on his face. He watched as Shorty embraced Waverly. Some words were exchanged and then Shorty was smiling at and embracing the redhead who was blushing.
“Yo, Champ, isn’t that Waverly?” Kyle asked. “Who’s the hot chick with her?”
Champ didn’t say anything. He couldn’t tell them that Waverly had dumped him and was now dating a woman. What would they think? They’d tease him that he had turned her gay or something. No, he wasn’t going to acknowledge it. He downed his beer and grabbed the empty pitcher.
“I’m gonna go get us another pitcher,” he said instead.
He went to the bar and waited for Rosita to take his order. Just because he was closer and could overhear the conversation between Shorty and the women didn’t mean he was eavesdropping. It wasn’t his fault they were talking loud enough that he could hear.
“So, Waverly, can we get you to sing a few songs,” Shorty asked. “It hasn’t been the same since you left.”
“I don’t know…” she deflected.
She looked around the bar and their eyes met briefly. Champ noticed the redhead had put her arm around Waverly and was looking at her with an encouraging smile.
“You should do it, Waves. After you told me about singing here, I always wished I had a chance to see it. For me?”
“I don’t even have a guitar with me…”
“Some of your old stuff is downstairs, including a guitar or two,” Shorty interjected.
Champ knew exactly which guitar he was talking about. It was the one he had bought for Waverly their first Christmas together, one she had played for him when things were still good between them. She had left it behind when she went away to school. When she broke things off, and months had passed without any contact, he finally packed it and her other things up from their apartment above Shorty’s and asked Shorty to store it for her in the basement.
“I…” Waverly began. “Okay. But let us eat and have a drink first.”
“Perfect. The evening happy hour crowd should be here by then.”
As the Friday happy hour crowd was filling in, Shorty went up to the mic on the small stage they used for karaoke and open mic nights. Waverly stood behind him, tuning the guitar. Champ watched from the table where he and the York brothers were several more drinks in and well on their way to drunk.
Shorty cleared his throat into the mic to get the crowd’s attention.
“We have a treat for y’all tonight,” he began. “One of Purgatory’s beloved daughters has come home for the weekend and has agreed to sing a few songs tonight. Put your hands together for our own Waverly Earp.”
The crowd hooted and hollered as Waverly stepped up to the mic. Champ looked around to see the bar was full of regulars and they all knew and adored the woman on the stage. The redhead, Nicole he finally remembered, was standing toward the back, leaning against the bar, as she chatted with Rosita. He could see her eyes never left Waverly.
Waverly began to sing a song Champ had heard her sing many times before and he was transported back to that first year together. He imagined what it might have been like if things had gone a little differently, if he had ever really confessed to Waverly the depths of his love for her. What if he had convinced her to stay? Would they have stayed together and kept all those promises they made to each other? Rodeo championships. The little bar in Mexico. A life together. Just them against the world.
Waverly started another song. It was a new one he had never heard. A song about true love. But it wasn’t him she was looking at. He could see her eyes were locked with Nicole’s, as if there was no one else in the room. The look in her eyes and the smile as she sang to her new muse was unmistakable.
Champ downed his beer and bid his friends a good night before quietly making his way up the stairs to his apartment above the bar. Seeing Waverly and Nicole together, he knew that any hope he had that they might still have a chance was gone. Losing her was never in his plans but now it was time to accept it was truly over.