Work Header

The Ten Times Waverly Earp was Definitely NOT on a Date with Nicole Haught

Chapter Text

The Ten Times Waverly Earp was Definitely NOT on a Date with Nicole Haught


“Something's been creeping into my head / Turnin' my thoughts into a dizzy mess.
Something's been messin' up my bed / Stealin' my dreams, and now I'm gettin' no rest…

 You got me walkin' backwards / You got me thinkin' sideways
You got me talkin' circles / You've got me losin' my way
You got me crossin' every line
You've got me just in time…”

 — You Got Me, from Sweet Home Alabama / Original Motion Picture Soundtrack




Friday, May 27, 2016…  The Edge of Purgatory—11:30 a.m. Mountain Daylight Time

“Waverly, what are you doin’?”

Officer Nicole Haught’s cruiser slowly rolled alongside the younger woman as she walked at the edge of the gravel road toward the town limits of Purgatory. It hadn’t been difficult to recognize her, even at a distance, as she’d come upon her during her regular morning patrol of the area. It was the boots—the ones with the fluffy little pom poms—that gave her away. Much like every other ridiculously delightful little quirk about Waverly Earp—like the way she flitted and fluttered like a hummingbird when she was nervous or excited—Nicole found them amusingly adorable.

But right now, she wasn’t amused. Rather, she was a bit concerned given the way they’d left things earlier that morning. She hadn’t meant to be rude or dismissive, but in the moment, she’d felt as though Waverly wasn’t taking her seriously, and for some reason, that stung far more than it should have. She realized, in retrospect, that she was still chafed over the way Sheriff Nedley dismissed her experiences—her harrowing encounter with paranormal forces—the morning she and Wynonna were kidnapped. But that did nothing to excuse the way she had behaved with Waverly, and for that, she was truly regretful.     

“Being alone,” Waverly said. The huge russet-colored bag she had slung over her right shoulder swayed, and her boots crunched in the snow-covered gravel as she walked with determined strides, arms crossed over her chest. Her tone and posture were clear indications that she was still miffed, as was the uncharacteristically hard expression on her face. “I wanna be alone.” 

“Alright,” Nicole responded in a light, permissive tone. “Well, you’ve reached the edge of town, so… any further out and you’re gonna freeze to death. Just get in the car,” she pleaded, her tone gentle, reasonable. 

“No, thank you…” Waverly declined in a sing-song voice that paradoxically complimented and contradicted her cantankerous mood. She didn’t have a word for what she was feeling toward Nicole—at least not at the moment. All she knew was that it wasn’t good. Except that it was. Or at least it had been, until their unfortunate encounter that morning. She’d thought Nicole wanted to talk about what was happening between them, and Waverly, though not certain she was really ready for that talk, tried to find a way to express what she was feeling, only to have Nicole storm off without any real explanation.

And now she was just confused.

Nicole did that to her—or at least thinking about her did. Since the moment she’d met the woman, every time she saw her, or even thought about her, she didn’t know whether she was coming or going. She couldn’t think straight. It was like that song from the movie Sweet Home Alabama—Nicole had her walkin’ backwards, thinkin’ sideways; her thoughts, a dizzy mess.

And much to Waverly’s consternation, she couldn’t get enough of her.     

Christ, she’s stubborn, Nicole thought, as Waverly continued on, her gait resolute. Flummoxed, she frowned.  “I’ve got a Taser,” she noted with a flirty lilt to her voice, hoping to lighten the mood.  “Don’t you make me use it.”

Green eyes rolled. Why do you have to be so damned captivating? Right now, I just wanna be pissed at you.

Slowing her gait, Waverly reluctantly stopped. Willfully, she fought the grin that wanted to hijack her face, as she turned toward the gorgeous charmer, putting on her best disgruntled expression, only to find Nicole smirking at her, clearly quite proud of herself. Christ, you’re sexy.  

Realizing she’d won the battle, and hoping to avoid a war, Nicole pulled over onto the nonexistent shoulder of the gravel road that led out of Purgatory, bringing her police cruiser to a halt. And then she waited for the youngest Earp to come to her senses.    

Against her better judgment, Waverly found herself climbing into the front seat. Despite her cross mood, being so close to Nicole still made her belly turn summersaults. Every time she looked at the woman, her body reacted in ways it never had with anyone ever before. She was lost in those sensations when the sound of Nicole’s voice drew her back to the moment.     

“Okay, so… I’ll start,” Nicole sighed, breaking the silence between them. Waverly hadn’t said a word since closing the door. “Um, I’m sorry for being such an asshole before.”

“First you wanna talk. Then you don’t wanna talk. Then you tell me to talk, so I talk—,” Waverly rambled in clipped phrases, without even acknowledging Nicole’s apology. Clearly, she’d been stewing over it for a while.

Admittedly, Nicole had been frustrated by their earlier encounter but, in retrospect, she realized that they’d been having two completely different conversations. It was no wonder things had ended the way they did. Always with a cool head, she sought to bring reason back into their conversation, because miscommunication wouldn’t get them anywhere. “Okay—well, maybe we should figure out what exactly it is we’re talking about,” she interrupted, hoping to reel Waverly back in.

“Gus is selling Shorty’s,” Waverly abruptly announced. “She acts like she won’t, but she is. And everything is changing around me. But it’s all too fast, y’know? And it’s like… nobody ever asks me if I’m okay with it.”

Her breathing labored, she glanced toward Nicole, green eyes swirling with emotion, as Nicole held her gaze. “It’s like… could everybody just stand still for one frickin’ minute?!”

The words spilled from her lips, practically tumbling over one another, their volume and cadence increased exponentially; her heart rate and level of urgency rising along with it. Tension snapped along every nerve, coiling deep within her, and by the time she uttered the rhetorical question about everyone standing still, she felt so overwhelmed that all she could do was sigh.  

Not having an opportunity to get a word in edgewise, Nicole felt a little overwhelmed herself; but true to character, she handled it all in stride. Her heart went out to the younger woman. Clearly, she was struggling, and at this point, Nicole’s only desire was to ease her distress.

“Hey…” she said softly. Leaning forward, she reached out, gently taking Waverly’s hand in her own, giving it a comforting squeeze. “It’s gonna be okay.”

Simple words, but to Waverly, they were a soothing balm to her weary soul. She took a breath, her gaze dropping to her thigh, confirming the connection she felt the moment Nicole touched her. And then, casting a sideways glance toward Nicole before slowly turning her head, the expression on her face was a combination of edginess and chagrin—edgy, because Nicole was touching her and that set both her body and her emotions on a tilt-a-whirl—and chagrin, because she’d taken her frustration and stress out on the one person who had never done anything to hurt her.

The uncertainty in Waverly’s eyes made Nicole second-guess her decision to touch the girl. It certainly wasn’t the first time she’d touched her. There had been many an occasion over the past several weeks. But this felt different somehow, and she didn’t want to make Waverly uncomfortable. Self-consciously, she removed her hand; the sense of loss immediate—for both of them.

Waverly’s eyes softened, but she avoided Nicole’s gaze. “I just screamed at you,” she commented, her tone penitent. “You shouldn’t be nice to me.”

“You know, I think you’ve been dating too many shitheads,” Nicole declared forthrightly, leaning back in her seat.

Instantly, Waverly’s head snapped toward Nicole. “We’re not dating,” she barked. But her bark was far worse than her bite, as remorse quickly set in. It reflected in her face as she dropped her gaze again.

“I know,” Nicole quietly acknowledged, her eyes falling back into a sea of penitent green.

Waverly turned her head, staring out the windshield, as Nicole continued.

“God, Waverly,” Nicole said, sounding almost fatigued from their encounter. “I would never ask you to be someone you’re not.”

“Good,” Waverly declared. “Just don’t ask me to be anyone at all.”

“Fine,” Nicole said sharply.

“Fine,” Waverly said with finality. And then her face took on an expression of sadness and regret, as she thought better of her careless words. She hadn’t meant them at all.

Turning her head, Nicole opened her mouth, contemplating saying something else. And then she changed her mind. Exasperation set in her jaw as she turned to stare out the windshield. 

Waverly took a fleeting glimpse of Nicole, and then dropped her gaze to her lap. She felt like a complete ass, but she didn’t offer an apology. She wouldn’t even know where to begin. “Well, maybe just friends,” she ventured, looking back at Nicole with a touch of hopefulness in her eyes.   

Uncharacteristically, Nicole let out a short, cynical laugh. “Yeah, sure, Waverly, whatever you want,” she said out of sheer weariness. Sometimes the back and forth was exhausting. There was no sense trying to reason with the girl, and there was certainly no sense in trying to point out the fact that she was living in complete denial of her own feelings. Reaching for the ignition, she started the cruiser, and without another word, she pulled back out onto the road, heading toward town.    

Friday, May 27, 2016…  Ghost River County Municipal Offices—12:00 p.m. Mountain Daylight Time

Ten dreadfully silent minutes later, they were pulling into the parking lot at the Ghost River County Municipal Offices where Purgatory’s Sheriff’s Department was housed. Swinging her cruiser into its assigned space, Nicole cut the engine, and turned toward her passenger, poised to apologize again. But the expression on Waverly’s face stopped the words before she could say them.  

She looked so young, and so uncharacteristically sad that it nearly broke Nicole’s heart. Immediately, she regretted being angry with her. Everything in her wanted to reach out to the girl, to comfort her; but she thought better of it. She had no idea what Waverly was thinking, and she didn’t want to do anything to make it worse. Thankfully, she didn’t have to fret long.

Slowly, Waverly reached for the door handle. She looked like she wanted to say something, like there was something heavy on her mind. But when she opened her mouth, all that came out was, “Thanks for the ride, Nicole. I, uh… I was really cold out there.”

It was the truth. It was freezing outside, and she hadn’t meant to wander so far from town. But the interaction with Nicole had left her feeling so confused, so empty, and walking off the loneliness was the only thing she could think to do. Without meaning to, she’d lost track of time and distance, and she was grateful that Nicole had come along when she did.

Now, sitting here with Nicole, there was so much she wanted to say. But she couldn’t find the words. She glanced sheepishly at Nicole then, offering a faint smile. A second later, the door clicked as she pulled the handle. And just that quickly, she was gone.

Releasing a slow sigh, Nicole dropped her head back against the headrest. She hated how disconnected she felt from Waverly right now. She’d wanted to reach out to her, to touch her, just for a moment; to solidify their connection again. But Caution warned her against it. Tension coiled deep inside of her now, and she tightened her grip on the steering wheel, as she struggled to let it go. Difficult as it was, she knew she had only herself to blame. How had she let it get this far? She knew better. She’d been down this road before.

But the truth was, the heart wanted what it wanted. And God help her, it wanted Waverly Earp. She wasn’t just falling hard for the girl, her heart was already gone.

Friday, May 27, 2016…  Shorty’s—12:15 p.m. Mountain Daylight Time

Taking her time, Waverly meandered along the sidewalk, her boots crunching in the frozen remnants of last night’s snowfall, as she made her way down the block to Shorty’s. She usually arrived by noon on Fridays, and she knew she was running late; but she couldn’t muster the energy to care. It was so unlike her. But in the moment, she felt almost… devastated.

The entirety of her encounters with Nicole that morning had been a complete shit-show, and she hadn’t wanted to leave things with her the way she did, but she was at a loss as to what to do about it. How was it possible that a woman she wasn’t even involved with could make her feel so damned mad—and so utterly adored—all at the same time? It baffled her. And oddly, she found herself yearning for more of it. That was most baffling of all.

Arriving at the bar, she took a deep breath, steadying herself, and then she reached for the door handle, stepping inside the antechamber. She was grateful to find the inner doors pulled shut—it gave her a few more moments to collect herself before facing Gus, and tackling her day.

Dropping down onto the worn wooden bench, she slipped her wet boots from her feet, swiftly replacing them with the sneakers she had stuffed into the shoulder bag she carried with her to work each morning. It was a ritual, and sometimes it made her giggle as she thought about watching Mr. Rogers change his sweater and shoes every morning on that childhood show she used to find so enthralling.

The make-believe segment had always been her favorite, and she loved it when Trolley would come chugging out from behind the wall, taking them into the Neighborhood of Make-Believe. The memory brought a momentary smile to her face, and she stood up, stored her boots on the rack to dry, and though she still felt a bit preoccupied, she pulled the double doors open, poised to face her day.   

“Hey, Honey,” Gus greeted warmly when Waverly stepped through the doors. She was busy wiping down the cappuccino machine.

“Morning,” Waverly said offhandedly, closing the doors firmly behind her.

Gus studied her niece intently, noting that she looked distracted, and maybe a little upset. “You’re kinda late this morning,” she commented without judgment.

“What?” Waverly muttered absentmindedly. Her mind was in a fog. And then she realized what Gus had said. “Sorry, Gus,” she said penitently. Slipping her bulky blue coat off, she hung it on the back of the office door alongside Gus’s. “I just… I went for a walk, and lost track of time.”

“Well, there’s no need for apology, Hon,” Gus said warmly. “I’m just concerned about ya, is all. You okay?”

“Yeah,” Waverly sighed. “I just… I’ve got a lot on my mind.” Without forethought, her eyes darted toward a single familiar table near the office door, and the weight of all that had transpired dropped onto her shoulders again. She felt overwhelmed, the comment she’d made about not dating Nicole haunting her, forcing her to take stock of the relationship that had been developing between them from the moment she’d set eyes on the woman…


Chapter 1—Coffee and Crumpets:

Wednesday, April 13, 2016…  Shorty’s—8:15 p.m. Mountain Daylight Time

Music blared. The snap and crack of pool balls electrified the air. And laughter rang out from the far corners of Shorty’s bar. It was a typical Wednesday night, a few of the locals having dropped by for a drink and a few laughs on their way home from work. Waverly busied herself, tidying things behind the bar in preparation for her shift to end. Tuesdays and Wednesdays were her early nights, Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays, her late. 

Heavy boots clunked against the hardwood floor, drawing Waverly’s attention toward the double doors, and right into the piercing gaze of Nicole Haught. She was there again, leaning against the doorframe, that Stetson dangling loosely in her fingertips. Honest to god, it was the sexiest thing Waverly had ever seen.  

Just the sight of her made Waverly’s pulse race. She didn’t want to think about what it did to other parts of her body. She was still reeling from their initial encounter where, by the time they parted, she was sopping wet—and not just from being sprayed by the wayward tap. Her breath caught in her chest at the mere memory. It was a little scary, but surprisingly, not unwelcomed. Taking a deep breath, she steadied herself, and offered that smile—the one that made Nicole’s heart stop.

“Long day, Officer?” she inquired, trying to sound casual when she felt anything but, as Nicole sauntered toward her, that disarming smile playing on her perfect lips. Swiping a thick, absorbent towel across the nicked and dented surface of the bar, she watched Nicole’s every move as she perched herself on a barstool with an air of self-confidence that Waverly found irresistibly appealing.

“Not too bad,” Nicole answered in that smooth laidback style of hers.

Setting her Stetson on the bar, she clasped her hands together in front of her. Anything to keep from reaching out, touching the other woman. “How ‘bout yourself?”

Waverly tilted her head in that adorable way of hers, and smiled. “A little less crazy than the last time we talked.”

Nicole grinned. “Glad to hear it.” She leaned back on the barstool, surveying Waverly with appreciative eyes.

“What can I get ya?”

“Just a coffee to go.”

“You know, there’s an actual coffee shop just up the street,” Waverly mentioned offhandedly, pointing toward the west. She emphasized exactly what type of shop it was. “I hear they make a mean cappuccino.” 

“Yeah,” Nicole readily acknowledged. She was well-acquainted with the place. “But they don’t have a Waverly, so...”

God, this woman is irresistible. Waverly couldn’t help but smile.

She didn’t want to give the deputy the wrong impression, but she had to admit she was intrigued by her. Despite the fact that Nicole made her ridiculously nervous, she wanted to know her. She’d been contemplating calling since the moment Nicole left her business card on the bar the previous Friday. The way she dropped it there, so casually, and yet with such confidence—like she had no doubt Waverly would call—left an indelible impression. Truth was Waverly had slipped the card into her phone case with every intention of using it—as soon as she got up her nerve. And now, here she was, face-to-face with the gorgeous deputy right across the bar, once again. It was like Déjà vu, in more ways than one. Her belly did a flip-flop, sending the most delightful sensations splaying throughout her body, and she prayed the other woman hadn’t noticed the color she felt rising in her cheeks. 

“So… I get off in about fifteen minutes,” Waverly commented, as she leaned against the bar, doing her best to sound casual. It had taken her this entire time to summon the courage to say the words, and now she held her breath, awaiting Nicole’s response.

“Fifteen minutes, huh?” Nicole looked amused, and a little bit too smug for Waverly’s liking.

Shit. She could feel it coming—the flirtatious comment—before it even fell from Nicole’s lips.

“I bet I could get you off in less than two,” Nicole husked, that ever-present air of self-assurance shining through. God, it looked gorgeous on her.  

A deep blush colored Waverly’s cheeks, and she bit her lower lip adorably. Her insides trembled, and she failed at stifling a grin. “I was talking about work,” she said, emphasizing the part about her shift ending. 

“Oh!” Nicole tried to feign innocence, but the mischief in those arresting brown eyes gave her away. 

“I walked right into that one—didn’t I?” Waverly admitted with a sheepish glance toward the young deputy. Maybe she should just stop talking.

Nicole laughed softly. “Yeah, ya kinda did.” She paused for a moment, and then crooked an eyebrow. “So you’re off in fifteen?” The rising lilt of her voice begged to know the meaning behind Waverly’s impromptu announcement.

“Yeah,” Waverly confirmed. Her heart started racing again, and she struggled not to fumble over her own words. “I thought maybe I could, uh… I could buy you that cup of coffee. Y’know, if you’d like,” she offered with a shrug. 

“Fifteen minutes notice?” Her brow crinkling, Nicole looked suitably skeptical. “I thought you were a planner.” It wasn’t really a question. 

“Oh, I am,” Waverly replied with a nod and a shrug. She slung the towel over her shoulder with expert ease. “And right now, I hope I’m planning the rest of my evening.”

That adorable dimple appeared on Nicole’s left cheek as she smiled. Her heart skipped a beat, and she high-fived herself in her head. This was better than she’d hoped for, better than she could’ve imagined! Outwardly, she simply said, “I’d love to have that coffee with you.”

Before she could think better of it, Waverly found herself reaching across the bar, her fingertips lightly brushing Nicole’s hand. “Are you hungry?” she asked, the caretaker in her taking over.

Starving. For you. “I could eat,” Nicole answered noncommittally.

“What can I bring you?”

“How ‘bout some crumpets to go with my coffee?”

Waverly’s mouth twisted at the corners, and she arched an eyebrow. “This is coffee in Purgatory, not high tea in London, Nicole,” she said with a playful laugh.

“Pity,” Nicole replied with a meaningful frown. “I think you’d be well-suited for London.”

“Why?” Waverly crinkled her nose. “Do I look British to you?”

Nicole laughed. No, but you do look sexy enough to eat, she thought, but didn’t dare voice. “No,” she said. “But you’re definitely not like any other small-town girl I’ve ever met. There’s a whole lot more to you than you let on, Waverly Earp. I can feel it.”

Delivered with resolute conviction, Nicole’s words rendered Waverly utterly speechless. She felt exposed, but oddly, she didn’t seem to mind it. Not with Nicole. And she didn’t know why. Her face twisted into a perplexed expression. She wasn’t quite sure how to read the other woman—at least not yet. Before she could manage a response, Nicole leaned forward, as if to tell her a secret. “I don’t really care what you bring me, as long I get to enjoy your company while I’m eating it.”

Blushing, Waverly smiled faintly. “Are you always this smooth?”

You inspire me.  “Hardly.” Nicole chuckled at the mere thought. And then she sobered, realizing she might be making Waverly uncomfortable. That was the last thing she wanted to do.  “I’m sorry if I’m being too forward. Honestly, I don’t know what’s gotten into me.”

“I really am in a relationship,” Waverly said, sounding almost disappointed.

“I know,” Nicole replied. “And I respect that. I really do. I just… I really would like a chance to get to know you, that’s all.”

Waverly’s smile lit her eyes, as she searched Nicole’s face, noting the sincerity in those soft brown eyes. “I’d really like that too.”

“Good,” Nicole said with a sense of finality. “So… we’re gonna wile away the evening, talking over coffee, and you’re gonna feed me, and we’re gonna not be on a date.”


Nicole offered that knowing grin. “Okay, so I’m just gonna…” She pitched a thumb over her right shoulder toward an empty table near the back of the bar. “I’m gonna go grab that table, and I’ll meet you there in fifteen.”

Twisting her left wrist, Waverly glanced at her watch. “Make it ten, and I’ll bring you a heaping plate of something delicious.”

I bet you will. A playful smirk flashed across Nicole’s lips, causing Waverly’s face to flush again. “I can hardly wait."

Thursday, April 14, 2016…  Shorty’s—1:00 a.m. Mountain Daylight Time

“I hope you don’t have to work tomorrow,” Waverly commented. The bar was long-since closed, and quiet had settled around them like a cocoon. The only other person there was Gus, and she was in the office working on the books.  

“Oh, yeah, I have the early shift,” Nicole said passively. Her brow furrowed. “Why?”

“All this caffeine, you’ll never sleep tonight,” Waverly noted, as she poured another cup for Nicole. She’d lost count, and she was certain Nicole had as well.  

“Oh, god, no,” Nicole said, waving a hand in dismissal. “I could drink an entire pot, and go right to sleep.”

Waverly chuckled. “You sound like my sister, Wynonna,” she commented. “Not me. Sheesh… If I drank all that, I’d be buzzing for a week. And believe me, I don’t need any help, especially generating nervous energy.”

A soft laugh tripped from Nicole’s lips. She could definitely see the truth in that. “Caffeine’s never really bothered me,” she said. “In fact, with the workload of a triple major, I practically took it through an I.V. in college.”

“Triple major?” Waverly said, her tone questioning. She was noticeably impressed.  

“Yeah,” Nicole said, almost sheepishly. She shrugged. “What can I say, I’m an overachiever.”

“Wait a minute. Don’t tell me,” Waverly said playfully, a hand lifted to halt Nicole from giving her any more information. “Let me guess... Criminal Justice, Sociology, and…” Her forehead crinkled as she contemplated what she knew of the deputy, and then she added, “Forensic Psychology.”

A look of surprise flitted across Nicole’s face, and she leaned back in her chair, smiling. “Impressive.”

Waverly shrugged. “I’m kinda good at reading people.”

Nicole grinned. “I’ll be sure never to play poker against you.”

“What about pool?” Waverly challenged with a glance toward the pool tables on the other side of the bar.

An eyebrow arched, and Nicole laughed. “I have a feeling you know your way around a pool table. You’d probably wipe the floor with me.”

“Yeah, well, I practically grew up in this bar,” Waverly commented.

“Oh, yeah?” Nicole sounded intrigued. “What, does it belong to your parents?”

The question caught Waverly completely off-guard, and she scrambled for a response that wouldn’t sound pathetic, or worse… like a cry for pity. She had long-since been done with that shit. She opened her mouth to answer, only to be saved at the last moment.  

It was then that Gus came shuffling out of the office, failing miserably at her attempt to stifle a yawn. She’d been working at her desk for hours, catching up on paperwork and bills—and keeping a watchful eye on her niece. Her desk had a clear view of the table where Waverly was sitting with the young deputy. It did her heart a world of good to hear her niece laughing, to see her looking so happy and carefree.

“You finished with the books already?” Waverly sounded surprised.

“Already?” Gus questioned. “It’s one in the morning.”

“Omigosh!” Waverly exclaimed. “I didn’t realize it was so late.” They’d been talking and laughing for nearly five hours. And yet, somehow, as she looked at Nicole, it felt as though time stood still.

Gus smiled. “Clearly, you’ve been engrossed,” she teased gently. And then she leaned down, pressing a light kiss to Waverly’s cheek. “You girls enjoy the rest of your evening. Make sure you lock up.”

“Yes, Ma’am,” Waverly said with obvious affection, as Gus ambled toward the door, the heels of her boots thudding against the hardwood floors. She turned her attention back to Nicole then, offering a faint smile. “Gus owns the bar with Shorty,” she reported. “She’s my aunt.”

“Ah,” Nicole said, thinking she understood. “Guess that explains why you spent so much time here growing up.”

“Yeah,” Waverly shrugged. “Something like that.”

Nicole understood then that the subject was closed. Waverly, for all her openness when it came to others, was guarded when it came to her family. Nicole could certainly respect that. She had a few things of her own that she kept close to the vest. “So,” she said, poised to change the subject, “other than people, what else do you read?”

Books! Waverly’s favorite subject. They had been her friends when she was lonely as a child, her solace when the world took her Wynonna away. And later, they had become sources of invaluable knowledge when she thirsted for something beyond the narrow boundaries of the Ghost River Triangle. Her face lit up like a kid at Christmas to have someone she could talk about them with. “I read all sorts of things.”

The sense of pride in her tone drew a smile from Nicole. Leaning back in her chair, she crossed her legs and settled in, eager to hear all that Waverly wished to share. “Tell me more, she said, the expression on her face welcoming, open, ready to receive. She didn’t care that she had to work in six hours. All that mattered was that irresistible sparkle in Waverly Earp’s dazzling green eyes as she opened herself up to Nicole, sharing her love of books and knowledge in a way that she hadn’t with anyone else, ever.

It was another three hours before they finally locked up Shorty’s, heading out into the stillness of the dark Purgatory night. Waverly pocketed the keys, and turned to find Nicole leaning casually against the door beside her, that ever-present Stetson held loosely in her fingertips. She looked as relaxed as she had the first time Waverly set eyes on her. The sight of her there, shards of moonlight dancing in her soft brown eyes, nearly took Waverly’s breath away.

“Thank you for tonight,” Nicole said sincerely, her gratefulness encompassing all that had transpired between them. “This was the nicest time I’ve had since I moved here.”

The soft smile that played on Waverly’s lips illuminated her green eyes. “I’m glad,” she said. “I had a really nice time too.”

“Can I give you a lift home?” Nicole offered.

“Oh, I’m good, thanks,” Waverly graciously declined, pointing across the street to her ride.

“Ah, okay then, at least let me walk you to your Jeep,” Nicole said.

“I guess chivalry isn’t dead,” Waverly remarked, as she looped her arm easily through Nicole’s.

“No, I guess not,” Nicole chuckled. Gently, she covered Waverly’s arm with her hand.

When they reached the Jeep, Nicole leaned against the side, as she opened the driver’s side door, pushing it wide enough for Waverly to slip in between. The girl was standing so close she could still smell the lingering aroma of her shampoo—it smelled like wildflowers on a spring afternoon, and Nicole found it intoxicating. She struggled to clear her head, even as she cleared her throat.

“So…” she said, summoning her courage. “Would asking you tonight, if you’d like to go hiking with me on Sunday, give you enough time in your planner?” Her tone was light, teasing, yet simultaneously serious. “The mountains here are beautiful, and… I’d like to get a better view.”

A swirl of emotions played across Waverly’s face as she contemplated the invitation. “It’s a little early in the season for the mountains,” she noted. “Kinda cold up there.”

A daring grin teased at the corners of Nicole’s mouth. “I like to walk on the wild side.”

Waverly’s breath caught, that taut cord of attraction tightening in her belly, and before she could think better of it, she found herself nodding. “I’d love to go hiking with you.”

Nicole beamed, the excitement of a day with Waverly already building inside her. “Great,” she said. “Then it’s a…”

Realizing what she was about to say, Nicole stopped mid-sentence, biting her bottom lip. Changing course, she said, “Well, I don’t know what it is, but… it’s definitely not a date.”

Waverly laughed softly. “Right,” she said, with an accentuating nod of her head. “Definitely not a date,” she agreed, trying to convince herself that it was true. She climbed into the Jeep, and keeping her body turned toward Nicole, she met her gaze, holding it steadily. “But… whatever it is, I’m looking forward to it.”

“Me, too,” Nicole smiled. And then she nodded and stepped back, firmly closing the Jeep door.

Much to her pleasure, Waverly rolled down the window, not yet ready to part. Nicole stepped close again, her hand lightly brushing over Waverly’s fingertips as the lay curved over the door’s edge. “Goodnight, Waverly Earp,” she said softly, as she slipped her Stetson into place on her head.

Waverly smiled, her belly doing that flip-flop thing again. God, the woman was sexy. Everything about her—the way she looked in that Stetson, the way she moved, the sound of her voice, that gorgeous dimpled smile—made Waverly’s insides tingle. She wondered what Nicole would look like with those beautiful auburn locks set free of that French braid. And she had a sudden urge to pull the hat from Nicole’s head, and free them herself just to see. But she wasn’t brazen enough to do such a thing, and so in the moment, the only response she could muster was a softly murmured, “Goodnight, Officer Haught. I’ll see you on Sunday,” even as she prayed that she’d see her again far sooner than that.

“That’s an affirmative,” Nicole said with a tip of her hat and a teasing glimpse of that dimpled grin. It earned her another smile from Waverly—one that made her heart skip a beat.  

She stepped back then, as Waverly rolled up the window and started the ignition. Responding to Waverly’s cute little goodbye wave with one of her own, she stood watch as Waverly pulled out onto the main road. Her watchful gaze never wavered until the Jeep’s taillights were out of sight, and only then did she turn away, disappearing into the night.

Friday, May 27, 2016…  Ghost River County Municipal Offices—1:30 p.m. Mountain Daylight Time

Drawn from her memories of that first evening spent with Waverly, Nicole sighed longingly. Everything about the girl called to her, drew her near. And every moment they’d spent together since had only intensified that connection. That was why, she assumed, the sense of disconnect that accompanied Waverly’s departure just a few hours ago left her feeling so alone, so vulnerable.

Despite her steadfastness, she had to admit the roller coaster was a challenge at times; the stops and starts, frustrating. But two things she knew for certain: One, she would never push, or ask Waverly to be someone she wasn’t. She’d meant every word of that when she’d spoken it to her that morning. Waverly called all the shots. And two, no matter how long it took, or how frustrating the journey at times, she would never lose hope. Waverly Earp was the one she’d been waiting for her entire life. Everything in her told her it was true. She just had to wait until Waverly realized it too.       

Leaning back in her desk chair, she propped her boots up on the desk, opening the file for the new case Sheriff Nedley had just assigned to her. This one would no doubt take some work, and she was up to the task. She was eager to prove herself to the Sheriff, and this case was the perfect place to make her mark. Not to mention that it would be a welcome distraction while she waited patiently for the woman who owned her heart.

TBC in Chapter 2—Whiskey and Doughnuts…

Chapter Text

Yippee for our long-awaited Wynonna Earp Renewal!




The Ten Times Waverly Earp was Definitely NOT on a Date with Nicole Haught


 “If she was a drink, she’d be a single barrel bourbon on ice:

Smooth with a kick, a chill, and a burn all at the same time.

She’s Sunday drive meets high-speed chase.

She ain’t just a song; she’s the whole mix tape.

She’s so complicated—that’s the way God made her:

Sunshine mixed with a little hurricane…”

— Brad Paisley, Perfect Storm



Chapter 2—Whiskey and Doughnuts:

Friday, May 27, 2016…  Shorty’s—12:45 p.m. Mountain Daylight Time

Having changed out of her cream-colored cashmere sweater and sleek black pants into her usual Shorty’s t-shirt and a pair of form-fitting cutoffs, Waverly Earp busily ran through the list of daily chores, mentally ticking each one off as she finished it. This was the solitary part of her day; a time when she listened to music on the old jukebox, and rarely spoke with anyone. Well, except for a certain Sheriff’s Deputy who had taken to dropping by even when clearly, she knew the place wasn’t open yet. Despite how incredibly nervous the deputy made her at times, Waverly found that she didn’t mind the visits at all. Much to the contrary, in fact, she welcomed them. And that made her feel even more unsettled, but in the best possible way. She was virtually a study in contrasts, especially when it came to the subject of Nicole Haught. 

Much like Waverly herself since the moment she first set eyes on the attractive deputy, her job was often contradictory. Physically, it was demanding at times—hefting heavy buckets of ice and stocking the bar with cases upon cases of bottled beer and other liquors, all carried up a steep flight of stairs from the basement where the huge stock coolers were located. She appreciated those aspects of the job—they gave her muscled calves, firm thighs, and well-defined abs, not to mention those killer guns—and she didn’t have to be a slave to the gym to look like she practically lived there. That was certainly a bonus. But aside from physical demands and having to deal with the occasional inappropriate attention from some drunken guy, the job wasn’t very taxing, and in between tasks, her mind was free to wander. It wasn’t rocket science or brain surgery, after all; and she enjoyed having the time to think.

And think, she did. About everything. To the point of mental and emotional exhaustion at times. Gus told her all the time not to think things to death, but she was always so worried about making mistakes, or worse, letting people down. And it didn’t even really matter if she cared about them. She supposed that incessant need to please others came from being so scared of losing people, especially the ones she loved. But she often wondered why it mattered what complete strangers thought? Maybe she didn’t want anyone to think she was damaged goods because of her family history. She really couldn’t say. All she knew was the weight of a constant internal battle to do and say all the right things—she had to be perfect in everyone else’s eyes, regardless of how she felt about herself in the process. To be anything less was unforgivable.   

Before she’d finished her online degrees, she used the time before the bar opened to listen to audio files on her iPod, perfecting her skills in the languages she was studying—French and Latin were the two she focused on the most, but she also knew some Greek and Hebrew, and bits and pieces of a few languages no one in Purgatory had ever heard of.

She wondered if mama and daddy would be proud of her, not just for her accomplishments, but for the person she’d become. Gus and Uncle Curtis always were. Perhaps that was why it was so important not to disappoint them. If she did, maybe they would go away too. And so she strived, always, to make them proud. And she’d wondered too, if they had any idea where her mother had gone, or if they thought mama would ever come back. It was futile question to ponder though, because just as certain as she was that daddy had never loved her the way he loved Willa and Wynonna, she knew she would never see her mother again. It still hurt, the truth of it, when she actually allowed herself to think about it; but not nearly as deeply as it had when she was a child.  

Sometimes, she thought about what life would be like if she were to ever leave Purgatory. It was a scary notion to contemplate, she had to admit. She’d never really ventured beyond the borders of the Ghost River Triangle. At least not in the flesh. Thanks, though, to the internet and the pages of the countless books she’d read during her lifetime, she’d traveled the world. Still, it wasn’t the same as truly living it. There was a great big world out there, just waiting to be explored. As much as she’d missed Wynonna, she was a little envious of her for being brave enough to just go. And sometimes, she thought about how much she regretted not having the balls to be brazen like her big sister. 

And now, more times than not over the past several weeks, her mind wandered to a singular subject: Nicole Haught—the new Sheriff’s deputy who had swaggered into Shorty’s with her arresting brown eyes, beguiling charm, and dimpled smile, and less than five minutes later, left Waverly completely breathless in her wake. Each time she thought of the officer, she wondered what she was doing, or how her day was going. She wondered what shift she was working, and if she’d had time for lunch or dinner. She saw her smile, or heard her laugh, even when she was nowhere in sight. She found herself, more than a few times, hoping Nicole would just drop by for a cup of coffee, or even just to say hello. Every time the door opened, her gaze was drawn toward the sound, and each time that her hopes happened to be fulfilled, her heart fluttered beneath her breasts the moment she set eyes on her once again.   

Today was no exception.

In fact, it wasn’t even the rule.

Today, it seemed it was an obsession. She just couldn’t get Nicole out of her head… or her heart. And as she worked up a sweat filling the huge ice bins that were tucked away behind the bar, her thoughts drifted back to the night Nicole Haught first claimed a little piece of her heart…

Friday, April 15, 2016… Shorty’s—11:30 p.m. Mountain Daylight Time

After a long, exhausting week of fighting demon Revenants—nearly being killed by a pack of them herself—and saying final goodbyes to people she loved, Waverly Earp felt completely drained—physically, mentally, and emotionally. It was difficult enough dealing with the fact that Wynonna, Shorty, and Champ had been kidnapped by Revenants, but hearing the news that Shorty hadn’t survived struck a thunderous blow, especially on the heels of losing her Uncle Curtis. Shorty had looked out for her, protected her. He’d been like another uncle to her nearly her entire life. He was there, right alongside Gus and Uncle Curtis, when Willa was kidnapped and killed and her father died, and when life’s unfair circumstances took her Wynonna away from her. And now he was gone too. She was so thankful to have Wynonna back, and she treasured the relationship they were building together; but even the joy of having her sister home with her again couldn’t lessen the pain of the losses she had experienced.      

To his credit, and Waverly’s dismay, Champ had kept his word, sticking to her like glue all day long, hugging and kissing on her; just being there for her. And yet, she had never felt so completely and utterly lonely in her life. She couldn’t be angry with him—he really was trying to be sweet and supportive. But the truth was, his idea of support was annoying the hell out of her, and she’d never been more relieved than when he’d said he needed to leave for work.

Looking back on the day, she realized that the only time she hadn’t felt alone or annoyed was the few minutes she’d spent with Nicole that afternoon. Just the tender touch of Nicole’s hands, the brush of her fingertips on Waverly’s arm, made her feel alive, made her feel safe, secure. It made no logical sense how someone she barely knew could have such a profound impact upon her, but that didn’t make it any less true.

Sadly though, no matter how she felt, she knew deep down that could never have Nicole; even if she could bring herself to admit that she wanted her. Which she couldn’t. At least not now. It didn’t really matter what she wanted anyway, because regardless of her own desires, the whole damn town expected her to be sweet, straight, little Waverly Earp—the girl who always held sunshine in her smile, and whose tragic history hadn’t scarred her the way it had her sister, Wynonna.

Except that it had. She just never let anyone see it.

And that was why, except for the few tears she’d let slip through when Nicole came over to offer her condolences—and when she’d walked away, leaving Waverly alone with Champ, Waverly somehow managed to keep her emotions in check the entire day. As so often was the case when sad things happened in Purgatory, she’d spent her entire day consoling others, including Wynonna and Gus, and several of Shorty’s old buddies. And much to her consternation, with the exception of her family, and Nicole, of course, they all expected her to be their little ray of sunshine, even in the midst of her own escalating grief. So that was what she had given them.

Until now.

Now Shorty’s was closed. She’d done her duty, and then she’d helped to clean up after the memorial gathering, thankful that Gus decided to close early. And then she said goodnight to Wynonna and Gus, sending them on their way, with a promise that she would follow shortly thereafter—she just needed a little time to process, she’d said. And now, alone and within the safety of Shorty’s Saloon—a place that had always been her home away from home—she could finally just let it all go.  

And so she was sitting at the table at the back of the Saloon—the one where she and Nicole spent an entire evening just talking and laughing, forging a bond she was still at a loss to explain. It felt like a special place to her now—a place where she was safe to just simply be, because she’d been more herself during those few brief hours with Nicole, than she’d ever been in her life. And now, she gravitated toward it, longing for the freedom it somehow represented.

A half-empty bottle of Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve was perched on the table in front of her, a glass tumbler with a single shot of the anesthetizing amber liquid sitting next to it. Customarily, any self-respecting Earp would never even consider drinking their liquor from a glass, but the twenty year old Kentucky single barrel bourbon was certainly not something that one swigged from a bottle—it was something one savored. It was from Shorty’s private stock, costing more than fifteen hundred dollars a bottle. Shorty would’ve been pissed if he was still alive; but now, she thought it a fitting way to honor his memory, even as she sought to drown her sadness.

Lifting the tumbler, she downed the shot with an expertise that would’ve made her great-granddaddy, Wyatt Earp swell with pride. Drinking it from the glass was her way of showing respect for the fine liquor. That didn’t mean she had to sip it slowly. She was an Earp, after all. And Earps didn’t sip anything—they downed it with gusto.

Once emptied, the tumbler hit the table with a loud “clunk” thanks to its dense base, and she immediately poured another shot. She’d lost count of how many she’d already had. Not that she cared. It was just all too much—the curse had started again, the Revenants were hungry, jonesing to kill her entire family. Uncle Curtis was gone—she didn’t care what the police report or autopsy results said, she knew they had gotten to him. Gus had been injured so badly by them she’d been in intensive care for days! And now Shorty was gone at their hands, as well. What more could those evil bastards take from her? She was terrified to utter the question aloud, lest the malevolent gods take it as a challenge.    

Absentmindedly, she batted her glass tumbler between her hands. It made a scraping sound as it moved across the marred wooden surface, but she couldn’t really hear it over the sound of her own gut-wrenching sobs. Always the strong one, she’d held her grief in for far too long; and now it felt as though the weight of the world was crushing down on her. Her sobs grew increasingly more intense, as she finally let go of the façade, allowing the grief to fully envelop her.  

And then, like a beacon of soft, calming light in a sea of darkness, it was in the midst of that moment of weakness, of unspeakable grief, that she felt the strength of sure, steady hands gripping her shoulders, gently soothing her. She didn’t have to look up to know whose hands were on her. She knew it was Nicole.

Having stepped quietly inside the saloon a few minutes earlier, Nicole momentarily paused at the sight of Waverly hunched over their table, crying. Ordinarily, she would have stepped back outside, allowing the girl some privacy; but she simply couldn’t tear herself away as she remembered the way Waverly reached out to her at the memorial gathering. At first, it seemed like little more than a cry for help as Champ made a spectacle of himself, practically slobbering all over Waverly’s face. But then she remembered distinctly, the feeling of Waverly’s fingertips brushing across the top of her hand, beckoning for her touch. The innate urge that gripped her was so strong she’d struggled not to entwine their fingers. And now, her heart ached, just watching her. Everything in her wanted to just take the girls in her arms and comfort her, but she knew this wasn’t the right time. Not yet. And so, leaning against the doorframe in that casual way of hers, her Stetson dangling loosely in her hands, Nicole waited, allowing Waverly to expunge some of the grief she’d been bottling up since her uncle’s death.

And when Waverly’s cries turned to gut-wrenching sobs, finally, Nicole went to her. Quietly sliding her Stetson onto the table, she crouched down in front of Waverly. “Hey, now…” she whispered, one hand gently stroking Waverly’s hair. Her voice was soft, tender as she leaned close, her hand gliding down onto Waverly’s back, soothing her with a gentle caress. “I know it’s hard.”

Waverly sniffled loudly, and nodded her head. “It is…” she cried, struggling to catch her breath. “It’s super hard.”

“Yeah…” Nicole murmured empathetically, giving Waverly’s shoulder a supportive squeeze. “I know, Sweetie. I know... And I’m so sorry you’re hurting.”

Looking up, Waverly met Nicole’s sincere gaze. Swiping at her tears, she struggled for composure. She wasn’t accustomed to allowing anyone to see her weaknesses, not even Wynonna or Gus. “I’m fine,” she insisted. Sitting upright, she squared her shoulders. “Really.”

Slowly, Nicole slid her hands down along Waverly’s arms, taking Waverly’s hands into her own. For the second time that day, it struck her how soft they were, especially given the work that Waverly did. “You don’t have to be the strong one all the time, you know,” she said with a tenderness that nearly made Waverly cry again. She knew, without a doubt, that Waverly had always been the strong one.  

Shrugging helplessly, Waverly blinked to clear her vision, and looked at her with tearstained eyes. “It’s what I do.”

“Yeah, well, you don’t have to do it all alone,” Nicole said supportively. “You’ve got a friend here, Waves. Let me help.”

The gravity of Nicole’s words struck her like a tidal wave, flowing over her. She bowed her head, trying to maintain her composure. Staring into those warm brown eyes, so filled with sincerity, would only make her cry again. No one ever in her life had ever looked at her that way. It drew her in, even as it scared the hell out of her. She raked in a breath, releasing it slowly, allowing the wave of emotions to ebb, and when it did, it left the sweetest sensation, like a soothing balm to her weary soul. Glancing up, tearstained eyes held just a touch of a smile. “You called me Waves,” she said fondly.

“I—is that… okay?” The expression on Nicole’s face matched the uncertainty in her voice.

And then that smile touched Waverly’s lips; it nearly crushed Nicole’s soul—anguish etched in breathtaking beauty. “I like the way it sounds tumbling from your lips,” Waverly confessed. “You have beautiful lips, you know.” Oh, God, did I really say that out loud?

Suddenly, she felt self-conscious, nervous again from being so close to Nicole. “Shit. I shouldn’t drink whiskey,” she babbled, her tone dry. It’s like a frickin’ truth serum. She wondered briefly if she’d said that last part out loud.

Nicole felt her face flush hot. Glancing at the table, she arched an eyebrow. “How much of this have you had?” she asked, eyeing the half-empty bottle of what she recognized as top-shelf whiskey, sitting right beside her Stetson.

“I have no idea,” Waverly answered with a perky giggle; grateful to have the attention moved away from her ridiculous chattering. She was clearly under the influence, but she didn’t exactly feel drunk; and neither did she appear to be. And then she offered a toothy grin. “But it tastes like candy. Wanna try some?”

Nicole’s face held a wary expression. “Yeah, I don’t think that’d be a very good idea,” she cautioned. She tugged at Waverly’s hand as she rose from her stooped position. “Come on, Waves, let me take you home.”

“No—” Waverly refused with the adamant shaking of her head. “I—I’m fine. And I don’t…”

You certainly are, Nicole thought, but didn’t voice. “You’re not fine to drive,” she insisted.

“Oh, I would never…” Waverly was quick to reassure. She may have had a few too many, but she still had her wits about her. At least enough to know better than that. As for the remainder of her judgment, well… the evening wasn’t over, and that remained to be seen.   

“Wynonna or Gus around?” Nicole asked. She’d been surprised not to find them here with Waverly when she walked in. Glancing toward the office door, she noted the light was out. And the kitchen appeared to be dark, as well. Clearly, Waverly was there alone.

“No,” Waverly answered, shaking her head. “I sent them home. I needed some time alone.”

“Oh! I’m sorry,” Nicole said ruefully. “I hope I’m not intruding. That certainly wasn’t my intention.”

Reaching out, Waverly’s fingertips grazed Nicole’s arm, catching the fabric of her perfectly starched navy shirt as she met the taller woman’s gaze. She marveled for a moment at how the deep blue brought out the tiny flecks of blue and green in Nicole’s beautiful russet eyes. A split-second later, flummoxed once again by the wave of attraction she felt for the other woman, Waverly switched her focus, wondering how that shirt could possibly still be completely wrinkle free after being worn all day. Such an odd thing to ponder. Then again, that’s what Waverly did. She thought too much. Except for now, when she seemed to be babbling about all manner of things she wished she hadn’t. Like the next thing that came out of her mouth: “No,” she said quietly; her face was soft with affection. “I… I’m glad you’re here, Nicole. I like it when you drop in to see me.”

A faint smile rippled across Nicole’s lips. She loved the way her name sounded, rolling off of Waverly Earp’s tongue. And she loved knowing her impromptu visits were welcomed even more. Jesus, she had it bad. “Then let me take you home,” she said. “Please? I just… I need to know you’re safe.”

“I don’t wanna go home,” Waverly insisted, sounding sad. She needed things to be the way they once were before all hell broke loose in Purgatory again—she needed that sense of homeostasis, just for a little while. “I wanna stay here, in my old room.”

“You used to live here?” Nicole questioned. She didn’t know why, but it surprised her.

Waverly nodded. “Efficiency apartment. Over the bar.”

“Alright,” Nicole agreed, in that laidback way of hers. She didn’t suppose it mattered where Waverly slept, as long as she was safe. “Let me walk you upstairs then.”

“I need to lock up first,” Waverly commented. She was grateful she hadn’t done so when Gus and Wynonna left, or Nicole wouldn’t be with her right now.

Gently, Nicole touched Waverly’s arm. “I’ll get it,” she said. “The key’s above the doorframe to the right, isn’t it?” She remembered from the last time they’d locked up the bar together. It locked from the inside, allowing people to leave, but not come back in.   

“Yeah,” Waverly confirmed. “And… thank you.”

“Be right back.” Flashing that heart-stopping smile, Nicole dashed toward the front doors, the sound of her boots echoing throughout the empty barroom. She returned a few moments later, wrapping an arm around Waverly’s waist. “Okay, so let’s get you upstairs.”

Waverly’s arm fell easily around Nicole’s waist, and she marveled at how comfortable, how right, it felt, as she allowed Nicole to lead her toward the staircase. Fueled by the alcohol, her mind began to spin as she contemplated the possibilities. She wasn’t certain whether they made her more anxious… or excited.  

“So, what made you move in here?” Nicole asked, as they slowly ascended the stairs. She needed a distraction from the fact that Waverly’s arm was wrapped around her with her hand tucked up underneath Nicole’s coat, fingertips clutching her shirt just above her duty belt.  

“It was just… easier sometimes, you know, with closing up so late, and all,” Waverly shrugged. “Plus, I could drink, and didn’t have to worry about driving home,” she grinned.

When they reached the landing, an auburn eyebrow arched, as Nicole turned to face Waverly. “Jesus, you’re barely old enough to drink now,” she commented, emphasizing the timing. “I don’t even wanna know how old you were the first time you had alcohol.”  

Delivered on a light and playful, yet decidedly wry tone, Nicole’s comment made Waverly giggle. “I am an Earp, Officer Haught,” she reminded in a chatty tone that clearly said that should explain it all. It was kind of like Clarissa, in her head. “Alcohol and guns are in my blood.”

Nicole recalled the half-empty bottle of top-shelf liquor on the table downstairs. “Well, you do have fine taste in liquor,” she noted. And then her face adopted a roguish grin. “Now tell me the truth, Waverly Earp—are you packing?”

“I prefer shotguns,” Waverly announced. The double-entendre wasn’t lost on her, and she grinned in response. “The double-barreled kind. So if I were, you would surely notice.”

“Why am I not surprised,” Nicole chuckled. It wasn’t really a question.  

Waverly graced her with that infectious laugh, as she tightened her hold around Nicole’s waist. She glanced up at her, brow furrowed, and eyed her curiously. “How’d you even know I was here?” she asked, as they walked down a narrow hallway that led toward several closed doors.  

“Deductive reasoning,” Nicole answered. “Which room is yours?” she asked offhandedly.

Waverly pointed toward the battered wooden door at the end of the hall, and a few steps later, Nicole was pushing it open. As they stepped into the room, Waverly flipped the light switch on, and turned toward her, just in time to see Nicole kick the door closed behind them. Shit, that was sexy, she thought, her belly doing a somersault at the sight.

Taking a quick moment to survey her surroundings, Nicole took in the sparsely furnished room—it was something she was trained to do when entering an unfamiliar space. The place was roomy, as far as efficiency apartments went, and she noted a bathroom and changing area off to the right. Usually this type of apartment, especially in an outdated building like this, had a shared bathroom, accessible only from the main hallway. Score one for Waverly!

The walls were bare, with the exception of the vacant shelving, and a few abandoned hooks that were twisted into the burgundy plaster above the countertop in the kitchenette, where she presumed pots, pans, and cooking utensils once hung. And she could tell by the small holes in the plaster around the room that it had once been decorated, making her wonder how it had looked before the decorations came down. Spying the containers of spackling and joint compound, drywall knife, joint tape, mesh, and sandpaper on the countertop, she supposed Waverly had taken whatever was there back to the homestead, and just hadn’t had a chance to repair the holes. She had to admit the fact that Waverly even knew what supplies and tools were necessary to do a patch job was just a little bit of a turn-on. God, my ass is gay.  

Across the room, the bed, its sturdy frame made of antiqued wrought-iron, was neatly made. The throw pillows and blanket were a shade darker than the turquois paint on the walls, almost matching the color of the antiquated refrigerator in the kitchenette. She arched an eyebrow, and stifled a laugh at that refrigerator, and moved on.

A small, functional lamp nested on a crocheted doily in the center of an antique nightstand, just to the left of the bed—and directly behind it, she spotted a gaping hole in the wall. That explained the container of joint compound and the tape on the counter, and she wondered if there was a loose piece of drywall for patching, lurking around there somewhere. It looked as though someone had fired a shotgun clean through it.

She didn’t even want to know.

Casting the thought aside, she considered the apartment, and the girl who had once lived in it. In some ways, it was like a throwback to the 60s, but it was charming, and somehow, she could actually see Waverly living there.

Watching Nicole with rapt interest as she surveyed the room, Waverly’s face adopted a mischievous expression. She could tell by the look on Nicole’s face that she was analyzing things. “And how, exactly, did you deduce that I was here, Officer Haught?” she asked, her tone unabashedly flirty. “What were your clues?” And then, suddenly excitable, she gasped, her green eyes dancing with absolute glee. “Did you write your clues down in your handy-dandy notebook?”

Brow furrowed, Nicole studied those expressive eyes. “You’re not making fun of me, are you?” She was a laidback kinda gal, but she took her duty very seriously.

Sobering, Waverly said, “No, of course not.”

Nicole nodded, accepting her at her word. “Well, then, the ‘Closed’ sign is in the window, but the lights were still on,” she explained, as she slipped her coat off, tossing it onto the foot of the bed. “And your Jeep is parked right outside. So I just took a shot in the dark that you might still be here.” Lucky for me, you were.

Flinging her arms around Nicole’s waist, Waverly hugged her tightly, and then smiled up at her with those sparkling eyes. “You’d make a great detective, Officer Haught,” she giggled, as Nicole’s arms found their way around her of their own volition.  

Waverly’s hug caught Nicole completely off-guard, and even as she found her arms around the girl, she struggled to maintain composure. In most circumstances, Waverly Earp was completely fucking adorable. Sometimes, even when she was equally infuriating, much to Nicole’s chagrin. But at the moment, Nicole couldn’t even manage a response to her comment. Without her express permission, her body was busy reacting to having Waverly pressed so closely against her. It felt so good. Too good. She bit her lower lip, struggling to tamp down the sparks of pleasure that threatened to flare into an open flame.

They were so close Nicole could feel every curve and valley of Waverly’s taut, compact body against her own, and she was certain Waverly could feel the rapid pounding of her heart beneath her breasts. And god, she smelled delightful. Closing her eyes, she leaned her chin against the top of Waverly’s head, fighting the urge to bury her face in the softness of those long, beautiful locks, and simply breathe her in.

For Waverly, their unexpected embrace was equal parts comforting, and enlightening. She’d never been in another woman’s arms—not like this anyway. And it felt new, and different, and… right. Without thinking, she pressed her face into Nicole’s chest, and just reveled in the light, clean scent of her. Nicole’s hold on her wasn’t tight, by any means, and yet, Waverly had never felt so safe, so protected, in her life. It seemed to be a recurring theme with this woman, whenever she was around, and the more Waverly experienced it, the more she wanted it never to end.      

Several minutes passed, neither of them wanting to let go, as the air grew quiet around them. “Hey, where’d you go?” Waverly asked, suddenly aware of Nicole’s silence as much as her own.

Gathering her strength, Nicole grasped muscular biceps in her hands, and gently pried Waverly from her. “Nowhere,” she answered, meeting an almost lonesome gaze. It was amazing how quickly those beautiful green eyes shifted from playful to vulnerable. “Hey, I’m right here,” she reassured, tenderly tipping the girl’s chin, gazing deeply into her eyes.

Waverly’s gaze was locked onto her own, and the air around them crackled with intensity as their breathing drew mutually slower. God, she wanted to kiss her. But she couldn’t. It had to be Waverly who made the first move. And not while she was drunk. She offered a wobbly smile instead. “Um…” she swallowed hard. “Do you have a… t-shirt, or… something else to sleep in?” She needed a distraction, and fast.

Rendered momentarily speechless once again by the invisible cord that seemed to bind her to this woman, Waverly swallowed around the lump that had formed in her throat as she stood there, locked in the depths of the warmest brown eyes she’d ever seen. Pointing a finger toward the rickety chest of drawers in the far corner of the room, she managed, “Uh, third drawer down.”

A single nod marked Nicole’s response. Thankful for a plausible means of distraction, she released Waverly’s arms, and tore herself from that captivating gaze, stepping across the room to retrieve whatever she could find in the drawer.

Instantly, Waverly felt the loss. Dropping down onto the edge of her old bed, she distracted herself by removing her shoes, tossing them onto the floor near the nightstand. Ordinarily, she was meticulous about her things, but tonight, she was so distracted she honestly just didn’t give a shit.

She heard a bit of rifling going on behind her, and a few moments later, Nicole returned, a neatly folded football jersey in hand. It was obviously Champ’s, and Nicole didn’t want to think about why she’d found it in Waverly’s bureau drawer, but she knew it would be long enough to cover Waverly’s… assets; unlike the other tiny shirts she’d found. She wondered briefly if the girl even owned anything that covered her midriff. And then she realized how sorry she’d be if she did, because Waverly Earp had the most amazing abs, and she deserved to show them off.

“Will this…”

The question fell silent on Nicole’s lips, as they curved into an amused grin. She stifled the accompanying chuckle at the sight of Waverly struggling to remove the elegant, crocheted overlay she’d worn for Shorty’s memorial service. She wondered fleetingly whether Wynonna had equally as much trouble getting out of her own clothes, and amused by the thought, her grin widened.

She stepped closer, reaching for the delicate garment. From a distance, it looked like it was just lace, but up close, it was clearly a handmade piece with skillfully interwoven lace inlays, and it was quite lovely. “Here, let me help you,” she said softly. “This is beautiful. I wouldn’t want it to get torn.”

“Thank you,” Waverly said, both for the compliment, and for the assist. “Gus made it for me.”

If she was surprised by the information, Nicole didn’t show it. Again, she commented on how lovely it was, adding that Waverly looked quite beautiful wearing it. 

Waverly glanced up at her from where she sat on the edge of the bed. “Thank you, again,” she whispered, allowing Nicole to remove the garment. The corner of her mouth twisted into a lopsided grin. “You’re probably wondering how I even manage to get myself out of bed without getting tangled up,” she commented self-deprecatorily.

“Not at all,” Nicole said simply. Though, I wouldn’t mind finding out for myself. Next came the thin red polka-dotted tank top she’d been wearing beneath. And then Nicole was slipping the jersey over her head, and directing her to lift her arms.

She wasn’t really drunk, but letting Nicole take care of her felt nice. It had been so long since anyone cared for her this way—mostly her fault, she knew, because she’d always tried to be so strong and independent. Life was just easier when you didn’t need anyone, she’d learned. Her grief over Uncle Curtis and Shorty was proof of that—if she hadn’t depended upon them, loved them, she wouldn’t mourn them. But she was mourning them; and Nicole was here, taking care of her, making her feel safe, and she didn’t want the feeling to end.  

Once the oversized jersey was covering her, she slipped her hands beneath, releasing the buttons on her skirt. And then she lifted her hips, sliding the sparse material down her legs, allowing it to fall to the floor.

Nicole stifled a groan, and stepped back. This was all she needed—the object of her affection, under the influence, and brazenly stripping right in front of her. When Waverly reached for the clasps on her bra, Nicole gulped audibly, and diverted her eyes. Christ, almighty. What happened to the girl who wanted me to turn my back while she took her tank top off?

Quickly, she busied herself, picking the skirt up from the floor. It didn’t need to be done, but she needed something to do, to distract her from the fact that Waverly was taking off her bra. Folding the skirt neatly, she set it on the straight-back chair across the room.

Releasing the clasps, Waverly pulled the undergarment from beneath the fabric, dropping it on the floor, as well. And then she glanced up at Nicole, who was working very hard at ignoring the abandoned undergarment. Amusement warred with sadness. Maybe it was late. Maybe it was the whiskey. Or maybe it was something entirely different. All Waverly knew was that another surge of sadness was engulfing her, and she didn’t want to be alone. The threat of tears burned in her sorrowful green eyes as they met Nicole’s soft, brown gaze. “I’m really glad you’re here.”

A wave of compassion consumed Nicole, and instantly, she cast aside her own discomfort. She dropped to the bed next to her, gathering her close like it was the most natural thing in the world. Willingly, Waverly went into her arms, clutching to her, as Nicole’s fingertips tangled in those long, thick waves, and burying her face in Nicole’s shirt, she began to sob, anew.

Saturday, April 16, 2016… Shorty’s—1:00 a.m. Mountain Daylight Time

She hadn’t a clue how long she’d been crying, or how long Nicole had been holding her. And she really had no idea how they’d come to be in the position they were in. All Waverly knew was that she’d never felt safer, more protected, in her entire life. She was faintly aware of the warmth of Nicole’s hand, gently stroking up and down the center of her back, and of the warmth of her sweet-smelling breath, the words of comfort whispered softly against her ear, as they lay together in her bed.  

The longer she lay there, the more aware she became of their closeness. Her head was nestled against Nicole’s upper chest, her hand gently pressed against Nicole’s belly, and one leg was draped over a very firm thigh. “I’m so sorry, Nicole,” she hiccupped, once her tears were spent.

Suddenly self-conscious, she started to move away, but Nicole steadied her with a gentle touch and a few softly spoken words, and she relaxed again. “I don’t know what’s wrong with me.”

"Shh…” Nicole soothed, gently stroking Waverly’s hair. It was loose now, soft and flowing. She’d nearly lost it earlier when Waverly released it from its confines, allowing its length to cascade down her back. Like always, it smelled of sunshine on a spring afternoon. “There’s nothing wrong with you. It’s okay to be sad, Waves.”

Numbly, Waverly nodded. “I hate feeling so… needy.”

“Hey… Needing someone to just be there for you without any expectations doesn’t make you needy,” Nicole gently challenged. Instinctively, she knew that any comfort Champ might provide would come with strings; and from the expression on Waverly’s face, in her eyes, when he was practically devouring her earlier that afternoon, she wasn’t always an overly enthused participant. “It makes you human.”

Yeah, but I don’t need just anyone, Waverly thought. I need you. She wasn’t surprised at all by the truth of it, but that didn’t stop it from scaring the hell out of her. What did surprise her was that being scared didn’t make her want to pull away from Nicole. Oddly enough, it made her want to draw closer to the patient, steadfast officer. “Thanks, Nicole,” she whispered, the depth of her emotions evident in her tone.  

A soft sigh fell from Nicole’s lips, as she steadied her own emotions. “God, Waverly, I can’t even imagine how hard this must be for you,” she empathized. Like any small town, people talked. And when they talked, they talked about everyone’s business but their own. It seemed to be a means of making themselves feel better about their own plights. And so she’d heard a thing or two about the Earp girls, especially in the wake of Wynonna’s unexpected return: Their mother left them; disappearing without a trace. Their older sister had been kidnapped and murdered, and Wynonna had been sent away to a mental institution, where she was plied with drugs and declared mentally unfit, after accidentally killing their father. She couldn’t even contemplate how difficult Waverly’s life must have been, and yet, she had the most beautiful spirit. “You’ve been through so much heartache…”   

“And I’ll get through this, as well,” Waverly said with a fierceness that belied the ache in her heart. She really didn’t dwell on the past. There was no comfort or salvation in that. But in moments like this, she had to fight not to be crushed by the weight of all that she’d lost in her young life.

Reaching down, Nicole gently tipped Waverly’s chin, meeting her gaze. “I admire your strength, Waverly Earp,” she said sincerely.

Blushing, Waverly averted Nicole’s penetrating gaze. “Thanks,” she shrugged.   

“Can I get you anything?” Nicole offered, after several moments of silence. Holding Waverly so close against her was beginning to get to her. Not in a bad way, but still. “Water? Aspirin, maybe?”

“No need for aspirin—I’ve never had a hangover in my life,” Waverly admitted, almost proudly.

“Seriously?” Nicole sounded skeptical. 

“I’m an Earp, remember?” Waverly reminded.

“Ah, well, I guess there’s that,” Nicole chuckled. 

“Water would be great, if you don’t mind,” Waverly answered sleepily. “There should be a few bottles in the fridge.”

Spying the antiquated turquoise refrigerator in the kitchenette across the room again, Nicole grinned. It was vintage 1960s, and hideous as hell. “I feel like I’m in a time warp,” she teased. “Where the hell did you find that thing?”

Waverly laughed. “It’s revolting, isn’t it?” she agreed. “But it keeps my beer cold.”

“And water, right?” Nicole queried. Reluctantly, she untangled her body from Waverly’s, leaving them both feeling the loss, as she peeled herself from the bed.

Ambling across the room, Nicole’s boots clunked against the hardwood floor again, causing Waverly to grin. She rolled to her side, propping her head against her hand. “I wouldn’t bother trying to sneak up on me with those boots on, Officer,” she warned, her tone playful. “I’ll hear you coming a mile away.”

“Yeah, they’re kinda clunky,” Nicole agreed. “But they keep my toes from falling off when it’s twenty below. I honestly don’t know how you all survive up here in the cold.”

“Well, you’d better get used to it, if you’re planning to stay,” Waverly commented. “It’s like that at least six months out of the year.” It was nothing for it to snow in April or even early May, especially in the upper elevations

Glancing toward Waverly, Nicole gave her that winsome smile. “Oh, I’m definitely in this for the long haul.”

The comment left Waverly wondering, and the expression on Nicole’s face said it was purposeful. She had a way about her—flirting just along the edges, enough to pique the interest, but not enough to be obvious. “That’s good to know,” Waverly said with a smile.

Opening the refrigerator door, Nicole grabbed a bottle of filtered spring water from the bottom shelf, spinning it absentmindedly in her hand. Kind of like she had with Dolls’ cell phone when he’d given it to her to call Waverly. If she’d tried to do that, she would’ve failed miserably and made a fool of herself. “You’re down to three,” she reported as she closed the door and turned back toward the bed.

“I’ll grab another case from the basement tomorrow morning,” Waverly said.

Twisting the cap, Nicole set it on the nightstand. The smoothness of the gesture made Waverly want to watch Nicole open every beer she’d ever drink for the rest of her life. It was unnerving, and yet… the mere thought made her feel like home was standing right there in front of her. She felt her entire body flush, and she was grateful when Nicole broke the silence saying, “Here ya go,” as she handed the open bottle to her.

“Thanks,” Waverly said appreciatively. Tipping the bottle, she took a long draw. She hadn’t realized how parched she was until she tasted the cold filtered water.   

“No problem,” Nicole said casually.

Wordlessly, Waverly offered the half-empty bottle to Nicole, and Nicole shook her head. “I’m good, thanks,” she said simply.

Nervously tucking her thumbs into her duty belt the way she always did, she rocked back and forth on the heels of her boots. “I, uh… I should probably go soon,” she said reluctantly. Leaving was the last thing she wanted to do. But being here with Waverly like this was a supremely bad idea, and she knew it. 

Waverly’s heart sank in her chest as an inexplicably deep sense of disappointment set in. Bowing her head, she nodded almost imperceptibly. The heat of tears prickled behind her eyes, and she fought against them. The mere thought of watching Nicole walk out the door felt devastating. After a few moments of silence, where she could actually feel Nicole’s penetrating gaze on her, she summoned the strength to call out her name. “Nicole?” she barely managed.

Nicole’s heart ached from the pain in Waverly’s voice. “Yeah?” she answered quietly.

“Do you think maybe… you could stay with me tonight?” Waverly’s small voice was edged with the tears she was fighting to withhold.

“Waverly—” Nicole intoned.

Tearful green eyes met Nicole’s concerned gaze; the expression on her beautiful face nearly broke Nicole’s heart. “Please?” she quietly implored.

Setting the bottle on the table, she reached out a hand toward Nicole. She didn’t want to be at the homestead tonight; though, she didn’t really know why. And ordinarily, she didn’t mind being alone; but the thought of being without Nicole felt suddenly very lonely.

“This is a really bad idea,” Nicole cautioned. She knew it was true, but that didn’t stop her from taking the proffered hand. What was it about this girl that she was so powerless to resist her? Dropping back down onto the edge of the bed next to Waverly, one knee bent, she tucked her leg beneath her, as she cradled Waverly’s hand between her own.

“Why?” Waverly sniffled.

Reaching over to the nightstand, Nicole plucked a tissue from the box, handing it to Waverly—a gesture she had repeated several times since walking into this room with her. And then she covered Waverly’s other hand again. Holding it between her own, her thumb slowly stroked back and forth over soft skin in a gentle caress.

“Thank you,” Waverly sniffed. Accepting the tissue, she dabbed at her eyes and nose, and then dropped it into the waste basket next to her bed. “Why’s it a bad idea?” she repeated, once her emotions were in check once again.

“Because you’re a little bit drunk, and I’m a whole lot gay,” Nicole said in that forthright way of hers. And I don’t know that I have the strength to resist you, she thought, but didn’t voice. Instead, she swallowed hard, “And that’s a really bad combination, Waves.” She’d had more than her fair share of drunken, bi-curious straight girls crawl into her bed looking to assuage their curiosity back in college. She didn’t want a repeat of that here with Waverly. The truth was, Waverly Earp meant far too much to her for that, and she didn’t want to chance any harm to their burgeoning friendship.

“I’m not drunk, Nicole,” Waverly protested, sounding a bit harsher than she’d intended. “I can hold my liquor against the best of ‘em.” She shrugged. “Could probably drink you under the table,” she added proudly.

“I’ve no doubt of that,” Nicole granted. She’d never been much of a drinker, and she could never hold her own against an Earp; not when it came to alcohol, anyway. Honestly, she wouldn’t want to, even if she could.   

A devilishly flirty grin flashed across Waverly’s face. “I promise I won’t try to take advantage of you, Officer Haught.”

Nicole chuckled. Sometimes the girl could be so damned disarming. She could slay Nicole with nothing but a smile. “That’s not exactly what I’m worried about,” she said wryly.

Waverly arched an eyebrow, and Nicole smiled bashfully in response. “Okay, okay!” she said, agreeing with the utterance of a single word to spend the night with Waverly Earp. Lord, help her.  

A playful giggle bubbled from deep within Waverly’s chest, and she sat up, cross-legged on the bed. “Oh, goody!” she clapped gleefully. It felt like the weight of the world had fallen from her shoulders. “It’ll be like our own little private slumber party.”

Christ, you’re adorable. “Well, I haven’t been to one of those in a while,” Nicole granted dryly. At least not one with a gorgeous girl I’ve been jonesing for since the moment I set eyes on her!

Suddenly, it all became very real. She fell silent for a moment, contemplating; her gaze fixed on the hand that was still held firmly between her own. And then, gathering her courage, she met Waverly’s curious gaze. “Listen, Waves, I’ve gotta be honest here…”

“Honest about what?” Waverly looked confused.

“My feelings for you are real,” Nicole said candidly. “You affect me in ways that… I can’t even explain…”

You do the same to me... Waverly thought.

She opened her mouth to speak, but Nicole held up a hand, hoping to ward off any response until she was finished. “Now, I don’t expect you to carry the responsibility for that—my feelings are mine to deal with; but I won’t lie about it either. I…”

“Oh, god, Nicole,” Waverly said, suddenly realizing what she might be asking of her. She pressed a hand to her chest, the look on her face turning almost guilt-ridden. “I’m being selfish, aren’t I? Is this too much for you? I’m so…”

“No! God, no, Waverly. You’re not being selfish at all,” Nicole was quick to reassure. “In fact, I think you should be selfish more often. I just… I wanted to be upfront, that’s all. And I don’t want you to worry. I know you’re with Champ, and I respect your relationship. You know that.” Even if I do think he’s a complete tool. “And more importantly, I respect the boundaries of our friendship …"

“I know you do,” Waverly said sincerely, as she squeezed Nicole’s hand.

“Good,” Nicole said. “So as long as you’re okay with it, I’m fine too. I just… I needed you to know the score, that’s all.”

Waverly offered her a relieved smile. “I’m perfectly okay with it, Nicole,” she assured. “And I really don’t want you to go,” she added in an almost anxious rush.

“Then I’ll stay right here with you,” Nicole said comfortingly. “And I might even bring you breakfast in the morning,” she hinted with a wink.

An eyebrow arched. “Is that some kinda suave lesbian move I’m not aware of, or something?” Waverly teased.

Clear russet eyes twinkled. “Maybe—,” Nicole answered with a smirk.

Waverly laughed.

“Well, only if this was a date,” Nicole added offhandedly. “Which it isn’t.”

“Right,” Waverly affirmed. “Definitely not a date.”

Silence descended for a moment, and then Waverly’s fingertips were grazing Nicole’s hand. “Hey…” she said, breaking the stillness, and drawing Nicole’s attention from Waverly’s touch, to her eyes. “Thanks for… putting up with me being such a big, bratty baby.” Her tone was a mixture of appreciation and sheepishness.  

Shifting her legs, Nicole slipped her foot from beneath her, and began unlacing her boot. “Don’t be so hard on yourself, Waves,” she said supportively. Her boot dropped to the floor, and she shifted again, unlacing its mate. And then she met Waverly’s gaze, holding it steadily. “I kinda like it that you need me,” she quietly admitted.

A wobbly smile toyed at the corners of Waverly’s mouth. She could practically feel Nicole touching her. “Yeah, me too,” she confessed.

And then, that invisible connection having grown too strong to ignore, Waverly averted her eyes, focusing on the chest of drawers across the room. “There should be plenty of t-shirts and a few pairs of running shorts in the bureau, if you wanna get more comfortable.”

Nicole’s breath caught in her chest, and her throat turned dry as a desert gulch. She briefly considered taking off her uniform shirt—she was wearing a dark blue muscle shirt underneath. But then she thought better of it. The last thing she needed was the sensation of Waverly Earp’s bare skin against her own. “I’m good, thanks,” she managed to croak out, as she stood from the bed.

A knowing grin teased at Waverly’s lips, but she remained silent, as she watched Nicole set her boots and Waverly’s shoes side-by-side in front of the nightstand. Next, she released the buckle on her duty belt, allowing it to drop from her shapely hips. She carefully set it on the nightstand with her gun holster easily accessible—a tenant of her training.

Clearly, Nicole liked things neat and orderly, Waverly thought, as she watched with rapt attention, taking in Nicole’s every move, enjoying the way she navigated with such grace and precision. The tendency probably came from her training at the police academy, she assumed. Though enthralled by the steady precision with which Nicole moved, Waverly was also cognizant of the fact that she was essentially glimpsing a part of Nicole’s everyday existence. It felt intimate, in an odd sort of way, and that made Waverly feel even more connected to her. She wondered, briefly, what it would be like to see her doing these things in her own home, the way she usually did.

Her wandering thoughts were interrupted, as she was drawn back to the present by the sound of Nicole’s voice asking permission to join her in the bed. With a tremulous smile, Waverly met and held her gaze even as she purposely pulled back the covers from the edge of the bed. Climbing over them, her bare legs met the refreshing coolness of white cotton sheets. She scooted back, making room, and then Nicole was crawling back onto her bed, where she leaned into the pile of pillows stacked against the wrought-iron headboard. Waverly smiled up at her. “Comfortable?”

Nodding, Nicole wordlessly reached out an arm, beckoning to her, and without a second thought, Waverly went to her, burrowing against her side. Once she was settled, Nicole reached over, clicking off the bedside lamp. Moonlight streamed through the sheer white curtains that adorned the two large windows in the room, one of them directly behind the bed. She had to stifle a laugh at the shadow of a cowboy on a rodeo horse complete with a lasso that projected onto the far wall as the light filtered through. Clearly, that was Champ’s contribution to the décor. Lord, have mercy. Waverly Earp was a fucking saint.

Instead, she focused on the way the moonlight kissed Waverly’s hair and caressed her smooth, soft skin. Suddenly, the situation turned from a supremely bad idea to absolute lunacy. She would never survive a night with this woman in her arms. And yet, she couldn’t bear the thought of tearing herself away from Waverly right now.

Willfully settling her own disquiet, she held Waverly close then, and they talked deep into the night, Waverly sharing the story of her family, and how she had come to be raised by Gus and Uncle Curtis. She shared almost everything—except for the part about the demon Revenants, of course. Wynonna warned her never to talk about that with anyone but family. Revenants notwithstanding, she shared things with Nicole that she’d never spoken aloud in her entire life, and once they were purged, she felt a giant weight lift from her chest, freeing her from their bindings. And then, thoroughly exhausted, she finally fell asleep in the safety of Nicole’s arms.

Nicole lay awake long after Waverly dozed off, simply reveling in her presence. Her heart ached as she held her, she ached for all that Waverly had lost—and she prayed for all that she hoped she would one day find again. And finally, pressing a light kiss against Waverly’s temple, she smiled to herself. “I swear, you just might be the death of me, Waverly Earp. But oh, what a sweet way to go,” she murmured softly, before drifting off to sleep with Waverly tucked safely in her arms.

April 16, 2016… Shorty’s—7:15 a.m. Mountain Daylight Time

The distinctive sound of steel-toed uniform boots making a sort of “clip-clop” sound on the staircase, like the steady cantering of a trained show horse, didn’t surprise Gus in the least, as she rearranged stock behind the bar early the following morning. It sounded as though the maker of such noise was on a mission, and feeling rather upbeat about the prospect. “Good morning, Officer Haught,” she said, without even turning toward the source. Her voice was gravelly, but friendly, conveying what she hoped would be the message that she not only knew the young officer had spent the night with Waverly, but that she was more than okay with it.

Nicole, on the other hand, was a bit startled. She hadn’t expected anyone to be there quite so early. And she really hadn’t expected to be greeted by name, especially without actually being seen. Quickly, she gathered her wits about her, and just rolled with it, the way she usually did when unexpected situations arose—like Waverly’s request that she stay last night.  

“Oh, hey, Mrs. McCready,” she greeted warmly as she hit the lower landing, and turned on her heel to descend the last of the stairs. Her heart was light, her mood, sublime, as she greeted the new day. How could it not be when she’d awakened with Waverly Earp in her arms?

Admittedly, she still had mixed feelings about last night—not because Waverly had asked, but because she had chosen to stay, despite the warning bells that clamored in her head. She certainly couldn’t regret it, but she had an understandable fear of getting too attached to the younger woman and ending up heartbroken. She set those thoughts aside though, determined it would be a great day. “How are you this morning?”

“Oh, I’m just fine, Darlin’.” She turned toward Nicole, offering a warm smile. “And please, just call me Gus,” she said with the casual wave of her hand. And then she went right back to what she was doing, without missing a beat. “Everyone does; even my girls.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Nicole said respectfully. Boots hitting the ground level, she moved toward the bar. “And I’m Nicole, by the way. Waverly’s pretty much the only one who calls me ‘Officer Haught’,” she laughed.

Gus shook her head and grinned. That niece of hers was a real spitfire. She could only imagine. “Nicole it is, then,” she readily agreed. “First name basis seems fittin’, seein’ as you’re spendin’ so much time around here these days,” she added, a touch of fondness in her otherwise brusque tone.

Planting her hands on the edge of the bar, Nicole’s face adopted a curious expression. “How did you even know I was…”

Pointing toward the table at the back of the saloon before Nicole even finished her question, Gus answered, “Your hat.”

“Oh, right!” Nicole laughed. “I forgot I left it down here last night. Sorry ‘bout that.”

Swiftly, she moved toward the table. Spying the bottle of abandoned whiskey, she shook her head and grinned. Waverly really had tied one on last night. While it clearly affected her emotionally—she was certain that crying wasn’t something Waverly Earp often did—Nicole was baffled by how little it seemed to affect her ability to function. Lifting the bottle, she capped it tightly, and keeping it in her left hand, she scooped up her hat with her right.  

“No need,” Gus was saying, as Nicole gathered the items. “It wasn’t doin’ any harm.”

Stepping toward Gus again, Nicole set the half-empty bottle on the bar; trying to decide how much explanation she needed to offer given that she’d clearly spent the night. It was a little awkward, she had to admit; but it was made easier by the fact that Gus didn’t seem to mind that she was there.

Thankfully, she didn’t need to contemplate very long, because Gus simply moved on. Glancing up, the older woman eyed the bottle with concern. Even Wyatt Earp himself couldn’t swallow half a bottle of that shit, and still function. It was ninety proof! “How much of that did Waverly down last night?”

“I don’t know,” Nicole said honestly. “This is what was left when I got here.”

“She okay?” Gus asked, concerned. If she remembered correctly, this had been an unopened bottle.

“Seems to be,” Nicole answered vaguely. Whatever Waverly was going through, Nicole knew she had no right sharing it with anyone else; not even her aunt. She would never betray Waverly’s trust like that. Neither would she allow anyone to get the wrong idea about them. She knew she had to say something. Leaning forward, her forearms came to rest on the bar. “Just so you know, Gus, nothin’ happened between us last night.”

Her hand gripping the edge of the bar for support, Gus looked up at the deputy, as much surprised by her candor as she was appreciative of her desire to protect Waverly’s reputation. Such attributes were so rare in someone so young. “Well, even if it had, I imagine that would be between the two of you,” she said just as candidly.

Nicole nodded, accepting Gus at her word. “She’s still sleeping,” she reported, thankful that she’d managed to get out of the room without waking her. When she awoke earlier that morning, she’d lingered there with Waverly for several minutes, not moving, barely breathing, just to take in a bit more of the sweet time with her. And when her heart began to ache from the simple joy of it, then she carefully untangled herself from Waverly’s hold, and quietly lifting her coat, boots, and duty belt, she’d tiptoed out of the room. Reaching the top of the staircase, well away from Waverly’s earshot, she’d slipped them on, before heading downstairs. “I’m gonna run out and get us some breakfast. Hopefully, she’ll still be out when I get back.”

“Her sleep is usually rather fitful,” Gus observed, almost as if she were talking to herself. Her hands were busy filling the racks above the bar with wine glasses, but her mind was free to wander… and to remember. Truth was, she couldn’t remember a single time since Waverly came to live with them, where the girl had managed to sleep through an entire night. More times than not, especially when she was little, she’d ended up in bed with them, terrified that the demons were coming to take her away, just like they did Willa. Gus had cursed Wynonna, more than a few times, for traumatizing her little sister with her ridiculous stories about Revenant demons. Only now did she realize that Wynonna wasn’t crazy—she never had been. Gus felt terrible for ever having doubted her, and had vowed to make it up to her in every possible way.  

“If she’s still asleep, you must’ve done somethin’ right,” Gus declared, once she pulled her mind away from the self-chastising thoughts. She glanced up, meeting Nicole’s steady gaze. “Thanks for takin’ care of my girl.” Reaching out, her work-worn hand gently patted Nicole’s arm, and just as quickly, she withdrew.

A slight smile flickered across Nicole’s lips. The woman may have been a bit gruff sometimes, but her love for Waverly was more than evident. “It’s my pleasure, Gus,” she said sincerely.

“Well,” Gus sighed as she slung a damp bar towel over her shoulder, and planted her hands on her hips—a clear indication that the feel-good portion of their conversation was ending. “You’re welcome to use the kitchen down here,” she offered. “We cleared just about everything out of her refrigerator when she moved back to the homestead with Wynonna, but there’s plenty of food in the walk-in. Cook won’t be in for a few hours, so it’s all yours.”

“Oh, I just had doughnuts in mind, but thank you,” Nicole said appreciatively.

Gus nodded. “Waverly loves ‘em.”

Nicole grinned in response, and the smile lit her eyes. “Yeah, I know,” she chirped, settling her Stetson on her head with expert precision as she climbed the steps up to the entrance.

The light in those soft russet eyes told a story Gus wasn’t certain Nicole wanted to be read; but it was clearly evident where she wanted things to go. Gus hoped, for the sake of two tender young hearts, that it would turn out to be a best seller. “I imagine that you do, Nicole Haught,” Gus said, smiling to herself as she watched the young officer walk out the door. “And I imagine you know exactly what kind, too.”

Saturday, April 16, 2016… Shorty’s—7:45 a.m. Mountain Daylight Time

“You’re back,” Waverly said, sounding both pleased and a little bit relieved, when Nicole walked through the door. Deep inside she knew that Nicole would never just leave without saying goodbye; but still, when she’d awoken to find herself alone, she couldn’t deny that for a moment, she’d felt heartbroken. “And it looks like you brought me presents,” she grinned.

“‘Course,” Nicole said, answering both comments with a single word. She flashed that heart-stopping smile as she kicked the door closed with the heel of her boot, thankful that she’d left it ajar when she slipped out that morning. Her arms were full with a case of water she’d retrieved from the basement, under Gus’s direction, a box of doughnuts from the shop down the street, and two Styrofoam cups filled with piping hot coffee, from the kitchen downstairs.

Waverly was beyond impressed at how she had managed to carry all of that, and not spill the hot beverages in the process. “Here,” she said, hopping from the bed, and padding barefoot across the room. “Let me give you a hand.”

“Thanks,” Nicole said appreciatively, as Waverly grabbed the cups from atop the case of water. They were settled in a cup carrier that Waverly recognized as coming from the stock downstairs. That was the only way Nicole could have managed not to dump them on the way up to Waverly’s room. Once removed, Nicole set the remainder of her load down on the countertop with a loud thud.

“No, actually, thank you for all of this,” Waverly said sincerely. “You even went to the basement to get me more water.”

“Well, you were almost out, so…” Nicole shrugged. It seemed like the reasonable, courteous thing to do. Opening the refrigerator, she slipped the case of water onto the bottom shelf, laying the remaining three bottles on top for easier access.  

“You’re amazing,” Waverly praised. She loved how kind and courteous Nicole always was; it was such a breath of fresh air.  

Nicole blushed. Grabbing the box of pastries, she cast a smile in Waverly’s direction. “I brought doughnuts,” she announced, sounding rather pleased with her accomplishment. 

“Ooh!” Waverly’s eyes sparkled with excitement. “Did you get the ones with chocolate icing, and custard filling? Oh, and just some regular glazed ones, too?” Wynonna liked the powdered ones, but Waverly preferred just plain glazed, or the custard-filled chocolate ones. And sometimes, she liked the ones with sprinkles on top.

“Of course I did,” Nicole said proudly. And then her voice dropped a register. “They’re you’re favorites, aren’t they?”

It wasn’t really a question, and Waverly knew it. She allowed her gaze a slow perusal of Nicole’s beautiful face. It matched her heart, she decided, smiling up at her.

“And I brought you coffee,” Nicole was saying when she discovered Waverly’s eyes on her. She shrugged, and handed over one of the cups. “I know you’re not big on it like I am, but Gus said you drink it in the mornings.”

Caught off-guard by the casual mention of her aunt, Waverly arched an eyebrow. “Gus is here?” She glanced at her watch. “She’s really early.”

“Yeah,” Nicole confirmed. “I ran into her on my way out.”

Wordlessly, Waverly nodded. 

The wheels were spinning, Nicole could tell. She reached out, her fingertips briefly brushing across Waverly’s hand. “Hey… I told her nothing happened between us,” she reported, her tone soft.

“She seem okay?” Waverly asked. “I mean, not about you staying over or anything,” she clarified, sounding a bit nervous. “Just…”

“Yeah,” Nicole answered with a shrug. “Seems fine. She’s worried about you, though,” she reported.

“Me?” Waverly looked confused, as she moved across the room to the only place there was to sit. Setting her coffee on the nightstand, she climbed back onto the bed, settling cross-legged in the center. “Why?”

“Maybe because you’ve been through hell these past few weeks,” Nicole suggested, following Waverly’s path with her coffee and the box of doughnuts. She settled on the edge of the bed, turning to face Waverly, her coffee cup cradled in her hands.  

“I’m fine, Nicole,” Waverly said passively. “Really.”

They both knew she was lying, but Nicole didn’t challenge her. Not yet, anyway.

Amazed at Waverly’s ability to compartmentalize and live in complete denial of her own feelings, Nicole simply shook her head. “I can’t believe you don’t have a hangover,” she commented, shifting the subject just slightly, as she lifted the lid on the doughnut box.

The moment she got a whiff of those doughnuts, Waverly realized how hungry she was after her bender last night. Trying to ignore the growl in her belly, she shrugged. “Like I said, I’m an Earp,” she said humorously.

Nicole eyed her curiously. “You remember saying that?”

Laughing, Waverly said, “Of course I remember. I told you I wasn’t drunk last night.”

Nodding, Nicole simply banked that information. She looked amused, and the expression on her face reminded Waverly of when she’d told her she was dating a boy-man. Somehow, she knew both of those comments would one day come back to bite her in the ass.

“What else do you remember?” Nicole was asking, as she reached over, setting her coffee on the nightstand next to Waverly’s. She handed Waverly a paper plate and napkins that she somehow magically produced. And then she moved the box toward Waverly on the bed. Then, bending her right knee, she unlaced her boot, allowing it to drop to the floor.   

Ignoring the question for a moment, Waverly took note of the empty spaces in bottom of the box, where there had clearly been other doughnuts. “Did you leave some downstairs with Gus?” she asked, already knowing the answer. She sounded touched.  

“‘Course,” Nicole shrugged. “She made us coffee. Seemed like a fair trade,” she said, as she repeated the process with her other boot before climbing back into the center of the bed. Truth was, she’d thought of Gus and bought extras before coffee was even a part of the bargain.

“That was really nice of you,” Waverly said, thanking Nicole for her thoughtfulness. She reached inside then, taking one of the round chocolate custard-filled delights, and leaving the glazed for later. They were from her favorite shop just down the street—she’d recognized the box immediately—and she couldn’t wait to dig in.

