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Waverly tried to ignore the itch in her shoulder as she surveyed the patchwork collection of people sitting around the old cafeteria-style table, visiting her sister in prison.

There was Dolls, straight-backed and stern at Waverly’s right hand, nodding along to comments from Kate. Kate’s lawyer sat beside her client, mostly silent. Bunny Loblaw, Willa's replacement for the disbarred Constance Clootie, cast disapproving looks at everyone from her seat across the table.

Willa sat next to Bunny, across from Waverly, and said nothing. She stared at her hands, palms flat on the table, and let Bunny do the talking for her.

"My client offered to sell her shares of Earp-Holliday as a gesture of good will," said Bunny. "The least you could do is offer her a fair value for them."

"Your client," said Kate, with a smile like a garrotte, "put Earp-Holliday at serious risk by involving it and its subsidiaries in a web of criminal activity that stretched across the globe. Share prices are falling by the minute, and will continue to fall as long as she has any stake in the company."

Bunny's lips puckered, as if Kate had shoved a lemon between them. "Which is why my client has so generously offered to sell now, while shares are still valuable, rather than wait for you to force a sale and—"

Kate's smile vanished. "I wasn't done speaking."

Bunny reeled back. Kate's lips twisted in a snarl. "The least she can do, as the only one left responsible for this whole fiasco, is accept this offer, serve her sentence quietly, and never set foot on EHCG property again."

“I won’t let you walk all over my client just because—”

Willa raised a hand. “I can speak for myself, Ms. Loblaw." As Bunny stammered, Willa turned her attention to Kate. "It’s a fair deal. I'll accept."

"But Miss Earp—"

"I've made up my mind." Willa regarded Bunny coolly. "I didn't hire you to negotiate. You’re here to make sure this deal is as watertight as possible and nothing more."

Bunny sniffed, hands fluttering through the papers in front of her, and threw passive-aggressive glares at Willa and Kate that went ignored.

Kate turned her attention to Waverly. "And you... are you really sure you want to sell? Doc and I are still happy to have you. It might be nice to have a protégée."

All eyes turned to Waverly. She fidgeted in her seat. "I never really wanted to own a company. I wanted..." Her eyes slipped to Willa; she found her sister's eyes already on her, wide and considering. "Yeah, I'm sure."

They passed the contract and all its copies around the table. Waverly gripped the pen in her uninjured off-hand, tongue pinched between her teeth as she scrawled her name like a kindergartener. Kate signed next. Then Willa inscribed her name with a flourish, set the pen on the table with a clack, and pushed everything away from her.

They divvied up the copies. Lawyers conferred with their clients. One by one, they left.

On his way out, Dolls leaned down and squeezed Waverly's good shoulder. "Do you have another ride? I'd like to stop by my office before the inquiry but I’m happy to drive you."

"Nicole's picking me up. But thank you. For everything." Waverly pressed her hand over his.

“Don’t thank me yet,” he said, and then he, too, was gone.

Willa watched the interaction, impassive. Waverly's foot bobbed.

"Somewhere else you have to be?" asked Willa.

"The preliminary inquiry for my dad," said Waverly.

"Oh." Willa blinked. "I didn't know he'd been arrested. I'm... sorry. Really."

Waverly shrugged, the knot of her hands falling to the table. She twisted one of her rings and tried to corral the anxiety that had been nipping at her heels since she’d left the hospital. "Yeah, it's fine. I mean, it's not fine, it sucks, but he wants to be as cooperative as possible and..." She spread her palms over the laminate tabletop and released her worries in a huff. "I'll deal with it later. For now, I'm here with you."

"You don't have to stay. You can go be with your family. With Nicole."

Waverly frowned at the suspicion in Willa’s eyes, the threatened animal rumble lurking in her voice. "You are my family."

She wondered if Willa would ever stop being surprised at that. If she’d ever accept it. She hoped—and she still had so much hope, even after everything—that they’d get there someday.