Biting down, she made the most delightful noises of appreciation. The sounds brought a smile to Nicole’s face—and some unmentionable reactions to other parts of her body. She fleetingly wondered if the girl made those same sounds during sex, and felt an urgent need to find out.

That was enough to nearly send her over the edge. Frantically, she sought some sort of distraction, but found herself locked in Waverly’s penetrating gaze instead. “I remember everything, Nicole,” she said softly.

A flash of emotions rolled through Nicole’s body like a thunderstorm, and her breath caught in her chest. I remember it, too. Every single moment. In Technicolor. “Yeah?”

Waverly nodded. She remembered the safety of Nicole’s arms, the solid strength of her body, as Nicole held her close. The way she’d opened herself up to Nicole like she never had anyone ever before. And even in the light of a new day, she had not a single regret. “Yeah,” she quietly confirmed. “And I’m not sorry for a moment of it.”

Releasing a sigh of relief, Nicole smiled, feeling a little less out of control. “I’m glad,” she said simply. And then she reached into the doughnut box, pulling out one of the glazed ones. They were her favorite too.

“You know,” Waverly said, after swallowing another bite of her chocolate-covered delight, “you’re gettin’ kinda good at getting me outta my clothes.”

Discomfited, Nicole’s face flushed. Christ, almighty. As if it wasn’t enough that the girl was still sitting there in nothing but her boyfriend’s old football jersey, which, she couldn’t help but notice, was ridiculously sexy. Now she wanted to talk about how she’d gotten into said jersey!

An eyebrow arched, as Waverly awaited Nicole’s verbal response to her blatant flirtation. But the expression on the other woman’s face really told her all she needed to know. Amused, she teased in a low, sultry voice, “Should I be worried?”

Nicole’s expression quickly shifted from moderate unease coupled with obvious interest to absolute mortification. “Waverly, I would never…”

Surprised by the intensity of Nicole’s response, Waverly exclaimed, “Oh, god, that’s not what I meant! I’m so sorry, Nicole.”

“Oh, n-n-n-no, don’t you apologize,” Nicole quickly responded, her hands lifted in surrender. She knew she was the problem, and didn’t want Waverly to take the heat.  

“Okay, then maybe I should just stop talking,” Waverly suggested, frustrated by her own awkwardness. Criminy! Why was it so hard to flirt with a girl? She needed to find a better way, because it seemed like every time she opened her mouth, it was a complete shit-show. Maybe there was a book she could read, or a video on YouTube, or… something. More to the point, why was she even trying? Shit. I am in so much trouble here, she realized. But in the moment it didn’t matter anyway, because now she felt terrible for the reaction she’d caused in Nicole.

“Well, don’t do that, either,” Nicole said with that easy grin. “And you are not responsible for the way I reacted,” she quickly added. She could see the guilt written all over Waverly’s face, and she’d be damned if she let the girl take responsibility for something that clearly wasn’t her fault. “I guess I… I’m just a little sensitive when it comes to that. You know, with the job and all.” There wasn’t much she hadn’t dealt with since joining the force, and she’d developed defense mechanisms to cope with the brutality of the world she lived in; but anything involving harm to a woman or child still really got to her. “I’m the one who’s sorry.”

Instinctively, Waverly reached out, gently brushing her fingertips against Nicole’s cheek. “I like that you’re sensitive.” she said sweetly. Empathy, in its truest form, wasn’t something she was accustomed to seeing in her world, and she appreciated it when it came along. “And… I trust you, Nicole.”

Difficult as it was for her to believe, it was the truth, and she knew it. She did trust Nicole. With every fiber of her being. If she didn’t, she never would’ve allowed the woman to see the depths of her grief last night. And she certainly wouldn’t be sitting here with her, dressed in nothing but Champ’s old jersey. Unlike Nicole, who hadn’t so much as even tried to cop a feel, or even take a peek, if he were there, he undoubtedly would’ve been mauling her by now. The very thought of it actually made her skin crawl, and so she chose to focus on the very antithesis of him—Nicole Haught. Shit, she really needed to stop comparing the two of them, because Champ would never win. And if that was true… Oh, she couldn’t even think about that right now.   

The simple stroke of Waverly’s fingertips against her face caused Nicole’s breath to catch. The whole world stood still for several moments, and then a soft smile played on her lips, indicating that she felt at ease again. “I’m glad,” she said quietly. “I won’t let ya down, Waves.”

“I know,” Waverly said with a sense of conviction she’d never felt in her entire life. She gave Nicole’s hand an affectionate squeeze. “I’m really glad you stayed last night.”

Nicole nodded. “I’m glad you trusted me enough to ask.”  

Settling in then, they talked about everything and nothing, just as they had that first night downstairs in the saloon, when time stood still, and all the world seemed to disappear around them. Waverly was her usual animated self, telling anecdotes about growing up in Purgatory, and some of the quirky people she’d encountered. Coupled with her own experiences, the more Waverly talked, the more Nicole swore the place sounded like a cross between Stars Hollow from the Gilmore Girls and Sunnydale from Buffy. But that was crazy, wasn’t it? Such places only existed in television shows and books, right? And yet somehow, it had become her life.

When Waverly wasn’t being completely adorable, Nicole made corny jokes, just hoping to elicit that infectious laugh from her. It flowed like honey from her lips, and just like Nicole’s name as it slid from her tongue, the sound was a symphony of pleasure that touched her deep in her soul.

Without even realizing how it happened, Waverly found herself feeling more at ease with herself than she had in years. And as she simply let go of her own expectations, she discovered the most delightful give and take to the flow of their interactions. There were moments of quiet reflection, interspersed with the laughter, and the teasing, and the subtle flirting, but they didn’t feel awkward. There were both guilty of stealing covert glances, sharing bashful smiles whenever they were caught, and then they would laugh again, all while they finished their coffee and doughnuts.

And when their chatter turned to plans for their hike, which was now only a day away, Waverly found herself smiling as she realized her wish to see Nicole again long before Sunday, had come to pass in the most unexpected and delightful way. It was sad that it happened because of Shorty’s death, but still, she felt grateful. And happy. Really, truly happy, for the first time in a very long while. And whether she realized it or not, Waverly Earp was falling in love. As for Nicole Haught, well, she already knew she was there.

Friday, May 27, 2016…  Ghost River County Municipal Offices—2:15 p.m. Mountain Daylight Time

The sound of Wynonna Earp’s boots against the lackluster linoleum floor drew Nicole from her ponderings of that night with Waverly, as she came storming out of the Black Badge Division offices, slamming the door behind her. She was cursing under her breath, something about Dolls being a pussy and needing to just go fuck himself. How perfectly Wynonna, she thought, momentarily amused. But anger was often a mask for hurt, and if Nicole hadn’t known any better, she’d have sworn there were tears in the elder Earp’s eyes.

“Hey…” she greeted with concern in her sincere russet eyes. “Everything okay?

“Just fuckin’ peachy,” Wynonna snapped. Her eyes were wild, almost grey, her face contorted as if she were in anguish and fighting to rein it in. She paused for a moment, glaring at Nicole. And then she shook her head, those wild brunette locks falling loosely around her face, framing it with perfection.

A fleeting thought rippled through Nicole’s head as she wondered if it was possible to be sexually attracted to someone’s hair. There was no question—Wynonna Earp was smokin’ hot, and that ass of hers was top-shelf all the way. Nicole hadn’t lied about that. But it was that hair that made her just a little weak in the knees. It was the strangest thing because beyond those wild locks she wasn’t attracted to Wynonna in the least. Not the way she was drawn to Waverly. Everything about Waverly was beautiful, and hot, and sexy, and… Once again, she found herself lost in her thoughts about the youngest Earp girl. She’d pondered, on more than one occasion, how one woman could be so beautiful, so completely smoking hot, sexy, and alluring, and cute as a fucking cupcake, all in the same moment. Waverly Earp simply took her breath away.  

Wynonna must’ve gotten miffed by Nicole’s obvious distraction, because without another word, she turned on her heel, and with a dismissive wave of her hand, she stomped out the door, that perfect mane waving in the breeze as she moved.

Nicole simply shook her head. Damn, these Earp women are fiery, she thought, remembering that same wild look in Waverly’s eyes when she was angry. She couldn’t help but grin. Even when she was sad, or pissed as all hell, Waverly Earp was beautiful. Her heart ached from the memory of it. Especially the memory of holding her that night. Nothing had ever felt so right in her entire life, and more than anything, she wanted to hold her that way again.

TBC in Chapter 3—Vistas and Vales...

Chapter Text

The Ten Times Waverly Earp was Definitely NOT on a Date with Nicole Haught


“She was born in the springtime of her twenty-seventh year

Comin’ home to be place she’d never been before.

She left yesterday behind her; you might say she was born again.

You might say she found a key for every door…


Now she walks in quiet solitude the forests and the streams

Seeking grace in every step she takes.

Her sight has turned inside herself to try and understand

The serenity of a clear blue mountain lake…


Now her life is full of wonder, but her heart still knows some fear

Of a simple thing she cannot comprehend

Why they try to tear the mountains down to bring in a couple more

More people, more scars upon the land…”

— John Denver, Rocky Mountain High



Chapter 3 – Vistas and Vales:


Sunday, April 17, 2016…  The Earp Homestead—9:30 a.m. Mountain Daylight Time

The eastern slopes of the Canadian Rockies could be seen for more than a hundred miles on approach from either side of the border between United States and Canada, and situated on the southwestern edge of the Ghost River Triangle, the Earp Homestead held a breathtaking view of them, in all their grandeur. According to Waverly, they were snowcapped year round, and sometimes fresh snow fell even in some of the lower elevations even in mid-summer. That might’ve seemed crazy to Nicole, if not for the experiences she’d had throughout her life. She hadn’t grown up near the mountains, but her heart overflowed with memories of trips with her family—of hiking, and camping, mountain biking, and even skiing. Winter, Spring, Summer, or Autumn, if her family took a vacation, it was always to a place where the mountains loomed high, and the tranquil waters flowed. Life had been good then—innocent, and sweet.

And then came the days that turned to weeks, then months spent on snowcapped mountainsides a world away from all that she had ever known. Fraught with abject poverty and unparalleled fear, unbridled chaos and almost certain death, those places were the antitheses of innocent and sweet; but her presence there was necessary, vital even. And she was proud of the work she had done with those people, in those places, at that pivotal time in her young life.

Duty may have torn her from those people, forced her to leave those places behind, but still, she carried their memories in her heart, and their stories lifted her spirit, anchored her soul, even in those moments where they nearly broke her. And now that she was home—or at least on her own side of the world once again—she was free to embrace the mountains for the tranquility they had once represented to her. Like many she knew, who felt drawn to the ocean, she had always been drawn to the towering vistas and the cool, serene vales. They were breathtaking in their beauty, and their stillness ever beckoned to her. And though she’d been gifted with further opportunities to explore the Great Smoky Mountains, as she’d traveled through Georgia, the Carolinas, and Tennessee, nothing on this continent compared to the grandeur of the Rockies. She could hardly wait to explore them; and to do so with Waverly Earp by her side, well, that just made them all the more appealing.

It was deep within such thoughts that Nicole found herself blissfully adrift when Waverly exited the house, one arm raised with a hand shielding her eyes from the glare of the morning sun. The early-morning frost having surrendered to the sunshine, the air swirled warmly around her, embracing her as she moved across the mostly barren front yard. Though the nights were still cold, bitterly at times, springtime couldn’t have arrived soon enough for her, and she couldn’t wait for the grass to grow and the wildflowers to bloom. Once it was warm enough through the nights, she would plant a plethora of flora around the homestead, particularly along the front porch railing—and much of it would be pink, whether Wynonna liked it, or not.  

She spotted Nicole across the way, her sleek, black SUV parked in a spotty patch of fledgling grass near her battered old red Jeep. The rear gate was lifted, and Nicole, dressed casually in a pair of sexy low-slung, faded blue jeans, a dark blue long-sleeved Henley with silver snaps that were unfastened down to… there, and a pair of well-worn, sand-colored combat boots, her thick auburn hair pulled back in a messy tuft that peeked out through the back of a black ball cap, was busy organizing gear, making space for whatever Waverly wanted to bring along.

For the first time since their introduction, the deputy wasn’t wielding her duty belt or her service weapon. But she did carry a sleek black military-grade Glock, securely holstered beneath her left arm, and poised for a stealthy cross-draw. Shifting what looked like a very heavy old-fashioned steamer trunk at the rear of the SUV, Waverly watched with rapt attention as the muscles in Nicole’s arms, shoulders, and upper back flexed and moved beneath the dark fabric of her shirt.

Slowly, her eyes slid down along Nicole’s torso, onto the curve of her hip, taking care not to miss that perfect ass—it looked absolutely fucking amazeballs in those jeans—and then down the length of toned legs that seemed to go on for miles, finally settling on those boots. She swore under her breath—combat boots had never looked so alluring as they did at the end of Nicole Haught’s shapely denim-covered legs. And as she paused to take her in, she found herself nearly breathless. Damn, that woman was sexy. Everything about her made Waverly want to…

Oh, she couldn’t go down that path. Not right now, anyway. She struggled to steady herself before Nicole caught sight of her, and once she’d caught her breath, she called out, “You got a permit to carry that thing?”

The sweet, playful sound in Waverly’s voice drew Nicole’s attention away from her task. She glanced across the dusty expanse of yard, meeting a teasing green gaze and a smile that nearly made her heart stop. “Several of ‘em,” she winked flirtatiously. “But I’m only packin’ one today. Bears and coyotes, don’t cha know.” She turned her attention back to the trunk, adjusting the retractable ratchet on the tie-down that held it firmly in place in the rear cargo area of her SUV.

“Is that supposed to scare me, Officer?” Waverly said nonchalantly, as she moseyed toward Nicole. She wasn’t in a hurry—the view was too good to rush.

“Does it?” Nicole questioned forthrightly. Meticulously, she wound a climbing rope, securing it into a neat bundle, and dropping it, along with several quickdraws and a few other odds and ends, back into the trunk. She’d pulled them out while searching for some of the hiking gear they would need later on, and the rope had somehow come undone.  

“Well, it’s not gonna have me scaling you like a tree, if that’s what all the climbing gear is about,” Waverly commented with a smirk.

Amused by the hint of sass in Waverly’s comment, Nicole chuckled softly. Glancing up again, she turned her head, russet eyes locking on Waverly’s gaze, laughter dancing in their depths. “I imagine you’re quite capable of taking care of yourself, Waverly Earp,” she said, matter-of-factly.

Waverly grinned. She loved that Nicole didn’t treat her like a helpless child—or worse—a physically weak, unintelligent female with nothing to offer but her looks or her body. “And don’t you forget it,” she said toughly.  

“Oh, I don’t think there’s any chance of that,” Nicole commented, a roguish grin bringing those dimples out to play.

Coming to a stop next to Nicole, Waverly glanced up, the corner of her mouth twisting upward as she squinted against the sunlight to read the insignia on Nicole’s ball cap—United States Marine Corps: The Few, The Proud. “The Marines?” she questioned, curious as to why Nicole had never mentioned being in the service. Now the combat boots, not to mention a few other things, made perfect sense.

Nicole’s face lit up, and she rose to her full height, almost as if she were standing at attention. “Semper fi,” she said proudly, her cheeks dimpling again.

“Really?” Waverly sounded impressed.

“Yep,” Nicole confirmed with a nod. Closing the steamer trunk, she flipped the latch, locking it down securely. “Served three years right outta high school; half of it in Afghanistan.”

“Afghanistan?” Waverly gulped, and her heart lurched in her chest. The mere thought of Nicole being in the midst of all of that chaos scared the shit out of her, and she hadn’t even known her then!

“Yeah,” Nicole shrugged, as if it were nothing. “It paid my way through college.”


Sobered, Waverly swallowed hard as she struggled to reconcile feelings she couldn’t even identify. Nicole couldn’t have been much older than her right now when she’d been shipped halfway around the world. She couldn’t even fathom living in a war zone at that age—any age, for that matter, but damn. The horror, the devastation she must have witnessed; and yet, she didn’t seem to possess even a single hard edge—instead, she was calm, and tender, and kind. It didn’t even occur to her that, thanks to the Earp Curse, she’d lived in her own kind of war zone from the time she was a little girl. All she could see was Nicole. “You really are amazing,” she marveled. 

Delivered on a strangled whisper, Waverly’s comment caused Nicole’s face to flush with modesty. “It’s not that big a deal,” she said offhandedly; but the expression in her eyes said otherwise.

“I… I had no idea,” Waverly stammered, still trying to process it all. She was curious, but she didn’t want to push. “I figured it was just your police training,” she murmured, more to herself than to Nicole.

“What was my police training?” Slightly confused, Nicole’s interest was piqued.

“What?” Waverly seemed a bit confused. And then she realized Nicole had heard her. “Oh! The way you move, the precision,” she replied, as she slowly searched Nicole’s face, her eyes. “It’s… efficient, like every motion is calculated, there’s nothing wasted.”

Nicole smirked. She was grateful for a way to shift the focus from herself and the past. Leaning casually against the edge of the SUV, she crossed her arms over her chest, causing her biceps to strain against the fabric of her shirt again. “So… you’ve been watching my every move, eh?” she asked, her tone cool and flirtatious.


Waverly felt her face flush hot, and Nicole snorted in response. The effect she had on the younger woman amused her—not to mention, it turned her on a little more than it probably should. But she didn’t care. Waverly Earp was sexy as hell when she was flustered, and Nicole wanted nothing more than to fluster her every single day for the rest of her entire life.

Where the fuck did that come from? Nicole wondered briefly. It struck her, not only that she’d thought it, but that she’d actually meant it.

Waverly’s expression turned indignant as she held Nicole’s gaze with determination. “And what if I have?” she challenged, her feet planted firmly, arms crossed beneath her breasts.

Those dimples made another appearance. She loved it when Waverly got feisty. “Well, you certainly won’t hear any complaints outta me,” she commented with just enough flirtation to come across as sweet, rather than presumptuous.

Flustered yet again, Waverly swiftly shifted their conversation back to what she thought would be safer ground. “So… why the Marines?” she questioned.

“I like a challenge,” Nicole shrugged. “And they’re the toughest branch to get into.” She paused for a moment, and then with a smirk, she leaned close, as if planning to let Waverly in on some long-hidden secret. “Plus, it’s kinda badass to say you were a Marine,” she added, her tone low and husky.

Biting her lower lip to repress a smile, Waverly swept her gaze along the full length of Nicole’s firm, fit body once again, this time imagining what she looked like in her military uniform—her fatigues, her Dress Blues, or anything else that might come along with the package. The images were so powerful she had to stifle a whimper. “So where are we going?” she managed, seeking distraction from the thoughts that tumbled loosely in her head. They were dizzying.

“I thought we’d go chasin’ waterfalls,” Nicole said simply.

Equal parts curious and confused, Waverly’s brow furrowed, and the corners of her mouth twisted into a lopsided frown. “Is that some kind of lesbian metaphor?”

Ever amused by Waverly’s quick wit, Nicole offered that knowing grin. And then she leaned close again, whispering against Waverly’s ear, “Only if we want it to be.”

Waverly’s breath caught in an audible gasp, drawing another grin from Nicole as she leaned back against the SUV again. And then, contemplating her response, Waverly chewed her lower lip. “What if I don’t know what I want?” she asked, her voice quavering almost as much as her insides.

Nicole’s lips curved into an evocative smile. “That’s okay,” she said, her fingertips feathering across Waverly’s cheek. “We’ve got time.”

The trembling in her body double-timed and Waverly smiled. It was that same unsteady smile she’d offered when Nicole casually dropped her professional card onto the bar at Shorty’s the day they first met, declaring without a doubt that there would, in fact, be “some other time.” She loved Nicole’s unwavering confidence. And she loved that Nicole was so patient. And most of all, she loved the genuineness, the sweetness of Nicole’s flirtations. It made her feel desired, without feeling threatened or used—something to which she was definitely not accustomed. “I’ll go grab my things,” she announced abruptly. She needed to distance herself before she said… or did… something stupid, because at the moment, what she really wanted to grab was Nicole Haught.

“Need any help?” Nicole offered.

“Nope, I got it,” Waverly was quick to assure. She sure as hell couldn’t have Nicole follow her into her bedroom. Or Lord help her, she might’ve forgotten all about both their hike—and Champ. “Thanks, though.”

“Your sister around?” Nicole called out to her as Waverly sprinted toward the front door.

Turning toward the sound of Nicole’s voice, Waverly lifted her hand to block the sun from her eyes again. “Yeah. Why?”

“Invite her to come along if you’d like,” Nicole suggested. She genuinely liked Wynonna, and though a part of her really hoped she’d have the day alone with Waverly, she wouldn’t have minded if Wynonna came along.  

A hearty laugh spilled from Waverly’s lips. “Have you met my sister?”

Wynonna didn’t hike. Not in the mountains anyway. The only time she hiked anywhere was when she was running away from something and didn’t have money for the bus. Besides, she wasn’t running anymore. She was home to stay. She’d promised. The simple joy of that thought settled in Waverly’s heart, providing a sense of contentment. She loved having Wynonna home with her. And she loved that Nicole thought enough of Wynonna to invite her, even if they both knew she would never accept.   

“Yeah, yeah,” Nicole said passively. “I know—she’s a biker, not a hiker.”

Amused, Waverly grinned. “Exactly.”

“All right,” Nicole granted with a shrug. “But she doesn’t know what she’s missin’.”

Perhaps not, Waverly thought. But I know what I’m gaining—time alone with you. Smiling to herself, she turned once again toward the front door, disappearing inside to collect her things—and hopefully her composure. She was about to spend an entire day alone with Nicole Haught, and she couldn’t imagine wanting anything more—or being any more terrified of the very fact that it was true.

Sunday, April 17, 2016… Banff National Park, Alberta, Canada—10:45 a.m. Mountain Daylight Time

It never ceased to amaze Nicole how close the mountains appeared at times; and yet no matter how long you drove, they always remained so far away—like reaching out to touch the sun, or the moon, or clouds—no matter how close they seemed, still, they were somehow unreachable. And yet unlike those objects suspended in the cosmos, with the mountains, there was that moment when suddenly, without even realizing it, there you were in the midst of them.

Today was no exception.

A forty minute drive along the Trans-Canada Highway brought them into the heart of Banff National Park, where they turned off the main road, heading up into the mountains toward the quiet village of Lake Louise. Nestled securely amongst the vales of Mount Temple, Mount Whyte, and Mount Niblock, the Hamlet of Lake Louise was best known for its turquoise, glacier-fed waters, epic hiking trails—which Nicole couldn’t wait to explore—and breathtaking views from the surrounding mountain vistas that would be her ultimate reward.  

With no particular need to rush, they traveled slowly, moving along the narrow winding roads that brought them closer to their destination. The simplicity of those narrow two-lane roads stood in sharp contrast to the mega-highways and complex and oft confusing interchanges that marked the landscape of Nicole’s youth. Unlike the disorienting experience of getting lost in the metropolis where she had grown up, finding herself wandering a path in the tranquil foothills of a mountain range offered her an intrinsic sense of peace. She cracked her window, drawing in deep, cleansing breaths of the fresh, crisp mountain air—the scents of earth and pine, with just a subtle hint of mountain laurel. “Ah, man, Waves… There’s just nothing more refreshing than the mountain air,” she sighed contentedly.    

A faint smile played on Waverly’s lips in response to the deep sense of serenity in Nicole’s voice. Her body relaxing noticeably, she sank deeper into the rich dark gray leather of the driver’s seat, and even the expression on her face changed. Not that she had been tense before, but it was the most amazing transformation—like she was coming home. Witnessing the change made Waverly feel inexplicably closer to her, and that, in turn, made her incredibly nervous. And when she was nervous, she tended to babble, often saying most ridiculous things. “Yeah, you’re not gonna start singing Rocky Mountain High, are ya?” she asked, teasingly.

A  hearty laugh burst from Nicole’s chest. “Well, we’re not in Colorado, so I think you’re safe there,” she teased. “But I might just burst out into the refrain of Blue Canadian Rockies.”

“Oh, god, please, no,” Waverly said dryly. She remembered her Uncle Curtis singing that old tune anytime they would go for a drive in those mountains. She feared it would be as dreadful now as it had been back then.   

“Hey, now,” Nicole said with a warning tone to her voice. “I can carry a tune.”

“You can, huh?” Waverly sounded doubtful.

“Yep,” Nicole said, popping the ‘p’. “And I don’t even need a bucket.”

Green eyes rolled, as Waverly groaned. “You are so not funny.”

Catching a glimpse of her companion in her peripheral vision, Nicole grinned. “Then why are you trying so hard to stifle that gorgeous smile?”

Waverly flushed at the compliment, and shrugged. “Reflex action when someone tells a joke so lame you actually feel embarrassed for them.”

Nicole response was a noise that made her sound suitably offended, even though she wasn’t. “Ooh, ouch!” she groaned. “Tough crowd!”

Laughing, Waverly glanced at Nicole. “How do you even know that dreadful old song?” 

“Well, it wasn’t so dreadful when my great-grandma used to sing it to me,” Nicole answered, her tone a little wistful. “She had a beautiful voice.”

“Wow… You knew your great-grandmother?” Waverly sounded as if she were in awe; and maybe a little envious. She knew her family history—the dreaded Earp Curse—but she’d never known any of her family beyond her parents, Gus, and Uncle Curtis. They’d all died long before she was born. 

An affectionate smile trickled across Nicole’s lips. “Yes,” she answered. “I did.”

The expression in Nicole’s eyes, the quiet admiration in her voice, told a story of how important this woman was to her. “Sounds like you were really close,” Waverly said tenderly.

“We were,” Nicole confirmed. “She was actually the first person I came out to.”

“Really?” Waverly sounded surprised.

“Yep.” Nicole chuckled at the memory of confessing to her eight-five year old great-grandmother that she was a lesbian. “And she took it all in stride,” she said admiringly. “Surprised the hell outta me how well she took it actually, but… once I figured it out for myself, I couldn’t imagine keeping it from her. So I just bit the bullet, and told her. And all she wanted to know was if I’d take her to ‘that gay pride thing’ that summer,” she shared, quoting her granny’s exact words.

“And did you?”

“Sure did,” Nicole grinned. “We had some… interesting talks that day.”

“About what?” Waverly asked, curious.

“Well, the funniest one was about sex,” Nicole answered. “She was just sittin’ there in her lawn chair, whisky in her hand…”

“She drank whisky?” Waverly interrupted, astonishment in her voice. She didn’t really know why that surprised her; after all, she doubted age would ever curb Wynonna’s whisky-drinking ways.

“Oh, hell, yeah,” Nicole laughed. “She was a hellcat.”


“Yeah, I know,” Nicole grinned. “Anyway, she’s drinkin’ her whisky, and watchin’ all of these gay and lesbian couples, and suddenly she’s tellin’ me that she’s ‘figured out how those gay boys do it, because he’s got a pecker, and he’s got a hole’,” she narrated, hand gestures for each pecker and funny granny voice, and all. “But she ‘can’t figure out how those lesbians do it, because there’s plenty of holes, but no pecker to be found’.”

By the time Nicole finished, Waverly was laughing so hard she could barely breathe. “Oh, my god!” she exclaimed, hand clamped over her mouth.

“I know, right?” Nicole cackled. “I’m certain the look on my face was priceless.”

“Well, what did you say to her?” Turned sideways in her seat now, to ensure a clear view of Nicole’s facial expressions, Waverly’s eyes were wide with anticipation.

“I told her how lesbians have sex,” Nicole shrugged, as if to say, what else was I gonna do?

“Oh, my god, you didn’t,” Waverly gasped. It was positively scandalous, and she loved it!

“Sure did,” Nicole grinned.

“How did she react?” Waverly’s tone dropped a register.

Struggling hard not to laugh at the memory, Nicole answered, “Well, she said it sounded mighty fine, and that she just might like to try it sometime. And then she asked me if I knew any… mature lesbians.”

“Oh, hell, no!” Waverly exclaimed, laughing so hard she actually snorted. “Your great-grandma sounds like a frickin’ hoot!”

“Oh, believe me, she was,” Nicole laughed. “Granny was the best.”

It took a while for their mutual laughter to calm, because each time one finally got it under control, the other would burst out into another fit of it. And when they finally stopped, Waverly’s tone turned more serious, as she settled back into her seat. “Wow, what a great memory.”

“It’s one of my favorites,” Nicole agreed. “I’m glad we had that time together.”

She grew quiet for a moment, simply remembering. “She uh… she died the following spring, when I was seventeen; but I feel the connection to her still,” she shared, her voice turning quiet, reflective. And then she smiled. “My dad always says I have her eyes, her smile. And uh, she’s also where I get this thick mop of auburn hair.”

Reaching across the cab of the SUV, Waverly grasped Nicole’s hand where it lay on her thigh. “She must’ve been very beautiful,” she said softly.

The compliment was meant for both Nicole and her great-grandmother, and realizing that, tears tingled in those deep russet eyes. “Thank you,” she said, gently squeezing Waverly’s hand that was still wrapped around her own. “She was wonderful.”

“Was she from around here?” Waverly ventured, remembering that the woman used to sing an old Canadian folk song to Nicole when she was little. There had to be a reason for it.

“Yeah, she sure was,” Nicole said proudly. “She was Irish-Canadian—hence the whisky,” she laughed. “Grew up here in the foothills near Lake Louise, actually.”

“Is that why you’re here?” Waverly asked. “In Purgatory, I mean. To be closer to your roots?” Now that was something she could completely understand.

“Not exactly,” Nicole said vaguely. “But it’s certainly a nice perk.”

Waverly simply nodded, allowing the subject to drop. Nicole’s tone indicated that she wasn’t up for talking more about her reasons for coming to Purgatory, and she didn’t want to push. They rode in companionable silence for several minutes, each lost in their own thoughts.

“Y’know, I really had my heart set on checking out Takakkaw Falls,” Nicole lamented, breaking the silence. “She always talked about how beautiful they are. But I read that they’re not accessible until at least June.”

“Yeah, that’s definitely true,” Waverly confirmed. “They don’t plow the roads at that elevation, so it’s usually impassible until the big thaw.” She paused for a moment, quietly searching Nicole’s profile. “Guess we’ll have an excuse to come back in the summertime.”

Nicole glanced toward her, a faint smile of surprise playing on her lips. “I’m really glad you’re here,” she said sincerely. Despite her calm, cool exterior, she had to admit she was just a bit emotional about being here in this place where her family had once been rooted.

“I’m really glad you asked,” Waverly replied. “And in case I forget to tell you later, I really loved spending the day with you.”

It took every ounce of discipline Nicole possessed not to pull the SUV over onto the non-existent shoulder, and kiss Waverly Earp senseless right then and there. Instead, she fought back tears, whispering, “Me too,” as she squeezed the other woman’s hand one more time before releasing it from her grasp. And then, reaching for her iPod, she switched it off, declaring, “The mountains make better music than anything else in the world.”

Waverly smiled at her, and settled back into her seat. “I couldn’t agree with you more,” she said, tapping the button to roll the passenger window down. And they traveled in comfortable silence then, taking in the sights and sounds of nature, as they slowly wound their way up the mountainside toward the access point for Lake Louise.   

Sunday, April 17, 2016… Lake Louise, Banff National Park, Alberta, Canada—11:30 a.m. Mountain Daylight Time

Arriving at the Lake Louise Visitor Centre, they quickly secured their day passes, and then, spreading her map—which was already marked with areas of interest thanks to her meticulous planning—onto the counter, Nicole clarified a few last-minute details regarding where they could, and couldn’t wander from the marked trails, before heading back to the SUV to collect their gear. She was far more interested in the exploring the places the average tourist wouldn’t find, and thankfully, the clerk was able to direct her with his expertise of the surrounding area.

Chatting amiably, their mutual anticipation grew as they crossed the parking lot again, swiftly approaching the SUV. Fishing her keyring from the front pocket of her jeans, Nicole hit the button to pop the rear hatch. She lifted the gate, unhooked a latch at the front edge of the cargo area, and pulled out two nylon bags, each containing a set of fully collapsible trekking poles, from a hidden compartment, setting them on the back bumper of the SUV. And then she released the ratchet on the tie-down that secured both her military-grade hiking pack and Waverly’s smaller day pack in place. 

Once her pack was released, Waverly unzipped the main compartment, and digging inside, she produced a sleek, black Pajar bomber jacket, as well as a matching hat and pair of gloves. Shrugging out of her heavy coat, she tossed it into the cargo area, and slipped into the thinner jacket, shoving the hat and gloves into her pockets in case she needed them later.

"You sure that’s gonna be enough?” Nicole asked, concerned.

“Yeah,” Waverly assured, as she lifted long, wavy locks from beneath the material, freeing it from its confines, before fastening the jacket securely. Pulled back from her face, those locks were fastened at the base of her neck by a loose clip, leaving them free to cascade down the center of her back.

Nicole couldn’t help but notice how the subtle honey-almond highlights in those silky locks glistened in the sunlight.

“It’s thin, so it’s lighter weight, but it has a down lining,” Waverly was explaining, though, from the expression on Nicole’s face, she doubted she’d heard a word.

Her brain barely comprehending the words, appreciative russet eyes slowly swept along the curves and valleys of Waverly’s compact form, taking in her appearance for the second time since arriving to pick her up. Her hiking boots looked sturdy, but worn to the point where they were adequately broken in; and her jeans were high-waisted, as always, but not nearly as tight—wise moves, given the physical demands of their planned outing, Nicole thought.

And she couldn’t help but notice how the jacket complimented the dark gray shaker sweater Waverly wore beneath, or how the darker colors made her eyes turn into pools of glistening liquid coal. God, she loved the way those eyes changed colors depending upon what Waverly was wearing. She had to catch her breath before she could speak, and when she finally did, she could’ve kicked herself for sounding so completely lame. “You come prepared,” she noted. “I’m impressed.”

“Well, I am a planner, don’t ya know,” Waverly said, her tone playful as she made reference to her senseless babbling when Nicole first asked her out. But this wasn’t a date, she had to remind herself, as she reached again for her pack.

“So I’ve heard,” Nicole said with an amused laugh.

Reaching for her pack, she tugged it toward the front of the cargo area, and sealing her maps in the plastic Ziploc bags she’d brought along, she returned them to their proper place. It never hurt to be prepared for the unexpected.

It was far too early in the season for the tea houses to be open, and thus, Nicole had arranged for the proper provisions to get them through the day. She had been meticulous in packing things that morning, having nestled a small, collapsible cooler with ice, sandwiches, fresh fruit, and several bottles of water in the bottom—there was still a decided chill in the air, and she knew the higher they climbed, the colder it would be, but she didn’t want to take any chances on the food spoiling.

A first-aid kit was stacked on top of the cooler, and wedged in next to it were two thermoses, one with coffee and the other filled with hot cocoa, just in case it was colder out than she’d anticipated based upon the weather reports. The next layer was the tightly rolled thermal blanket and waterproof tarp she’d carried with her in Afghanistan, as well as a jacket, in case she needed it later. Ordinarily, those items would have been at the bottom, but she didn’t want to chance the ice from the cooler melting and water escaping, rendering them useless in an emergency. And at the top, easily accessible, were her high-end waterproof digital camera, and a collapsible tripod.

Her maps and compass were tucked into latched pockets on the front, along with a lighter, a flashlight, and a knife, as well as a plethora of easy snacks—energy bars, trail mix, and even gum. It wasn’t that they were going very far, or that she anticipated any sort of emergency situations, but her training, both in the military and in the police academy, taught her to always be fully prepared, and thus, she left nothing to chance.

Spontaneously, she pulled the camera out, snapping several pictures of Waverly who was happily dancing in circles around the parking lot while she waited for Nicole to give the go-ahead to start their journey. Her joy was infectious, and it made Nicole’s heart feel light. She wished she could bottle it just to keep some of it close forever.   

Waverly groaned when she spotted the camera pointed toward her, whining about having her picture taken, and how she looked like a silly little kid. Nicole laughed and pulled her close, turning the lens toward them to take a rather awkward selfie. “There,” she said with a sense of accomplishment. “Now we’re both victims of the lens.”

“I better not find any of those on Instagram,” Waverly chided, but the subtle grin that played at the corners of her mouth gave her away.

“What about my Tumblr blog?” Nicole countered. “It’s password protected, so I’m the only one who sees it.”

Feigning contemplation, Waverly nodded. “Okay, but only if I get to read your blog.”

Shuffling her feet, Nicole looked uncharacteristically nervous. She wasn’t certain if she was more anxious about the prospect of her suspicions regarding the weirdness that surrounded Purgatory being made known, or… her thoughts on Waverly being exposed. Calming herself, she offered that charming smile. “Did you miss the part about no one seeing it but me?”

“No,” Waverly said boldly, challenge in her eyes.  

Nicole laughed. “Give it up, Waves.”

Arms crossed, Waverly’s lips morphed into a pout. “Will you at least tell me what you write about today?”

A bright smile lit Nicole’s face. “That, I can do.”

She settled the padded camera strap around her neck then, draping it around her left arm where the camera hung comfortably just below her holstered gun, and turned her attention back to her pack. Giving it a final once-over, she lifted the lid on the small cooler that was fastened next to the steamer trunk, pulling out two bottles of cold water, and slipping them into the an empty side-pocket on her pack. “You ready?” she said, anticipation shimmering in her eyes.

“Are you sure you don’t want to shift some of that weight into my pack?” Waverly offered. It looked dangerously heavy to her. “I have room now that I took my jacket out.”

“Thanks, but I’m good. I’m used to hefting a hundred pound pack through the mountains in a hundred-plus degree weather, Waves,” Nicole reported, as she lifted the loaded hiking pack from the cargo hold, settling it on her shoulders with seemingly little effort. “I could carry all of this, and you as well, if necessary.”

Hands planted firmly on her hips, Waverly arched an eyebrow. “I can assure you, it won’t be.”

Offering that roguish grin, Nicole winked at her. “Alright, well, suit yourself, but… you’re missin’ out on a stellar ride.”

Right on cue, Waverly felt her face flush, and she was grateful for the subtle bite in the air that already colored her cheeks. “Geez, what is it with cops and their cocky attitudes?” she asked rhetorically. “Is it in your genes or something?”

“Might be in my blue jeans,” Nicole smirked.

“Oh, god, I walked right into that one—didn’t I?” Waverly groaned.

Nicole laughed. “Yeah, ya kinda did.”

“I should really just stop talking,” Waverly muttered. She reached out, grinning as she tugged playfully at Nicole’s sleeve. And then she took off running across the parking lot toward the access point to the trail, daring Nicole to follow.

Laughing, Nicole’s heart fluttered in her chest. Playful Waverly was too fucking adorable. Grabbing the trekking poles that she’d forgotten to slip in her pack when she got sidetracked taking pictures of Waverly, she slammed the rear gate, and clicked the button to lock down the SUV. She pocketed her keychain, and quickly gave chase. And covering the distance with long, smooth strides, she caught up with Waverly within mere seconds.

“Damn, you’re quick,” Waverly noted, sounding impressed as Nicole fell into step beside her.

Nicole grinned. “Like a bunny,” she quipped.  

Delivered on a frolicsome pitch, Nicole’s comment made Waverly giggle. Christ, you’re adorable, she thought, as she casually looped her arm through Nicole’s. “Come on,” she said excitedly. “Let’s get up to the lake, and then I’ll show you some of the hidden waterfalls along the trail. They can pop up in some unexpected places once the snowmelt begins.”

“You’ve been up here before,” Nicole suddenly realized. And then she felt a little foolish for making assumptions. Why on earth wouldn’t Waverly have been in these mountains? She’d grown up just a short drive away from them!

“Yeah,” Waverly nodded as she smiled, her eyes sparkling. “With Uncle Curtis. He loved these mountains, and thanks to him, so do I.”

And just that quickly, Nicole felt a sudden galvanizing jolt to the kinship she’d been forming with the younger woman. Waverly’s face held such a joyful expression that Nicole actually felt it welling up inside of her. Talk about being contagious! “I would love for you to show me your waterfalls,” she declared, and bumping her arm against Waverly’s shoulder, she smiled down at her as they walked.  

Quickly moving along the paved walkway, they crossed the footbridge over Louise Creek, and began the easiest part of the hike. Within just a few minutes they found themselves strolling casually along the Lake Louise shoreline trail. Given that the tourist season had yet to commence, there were a few people milling about, but for the most part, they were on their own. If she were being honest with herself, Waverly would’ve admitted she preferred it that way. Fewer people along the paths meant more opportunities to be truly alone with Nicole.    

“So… how far did you wanna go today?” Nicole asked as they moved along the pathway, nearing the Fairmont Chateau Hotel. From there, they could choose from a number of trails—some that would take them a few hours, and one that would take nearly the entire day.

Biting her lower lip, Waverly contemplated her response. Christ! Why does everything seem to take on a sexual overtone when it comes to this woman? she wondered. “I, uh… I… Yeah,” she stammered, drawing a grin from Nicole.

“I meant on the trail,” Nicole clarified, trying to sound blameless.  

Stopping in her tracks, Waverly turned to face Nicole, determination flashing in her eyes as she fought for composure. “I think we should go up to the Plain of Six Glaciers,” she announced.

Having researched the area and meticulously studied the maps, Nicole knew exactly what trail Waverly was talking about, and precisely where it would lead. “So… all the way, huh?” she said with a roguish grin.

Flustered, and once again at Nicole’s mercy, Waverly groaned. Nicole knew exactly what she was doing—and she was doing it unapologetically. Crossing her arms, Waverly looked up into clear russet eyes that danced with mischief, and declared, “You are completely incorrigible, Officer Haught.”

That adorable dimple emerged on Nicole’s left cheek. “Hey, I just meant you’re aiming for tops,” she said, raising her hands in surrender as she feigned innocence. "I can’t help it if your mind is stuck on the gutter bus.”

Stuck on it? Waverly’s head rattled. Hell, at this point I think it’s driving the frickin’ thing! “And… there you go again,” she said, managing to look more amused than ruffled.

“What?” Nicole was truly clueless this time.

“Aiming for tops?” Waverly parroted. “Really, Nicole?”

Nicole grinned. She hadn’t meant anything sexual by that at all, but if Waverly was gonna take it that way, she would certainly play along. “Well, if you’re asking what I prefer...” She leaned down, her breath hot against Waverly’s ear. “It depends.”

Delivered on a husky whisper, Nicole’s comment left Waverly’s insides quivering. She didn’t even want to know what the qualifiers were. Except that she did. And that truth only made matters worse! Drawing her bottom lip between her teeth, she struggled to keep the reaction inside. It was a futile endeavor.

Watching the play of thoughts and realizations tripping across Waverly’s expressive face, Nicole stifled another laugh. “You okay there, Waves?” she teased.  

Giving up, Waverly just shook her head and sighed, as she grabbed Nicole’s sleeve. “Come on, Officer HaughtPants,” she said, tugging her forward. “I think a brisk hike up the mountainside will help you work off some of that pent-up sexual frustration.”

Amused, Nicole allowed herself to be dragged further along the shoreline trail. The speed with which Waverly moved wasn’t lost on her. “Yeah, I don’t think I’m the one who’s frustrated,” she laughed, as she casually draped her right arm over Waverly’s shoulders.

“You wish,” Waverly bantered back, hooking her arm around Nicole’s waist. Where else was she supposed to put it? she reasoned, as they settled into a steady pace, each drifting off into her own quiet reflections.

The path was wide, the interlopers few, as they walked for a good distance more, enjoying the sights and sounds of the lake. Despite the slight chill that still lingered in the air, the turquoise waters shimmered in the afternoon sunlight, casting a brilliant reflection of the mountains and deepening the colors of the bright blue sky.

Passing beneath a shelter of trees, they approached the rocky moraine area near the far end of the lake. There, the delta glistened with silt from the runoff of the Victoria glacier. Waverly broke their companionable silence, explaining that the light reflecting off of the silt that melted from the glaciers far above, was what gave the lake its magnificent turquoise hue. By some unspoken, yet mutual agreement, they paused there, and Nicole carefully lowered her pack to the ground, leaning it against a nearby tree. And then she dropped down onto a large, flat rock overlooking the lake.

“Come sit with me,” Nicole said, patting the space beside her.

In the distance, she spotted the Chateau hotel on the shoreline, the snowcapped mountain peaks towering high above, with the runs of the resident ski resort carving character into the backdrop of a picturesque landscape. “Everything looks gorgeous from here.”

“Wait ‘til you see it from up top,” Waverly commented as she dropped her pack next to Nicole’s.

Nearby, Nicole noticed the pika hiding amongst the rocks. They were the sweetest little creatures—kind of like a cross between a tiny bunny rabbit and a mouse, with the cutest little teddy bear faces. It they weren’t so cute, that combination might’ve seemed a little bit fucked up. But they were cute. And they made the most adorable little “Eeeping” sound when they called out in the wild. Nicole couldn’t help but giggle. She knew it was rare to see them, and she didn’t want to miss capturing the moment. Lifting the camera from her side, she uncapped the lens, and began shooting a series of photos.

Quietly, Waverly dropped down next to her, careful not to disturb the pika, lest they scurry away before Nicole was finished photographing them. And then they lingered there, side-by-side, taking in the natural beauty that surrounded them. Nicole snapped more pictures, this time of the landscape—and a few of Waverly—as Waverly went on to explain more about the ecological importance of the glaciers—for both humans and wildlife—and how the force of the water rushing over the quartz and feldspar, over time, led to the breakdown of the minerals, creating the silky texture of the silt when it was wet, and the floury one when it was dry.  

Intrigued by the process—and also by Waverly’s seemingly infinite knowledge of all things scientific—Nicole asked questions. Lots of them. And much to her delight, Waverly had an answer for every single one. Admittedly, she could have listened to the girl talk for hours. About anything, really. But the more she talked this, the more curious Nicole grew—about the silt, of course, but also about Waverly Earp.

Rising from the rock, Nicole approached the waters’ edge, watching as the lazy current sluiced over the thickly deposited silt like a feathery kiss. She imaged as the glacier melt intensified, so would the force of the current in both Louise Creek, and in the lake. She stooped down, and reaching out, she ran a curious finger through the silt, lifting it from the water. Resting her forearms on her thighs, she marveled at its silky-smooth texture as she worked it between her thumb and finger. Finer than sand to the touch, it was a strict departure from the windblown silt she had encountered in Afghanistan; but in a good way.

Distracted from her thoughts by Waverly’s presence at her side, Nicole glanced up at her. “It’s different from the silt in deserts in the Middle East,” she commented.

“How so?” Waverly asked, curious.

“It’s equally as fine in terms of texture,” Nicole said, “but its impact is far different.”

Stooped down beside her, Waverly regarded her with rapt attention as Nicole went on to explain the Aeolian processes that created the loess, as the silt was called in the windy, arid climate of the Afghan desert. Here, she expounded, it was a particle that ultimately created beauty. But there, when the turbulent winds would kick up across the barren, dusty land, it became a particle of destruction, creating suffocating storms that impeded their safe passage, impaired their visibility, and threatened the health of millions.

“Did you see a lot of that when you were there?” Waverly asked.

“The wind storms?” Nicole asked, clarifying.

Waverly nodded.

“Yeah,” Nicole confirmed, as she flung her hand, releasing the silt back into the water. She reached back then, tugging on the shop towel that hung loosely from the back pocket of her jeans to wipe her fingers clean. “Sometimes the winds would leave behind these drifts of sand, and dirt, and loess as high as rooftops. It swallowed whole villages, destroying vegetation and killing livestock, and the people who managed to survive often wished they hadn’t.”

Russet eyes scanned the horizon as she spoke, but Waverly couldn’t help but notice the haunted expression they held, despite the beauty of their surroundings. It was like Nicole was back there in that place, seeing it all again. “I can’t even imagine,” she said softly, her voice laden with empathy.

“Sometimes I wish I couldn’t either,” Nicole confessed, her head dropping forward as though the weight of it were still dragging her down. That was the understatement of the year, but she didn’t want to burden Waverly with the weight of the memories she carried. Surprisingly, just the simple act of sharing her truth with Waverly made her burden feel lighter.   

She sounded so sad, and instinctively, Waverly knew Nicole was talking about far more than just the damage from the wind storms. She drew closer, brushing a gentle hand across Nicole’s thigh, allowing it to linger.

A faint smile tugged at the corners of Nicole’s mouth, and her fingertips fell against Waverly’s hand, slipping lightly between Waverly’s own. Neither of them made an effort to pull away. “I was there as part of an outreach program for Afghan women. Because of their culture, male soldiers aren’t allowed to engage them, so it was our job to make sure their needs, and the needs of their children, were being met,” she explained.

“That sounds rewarding,” Waverly presumed. 

“In some way, yes,” Nicole agreed. Like the laughter and smiles on those sweet little faces when the women in her unit would stop in the street to play a game of tag with them, or when they taught them to play whiffle ball and Frisbee. Or the expression of gratefulness in the eyes of a mother when they would bring her enough food to feed her family for another day, because her husband, and sole wage-earner, meager as it was, was out with the male soldiers, learning how to defend their freedom.

“But in others, it was… frustrating,” she admitted. “It took a long time to win their trust, and more days than not, it felt like one step forward, three steps back. In the end, I’m sometimes left to wonder if what we did even mattered.”

“Of course it mattered,” Waverly said supportively. “You willingly put yourself in a frickin’ war zone to help those women and children, Nicole.”

She sounded so fierce that Nicole couldn’t help but feel empowered. She glanced at Waverly then, and willfully shaking off the sense of melancholy that threatened to overtake her, she offered a sweet smile. “You’re good for my ego,” she declared.

“Yeah, I don’t really think you need any more help there,” Waverly teased, making reference to the sense of self-confidence that always seemed to ooze from the deputy’s pores.  

Nicole chuckled. “Touché.”

Sobering again, green eyes still locked on Nicole’s gaze, Waverly reached out then, her fingertips whispering across Nicole’s cheek. “Thank you for sharing that with me,” she said quietly. To most, it may not have seemed like much of a disclosure, but the haunted expression in Nicole’s eyes, fleeting as it may have been, told her that it was significant.

Nicole nodded. She loved that they could move from playful to sincere, and back again, without skipping a beat. It was the most amazing yin-yang sort of thing, and she had never shared that with anyone before. “Thanks for listening,” she said sincerely. “It’s not something I really ever talk about.”

“Well, I’m glad you talked to me,” Waverly said, as she tucked a wayward wisp of auburn hair behind Nicole’s left ear. The sunlight brought out a little bit more of the red, and Waverly decided that she really liked it. And then her gaze fell into Nicole’s again, and slowly, soft green eyes searched those brilliant russet depths.

The moments ticked by, and that invisible cord that always seemed to pull her toward Nicole left her feeling helpless to resist—and Nicole feeling more and more like Waverly was literally etching herself into the tapestry of her soul.

She felt exposed, and… desired.

Her breath hitched, and Waverly’s followed, leaving them both feeling simultaneously flushed, and… freezing. Waverly’s base instinct was to lean close, to brush her mouth against Nicole’s. Her heart fluttered with anticipation beneath her breasts. But her head screamed, “N-n-n-n-NO!” followed by a rambling litany of excuses as to why it was a supremely bad idea. And in the same breath, her body whispered a soft, but insistent, “Yes…”

The very same battle was being waged between Nicole’s conscience and her heart. She’d known she was interested in more than just information the moment Waverly Earp first smiled at her that morning in Shorty’s Saloon. And she’d wanted to kiss her from the first moment she’d begun that adorable little babbling thing she was prone to doing when she was nervous or overly excited. She’d fallen into it several times today already, and each time Nicole had had to quash the urge to kiss her senseless, just to shut her up.

She remembered her reaction as she left Shorty’s that first morning: sheer bewilderment—and the strangest, and most powerful sense that she’d just encountered the one person who was destined to change the course of her entire life.

Just… Wow.

There was no way she could’ve known it, but standing there inside that bar, Waverly Earp was experiencing the exact same things, in spades. And she still was—every single time she looked at Nicole.

Admittedly, Nicole hadn’t really known what to expect when meeting the girl; but she hadn’t expected a ray of sunshine in a soggy tank top, that was for damned sure. She hadn’t expected her brain to be rendered completely useless in the wake of that dazzling smile, either. And she certainly wasn’t expecting to have her breath taken clean away.

God, that sounded hokey, but that’s exactly what had happened. She’d gone in there on a mission: seeking information about the disturbance that occurred the night before. And less than five minutes later her brain had melted into a hot mess, and she was leaving with nothing but a goofy grin on her face, and a pounding ache in places she’d rather not have contemplated.

Lord, help her.   

And now, here she was, with Waverly Earp staring into her eyes like she could read the inscription on Nicole’s heart that belonged only to her; and she was dying inside, because she knew she couldn’t, no… she shouldn’t, kiss her.

Unable to withstand the mounting tension, she finally tore her gaze away. “Gosh, I uh, I didn’t expect this hike to turn into a therapy session,” she commented, as she shifted nervously, seeking escape before she did something she’d regret.

The heels of her boots crackled in the loose gravel at the edge of the lake, as she stood from her stooped position. She moved so fast it took Waverly a moment to figure out what had happened. And then she was scrambling to her feet. By the time she caught up to her, Nicole was already settling her pack on her shoulders, as she mumbled something about getting a move on.   

Waverly grabbed her pack, slinging it over her shoulders as she ran to catch up again. And when she fell into step beside Nicole, she reached out, feathering her fingertips over Nicole’s hand to garner her attention. “Hey… are we okay here?” she asked tentatively. “You took off so fast, I didn’t…”

Stopping in her tracks, Nicole turned to face Waverly. “I’m really sorry,” she said penitently. “I didn’t mean to be such an asshole. I just…”

“You weren’t an asshole at all, Nicole,” Waverly reassured. “I just wanted to make sure you were okay. The things you told me, I… I could tell it cost you a lot.”

How could you possibly know?

“And then… Well, I don’t really know what happened,” Waverly was fibbing, as Nicole got lost again in those eyes.

I wanted to kiss you, they thought in tandem, but neither of them dared speak it aloud.

Nicole’s eyelids fluttered closed, and then accompanied by that flirtatious smile, they slowly opened again to reveal the same sparkle Waverly was accustomed to seeing. “Maybe we should just go find some of those waterfalls,” she suggested, purposefully setting them on safer ground.

Waverly smiled. “I think that’d be a good idea.”

From there, they rounded the far edge of the lake, and hit the trailhead. Navigating a steep hill before turning the corner, they passed beneath the quartzite cliffs where rock climbers often challenged their finely-honed skills.

“Oh, wow!” Nicole gasped as she tilted her head back to take in the sheer grandeur of the cliffs that loomed as far as the eye could see. Scattered across the rough terrain of rock, she spotted a handful of climbers, their attire appearing against the earthy tones like tiny specks of color on the towering surface. “This is definitely a challenge I’m up for some day,” she declared, excitement in her tone.  

Waverly shuddered at the thought. “Yeah, you can count me out on that one,” she said with a nervous titter.

“Oh, what’s the matter, Waves? You afraid of heights?” Nicole razzed.

Waverly’s jaw tightened with determination, and she looked rather indignant as she met Nicole’s teasing gaze. “No,” she answered resolutely. And then she averted her eyes, admitting, “I’m afraid of falling.”

Delivered on a quickly exhaled prattle, Waverly’s declaration drew a hearty laugh from Nicole’s lips. “Aw, Waves, I wouldn’t let you fall.”

“Yeah, I don’t really think that’d be up to you,” Waverly sidestepped. “I can be a little awkward and klutzy sometimes.”


“Have you met me?” Waverly asked rhetorically. That arched eyebrow caused Nicole to laugh again.      

“Well, you were drenched in beer the first time I met you,” Nicole granted, her face adopting that familiar expression of amusement.

“It wasn’t one of my finer moments,” Waverly said, clearly chagrinned.

“Perhaps not, but you were so adorable, skirmishing with that wayward tap.”

Waverly’s eyes widened, and she looked positively mortified. “You saw that whole thing?”

Nicole laughed. Heartily this time. “Yep—start to finish,” she confirmed. “And I have to admit, it was quite an amusing show.”

“Shit,” Waverly cursed. As if the memory weren’t painful enough in that, Oh, my god, I’m such a gawky dork, sort of way.

Still chuckling, Nicole wrapped Waverly in a spontaneous hug. “Don’t worry… I won’t hold it against you.”

Hands falling naturally around Nicole’s waist, Waverly leaned into the hug, her entire body flushing from the heat generated by being so close to Nicole, as Nicole bouncily rocked them from one foot to the other. Maybe not, but you certainly have no problem holding me against you! she thought. Not that she minded. She was just afraid she might say… or do… something stupid.

Tilting her head back, Waverly smiled up into those engaging russet eyes. “We’re not getting very far on this hike, are we?”

A soft chuckle trickled from Nicole’s lips. “Is that a hint?”

“Nope,” Waverly said. “Just a friendly reminder that it’s about another two hours from here to the top—and that’s if we don’t stop for pictures.”

“Ten-four, Navigator,” Nicole said, confirming in cop-speak that the message was received. Casually, she draped her arm over Waverly’s shoulders again, and they continued on their way.    

When they reached the end of the Nordic Ski Trail just beyond the cliff faces, the trail took a sharp turn as it started its ascent into the forest. Noting the change in terrain, Nicole paused to unfasten the trekking poles from where she’d secured them to her pack earlier on the trail. “Looks like these’ll come in handy now,” she commented.

“Definitely,” Waverly agreed, speaking from experience.

Pulling the first set from its nylon bag, Nicole unfolded them with expert ease, and stood one pole upright with the tip on the ground. Glancing at Waverly, she made a quick estimate, and then adjusted it to accommodate Waverly’s height. Repeating the same action with the second pole, she handed them to Waverly.

“Thanks,” Waverly said, accepting the proffered poles.

They were durable, yet lightweight, with shock-absorbing suspension built in which, Waverly knew, made it much easier, especially on the downhill trek. Slipping her hands through the straps, she grasped the foam grips with her fingers, appreciating the way the grips conformed to the contours of her hands. Nicole had excellent taste in gear. She was accustomed to just fashioning a walking stick out of driftwood with Uncle Curtis.   

“No problem,” Nicole said, as she pulled the second set from its nylon carrying bag. Unfolding them like she had Waverly’s set, she tucked the two nylon bags into the side pocket of her pack, fastening the closure. “All right, let’s do this,” she smiled, gesturing for Waverly to lead the way.

Climbing through the narrow valley toward Mount Lefroy and Mount Victoria, slowly, they trekked up the mountainside via a series of switchbacks that made the ascent more tenable, moving mostly in companionable silence, interspersed with comments about interesting things they spotted along the way. They paused often, chatting briefly with other hikers they’d encountered along the way, and exploring places off the beaten path, mostly because they could hear the rush of water echoing through the trees, and Waverly knew from experience that waterfalls—both large and small—would likely be nearby.

And finally topping the tree line, they made their way along the valley ridge where they could see the hotel and lake from yet another breathtaking vantage point. From there, the dusty trail took them along a second ridge, where they found several grassy areas, abundant moss growth, and a few lingering patches of snow. It was a bit muddy and thus, a little slick in spots from seasonal melting, but thanks to their trekking sticks, neither of them found need of the steel cables that were bolted into the rock along the path to assist passersby.

At the end of the second valley ridge, the switchbacks turned significantly steeper as made their final ascent to the tea house, where the lookout point awaited them. The terrain was a little bit more challenging, but both being experienced hikers, they weathered it with relative ease. As the trail came to its familiar end, it led them through the forest and into an alpine grove that would ultimately give way to the wide-open spaces of a gorgeous meadow. At first sight of the alpine grove, Waverly grew a little more excited in knowing the sheer delight Nicole was about to experience.

Just ahead across the meadow, poetically set against a backdrop of shrubs and towering pines, stood the antiquated, but still functional tea house. Fashioned of logs and stone, the two-story dwelling added a rustic feel to the area—a throwback to the early days of mountain exploration in the Canadian Rockies. It had neither electricity nor running water, but somehow, it had become an oasis, a resting point along the trek to the Abbots Pass and beyond. And just short of the path leading up to the tea house, was the lookout point—the pinnacle of their journey.

They had taken their time on the ascent, Nicole snapping pictures freely as they uncovered the little hidden treasures tucked deep within alcoves of the mountainside—the obscure waterfalls, the squirrels and chipmunks peeking out from their winter habitats, and the pika scurrying amongst the rocks, a pair of hoary marmots tussling on a grassy knoll, a grizzly bear off in the distance, frolicking in the whooshing waters of Louise Creek, and even a tribe of goats along the steep mountain cliffs as they approached the tea house. To her, making memories was far more important than counting time. And now that they’d reached their destination, she simply stood there in awe.

Shrugging out of her pack, she set it carefully on the ground, leaning it against one of the benches at the lookout. And then she wandered freely, breathing in the fresh mountain air, taking in the splendor afforded by this vista from every possible vantage point. God, it was gorgeous—just like her great-grandmother always said. It freed her spirit just to stand there in a place once appreciated by the person she admired most in this world. 

Waverly couldn’t help but smile as she watched Nicole explore. Ordinarily so calm and collected, there was none of that in her right now. She looked like a cute little puppy, exploring the world for the very first time. Her combat boots clunked heavily against the wooden planks that formed both the upper and lower levels of the veranda that wrapped around the tea house, as she moved up and down, from end to end, the shutter on her camera clicking incessantly, capturing every view. And when she was finished, she descended the stone stairs from the veranda down onto the path again, moving across to the lookout where Waverly waited for her.

Growing up, she’d seen pictures. Lots and lots of pictures. And while they were mostly grainy due to their age, still, the natural beauty of the area had been captured brilliantly. But nothing could have prepared her for the breathtaking magnificence she witnessed from the veranda of the historic tea house along the route to Mount Victoria. It was a stunning display of vast glaciers, and snowcapped peaks, stretching out as far as the eye could see, each of them reaching all the way up into clouds that floated like giant puffy balloons in the clear blue sky far above them. Every single vantage point offered something new, and she soaked in the essence of it like a sponge, until she was saturated by the magnificence of it all. 

“God, Waves, it’s just so beautiful here,” Nicole said breathily when she reached her. “I mean, I’ve hiked the Appalachians from the Blue Ridge range in Georgia and Virginia, to the Great Smokies in North Carolina into Tennessee, and never have I seen anything as magnificent as this,” she gushed.

And then she was blushing. “I must sound crazy,” she admitted, when she realized she’d been fangirling over a bunch of gargantuan rock formations like some giddy teenaged girl over the latest boy band.  

“You don’t sound crazy at all,” Waverly reassured, her fingertips feathering a light touch along Nicole’s arm. “You sound like someone whose heart’s been stolen away by these mountains.”

It was stolen away by you first, Nicole thought, but didn’t voice. “Sounds pretty accurate,” she agreed, as they walked by unspoken mutual agreement toward the benches for a well-deserved rest.

Settling in, Nicole reached for her pack, unfastening the latches. “Hey, thanks for coming all the way out here with me. I know we could’ve just hiked the mountains near the homestead, but… it was really important to me to come here first.”

“It means a lot that you asked me, Nicole,” Waverly said affectionately. She knew this was an emotional journey for her without her ever having said so. “And… I can understand why you wanted to come here first. You must miss her a lot.”

“Some days more than others,” Nicole quietly admitted.

“Like today?”

Turning her head, Nicole fell into that tender green gaze. She loved the way Waverly understood her without words. “Exactly like today,” she said softly. Falling silent, she took a moment to remember the woman who had meant so much to her. She hadn’t realized how difficult it would be to be in this place, on this particular day. With or without Waverly, she would’ve been here. That had been the plan all along. But she was grateful to not be alone.   

Taking Nicole’s hand, Waverly watched in silence, as the thoughts and emotions played across her beautiful face. Instinctively, she knew there was something more. “What is it, Nicole?” she asked, gently.  

Absently shuffling the heels of her boots in the dirt and loose gravel, Nicole leaned forward, resting her forearms on her knees. And then she drew in a deep breath, as she fought to steady her emotions. “Today, uh… it would’ve been her ninety-fifth birthday,” she quietly shared. “I, um… I actually have…” She swallowed hard, and swiped at tears that threatened to spill. “…have some of her…”

Lightly, Waverly brushed her hand across Nicole’s upper back in a supportive caress. “This is kind of a celebration of her life… and a way of letting go—isn’t it?” she asked, already knowing the answer.

Nodding, Nicole whispered, “Yes…”

“Okay, then,” Waverly said with a sense of finality. “You don’t need to say anything more. Not if you don’t want to.”

Despite her momentary sadness, Nicole smiled. “Thanks, Waves.” She sighed then, and gathered her wits about her. “Gosh, I’m really sorry. I, uh… I didn’t expect to get so emotional.”

Waverly squeezed her gently, and then let her go. “Your feelings don’t require apologies, Nicole. Wasn’t it you who, just the other day, told me it was okay to feel sad?”

Nicole released a soft chuckle at the sound of her own words being returned to her. “Yeah, I suppose it was,” she granted. And then she sighed softly. “You wouldn’t think it’d be so hard to let go of someone who’s already been gone for nearly ten years.”

“Oh, you’d be surprised,” Waverly replied. The tone of her voice said she could relate to exactly what Nicole meant.  

Turning her head, Nicole slowly searched Waverly’s eyes. “I guess you really do understand, don’t you?” she asked rhetorically. Everything Waverly had shared with her about her family—her mother’s disappearance, her father’s death, Willa being kidnapped and murdered—god, she couldn’t even imagine. And now here Waverly was, comforting her over a grandmother who died of old age—almost a decade ago!

“Yes, I do,” Waverly said gently. “So, it’s okay to be sad, Nicole. And it’s okay to do whatever it is you need to do, to bring closure.”

A faint smile flickered across Nicole’s lips as she gazed into those sincere green eyes. “You really are amazing, Waverly Earp.” And in that moment, Nicole realized that even if nothing ever happened between them, she was, and would always be, profoundly grateful for this woman’s presence in her life.

Waverly smiled. “Right back atcha, Officer Haught.”

Nicole drew in another deep breath then, and planting her hands firmly on her thighs, she released it slowly. "Okay, I’ve got this,” she said with renewed resolve. Reaching for her pack, she dug down into the one compartment she hadn’t opened during their hike up the mountainside, and when she lifted her hand back out, she held a quaint little jewelry box that had once belonged to her granny. It didn’t contain all of her granny’s ashes, of course. It was far too small for that. But it contained enough for Nicole to say she’d fulfilled her promise to someday return her to the mountains she loved.    

Rising from the bench, Nicole walked toward the pinnacle and opened the box, tilting it slightly to allow the light mountain breeze to catch the ashes, and carry them away. And suddenly, it didn’t feel like a sad thing anymore. It felt… uplifting. She wrapped her arms around herself then, and nodded, satisfied that she’d done what she came to do.   

Waverly’s heart swelled not only with empathy, but with deep, deep affection for Nicole, as she watched her releasing the ashes into the cool mountain breeze. How was it possible that she cared for this woman so deeply, after knowing her for such a short period of time?

Honestly, it didn’t even matter. All that mattered was that it was true.

Coming up behind her, Waverly wrapped her arms around Nicole’s middle, and leaned a cheek against her right shoulder, simply holding her. It was the sweetest feeling Nicole had ever known. She covered Waverly’s arms with her own, and turned her head to catch a glimpse of the woman who held her so tenderly. “I’m really glad you’re here,” she whispered against Waverly’s hair.

A rush of emotion swept over Waverly, and instinctively, she tightened her hold. “I can’t imagine being anywhere else.”

Neither of them could recall how long they’d stayed there, locked in that embrace. Or which one of them had ultimately broken it. But eventually, they found themselves walking back to the bench, with Waverly as their guide. Without word, Nicole leaned into her touch. Sliding down just a tad, she settled against Waverly’s side, allowing that arm to wrap around her, as she leaned her head against a surprisingly strong shoulder. And there they lingered together in quiet solitude then, just drawing in the natural beauty of the sights and sounds that surrounded them.

Sunday, April 17, 2016… Plain of Six Glaciers Tea House, Banff National Park, Alberta, Canada—3:30 p.m. Mountain Daylight Time

Once they’d been settled for a while, Nicole noticed the slight chill in the air that she naturally attributed to being in the higher elevations. Tearing herself away from the warmth of Waverly’s embrace, she dug into her pack, retrieving her jacket, finally slipping it on.

“You hungry?” she asked, realizing how long it had been since either of them had eaten a real meal. “We’ve been living on trail mix and fruit all day.”

“Starving, actually,” Waverly appeared to have suddenly realized.

“Well, then let’s get you fed before you waste away to nothing,” Nicole said in a teasing tone. “You’re tiny enough as it is.”

Waverly’s face held a tenacious expression. “Never, ever, underestimate me, Officer Haught,” she sternly warned, but the grin that tugged at the corners of her mouth as she uttered Nicole’s name gave her away. “Though she be but little, she is fierce.”

Nicole chuckled at the Shakespearean reference. “Ah… A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act three, Scene two,” she said knowingly.  

Waverly grinned. “I see you’re familiar,” she said, sounding impressed by how quickly Nicole produced the information.

“Yeah, we did a brief, but rather tragic rendition of it in theatre class my senior year,” Nicole confessed, emphasizing the tragedy part, as she pulled the cooler from the bottom of her pack.   

An eyebrow arched. “Aren’t all of Shakespeare’s plays tragic?”

“You make a valid point,” Nicole laughed, handing Waverly a fresh bottle of water.  

“Thanks,” Waverly said. Taking a sip of her water, she recapped the bottle, setting it on the bench beside her. “So… you did theatre, eh?” Leaning back, she crossed her legs, getting comfortable again.

Nicole felt her face flush hot. “Yep,” she confirmed, feeling a bit foolish. She’d hoped the girl would just let it go. “I did it for fun. It was a nice way to balance my heavy course load.”

“Oh, so you did this in college?” Waverly realized. She murmured another “Thank you” when Nicole handed her a sandwich, neatly wrapped in butcher paper and securely fastened with twine. It certainly hadn’t come from the deli in town, so she knew Nicole had made it herself. Huh. Butcher paper. Who even did that anymore? In some ways, the woman was like a throwback to an era gone by. Waverly found it… pleasantly disarming.   

“High school, too,” Nicole admitted with a shrug. As long as she was confessing, she might as well go all the way. “I was actually kinda good at it.”

“You know, there’s a theatre group in Purgatory,” Waverly mentioned, as she unfastened the twine around her sandwich. The thick paper crackled as she opened it. “And trust me, they could use some fresh talent.”

Nicole laughed. Her hands made quick work of opening her own sandwich. “Yeah, I don’t think that’d be a very good idea.”

“Why not?” Waverly seemed to dare. Green eyes pierced into Nicole’s. “I thought you liked a challenge.”

Biting her bottom lip adorably, Nicole leaned over, her breath hot against Waverly’s ear. “I think you’re enough of a challenge for me right now,” she murmured flirtatiously. And then she looked at her with those eyes, and Waverly’s entire body flushed with heat.

“Stop trying to charm me, Nicole. It’s not going to work,” Waverly said dryly. But her body said otherwise. Her heart fluttered in her chest and her belly turned somersaults from the expression on Nicole’s face as she looked at her. Unbidden, the corners of her mouth twitched into a tremulous smile.  

“Then why are you smiling?” Nicole challenged.

Because being with you makes me happy, Waverly thought, but didn’t dare voice. No one had ever flirted with her so brazenly before, without making her want to flee, and instinctively, she knew if she answered the question honestly, she’d be in serious trouble. And so she sidestepped the issue. “Eat your sandwich, Nicole,” she said by way of avoidance. Her tone was droll, but Nicole knew she meant business.

“Okay, fine…” Nicole sighed, feigning disgruntlement. But the smile that played on her lips reached all the way to her eyes, as she gazed at Waverly’s beautiful face, contemplating all the fascinating layers in the tapestry that was Waverly Earp—layers she just couldn’t wait to unravel. 

Friday, May 27, 2016…  Shorty’s—2:30 p.m. Mountain Daylight Time

Being with you really does make me happy, Waverly thought, not for the first time as she dragged herself back to reality. She’d spent the better part of the last half hour so lost in her memories of that day in the mountains that she’d forgotten what she was even supposed to be doing. Nicole was smart, and strong, and witty, and charming, and… so damned beautiful it made her heart hurt, and Waverly wanted nothing more than to lose herself completely in her— heart, mind, body, and soul.

But she couldn’t.

Could she?

For the first time in her life, she was beginning to question whether the opinions of others really mattered. Gus’s opinion matter, of course. And so did Wynonna’s. But anyone else? She really didn’t know anymore. All she really knew was what she felt when she was with Nicole. 

She smiled to herself as she recalled one of her more awkward moments along the trail—and how Nicole had made her feel, just by being close to her. She’d lost her footing as they were descending a gravel-encrusted embankment on their way back down the mountain, and in her clumsiness, she started to fall. So much for the trekking poles, right? she remembered thinking, as she slipped.

The next thing she knew, she felt the strength of Nicole’s arms wrapped around her, holding her up, sustaining her. Her feet were more than a foot off the ground, her entire body flush against Nicole’s, and she was gazing down into those clear russet eyes, to find Nicole gazing back with equal intensity; their faces, their mouths, merely a hairsbreadth apart. And like a moment right out of a movie—or some trashy romance novel—their hearts pounded in their chests, their breathing growing labored as the tension built between them.

Waverly’s insides were trembling again. She could feel the warmth of Nicole’s breath on her lips, when Nicole lowered her just enough to put them at eye level. And staring into those eyes, she’d never felt such an intense urge to kiss someone in her entire life. She didn’t draw away, but true to her nature, the fear and uncertainty welled up, keeping her from simply taking what she wanted.

And she had called Wynonna a coward! Jesus, that was certainly rich.  

Once again, it was Nicole who broke the connection, albeit reluctantly. Tearing her eyes away, she allowed Waverly’s body to slide down her own until her feet touched the ground. It nearly killed her inside to do it, but it needed to be done—for both their sakes. That invisible cord that bound them together was growing tauter, and Nicole honestly didn’t know how much more she could handle.

With Waverly was firmly planted, Nicole drew in a breath to steady herself, and releasing it slowly, she recaptured her gaze. “You okay, Waves?” she asked with tender affection in her tone.

Waverly nibbled her bottom lip. Physically, she was fine—at least in terms of the near fall. But other than that, her entire body was a jumbled mess of nerves and raw emotions, unexpected physical urges, and just… outright confusion. What the hell was wrong with her, that she could be so complexly affected by the simple act of being in this woman’s arms?

Numbly, she nodded. “Yeah… Uh, thanks. I, um… I’m good.”

Nicole chuckled. “Okay, if you say so.” She sounded less than convinced.

“I really am okay,” Waverly assured, once she’d gotten her bearings again. “Thanks to you, anyway. If you hadn’t been right there when I slipped, you might be carrying me down the mountain right now.”

“I would have, you know,” Nicole said sweetly.

“I know,” Waverly quietly acknowledged. And then she grinned. “It’s kind of a shame I’ll be missing out on that stellar ride,” she said flirtatiously.

Her face flushing, Nicole dipped her head, her eyelids fluttering closed in that adorable way of hers, and as she lifted her head again, they slowly reopened to reveal an almost bashful expression. “Come on,” she said, offering Waverly a hand. “We’ve still got a ways to go, and I believe you promised me a most spectacular sunset over the lake, if we make it back in time.” 

Waverly smiled up into those intense russet eyes. “That, I did,” she affirmed, taking the proffered hand. “And I fully intend to deliver.”

And with that, they’d continued their trek back down the mountain.

As her thoughts returned once again to the present moment, Waverly’s fingers tingled, and she could still feel the warmth of her hand in Nicole’s. She couldn’t recall how long she’d held it—or rather, allowed hers to be held—all she could remember was how perfectly her hand fit into Nicole’s, like they were made for exactly that.    

“You seem awfully distracted today, Honey,” Gus said, startling Waverly from her ponderings. Her work was getting finished—well, mostly anyway; but something seemed a little… off. “You sure everything’s okay?”

“What, me?” Waverly questioned, feigning ignorance of the cause for Gus’s concern. “I, uh… Yeah…”

“I rest my case,” Gus said in response to her niece’s inability to form a coherent sentence. Normally, she didn’t pry, but this time, honestly, she was concerned. “Is there something going on with Wynonna?” she asked, suspecting the elder of her two nieces was the most likely culprit.

“What?” Waverly tossed that around in her head for a moment. “Oh! No,” she answered through the fog that seemed to have settled in her brain. “Wynonna is fine. I just…” She sighed. “I had a fight with Nicole this morning,” she finally admitted. 

“Ah…” Gus uttered, thinking it finally all made sense. After all, this wasn’t their first skirmish, she knew. And given the passion that simmered just beneath the surface with the two of them, it likely wouldn’t be their last.

“Ah?” Waverly parroted, arching an eyebrow, her face took on an expression of exasperation. “That’s all you’ve got?” She sounded disappointed, almost desperate.

Reaching out, Gus patted Waverly’s arm with affection. “I have the utmost confidence that you girls will work it out,” she said. “Whatever it is that’s going on between you.”

Waverly just stared at her as she walked away. Does she know? How could she? A short, sardonic laugh erupted from deep in her lungs. “Oh, who the hell am I kidding?” she asked herself with a sigh. "How could she not?”

 Shaking her head, she glanced around; trying to remember what it was that she’d been doing before she’d gotten sidetracked by thoughts of Nicole again. She had to stop doing that, or she’d find herself in trouble with the boss. Even Gus, who loved her madly, had her limits, and Waverly certainly didn’t want to test them. After all, that was Wynonna’s role in the family.

Friday, May 27, 2016…  Ghost River County Municipal Offices—2:30 p.m. Mountain Daylight Time

Wholly distracted, Officer Nicole Haught sat at her desk, staring at a series of pictures she’d downloaded onto her phone after their return from the mountains. She hadn’t accomplished a single thing all damned day. The moment Wynonna stomped out the door earlier, her thoughts went right back to Waverly. The girl, no, the woman, was all she could think about. And this time, her thoughts drifted back to their day in the mountains. Every single moment they shared that day had been perfect. Once again, Waverly proved to be equal parts playful and engaging, intelligent and witty, warm and caring, amusing beyond words—especially when she got anxious or excited and started babbling. And more than that, she was just a little bit flirty, and even a touch feisty, too which, Nicole had to admit, made her all the more appealing.    

By mutual agreement, they had decided to forgo the short side trip from the tea house up to the Abbot Pass viewpoint, vowing to return again later in the season to complete what Waverly deemed the “Tea House Challenge”—visiting both the Plain of Six Glaciers Tea House and the Lake Agnes Tea House in a single hike. Always up for a challenge, and definitely up for spending another, much longer day with Waverly, Nicole had readily agreed. Both tea houses would be open by then, Waverly had assured, and just from the conversation about it alone, they were both already excited about the journey. Summertime couldn’t get there fast enough.  

Nicole smiled to herself remembering Waverly’s enthusiasm as she described the journey that would take them along what she called a “lateral moraine”—who even knew terms like that?—to the Abbot Pass viewpoint. She’d said they could peer down into the massive crevasses on the Lower Victoria Glacier from there—apparently that was quite a sight to see!

And the views from the vistas down into the vales were more breathtaking from the higher elevation, Waverly reported, chattering on, animatedly. There was even an up-close view of the hanging glaciers on top of Mount Victoria, she’d rambled excitedly, as if that particular view was the akin to finding the some sort of promised land.

She’d gotten so excited about it that she’d actually fallen off the edge of the bench, causing Nicole to burst into a fit of laughter that Waverly quickly joined her in. Christ, that girl was adorable. Nicole hadn’t a clue how long they’d laughed, but it sure felt good. And grateful for the experience, she drank in every moment of it, like parched woman at an oasis in the desert.

“You should be a geologist, or… a tour guide, or… something,” Nicole said when they finally recovered from their laughter. “You know so much about these mountains.” She sounded beyond impressed.

“Nah,” Waverly said dismissively. And then she looked at Nicole with determination in her eyes. “I have far loftier goals than that.”

“Oh, yeah?” Nicole’s curiosity was piqued. “Like what?”

“Black Badge,” Waverly announced without a moment’s hesitation.

An eyebrow arched. “Black Badge?” Nicole’s voice dropped an entire register.

“Yeah, I wanna do what Wynonna does,” Waverly shrugged, suddenly looking a little unsure of herself.

“You wanna prove yourself to your big sister,” Nicole said knowingly. She could definitely relate to that.

Sheepishly, Waverly nodded.

Nicole leaned forward, grazing a hand across Waverly’s thigh. “Something tells me she already knows how capable you are, Waves,” she said sincerely. “I think she’s the one who’s looking to prove herself… especially to you.”

The corners of Waverly’s mouth curled into a tentative grin. “She doesn’t have to prove anything to me,” she declared. “I already think she hung the moon and the stars.”

“Pretty sure she thinks the same of you,” Nicole said tenderly. Always tough on the exterior, Wynonna Earp didn’t give much away in terms of emotions—unless she was on her way to being shitfaced—but her love and admiration for Waverly was undeniable. “And honestly, so do I.”

“Thanks, Nicole,” Waverly said quietly, her face slightly flushed from the sincerely in the deputy’s tone. “The feeling’s kinda mutual.”

And with that, they’d settled back in again, lingering there together at the lookout for a few more hours, simply enjoying one another’s company as they soaked in the spectacular views. And thanks to brilliant timing on Waverly’s part, their return trek found them reaching the lake just in time to catch the final vestiges of sunlight shimmering across turquoise waters as the sun slowly slipped between the mountain peaks.

Once again, by mutual silent agreement, they settled on a bench near the shoreline, watching as the sunset cast its brilliant colors—variant hues of reds, and yellows, and oranges, and the most vivid purples, splashing across the backdrop of a darkening sky. And then, as if words would somehow tarnish a perfect memory, they walked in silence back to the SUV, guided by the light of the moon dancing on the waters.

When she’d finally gotten home that evening, after stopping for dinner at a quaint little inn near the lake, and then dropping Waverly at the homestead, Nicole had been surprised at how many pictures she’d found on her camera. Between the two of them, they had taken literally thousands of photos all throughout their hike. She wasn’t surprised at all to see so many candid shots of Waverly, but the ones Waverly had taken of her caught her completely off-guard.

Most of them, like the photos she’d taken of Waverly, were captured in moments when she was busy exploring some new discovery, and she wasn’t aware of the camera lens on her. That made her smile, because Waverly had managed to capture the essence of her, her vulnerability—just as she had captured Waverly’s so many times that day. And the photos that made her smile the most were the ones of the two of them together. She had hundreds of those, as well. Some were selfies that she or Waverly had taken, complete with the requisite awkward angles that gave them such character, and some were thanks to her trusty tripod, and still others thanks to fellow hikers they’d met along the way.

Her absolute favorite of the two of them was one taken by a fellow hiker they’d met along the first ridge. She wanted to make it the lock screen on her phone, but she thought that would be a little too weird, especially for Waverly. Perhaps someday, she thought, smiling at the memory of how it had come to be. They’d been in the midst of snapping one of those awkward selfies, against the backdrop of the mountains and a beautiful deep gorge, when an older couple came upon them, on their way back down from the peak.

Nicole’s back was against a sturdy post-fence, her arms wrapped around Waverly from behind. With Waverly’s jacket hanging open and her sweater riding up just slightly, Nicole’s right hand was pressed lightly against the bare skin of Waverly’s abdomen, and just as Waverly held the camera out in front of them, Nicole grasped her bicep with her free hand, and leaned in, nuzzling against the side of Waverly’s face.

Waverly giggled from the warmth of Nicole’s breath against her cheek, even as her insides trembled with pleasure in response to the closeness of Nicole’s body against her own. The unexpected reaction made her a little nervous, and in a moment of sheer edginess, she nearly dropped the camera; only to have it snatched from her unsteady hands by a woman with dark smiling eyes and a quick laugh. “Whoa there,” she chuckled, steadying the piece of equipment with ease. “Why don’t you let me snap the picture for you?”

“Would you?” Nicole said, sounding grateful.

“It would be my pleasure,” the woman said amiably. “Beautiful young couple like yourselves deserves to have a few non-selfies—that’s what you young folks call them, right, when you take them yourselves?”

“Ohh, we’re not, uh…”

Nicole quickly tried to dispute the assumption that they were a couple, only to be cut off by Waverly answering the woman’s question. “Selfies, yes. They’re called selfies. And you know, it’s a real shame they don’t make selfie sticks for real cameras and not just cell phones, ‘cause that one just about bit the dust,” she rambled. And then, glancing back at Nicole, she sheepishly added, “Sorry ‘bout that.”

Both amused and a bit perplexed, a faint, noncommittal smile flickered across Nicole’s lips. She was still trying to figure out why Waverly had cut her off mid-sentence. Sighing internally, she said, “No harm done.”

Holding her water bottle out to her female hiking partner, who stood nearby, the woman said, “You mind, Hun?”

And then the assumption made sense to both of them. Well, it could’ve been the way Nicole was holding her, but neither of them really wanted to deal with that. Denial was so much easier.

While the woman worked to frame the two of them perfectly in the viewfinder, Nicole saw no reason to release Waverly from her embrace; nor did Waverly pull away. Instead, much to Nicole’s surprise, she actually leaned further into Nicole’s body, urging Nicole to pull her closer from behind.

The woman shot a series of photos for them, each more intimate than the one before. But Nicole’s favorite was the one that happened just moments after she’d whispered something against Waverly’s ear, causing her to laugh. She didn’t remember what she’d said that was so funny, but it didn’t really matter. All that mattered was the sound of Waverly’s laughter, and how it made Nicole smile, causing those dimples to bloom as she laughed along with her. And when Waverly tilted her head in that adorable way of hers, they were angled perfectly for the woman to catch them in profile, as she glanced back at Nicole with that laughter lighting her eyes; that gaze penetrating Nicole’s very soul when the shutter clicked. The photo left her breathless every time she looked at it.

Reflecting back, Nicole realized that she hadn’t laughed so much, or felt so at ease, in years. Not that she ever tended to brood, or dwell on the negative, or allow the weight of the world to crush her. To the contrary, she was generally the exact opposite on all accounts. But being with Waverly made her feel… alive, in a way that no one else ever had. And god help her, she wanted more of it—and of Waverly.

She felt a sudden, burning need to reach out, to fix whatever had been broken between them during that ridiculous fight earlier in the day. But she knew better than to text her about it—that was a recipe for disaster—far too much opportunity for miscommunication, she had learned from experience. No, she needed to go see her, to talk things out—and now.

Glancing at her watch, she cursed under her breath—it would be at least another three hours before she could get away. And that was if Nedley didn’t give her another wild goose chase—like the elderly woman whose three-legged cat got stuck in a tree—to contend with before the end of her shift. She’d nearly broken her neck climbing that tree, only to have that damned cat dart off along a branch, jump down onto the roof of the house, and then onto the hood of her cruiser before she could get close enough to get her hands on it. It sat there, taunting her, as she tried to extricate herself from that damned tree. Weren’t firefighters the ones who were supposed to get the call when cats got stuck in trees? They were the ones with the giant ladders, after all.

Deciding she was over it, she sighed. She supposed she should just be grateful she hadn’t gotten assigned to deal with old man Jasper’s bull when he got loose a few weeks back. She’d heard the officer who pulled that detail was still sitting on one of those dorky donut pillows to alleviate the pain in his ass.

But she digressed…

Turning back to her computer, she reopened the report she’d filed regarding her kidnapping, making one more valiant effort to accomplish some actual work. It still burned her that Nedley wanted her to redo that report—he’d completely dismissed her experiences. But she wanted to keep this oft frustrating job, in this weird little town, if for no other reason than it meant staying close to Waverly. That’s what got her through the rough days. And that’s what would get her through today as she labored once again over that damned report; images of Waverly Earp still lingering in the corridors of her heart and mind.

TBC in Chapter 4—Reminiscences and Restoration…

Chapter Text

The Ten Times Waverly Earp was Definitely NOT on a Date with Nicole Haught


 “We are what we remember. If we lose our memory, we lose our identity and our identity is the accumulation of our experiences. When we walk down the memory lane, it can be unconsciously, willingly, selectively, impetuously or sometimes grudgingly. By following our stream of consciousness we look for lost time and things past. Some reminiscences become anchor points that can take another scope with the wisdom of hindsight.”

— Erik Pevernagie


Chapter 4 – Reminiscences and Restoration:


Friday, May 27, 2016…  Shorty’s Saloon—2:45 p.m. Mountain Daylight Time

“Hey—” The low-toned, throaty greeting captured Waverly’s attention, as stealthily, Wynonna slid onto the barstool across from her for the second time that day. Earlier, after she’d chased the so-called real-estate agent into the bathroom, she’d fled the bar without a word, looking more than a little edgy. And Waverly hadn’t expected a return appearance.

“What are you doing back here?” Waverly asked, her hands swiftly shelving a rack of clean tumblers. “The way you ran out earlier, it was like you were on a mission. I figured I wouldn’t see you again today.”

“Sorry for running off,” Wynonna apologized. “I almost killed that guy, and it turns out he wasn’t a Revenant,” she explained, her voice low and gruff. “It kinda freaked me out.”

“I imagine,” Waverly empathized, her face pinching together in a sharp wince. “You okay now?”

“Yeah,” Wynonna said passively. “Doc helped me sort it out. Kind of…”

“What do you mean, ‘kind of’,” Waverly questioned. “You’re being awfully cryptic, Wyn.”

“Look, it doesn’t really matter,” Wynonna said, brushing it aside. She really didn’t want to get into the fact that ‘helping her sort it out’ was a euphemism for ‘I nearly had sex with Doc—again.’ Waverly didn’t even know about the first time yet, and if Wynonna had her druthers about it, she never would. “I’m back ‘cause I didn’t get what I came for the first time.”

“Which is what, exactly?” Waverly queried, equal parts curious… and suspicious.

“Is Nicole gonna be around the homestead this weekend?” Wynonna asked. The rookie officer had taken to spending more time there since their little impromptu party behind her desk, and their subsequent mutual kidnappings, a few weekends ago. Wynonna assumed it was because she’d given Nicole her stamp of approval to hang out with Waverly more.

“What?” Now Waverly was confused. Wynonna never asked about Nicole. Not even when she saw the two of them talking at the station. “Why?”

“Just… answer the question,” Wynonna huffed.

“No—,” Waverly adamantly refused. “Not until you tell me why.”

Rolling her eyes, Wynonna sighed. “Look, Dolls suspended me from Black Badge this morning, because I failed some stupid psychological assessment,” she explained, making a face that matched the mocking tone in her voice. What she didn’t say was that in taking her badge, he’d taken a part of her fledgling identity—her newly-found sense of purpose—and with it, the belief she was just beginning to cultivate in herself. “And I just… I need to get outta this town for a couple of days.”

“So you’re running again,” Waverly accused, an amalgam of hurt and disappointment flooding over her. She closed her eyes, staving off tears.  

Wynonna couldn’t blame her for doubting, but she’d be damned if she let her continue believing it was true. “No, Waves,” she denied firmly. Reaching across the bar, she took her sister’s hands into her own. “No. I swear, I’m not running. I just need a few days, okay? And… I don’t wanna leave you at the homestead alone.”

“I don’t need a frickin’ babysitter, Wynonna,” Waverly snapped. Nothing irked her more than being treated like a helpless child.

“Oh, come on, it’s not like that,” Wynonna said. “It’s just that… Well, you seem more settled, and, frankly, you sleep better when she’s around.”

“Yeah, well, I wouldn’t count on that happening anymore,” Waverly said, sounding forlorn.

“What?” Wynonna looked concerned. “Why not?”

Biting her bottom lip, Waverly avoided Wynonna’s gaze. “We uh, we had a fight this morning,” she finally confessed. “It was awful.”

Wynonna made a face at her. “What the hell do the two of you have to fight about? I mean, it’s not like you’re fu… Ohhhh…” she practically howled, her eyes widening as if realizing some long-hidden truth, and then she grinned, almost devilishly. “A lovers’ quarrel?” she teased giddily, knowing that it wasn’t, but unable to pass on something this good.  

“No!” Waverly snapped, slamming a glass down on the bar. Her anger rose so swiftly she couldn’t contain it—and she couldn’t even articulate why. “Why would you even say that?”

Startled by the noise, Gus’s head jerked up from the paperwork she was reading over. Silently, she watched, ready to intervene if necessary.

“Hey, whoa, I was only joking.” Wynonna raised her hands in mock surrender as she slowly backed away. “Jesus…”

“Sorry…” Waverly sighed, clearly frustrated with herself. It was basically the same reaction she’d had to Nicole this morning, at the mere mention of the word ‘dating’. How ridiculous. “Guess I’m just being overly sensitive today.”

“No, it’s not you. Fuck,” Wynonna cursed, slumping back down onto the barstool. “Guess I can thank fuckin’ Bobo for that one,” she muttered under her breath. She’d just come from skirmishing with him and his gang of undead demon misfits at the bridge, where he’d outed her and Doc without even blinking an eye.

“What does Bobo have to do with anything?” Waverly questioned, clearly confused.  

“Never mind,” Wynonna said, blowing out a dismissive breath. “Sorry for being such a douche.”

“You’re not a douche,” Waverly placated. And then the corner of her mouth twisted into a smirk, “Lil’ bit of a jerk, maybe…”

Wynonna gave a little laugh, as she grinned at her sister. She loved that Waverly didn’t hold back the truth with her. “Listen, whatever you and Nicole are fighting about, I’m sure you’ll work it out,” she said supportively.

“Yeah, I hope so,” Waverly said, sounding dejected. “It’s just that… Well, she usually comes in for a cup of coffee in the afternoon, or at least texts or something, and I haven’t heard from her all day.”

“Maybe she’s just really busy,” Wynonna suggested. “You know it’s never quiet in Purgatory—or when it is, it means the shit’s about to hit the fan.”

“Yeah, maybe,” Waverly granted, albeit a bit distractedly.  

“Well, did you call or text her?” Wynonna asked, making the point that communication was a two-way street.

“No—,” Waverly admitted sheepishly.

“Maybe that’s what she’s waiting for,” Wynonna shrugged.

Waverly sighed. “You make a good point,” she grudgingly admitted. “I was the one who was a jerk this morning.”

Wynonna offered a lopsided grin. “Takes one to know one,” she said, referring to herself and the way she’d acted a few minutes ago. And then she sighed. “Listen, just… give her a call, a text, or somethin’,” she suggested. “She’s been a better friend to you—hell, to us—than either one of us has ever had in this town full of judgmental assholes. Don’t let go of somethin’ that good, just to save your pride. Trust me, it’s not worth it.”

Wordlessly, Waverly nodded in agreement. And then she met Wynonna’s gaze. “Thank you, Wyn,” she said softly.

Suddenly overcome with emotion, Wynonna hopped up onto the bar, and quickly slid down on the other side, pulling Waverly into a tight hug in one smooth motion that surprised the both of them. She pressed a lingering kiss to Waverly’s temple, as she held her close for several long moments. And when she released her, she grasped Waverly’s biceps in her hands, meeting her gaze again. “I love you, Babygirl,” she said, tears forming in those stormy blue eyes. “And I promise you, I’ll be back by Monday. I’m never gonna leave you again.”

Waverly felt her own eyes flooding with tears. “I believe you,” she quietly assured, sniffing back the tears.

Finally releasing Waverly, Wynonna turned to leave, only to feel Waverly’s hand catching her own, as she called out to her. She turned again, at the sound of her name falling softly from trembling lips, meeting green eyes that glistened with tears.

“Yeah?” she managed on a strangled whisper.

“I love you, too,” Waverly said softly.   

There was no way that Waverly could have known how desperately Wynonna needed to hear those words, needed to believe they were true. And yet she had said them in the one moment when they mattered more than anything else. Facing that woman, that analyst, earlier in the day had set in motion a course that could have destroyed Wynonna for good. Once again, she’d been locked in a room with someone whose job it was to pick apart her every thought, every emotion, every action, and label her value as a human being based upon some set of criteria made up by a bunch of bureaucratic assholes who probably qualified for an Axis II mental health diagnosis themselves.





Those where the labels townsfolk had assigned to her, when they couldn’t find any other words that fit. Of them all, ‘whore’ seemed most fitting—at least to her. And why shouldn’t she be? Lending her body to men, allowing it to sop up their desperate need, well… it was the one thing she was good for, after all. And finally, at the whims of those so-called doctors, the diagnoses came—and every single one they lobbed onto her was more damning than the one before, until all she was to them was a hodgepodge of diagnostic codes, a lockbox full of mind-altering pills, and a steady paycheck to line their coffers of greed.  

Never again.

That’s why she needed to get out of this town—before someone decided she needed to be locked up again. Because this time, they might decide to just throw away the key. And she just couldn’t have that.

No. Not this time.  

Just like Waverly, she had work to do.   

Closing her eyes at the sound of those words from the one person who meant the most to her, Wynonna allowed the tears to fall. And the next thing she knew, she being pulled into Waverly’s arms, this time, her little sister holding her with a fierceness neither of them knew she possessed. And from the shadows, Gus watched it all, finally realizing how truly wrong she had been. Wynonna wasn’t a threat to Waverly—she was her salvation, just as Waverly was to her. God, she’d been a fool, keeping those girls apart the way she had. She only hoped they could forgive her one day.    

Finally, regaining her composure, Wynonna drew in a breath, slowly releasing it as Waverly released her from their embrace. “Okay,” she said, with renewed sense of purpose as she cradled Waverly’s face in her hands. “I’ve gotta go.”

“I know,” Waverly acknowledged. Having watched the whirlwind of emotions that played across her sister’s face, she finally understood what this was really about—Wynonna was just beginning to find her place in this world, and she was terrified of the past becoming prologue. “Call me later?”

“Absolutely,” Wynonna promised. “As long as you call Nicole,” she bartered.

“I will,” Waverly quietly vowed. She brushed her hand along Wynonna’s cheek, and then leaned in to kiss her in its wake. “Be careful,” she cautioned. “I know it’s not really your style, but… do it for me, okay?”

With tears in her eyes and a lopsided smile, Wynonna nodded. And then, she was gone, leaving Waverly to contemplate all that had transpired. And contemplate, she did—from everything that had just transpired with Wynonna, to the fight she’d had with Nicole that morning, until ultimately, her thoughts drifted back to the day when Nicole helped bring a sense of restoration to the homestead, in more ways than she could possibly ever know…   

Saturday, April 23, 2016… The Earp Homestead—7:00 a.m. Mountain Daylight Time

“Sorry this place is still such a mess,” Waverly said to Nicole with a slight grimace, as she set a piping hot cup of black coffee in front of her. Having taken Nicole on a quick tour of the house just to get her acquainted with the layout, they were sitting at the rickety old kitchen table—the only place that was safe to sit, actually.

It had taken some serious elbow grease, but she and Wynonna had managed to clean up all of the debris that they’d found strewn throughout the house after all those years of abandonment. It was unbelievable, some of the things they’d unearthed—especially the things that brought with them memories, both good and bad. Aesthetically, the place was looking a lot better, but still, the clean-up efforts felt almost futile at times. They had a lot of work to do.

The entire interior needed to be scrubbed down to remove years’ worth of soot and grime. Some of the walls required patching, and others, a fresh coat of paint. Old wallpaper needed to be stripped and replaced, or the walls simply painted. The kitchen sink leaked, both from the faucet and underneath—they’d nearly flooded the kitchen when Wynonna first turned the water main back on—and the flushing mechanism in the upstairs bathroom needed to be replaced. And then there were those drab-looking wood-plank floors—neither of them really knew what to do with those. But they needed… something.

There were still sheets covering what was left of their parents’ dilapidated furniture. Gus had covered them up when they closed up the homestead, moving Waverly home with them; though neither Waverly nor Wynonna really understood why she’d even bothered. Despite the cover, most of it had been damaged by the elements, and needed to be thrown away, along with the wooden chairs and that old porch swing that dangled haphazardly from the beam on the front porch, all of them aged to ruination by weather and the passage of time.

Waverly could remember daddy sitting out there at night, in that old green chair, guzzling cheap whiskey straight from the bottle and smoking his pipe as he listened to the soothing sounds of coyotes and owls—and silently searched the horizon for any sign of Revenants lurking at the perimeter of the homestead. No one could sit there now; not without endangering life and limb. Champ was supposed to come by later so he and Doc could haul it all off. And Dolls would be there soon. But until then, it would just be Nicole and Waverly—and Wynonna, once she managed to drag herself from that uncomfortable wooden bench where she’d landed last night, too drunk to even make it to her own bed.  

“Well, that’s kinda the point in me being here, isn’t it?” Nicole asked, rhetorically. 

Dragged from her bitter reminiscences, Waverly smiled at her. “Have I told you how much I appreciate you taking your day off to help us?”

Meeting Waverly’s gaze, Nicole shrugged. “That’s what friends are for, right?”

“Right,” Waverly agreed.

“Y’know, this is a really great place,” Nicole remarked after having her first real look at the house in the daylight. The only other time she’d been inside was when she dropped Waverly off after their hike—and then, she’d only really seen the kitchen because they’d come in through the side door. “It just needs a little restoration, some TLC.”

“Yeah,” Waverly agreed with a sharp laugh. “And a hell of a lot of elbow grease.”

“It’ll take a lot of work,” Nicole agreed. “But it’s got so much potential, Waves.”

Surprised by the sincerity in Nicole’s voice, Waverly smiled. No one ever talked about the homestead in anything other than negative terms. The fact that Nicole saw something positive brightened her entire day. “Really?”

“Well, yeah, really,” Nicole said, sounding excited. “The house has a great floorplan. It looks small from the outside, but gosh, there’s so much space in here.” She glanced up then, noticing the detailed trim work. It was filthy, but the essence of its artistry was still visible. “And see these moldings,” she said, pointing to them. “They’re beautiful works of craftsmanship—hand carved, I guarantee it. And these floors,” she went on, stomping a boot-clad foot, “Solid black walnut. They just need to be sanded and sealed, and they’ll last forever. And if you decide you want those tile floors in the bathrooms like we talked about the other day, I can definitely do that for you. I can refinish the showers and the backsplash on the tub, as well.”     

“You would really do all of that for us?” Waverly asked, genuinely touched.

“What can I say?” Nicole shrugged. “I like working with my hands. It gives me a sense of accomplishment.”

I’ll bet it does, Waverly thought, working hard to stifle a blush. Instead, she grinned. “Those are definitely things we can talk about.”

“Great,” Nicole declared. “So what’s the plan for today?” She took a sip of her coffee, and set the mug back down on the table. “You want me to just get started on the upstairs bathroom, or would you like a working sink first?”

Before Waverly could answer, a loud ruckus, followed by a series of expletives that would’ve made a sailor blush, assaulted them from the next room. And then Wynonna stumbled through the doorway, making her first official appearance of the day.

“I smell coffee,” she grunted. And then she looked a tad bit confused. Barely half-dressed, she was barefooted and completely disheveled. Still, she looked better than she did most mornings, so Waverly didn’t balk. She wasn’t hung over though; just not quite awake yet, as was her usual, given the earliness of the hour. “Where did we get coffee?”

She knew the old coffeemaker they’d found when they first came back to the homestead was useless, and they had thrown it away, along with most everything else they’d found in the kitchen, save mama’s set of cast-iron skillets and a deep fryer that apparently just wouldn’t die. Those just needed to be cleaned and re-seasoned, and they would last forever.

“Wynonna doesn’t do mornings,” Waverly explained to Nicole, her face adopting that adorable teasing grin.

“One of many things I don’t do before caffeine,” Wynonna mumbled, as she slumped down at the kitchen table, muttering something under her breath about bratty little sisters and strangling them.

“Love you too, Sis,” Waverly said playfully.

And then the aroma of coffee struck her again—it was like it was taunting her. Wynonna looked up, planning to give Waverly the stink eye. But instead, she spotted the sleek black and silver Quisinart coffee machine that had appeared on their kitchen counter, seemingly out of nowhere. It was like a gift from the gods! “Dude!” she exclaimed. “Where did we get a coffeemaker?”

“Uh, from the store,” Waverly answered wittily. “You know… that building with all the things in it. And you give them money, and they let you take the things home?”

Nicole chuckled at Waverly’s comical hand gestures and dry humor, but Wynonna was completely oblivious. Suddenly full of life, she lunged at the thing like it was the pot of gold at the end of a rainbow. “Oh, my god, this thing is a dream,” she practically growled as she fondled the newly-acquired appliance.

In a stealthy, two-fisted move, she simultaneously pulled a mug from the kitchen cabinet and the carafe from the warmer, and her hands meeting in the middle, she poured a brimming cup of the liquid heaven. Ignoring the sting as the hot liquid slid down her throat, she gulped down half the cup, moaning in pleasure with every swallow—it was the most amazing French roast, dark and full-bodied, that Waverly had clearly ground up fresh that morning. Salivating, she filled the cup up again, and a moment later, she was moving toward the table, full mug in hand and a broad grin on her face.

Shaking her head at her sister’s antics, Waverly glanced back at Nicole. “Can I fix you something for breakfast?” she offered.

“What the fuck am I, chopped liver?” Wynonna groused as she dropped down in the chair next to Nicole again, banging her coffee mug on the table with a loud thud. Some of the steaming hot liquid sloshed out onto the surface, prompting another string of expletives from Wynonna’s lips.

“Well, that mood didn’t last long,” Waverly muttered, making a face at her. “Sorry, but we’re fresh out of doughnuts.”

“Hey, I eat real food sometimes,” Wynonna whined in dispute.

“Fine, I’ll fix you something too,” Waverly sighed, feigning a rather put-upon tone. She tossed a kitchen towel at Wynonna, knocking her upside the head with it. “But only this once. And only because we have company.”

“Rude,” Wynonna said, her face scrunched up as she drew out the accusation. It was clearly meant for both the comment and the misguided towel launch. Grasping the towel, she wiped up the coffee spill, and then dumped the towel in a heap in the middle of the table—a clear mark of the difference between herself and Waverly.    

Rolling her eyes, Waverly planted her hands on her hips. “You want your meals served hot on the table, get a personal chef… or a 1950s housewife,” she suggested. “I’m neither.”

“I don’t do chicks,” Wynonna said flippantly.

Damned pity, Nicole thought. She knew a few lesbians who might be interested.

“Yeah, you only do assholes,” Waverly commented.

Expressive blue eyes danced with mischief as Wynonna’s lips curled into a roguish grin. “Only if they shower first, and then ask nicely,” she said, suggestively waggling the tip of her tongue.

“Dude! Gross,” Waverly protested.

Nicole couldn’t help but laugh. “Wow, you two really are sisters,” she commented, amused by their playful repartee, complete with tasteless sexual innuendo. It didn’t seem to matter that they hadn’t lived together since they were children; still, they shared that familiar banter between them. Watching them made her miss her own sisters. Terribly so.

“Unfortunately for Waves,” Wynonna said self-deprecatingly.

“Aw… What’s the matter, Wynonna? Haven’t I given you enough validation today?” Waverly asked facetiously, as she moved toward her sister. “Here, let me remedy that…”

Delivered on a teasing tone, Waverly’s playful threat drew a wary expression from Wynonna. She squirmed in her seat as she contemplated the fallout from her comment. Sometimes she should just keep her mouth shut.

Waverly laughed at the expression on her sister’s face. Wrapping her arms around Wynonna’s neck, she squeezed her tightly, as she smothered her cheek with kisses.

True to nature, Wynonna made a show of objecting. “Dude, come on, stop it,” she protested, batting her hands at Waverly’s arms, and trying to drag her face away. But the expression in her eyes gave her away—at least to Nicole.

She could tell that Wynonna needed that contact, needed to feel that affection from her sister, probably more than she needed to breathe. And in that moment, her heart was filled with empathy and affection for the young girl who must have felt so lost, and so alone—and for the woman who still struggled, not only to find her place in the world, but also to accept the love she so desperately needed from the only person who could help fill that emptiness inside her.  

Jesus, what is this, payback for letting Willa torment the shit outta you as a kid?” Wynonna groused. But the more Wynonna protested, the more persistent Waverly became. She plopped right down into Wynonna’s lap, squeezing her even tighter.

“Nope,” Waverly replied. “I have far more sinister plans for that.”

Tussling with Waverly, Wynonna finally managed a look toward Nicole. “See what I have to deal with here?”

Nicole raised her hands in mock protest. “Hey now, don’t drag me into this,” she laughed.

“Wise move,” Waverly laughed, as she finally settled down. She didn’t move from Wynonna’s lap though; nor did she remove her arms that were still draped affectionately around her sister’s neck.

A few moments later, her persistence was rewarded by the sensation of Wynonna’s arms wrapping around her, pulling her close, as she rested her head against Waverly’s chest. “Thanks for the coffeemaker, Babygirl,” she said, her tone soft and uncharacteristically vulnerable. 

Lightly, Waverly pressed an affectionate kiss against the top of her sister’s head. “You’re welcome,” she said tenderly. She squeezed Wynonna tight for a moment, and then released her, but left her arms draped loosely around her neck. “Now, what would you two like for breakfast?” she asked, meeting Wynonna’s affectionate gaze. “Eggs? Pancakes? French toast?”

The entire scene warmed Nicole’s heart. Their love for one another was palpable; she could feel it in her soul. And watching them, she decided right then and there that a nice, long chat with her own sisters was way overdue. Not that they didn’t talk often enough—in fact, they talked multiple times, every day; but mostly about little things rather than the honest-to-goodness heart-to-hearts they’d shared growing up. Being so far away, she’d learned that she could miss them with a fierceness she hadn’t known she possessed—until those lonely days in Afghanistan. And even now, no longer half a world away, but still far enough that she couldn’t hold them, that fierce longing for them lingered in her still.

“Ooh!” Suddenly, Wynonna perked up, startling Waverly, and yanking Nicole from her reminiscences. “Do we have powdered sugar?”

Waverly eyed her curiously. “Yeah… I picked up kitchen staples at the store last night. Why?”

Wynonna’s grin spread wide across her face, producing dimples that rivaled Nicole’s. “Because I saw canned biscuits in the fridge,” she said. “We can make homemade doughnuts!”

“Jesus Christ,” Waverly muttered, rolling her eyes as she slid off of her sister’s lap. “Can’t you eat real food for once in your life?”

“Hey! Doughnuts are real,” Wynonna insisted with a whine, as she rose from the chair, hot on Waverly’s tail as she moved toward the refrigerator.

“You’d be better off eating corn chips,” Waverly sighed.

“Probably,” Wynonna agreed with a shrug. “But I already ate them all,” she reported, hoping she looked remorseful enough, because she certainly didn’t sound it.  

“Seriously?” Waverly huffed. “Geez, Wynonna, that’s the third bag this week.”

“Well, if you’d cook for me once in a while…”

“Get a wife.”

“I told you, I don’t do chicks.”

“Well, maybe you should,” Waverly suggested, turning toward her sister. “I’ve heard the sex is spectacular. Better than morning coffee.”

Nicole arched an eyebrow at that, as Wynonna’s brow furrowed. “Where did you hear that?” Wynonna asked, her tone gruff with suspicion.

Waverly turned back toward the open refrigerator. “I have my sources…”

“Yeah, well, you’d better spill.”

Leaning back in her chair, Nicole just chuckled to herself. There they go again…  

Thirty minutes later, Deputy Marshal Dolls was knocking on the front door. Finally dressed in suitable attire for company, Wynonna let him in. Slowly, her eyes raked up and down his body, appreciating the black jeans that curved so perfectly to his ass, and the short-sleeved gray Henley that showed off his biceps. Damn, that man was fine.  

“My apologies for being late,” he said stoically, as he brushed past her, striding toward the kitchen. “I had to give report on our encounter with man in the mirror, and…”

He stopped in his tracks, clamming up immediately upon spotting Nicole sitting there. “Officer Haught,” he greeted, his tone firm, rather than friendly. “I didn’t see your patrol car outside.”

“Good morning, Deputy Marshal,” Nicole said with a warm smile that did nothing to dissuade his lack of one. It was almost like she was invisible. “I’m not working today, so…”

“Oh, you don’t have to stop on account of Nicole being here, Marshal Dolls,” Waverly chirped. “She’s trustworthy. We can talk about the barb...”

“It’s classified, Waverly,” Dolls said sharply, cutting her comment off cold.

Nicole’s face sank. Even Waverly knew what the hell had gone down the day prior with three dead bodies, a whole lot of broken mirrors, and seemingly no explanation in sight. She’d witnessed what appeared to be lightening, but sounded like breaking glass, and heard some screaming and weird, almost demonic voices, followed by a single gunshot coming from the Black Badge Division offices, and then Wynonna, Waverly, and Doc came running out the door, leaving the Deputy Marshal behind. Two hours later they’d come back, acting as if nothing had happened; once again leaving Nicole with more questions than answers. “It’s okay, Waves,” she said passively. “I get it.”

And then glancing at Waverly, who was sitting next to her at the table, busily mixing up a bowl of pancake batter, she stood from her chair. “How about I help you with breakfast?” she offered. She needed something to do, before her annoyance got the better of her.

Waverly smiled up at her. “I’d love some help,” she chirped. And then rising from her chair, she grabbed the bowl of batter with one hand, and snagged Nicole’s index finger with her own, pulling her across the kitchen. “You can do the pancakes, while I finish the bacon.” She paused, looking up at Nicole. “You do know how to make pancakes, don’t you?”

Nicole chuckled. “Yes,” she said. “I can make pancakes.”

“Good,” Waverly declared.

Intrigued, Dolls leaned back against the doorframe, crossing his arms as he watched their interactions—their heads so often close together, the soft giggles, like they were sharing their own little jokes without even using words, the light touches, most of them unnecessary, as they talked and laughed, all while throwing together what looked like it would be a delicious breakfast. Suddenly, he felt really hungry.  

“Hey, what about my doughnuts?” Wynonna groused upon her return to the kitchen. She’d smelled bacon cooking, and as much as she liked bacon, she didn’t like it in her doughnuts.

“Relax,” Waverly said with the wave of a hand. “I’ve already got the oil warming in the deep fryer.”

“Oh, thank god,” Wynonna sighed as she sank back down into her chair. “Thought I was gonna have to go another day without them.” She glared at Dolls. “Someone conveniently forgot to go by the doughnut shop yesterday,” she added, accusingly.

Dolls just rolled his eyes, and walked away.

Saturday, April 23, 2016… The Earp Homestead—11:00 a.m. Mountain Daylight Time

After breakfast, Nicole went back out to her SUV, returning minutes later with a fully loaded tool belt strapped around her waist in place of her usual duty belt, a toolbox in her left hand, and a box full of miscellaneous plumbing and painting supplies tucked beneath her right arm. Depositing the toolbox on the living room floor just to the right of the front door, she set the supply box on top of it. She stooped down, and fishing through the contents, she found what she needed for the bathroom repair. And then with a few quick words to Waverly, she headed up the stairs to get to work, while Waverly tackled the baseboards, windowsills, and walls in the living room, dining room, and den with a bucket of hot, soapy water and a sponge.

Three hours later, the painted surfaces were clean and ready for a fresh coat of paint, and woodwork in all three rooms glistened in the sunlight that streamed through the windows that Wynonna had scrubbed clean, both inside and out, while Dolls worked outside, clearing debris from the grounds. He had amassed quite a pile of old junk, including two rusted-out bicycles, which he presumed belonged to the elder Earp girls, once upon a time. Meanwhile, Nicole had replaced the flushing mechanism in the toilet upstairs, installed a new showerhead in the main bathroom downstairs, and fitted the kitchen faucet with new washers to stop the constant drip. Now, Waverly was working on the walls in the kitchen—ridding them of years’ worth of built-up grease and grime—while Nicole, having already removed all of the rusted out piping and replaced the sink baskets, was lying on the floor, buried up to her shoulders in the cabinet beneath the sink, checking the new fittings in preparation for replacing the original metal piping that had rusted and deteriorated over time.  

Having determined on a cursory inspection of the plumbing setup the previous Sunday that a center outlet would work most efficiently for the drain, Nicole had already picked up the new PVC pipes and fittings she would need to complete the job. She chuckled softly to herself at the memory of Waverly’s insistence upon tagging along—“You know, to pay the bill,” she’d shrugged, that look of sheer innocence on her beautiful face. But they both knew it was just an excuse to spend more time with her, and Nicole certainly hadn’t minded her company.  

And so it was on Monday evening after Nicole finished her shift that she found herself perusing the aisles of the local hardware store, Waverly Earp in tow. Ever inquisitive, Waverly asked detailed questions about what Nicole was buying, and why. Patiently, Nicole explained to her about plumber’s putty and sink baskets, and that PVC pipe was far more wear-resistant than metal piping, not to mention much cheaper to buy which, in her estimation, was a win-win for everyone but the pipe manufacturers.

When Waverly asked why she was buying two metal nuts when everything else was plastic, Nicole explained the importance of connecting plastic to plastic, and metal to metal; thus, since the sink baskets had metal threading, she needed metal or brass nuts to connect the tailpieces. The tutoring session went on to include things like the advantages of nylon washers versus rubber ones, water pressure and the compatibility of shower heads, and the ins-and-outs of flushing mechanisms, as well as a few other random topics.  

Waverly made faces at all the technical jargon. She really hadn’t a clue what Nicole was talking about; not until Nicole showed her the actual pieces. And then things started to make sense. She filed all of that information away in her head, under the title: Plumbing 101 as they checked out, and then announced that she wanted to take Nicole to dinner—“You know, for helping us out,” she’d shrugged.

Unable to resist Waverly’s charm for even an instant, Nicole readily agreed to dinner. Twenty minutes later they found themselves seated in a cozy corner booth in this quaint little Italian place just down the street, where they lingered over dinner, enjoyed a little too much wine, and talked until closing time. Every encounter with Waverly Earp was sweeter than the one before, and despite the warning bells that clanged loudly in her head, Nicole just couldn’t get enough.

“How’s it going down there?”

The sound of Waverly’s voice drew Nicole from her reminiscences. Glancing toward it, she met soft green eyes, alight with that winsome smile, as Waverly stooped down beside her. “Not bad,” she grinned.  

“Awesome,” Waverly declared. “Pizza should be here in about thirty minutes.”

“You got someone to deliver all the way out here?”

“Yeah,” Waverly shrugged. “Champ’s bringing it from Shorty’s.”

Despite herself, Nicole’s heart sank in her chest at the mention of his name, but she managed a sincere smile anyway. She had no right to be jealous. “That’s really nice of him.”

“That washed-up rodeo clown’s gotta be good for somethin’, right?” Wynonna declared sarcastically as she sauntered into the room, grabbing a cold beer and a bottle of water from the antiquated refrigerator.

“Wynonna—” Waverly sighed.

“What?” Wynonna smirked as if to say, Am I wrong?, as she bumped the fridge closed with her hip. Unstable, the refrigerator teetered, and then went still. She twisted the cap off of the beer, and tossed it into the wastebasket across the room, yelling “Score!” when it went straight in, and then tipped the bottle back, guzzling half it on her way back out of the room.  

Waverly just rolled her eyes.

“Well, this’ll be finished by then,” Nicole announced. “And I can help you clean up from breakfast and lunch after we eat.”

“You’ll do nothing of the sort,” Waverly announced in a tone that brooked no dispute.

Nicole produced that sexy dimpled grin. “What, you don’t wanna do dishes with me?”

That grin was nearly Waverly’s undoing, and as she sputtered, searching for a response that wouldn’t sound completely inane, Nicole just laughed, returning her focus to the job at hand. She hooked the tailpieces to the sink baskets using nylon washers and the metal nuts, making sure they were hand-tight for the moment. Later, when everything was assembled, she would tighten them down with a pipe wrench, but for now, she just needed to get some quick estimates.

Then she measured and marked the pipes that connected to the tee, ensuring a snug fit. Next, she slipped the wall tube into the main drain, checking the J-bend to make sure it would line up properly with the center drain pipe, and finally, lining the extension tube up with the center pipe and the P-trap, she measured and marked the tube.

Satisfied that the pipe configuration was solidly planned, she crawled from beneath the sink, bringing the connector pipes along with her. “I’ll be back in a few,” she said to Waverly, who had returned to scrubbing down the kitchen walls in preparation for a coat of paint, maybe two.

“Need any help?” Waverly asked. Eager to follow Nicole just about anywhere, she dropped the sponge down into the bucket of hot soapy water without waiting for an answer.  

Since the moment Nicole walked back into the kitchen, Waverly had been torn between attending to her task, and watching Nicole work. Her thick auburn hair was pulled back in that messy tuft again, but she’d taken her ball cap off upon entering the house, which made Waverly a little sad. And once again, Waverly couldn’t help but notice how that pair of well-worn, low-slung jeans clung to Nicole’s perfect ass—or how the midnight blue of her police academy t-shirt brought out the green and gold flecks in those beautiful russet eyes. Damn, she looked good in blue. She could stand there all day, just watching her move. But she’d never get the kitchen painted that way, she reluctantly reminded herself. And then she decided she just didn’t care.  

“No, I’m good,” Nicole answered, offering Waverly that confident smile. She lifted the three sections of PVC pipe in her hand. “I just need to take these outside and cut ‘em down to size. Thank you, though.”

“No problem,” Waverly replied with a grin. Biting her lower lip, she held Nicole’s gaze a little longer than necessary before finally turning back to her task, too disappointed to watch her walk away.

Once again, there was a loud ruckus in the other room, followed by an argument that included references to circuit breakers and common sense, interspersed with several extremely vulgar obscenities. And then Wynonna came bursting through the doorway, just as Nicole was leaving. “What the hell is all of that?” she barked, gesturing toward Nicole’s hand.

“New pipes for your kitchen sink,” Nicole answered evenly. “Is everything okay in there?” she sounded concerned as she gestured toward the adjacent room.

Ignoring the question, Wynonna made a face at her. “If those are the new ones, shouldn’t they be attached to something… over there?” she said, flailing her hands toward the open cabinet doors.

Nicole just shook her head. “Give me fifteen minutes, and they will be,” she assured. “In twenty, you’ll have a working sink again.”

The deputy’s unwavering confidence made Wynonna feel a bit… lacking. “Well, fuck, were you some kinda plumber in a past life?” she asked flippantly. “Where’d you learn how to do all this shit?” 

“My uncle,” Nicole shrugged. “I helped him out sometimes, back in high school.”

Brow furrowed, Wynonna eyed Nicole curiously for a moment.  “Oh—” was all she said, and then stepped right past her without another word.

Catching Nicole’s gaze, Waverly rolled her eyes and shrugged, as if to say, I can’t explain her either, and Nicole silently chuckled in response. “I’ll be back,” she said, and then quickly exited the room, pipes in hand.

“So, what, are you having an issue with the…”

“Dolls is a dingus,” Wynonna declared, cutting Waverly’s question completely off. Irritated, she flopped down onto a kitchen chair, sulking.

“Well, what did he do?” Waverly asked, wiping her hands on a towel, as she moved toward her sister.

“Don’t listen to her,” Dolls said, practically stumbling into the kitchen. Leaning against the doorframe for support, he looked a little dazed to Waverly, as he glanced at Wynonna. “I told you this was a bad idea,” he reminded, referencing their conversation where she’d insisted that he come help because he was the one who told her to start making it a home. “I don’t know anything about electrical work.”

“You’re a man, for Christ’s sake,” Wynonna practically accused. “Aren’t you supposed to know how to do shit?”

Planting her hands on her hips, Waverly gave her a look. "That was really sexist, Wynonna," she chided.

Wynonna made a face at her, as if to say, Who gives a shit?

Waverly simply sighed in response.

“I’m a Deputy Marshal, not an electrician,” Dolls reminded, clearly baffled by her lack of understanding. Glancing at Waverly, he explained, “She had me up on a ladder, trying to repair the light fixture in the dining room, and I got shocked. Knocked me right on my ass.”

“Well, I didn’t know you had to turn off the circuit breaker,” Wynonna said, crossing her arms defensively. She glanced at Waverly. “The light switch was off, so I thought he’d be fine.”

“Oh, god,” Waverly mumbled, rolling her eyes. “Are you all right, Marshal Dolls?”

“I’m fine,” Dolls said, sounding annoyed. “But I’m not touching that damned thing again.”

“Ugh… You’re useless to me,” Wynonna sighed, turning away from him.  

“Just… don’t worry about the fixture,” Waverly said nonchalantly. “Nicole can take a look at it when she’s finished with the sink.”

“What the fuck, is she some kind of Mr. Fix-it?” Wynonna barked.

“Miss Fix-it, actually,” Waverly corrected. “Her family’s in construction. Dad’s a general contractor, and she’s got uncles and cousins who do electrical work, roofing, siding, painting, flooring… and plumbing, obviously,” she added, gesturing toward the sink. Having mentioned during their hike the need to hire a plumber to fix a few things around the homestead, Nicole offered to do the work for her, sharing about the family business, and the skillset she’d acquired from working with them.

Wynonna made a face at her. “What, do you know her whole life story?”

Waverly shrugged. “Practically.”

Remaining silent, Dolls took in yet another interesting piece of information regarding the connection between Waverly Earp and Officer Haught, storing it away for future reference. The two of them were quite an intriguing pair.  

“Well, shit,” Wynonna said, not certain whether she was more impressed… or threatened. “Maybe we can just hire her to fix the whole fuckin’ place.”

“Yeah, I don’t think she wants to be our personal handywoman,” Waverly said. Though, she does look really hot in that tool belt, she thought, suppressing a grin. “She already has a fulltime job.”

“Cute,” Wynonna smirked. And then she looked back at Dolls, who was still standing in the doorway. “What do you know how to do?”

“I can paint,” Dolls answered. “There’s no electrical current involved in that,” he muttered.

“Great,” Wynonna declared. Slapping her hands on her knees, she rose from her seat. “We’ll do that.” She glanced at Waverly then. “They ready to go?” she asked, motioning toward the rooms where Waverly had started that morning.

“Yeah,” Waverly confirmed. “Brushes, rollers, paint trays, everything you need should in the bags and box near the fireplace.” What they couldn’t borrow from Gus, they’d just gone ahead and bought while at the hardware store on Monday.

“I’d better not find any shade of pink, whatsoever, in any of those paint cans,” Wynonna warned, as she brushed past Dolls, snagging the neck of his shirt with her finger. “You could’ve asked first, before you touched that wire, y’know,” she said to him, as she dragged him away.

“Hey, make sure you use the tarps to protect the floors,” Waverly called out to her.

Wynonna popped her head back into the kitchen. “Have you seen our floors?” she asked, scrunching up her face. “What harm could we possibly do to ‘em? They already look like crap.”

Waverly waived a dismissive hand. “They’re solid black walnut. Nicole said all we have to do is sand them down, and seal them. They’ll look fabulous and last forever.”

A mischievous grin percolated on Wynonna’s lips. “One of us should marry that girl.”

“I thought you didn’t do chicks,” Waverly said, challenge in her tone.

Raising her eyebrows, Wynonna shrugged. “Guess that leaves you.”

“Yeah, well, you should probably ask her opinion on that before you go picking out china patterns,” Waverly joked, an attempt at alleviating the thunderous pounding of her heart at the mere thought of marrying Nicole Haught.

“Oh, I will,” Wynonna assured, her eyes twinkling with mischief. “During lunch.”

“Don’t you dare!” Waverly gasped, mortified by the very idea. “Champ’ll have a shitfit. He’s already pissy about all the time I’ve been spending with her.”

Wynonna’s laugh was almost devilish as she sauntered away.

When Nicole returned a few minutes later, she pitched a thumb toward the den where she’d found Wynonna and Dolls bickering over proper painting techniques. “Are you sure it’s a good idea to leave those two alone with a five gallon bucket of paint?” she asked humorously. “I’m afraid they might try to drown one another in it.”

“Nah, Dolls is pretty even-keeled,” Waverly noted, dipping the sponge into a fresh bucket of hot, soapy water, and quickly wringing out some of the excess. She’d dumped the old water out over the side of the back porch not long after Nicole stepped outside. “He’ll only take so much of her shit, and then he walks away.” 

“That’s true enough,” Nicole agreed, as she crawled back underneath the sink. “I’ve seen him take a few walks here and there.” It was usually after she’d heard a string of choice curse words out of Wynonna. The woman wasn’t exactly discreet.

“Well, at least she’s not cussing at him again,” Waverly shrugged. “So maybe he’ll stick around today.”

“That’d be cool,” Nicole said offhandedly, as she hooked the center lines to the tee, and fastened them to the tailpieces on both sides of the sink, tightening them with her hand. Dolls could be a real dick sometimes, but she understood duty and the need to keep classified information under wraps, so she gave him a pass—for the most part.

They worked in silence for a few minutes then, as Nicole finished connecting the extension pipe, and then the P-trap to complete the drainage track. And then she reached for her pipe wrench, tightening down all of the connections. Once everything was snug, she reached behind her head, turning on the water main, and then, she called out to Waverly, “Hey, Waves, would you come turn on the faucet for me?”

“Sure thing,” Waverly said. She dropped the sponge into the water, and grabbed a towel from the countertop, wiping her hands as she moved across the room. Stepping over Nicole with her left leg, her feet basically straddled Nicole’s hips as she stood above her, and pushed the faucet handle up to start the stream of water.

Nicole listened to the sound of the water draining as she watched for signs of leakage at any of the connections, while trying hard not to get distracted by Waverly’s beautifully toned, and extremely bare legs. She was wearing a pair of those sexy cutoffs she always wore at Shorty’s, and needless to say, they looked mighty fine on her.   

“Everything look okay?” Waverly asked after a minute passed, and Nicole had said nothing.

“So far, so good,” Nicole answered, sounding pleased. Her head wasn’t wet, so she assumed there were no leaks. Glancing up, she checked, just to be certain. “Would you mind moving the faucet over to the other sink for me, please?”

Waverly complied, and Nicole thanked her. “Hey, what was all that commotion about earlier?” Nicole asked, by way of distracting herself from being hypnotized by Waverly’s shapely legs again.  

“Oh, Wynonna had Dolls up on a ladder, trying to repair the light fixture in the dining room, and she didn’t cut the circuit breaker off,” Waverly reported.

“Oh, my god, is he okay?” Nicole sat upright so fast she cracked her forehead on the cabinet ridge above her. “Shit!” she exclaimed, instinctively grabbing her head.

“Whoa, Nicole, are you okay?” Waverly dropped down the moment she heard the impact, and by the time she’d finished asking, she was basically sitting astride Nicole’s lap.

“Yeah, I’m all right,” Nicole said reflexively. She felt a bit dizzy, but otherwise, fine.

Reaching up, Waverly cradled Nicole’s face in her hands. “Hold still,” she said quietly. “Let me get a look at this.”

Nicole started to protest, but Waverly silenced her with a look. She acquiesced then, remaining still while Waverly inspected her wound. Thankfully, the skin wasn’t broken, so there was no blood, but she watched what she was certain would be a very painful contusion forming on her forehead. “Well, you’re getting a nasty bump, but you’re not bleeding, so that’s good,” she reported. “You’re gonna have one hell of a headache outta this, though.”

Laughing, Nicole said, “I’m certain I’ve had worse.”

She looked up then, meeting Waverly’s probing gaze. Those familiar green eyes were intense with worry, and yet they softened so instinctively when they fell into Nicole’s trusting gaze. The world went silent around them, but for the water that still ran in the sink. Suddenly, it sounded like the babbling creek in the mountains, as they were transported back there, if only for a moment.

Waverly’s next awareness was the sensation of Nicole’s hands at her waist. A small gasp slipped from her lips at the contact, and then she smiled into those hazy russet eyes, her thumbs lightly brushing Nicole’s cheeks. “I’m glad you’re okay,” she said softly. 

Nicole grinned. “Of course I’m okay,” she quietly assured. And then she tilted her head, and her tone dropped a full register, “I am a Marine, after all.”

A soft laugh fell from Waverly’s lips; her eyes alight with absolute adoration. “You’re the most beautiful Marine I’ve ever seen,” she said, her fingertips feathering over Nicole’s cheek and then down under her chin. “Even with this big ole’ bump on your head.”

Nicole blushed, and bit her lower lip adorably.     

“What the fuck is this shit?” Champ snarled, walking in on the two of them still gazing into one another’s eyes. He slammed the pizza boxes down on the table, and just stood there, staring them down. If he hadn’t known any better, he would’ve sworn they were seconds away from ripping each other’s clothes off. But he knew Waverly. And she liked dick. There was no way she’d go for a chick.

But then… why did he feel so threatened?

Startled from their reverie, they both jumped. But neither of them made a move to separate from the other. Waverly just glared back at him. “Nicole bumped her head on the cabinet,” she said. “I was just checking her wound.”

Standing just behind Champ, Doc assessed the situation with a keen eye. Interesting, he thought, but he said nothing. It simply wasn’t his place. Out of deference for their privacy, he turned and walked into the adjacent room. 

“And you have to sit in her lap to do that?” Champ snapped.

“No—,” Waverly answered sharply. “But I’ll sit wherever I damned well please.” Slowly rising, she offered Nicole a hand, helping her up. “You okay?” she asked, making sure she was all right to stand.

“Just a little dizzy,” Nicole answered. “But I’ll be all right.”

“Nonsense,” Waverly said, gently taking Nicole’s arm. “Come, sit,” she instructed, leading her toward a kitchen chair.

“There’s no need to fuss, Waves,” Nicole insisted. She felt a little embarrassed with Champ standing there staring at her. “I really am okay.”

“I’m not fussing; I’m taking care of you,” Waverly insisted, her fingertips lightly grazing Nicole’s cheek. “Now, we need to get some ice on that before it gets any worse,” she declared. Turning off the faucet, she moved toward the refrigerator. She’d already grabbed a Ziploc bag and a clean dish towel from the drawer.

Champ just stood there, staring at her in disbelief as she filled the bag with ice, sealed it, and wrapped it in the towel. “Jesus, Waverly, she said she’s okay,” he finally snapped, as Waverly gently pressed the cold pack against the bump on Nicole’s head.

A slight wince passed through Nicole’s lips upon contact, and Waverly checked in just to make sure she was okay. And then, glancing up at him, her face held an expression of incredulity. She couldn’t believe he was being such a jackass. “I remember doing the same for you,” she reminded. “Many times, actually, when your sorry ass got thrown off a bull.”

“Exactly,” Champ said harshly. “Because you’re my girlfriend.” He emphasized the nature of their relationship.

“No, Champ, because I’m a caring human being,” Waverly retorted. And then she turned her attention back to Nicole, gently caressing her shoulder. “Does this feel too cold, Sweetie?”

“Jesus Christ, Waverly. This is such bullshit,” Champ swore, smacking his ball cap against his thigh. “I’m outta here. You’re welcome for the pizza, by the way,” he said, as he stormed out the kitchen door, slamming it behind him.

“What’s his problem?” Wynonna asked caustically, as she stepped back into the kitchen just as Champ slammed the door. The expression on her face said she couldn’t have cared less, which didn’t surprise Waverly in the least. 

Nicole glanced up at Waverly, who was still holding the ice compress against Nicole’s forehead. “Don’t you think you should go after him?”

Waverly shook her head. “He’s a big boy,” she said. “He needs to just get over himself.”

It wouldn’t have mattered if she’d gone after him anyway, because a few seconds later they heard Champ’s truck peeling out of the driveway. Waverly simply rolled her eyes. For a grown man, he certainly acted a lot like a five-year-old.

Truth told, it wasn’t just his attitude toward Nicole and their burgeoning friendship. She was still royally pissed at him for that whole scene with Wynonna the day the prodigal Earp sister returned to town. Wynonna knew she wasn’t going to sleep with him, but he didn’t know that, and he eagerly brought her up to Waverly’s room, with that very intention. And then, after being caught practically red-handed trying to fuck her sister, he’d had the audacity to think Waverly would have sex with him that same night! Well, that sure as hell didn’t happen—and it hadn’t happened even once since then. She’d told him, in no uncertain terms, to get well-acquainted with his right hand, because that was the only date he’d be having for quite some time. And she’d meant every word.

“What happened to you?” Wynonna asked, spying the cold compress against Nicole’s head.

“I had a little run-in with the cabinet,” Nicole said drolly.

“It was my fault,” Waverly admitted. “She had her head under the sink when I told her about your bonehead move with Dolls.”

“What bonehead move?”

An eyebrow arched. “The circuit breaker,” Waverly reminded.

“Oh, please, that was so twenty minutes ago,” Wynonna said on a dismissive snort. “He’s fine.” And then her eyes lit up, dancing with mischief once again. “Hmm… I see you’re working on that marriage proposal.”

“Wynonna—,” Waverly muttered warningly.

Nicole’s brow furrowed, and then she winced at the pain. “What marriage proposal?” she asked, confused.

“Never mind, pay no attention to her,” Waverly responded, casting a glare toward Wynonna that dared her to say more.

“What is this, Dismiss Wynonna Day?” Wynonna huffed. “I’m feeling really… unappreciated today.”

“That’s better than being completely ignored,” Waverly offered unhelpfully.

“Thanks,” Wynonna said wryly.

“We should probably eat before the pizza gets cold,” Waverly declared. “Can you manage this, Nicole?” she asked, referring to the ice pack.

Nicole simply raised an eyebrow, causing Waverly to chuckle. “Of course you can,” she said. And then her voice dropped an octave, “You are a Marine, after all.”

“And don’t you forget it,” Nicole winked playfully as she took over for Waverly.

“Wynonna, would you get Doc and Dolls, while I get plates and drinks?” Waverly requested.

“Doc! Dolls!” Wynonna bellowed, not moving from her spot. “Chow time!”

Waverly rolled her eyes. “Thanks,” she said dryly.

“Well, we don’t have one of those triangle thingies to clang,” Wynonna said with a satisfied smirk.

Nicole just laughed. The two of them really were comical.  

The guys returned to the kitchen shortly thereafter, and they settled in to eat, discussing the game plan for the afternoon. Since Champ was gone, and thus, so was his truck, Dolls offered to take Wynonna over to Gus’s to borrow her pickup. He and Doc would take care of the furniture and debris that needed to be hauled off. And Nicole, who had to insist several times that she really was fine, was finally granted permission by a hovering Waverly to look into the issues with the flickering light fixture in the dining room—with the promise that Waverly wouldn’t stand there beneath the ladder the entire time.

Though entirely unnecessary, Nicole couldn’t help but be touched by Waverly’s protectiveness—any more than Doc and Dolls could help being so curious about it. And Wynonna, well… she remained completely oblivious to the growing attraction between her baby sister, and Purgatory’s newest rookie officer, and that was just fine by Waverly and Nicole.  

Saturday, April 23, 2016… The Earp Homestead—7:30 p.m. Mountain Daylight Time

It was a little after seven in the evening when the group finally declared they had accomplished all they could for one day. The house, barn, and yard were free of any remaining debris thanks to Doc and Dolls, with a little help from Wynonna, and most of the downstairs painting was finished, Waverly having pitched in with Wynonna and the guys on that. And as for Nicole, after she finished repairing the dining room light fixture, she’d checked the fixtures in the other rooms, ensuring they didn’t pose any fire hazards, and then she turned her attention to the dilapidated furniture. Some of it definitely needed to go, but there was a decent amount of it that could be salvaged with just a little bit of work, and so she’d set her sights on reclaiming what she could—it was far cheaper to repair than to replace, she’d reasoned. And in the end, most of it turned out to be fairly solid. Obviously, there was still work to be done, but all said, they were satisfied with the progress.

After the guys left, Wynonna grabbed a cold beer, and wandered into her room, leaving Waverly and Nicole alone in the living room. She wasn’t being antisocial; she’d had enough of people for one day, and needed a little time to recharge.

Stooping down in front of the woodstove, Nicole stoked the fire that had been allowed to dwindle down throughout the day, adding a few new logs to ensure enough heat for the evening. And then she settled into one corner of the old sofa she’d uncovered earlier that afternoon, her elbow resting on the arm, a cold bottle of beer—her first for the day—dangling from her fingers. Waverly hadn’t wanted her to leave—and though Nicole thought better of it, she had to admit, she wanted to stay. And so, despite the warnings that clanged in her head, she did exactly that. She imagined that she always would.   

“You sure that thing’s safe to sit on?” Waverly asked warily, when she entered the room a few minutes later, a bowl of fresh popcorn in one hand, and a cold beer in the other. “There aren’t any critters or anything in it?”

Nicole laughed, and motioned for Waverly to join her. “Completely critter free, I promise,” she assured. “I tore it apart and steam cleaned the entire thing.”

“You brought a steam cleaner with you?” Waverly practically exclaimed. Who thinks about these things?

“Well, yeah,” Nicole shrugged. “You can’t expect to deep-clean a house without one,” she reasoned out loud. “And speaking of, the curtains and drapes could use the once-over with it too.”

“I guess you’re right,” Waverly agreed, a look of amazement on her face. Dropping down on the sofa next to Nicole, she reached across Nicole’s body, setting her bottle of beer on the table to their left, and then she set the bowl of popcorn squarely in Nicole’s lap.

“The armchairs are solid too. I cleaned them up, and now they just need a little upholstery work—a few tears to be patched,” Nicole reported, still recovering from having Waverly pressed so closely against her chest while she stretched across to the side table. “I can take care of it for you. Just need to find my repair kit. I still have a few boxes that aren’t unpacked from the move up here.”

Waverly’s expression was one of sheer awe. “Is there anything you don’t know how to do?”

Nicole looked at Waverly, her expression serious. “I can’t crochet to save my life,” she said, sounding deeply disappointed.

“Do you have some sort of burning passion for crocheting?” Waverly teased.

“No, not really,” Nicole laughed. She took a swig of her beer, and glanced around the room. “The place really does look great.”

“Yeah, it’s amazing what a coat of paint and a few well-placed pictures will do, isn’t it?” Waverly agreed.

“It’s more than just that,” Nicole said. “You guys really kicked ass today.”

“Us?!” Waverly exclaimed. “What about you? Oh, my god, you did so much for us today. I don’t even know how to thank you.”

“You’ve already thanked me enough,” Nicole said humbly.  

“Well, what if I wanna thank you again?” Waverly playfully challenged.

“Save it until I replace the faucets and sink drains in the bathrooms,” Nicole said offhandedly. “They’re holding for now, but I wouldn’t let it go too long. There’s just no reason to chance water damage, when it’s such a simple fix.”

“Maybe you could show me how,” Waverly said with a tentative shrug. She loved watching Nicole work.  

“Absolutely,” Nicole replied, popping a few kernels of popcorn into her mouth. “It’s pretty straightforward. The hardest part is usually getting the old pipes out.”

“Why’s that?” Waverly scrunched up her nose.

“Sometimes the connections are corroded, or the pipes fall apart,” Nicole answered. “Depends on how bad they are.”

“That makes sense,” Waverly nodded. “Next week okay?”  

“Sure thing,” Nicole said. “I have Monday off, if that works for your planner.”

The teasing lilt in Nicole’s tone made Waverly shake her head. “You’re never gonna let me live that down, are you?”

Nicole laughed. “Probably not.”

“It’s perfect, actually,” Waverly said. “I never work on Mondays.”

“I know,” Nicole smirked.

Waverly’s eyes lit up as she smiled. “Did you switch your day off to match my schedule?”

“I plead the fifth,” Nicole grinned, taking another swig of her beer. 

“You did, didn’t you?” Waverly said, flirtingly.

Nicole laughed. “Wish I could say I was that clever,” she admitted. “But I’m not. Nedley needs me to work next Saturday, so he gave me Monday off instead.”

“It sucks working on Saturdays,” Waverly pouted.

“Well, we have this one off,” Nicole said, making the best of things.

“Yeah, but I made you work here all day,” Waverly pointed out.

“Hey, you didn’t make me do anything I didn’t want to do,” Nicole assured. 

Waverly turned toward her. “The least I can do is make tonight fun for you. Did you wanna go do something? Go out somewhere?”

“Nah, I’m good right here,” Nicole said honestly. “I’m mostly a homebody.”

“Really?” Waverly grinned. “Me too, actually.”

“You are?” Nicole sounded skeptical. Why on earth would a vivacious young woman like Waverly Earp want to stay in on the one Saturday night she’d had off in months?

“Yeah, the bar, the whole club scene, those are more Wynonna’s things,” Waverly said.

“And yet… she went to bed at seven-thirty on a Saturday night,” Nicole noted. “She okay?”

“She’ll be fine,” Waverly assured. “I think it’s just really hard on her, being here, fixing up the place. It’s stirring up a lot of memories for her, both good and bad.”

“What about you?” Nicole asked gently.

“I don’t think it’s as hard for me,” Waverly answered honestly. “I was really little, and… I don’t remember as much. I mean, I remember the night that daddy died—the night Willa was taken. I remember screaming and yelling for them, and my whole body shaking. It was terrifying, and I… I don’t think I’ll ever forget it,” she shared, her voice quavering almost as though she were reliving it. She swallowed hard, and continued, “But Wynonna, she remembers when we used to be a family, when this was a home—before mama left, and daddy and Willa…”

Setting her beer on the table next to Waverly’s Nicole reached over, giving Waverly’s hand a comforting squeeze. “I noticed you didn’t paint over the height markings on the doorframe in the den,” she said observantly.

“Yeah,” Waverly exhaled, keeping hold of Nicole’s hand. She remembered the sense of nostalgia in Wynonna’s voice when she’d found those markings the day they returned to the homestead. It was clear how much she missed Willa, and the closeness they’d once shared. “She couldn’t bear to cover them up. She and Willa were always really close. I was just…” A sharp biting laugh slipped from her lips, “the bratty little sister that Willa loved to pick on.”

“It’s tough being the youngest, huh?” Nicole empathized. “Especially when your sisters were so much older?”

Purposely shoving the painful truth of Nicole’s observance aside, Waverly grinned at her. “How would you know?” she chuckled, giving Nicole’s shoulder a playful nudge with her own. “You’re the oldest!”

“Yeah,” Nicole confirmed with a nod. “But I pay attention.”

“Tell me more about your sisters,” Waverly requested; a means of diverting further talk of her past. Nicole had mentioned them in passing on a few occasions, but never really went into detail. They always had so many other things to talk about. “How old are they? Where are they? What do they do?”

Nicole smiled at the thought of them. “Well, Kyler’s not quite a year younger than me,” she reported. “We were so close in age it was almost like having a twin—except that we look nothing alike.”

“So she’s what, twenty-five?” Waverly calculated.

“Yeah,” Nicole nodded. “She’s an attorney for my dad’s company back in Dallas. Smart and determined, she finished college in three years, went straight into law school, and finished that in two-and-a-half.”

“Impressive,” Waverly remarked. Over-achievement seemed to run in their family.

“She really is,” Nicole affirmed. And then she grinned. “I think part of her drive comes from wanting to prove herself to me, and to my parents and grandparents. Being so close in age, it was tough for her to see me excel at things, while she struggled to catch up. Now that we’re adults, she can really shine. And she does.” 

“Is that hard for you?” Waverly asked.

“Not at all,” Nicole said without hesitation. “I’m really proud of her, and I love seeing her succeed. Then again, I was never the one in competition. I was just being me.”

“I really admire how you have such a solid sense of yourself, Nicole,” Waverly admitted.

“Thank you,” Nicole said, her face flushing just slightly. That was one of the nicest things anyone could ever say to her. “I think part of it comes from being the oldest, and the rest from granny’s influence. She never backed down from her convictions, and never took crap from anyone, including gramps,” she laughed. “The poor guy never knew what hit him most days.”

Waverly laughed along with her. “They sound like an amazing couple.”

“They were,” Nicole affirmed. “They’d been married for sixty-five years when gramps died.”

“Wow, they must’ve married young,” Waverly presumed.

“By today’s standards, yeah,” Nicole noted with a short laugh. “They were barely fifteen.”

“Oh, Jesus, I can’t even imagine,” Waverly commented.

“Neither can I,” Nicole readily agreed. “It’s amazing how societal expectations have changed throughout the generations. Now people think you’re crazy if you even consider settling down with someone you met in high school, sometimes, even college.”

“And… do you know this from personal experience?” Waverly inquired drolly.

“Me?” Nicole snorted. “Hardly.”

“Just never meet anyone who fit?” Waverly asked.

“I wasn’t really looking,” Nicole said honestly. “Other than one very misguided attempt to prove myself straight, I didn’t really date much in high school.”

“Ah, the boy-man?” Waverly presumed.

“Yeah,” Nicole laughed, recalling her first conversation with Waverly. “It really was the worst,” she intoned. “He was a nice guy, but I… was more interested in his sister.”

Waverly laughed. “Did you do anything about it?” she asked. Digging into the bowl of popcorn again—they’d both been indulging throughout the conversation—she dropped a few pieces into her mouth.

“Oh, yeah,” Nicole admitted on a sarcastic chortle. “Senior year. That’s basically how my family found out I was gay.”

“Oh, my god, what happened?” Now Waverly was intrigued.

“Kyler walked in on us, making out in the locker room after a basketball game,” Nicole answered.

Brow furrowed, Waverly looked perplexed. “What, she’s not cool with you being gay?” From everything Nicole had said, that just didn’t sound right.

“Oh, no, that definitely wasn’t the problem,” Nicole laughed. “Seems I wasn’t the only Haught girl Kendalyn Carrington was makin’ out with that season.”

“No!” Waverly exclaimed, her eyes widening in surprise. “Kyler?”

“Yep,” Nicole confirmed with a cackle. “She was so pissed at me, she went straight to our parents, and ended up outing both of us in the process.”

Knowing that Nicole’s parents didn’t have a problem with Nicole being gay, Waverly laughed at the story. “That’s actually kinda hilarious,” she commented.

“Well, in retrospect, it is,” Nicole agreed. “But in the moment, I was on Kyler’s shit list—and if you ever meet my sister, you’ll know that’s not a comfortable place to be,” she laughed. “There’s a reason she makes a good attorney.”

Waverly chuckled at the comment. She could well imagine.

“Anyway,” Nicole continued, “I, of course, had no idea she was messing around with Kendalyn, but Kyler didn’t stop to consider that. To her, it was just another instance where I was trying to one-up her. It took a lot of convincing on my part for her to realize it had nothing to do with her.”

“She sounds like a handful,” Waverly commented.

“And then some,” Nicole said dryly.

“So what about your other sisters?” Waverly arched an eyebrow. “Are they gay too?” she asked teasingly.

“Not that I’m aware of,” Nicole grinned.

“Maybe you should check with Kendalyn,” Waverly said wittily.

A hearty laugh fell from Nicole’s lips. “Oh, there’s no need of that,” she said. “She and Kyler are actually getting married this summer.”

“Seriously?” Waverly sounded surprised, though oddly enough, pleasantly so. She didn’t really know why she cared, except maybe that it was kind of a sweet story.

“Yeah,” Nicole confirmed with a grin. “Hence, my comment about people thinking you’re crazy for settling down with someone you met in high school. Folks have been giving them shit for years, but they’ve stuck it out, through good times and bad.”

“Sounds like you’re really proud of them,” Waverly surmised.

“I am,” Nicole said with conviction. “And I’m looking forward to standing up for Kyler at their wedding.”

“Aw… you’re her Maid of Honor?” Waverly practically swooned.

“Yep,” Nicole confirmed with a nod. “And she’ll be mine… someday.” 

“That’s so sweet,” Waverly sighed, giving Nicole the most adorable smile. “And wow, you seriously have the best stories, she added.

“You haven’t even heard the best of ‘em… yet,” Nicole laughed.

Nicole’s easy laugh warmed Waverly’s heart. “I can hardly wait,” she said eagerly. “Tell me about your other sisters.”

“Okay, well, Trinity is next. She’s twenty-two,” Nicole reported. “She’s about to graduate from MIT with a degree in architecture. She’ll go to work for the family business too, I’m sure. It’s kinda what’s expected.”

"You didn’t,” Waverly pointed out.

Nicole laughed. “And believe me, I’m still hearing about it.”

Waverly’s brow furrowed. “From your dad?” she inquired, curious.

“No, my dad’s really cool. He’s totally supportive of my career choice,” Nicole answered. “My grandfather, not so much. It’s not that he’s a bad guy, he just has… expectations. Anyone who doesn’t meet them ends up on the shit list. And since he technically controls all the money, everyone does what he wants. Except for me, of course, ‘cause… that’s how I roll,” she laughed.

Laughing with her, Waverly teased, “So you’re the rebel in the family, huh?”

“Yeah, the rebel with military experience and a badge,” Nicole said dryly. “I’m certainly a wild one, aren’t I?”

Waverly laughed at the irony. “Is that why you took the military route to pay for college?”

“Yep,” Nicole confirmed. “Grandfather cut off my college fund when I told him I wanted to be a cop and not a corporate sellout. That’s partly how I ended up here, actually. I just… I had to get away from the rat-race, and all the family bullshit.”

“Wow… that’s harsh.”

Nicole just laughed. “That’s my grandfather,” she commented wryly. “Anyway, it wasn’t that big a deal.” Her parents had offered to help, but it didn’t feel right to her, letting her dad go against his father. She knew if her grandfather ever found out, her entire family would suffer for it. And she just couldn’t do that to them. Waverly didn’t need to know all of that though. It felt too much like bragging, or begging points for nothing more than looking out for her family. So she just left it with a simple truth: “I like that I worked for what I have. I wouldn’t trade the experiences I’ve had for anything.”

The level of respect Waverly felt for Nicole increased tenfold within the span of that one statement. “You don’t regret any of your choices?”

Glancing toward Waverly, Nicole met her gaze. “They led me here,” she said, with a simple shrug of her shoulders. “How could I ever regret that?”

The tender sincerity in Nicole’s voice was nearly Waverly’s undoing, as she lingered there, drowning in those soft russet eyes. Instinctively, she knew that Nicole didn’t just mean Purgatory—she meant there, in that moment, the two of them together. Suddenly, feeling extremely nervous, she began to fidget—and that’s when she realized she was still holding Nicole’s hand.   

Before Waverly could pull away, Nicole gently covered that trembling hand with her own. “Hey…” she said softly. “I’m really sorry, Waves. I didn’t mean to make things weird. Maybe I, uh… Maybe I should just go.”

When she started to pull away, Waverly held firmly to her hand. “No—,” she said quietly. “I don’t want you to go, Nicole.”

“Okay…” Drawing out the word, Nicole watched her intently.

Taking a deep breath, Waverly chewed her lower lip for a moment, contemplating her words. “You, uh… you’re not the one I’m worried about,” she finally said, avoiding Nicole’s resolute gaze.

“What do you mean?” Nicole asked, confused.

Waverly struggled for a moment, trying to decide what to say. Telling the whole truth meant putting it all out there. And that meant she’d have to deal with it. She just wasn’t ready for all of that. Not yet. So instead, she took the road of half-truths, admitting only what she could manage in the moment. “You didn’t make anything weird. All you did was speak the truth as you see it,” she finally said. She furrowed her brow, searching for a way to make the rattling in her own head make sense. “You know how you told me that you’re the one who’s responsible for your feelings for me?”

“Well, yeah,” Nicole said without hesitation. “It’s not up to you to deal with my crap. That’s entirely my responsibility.”

“And how do you deal with it when we’re together?” Waverly asked, her eyes searching Nicole’s.

“I just do,” Nicole shrugged.

“Is it… difficult for you?” Waverly asked.

“Sometimes,” Nicole answered honestly. “But it’s worth it to me, if it means I get to be with you.”

“Exactly,” Waverly exhaled, thankful to Nicole for making her point for her. “I’m the one who made things weird, by letting my thoughts get the best of me,” she explained, taking full responsibility. “And it’s not up to you to deal with my crap either. And when things get weird again—because they will—I’ll get fidgety and nervous again, because that’s what I do,” she admitted. “I’ll deal with my crap, just like you deal with yours. And there will never, ever be a time when I want you to leave. Because… at the end of the day, I’ll take a little weirdness, if it means I get to be with you.”

A soft laugh slipped from Nicole’s lips, and she smiled. “Okay, I get it,” she said. “I’ll stop trying to fix things.”

“Well, you can still fix our bathrooms, right?” Waverly asked teasingly.

Nicole laughed. “Yes. Yes, I can,” she said. “I’ll be here first thing Monday morning, and I’ll teach you all about pipe replacement. How’s that?”

“Sounds perfect,” Waverly said, that winsome smile returning to her beautiful face. “Now… tell me all about Hayley,” she requested, the awkwardness fading, as she settled back in next to Nicole. She still hadn’t let go of her hand. Nicole had mentioned her little sister Hayley on several occasions, and even had a picture of the two of them on her desk at work. “She’s the youngest, right?”

“She’s my Babygirl,” Nicole reported with an affectionate smile. “She’s seventeen—funny, charming, vivacious, stubborn as hell,” she laughed.

“Hmm… She kinda sounds like you,” Waverly commented with a teasing grin.

“What?” Nicole said, feigning incredulity. “I’m not stubborn!”

Waverly arched an eyebrow over that. “Um, whoever had a head injury this morning, and refused to take it easy the rest of the day, please raise your hand,” she said drolly.

“My head is fine, Waves,” Nicole said dismissively.

“See what I mean?” Waverly intoned. 

Nicole just rolled her eyes and laughed. “Seriously,” she said. “I don’t even have a headache anymore.”

Waverly opened her mouth to protest, but Nicole held up a finger, indicating for her to hold on. Then, pressing back into the sofa, she reached into the front pocket of her jeans, pulling out her phone—a means of distraction. “Here… I’ve got tons of family pictures.”

“Ooh, pictures!” Waverly exclaimed, effectively deterred from her fussing. She leaned in, her body flush up against Nicole’s as she peered down at the phone. The warmth that was generated between them was enough to set them alight, but neither made a move to separate.

Maneuvering to the folder marked “Family” with practiced ease, Nicole slowly took her on a journey through time, pointing out each of her sisters, her mom and dad, a few cousins, her grandparents on both sides, and even a few photos of her granny and gramps that she’d scanned and uploaded to her phone.

“Your family is beautiful,” Waverly complimented as Nicole scrolled back through a few of her favorites.     

“Thank you,” Nicole said sincerely.

“Weird, how you don’t look anything like your sisters,” Waverly commented, not realizing how that would sound on the heels of her previous comment. “Oh, god, I didn’t mean that the way it came out,” she quickly backtracked. “I meant…”

Frustrated, she sighed, and before she could think better of it, her mouth was moving again. “You are so damn beautiful, it makes my heart hurt, Nicole.”

Delivered on a breathless whisper, the sincerity in Waverly’s confession took Nicole’s breath away. She struggled with how to respond, even as Waverly began to fidget nervously again.

Jesus, I need a freakin’ speedbump between my brain and my mouth,” Waverly muttered under her breath.

Once the babbling began, Nicole quickly gathered her wits about her. “Hey…” she whispered, her fingertips feathering across Waverly’s cheek. Her touch calmed Waverly immediately. “It’s okay, Waves,” she smiled. “I knew what you meant—the hair, the eye color, even our height differences…”  

“Exactly,” Waverly said sheepishly, as she recalled how Kyler and Trinity both had thick manes of dark, almost jet-black curly hair like their father, while Hayley’s hair was a wavy ash-blonde like their mother’s, and all of them had striking blue eyes.  

“The family joke is that if it weren’t for me being granny’s doppelganger, they’d all swear I was switched at birth,” Nicole said, with levity in her tone. And then, gently, she tipped Waverly’s chin, meeting her gaze. “And thank you, for the compliment,” she said softly. “I think you’re beautiful too.”

Waverly felt her entire body flush with heat, but surprisingly, she didn’t start to fidget again. “Thank you,” she whispered.

“Now,” Nicole said with quiet conviction. She knew she needed to put them back on safer ground. “Why don’t you sit back here, and allow me to regale you with crazy stories about my teenaged antics, and the supreme idiocy of my siblings,” she suggested.

Laughing, Waverly relaxed then, thinking that was a fabulous idea. Willingly, she leaned back against Nicole’s side, settling in for what were certain to be stories that would make her laugh so hard she’d cry. And that would probably only serve to make her laugh again, because that’s what she did when she was with Nicole. She laughed.

Sunday, April 24, 2016… The Earp Homestead—2:30 a.m. Mountain Daylight Time

Several hours later, Wynonna stumbled out of her room, still half-asleep. She shivered from the slight chill in the air, and wondered if the fire had gone completely out in the woodstove. Wandering toward the bathroom, she noticed the light still burning in the living room, and stopped in, thinking she would go ahead and check the fire. And there she discovered Waverly and Nicole nestled together on the sofa, fast asleep, the half-empty bowl of abandoned popcorn tipped over on its side. She smiled to herself, thinking how pleased she was that Waverly had found a friend—one who didn’t treat her like a freak just for the simple fact that she was an Earp, or worse, that she was Wynonna’s sister.

Quietly, she crept toward the woodstove, attempting to open it without waking them. But the hinge creaked loudly, startling Nicole into awareness. “Hey…” she said sleepily, rubbing her eyes. Reaching for the popcorn bowl, she set it upright on the table beside her. “Can I help?”

“Nah, I’ve got it,” Wynonna replied. Though it was dwindling, the fire was still lit. She grabbed a couple more logs, tossing them inside, and then closed and latched the door again. And then she moved toward the sofa. “Looks like you’ve got your hands full, anyway,” she commented, referring to the fact that Waverly was practically laying on top of Nicole.

Nicole chuckled softly. “Yeah, it appears that way,” she agreed. “I guess we, uh… we fell asleep talking.”

“Want some help coaxing Sleeping Beauty here to bed?” Wynonna offered.

Her face flushing from the thoughts that flashed through her mind in response to Wynonna’s choice of phrasing, Nicole was thankful for the dim lighting produced by the table lamp.

“I wanna stay here with Nicole,” Waverly mumbled, obviously not as asleep as they assumed her to be. Without opening her eyes, she snuggled deeper into the warmth of Nicole’s body.

Nicole glanced at Waverly, tender affection reflecting in her eyes, and said, “I guess we’re staying right here.”

Wynonna rolled her eyes. “I’ll get you guys a few blankets,” she said, her slipper-clad feet shuffling toward the hallway closet where she’d stashed a couple of old quilts she’d snagged from Gus’s place. She’d recognized them as ones her mother had made, and she remembered fondly, sitting with her beside the fireplace in the den, watching those nimble fingers working the needle and thread through the thick patchwork fabric. She remembered too, the love she felt when lying beneath them on a cold winters’ night.

Shaking off the melancholy that threatened to overwhelm her, she shuffled back toward the living room. “I don’t know how you two haven’t frozen to death out here yet,” she commented, hoping Nicole wouldn’t notice the unshed tears that stung in her eyes.

“Thanks,” Nicole said when Wynonna spread the thick quilts on top of them.

“No, Nicole, thank you,” Wynonna said in a brief moment of sincerity. “For this…” she said, gesturing toward her sister, who had already drifted back to asleep. She looked angelic, lying there, slumbering in Nicole’s arms, as if nothing sad or evil had ever touched her. “And for everything you did for us today.”

Nicole offered a warm smile in return. “You’re welcome. Anytime.”

Wynonna gestured toward the lamp, her movement asking the question. Nicole nodded, prompting Wynonna to reach over, switching it off. “‘Night,” she said.

“G‘night, Wynonna,” Nicole quietly replied, before settling in with Waverly snug against her side. While this wasn’t exactly the way she imagined the day would end, she certainly wouldn’t complain.

Friday, May 27, 2016…  Ghost River County Municipal Offices—3:00 p.m. Mountain Daylight Time

And she hadn’t complained. Instead, Nicole had soaked in every last moment of those hours with Waverly, just like she had every single time they were together. She’d meant what she said—she would take a little awkwardness if it meant spending time with Waverly. She just needed to find a way to do that, without it breaking her heart in the process.

Skimming the contents of the second draft of the completed report regarding the kidnapping incident that left her in the hospital—and Wynonna Earp only god knew where—Nicole released a frustrated sigh, as she checked it for any errors. Somehow, amidst all the emotional upheaval, of the day, she’d managed to finish it. Finding no errors, she clicked the print button on her screen, sending the report across the network, hoping that this time it would meet Nedley’s expectations. And then she listened closely for the telltale noises indicating that the printer across the room was responding to the command. Sometimes, it didn’t, and she would have to try multiple times to get a response. Technology could be a real pain in the ass.

Once she heard the pages rolling off of the printer, she closed the file and leaned back in her desk chair, once again glancing at her watch—another two-and-a-half hours to freedom. Never in her life had she felt such an urgent wish for a day to end, and she knew that the impulse had everything to do with needing to set things right with Waverly. But frustrating as it may have been, she understood that duty came first, and she would never shirk her responsibilities.

Releasing a slow sigh, she rose from her chair, the heels of her boots thudding against the worn linoleum as she crossed the room to retrieve the report. She stapled the pages together, and walked to Nedley’s door, where she dropped it into his in-box, wondering, not for the first time, what exactly it was that he did behind that closed door. And then she shuddered at the thought, and decided she really didn’t want to know.

She moved to the front desk then, checking the Sheriff’s blotter for anything incoming. Surprisingly, it was quiet—as had been the dispatch radio all afternoon. She thought that rather strange—Purgatory may have been a sleepy little town, but it was never quiet. Concerned, she checked both devices to make sure everything was running properly. And finally, with nothing appearing amiss, she went back to her desk, and kicking her feet up onto the desktop, she leaned back in the chair again, case file in hand—two hours, fifteen minutes and counting…

TBC in Chapter 5—Beer, Burgers, and Bowling…

Chapter Text

The Ten Times Waverly Earp was Definitely NOT on a Date with Nicole Haught



“Dance with me

I want to be your partner, can't you see?

The music is just starting
Night is calling, and I am falling
Dance with me...

Fantasy could never be so killing
I feel free, I hope that you are willing
Pick the beat up, and kick your feet up
Dance with me…

Let it lift you off the ground
Starry eyes, and love is all around us
I can take you where you want to go…”

— John & Johanna Hall, Orleans, Dance with Me



Chapter 5—Beer, Burgers, and Bowling:


Monday, April 25, 2016… The Earp Homestead—12:30 p.m. Mountain Daylight Time

“Well, that was easy enough,” Waverly declared, sounding rather pleased with her accomplishment as she surveyed her work. They were cleaning up after replacing the pipes in the second bathroom. Nicole had taken her through the process, showing her step-by-step on the downstairs sink, and then challenged her to do the work in the other, herself.

“Told you it was pretty straightforward,” Nicole replied. She wasn’t the least bit surprised that things had gone so smoothly. Waverly had proven to be an excellent student, listening attentively as Nicole explained each step, and only needing a few directives as she worked through the process on her own, with relative ease.

“You were totally right about getting these old pipes out,” Waverly agreed, giving the pieces another look before dropping them into the plastic bucket to be taken out to the scrap bin. While they were intact when she began disconnecting them, she was surprised to realize just how fragile they really were. One of the sections actually broke apart in her hands, and Nicole had pointed out places in the metal where it had weakened over time, leaving it vulnerable to breakage and leaks, which was why she’d recommended replacing them sooner, rather than later. “That was definitely the toughest part; but even that wasn’t so bad.”

“Hey, you did a great job, Waves,” Nicole complimented, as she slipped the mid-sized pipe wrench back into its slot on her tool belt. “No residual mess. No leaks. And you didn’t even break a nail,” she teased.

Waverly laughed. “Yeah, but what I did break was a sweat,” she commented with a sigh. She’d really had to work at breaking those old pipes loose. Plus, it was always significantly warmer in that smaller upstairs bathroom than in the remainder of the house. Whatever heat the house managed to hold always seemed to congregate in that single, small room; which was why she was grateful Nicole switched out the showerhead downstairs. No more stepping out of the shower and immediately needing another thanks to the heat upstairs. “God, I feel nasty.”

“Well, you look beautiful,” Nicole said sweetly, as she paused, not for the first time that day, to take in the view. Dressed casually in black workout pants with zippered pockets and a tie at the front, and a cute little light gray tank top with tiny buttons down the front, similar to the one she’d worn the first day they met, her long wavy locks pulled back into a loose ponytail, once again, Waverly Earp simply took her breath away. She thought she would’ve gotten over that by now, but she hadn’t. Every single time she looked at her, the reaction was exactly the same. And the best part was, it never got old.   

Blushing, Waverly thanked her. “Nonetheless, I’m gonna need a shower before we leave.” She paused then, glancing at Nicole. “You’re still coming with me tonight, right?” she asked. And then her blush deepened, as once again her mind careened full-speed ahead into the gutter.

The blatant reaction certainly wasn’t lost on Nicole. Fleetingly, she thought about how much she would love to do exactly that. And then she had to remind herself that thinking about sex with Waverly Earp was a bad idea. An immensely bad one. One that left her, once again, struggling to maintain her composure. “We are talking about bowling, aren’t we?” she clarified with a smirk.

“Stop it,” Waverly laughed, avoiding the amusement in Nicole’s eyes. And then a second later, she looked back at her, bashfully. “Well?” Her tone matched the hopefulness in her expression.

“I wouldn’t miss it, Waves,” Nicole grinned, letting them both off the hook. “I don’t think I’ve been but a couple of times since high school.”

“Oh, but this isn’t just bowling,” Waverly said, wiping the water spots from the sink with a hand towel. When she was finished, she motioned toward the shower stall, and then wordlessly skirted past Nicole, their bodies coming in close proximity as she squeezed by to hang the towel over the rod on the door to dry. Awkwardness forgotten, her face was alight with excitement, as she turned back toward Nicole. “It’s Cosmic Bowling!” she exclaimed, emphasizing the type. “And you are in for a real treat.”

“What makes it… cosmic?” Nicole asked, curious. She grabbed the bucket of scrap metal, as Waverly flipped off the bathroom light. Leisurely, they made their way down the stairs.

“Oh, I can’t tell you,” Waverly said, the expression on her face matching the seriousness of her tone.

Her forehead crinkling, Nicole looked skeptical. “Why not?” she asked, as they stepped into the den, where she set the bucket on the floor near to the side door. Unbuckling her tool belt, she set it carefully on the far edge of the hearth. And then she sat down in front of the fire, enjoying the subtle crackling of the flame and the warmth that radiated from within. The days were slowly growing warmer, but the lower level of the house was still a bit cool and drafty at times, depending upon what room they were in.

“Because that’ll ruin all the fun!” Waverly exclaimed, growing more excited by the moment.

“For you, maybe,” Nicole laughed at Waverly’s flair for the dramatic. “I’m left to wonder if I’ll be walking into a mass of freaks in costume,” she laughed.

“Only during Fright Nights,” Waverly deadpanned, watching Nicole’s face for a reaction.

“October?” Nicole ventured.

“Yup,” Waverly confirmed. Dropping down beside Nicole, her shoulders sagged, and she scrunched up her nose. “Do you really want me to give you details?”

The expression on her face told Nicole it would be a huge disappointment for Waverly if she did, and so, she elected to let her have her fun. There couldn’t possibly be any harm to it, after all. It was just bowling. At least now she knew there were no costumes involved—this time, anyway. “No,” she answered, shaking her head. “You said it would be fun, and I trust you, so… whatever it means, I’m looking forward to it.”

“Yay!” Waverly exclaimed, clapping her hands giddily.

Nicole chuckled at Waverly’s oft-childlike exuberance. You are so fucking adorable. “Besides, no matter what we’re doing, I always have a great time when I’m with you,” she shrugged; her tone both sweet and sincere.

Waverly smiled at her. “Me too.”

Leaning forward, Nicole rested her forearms against her knees. “It was, uh… it was really nice of Gus to invite me,” she commented.

“Well… I wanted you to come too,” Waverly shrugged, glancing toward Nicole a bit bashfully.

“I know,” Nicole said, flashing that confident grin. “What I mean is, it means a lot that she thought to include me in a family outing,” she elaborated, stressing the part about family.

Waverly grinned. “She likes you a lot,” she shared. “She says you’re really good for me.”

A dimple bloomed. “And what do you think?” Nicole asked pointedly.

Waverly leaned forward, locking into Nicole’s gaze. “I think my aunt is super smart,” she answered, searching Nicole’s face. “And I should be spending a whole lot more time with you.”

Nodding, a soft smile frolicked across Nicole’s mouth, tipping the corners upward. “I agree—on both accounts.”

Dropping her gaze, Waverly’s face held a contemplative expression. And then she glanced toward Nicole again. “I want to, Nicole,” she said softly after several moments passed. “Spend more time with you, I mean.” And it was true. It seemed every moment she wasn’t with Nicole, she found herself wishing that she were. That was new for her, in so many ways she couldn’t quite articulate the impact. All she knew was that it simultaneously excited her—and scared the hell out of her.

“I want that too,” Nicole quietly admitted, her eyes searching Waverly’s.  

“I just…” Clasping her hands together in her lap, Waverly sighed. Once again, her mind was a jumble of thoughts and emotions that she couldn’t quite find words to articulate. Nicole made her feel so damned many different things—all of them amazing—and all of them equally as terrifying. Not because Nicole was a woman, but because she’d never felt anything so intense in her whole entire life.

Reaching over, Nicole brushed her hand over Waverly’s, squeezing gently. “It’s okay to not have all the answers, Waves,” she reassured.

The simple touch of Nicole’s hand caused Waverly’s entire body flush with warmth. “That’s good to know,” she replied, clasping a hand atop Nicole’s. “Because, honestly, right now, I’m still a little too scared to even ask the questions.”

A knowing smile flickered across Nicole’s lips. “Well, I wouldn’t worry too much about it, Waves. Things have a way of working themselves out the way they’re supposed to,” she assured.

“Sounds like you’ve been talking to Gus,” Waverly commented.

“Perhaps,” Nicole said a bit enigmatically. “Or perhaps I just believe that good things come to those who are patient enough to wait.”

An eyebrow arched in challenge. “Hmm… See, I seem to remember you saying that when you see something you like, you don’t wanna wait,” Waverly teased.

Nicole had to admit Waverly certainly had her there. “Touché,” she granted with a laugh. And then her expression turned serious, as she gently squeezed Waverly’s hand again. “But… there are some things in life that are totally worth the wait.”

Waverly’s breath caught, and she nibbled her bottom lip as she lost herself in the sincerity in Nicole’s beautiful russet eyes. “I couldn’t agree more,” she said softly.

Quiet fell between them then—each contemplating the things that were worth the wait—and coming to a tacit agreement that whatever this was between them, it was most certainly one of those things.

And finally, after several minutes, it was Waverly who broke the silence. “All right, so we’ll probably grab dinner at the Pin Drop tonight,” she announced, referring to the local bowling alley. “But in the meantime, are you hungry? You worked all morning; the least I can do is feed you.”

"I could definitely eat,” Nicole admitted.

“Good,” Waverly declared, standing from her perch. “Because I have homemade veggie soup simmering on the stove, and I made fresh banana muffins this morning.”

“Oooh!” Nicole exclaimed. “Is that what I’ve been smelling all morning?”

“Yup,” Waverly chirped.

As if on cue, Nicole’s stomach growled, and she chuckled in response. “Apparently, I can’t wait.”

Waverly laughed. “Neither can I,” she declared. Reaching for Nicole’s hand, she gave her a playful tug, pulling her from her seat in one fluid motion. “Come on, Officer Haught… I’m starving!”

Willingly, Nicole allowed Waverly to drag her into the kitchen, where she promptly deposited her in chair at the rickety old table. And within minutes, they both had full bowls of piping hot veggie soup served with peanut butter sandwiches, and frosty mugs of Nicole’s favorite root beer, and Waverly’s amazing banana muffins for dessert.

April 25, 2016… Black Badge Division, Ghost River County Municipal Offices—5:15 p.m. Mountain Daylight Time


Delivered on a rather contemptuous grunt, Dolls just stood there, arms crossed, biceps bulging as he stared at Wynonna like she’d just sprouted three heads. “You can’t be serious.”

“Oh, come on, Dolls,” Wynonna moaned. “Gus wants us to do some stupid family bonding bullshit tonight,” she explained in that mocking tone of hers. “You gotta come along so I don’t die of boredom,” she declared dramatically.

“Yeah, I’m not family,” Dolls pointed out matter-of-factly.

“Well, neither is Nicole, but she’ll be there too,” Wynonna pointed out. “Come on, please?” she whined, bouncing up and down. “Waverly gets to have a playmate. I need one too.”

“You realize you’re acting like a five-year-old,” Dolls said, straight-faced.

Wynonna made a face at him. “So?”

“I don’t do socialization,” Dolls stated stoically.

“Apparently, you still don’t do smiling, either,” Wynonna said, her tone dry as she rolled her eyes.

“Smiling is overrated,” Dolls declared, unmoved.

“Yeah, well you might wanna at least work on your social skills, if you don’t want the townsfolk to be so wary of you. They all think you’re just some stick-up-your-ass government bureaucrat,” Wynonna asserted.

“Gee, thanks,” Dolls said wryly.

“Hey, just speakin’ the truth,” Wynonna shrugged. “Tonight could be a good way to show ‘em you’re just a little bit human, after all.”

Rolling his eyes, Dolls sighed. “Okay, fine,” he relented. Though he knew she was right, he didn’t want to admit it. “But I’m not wearing anyone else’s shoes.” The mere thought of it made him cringe.

“You have your own bowling shoes?” Wynonna challenged.

“No,” Dolls answered sharply. “I don’t bowl.”

“Well, you’re gonna tonight, ‘cause I need a partner,” Wynonna insisted. “And that means wearing someone else’s shoes.”