"We haven't had a chance to talk, have we?” she said. “Did you, um… did you mean it? You’re really going to try?”

"Of course I meant it. Are you saying you meant it?"

“Yes. I always did." A smile settled on Waverly's lips, soft and sure.

For a moment, Willa still hid behind her mask of arched eyebrows and thin-pressed lips. Then her mask shattered. Drawing a shaking breath, she stretched her hand toward Waverly.

Waverly met her halfway. Her sister’s hand was more delicate than she’d expected, all long bones, her skin just beginning to show her age. At a warning shout from the guard, Willa retreated. She wrapped her arms around herself. "I... don't know how to do this."

"Talk to someone? Get to know them?"

"Of course I know how to do that." Willa scoffed. "You don't become student body president at sixteen without knowing how to talk to people."

Waverly maintained her smile and waited.

Willa deflated. "I'm sorry. That was uncalled for."

"It's okay."

"Is it?"

"Well, no." Waverly leaned forward on folded arms. "But you apologized, right? You're learning. We both are. That's the point."

"And… what if this doesn't work after all?"

Waverly shrugged. "Then it doesn't work. And that’ll be hard. And sad. But... I'm still going to try."

After a long moment, Willa uncrossed her arms and laid her hands on the table. She closed her eyes. She took a deep breath. "All right. Let's get to know each other. Where do you want to start?"

Waverly grinned. "Tell me about running for student body president."


The courthouse loomed over them. Nicole leaned across the steering wheel, peering at the overweening highway rest stop of a building through the windshield. Waverly braced herself against the dashboard and did the same.

"I'm not ready for this." Waverly slouched back into the refuge of her seat. "I'm not ready."

Nicole peeled herself from the wheel. She ran her hand down Waverly's arm, drawing Waverly’s attention to her with the electric thrill of her touch. "You'll get through this."

"How do you know?" Waverly leaned against her seat, studying Nicole. There was nothing left of the Nicole she’d found on the steps outside her apartment. This woman, this Nicole, hid nothing from Waverly: not her fear, not her pride, not her affection so deep and so strong Waverly thought she might drown in it.

"Because I know you," said Nicole, and Waverly held her gaze, hoping she was as much of an open book to Nicole as Nicole was to her. "You are extraordinary. And you have so many people behind you."

They tipped toward each other, succumbing to the gravity between them. When their lips met, the kiss warmed Waverly from within, chasing away the chilly fear of what lay inside the courthouse. "Okay," she said, when they parted. "Let's do this."

They made their silent march to the courtroom, hands linked. Another hearing was in session, and the room was silent save for the voice of one lawyer addressing the judge. Charlie sat with Dolls, their heads bent together over a folder in Dolls' hands. Waverly and Nicole inched into the aisle behind them. At a tap on his shoulder, Charlie turned. He leaned over the seats to pull Waverly into an awkward hug, mindful of the stitches in her shoulder.

"Thank you for coming," he whispered.

"Of course." She held him as long as he needed, shocked at the fear wreathing him like smoke, struck with the thought that in this moment, their roles were reversed: that she was her father’s strongest, staunchest support.

She gripped Nicole's knee. Nicole let her squeeze as hard as she needed.

The gallery was fuller than Waverly had expected. A handful of people clustered opposite her, all eyeing her. They tapped away at laptops and scribbled in notebooks, and with a flash of resentment she pegged them as journalists, there to report on an episode of juicy family drama.

The hearing ended and the next one began: Charlie's. Dolls and Charlie rose and took their places in front of the judge. Mirrored across the room, the crown prosecutor rolled her shoulders, a chorus of cracks rippling from her joints, and opened her mouth to speak.

A voice lifted above the clacking of laptop keys and the scritch of pens on paper, not from the prosecutor but from the back of the room. "Your honour? I know I'm talking out of turn, but I'd like to save you some time."

Every set of eyes turned to the back of the gallery. Michelle Gibson towered above the crowd, staring down the judge like a woman about to be hanged.

The judge narrowed her eyes. "Who are you?"

"Michelle Gibson Earp, Your Honour. Mother of Waverly Gibson."

Dozens of eyes turned to Waverly in a chorus of creaking seats and rustling fabric.

"Ms. Earp," said the judge, a frown weighting her lips. Waverly sank back with a sigh of relief as the gallery’s attention shifted. "The Crown is going to call you as a witness. Whatever you have to say, it can wait."

"That's the thing. I don't think it can. My daughter wasn't kidnapped."

The courtroom frothed with whispers. Heads swiveled from Michelle, to Waverly, to the judge.

Waverly watched her father. Charlie had become stone, his gaze fixed on Michelle.

The judge raised an inquisitive eyebrow at the crown prosecutor, who shrugged, and then at Dolls, who shook his head. The judge sighed. "Very well, Ms. Earp. Take the podium and let's get to the bottom of this."

Michelle strode toward the bar and let herself into the well of the courtroom. Charlie twisted to watch her every step. When Nicole’s hand brushed hers, Waverly seized it without thinking, drawing it into her lap and holding it firm.

"So you're telling me," said the judge, fingers drumming on the bench, "that your daughter wasn't kidnapped?"

"Yes."

"Explain."

"I told her father…” Michelle’s voice strained like a snagged thread and she glanced behind her, finding Waverly and Charlie in the crowd. “I told Julian to take her. I was afraid of my husband, Ward Earp. I was afraid of what he would do to her."

"So you told Mr. Charles to take your child? You just... gave her up? Completely?"

"I did, Your Honour. For her own good."

"Mr. Charles?"

Charlie pushed himself to his feet. "Yes, Your Honour?"

"Is that true?"

"I—" He glanced from the judge, to Michelle, to the judge again.

"Answer the question, Mr. Charles."

Michelle held Charlie's gaze. Something passed between them, wordless: an apology given, a truce brokered, an understanding reached.

Charlie's attention returned to the judge. "It's true." he said. "Ward Earp broke Waverly's arm. I have the records. Michelle and I were terrified. She told me to take Waverly and go and… we did. I took Waverly and we ran. Michelle gave me some money. I made us disappear."

Waverly had never seen such naked skepticism as on the judge’s face in that moment. After a long moment of studying Charlie, the judge said, "Ms. Lucado?"

The crown prosecutor, who had sunk into her chair with a look of weary resignation, popped back up again. "Your Honour?"

"How would you like to proceed?"

"The Crown requests a one hour recess."

"Granted."

Just like that, the court had moved on. Another crown prosecutor slipped into the well, conferring with Ms. Lucado a moment before turning their attention to the next case on the docket.

The crowd in the gallery thinned. Waverly and Charlie rose from their seats, inching toward the aisle, and met Michelle before she could dart from the room.

"Thank you," said Charlie. He seemed to sway toward Michelle, catching himself at the last moment.

Michelle flinched away from him. "I didn't do it for you."

A smile slid onto his face like a gentle wave breaking on the shore. “I know why you did it, Chelle.”

“You don’t get to call me that anymore,” she said, but there was no venom in it. She peered up at him. “You’re welcome to stay at the house when they let you go. As Waverly’s guest. And if you’d like to make yourself useful while you’re there, there are some plants in the greenhouse that need repotting. But you keep your distance.”

“Of course.”

She took a deep breath and dragged her eyes away from him, just as Dolls called Charlie’s name. Michelle turned on her heel and marched out of the room. Waverly felt torn between them until Charlie tucked her under his arm, kissed the crown of her head, and let her go. “Go with her,” he said. “I’ll be a while.”

Waverly and Nicole found Michelle lingering just outside the courthouse. Sunlight knifed through the clouds, scattering off the days-old blanket of snow. Michelle shaded her eyes with her hand and squinted at Waverly. "Here to see me off?”