“Can’t you partner with Gus, and just leave me out of it?” Dolls suggested. “I’ll bring you drinks, and lend moral support,” he bargained.

Lifting her hands, palms up, Wynonna shrugged. “While the promise of drinks is quite appealing,” she admitted. “No can do. It’s either me… or Doc.”

Delivered as an implied threat, Wynonna’s comment made Dolls shudder. “Fine,” he sighed. “I’ll wear the shoes.”

“Great,” Wynonna declared with a triumphant smile. “I’ll see you at the Pin Drop at seven-thirty.” She arched an eyebrow, daring him to argue. “Don’t be late,” she commanded, pointing a stern finger at him.

“When have I ever been late for anything?” he asked. “Including saving your ass.”

Wynonna scrunched up her nose, and shrugged. “Point taken,” she said grudgingly. “I’ll see you at seven-thirty.”

Jesus Christ,” he muttered beneath his breath, as he watched her saunter out the door. “What have I gotten myself into?” An evening at a bowling alley was the last thing he ever thought he’d find himself doing; but maddening as she was at times, Wynonna Earp was impossible to turn down.

Monday, April 25, 2016… The Purgatory Pin Drop—7:15 p.m. Mountain Daylight Time

Though difficult to believe, the Pin Drop was apparently the trendy place to be on a Monday evening in Purgatory, as the usually relaxed atmosphere transformed, as if by some magical force, into a party-like vibe, during their weekly Cosmic Bowling event. It wasn’t a large place by any means; only ten lanes. But Purgatory being a small town, it suited them perfectly. And though not completely packed, the place was buzzing with people, mostly those in their teens and twenties, a couple of families with school-age children, and a few older adults. 

Waverly and Nicole were the first to arrive, walking through the door a full fifteen minutes early, because neither of them could stand being late. For Nicole, it was a product of the discipline required in military service, and though she’d never really been one to be late even beforehand, being prompt held an entirely new meaning as a result of her time in the service. And as for Waverly, punctuality was a product of her need for a sense of control in a life where little of it had ever existed, or likely ever would.   

The houselights were dimmed, random music videos were projected onto giant screens above the lanes like a multiplex movie theatre, and a giant disco ball slowly twirled in the center of the chaos, splaying its twinkling light across the vast space, as an eclectic mix of music—disco and 70s soft rock, 80s pop, and techno music sprang from the state-of-the-art sound system—kinetic energy in motion. Fog machines transformed the air into a mystical haze. While strobe lights flickered, laser lights flashed across the room and raced along the edges of the lanes in perfect time with the pulsing beat. Black lights and glow-in-the-dark bowling balls and pins only added to the mystique.

The ambiance was new and exciting, making it like no bowling experience Nicole had ever witnessed—it was like being on stage, a part of the action. Her eyes lit up with delight, as she looked around, trying to take it all in.

“Wow, you were so right, Waves. This really is kind of incredible,” she said as they wended their way through the crowd toward the front counter. She had to speak loudly to be heard over the jumbled din of music and conversation. It was a good thing the lights didn’t make sounds.

“Isn’t it?” Waverly agreed. “And the later it gets, the crazier. The families with kids will head out soon, because it’s a school night; but more high school kids will come in around ten. That’s when the music changes over to all techno until close.”

“Sounds like you come here a lot,” Nicole commented.

“Gus and Uncle Curtis used to bring me here all the time when they did the cosmic thing on Fridays,” Waverly explained with a touch of nostalgia in her tone. “It was our family night.”

“Nice memories, huh?” Nicole presumed.

“Yeah,” Waverly agreed, an affectionate smile playing on her lips. “The best.”

While losing Daddy, Willa, and Wynonna all at once had been absolutely devastating—especially on the heels of Mama running away—going to live with Gus and Uncle Curtis was the best thing that ever happened in Waverly’s young life. She went from feeling invisible, to being the center of attention, with more love than she ever imagined possible. The two of them became her entire world, and she wouldn’t have wanted it any other way. The only thing that could have made life better would have been to have Wynonna there with her too.   

As they approached the counter, Nicole reached for the cash she’d stashed in the front pocket of her jeans along with her driver’s license, before leaving her apartment, only to have Waverly still the motion with the touch of her hand. “Tonight’s on me,” she said, meeting Nicole’s gaze. “I mean, if that’s okay.”

“Waverly, you don’t have to do that,” Nicole said. Not that she objected; she just didn’t want her to feel obligated.

“I know I don’t,” Waverly assured. “But I want to—as long as it’s okay with you.”

Nicole smiled. “It’s perfectly okay,” she agreed. “Thank you.”

“No, thank you, Nicole,” Waverly replied, her tone sincere. “For everything.”

Shoving her hands into her pockets, Nicole shrugged almost bashfully. “You know, you don’t have to keep thanking me.”

Smiling up at her, Waverly disagreed. “Oh, but I do,” she insisted. “The last few weeks, I’ve been dealing with… a lot of ghosts. And… I’ve been facing some new things that are kinda scary for me, too. Sometimes, it’s been really hard,” she admitted. “But… you’ve kinda been like my rock.”  She shrugged, almost sheepishly. “You probably didn’t know that. I should’ve told you. So… thank you.”

Moving closer, Nicole locked her gaze on Waverly’s, her eyes filled with tender affection. “I’ll be here as long as you’ll let me,” she said reassuringly. 

“You won’t… give up on me?” Waverly asked, tentatively.

A faint smile played across Nicole’s lips as she searched Waverly’s expectant gaze. “Never.”

Closing her eyes, Waverly fought back tears, as she leaned into the solid strength of Nicole’s body, wrapping her arms firmly around Nicole’s waist just beneath the lower edge of the stylish black leather bomber jacket Nicole wore. Taking in a deep breath, Nicole released it slowly as she pulled Waverly into her embrace. And relaxing in the safety of Nicole’s arms, Waverly simply breathed her in.

“I told you, Waves, whatever this is, I’m in it for the long-haul,” Nicole murmured against her ear.    

Whatever this is...

those were Nicole’s words; but they both knew that neither of them was truly in the dark. No, they hadn’t spoken of it aloud. Not in so many words. But the expression of unabashed adoration Waverly always found in Nicole’s eyes when she looked at her, echoed in the corridors of her own heart. Inherently, she knew without a doubt, that what she felt for Nicole went far deeper than friendship. And that scared the hell out of her, for reasons she couldn’t yet explain. And until she could, she wasn’t ready to deal with the truth.

And so her response to Nicole’s promise was to simply hold her tighter. Nicole certainly didn’t argue. She loved the way this woman felt in her arms. And it was true—no matter who or what they ended up being to one another, she would never give up on Waverly Earp.

The stillness between them was broken by the sound of Gus’s voice. “Hey girls,” she greeted, walking up on them as they stood in line to pay for their game. If she was surprised to find them in an embrace, her expression didn’t show it.

“Gus!” Waverly exclaimed, always happy to see her aunt. Releasing Nicole, she quickly hugged the older woman. “We’re just waiting to grab a lane,” she reported.

Chuckling, Gus said, “Yes, I can see that.” And then she nodded cordially toward Nicole. “Glad you could join us.”

Nicole smiled, and extended a hand toward Gus. “Thanks for the invite, Gus,” she said warmly. “Means a lot.”

“Well, you’re welcome to join us for family gatherings anytime,” Gus said amiably, as she shook the proffered hand. “I imagine it’s tough, being so far away from your own.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Nicole nodded.

After paying for their games, Waverly and Gus picked up shoes at the rental counter, and grabbed bowling balls of appropriates sizes and weights for their physiques, from the racks. Waverly’s was a psychedelic glow-in-the-dark ball, with a teal and purple swirly design, because to her, that made the game more fun. Gus chose a simple solid colored burgundy, not necessarily because of the color, but because it was the first one she picked up that was the correct weight. She was rather practical that way.

Nicole didn’t need either. She had her own, which hadn’t surprised Waverly in the least when she’d dug the leather carrying case out of the closet earlier that afternoon. They’d dropped by Nicole’s apartment so she could shower and change, and apparently grab her bowling gear, before heading out for the evening. The woman seemed prepared for just about anything. Fleetingly, Waverly wondered if Nicole had been a Girl Guide—or a Girl Scout, as they were called where Nicole grew up. She made a mental note to ask her sometime, as they claimed a lane at the far end of the alley where they would encounter the least amount of congestion, and thus have the most opportunity for conversation.

Dropping their respective balls into the return, they took seats side-by-side and quickly changed into their bowling shoes, setting their boots neatly beneath their chairs. Waverly giggled at the synchronization of their movements.

“What?” Nicole asked, a little self-consciously.

“It’s just funny, how similar we are in some ways,” Waverly commented.

“Oh, you mean…” Nicole pointed to their boots, and chuckled. “Yeah… Military training,” she shrugged.

“Neuroses,” Waverly replied with a grin, as she waved her hand.

Nicole rolled her eyes. “You are the least neurotic person I’ve ever met.”

Waverly laughed heartily. “Have you met me?” she asked rhetorically. “I mean, hello! Queen of incoherent babbling here.”

Turning toward her, Nicole met her gaze, holding it steadily. “Do you babble incoherently around anyone other than me?” she asked pointedly.

Averting that intense gaze, Waverly shrugged, “Well, no…”

“Hmm…” Nicole intoned. And then she arched an eyebrow. “Well, ordinarily that might give me a bit of a complex,” she admitted with a touch of humor. “But it doesn’t with you, because… I get it, Waves. I get you.”

Waverly glanced up at her, a fledgling smile playing on her lips. And the tender expression in Nicole’s eyes told her everything she needed to know. “You really do, don’t you?”

“Yes, I do,” Nicole nodded reassuringly. She smiled then, and gently squeezed Waverly’s hand. “And that’s why I’ll never give up on you.”

“Well, where in tarnation is your sister?” Gus groused, as she took the seat next to Waverly, and set about changing her shoes.  

“I texted her a few minutes ago,” Waverly reported.

Glancing at her watch—the simple one, with the brown leather strap that she usually wore with most anything—she quickly calculated the difference between the current time, and when Wynonna had answered. “She’ll be here in less than ten. She had to go find Doc.” Wynonna had bitched more than once about how much it sucked that he refused to learn how to work a cell phone. She couldn’t even fathom how people communicated back in his day. “Apparently, he and Dolls are coming too.” 

“Well, they’d best git a move on,” Gus commented in that no-nonsense way of hers. “Night’s not gettin’ any younger, and neither am I.”

That was one of Gus’s famous lines. Waverly just smiled and shook her head.

Ooh… great song!” Nicole exclaimed, jumping up from her seat when the 70s soft rock classic Dance with Me began to play. It had such a fun, almost whimsical guitar riff that she simply couldn’t resist. It wasn’t a slow, romantic song by any means, so it was harmless, right? At least that’s what she told herself, as she grinned at Waverly, extending a hand in invitation. “Dance with me?”

The lame play on words, or whatever she might have called it, made Waverly smile. “It would be my pleasure, Officer Haught,” she accepted, taking the proffered hand.  

The slight flush of her cheeks was followed by the blooming of that dimple, Nicole’s smile lighting her entire face as their eyes locked, mutual mirth dancing therein. Tugging Waverly from her seat, the fingers of her right hand instinctively intertwined with Waverly’s left, forming a tacit, unbreakable connection between them. Her left hand falling to Waverly’s waist, Nicole pulled her close, yet held her loosely—a treasure, rather than a possession—as she skillfully took the lead.

Effortlessly, she guided her to the light, playful rhythm of the song, alternately spinning and twirling her, and then pulling her close again as the song wended its way through the lyrics at a smooth, mellow cadence.

Captivated by their intrinsic chemistry, Gus simply sat back and watched. She couldn’t take her eyes off of them—the lingering glances, the bashful, flirty smiles that turned into giggles. And the way they moved together, it was like witnessing a symphony in motion. Every time Nicole pulled Waverly close again, their eyes locked, as if somehow returning home.

And their laughter, it was infectious, the smiles on their faces reflecting in their eyes. Once again, Gus marveled at how happy and carefree Waverly always seemed when in the presence of this woman—and from the expression in her niece’s eyes, it was evident that Nicole Haught wasn’t the only one who was smitten. Watching Waverly so filled with joy brought tears to Gus’s eyes.

Arriving just as the instrumental portion of the song played, Doc and Dolls came to a simultaneous grinding halt upon first sight of them. Doc, for one, was grateful for the distraction. At first glimpse of all the lights and commotion in the bowling alley, his eyes had widened in trepidation and confusion, and he was on the verge of a full-on freak out when they’d stumbled upon the girls. Dolls nearly dropped the bowling ball he held in his hand, but somehow managed to regain control before it could slip from his fingers, and careen toward the floor. And then they just stood there, staring at the two of them, slack-jawed for the duration.  

Entirely unaware of the presence of the guys—and to the handful of couples and gaggle of children who, upon watching them dance, decided to join in—Waverly and Nicole continued moving as if they’d been dancing together their entire lives. Spinning Waverly around to face away from her, Nicole’s left arm draped across her body, her hand still holding to Waverly’s as she pressed against her from behind. Her hold remained loose—nothing inappropriate, by any means; but that didn’t stop Waverly’s body from reacting.

That now-familiar fluttering began beneath her breasts, its sweet sensation echoing down into her belly, causing it to turn summersaults as Nicole’s right hand fell to her waist, their fingers still intertwined. Lightly, Nicole’s fingertips brushed the skin that was exposed by the lacy white crop top that she wore, causing Waverly’s flesh to burn in the most delightful way, their bodies moving oh, so smoothly together, as Nicole held her from behind. And then she spun her back around, and Waverly fell headlong into the warmth of those sparkling russet eyes, nearly taking her breath away.  

While she’d simply meant for their dance to be a fun way to pass the time while they waited for the others, Nicole very quickly realized that the lyrics to this particular song were anything but casual. And now, with the final measures of those achingly truthful lyrics—Dance with me. I want to be your partner, can't you see? The music is just starting. Night is calling, and I am falling… Dance with me—echoing in the corridors of her heart, reverberating into the depths of her soul—and Waverly pressed so close against her body, looking up at her with those eyes, she felt the most overwhelming need to never let her go.

“What the fuck, dudes?” Wynonna exclaimed to her sister and Nicole when she caught up with Doc and Dolls. And though she saw exactly what everyone else was seeing, she remained completely oblivious to the growing connection between the two of them. “I thought we were bowling.”

“Language, Wynonna,” Gus chastised, elbowing her elder niece in the side. “And we would be bowling by now, if you’d been on time.”

“So I’m a few minutes late,” Wynonna said dismissively. “I had to track down Doc. You know how hard it is to find a guy with no cell phone?”

“Oh, the horror!” Gus teased. “Imagine how tough life was before those blasted things existed.”

“I can’t even,” Wynonna shuddered. And then she turned her attention back to Waverly and Nicole, who were still caught up in their own moment. “This isn’t a fucking disco, you know,” she reminded. “If you wanna dance, we could head over to Bespoke afterwards, get our tequila on.”

“Wynonna!” Gus reprimanded again, tipping her head toward the family in the next lane. “There are children here.”

“Sorry, Gus,” Wynonna muttered. And then she lifted her hands in surrender as she shrugged at their mother in a sort of halfhearted apology.  

Catching Wynonna’s suggestion, Waverly smiled up at Nicole. “We just might do that.”

Surprised, Nicole arched an inquiring eyebrow. “Oh, we might, huh?” she queried with a grin that said she wouldn’t be opposed. She wasn’t into the club scene. Neither of them was, and they both knew it. But despite the recurrent warnings that once again clamored in her head, the thought of dancing with Waverly again was more than appealing.

“Maybe,” Waverly said flirtatiously.

Rolling her eyes, Wynonna turned her attention to Dolls, who was still just standing there, surveilling Waverly and Nicole. It wasn’t a weird, voyeuristic kind of thing that kept him so entranced. But he couldn’t put a finger on what it was, exactly. He just knew that he found the two of them fascinating to watch. Suddenly, he realized this night might not be so bad after all.

Tapping the back of her hand against his rock-hard abs, she startled him back to reality. “Why the hell are you still gawking at them? Get your shoes on,” Wynonna commanded. “Let’s bowl!”

“Doc doesn’t have his shoes on either,” Dolls pointed out, his eyes never budging from the source of intrigue.  

“Now who’s being five?” Wynonna said sarcastically.

“Funny,” Dolls said, humorlessly. “If I have to do this, so does he.”

“Doc doesn’t know he needs shoes,” Wynonna scolded.

“How could anyone not know they need shoes?” Dolls retorted.

Wynonna leaned closer, so as not to be overheard. “He’s a hundred and sixty-five years old, for Christ’s sake. He’s never been in a bowling alley before! Least not one that looks like this,” she added as an afterthought, wondering if bowling existed that long ago. She’d have to ask Waverly. Her baby sister was like a walking Google search.

“You’re making me regret agreeing to this, Earp,” Dolls warned.

“Probably not the last time,” Wynonna said flippantly, avoiding his threat entirely.

Dolls just rolled his eyes, and walked away. Wynonna Earp was a real pain in his ass. Sometimes.  

Dropping down into a molded-plastic seat nearby, he sighed wearily. And then, grudgingly, he slipped his overly-priced black leather dress shoes off, grimacing at the thought of replacing them with the hideous used ones he was given at the rental counter. He couldn’t believe he’d paid actual money to wear shoes that god-only-knew-whom had worn before. But he did it anyway, because… Wynonna.

What the hell was it about that woman, anyway? he wondered, not for the first time. She pissed him off far more than she turned him on; but damn, did she ever turn him on! And god help him, it was becoming increasingly harder to say ‘no’ to her, and actually hold his ground. All he could do was hope that his superiors never caught on.

Drawing Waverly close as the final notes faded away, making the smooth transition into the next song, Nicole once again held her in a loose embrace that Waverly made no attempt to evade. Instead, much to Nicole’s surprise and delight, she leaned into her further, enjoying the solid strength of her as she looked up, meeting that affectionate gaze with one of her own.

“You’re… a wonderful partner,” Waverly said sweetly. And then realizing the implications of what she’d said, she tilted her head, and bit her bottom lip adorably. “Dance partner, I mean.”

A faint smile flickered across Nicole’s lips. “So are you,” she said, returning the compliment. “Thank you for the dance.”

“It was my pleasure,” Waverly replied.

“Oh, I certainly beg to differ,” Nicole bantered, her eyes sweeping affectionately across Waverly’s visage. “I’m pretty sure the pleasure was entirely mine.”

Waverly blushed, but this time, she didn’t avoid Nicole’s intense gaze. “Maybe we should just split the pleasure, and call it even,” she smiled.

“Maybe we should both claim it’s entirely ours,” Nicole suggested. “Then we can say we’ve doubled our pleasure.”

Waverly laughed. “I like the way you think, Officer Haught,” she praised. “Now, what do you say we get our bowl on, huh?”

“Lead the way,” Nicole replied with a smile.

Once the distraction of Waverly and Nicole ceased, Doc found his head whirling once again, in all manner of trippy stimuli. It seemed almost… otherworldly. And that was saying something for a guy who’d been born two centuries prior, and who lived amongst resurrected demons.

It wasn’t so much the music, though he found the pulsing beat of some of the more cacophonous tunes rather… intense. It was more the shimmering, flickering, flashing, racing lights that splayed rainbows of colors all across the room, seemingly going in every single direction all at once! And that huge ball that just spun in circles, causing twinkling light to refract in the floor to ceiling mirrors, and all around. It was almost dizzying.   

“What’s up with Doc?” Nicole asked, her face scrunched up with concern, as they moved toward the group.

“Did you seriously just ask that question with a straight face?” Waverly teased.

“What?” Nicole queried, looking stupefied.

What’s up with Doc?” Waverly parroted. She made the funniest faces as she emphasized the pertinent parts with air quotes.

Waverly’s animation drew a chuckle from Nicole. “Oh, you mean like Bugs Bunny?”

“Bingo!” Waverly exclaimed. “Th-Th-Th-That’s All, Folks!?” she said, silly Porky Pig voice and all.

Laughing, Nicole said, “You are so frickin’ adorable, Waverly Earp.”

“But I don’t wanna be frickin’ adorable, dammit!” Waverly stamped her foot and pouted. “I wanna be sexy.”

Declared on a husky groan, Waverly’s comment caused a Nicole’s breath to catch as she contemplated just exactly how sexy the woman was. Once again, she found herself struggling to maintain her composure. “Oh, you are definitely that, too, Darlin’,” she drawled.

Waverly beamed. And then, wrapping an arm around Nicole’s waist, her hand slipped beneath the lower edge of Nicole’s jacket again, as she led her back toward their seats, saying, “You and I need to have a date with Netflix later.”

“Why?” Nicole sounded a bit wary given their most recent comments; though, at least she hadn’t said Cinemax. That shit could get them into hella trouble.     

“Because clearly you need a reintroduction to the wonderful world of Looney Tunes,” Waverly declared. “We’re gonna watch Tiny Toon Adventures: How I Spent My Vacation.”

Breathing a deep sigh of relief, Nicole asked, “Don’t you mean the Wonderful World of Disney?”

“Trust me, a Looney Tunes vacation is cheaper,” Waverly said. “We don’t have to pay for the princesses and all their crap.”

Nicole just laughed.

“Anyway, what do you mean about Doc?” Waverly asked as they reclaimed their seats.

“He acts like he’s never seen laser lights or a disco ball before,” Nicole commented. Slipping out of her jacket, she settled it on the back of her chair, before dropping down by Waverly’s side. And then she glanced toward Doc again, a concerned expression on her face. “Poor guy looks like he’s about to freak out.”

“He’s lived a rather… sheltered life,” Waverly quipped, alluding to the fact that the man had lived in a well for a hundred and thirty years.

Standing within earshot of them, Wynonna snorted. “Well, that’s one way to put it, Babygirl,” she said drolly.

"Sheltered?” Nicole parroted, on eyebrow raised. She looked curious, and a little confused.

“Yeah,” Waverly shrugged. “Until recently, he, uh…” She measured her words carefully. “He hadn’t gotten out very much.”

Unable to hold back, Wynonna outright cackled. “Yeah, he’s kind of a recluse, that one,” she commented.

“Hmm…” Nicole intoned.

Obviously, there was way more to that story. She could sense it. But she didn’t press. It was clear that the Earp girls had their fair share of secrets, and she could certainly respect that. As open as she was, she had a few secrets of her own. She only hoped she and Waverly would get to a point where they both felt secure enough to disclose. Until then, she would take things one step at a time, and focus on developing solid relationships with them, separately with each one, and the three of them together.

Before either Wynonna or Waverly could question Nicole’s response, Gus gathered their attention, suggesting that they get the ball rolling. No pun intended, of course. Wittiness was Wynonna’s forte. The girls all rolled their eyes of course, while Dolls just sat there stoically. And this time, it was Doc who remained oblivious. He was still reeling over the flashing lights and cacophonous music.

The conversation turned quickly then, and once the teams were formally established, and the bowling order decided, the games began.

Wynonna, who hadn’t been in a bowling alley since she was a teenager, was surprised to learn how technology had changed since she was little enough to need bumper guards. No longer were bumpers made of inflatable tubes, but rather, they were retractable. They raised and lowered automatically; depending upon whose turn it was to bowl. Wonders never ceased. Briefly, she considered engaging them when Doc was up, but thought better of it, lest she ruffle his ego and ignite his wrath. He was a sharpshooter, after all. And so she simply grinned to herself and held her tongue, as they took turns instructing him on proper bowling stance and technique each time he was up.      

Frame-by-Frame, the recurrent weighty thud against the hardness of maple was followed by the extended whirr of the ball—glowing or not—along smooth whispering pine. And then came the loud clatter of iridescent pins, and finally the sweeping clunk that announced the removal of those that had been dropped. The sequence unfolded each time a ball was released from a bowler’s hand and sent gliding down a slick lane, echoing from the walls that surrounded them. Quickly, it became background noise—the monotonous whisper, clatter, sweep, and clunk—as they immersed themselves in both the party-like atmosphere and the game.

The loud clatters were often followed by even louder cheers, rounds of high fives, and impromptu dance numbers as they celebrated frame after frame of dropping pins—sometimes as few as one, if it was Doc’s turn—but more often than not, as many as ten, especially if it was Gus or Waverly who was up.

Surprisingly, Dolls held his own against Wynonna, his skill level being a bit closer to hers, despite his adamant declaration that he didn’t bowl—and he even seemed like he was having fun while doing it. More than once, Wynonna, Waverly, and Nicole found themselves sharing looks of pleasant disbelief when he celebrated a winning frame, first with a smile, then a laugh, and ultimately, a funky little dance. He’d even high-fived Wynonna a few times when she’d done well. They were beginning to wonder if a pod person had taken over. But it was kind of nice, seeing him relax and enjoy the moments as they came.  

And for someone who hadn’t bowled in several years, Nicole was certainly at the top of her game, as well. Despite never having been to a Cosmic Bowling event, she had actually been bowling since grade school—a fact that had come to Waverly’s attention when she’d pulled her monogramed leather bowling bag from the closet that afternoon. Apparently, it was a sport her entire family enjoyed together. And Nicole was damned good at it, effortlessly keeping pace with Waverly; the two of them impressing one another with relative ease—even as they waged a friendly competition between them.

“Why the fuck are you two wagering against each other?” Wynonna grumbled. “You’re playing partners for Christ’s sake!”

“Wynonna!” Gus censured for the umpteenth time in less than an hour.

Wynonna sighed. “I know, I know… Language,” she mocked. At least the little kids were gone, so she didn’t have to feign remorse for being a bad influence.  

Grinning, Waverly casually dropped an arm around Nicole’s waist, smiling up at her. “Just because we’re partners doesn’t mean we can also have a little friendly competition,” she said with flirty lilt.

“Yeah, and who wins what in the end?” Wynonna inquired, curiosity piqued. They weren’t fucking, so they couldn’t be trading favors—at least not any of the good kind.

A roguish grin hijacked the corners of Nicole’s mouth. “Wouldn’t you like to know,” she taunted good-naturedly.

“Well, you’re not bangin’ my sister, so it can’t be anything good,” Wynonna brazenly declared.

Nearly choking, Dolls lost control, and dropped his ball just as he was approaching the line. It meandered slowly down the edge of the lane, landing in the gutter within about ten feet; kind of like an erect dick that petered out in its moment of glory. “Shit,” he muttered, realizing he’d just given Wynonna an edge. Whether she wanted to admit it or not, they, even as bowling partners, were in competition as well; both of them determined not to let the other kick their ass.

“Wynonna!” Gus exclaimed, just as Dolls faltered.

An eyebrow arched in challenge, as Wynonna glanced toward her aunt. “Hey, you need to count your blessings, Gus. I could’ve said ‘fuckin’’, but I didn’t.”

“I think you just did,” Gus sighed. Giving up, she simply rolled her eyes, and dropped down into her seat.

Waverly and Nicole just laughed. And then they turned their attention back to the game. It was Nicole’s turn, and as she was in the midst of giving Waverly a run for her money, Waverly couldn’t help but watch the way she moved. Thick auburn hair pulled back in that messy tuft, Nicole was dressed in low-slung black jeans that hugged her ass with perfection, and a classic turquoise and black 50s retro-style bowling shirt that sported the logo Haught Shots: Too Haught to Handle, between the vents in the back, and matching black shoes with licks of turquoise fire. She was an absolute vision—poetry in motion, in Waverly’s opinion.

The well-defined muscles in her arms, shoulders, back, and thighs flexed and rippled, that body moving in perfect form as she delivered the ball with the precision of a seasoned pro. It was like watching a sensuous dance, and Waverly found herself growing ever more curious about Nicole’s body with her every movement.

The mere thought of exploring those muscles—of tracing them with her fingertips, discovering them with her mouth and tongue—seriously turned Waverly on, making her own body flush with heat. And even as those thoughts freaked her out just a little, they also made for a rather pleasant evening—in more ways than one.        

But it wasn’t just that enticing body that drew Waverly’s rapt attention. Nicole grinned to herself as she caught Waverly, not for the first time, ogling her custom-crafted teal, sapphire, and black marbled bowling ball. It didn’t glow, but it sure was dazzling. Sidling up next to her unsuspecting partner, Nicole whispered against her ear, “You wanna play with mine?”

The warmth of Nicole’s breath, the insinuation in her words were nearly Waverly’s undoing. Visibly, she gulped, her face flushing crimson as she gasped at the tacit suggestion in Nicole’s tone. And then she felt another flash of warmth spread throughout her body, coalescing in a pointedly concentrated place between her thighs. Trembling, for a brief moment, she thought her legs might give way.

Jesus Christ!

Wordlessly, she steadied herself before glancing toward Nicole. The deep blush that crept across her face drew a grin from the officer. Biting her bottom lip, adorably, she contemplated the possible responses, and decided to give as good as she received. “Depends…” she smirked, gathering her nerve, “are you offering me your body… or your ball?”

Her own brazenness made her blush even more. It must’ve been the beer, she decided. They were well into their third game by that point, and the entire group had been taking turns buying rounds—both food and drink—since the start of their first. So much for the Nicole’s evening being on Waverly’s tab, but they were both okay with the change in plans. Nicole was drinking far more root beer and bottled water than actual beer anyway, which was par for the course with her. Waverly, on the other hand, hadn’t been quite so discerning, and she’d had lost track of how many she’d had at that point. The interesting thing was, while it was clearly affecting her better judgment, it hadn’t affected her game in the least—well, except to possibly make it better. Baffling.

Nicole’s grin blossomed into a full-blown smile that produced that adorable dimple, her clear russet eyes twinkling at Waverly. If Waverly wanted to play, Nicole certainly wouldn’t argue. “Which would you prefer?” she asked, flirtatiously.

“I have to choose?” Waverly’s face adopted that adorable pout. 

“For now, yes,” Nicole grinned.

“What if I wanted to be greedy and take both?” Waverly’s eyes flashed with challenge.

Nicole’s soft laughter filled Waverly with warmth, as she pulled her close enough to ensure that no one else would hear. “Why don’t we just stick with the ball…” she whispered against Waverly’s ear, “for now…”

Waverly arched a determined eyebrow. “What if I’d rather have your body?” she whispered, almost seductively, against Nicole’s ear. It was only harmless flirtation, right?

The warmth of Waverly’s breath, the hint of desire imbedded in her tone, caused a wave of white-hot arousal to course through Nicole’s veins, landing in a finitely focused point between her legs at the mere thought of being with her that way. “Then it’s yours for the asking—,” she proffered, pausing to steady herself, “if you ever decide you’re actually into girls.”

Waverly’s obvious consternation only made Nicole grin. “You’re up,” she said, a roguish twinkle in her eyes, “so I’m just gonna sit back here and appreciate the way your gorgeous ass moves in those jeans…”

Blushing again, Waverly’s eyes swept over Nicole’s body. “Don’t think I haven’t been doing the exact same thing… all night long, Officer Haught,” she trifled brazenly.

“Oh, I’m well aware of that fact, Waverly Earp,” Nicole flirted in return.

“Good,” Waverly declared. “Now where’s your ball?”

Nicole laughed and picked up the ball, presenting it to her along with wink. And then she leaned close again. “Enjoy it,” she said, with a roguish grin that Waverly could actually feel against her ear. “The way this ball slides from your fingertips is… practically orgasmic.”

And the way those last two words slid from Nicole’s tongue sent Waverly’s belly into another set of summersaults. Her cheeks blushed nearly crimson again, as her entire body flushed with heat. She was thankful they had been murmured against her ear, rather than spoken loudly enough for anyone else to hear. “You’re absolutely incorrigible, Officer Haught,” she chastised; but the grin on her lips said she was amused.

“So I’ve been told,” Nicole smirked, eyes twinkling with laughter. 

Waverly glanced sideways at her as she landed on her mark, preparing for her delivery; and the look that passed between them spoke volumes to everyone in the vicinity about the depth of their connection. Well, everyone except Wynonna, who remained completely oblivious, as she munched on a doughnut she’d pilfered from the Black Badge office and shoved into her pocket earlier that afternoon.

The ball released from Waverly’s hand, landing squarely on the hard maple surface. Then there was the familiar whirring sound as it glided along the softer pine that lined the length of the lane, until finally, there was the loud clatter of pins as the ball crashed into them, leaving the dreaded seven-ten split. The blow was made ever more crushing given the iridescent glow of the pins.

Cursing beneath her breath, Waverly pivoted toward the ball return, as the sweeping clunk followed, indicating that the displaced pins had been knocked out of the way. The remaining pins were reset on the pin deck, where they taunted her with their glowing presence.

“You like it?” Nicole smiled expectantly, as Waverly lifted the ball from the return. 

Waverly smoothed her hand over the surface of the ball. “You can’t bowl with this anymore,” she declared. She sounded determined.

Nicole smiled. “What? Why? Are you stealing it from me?” Her tone said she was amused.

“You bet your sweet ass I am,” Waverly replied with a grin.

“You think my ass is sweet?” Nicole asked flirtatiously.

Waverly just gave her that look—the one that said: Really, Nicole?

Nicole laughed in response, and the corners of Waverly’s mouth twisted into a smile. “This thing glides like a frickin’ dream,” she declared.

“Doesn’t it, though?” Nicole said with a knowing wink.

“I’m serious, Nicole. I’m totally stealing this from you,” Waverly warned.

Laughing, Nicole leaned close. “How ‘bout we share it?” she suggested. “Fifty-fifty custody.”

I wouldn’t mind sharing a whole lot more than that with you. While fleeting, the thought was no less truthful, Waverly realized. But she just couldn’t deal with it. Not now. And so she offered that heart-stopping smile. “You’ve got a deal, Officer Haught,” she declared.

Pivoting again, she returned to her mark, preparing to deliver her spare. Executing it perfectly, she took down the seven and ten with expert precision. And then squealing excitedly as the pins fell, she spun around, lunging into Nicole’s arms where she continued to jump up and down, her arms wrapped securely around Nicole’s neck.

Nicole’s hands found their way to Waverly’s waist, and her entire body shook as Waverly moved against her, drawing a hearty laugh from her lips—and a few other reactions from the depths of her body. Caught up in the moment, she spontaneously wrapped her arms firmly around Waverly’s waist, effortlessly lifting her off the ground, and spinning her around. And the delightful sound of Waverly’s laughter against her neck was music to her ears. She never wanted to let it go.

“Pretty proud of yourself there, huh, Waves?” she teased, once Waverly was securely back on her feet. 

“Yup,” Waverly beamed, settling against the length of Nicole’s body. “The seven-ten is my worst nightmare,” she confessed. “And I just took ‘em out like a total champ.”

The utterance of that one word—or more the person it brought to mind—was a total buzzkill for both of them. Waverly’s face fell, mirroring Nicole’s, as reluctantly, Nicole distanced herself, both physically and emotionally. The flirtatious banter between them wasn’t just fun and games. It meant something. And regardless of whether either of them could admit it or not, they both knew deep down that it was true. But the bottom line was, Waverly Earp had a boyfriend, and no matter what Nicole thought of Champ Hardy as a person, she was no homewrecker. “I’m really sorry, Waves,” she said contritely. “I shouldn’t’ve…”

“No—,” Waverly countered, her fingertips lightly brushing Nicole’s arm. “I’m the one who’s been out of line,” she said, taking responsibility for her own actions. “I’m sorry…”

A soft sigh fell from Nicole’s lips. She hated that either of them even had a reason to apologize. “Why don’t we just let it go,” she suggested. “I’m having a really great time with you tonight. I don’t wanna spoil that.”

“Same here,” Waverly agreed, on both accounts.

“Okay, so let’s go watch Gus do her thing,” Nicole proposed, noting the older woman was up. “She’s totally kicking ass tonight.”

“Yeah,” Waverly grinned, as they simultaneously dropped down into their seats. “She’s totally kicking mine!”

“Mine, too,” Nicole sighed as she leaned back, crossing her legs. As an afterthought, she crossed her arms, as well—an attempt to deter herself from inadvertently draping an arm around Waverly’s shoulders. “Is she always this good?”

“Better,” Waverly reported. “She’s holding back so she doesn’t totally annihilate Doc.”

“He’s doin’ a lot better,” Nicole granted, settling in to chat while they waited for their next turn.

At that point, Dolls was up, and Gus was busy giving Doc more pointers. With everyone else occupied, Wynonna dropped into the seat beside Nicole, joining in. “Hey, I heard you did some more work out at the homestead this morning,” she said to Nicole during a lull in their conversation. “I just wanted to say thanks.”

“Always happy to help,” Nicole said amiably. “But actually, Waverly did all the work in the upstairs bathroom,” she added with a proud grin.

“Really?” Wynonna sounded impressed. “Way to go, Dude,” she congratulated, giving her sister a laidback high-five.

Waverly beamed. “Thanks,” she said giddily. “Nicole’s a great teacher.”

Glancing toward Waverly, a bashful smile ghosted Nicole’s lips. “Aw, thanks, Waves. You’re a great student.”

“What the hell is this, some kind of fucking Mutual Admiration Society?” Wynonna quipped.

“Hey, what can I say?” Nicole asked rhetorically as she glanced toward Waverly. “Your sister is intelligent, articulate, beautiful, funny, a fast learner…” she said, ticking off some of Waverly’s finer qualities. “What’s not to admire?”

“I could say the same of you,” Waverly said blushingly.

“Jesus Christ…” Wynonna muttered, shaking her head. She stood from her seat then, seeking escape from all the sentimentality. “If I have to suffer through this sappy bullshit, I’m gonna need somethin’ stronger than beer…”

Nicole laughed, and Waverly just rolled her eyes and shook her head, as they watched Wynonna shuffle off toward the bar. Before they could continue their earlier conversation, Gus called out to Nicole, letting her know she was up.

“Thanks, Gus,” she said, excusing herself from Waverly’s company. “Be right back.”

“I’ll be waiting,” Waverly said sweetly.

As Nicole made her way toward the ball return, Dolls joined Waverly. “Where’s your sister off to?” he asked, sounding a bit wary.

“Probably to raid the tequila stash,” Waverly answered, her eyes practically glued to Nicole’s ass.

“Is that really a good idea?” Dolls asked rhetorically, the focus of Waverly’s direct line of sight not lost on him.

“It rarely is,” Waverly replied dryly. “But she gets a little edgy after a couple hours of family bonding.” And then tearing her attention away from Nicole, she smiled at him. “So… looks like you’re having fun tonight,” she commented.

Dolls responded with an increasingly less rare smile. “More than I thought I would,” he admitted. “Don’t tell Wynonna this, but I’m actually glad she invited me.”

“Your secret’s safe with me,” Waverly said with a conspiratorial grin.

Tilting his head, Dolls captured her gaze. “As is yours is with me,” he said pointedly.

Taken completely off-guard, Waverly visibly bristled. And when she opened her mouth to protest, Dolls simply glanced toward Nicole for a brief moment, and then looked back at Waverly, challenge flashing in those obsidian eyes. That simple gesture silenced the lie she’d been telling herself, before it could slip from her tongue.

“I’m gonna go find your sister, before she gets herself arrested. I don’t have the energy to explain that to my superiors,” Dolls announced, offering her a reprieve. Besides, he knew that Wynonna had already had far more than enough alcohol for one night—she’d downed all of his, as well as her own, since he didn’t actually drink alcohol—and he really did want to check up on her. “Can I bring you anything?”

“Maybe a shot of that tequila, before Wynonna drains the stash,” she said wittily.

“And if it’s already too late?” Dolls countered with what might have been called a teasing grin.

Waverly laughed. “I’m actually good,” she said. “But thank you, Marshal Dolls.”

“Listen, why don’t we drop the Marshal part, and… just call me Dolls, okay?” he said, granting the familiarity. “It’s less effort, and… still a hell of a lot nicer than most of the things your sister calls me.”

If the warmth and humor in his tone surprised her, Waverly’s expression didn’t show it. “I can only imagine,” she laughed. “And thanks, Dolls,” she said sincerely. She hoped he understood the totality of her gratefulness.

“No problem,” he said with a casualness she’d never witnessed in him before. “I’ll be back in a few minutes.”

Nicole returned with Doc in tow, just as Dolls was leaving. They sat down on opposite sides of Waverly, settling in while Gus took her turn. Reaching behind Waverly, Nicole grabbed her bottled water from the table, and twisted the cap, taking a long drink. And then, with a gesture of invitation, she offered the bottle to Waverly.

Waverly smiled, accepting the bottle without a moment’s thought. Tipping it to her lips, she drank liberally, before offering it back to Nicole, who recapped it, setting it back on the table. The entire exchange was wordless, but it spoke volumes.

Studying them, Doc marveled at the way they communicated—all looks and gestures. It wasn’t the first time he’d witnessed it—he’d caught several similar interactions between them that day at the homestead, when Nicole would come to help out with something Waverly was doing, or vice versa—and he was certain it wouldn’t be the last. “Do you all, uh, ever find need of words?” he asked in that husky drawl.  

“What?” Waverly laughed.   

“You have entire conversations, yet you utter nary a word between you,” he pointed out. His expression said he was baffled.  

They shrugged in unison, and then glancing at Nicole, Waverly smiled. “Sometimes words aren’t necessary,” she declared.

“Oh, my Dear Waverly, that may indeed be true,” Doc granted. And then he looked pointedly at her. “Nevertheless, they are, sometimes, prudent.”

“And other times, they do more harm than good,” Waverly challenged.

“Now, you make a valid point there, Little Darlin’,” Doc conceded, but his tone of voice said he was far from finished speaking his point. He paused for a moment, reflecting on his own choices—on the fact that he never apologized to Wyatt. “But from my vast experience, I can tell you one thing for certain: I have done many a wrong in my life, uttered many a word that might best have been left unspoken; but the only words I regret, are the ones I did not say. And though they may be difficult, we aught say them, before it is too late.”

Waverly’s heart lurched in her chest when she realized what he was saying. Christ on crutches! Does everybody know? she wondered. And then she scrambled for cover. Putting up a front, she offered a skeptical look. “Are you drunk, Doc?”

A sharp laugh was forthcoming, and then Doc settled his gaze on her again. “Am I awake?” he asked rhetorically. “Because if I am, there is a high probability that I am also drunk,” he acknowledged. “But that does not mean that I am flawed in my conjecture,” he stated with conviction.

And then, his blue eyes practically bugging out of his head as the rapidly flashing laser lights and throbbing techno beat took over, blatantly assaulting his senses, he planted his hands on his thighs, as he began to rise from his seat. “Now, if you will excuse me, I do believe I am in dire need a few more shots of whiskey, lest all these infernal lights and noises in this place start to seem natural,” he drawled.

And then he walked away.   

“Oh, my god, he is hilarious!” Nicole declared once Doc was out of earshot.

“Isn’t he, though?” Waverly agreed.

“Some of the shit he says reminds me of those old Westerns I used to watch with gramps,” Nicole commented.

Waverly laughed. “Yeah, Doc’s definitely a throwback to a bygone era, that’s for sure,” she commented vaguely. The last thing she needed was for Nicole to start asking questions that couldn’t be answered. She smiled at her then. “What do you say we beg off after this game, and go for a walk; maybe grab some real food somewhere?” They’d been grazing on appetizers, but hadn’t really bothered with dinner.

Smiling, Nicole nodded. “I’d like that,” she said. “I’d like it a lot.”

“Great!” Waverly declared. “Then it’s a…”

In that moment, their gazes caught, and they couldn’t do anything but laugh. “Whatever it is, it’s not a date, right?” Nicole said. It wasn’t really a question.

“Right,” Waverly affirmed. “Definitely not a date.”

Friday, May 27, 2016…  Shorty’s Saloon—3:00 p.m. Mountain Daylight Time

No—it definitely hadn’t been a date, Waverly reminded herself for the umpteenth time since that night just a few short weeks ago. No matter how much it felt like one, it definitely wasn’t. It didn’t’ matter that they’d hugged, multiple times. Or that they’d held one another close. Hell, it didn’t even matter that they’d danced together to that song with the lyrics that haunted them with such achingly beautiful truthfulness. Or even that after they left the Pin Drop, they’d walked arm in arm, wending their way along the moonlit streets of Purgatory, until they happened upon Mama Olive’s, the lone little family-owned all-night diner, where they settled side-by-side into a cozy little corner booth, ate greasy burgers and cheese fries, and then talked and laughed their way to sunrise.

It didn’t matter either that upon noticing that Waverly was chilled, Nicole had ordered a hot cocoa with extra marshmallows—just the way Waverly liked it—and then wordlessly reached over, clutching her jacket from the seat beside her, and draping it over Waverly’s shoulders. Waverly smiled and thanked her, as she shrugged into the sleeves, pulling the warmth around her before resting her head against Nicole’s shoulder.

And it didn’t matter that somewhere along the leisurely stroll back to Nicole’s SUV, their hands had brushed against one another, innocently so, and that Waverly had taken Nicole’s into her own, their fingers intertwining as if by design. Or that they’d both felt the heartrending loss when she reluctantly let go to get into the passenger seat as Nicole held the door for her more than half an hour later. Or even that they both ached to reestablish that connection as they made their way back to the homestead where it all began the morning prior.

No—none of that mattered.

What mattered was that their night together, perfect as it may have been, hadn’t ended with even a kiss—let alone with Nicole Haught in her bed. That’s how dates ended, didn’t they? Well, the good ones, anyway. Those ended with a kiss. And the really great ones, well… sometimes they ended with a whole lot more. At least they did in the movies. Waverly’s never had. Not with Champ. No, dates with Champ were never really dates exactly. Not in the traditional sense of the word. They were just a monotonous cycle of getting wasted down by the river and fucking in the back of his pickup. Or in her apartment, if they’d gotten wasted at Shorty’s. Not that she didn’t have fun with Champ, because she did. Just… not the way she did with Nicole.

With Nicole, everything was different, in the most wonderful of ways. She’d shared more intimacy with Nicole during their non-dates, than she ever had with Champ. In fact, intimacy wasn’t a word she could equate with Champ at all. But with Nicole, it was like a running theme in their every interaction—their talks, their laughter, their hugs, the sensation of Nicole’s hand in hers, the warmth of her body as they snuggled on the couch, or the thrill she’d felt when they’d danced together—multiple times, actually, between turns, that night. All of it was intimate in a way she’d never experienced before. And while she definitely wasn’t ready for the “whole lot more” part, if Waverly were to be honest with herself, she would have to admit she definitely wanted Nicole to kiss her. And given the expression in Nicole’s eyes as she leaned against the doorframe after walking Waverly to the door the following morning, Waverly was quite certain Nicole had wanted it, as well…

Tuesday, April 26, 2016… The Earp Homestead—7:30 a.m. Mountain Daylight Time

"You work second shift today?” Waverly had asked, as Nicole held the passenger side door open for her. Upon their arrival back at the homestead, Nicole had hopped from the SUV and walked around just as Waverly popped the latch on the door.

“Yep,” Nicole answered, closing the door with a light push. “I have to be in by five. You?”     

“Same,” Waverly answered, stifling a yawn.  


Slowly, they meandered toward the front porch, Waverly’s arm looped casually through Nicole’s once again. “So… You wanna just stay?” she asked, turning toward Nicole once they reached the door. Her tone was hopeful—she didn’t want Nicole to leave. “We could run by your apartment so you can change, and then you could drop me at Shorty’s on your way to the station.”

Leaning against the doorframe in that casual way of hers, a faint smile flickered across Nicole’s lips. “As much as I’d like that,” she admitted, “I should probably go.”

“Because?” Waverly let the question linger on her tongue, the expression in her eyes asking far more than a mere word ever could.  

Leisurely, those soft russet eyes glanced over Waverly’s face, taking in the contours of her cheeks, the smooth angle of her jaw, and the subtle laugh lines that teased around her eyes and mouth when she smiled even the tiniest bit. Christ, you’re breathtaking, she thought, her heart pounding beneath her breasts. God, she wanted to touch her, to kiss her, to just… be with her. But she knew she couldn’t. Not like this. Not after the way it felt last night, dancing with Waverly in her arms. Things were different now, and she couldn’t explain exactly why, except that just holding Waverly as she slept wouldn’t be enough anymore.

She reached out then, tenderly brushing the back of her fingers against Waverly’s cheek. “Some question are best left unanswered, Waves,” she said, her voice barely a whisper, as she gazed into Waverly’s soft green eyes, willing her to understand.   

Lowering her gaze to shield Nicole from her disappointment, Waverly nodded. And when she looked back up at Nicole, her eyes held a smile again. “I’ll see you for a cup of coffee later though—right?” she asked, expectantly. 

Nicole smiled. “Yes,” she confirmed. “You’ll definitely see me for coffee later.”

Waverly’s grin lit her entire face. “How ‘bout I have a fresh cappuccino waiting for you,” she offered. “Say… six o’clock? That’s when you usually head out for patrol, isn’t it—about an hour into your shift?”

Nodding, Nicole chuckled softly. “You know my schedule better than I do,” she teased.

“What can I say?” Waverly asked with a shrug. “I keep track of the things that matter most.”

“It’s nice to know I’m on that list,” Nicole said softly, as she gathered Waverly into her arms for a goodbye hug. She couldn’t resist touching her just one more time before she had to go.

And Waverly certainly didn’t protest. Instead, she leaned into her, once again appreciating the solid strength of her, as she tightened her arms around Nicole’s waist. “You’re not just on my list, Nicole. You’re consistently in the top three, right there with Wynonna and Gus. You always will be.”

Overwhelmed by feelings she wasn’t prepared to handle, Nicole’s response was to hug her tighter, if only for a brief moment. And then, her voice gruff with emotion, as she separated herself from Waverly, she declared, “All right, I’ve really gotta go now.” Before I change my mind, and do something really stupid..., she thought, but didn’t express.

Reining in her emotions, she met Waverly’s gaze again, smiling. “Thank you for yet another wonderful night,” she said sincerely. “I had a really great time with your family. And after, well… our after, was way better than going to any nightclub.”

Waverly smiled up at her. “Agreed—on both accounts,” she declared. She gave Nicole’s hand a gentle squeeze. “Be careful driving home, Officer Haught,” she said with tender affection. “And I’ll see you tonight around six.”

Biting her lower lip, Nicole simply nodded. To say anything more would have been her undoing. She turned then, making her way back to her SUV, and once in the drivers’ seat, she glanced back toward the house, finding Waverly Earp smiling and waving at her from her front porch.

Friday, May 27, 2016…  Shorty’s Saloon—3:00 p.m. Mountain Daylight Time

Yes, indeed, given the expression in Nicole’s eyes—and all the things she hadn’t said as she leaned against the doorframe that morning—Waverly was quite certain Nicole had wanted it, as well. But once again, she had simply pulled away, just as she always did, when they got a little too close. Why? Because… it wasn’t a date, Waverly was forced to remind herself, yet again.

It was just a…

She didn’t know what the hell it was.

What she did know was that the expression in Nicole’s soft russet eyes said more than any words ever could. And so did the fact that once inside the house, upon realizing she was still wearing Nicole’s jacket, Waverly had curled up on the sofa in the living room—where she’d recently spent a night in Nicole’s arms—and buried her face in that jacket, falling asleep again with the soft, musky scent of Nicole’s essence surrounding her.

She also knew that Doc’s comments about speaking one’s truth still haunted her. “Oh, my Dear Waverly, that may indeed be true,” he had granted when she claimed that words were sometimes unnecessary. And then he gave her that look—the one that said he could see right through her; that he was calling her bluff. “Nevertheless, they are, sometimes, prudent… And though they may be difficult, we aught say them, before it is too late. The only words I regret, are the ones I did not say…”

Why was she so damned afraid to speak her truth? Better yet, why wouldn’t Nicole speak it for both of them? She was experienced at these things, wasn’t she? Far more experienced than Waverly, to be certain. And it would be so much easier if Waverly could just react to what was thrown at her, instead of having to step out of her comfort zone, and take the risk blindly.

She was in the midst of asking another series of “Whys” when suddenly, the sound of Nicole’s voice, her words, echoed in her head. “Then it’s yours for the asking—if you ever decide you’re actually into girls,” Nicole had said when Waverly teased about her possible interest in Nicole’s body that night at the Pin Drop. And then earlier today, when Waverly had reacted so harshly to Nicole’s comment about dating, Nicole had replied with such conviction, “God, Waverly, I would never ask you to be someone you’re not…”

Oh, my god…

Was that it? Was that why Nicole was always the one to pull away?

It had to be! She had to be waiting for Waverly to make the first move. Though coming to that realization had taken far longer than it probably should have, unfortunately, Waverly also understood that the realization of truth was the easy part. Now she had to put that truth into action. The problem was… she had no idea how to do that. And even if she did, at that moment, she still wasn’t completely certain that she should.

TBC in Chapter 6—Netflix and Chill…

Chapter Text

The Ten Times Waverly Earp was Definitely NOT on a Date with Nicole Haught


“It is an absolute human certainty that no one can know his own beauty or perceive a sense of his own worth until it has been reflected back to him in the mirror of another loving, caring human being.”

— John Joseph Powell, The Secret of Staying in Love



Chapter 6 – Netflix and Chill:

Friday, April 29, 2016… Nicole’s Apartment—6:15 p.m. Mountain Daylight Time

“Thanks again for coming to my rescue last night,” Waverly said, her chin propped against the palm of her hand as she leaned forward at the breakfast bar in Nicole’s kitchen, watching Nicole put a pan of lasagna together for dinner. Gus had given her a well-deserved night off after she’d had to stay well past closing to deal with the fallout from a drunken brawl that broke out just before last call on Thursday night; and now they were at Nicole’s apartment where they’d spent most of the afternoon working in the kitchen together, Waverly having baked a cheesecake for dessert—and more of her fabulous banana muffins, at Nicole’s behest, just because—and then helped by shredding various types of fresh cheese for the lasagna, while Nicole fussed over a pot full of the most aromatic homemade pasta sauce Waverly had ever encountered.

Shorty’s was an absolute disaster after the brawl, and Nicole, who had been dispatched along with another young deputy, to drag in the culprits, returned to Shorty’s after processing their arrests, to help Waverly clean up the mess. If she hadn’t, Waverly probably would have still been there the following morning. “It was no problem, Waves,” Nicole said casually, as she lined the bottom of a deep glass baking dish with a thick layer of the homemade meat sauce. “To Serve and Protect, right?”

“I highly doubt that cleaning up after a bar brawl constitutes serving and protecting,” Waverly challenged, giving Nicole a very pointed look. 

Nicole chuckled. “Probably not,” she conceded, covering the sauce with a layer of fresh lasagna noodles that she’d rolled and pressed just minutes before. Waverly had been surprised to see how wide the noodles were—easily twice the width of store-bought ones, and just slightly thinner. Nicole explained that thinning out the pasta just a bit allowed the robust herbs in the sauce and the various cheeses to merge, creating a light, flavorful experience. And then she spooned more sauce over the noodles, before covering the sauce pot again. “Still, I didn’t mind helping. My shift was over anyway, and I was too wired to sleep after all the commotion. Those two are a real piece of work.”

“The York boys?” Waverly laughed. “Yeah, that’s putting it mildly. Pete’s still pretty pissed about Kyle screwing Wynonna back when he was dating her.”

“Wasn’t that like… eight years ago?” Nicole said, incredulously. “Talk about holding a grudge. Sheesh!” She covered the meat sauce with a layer of a rich ricotta mixture that included nine different kinds of freshly grated cheeses, carefully smoothing it out.   

“Oh, but he only just found out last week,” Waverly reported, matter-of-factly.

“How’d that happen?” Scrunching her nose, Nicole chuckled. She sounded amused.

“Wynonna told him,” Waverly answered.

Nicole’s expression morphed into one of absolute bafflement. “Why the hell would she do that?”

“Misguided quest for absolution?” Waverly suggested with a shrug, feigning obliviousness to the details.

“Dare I ask if this had anything to do with all the weirdness going on in Black Badge last Friday?” Nicole asked. If she hadn’t known any better, she’d have thought there was some sort of exorcism going on in there.

“What weirdness?” Waverly queried.

“That’s what I figured,” Nicole said, sounding almost amused by the deliberate skirting of the truth. “What seems weird to me is just business as usual for Black Badge.” She hoped she didn’t sound as annoyed as she felt.

“Hey, I’m basically just the historian where Black Badge is concerned,” Waverly said, holding her hands up in surrender. She hated having to avoid Nicole’s questions. More than that, she hated having to outright lie to her. Hopefully, one day, she wouldn’t have to do that anymore. “They don’t involve me in the particulars. Not that I would mind if they did.”

Delivered on a sigh, Waverly’s final comment drew Nicole’s attention. That was when she realized that Waverly felt… excluded. Kind of like Nicole did herself. She empathized, and thought it best not to pour salt in the wound. Instead, she reached across the breakfast bar, giving Waverly’s hand a gentle squeeze. “I feel ya, Waves,” she said sweetly, drawing a shy smile from the other woman. And then she grinned at her as she lifted the lid off the pot of sauce, stirring it again.  

“Oh, my god, I can’t stand it anymore,” Waverly declared. Thankful for the distraction, she skirted around the edge of the breakfast bar. Every time Nicole lifted the lid off of that pot, her taste buds went into overdrive. “That sauce smells divine,” she practically moaned as she came to lean against Nicole’s side, peering over the top of the huge soup pot nested on large front burner of the stovetop.

Nicole beamed. “Thanks,” she said, sounding pleased. Dipping the seasoned wooden spoon into the sauce, she carefully lifted and tilted it to the side, testing to ensure it was thick enough that it wouldn’t drip. And then slipping a hand beneath just to be certain, she gently blew on it to cool it off a bit as she turned toward Waverly. “Here,” she said, “taste…”

Waverly blew on it a bit as well, their breath actually mingling as Nicole moved the spoon closer to Waverly’s mouth, allowing her the proffered sample. With a base of crushed tomatoes seasoned with fresh parsley, oregano, basil, garlic, onion, chopped green peppers, a bay leaf, and just a pinch of sugar because the tomatoes were a bit too tart for Nicole’s liking, the meat sauce—comprised of lean ground beef and sausage—was an explosion of flavors on Waverly’s tongue, and she practically gasped in delight upon tasting it. “Oh, my god!” she said for the second time in mere moments. “Where on earth did you learn to make sauce like this?”

Chuckling, Nicole took a taste from the spoon, deciding that she approved as well. “My grandmother,” she answered. “The recipe was passed down through more generations than we can count—a perk of having Italian blood coursing through my veins, I suppose,” she grinned.

Arching an eyebrow, Waverly’s face adopted a curious expression. “I thought you were Irish.”

“Only on my dad’s side,” Nicole replied, dipping the spoon back into the sauce in response to Waverly’s gesture requesting more. “My mom’s parents were born in Italy. They emigrated sometime after they married, but before she was born.”

“So… your parents are both first-generation Americans,” Waverly deduced, already knowing from previous conversations that Nicole’s father’s parents were both Irish-Canadian.

“Exactly,” Nicole confirmed, blowing on the second spoonful of sauce before offering it to Waverly.

“That’s kinda cool,” Waverly decided. And then she swooned over the sauce once again.  

“Yeah,” Nicole shrugged, returning to the layering process with the lasagna. “But you can see why it bugs me when grandfather gets pissed off over what he considers the laissez-faire U.S. immigration policy, right?”

“Wait,” Waverly said, looking perplexed. “He was an immigrant, and now he has an issue with foreigners being allowed into the country that took him in without question?”

“Rich, huh?” Nicole laughed sharply.

“To say the least,” Waverly agreed.

“Well, the old man’s nothing if not a hypocrite,” Nicole accused harshly. Her disdain for him was evident; and yet, Waverly had always sensed a grudging sort of regard anytime she spoke of him. It was something in her tone. Not necessarily respect; but perhaps something akin to it.

“Sounds like your relationship with him is… complicated,” she commented.

Nicole barked out a laugh. “Funny thing is, one of the reasons I went after the Marines was I knew they were the toughest to get into, and I thought… foolishly so, I later realized,” she said, her tone caustic, “I thought I could gain that old SOB’s respect. Only thing I ended up gainin’ was his contempt.”

“Contempt?” Waverly sounded appalled.

“He found it ‘very unladylike’ for his eldest granddaughter to be ‘traipsing around the world dressed like a man, and toting guns,’ as he put it,” Nicole said, giving her best impression of the booming bass of his voice and his overpowering presence.  

“I take it he’s not a feminist,” Waverly grinned, hoping to lighten the mood. It worked like a charm, drawing a laugh from Nicole.

“Let’s just say… the word feminist has never been uttered in the same sentence as the name Nikolas Haught, without the prefix anti- being associated with it,” she commented humorously.

Waverly laughed. “I didn’t realize you were named after your grandfather.”

“Both of them, actually,” Nicole shared. “My granddad’s name is Dominick, but he mostly goes by Nick.”

“What about your Grandpa Haught?”

Nicole’s expression turned serious. “Oh, no one but my Grandmother ever calls him anything other than Grandfather, Father, Mr. Haught… or Sir.”

Waverly’s eyes widened in trepidation. “Wow, that’s a bit harsh.”

“Right? Least not to his face, anyway,” Nicole grinned, lightening things up again.

Waverly chuckled. “Well, at any rate, I disagree,” she declared, getting back to Nicole’s earlier comment.

“Disagree with what?” Nicole asked, as she covered the completed pan of lasagna with a layer of tinfoil, popping it into the oven. She turned back toward Waverly, awaiting a response.

“That you only gained his contempt,” Waverly answered. “You also gained respect for yourself,” she pointed out. “You told you me you were proud of the things you’ve worked for, and everything you’ve achieved on your own. What could be better than that?”

Nicole smiled at her. “Yeah, I guess you’re right about that,” she granted, wiping her hands on a burgundy kitchen towel—a purposeful choice given that she was working with tomato sauce. “I really am proud of my accomplishments.”

Waverly nodded. “You should be, Nicole. You’re amazing,” she praised.

Blushing, Nicole offered a rare shy smile. “You’re really good for my ego,” she admitted.

Grinning, Waverly gave her a playful shove. “As if you needed any help with that, Officer HaughtPants,” she teased.

Amused, Nicole chuckled softly.  

“And as for your grandfather,” Waverly said, getting back to their original conversation. “I’m really sorry he’s not what you wish he was, but… I guess none of us is perfect,” she commented with a shrug.

“No, I suppose we aren’t,” Nicole granted, choosing to let it go. “Anyway,” she said, sidestepping negative thoughts of her grandfather, lest they ruin her evening with Waverly and her family, “enough talk about the old man, huh?” she grinned.  “Just… wait ‘til you taste this sauce in my lasagna.”

Waverly wiggled and clapped excitedly. “I can’t wait,” she declared, allowing Nicole to move on from the topic of her grandfather.

I can’t wait to dig into that cheesecake you made,” Nicole commented, as she moved toward the table, a stack of black stoneware dinner, salad, and bread plates with deep blue accents in hand. “It looks amazing!”

“Just wait until I put the blueberry topping on it,” Waverly said enticingly, as she followed behind with a tray of thick water tumblers, elegant stemware, silverware, and cloth napkins.

Turning on her heel, russet eyes wide, mouth agape, Nicole fumbled, nearly dropping the stack of plates. “You’ve got blueberry topping?”

Waverly giggled. “Course I do,” she replied, in a tone that said Nicole clearly should have known she would. She set the tray down on the table, challenging Nicole with her eyes. “You said it was your favorite, didn’t you?”

It was a good thing Nicole’s hands were full, because she seriously would have grabbed Waverly and kissed her right then and there. Instead, she simply grinned. She remembered telling Waverly about picking blueberries with her granny when she was little, and how she always managed to eat more than she put in her pail because they were her favorite, and she couldn’t wait until they got back to the house to eat them. Her face always ended up a mess of blueberry stains and dirt, but her belly was full, and she was happy. It always amazed her, Waverly’s ability to remember even the littlest details from conversations they’d had. “You’re amazing, Waverly Earp.”

A shy smile flickered across Waverly’s lips. “The feeling is mutual.”

Setting the stack of plates on the table, Nicole grabbed the napkins from the tray. Folding them, she set them beside the dinner plates as Waverly distributed them around the table. “It was really cool of you to invite Wynonna and Gus tonight,” Waverly said, gathering sets of silverware, and setting them in their place.

“I really like your family,” she shrugged, grinning at how meticulous Waverly was about getting the place settings just right. Plus, having them around as a buffer certainly couldn’t hurt, she reasoned. Realizing how far out of line she’d been with Waverly at the bowling alley on Monday evening, Nicole knew she needed to not only apologize for her behavior, but to dial things back significantly when it came to Waverly. The last thing she needed was a repeat of her own inappropriate behavior, and having Wynonna and Gus there would most definitely help her keep things in check.

“That makes two of us,” Waverly grinned. And then she paused, watching the swirl of emotions that played across Nicole’s expressive face. “But there’s more to it, isn’t there?” she asked, instinctively.

She’d felt it all afternoon—the subtle shift in Nicole, in her mannerisms, and the way she interacted with her. She hadn’t touched Waverly nearly as much, and she’d been more cautious about being in positions with Waverly where they might touch accidentally. And much of the flirty banter was gone—or at least toned down.

A soft, knowing laugh slipped from Nicole’s lips. “How do you always do that?” she asked, setting the tumblers and wine glasses at their respective place settings.

“Do what?” Waverly asked, curious.

“You always know when there’s something I’m not saying,” Nicole revealed. “Granny’s ashes on the mountaintop… my grandfather just a moment ago… And now this…”

Stopping what she was doing, Waverly met Nicole’s gaze. “So… there is something,” she said, seeking confirmation.  

“Yes,” Nicole validated. Grabbing the abandoned towel from the countertop again, she wiped her hands unnecessarily. And then she set the towel back down, shoving those hands into the pockets of her jeans. “I think maybe we should talk, Waves,” she said, a bit hesitantly. 

Waverly arched an eyebrow. Nothing good ever followed that statement. “Talk?” she parroted.

“Yeah,” Nicole nodded, looking slightly nervous.

“Oh, god,” Waverly practically gasped.

“No, it’s not bad,” Nicole said. “I’m promise. It’s just that… I owe you an apology.”

“An apology?” Now Waverly sounded confused. And she looked it, as well. Leaning her hip against the stone-top wrought-iron table, she crossed her arms beneath her breasts. “For what?”

Moving closer, Nicole gently brushed a hand against Waverly’s bicep. It was the first time she’d purposely touched her all day, and it hadn’t gone unnoticed by either of them. “Come sit with me?” she requested.

Waverly nodded, allowing Nicole to take her by the arm, leading her over to the sofa where they sat side-by side. Turning toward her then, their jean-clad knees touching, Nicole took a deep breath, exhaling slowly. “Some of the things I said to you at the Pin Drop,” she began, as she steadfastly locked her gaze on Waverly’s, refusing to allow herself the luxury of avoidance. “I was completely out of line, Waverly. It’s one thing to flirt with you a little. It’s entirely another to disrespect you, especially when I know you’re involved with someone else, and I am truly sorry.”

Delivered on a deeply penitent tone, Nicole’s apology nearly broke Waverly’s heart. Reaching out, she brushed her fingertips along Nicole’s cheek. Fearing it might be the last time she would ever touch her so intimately, she allowed them to linger there. “Why are you being so hard on yourself, Nicole?” she asked, truly confused as to where this was all coming from. She wasn’t the least bit sorry for any of it, and she certainly didn’t want Nicole to feel guilty about anything! She’d thought about her part in the things that were said—and done. And though she hadn’t cheated—admittedly, she’d wanted to—and in all honesty, even if she had, she didn’t think she’d have felt guilty because Champ had cheated on her so many times she’d lost count. Fleetingly, she wondered what that said about her, and then she decided she didn’t care, as she looked Nicole squarely in the eye, saying, “It’s not like you were alone in what happened.”

“You’re right, I wasn’t,” Nicole granted. “But I can only control me.” She sighed, disconcertedly. “Problem is, I didn’t.”

Waverly nodded, indicating that she understood. “That’s why you didn’t stay that morning—isn’t it?”

“Yes,” Nicole quietly confirmed. She dropped her gaze then, focusing on her hands, clasped in her lap as she contemplated her next words. When she looked up again, she met those penetrating green eyes squarely again. “I’ll be honest with you, Waves, I didn’t want to.”

Nonplussed, Waverly’s brow furrowed. “You didn’t wanna stay?”

“Yeah, right,” Nicole snorted, before she could stop herself. And then she grimaced, immediately regretting the outburst. “I’m sorry, Waves,” she quickly apologized. “What I meant was, I didn’t wanna control myself.”


Delivered on a breathless whisper, Waverly’s response was accompanied by the return of that fluttery feeling deep in her belly. Her breath quickened, and her mouth felt suddenly dry as she was forced to deal with the truth that she hadn’t wanted to control herself either.

Nicole watched as the whirlwind of emotions played across Waverly’s face. And then she reached up, tipping Waverly’s chin, drawing her gaze back. “I want things with you,” she said forthrightly. “Things that I can’t have, and… I fooled myself into forgetting that the other night. I can’t let that happen again—for your sake, as well as my own.” 

“I… I’m sorry too, Nicole,” Waverly apologized sincerely. “For my part in causing you pain. I never meant for you to be hurt. But… I can’t be sorry for what happened,” she said honestly.

Nicole’s expression held both curiosity and confusion as she watched Waverly’s telltale fidgeting begin. Something was definitely up. She hadn’t seen her this edgy in quite a while.

“I mean…” Waverly bit her lip, contemplating. “I, uh… There are things that I… that I want… with you. I, uh… I think, and…”

"What are you sayin’ to me, Waverly?” Nicole’s southern drawl came out in that way it always did when she was tired, or aggravated, or… confused, which was what she was right now.

Releasing a slow sigh, Waverly took Nicole’s hands into her own—as much an attempt to stop their endless twitching as to connect with Nicole, though she really did feel an urgent need to touch her. “I guess what I’m saying is…”

Before she had a chance to actually finish her statement, she was interrupted by a knock at Nicole’s door. Every last molecule of air leaked from Waverly’s lungs, taking every ounce of courage she’d managed to summon right along with it, as Nicole rolled her eyes and sighed, slipping from the sofa. “Hold that thought, she said, holding up a finger to halt Waverly’s explanation.

“It’s probably Gus,” Waverly commented knowingly. “She’s as punctual as I am. Wynonna, on the other hand…”

Nicole grinned. “Yeah, I know… we’ll be halfway through dinner,” she chuckled. “And she probably won’t stay for the movie, right?”

Waverly shook her head. “She’s not really a Netflix and chill kinda girl,” she confirmed.

“Let me guess, she’s not so good with the chill part, right?” Nicole grinned.

“You got it,” Waverly laughed.

“Kinda figured as much,” Nicole said. She was laughing when she opened the door. “Hey, Gus,” she said before she even set eyes on her.

“How’d you…” Gus grinned, not even bothering to finish the question. “Never mind, it’s too early for Wynonna,” she laughed, holding out a bottle of Chianti, which was a perfect match for lasagna, and a six-pack of Nicole’s favorite American brew. “Figured you weren’t driving tonight, so…”

“Oh, my god, Gus, you’re my queen,” Nicole gushed; bowing playfully, as she gratefully accepted the proffered gifts. “Get in here.”

Gus laughed, stepping into Nicole’s apartment.

“Aw, man,” Waverly pouted. “I should’ve thought to bring your favorite beer,” she muttered under her breath. She sounded disappointed in herself, knowing that Nicole hardly ever drank when she had to be responsible for others—which was nearly always the case—and that she didn’t have to be tonight.  

Glancing toward Waverly, Nicole gave her a shy smile. “You brought me these beautiful yellow roses instead,” she reminded sweetly, gesturing toward the artfully arranged bouquet of flowers that served as a centerpiece on the dining room table.

Waverly had actually taken the time to arrange them herself, interweaving them with baby’s-breath and ivy in an elegant glass vase with light blue glass stones and water in a larger, low-sitting glass base, with floating candles that created the most beautiful reflection. The arrangement was positively breathtaking, and Nicole had said as much when Waverly finished with it.

Noting the obviously new, light gray carpeting, and the fact that both Nicole and Waverly were barefooted, except for their thick socks, Gus stopped just inside the doorway to remove her worn boots.

“Oh, Gus, you don’t have to…” Nicole was quick to say.

“Nonsense,” Gus said with a wave of her hand. “These old things have been through half the cow pastures in the county. No way I’m traipsin’ through your home in ‘em.”

“Well, thanks, Gus,” Nicole said warmly, as she closed the door behind them. “That’s very thoughtful of you.”

“I wouldn’t go traipsin’ through my own in ‘em either, Darlin’,” Gus admitted with a wink, drawing a chuckle from Nicole. Setting her boots on the welcome mat near the door, she moved further into the room, and took her time, glancing around at the comfortably furnished and artfully decorated apartment. It was an open floor plan for the most part, with spacious Greek-inspired archways separating the kitchen area from the dining and living room spaces, and the hallway that led to the bedroom and bath.

The living room was furnished with a sofa sleeper and reclining loveseat both with black leather bases, accented with huge pillows in light and dark gray, and two dark gray reclining rockers, all with smaller burgundy throw pillows for a pop of color. They were complemented by a stone-top wrought-iron coffee table and matching end tables, with sleek, black and gray tabletop lamps, and throw rugs. All of it was symmetrically arranged with the focus around the stone fireplace in the corner, with a big screen television mounted above the mantle, and a cozy cat bed with a fluffy blanket perched on the hearth. And there were several black bookcases of varying heights, all filled to the brim, lining the wall opposite the fireplace. It looked like a photo from Better Homes and Gardens.  

Across the way, the dining room, with its stone-top wrought-iron table and chair set and matching wine rack, and décor with a similar color scheme of black, light and dark gray, and burgundy, complimented the overall ambiance of the home, making it bold, but certainly not overpowering—very much like Nicole, herself.

Other than the obvious family photographs that lined the walls and graced a tabletop here and there, there were several beautifully framed shots of the mountains—ranges Gus did not recognize—and a couple shots of what looked like wild mustangs. “Nice place,” she said, wiping her hands on her blue jeans, and then tucking them into her pockets as she neared the photographs to get a better look.

“Thanks,” Nicole said, as she moved toward the kitchen. “Please, make yourself at home. Can I get you anything?” She lifted the bottle of wine and the beer, offering both, but Gus declined.

“Nothing right now, but thank you,” she said, her attention drawn to one of the photographs of the horses.

“Waves? Nicole asked, offering her the same.

“No, I’m good, thanks,” Waverly declined, as she stood from the sofa, moving toward her aunt.

Nodding, Nicole excused herself to the kitchen where she set both the Chianti and the six-pack on the bottom shelf of her refrigerator. She checked on the lasagna, and then moved back into the living room.

Standing beside Gus, Waverly draped an elbow on her shoulder, studying the photo alongside her. They were majestic creatures, running free across a wide-open pasture, the breeze blowing through their long, flowing manes. “Are these wild horses?” Gus asked, curious.

“The ones in this shot are, yes,” Nicole answered, motioning toward the photograph Gus was viewing when she asked the question. And then she pointed out an adjoining photograph with several more horses. “This is a shot of a few of our rescue horses. A couple of them were elderly, and just with us for sanctuary ‘til the end,” she said with obvious affection. “And these are actually thoroughbreds,” she added, pointing toward another adjacent photograph. All three were in elegant, hand-crafted black frames, like the others on the wall. “Though they do all look rather carefree, don’t they?”

“They surely do,” Gus agreed.

“Well, we keep them separated from the wild horses, for their own health and safety, but we do let them all roam free in the pastures whenever possible,” Nicole reported.

Interest piqued, Gus turned toward Nicole. “You grew up around horses, did you?”

Nicole smiled, and shrugged, sinking her hands into the pockets of her jeans. “Yes, ma’am,” she said with a nod. “Kinda hard not to in Texas.”

“Ah,” Gus intoned. “I didn’t realize.”

“My sisters and I grew up on my grandparent’s ranch just outside of Dallas,” Nicole explained, a bit of her southern drawl making an appearance.

“You should come out to the house and ride sometime,” Gus said in invitation.

“Really?” Nicole’s face lit up.

“Of course,” Gus reiterated. “You’re welcome anytime, Nicole.”

“Thank you,” Nicole said, sounding beyond pleased.

Gus glanced at her niece. “Waverly doesn’t come out to ride nearly enough,” she gently chided.

“I know,” Waverly sighed. “I’m a bad, bad horsey mommy.”

“She misses you,” Gus said pointedly, speaking of Waverly’s horse. “She’s been rather feisty, of late.”

“Well, I’ll be there on Sunday,” Waverly reminded. “I’ll take her for a long ride, and then pamper her for a while.” She glanced at Nicole. “You should come too,” she chirped excitedly.

Gus smiled brightly at the idea. “Yes, you should. We’re having a barbeque. The two of you can go riding while I grill.” Anything to encourage their burgeoning relationship; not to mention the added potential of fostering a friendship between Nicole and Wynonna.

That lone dimple bloomed. “Just so happens I have Sunday off. I’d love to spend the day with y’all,” Nicole easily agreed. “Thank you.”

Waverly grinned at that sweet southern drawl in Nicole’s tone, and casually latched onto her arm. “Nicole actually took this one,” she bragged, turning the attention back to the photographs, and drawing a blush from the artist in the process. And then she pointed to one horse in particular—a gorgeous black and silver mare. “This is Keagan’s Paradox. She’s Nicole’s horse.”

“Keagan’s Paradox,” Gus said, contemplating the name as it rolled off her tongue. “Interesting name.”

Nicole chuckled. “She’s named after my great grandmother, Keagan McKenna-Haught. Keagan means small, yet fiery, which described my granny perfectly. Apparently, she was a wee thing when she was born, but she had a fiery spirit in her—as evidenced, it’s been said, by the thick mop of fiery red hair on her head.”

Waverly and Gus chuckled in response to the touch of humor in Nicole’s tone a she shared the snippet of family lore. “I see you got the hair,” Gus commented. “What about the spirit?”

“I can be fiery when it’s necessary,” Nicole admitted with a grin.

“And your horse?” Gus inquired.

Nicole laughed. “Well, that’s where the paradox comes in,” she replied humorously. “She wasn’t tiny, by any means. Just really… spirited. Took a lot of work to break her, without stripping her of her spirit.”

“I understand what you mean,” Gus identified. She’d trained a few difficult fillies in her day. “So… your grandmother didn’t mind that you named a horse after her?” she teased.

“Not in the least,” Nicole laughed. “And if you’d met my granny, you’d understand why.”

“She sounds like quite an interesting character,” Gus commented, as she contemplated both Nicole and her great-grandmother.

Nicole arched an eyebrow. “Who?” she inquired. “My granny… or my horse?”

“Both, actually,” Gus grinned, drawing a laugh from Nicole.

“You’d be correct on both accounts,” Nicole confirmed.

They spent several more minutes then, perusing the remainder of the photographs that adorned Nicole’s living room wall—the bulk of them displayed via a collage of forty candid shots in five individual frames that were so meticulously placed together that they actually looked like one giant piece. Gus watched Nicole, listened to her intently, as she introduced each family member, talking animatedly about their strengths and their beauty, both inside and out, and sharing the memory of when and where the photo was taken.

Even before she knew Nicole was from Dallas, Gus could tell she was a city girl—there were a lot of clues that led her to that conclusion. But she wasn’t what Gus would consider highfalutin. No, this girl was as salt-of-the-earth as they came—two things told her it was true: Nicole’s straightforwardness, especially when it came to Waverly, and the obvious love and affection she felt for her family. There were no pretenses with Nicole, and Gus liked that about her. She liked it a lot, and she hoped, at some point, to have an opportunity to tell her so.

“Dinner should be ready in about thirty minutes,” Nicole said, checking her watch as she settled on the sofa near Waverly a few minutes later, tucking one foot up beneath her. “I just have to throw the salad together, and get the garlic bread in the oven in a few.”

“Smells wonderful already,” Gus commented, taking a seat in one of the rockers adjacent to the sofa. “Thank you, again, for the invite. And thanks for the help at the bar last night, as well. Waverly said you came by afterwards to help clean up.”

“It’s my pleasure entirely, Gus,” Nicole said casually. “We just turned up the music and had some fun.”

Waverly smiled at the memory of Nicole the evening prior. Still dressed in her uniform when she arrived, Waverly’s breath caught in her chest when Nicole reached for the buttons on her long-sleeved shirt, slowly unbuttoning it to reveal the navy-blue tank top she wore underneath.

Fully aware of the effect she was having on Waverly, Nicole grinned. “What, you’re the only one allowed to take your shirt off around here?” she teased, as she meticulously folded her uniform shirt, draping it across the back of a barstool.

Blushing, Waverly stammered, “Yeah, well, uh, mine was covered in beer.”

“You want me to come behind the bar so you can drench me from the tap? Nicole offered playfully.

“No, that’ll be just fine,” Waverly said once she regained her composure. “We’re not hosting any wet t-shirt competitions tonight.”

“Cryin’ shame,” Nicole said, that suggestive grin playing across her lips. “You’re kinda sexy drenched in beer.”

Waverly felt her entire body flush, drawing a self-satisfied smirk from Nicole. And then the officer simply grabbed a broom, and got to work. The next thing Waverly knew, Nicole had her dancing and singing to the old country tunes that blasted from the jukebox while they worked, and by the time they were finished, they were laughing so hard her face actually hurt from all the smiling. Nicole always did that to her—and she wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.

“We actually had a lot of fun last night,” Waverly confessed to Gus, as she glanced toward Nicole with a conspiratorial grin.

“Yeah, we really did,” Nicole agreed.

"Well, I’m glad you girls could make somethin’ pleasant outta that spectacle,” Gus said, sounding suitably annoyed about the situation in general. “Those York boys are bit of a mess sometimes.”

“And how!” Waverly laughed.

A knock at the door announced the arrival of their final dinner companion, and Nicole hopped up from the sofa to answer it. Opening the door, she was met by Wynonna’s inquisitive stare. Carefully surveying Nicole’s U of T—Austin t-shirt, she quirked an eyebrow. “University of Texas?”

A proud grin hijacked Nicole’s lips, and that dimple came out to play. “Hook ‘em Horns,” she said with a vaunting tilt of her head.  

Wynonna just laughed. “Is cockiness just a cop thing in general?” she wondered aloud, as she stepped into the apartment.

“Don’t ask her if it’s in her genes?” Waverly called out from the sofa, recalling Nicole’s reply to a similar question from her early-on in their friendship.   

Nicole laughed in response, earning a confused look from Wynonna, as she closed the door behind them. She recalled that comment quite clearly. “Your sister’s just givin’ me shit,” she said. “Ignore her.”   

Wynonna arched an eyebrow. “Have you met her?” she asked rhetorically, as she slipped her boots off, tossing them onto the welcome mat nearby. When in Rome… “That’s kinda tough to do.”

“Can’t say as I disagree,” Nicole grinned.

As Wynonna made her way into the living room, she couldn’t help but notice both Waverly and Gus just staring at her. “What?” she grouched, shrugging as she made a face at her sister.

“You’re on time,” Waverly said, gawking at her like she’d sprouted three heads. And then she glanced at her watch. “Early, actually.”

“So?” Shrugging self-consciously, Wynonna frowned. “Turning over a new leaf, okay?” she challenged, with an exaggerated shake of her head. “Sheesh,” she sighed, dropping down into the other recliner. “Can’t a girl change a little without it causing an international incident?”

Waverly chuckled. “Yeah,” she said, sounding rather pleased. “She sure can.”

“Well, I’m glad you’re here, Wynonna,” Nicole said welcomingly. “Does this mean you’re stayin’ for movies too?”

Wynonna smiled, albeit almost shyly. “Yeah,” she nodded. “I think I just might.”

“Glad to hear it,” Nicole declared, smiling at the elder Earp.  

Waverly couldn’t believe her ears, but she couldn’t have been happier either. On the other side of the room, Gus was in total agreement as her appreciation for Nicole Haught increased tenfold. And as she settled in for the evening, for the first time in a very long while, Wynonna Earp not only felt comfortable somewhere, she felt totally welcome.

Friday, April 29, 2016… Nicole’s Apartment—7:30 p.m. Mountain Daylight Time

“So what kind of movie did you girls have planned for later?” Gus asked, making conversation, as they sat down to dinner half an hour later. Gus had opened the wine, and Waverly and Wynonna took charge of putting the salad together, while Nicole mixed up a batch of homemade Italian-vinaigrette dressing and tended to the garlic bread, making sure that it didn’t burn. Chattering as they went, they worked together like a well-oiled machine, and as they took their places at the dinner table, Nicole couldn’t help but smile as she realized that Purgatory was finally beginning to feel like home.

“Anything that doesn’t involve a war zone or gun violence is fine by me,” Nicole commented, doing her best to sound casual about it.

Her attempt put nothing past Waverly though. Leaning over, Waverly brushed a hand across Nicole’s. “It bothers you, the sound of gunfire?”

“It’s not that it really bothers me, per se,” Nicole said, skirting the edges. “If it did, I wouldn’t be able to do my job. It’s just that… once you’ve lived in a war zone, you’ve no desire to relive it. Least, not when it’s avoidable.”

Waverly nodded. “I can understand that,” she empathized, as she filled a salad plate, offering it to Nicole who was sitting right beside her. The conversation moved on, but Nicole’s comment resonated with Waverly, making her view some of her other interactions with Nicole in a new light—one shrouded in concern.   

“Most certainly,” Gus said, supportively.

“Thanks,” Nicole said, offering Waverly a sideways glance and a shy smile in response to the proffered plate of salad.

“You’re welcome,” Waverly smiled back. “Wynonna?” she said, offering her sister the salad bowl from across the table.  

“Waverly mentioned you served in Afghanistan,” Gus commented, as she reached for a piece of the garlic bread.

“You were in the service?” Wynonna chimed in, surprised by the revelation. She accepted the proffered bowl. Serving up salad for both her and Gus, she set the bowl between her and Waverly for easy access to both sides of the table.

A faint smile trickled across Nicole’s lips. “Yeah,” she confirmed. She didn’t know why, but it always felt a little strange, that first acknowledgment of her service—especially with someone she cared about. “United States Marine Corps.”

“How long did you serve?” Wynonna asked.

“Three years,” Nicole answered. “Eighteen months in Afghanistan.”

“I can’t even imagine what that must’ve been like,” Wynonna said, realizing that while Nicole, who was younger than her by at least a year, maybe even two, as far as she could figure, was literally living in a war zone, she had been traipsing around Europe, living like a… She didn’t even want to contemplate it. Just the mere memory of the shit she’d done was sobering enough. In that instant, her regard for Nicole Haught jumped about a thousand notches—as did her disdain for her own shitty choices. Suddenly, she felt a surprising urge to do, and be, something better.

Nodding, Nicole indicated that she understood. “I’m proud of the work we did there,” she said honestly, while purposely avoiding any mention of the horrors she had witnessed. No one needed to hear those things. Besides, she wasn’t supposed to talk about them anyway. “I just sometimes wish it could’ve been more, y’know?”

“Probably never seems enough in situations like that,” Gus presumed. “No matter how much you do.”

“Sounds about right,” Nicole granted with a solemn nod. And then she took a deep breath, exhaling slowly, as if to allow the weight of the topic to slide from her shoulders. “Anyway, back to movie choices,” she said, hoping it sounded like the smooth segue she’d envisioned, rather than the avoidance tactic that it actually was. “What do y’all prefer?”

Holding up both hands, Wynonna was the first to respond. “Just let me make it known that I hate musicals. All of them. Every. Single. Fucking. One. Including Grease.”

The responses she received ran the gamut. Nicole laughed heartily, saying, “Duly noted, Wynonna,” her tone teasing, while Gus scowled at her, resisting the urge to scold her for her language, and Waverly just rolled her eyes.   

“Well, I guess that leaves The Pirate Movie out,” Waverly pouted.

“The what?” Wynonna’s face contorted.

The Pirate Movie,” Nicole said, repeating the title. “Oh, my gosh, it’s an eighties cult classic. I can’t believe you’ve never heard of it.”

Shrugging, Waverly’s mouth tugged to one side. “Well, it’s musical comedy, so…”

“Yeah…” Nicole sighed, sounding disappointed. “Shame too. It’s a great movie.”

“Isn’t it, though?” Waverly readily agreed, her fingertips lightly brushing Nicole’s wrist. The gesture wasn’t lost on either Nicole or Gus, but Wynonna didn’t notice a thing. It was probably because her view was blocked by the centerpiece—or something like that. “It’s ridiculously corny.”

“Which is exactly why I love it,” Nicole volleyed. “This uh, Parrot King—does he have an earse?” she inquired, doing her best impression of the hapless Inspector Clouseau-esque character in the movie.

Grinning, Waverly responded, “A nurse? Yeah, uh, Ruth.”

“I don’t want to know its name!” Nicole exclaimed. “How fast does it run?”

“You wanna know how fast a nurse runs?” Waverly asked, a confused expression on her face.