“Yes, Mama.”

"Thought so. Walk me to my car."

Hand in hand with Nicole, Waverly crept alongside her mother like noontime shadow. Salt crunched beneath their feet. The wind snapped the flag cord against its pole.

They reached the car. No one moved. No one spoke. Unsaid things bottled up behind memories and hopes and fears.

Waverly uncorked her questions first. "Was that true?"

“You know it isn’t.”

“Why did you do it?”

“To keep them from throwing your daddy in jail, obviously.”

“Oh, you’re as bad as Willa sometimes. Be honest with me, Mama. Why did you help him?”

“This isn’t about him.” Michelle propped her hands on her hips. "I know you, Waverly. I know how this would have gone down if I hadn’t stepped in. You'd have been here for every hearing, every trial, watching your daddy get dragged to hell and back for something that happened before you could even remember. I didn't want that for you. You’ve been through enough.”

Reaching toward Waverly, Michelle laid one gloved hand on Waverly’s cheek and smiled, soft as featherdown. “I’m your mama, remember? I may not have done a good job protecting you before, but I’m not going to let that stop me now.”

As they pulled apart from another bonecrushing-yet-gentle hug—a Gibson special—Michelle cast an appraising look at Nicole. “Speaking of protecting,” she whispered in Waverly’s ear, “that girl barely left your side while you were in the hospital. I was worried we’d have to chase her off with a shotgun just to get her to eat.”

“You don’t need to sell me on her merits, Mama.” Waverly cast a glance over her shoulder at Nicole, who smiled, totally unaware that they were talking about her. Waverly couldn’t stop her own smile, her face warm like summer sun. “I’m sold. Totally.”

“I know you are.” Michelle popped the car door open and slid inside. “But does she?”


Waverly stood in the foyer of the great Earp house, totally alone.

There was something different about its silence. She’d walked its halls before, passing the doors that led to her sisters’ bedrooms, and found that the house grew so quiet that she could forget anyone else was there. Every footstep rustled through the woolen carpets. Every breath echoed in the cavernous halls.

But now she was alone, and the silence swelled to fill the space.

It was too much. She slipped into her jacket and boots and made for the cacophony of the outside world.

Charlie had gone back to Vancouver. He’d stayed one night, and woke her early the next morning. She’d dragged bleary eyes open to the dim shape of him, dressed and packed, and they said their goodbyes there.

She didn’t blame him, she thought, wading through a knee-deep snowdrift. He couldn’t stay there, in the house where so many of his dreams had crumbled like sand through his fingers.

That was why her mother had left, too, she was sure. Wynonna announced another trip to Europe, this time with Michelle along for the ride. Waverly had watched them go from the front door, and she’d seen the way Michelle turned away from the house, fleeing all the ghosts of the might-have-beens within.

A bird called out, a low, round whistle from the trees skirting the plains where the ancient Earps had made their home. Waverly trudged toward those trees, up a scant hill, her breath growing thick and sharp as she fought through the snow. Eventually, she saw what she was looking for: a fence, half-buried, gray with age.

She lifted herself up when she reached it, turning to face the home she’d left behind. The ground sloped toward the Homestead, weighted by its gravity. Someday, she thought, the memories would pile up so dense and heavy that the whole house would rip right through the world.

It didn’t belong. It never had.

Her eyes slipped to the little house. The real homestead. Nicole’s home.

In the chaos of her family fleeing, she hadn’t had a moment with Nicole. Nicole, she suspected, had made herself scarce anyway, off chasing errand after errand. Waverly wondered how many errands Nicole could possibly run, with one boss in jail and the other flying first-class above the Atlantic. She wondered if Nicole was afraid that Waverly would be the next one to up-and-go.

As she wondered, she noticed a spot on the white canvas below her. As she watched, it drew closer, hewing to the trough she’d carved earlier. Eventually, the spot came into clearer view: tall, red-cheeked, red-haired.