“An earse, an earse! Nicole said insistently. “What do you think this is, a parrot?” she asked, gesturing toward what Waverly knew would’ve been a horse if it actually existed. And then the two of them burst into laughter, as Gus and Wynonna just sat there staring at them like they’d lost their damned minds.

“You know, there are two other people at this dinner table,” Wynonna said dryly.

Sobering from her laughter, Nicole felt her face flush hot. “My apologies,” she said sincerely, meeting Wynonna’s teasing blue gaze. “Is there anything in particular that you do like?”

“Anything with a lot of naked men,” Wynonna replied swiftly. “Preferably full frontal.”

“Wynonna!” Gus exclaimed.

“Al-righty, then,” Nicole said, eyes widening. That was definitely not something she cared to witness. “How about we stick to the non-pornographic tonight, huh?”

“Pity,” Wynonna sighed.  

Waverly grinned. “What’s the matter, Wyn, you strike out with Doc again?” she poked, referring to the exchange she’d witnessed the a few weeks ago at Shorty’s.  

“Wouldn’t you like to know,” Wynonna smirked, keeping her earlier, out of body, toe-curling encounter with Doc to herself. She was honest to god surprised she could even walk, let alone manage to get to Nicole’s of her own volition. Jesus, that man knew how to… Oh, she needed to stop this, and fast! She could feel the heat suffusing her body just thinking about it—and unfortunately, she was totally out of batteries.

“Wynonna, you’re not seriously tryin’ to…”

The expression on her niece’s face told Gus exactly what Wynonna was trying to do with that jackass gunslinger. She’d been pleasant with Doc at the Pin Drop the other night, but she was none too pleased to see Wynonna hanging on his every goddamned word. Giving up, she merely sighed. “Just be careful, would ya?”

“Always, Gus,” Wynonna assured. And then her eyes widened once she took a bite of her salad. “Holy shit, this dressing is fuckin’ fabulous!” she exclaimed. “Where’d you get it?”

After Gus tossed Wynonna a chastising glare, she and Waverly followed suit, tasting, and then declaring, “Best dressing I’ve ever tasted,” and “Oh, my god, it’s totally amaze-balls!” respectively.

Nicole chuckled at their impassioned responses. It was typical of her experience for first-time guests. “It’s my grandma’s recipe,” she reported.

“Seriously?” Wynonna questioned. “You made this?”

“Yes, seriously,” Nicole grinned.

“Well, fuck… I can’t wait to dig into this lasagna, then,” Wynonna declared with a dimpled grin.

Ah, yes! A table full of people she could feed. The Italian in Nicole was happy to the core. Next time, she thought, maybe she’d invite Doc and Dolls to join them, as well. After all, her dining room table seated six—and in her house, growing up, there was always room for one more.

Friday, April 29, 2016… Nicole’s Apartment—9:00 p.m. Mountain Daylight Time

“Y’know, we never did decide on a movie,” Nicole mentioned casually, as they all found their places in the living room again. They’d finished eating quite some time ago, everyone declaring Nicole’s lasagna to be the best they’d ever had, and then they lounged at the table, swapping stories and sharing laughs, getting to know one another more personally, as they finished off the bottle of Chianti that Gus brought, along with another that Nicole had on reserve.

Finally, deciding they were all too stuffed for dessert right away, they worked together to clear the table, despite Nicole’s instance that it wasn’t necessary, and within thirty minutes, the kitchen was spotless, and the dishwasher was humming. “Gee, I would’ve had you guys over for dinner every night, if I’d known my kitchen was gonna look this good afterward,” Nicole had teased, thanking them for their help. And everyone laughed, as they wandered toward the living room, assorted beverages in hand.   

“A movie? Hell, we never even decided on a genre,” Wynonna said dryly.

“Well, we know it’s not gonna be a musical,” Waverly grinned.

“Shut up,” Wynonna muttered, tossing a throw pillow at her sister. That was why they were called throw pillows, right?

“Rom Com?” Waverly suggested.

Wynonna feigned gagging, drawing a laugh from Nicole, who suggested, “Sci-Fi?” alternately.

“Yeah, I see enough weird shit at work every day,” Wynonna said flippantly. With that, she took a long draw from the bottle of beer she’d grabbed from the refrigerator at Nicole’s offering.

“True story,” Waverly sighed. “Foreign film or documentary?”

“That shit’s for you cerebral types,” Wynonna declared, winking at Waverly and Nicole as she set the beer bottle atop a coaster on the end table beside her.

Nicole laughed. Wynonna was far more educated and… cerebral than she let on, and Nicole knew it. “Drama?” she tossed out.

“None of that sappy crap, okay?” Wynonna groused.

“Geez, you are in a real frickin’ mood,” Waverly accused. “What happened? You were fine during dinner.”

“Wine makes me bitchy,” Wynonna shrugged.

“Thanks for the warning,” Nicole said dryly, drawing a laugh from the group.

“Yeah,” Waverly said, joining in, a cross expression on her face. “Next time you get a juice box.”

Wynonna made a face at her, and Nicole chuckled at the two of them. They really were sisters. “Well, we better decide on something, or Waverly’s gonna make us watch a cartoon,” she teased. “She threatened me with Tiny Toon Adventures at the Pin Drop the other night.”

Crossing her arms, Waverly scowled at her, and Nicole just snickered in response.

“Well, don’t look at me, girls,” Gus said, hands held up in surrender. “Only movie titles I know are in black and white.”

“Oh, stop it, Gus,” Wynonna said with a grin. “You’re not that damned old.”

“Tell that to my creaking bones,” Gus chuckled, sipping at her ritual after-dinner coffee, complete with the Baileys Nicole had slipped in there for her.  

“Ooh, I love the old movies we used to watch together,” Waverly declared. “Let’s find one of those.”

“I’m good with that, too,” Nicole agreed.

“As long as it’s not Old Yeller,” Wynonna said. “That shit fucked me up.”

“Wynonna—,” Gus sighed. That girl would surely be the death of her.

“What?” Wynonna challenged. “There are no children here.”

Old Yeller wasn’t black and white,” Waverly said, making a face at her.

“I know,” Wynonna smirked. “He was yeller.”

Highly amused, Nicole snorted. She was thankful she hadn’t taken a sip of her beer before Wynonna’s comment—she would’ve snorted it right out of her nose.   

As amused as Nicole appeared to be, Waverly was equally unamused. She just rolled her eyes. “I meant it wasn’t a black and white film.”

“Eh, you’re no fun,” Wynonna declared with the wave of a hand.  

“I am too fun,” Waverly argued. She glanced at Nicole for reinforcement. “Tell her how fun I am, Nicole.”

Grinning, Nicole raised her hands in protest. “Hey, don’t drag me into this.”

“Big help you are,” Waverly muttered, but the smile that danced in her green eyes as she glanced at Nicole gave her away.

“Okay, so we’re good on genre?” Nicole recapped. “Something… vintage?”

Gus laughed. “That’s a real polite way of sayin’ ancient, Darlin’,” she commented.

“Hey, as long as it’s got sound, and it won’t make me cry, I’m good with it,” Wynonna declared. “I hate having to read a movie.”

“You mean subtitles?” Waverly queried.

“Is it really a subtitle if it’s a silent movie?” Wynonna challenged.

Waverly’s expression turned contemplative for a moment, and then she grinned. “No,” she said with conviction, “because silent movies were exactly that—they were silent except for the live music played by pianists, or sometimes a small local orchestra. No spoken dialogue, only title cards.”

Wynonna just shook her head. “You really are a walking Google search,” she said in amazement.

“What?” Waverly chuckled.

“Never mind,” Wynonna said passively.

As they were chattering, Nicole was clicking through available titles, and finding that their options were lacking. “We’ve got a lot of classics here, but none of them are actually black and white,” she said.

“Just classic is fine,” Wynonna said.

“Oh, oh, oh!” Waverly exclaimed her hands flailing spasmodically as she bounced up and down on the sofa next to Nicole upon seeing a movie that caught her interest. “How about Houseboat?” 

Wynonna quirked an eyebrow. “Are you in some kinda pain?”

Waverly made a face at her.

“Ah... Cary Grant and Sophia Loren,” Gus said wistfully, ignoring her nieces and their bickering.

“Ooh, that’s a good one,” Nicole remarked.

“Now, Cinzia—,” Waverly said, doing her best impression of Cary Grant’s accent as she quoted a line from the movie. “You look as if you need a good scrubbing!”

Nicole burst out laughing. “That line is hilarious!”

“Isn’t it, though?” Waverly agreed. “The way he delivers it just cracks me up.”

“I think we have a winner,” Nicole declared when Wynonna didn’t raise any objections. And clicking the play button, they all settled in for the movie.

They were about halfway through the movie when out of nowhere, there was what could only be described as sounding like a stampede, followed by a loud swoosh, a skid, a swoop, and then a cacophonous plunk, and suddenly a remarkably large ball of multi-hued gray fluff with piercing blue eyes appeared on the arm of the sofa near Waverly’s head.

“Holy fuckin’ shit-balls!” Wynonna exclaimed, practically jumping out of her skin. Her eyes bugged out, and she pulled her feet up beneath her, trying to disappear into the cushions of her chair. “What in sweet hell is that?”

“Hi, Stormy,” Waverly cooed sweetly, as she lifted the cat onto her lap. They’d become pals the first time Waverly visited Nicole’s apartment a few weeks prior. “I wondered where you’d been hiding all evening.”

“She’s probably been curled up on my bed, napping,” Nicole said from experience.

Fleetingly, Stormy purred at the attention, rubbing her face contentedly against Waverly’s chin. But there were newcomers to investigate, and Stormy wasn’t content to linger for long, so Waverly’s hand gently stroked the soft dark gray fur along the cat’s back as she moved stealthily across her lap onto Nicole’s, making her way toward Wynonna, who was sitting in the recliner just to the left the sofa.

“Don’t be afraid, Wyn. She’s harmless,” Waverly assured.

“Jesus Christ, that thing is huge,” Wynonna stated in disbelief as the cat moved closer.

Nicole chuckled. “She’s a Maine Coon,” she reported, in a tone that said that should explain everything.

“Is that Texan for mammoth beast?” Wynonna asked, glaring at the cat, who was glaring right back at her with equal challenge. Unbeknownst to Wynonna, she had chosen to sit in Stormy’s favorite chair, thus making her all the more intriguing.

“Not exactly,” Nicole laughed. “But Maine Coons are known for being the largest breed of domestic cat.”

Startled by the cat’s swift movement when she sprang from the arm of the sofa over to the arm of the chair, Wynonna reflexively jumped in her seat. “Might as well get a fuckin’ lion,” she muttered, as Stormy edged across the arm of the chair onto her lap.

Watching the cat’s every move, Wynonna had to admit she really was a strikingly beautiful animal, with her shiny coat of long, dark gray fur, and the tufts of lighter gray that edged the angled contours of her face, making her look like a scale-model of a lion. Nudging around, she sniffed Wynonna’s jacket that was draped over the chair, then at her shirt, and finally, she sniffed and nipped at Wynonna’s hair, the tip of her fluffy tail quivering happily.

“Stormy, stop,” Nicole said insistently.

The huge ball of gray fluff turned her head toward Nicole, vocalizing an insistent “Meow!” And then she turned back toward Wynonna, where she head-butted her, then nuzzled against her jaw, swiping her sandpapery tongue across Wynonna’s chin several times before turning, and shaking her tail once again.

At that point, all eyes were on Wynonna and Stormy, so Nicole grabbed the remote and paused the movie so they wouldn’t miss anything.

“Aww… Looks like you made a friend, Wyn,” Waverly said. “I think she’s flirting with you,” she teased.

Her expression still a bit wary, Wynonna flashed a nervous, dimpled grin. “Just what I always wanted—a pussy in my lap, flirting with me,” she quipped.

“I’m certain it’s not the first time,” Waverly teased.

Wynonna cocked an eyebrow. “Wouldn’t you like to know,” she said suggestively.

Gus’s eyes widened, but she said nothing. Instead, she shifted in her hair, and set about the work of rearranging her mop of silvery curls.

“I certainly would,” Nicole chimed in, grinning roguishly. 

Glancing toward Nicole, Waverly’s face contorted sharply. “You’d sit in her lap and flirt with her?” She couldn’t quite identify what she was feeling, but if she had to venture to guess, she’d probably say it was a tinge of jealousy.

Jealousy? Fuck my life… I am in so much trouble.

“What?!” Nicole gasped. “Jesus, no!”

“Gee, thanks,” Wynonna commented on a wry tone.

“I meant I’d like to hear her stories,” Nicole quickly clarified to Waverly. And then she glanced at Wynonna, saying, “No offense.” You’re hot ‘n all. I mean, Jesus Christ! But… my affections lie elsewhere.

That thought drew her attention back to Waverly, who was still looking at her with a rather dubious expression; and realizing she’d put herself in the hot-seat, Nicole scrabbled for an out. “Want me to put her in the other room?” she offered, hoping to remove the originating source of a conversation that had gone south far too quickly.

“Nah, I’m good,” Wynonna said, trying to convince herself that it was true. “Thanks, though.”

“If she gets to be too much, just put her on the floor,” Nicole said. “She’s resilient. She’ll come curl up over here.”

Leaning back on her haunches, Stormy eyed Wynonna’s necklace with that innate feline curiosity. Tilting her head from side to side, the tip of her tail twitched now, as she considered the intriguing little toys that were attached, before tentatively reaching out a paw, batting at the tassel. It jiggled and bounced, startling the cat, causing her to jump, and everyone else to laugh. Undeterred, Stormy leaned in close, first sniffing the tassel and then biting at it. And then she sat upright again, batting at it several times, with increased determination.

Despite herself, Wynonna chortled, relaxing into the experience as the cat entertained herself, and all of them, for several minutes. And then suddenly, Stormy stopped. Seemingly bored with the entire process, she shook her tail with a manner of importance. Meticulously then, she kneaded her paws into Wynonna’s thighs, her purrs growing increasingly louder as she tested the terrain. And after another minute, maybe two, she turned in a circle three times, as if slowly chasing her tail, and finally, she plunked down in the middle of Wynonna’s lap, mewling softly, as she tucked her head beneath her front paw.

“I have never seen her act like this with someone new,” Nicole said, sounding astonished. “I mean, she took to Waves pretty easily, but…”

“She definitely didn’t curl up in my lap,” Waverly interjected, recalling how Stormy had tentatively checked her out the first time they met, and then slowly come to bond with her over time, as she dropped by Nicole’s here and there. “Not the first time I was here, anyway.”

“She doesn’t even lie around on my sisters like that,” Nicole said.

“Just call me the Cat Whisperer,” Wynonna said amusingly, drawing laughter from the group.

“Anyone up for dessert yet, since we’re paused for a minute?” Waverly asked.

There were nods of agreement all around, and Waverly and Nicole simultaneously got up from the sofa, heading toward the kitchen.

“You girls need any help?” Gus called from her recliner.

“Nah, we’ve got this,” Waverly answered. “Thanks, though.”

“Seems like you’re havin’ a nice time tonight,” Gus casually commented to Wynonna once they were alone.

“Yeah,” Wynonna admitted. “I like Nicole a lot. She seems really… steady. I think she’s good for Waves.”

“I agree,” Gus nodded. “I think she’s good for you, as well.”

“Me?” Wynonna looked dubious. “I barely know her.”

“You work with her at Black Badge, don’t you?” Gus questioned, raking her fingers through her silvery curls. Despite her conversation with Wynonna, Gus was expertly keeping tabs on the goings-on with Waverly and Nicole in the kitchen. She didn’t like the expression she was seeing on Waverly’s face. The girl looked as though she might burst into tears at any given moment, and Gus had no idea where that had come from—she’d seemed fine just moments ago. She was careful though, not to let Wynonna see any of her concern reflected in the worry lines on her face. Instead, she decided to trust Nicole to handle it, and returned the bulk of her attention to Wynonna. This was an opportunity she didn’t want to waste.   

“Well, if by ‘work with,’ you mean I either ignore her questions, give her evasive answers, or flat-out lie to her about what’s happening with our cases, then sure, I work with her,” Wynonna said drolly.

“My point is, you spend time around her, right?” Gus countered, ignoring her niece’s obvious avoidance tactics.

“Yeah,” Wynonna shrugged. “Sometimes.”

“I think most of the changes I’ve been noticin’ in you, come from you beginnin’ to find your place, your purpose, in life,” Gus commented. “But whether you realize it or not, I think that steadiness you see in Nicole—and more importantly, the fact that she sees you without the stigma of your past—is also havin’ an effect on you. You’ve always worked so hard at avoidin’ attachments to other people, and I understand that, given all you’ve been through. But you’re drawn to her, just like Waverly is. That’s why you showed up on Monday, when I know it was the last place you wanted to be. And that’s why you’re still here tonight.”

Wynonna just gave her a look that said she highly doubted any of that. It might be true of Waverly, but not her. No way.  

As if Gus was reading her mind, she queried, “When’s the last time you’ve been still this long?”

“It’s only been, like… an hour, Gus,” Wynonna said, attempting to diminish Gus’s point.

“That’s not what I meant, and you know it,” Gus said, her tone firm, yet affectionate.

“Yeah, I know,” Wynonna sighed, looking a little skittish as she realized she was out of avoidance maneuvers, and she wasn’t drunk enough to pull something stupid get out of there and have the alcohol to blame later on. Hell, it was after ten on a Friday night, and she wasn’t drunk at all! What the fuck was her life coming to?

“I’m glad you stayed, Wy,” Gus said gently, the affection she felt for her elder niece evident in those dark brown eyes.

Wynonna responded with that nervous, dimpled smile. Instinctively, she understood that her aunt was talking about more than just tonight. “Me too, Gus,” she quietly agreed, her hand slowly stroking the soft fur along Stormy’s side, as she inwardly acknowledged that staying this evening—and staying in Purgatory—were two of the best decisions she’d ever made.  

“Hey, Nicole?” Waverly whispered, lightly tugging at the back of Nicole’s t-shirt once they were alone in the kitchen.

Delivered on a shaking breath, Waverly’s summons stopped Nicole in her tracks. She turned to her, a serious expression forming on her face. “What’s wrong?” She knew something was up—she could hear it in Waverly’s tone.

“Nothing’s wrong, really,” Waverly assured. “It’s just…” She paused, and Nicole could practically hear the wheels turning in her head, as she searched for the right words. And then Waverly glanced up, meeting her eyes. “May I ask you something?”

Nicole reached out, brushing the backs of her fingers lightly along Waverly’s cheek. “You can ask me anything, Waves,” she said. “I hope you know that.”

The sincerity in those soft russet eyes made Waverly want to cry. “I do,” she acknowledged. “It’s just that… well, what you said earlier about not wanting to relive being in a war zone, and… we were talking and laughing before that about Doc, and his reactions to all the crazy lights and sounds the other night at the Pin Drop, and how he looked like he was afraid something was gonna blow up, and it got me to thinking… And I… I should’ve realized, Nicole. I should’ve…”

Her voice suddenly quavering, Waverly actually looked as though she was about to cry.

“Whoa, wait right there, okay?” Nicole said calmly, as she reached toward Waverly. Gently grasping her biceps, she held Waverly’s gaze. “Have you been thinkin’ about this all evening?”

Chewing the inside of her cheek, Waverly nodded sheepishly. And then she shrugged. “I was worried.”

A soft smile played across Nicole’s face, as her eyes filled with tender affection. “Why didn’t you say somethin' earlier?”

Waverly shrugged again. “I didn’t wanna ask about something so personal when we weren’t alone,” she explained.

Nicole’s heart swelled with emotions she couldn’t even identify, and she gently touched Waverly’s cheek again. “I’m all right, Waves. I promise,” she said softly. “Every once in a great while, somethin’ will happen, and I’ll have a momentary flashback to that time,” she admitted. “But I don’t struggle with PTSD like some of the guys in my unit. I’m one of the lucky ones, and I know that.”


“Promise,” Nicole said reassuringly. “Yeah, for the most part, I avoid unnecessary exposure to things that could trigger a flashback, but… I’m not gonna stop livin’ my life over it. What I did over there, it was part of a quest for freedom—not necessarily my own, of course, but for others. What kind of twisted irony would that be if I gave up my own as a result?”

Waverly cracked a smile. “You make a valid point, Officer Haught,” she granted.

“Thanks,” Nicole grinned proudly.

“So we can do Cosmic Bowling again sometime?” Grinning, Waverly bounced up and down excitedly.

Nicole laughed, gathering her into a playful hug. “We can go every week, if ya want,” she declared.

“Hey, guys! Cosmic Bowling on Monday,” Waverly called out from the kitchen, drawing the attention of both Wynonna and Gus.

“Sounds like a plan,” Gus called back, relieved to see Waverly looking none the worse for wear—and more importantly, wrapped securely in Nicole’s arms, and smiling. She really liked that woman.

Wynonna’s response was a roll of the eyes that only Gus saw, followed quickly by a thumbs-up over the back of the chair, directed toward the kitchen; which told Gus she was more interested than she wanted anyone to know. She grinned at that, and settled back into her seat, waiting for dessert to arrive.

“We okay now?” Nicole asked sweetly, her eyes on Waverly’s once again.

“Totally,” Waverly nodded. And then she scrunched up her nose, looking a bit guilty. “Sorry I kinda freaked out on you.”

“No worries,” Nicole said casually. “Means a lot that you care enough to worry ‘bout somethin’ like this.”

Waverly’s eyes sparkled as she smiled up at Nicole, her arms still wrapped securely around Nicole’s waist. “Course I care,” she quietly declared. “You’re one of my top three, remember?”

Nicole’s breath caught, and once again, she had to fight the urge to kiss Waverly Earp completely senseless. Instead, that affectionate smile skipped across her lips. “That I do,” she said softly. And then she took a deep breath, exhaling slowly. “Now… how ‘bout we break out that cheesecake, and slice it up?”

Waverly’s smile widened. “You read my mind.”

Friday, April 29, 2016… Nicole’s Apartment—11:45 p.m. Mountain Daylight Time

“Oh, lordy!” Gus yawned, stretching languidly in her seat as the credits rolled more than an hour later. “Great movie, but it sure was longer ‘n I remembered.”

“I think it just seemed that way because we stopped in the middle for cheesecake,” Waverly commented.

“Amazing cheesecake,” Nicole declared. “And I can’t believe you made that topping yourself. So much better than that canned crap.”

Waverly grinned. “You’re not the only one around here with culinary skills,” she teased. “Besides, it’s not that difficult.”

“Then why am I eating frozen dinners every night?” Wynonna whined.

Waverly shot her a look. “I’ve offered you a suggestion as how to remedy that.”

“And I told you, I don’t do chicks,” Wynonna volleyed.

“I was talking about the crockpot, Wyn,” Waverly reminded.

“Oh. That,” Wynonna mumbled out of the corner of her mouth.

Gus and Nicole chuckled at the two of them. “Crockpot recipes are a breeze, Wynonna,” Gus remarked, as she slowly unfurled herself from the chair. “I’m sure Waverly has a stash of mine somewhere.”

Glancing at Waverly, she found her nodding in confirmation. “Dozens of ‘em.”

“Yeah, yeah, alright, I’ll look into it,” Wynonna said passively, as she contemplated how to get up without disturbing the cat that still snoozed on her lap. She’d honestly been surprised by how soothing it was to just absently pet her as they watched the movie, and she hated to disturb the peaceful creature.

“Well, girls, let’s get these dessert dishes cleaned up so I can hit the road,” Gus suggested. “I’ve got ‘n early day tomorrow. Lord knows what kinda mess I might find with both of us out tonight,” she commented, glancing toward Waverly.

“No doubt,” Waverly concurred. Besides Waverly and Gus, Shorty had been the only one who knew how to do a proper close. That’s why she made a habit of coming in a little early on mornings after someone else handled the closing shift. “You need me to come in early?”

“No, Honey, I’ve got it,” Gus answered. “You sleep in. I really need you to close tomorrow night since I’ll need the time to prep for the barbeque on Sunday.”

“No problem,” Waverly readily agreed.

“We’re having a barbeque on Sunday?” Wynonna queried, sounding surprised.

“I told you about it Monday night,” Waverly reminded.

“Yeah, I don’t remember. Guess I was already drunk,” Wynonna commented, sounding properly chagrined.

Waverly rolled her eyes. “I could see how a bottle of tequila would do that to ya.”

“Hey, I didn’t drink the whole bottle,” Wynonna denied. “Doc helped.”

“I suppose we should be grateful for that,” Gus commented, sounding displeased, as she began gathering their dessert forks and plates.

“Oh, don’t worry ‘bout those, Gus,” Nicole said. “I’ll get ‘em into the dishwasher after I empty it in the morning.”

“You sure?” Gus questioned. “I don’t mind hand-washin’ ‘em.”

“Totally unnecessary, I promise,” Nicole assured. “I would like to send some leftover lasagna home with you though; if you’d like it,” she offered. “Trust me, there’s plenty.” She’d made an extra-large pan to ensure it, just like her grandma taught her.

“I’d love that,” Gus said with a grin. “Thank you.”

Nodding, Nicole glanced toward Wynonna. “And you as well, Wynonna,” she said.

“Oh, you don’t have to ask me twice,” Wynonna swiftly accepted.

Chuckling, Nicole peeled herself from the sofa, and headed toward the kitchen to fix up the to-go containers. Gus followed closely behind her, a stack of dessert plates and forks, in hand.  

“Waverly, can you?” Wynonna motioned toward the slumbering feline with an expression that conveyed annoyance; but Waverly saw beneath it.

“You don’t wanna stay for another movie?” Waverly asked.

“I can’t. Dolls wants me in early,” Wynonna said, rolling her eyes.

“On a Saturday?” Waverly sounded incensed.

“Yep,” Wynonna said, popping the ‘p’. “He says I owe him for Monday night.”

“Figures,” Waverly said, sounding amused.

“Well, he did spend his whole Saturday helping us last weekend,” Wynonna grudgingly acknowledged.

“True,” Waverly agreed. “And you did let him shock himself on live wires in the process.

Wynonna made a face at her. And then she rolled her eyes and sighed. “Guess I shouldn’t call him a douche for makin’ me work tomorrow, huh?”

“Probably not,” Waverly agreed. She wanted to tell Wynonna that he’d had a good time with them on Monday night, but she’d promised to keep his secret. Reneging on her word would make her secret fair game—not that she really thought he would tell, but she wasn’t prepared to take that chance. 

Groaning, Wynonna shifted in the chair, gesturing toward the cat again. “Help a girl out here?”

“She’s super sweet, isn’t she?” Waverly said, more statement than question, as she scooped the snoozing feline from her sister’s lap. She’d watched the shifting expressions on Wynonna’s face throughout the movie, and the change toward the positive was directly proportional to the increased attention she was giving to Stormy.  

Shrugging noncommittally, Wynonna said, “Yeah, I guess—if you’re into that sorta thing.”

Disgruntled over having been unceremoniously plucked from her cozy spot, Stormy let out a sharp protesting “Meow!!” And then she leapt from Waverly’s arms onto the back of the sofa, and in a mad dash, disappeared down the hallway toward Nicole’s bedroom.

Wynonna gave a sideways glance as she lowered the footrest and climbed out of the chair. And then that mischievous grin percolated on her lips. “Guess we pissed her off.”

“Yeah, well, you’re kinda cranky too when I drag you from a warm bed,” Waverly reminded.

“Touché,” Wynonna conceded.

“Anyway, thank you again for the invite, Nicole,” Gus was saying as they returned from the kitchen, a plastic bag filled with to-go containers in hand. “Dinner was wonderful, and it was nice spendin’ the time with you girls.”

“Anytime, Gus,” Nicole said sweetly. “Here, let me hold that bag for you,” she offered, as Gus stopped at the doorway to pull her boots on.

“Guess that’s my cue,” Wynonna commented, stuffing her hands into her pocket, and tilting her head toward the door.

“Oh! You’re leaving too?” Nicole sounded a bit disappointed.

“Dolls pulled rank,” Wynonna sighed, rolling her eyes. Grabbing her left boot, she balanced on her right foot, pulling it on. Then she switched, pulling the left one on. “I have to work in the morning.”

“Shame,” Nicole lamented. “Well, let me grab the bag of leftovers I fixed up for you and Waverly.”

“That’s okay, I’ll grab it when I leave,” Waverly said.

“You afraid I’ll eat it all before you get home?” Wynonna teased.

“More afraid that you’ll leave it in the truck, and it’ll spoil,” Waverly countered. “It’s way too good to waste.”

“Good point,” Wynonna granted, at the same moment Nicole thanked Waverly for the compliment.

“You’re welcome,” Waverly said to Nicole, and then she glanced at Wynonna, tossing a teasing, “And yes, I know,” in her direction.

Waverly and Nicole each hugged Gus goodbye, in turn, as she headed out the door. They said a few words about the coming barbeque, and then Gus stepped into the hallway to wait for Wynonna.

“Yeah, I don’t do hugs, but thanks again for dinner, Dude,” Wynonna said casually, as she offered a fist-bump in its place.

Grinning, Nicole returned Wynonna’s preferred bonding gesture. “You’re welcome, Dude. Anytime.”

“Cool,” Wynonna said. “Think you could ride out to the homestead ‘n make us pancakes for breakfast in the morning?” she teased. “Dolls says I’m not gettin' any doughnuts.”

“I’ll consider it,” Nicole played along.

Wynonna gave a halfhearted thumbs-up then, surprised at the disappointment she felt at having to go. “Later, Dudes,” she said, turning to walk out the door.

“Be careful driving home,” Nicole said.

“Both of you,” Waverly added.

“You do the same when you head out, Honey,” Gus called back as she and Wynonna headed down the hallway toward the staircase. Nicole’s apartment was on the second floor of a small apartment building just a few blocks from the Sheriff’s Department, making it an easy walk to work, which was what she was inclined to do most days. Plus, it was convenient for her on days where she was called in at the last minute.  

“Will do, Gus,” Waverly called back. “G’night.”

And with that, Nicole closed the door. Turning toward Waverly, she fell directly into her gaze, a faint smile playing across her lips. “You up for another movie?” The last thing she wanted was for Waverly to go.

“You don’t have to work early tomorrow, do you?” Waverly inquired, concerned.

“Huh-uh,” Nicole answered, slowly shaking her head. “I’ve got the five to one-thirty shift again.”

Waverly smiled. “Then I’m definitely up for another movie.”

The Pirate Movie?” they asked in unison, laughing when they realized how perfectly in sync they were.

“Popcorn?” Nicole offered.

“Of course,” Waverly swiftly agreed. And then she followed Nicole into the kitchen, where they popped open a couple of root beers, and Nicole introduced her to the wonders of the WhirleyPop™ popcorn maker.

Saturday, April 30, 2016… Nicole’s Apartment—12:30 a.m. Mountain Daylight Time

“Omigosh, where did you find that popcorn maker?” Waverly asked, dropping a few more popped kernels into her mouth.

“Way better than that heavy, overly salted microwave crap, isn’t it?” Nicole declared.

“It’s amazing!” Waverly praised. At first, she’d been amused by the odd looking contraption Nicole pulled from the cabinet beneath her kitchen counter. It looked like a cross between an old battered stewing pot and an old-fashioned butter churn with a crank handle. And then she’d been intrigued, when Nicole added just a small amount of oil, a scoop of popcorn kernels, and just a touch of salt, set it on the burner, and started turning the handle. Four minutes later, they had a huge bowl of perfectly seasoned, light, fluffy popcorn that practically melted in their mouths.

“Wait ‘til the winter when it’s cold enough for a fire,” Nicole said, glancing toward the fireplace. “I have one of their open-flame poppers too, and the popcorn is even better.”

“Why wait ‘til winter?” Waverly countered. “Bring it on Sunday. We always do a bonfire after a barbeque.”

“Even better,” Nicole grinned, clicking the ‘Play’ button on the remote.

With Nicole against the arm of the sofa, Waverly turned just slightly, the weight of her body leaning into Nicole’s side, and the popcorn bowl in her lap, as they settled in for the movie.

“This okay?” she asked, making sure Nicole was comfortable, physically and otherwise.

“It’s perfect,” Nicole assured, willing her body to relax. They hadn’t finished their earlier conversation, and in all honesty, she didn’t expect that they would. Not tonight, anyway. But at least she’d had a chance to apologize for being inappropriate the other night. And though she had to admit it was difficult, especially with Waverly pressed against her like this, she purposed to not repeat the mistake. She’d survived the first movie with Waverly in much the same position, so she reckoned she would survive this one unscathed, as well.

“Can you reach the bowl okay?” she asked, startling Nicole from her thoughts.


“The popcorn… Can you reach it?” Waverly repeated.

“Yeah, I’m good, thanks,” Nicole answered absently, as the familiar Twentieth Century Fox searchlight animation with its triumphant fanfare rolled. Fleetingly, she considered the lack of forethought in the naming of the production company, given that they were now living in the twenty-first century. And then, internally, she laughed at herself, realizing what a ridiculous thing that was to be thinking about while she was sitting there with Waverly by her side. And she turned her focus to the movie, as the giant mast and sails of the pirate ship came into view and the opening score began to play.    

Friday, May 27, 2016…  Shorty’s Saloon—3:15 p.m. Mountain Daylight Time

Dropping a thick cardboard coaster onto the smooth oak surface of the bar, Waverly set a mug of light draft been on top. “Bring you anything else?” she asked with that winsome smile. The dark-haired woman looked vaguely familiar to her, but she couldn’t quite seem to place her.

“No, thank you,” the woman answered kindly, obsidian eyes smiling. She spoke with an accent that Waverly couldn’t quite place; though she knew that she’d heard it before—and recently. “I’m waiting for my wife. We’re gonna grab an early dinner when she gets here.”

If Waverly was surprised by the mention of a wife, her face didn’t show it. But it certainly wasn’t the norm—at least not in Purgatory. In the Big City, yes; but not in Purgatory. The woman’s openness, mixed with a sense of nonchalance, almost, as she acknowledged the relationship, made her smile just a little bit inside. “All right, well, just let me know when you’re ready for some menus, or if you need anything else before she arrives,” she said with a nod.  

“Thank you,” the woman said, smiling again at Waverly. She lifted her beer along with the cardboard coaster, and wended her way through the tables toward the back of the bar where she took a seat at one of the tables out of the line of traffic—if anyone could claim there was traffic at Shorty’s this early on a Friday afternoon.

Leaning back against one of the large coolers that were stashed beneath the bar, Waverly allowed her mind to drift, and once again it returned to Nicole. This time, she recalled her surprise at waking up in Nicole’s apartment the morning after their dinner and movie night. They’d fallen asleep near the end of the second movie, and when Waverly awoke, the sunrise was peering in through the slats of the vertical blinds that covered the sliding glass door leading out to Nicole’s balcony, and somehow, they were tangled up on the sofa, Stormy curled up right beside them.

The oversized pillows that once cushioned the back of the sofa were now strewn across the floor, and with her back pressed against the black leather frame, Waverly found herself wedged snugly between it and the side of Nicole’s body, with her right leg draped over Nicole’s right thigh—and she had to say, she didn’t mind it at all. Nicole’s left elbow was bent, and pressing against the sofa back, creating the perfect space for Waverly’s shoulder as her head lay between Nicole’s shoulder and upper chest. And that was exactly how she’d awoken, with the warmth of Nicole’s breath flowing across her forehead, lightly teasing the loose wisps of hair at her temple as she quietly snored.

Anytime she was close to this woman, she felt such a sense of complete and utter peace, she couldn’t even come close to finding words to describe it. So why was she so damned afraid of it? The question seemed to echo throughout both her days and nights. Deep down inside, she knew the answer. She just wasn’t ready to admit it—not to herself, or to anyone else. And she was beginning to wonder if she would ever find the courage to speak her fears aloud. But for now, she was content to just live in the moment. A moment where Nicole was lying beside her, sleeping peacefully, and Waverly could just breathe her in without fear of being discovered, or worry that Nicole, with her tender heart and strong moral compass, would be hurt again in the process. She’d hurt her far too much already. And yet, she couldn’t bear to keep her distance.

After their aborted talk earlier that afternoon, Waverly realized just how selfish she had been the other night at the Pin Drop. She’d flirted with Nicole unabashedly, led her on even, knowing full-well that Nicole would never let anything happen between them while she was still technically with Champ—no matter how much either of them had wanted it.     

She needed to end things with Champ once and for all. She knew that. Hell, she’d known it long before she ever caught him in her apartment with Wynonna. His little attempt at a dalliance with her sister certainly hadn’t been the first—and it definitely wouldn’t be the last. She’d cooled things with him significantly since then, making excuses as to why she couldn’t see him, and not even bothering with excuses when she refused him sex—that was just because he was a two-timing dick! So why hadn’t she just cut the ties completely? Why hang on to what she knew she’d never really even wanted?

Nicole shifted beneath her, and though she didn’t waken, it was enough to pull Waverly from her ponderings. Gently, she brushed her fingertips against Nicole’s cheek, as she slowly searched the plains and angles of that beautiful face. “Wait for me,” she whispered softly, finding a sense of brazenness she wouldn’t dare express if Nicole were awake. "Please? You’ve been so patient with me, but please, just wait for me…”

And then, resisting the urge to brush her lips against Nicole’s, she laid her head against Nicole again, and closed her eyes, listening to the sure, steady beat of Nicole’s heart, her hand pressed firmly against the center of Nicole’s chest. And once again, she was confronted with the answer she didn’t want to face. What she did want was to wake Nicole with sweet, playful kisses, and to fall asleep in her arms every single night. She knew that without a single doubt. But in order to have that, she had to figure out how to get past the fear that had first sunk its sharp, steely claws into her soul her when she was only four years old.  


TBC in Chapter 7—Whispers and Wildfire…

Chapter Text

The Ten Times Waverly Earp was Definitely NOT on a Date with Nicole Haught


“‘Just friends,’ huh?

Well, ‘just friends’ don’t steal secret glances at each other.

‘Just friends’ don’t get jealous when the other one talks about someone else.

‘Just friends’ don’t get butterflies from each other.

‘Just friends don’t hold each other like that.

‘Just friends?’

Yeah, right.”

 — imjust-a-girl.tumblr



Chapter 7 – Whispers and Wildfire:


Friday, May 27, 2016…  Ghost River County Municipal Offices—3:30 p.m. Mountain Daylight Time

Maybe just friends, Nicole thought, sighing internally as she flashed back to the argument with Waverly that morning. She could hear Waverly’s voice, and despite the timid, almost regretful tone, the sting of those words still burned her, heart and soul.

Maybe just friends? Was she fucking serious? How could she even say those words with a straight face? Nicole silently ranted. After everything we’ve shared.

Waverly Earp was a smart woman, and she knew this thing between them went far deeper than just friendship. If ever Nicole had doubted that beforehand, she’d certainly been left with no doubts after that day spent with her at Gus’s. Lord, have mercy, she thought; nearly laughing at the absurdities as she recalled all that had transpired that day—or rather that evening, in particular. And in that moment, she swore, not for the first time, that Waverly Earp—intelligent, awkward, charming, amusing, beautiful, exasperating Waverly Earp—would most certainly be the death of her.


Sunday, May 1, 2016… Gus’s House—9:30 a.m. Mountain Daylight Time

Glancing out through oak-paned windows of the French doors in Gus’s kitchen overlooking the back porch and beyond, Nicole watched Waverly out in the paddock with the horses. Dressed in a pair of those familiar dark denim jeans, still high-waisted, but just a bit looser than normal, and a lightweight burgundy sweater that brought a touch of color to her cheeks, those well-worn cowboy boots, and a sleek, short-waisted brown suede-leather jacket, her long, thick honey-colored locks falling in loose waves around her face, she was the picture of beauty and elegance as she finished brushing Wildfire out in preparation for saddling her up.

Gently, she tousled that thick chestnut forelock at the top of Wildfire’s head, and then smoothed a hand along the length of her face, over the patch of white hair on the horse’s forehead, between those huge, expressive brown eyes. Nicole could tell by the attentiveness of the horse’s ears, and the movement of Waverly’s head and shoulders, that Waverly was talking animatedly to her as she rubbed the patch with affection. She couldn’t help but wonder what Waverly was saying; though she knew that whatever the content, the sound of her voice was a harmonious medley of sexy and sweet.

Taking a sip from the mug of coffee she held in her right hand, Nicole smiled softly to herself as she remembered Waverly telling her all about Wildfire—a gift from Gus and Uncle Curtis for her thirteenth birthday. It was during that first night at Shorty’s—the one where Waverly had offered her coffee and conversation, and they’d ended up talking all night long—that they discovered their mutual love of horses.

She’d teased her about naming her horse after a cheesy 70s song, only to be quickly put in her place when Waverly announced that the name actually came from the George Eliot classic, Silas Marner—a book, Nicole learned, Waverly had read a full three grade-levels ahead of her peers. To say she’d been impressed would’ve amounted to far more than a simple understatement. But in the moment, Nicole remembered her amusement at the fierceness in Waverly’s expression as she rightfully put Nicole in her place.

Nicole had laughed even harder at the fieriness in Waverly’s eyes, as they turned darker—from that usual soft green to an almost coppery color, with tiny flecks of green and gold—when that fire was ignited inside her. The harder Nicole laughed, the hotter that fire burned, until finally, Waverly was laughing too. As she looked back on it now, she realized that in that moment, Waverly Earp had stolen the first little piece of her heart. And now, she practically owned the whole damned thing.

It was on the heels of that memory that Gus’s voice drew her back to the present.

“She’s a handful, Nicole,” Gus warned, as she cubed fresh chicken breast and steak to be marinated for a few hours, and then skewered for the grill. Having prepped the desserts, potato salad, and fusilli last night, she had the grill heating for the corn, zucchini, and onions to be used in the grilled vegetable pasta salad, and the ingredients for baked beans sat at the far edge of the center island, awaiting her attention, as well.

Turning her attention back to Gus, an auburn eyebrow lifted, as she moved back toward the countertop where Gus was working. “Who?” Nicole questioned with a grin. “Waverly… or Wildfire?”

Gus chuckled, recalling their previous conversation about fiery women and horses, as she dropped the last of the chicken into the marinade, ensuring the pieces were all fully covered. “Both, actually,” she said, scrubbing her hands under the running faucet with soap and water.

Nicole laughed, as she set her coffee mug on the counter. “Thanks for the coffee, Gus. And for the warning. I’ll definitely take it under advisement,” she grinned, heading back toward the French doors.


The way Gus said her name, it was more like summons, and Nicole turned toward her, expectantly. “Yes, ma’am?”

Wiping her hands on a charcoal colored kitchen towel, Gus rounded the edge of the center island where she worked, nearing Nicole. “I don’t need to ask ‘bout your intentions where Waverly is concerned,” she said forthrightly. “Truth is written all over your face any time you look at her.”

A faint smile flickered across Nicole’s lips, and her cheeks flushed slightly. “It’s that obvious?”

“Only to those payin’ attention,” Gus assured with a grin.  

Nicole nodded, but the expression on her face told Gus that something was amiss.

“What’s troublin’ ya?” Gus queried.

Turning to look out the door again, Nicole shoved her hands into the front pockets of her faded black jeans. Her gaze fell immediately to Waverly, as it always seemed to do. “In all honesty, Gus, I think this conversation is a bit premature,” she declared.

“What makes you say that?” Gus inquired. She crossed her arms, leaning a shoulder against the doorframe, as she studied the young officer with keen interest.

“My intentions don’t really matter all that much at this point, because Waverly is still involved with Champ,” Nicole pointed out, placing the emphasis on the owner of said intentions.

“Ah…” Gus sighed. Unfurling her arms, she planted her hands on her hips. Her expression turned contemplative. “Well, I wouldn’t be spendin’ too much time worryin’ yourself ‘bout that.”

“Why not?” Nicole sounded unconvinced.  

“Because I don’t imagine that’ll be the case for too much longer,” Gus presumed.

That caught Nicole’s attention, and she turned to look at her, eyebrows lifted. “Yeah? What makes you think that?”

Gus shrugged. “Champ wasn’t at our family bowlin’ night last week, and… he’s not here today,” she pointed out. “But you are, at her invitation. I’d say that’s mighty tellin’.”

“She didn’t invite him?”

“Not to either event,” Gus answered with a shake of her head.

“Guess that is kinda tellin’,” Nicole agreed. Tamping down the surge of excitement that rushed through her at the mere thought of it, she forced herself to remember that it was merely an observation, not a guarantee of anything.

“Does she know how you feel, Nicole?” Gus asked forthrightly. “I mean, have you actually told her?”

Nicole smiled faintly. Gus didn’t pull any punches. She liked that about her. “I’ve been honest with ‘er from the start,” she answered. “But I would never try to push her into somethin’ she’s not ready for, or… that she doesn’t want. Ball’s in her court,” she shrugged. “It has to be, ‘cause… I don’t wanna do anything to lose her, Gus; even if it means we’ll never be more than friends.”

Though neither of them acknowledged it aloud, they both new this thing between her and Waverly already went far beyond friendship. And Waverly knew it too. Gus had noticed the moment the shift started to happen—there was something different about Waverly, even early on after meeting Nicole. And then, after that first dance at the Pin Drop, it was like watching the planets begin to align. Though, they clearly weren’t yet in the same place, whatever happened during that dance, it happened to both of them. Gus had recognized it immediately.

Gus smiled at her then. “I appreciate that about you, Nicole,” she said sincerely. “And I won’t give you the speech ‘bout kickin’ your ass if you hurt her. Trust me, once Wynonna finally gits her head outta her ass long enough to figure it out, she’ll be givin’ ya enough shit over it. No one’s more protective of that girl than her sister. And it goes both ways, just so ya know,” she commented with obvious affection. “But I will say that while Waverly’s spirit is strong and resilient, her heart is tender, fragile. Please, just… be mindful of that.”

Nodding, Nicole felt the heat of tears, and fought to stifle them. “Yes, ma’am. Always,” she assured.

“All right, then. You git on outta my kitchen now. Scoot,” Gus directed, grabbing that kitchen towel from where it was tucked into the pocket of her jeans, and waving it at Nicole, who couldn’t help but chuckle.

She felt like she was being shooed from her grandma’s kitchen for being what was deemed “a little rascal,” in response to snatching some of the fresh berries being prepped for a cobbler or a pie, or a finger-full of cake batter from the bowl her grandma was mixing up from scratch. It was a name she’d heard long into adulthood for those very same antics, and if she were at home, she’d still be hearing it today. In response, she’d say, “You know you love me, Grams,” as she gave her a quick kiss on the cheek—a means of distraction while she snatched another taste. And then she’d flash that dimpled smile, and scamper out the door to avoid being swatted by that towel again.

“Go on,” Gus was saying, “find Waverly, ‘n take her out ridin’. I had Maverick saddled up for ya. You’ll just need to bridle ‘im. He was Curtis’s horse, ‘n he could use a good workout.” She didn’t need to say it had been a while. The expression of empathy in Nicole’s eyes told her the young deputy understood.

“And Nicole?”

“Yes, ma’am?” Once again, Nicole’s eyes held an expression of expectancy.

“She may be a handful, but she’s more than worth the effort,” Gus said with clear affection in her usually gruff tone.

“Yes, ma’am,” Nicole said with firm conviction. And then that smitten smile flickered across her lips. “I know…”

Gus nodded then. “Food’ll be ready by three,” she said, releasing her.

“Thanks, Gus,” Nicole said, her tone warm as she reached out, giving Gus’s arm an affectionate squeeze. “We’ll be back in plenty of time.”

And with that, she lifted her Stetson from the back of the kitchen chair where she’d hooked it when she came in, settling it on her head with practiced precision, and disappeared through the French doors onto the back porch, then down the stairs and out of sight.

“Mornin’,” Nicole greeted, her smile wide, that dimple in full bloom. Her soles of her boots crunched in the mixture of gravel and dirt as she moved across the dusty terrain toward the paddock, her stride confident. And why wouldn’t it be? Gus had all but just given her the green light where Waverly was concerned. Not that anyone other than Waverly had the right to decide that, but it was nice to know Gus was on her side. Now, if only Waverly would just hurry up and figure it out, and dump Champ on his sorry ass.

Stopping in her tracks, Waverly’s breath caught, and her mouth gaped, as those green eyes slowly raked along Nicole’s body, taking in the crisp black button-down shirt, tucked into well-fitting faded black jeans that led south to a pair of nicely broken-in black leather cowboy boots that clearly weren’t just for show. The top three buttons on her shirt were purposefully left open—just like they always were on her uniform; the only difference being that this time, she wore a black tank top beneath, instead of the usual dark blue.  

Those gorgeous auburn locks were once again pulled back in a braid, and topping off the ensemble was a sexy black Stetson in place of her usual white government-issued one, and that stylish black leather bomber jacket—the one she’d worn the night they went bowling. She carried a dark gray backpack, slung casually over her right shoulder, and Waverly could tell by the way the jacket lay along Nicole’s left side, that her Glock was securely holstered beneath. When she finally found her faculties, a tremulous smile played across Waverly’s expressive mouth. “Morning,” she chirped, her green eyes alight with that intrinsic inner joy. “You look… Wow.”

Tilting her head, Nicole grinned. “I could say the same of you,” she complimented, leaning casually against the post at the paddock gate.  

Waverly blushed, and bit her bottom lip. Bashfully, her eyes flitted back and forth between Nicole and the ground several times, as she contemplated a response that wouldn’t sound lame. Unable to find one, she gave up, focusing instead on the job at hand. She turned on the heel of her boot, and grasped the saddle from its old wooden perch near the barn doors, lifting, pivoting again, and settling it onto Wildfire’s back in a single motion.

Nicole just stood here, mouth agape. She was impressed that Waverly could manage to heft that saddle on her own—and with what appeared to be relative ease! She knew from experience that it must’ve weighed upwards of fifty pounds, and Wildfire’s back was well above Waverly’s shoulders, making it a difficult task, to say the least. And then she mentally kicked herself for ever thinking Waverly incapable of anything! “Guess I don’t need to ask if you need any help,” she grinned, as she watched her settle the saddle into place, making certain that it was centered on the thick padding that lay beneath, so as not to cause Wildfire any discomfort while they were riding.

Reaching beneath Wildfire’s barrel, Waverly grabbed the cinch from the other side. “Last time I needed help with this, I didn’t even have a driver’s license,” she commented, pulling the cinch over and threading the other end of the cinch strap through the ring. “Maverick’s bridle is on the post over there though,” she said, motioning toward it. “You can go ahead, get him ready to go.” And then she glanced up at Nicole, a teasing grin forming on her lips. “Unless, of course, you need a little help with that,” she challenged.

Amused, Nicole grinned. “I think I can manage,” she said with a wink.

Pushing away from the post, she closed the gate behind her, and dropped the latch to secure it. She moved across the paddock toward the post Waverly had indicated. Lifting the bridle from the post, she hung her backpack there instead, keeping it out of harm’s way while she went to greet her horse. “Are they good with treats?” she asked, glancing toward Waverly, not wanting to overstep her bounds.

“You brought them treats?” Waverly’s smile said she was pleased.

“Apple slices and carrots,” Nicole said. “If those are okay.” The hesitancy in her tone asked the question.

“They’re perfect,” Waverly declared, tightening the cinch once the strap was securely wound. And then she slipped her fingers beneath the strap, ensuring it wasn’t so tight that it would pinch Wildfire as they rode.  

“Great!” Unzipping her backpack, Nicole retrieved the Ziploc bag she’d prepared earlier that morning, and stuffed it into the pocket of her jacket, turning her attention toward the horse.

“Hey there, Maverick,” she said gently as she approached him from the side, ensuring that he could both see and hear her coming. Tethered just a few feet away from Waverly and Wildfire, Nicole was careful to ensure that Wildfire could see her, as well. 

Maverick was a gorgeous creature—a tall, coal-black stallion, with powerful muscles, a long, beautiful mane, and similar to Wildfire, a patch of white hair that marked the center of his forehead starting just beneath his forelock. Nicole felt privileged that Gus would allow her to ride him. When she was close enough, she reached out her hands toward him, inviting him to sniff her fingers.

Once he seemed satisfied that she wasn’t a threat, she reached into her pocket, pulling out the bag of treats. The moment she broke it open, Maverick started nodding his head, his front hooves stamping in the dirt. She chuckled at his obvious excitement as the familiar aroma hit his nostrils. Some trainers might have considered his reaction to be undisciplined, but she just found it sweet. “Which do you like better, huh, boy? Apples or carrots?” she asked sweetly.   

Waverly arched an eyebrow. “You don’t really expect him to answer—do you?” she teased.

“Maybe not ‘n so many words,” Nicole grinned. Fishing out a few apple slices, she stuffed the bag back into her pocket. And then she held the treat out to him in the palm of her hand, making certain that her hand and fingers were completely flat, so as to avoid accidental nipping. He accepted the treat gratefully, and when he finished it, she offered a chunk of carrot in the same careful manner. He nudged gently at her hand then, and she reached up, petting his face and neck as she spoke softly to him, telling him what a good boy he was to take his treats so gently.

She spent several minutes then, petting him, talking to him, before removing his halter, and introducing the bridle. Clearly well-trained, he went easily into the bridle, and she praised him again, earning a series of nickers in response. She patted his side then, telling him to be still, as she stepped toward Waverly to introduce herself to Wildfire, getting acquainted with her in the same manner before they mounted up, and headed out for their ride.

Fifteen minutes later, from her perch atop Wildfire, Waverly watched Nicole with captivated eyes, enjoying the way her muscles moved beneath dark fabric as she mounted the powerful horse. Grasping the reins and saddle horn in her left hand, Nicole slipped her left foot into the stirrup, using the well-defined muscles in her leg to lift her body; and swinging her right leg over, she mounted the horse the same way she did everything else—with smooth, deliberate movements. She slipped easily into the saddle, hooking her right foot into the stirrup. Her posture straight, yet her entire body appearing relaxed, she looked perfectly at home there astride Maverick.  

A seasoned rider, Nicole took a few moments then, guiding Maverick around within the safety of the paddock, giving him both physical and verbal commands, and gauging his responses so that she could anticipate his handling out in the open fields. Better to be safe, than sorry, was her motto in most every situation where danger was a possibility. “He handles amazingly well for not knowing me at all,” she commented to Waverly, adding that it was clear evidence of excellent training.

“Uncle Curtis really knew his stuff,” Waverly noted with pride.

“Well, it’s certainly obvious,” Nicole declared with conviction, as she effortlessly brought Maverick to a halt beside Wildfire.

“You ready, Officer Haught?” Waverly asked, smiling up at her. She was a natural on a horse, Waverly could tell, and she couldn’t wait to spend the day riding with her.

Feeling completely at ease not only in the saddle, but with Maverick in particular, and also with Waverly as her guide, Nicole smiled in return. “Lead the way,” she replied, knowing that she would literally follow Waverly Earp anywhere this life might take them, if only she’d be blessed with the chance.   

Starting out at an easy pace, they made their way across the field behind Gus’s house, moving toward the ridge where they allowed the horses to pick up a little speed. The morning sunlight was warm on their faces, and Nicole couldn’t help but notice how the breeze flowed effortlessly through Waverly’s hair as they rode. Following the ridge for a ways, they chatted easily as they took in the view of the hills, the budding foliage, and the wildlife in the foreground, and the majestic beauty of the mountains off in the distance.

They’d been riding for more than an hour when Waverly slowed them down on approach to the slope she knew to be safest in allowing them access into the valley below. From there, they could make their way along the edge of the rushing stream that cut through their property—an offshoot of Ghost River.

Even out in the open fields, Nicole found Maverick to be determined, but not headstrong, allowing her to maintain the necessary control without quashing his spirit—a much-desired combination in her opinion. And Waverly, with her keen sense of the terrain, proved to be an excellent lead, allowing Nicole to follow her easily. Before she knew it, they had navigated the worn path along the slope down into valley, where the wide open fields awaited them. Once again, they allowed the horses to pick up speed, this time moving easily from a sitting trot, to a posting trot, into a playful canter, and finally to a full-on gallop within a few minutes’ time. 

They played together then, laughing as they ran the horses in circles and figure eights—a game of chase, with neither of them really knowing who was chasing whom, only that it was relaxing and fun, and that the horses, who were being allowed to frolic, were enjoying the game, as well.

Finally, Waverly broke free of the patterns, challenging Nicole to a race down to a grove of oak trees about a thousand meters ahead.  

“What do I get if I win?” Nicole asked, a roguish grin playing across her full lips.

Waverly arched an eyebrow in challenge. “Guess you’ll have to catch me to find out, Officer Haught,” she answered flirtatiously, quickly giving Wildfire the signal to take off.

“Oh, you are so gonna pay for that, Waverly Earp!” Nicole exclaimed through her laughter, as she issued the signal to engage Maverick. Accepting the challenge, he was off like a shot. Clearly in his element, and loving the freedom of the breeze blowing, unfettered, through his long, dark mane, his powerful muscles rippled and flexed beneath her, as he covered the ground between them with what seemed like little effort.

Waverly’s laughter echoed through the valley as Wildfire raced across the field, managing to keep her just ahead of her quickly approaching competitor as she neared the midway point in her quest to reach the grove of trees. And then a sudden surge of determination spurred Maverick on, and he pulled just ahead of her. They took turns then, pulling ahead and falling behind for several hundred meters, and finally, they were neck and neck as they approached the finish. For a moment it looked as though they would end in a dead heat, until Maverick managed to pull ahead again, just as they reached their declared finish line; making Nicole the clear winner, much to her delight, and Waverly’s feigned consternation.

As they slowed the horses back down to a trot, Waverly glanced over at Nicole. “Okay, Officer Haught-Shot, you win.”

Nicole beamed. “What, exactly, do I win?” she asked flirtatiously.

“How ‘bout we negotiate that later?” Waverly said suggestively, her tone of voice causing the heat that always simmered deep within Nicole’s belly whenever Waverly was around to ignite into a flame, even as Waverly’s own belly started that somersaulting thing again.

“I’m gonna hold ya to that,” Nicole winked.

“I can hardly wait,” Waverly grinned flirtatiously.

They rode in silence for a few minutes then, Waverly watching Nicole’s mannerisms and the expression on her face as she guided Maverick with effortless precision. “You really love this, don’t you?” she observed, enjoying the way Nicole’s body moved with the motion of Maverick’s muscles as they traveled. “Riding, I mean...”

Glancing toward her, Nicole smiled. “Yeah, I really do,” she answered in that laidback way of hers. “Being out on the wide-open range is relaxing. It gives me a chance to kinda clear my mind.”

“Except when your pesky companion won’t stop asking questions, right?” Waverly joked.

“You can ask me anything you want, Waves,” Nicole assured. “Anytime you want.”

Waverly smiled. “That’s good to know, Officer Haught.” She fell silent for a moment, and then asked, “You ever compete?”

“Nah, wasn’t my thing,” Nicole answered. “Hayley does, though.”

“Oh, really?” Waverly sounded interested.

“Yeah,” Nicole nodded. “She’s been competing since grade school. Her bedroom wall is covered in first place ribbons, and she’s got a shelf full of trophies.”

“Wow, she must be really proud of her accomplishments,” Waverly presumed.

“Oh, yeah,” Nicole confirmed. “My whole family’s proud of her. She’s amazing.”

“And let me guess… You and Kyler have shelves full of basketball trophies, right?” Waverly ventured.

“Well, we did play for the same team,” Nicole shrugged, grinning almost bashfully.

Waverly laughed. “And what did Trinity excel in?”

“Shopping,” Nicole said dryly.

The deadpan expression on Nicole’s face drew another laugh from Waverly. “No, seriously,” she pressed. “What’s her claim to fame in your family?”

Nicole chuckled. “She’s the musician,” she answered. “Piano, guitar, saxophone… Classical, Jazz, rock ‘n roll… You name it, she can play it. And she’s got a voice like an angel. So does Hayles, actually.”

“You play too, though, don’t you?” Waverly recalled from previous conversations.

“Yeah, I play some,” Nicole admitted. “We all do. But not like Trini.”

“You sound a little jealous,” Waverly teased.

“Maybe a li’l bit,” Nicole sheepishly admitted, causing Waverly to chuckle again.

And then, as if by that silent mutual agreement they’d seemed to share from the start, they dismounted their horses in unison. Holding their respective reins loosely, they walked side-by-side, leading the horses toward the stream where they allowed them a leisurely drink.  

“Maybe sometime we could ride up into the mountains,” Nicole suggested when they settled on a huge, flat boulder near the water’s edge, the horses alternately nipping at blades of grass and lapping at the cool, flowing waters.

“Absolutely,” Waverly agreed. “Uncle Curtis cut an awesome path up the mountainside, to Wolf Willow Ridge, and from there, down the other side to Ghost River. Maybe we can go in the summertime, take a swim in the river?”     

“Sounds great,” Nicole readily agreed, propping the heel of her right boot on the edge of the rock, as she shrugged out of her backpack. “Think Wynonna would join us? It’s not hiking,” she shrugged. Unzipping her pack, she pulled out a bag of trail mix, and two refillable aluminum water bottles, both of them gunmetal gray, with the USMC logo stamped on them in black. Offering Waverly one of the water bottles, she opened the bag of snacks, setting it on the rock between them.

“Thank you,” Waverly said appreciatively, as she accepted bottle. “Ooh, is this the trail mix you make yourself?”

“Yep,” Nicole grinned. She knew from their hike that Waverly loved it.  

“Yay!” Waverly exclaimed giddily, as she dug into the plastic bag. “Oh… and there’s no way Wynonna would agree to that,” she commented, popping a few pieces of the mix into her mouth. She loved the juxtaposition of salty and sweet that Nicole managed to blend so perfectly.

“Why not?”

“She hates horses,” Waverly reported. “Almost as much as she hates guns.”

“And yet… she carries that antique Colt .45 and a Black Badge-issue semi-automatic,” Nicole mused, challenge in her tone as she pointed out the obvious inconsistencies.

“Only because it’s necessary for her job,” Waverly countered. Taking a long drink of the cool water, she recapped the bottle, and set it on the rock beside her.

“She carries the Colt even when she’s off-duty,” Nicole commented.

Casting a glance toward Nicole, Waverly arched an eyebrow. “Correct me if I’m wrong, Officer Haught, but… I do believe you’re packing a Glock beneath your left arm,” she deflected, bumping her shoulder against Nicole’s in a playful gesture.

Nicole laughed. “Point taken,” she conceded. “But I’m from Texas,” she shrugged, sounding as though that should explain everything. “I grew up around guns. Hell, I learned to shoot practically before I could even ride a bike.”

“Yeah, it was kinda that way in my family too,” Waverly commented. “For Willa, anyway. Daddy used to drag her out in the middle of the night to make her practice.”

“But not you or Wynonna?” Nicole surmised.

“No,” Waverly answered, shaking her head. “We were never included.”

“Why not?”

“Because we weren’t the…” Waverly started to say “Heir,” but realizing that she couldn’t—not without raising more questions—she allowed the word to die on her tongue, and quickly shifted gears, saying, “We weren’t the oldest.”

Nicole nodded, accepting the explanation for what it was—the only truth Waverly could give her. At least for the moment. “I don’t imagine either of your skills suffered any for it,” she presumed.

“Guess not,” Waverly shrugged. “Uncle Curtis taught me how to handle a gun when I was still a little kid. Wyn learned from Dolls when she joined Black Badge. I’m a better shot than she is, but… I’ve had years more practice.”

“I guess… I’m just struggling to understand why Wynonna would choose a job that requires her to do things she hates,” Nicole commented.

Waverly focused her gaze on the water then, watching how effortlessly it flowed over the rocks. “We don’t always get to choose our vocation, Nicole. Sometimes life chooses for us—” Her tone was quiet, almost bitter, and definitely cryptic as she spoke. And then she drew her feet up, wrapping her arms around her knees.  

Reading Waverly’s tone and accompanying body language for what it was—the physical manifestation of emotional withdrawal—Nicole realized she needed to just let it go. “I’m sorry, Waves,” she said sincerely. “I didn’t mean to pry.”

“No,” Waverly said, glancing toward her. “You’re not prying. I’ll tell you anything you wanna know about me, personally, but… Well, it’s just that… some stories aren’t mine to tell.”

A single nod indicated Nicole’s acceptance of Waverly’s reasoning. “Yeah, I get it,” she said. “If I wanna know about Wynonna, I should ask her myself.”

“Exactly,” Waverly affirmed. “I love my sister, and I would never betray her by telling stories she doesn’t want told.”

“You’ve kinda lived your whole life that way—haven’t you?” Nicole asked perceptively. “Doin’ what’s best for everyone else, no matter the cost to you personally.”

Silence fell between them, as Waverly contemplated—not the question itself, but the most appropriate answer. And in that moment, she realized that was exactly what she was doing—she was orchestrating an answer for the one person other than her family that she actually wanted to be honest with, and she was doing so because of the potential repercussions to others. “Yeah, I guess I have,” she finally admitted. The tendency took root with never being allowed to tell anyone the truth about the Earp curse, and from there, it simply became what she did.

“Who is it that you wanna be, Waverly Earp?” Nicole asked gently.

A soft, somewhat ironic laugh fell from Waverly’s lips. “No one in my whole life has ever asked me that question,” she quietly admitted. “So I have no idea how to answer it.”

“Well maybe it’s time you started focusin’ on yourself, tryin’ to figure that out,” Nicole encouraged. “There’s nothin’ wrong with takin’ care of yourself, every once in a while.”

“Even if it means people might not be happy with me?” Waverly dared ask.

“Believe me, you’ll never please everyone all the time. And if you try, you’ll just end up miserable,” Nicole answered. “Besides, you’re not responsible for other people’s happiness. That’s on them.”

A faint smile flickered across Waverly’s lips. “So you keep telling me.”

Nicole nodded. “And I’m gonna keep on tellin’ you, until you really believe that it’s true,” she vowed.

“Now that, I definitely believe,” Waverly replied, her tone teasing as she bumped her shoulder against Nicole’s.

Chuckling at her, Nicole playfully rolled her eyes. And then she glanced at her watch. “We should probably head back,” she noted. “Gus says dinner at three.”

Following suit, Waverly checked her watch, as well. “Yeah,” she sighed, sounding disappointed. But she knew Nicole was right. It would take a while to take care of the horses, and get them back into their stalls. “What do you say we race back toward the pass?” she suggested, grinning devilishly. “Double or nothing.”

“No way,” Nicole declined. “I’m perfectly satisfied with one prize.”

“What’s the matter?” Waverly challenged. “Afraid you’ll lose?”

“Never,” Nicole said smugly. “You couldn’t even beat me by cheating.”

Delivered on a taunting smirk, Nicole’s comment was akin to her issuing a challenge—and Waverly Earp never backed down from a challenge. To her advantage, Waverly also knew that Nicole never backed down either. She issued a taunting smirk of her own. “We’ll see about that,” she declared, rising to her feet without a moments’ hesitation.

A few seconds later, she was mounting Wildfire, as Nicole scrambled to close up the trail mix and shove it, as well as their water bottles back into her pack. And by the time Nicole managed to mount Maverick, she could hear Waverly’s laughter echoing through the valley from nearly a quarter of the way back to the pass.

Sunday, May 1, 2016… Gus’s House—1:30 p.m. Mountain Daylight Time

Covering the glass dish full of baked beans with foil, Gus pushed it onto the upper shelf in the oven, setting the temperature to 350 degrees. “That’ll be ready in about an hour,” she commented mostly to herself. And then she turned back to the countertop where she grabbed the package of ground beef, opening it and dumping the contents into a medium-sized glass mixing bowl.

Perched on a stool on the far side of the counter, Wynonna sipped strong black coffee from a lidded coffeehouse cup. “You sure you don’t need any help?” she asked for the third time since she arrived. She’d been sitting there for the better part of an hour, watching Gus work, and it was starting to make her feel antsy.

“I’m just gonna get this ground beef prepped, in case Nicole prefers burgers,” Gus replied, as she added dashes of black pepper and minced garlic.

“What, is Nicole some kinda celebrity guest, or somethin’?” Wynonna quipped sarcastically.

Gus frowned at her disapprovingly. “What makes you ask a fool thing like that?” she asked, tossing in a small handful of seasoned bread crumbs to help hold the patties together.

“You and mama never catered to us girls,” Wynonna reminded.

“Well, Nicole’s not from around here, so until I figure out more of what she likes, I’ll make sure there’re options,” Gus replied.

Gauging her aunt’s demeanor, Wynonna considered the comment. “You just thinkin’ she might be around a lot, or… are ya trying to make sure she will?”

Surprised by the astuteness of the question, Gus glanced up from the onion she was chopping. Apparently, Wynonna paid more attention than she thought—at least to some things. “I don’t think it’ll take any effort on my part to keep Nicole around,” she answered.

Wynonna nodded. “Well, I’m pretty sure chicken and steak are barbeque staples in Texas,” she commented, flashing that dimpled grin.

“As are burgers, I hear tell,” Gus countered with a wink. Scooping up the diced onions, she dropped them into the bowl.

“Point taken,” Wynonna granted.

“Yes,” Gus grinned. “So we’ll have all three.”

Moving to the refrigerator, Gus grabbed an egg from the container. Upon returning to her workspace, she cracked it, adding it to the mix. And then tossing the eggshell into the trash, she reached into the bowl, mixing the ingredients with dexterous hands.

Remaining silent as Gus moved and worked, Wynonna wrestled with things she wanted to say, not really knowing how to say them, or even why she felt the need. Ever since she’d been branded “crazy,” she’d learned to keep her thoughts and feelings to herself. She was a master of internalizing them, building walls to protect herself in the process.

Since her return from Greece, and her subsequent decision to stay in Purgatory, those walls had slowly begun to crack, and now they were crumbling around her. It scared the hell of out her, feeling so defenseless against her own emotions after so many years of being mostly numb to them. But there was a part of her that also liked the idea of truly feeling again—especially when it came to Waverly, whom she loved with a fierceness she lacked words to describe, and Gus, who had always meant so much to her, despite her inability to actually admit it.

“Somethin’ you wanna get off your chest, Wynonna?” Gus asked, breaking the silence that had fallen between them, as she formed the clump of beef into patties, making certain to press an indentation in the center to keep them flat as they cooked.

Caught off-guard by the question, Wynonna glanced down at her chest, surveying it for a moment. And then she grasped the outer edges of her breasts, squeezing them as if to fluff them up. “No fuckin’ way. These babies have gotten me outta far too many scrapes to be messin’ with ‘em now,” she answered facetiously.

Gus just shook her head and grinned. She knew that Wynonna was avoiding something. And given the expression on her niece’s face as she contemplated it, she imagined that it was rather emotional. Knowing Wynonna the way she did, she chose to let it go. To push her would be to risk her physical and emotional retreat, and that was the last thing Gus wanted to happen. They were finally beginning to become a family again.    

“Think you could set the table for me?” Gus asked, changing the subject to let Wynonna off the hook. It was far too early to be necessary, but it was a way to give Wynonna space.

Wynonna nodded, recognizing the smooth segue for what it was—a reprieve. “Sure thing, Gus,” she answered. “We eatin’ inside or out?”

“I thought we’d eat out on the deck, if that’s all right,” Gus said, her tone seeking Wynonna’s approval.

“No better place to eat barbeque,” Wynonna declared.

“That’s what I thought,” Gus agreed.

“Is it just the four of us?” Wynonna asked. “Or is Champ gonna show up?”

“Waverly didn’t invite him,” Gus informed with a shrug, feigning ignorance of any reason logical why. Waverly’s burgeoning relationship with Nicole wasn’t her business to tell. 

Keeping her elation to herself, Wynonna simply nodded. And leaving Gus to finish prepping the hamburgers, she went about gathering plates and utensils before heading out to the back deck to set the picnic table for dinner.

Sunday, May 1, 2016… Gus’s House—1:30 p.m. Mountain Daylight Time

“I still don’t know how you managed to catch up with me.” Waverly sounded almost baffled as they walked together, side-by-side, leading the horses across the field behind Gus’s house, back toward the paddock outside the barn. They’d walked the last fifteen minutes or so to allow the horses a chance to cool down after their vigorous ride.   

“Sheer determination,” Nicole said, looking rather pleased with her feat. “No way was I giving up my prize. And now I get double,” she grinned. She’d managed to bypass Waverly just before they reached the access point where they would ascend out of the valley.

“Serves me right for not leaving well enough alone,” Waverly muttered, but the grin that teased on her lips gave her away.

Nicole laughed, and Waverly joined her. “We should definitely do this again,” Waverly declared. “The horses loved it.”

“And what about you?” Nicole inquired, casting a glance toward her companion.

“Best ride I’ve had in ages,” Waverly pronounced, without really thinking the comment through first.

Amused, Nicole couldn’t stop the grin that spread quickly across her face. And the moment Waverly noticed, she felt her entire body flush with heat. Nervously, she cleared her throat. “And the company wasn’t half bad, either.”

The flustered expression on Waverly’s face drew a chuckle from Nicole. “You’re just sayin’ that ‘cause you like my trail mix,” she accused playfully.

What sense is there in pretending at this point? Waverly wondered. Absolutely none, she readily decided. Tossing aside her discomfiture, she casually looped her arm through Nicole’s. “That’s not the only thing I like about you, Officer Haught.”

“Oh, really?” Nicole said, curiosity piqued. She leaned over as they walked. “What else do you like?” she asked, her tone low, and decidedly husky against Waverly’s ear.

Waverly’s entire body flushed with heat again. “You’ll just have to wait and see,” she managed, her lips forming a tremulous grin.

“My, my you certainly are a woman of mystery today, Waverly Earp,” Nicole declared, casting a sideways grin toward her, as they entered the paddock.

Releasing Waverly’s arm, she turned, and locked the gate behind them.

“A woman of mystery,” Waverly mused, hands planted on her hips. “I like that. It’s rather… poetic.”

“I find that quite fitting,” Nicole complimented.

“Well, it definitely sounds better than babbling sack of anxious indecision,” Waverly said wittily.

Nicole just gave her that look. “Why’re you always so hard on yourself, Waves?”

“Force of habit,” Waverly shrugged, as she eased Wildfire’s bridle from her head. Replacing it with her harness, she tethered her to the hitching post for grooming. “Guess I’m just used to having to beat others to the punch. Hurts less that way.”

Stepping toward her, Nicole lightly palmed Waverly’s cheek with her free hand, holding firmly to Maverick’s reins with the other. “You never have to protect yourself where I’m concerned,” she said sincerely. “I won’t be throwin’ any punches, metaphorical or otherwise. Least, not towards you, anyway.”

Waverly wondered fleetingly if Nicole was saying she would punch Champ. But she didn’t want to ruin the moment by mentioning his name. Instead, she grinned up at her. “Are you saying you might be inclined to defend my honor, Officer Haught?” she asked, flirtatiously.

“Somehow, I think you’re quite capable of managin’ that all on your own,” Nicole said, forthrightly. “But if I ever felt it needed defendin’, then yeah, you bet I would.”

You make my heart swoon. “You always assume the best of me,” Waverly said, her tone a muddle of bewilderment and awe.

“Why wouldn’t I?” Nicole reasoned, admiration reflecting in those soft russet eyes as they whispered across Waverly’s face.

Delivered with the tenderness of a caress, Nicole’s words caused the most unexpected swell of emotions for Waverly. She moved closer, and wrapping her arms around Nicole’s waist tightly, she buried her face against Nicole’s chest, simply breathing her in.

Wordlessly, Nicole pulled her closer, encircling her in a warm embrace, as she leaned a cheek against Waverly’s head. She didn’t pretend to understand what Waverly was feeling, but the fierceness with which Waverly clung to her told her the emotions were powerful—and raw. After several minutes of simply holding her close, Nicole murmured softly against her temple, “You okay, Waves?”

Tilting her head back, Waverly met Nicole’s concerned gaze. “Yeah,” she answered quietly. “Just feeling super grateful for you.”

Reaching up, Nicole brushed wayward brunette locks from Waverly’s face. “The feeling is mutual,” she whispered. And then a faint smile flickered across her lips. “You’ve made what could’ve been a really tough transition a whole lot more pleasant for me than I ever thought possible. Thank you for just… being there.”

Waverly pressed the palms of her hands against Nicole’s upper chest, and then allowed them to glide upward and over strong shoulders in a featherlike caress. She marveled at the way those muscles flexed beneath her touch. And then her fingertips came to rest lightly against Nicole’s neck where it met that angular jawline, delighting in the sensation of Nicole’s pulse tripping beneath her fingertips, as sincere green eyes slowly searched russet depths. “I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else, Nicole,” she whispered, her breath hitching as that familiar dipping quickening teased deep in her belly.

Nicole felt it too—the tightening of that invisible cord that bound them to one another—the intensity of attraction turned desire, coiling deep within her body, her own breath clutching in her chest, as she held Waverly’s gaze for far longer than necessary or prudent. And yet, she couldn’t manage to tear herself away.  

The stillness between them was broken when Maverick stamped his hoof in the dirt, drawing Nicole’s attention. In that same moment, she noticed Wynonna in her peripheral vision, watching them from the back porch. Fleetingly, she wondered just exactly how much the elder Earp had witnessed—not for her own sake, but for Waverly’s. “We should, uh… we should probably get the horses taken care of, before we’re late for dinner,” she finally said, gently breaking the connection between them.

Suddenly feeling anxious, Waverly physically separated herself from Nicole. “The horses. Right. Yes, of course. Uh, sorry…” she jabbered, looking rather unsettled as she searched aimlessly for Wildfire’s brush.

Reaching out, Nicole gently grasped her hand. “Hey, there’s no need to be sorry, Waves,” she said softly.

At the tender reassurance in Nicole’s voice, in her eyes, Waverly visibly relaxed. “You have more treats for them?” she asked, squinting against the afternoon sun as she glanced up at Nicole.  

Nicole offered that dimpled smile in response. “You bet,” she answered. Handing Maverick’s reins to Waverly, she shrugged out of her backpack, hooking it on a nearby post. She unzipped it, retrieving the plastic bag, and tossing it to Waverly.

She shrugged out of her jacket then, hanging it over the same post, and did the same with her holster. And then she slowly unbuttoned her shirt, revealing the form-fitting black tank top she wore beneath. Slipping out of the shirt, she tossed it over the railing, aware of the intensity in Waverly’s eyes as she watched her every move. “I forgot to bring an extra shirt, and… I don’t wanna smell like a barnyard at the dinner table,” she explained with a grin, knowing it was likely that she would after untacking and grooming Maverick.

Waverly arched an eyebrow in challenge. “I think you just wanted an excuse to take your shirt off in front of me again,” she declared with a flirty lilt.

Russet eyes twinkled with mischief. “I got a little distracted by someone’s text messages this morning,” Nicole claimed.

“Oh, yeah?” Waverly said with a questioning tone. “Whose texts were distracting you, Officer Haught?”

Nicole arched an eyebrow, drawing a laugh from Waverly, who knew the aforementioned texts were from her. “Exactly,” Nicole said with a grin. “And besides, given the way you were just ogling me, I really don’t think you mind,” she teased.

Blushing, Waverly averted Nicole’s alluring gaze. “I wasn’t ogling,” she mumbled in denial.

Leaning her hip against the fence, Nicole crossed her arms, a smirk forming on her lips. “What would you call it then?” she challenged.

Green eyes flickered coyly toward Nicole then. “Appreciating,” Waverly shrugged. And Christ Almighty, there’s so much gorgeous there to be appreciated! she thought, unabashed desire reflecting in those green eyes. A demure grin teased at the corners of her mouth as she averted her gaze again.

It was Nicole’s turn to blush then, and she did so rather impressively, her face turning nearly crimson. It wasn’t that she was unaccustomed to being looked at with desire. But no one had ever looked at her quite like that—especially not someone that she wanted with equal fervor. Boots shuffling in the dirt, she cleared her throat. “I, uh… I really have no, uh… no idea how to, um… Yeah,” she stammered uncharacteristically. 

Waverly laughed then. A deep belly laugh, as she watched Nicole struggle for words. It was so unlike the confident officer that it took Waverly by surprise. “Finally!” she exclaimed, amusement dancing in her eyes.

“Finally what? What the hell is so funny?” Nicole asked, flummoxed.

“Finally, you’re the one who’s babbling,” Waverly teased, emphasizing which one of them couldn’t articulate a concise sentence.

And then Nicole was smiling. The laughter in those gorgeous green eyes was not only beautiful to witness, but it was contagious, and it stopped Nicole’s breath right there in her chest. “Lucky for you, you’ve been spared all the babbling that goes on inside my head before I actually speak,” she said sheepishly.

Waverly grinned. “You mean to tell me your thoughts aren’t as smooth as your game?” she teased flirtatiously.

“Hardly,” Nicole chuckled. “You leave me tongue-tied far more than you realize, Waverly Earp,” she murmured softly, her fingertips brushing along Waverly’s arm.

Waverly moved toward her, and Nicole purposefully backed away. Diverting her attention then—an attempt at keeping them from crossing boundaries again—she declared that she needed to find Maverick’s brush. Waverly nodded, understanding the reason why, and directed Nicole toward his stall in the barn.

When Nicole returned a few moments later, they worked side-by-side, grooming the horses and then giving them a well-deserved snack of more carrots and apple slices, before returning them to their stalls for the evening. And when they finished, they collected their things, and walking across the barren yard, they ascended the stairs together, Waverly’s arm once again draped through Nicole’s, right where they both knew it belonged.

Sunday, May 1, 2016… Gus’s House—2:15 p.m. Mountain Daylight Time

With Gus nearby, working the grill with the efficiency of a seasoned pro, Wynonna lounged in one of the Adirondack chairs Curtis had built years ago, simply enjoying the warmth of the sunshine on her face as she took in deep breaths of the fresh, floral-scented air that wafted in on the soft breeze that blew across the fields. It was a rarity for her, those moments of solitude where she allowed herself to relax and enjoy the outdoors; but here at Gus’s house it was difficult to deny the sheer pleasure of it.

Through the gaps in the thick wooden posts of the porch railing, she could see Waverly and Nicole in the paddock, busily grooming Wildfire and Maverick. Having exited the kitchen just as Waverly moved into Nicole’s arms earlier, she’d wondered for a moment what was going on. And then she decided it didn’t matter—her sister seemed at home, and genuinely happy around Nicole, and that was good enough for her. And now, as she watched them together, it was clear that they took the work seriously, even as they talked, and laughed, and played together while they worked side-by-side. She envied them, that easy way they had together. But she was happy for the companionship they’d found with one another, as well.

Unbeknownst to her, Gus’s thoughts echoed her own. With the simple ease of their interactions, the sheer joy in their shared laughter, Waverly and Nicole reminded her of Curtis and herself in the early days of their courtship. She’d been fortunate enough to share a love that lasted—one with her very best friend. And as she watched them together, she couldn’t help but hope that one day Waverly and Nicole would share the same.

Sunday, May 1, 2016… Gus’s House—2:30 p.m. Mountain Daylight Time

“Omigosh, dinner smells totally amazeballs!” Waverly exclaimed giddily, taking a deep whiff of the aroma as she and Nicole entered the kitchen after tending to the horses. Her stomach growled in response, causing her to giggle.

Amused by Waverly’s youthful exuberance, Nicole grinned and shook her head. She was so frickin’ adorable in that dorky way of hers. And then she turned her attention to the food. “Mm… Sure does,” she agreed. It smelled tempting enough while on the grill, but nothing compared to the aroma that met her when they walked into kitchen, the way everything melded together, creating an aromatic symphony. She hadn’t realized how hungry she was until she smelled the amalgam of perfectly grilled meat, and grilled corn-on-the-cob, still in the husks, baked beans, and the sweetness of desserts she couldn’t quite identify, though she was certain that blueberries were involved.

Wiping her hands on a kitchen towel, Gus tossed it onto the countertop, and planted her hands on her hips. “Well, I don’t rightly know what amazeballs smell like, but I reckon I’ll take that as a good thing, seein’ as you both sound so happy ‘bout it.”

Nicole chuckled in that easy way of hers. “It’s definitely a good thing,” she assured.

Hanging her backpack and jacket on the hooks inside the door, she leaned against the counter. “I know you had things handled earlier, but is there anything we can do to help now?” she offered for the second time that day. That’s how she was raised—you enter someone’s kitchen for a meal, and you offer to help with whatever might need doing.

“Suck up,” Wynonna muttered accusingly, drawing a grin from Nicole, and a scowl from Waverly, as Gus shot a disapproving glance her way.

“Geez, tough crowd,” Wynonna declared with a laugh. 

Gus just smiled and shook her head. “Wynonna’s got the table set out back, and I’ve got this under control; but thanks, Nicole,” she answered, recognizing, not for the first time, the fact that someone had obviously raised this young woman well. “You girls run on upstairs and get cleaned up for dinner. I’ll have dinner on the table by the time you get back down.”

Simultaneous grins were followed by verbal acknowledgments, and then the two of them were trampling up the stairs side-by-side. They sounded like a herd of wild horses with their boots clomping against the hardwood stairs, and Gus couldn’t help but grin as she turned her attention back to the final dinner preparations.    

"You’re welcome to use my shower if you want,” Waverly offered, gesturing toward the bathroom door as they entered the bedroom she still kept at Gus’s house. “I put fresh towels in there for you this morning.”

“Thank you,” Nicole said sincerely, thinking that might not be a bad idea, despite not having a clean shirt with her—at least not one that was appropriate for the dinner table. Having grabbed the small duffle bag she’d left in the kitchen earlier that morning, before they hit the stairs, she was thankful that she’d at least thought to bring a change of everything else. 

“No problem,” Waverly answered casually, as she rifled through the bureau drawers in search of clean panties and a bra. “I’m gonna grab a quick one in Gus’s room,” she announced, looking up just in time to see Nicole pull the black tank top off. Her eyes slowly sweeping over Nicole’s muscled torso, she gulped audibly, and swiftly turned toward her closet. “You, uh… you need a clean t-shirt or something?” she offered, by way of distraction, as she pulled a clean pair of jeans from the shelf. 

“Nah, I’m good. I’ve got a fresh tank top with me,” Nicole answered, an amused grin playing across her lips. Now you know how I felt that night in your apartment, she thought. Dropping down onto Waverly’s bed, she pulled her boots and socks off, setting them next to a rather lovely antique nightstand. “I’ll just wear the black button-down over it.”

“Okay,” Waverly said, anxious to get out of the room before Nicole took anything else off. “If you need anything else, let me know. Gus’s room is at the far end of the hall on the left,” she explained. “Otherwise, I’ll see you back downstairs in a few.”

“Sounds good, Waves. Thanks,” Nicole said. Reaching for the silver buckle on her belt, she began to unfasten it, causing Waverly to gulp again.

The fidgeting grew more apparent, and Waverly averted her gaze again, feigning an exhaustive search for a shirt. Finally selecting one, she pulled it from the closet, hanger and all. And with that, she disappeared down the hall, not even daring to turn back toward Nicole before leaving.

Chuckling to herself, Nicole shook her head as she pulled off her belt, dropping it onto the bed. And then she grabbed her bag, a grin still lingering on her lips as she padded barefoot across the gleaming hardwood floor toward the bathroom to get ready for dinner.  

When Waverly descended the staircase fifteen minutes later, she was wearing her boots again, along with a pair of faded jeans, and that gorgeous hunter green blouse with the see-through shoulders—the one that brought out the color of her eyes; and her long brunette locks still hung loosely around her face, draping down over her shoulders.

Nicole’s insides trembled the moment she set eyes on her, and then a slow smile unfurled across her face as she moved across the room, meeting her at the bottom of the stairs. She hadn’t meant to go to her. It just seemed as if her body navigated there of its own accord. But neither of them minded, so lost were they in one another’s eyes.

The sweet, familiar tension between them was broken by the sound of Gus’s voice. “I hate to interrupt whatever you girls ‘ve got goin’ on over there, but dinner’s ready,” she said.

“Comin’, Gus,” Waverly called back, her eyes never leaving Nicole’s. And then she nibbled her bottom lip a bit nervously. She was starving, but she wouldn’t have minded if, just this once, Gus had been late getting dinner on the table. “Guess we should head out to the porch,” she commented.

“Guess so,” Nicole agreed, albeit reluctantly so. Shifting to the side, she opened a pathway for Waverly to pass in front of her, and then fell in line, following her through the dining room, into the kitchen, and out the French doors onto the back porch where dinner awaited them.

Sunday, May 1, 2016… Gus’s House—4:00 p.m. Mountain Daylight Time

The meal proved to be another enjoyable experience for everyone gathered around the hand-carved picnic table—delicious food accompanied by humorous banter and lively laughter shared amongst them. And by the time Gus presented dessert choices—a freshly baked blueberry crisp, because she’d learned Nicole loved blueberries, and a batch of gooey butter cookies because they had always been a favorite with Waverly and Wynonna—they had just enough room left to adequately indulge. 

“Oh, my god, Gus, these cookies get better every time you bake them!” Wynonna gushed, as she savored the amalgam of gooey texture and rich flavor.

Gus looked at Wynonna pointedly. “Now don’t you go fussin’ ‘bout me not caterin’ to you girls again,” she said with a teasing grin, referring to their earlier conversation.

Suitably scolded, Wynonna offered a sheepish grin. “Thanks, Gus,” she said sweetly.

“You’re welcome, Hun,” Gus replied, gently patting Wynonna’s hand.

Moments later, Waverly and Nicole echoed Wynonna’s sentiments as they dug into the blueberry crisp they’d piled on their dessert plates, both of them having decided to save the cookies for later. It was hot out of the oven, with scoops of fresh vanilla bean ice cream on top.  

“These are fresh blueberries, aren’t they?” Nicole said. It was more statement than question.

“Oh, of course!” Gus answered.

“I see where Waverly gets her talent for baking,” Nicole commented, complimenting them both as she stole a glance toward the object of her affection, who subsequently blushed in response. “Best blueberry crisp I’ve ever had,” she declared.

“Well, thank you, Nicole,” Gus said warmly. “Waverly started bakin’ with her mama and me when she was just barely tall enough to see the countertop, standin’ on a kitchen stool.”

“What grade were you in then, Waves?” Wynonna mockingly questioned.

Feigning offense, Waverly’s mouth dropped open and she made noises of disgruntlement. “Oh, you just hush. You’re not much taller than me.”

“No, but I am better looking,” Wynonna volleyed.

“Ha!” Waverly exclaimed. “You wish.”

Nicole laughed at their banter. They sounded like her sisters.

Waverly leaned into Nicole, wrapping her arms firmly around Nicole’s bicep. “Tell her, Nicole,” she prodded, looking to the officer for reinforcement. “I’m better looking, aren’t I?”

Apprehensively, Nicole’s eyes shifted from Waverly to Wynonna and back again. And then they moved to Gus, silently pleading with her for an assist, only to receive a helpless grin and a shrug in return. “I plead the fifth,” she declared.

“Nice try, Officer Haught, but that doesn’t work this side of the border,” Waverly teased.

“What’s the Canadian equivalent?” Nicole asked, feigning ignorance of the law just to see what Waverly would say.

“There is none,” Waverly quickly replied.

“Well, shit,” Nicole cursed, flashing that roguish grin toward Waverly. “Guess I’m in all kinds of trouble then, huh?”

“Not if you just speak the truth, and admit I’m the hot one,” Wynonna dared, her blue eyes dancing with mischief.

“A hot mess, maybe,” Waverly teased, emphasizing the part about the mess.

Wynonna looked suitably offended. “Hey, I resemble that remark,” she grinned, drawing a laugh from the group. She certainly couldn’t argue. “Besides, maybe Officer Haught prefers hot messes,” she ventured, winking at Nicole.

A flash of jealousy coursed through Waverly’s veins, flickering across her face. She knew it was ridiculous, but she couldn’t help the emotional or physiological responses. The mere thought of Wynonna making a move on Nicole made her heart pound anxiously as her belly tightened with stress. “Are you seriously flirting with her right now?” she said incredulously, as she stared at her sister in disbelief. 

One glimpse of the expression on Waverly’s face, and Nicole’s level of discomfiture increased exponentially. Ordinarily cool under pressure, she actually felt herself begin to sweat. “Uh, what I prefer is to not be caught in the middle of this,” she declared, her tone wary, yet firm.

“What? No!” Wynonna denied immediately on the heels of Nicole’s comment, not even recognizing Waverly’s reaction for what it was. “I keep tellin’ ya, Waves, I don’t do chicks,” she said coolly.

“Could’ve fooled me,” Waverly muttered.

Nicole couldn’t help but grin at Waverly’s obvious display of jealousy. She found it mostly amusing, slightly flattering, and more than a little encouraging. Perhaps Gus was right about the whole thing with Champ coming to an end soon, she thought. And then she swiftly reminded herself not to get too excited about it.  

Gus just rolled her eyes at the two of them. “You know, she could invoke her right against self-incrimination under Section 13 of the Canadian Charter,” she offered helpfully.

“Thanks, Gus,” Waverly said dryly.

“Yeah, since when did you become a so well-versed in the Charter?” Wynonna muttered.

A self-satisfied smirk tripped across Nicole’s lips. “Yeah, thanks, Gus,” she said, enjoying the comradery between them. She glanced at Waverly, amusement dancing in her eyes. “I plead the Thirteenth.”

Waverly made a face at her, drawing a laugh from the others. A moment later, she joined in, and they all laughed together again. And once the laughter subsided, their playful banter continued as they finished their desserts.

Sunday, May 1, 2016… Gus’s House—5:30 p.m. Mountain Daylight Time

Later, after cleaning up the dinner mess, they relaxed together in the Adirondack chairs on the deck, the mellow sounds of classic Country music—some obviously more classic than others—drifting on the warm early-evening breeze. Ronnie Milsap sang of that Smoky Mountain rain, and Loretta Lynn trilled about her pride in being a coal miner’s daughter, while Willie and Waylon warbled a cautionary tune about mammas not letting their babies grow up to be cowboys. Barbara Mandrell serenaded them about being country, when country wasn’t cool, and Patsy Cline crooned about being crazy.

Somehow, Nicole thought, the genre suited Gus—the tough exterior, and the undeniable warmth that lay hidden just beneath, at least from those who didn’t know her. The more she contemplated it, the more she realized it suited Wynonna equally as well. Only Wynonna was far more guarded than Gus, from Nicole’s perspective anyway.

When Glen Campbell sang nostalgically about being a soldier at war, remembering the sea waves crashing in against the shore in Galveston, Nicole felt a pang of homesickness nearly as sharp as she had back in Afghanistan, as she recalled the days she’d spent there, splashing in the warm surf of Galveston Bay with her sisters. They’d taken an impromptu trip there, the four of them, just before she deployed for the first time, and that long weekend was still one of her most treasured memories of them together.

And when Dolly Parton started singing about how, despite her better judgment, she found herself rendered completely defenseless by nothing more than a smile from the person she loved, Nicole was struck by how far gone she really was when it came to Waverly Earp. It was then that she realized the classic Country genre suited her in some ways, as well. Amazing, how falling in love made it feel like every single love song in the world was written about the one who’d captured your heart, she mused internally.   

Given her new insight, it didn’t really surprise her when Johnny Cash’s famous song about walking the straight and narrow for the love of his life drew parallels in her own mind about how she would willingly walk any line Waverly Earp drew, if only Waverly were hers. As sure as night is dark and day is light, I keep you on my mind both day and night, the lyrics went, and Nicole knew it was the truth—the woman was always on her mind, even as she dreamed! Had been since the moment she first set eyes on her. Yes, I'll admit that I'm a fool for you… Because you’re mine, I walk the line, Johnny sang, and as Nicole silently watched Waverly interacting with her family, she had no choice but to admit that she was guilty of being a complete fool for her, as well. What good would it do to deny it, even to herself?

“Somethin’ on your mind, Officer Haught?” Waverly asked, breaking into Nicole’s thoughts as her fingertips lightly grazed Nicole’s forearm.

An affectionate smile flickered across Nicole’s lips, her eyes sweeping across Waverly’s face. “Just countin’ my blessin’s,” she answered sweetly.

“You must have a lot of ‘em,” Waverly surmised. “You’ve been awfully quiet the past several minutes.”

Nicole leaned over, her lips brushing the rim of Waverly’s ear. “Well, I had to stop and count you twice,” she whispered.

From anyone else, that comment would’ve sounded completely cheesy. But coming from Nicole, Waverly knew that it was completely sincere. That familiar flush warmed her body, and she offered a shy smile in return. “If I didn’t know any better, I’d swear you were flirting with me again,” she accused, her tone light and playful.   

“Hey, I don’t flirt. I just talk,” Nicole countered, lifting her hands in feigned innocence. “It’s not my fault everything I say comes out smoother than the cream cheese spread on your bagel.”

Waverly chuckled, and playfully shoved Nicole’s shoulder. “You’ve been on Tumblr again, haven’t you?” she teased, recognizing the line from a meme she’d recently seen on the social media site.

“Guilty as charged,” Nicole admitted, looking appropriately penitent. And then an amused laugh tripped from her lips, as Waverly giggled.

“What the fuck are you two whispering about over there?” Wynonna demanded.

Gus sighed. She supposed she should just give up on Wynonna and her cussing.

“Nothin’,” Nicole promptly answered; but the grin on her face gave her away as she stole another glance Waverly, who was still busy giggling.

“You know what?” Waverly said suddenly, her eyes still locked on Nicole. “We should play a game.”

“A game?” Wynonna sounded dubious.

“Yeah,” Waverly confirmed. “We’ve got tons of ‘em in the closet in the den.”

“Oh, what a wonderful idea!” Gus exclaimed. She’d always enjoyed evenings spent in front of the fire, playing games with her girls.  

Wynonna arched that eyebrow. “You’re killin’ me here, kid,” she intoned, her affection for her sister clear, despite her distaste for games.

“Hey, at least I didn’t suggest charades,” Waverly quipped.

“True, that!” Wynonna declared, eyes widening in horror.

Waverly laughed, and glanced back at Nicole. “You in?”

“Absolutely!” Nicole exclaimed. Family game night was a favorite of hers. Not to mention, she knew it would give her invaluable insight into these women who were quickly becoming her family of choice.

“Fine,” Wynonna sighed resignedly. “But I am not playing Monopoly® with you.” She emphasized her refusal. “You kick my ass every time.”

“We’ll play Life® then,” Waverly countered.

“Well, shit,” Wynonna cursed. “You kick my ass at that every fuckin’ day.”

They shared another laugh together, the four of them. And then Waverly excused herself to go find the game. As she walked away, Nicole’s eyes never left her. And the moment she reappeared, they met hers again, the two of them sharing a smile, as Alabama crooned in the background: The closer you get, oh yeah, the further I fall. I'll be over the edge now in no time at all. I'm fallin' faster and faster and faster with no time to stall, oh yeah. The closer you get, the further I fall…

Truer words, Nicole thought, the lyrics echoing in the corridors of her heart as she stepped toward Waverly on the deck, meeting her halfway for no other reason than that she felt drawn to her once again. And unbeknownst to Nicole as Waverly smiled into her eyes, her thoughts and feelings echoed Nicole’s own.   

Sunday, May 1, 2016… Gus’s House—9:15 p.m. Mountain Daylight Time

After a rousing game of Life® that lasted more than two hours and ended with Gus coming out on top, and everyone else doing quite well in their own rights, they boxed up the pieces, agreeing that they’d all enjoyed the challenge. Even Wynonna admitted it was fun, and that she might be persuaded to play again sometime. But she made it known that she much preferred a game of poker, or darts, or pool. Those were games where she could kick ass—even Waverly’s—and they both knew it.  

Waverly returned the game to the closet in the den, and when she reappeared on the deck, she found Wynonna and Nicole arranging blocks of wood in the stone fire pit down below, while Gus gathered the fixin’s for S’mores in the kitchen. Not that they needed any more sweets, but a bonfire wasn’t a bonfire without S’mores.

She bounded down the back stairs, taking the short flagstone path down to the patio Uncle Curtis built for Gus a few summers ago. The patio was built of flagstone as well, rectangular in shape with a two-foot high flagstone wall with pillars at the corners surrounding it, and covered by a pavilion made of the same sturdy logs as the house. Fashioned similar to a drawbridge, the roof was retractable, allowing for stargazing on a clear night, while protecting the handcrafted furniture that surrounded the elegantly crafted square fire pit from the elements when necessary.

“Did you remember the popcorn popper?” Waverly asked Nicole as she drew near.

“You bet,” Nicole answered. “It’s in that old steamer trunk in my cargo hold.”

“Want me to grab it for you?” Waverly offered.

Glancing up, Nicole met Waverly’s gaze with a dimpled grin. She was certain there was a flirty joke in there somewhere, but she decided it would be inappropriate, especially given that Wynonna was within earshot. Instead, she shoved her hand into the front pocket of her jeans, retrieving her keys. “You wouldn’t mind?” she asked, checking in.

“‘Course not,” Waverly shrugged. “You’re doin’ all the heavy lifting here, haulin’ all that wood.”

Nicole grinned. “Thanks,” she said, tossing the keys to Waverly.

“Hey!” Wynonna exclaimed, sounding disgruntled. “What about me?”

Shoving Nicole’s keys into her pocket, Waverly planted her hands on her hips, and arched an eyebrow. “What about you?” she countered, smirking at her sister.

“Well, don’t I get some credit too?” Wynonna pouted. “It’s not like I’m not helpin’ out here.”

“It’s not a competition, Wyn,” Waverly reminded. And then she glanced at Nicole. “Don’t let her near the lighter. She tends to set more than the fire pit aflame.”

Dropping a log haphazardly on the pile, Wynonna stood upright, rolling her eyes. “That was once, Waverly,” she defended. “And Curtis said the lighter malfunctioned.”

“A likely story,” Waverly said wryly. Grinning at Nicole then, she promised to return shortly. And then she sprinted toward the far end of the driveway where Nicole’s SUV was parked beside her Jeep.

“It’s really not that dire,” Wynonna commented to Nicole once Waverly was out of earshot.

Nicole laughed. “You’re sisters, so I just assume there’s a lot of exaggeration involved,” she commented. “Listening to the two of you banter makes me miss my own sisters.”

Wynonna took a swig of her beer. “How many do you have?”

“Three,” Nicole answered, crouching down in front of the fire pit, lighter in hand. “All of ‘em younger.”

Nodding, Wynonna dropped down into one of the padded Adirondack chairs that circled the fire pit, as Nicole worked to start the fire. She propped the heel of her boot on the edge of the seat, and slung an arm over her knee, her half-empty beer bottle dangling from the neck between two fingers. “Guess you’re close to them, huh?”

Emotion-filled eyes lifting to meet Wynonna’s, Nicole smiled. “They’re the best,” she answered with obvious affection in her tone. And then she diverted her attention back to building the fire, meticulously placing kindling amongst the larger pieces of wood. “I’m lookin’ forward to seein’ ‘em in a few weeks.”

“Are they coming here?” Wynonna asked. She sounded apprehensive.

“No, I’m actually flyin’ out to Boston/Cambridge,” Nicole answered, as the kindling finally caught fire. Grabbing one of the iron fire pokers from the stand nearby, she expertly stoked the flames. 

“You’re leaving?” Waverly gasped, her demeanor clearly anxious. The mere thought of Nicole not being there made her heart clench with loneliness. “When?”

Noting the obvious distress in Waverly’s expression, in her tone, Nicole set the poker back into the stand, and stood upright, quickly moving toward her. She reached out, gently grasping her biceps. “Hey, it’s okay, Waves. I’m not leaving,” she soothed gently. “I’m just goin’ for Trini’s graduation from MIT.”

“Really?” Waverly questioned, sounding hopeful.

Curious about her sister’s behavior, Wynonna arched an eyebrow. What is it with these two? she wondered, but didn’t ask. Waverly was acting like a… She couldn’t even put words to it. Not yet, anyway. And so she just continued to watch.

“Yes, really,” Nicole reassured. “My whole family’s gonna be there. I’m so sorry. I thought I’d mentioned it to you.”

Waverly shook her head, indicating that Nicole hadn’t mentioned it at all. “How long will you be gone?”

“I’m gonna road trip back to Dallas with my sisters,” Nicole expounded. “Y’know, help Trini move her things back. And then I’ll fly back home from there. I’ll only be gone for about a week.”

Relieved beyond measure, Waverly wrapped her arms around Nicole’s waist, grasping her tightly, as she leaned into the solid strength of her. It wasn’t lost on her that only a few weeks ago, she would have waged an internal war over the mere thought of appearing to be emotionally needy in Nicole’s eyes. And now, she didn’t even hesitate to reach for her when she needed reassurance.

Nicole, on the other hand, definitely had a war waging inside her—the one that issued increasingly clamorous warnings every single time she held Waverly Earp in her arms. And once again, she chose to ignore them. Closing her eyes, Nicole rested her cheek against Waverly’s head as her arms folded around Waverly, pulling her closer; holding her far longer than necessary.

Once Waverly felt calm again, she pulled back just enough to meet Nicole’s steady gaze. “Home?” she questioned, recalling Nicole’s casual mention of the word, referring to Purgatory as her final destination.

Smiling down at her, Nicole pressed her palms against Waverly’s face, her thumbs tenderly caressing Waverly’s cheeks. “Yes, home,” she reiterated, emphasizing the word. “What part of ‘long-haul’ don’t you get, Waves?” she asked, her tone gentle, not critical.

“The part where you’re not going anywhere, I guess,” Waverly shrugged. “I’m not really used to that, Nicole.”

“Well, get used to it, okay?” Nicole said with a grin. “Because you’re not gettin’ rid of me that easily. Ya got it?”

Waverly smiled up at her. “Got it.”

From her seat near the fire, Wynonna continued to study them as she finished one beer, and popped the cap on the next. They were certainly a curious pair. And she’d never seen Waverly so unguarded with someone new. If she didn’t know any better, she’d have sworn they were… Nah. Couldn’t be. Waverly wasn’t into chicks. She was into Chumps, er… Champ—lord help them all.

Fortunately for her sanity, she thought, she didn’t have any more time to contemplate things, because Gus arrived, tray full of fixin’s for S’mores, in hand. With a few words to the girls, they walked with Gus back toward the fire, and the next portion of their evening commenced. And in Wynonna’s mind, the only thing that could’ve made the evening better would’ve been swapping out the beer and chocolate for whiskey and doughnuts.

But, she digressed…

Sunday, May 1, 2016… Gus’s House—10:00 p.m. Mountain Daylight Time

Forty-five minutes later, against a backdrop of an eclectic array of music that streamed from Waverly’s iPod, they were all talking and laughing together again, as they lounged around a flaming fire pit, drinking beer, and munching on fresh popcorn and perfectly toasted S’mores. The open-flame popcorn popper proved to be a hit with everyone, especially Waverly, who loved popcorn in just about any form. And when it came time to fix the S’mores, Nicole made a case for warming the graham crackers at the edge of the fire—the way she’d been taught in Girl Scouts. After a thorough teasing from Wynonna over actually having been a Girl Scout, the results where lauded as “brilliant,” even by Nicole’s tormentor. It made the S’mores a little messier to eat because the chocolate melted a bit more, but everyone agreed that the added crispiness of the graham crackers was well worth the mess.

As they snacked, Waverly and Gus took turns sharing anecdotes about camping trips they had taken with Curtis over the years—and they found themselves a little teary-eyed as they recalled nights similar to this, shared around the campfire. Try as he might, Curtis couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket, but he would plunk out timeworn whiskey drinkin’ cowboy songs on a beat up old guitar he’d had since forever; and Waverly would struggle to keep up on the guitar he’d picked up for her on one of his trips to the big city. It wasn’t fancy, but she loved it—and most of all, she loved that it came from him.

Much like Gus, Curtis was gruff on the exterior, but he had a heart of gold, and he’d loved them with every fiber of his being. He’d shown that love with the gift of his time, like teaching Waverly the things he knew, and taking them on little adventures like horseback riding, camping, and rafting, and fishing, and canoeing trips. And their love for him was evident in their tone, as they shared their memories with Wynonna and Nicole.

Hearing their stories made Nicole feel a touch of nostalgia for her own family, and all the adventures she’d shared with her parents and sisters. They’d taken so many trips when she was growing up, many of them involving themes similar to Waverly and Gus’s memories with Curtis; and even in her moment of melancholy, she found joy in knowing that these two wonderful women shared such beautiful moments with someone they so obviously loved.

Their stories felt bittersweet for Wynonna, as well, in that she was truly happy for both Waverly and Gus for the memories they’d shared with Curtis. But in the same moment, she felt sad, and maybe even a little envious, for not having shared those times with them. It made her angry—the unfairness of a world that had taken her away from the only family she had left, at the most vulnerable time in her life. But she’d never faulted any of them for it, only herself, and the system that treated her like damaged goods. In the moment though, she tossed that anger aside, determined to enjoy the stories told by the people who meant the most to her in this world—her Gus and Waverly.

When the emotions finally got the better of her, Gus rose from her seat. “Well, it’s been a long day. I think I’m headed inside for the night,” she announced, feigning a yawn to cover the presence of tears. “You girls stay out here as long as you’d like. You won’t bother me none,” she said, granting full permission for them to truly enjoy their evening. “Just make sure the fire is banked before you come inside.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Nicole said seriously.

“And given the amount of alcohol that’s been consumed tonight, I’ll expect to see y’all for breakfast in the mornin’,” Gus added firmly, as she gathered several empties, dropping them into the recycle bin near the edge of the patio. It wasn’t a suggestion.

Three heads nodded in unison, indicating the message was received loud and clear. Wynonna was the only one who might’ve argued, and even she had enough sense not to bother tonight—for more reasons than one. “Hold up, Gus,” she said. “I’m comin’ in with ya.”

“You don’t wanna stay with the girls for a bit?” Gus queried. It was highly unusual for Wynonna to give in to orders that she stay, let alone choose to turn in so early.

“Well, I do, but… I can’t,” Wynonna sighed. “I have to be in early. This adulting shit’s for the birds,” she declared, as she dragged herself from the chair.

Waverly giggled, as she collected some of the trash from their snacks, dropping it into the appropriate bins. “Suck it up, Sis,” she teased, drawing a sneer from Wynonna, and a chuckle from Nicole.  

An eyebrow arched. “There are far better uses for my sucking expertise,” she smirked, garnering chuckles from both Waverly and Nicole.

“Wynonna!” Gus exclaimed. She was so embarrassed she actually felt her face flush crimson. And then she sighed, and glanced at her youngest niece. “Waverly, you make sure Nicole has whatever she needs tonight.”

“Sure thing, Gus,” Waverly replied, as she hugged her aunt goodnight. “See you in the morning.”

“Thanks, Gus,” Nicole said genially. “G’night.”

“‘Night, Girls,” Gus called back, as she and Wynonna followed the footpath back toward the porch. Her voice could be heard chattering at Wynonna as they walked, and within moments, they disappeared into the house, leaving Waverly and Nicole alone by the fire.

Once they were out of sight, Waverly pulled some of the chair cushions down onto the patio floor in front of the seat she’d been sharing with Nicole. She sat down then, crossed legged, and leaning back against the wooden furniture, she patted the spot beside her with her hand.

Accepting the invitation without words, Nicole grinned, and scooted down next to her.

It was a perfect night. The roof was retracted, and they settled together near the fire, under a canopy of stars. This was one thing Nicole truly loved about Purgatory—the twinkling stars in the clear evening sky. Unlike the harsh lights and smog she’d endured while working on the police force in Dallas, it reminded her of evenings on her grandfather’s ranch as she was growing up. She and her sisters and their cousins had often camped out under the stars on those warm spring and summer nights. There was always a campfire, and plenty of junk food to go around. And most of all there was fun to be had by all.

And now here she was with Waverly, sharing a night so perfect it was a poem begging to be written. She leaned back, allowing the cushions to support her as she rested her neck against the edge of the seat behind her. “God, it’s so beautiful out here, Waves,” she murmured softly into the cooling night air. “Reminds me of bein’ out in the open fields at the ranch growin’ up.”

“You miss it,” Waverly said knowingly, as she moved closer to Nicole. Wrapping an arm around Nicole’s bicep, she leaned into her side, and rested her head against Nicole’s shoulder, gazing with her up at the stars overhead.

“I miss simpler times,” Nicole shared, her right hand lightly stroking Waverly’s arm. “It’s one of the reasons I came here—to find peace, and harmony, and… a real connection with the community I serve.”

“And you had to come all the way to Canada to find those things?” Waverly queried; a touch of tenderness in her tone. “You couldn’t do that closer to home and family?”  

“This is home now,” Nicole said with quiet conviction.

“You know, that’s the second time you’ve said that tonight,” Waverly pointed out, her intonation asking the question.

“I mean it,” Nicole assured.

“And family?” Waverly gently prodded.

“I’ll always be close to them, always miss them,” Nicole admitted. She turned her head, glancing at Waverly then. “But… I think I’m on my way to building a family of choice right here,” she whispered, her eyes slowly searching Waverly’s face. 

A tremulous smile flickered across Waverly’s lips. “I like the way that sounds,” she whispered.

“Me, too,” Nicole quietly agreed.

Waverly rested her head on Nicole’s shoulder again, relaxing against her. And Nicole pressed her temple against the crown of Waverly’s head, as they returned to their mutual stargazing. “You seem more like yourself again,” Nicole commented a few minutes later. “Feeling better about things?”

“What do you mean?” Waverly asked.

“You were… kinda distant tonight,” Nicole noted gently. She’d noticed right away that while Waverly was physically close to her all evening, she’d seemed emotionally disconnected in a way Nicole had never experienced. “After I told you about Boston.”

“The thought of you being gone makes me sad,” Waverly confessed.

Nicole brushed her hand over Waverly’s, squeezing gently. “I won’t be gone long,” she reassured. “And we can talk every day.” And then she released Waverly’s hand, only to have Waverly grasp hers in return. Their fingers intertwined as if by design. 

“I don’t think we’ve even gone a whole day without seeing each other since the first night we spent together,” Waverly commented.

“There’s always Facetime,” Nicole suggested.

“It won’t be the same,” Waverly said, sounding forlorn.

“For me, either,” Nicole agreed.

“I’ll miss you so much, Nicole.”

Delivered on an affectionate whisper, Waverly’s confession tugged at Nicole’s heart. Glancing up, she tumbled into Waverly’s gaze, where they held one another captive for far longer than necessary; both searching, neither making a move to tear away.

Reaching up, Nicole brushed a tender thumb along Waverly’s cheek. “I’ll miss you, too, Waves,” she whispered. “More than you could possibly know.”

Waverly’s heartbeat tripped beneath her ribs. And in that moment, she once again felt that overwhelming need to kiss Nicole—and so much more. It was so strong that it terrified her. Not that Nicole was a woman—that didn’t bother her in the least. But that she felt such a penetrating need for her. All the frickin’ time! 

Slowly, her tongue flitted across her lips, wetting them, as he heart pounded erratically in her chest. “Nicole, I…”

A nervous smile flickered across Nicole’s face. “You never did tell me what I won this afternoon,” she murmured softly. Her own heart thudding so powerfully in her chest that she was certain Waverly could hear it.  

“What is it that you want, Officer Haught?” Waverly whispered softly, her breath warm against Nicole’s face.

Her own breath catching in her chest, Nicole swallowed—hard—as she slowly searched Waverly’s intense gaze, that soft green now turned coppery in the firelight’s glow. Everything in her longed to give in to what she’d wanted from the moment she’d first set eyes on this woman. “You know what I want, Waves,” she whispered, her breathing now labored.

“What’s stopping you from taking it?” Waverly challenged. Her insides trembled, an amalgam of nerves and desire, and she prayed she wouldn’t lose her nerve.

“It’s not mine to take,” Nicole answered simply. She wanted Waverly Earp with every fiber of her being, but she would never take advantage of her in a moment of weakness, mutual as it may have been.

That disarming smile flickered across Waverly’s mouth, the warmth of her breath now mingling with Nicole’s, as she slowly searched those gorgeous russet eyes, the tiny flecks of gold and green glistening in the firelight. “What if I told you… I wouldn’t say ‘no’?” she posed, the heat in her belly igniting sparks, as her heart raced beneath her breasts. She hoped she sounded far more confident than she felt.  

A soft gasp fell from Nicole’s slightly-parted lips, and her entire body flushed with heat. Closing her eyes, she bit her lower lip, and then they flickered open, once again meeting Waverly’s own. “Waverly, what are you doin’?” she murmured, confusion in her tone.  

“If you have to ask, then I must be doin’ it wrong,” Waverly grinned tremulously.

“We shouldn’t be doin’ this at all,” Nicole whispered softly, as those warning bells once again clamored in her head. And yet, she couldn’t drag herself away.

“Probably not,” Waverly agreed, her belly coiling with excitement and desire, as she leaned impossibly closer. And then, with her mouth just barely a hairsbreadth away from Nicole’s own, she exhaled softly, “Nicole, please…” She was equal parts excited and terrified, and all she wanted was for Nicole to make the damned move—and let her off the hook. It would be so much easier if Nicole would just lead her out of her comfort zone.

Delivered on a pleading whimper, the sound of her name on those soft pink lips, the warmth of Waverly’s breath on her face, was nearly Nicole’s undoing. “Waverly…” she breathed, biting her lower lip again as she contemplated what she knew was wrong, and yet felt so completely right.

“Hmm-mm…” Waverly hummed, brushing her fingertips across Nicole’s lips to hush her protests. “Don’t say no…”

The last thing on earth Nicole wanted to do was to turn Waverly down. But that strong moral compass that had been ingrained in her since childhood insisted that she must. And so, with the last bit of self-control she possessed, those darkening russet eyes shuttered closed again, and instead of leaning closer, she moved away. “We can’t do this, Waves,” she repeated, this time more forcefully, as she gently separated herself from Waverly, seeking physical and emotional distance form her once again. She knew without a doubt that if Waverly pushed even a little bit more, she would shatter every single one of her defenses. That was the kind of power the woman held over her—and she didn’t mind it in the least. “I can’t do this…”

“Why the hell not, Nicole?” Waverly barked, yanking herself from Nicole’s embrace. She was far more hurt, than angry. But anger was easier to manage.  

Immediately, they both felt the loss, and within seconds, they were on their feet, the connection severed. “Because you have a boyfriend—and I have a conscience,” Nicole retorted, sounding much harsher than she’d intended. Quickly, she collected herself, saying, “Besides that, we’ve both been drinkin’, and I…”

“I’m not drunk, Officer!” Waverly snapped.

“I didn’t say that you were,” Nicole replied, her tone its usual calm again, as she reached for her. “But I don’t wanna end up bein’ somethin’ you regret.” 

I could never regret you. Waverly dropped her head. “You’re the one who swaggered into Shorty’s, carrying on about not wanting to wait when you see something you want,” she muttered accusingly, but that didn’t stop her from feeling like a two-timing ass, despite Champ’s own piss-poor behavior. And on top of it, now she felt like a fool for practically throwing herself at Nicole. Sometimes liquid courage was a backstabbing bitch.

Nicole emitted a short, almost embarrassed laugh. “Honey, that was mostly bluster and bravado,” she admitted. “I just wanted to make sure you didn’t forget my name.”

Despite herself, inside, Waverly softened. I can’t imagine ever forgetting anything about you, she thought, but didn’t voice. Outwardly, she stiffened her jaw. “Don’t call me ‘Honey’,” she snapped. “If you don’t want me, then don’t take liberties.”

“Not want you?” Nicole said, incredulously. How could you even think that? “Are you outta your frickin’ mind?”

“What, now you’re calling me crazy?” Waverly retorted.

“Of course not,” Nicole replied. “Please don’t put words in my mouth.”

“Why not?” Waverly challenged, eyes flashing. “You’ve made it perfectly clear you don’t want me to put anything else there.”

“Oh-hhh, when she’s angry, she is keen and shrewd!” Nicole muttered under her breath, quoting Shakespeare.

“Don’t be cute with me,” Waverly warned.

Witnessing their argument through the open window over the kitchen sink, Gus couldn’t help but notice the fire in Waverly’s ordinarily soft eyes. Nicole brought that fierceness, that passion, out in her. All that child’s life, Gus had watched her tiptoe around the edges, always careful not to take a misstep or make a mistake. Waverly watched life from the sidelines, instead of jumping in and truly living it. Ward, and all his careless ways, had been responsible for it all: for Waverly’s restraint—and Wynonna’s recklessness. Hell, even Willa’s death and disappearance. She had cursed her brother-in-law more times than she could count, for the hell that had rained down on her girls because of him.

And now, Waverly had finally found someone who was strong enough, confident enough to challenge her, and to bring out the very best of what she held so closely, so protectively inside. Gus’s heart ached to see her finally embrace the happiness she knew she could find with Nicole.

Christ on crutches! How did this get so far out of hand? Sighing, Nicole moved closer again. “I’m not,” she said, penitently. “I’m sorry for bein’ such an asshole. I don’t wanna fight with you, Waves.”

There were tears in Waverly’s eyes when she met Nicole’s gaze again. “I don’t wanna fight with you, either,” she sniffled.

Gently, Nicole touched Waverly’s face. “I want more than just a fling with you, Waverly,” she whispered. Hell, if it were just sex she wanted, she certainly wouldn’t have had to look very far. She’d had plenty of offers since arriving in Purgatory. But none of those women even turned her head for a moment—and they certainly hadn’t captured her heart. From the moment she first set eyes on her, Waverly Earp was all she could see. 

Sniffling again, Waverly nodded. “I’m sorry, Nicole,” she said quietly, chastising herself for messing things up again. “I shouldn’t be doing this with you. Especially not while I’m still with Champ,” she sighed.

Why are you, then? Nicole thought, but didn’t dare ask.

Waverly caught the questioning expression in Nicole’s hazy russet eyes, reading it without words. “I’m not just playing with you, Nicole,” she said softly, yet with conviction. “I would never do that to you. Least, not on purpose, anyway.”

“I believe you,” Nicole said softly. And it was true. They both knew it. She was quiet for a moment, contemplative. “May I ask you somethin’?”

Her eyes on Nicole, Waverly simply nodded.

“Why isn’t he here today?”

There it was.

Waverly had wondered how long it would take before Nicole asked about him directly; given all the time they’d been spending together. But she hadn’t expected her to be so upfront about it. Now, she actually wondered why, because Nicole had never been anything other than upfront with her from the moment they met. “Because I didn’t invite him,” she answered forthrightly.

“Why not?” Nicole asked. “I mean… he is your boyfriend, right?”

“Technically, yeah, I guess he is,” Waverly said noncommittally.

A sharp laugh burst from Nicole’s lips. “What does that even mean?” she asked, sounding uncharacteristically frustrated.

“Well, I haven’t officially broken things off with him…” Waverly shrugged.

“But?” Nicole pressed. Christ, it’s like pulling teeth!

“I haven’t seen him since he stormed out of the house that afternoon,” Waverly answered. “Heck, I’d barely seen him since Shorty’s memorial,” she admitted. “And honestly, I didn’t really even want to see him then.”

“Mind if I ask why?”

“I’m still really pissed at him over Wynonna,” Waverly answered bluntly.

“Wynonna?” Nicole’s tone begged the question.

“Yeah,” Waverly sighed. “Long story short, the day she came back to town, he tried to screw her in my apartment.”

Nicole’s expression was one of surprise. “And she was a willing participant?” She hoped she didn’t sound as angry as she felt.

Waverly shook her head. “It’s not what you think,” she said. “Champ was with Uncle Curtis when he died, and Wyn was just working him for information. She never would’ve slept with him.”

“But he would’ve willingly slept with her,” Nicole surmised, feeling relieved at the explanation for Wynonna’s behavior. She didn’t even bother asking about why Wynonna was so curious about Curtis’s death. She wouldn’t have gotten a straight answer anyway.

“And pretty much any other willing female in town,” Waverly said with a caustic laugh. Crossing her arms, she rolled her eyes.  

“Look, I’m the last person who should be giving you advice on your relationship,” Nicole admitted. “Ulterior motives, and all,” she grinned. “But you deserve so much better than that, Waves.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t exactly call your motives ulterior,” Waverly said, grinning. “Not in the true sense of the word, anyway.”

Nicole chuckled. “Touché,” she grinned, fully admitting that her motives where Waverly was concerned were anything but hidden. Hell, she’d been blatant about them from the moment she met the woman. “Point is, I shouldn’t say anything else.”

“You don’t have to,” Waverly replied. “Wynonna can’t stand him, and Gus is pissed as hell at him for what he pulled with Wyn. And I…”

Dropping her gaze, she bit her lower lip as she contemplated how she felt in her heart. She didn’t love Champ. If she were honest with herself, she’d have to admit that she never had; and even if he weren’t a lying cheat, she never would. So why haven’t I just walked away?

“You what, Waverly?” Nicole gently prodded, even as her own thoughts spun out of control. So much had just transpired between them, and so unexpectedly, that both her brain and body were on overload, and she struggled to find her equilibrium.

Drawn from her thoughts by the sound of Nicole’s voice, Waverly glanced up, meeting that searching gaze. Moving close again, she brushed her fingertips against the angle of Nicole’s jaw. “Just… don’t give up on me, okay?” she whispered pleadingly. “Please?”

The last time she’d heard something similar from Waverly—that night at the Pin Drop—Nicole wasn’t positive she was interpreting the meaning correctly. And so, she’d waited for a sign. This time, she couldn’t have been more certain—with that pleading tone in her voice reflecting in those green eyes that swirled with emotion, Waverly Earp was asking her to wait. A tender smile played across her lips. “I promised you, I never would,” she whispered. “And I always keep my word.”

“I know you do,” Waverly replied softly. “I just… I needed a little reassurance.”

“Well, you have it,” Nicole pledged.

“Thank you,” Waverly whispered, sounding desperately relieved as she wrapped her arms around Nicole’s waist once again, leaning fully into the solid strength of her. And as Nicole held her close, Waverly silently vowed to handle the situation with Champ before things got any more complicated—and in that same moment, Nicole vowed to remain patient and steadfast as she waited for Waverly, just as she’d promised. It wouldn’t be easy, she knew, given the intensity of their feelings—especially now that she knew without a doubt that Waverly felt them too—but she knew in her heart that Waverly Earp was more than worth the wait.  

Friday, May 27, 2016…  Shorty’s Saloon—3:30 p.m. Mountain Daylight Time

Yeah, Waverly, maybe just friends, Waverly groaned internally after being startled back to reality by the shattering of glass. She’d been so distracted by her thoughts that she walked right into the kitchen door, dropping the tray of empty glassware she was carrying. After all, it’s completely normal to plead with your friend to wait for you. It’s completely sane to beg her to kiss you!

What the hell was I thinking?

She hadn’t been thinking. That was the problem. Instead of thinking things through, she’d let her guard down, and just acted on her feelings. That was something she never did! Wynonna was the reckless one. Waverly calculated every move.

Until that night…

Her thoughts turned then to all the furtive glances and shy smiles, and how those exchanges had grown bolder over time. And she thought about the way her belly turned somersaults, and her heartbeat trilled every time Nicole looked into her eyes. Friends steal secret glances at each other, don’t they? And they get butterflies just looking at each other, right?



She sighed internally, as she bent down, picking up the larger broken pieces of glass and dropping them onto the tray. A moment later, Gus was there, broom and dust pan in hand. But she barely even registered her presence, so lost was she in thoughts of Nicole.    

No one had ever given her butterflies the way Nicole Haught did. All she had to do was think about her and the fluttering began—like now! And every time she looked at her, her brain stopped working, and she was rendered a babbling idiot. When she did finally manage to string a coherent sentence together, somehow it always seemed to morph into flirtatious banter. Friends flirt with each other, and they get jealous when they think the other person is flirting with someone else. Sure they do.

No, they don’t.

Her thoughts turned then to all of those sweet, tender touches, and the way Nicole’s hand felt in her own. They just… fit. And the warm sensation she felt each time she fell asleep in Nicole’s arms was the most comforting thing she’d ever experienced. Friends certainly hold one another all night long. They do—don’t they?

It didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that she was fooling herself—that they both were, and had been almost from the start. If she hadn’t known it before that night at Gus’s, she certainly knew it after. She still couldn’t believe what she’d done. Despite her insistence to Nicole that she wasn’t drunk, the liquid courage was to blame—or so she’d told herself, repeatedly, in the days that followed. Anything was safe except the truth; because contrary to the old adage, the truth did not set you free… it only left you hurting. Her aching heart was the living proof.

Just friends?

Yeah, right…

Friday, May 27, 2016…  Ghost River County Municipal Offices—3:30 p.m. Mountain Daylight Time

A few blocks away, Nicole Haught found herself contemplating the very same questions, and arriving at the same conclusions. Yeah, Waverly, maybe just friends, she thought sarcastically, when her attention was yanked back to the present by the crackle of the dispatch radio at the front desk. Thankfully, the call wasn’t for her. She couldn’t have concentrated on it anyway, too lost was she in her own ruminations. After all, most of my close friends have begged me to wait for them. They’ve all begged me to kiss them at one point or another, too.

As if.

She thought about all the covert glances and bashful smiles, and how they’d both become less guarded with one another over time, but never lost the sweetness of those exchanges. And she thought about the way her belly tightened, and her heart raced every time Waverly looked into her eyes. Friends steal secret glances at each other, don’t they? And they get butterflies just looking at each other, right?


No one had ever given her butterflies the way Waverly Earp did. All she had to do was think about her and that sweet flutter began, even when she was frustrated with her—like now. Sometimes just looking at her caused Nicole’s brain to short-circuit, leaving her completely tongue-tied. And when she wasn’t tongue-tied, she was flirting. Endlessly. Yep, friends flirt with each other. And they get jealous when they think the other person is flirting with someone else. Sure they do.

No, they don’t.

And then there were all the tender touches, and the way Waverly’s hand felt in her own. And then there was warm sensation of Waverly falling asleep in her arms. Nothing in her life had ever felt so right as holding Waverly through the night, or waking up next to her as the morning light streamed through the curtains, welcoming them to a new day.

Just friends?

Yeah, right…

After that night, she’d been so certain where they were headed. Everything about Waverly—words and actions—told her they would be together someday. They’d gone to bed with the agreement that while they would share Waverly’s bed, they wouldn’t sleep the way they usually did, as if their bodies were one—and they’d woken up entangled in one another’s arms anyway. Neither of them knew which one had moved first, and if they were honest, they would’ve admitted that neither of them cared.

Nicole remembered being on top of the world the following morning. And how the day spent with Waverly had done everything to keep that feeling alive. They’d saddled up the horses again, riding them down to one of the ponds on the property where they shared a picnic lunch on a blanket in the grass beneath a huge oak tree. They didn’t talk about anything that happened the night before; but it wasn’t awkward. It was just simply understood that everything would work itself out.  

Now, on the heels of Waverly’s comment about being just friends, a part of her wanted to be angry. But mostly, she just felt sad and alone. Even when they’d argued that night, it hadn’t lasted but a few minutes before they made amends. But today… it just felt like the hurt and misunderstanding would never end.

What the hell happened to cause such a complete turnaround?

It was that question upon which Nicole was pondering when her phone rang a few moments later. Her heart fluttered in her chest with a sense of hope that it might be Waverly. But glancing at her Caller ID, her heart sank instead. Despite herself, she smiled anyway. It was Kyler. And when she answered, Nicole didn’t have to ask why she was calling. She already knew.

TBC in Chapter 8—Closing Time…

Chapter Text

The Ten Times Waverly Earp was Definitely NOT on a Date with Nicole Haught


“Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.”

— Seneca (Roman philosopher, Mid-First Century AD) / Dan Wilson, Closing Time by Semisonic



Chapter 8 – Closing Time:


Friday, May 27, 2016…  Ghost River County Municipal Offices—3:45 p.m. Mountain Daylight Time

Setting aside the unanswered questions, Nicole hit the button to accept her sister’s call. “Hey, Counselor,” she greeted, struggling to keep her emotions in check. She had no doubt why Kyler was calling. Reeling from the misunderstanding with Waverly on the street that morning, and the subsequent, confusing exchange with her in the cruiser, Nicole had called her sister in tears, seeking an empathic ear. Thankfully, despite Kyler’s growing aggravation with Nicole for refusing to just go after what she wanted, she’d found exactly what she needed from her childhood rival and lifelong confidant. She still found it odd that such diametrically opposed roles could coexist in a single person, but they did, and she was grateful.

And now, here was Kyler, calling to check up on her, probably on her way home from work. In moments of distress, Nicole could always count on her to be both the voice of reason, and the mother hen, even when those roles too, were diametrically opposed. Leaning back in her chair, Nicole propped her right boot on the edge of her desk, hoping the casual physical demeanor would suffuse her, covering her mounting distress.

“Hey, yourself, Officer,” Kyler greeted, her tone serious. “Your day improved any since we talked this morning?”

Kyler wasn’t one for beating around the bush, and Nicole could hear the concern in her voice. “I still haven’t heard from her, if that’s what you mean,” she sighed.

“Have you reached out to her?” Kyler asked pointedly.

“Well, no,” Nicole answered.

“Because?” Kyler couldn’t wait to hear the excuse this time.

Delivered on an admonishing tone, the question sent Nicole scrambling for reasonable justification. “She’s at work, Ky. And you know how I feel about texting when it’s important. That’s just asking for an argument.”

“Come on, Cole,” Kyler snapped. “How long are you gonna pussyfoot around this?”

She sounded pissed, and Nicole couldn’t stand that. “Wow, you’re really not pulling any punches today, are you?” she responded. It wasn’t a question. “Why are you so angry with me about this?”

“I’m not angry,” Kyler exhaled, relenting. “I’m frustrated. And I’m concerned, because I know how tender your heart is, and right now, it’s being ripped in two. I can’t stand to see you like this.”

“I know,” Nicole empathized. Kyler only wanted what was best for her. But she felt paralyzed when it came to Waverly. “But you don’t need to worry about me. I’m fine.”

“Ever the one in denial,” Kyler sighed. It was Nicole’s Achilles heel; if one could ever find a weakness in her. Most couldn’t. That’s why it had driven her so crazy, growing up in Nicole’s shadow.

“What can I say?” Nicole replied, a shrug of her shoulders evident in her tone. “It serves me well.”

“You’re in love with that girl, Cole,” Kyler pointed out unnecessarily. “Can’t deny that.”

“Not helping here!” Nicole grumbled. Lifting her coffee mug, she took a sip. It was tepid; much like her mood toward this conversation. She sighed internally, and set the mug down on the desk with a loud thump.

“Hey, you know me,” Kyler said with a teasing lilt. “I’m like a dog with a bone; I never let go.”

“Don’t remind me,” Nicole said dryly.

“So when are you gonna bite the damned bullet, and do somethin’ about it?” Kyler pressed.

“I can’t,” Nicole answered. “And you know it.” It didn’t matter how long it took; it had to be Waverly’s choice. Waverly had to be the one to come to her. She was adamant about that.

“Can’t… or won’t?” Kyler challenged.

“She’s not ready, Kyler,” Nicole insisted.

“Sure sounded like she was ready the night of that bonfire,” Kyler pointed out unhelpfully.

“She asked me to be patient, and wait for her, Kyler,” Nicole reminded. “And that’s what I’m doing.”

“Even if it tears your heart out?” Kyler challenged.

“You annoy the hell outta me sometimes, you know that?” Nicole groused, avoiding the question. 

“So you’ve told me,” Kyler grinned. “And I love you too.” She paused for a breath, then asked, “You gonna be okay?”

“I’ll be fine,” Nicole assured. “Promise.”

“Look, I know I’m being a pain in the ass about this, but… I’m concerned about you, Cole,” Kyler said gently. “I’ve never seen you cry over a woman before.”

A faint smile touched the corners of Nicole’s mouth as she thought of Waverly. “I’ve never met a woman who was worth my tears... Until Waverly,” she said with a touch of wistfulness in her tone. “Believe me, once you meet her, you’ll understand.”

“Yeah, well, the two of you had better work this shit out before then, or I might just have to strangle her,” Kyler said, only half-joking.

Nicole laughed. “Duly, noted.”

“Seriously, Cole. Call her. Text her,” Kyler encouraged. “Hell, send smoke signals if you have to,” she teased, drawing a grin from her sister. “Just do something, for Christ’s sake. It doesn’t have to be a long, drawn-out conversation. Just… reach out, and let her know you’re thinking of her.”

“I’ll think about it,” Nicole said noncommittally.

Kyler sighed. She knew that was the best she would get out of Nicole—at least for the moment. “You annoy the hell outta me sometimes too, y’know,” she grumbled affectionately.

Her tone was harsh, but Nicole could hear the smile on her sister’s lips. “Talk later,” she said, knowing the conversation was over.

The line went silent then, leaving her alone with her thoughts once again. A faint smile flitted across her lips, as she remembered the morning Waverly dropped her off at the airport for her flight to Boston. As much as she’d looked forward to seeing her sisters, and enjoyed the time spent with them, a part of her was sorry she hadn’t been home when Waverly finally dumped Champ on his ass. If she’d been there, then maybe, just maybe, things would be different right now.


Friday, May 6, 2016… Calgary International Airport—5:00 a.m. Mountain Daylight Time

“Wow, this place is practically deserted,” Waverly noted when they entered the terminal at Calgary International Airport. She’d never been inside the airport before, so she had no idea what to expect. Still, it seemed surprisingly empty, even for five in the morning. Thankfully though, that meant they had no issues spotting the check-in kiosks and personnel for Nicole’s airline. Waverly decided to focus on that. It was better than the alternative—actually dealing with the fact that Nicole would be gone. For a whole entire week! It was unfathomable.

“Most airports are this time of the morning,” Nicole commented distractedly, her own thoughts of leaving Waverly behind foremost in her mind. It’s ridiculous, she thought. We’re not even together, and I can barely stand the thought of being away from her.

“How long’s your flight?” Waverly asked, continuing with idle conversation as they walked toward the ticket counter. There was only one ticket agent, and a handful of people standing in line. From what she could gather, most people just used the check-in kiosks nearby.

“‘Bout four and a half hours,” Nicole answered. She carried a garment bag containing several “suitable” clothing options, as her grandfather would put it, including a rather elegant black dress for Trinity’s graduation party. Nikolas Haught did not suffer the presence of blue jeans or sweats at his dinner table—even when it wasn’t in his own house. And so she had packed accordingly. The fact that she could have traveled with less cumbersome baggage if not for him was not lost on her. Sometimes, the man was insufferable. The remainder of her clothing, toiletries, and the like, were packed in the well-organized backpack that was slung casually over her right shoulder. And tucked beneath the backpack, she had a small carry-on with her laptop and Kindle to keep her occupied during the flight.  

Nodding, Waverly casually draped an arm through Nicole’s, her shoulder brushing Nicole’s bicep as they walked. “You’ll text me when you get there?”

Tilting her head, Nicole smiled down at her. “The minute we touch down,” she said reassuringly.

“Maybe you should wait ‘til you get to the gate,” Waverly said. “You know, once you stop moving.” She knew it was ridiculous, but she couldn’t shake the fear of something happening to Nicole—the fear that she would go away, and never come back.

“Would you like me to text you at every stoplight on the cab ride to Trini’s, as well?” Nicole teased lightly.

Waverly made a face at her, playfully swatting her arm. “Don’t make fun,” she chided.

Laughing, Nicole dropped her backpack and garment bag to the ground, gathering Waverly close as they stood in line at the ticket counter. “You worry too much, Waves,” she casually declared, hoping her sense of calm would alleviate some of Waverly’s fears. And then she smiled into those soft green eyes, marveling at how they looked almost a light brown against the suede vest Waverly was wearing over a lightweight cream-colored sweater. “I’ll be back before you can even miss me,” she said—an attempt at making them both feel better. It failed miserably.

“It’s already too late for that,” Waverly confessed. Leaning into her, she looked up into those clear russet eyes. “I started missing you the moment you told me you were leaving.”

Nicole felt the sharp pang of longing in her chest. You say the most incredible things to me. She struggled to hold her composure. “Well, maybe that means it’ll get easier while I’m gone, and you’ll be fine by the time I get back,” she suggested with a shrug, a smile tugging at the corners of her mouth.

“Not a chance,” Waverly declared.

“For me, either,” Nicole admitted. “But I promise, we’ll Skype or Facetime every day. Even if I have to hide in the bathroom to get a little privacy,” she joked.

Waverly laughed. “Yeah, I guess privacy comes at a premium with four girls in one apartment,” she granted.

“You have no idea,” Nicole said dryly. “Thank God my parents and grandparents are staying in a hotel.” She sounded as relieved as she looked.

The line moved forward, and Nicole gestured that they needed to move with it. Reaching down, she grabbed her bags with one hand, keeping her other arm fastened securely around Waverly’s waist. And when they’d shuffled a few feet closer to the counter, she dropped the bags again. Over the next several minutes, they moved along in fits and starts, chatting casually as they waited their turn with the ticket agent. And finally, with passport, ticket, and I.D. in hand, Nicole checked in and turned her bags over for the flight.

A few minutes later, they were walking down Concourse B toward the final security checkpoint where they would have to say goodbye. The closer they moved, the more they both dreaded it. And for the first time in her life, Nicole found herself wishing for a long security line. But given the early hour, she knew it wasn’t likely at all.

“You get home next Saturday night, right?” Waverly asked for the umpteenth time since Nicole had announced she was going out of town the previous weekend.

“Yep,” Nicole confirmed with a playful grin. “Fight lands at eight thirty.”

“Sure you don’t want me to pick up?” Waverly offered again.

“Absolutely not,” Nicole answered firmly. “You have your party already planned, and Nedley has me on the graveyard shift. I’ll grab a ride back to my place, shower and change, and head straight to work.”

“You could come home a day early, y’know,” Waverly suggested.

“I’d love that. But no can do,” Nicole replied regretfully. “My folks have a big shindig planned for Friday night, in honor of Trini’s graduation. The whole family’s gonna be there.”

Disappointed, Waverly frowned.

“I’ll see you on Sunday, right?” Nicole asked, attempting to brighten Waverly’s spirits.

Grinning, Waverly clapped her hands excitedly. “I can’t wait,” she declared. They’d made plans to spend the day fishing out at Gus’s place, and then to have dinner with her that evening. She was far more excited about spending the day with Nicole, than she was about the fishing. But Nicole didn’t need to know that.

Christ you’re adorable, Nicole thought, watching Waverly’s excitement. “Think Wynonna would wanna come along?” she asked, seeking a distraction.

Waverly arched an eyebrow. “I’m beginning to think you have a thing for my sister, Officer Haught,” she said teasingly.

“Wanna know my favorite thing about Wynonna?” Nicole asked, locking her gaze on Waverly’s.


Delivered with a hint of uncertainty, Waverly’s response made Nicole grin. “Her smart, quirky, beautiful… little sister,” she declared.

Blushing, Waverly smiled, and nibbled her bottom lip adorably.

“I don’t have thing for Wynonna, Waves,” Nicole said sincerely. “I know you guys are kind of reestablishing your relationship right now, and I just don’t want her to feel left out.”

Overwhelmed by Nicole’s endless capacity for empathy, Waverly’s heart tripped in her chest. “You’re amazing,” she breathed.

Nicole blushed at the compliment. “So you think she’d come along?”

Scrunching up her nose, Waverly shook her head. “Not a chance. She’s too antsy for fishing,” she said. “Can’t stay still long enough.”

“I should’ve known,” Nicole chuckled. “So… You wanna grab breakfast at Mama Olive’s when I get off shift?” she suggested. “We could head out to Gus’s right after.”

“That sounds great,” Waverly readily agreed. She hoped Hetty wouldn’t be working that morning. There was always something weird about that girl, but she’d seemed even more… off… when she and Wynonna ran into her at the restaurant late last night.  

When they reached the entrance to the security line, Nicole shuffled her feet, feeling increasingly nervous as the moments ticked toward their inevitable separation. Clearing her throat, she smiled. “Thanks for takin’ care of Stormy while I’m gone,” she said sweetly. “I was gonna have Nedley look in on her, but… she likes you better,” she winked.

Waverly vaulted an eyebrow. “Can you blame her?” she intoned.

Laughing, Nicole gathered her close. “I’m gonna miss you, Waves,” she murmured against Waverly’s ear.

Wrapping her arms around Nicole’s waist, Waverly leaned into the solid strength of her. “I’m gonna miss you too, Officer Haught.”

They held one another for far longer than either necessary or prudent; neither of them wanting to be the one to let go. But finally, Nicole forced herself to pull away, just far enough to search Waverly’s face, to gaze into her eyes.   

Waverly knew it was time then. Gently grasping Nicole’s face in her hands, she lifted up on her tiptoes, brushing her lips against Nicole’s cheek. “Travel safe, okay?” she whispered.

The tenderness in Waverly’s tone, in her eyes, nearly brought Nicole to her knees. All she could do was nod in response, as she bit her lip to keep it from trembling. Brushing her fingertips against Waverly’s cheek, she swallowed hard, and then with one last glance, she turned, and walked away.

Friday, May 6, 2016… Cambridge, Massachusetts—2:15 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time

Seven hours later, Nicole finally arrived at Trinity’s apartment in Cambridge, just a few miles away from the MIT campus. She paid the cabbie, collected her bags, and then paused on the sidewalk to text Waverly. The exchange was brief, but pleasant as always, and once she was finished, she practically ran to the main entrance, where she punched in the code for her sister’s unit.

The flight had been riddled with thoughts that she probably shouldn’t have been thinking, and her heart still ached with the pain of leaving Waverly, but at least the tears had ceased to fall. She hoped the latter was true for Waverly, as well. And now that she was finally here, all she wanted was to relax for a little while, and enjoy the time with her family.

It only took a few seconds for the door to buzz—like they were standing there on top of it or something. Grinning, she opened it, and raced up the stairs to the second-level apartment where Trinity and Kyler were waiting to welcome her with open arms. She dropped her bags unceremoniously in the middle of the hallway, and ran toward them, all of them squealing like excited little girls when they met halfway. None of them knew how long it lasted, but when the squealing finally ended, Nicole took a moment to really look at them.

“Wow, you two look amazing,” she declared. It felt like ages since she’d last seen them, despite their frequent Skype and Facetime chats. “The new cut suits you,” she said to Trinity of her shorter locks. It was a bold choice for her, and Nicole really liked it.

“Thanks,” Trinity grinned. “I just had it done yesterday.”

“And you…” Nicole intoned, taking Kyler’s hand, and spinning her around. “Looks like you’ve been hitting the gym pretty hard.”

“Nah,” Kyler said dismissively. “I just chalk it up to a lot of really great sex. Getting engaged really bumped up Kendalyn’s game,” she bragged with a wiggle of her eyebrows.

Jealous, Nicole groaned in response. Both of her sisters laughed.  

“You don’t look so bad yourself, Cole,” Kyler granted. “I guess sexual frustration suits you,” she tormented.

Nicole challenged her with that look. “Don’t even start.”

“Who, me?” Kyler countered innocently. 

Trinity just shook her head, and snatched Nicole’s backpack from the floor. The two of them never stopped. Not that she would want them any other way. Kyler followed suit, grabbing the garment bag, and together, they ushered Nicole toward the apartment.

“Love what you’ve done with the place,” Nicole said drolly, eyeing the stacks of boxes scattered around the living room once she and her things were finally inside. Instinctively, she kicked her sneakers off just inside the door.  

“Oh, shut up,” Trinity muttered, stashing Nicole’s backpack on the far side of the sleeper sofa, while Kyler hung the garment bag in the coat closet near the front door.

Nicole laughed. “Actually, it kinda looks like it did the last time I was here,” she teased.

“That’s because you haven’t been back since you helped move me in here. Two years ago,” Trinity admonished, emphasizing the timeframe. She had lived in the dorms for the first two years, and then decided to move off campus starting her Junior year.

“Guilty as charged,” Nicole granted. The expression on her face said she regretted the lengthy absence.

“Well, you’re helping me move back home, so I guess I can forgive you,” Trinity said in a grudging tone, as she draped an arm around Nicole’s waist. But the grin on her lips gave her away. 

“Gee, that’s awfully big of you,” Nicole said dryly.

Trinity just laughed, and squeezed her tightly.  “I’m glad you’re here.”

“When’s the kid get here?” Nicole asked, referring to their youngest sister. She’d noticed her absence immediately.

“Uh, the kid is already here,” Hayley said, appearing from the kitchen where she’d been busy preparing lunch for the four of them. She tried to sound annoyed as she emphasized the unflattering nickname Nicole had called her, but the bright smile on her face belied her cantankerous manner. “And you’d better watch it with the name calling, or I might just poison your lunch,” she teased.

Nicole’s smile widened the moment she set eyes on her baby sister. For a moment, all she could do was stare at her. She looked so beautiful, so much like their mother, standing there in jeans and a Patriots jersey, her thick mop of streaky blonde waves pulled back in a messy tuft, those striking blue eyes sparkling like sunshine on the ocean, and two perfectly symmetrical dimples accenting her cheeks. She looked so grown up; Nicole could hardly believe it had been less than three months since she’d last seen her. She had to gather her wits about her before she could speak again. “Well thank God you’re in charge of the food. Your poisoned lunch is still a shit-ton safer than Trini’s best effort,” she said drolly.

“Hey!” Trinity protested, snapping Nicole’s arm with the back of her hand. “My cookin’s never killed anyone.”

“Not yet…” Kyler supplied unhelpfully.

Trinity scowled at her.

The sting had already dissipated when Nicole turned toward Trinity, giving her a disgruntled look in response to the physical reproach. “Ouch!”

Trinity rolled her eyes. “You’re an awfully big sissy for a former Marine,” she accused, playfully tugging the bill of Nicole’s Marine’s ball cap.

Ignoring her, Nicole turned her attention back to Hayley. “I didn’t expect you to be here so soon,” she said, with excitement in her tone as she moved across the room. “Oh, my god, Hayles, get over here.”

It only took a moment for Hayley to jump into Nicole’s waiting arms, squealing excitedly as she practically strangled her with the force of her hug. The last time Hayley had hugged Nicole this tightly was the day Nicole returned home from her second tour in Afghanistan. “I’ve missed you so much!” she exclaimed.

“I’ve missed you too,” Nicole said affectionately.

Once Hayley released her, Nicole gently grasped her biceps and leaned back, simply taking her in once again. Her stocky, athletic frame seemed to show off more curves and more muscle than it had just a few months earlier. Her muscles were leaner, more well-defined. She’d clearly been working hard toward her goals. “You look great, Hayles,” she said proudly.

Hayley beamed, her blue eyes dancing. “Thanks, Cole,” she said, clearly pleased by the praise from her big sister.

Nicole vaulted an eyebrow then, eyeing her sister’s jersey. “Patriots, huh?”

Delivered on a teasing lilt, the comment disguised as a question made Hayley grin. “When in Rome,” she shrugged.

Nicole laughed, and draped an arm around her baby sister. “How’s my favorite Snugabug?” she grinned, pressing a kiss to her temple.

Hayley rolled her eyes. “Are you ever gonna stop callin’ me that?”

Nicole arched an inquisitive eyebrow. “Would you really want me to?”

“Not really, no,” Hayley giggled. Impulsively, she hugged Nicole again. And then she grasped her hand, pulling her toward the sofa. “Lunch won’t be ready for another half hour. Come sit with me.”

Willingly, Nicole complied. “Where are Mom and Dad? Grandparents?” she asked as they settled in for a chat. She knew they would all be there. They always were. And the rest of the family would celebrate with Trinity at the party the following weekend.

“They’re at the hotel,” Trinity reported. “We’re supposed to meet them for dinner at seven thirty.”

“Great! So what’ve we got planned until then?” Nicole queried, as she curled her long legs and tucked her feet up beneath her.

“We’ve got plenty of time for you to tell us all about this woman you’ve met,” Hayley declared. She was so excited she squeezed Nicole again as she cuddled up next to her on the sofa.

“There’s not that much to tell,” Nicole said, almost warily.

“Yeah, I call bullshit on that,” Trinity challenged. So far, only Kyler had been granted any details, and Trini hated being left out of the loop. “Now spill.”

“You’re as bossy as your older sister, you know that?” Nicole accused.

Trinity smirked. “Which one?”

“Funny,” Nicole said without humor.

“So come on,” Hayley nudged. “Tell us about her!”

Nicole couldn’t hold back the grin that teased at the corners of her mouth. “Waverly is… incredible. She’s really smart, and… she’s funny, in a quirky sort of way. Gosh, she makes me laugh so much. And she’s tough, but she’s really tender too. And sweet. And she’s… awkward in the most adorable way, and… she’s beautiful. God, she’s so damned beautiful she makes my heart hurt.”

The more Nicole gushed, the more excited Hayley became, until finally, she was squealing as she hugged her again. “Oh, my god, you are seriously in love with this girl!”

“Okay, okay,” Nicole said, attempting to extricate herself from her sister’s stranglehold. “I think you’re gettin’ a little ahead of things here.”

“You should marry the girl before she gets away,” Trinity declared in a tone that tolerated no argument.

Nicole grimaced. “Marry her?” she said doubtfully. “I need to get her to agree to a date first—don’t ya think?”

“Oh, please,” Kyler said dismissively. “I’ve seen the pictures. You’ve been dating for weeks.”

Arching an eyebrow, Nicole barked out a sarcastic laugh. “Tell that to Waverly,” she said wryly.

Hayley gasped and Trinity squealed. “You’ve got pictures?” they said in unison.

“Hand over your phone,” Trinity demanded, opening and closing her hand in a motion that said “gimme.” At the same moment, Hayley planted her hands on her hips, demanding to know why she hadn’t already seen them.

Laughing, Nicole leaned back into the sofa, and shoved her hand into her pocket, retrieving the phone.  

The moment it was free, Hayley grabbed it from her hand, and then Nicole stood from the sofa, walking toward the kitchen.

“Hey, wait a minute!” Hayley whined. “You didn’t unlock it. What’s the code?”

Pausing at the entrance to the kitchen, Nicole smirked. “The bossy one demanded my phone, but neither of you asked me to unlock it,” she tormented. Sometimes a little power was entertaining. “Have fun, girls. I’m gonna get some of this lunch. It smells fabulous.” And then she disappeared into the kitchen, leaving them to their own devices.

Friday, May 27, 2016…  Shorty’s Saloon—3:45 p.m. Mountain Daylight Time

“Hey, Waverly…”

The sound of Champ’s voice startled Waverly, causing her to visibly cringe. He hadn’t dared show his face at Shorty’s since the day she dumped him—at least not during one of her shifts. So why was he here today?

Waverly steadied herself by taking a deep breath, releasing it slowly. Turning toward him, she made a real effort not to grit her teeth as she plastered on her best fake smile. “Champ,” she said flatly. She reached below the bar, grabbing a cardboard coaster, and slapping it onto the smooth, shiny surface of the bar. “What can I get you?”

Offering her a sheepish look, Champ shoved his hands into the pockets of his jeans, and shrugged. “Another chance?” he said, his tone begging for absolution.

“Excuse me?” Waverly said incredulously. 

“Come on, Waverly,” Champ whined. He rounded the edge of the bar, sidling up to her before she could block his path. “Just give me a chance to prove myself.”

Raising her eyebrows, Waverly blew out an exasperated breath. “You’ve had more than your fair share.”

“Just one more. Please?” Champ begged. “I love you, Waverly. I swear things’ll be different this time. I’ll even get you that ring I owe you—if that’s what you want.”

Before he finished his declaration, his hands were on her waist, and she struggled to free herself. “Knock it off,” she commanded, shoving him away.

He stumbled backward, crashing into the countertop behind the bar. Noticing the men at the bar were staring at him, his face flushed in embarrassment. When he righted himself, he flashed a confident grin their way, and moved toward her again. “Aw, Babe, don’t be like that,” he whimpered.

“I’m not your babe,” Waverly snapped.

“You okay, Waverly?” Pete York asked, pausing his game of pool when he noticed the physical scuffle between them. He’d meant it earlier when he said that Champ never had treated Waverly right. Too bad she’d shut him down before he could ask her out. Maybe this was his way in, he thought.

“Yeah, I’ve got this,” Waverly called back. “Thanks, Pete.”

And then she turned her attention back to the source of her irritation. “I’m sorry, but… it’s closing time, Champ,” she said in a tone that brooked no dispute. She knew now, without a doubt, exactly who she wanted to take her home—and it sure as hell wasn’t Champ Hardy. Now, if only she could find the courage to actually tell her.

“What?” Champ’s face contorted in confusion. “What in fuck are you talkin’ about, Waverly?” he grumbled. “It’s not even four in the afternoon.”

Waverly rolled her eyes. Was he really that dense? “It’s over, Champ,” she reiterated. “And I’m moving on. I suggest you do the same.”

“Is this about that fuckin’ cop?” Champ snarled. “Officer What’s-‘er-Name?”

“It’s Officer Haught,” Waverly corrected once again. “And no, this isn’t about Nicole.”

“Bullshit!” Champ snapped. “I’ve seen the way you look at her. You never looked at me that way.”

“I didn’t dump your sorry ass because of Nicole, Champ,” Waverly firmly insisted. “I dumped you because I deserve to be treated like a person, not your personal property, or a conquest. And I deserve not to be cheated on by some jerk who would try to screw my own sister—in my bed!

“So this is about Wynonna,” he sighed. When was she gonna let that shit go!

“Among others,” Waverly replied. “I’m not an idiot, Champ. And I’m not deaf, either. I hear the gossip. I know you’ve screwed half the girls in this town.”

Shrugging, Champ’s face adopted a decidedly smug expression. “And yet you stayed.”

“Not anymore,” Waverly said determinedly. “Now I think it’s time for you to go.”

“Fine,” Champ huffed. “But you’re missin’ out on the best you’ll ever get,” he announced loudly enough for the entire bar to hear. Pivoting on his heel, he shuffled toward the door.

“Oh, I beg to differ, Champ. There’s nowhere for me to go but up from here,” Waverly retorted at equal volume. “And next time you see my Jeep outside, don’t bother to come in,” she called after him. What she heard in return was the sound of finality, as the front door slammed shut behind him.

Shaking her head, she returned to her previous task, her mind drifting back to that final day spent with him. The memory left her with far more questions than answers.

Friday, May 6, 2016… The Earp Homestead—10:00 a.m. Mountain Daylight Time

“God, there’s just so much!” Waverly noted, as she and Champ worked to unload the back of his pickup. He’d been at Gus’s at the crack of dawn, helping them sort through some of Curtis’s things. She felt guilty because as much as she appreciated his help, she wished Nicole had been with her then… and now. But Nicole was in Boston with her family. And Waverly was stuck here… with Champ.   

“Yeah, Curtis spent the last few years of his life hand-picking it, from the Badlands to the Rockies,” Champ commented, sounding unimpressed.

Waverly sighed as she dropped another box to the ground. “And you know that because?”

“‘Cause every time he went out, I did two things: Drive and dig,” Champ answered. “Curtis had a nose for buried stuff. He’s kinda like you, uh… into the past of where things come from and stuff before today, uh…”

Seriously, Champ? Waverly thought, staring at him in complete disbelief. Mentally, she shook her head. “You mean like ‘history’?” she supplied helpfully as she stared up at him on his perch atop the tailgate of his truck.

Leaned over slightly, his gloved hands on his knees, he was grinning at her like a fool. “Yep,” he confirmed. He moved forward and leaned down, tapping beneath her chin with his finger. “How can somebody so pretty be so smart, huh?”

Annoyed, Waverly groaned, the warmth of her breath turning to billowing clouds in the cold morning air. She couldn’t believe there was snow on the ground again. “Because they’re not mutually exclusive,” she muttered under her breath, gritting her teeth as she turned away from him.   

He hopped down from the tailgate. “Mm… ‘Member the last time we got mutually exclusive?” he said, reminding her of things she wished she could forget. “Now that was historic, eh?”

Laughing nervously as he neared her, she purposely moved away.

But he persisted. “Huh? Right?” he pressed. Grabbing her from behind as she reached into the back of the pickup, he pressed himself against her. 

She struggled against him. “Babe—” she protested, as he wrapped his arms tighter around her, pulling her close, holding her almost possessively. “Not in front of my legacy,” she insisted, moving her arms to break free of him.

Aggravated, he back off. What the fuck was her deal lately? It was like she was allergic to his touch. Hell, she barely even wanted him around!

Noticing something loose amongst the boxes and other assorted items in the back of the truck, Waverly reached in. “What’s this?” she wondered aloud. “Oh, my God. Uncle Curtis…” she said, pulling an envelope from between two boxes. Her name was scrawled across the front in bold capital letters. She turned toward Champ. “It’s his handwriting.”

“Uh-huh,” Champ intoned, indicating that he wasn’t the slightest bit interested. Still, he asked, “What is it?”

Opening the envelope, Waverly pulled out a handwritten note: Every day I sit, my beautiful mug in front; there is but one tune. C.

“It’s… a poem,” Waverly answered.

Sticking out his tongue, Champ blew raspberries; a contemptuous sound, to say the least. “There once was a girl from Nantucket…” he laughed, grabbing Waverly again from behind. “Huh?”

Waverly looked beyond annoyed, but before she could protest, the front door opened, and Wynonna appeared on the front porch. “Hands off my sister, Nine Seconds,” she ordered, the screen door slamming as she moved across the front yard toward them.  

“It was eight seconds,” Champ corrected, referring to the length of a qualified bull ride in rodeo competition. “Loser,” he muttered beneath his breath.

Waverly stifled a laugh. God, he was a clueless idiot sometimes. Thankfully, she was distracted from his idiocy by the sound of Wynonna’s voice calling her name. She turned, slipping the note back into the envelope as she moved toward her.

“In your research, you come across any ‘cattle rustlers’?” Wynonna was asking. “Tate family?”

Waverly thought for a moment. “Yeah, sure,” she acknowledged, squinting against the bright morning sun as it reflected off of the snow. “I guess somewhere along the way they went legit because they eventually morphed into Tatenhill. As in Tatenhill Farms? Totally organic operation, grass-fed…” she was saying, when she was once again distracted by Champ, who had climbed back up into the bed of the pickup. And then she gasped, her eyes snapping back to Wynonna. “No! Neck Tat?” she queried in low tones, recalling their conversation back at Mama Olive’s Diner the night prior.  

“Think so,” Wynonna answered, raising her eyebrows.

In the back of the pickup, Champ yanked the tarp free, catching Wynonna’s attention. She gasped loudly, her eyes widening, as she shoved Waverly aside.

“Ow!” Waverly gasped when she hit the ground. “What the hell?” she muttered, as she attempted to right herself.

But Wynonna was completely oblivious to her, those blue eyes widening in excitement as they landed on the motorcycle that was tied down in the back of Champ’s pickup. “Twelve Hundred Stage One Screaming Eagle!” she reverently exclaimed.

“Yeah, I hauled it for Waverly,” Champ said casually.

Back on her feet, Waverly stated, “No, Curtis’s will stipulated that the bike does go to Wynonna.”

She looked rather pleased with her announcement, but Champ looked like he was suddenly constipated. “What?” he groused.

Wynonna’s entire body vibrated with excitement, as a screaming, squealing laughter flowed from deep within. And then she practically growled, “Ohhhhh, I knew we were soulmates!” as she scrambled to get into the back of that pickup.

“Ohhh!” she exhaled again, grasping the bike, and mounting it. And then she actually purred, as she fondled it. “What am I gonna name this sexy beast?”  

Amused, Waverly watched her sister fawning over and getting acquainted with the bike. It made her heart smile to see Wynonna so excited about something. Unfortunately, the moment was cut short by Doc’s arrival, asking to bend Wynonna’s ear—in private. And she once again found herself alone with Champ. And for the next two hours, she forced herself to endure his crass comments and repeated sexual advances, unwanted as they were. Why was she still with him again?

Why, indeed.

Friday, May 27, 2016…  Shorty’s Saloon—4:00 p.m. Mountain Daylight Time

Yes, why indeed? Waverly wondered as she set another two cases of bottled beer on the floor behind the bar. Sliding the cooler door open, she continued the process of stocking in preparation for the Friday night crowd. Why had she stayed with him for so long, when he was clearly no good for her? It was a question she’d pondered, time and again, not only in the weeks since she’d dumped him, but beforehand, as well. If she’d ended things with him the first time she’d felt inclined to, she would’ve been free to explore what she felt for Nicole from the start. Would that have scared her even more? She guessed she’d never know.  

Rising from her stooped position, she scanned the room, doing a cursory check-in on the handful of afternoon patrons scattered about the saloon. There were a few locals grabbing a bite to eat at random tables. The York boys were shooting another game of pool, as per their usual on a Friday afternoon. There was a rousing game of darts in progress, and a couple of Shorty’s old buddies were downing shots at the far end of the bar.

Other than the regulars, and the woman who had come in earlier, the saloon was empty. Not that it was unusual for the place to be so sparsely occupied at this hour of the day, especially on a weekday. Sheriff Nedley would be in soon for his afternoon coffee and conversation with the locals. Waverly could always count on seeing him on a weekday afternoon. It was his way of keeping his finger on the pulse of goings on in Purgatory. And business would start picking up around eight o’clock, steadily increasing as the evening wore on.

For now though, she couldn’t help but notice the dark-haired woman with the accent, who sat at a table near the back of the saloon. She was being joined by another vaguely familiar-looking woman, presumably her wife. Waverly didn’t have to presume for very long. The woman stood from her seat, smiling brightly as the other approached, a single red rose held between her fingertips. And when they were near enough, they embraced, the newcomer’s hands sliding around her wife’s slender waist with practiced ease. Pulling her close, she held her firmly, yet not possessively, as they shared a decidedly intimate kiss. 

Intrigued, Waverly leaned forward against the bar and clasped her hands together, watching them. She found herself aching to be held and kissed by Nicole in that same way. The yearning was so sharp, so piercing, that she needed a distraction. But she couldn’t tear herself away. Instead, she focused on details as she studied them. In sharp contrast to the designer jeans, stylish boots, and elegant sweater worn by her wife, the newcomer was dressed in sneakers, faded jeans and a light gray baseball jersey that read Chicago across the front. Her dark hair pulled back in a messy mass, she wore a matching Chicago Cubs ball cap on her head. And tucked beneath her left arm, she carried a holstered gun that looked much like the one Nicole carried when she was off duty. That was certainly curious.

Waverly watched with increasing interest then, focusing on the newcomer’s movements. Handing the rose to her wife—who smiled and kissed her in return—the woman pressed her hand gently against the small of her wife’s back, leading her back to her seat, offering a hand as she sat back down. Despite her resolve not to think about it, Waverly couldn’t help but be reminded of the feeling of having Nicole’s hand pressed against her that same way anytime Nicole was leading her somewhere, like out of the Pin Drop or when they were leaving Mama Olive’s, or… the examples were countless, the memory so vivid that she could swear the felt the warmth of Nicole’s hand on her right now. It made her belly do that somersault thing again.  

Shaking it off, she forced her attention back to the women. While clearly relaxed, the woman moved with a measured, efficient precision that reminded her of Nicole. Of course it did. She had Nicole on the brain, and couldn’t seem to shake her. At first, she wondered if she might just be losing her mind. But the more she watched, the more convinced she became that the woman was in some sort of law enforcement—obviously high-ranking. Not that it mattered. Except that she reminded Waverly so much of Nicole—the way she was dressed, the way she moved, the gun. Just thinking about it was driving her to distraction.

It was then that the first woman caught her gaze, signaling for the previously offered menus. Waverly smiled and nodded, indicating that she would be right with them. And then she moved swiftly to gather the menus and two sets of wrapped silverware, before making make her way across the bar.

“Hi! Welcome to Shorty’s,” Waverly greeted, flashing them a smile as she set the menus and silverware on the table in front of them. And then she tilted her head adorably. “I understand you’re up for a bite to eat this afternoon.”

“Afternoon,” the newcomer said, glancing up at her with a smile and a nod. “And yes, we’re definitely ready to eat. Heard this place has the best burgers south of the Big City.”

“Indeed, we do,” Waverly smiled, pleased that their reputation remained untarnished. “And our seasoned fries are absolutely to-die-for.”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” the woman said. “Thanks.”

“Bring you something to drink while you check over the menu?” Waverly offered.

“What do you have by way of imports?” the woman with the accent asked. “My wife is kind of a beer snob,” she said in a tone that made it sound like a guilty pleasure.

The other woman looked suitably offended, but only for a moment. And then she grinned good-naturedly. “I admit it. It’s true,” she confessed, leaning back casually in her seat. “I love a good import.”

Again, Waverly couldn’t shake the sense of déjà-vu. But she brushed it aside, and chuckling at the woman’s lighthearted candor, she nodded. “I can certainly appreciate that,” she said, truly meaning it. And then she rattled off the available imported brews from memory.

“I’ll have the Fürsten Trunk, thanks,” the woman said upon hearing the German pilsner style brew being offered as an option. It was a longtime favorite.   

“Bottle or mug?” Waverly asked.

“Bottle is fine,” the woman answered.  

“Sure thing,” Waverly said. And then she glanced at the other woman. “Another for you?” she offered; the sense that she’d met them before growing stronger by the moment.

“Yes, please. And thank you.” 

Unable to brush the feeling aside anymore, Waverly glanced from one woman to the other, and back again. And then she sighed, her expression an amalgam of curiosity and confusion. “I’m sorry, but… have we met before?” she asked. "The two of you just seem so familiar to me, but I can’t quite…”

Deep blue eyes sparkled beneath the brim of that ball cap as a bright smile emerged. “I wondered if you recognized us. We met on the hiking trail at Lake Louise a few weeks ago, but we never actually introduced ourselves.” The woman held out a hand in greeting. “I’m Langston Malloy,” she announced. “And this is my wife, Dani.”

Accepting the proffered hand, Waverly offered that beguiling smile. “Waverly Earp,” she greeted. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, or… see you again, I guess is more appropriate.”

“Likewise,” Dani said with a warm smile.

Tilting her head, Waverly studied Dani for a moment. “You took our picture,” she said, finally putting the last of the pieces together. They’d chatted with a handful of people on the trail that day, the majority of them being less than memorable; but she remembered the two of them vividly now.

“I did,” Dani confirmed with a nod. “You and your partner make a lovely couple.”

Momentarily thrown, Waverly’s brow furrowed. And then her eyes widened. “Oh, you mean Nicole,” she said, trying to brush off the comment. “She’s not… I mean, we’re not… Uh, we’re just…” she stammered, her hands suddenly fidgeting.

“You’re just what?” Langston smirked, humor dancing in her blue eyes. She was more amused than she should have been by the fact that Waverly looked so flustered; but she didn’t care. “Friends?”

Waverly frowned. “Well, no. We’re more than that,” she admitted. “We’re…” Suddenly at a loss for words, she shrugged. “I don’t know what we are,” she sighed. “And it’s driving me crazy!”

Dani grinned as she glanced at her wife. “I know the feeling,” she confessed, remembering Langston’s hesitation during their younger years.

“Well,” Langston said with a sense of contemplation in her tone. She’d been down this road before—with Dani. They’d known one another literally since birth—their mothers were best friends. And they’d somehow fumbled haphazardly into love as teenagers. Their story was long, and sometimes rough, but they were happier now than they’d ever been, and Langston enjoyed seeing others find that same kind of happiness whenever possible. “What would you like to be?”

“I…” Pausing, Waverly considered the question. Probably for the first time, she really considered it. And then she smiled. “I wanna be her everything,” she whispered, more to herself than to the two of them, even as she wondered why in hell she was admitting such things to a couple of complete strangers. Odd for her, indeed.

“What’s stopping you?” Dani asked. Given all that she and Langston had been through, she truly understood the fragility of life, and how it was just simply too short to waste time hesitating. As a result, she was known for her attempts to help people find happiness together. So much so that Langston often teased her, calling her a hopelessly romantic matchmaker. Dani couldn’t argue. 

What’s stopping me? Waverly wondered. Nothing but my own uncertainty. She knew it was true. Especially after she finally found the guts to dump Champ on his sorry ass. A part of her wished that Nicole had been home that day, instead of being in Cambridge with her sisters. She was certain she would have run right to her, despite her earlier declaration to Champ that Nicole had nothing to do with her decision to end things with him. Conversely, a part of her was actually glad for the opposite; and that Nicole had pushed her away that night in front of the fire. She’d acted on impulse that night—something she never did—and she’d wavered back and forth about it ever since.

An awkward laugh tripped from her lips. “God, that was hokey,” she declared, embarrassed by her own ridiculous comment.

“Nonsense,” Dani said with the wave of a hand. “If that’s how you feel, then own it.”

“Exactly,” Langston readily agreed. “And trust me, the way that girl was lookin’ at you in those pictures, you already are her everything.”

Blushing, Waverly averted that piercing blue gaze. “You really think so?” she asked shyly, thinking once again what an odd conversation this was to be having with complete strangers. And yet, she wasn’t sorry.

“Do you have any of those pictures on your phone?” Langston asked. She was betting the girl had them all on there.

With a sheepish smile, Waverly nodded.

“Take a look at ‘em, and tell me you don’t see it too,” Langston encouraged. 

Dani grinned. “And you call me the matchmaker,” she teased, bumping her shoulder against Langston’s.

Casting an affectionate glance toward her wife, Langston said, “Some days, we’re equally guilty.”

Waverly didn’t need to actually look at the pictures. She knew exactly what Langston saw in them, because she’d seen it too. Every time she looked at them; which was often. “I think I’m in love with her,” she admitted, more to herself than to them. Where the hell did that come from? she wondered as she stood there, her thoughts scrambling for some sense of equilibrium. 

Gleeful, Dani grinned. “And what are you gonna do about that?”

Suddenly remembering she wasn’t alone, Waverly shook her head in disbelief. “Wow,” she said a bit nervously. “I can’t believe I’m having this conversation with the two of you,” she actually said out loud this time.

Tilting her head, Langston peered up at her from beneath the brim of her cap. “My apologies, if we’re out of line,” she said sincerely. “The two of you just seemed so happy together, we assumed…”

“Oh! No, of course not,” Waverly was quick to assure. “You’re not out of line at all. It’s just that… I’ve never admitted it out loud. Least not to anyone but Nicole.”

“Wait,” Dani said, sounding surprised. “She knows how you feel?”

“More or less,” Waverly shrugged. “I mean, she knows I’m interested. Not that I’m in love with her.”

“So… what’s holding you back?” Dani asked again.

“You know what, Dani?” Waverly sighed. Tilting her right hip, she braced her hand against it. “I’ve been asking myself that question for days. Weeks, actually,” she quickly corrected. She wondered again why it was that she was telling these women her business. And then she realized it was because they felt safe—they didn’t know her; didn’t have any expectations of her. And they had no reason to judge her. “Ever since I broke things off with my high school boyfriend.”

Dani hadn’t been oblivious to Champ’s presence earlier; she just simply chose not to mention it. Based upon Waverly’s response to him, it seemed he was irrelevant to the situation. Instead, she reached out, giving Waverly’s arm a gentle squeeze. “Maybe it’s about time you figured out the answer.”

Waverly offered a tremulous smile. “Yeah, I guess maybe it is.” Again, she glanced from one to the other. “If you’ll excuse me?” she requested. “I’ll be back with your drinks in a moment. And I can take your order whenever you’re ready.”

“Sounds like a plan,” Langston readily agreed. “Thanks.”

Nodding, Waverly took her leave then, her thoughts wandering back to later that final day, when she’d finally ended things with Champ, once and for all. God, that day had been liberating! For so many different reasons. She hadn’t broken things off with him because of Nicole. She was certain of that. But the decision definitely opened the door to possibility with her; and yet, when the opportunity came, instead of running toward it, once again, she’d run away. And now she was left questioning why.

Friday, May 6, 2016… Shorty’s Saloon—1:00 p.m. Mountain Daylight Time

“Your uncle’s last wish was to go to the bar?” Champ sounded unimpressed. “What, did he want you to pour some out for his homies?”

Waverly rolled her eyes and shook her head, ignoring him to focus on the note. “Every day I sit, my beautiful mug in front…” she mumbled, reading the contents aloud.

Walking the floor, she contemplated both her uncle’s words and her surroundings. “There is but one tune.”

When she made her way around the bar to Curtis’s chair, she pointed to it. “Here. Look, he sat here… every day,” she said, tapping her neatly manicured fingernails on the plaque that was bolted to the back of his seat. And then she climbed into it.

“Yeah, but what about a ‘beautiful mug’?” Champ contemplated aloud. “Old dude drank whiskey. From a glass,” he said, chewing on a swizzle stick.

“Yeah…” she sighed quietly, her face holding a pensive expression. “Mug…” she whispered, her eyes moving around the room, taking it in from the vantage point of Curtis’s seat. “Mug…” she repeated. And then her gaze fell on the mirror at the back side of the bar. It was quite a distance away, but it was directly in front of his chair. “My beautiful mug,” she said, staring into her reflection. A satisfied smile teased at the corners of her mouth.

Leaving the chair, Waverly wandered the bar again, tapping the note as she contemplated out loud. “Tune… Tune… Did he have a favorite drinking song or something?”

“Shit, with his voice?” Champ responded, as he leaned over the pool table, cue in hand. “Like a bunch of drunk ferrets gangbanging.” He made what were supposed to be ferret sounds, but came out more like monkeys, as he lined up his shot.

Waverly sighed. Champ was so useless sometimes. “You know, when I was little, he used to sing to me at bedtime.” She chuckled at the memory. “He used to dance around like… like an idiot. Gus would be yelling at us to like, ‘Shut the hell up’,” she recalled, mimicking Gus’s tone with fondness.