Nicole.

Waverly lifted a hand and waved, and Nicole waved back, something square and tan in her hand. It was an envelope, Waverly realized. A plain, brown envelope.

“There you are!” said Nicole, huffing and puffing. “I’ve been looking everywhere for you!”

“Yeah, I decided to go for a walk.”

Nicole reached the fence, leaned against it, and whipped off her toque to waft steam from her neck. “Up a hill, in the snow?”

“I couldn’t stay there alone,” said Waverly, noticing the way Nicole’s eyes flickered at that. She patted the fence beside her. “Sit with me?”

Hauling herself up, Nicole settled down as close to Waverly as she could manage, their thighs flush, their arms brushing. Waverly leaned in, and Nicole leaned down to meet her, and their kiss was soft and wind-bitten and wonderful.

“What,” Waverly whispered, reveling in the feel of Nicole’s jaw beneath her fingers, “did you drag yourself up this hill to talk to me about?”

“Maybe I just wanted to kiss my girlfriend,” said Nicole, proving it by darting in again. Time slipped away from them, lost in roving hands and happy sighs.

Waverly broke the spell first, reaching out to tap once, twice on the envelope still clutched in Nicole’s hand. “Not that I don’t want to kiss you for hours,” she said, and just barely avoided Nicole’s attempt to do just that, “but I think you came out here for a reason.”

Nicole reeled back. “Oh. Right.” She hopped off the fence and came to stand before Waverly. She offered up the envelope. “Here. Open this, first.”

“Last time you handed me a manila envelope, I hit you with it.” Waverly bent open the clasp.

“I don’t think you’ll hit me this time, but I’m prepared.”

Reaching into the envelope, Waverly pulled out a bundle of papers. Her eyes snagged on the logo on the upper corner of the first sheet: her old university. She looked up, brows furrowed. “I don’t understand.”

“I’ve been thinking about where we go from here,” said Nicole. “You. Me. Both of us. I don’t know what I want to do next. It’s been so long since I had to think about it. But for once in my life, I guess, I like not knowing. I like having this chance to figure it out. But you…”

Nicole tucked a loose strand of hair behind Waverly’s ear. “You, Waverly Earp, had a plan before all this happened. Ancient languages and history, right?”

“Gosh, that feels like so long ago.” Waverly glanced down at the envelope in her hands. “Nicole, this school is in the States.”

“I know.” Nicole searched Waverly’s face, as though memorizing every feature. “There's so much I remember about when I first met you. When you told me about transferring schools, I remember thinking how sad you seemed. Not even sad, really, just... dejected. You can afford to go to any school you want now. And I think you should."

A chill rattled through Waverly. "I'd have to leave."

"You were always going to leave,” said Nicole. “A place like Purgatory could never keep you pinned down.”

She tried to pull her hand away, but Waverly caught it. The folder and its contents fluttered forgotten to the ground. “Come with me.”

“To the US?”

“Anywhere. You said it yourself, I can go to any school I want now, and there are good schools everywhere. But there’s only one you. Nicole... I love you.”

Nicole closed the distance between them in one long step. “I love you, too,” she muttered between kisses. “God, Waverly, I love you, too.” Waverly lost herself in the currents of Nicole’s emotion, staggering back until she hit the fence and gasped against Nicole’s lips.

Bracing herself against the fence, Nicole pulled away, just enough to look down at Waverly with love-drunk eyes. “I’d follow you anywhere.” She bit her lip. “Across the country. To another country. To the moon. Anywhere you want to go.”

“Do you—” Waverly kissed Nicole’s lips. “—know where—” She kissed her jaw. “—I want to go now?” Her lips blazed down Nicole’s neck.

“Where?” whispered Nicole.

“Take a guess.”

Nicole scooped Waverly into her arms. Their laughter echoed, mingling with birdsong and windsong, as they forged a new path, together.