And then she moved back to Curtis’s seat. Climbing back in, she began to sing: “All around the cobbler’s bench, the monkey chased the weasel. The monkey thought it was all in fun…”

She paused when she noticed the open piano in the reflection behind her, and rising from the seat, she walked toward it, stealing a furtive glance toward Champ, who wasn’t paying her any attention anyway. “All in fun…” she sang again. Reaching the piano, she played the final notes of the song, as she sang, “Pop goes the weasel…”

As soon as she hit the final note, there was a loud bang from beneath the keyboard. Waverly gasped, and looked beneath to find a trap door had popped open.

Immediately, Champ’s attention returned to her. “If you aren’t the smartest thing on two amazing legs,” he declared as he rushed to her side.

“Oh, my…” Waverly intoned, bending down to pull the contents from Curtis’s secret hiding place.

“Oh, my god, oh, my god,” Champ rambled from behind her. “I hope it’s a million dollars. We could open a little bar down in, um, Buenos Aires. Huh? I’ve always wanted that for us.”

Uncovering the box’s contents, Waverly jumped back. “Ew!” she exclaimed. And then she reached out again, pushing back the aging cloth. “Oh, my god,” she breathed, lifting the contents from the box—it was a skull. “Oh, my god, it’s a real dead guy.”

The expression on her face was a mixture of curiosity and disgust as she studied it. There was another note, this one stuffed into the mouth of the skull. She pulled it out, carefully unfolding it. Champ leaned over her shoulder as she read: “Waverly, darling, you are now the Keeper of the Bones. Guard this and tell no one but the Blacksmith. You’re the only one I can trust. Love, Uncle Curtis.”

The idea of being trusted so completely filled Waverly with excitement and joy. She smiled at the skull, regarding it like a treasure.

Champ looked less than enthused. “I can’t believe Wynonna got the Harley,” he groused under his breath.

But Waverly barely even registered his presence, as she contemplated her relationship with her uncle. “He always said I was meant for bigger things,” she recalled fondly, as she settled the skull back into the box. Lifting it, she moved away from the piano. “Paid for every one of my crazy online courses—you know, dead languages, offbeat history. God, it used to drive Gus nuts.”

Setting the box with the skull on the table near the piano, she craned her neck toward Champ. “But he believed in me. I can’t think of a better gift—The Keeper of the Bones.”

Champ slid his arms around her, pressing into her from behind, as he leaned his chin on her shoulder. “You know, you’ll always be the keeper of my boner,” he murmured, grinning at her own wittiness as he nuzzled against her neck, as if that were some sort of life-altering romantic truth.

Waverly visibly cringed.

“Huh? Come on; let’s shut that brain off a little while,” Champ said insistently, as he pulled her closer against him. He was already hard—she could feel him when he pressed against her from behind, and it really pissed her off.

She tussled with him, shoving him away to gain her freedom. “No! I don’t want my brain shut off!” she said in a tone that left no room for argument.

Clearly pissed, Champ stepped away. He moved toward the bar where he took a seat, adjusting himself to alleviate at least some of the discomfort. Tight jeans and a hard-on didn’t exactly mesh.

Seething green eyes followed him the entire way. “Okay? I don’t want to be a barmaid in Buenos Aires,” she spat. “And it turns out that a boner and a pickup aren’t the whole enchilada.”

Champ looked decidedly annoyed by her comments, but he said nothing. He simply rubbed his eye and looked away.

“No,” Waverly said, her tone as pensive as the expression on her face.

He released a long sigh.

“We’re done,” Waverly announced, the decision dawning on her like a revelation. The relief she felt in the mere utterance of those words were indescribable. It was so incredible she said them again. “Yeah. We’re done, Champ,” she repeated, this time with more confidence and a deep sense of liberation. And then she looked at him. “And I’ve got work to do,” she announced, grasping the box and lifting it from the table. And not even registering that he looked completely dumbfounded, she left him there with nothing but his boner to keep him company.

Friday, May 27, 2016… Shorty’s Saloon—4:15 p.m. Mountain Daylight Time

Waverly couldn’t help but smile as she recalled the depth of Uncle Curtis’s faith in her. It was unshakable. She was the only one he could trust to be the Keeper of the Bones. He’d said so himself in that note. Nicole believes in me with that same kinda blind faith, she realized. She tells me things that she doesn’t tell anyone else. And she believes I’m capable of so much more than even I can fathom. She couldn’t ask for anything more.

It was with those thoughts in mind that she returned to her customers—the intriguing women at the table in the back—with drinks in hand. “Here we are, Ladies,” she said warmly, as she set the open bottle of Fürsten Trunk in front of Langston, and the mug of light draft on the thick cardboard coaster by Dani.  

“Thanks so much.”

“Thank you,” they said in unison.

Smiling, Waverly nodded. “Have you had a chance to look over the menu?”

“Yeah,” Langston said casually. “We’re ready to order.”

“Great!” Waverly declared. “What can I bring you?”

Waverly nodded and smiled, answering questions and memorizing their orders, not writing anything down. It was something she could do in her sleep, like most experienced servers. And when they were finished she said, “Excellent choices. I’ll have your order up in about fifteen minutes. Can I bring you anything else while you wait?”

“No, we’re good, thanks,” Langston answered for both of them, as Dani nodded her agreement. She reached over, taking her wife’s hand into her own. “We’re just gonna enjoy one another’s company while we wait.”

Gazing adoringly into Langston’s blue eyes, Dani smiled. “It’s nice to have an evening out without the kids,” she said, more to Langston than to Waverly. It was something that they very rarely did, and they were both thankful to Langston’s aunt for offering to watch them for the evening.

“Oh, you have kids?” Waverly said, a sudden swell of happiness for them rising up within her. She couldn’t explain why.

“Yeah,” Langston said. “McKenna and Aydan.” Her tone was an amalgam of sheer awe and deep pride as she said their names. No matter how much timed passed since the first time she’d held them, nothing ever diminished those feelings. Just thinking of them brought a fresh wave of gratitude and joy.

The tone of Langston’s voice caught Waverly off-guard, making her miss what she never had—parents who treasured her. Gus and Uncle Curtis loved her, but even they never spoke of her with such deep devotion—at least not that she ever heard. She fought hard to stifle the tears that threatened to spring free and cascade down her cheeks. “Sounds like you love them very much,” she said quietly. “They’re lucky kids.”

“We’re the lucky ones,” Dani declared, her own eyes prickling with tears. “They’re the most amazing kids.” They’d been through a lot to have them, and they viewed both McKenna and Aydan as precious gifts that they would never take for granted.

“I think every parent says that, Love,” Langston commented, grinning at Dani. And then she glanced sheepishly at Waverly. “Sorry…”

Waverly laughed. “No, don’t apologize,” she said, brushing it aside. “You should bring them with you, if you come in for dinner again.”

Langston looked surprised. “They can be in here?”

“Sure,” Waverly answered with a shrug. “Shorty’s is considered a pub, so they can be in here during the afternoon and dinner hour when most of our sales are from food.”

“That’s good to know,” Langston said. “Thanks. We just might do that.”

“All right, well, I should probably get your order in so you’re not eating dinner at midnight,” Waverly said jokingly; a means of excusing herself politely.

“Sounds good,” Langston said. “Thanks, Waverly.”

Waverly nodded then, and took her leave. She was grateful for whatever it was inside her that gave her the strength not to cry as she listened to the two of them talk about their children. Reaching the kitchen, she relayed the order to the cook, and then she ducked into the office on her way out. She needed a few minutes to compose herself before returning to the floor.

Instead, she found her thoughts focused on the two women again. They looked to be in their early forties, and she wondered how old their children were. Not that it mattered. She was just curious. She was curious about their story, their lives, and she wasn’t exactly certain why. She wondered briefly if Nicole ever thought about having children. She certainly never had. Not with Champ anyway. The fact that she was even weighing the question as she contemplated a future with Nicole scared the shit out of her. But not enough to make her stop pondering it.

Thankfully, she was yanked from her thoughts by Nedley’s anticipated arrival. He was never late for that afternoon cup of coffee. What surprised her was that Dolls was tagging along. He didn’t look any too pleased to be there. But then, he never looked any too pleased to be anywhere. Except when Wynonna was around. Even when her sister was screwing up, Dolls couldn’t hide the fact that he was attracted to her. She wondered briefly if he even realized how much it showed. And then she decided it didn’t matter.

Gathering her wits, she plastered on her best welcoming smile as she moved across the bar toward Nedley. “The usual, Sheriff?” she asked politely. But she already knew the answer—at least to that. Now, if only she had answers to the questions that burned deep inside.  

Friday, May 6, 2016… Shorty’s Saloon—6:30 p.m. Mountain Daylight Time / Boston, Massachusetts—8:30 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time

Dinner with the Haught family was set in Harbourview, the upscale in-house restaurant at Harbour Bay, the luxury BGRC hotel where most of the family was staying, on the waters’ edge, overlooking Boston Harbor. Reservations, set months in advance, had procured them not only the best suites in the hotel, but also the best table in the house, allowing for a picturesque view of the Boston landscape on the horizon—a stunning backdrop for the many boats gliding along in the harbor, the fading light of day shimmering against the rippling waters left in their wake.

The conversation around the table was polite, subdued—nothing like the animated conversations between the Haught girls earlier that afternoon—as they perused the menu, selecting their soups, salads, and entrees. They were part way through their main course when Nicole felt her phone vibrate in her pocket. She reached for it without thinking, and found a text message from Waverly on her lock screen, saying: So… I kinda broke things off with Champ today.

Her heart lurched in her chest, and she could feel the reverberations in her stomach. A thousand questions blazed through her mind. From across the table, her grandfather leveled her with a glare, and she averted her gaze guiltily. She knew better than to touch her phone at his dinner table.  

Drawing in a deep breath, she exhaled slowly. “Excuse me, please,” she said politely, glancing around the table, making eye contact with everyone other than her grandfather. “I have to take this.” Lifting her neatly folded cloth napkin from her lap, she set it beside her plate as she slid her chair back and rose from her seat.

“Everything all right, Sweetheart?” her mother asked, an expression of concern on her face.

“I’m not sure, Mom,” Nicole said, brushing nonexistent wrinkles from the fabric of her black linen trousers. “I’ll be back just as quickly as possible.”

“The only people who matter are those sitting at this table, Nicole,” Nikolas Haught declared, his voice harsh and adamant. “Now put that insufferable gadget away, sit down, and finish your dinner.”

“I respectfully disagree, Grandfather,” Nicole said politely. “This is important. I’ll finish my dinner when I get back.” Her tone was firm, but she was shaking inside. She glanced around the table again, adding, “Please, don’t hold your meal on my account.” And with that, she turned, making her way toward the front of the restaurant, and out the door into the fresh air awaiting her on the pier.

The heels of her dress boots thumped against the cobblestone as she walked along the water’s edge, her thoughts lost on how best to respond to Waverly’s announcement. She didn’t want to call her—Waverly had texted for a reason, she was certain. And she wanted to weigh her words carefully, so as not to come off as being insensitive. Was she excited to hear that Waverly was finally finished with Champ? Absolutely! But what if Waverly was hurting as a result? She would never want to compound those feelings. And she also didn’t want to assume things she had no right assuming.

Finding a bench along the walkway, she lowered herself down onto it, crossing her long legs elegantly. She was the picture of grace and refinement, in a sleek black linen pant suit, a crisp white button down shirt beneath, her thick auburn locks swept up from her graceful neck, and clipped back in a relaxed, yet stylish up-do, thanks to Trinity’s expertise. Trini was the girliest of the Haught girls, by far, and Nicole always relied upon her when it came to fashion, and how best to wear her hair when it was important.

From her vantage point, she could see the clock tower in McKinley Square. It was brightly illuminated, accenting the time; and it taunted her, the minutes ticking by, as she continued contemplating what she should say. Finally, she unlocked her phone and opened the message, for the first time noticing the random emoji of a ladybug that followed Waverly’s message. It made her burst into laughter. What the fuck? she thought, shaking her head. It was so like Waverly to add some awkwardly random tag to something so deeply personal—a means of assuaging the discomfiture. She felt better then, less worried about the tone of her response, and she began to type, saying: Are you okay? Did something happen?

Right as rain, came the response, almost immediately. It was like Waverly was hanging on for a reaction. Nothing happened, really. Just more of the same. I should’ve done it a long time ago. Just didn’t have the guts, I guess.

Nodding, Nicole smiled. And now? she texted, realizing too late that the question could have a double meaning. She quickly clarified, saying: I mean… What gave you the courage to do it now?

Waverly grinned as she read the follow up text. It was just like Nicole to clarify immediately to avoid a misunderstanding. I realized that I want and deserve so much more than anything he could ever give me.

You deserve the world, Waves, Nicole replied. And I wanna give it to you, she thought, but didn’t text.

Waverly’s heart skipped a beat. I miss you like crazy, but I hope you’re having fun with your sisters.

I am, Nicole responded. I’m actually at dinner with them right now, so I’ve gotta go. I just wanted to make sure you were all right. And I miss you too. Like… super crazy.

Talk later? Waverly inquired. She couldn’t wipe the goofy grin from her face.

Absolutely, Nicole assured. I’ll call after the girls go to bed.

Can’t wait, Waverly texted, her heart thrumming in her chest.

Counting the minutes, Nicole answered. And then she closed her text messaging app, and locked her phone. A few minutes later, she meticulously smoothed out those nonexistent wrinkles again, and reentered the restaurant, making her way toward the table where her family waited, her heart growing lighter and more hopeful with every single step.

Saturday, May 7, 2016… Cambridge, Massachusetts—2:00 a.m. Eastern Daylight Time

“I really miss you, Cole,” Hayley whispered as they lay together in the sofa bed in Trinity’s living room later that night. Kyler had claimed dibs on sleeping in Trinity’s room with her the moment she walked through the door that morning, leaving the sofa bed for the eldest and youngest of the Haught sisters. “When are you comin’ home for good?”

Nicole’s heart practically broke from the sadness in her baby sister’s voice. She remained silent for several moments, collecting her thoughts and weighing her words carefully. “Dallas isn’t home for me anymore, Hayles,” she said gently. “I can’t go back to that. Not after what happened.”

“I know you don’t wanna go back to the Dallas P.D., but… couldn’t you be a deputy in some Podunk town in South Texas or somethin’?” Hayley asked. “Someplace closer to home?”

“Not with Grandfather’s reach,” Nicole answered forthrightly. “He’s got cronies all over the state, and he’d never let it happen. You know he hates me bein’ a cop.”

“Sometimes I really hate him,” Hayley scowled.

“Well, don’t waste your time or energy on that,” Nicole cautioned. “The only person you’ll end up hurtin’ is you.”

Hayley knew Nicole was right. But right now, she just needed to be angry with him. His relentless need for control had cost her something precious—time with the person she loved most in the world. “Why’d you have to go all the way to Canada?” she groused.

“It just felt… right,” Nicole answered. “And I’m glad I did. If I hadn’t, I wouldn’t have met Waverly.”

Hayley snuggled closer to her big sister, laying her head against Nicole’s shoulder. “You really want a future with her, don’t you?”

Here in this safe space, with only Hayley to hear, Nicole let her guard down completely. “I think so,” she answered quietly. “Someday. If she’ll have me.”

“Does she know?” Hayley asked.

The tone of her voice told Nicole that Hayley wasn’t referring to Nicole’s thoughts about a future, but to her past and the incident that prompted her move to Canada. She shook her head. “I haven’t told her yet,” she said. “I will though. There’s no way I could keep something like that from her. Especially not if we’re gonna be together.”

“You should tell her soon,” Hayley said with warning in her tone. “Before someone else does.”

“Well, my boss Nedley is the only one who knows,” Nicole reported. “And he’s not sayin’ a word. He’s a fair man—a bit gruff, but fair. I started clean there, and so far, everything’s goin’ great. The town, the people, they’re fantastic. For the most part, anyway. And Waverly’s family is startin’ to feel like my own.”

“Can’t say it makes me happy to hear we’re bein’ replaced,” Hayley pouted. “But I’m happy you’re fittin’ in.”

Tilting her head, Nicole brushed a kiss against Hayley’s temple. “Y’all aren’t bein’ replaced, Hayles,” she said reassuringly. “I’m just addin’ to my family. Just like Kyler did when she started datin’ Kendalyn. You’ll understand someday, when you meet the right person.”

“Person?” Hayley said quizzically. Nicole could actually hear the arched eyebrow in her tone. “You tryin’ to tell me you think I might play for your team?”

Her tone was light, teasing, and Nicole grinned in response. “No, I’m tryin’ to tell you that it wouldn’t matter to me either way. I make no assumptions.”

“I love you, Cole,” Hayley whispered on a contented sigh. Nicole was always accepting. No matter what ridiculous thing Hayley had said or done. It was comforting to know that would never change.  

“Love you too, Hayles,” Nicole replied. “Now go to sleep. Tomorrow’s gonna be a long day.”

Closing her eyes, Hayley nodded against Nicole’s arm. And within a few minutes, Nicole noted the slow, steady breathing that indicated she was asleep. She laid there with her for several minutes, savoring the moment the way she had when Hayley would sneak into her bed and curl up next to her at night when she was just a little girl. And finally, she slipped from the bed, careful not to wake her, and grabbed her phone from the end table. Sliding her feet into her sneakers, she quietly unlocked the door, slipping outside, and closing it carefully behind her. 

Saturday, May 7, 2016… Nicole’s Apartment—12:15 a.m. Mountain Daylight Time / Cambridge, Massachusetts—2:15 a.m. Eastern Daylight Time

Nicole took a seat on the bench just outside the main door into Trinity’s apartment building, and pulled her phone from the pocket of the sweats she’d worn to bed. She opened the Skype app, figuring free was better than the alternative, and quickly signed into her account. A moment later, she heard the familiar tune indicating the call was ringing on Waverly’s end.

When Waverly answered, her smile was as bright as the morning sun. It was obvious from the background that she was at Nicole’s apartment, and that simple fact made Nicole feel things she’d never even contemplated. Beautiful, wonderful things. “You’re at my place,” she said, the sheer joy of it bubbling up inside her. It was ridiculous, she knew, but she couldn’t help the way she felt.

“Just checking on Stormy before I head home,” Waverly reported. She’d gone to Nicole’s as soon as she finished her shift at Shorty’s.

“You’re welcome to just stay, if that’d make it easier for you in the morning,” Nicole offered. The idea of Waverly waking up there, even without her, was… comforting, in a way she’d never known. "Sheets on my bed are clean.”

“I just might do that,” Waverly said. “Thanks.”

“No problem,” Nicole replied.

“It’s late for you there,” Waverly pointed out, surprised by the hour of the call. “Shouldn’t you be sleeping?”

“Nah, I’m still on your time,” Nicole replied. “Not the least bit tired.”

“We were up before dawn this morning,” Waverly reminded. “How could you not be?”

“I took a nap on the plane,” Nicole confessed with a sheepish grin. “What about you? Is it too late for you?”

“Never,” Waverly assured. Tucking her feet up beneath her in the chair, she idle ran her fingers through Stormy’s fur. “I’d rather talk to you than sleep any day.”

Flattered, Nicole blushed. “You’re adorable,” she said. “And far too sweet to me.”

Waverly smiled. “I could accuse you of the same.”

“So how are you doin’?” Nicole asked.

Waverly knew she was referring to the breakup. She smiled. “I couldn’t be better,” she declared.

“I’m glad,” Nicole said sweetly. “I’m sorry I couldn’t text more this evening. We were at dinner with my family. Grandfather doesn’t tolerate cell phones at the dinner table.”

“He’s a real charmer, isn’t he?” Waverly said wittily.

“You nailed it,” Nicole laughed.

They fell quiet for several moments, and Waverly chewed her bottom lip nervously, trying to decide how much was too much to say. “So, uh… I guess we have some things to talk about when you get home, huh?” she finally ventured. 

Nicole arched an eyebrow. “Do we?” she queried, seeking Waverly’s full disclosure. She didn’t want to assume.

“Yeah,” Waverly nodded, feeling emboldened. “Nicole, I…”

“Waves, wait…” Nicole said on a cautionary tone.

“Nicole, please don’t do this again,” Waverly implored, thinking this might be a repeat of Nicole’s rebuff the night of the barbeque and bonfire. “I couldn’t take it if you…”

“No, Waves,” Nicole was quick to respond. “Please, just… hear me out, okay?”

Waverly nodded. “Okay.”

Drawing in a deep breath, Nicole slowly released it. “I just… I wanna have this conversation with you. I really do.”

“But?” Waverly sounded skeptical.

“But… I wanna be with you, be able to touch you, and hold you…” And kiss you, Nicole thought, but didn’t voice in the midst of speaking, “when we do,” she said softly. “I can’t bear the thought of knowing we’re finally there, and not being able to touch you for a whole week.”

Waverly felt the heat of tears stinging her eyes. “Yeah,” she breathed, nodding her agreement. “I want that too.”

“Okay, good,” Nicole sighed, feeling slightly relieved. Knowing that Waverly agreed did nothing to quash the urgent need to reach through the screen and touch her right that moment. She hated that it would be more than a week before she could make that happen. But it also gave her a week to work up to telling Waverly the truth about her past.

She fell quiet then, knowing that she needed to set the stage now, so that she wouldn’t lose her nerve when the time came.

“What is it, Nicole?” Waverly asked. She could tell by the silence, the expression on Nicole’s face, that something had shifted. And it was serious.

“So… there are things I need to tell you, as well,” Nicole admitted. “Things about my past.”

Waverly just gave her that look. The one with the eyebrow arched. “You’re not married, are you?” she asked, eyes twinkling. “You don’t have a wife tucked away in the hills somewhere?”

Nicole laughed, heartily. “Christ, no,” she answered, the weight of the truth feeling a bit lighter in the moment. It was just like Waverly to do that for her.

“Then whatever it is, we’ll be okay,” Waverly said with certainty. “Nothing about your past could ever change what I feel for you, Nicole.” I just hope you feel the same way, when you finally learn the truth about my family history.

The admission of feelings from Waverly made Nicole’s heart swell in her chest. It gave her a sense of hopefulness she hadn’t felt in a really long time. A faint smile teased at her mouth, and she nodded, even as she prayed with everything in her that it was true. “Feeling’s mutual,” she declared. And then she released a long, slow breath. “So we’ll talk. Every day. But we won’t talk about either of those things.”

“Agreed,” Waverly said resolutely.

“And we’ll talk it all out when I get home,” Nicole suggested. “Get everything out on the table.”

“Absolutely everything,” Waverly agreed.

“I can’t wait to see you again,” Nicole murmured, her voice a soft caress that Waverly could feel all over her body. Her heart was so full she could hardly contain it.  

“We might not be going fishing, after all, Officer Haught,” Waverly intoned, a mischievous grin teasing at the corners of her mouth.

Nicole grinned, that dimple coming out in full force. “I could definitely live with that.”

TBC in Chapter 9—What’s Past is Prologue…

Chapter Text

The Ten Times Waverly Earp was Definitely NOT on a Date with Nicole Haught


“Owning our story can be hard, but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it. Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky, but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy—the experiences that make us the most vulnerable. Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.”

— Brené Brown, Ph.D., L.M.S.W., The Gifts of Imperfection



Chapter 9 – What’s Past is Prologue:


Friday, May 27, 2016…  Ghost River County Municipal Offices—4:15 p.m. Mountain Daylight Time

“We might not be going fishing on Sunday, after all, Officer Haught.. .”

The subtle insinuation of things to come, uttered so softly in the sweet timbre of Waverly’s voice, echoed in Nicole’s mind as she recalled that conversation from barely a week ago. Though they were more than two thousand miles apart, she swore she could feel the tender touch of Waverly’s gentle caress suffusing her entire body as she whispered those words, so saturated in possibility and promise.

Every moment of the week that followed was infused with the excitement of things to come. It was obvious to everyone around her that she was in love. Every time her phone buzzed with some random, ridiculous text from Waverly, the goofy grin on her face, and the infectious laugh that inevitably followed, infused the entire room with joy. Still, Nicole couldn’t bring herself to actually say the words—she couldn’t admit, out loud, or even to herself, that she was in love with Waverly Earp. Not that she didn’t know. How could she not? But to give voice to it made it real. And if it was real, it would hurt, if for some reason the thing she desired most—being with Waverly—never came to fruition. And thus, despite her excitement over the possibility, a part of her remained in some sort of subconscious denial—psychological compartmentalization at its best. What would Freud have to say about that?  

More importantly: How the hell had things taken such a sharp turn? she wondered, not for the first time. There was no way, of course, that Waverly could have known how apropos those words would prove to be when she spoke them. No way she could have fathomed the hell that was about to break loose, not only at the Earp Homestead, but across Purgatory, and perhaps even beyond.

Nicole no longer doubted her suspicions of paranormal activity in Purgatory. Hell, at this point, she was beginning to suspect that the evil that lurked was far more sinister than anyone ever imagined—if they’d even dare imagine it. But at the moment, werewolves, or zombies, or whatever it was that haunted this bizarre little town she now called home, was the last of her worries. It was the events that followed the abduction that gave her pause. And she took a step back, pondering the meaning of it all.

Does history truly set the context for the present? Are we doomed by some unseen force to repeat the past, regardless of what lessons we may have gleaned from it? Do past experiences compel us to the acts we commit in the present? Are we fated to act by the experiences that lead us to a particular moment? Or do those experiences simply lead us to the opportunity, and allow us the chance to choose which path we take?

Questions laden with existential angst—it seemed she’d pondered them incessantly in the aftermath of the kidnapping. And still, she felt no closer to an answer—not to anything, really. Every time she thought an answer was within reach, she’d only ended up with more questions. Frustrating, to say the least.

When she’d run into Waverly on her way out of the office earlier in the day, though not quite certain she was ready for “the talk”, Waverly seemed almost eager to talk about things more serious than dinner plans, or whether or not Nicole was in pain. And in that moment, Nicole experienced a sense of relief from the tightness that bound up her chest from the moment she’d awoken in the hospital, finding Waverly by her side, her soft green eyes filled with worry.

Unfortunately for Nicole, only minutes later when she’d stormed off in the middle of their conversation, she felt the tension begin to coil again, and that tightness had returned full force in the wake of their awkward exchange in her cruiser later that morning. And now, as she pondered those questions once again, she thought back to the beginning of her first night back home from visiting her family, and to the series of unsettling events that followed; perhaps still looking for answers. Or perhaps, just trying to make some sort of sense out of it all—before she completely lost her mind.

Saturday, May 14, 2016…  Ghost River County Municipal Offices—11:45 p.m. Mountain Daylight Time

Having arrived for her shift on the heels of the return flight from Dallas with only seconds to spare, Nicole delved right in to the files Nedley had left in her inbox. She was grateful for the workload—hoping it would prove an effective distraction from her thoughts of Waverly. She hated that she was just mere miles from her now, and still couldn’t be with her. But duty came first. Always. Well, unless Waverly was in danger. Then love trumped duty every time. And she could always pull the cop card—if Waverly was in danger, then it really was her duty to step in. Yeah, she could live with that.

She’d been elbow-deep in the Arbour case when she stopped to loosen some of the muscles that had tightened in her neck. It was difficult to believe so much tension had built up in such a short period of time. And yet, it had, and she wondered what it was really about. The sound of heavy footsteps echoed in the hallway outside her door, but she paid them no mind. It was probably just one of the other deputies coming in from patrol. But an unexpected knock at her door, followed quickly by the sound of Wynonna’s voice, startled her, drawing her attention.

“It’s Saturday night. I’m the town pariah with ten years of bad deeds and social suicides to make up for… What’s your excuse?” Wynonna said self-deprecatingly. The elder Earp certainly knew how to make an entrance. She had a bottle of whiskey in one hand, and attitude to spare.

Crossing her arms, Nicole leaned forward against her desk. “Nedley,” she answered, sounding less than enthused.

“Say no more,” Wynonna sighed. “Bosses are the worst.” She drew in a deep breath as she uncapped the whiskey bottle. “Also, I’m scared mine might be dead.”

Nicole’s head snapped back toward Wynonna; her face held a look of alarm. 

Immediately, Wynonna feigned teasing, brushing off her unspoken concern. “Oh, kidding.” But the expression on her face said otherwise, as she tipped the whiskey bottle up to her mouth, taking a long swig.

Nicole’s expression changed to one of deep concern. “Are you sure you’re okay?”

Swallowing, Wynonna gestured with her hands as her face contorted into one of feigned nonchalance. “Mm-hmm…” She cleared her throat then, averting her gaze as she gave Nicole a less-than-convincing thumbs-up.

“Well, at least I’m not the only one who wasn’t invited to the party,” Nicole said. “Makes me feel better.”

“What party?” Wynonna asked, suspiciously, as she moved into the bullpen. She set the whiskey bottle down on Nicole’s deskside filing cabinet with a loud thump, and waited for an answer.

Furrowing her brow, Nicole just stared at her for a moment, wondering how it was even possible that Waverly could have planned and prepared for a party with Wynonna living right there under the same roof, and yet, Wynonna seemed completely oblivious to the entire thing. She shook her head at the ridiculousness of it.

“I don’t know… Waverly’s havin’ some sorta get together with some girlfriends from high school,” she said offhandedly, trying to pretend it didn’t hurt that she hadn’t been invited in the first place. That she’d been out of town until this evening had been purely coincidental. Waverly hadn’t known anything about her trip when planning the party; though, in all honesty, Nicole had believed that she did when she first mentioned planning it. She’d learned at the bonfire that the opposite was true.

Wynonna’s face scrunched up in confusion. “Waverly didn’t have any girlfriends in high school,” she said, almost absently. “Neither of us did.”

“And why is that?” Nicole queried, eyeing Wynonna with curiosity. It baffled her. Sure, Wynonna had some rough edges. Then again, who didn’t? No one was perfect. And Nicole viewed them both as genuinely good people, regardless of the gossip around town.

Wynonna looked less than amused. “Come on, Haught. You can’t tell me you haven’t heard stories.”

Nicole regarded her with sincerity. “Everyone around here has tales to tell,” she agreed. “But I’d rather hear your story from you.”

“I killed my father. The whole town thought I was bat-shit crazy, and Waverly was branded guilty of being weird by association,” Wynonna said flatly. “End of story.”

“It was an accident, Wynonna,” Nicole said gently. She knew, because Waverly had told her so—and to Nicole’s understanding, Waverly was the only credible living witness to what happened. “You were tryin’ to save him.”

“Yeah,” Wynonna said on a cynical laugh. “Well, I failed. Epically.”

The shattered expression in Wynonna’s blue eyes nearly broke Nicole’s heart. “You’re so unjustly hard on yourself,” she quietly observed.

“Yeah, well… Gotta beat folks to the punch, y’know?” Wynonna responded.

It was like hearing an echo. “You and Waverly are a lot more alike than I’d realized,” she commented, more to herself than to Wynonna as she recalled her conversation with Waverly that first afternoon at Gus’s place.

“How so?” Wynonna queried, intrigued by the comment.

“You beat yourselves up before anyone else has a chance to,” Nicole answered.

“My shrink called it ‘Family Dance Steps’,” Wynonna said. “I called it bullshit.”

Nicole nodded. “Sounds kinda fitting to me,” she said carefully. She didn’t want to chance Wynonna bolting before they’d finished the conversation. “What makes you think it’s bullshit?”

“What, are you tryin’ to shrink me too?” Wynonna challenged.

“Not at all,” Nicole said calmly. “Just tryin’ to know you better.”

“I wouldn’t waste your time,” Wynonna said dismissively.

“Well, I happen to think you’re worth the time, Wynonna,” Nicole declared, a gentle expression in her eyes.  

The sincerity in Nicole’s voice, the expression on her face, stopped Wynonna mid-retort. No one, other than Waverly of course, had ever said anything so genuinely kind to her. She honestly didn’t know what to do with it. She opened and closed her mouth several times, but nothing came out. And that sent her scrambling for cover, emotionally speaking anyway, because she didn’t want to leave.

She took a long draw from her whiskey bottle, and cleared her throat. “So… what about this party,” she said redirecting Nicole back to their original conversation. “When exactly did she start planning it?” And how the hell did I not know?

“I don’t know,” Nicole shrugged, letting the other conversation go. She understood that Wynonna needed time to process and deal. “Sometime before I left for Boston, I guess.”

Wynonna sighed, and gestured with the bottle toward Nicole—an offer to share.

“Thanks,” Nicole said, accepting the bottle. She took a swig, and then gestured toward the floor, inviting Wynonna to join her—a means of covering her ass since she was drinking on the job. It wasn’t exactly comfortable, but at least they’d be shielded from the door if another deputy were to walk through.

“You know exactly who she invited, too,” Wynonna said, as they settled on the floor behind Nicole’s desk, her boots propped up on the edge of a chair.


“Chrissy Nedley.”

“What?” Nicole exclaimed. “Sheriff’s daughter?”

“Hm-hmm!” Wynonna confirmed, taking another swig of her whiskey. “And Stephanie Jones. You know, one time, Stephanie told me that I should think about getting a butt lift,” she reported, sounding almost amused that anyone would ever suggest such a thing. She set the bottle on the floor between them, but didn’t remove her hand.

“What?” Nicole exclaimed again. She couldn’t believe anyone would say such a thing—especially not to Wynonna Earp. “Your ass is like…” For a moment she was at a loss for words as she lifted her right hand, holding it as if she were cupping Wynonna’s shapely ass in her palm. And then she sucked in a breath. “It’s top shelf, man. It’s top shelf,” she declared.

“Thanks,” Wynonna said casually, lolling her head toward Nicole.

She fell quiet then, introspective. “I’ve pulled Waves too close,” she admitted, glancing at Nicole almost as though she were seeking absolution.

“You know, I think that Waverly has spent her whole life tailoring who she is to the people she’s with,” Nicole postulated. “She’s only now just starting to figure out what she really wants.” Her tone was almost wistful as she said it, and she couldn’t help but think of all the conversations they’d had, especially while Nicole was away. They hadn’t had “the talk” yet, but every time they’d spoken during that week apart, there were comments and assumptions made—ones that clearly indicated their mutual intent to be together. And more importantly to Nicole, there were moments where Waverly expressed an uninhibited desire to be with Nicole, even if she didn’t actually say it out loud. She’d been holding on to those moments, treasuring them like precious gifts, all week long, and she couldn’t wait to see Waverly in the morning.   

“Dude, you’re like a walking bumper sticker…” Wynonna declared, her expressive face saying that she was impressed.

Nicole chucked.

“Who’s armed!” Wynonna exclaimed, as she lazily tapped Nicole’s side with the back of her hand.

Another laugh flowed from Nicole’s lips, this one deeper.

“Waverly should be hanging out with you,” Wynonna declared firmly.

“I agree,” Nicole said confidently. She couldn’t stop the grin that teased its way across her lips. And then her expression turned reflective as she tipped the whiskey bottle to her lips, thoughts of Waverly cascading over her like a warm summer shower.

Suddenly feeling the need for emotional distance, Wynonna sought distraction. “Who’s this? Who’s this lady?” she practically grunted, her voice strained as she reached for a picture from the file Nicole had been reviewing when she walked in.

Whiskey bottle still in her right hand, Nicole reached out with her left, grasping the back of Wynonna’s jeans, laughing as she tugged her backward. “That is… victim number three,” she answered, setting the bottle on the floor with a clink.

“Same guy killed three women?” Wynonna asked, seeking clarification.

“Yeah, killin’ ‘em was only the start,” Nicole said, reaching for the actual file. “Joyce Arbour. She’s twenty-two. We found her Wednesday morning, and the cause of death appears to be multiple lacerations, but of course, the autopsy report is practically illegible.”

Noting the unusual, yet almost eerily familiar scrapes on the woman’s face, Wynonna grabbed one of the autopsy photos from Nicole’s hand, studying it intently. “Dolls picked a great time to go AWOL,” she muttered.

The next things she knew, there was blood dripping from her nose and onto the photo. Turning toward Nicole with a look of shock on her face, she said, “Uh… I need to see the body.”

Nicole couldn’t quash the rising sense of panic inside her as she glanced at Wynonna’s bloody nose. What the hell is going on here? she thought, but didn’t voice. For a moment, she felt anesthetized. And then she was scrambling to stand up, Wynonna following suit. “O-okay,” she said. “Let’s go.”

Sunday, May 15, 2016…  Ghost River County Municipal Offices—2:00 a.m. Mountain Daylight Time

“Nobody keeps booze in here, Wynonna!” Nicole snapped, as she followed the elder Earp into the break room, pushing the door closed behind her. “Except you. You want to tell me what the hell is going on?”

They’d just come from the morgue, where running into the creepy medical examiner, Dr. Reggie, had been the least spine-chilling thing that had happened. Coming back after chasing down the echo of footsteps to find the eyes on the corpse wide open, an eerie version of the Jack of Spades crammed into her mouth, had been enough to freak Wynonna the hell out, causing her nose to start bleeding, anew. She’d seen a lot of shit since returning to Purgatory, but never anything like that.  

“Yeah. Dry morgue air is murder on the schnoz,” Wynonna said sarcastically, a means of avoiding the truth, as she searched through the cabinets, looking for… at this point, she didn’t even know what.

Stepping across the room, Nicole leaned against the edge of the table, tucking her thumb into her service belt. “Bullshit!” she exclaimed. “I think somebody’s tryin’ to scare you, toy with you. Why?”

“I picked up this case, like, an hour ago, how could…”

“It be connected to you?” Nicole interjected. “Yeah, I would really like to know that too,” she declared, stressing the intensity of her interest. “People gettin’ eaten by something? Call Wynonna. Guy gets murdered by a man in a mirror? Yeah, Wynonna to the rescue.”

Feeling the pressure building, Wynonna turned around, leaning against the counter. “Black Badge specializes in cases that are, uh, too complex for rookie flatfoots, so it makes sense that you’re a bit confused,” she said with an air of condescension she didn’t really feel. She just needed a way to keep Nicole at bay, at least for a little while longer.   

“I’m not,” Nicole countered, challenge etched in russet eyes, darkened with frustration.

“Alternately…” Wynonna said, moving toward Nicole with a suspicious expression in her eyes. “I don’t suppose you have a deck of playing cards in this utility belt, huh?” she quizzed, grabbing for Nicole’s belt.

Twisting to the side, Nicole efficiently avoided her grasp. And then she stared Wynonna down. “Excuse me?” she said incredulously. 

“How do I know you didn’t double back to mess with the body?” Wynonna challenged.

Nicole’s mouth dropped open and she leveled a disbelieving glare toward Wynonna. She couldn’t believe Wynonna would accuse her of such a thing!

“Yeah, you’re awful interested in me and my sister,” Wynonna said accusingly. “Maybe I should be grilling the shit outta you. Maybe you’re the crazy one.”

“You, of all people, should know better than to try to make me question my sanity,” Nicole retorted. And then she turned, and walked away leaving Wynonna standing there, feeling guilty for going after Nicole when they both knew the rookie cop had nothing to do with any of it—and wondering exactly who the hell did.

Sunday, May 15, 2016… The Earp Homestead—6:30 a.m. Mountain Daylight Time

The following morning, instead of meeting Waverly for the breakfast they’d planned, Nicole found herself standing in the freezing cold just outside the Earp house, talking to a hysterical prom queen about how Waverly had somehow managed to scissor a stripper during the party the night before; while Wynonna was inside, checking on Waverly. When she realized exactly what Chrissy meant by “scissored,” her level of concern skyrocketed, and she had to force herself to focus on what Chrissy was saying. Her desire to be the one inside with Waverly turned to an urgent need; but she knew she couldn’t interfere. Wynonna had insisted on being the one to take Waverly’s statement—Black Badge protocol, she had argued. She knew there was plenty Chrissy Nedley was leaving out, but she figured the gaps in her story could be filled in by the Sheriff—he was the girl’s father, after all, and she’d be more likely to tell him the entire truth.

Just as she was finishing up with Chrissy, Wynonna came strolling out the front door, closing it behind her. There was no sign of Waverly, and Nicole’s heart sank. She wanted so much to go to her, but she knew it wasn’t prudent. Not with Wynonna and Chrissy right there, both of them hyper-aware of their surroundings after all that had gone down under the cloak of night, both here on the homestead, and in the morgue. And so she stayed the course, and waited for Wynonna to make her way across the snow-covered front lawn.

When Wynonna was halfway to her, the front door opened again, and Waverly stepped out onto the front porch. She was wearing a short, gold dress and lacy black tights, with a woven blanket wrapped around her for warmth—not that it looked to be doing much good. She looked sad, haunted almost, as she glanced across the yard, making eye contact with Nicole. And once again, Nicole had to fight the urge to go to her.

Instead, she focused on Wynonna, as Chrissy made her way back toward the house. “Your sister okay?” she asked, hoping she didn’t sound as frantic as she felt inside.

“Yeah, well, she’s being Waverly,” Wynonna tried to joke. But Nicole knew it was just a means of easing the stress. They both knew this was no laughing matter.

“Yeah, well, Chrissy says she scissored a stripper,” Nicole reported, casting a sideways glance at Wynonna, who nodded, but said nothing. She didn’t dare ask where the body had gone.  

“So?” Nicole pressed. “Any idea why your homestead was targeted?” she asked, as she watched Waverly hugging Chrissy on the porch. Looking away, she made eye contact with Wynonna again. “I mean, besides the fact that it’s yours.”

Wynonna looked away, guilt over the way she had treated Nicole last night still eating away at her. “You know what, we should get some breakfast,” she declared, making the decision to come clean with her. “I could murder a stack of pancakes. Then we’ll talk. Really talk.”

“Okay,” Nicole said, nodding. “You’re gonna help me understand why some of these cases are a little too complex for local flatfoots?” she queried, her anger and frustration barely contained as she looked Wynonna directly in the eyes.

This time Wynonna didn’t avert her gaze. Instead, she held Nicole’s steadily; her own blue eyes clear of the haunted haze they often held. “I’ll do my best,” she vowed. More than anything where Nicole was concerned, she wanted things to be solid between them again—the way they were before the incident last night, before she’d lost her mind and accused Nicole of tampering with that body and screwing with her head. And then she glanced down at her phone, hoping for any sign that Dolls was okay.

“Your boss gonna be okay with that?” Nicole asked, noting the concerned expression on Wynonna’s face as she searched the phone. She’d watched her frantically texting who she assumed to be Dolls only moments after ending her call with Waverly in the middle of the night, and the look on her face now said she hadn’t received any sort of response.  

“My boss isn’t here,” Wynonna said simply.

“Okay,” Nicole said, acceptance in her tone.

“Guess you’re my ride,” Wynonna commented, sounding almost forlorn. It was clear she was worried sick about Dolls.   

As Wynonna stepped toward the passenger side of her car, Nicole shifted her gaze back to the front porch where Waverly was still talking with Chrissy. The corners of Waverly’s mouth lifted in a sad smile, and she gave a little wave. And for that one brief moment, all of the craziness of the night—the ponderings of werewolves, or zombies, or whatever the hell it was that was going on in Purgatory—suddenly, it all fell silent. And all Nicole could see was Waverly’s beautiful face, and the way she looked at her with those eyes. Her breath catching in her chest, Nicole returned the wave, her own mouth tipping into a faint smile as she locked her gaze on Waverly’s, wishing she could hold it like that forever.

Waverly glanced away, but only for a moment. And then, as if some invisible force impelled her, her gaze snapped right back to Nicole, and she smiled a little more. Nicole’s own smile widened just a bit, and her heart beat triple-timed as she looked at her. Taking in a deep breath, she turned away then, climbing into her cruiser. If she’d stayed a moment longer, she would have lost her resolve and run to Waverly, everything else be damned. And as she drove away, the image of Waverly, smiling at her from the front porch, engraved itself into her memory.

Sunday, May 15, 2016… Black Badge Division, Ghost River County Municipal Offices—2:15 p.m. Mountain Daylight Time

From the moment she received the call from Dolls, telling her that Wynonna and Nicole had been abducted, Waverly’s mind kicked into overdrive; vacillating at an alarming speed between bone-chilling fear and frantic deliberation, as she tried to figure out where they might be. She was certain it was Bobo who was behind it. She just needed to understand why—and then she might have a chance of figuring out where.

“I’ll call the Feds and I’m gonna make a discrete request for additional resources,” Dolls declared, as he paced the floor in the Black Badge Division offices. He’d barely been back in town an hour when Doc came running into the police station, carrying on about how Wynonna and Nicole had been taken. He called Waverly immediately, and then began piecing together a plan while Nedley put together a search and rescue crew. “We need boots on the ground.”

“No!” Waverly snapped, pacing with equal determination. “No, we need choppers in the air, and… and jets and drones, and cruise missiles pointed right at Bobo’s head!” she frantically insisted.

She had known something was very wrong when Nicole never called after ending her shift. She was supposed to be off by seven, but she was just leaving the homestead at that point. She’d texted before leaving, telling Waverly that she was going to grab breakfast with Wynonna so they could compare notes on the case, and that she would call as soon as they finished. The call never came. Calls to her phone went straight to voicemail, and texts were never returned—something that never happened. And the same was true for Wynonna.

In an effort to ease her distress, Doc had gone out looking for the two of them—along with anything he could use to get even with the Stone Witch—and that was when he’d happened upon Nicole’s cruiser, slowly rolling along the dirt road leading away from the homestead, doors wide open, and no sign of human existence aside from the smears of blood left in their wake. Waverly had nearly wrecked her Jeep in her frantic attempt to get to the station when Dolls finally called with the news.  

“Wasn’t Bobo that took ‘em,” Doc announced, slamming an odd-looking Jack of Spades with a giant red heart that looked like a rib cage on it, an upside-down skull with a dagger piercing it, onto the table.

Waverly glanced at the card, her face taking on an eerie expression.

“Wasn’t the Stone Witch neither,” Doc continued. “And your fancy weapons won’t do anything against Jack and his knives.”

“What kind of man…”

Waverly’s question began angrily, only to be cut off by Doc, saying, “To call him a man would be to speak generously. In Dodge City there was a schoolteacher name of Sally,” he began, pacing as he weaved a yarn. “She laughed like a mule, but her eyes did shine. I was sweet on her, but she went missin’. Wyatt and me, we tracked her to a limestone cave in the hills. And that’s where we found her, with three other soiled doves that had been thought to have run off. He had taken their insides out. Spread them around their own bodies like a Thanksgiving feast…”

“Oh, my god,” Waverly choked out on quavering breath. She looked like she might actually vomit. Even her insides quaked from the terror she felt just thinking about what could be happening to Wynonna… and Nicole.  

“Paper called him ‘The Jack of Knives,’ on account of the fact that’s what he called himself in the letters he sent, taunting them,” Doc continued, the intensity of his voice increasing with the speed of his pacing. “Adept at all manner of blade.”

“Great,” Dolls said sarcastically.

“Wyatt and me, we made it our mission to hunt him down,” Doc maintained. “We tracked him through the Cumberland pass, nearly freezing to death, and then I got sick. Real sick. Wyatt never spoke of Jack again, but I know he was the one that haunted him the most.”

“Well, Wyatt must’ve got him eventually, otherwise the creep wouldn’t be a Revenant,” Waverly reasoned. “He was a serial killer when he was human. Who knows what he’s capable of now?”

“Or what he’s gonna do to Wynonna,” Dolls said, his voice sounding haunted as he stared at the Jack of Spades. “Or Officer Haught.”

He reached into a cabinet drawer, pulling out a file to reveal a picture of the Seven. “The spade,” he said, pointing to the last of the Seven.

Doc took the picture as Dolls began to pace again, saying, “The spade… once symbolized a sword or unsheathed blade…”

“Or knife,” Waverly added, taking the picture from Doc’s hand. “He’s the last of the Seven. Come on…” she said, dropping it to the table. She grabbed her coat, moving quickly toward the door.

“Oh, whoa, whoa, Waverly,” Dolls said in a cautionary tone. “Can’t go anywhere with that broken wing of yours. Besides, I need you to stay here and dig deep, find more on this Jack, all right?”

Returning to the two men, Waverly looked first at Doc, and then turned toward Dolls. “Right,” she sighed. And then she steeled herself, before meeting Dolls’ gaze. “Bring them home safe, okay?”

Delivered on a husky quaver, Waverly’s request brought Dolls to task over emotions he had long-since refused to acknowledge. “Of course,” he said, never wavering from her intent gaze. And then he took a breath as he stepped away. “All right, Holliday, so you said you tracked this guy before, right? You think you can do it again?”

“You want my help?” Doc said, clearly shocked by the request. “I figured—”

“That I’d keep you at arms’ length?” Dolls finished for him as he loaded a handgun he’d pulled from the Black Badge arsenal, and holstered it. “Yeah, well, not this time, cowboy. Come on,” he said, clicking as if calling to a horse. “Saddle up.”

Doc was quick to follow him as he exited the offices, leaving Waverly alone to panic. And panic, she had, for the brief few minutes she was there before Doc and Dolls came running back in to tell her they’d found Nicole. And just that quickly, the three of them were in Sheriff Nedley’s SUV, heading for the Ghost River County Hospital.

Monday, May 16, 2016… Ghost River County Hospital—2:15 a.m. Mountain Daylight Time

Waking from images of Waverly’s smile as their eyes met across the snow-covered yard, Nicole was startled once again at finding herself in a hospital bed. The sequence of events that had transpired over the last twenty-four hours seemed surreal. Now, as she lay there replaying the scene for the umpteenth time, she wished more than anything that she had just gone to her then, and held her close—if only for a moment. Mere minutes later, their collective world had turned upside down, and now she was left to wonder if anything would ever be the same again.

A man she didn’t recognize stepped out onto the highway directly in front of her cruiser, flagging them down, as she and Wynonna were headed to Mama Olive’s for the breakfast she was supposed to be sharing with Waverly. And after that, everything went blank.

Until the woods, she’d recalled, as Dolls was questioning her the afternoon previous.

Someone was carrying her; had her slumped over his shoulder like a gunnysack. She didn’t know who. Perhaps she was blindfolded. Or drugged, maybe? Some things were just still so hazy. Her next vivid memory was of waking up, freezing cold and covered in dirt in a ditch by the side of the road. And Wynonna was nowhere to be found. She’d lost consciousness sometime after that—she assumed because of the freezing temperatures. But later she learned that she’d actually died as a result of her injuries, and that the EMS team had resuscitated her on site. She was profoundly grateful for the motorist who had spotted her there alongside the highway, and for the quick response of EMS, once called to the site.

The next thing she knew, she was waking in the hospital with stitches in her head, her chest aching, and Waverly’s sweet face looking down at her. Apparently Nedley had allowed her access to Nicole’s room, even before Dolls, which Nicole appreciated more than he could know. But Waverly wasn’t herself. The sad smile she’d seen on her face that Sunday morning was gone, replaced now by profound worry, as she searched for answers about what had happened to her sister. And Nicole hadn’t a clue as to what to tell her.

“I’m sorry, Waves,” Nicole said sorrowfully. “I wish I could…”

“No. No—that’s okay,” Waverly said gently, as she brushed her hand along Nicole’s cheek, her fingertips curling under Nicole’s chin. “You need to rest while you can.”

“Waverly, I’m fine. I promise,” Nicole insisted. “Now never mind me, what happened to your arm?” she asked, worry etched across her brow.

“Oh, it was nothing,” Waverly said with a dismissive wave of her uninjured arm. “I just got a little banged up in all the commotion last night.”

“Is that what the doctor said?” Nicole asked pointedly as she surveyed the makeshift sling. It was clear that Waverly hadn’t bothered with actual medical treatment.

“I don’t need a doctor, Nicole,” Waverly insisted. Her head spun at the mere thought of how she would explain the injury. It wasn’t like she could just march into the emergency room with a story about a crazed witch coming after the skull of her dead son that she wanted to raise from the ashes with some voodoo curse. And then there were the zombies, one of whom was the stripper who wasn’t really a stripper, whom she’d scissored as he tried to choke her. Christ, she sounded crazy, even to herself!

A slight smile teased at the corners of Nicole’s mouth. “And you call me stubborn,” she said wryly.

“I’m not the one who could’ve had a concussion,” Waverly challenged, her expression stern.

Nicole rolled her eyes. “Well, if you won’t be reasonable, will you at least sit here with me?” she requested, patting the bed beside her. “It’ll make me feel better if I can at least keep my eyes on you.”

A faint smile played on Waverly’s lips as she nodded. “Feeling’s mutual,” she said affectionately. Edging a hip up onto the bed next to Nicole, she tugged at the bottom of her brown suede skirt as she crossed her legs. And then she took Nicole’s bandaged hand into her own, the pad of her thumb lightly stroking the tops of her fingers. “You’re really okay?” she asked again because she needed the extra reassurance. She was certain she’d ask at least a dozen more times before she would believe it was true, and drive Nicole crazy in the process.

Nicole smiled softly. “My head is still really hazy, and my chest feels like someone took a jackhammer to it, but yes, I really am okay, Waves,” she answered, being as honest as she dared. “I’m not goin’ anywhere.”

Waverly nodded again. And then, overhearing the conversation between Nedley and Dolls, she knew Dolls would be taking over soon, questioning Nicole. Reluctantly, she released Nicole’s hand, and gently touched her face again. “Dolls really needs to talk to you, so I’m gonna step outside. I won’t go far,” she whispered, slipping down from the bed. She didn’t want her to feel overwhelmed.

Nicole would have preferred to have Waverly by her side, but she understood her need for distance. It wouldn’t have mattered anyway, because before Nicole could form the words asking her to stay, she was already gone. Nedley was resisting Dolls’ request to speak with her, and she found herself assuring him that she was all right—that she wanted to help.

“Well, I’ll swing by, and make sure that cat of yours is fed,” Nedley commented. He felt helpless, and it was his way of showing that he cared.

An ironic laugh tripped from Nicole’s lips. “She doesn’t really like men,” she said, her voice husky with haziness and sheer exhaustion.

“Well, who does?” Nedley responded, drawing another short laugh from Nicole.

As Nedley stepped out, Doc and Dolls made their way in, and when Dolls inquired about the last thing she remembered, Waverly warily edged her way back into the doorway. She wanted to hear what Nicole had to say almost as much as she feared hearing it.

After responding that the last thing she remembered was Waverly smiling at her from the front porch, Nicole slowly began to recall bits and pieces of what followed. But it wasn’t until Doc pressed her to use her senses other than sight to recall what happened, that she remembered the scent of him—“Sour… musty...”

“Like death,” Dolls ventured.

“No,” Nicole responded, brow furrowed as she struggled to reconcile the strange amalgamation that somehow still burned in her olfactory system. “Spoiled fruit. And gasoline.”

She remembered being kicked in the chest. Christ! No wonder the pain was so relentless. No wonder she still felt so out of breath. And then she recalled him throwing her down, telling her, “You’re the wrong kind,” which only made the tears in Waverly’s eyes thicken and begin to slide down her cheeks as she realized the implications. Nicole’s heart nearly broke in two as Waverly asked, her voice quivering, “And Wynonna?” 

When Dolls made mention of serial killers having a particular type, which apparently Wynonna fit perfectly, Nicole felt the full weight of what Waverly must have been feeling, and with tears in her eyes, her own voice trembling, she cried, “Waverly, I’m so sorry.”

Waverly gasped, barely managing to say, “No, it’s fine. I’m just glad you’re okay,” before she disappeared down the hall, sobbing as she ran. That was the last Nicole had seen or heard of her. And even now, hours later, the image of Waverly standing there in the doorway of her hospital room, arm in a makeshift sling, tears glistening in those eyes that were always so full of sunshine, haunted her. She rolled to her side, and closed her eyes, determined to block the images. She was out again within moments, thanks to her pain meds.  

“Psstt… Nicole? Are you awake?”

The sound of Waverly’s voice buzzing in her ear like an excited little bumblebee roused Nicole from a fitful, pain killer-induced sleep. Prying one bleary eye open, she confirmed that she wasn’t crazy. Waverly Earp really was standing there beside her bed again—this time in the middle of the night. “How did you get in here?” she whispered. “It’s after visiting hours.”

Waverly grinned. “Doc’s out there at the nurse’s station, flirting with the charge nurse, so I could sneak in.”

“No way!” Nicole exclaimed. “I swear that woman’s real name Nurse Ratched. She’s a total battleax. Had a fit when I was on the phone earlier.”

“Yeah, well, somehow Doc has her charmed,” Waverly said, sounding a little bit amazed. “Apparently he has… character.”

“Oh, he’s got somethin’, all right,” Nicole quipped.

Waverly giggled, drawing that dimpled gorgeous smile from Nicole. It made Waverly’s heart swoon.

“Anyway, you have perfect timing,” Nicole said. “I just got off the phone with my sisters.”

“Now, I’m gonna have to call bullshit on that,” Waverly declared. “It’s the middle of the night, and you were out cold when I walked in.”

“Okay, so maybe not just, but I did talk to them earlier this evening,” Nicole corrected. “They all threatened to fly up here just to fight over who was gonna take care of me.”

“You should’ve let them,” Waverly said.

“It’s completely unnecessary,” Nicole said adamantly. “I’m fine.”

“Yeah, but I really want to meet them,” Waverly practically whined.

Nicole laughed as she struggled to sit upright in bed. “Yeah, I learned my lesson with Kendalyn. I’m never introducing my sisters to any woman I’m interested in ever again.”

“I still can’t believe you don’t think that’s just a little bit weird,” Waverly said, sidestepping Nicole’s comment about being interested in her. It was way too much to deal with right now, in the wake of all that had happened.

“It’s not like I had sex with her, Waves,” Nicole reminded. “Besides, they complement one another perfectly,” she declared. “Kyler is headstrong and determined, and Kendalyn is laidback, supportive, just… a solid rock for my sister. And she really needs that, even if she doesn’t realize it yet.”

“Hmm… Sounds like a couple other women I know,” Waverly said without thinking.

“Doesn’t it, though?” Nicole said pointedly. 

“Never mind. Bad example,” Waverly quickly backtracked when she realized she was edging far too close to a conversation she was no longer certain she was ready to have. “I’m just gonna sit over here and be quiet,” she decided, dropping into the chair beside Nicole’s bed.

Nicole patted the bed beside her. “Come sit with me,” she coaxed, aching for her nearness.

Willingly, Waverly complied, edging a jean-clad hip onto the mattress beside Nicole.

“What about you?” Nicole asked. “How are you doin’?”

“Honestly, Nicole, I don’t know,” Waverly answered, sounding scared and a bit lost.

“I’m really sorry, Waves,” Nicole said empathically. She reached over, taking Waverly’s hand into her own. “Any news on Wynonna?”

Waverly nodded. “I figured out where he was keeping her, based on what you told us earlier, so thank you for that. Doc and Dolls rescued her.”

“Of course,” Nicole responded, beyond grateful that she could help. “Is she all right?”

“Physically, yeah. Otherwise, not so much, I think,” Waverly answered. “She’s at the homestead.”

“You should be at home with your sister,” Nicole said.

“Don’t worry about Wynonna. She wouldn’t want me hovering,” Waverly said dismissively. “I hugged her for a really long time when I got her home though. She hated it. But I did it anyway.”

Nicole chuckled. And then she grabbed her chest, as the chuckle morphed into a coughing fit. “Don’t make me laugh,” she cautioned. “Hurts like hell.”

“Sorry…” Waverly apologized. “I can’t help it that I amuse you.”

Reaching out, Nicole feathered her fingertips along Waverly’s cheek and jawline. “That, you do,” she said softly. “And by the way, she didn’t hate it,” she added with certainty.

Nodding, Waverly grasped Nicole’s hand in her own, focusing on the connection. “I could’ve lost you both,” she said quietly, after several moments of reflection.

Wordlessly, Nicole entwined their fingers. “But you didn’t,” she gently reminded. “Wynonna is safe at home, and I’m right here. Neither of us is going anywhere.”

Suddenly, Waverly’s anxiety kicked in, and she began to fidget. “No one can guarantee that, Nicole,” she said, the tears in her eyes reflecting the fear that trembled deep inside. She, of all people, knew that to be true. Nothing in the world could have prepared her for her mother just walking out the door when she was four years old—or her father dying, and her oldest sister being kidnapped and murdered when she was barely six years old. But those incidents should have prepared her for losing Uncle Curtis and later, Shorty.

If only she had heeded the warning signs. She knew the story of the Earp Curse; had been raised to expect that it would resurrect itself once the Heir turned twenty-seven. But she’d allowed herself to be lulled into emotional complacency, despite the very real physical threat, and the last of the Seven had nearly taken both Wynonna and Nicole from her. “Dolls told me that… that… you were dead,” she said, tears now streaming down her face. “That the paramedics had to bring you back.”

“That’s true,” Nicole said carefully. She could sense that Waverly was on the edge of a dangerous emotional cliff. “But they did bring me back, Waves. I’m right here. I’m here with you, and everything’s gonna be okay.”

“No, Nicole,” Waverly responded, her voice wobbling once again as she moved from the bed and out of Nicole’s reach. “I can’t… I can’t do this. I can’t, I can’t… I can’t lose anyone else. I… I’m sorry…” she sobbed.

“Waverly, please,” Nicole pleaded, tears filling her eyes. “Don’t do this.” But Waverly was looking at her with those eyes, and Nicole could feel her heart being crushed once again.

“I’m so sorry, Nicole,” Waverly barely managed over the sob that nearly choked her. “I’m so sorry…” And then she was running out the door again, and Nicole was left crying, more tears than she’d ever spent in her life.

Monday, May 16, 2016… Ghost River County Hospital—2:45 a.m. Mountain Daylight Time

The part about Wynonna being at home had been a lie. Waverly hadn’t a clue where Wynonna had gone after setting fire to the picture of the Seven, dropping it into the ash bucket beside the hearth. All she knew was that as she watched her sister walk away, she’d never felt so alone in her entire life. She’d felt propelled then, to seek out Nicole, and she’d gone to the barn to ask Doc to come with her. And that was how she found herself back at Ghost River County Hospital in the middle of the night.

But once she was there, talking with Nicole, looking at her, touching her, the fear of losing her had taken hold, overwhelming her. And so, she ran, a torrent of tears streaming down her face… right past the nurse’s station, and Doc, who called out to her, but didn’t chase after like he had earlier in the day. More than anyone, he understood, because he’d almost lost Wynonna—and though wouldn’t likely have admitted to it, losing her would have proven the one thing that could steal away his immortality, because it would have taken away his will to live.

Still running, she followed the long corridors, weaving and turning until she found herself back at the emergency entrance—the only way in or out of the hospital after hours. Bursting through the double-paned glass doors, she continued at breakneck speed across the parking lot to her Jeep. And once inside, she cranked the engine, and tore out of the parking lot, her thoughts returning to the series of events that brought her to this moment in time.

She thought about the week Nicole was gone with her family, and the moments they’d shared, despite the distance. Nicole had kept her word. They talked every day that she was away. And with each passing conversation, Waverly grew more confident in her decision to be with Nicole. She couldn’t wait for Nicole to get home, where Waverly could touch her again, where she could feel the safety of Nicole’s arms around her, where she could finally kiss her, without the cloud of guilt or deception that hovered over them while she was still with Champ. By the time Saturday night came along, and she knew that Nicole was on a flight back home to her, she could barely contain her excitement. And that excitement bubbled over into her final preparations for the party. By early Sunday morning, she was certain that she and Nicole would be together. Really together. And just the mere thought of it made her feel happier than she’d ever been.

And then the Stone Witch had appeared, seemingly out of nowhere; though, she would learn later that Doc had drawn her to the Homestead to exact his revenge. On the heels of Doc’s betrayal, came the crushing blow—Wynonna and Nicole had been kidnapped, and Waverly’s entire world went into a tailspin. Every hope she’d dared to foster, every dream she’d dared to indulge, suffocated and died in the moment her deepest fears came blazing to life.

The hours of waiting and worrying melded together, and yet, they seemed to stretch on forever; especially after Doc and Dolls went off in search of Wynonna. And from the moment Waverly brought Wynonna home that night, she’d clung to her; afraid to let her go for fear that she might disappear again into that world of darkness where she so often would retreat. And when Wynonna walked away, refusing to respond when Waverly called out to her, Waverly felt completely abandoned once again. She knew that Wynonna didn’t mean to hurt her—it was just how she dealt with fear and pain. Still, Waverly felt it just the same.

She had run to Nicole then, so desperately needing that connection they shared. But once she was there, and Nicole was within arms’ reach, she’d felt so overcome with fear and uncertainty that all of the doubts she’d worked through during those conversations with Nicole went out the door, with Waverly running after them.

And now she felt crushing blow of guilt. 

She’d left Nicole alone in a hospital bed, crying—just as Wynonna had left her earlier that night. Was it something in the Earp genetics that made them destined to run from their fears, and hurt the people they loved the most? She didn’t know. And that made her feel all the worse.

Monday, May 16, 2016… Ghost River County Hospital—2:45 a.m. Mountain Daylight Time

“Miss Haught?”

The sound of Doc Holliday’s gruff, yet tender, voice caught Nicole off-guard, and she glanced up from the position she’d been sitting in—forearms propped against her bent knees, her head buried in her hands, to find him standing in the doorway of her hospital room, hat in his hands. The expression of compassion in his blue eyes, and the worry etched across his brow, struck her, softening her heart toward him a little more. She offered a faint smile in response, as she wiped away the tears. “Hey, Doc,” she said quietly. “Come on in.”

“It is not my intention to intrude,” Doc said, taking a tentative step inside. “And I do apologize if I am making myself a nuisance.”

Nicole shook her head. “You’re not,” she assured. “Is Waverly okay? She was so upset when she left.”

“Waverly, she is always your first concern,” Doc said with a sense of certainty. “Even with your own wellbeing at stake.”

“Yes,” Nicole responded without hesitation.

He understood fully now, and nodded once, indicating his acceptance. “Are you all right?”

Nicole nodded. “I’ll be fine… as long as I know she’s okay,” she answered. “Where is she?”

“That, I regret, I do not know,” Doc answered. “She skedaddled on out a here like a swarm a hornets was on her hind.”

Despite her distress, Nicole couldn’t help but chuckle at his use of colloquialisms from yesteryear. “You certainly are an interesting man, Doc.”

“Darlin’, you have no idea,” he drawled. And then he stepped closer. “May I bring you anything?”

A weak smile trembled on her lips. “Just Waverly,” she said quietly. “If you can find her.”

Doc responded with a single nod. “I will see to it. You have my word on that,” he assured.

“Just… please, take it easy with her, okay, Doc?” Nicole implored. “She’s scared.”

“With good reason, I am sure,” Doc replied, meeting Nicole’s gaze and holding it steadily. “She nearly lost both of you today.”

Delivered with a sliver of revealing emotion in his tone, Doc’s comment surprised her. Nicole regarded him through a lens of enlightened awareness. “You really do understand—don’t you?”

“Indeed, I do, Miss Haught,” Doc replied with a genteel nod. “I’ll be biddin’ you goodnight now, but I’ll check in on you again. And when I find Waverly, I will bring her to you. You can rest assured of that.”

“Thank you, Doc,” Nicole said gratefully. “You have a good night.”

“And you, as well,” Doc said. And then he turned on his heel, set his hat properly on his head, and walked out the door.

Though she couldn’t say why, exactly, Nicole felt a deep sense of relief. How on earth had this man she barely knew managed to calm her when only moments before he arrived she’d been certain that she was completely inconsolable? And yet, he had, and she was profoundly grateful to him. The last thing she needed was to have one of her sisters call in the middle of the night—which they were prone to doing when worried—and find her in the midst of an emotional meltdown.

Taking a deep breath, she blew it out slowly. And then she reached down, grasping her phone in her good hand. Punching in the code to unlock her screen, she opened the texting app, and tapped on the ongoing conversation with Waverly. She couldn’t help but smile at the last text in the thread: Be safe on the drive home. I can’t wait to see you in the morning!  

She paused for a moment, savoring that message just as she had when she’d first read it. Weighing her words then, she began typing: I know you’re scared, Waves. And I understand that you need time. I’ll give that to you, I promise. But… would you please just let me know you’re okay? I’m worried about you…  

She must have typed and backspaced a half dozen times before she was satisfied with the message. And once she was, she closed her eyes, and hit the send button. Then, praying that Waverly would respond, she settled the phone against her chest, and waited.

Monday, May 16, 2016… Nicole’s Apartment—3:15 a.m. Mountain Daylight Time

Waverly had no memory of making the short drive to Nicole’s place after fleeing the hospital, and yet, she found herself parked outside, her jeep tucked into the space right next to Nicole’s SUV. Just as she cut the engine, she felt her phone buzz in her pocket. Given the lateness of the hour, it could only be one person.

Despite the fear and overwhelming guilt, she couldn’t help but smile when she saw Nicole’s profile picture on her screen. She tapped it, opening the message. And then the tears filled her eyes anew, as she realized that not only had she hurt Nicole, she’d made her worry unnecessarily. Immediately, she began typing a response: Please don’t worry, Nicole. I’m okay. I’m at your place—I hope that’s all right?

A moment later, Nicole’s reply came: I’m glad you’re safe. You’re welcome at my place anytime, Waves. That will never change. Hug Stormy for me.

Waverly smiled. Nicole’s final goodnight text every night that she was away contained that same request—Hug Stormy for me. And much to the feline’s dismay, Waverly had willingly complied. Tapping the screen to access the keyboard, she replied: I’ll hug her extra long tonight, even if she doesn’t like it. I’m sorry I worried you. Get some rest. Talk tomorrow?

Whenever you’re ready, came Nicole’s immediate reply. And then the conversation fell silent.

If she were honest with herself, she would admit that her intention was to stay at Nicole’s place tonight, all along. She even had an overnight bag to prove it. Only, in her scenario, Nicole would have been there with her—and they wouldn’t be sleeping. But now, the mere thought of that had her trembling with fear. Not from the idea of being with Nicole, but from the idea of opening herself up that way, of being with her, and then losing her.

No matter how many ways she tried to tell herself it wouldn’t happen, the facts remained—Nicole was a cop. Her life was in danger every time she put on that uniform. And even if she weren’t, the simple fact that Waverly was an Earp put Nicole in the path of danger. Nicole hadn’t been kidnapped, beaten to a pulp, and left for dead because she was a cop; those awful things happened to her because she was with Wynonna, and the same could happen if Waverly was the target.

When she opened the door to Nicole’s apartment, Stormy was there to greet her, rubbing her head against Waverly’s leg, and then curling around both legs in a zig-zag pattern—her usual means showing affection—all while Waverly closed and locked the door, dropped her overnight bag, and kicked her shoes off just inside. Stormy abandoned her greeting to sniff at the bag and shoes, and a moment later, she was back to rubbing against Waverly’s legs.

Stooping down, Waverly scooped the huge ball of charcoal fluff up into her arms, nuzzling against her soft, thick fur. “Sorry, Girl,” she murmured as she carried the cat over to the sofa. Curling her legs up beneath her, she settled into the corner leaning back into the overstuffed pillows. “Mommy can’t come home tonight, so I guess you’re stuck with me again. I hope that’s okay.”

Stormy made a sweet mewling sound, as if answering her. And then she began to purr, as she rubbed her face against Waverly’s chin, her tail twitching in that way that told Waverly she was happy.

Waverly giggled, her hand slowly stroking along the arch of the cat’s back, as Stormy pranced back and forth on the arm of the sofa, stopping briefly to nip at Waverly’s ear. “Yes, I like staying with you, too,” Waverly cooed sweetly.

Twitching her tail again, Stormy paused to lick Waverly’s chin, and then jumped back down into her lap.

The spontaneous smile that sprouted in response to Stormy’s expression of affection morphed into a yawn, and Waverly realized for the first time how completely exhausted she felt. Physically, mentally, and emotionally, she was drained. And with good reason—she hadn’t slept since… she couldn’t remember when. Saturday morning, maybe? Before she left Nicole’s for the homestead to set up for the engagement party from hell? It had to have been, because certainly hadn’t slept Saturday night! And she’d barely gotten Chrissy out the door and on her way home when Dolls called to tell her that Wynonna and Nicole had been taken. Everything seemed hazy after that, but she was certain she hadn’t slept.

At this juncture, she didn’t even have the energy to change into pajamas. Instead, reaching behind her, she grasped the thick handmade patchwork quilt, pulling it down onto the sofa. Wrapping it around herself, she reached to her left, switching the table lamp off. And then curling up on the sofa, with Stormy right beside her, she allowed her mind to drift, beckoning sleep to come.

Unfortunately, like a thief in the night, sleep eluded her, and instead, she found herself replaying the time she’d spent at Nicole’s over the past week—time where she lived amongst Nicole’s things, and felt more at home than she’d ever felt anywhere else in her entire life. It hadn’t seemed strange to her at all, walking around this space, touching Nicole’s belongings, cooking in her kitchen, and caring for her beloved cat. Nicole’s scent lingered everywhere—on the pillows and blanket, the towels in the bathroom, even in the air that surrounded her. It was intoxicating, in the best possible way, and it left Waverly with the feeling that, despite the distance, Nicole was never very far from her. And she felt safe there; content, in a way she never had before.

She remembered perusing through Nicole’s endless shelves full of books, finding titles that both surprised and delighted her. She’d thumbed through a few. And actually read even more, filling her nights with words that meant something to Nicole. It felt… intimate, being there with Nicole’s favorite authors; like a portal into the very soul of her. Those moments left her wanting more.   

And then, right when she was finally about to have her chance at more, the unthinkable had happened. Nicole, along with Wynonna, had been kidnapped by a Revenant, leaving Waverly terrified for both of them, and reeling from the guilt of having placed Nicole in danger. If she knew the truth, would she forgive me? Would she still want to be with me?

If she did, Waverly decided, she’d be a damned fool. Nicole was better than that. And she deserved better than Waverly, and the fucking Earp Curse. What the hell did Wyatt do, that we should suffer for his deeds? she wondered, not for the first time. And yet, despite a lifetime of wondering, she still hadn’t a clue. All she knew for certain was that she was falling in love with Nicole—maybe already there—and terrified of losing her.    

Friday, May 27, 2016…  Shorty’s Saloon—4:30 p.m. Mountain Daylight Time

Settled on his usual stool at the far end of the bar, Doc Holliday watched with keen interest as Waverly moved about the room. She seemed to be out of sorts, even before that fool Champ Hardy showed up, making a scene, and his instincts told him that it had everything to do with the young Officer Haught. Slowly, he sipped at a glass of whiskey, savoring it as he would the taste of a fine woman—a woman like Wynonna—as he awaited an opportunity to speak with the younger Earp.

He couldn’t help but notice how she lingered near the back of the saloon, talking with two rather alluring women who seemed to be more interested in one another than any man in the room. Each time she’d approached them, she’d done the same. And when she finally returned to the bar, he subtly inquired about them, wondering aloud about how it was that she had come to know them.

“Oh, Nicole and I met them on the hiking trail at Lake Louise a few weeks ago,” Waverly explained. “Nice couple.”

“Ah, so they are indeed inclined toward one another, in a custom that is romantic in nature,” Doc deduced.

Remaining silent, the expression on Waverly’s face asked the question.

“I may have gathered so by observing them,” he explained casually. “They are quite a feast for these starvin’ old eyes.”

Waverly gave him a look. “You’ve been spying on them?”

“Well, I would not necessarily regard it as spyin’, Waverly, darlin’,” Doc edged.

“Yeah?” Waverly challenged. “How would you... regard it, then?” she queried, emphasizing his own words.

“Well, I would regard it as… admirin’. After all, who am I to discriminate if two fine young fillies wish to brandish their affections for the world to see?” he said with a roguish grin.

Waverly rolled her eyes. “Seriously, Doc?” He might be a hundred and forty years old, but sometimes he still acted like a perpetually horny teenaged boy. Though, she did find it rather interesting that he wasn’t the least bit thrown by the thought of two women being together.

“Enough of them. I think our time would be better utilized by focusin’ on more urgent matters,” Doc declared. “What seems to be the cause of your recently-acquired foul mood? It’s unlike you.”

“What?” Waverly protested. “I’m not in a foul mood.”

“Oh, but I do beg to differ,” Doc challenged.

He held his tongue for a moment, awaiting her denial. And when none was forthcoming, he continued. “You know, not so very long ago, you were accusin’ me of lyin’ with regard to my feelin’s for your sister,” he said in that sexy southern drawl. “But if you ask me, that just seems like a case of the pot callin’ the kettle black.”

“What do you mean by that?” Waverly eyed him suspiciously.

“I mean, seems to me like you’ve been expendin’ an awful lot of energy lyin’ to yourself about what you feel for Nicole,” Doc pointed out, not for the first time.

“Who says I feel anything?” Waverly challenged, digging her heels in.

Doc arched an eyebrow. “Ah, the lady doth protest too much, methinks,” he said, quoting Shakespeare.

If Waverly was surprised by the reference, her expression didn’t show it. Instead, shoulders slumped, she frowned uncharacteristically. Doc really had her number—and she clearly wasn’t very happy about it.

“Now, that girl loves you, Waverly Earp,” Doc said with conviction. He’d guessed at it long before, but Nicole had confirmed it that night in the hospital, though not in so many words. “And unless I am sorely mistaken, I do believe you love her too. So why are you squanderin’ time tryin’ to convince yourself that you do not?”

Stunned into silence by the raw honesty in Doc’s words, Waverly felt her entire body begin to tremble, inside and out. Fighting her emotions, she contemplated just exactly how honest she felt she could be in return. And then she finally decided that the emotional damage caused by holding her truth inside was far more painful than allowing someone else to see it. “Because I’m scared, Doc,” she finally admitted, tears stinging behind green eyes that glistened with a sense of foreboding.

“Scared of what?” Doc asked. “Good Lawd almighty! You and your sister face down demon Revenants. What could possibly be more terrifyin’ than that?”

“Losing her,” Waverly whispered, so quietly even she wondered if she’d said it aloud.

“Pardon?” Doc pressed. He wasn’t certain he’d heard her properly. 

Waverly nibbled her lower lip, staving off the tears. “I’m scared that… if I let myself love her, she’ll go away—just like everyone else.”

“Ah…” Doc groaned. “And therein we find the crux of your conundrum.”

“Well, yeah,” Waverly said, growing more agitated by the moment. “First Mama, then Daddy and Willa in the same night! And then they took Wynonna away from me; wouldn’t let me see her…” Lips twitching, she sniffled. “And now Uncle Curtis is gone, and Shorty… and all of it because of that frickin’ Earp Curse!”

“But you still have Gus,” Doc offered, hoping to ease her pain. “And Wynonna is back, ‘n I surely do not see her leavin’ again. I do not believe she could bear to be apart from you, any more than Nicole could.”

“Dammit, Doc, Nicole died the other day!” Waverly exclaimed, her emotions rising. “You heard Dolls say EMS had to resuscitate when they found her. What if they hadn’t found her in time? What if she hadn’t made it?”

“And yet, she did indeed,” Doc reminded. “And I should think that nearly losin’ her would incline you to pull her closer, not push her away.”

“I’m not pushing her away,” Waverly insisted. “I’m just…”

But pushing Nicole away was exactly what she’d been doing—for nearly two weeks. And she damned well knew it. Not that she hadn’t seen her. They’d been practically inseparable. But Waverly had been preoccupied with the business of taking care of her, while holding herself… distant, emotionally speaking. And they’d certainly never had either one of those talks they were supposed to have. Every time she looked at her, she waged a war inside; half of her wanting to grab Nicole, hold her close, and never let her go—and the other half wanting to run so far away she’d forget she ever knew or loved her. 

“Just what?” Doc pressed, drawing Waverly’s attention back to him.

“It all comes back to the fear, Doc,” Waverly shrugged. “It always does. My whole life, every time I’ve limited myself, it was because I was afraid of the ‘what ifs’.”

Rising from his stool, Doc wrapped his arms around her, holding her the way he had in the hospital that afternoon. She didn’t resist. It was like being held by a father, the way Uncle Curtis always held her when she was sad or scared. Her own father certainly never had. She’d always wondered why, but she supposed now, she would never know. Not that it mattered anyway. It simply was. “Waverly, darlin’,” he drawled, once again capturing her attention, “if you spend your whole life frettin’ ‘bout what might happen, you’ll miss out on what is happenin’.”

With no basis for an argument, Waverly simply sniffled and nodded against his chest.

Placing his hands on her biceps, Doc leaned back, his deep blue eyes searching Waverly’s own. “Remember what I said about regrettin’ the words I did not say?”

“Yeah,” Waverly nodded.

“Do not suffer the torment of my same mistake,” Doc said with obvious affection. “I wish far better than that for you.”

Then, emptying the remaining contents of his shot glass in a single swig, it clunked against the solid oak bar top as he set it back down with a decisive thud. And with that, he lifted his hat from the bar, and he turned, settling his hat on his head as he strode toward the door. 

As she watched him walk out the door, she couldn’t help but be reminded of Nicole the morning they first met—the way she smiled at Waverly over her shoulder, saying, “I mean it,” in reference to them going out sometime, before settling her Stetson back in place before walking out the door.

And then she was reminded that it was Doc who found her the morning after she’d run out on Nicole, leaving her crying in her hospital bed. She’d spent the night at Nicole’s, with Stormy by her side, and when he found her at Shorty’s the following morning—where she wasn’t even supposed to be—he’d encouraged her to go back to the hospital, back to Nicole. He was right then—it was the best thing she could’ve done. And he was right this time, as well; she knew it to be true. She smiled then, despite the pain, as she recalled the conversation with Nicole, the morning after the kidnapping.

Monday, May 16, 2016… Ghost River County Hospital—11:30 a.m. Mountain Daylight Time

When Waverly walked into Nicole’s hospital room the following morning, that beautiful smile on her face, Nicole’s heart skipped a beat, and all of the pain and disappointment from the night before slipped away. “I’m so glad you’re here,” she said on an exhaled breath of relief.

“I never should’ve run out on you last night,” Waverly admitted, deep remorse evident in her tone. She set Nicole’s duffle bag on the chair just inside the door as she stepped further inside. It was filled with whatever Nicole might need to prepare for going home, including a change of clothing. According to Dolls, her uniform had been taken as evidence, and Waverly was certain it was torn to shreds anyway. So she’d gone back to the apartment after talking with Doc, to get her the things that she’d need. “I’m so sorry I hurt you, Nicole.”

“I’m sorry I gave you reason to,” Nicole replied, baring a part of her soul she rarely showed to anyone.

“You?” Waverly said, her tone posing the question. She stepped closer to Nicole’s bed, edging a hip onto the mattress again. She was relieved to realize that Nicole was no longer hooked up to the I.V. machine. It confirmed what she’d been told at the nurse’s station—Nicole was going home soon.

“I’m a cop, Waverly,” Nicole said, the harshness in her tone directed at herself, rather than her companion. “I let some lunatic kidnap and nearly kill your sister!”

Waverly took Nicole’s hand into her own. “Now you stop that,” she commanded uncharacteristically. “You were nearly killed too!”

“Yeah, that doesn’t really make me feel any better,” Nicole said wryly. “Point is, I know better, and I should’ve protected us both.” She was combat trained, for Christ’s sake! And she felt guilty beyond measure for what had happened to Wynonna.

“You have no idea what you were up against, Nicole,” Waverly said in a tone laden with dread.

“And I don’t suppose you’re gonna tell me either—are you?” Nicole said flatly.

A rueful expression crept across Waverly’s face. “You know that I can’t,” she said regretfully. But the fact that either of you survived is a miracle.

Nicole nodded, accepting it as truth. “Yes, I know. And I understand,” she said. She didn’t like it, but she meant it.

“You’re not angry?” Waverly dared ask.

Shaking her head, Nicole said, “No, of course not. I have no right to be.” And she meant that too, because she knew she had secrets of her own.

“You have every right,” Waverly contended. “You almost died because…” She stood then, pacing the floor, as she weighed her words carefully. “Because you were with Wynonna. And you were with her because I threw a party that turned into a nightmare, and you had to come take a report right at the end of your shift. If we had just waited...”

Waverly left the thought dandling, allowing Nicole to fill in the blanks. And Nicole shifted then, sitting upright on the edge of the bed, her long legs dangling over the side. She watched as Waverly continued to pace. “I know what you’re doing, you know,” she finally said, now that she’d given Waverly some time to relieve the pressure on the coil of fear that was wound so tightly within her.

Turning toward Nicole, Waverly furrowed her brow. “I don’t, uh… I don’t understand,” she said.

“You’re avoiding it,” Nicole answered.

“Avoiding what?” Waverly sounded almost trapped, like a wild animal, cornered and fearing for its freedom.

“Us,” Nicole replied simply.

The mere utterance of the word made Waverly’s insides tremble. It was true—for a lot of reasons; but mostly because she was scared. “I’m sorry, Nicole,” she apologized again. “I just…”

“No, Waves, I get it, okay?” Nicole said gently. “And I agree.”

Waverly’s shoulders sagged. “Now I really don’t understand,” she said, truly confused.

“Let me start over, okay?” Nicole replied, requesting permission.

Waverly simply nodded her assent.

“The things you wanted to say to me while I was away?” Nicole said tentatively. She wasn’t at all certain that she should be bringing this up, but she needed some semblance of control; even if it was only in her own head. And Waverly needed to know it was okay to relax; that she didn’t need to worry about Nicole’s expectations. What had happened was huge, and it could change everything. Or it could change nothing. But either way, they both needed time to process it before either of them made rash decisions.   

Waverly’s heart pounded in her chest at the mere thought of it. “Yeah?”

“If you’re still plannin’ on sayin’ ‘em—and I’m not askin’ if you are,” Nicole ventured cautiously. “But if you are, I need you to be absolutely certain that you mean every word before you say anything at all, because… I can’t handle much more of this back and forth.”

Finally, Waverly understood. Nicole was just as scared as she was; she was hurting just as much. Releasing a breath she hadn’t realized she’d been holding, she looked into those beautiful russet eyes, so filled with pain and uncertainty. Waverly knew that she was responsible for the reflection in those eyes, and it broke her heart to realize it. “I’m so sorry, Nicole,” she said, her green eyes flooding with tears. “I’m sorry I left you last night, and I’m sorry I’ve taken so long to figure out what I want. And I…”

“Waves, just stop, okay?” Nicole said gently. “There’s no need for apology. I understand how scared you are right now. And I’m gonna give you space to figure this out.”

Surprised, Waverly visibly flinched. “Wait, what if… What if I don’t want space?” she said, panic in her tone as her heart began racing again. Despite her hasty retreat last night, space was the last thing she wanted from Nicole. “What if what I need is to be with you, to take care of you, but… without any pressure for more?” She was careful as she added that last part.

Without even realizing she needed it, Nicole took a deep, cleansing breath, and when she exhaled, she felt a profound sense of relief. Waverly was scared, but she wasn’t running away! Her lips curled into a faint smile as she reached out a hand for her. “Then that’s what we’ll do,” she readily agreed. “We’ll table any discussions about ‘Us’ until you’re ready. Okay?”

“And that’s okay with you?” Waverly inquired, watching Nicole’s face for any sign that she was holding back. “I know I’ve asked you to…”

“Yes,” Nicole answered firmly before Waverly could worry herself any more. Rising from the bed, she walked toward her. And when they were standing face to face, she gently cupped Waverly’s cheek in the palm of her left hand.

Waverly’s breath caught at the contact, and a slight smile flickered across Nicole’s lips as she looked into those questioning green eyes. “We’ve waited this long,” she said softly, her thumb caressing a soft cheek. “What’s a little longer?”

A deep sense of relief washed over Waverly. She smiled, covering Nicole’s hand with her own, leaning into her touch. “Thank you,” she said softly.

Dropping her arm, Nicole grasped Waverly’s hand in her own, squeezing it gently. “Let’s just focus on healing, okay?” she suggested. “We both need the time to really process everything that’s happened. But, it’s all gonna be okay, Waves. I know it will.”

Nodding, Waverly moved into Nicole’s arms, hugging her close. “I’m so glad you’re okay,” she murmured. “I know I keep saying that, but… I’m just so grateful.”

Leaning her chin against the top of Waverly’s head, Nicole sighed softly. “I’m glad we’re all okay,” she declared.

Waverly nodded against Nicole’s chest, and squeezed her tighter for a moment, lingering in the familiar scent of her. “What do you say we get you home now, huh?” she suggested. “The doc said it was okay for you to go now, right?”

“Yeah,” Nicole answered.

Smiling, Waverly released her. “Okay,” she said with a satisfied sigh. “Let me go check with your nurse, see what else we need to do to spring you. And then I’ll take you home, fix you something decent to eat—I’ve heard the food here is terrible,” she said with a cringe.

Feigning a shudder, Nicole nodded in confirmation.

Waverly chuckled in response. “Well, then we’ll make it extra special, and I’ll make you some of my banana muffins for dessert,” she said, sweetening the deal. “And then, if you’re not too tired, maybe we can watch a movie or something.”

Nicole offered a bright smile in response. Waverly was planning on staying. Suddenly, she felt almost giddy inside. “That sounds perfect.”

Friday, May 27, 2016…  Ghost River County Municipal Offices—4:30 p.m. Mountain Daylight Time

“It’s all gonna be okay, Waves. I know it will.”

Nicole had said those words with conviction. And as they stood there that afternoon, gazing into one another’s eyes, she believed every single word. She knew the kidnapping had stalled their progress; maybe even set them back a bit. But she was okay with that, because she truly believed that in the end they would be together.

Once she was formally released from the hospital, Waverly took her home, and spent the next several days literally hovering over her, making sure that her every need was not only met, but anticipated before it could even occur to Nicole that she needed it. She didn’t leave Nicole’s side until the day Nicole went back to work. Even then, she texted multiple times every day—more than her own sisters, even—just checking in on her, making sure she was all right. And every night, no matter the time, when her shift ended, Waverly was right there waiting for her. They’d been virtually inseparable for more than a week, and Nicole felt more hopeful every single day.  

Until that morning in her cruiser, when Waverly said the words that brought every shred of hopefulness to a screeching halt: “Just don’t ask me to be anyone at all... Well, maybe just friends.”

Though Nicole hadn’t shown the depth of her emotional response, her heart and soul had been crushed by the power of those words. How could Waverly say such a thing, after everything they’d been through together? What the hell happened to cause such a complete turnaround?

Though she’d been pondering those questions, along with myriad others, for most of the day, Nicole already knew the answer—Waverly was still terrified of losing her. She had managed, quite effectively, it seemed, to distract herself with the business of taking care of Nicole’s every need. Until that morning, of course, the misunderstanding they’d had when ran into each other, almost literally, as Nicole was rushing out of the station. Obviously, it left them both frustrated, but Nicole was beginning to believe that their miscommunication, and ensuing conversation in her cruiser, had forced Waverly to drop all of the distraction, and face her fears head-on. Only time would tell if her theory was correct.   

Friday, May 27, 2016…  Shorty’s—4:25 p.m. Mountain Daylight Time

After serving steaming mugs of black coffee to Nedley and Dolls—who looked like he’d rather have a root canal than be there with the Sheriff—Waverly turned toward the back corner of the bar, where Gus was flipping through the paperwork from the sale of Shorty’s. It broke her heart to think of this place belonging to anyone other than Gus and Shorty, and she felt a sense of anger and disappointment welling up inside as she approached her. “So you just did it,” she said accusingly, her tone more harsh than she’d intended. “You just went ahead and sold it.”

“Decisions had to be made,” Gus stated simply, yet with conviction. “I know you don’t believe me, but you were not born to be a goddamn small town waitress.”

“Yeah, I believe you, but I have, like, three shirts that say Shorty’s,” Waverly reasoned. She knew it was lame, but she was desperate to keep some sense of normalcy in the utter chaos that had become her life. Things were changing so fast, and she feared that once Shorty’s was gone, she wouldn’t have anything left. Even Nicole was mad at her—and Nicole was always so even-keeled, she never seemed to get mad about anything!  

“Honey, it’s in the agreement. Shorty’s will never get torn down. You can work here, in as many shirts as you want, for as long as you want,” Gus said, attempting to sell her on the idea.

“That’s not the point—”

Waverly’s attempt to argue was cut off cold by Gus, saying, “But, when you decide you’re ready to unstick those wings of yours…”

Allowing the statement to linger, Gus reached into the back pocket of her jeans, pulling out what looked like a piece of paper until she unfolded it, presenting it to Waverly. “Don’t cash it for a week or so.”

Astonished, Waverly stared at the check. It wasn’t a fortune, but it had more zeroes than she’d ever seen at any one time. “What’s this?”

“It’s freedom, Honey!” Gus flicked the check with her finger, causing the paper to crackle. “You’ve been doing what others want you to do for so long. Now you can do whatever it is you want.”

“Which is what?” Waverly sounded skeptical as she tilted her head, raising an eyebrow in question. She didn’t really know what it felt like to have options. Everything seemed to have been decided for her from the moment she was born—right down to the fact that Gus and Curtis would raise her once her parents were gone. Not that she would ever complain about that! They loved her fiercely, and she, them. And they had given her opportunities she never would’ve had with her parents. But while those opportunities filled some of the void she felt in her life, nothing ever filled it completely. And she couldn’t figure out why.  

“Live your life,” Gus said with a sense of passion Waverly had never witnessed in her before. “Remember: some of the best things in life are the surprises it throws us. About what we want… Who we want.” She emphasized the “who” part, accenting it with a knowing wink toward her niece—her subtle way of letting Waverly know she understood about Nicole, and that she was accepting of whatever Waverly wanted. “You’ve always been an honest kid,” she said, giving Waverly’s arm an affectionate squeeze. “Don’t stop now.” She leaned over then, planting an affectionate kiss on Waverly’s cheek. And then she gathered her paperwork, and disappeared, leaving Waverly to contemplate the entirety of their conversation. 

That conversation had taken place just before she ran into Doc, almost as if setting the stage for what was to come. Without even realizing it, those two conversations, when combined with the things that Dani and Langston had said to her, brought her full-circle, back to the moment she met Nicole. She couldn’t help but smile as she looked back on that initial encounter now, any more than she could’ve stopped the smile that seemed to hijack her face the entire time she was in Nicole’s presence that first morning. And in that moment of reflection, Waverly realized that Nicole Haught had stolen her heart from hello.

Friday, April 8, 2016…  Shorty’s—11:00 a.m. Mountain Daylight Time

“Ya… Jesus! Jesus… Ugh,” Waverly muttered as she fought with the spewing tap. This was all she needed today, especially after the whole incident with Red last night. All they’d wanted to do was have a nice family dinner—complete with Gus’s scrumptious glazed carrots—and he’d come in there disrupting their evening. He was dead now, sent back to the bowels of hell to rot until the next Heir came of age; but she didn’t think she’d ever forget the sight of him shaking and screaming as though he were being electrocuted as he held Peacemaker.  


Delivered on a sigh of frustration as she finally managed to shut the tap off, Waverly Earp dropped her hands down onto the bar with a loud thump. Clearly, this wasn’t her morning. 

Officer Nicole Haught leaned casually against the frame of the inner doors, her Stetson held loosely in her fingertips as she watched Waverly with rapt interest. Thick, wavy chestnut tresses flowed down Waverly’s back, tumbling all the way to her trim waist. They were lighter at the tips, like sunshine had kissed them, and they teased mercilessly at the waistband of her tight shorts as she moved. Nicole smiled to herself, charmed, even by her adorable clumsiness. And it didn’t hurt that the girl had the face of an angel, full of sweetness and light; the body of a goddess, compact, yet muscular in all the right places. God, she was beautiful. She almost left Nicole tongue-tied.


“I didn’t know Shorty’s had wet t-shirt competitions,” she finally said, after several delightful stolen minutes of simply watching her. 

The sound of an unfamiliar voice caught Waverly completely off-guard. Glancing toward the doorway, her gaze fell clumsily onto the source—Purgatory’s newest law enforcement recruit. Slightly embarrassed, she quickly drew her gaze away, muttering, “Stupid tap,” as she blotted at her soggy tank top with a towel she’d lifted from the bar just moments before.  

A teasing laugh followed the comment, and then the officer asked, “You okay?” as she pushed away from the doorframe, and descending the steps with an air of confidence that Waverly found surprisingly alluring even in her own distraction over being soaked in beer.

Waverly nodded. “Yeah,” she said with a nervous laugh as she slapped the drenched towel onto the bar. “Yeah, I, uh… just a bit jumpy. Had a… a crazy night,” she explained vaguely, reaching for a clean one from the stack, and blotting the droplets of water from her chest. She certainly couldn’t tell the officer she’d watched her sister shoot a demon Revenant with Peacemaker, and then witnessed him descending into hell!

Tall and muscular, her thick auburn hair pulled back into a French braid to accommodate the Stetson, the beautiful stranger was an absolute vision, even in her government-issue uniform. The deep blue of the uniform shirt brought out the flecks of blue and green in her soft russet eyes, and Waverly found herself drawn into them the moment their gazes locked. 

“Sorry I wasn’t here to see it,” the officer said with a smile, those eyes slowly taking in Waverly’s beautiful face as she slid her Stetson onto the bar like a smooth caress. Her breath caught, and her heart fluttered in her chest, and suddenly, she felt overcome with an emotion she couldn’t quite identify. God, she was beautiful. Not that that surprised her—she’d noticed the girl from a distance on several occasions. That’s part of what had prompted her to drop into Shorty’s so early in the day—a chance to meet her up close, and personal. But being this close to her was a little overpowering—something that had never happened to her before.

She glanced down, attempting to catch her breath as she summoned the courage to finish what she had so intentionally started. “I’ve been, uh… I’ve been meaning to introduce myself, I’m Nicole,” she said, extending her right hand across the bar toward the younger woman. “Nicole Haught,” she clarified as Waverly accepted her proffered hand.

Droplets of water glistened on Waverly’s chest despite efforts to remove them, and Nicole felt unreasonably jealous of their good fortune. At the very least, she wished she was that towel Waverly was using to wipe them away. 

“Hi—,” Waverly said with a smile that reached all the way to her eyes, causing them to dance with unfettered merriment. 

Immediately, Nicole thought how she could get lost in that smile for days. “And you are… Waverly Earp,” she continued. Slowly, she slipped her hand from Waverly’s grip, pausing for a gentle squeeze before reluctantly releasing her completely.

Tipping her head adorably, Waverly confirmed the assertion. “Yes…”

“Quite a popular girl around here,” Nicole noted, her hand dropping onto the bar in front of her.

“Oh, you know, it’s all in the ‘smile and wave’,” Waverly replied with another bright smile and the cutest little wave of her right hand.

“Yeah—” Nicole murmured, her gaze still locked on Waverly’s adorable face. And then she leaned forward, asking, “Can I get a cappuccino to go?”

“Oh, I’m… I’m really sorry. Um… we’re not actually open yet, so…” Allowing the statement to finish itself, Waverly gestured around the empty bar. 

“Oh! Right…” There was laughter in Nicole’s voice, and she raised her hands almost as if in surrender as she glanced around the room. “Okay. My bad…” she said, pretending she hadn’t intentionally walked into the empty bar, hoping to find Waverly alone. And then her eyes landed in Waverly’s gaze again, holding steadily. “It’s just when I, uh… when I see something I like, I don’t wanna wait.”

Delivered on a flirtatious lilt, Nicole’s comment caused Waverly’s breath to hitch in her chest. She couldn’t believe the woman was actually hitting on her. Her pulse quickened, and she felt a slight flush coloring her cheeks. But she never released Nicole’s intense gaze. 

Realizing the affect she was having on the woman, Nicole gestured with a finger toward the front doors, quickly adding, “And your door was open, so…”

Waverly’s eyes slid toward the door—a safety zone—as she attempted to catch her breath.  “Right…” she sighed, as she scrubbed the towel over the front of her tank top and shorts. “God, I’m sopping wet,” she commented with a sigh, drawing a laugh from Nicole. “You know, I keep telling Shorty he needs to fix the darn… taps.”

Baffled by why she’d been at a loss for the word “taps,” Waverly quickly sought a diversion. “Sorry, do you mind just, uh…” she said, covering her eyes with her hands in the hopes that Nicole would get the idea. “I’m gonna…”

She aborted the statement, replacing further explanation with the cutest little sound, and a gesture indicating she was about to remove her soggy tank top.

Nicole chuckled again as she turned to face the doorway. Modesty looks adorable on you.  

Waverly turned to face the opposite direction, a swarm of butterflies inexplicably fluttering in her belly. She felt… nervous, but not in a bad way. More like anticipation. But she didn’t know of what. All she could think about was the fact that this alluring woman was sitting less than five feet from her, and she felt giddy, and almost tongue-tied—something that never happened to her. She checked, and checked again, feeling a little ridiculous as she made sure Nicole’s back was turned, before crossing her arms and grasping the hem of her thin tank top, lifting it over her head.

Much to her chagrin, the maneuver didn’t work as planned. The fabric ripped, and she found her arms and head caught in the tangle of her own shirt.  “Oh! Oh, crap…” she whispered. “Uh… er, uh…” she babbled as she struggled to free herself. “Officer, I’m stuck, so…” she laughed uneasily.

Nicole turned at the sound of Waverly’s voice calling to her. “Oh! Geez… Here, let me help you. I got you,” she said, moving around the far edge of the bar to where Waverly was standing. 

“Oh, god,” Waverly said on an embarrassed laugh. “Good job you’re not some guy, or this would be really… really… awkward.”

Nicole’s eyelids slid closed, and then slowly opened again to lock gazes with Waverly as she handed her the tank top.

Lips parted as Waverly looked up into eyes filled with tenderness and sincerity, and just a little touch of mischief. Pulling the material close against her chest, she crossed her left arm over, grasping her right shoulder—a show of bashfulness as she asked herself what the hell she’d been thinking, taking her shirt off in front of this woman. “Um… I—I owe you one.”

“Alright,” Nicole readily accepted. She was never one to pass up an opportunity, especially when it came to a beautiful woman. “How ‘bout you buy me that cup of coffee? How ‘bout tonight?”

“Oh, I can’t,” Waverly was quick to reject. Her nervousness was obvious from the slight tremor in her voice. “No, I mean, I’d love to—like, like to, uh—but I have plans,” she fibbed. “Yeah, I’m a planner. I like to know what I’m doing at least two or three days in advance,” she babbled.

Nodding her head, Nicole pressed her lips together to avoid something inappropriate from slipping out. She seriously doubted the girl had plans. All the nervous babbling had given her way. Instead of speaking, she responded with a smile that said she knew more than she was saying. 

Rattled, Waverly shook her head adorably, and then met Nicole’s gaze. “I’m in a relationship. With a boy,” she said in a firm attempt to set the officer straight regarding her sexuality. And then she quickly amended the word boy to “man,” which only served to draw an amused grin from Nicole.

“A boy-man,” Nicole said with raised eyebrows and that ever-present look of amusement. And then that dimple appeared in her left cheek again as she chuckled to herself. “Yep, I’ve been there,” she laughed, stepping away from Waverly.

Pitching her gaze over her right shoulder, Waverly was rendered speechless, unable to move. She watched intently as Nicole stepped away from her, her eyes never leaving Nicole’s beautiful face. 

Nicole laughed again as she rounded the edge of the bar. “It’s the worst,” she said, somehow managing to sound both mortified and amused, as she stealthily pulled her business card from her right front pocket. She’d placed it there with every intention of giving it to Waverly before she even left the station. And then she shrugged. “Okay, well, some other time,” she said confidently, as she lifted her Stetson from the bar with her left hand, while dropping her card in its place with an equal measure of confidence. Her gaze never left Waverly’s as she spoke, and Waverly couldn’t help but smile in response. All she could do was stare at the woman, mesmerized by her self-assurance and that heart-stopping smile.

Heading toward the door, Nicole paused briefly to glance over her right shoulder, capturing Waverly’s gaze one last time. “I mean it,” she said firmly, before settling her Stetson on her head, and sauntering out the door.

Waverly watched her go, and then, finally able to move again, she released a breath she hadn’t realized she’d been holding, and shifted toward the bar top, reaching for the card. Holding it in her hands like a treasured artifact, she stared at it for a moment. “Officer Haught,” she said, reading from it. And then she grinned, and chuckled nervously, “Of course…” 

Friday, May 27, 2016…  Shorty’s Saloon—4:35 p.m. Mountain Daylight Time

As Waverly looked back upon that initial meeting, she realized that the entire interaction was imbued with demure glances, soft, almost bashful smiles, and ultimately, lingering stares, neither of them really knowing what to do with the taut, invisible cord of mutual attraction that had so effortlessly connected them. But it was most baffling to Waverly, who had never in her life even contemplated another woman, let alone found herself so undeniably drawn to one. Whether she’d realized it in the moment or not, her entire universe had tilted on its axis the moment she set eyes on Nicole Haught.

And the feelings had only grown stronger from there. The more time she’d spent with Nicole, the more she wanted to spend. The more Nicole had shared of herself, the more Waverly wanted to know of her—and the more she wanted to share of own self, in return. She experienced more intimacy with Nicole than she’d ever shared with anyone else, ever. And she never wanted that feeling to end. And she realized now what it was that she was feeling at Nicole’s place; that sense of safety and contentment. It wasn’t about the place at all—it was about Nicole. 

Now, not only did she realize it, she accepted it, welcomed it, even. If she were being honest with herself, she’d have to admit that she’d known from that start what she wanted: She wanted Nicole. And she realized that she had been making the same mistake Wynonna always made in the past—she was running away from her fears, instead of staring them down, daring them to try to steal her happiness. Wynonna was facing her truth now, facing her fears, in ways neither of them ever imagined she would, or even could, proving, once and for all that past choices weren’t destined to be prologue for the future. Waverly was free to choose her own destiny, rather than being bound by a past that wasn’t even hers to regret.

And in that in that moment of clarity, she decided that her desire for Nicole far surpassed any amount of fear. She wanted to be with her. She wanted her more than she’d ever wanted anyone or anything in her entire life. And she no longer cared that she hadn’t a clue as to how to go about telling her. She was simply just going to do it, consequences be damned. Then, with a renewed sense of purpose, she made a beeline for the kitchen to grab Langston and Dani’s order—she knew it would be up by now. And once she served them, she would tell Gus she was leaving, and head straight to the station, and to Nicole.    

Friday, May 27, 2016…  Shorty’s Saloon—4:40 p.m. Mountain Daylight Time

“Wow, you have perfect timing,” Langston said, glancing at her watch as Waverly returned to serve their meals almost exactly fifteen minutes after she’d left with their order. The plates were stacked with seasoned fries and two of the tastiest looking burgers she’d ever seen, and Waverly served them with a newly acquired sparkle in her eyes.

“I told our cook you were VIPs,” Waverly said with a conspiratorial wink. “Guarantee these are the best burgers you’ll ever have.”

“Well, we definitely look forward to trying them,” Dani said. “They look delicious. Thank you.”

“You’re welcome,” Waverly said congenially. “Anything else I can bring you?”

“No, I think we’re good,” Langston answered. “Thanks though.”

“No problem at all,” Waverly replied. “Just let Gus know if you change your mind,” she instructed, pointing toward her aunt. “She’s over at the bar, and she’ll be glad to help you out.”

Langston eyed her curiously. “Going somewhere?”

“I just… need to run an errand,” Waverly said vaguely, her heart tripping with wild anticipation in her chest.

Langston nodded. And then she lingered for a moment, watching Waverly as though she were reading her. There was something more. She could sense it.

“Well, thank you for the warm welcome, Waverly,” Dani said sweetly. “It made for a pleasant experience.”

“Anytime,” Waverly replied with a hospitable smile. She turned away then, but stopped again suddenly. She could feel Langston’s eyes still on her. Pivoting on her heel to face them again, her face held an expression that said she had something on her mind. “Listen, before I go, I wanted to say thank you,” she commented, answering the question Langston hadn’t even asked. “For earlier, y’know. What you said about me and Nicole.”

“It’s our pleasure,” Dani said sweetly.

Out of nowhere, Waverly felt a sudden burst of curiosity regarding these two women who had just happened to show up when she most needed to hear what they had to say. “If you don’t mind my asking, what brings you to Purgatory?” she inquired. “I mean, it’s not exactly a tourist attraction,” she joked.

“Well, we visit Lake Louise a few times a year,” Langston answered. The danger that first brought them to Canada had long-since been resolved; but their love of the area had grown exponentially during their sojourn several years ago. The time they’d spent in that little cottage, tucked away in the foothills of Lake Louise, had given them an opportunity to not only heal their shattered marriage, but to strengthen it with an unbreakable bond. Hence, they returned here, to this place of refuge, as often as possible. “But the legend of Shorty’s burgers is what brought us here to Purgatory,” she added with a grin.

“Wait, so you’ve been vacationing at Lake Louise for years, but… you just randomly picked today to come to Shorty’s,” Waverly said, emphasizing the parts about randomness and today as if she were mulling over some strange happenstance.

Leaning forward, Langston rested her forearms on the table, clasping her hands together as she glanced up at Waverly. “Yeah, I uh, I woke up this morning with a craving for a real burger,” she shrugged. “And like I said, we’ve heard these are legendary.” Gesturing toward her plate, she grinned.

Waverly chuckled, but her eyes said she was less than convinced.

“Listen, Waverly, I don’t believe in coincidences any more than I think you do,” Langston said forthrightly. She’d been reading Waverly’s expressions like a book. That’s how trained detectives worked. “I think we end up where we’re supposed to be, at the time we’re most needed. But it’s up to us to decide whether or not we answer the call.”

“Answer the call?” Waverly questioned.

Langston nodded. “We could’ve come in here, ordered our dinner, eaten, and left without engaging with you beyond what we needed from you with regard to our agenda: Shorty’s famous burgers,” she expounded. “Instead, we followed our instincts and engaged with you on a personal level and, correct me if I’m wrong but, it seems like you got something you needed from it.”

Nodding, Waverly released a slow sigh of relief. “I did,” she admitted. “I get it now. And thank you again.”

The expression on Dani’s face was one of great anticipation. “So… what are you gonna do about Nicole?” she finally asked, unable to stand the suspense any longer.

“That’s… actually the errand I’m going to run,” Waverly admitted bashfully.

Onyx eyes glistened with excitement as Dani grinned. “Ooh! Do tell!”

Waverly’s smile lit up the room. “I’m gonna go tell her how I feel,” she declared. “I’m not even gonna give her a second to talk, because if I do, I’m afraid I’ll lose my nerve,” she said, feeling her insides tremble with nervous excitement. Or… she’ll tell me again why we can’t, and… we definitely can.”

Dani squealed as she jumped from her seat, giving Waverly an impromptu hug. “Oh, my goodness, I’m so excited for you!” she exclaimed.

Laughing, Waverly returned the hug. “I’m excited too,” she admitted. “I can’t wait to tell her.”

Releasing Waverly from her embrace, Dani grasped Waverly’s biceps, meeting her gaze squarely. “Then why are you still here?” she questioned. “Go!”

“Yes, Ma’am,” Waverly said with a grin, her tone implying a salute. “Come back and see me sometime, okay?” she requested. “I’d love to tell you how things work out.”

“We will definitely do that,” Langston said, rising from her seat. She gave Waverly an encouraging pat on the shoulder. “Until then, you take care.”

“You, as well,” Waverly said, looking from Langston to Dani, and back again. “And thanks again.” And then she was racing across the bar toward Gus, Dani and Langston watching her as she moved.

Turning toward Langston then, Dani gave her a quizzical look. “Answer the call?” she said, her tone probing.

Langston grinned. “Well, I had to tell her something!” she defended. “She wasn’t buying that we were here by coincidence.”

“Well, I have to say, I’m kind of impressed, given that you pulled that right out of your ass,” Dani laughed.

“I actually do believe we end up where we’re needed,” Langston admitted. “After all, you ended up in Springfield at the perfect time for us to reclaim our marriage,” she gently reminded. “And… there’s no way Marc could’ve known we’d be dealing with a fledgling lesbian relationship when he called me up for this assignment.”

“True, on both accounts,” Dani granted. “You think they’re gonna be okay?”

Wrapping an arm around her wife, Langston gave Dani an affectionate squeeze. “It’s my job to ensure that they are,” she said with conviction. And then she glanced at her wife. “Now what do you say we sit down, and eat these burgers, huh?” she suggested. “They smell amazing.”

Dani grinned. “I thought you’d never ask,” she said, readily agreeing with Langston’s suggestion. “I’m starving! I had to sit here, smelling this fabulous food for more than an hour while I waited for you.”

Langston laughed, and pulled out Dani’s chair. “Sorry to keep you waiting, Love,” she said sincerely, as she seated her wife. “Something tells me they’re gonna be more than occupied this evening, and I’ve already called in backup, so… we can definitely enjoy the date night we told Waverly we were having.”

“You are an insufferable romantic, Commander,” Dani declared, leaning over to kiss her wife.

Returning the kiss, Langston smiled against Dani’s lips. “I had the world’s best inspiration,” she complimented, referring to Dani’s penchant for matchmaking. “Now let’s eat this dinner so I can get you somewhere alone, and have my way with you.”

Laughing, Dani declared, “Even after all these years, you still know how to make me swoon.”

Friday, May 27, 2016…  Shorty’s Saloon—4:50 p.m. Mountain Daylight Time

“Gus! Hey, Gus!” Waverly exclaimed as barreled across the bar toward her aunt. Her insides were buzzing with nervous anticipation—she couldn’t wait to get to Nicole.

“Goodness gracious, settle down,” Gus chided lightly. “What in tarnation’s gotten into you, Girl?”

“I need to go,” Waverly announced. “I know it’s the middle of my shift, but…”

“Somethin’ wrong?” Gus queried. She looked concerned.

“No, nothing’s wrong,” Waverly answered. And then she smiled, and it reached her eyes. “Everything’s right! Everything’s perfect, actually. I’ve gotta go find Nicole.”

“And what are you gonna do when you find her?” Gus asked, hopeful that she was hearing what she thought she was hearing.

Waverly released a breath of excitement. “I’m gonna live my life like you told me to,” she declared.

Gus leaned back against the edge of the bar, casually crossing her arms. “So you and Nicole, huh?” she said, trying to sound nonchalant.

Rolling her eyes, Waverly shook her head. Gus was terrible at hiding things, and even worse at feigning complete ignorance of things that were right in front of her. “You’ve known all along, haven’t you?”

Gus couldn’t help but smile. “I suspected,” she admitted. “And I hoped.”

Surprised, Waverly’s brow lifted. “You did?”

Smiling, Gus nodded. “Nicole is a wonderful young woman, Honey,” she declared. “And you both deserve to be happy. If you can find that happiness together, then I say all the better.”

Releasing a breath of relief, Waverly grinned and flung herself into her aunt’s arms. “Thank you, Gus,” she said, squeezing her tightly.

“You’re welcome,” Gus replied, briefly returning the hug. “Now get on outta here,” she commanded, swatting Waverly’s backside with the towel in her hand. “Go get the girl, Honey. And I don’t wanna see you back in here until Sunday afternoon.”

“You mean it?” Waverly questioned, feeling giddy at the prospect of an entire day alone with Nicole after everything they’d been through.

Gus nodded. “I’ll make sure you’re covered tomorrow,” she assured. “Now go!”

Hopping up and down, Waverly clapped her hands and squealed giddily, her grin stretching ear-to-ear. And then she turned into a blur, running first toward the office to grab her street clothes, then into the restroom to change. And finally, grabbing her coat and scarf from the office, within minutes, she was out the door, leaving Gus smiling after her.


TBC in Chapter 10—Coming Home…

Chapter Text

The Ten Times Waverly Earp was Definitely NOT on a Date with Nicole Haught


“Know I’ll never find it on my own

‘Cause this life ain’t leadin’ nowhere I can go.

I’m standing still with nothing in my way.

Letting me go, so I can find myself again.


I know if I can find my own way back

There’s a life I always knew, but never had.

I’m tired of fighting things that I can’t change.

Letting me go, so I can finally find my place.


I need that ground beneath my feet

To feel that ground beneath my feet…


I need that home, I'm coming home, I'm coming home
'Cause this life that I've been living ain't my own
Home, I'm coming home, I'm coming home
'Cause I'm tired of being out here on my own
I'm coming home…”

 — Pete Kelleher, Ben Kohn, Tom Barnes & Wayne Anthony Hector, Coming Home



Chapter 10 – Coming Home:


Friday, May 27, 2016… Ghost River County Municipal Offices—4:45 p.m. Mountain Daylight Time

Beyond aggravated, Nicole sighed as she put the finishing touches on a report regarding a fishy stench that apparently spewed from Mr. Erickson’s house every time he opened a window or a door. Reportedly, it was quite pungent, repugnant, even. “It smells like death!” Mrs. Sommers, who had filed the report, very adamantly complained.

Immediately, Nicole’s gut instincts went on alert, and she wondered what kind of trouble Mr. Erickson might be in. She was afraid she might be destined for a run out to his place to check things out, thus delaying her ability to talk with Waverly and hopefully put their recent quarrel behind them. Thankfully though, her disquiet proved unwarranted when, upon further questioning, she was able to determine that the smell was not, in fact, the result of a dead body.

Literally, it smelled like fish.

All the time.

Mrs. Sommers even had a file folder stuffed with photos of Mr. Erickson’s trashcan, overflowing with the remnants of freshly disemboweled trout. And apparently, rather like the trashcan, she’d had her fill.

Struggling to hold her composure and not laugh at the clearly distraught woman, Nicole assured Mrs. Sommers that, while she certainly empathized with her concerns, there was really nothing the police could do. There was no law against eating fish—three times a day, if that’s what rocked Mr. Erickson’s world. Well, she didn’t put it quite like that, but Mrs. Sommers definitely came to the understanding that her neighbor could eat fish as often as he pleased, despite her aversion to the smell.

What a colossal waste of time. It was nuisance complaints like this that made Nicole wish she’d never left the Dallas P.D. Nevertheless, she dutifully filled out the paper report for entry into the system before shift’s end. She definitely wasn’t getting out of there on time.

Huffing, Mrs. Sommers slammed the file folder shut, responding with a snappy retort about how they’d all “see about this!” And then, as she stormed out the door, looking rather pissed as she did, one of Nicole’s fellow officers, Sarah Grady, came in with an update on a case they were working from a couple of days prior—this one regarding a two vehicle collision out on Highway 81, just to the south of the Ghost River County Line, northeast of town. It was charter bus versus snowplow, and several passengers were reportedly injured, some of them seriously.

Snowplows in May. Jesus, she missed the weather in Dallas sometimes. Sure, it was hotter than hell in the summertime, especially with the humidity, but the winters were downright balmy compared to this place! They got a dusting of snow every couple of years or so, usually in the early morning when temperatures could occasionally dip below freezing; and it was melted by noontime as they soared well above. But that was neither here nor there, Nicole silently reasoned, because Purgatory was her home now—subzero temps, endless snowfall, fishy smells, and all.

The bus, filled with elderly passengers, had been headed from the old folks’ home just south of Purgatory to the casinos in the Big City, for the annual Slot Machine Bonanza, where the group was certain they’d all take home a windfall. Sadly, their dreams of independent wealth were cut short, when the bus driver underestimated the dangers of maneuvering a fifteen-ton tube of metal on icy pavement, and put the bus into a skid, smacking right into the back end of a slow-moving snowplow. Officers Grady and Haught had been dispatched, along with EMS, to secure the crash site and file the official report, as well as assist in transport to the hospital, if necessary. And now more details were beginning to trickle in as Sarah worked the case behind the scenes, visiting some of the more seriously injured passengers at the hospital once they were up to giving their statements.

Grateful for the reprieve from the fishy ordeal, Nicole set the Sommers complaint aside, and grabbing the file with the initial crash report, she began filling in the recently unearthed details as Sarah provided them.    

“Thanks for the info, Sarah,” Nicole said, as she jotted down the last of the details. “I’ll get the paper report finished up, and enter the latest into the system before I leave.”

“Thanks a lot, Nicole,” Sarah replied. “I’ll grab the update when I get in tomorrow morning.”

“No problem,” Nicole assured.  

“Hey, was that Millie Sommers I saw storming out of here as I walked in?” Sarah asked, almost as an afterthought.

“Yeah,” Nicole sighed. “She filed a complaint about a ‘fishy smell’ coming from old man Erickson’s house. She really had me goin’ there for a moment—I thought he had a dead body in there. But then I figured out…”

“Again?” Sarah interrupted, sounding unimpressed.

“Wait. She’s complained about the smell before?” Nicole sounded surprised, though, in retrospect, she wasn’t really certain why. The woman came armed with an entire file folder full of photos of the man’s trashcan. Surely, she hadn’t taken them all in one day.

“Weekly,” Sarah said dryly. “I don’t know why she can’t just learn to deal with it. The man’s retired; he likes to fish,” she shrugged, as if to say: What’s the big deal?

“And he enjoys eating his catch, apparently,” Nicole grinned. That trashcan really did look gruesome.

“She showed you the pictures?” Sarah asked, already knowing the answer.

The expression on Nicole’s face answered the question, and Sarah laughed. “It’s rather revolting,” she granted. “And as much as he enjoys eating his catch, I think he enjoys annoying the Widow Sommers with the… aroma… even more,” she said with a knowing wink.

“Ah! I get it now,” Nicole chuckled. “Well, somebody needs to introduce him to a bottle of cologne, ‘cause he’s certainly not gettin’ any with that pungent aroma he’s got goin’ on.”

Sarah laughed. “Just wait ‘til she starts filing complaints about his Christmas decorations,” she warned. “That’ll start around mid-October. And it’ll be daily.”

“October?” Nicole sounded suitably chagrinned. “He certainly likes to get an early start.”

“Yeah,” Sarah laughed. “And it lasts until the end of January. Drives her crazy. She claims the lights keep her up all night.”

“How many lights are we talkin’ ‘bout here?” Nicole asked, wary of the response.

“The place looks like the Griswold’s,” Sarah reported, eyes widening in emphasis. “Don’t even get me started on the animated lawn ornaments.”

Criminy,” Nicole muttered.

“You’re not kiddin’,” Sarah laughed.

“Well, perhaps she should invite him over for dinner,” Nicole suggested. “She could serve him steak—show him there’re other options for dinner. And maybe even teach him a thing or two about the subtleties of tasteful Christmas decorating.”

“Your lips to God’s ears,” Sarah said with an easy grin.

Nicole chuckled. “In the meantime, remind me to skip his street when I go house hunting,” she said drolly. She loved Christmas, but that was just ridiculous.

“You in the market?” Sarah asked, leaning against the counter.

“Eventually,” Nicole answered noncommittally. “If I don’t buy, I’ll build. I don’t really wanna pay rent forever.”

“Copy that,” Sarah said. She reached across the counter, giving Nicole’s hand a gentle, motherly pat. “Well, it’s nice to know you’re thinkin’ of stayin’ around these parts. You’ve become a real asset to us, Nicole.”

“Definitely staying,” Nicole said with a smile. “And thank you. I really enjoy bein’ a part of the community here.”

“You’re welcome. Glad to hear it,” Sarah replied warmly. “Anyway,” she segued with a sigh, “I’ve gotta run. The grandkids are coming for dinner, and Frank’s threatening to feed them cold hotdogs and boxed mac ‘n cheese if I don’t get home before they get there.”

“At least he’s not threatening them with fish,” Nicole teased.

“You make an excellent point,” Sarah laughed. She rather enjoyed Nicole’s wry sense of humor. “Have a good night.”

“You as well, Sarah. Enjoy,” Nicole said, turning her attention back to the report, as Sarah closed the file folder and turned to leave.

As she did, Waverly came rushing through the double doors, nearly running her over.

Clearly on a mission, Waverly sidestepped her with the practiced ease of someone who was accustomed to weaving through tight spaces, heading straight for the front desk where Nicole was sitting. “Hey!” she exclaimed, sounding winded.

Startled by her unexpected appearance, Nicole’s head jerked up, and her breath caught in her chest. She couldn’t believe Waverly was actually standing there. Despite herself, her world stilled for a moment.

“Nedley out for dinner?” Waverly asked, sounding like she was in a rush. She knew full-well that she’d just left him at Shorty’s, drinking coffee and socializing with the townsfolk—at least the ones who weren’t already drunk. But she needed an ice-breaker, and Nedley suited that need perfectly.

“Oh, you mean happy hour at Shorty’s?” Nicole asked, her tone sounding like a verbal rolling of her eyes.

“Yeah,” Waverly replied, her cadence clipped as she glanced toward his office door, and then back at Nicole.

“Same time every day,” Nicole answered on a sigh. She didn’t know whether she was happy to see her, or aggravated that she hadn’t even acknowledged their earlier quarrel. “Kinda like clockwork.”

Before Nicole even finished answering, Waverly pushed past the swinging door into the bullpen, heading straight for Nedley’s office.

Caught off-guard, Nicole twisted in her chair, her eyes following Waverly, as she called after her. “Hey!” What the hell is her deal?

When Waverly didn’t respond, Nicole stood from her chair. “Wave!” she called again, quickly trailing behind her.

In Nedley’s office, Waverly pulled her puffy blue coat off, tossing it over the arm of the sofa. She sounded out of breath, which made sense given her anxiousness, and the fact that she’d run the entire way from Shorty’s over to the station. And then she set about closing all of the blinds. Jesus, why does an inner office need so many frickin’ windows!

“Hey!” Nicole said again, as she entered the office to see Waverly closing the blinds on the set of windows closest to the door.

“Excuse me,” Waverly said in a rush, ignoring Nicole’s call, as she moved Nicole aside, closing the door behind them.

“What is your problem?” Nicole snapped uncharacteristically, as she backed away from the door. “I don’t understand why you’re—”

Waverly lunged toward her, her right hand grasping Nicole’s left shoulder for leverage, as she stretched up on her tiptoes, capturing Nicole’s mouth in a passionate kiss that took her completely by surprise. Not that she was complaining! She’d spent countless hours daydreaming of what it would feel like to kiss Waverly Earp.

Before she could really react, Waverly’s right hand was cradling Nicole’s face, her left arm wrapped around Nicole’s neck, pulling their bodies flush against one another. Her head was spinning as she responded to the kiss, and instinctively, she grasped Waverly’s waist with one hand, and her forearm with the other, as Waverly quickly, almost frantically, maneuvered them toward the sofa.

Having acted on sheer impulse, Waverly worried, just a bit too late, that this whole thing could end in disaster—or God forbid, physical injury—given that she couldn’t see where she was going. But she just went with it, consequences be damned. And the move proved so agile, so smooth, that Nicole would have sworn it was choreographed—if she’d possessed the ability to think beyond the fact that Waverly Earp was kissing her.  

They landed on the sofa with Waverly on top, and Nicole’s hands fell to her waist, as Waverly braced her hands against the arm of the sofa, both of them breathless, and Waverly clearly eager to continue the kiss.

But Nicole caught use of her senses again, gently prying Waverly from her. “What happened to friends?” she gasped in question, clearly overwhelmed by the swift unexplained shift in Waverly’s demeanor towards her. Not that she was complaining, but she needed to make some sense of what was happening.

Waverly lurched back, just looking at her as she attempted to catch her breath. “You know what I’ve always wanted?” she asked, the cadence of her speech uncharacteristically rapid, even for her.

“What?” Nicole looked and sounded like she was afraid to hear the answer, as she shifted on the sofa, trying to sit upright; which proved a bit difficult with Waverly sitting on top of her. She sighed, settling for just leaning back on her elbows.

“To parachute out of a plane at fifteen thousand feet,” Waverly rambled, her heart pounding erratically in her chest. She leaned in toward Nicole, her left hand grasping the back of the sofa; a means of steadying herself.

Nicole gave her a puzzled look, but remained silent.

“Yeah,” Waverly said, confirming for Nicole that it was indeed true. “To swim, far, far out into the ocean so that I can’t see the bottom anymore,” she continued, gesturing with her right hand to emphasize exactly how far. “To eat geoduck.”

Nicole’s facial expression twisted into a contortion. She looked positively aghast. “Isn’t that the one that kinda looks like a—” She pursed her lips as if she were about to say a word that started with the letter “p”, but before she could actually utter the word “penis,” Waverly confirmed it for her. “Yeah, it is,” she said, almost breathlessly.

Clearly disturbed, Nicole nodded slightly, and closed her eyes. And when she opened them again, for a brief moment, she looked like she might lose her dinner—had she actually eaten any. But she remained silent, because Waverly was rambling again. The girl was certainly on a roll.

“Point is, I’ve always wanted to do things that scared me,” Waverly was saying, the cadence of her voice finally slowing. “But, well,” she paused, swallowing hard and tilting her head adorably. “It’s not so easy to be brazen…”

She looked away as she spoke of brazenness, drawing in a deep breath as she gathered the courage to finish what she’d started. It was then that she realized her hand was on Nicole’s thigh, and self-consciously, she pulled it away—not that she hadn’t touched Nicole before, because obviously, she had; but now, even a simple touch took on a much more profound meaning.

A moment later, she met Nicole’s sincere gaze again, and continued, “…when the thing that you want, tha-that scares you to death, is sitting… right in front of you,” she confessed, those last five words being delivered on a whisper of relief, her hand gesturing between the two of them. God, it felt incredible to say those words! It was terrifying, and yet, freeing, in a way that Waverly had never known.   

Her expression softening, Nicole looked at her through enlightened eyes, and in that moment, she felt herself tumbling more deeply love with Waverly Earp. “I scare you,” she whispered softly, the corners of her mouth lifting into a faint smile. It wasn’t a question so much as it was a profound realization.

Waverly’s soft sigh blossomed into a smile. “Yes. Yes, you do,” she confirmed, as Nicole looked at her with those eyes so filled with adoration, suffusing her heart with courage. “Because… I don’t wanna be friends.”

Nicole’s expression turned to momentary hurt and confusion, and swallowing hard, Waverly quickly sought to clarify. “When I think about what I wanna do most in this world… it’s you.”

An amused grin sprouted on Nicole’s lips, her face flushing slightly in response. Her heart swelled, even as she struggled to stifle the giggle that tickled in her chest. Christ, you’re adorable.

“Oh, god, that sounded so much more romantic in my head,” Waverly muttered, more to herself than to Nicole, the expression on her face almost pained. She paused for a moment, closing her eyes as she attempted to regain her composure. And then she tilted her head, her hands fluttering anxiously, like a hummingbird’s wings, in front of her as Nicole’s eyes slowly closed, that amused smile still playing across her lips. There was nothing sexier or more adorable than a flustered Waverly Earp. How those two things could exist simultaneously was still beyond her comprehension, but Nicole couldn’t get enough of that intoxicating amalgam.

When Nicole opened her eyes a moment later, she fell directly into Waverly’s gaze once again, as Waverly was saying, “Just, uh, jump in any time, Nicole, because I really, really don’t know how to do this.”

“Oh, sure you do,” Nicole responded on a husky whisper, looking at her with those eyes again—the ones that Waverly swore could see straight through to her soul.

Gazing right back into Nicole’s eyes, Waverly took a deep breath as her brain scrambled for words. “Maybe I should just stop talking,” she exhaled, her expression one of concern that she might be doing this all wrong.

“See…” Nicole murmured as she reached for the ends of the soft multicolored winter scarf that still hung around Waverly’s neck. Skillfully, she wound them around her hands. “You’re gettin’ better at this already,” she said, her voice, a soft caress, as she used the scarf to pull Waverly toward her.

Waverly would have regarded that as a smooth move had she not been so caught up in Nicole’s eyes, the way they looked at her with such tenderness and desire. No one had ever looked at her that way before, and it made her feel simultaneously wanted… and ridiculously nervous.

When Waverly was close enough, Nicole leaned in to kiss her; but Waverly pulled back just enough to meet what quickly turned into a questioning gaze. “Maybe you should stop talking too,” she suggested.

“Maybe you should make me,” Nicole challenged, her tone flirtatious as that dimpled smile splayed slowly, yet confidently across her face.

Heart thudding in her chest, Waverly searched Nicole’s face intently for a moment, her gaze flickering from soft pink lips, to those expressive russet eyes, and back again before leaning in to accept the challenge by claiming that perfect mouth in a kiss that left no question of her desire for Nicole.

With Waverly hovering over her, Nicole melted into her kiss, allowing herself to be pushed back against the arm of the sofa. She’d spent so much time dreaming of this moment, and now that it was happening, it was more incredible than she ever imagined. Her heart pounded wildly in her chest, and she was certain Waverly could feel it against her own. She could definitely feel Waverly’s heart beating against hers.  

Waverly’s left hand fell against Nicole’s neck, and when their mouths parted, reconnecting again a mere breath later, Nicole turned the tables on her, shifting forward and effortlessly lifting Waverly up, settling her on her back, their heads ending up at the opposite end of the sofa in one fluid motion. Their kiss broke with the impact of their landing, both of them gasping for air, and Nicole smiled down at her, reveling in the look of delighted surprise that played across Waverly’s beautiful face.

Clearly wanting more, Waverly pulled her close with a firm hand against the back of Nicole’s neck, as the other wrapped around her shoulder. And then Nicole was kissing her again, this time frantically, passionately, eager mouths connecting, parting, and connecting again. Waverly’s lower lip quivered; her breath warm and ragged against Nicole’s lips when their mouths parted again, ever so briefly. Nicole smiled, her mouth meeting Waverly’s again, as she used her left hand to lift Waverly’s leg, wrapping it around her waist, her own body pressing firmly against Waverly’s now.

Even fully clothed, Waverly’s entire body flushed with heat at the sensation of Nicole’s weight pressed so firmly against her. It was intoxicating, and she reveled in the thrill of it as she cradled Nicole’s face in her hands, holding her with a tender firmness, their kisses leaving them both breathless, and wanting.

Nicole’s left hand slid confidently along the silky smooth material of Waverly’s tight black pants, up the back of a toned thigh. She reveled in the ripple of muscle beneath her fingertips, even as her body flushed with warmth at the subtle hint of Waverly’s tongue brushing against her lower lip. Subconsciously, her hips shifted, pressing harder against Waverly, as her hand glided over that perfect ass, urging her closer, their kisses deepening. 

A soft groan tumbled from Waverly’s lips into Nicole’s mouth in response, and her right hand traveled from Nicole’s face, along her neck, and down to her shoulder. Venturing onto her chest, her hand lightly grazed the outer edge of Nicole’s left breast, drawing a soft moan from those lips that kissed her with ever increasing urgency. And then she pressed her hand firmly against Nicole’s upper chest, relishing the solid strength of her body, before returning to cradle her face again, her left arm still firmly wrapped around Nicole’s shoulder, pulling her impossibly closer. God, she never wanted this to end!  

Moments later, their mouths separated, and they lingered for a beat, each catching the warm breath that the other exhaled. And then Nicole’s thumb was brushing lightly against Waverly’s bottom lip, even as Waverly’s fingertips pressed delicately against Nicole’s pulse point. She delighted in the sensation of Nicole’s pulse tripping beneath her fingertips, as the fingers of her left hand instinctively tangled in Nicole’s French braid, tightening.

Gliding her fingers along Waverly’s chin, Nicole slid her hand beneath, tipping her face upward, and Waverly’s eyes fluttered open in response, her right hand pressing lightly against Nicole’s upper chest. For a brief moment, Waverly reveled in the sheer delight of having Nicole’s beautiful face so close to her own. Her breath was so warm, so sweet, like peppermints, against Waverly’s lips, beckoning Waverly to taste. But before she could answer the call, she gasped softly at the sensation of a warm tongue flicking against her lips as Nicole claimed her mouth in another kiss, this one slow at first; then quickly turning passionate once again.  

Several kisses later—some lingering, others brief, yet sweet—and all of them imbued with tenderness and longing, Waverly’s hand was pressed gently against Nicole’s face again as their mouths parted, and they were sharing a soft laugh, as they smiled into one another’s eyes, communicating their shared elation without need of words.     

Shifting onto her left side, Nicole stretched out as best she could, given the surprisingly short span of Nedley’s sofa. Waverly whimpered at the loss of Nicole’s weight against her, and Nicole grinned in response. Slipping her left arm beneath Waverly’s side, she pulled her firmly against her own body. “Better?” she inquired, those dark eyes teasing. 

“Better,” Waverly grinned, settling into Nicole’s arms. It was better in far more ways than one.

Neither of them could say how long they lingered there, each lost in the other’s gaze, sharing tender kisses, fingertips lightly caressing soft skin, but suddenly Nicole was very aware of Waverly’s body, shifting against her own.

Lifting up just slightly, Waverly skimmed her mouth lightly against Nicole’s, and then fingertips followed, feathering across her lips, lingering on her skin. “I’ve wanted this for so long, Nicole,” she whispered. “I realize now, from the moment I first met you.”

Rendered breathless by the vulnerability and tender longing in Waverly’s soft voice, Nicole’s heart thrummed wildly in her chest, as her lips flickered into a subtle smile beneath Waverly’s touch. “Feeling’s mutual,” she murmured softly.

Reaching out, Waverly tucked a wayward wisp of auburn hair behind Nicole’s right ear. “I’m sorry I made you wait,” she whispered.

I would wait for you forever. Nicole’s smile widened, reflecting in her eyes as she gazed at Waverly. “You’re worth every moment,” she quietly declared. “I’m just glad we’re finally here.”

“I spent the whole day, thinking about us,” Waverly quietly confessed.

“I did, too,” Nicole admitted.


Nicole nodded. “I couldn’t keep my mind off of you,” she said softly.

Fingertips skimmed along Nicole’s jaw, catching beneath her chin, and then Waverly was guiding her closer, kissing her again. A soft laugh tumbled from her lips as she released her. “I can’t stop touching you, kissing you,” she grinned giddily.

“I don’t want you to,” Nicole murmured against Waverly’s ear.

“There’s a lot that needs to be said. A lot that… I need to say,” Waverly contended, stressing the part about herself.

“We have plenty of time,” Nicole assured.

“We do,” Waverly agreed. “But… there’s one thing that can’t wait.”

“And what’s that?” Nicole asked.

Closing her eyes, Waverly drew in a deep breath. And when she opened them again, there were tears glistening within, as she cupped Nicole’s face tenderly in her hands. “Nicole, I… I’m so sorry… for what I said to you in the car earlier,” she said, solemn regret echoing in the softness of her voice. “I can’t even imagine how much it must’ve hurt you; especially after all we’ve been through together. It’s no excuse, but I… I was scared. I never meant to hurt you. And I… I’m just so, so sorry. Can you ever forgive me?”

Russet eyes shimmering with unspent tears, Nicole released a breath she didn’t realized she was holding, as she brushed a thumb across Waverly’s cheek. “Thank you. I… I really needed to hear that,” she quietly acknowledged, realizing for the first time just how true it was. She’d never known what a gift a simple, heartfelt apology could be, until the moment it was uttered by Waverly Earp. “And yes, of course I forgive you,” she said reassuringly. “Waverly, I lo…”

No—, she thought, stopping herself, lest she mess everything up before they even got started. It was far too soon for declarations of love, no matter how true. Pressing her lips together, she smothered the words, allowing them to die on her tongue. But that did nothing to quell the burning of them in her heart. “The only thing that matters is you and me, here, right now.”

Waverly’s breath caught in her chest, and she smiled into those tearstained eyes, mesmerized by the tiny flecks of green and gold that glistened therein. Gently, she touched Nicole’s face again; needing to be certain she was real. “Kiss me again, Nicole,” she breathlessly implored.

Nicole’s heart fluttered in her chest. “Waverly…” she breathed, her thumb brushing against Waverly’s lower lip again as slowly, she searched those expressive green eyes. And then she leaned close, skimming her mouth against Waverly’s, lingering, the tip of her tongue playing lightly along the edges of those soft lips.

Answering Nicole’s tacit request, Waverly opened to her, welcoming her into the warmth of her mouth. She gasped again at the silky sensation of Nicole’s tongue against her own, and as their kissed deepened, once again, they lost themselves completely in one another.     

Friday, May 27, 2016… Nedley’s Office, Ghost River County Municipal Offices—5:45 p.m. Mountain Daylight Time

“I should probably get back to work,” Nicole said reluctantly, her mouth brushing lightly against the Waverly’s neck.

Waverly released a soft hum of appreciation, and Nicole smiled against her warm skin. God, it felt good to be with her like this—to not have to hold back anymore. She was still lying on her left side at the outer edge of Nedley’s couch; Waverly nestled firmly against her toward the back, protected from sight by Nicole’s body. Waverly’s puffy blue coat served as a shared pillow beneath their heads, their arms and legs entwined.  

“How soon do you get off?” Waverly murmured as she lazed in Nicole’s arms, her short nails slowly scraping along the warmth of Nicole’s belly in a light, yet titillating caress. She had no idea how long they’d been there, nor how long they’d kissed. All she did know was that the reality of kissing Nicole Haught far surpassed every single fantasy she’d dreamed up in her head—and those fantasies had been plentiful, starting with the day they’d first met. She was ridiculously turned on, and in her desperate need to touch skin, she’d hastily unfastened a few of the lower buttons on Nicole’s shirt, slipping her hand inside and burrowing beneath the tank top she always wore underneath.

The low growl she’d elicited from Nicole the moment she’d made contact with soft skin told her Nicole didn’t mind in the least. And she had no doubt that had they been anywhere other than the Sheriff’s office, she would’ve had Nicole completely naked by now; she ached so, to feel the softness and warmth of Nicole’s skin against her own. The thought of what would follow terrified her a little, but certainly not more than it excited her. Nicole Haught was exactly that—she was so frickin’ hot! Sexy as hell, with that enviably unerring confidence, and a body that just wouldn’t quit. And kissing her, being touched by her, turned Waverly on more than anyone ever had, or ever could. More than that though, she was kind, and gentle, and patient, and caring, and Waverly knew without a doubt that she wasn’t just falling fast, she was already gone. 

Nicole struggled to hold her composure, as she lazed there beneath Waverly’s touch. “You keep doin’ that, ‘n I’d say ‘bout thirty seconds,” she answered, her tone ominous, yet somehow still playful, as Waverly’s fingertips continued their slow, torturous caress. Her body aching for that sweet caress in other places, she couldn’t believe how completely turned on she was from nothing more than a few heated kisses and the warm, tender touch of Waverly Earp’s hand on her bare skin. No one had ever done that to her before. “You’re driving just a little bit crazy here,” she groaned.  

Waverly felt her face flush, and she momentarily averted Nicole’s intent gaze, biting her lower lip adorably. Then, tapping Nicole’s belly with the backs of her fingers, she managed to look suitably incensed. “I was talking about work.”

Biting back a chuckle, once again Nicole feigned innocence. “Oh—,” she managed, before the grin finally broke through, offering Waverly a lovely display of that dimple.  “In that case, ‘bout an hour. I, uh… I kinda need to make up for the time I’ve spent in here with you,” she explained, a slight flush coloring her cheeks.

“Ohhh, I don’t know if I can wait that long,” Waverly husked, as she nipped lightly on Nicole’s bottom lip, tracing the edge with the tip of her tongue.

A soft groan slipped from Nicole’s lips, and her heart skipped a beat, anticipation rising. “Wait for what?”

“For you to take me to bed,” Waverly whispered against Nicole’s mouth, taking her newfound brazenness to a new level as she kissed her again. “God, Nicole, I’m so turned on right now…”

“Waverly—” Nicole said, her tone tinted by caution.

“What?” Waverly countered, her mouth still playing over Nicole’s. She knew exactly what Nicole was thinking. “I know what I want, Nicole. I want you,” she declared, emphasizing the object of her desire.

Nicole let out a breath she didn’t realize she was holding. “Believe me, Waves, I want you too. God, you have no idea how much.” The raw honesty in her statement was evident in the deep sense of longing in her voice, and echoed in the storm that swirled in the depths of that dark, penetrating gaze. “But…”

“No,” Waverly said, brushing her mouth across Nicole’s in a sultry kiss that led to their tongues entangling yet again, as her fingertips stroked a little higher, lightly grazing the silky smooth skin beneath Nicole’s right breast. Nicole shivered in response.


Delivered on a fettered breath, Nicole’s utterance of her name caused Waverly’s state of arousal to intensify tenfold. “I don’t wanna hear why we shouldn’t…” she husked, nearly breathless herself. “I just wanna hear you say ‘yes’.”

“We haven’t even been on a date,” Nicole whispered in protest. She needed to slow this down—and quick! Not that she didn’t want it, hadn’t literally spent weeks dreaming of it, but they were on Nedley’s couch, and she was still technically on the clock. And there were oh, so many other reasons why taking Waverly Earp to bed so quickly was a supremely bad idea—and Nicole feared she was in danger of forgetting every single one of them.  

Leaning back just slightly, Waverly met Nicole’s gaze, holding it steadily. “Seriously, Nicole?” she countered.

“What?” Nicole looked confused, to say the least.

“Who have we been kidding?” Waverly asked rhetorically. “We’ve been dating for weeks.” She emphasized the duration of their dating history.

“So… what? You were in denial?” Nicole ventured, the corners of her mouth lifting into a grin.

“Why do you think I kept reminding you that we weren’t on a date?” Waverly intoned.

Nicole’s brow furrowed. “You didn’t,” she said. “Well, maybe twice.”

“Right…” Waverly scrunched up her nose, slowly dragging out the word. Suddenly, she felt self-conscious again, and she bit her bottom lip. “That was only in my head, wasn’t it?” She looked almost pained. “I have a lot of conversations that only happen in my head.”

So I’ve noticed. That amused grin skipped across Nicole’s lips again, causing a delightful display of her dimple. But she said nothing.

“Stop that,” Waverly laughed. “I can hear what you’re thinking, you know.”

Nicole laughed outright, and Waverly silenced her with another kiss, lingering on her lips.

When they finally came up for air, Nicole arched an eyebrow. “This is either the fastest I’ve ever gone in a relationship, or the slowest,” she said, sounding flummoxed. “At this point, I’m really not sure which.”

“What do you mean?”

Taking a moment to clear her head, Nicole drew in a deep breath, releasing it slowly. “Well, if we’ve been dating for weeks, then… I am really, really behind,” she declared, emphasizing the exactly how far she was lagging. “I’ve never waited this long to kiss a girl.”

Waverly laughed. “Yeah, but you sure made up for it in technique,” she granted. And then she nuzzled against Nicole’s ear, murmuring, “I’ve never had a first kiss get me so hot I could go off without even being touched.”

Christ, almighty,” Nicole cursed, her head suddenly hazy again, her body suffused with heat.

That infectious laugh tumbled from Waverly’s lips, igniting laughter in Nicole, as well.

“And if we haven’t?” Waverly asked out of curiosity when their laughter ebbed.

“Haven’t what?” Nicole was lost.

“Been dating all this time?” Waverly chuckled. “What, does being turned on shut your brain off, or something?” she teased.  

Nicole grinned. “Well, then this is the slowest, most excruciatingly fabulous burn I’ve ever experienced,” she confessed. “And by the way, you do have quite a talent for short-circuiting my brain.”

Intrigued, Waverly arched an eyebrow. “Tell me more, Officer Haught,” she husked.  

That tightly-wound coil of desire twisted deep in Nicole’s belly at the sound of her name falling from Waverly’s lips, and she had to force herself to focus. “Well, it started the day we first met,” she confessed. “I got so caught up in you that I forgot why I was actually there.”

“Oh, who are you kidding, Nicole?” Waverly laughed, calling her on her crap. “You swaggered into Shorty’s with one thing on your mind—getting into my pants.”

Nicole looked suitably offended, though, in truth, she wasn’t offended at all. “Actually, I was looking for information,” she reported. “I just got a little… distracted…” By a ray of sunshine in a soggy tank top, who took my breath away without even trying, she thought, but didn’t voice. She still couldn’t believe how easily she’d forgotten about her assignment. But one look at Waverly Earp, up close, and her brain had all but ceased to function. 

“Don’t even try to deny it, Officer Haughtpants,” Waverly warned, playfully emphasizing Nicole’s last name. “The place was completely empty except for us; though, you tried to pretend you didn’t notice. And it would’ve been hard not to notice the ‘Closed’ sign, flashing neon outside. Plus, you had your card tucked into your pocket, ready to whip out at a moment’s notice.”

“You don’t have a neon flashing sign,” Nicole adeptly skirted.

“Whatever,” Waverly countered. “The sign was plastered in the window. There’s no way you could’ve missed it.”

“Okay, fine,” Nicole relented, admitting she had a dual agenda that first morning. “But I wanted a date, not a hookup.” You are worth so much more than some casual hook-up, Waverly Earp. How is it that you don’t know that? “And I really was there on an assignment from Nedley.”

“You were playing detective?” Waverly sounded doubtful.

“Yes. As a matter of fact, I was,” Nicole confirmed, her tone forthright.

Waverly furrowed her brow. “And what, exactly, were you detecting?”

Nicole grinned. “Well, I ended up detecting how frickin’ distracting you are,” she said flirtatiously.

Rolling her eyes, Waverly pushed playfully at Nicole’s shoulder. “I’m being serious.”

Dropping the grin, Nicole put on her serious face. “Nedley caught wind of some kinda commotion the night before,” she explained. “And I guess he was right, ‘cause you did tell me you had a crazy night.”

“Yeah, well, let’s just say… we had a run-in with a bit of an… unsavory character,” Waverly hedged. “No worries, though. Wynonna took care of it.”

“Do I even want to know how?” Nicole asked, dryly.

Waverly winced. “Probably not.”

Nodding, Nicole readily accepted that she wouldn’t get anything more out of it. And then she thought back to Waverly’s observation and deductive reasoning skills for a moment. “You know, you’d make a fine detective yourself, Waverly Earp.”

Waverly’s eyes danced with glee. “You really think so?”

“I really do,” Nicole affirmed, kissing Waverly lightly. And then she smiled into those beautiful green eyes. “I love that I can do that now,” she declared.

Waverly smiled. “I love it too,” she agreed, her lips meeting Nicole’s again. “Don’t ever stop.”

“I could kiss you forever,” Nicole murmured against Waverly’s mouth.  

“Mm… That’s a pretty good start,” Waverly declared, as she lost herself in Nicole’s kisses once again.

Friday, May 27, 2016… Gus’s House—6:00 p.m. Mountain Daylight Time

Finding herself on Gus’s back porch, Wynonna knocked on the kitchen door. A moment later, she turned the door handle, opening it and calling out, “Gus? Hey, Gus, you home?” as she entered the room. She knew her aunt was home—the truck was parked out front. She just didn’t want to startle her by walking in unannounced.

“Wynonna?” Gus sounded confused and a little concerned as she walked from the dining area into the kitchen, finding her niece standing there. “I thought you were headed outta town,” she said, more question than comment. She hadn’t been pleased when Waverly told her about Wynonna’s planned excursion. It sounded like more of the bullshit she’d spun when she left town at barely eighteen, and hadn’t come home for years. She’d had to force herself to remember that the Curse was real, and that despite the stress of it, Wynonna was changing for the better.

“Change of plans,” Wynonna shrugged. She had walked into Shorty’s earlier, hell-bent on escaping this town—at least for a little while. It felt like the world was crashing down around her. Everything up until the kidnapping had been stressful, to say the least. But the kidnapping had gotten to her in a way that nothing else ever had. She was still reeling from the impact when Dolls informed her of that fucking psych evaluation. And then he’d left her there alone with that woman; she felt scared and abandoned, and the impact of it pushed her over the edge.

But then she’d gone back to Shorty’s, and her talk with Waverly had done far more good than either of them first realized. Waverly loved her. She believed in her. She’d told her so in the exact moment when Wynonna needed to hear it the most. And Nicole believed in her too, she remembered. She’d said so that night at the station; the night before the kidnapping. Nicole had told her she was worth the time and effort. No one other than Waverly had ever said anything like that to her before.

After leaving Shorty’s that second time, she’d gone out riding, thinking. And the more time she spent reflecting those conversations as she rode, the better she felt about herself, despite the judgment she felt from the analyst. And then Dolls had called, asking her to come back to the Division headquarters. He’d said she was a good deputy, and returned her shield to her, restoring just a little bit of the belief she’d begun to have in herself. And so now she was here, ready to say the things she’d needed to say to Gus for more than fifteen years. She hoped she wouldn’t lose her courage.

A slight smile touched Gus’s lips. “Glad to hear it,” she said, moving unhurriedly across the kitchen. “Coffee?” she offered.

“Absolutely,” Wynonna said, sounding relieved. Anything to take the focus off of her rattled nerves, and the swell of unsolicited emotions for a moment or two.  

Opening the cabinet door, Gus reached inside, pulling out two gray mugs. She set them on the counter near the coffee pot, and closed the cabinet again. She lifted the carafe then, pouring the steaming liquid and setting the carafe back on the warming plate. And then she turned to Wynonna, mugs in her hands.

“So what brings you over?” she asked curiously, handing one of the mugs to her niece.

“Just been doin’ a lot of thinkin’,” Wynonna admitted.


“Things,” Wynonna said vaguely. Edgily, she sipped at the coffee.

Gus stifled a chuckle. Wynonna was never easy to read, nearly impossible to anticipate, but this was extreme, even for her. Clearly, she had something heavy on her mind, and Gus surmised it was the remnants of whatever she hadn’t said the night of the barbeque. Sliding onto a stool on the far side of the island, she waited patiently for her niece to speak her piece.

Silence lingered between them for several minutes, before Wynonna finally spoke again. “I, uh… I never thanked you for takin’ such good care of Waverly,” she said quietly, as she shuffled the coffee mug between her hands.

Gus looked up from her own mug, her eyes braced on Wynonna. The tone in her voice was something she had never encountered before—it was a mixture of gratitude, guilt, and sorrow. She remained silent, simply waiting.  

“For protecting her from the, uh…” Knowing how Gus felt about any talk of the Earp Curse, she allowed the word to die on her tongue.

“From the Curse?” Gus ventured, finishing the comment for her.

“Yeah,” Wynonna said, looking rather penitent. “Sorry. I know you hate it when I talk about that,” she said ruefully. “You gave her a chance at a normal life, Gus. I’m just sorry I kept fuckin’ it up. And I’m sorry for all the shit I put you and Curtis through.”

Gus’s heart broke just a little bit more. She had been so hard on Wynonna, and the girl had never deserved that. Yes, she’d made some truly shitty choices in life, but Gus had come to realize that those choices were a direct reflection of how she’d been made to feel about herself. She was acting out, because she didn’t know any other way to cope with feeling so lost, so alone, and so completely worthless. Gus knew she was culpable in that, and she’d never felt more sorry about anything in her life. “I’m the one who’s sorry, Wy,” she said softly. “I doubted you, questioned your sanity. I let them lock you up and drug you, for Christ’s sake. And I was so wrong, Honey.”

Delivered on a cascade of teary-eyed remorse, Gus’s words were like a balm to Wynonna’s aching soul. “You didn’t know, Gus. You didn’t know the Curse was real. You were just tryin’ to protect Waves,” she said, offering absolution as her own eyes filled with tears.

“I should’ve been protectin’ you, too,” Gus acknowledged.

“You were doin’ what you thought was best, Gus,” Wynonna reiterated. “I can’t fault you for that.”

“You don’t have to,” Gus replied ruefully. “I fault myself enough for all of us.”

Wynonna’s hands stilled, and along with them, the coffee mug that had been scraping back and forth on the countertop. “I really wish you wouldn’t,” she said softly. “I wish…”

She paused, closing her eyes as she gathered her courage.

“What is it that you wish, Wy?” Gus gently prodded.

A brief, tight-lipped smile brought out Wynonna’s dimples, and then she sighed. “I’ve been runnin’ for so long, that I honestly never thought I’d find my way home. But… everything changed when I came back this time. I… I feel grounded here now, like I never did before, with Waverly, and you, and Nicole, and Black Badge; even Doc and Dolls. I feel like I finally belong. And I know we can’t go back, but… I wish we could at least start over from here,” she admitted.

The heat of tears burned behind Gus’s eyes, as an affectionate smile touched her lips. “We can definitely do that,” she readily agreed. She stood from the stool then, and rounding the corner of the center island, she took Wynonna into her arms, hugging her close. “No more judgment or blame, no more talk of the past, okay?” she soothingly suggested, as the tears trickled down her cheeks. “We’ve already got a good start at bein’ a family again. Let’s just focus on that.”

The deep sense of relief that flooded over Wynonna took her by surprise, and she clung to Gus, her tears falling unabashed. She hadn’t realized the weight she’d been carrying all this time, until the moment it finally lifted. She knew she would still fuck up. And she would still make self-deprecating comments. Those things would never change. She was convinced the tendencies was embedded somewhere in her DNA. The difference was, she would no longer believe the negative thoughts quite as strongly as she once did. “Yeah, I’m down with that,” she finally managed, sniffing back the tears.

“Good,” Gus declared as she released Wynonna from their embrace. “Now how ‘bout you join me for dinner?” she suggested. “It’s just leftovers, but it’d be nice to share it with ya.”

Smiling through her tears, Wynonna nodded. “Yeah, I’d like that,” she readily agreed. “We should call Waves. And maybe Nicole, too.” She thought being with family might help with whatever they were arguing about that morning.

A knowing grin spread slowly across Gus’s face. “I’m pretty sure they have other plans tonight.”

“Together?” Wynonna sounded confused.

“Yeah,” Gus confirmed with a nod, as she pulled a handful of containers from the refrigerator.

“I thought they were fighting.” Wynonna’s tone asked the question.

“Waverly left work early to go sort it out,” Gus reported.

“Cool,” Wynonna said casually, letting it slide. “So… what kind of leftovers are we talkin’ ‘bout here?” she asked, shifting the conversation back to dinner.

“Oh, a little of this, a little of that,” Gus said vaguely. “I’m still tryin’ to learn how to cook for one.

She sounded a little sad, and Wynonna draped an arm around her shoulder, giving her an affectionate squeeze. “I can’t even imagine how hard it must be,” she empathized.

Gus simply nodded.

Wynonna grinned then. “You could always invite me over for dinner,” she suggested. “Like, every night. Waverly only cooks when Nicole is over.”

Delivered on a whine, the final part of Wynonna’s comment made Gus smile. “Oh, you’ll be just fine. I have a feelin’ she’ll be cookin’ a whole lot more often from now on,” she commented.

Brow furrowed, Wynonna asked, “Why’s that?”

“Well, you’ll just have to talk to your sister ‘bout that,” Gus answered, gently patting Wynonna’s hand. And then she turned her attention to the leftovers, leaving Wynonna to ponder her comments.

Friday, May 27, 2016… Nedley’s Office, Ghost River County Municipal Offices—6:15 p.m. Mountain Daylight Time

“Okay, seriously, I really do need to finish that report, so Nedley doesn’t kick my ass,” Nicole said regretfully, her fingertips lightly grazing along the valley of warmth in the small of Waverly’s back. “He’ll be back from Shorty’s soon.”

“I know,” Waverly sighed disappointedly. Nedley usually came in around four and left by six-thirty when the complimentary happy hour buffet ended. “Sorry I keep distracting you.”

“Don’t be,” Nicole grinned. “You’re the best distraction ever.”

Waverly beamed. “Think so?”

Laughing, Nicole grabbed one last quick kiss. “I know so,” she confirmed.

Sitting upright on the sofa, she smiled to herself at the memory of Waverly’s frantic fingers unbuttoning her shirt, as she refastened them in preparation for rejoining the outside world. “But the sooner I finish up, the sooner I can meet you at my place,” she said suggestively. She couldn’t wait for Waverly to unbutton other things.

“Do you work tomorrow?” Waverly asked.

“No,” Nicole answered. “I’m off until second shift on Sunday, why?”

“Think we could stay at the homestead tonight?” Waverly asked tentatively.

“Really?” Nicole sounded surprised. Nearly every night they’d spent together since the kidnapping, they’d been at Nicole’s place. Nicole had very easily gotten used to Waverly being there in her space with her and Stormy. And on those nights when Waverly didn’t stay, Stormy was as disquieted as Nicole, as evidenced by her pacing the floor by the door, anxiously awaiting Waverly’s return.  

“Yeah,” Waverly said. “Wynonna had to leave town for a few days, and she was kind of hoping you’d stay with me.”

“Sure,” Nicole agreed, not really needing an explanation. It really didn’t matter to her where they stayed, as long as they were together, and she told Waverly so in exactly so many words.

Grinning at her, Waverly declared, “Oh, we are most definitely together, Officer Haught.” And then she leaned in with a kiss that sealed the declaration.

Nicole felt her entire body flush from the heat of Waverly’s kiss. “You wanna ride out together?” she asked when their mouths finally parted.

Waverly smiled. “I’d love that,” she declared. “Meet you at your place in an hour?”

“That sounds perfect,” Nicole agreed as she stood from the sofa. Once upright, she offered Waverly her hand. “Let me walk you out.”

Without a moment’s hesitation, Waverly took her hand, allowing Nicole to pull her to her feet. And then she was standing there in the safety of Nicole’s arms again, her hands pressed against Nicole’s upper chest. It felt different this time, in a way she couldn’t quite explain. The best part was that she didn’t see a need to explain it at all. It simply was, and that was okay with her, because she was with Nicole. How was it possible that this woman could make her feel so secure, even in the face of uncertainty? She hadn’t a clue; and even that didn’t bother her anymore.

Tilting her head, Nicole studied Waverly for a moment. “You look awfully serious all of a sudden,” she commented, curious about the shift in Waverly’s demeanor.

Smiling up at her, Waverly eased her hands up Nicole’s chest, draping them over her shoulders. “All happy thoughts, I promise.”

Gently, Nicole cupped Waverly’s face in her hands, a thumb lightly caressing her lower lip. “That’s good to know,” she smiled. And then she leaned down, kissing Waverly once more before suggesting it was time to go.   

When they finally arrived at the Jeep, which was in the parking lot, flanked by Nicole’s cruiser and Nedley’s SUV, Waverly spun around, reaching for Nicole as if by instinct. Just as she had in that very first kiss, her hands cupped Nicole’s face, and she drew her close. Only this time, it wasn’t a frantic, impulsive action meant to stave off her anxiousness; rather, it was a deliberate means of communicating the depth of her need for Nicole.

Surprised, but not reluctant, Nicole went willingly, allowing Waverly to take the lead—they were out in public now, and it mattered to her that Waverly be comfortable with whatever happened between them. For Nicole, it was never a matter of coming out, really; it was more about simply living as her authentic self. She rarely spoke of her sexuality in so many words, but she lived her life openly, not wasting time worrying about what others thought of her, including her sexuality. She had blossomed into her identity, her truth, over time, and now it was a non-issue to her; just another beautiful thread in the tapestry of her person. She had to consider though, that it might not be that simple for Waverly. And she respected that.

As their mouths met, the warmth of their breath mingling, Waverly leaned back against her Jeep, pulling Nicole firmly against her. Slipping beneath that puffy blue coat, Nicole’s hands fell instinctively to that trim waist, encircling her, as Waverly’s hands continued to caress Nicole’s face. Her fingers were warm against the cold air that blew against her cheeks, and Nicole delighted in the sensation of them against her skin. An inquisitive tongue snaked out, flicking lightly against Nicole’s lips, and the kiss deepened, as Nicole opened to her, granting her entrance, her fingers tangling in the softness of Waverly’s hair.

The longer they kissed, the tighter that mutual spring of want coiled deep within their bellies, and finally, Nicole broke away, their labored breath creating a billowy cloud in the cold air that lingered between them. “Waves, we need to slow down here,” she groaned. “I have to go back into work.”

“Just a little longer?” Waverly murmured in plea. “I’m not ready to let you go just yet.”

Nicole’s heart skipped a beat and she smiled. “I don’t wanna let you go, ever,” she declared on a whisper, her warm breath teasing against Waverly’s ear. And then Waverly’s mouth was on hers again, and Nicole pressed into her, their bodies molding perfectly together as she fell once again between the open front of Waverly’s heavy winter coat.

Several minutes later, completely breathless and edging dangerously close to the brink, Nicole pressed her palms against the side of the vehicle, and bracing herself, she gently pushed away from the full-body contact. Their lips were the last to part ways, and she looked at Waverly with those eyes, hazy with want.  

“What are you doing?” Waverly gasped and shook her head, flummoxed and still ridiculously turned on; even more so than she was in Nedley’s office. Missing the pressure of Nicole’s warm body, she reached for her, trying to pull her close again.     

Resisting Waverly Earp was the hardest thing Nicole had ever done, but resist, she did, her expression turning serious. “Stopping, before I can’t anymore,” she answered, sounding almost pained. “Jesus, Waverly, I want you so bad.” The truth of it was startling.

Looking quite pleased with herself, Waverly grinned. “It’s a damn shame you don’t drive a pickup, Officer Haught,” she said suggestively.

Nicole paused, her mouth slightly agape. Tenderly, she reached up to take Waverly’s face into her hands, sincere russet eyes falling into a stormy sea of coppery-green, swirling with arousal. “For the record, my seats do stow away,” she said with a roguish grin. And then her thumb gently brushed Waverly’s cheek, her voice falling quiet. “But more importantly, you are worth so much more than the back end of a pickup truck, Waverly Earp,” she whispered, her tone low, husky, and breathtakingly sincere. 

Struck by the sheer power of Nicole’s words, the intensity of her emotions, Waverly blinked once, and then again, as she fought to keep the tears at bay. Reason warred with Emotion—it seemed like such a silly thing to cry over. They were just words, right? And it wasn’t like Nicole was profession her undying love, or anything.

But they weren’t just words to Waverly.

No. To her, they were beautiful, meaningful, stirring latent emotions from the very depths of her soul, like the harmonies of a symphony or the cadence of romantic poetry. No one had ever said anything more beautiful to her. Not in her entire life. And it touched a place inside her where she never even knew she was hurting—until those words were whispered to her by the one person who could actually make her believe them. How could I not fall in love with you when you say such breathtaking things to me?

Overwhelmed, in the best possible way, she felt an unexpected need to profess her love for Nicole, right then and there. But it was far too soon for such confessions, as least as far as she could figure. She didn’t really know how this love thing worked. She’d never felt it before. Not like this, anyway. She’d never known this all-consuming fire that burned in places inside her that she never even knew existed.

Despite herself, the tears glistened in her eyes, clinging to her lashes and threatening to spill down her cheeks, as she peered up at Nicole, meeting that tender, steady gaze. She didn’t need to say a single word. Nicole understood.

Waverly’s face still cradled in her hands, Nicole leaned down, meeting soft lips in a tender kiss. It was slow, deliberate, meant to comfort and reassure, rather than arouse.  

When Waverly’s eyes shuttered, the tears fell unchecked, and Nicole was there to catch them with her kisses. And when Nicole’s mouth returned to hers, Waverly’s lips trembled as she tasted the salt of her own tears in the tenderness of Nicole’s kiss. And then she found herself cradled in the safety of Nicole’s arms again, her own arms wrapped around Nicole’s waist beneath her jacket, as those soft lips pressed gentle kisses against her temple.

It felt like coming home.

Friday, May 27, 2016… Ghost River County Municipal Offices—6:45 p.m. Mountain Daylight Time

Nearly two hours after Waverly’s arrival, Nicole finally settled in at her desk, attempting to finish her abandoned work. The evening shift had begun while she was still preoccupied with Waverly in Nedley’s office, and another deputy had taken over the monitoring of the reception desk and the dispatch radio that hissed and crackled each time the dispatcher reported in. Still, she struggled to maintain focus on work long enough to finish that damned report on the fishy smell that wafted from Mr. Erickson’s house.

Realizing she wasn’t going to get anywhere until she made contact with Waverly again, she set the report aside and pulled out her phone, texting: Am I dreaming? Are you real? Did that happen?

Waverly’s almost immediate response was to send not one or two, not even ten or twenty, but twenty-eight unicorn emojis, followed in quick succession by a single pair of kissy lips.

Twenty-eight, exactly.

Nicole wondered briefly at the significance, and then she just laughed at the complete randomness of it. Unicorns and kisses. At least those weren’t as random as the cat, eggplant, flower, plane text Waverly had sent while she was in the hospital. She still hadn’t figured out what the hell that meant. All she knew was that it was all ridiculously frickin’ adorable.

Christ, she was in love.   

Friday, May 27, 2016… Nicole’s Apartment—6:45 p.m. Mountain Daylight Time

Settling into the corner of Nicole’s sofa, Stormy already perched in her lap, Waverly released a deep sigh of contentment. She couldn’t stop the goofy grin that seemed to have taken up residence on her face the moment she parted with Nicole. She did it. She actually did it! She kissed Nicole Haught. More times than she could even count. And it was so beyond amazing that she just couldn’t stop.

The white-hot urgency of her need for more had settled into slow burning ache deep within her belly, but she knew by instinct that it wouldn’t take much to reignite the flame. Nicole was passionate, yet tender, breathtakingly beautiful, and sexy beyond words, and kissing her was like being consumed by fire—it made her skin flicker and dance like the tips of the flames, but the deepest intensity was found in the blue heat in the center of the base, the inferno that burned deep in her core.

Startled from her musings by the text ringtone on her phone, she chuckled softly at Nicole’s message: Am I dreaming? Are you real? Did that happen?

Her belly did a flip-flop. There were so many things she wanted to say in response to Nicole’s queries, and yet, she couldn’t find words to express any of them. She was still so giddy she could barely think. And it sounded like Nicole’s level of giddiness rivaled her own. Was that even a word that Nicole would use to describe herself? Waverly hadn’t a clue. But it didn’t matter anyway. She knew they were both happy. Nicole hadn’t stopped smiling the entire time they were together; she could even feel that smile against her lips as they kissed.

Words failed. And where words failed, emojis reigned. She ended up sending a message full of nothing but unicorns. And then she decided to punctuate it with a single kiss. The whole thing was ridiculously corny, and totally Waverly—like the cute little pink hearts on the fingertips of the gloves she’d worn that morning—and she knew it would make Nicole smile.  

Smiling to herself, Waverly set her phone on the side table, and picked up the novel she’d been reading the last time she was there. It was the latest in a lesbian murder-mystery series by one of Nicole’s favorite authors. She’d read the first installment during the week that Nicole was gone, and had gotten so hooked that she read the next one while Nicole was home recovering. Now she was on the third installment, and she couldn’t wait to see what happened next. The bonus was she was getting some insight into lesbian sex, which she figured would come in handy; now, it seemed, more quickly than she’d imagined when she first started reading.

Setting the bookmark next to her phone, she tried to lose herself in the story again, to no avail. The harder she tried to focus, the worse the distraction became. She couldn’t keep her mind off of Nicole.

Giving up, she shoved the bookmark in place, and setting the book aside, she idly stroked Stormy’s soft fur, as she lost herself in thoughts of Nicole—her smile, her laugh, the way she looked at Waverly with those eyes, the incredible sensation of Nicole’s weight against her body, the way her hands felt against Waverly’s bare skin, the way her kisses left Waverly’s mind in a delirious haze, even as they turned her insides to molten lava—it was all so deliciously overwhelming.

When finally she heard Nicole’s key in the deadbolt lock, she glanced at her watch, surprised to see that only forty minutes had gone by—it felt like hours! She was so excited to see her, she had to force herself to be still and at least let her get through the door. A means of distraction, she turned her attention back to Stormy, who still slept soundly in her lap.   

“Hey,” Nicole greeted cheerily, the bright smile on her face lighting her eyes as she glanced across the room at Waverly.

“Hi,” Waverly replied, biting her lower lip adorably as her eyes scanned Nicole’s lean, well-toned form. She knew Nicole was strong, but she was still a bit surprised at how easily she’d managed to maneuver her when they were making out on Nedley’s couch. The memory of it still made her tingle all over. “I’m glad you’re home,” she said, forcing the thoughts aside before they could get her into trouble.

Gently setting Stormy on the cushion beside her, Waverly chuckled at the disgruntled “Meow!” she received for disrupting the spoiled feline’s evening snooze, and then she rose from the sofa, making her way toward the door.  

“Me too,” Nicole readily agreed. Closing and locking the door, she removed her jacket and Stetson, hanging them on the hook beside the door, and then she stooped down on the throw rug, untying her boots and slipping them off.

Waverly was there to greet her as she stood to her full height. She liked that Nicole was barefoot except for her socks now, because her lips were two inches closer. Wrapping her arms around Nicole’s neck, she took full advantage, pulling her into a kiss.

Instinctively, Nicole’s arms slid around her, and pulling her closer, she groaned into their deepening kiss. From the moment they met, she knew without question that Waverly Earp was no ordinary girl. She was something quite special. And when they were on Nedley’s couch, she’d quickly come to realize that kissing her was like no other experience she’d ever had in her life. This kiss did nothing to contradict that insight; rather, it bolstered it.

Several minutes later, when Waverly finally released her, Nicole smiled down at her. “That was quite a greeting,” she said, her eyes gleaming with mischief. “Makes me wanna leave, just so I can come back home again.”

Waverly grinned and kissed her again; this time, briefly. “You don’t have to leave just for that,” she said flirtatiously, as she wrapped her arm around Nicole’s waist. “I’ll gladly welcome you home all night.”

“Can’t argue with that,” Nicole reasoned, pressing a kiss against Waverly’s temple. “And not that I’m complaining,” she said, draping an arm around Waverly’s shoulders as they moved toward the sofa. “But aren’t you supposed to be at work right now?”

“I told Gus I needed to leave early,” Waverly explained. She tucked a bare foot up beneath her as she settled on the sofa next to Nicole, curling into her side. Stormy was back in her lap the moment she sat down, making her giggle. “And when I told her why, she said she didn’t want to see me again until Sunday,” she grinned.

“You told Gus?” Nicole said, the surprise in her tone asking the question.

Nodding, Waverly smiled proudly. “I sure did,” she said. “Didn’t really need to though. She already knew.”

“I think she figured it out a while ago,” Nicole said offhandedly.

“You’ve talked to Gus about us?” Waverly sounded surprised.

Smiling, Nicole nodded. “The day of the barbeque,” she confessed. “She asked if you knew how I feel about you, and warned me that Wynonna’ll probably threaten to kick my ass if I hurt you,” she laughed.

“Oh, my god, that’s so embarrassing,” Waverly said. Clearly chagrined, she buried her face in her hands. “I’m so sorry, Nicole.”

“Don’t be, Waves,” Nicole said easily. “It was sweet. And honestly, it was really good to know that she’s cool with us being together.”

Reassured by Nicole’s comments, Waverly dropped her hands, taking one of Nicole’s into her own. “She’s been rooting for us the whole time,” she shared, her fingertips lightly playing over Nicole’s. “She told me so this afternoon.”

“I’m not surprised,” Nicole said, their fingers entwining. “I kinda got that vibe from her when we talked that morning.”

“We wasted so much time,” Waverly lamented, leaning her head against Nicole’s shoulder. “That’s my fault, Nicole, and I’m sorry. If only I’d dumped Champ after that bullshit with Wynonna, we could’ve been together all along.”

“Would you have been ready?” Nicole asked gently.

“I guess we’ll never know,” Waverly said regretfully.

“Then why tear yourself up over it?” Nicole reasoned.

A short, disparaging laugh fell from Waverly’s lips. “I wouldn’t be an Earp if I didn’t,” she commented wryly. “It’s in our blood.” Kind of like our demon killing abilities and ridiculously high tolerance for alcohol.

“Yeah, I’ve kinda noticed that,” Nicole commented. “Not the part about it being in your blood,” she clarified. If I believed in that sort of thing, I’d be in trouble too, she thought, but didn’t voice. It wasn’t the right time for that. “But I’ve noticed Wynonna does it a lot. She’s even harder on herself than you are.”

Waverly grimaced. She knew it was true, but it broke her heart to hear it. “Yeah, Daddy was like that, too,” she noted, more to herself than to Nicole. Probably got it from Wyatt; that’s where all the bullshit started. “If he’d lived, he never would’ve forgiven himself for Willa’s death.”

“But that wasn’t his fault, any more than it was yours or Wynonna’s,” Nicole reasoned.

Barking out another pained laugh, Waverly said, “When has that ever stopped an Earp from feeling guilty?”

Nicole knew the question was rhetorical, and she held back her argument. “Point taken,” she said simply.

They fell silent then, each lost in her own thoughts for several minutes. Waverly was lamenting the choices she’d made that kept the two of them apart for so long. And Nicole was busy thinking about what the future might hold for them. Not that she didn’t have moments of regret, because she most definitely did. She just didn’t tend to dwell on things she couldn’t change. As for Waverly, it wasn’t that she didn’t have positive thoughts about the future. She was just a little stuck in the past at the moment. Together, they balanced one another out quite nicely, and though they didn’t know it yet, that was something they would come to understand and appreciate along the way.  

It was Waverly who broke the silence. “Know what I wish?” she mused, tucking an arm behind Nicole’s back to get closer to her.  

“What?” Her fingertips tangling in soft brunette tresses, Nicole gently caressed the back of Waverly’s neck. She was interested in what would come next, but also a little nervous to hear it.

“That we could go back, and relive all of our non-dates, so I could kiss you all the times I wanted to,” Waverly confessed.

Nicole’s grin was a bit roguish as she met Waverly’s gaze. “And exactly how many times did you wanna kiss me?”

“Pretty much every time I looked at you,” Waverly blushed.

“You’re not alone in that,” Nicole confessed, her own face flushing with color.

Gratified by Nicole’s admission, Waverly smiled softly. “By the time we got to the barbeque, I thought I’d lose my frickin’ mind if you didn’t kiss me soon,” she confessed.

Nicole took a moment to digest that information, and then her eyes widened as realization struck. She laughed, giving Waverly a playful shove. “Oh, my god, you let me win.”

“Win what?” Waverly feigned innocence.

“When we were riding,” Nicole said. “You let me win, so you could ask me what I wanted.”

Waverly grinned sheepishly. “I wanted you to make the first move,” she shrugged.

The absolute honesty in Waverly’s admission made Nicole’s heart skip a beat. “You understand why I couldn’t, right?” she asked, her tone searching.

Nodding, Waverly said, “I do now.”

“I’m really glad,” Nicole said, sounding relieved. “I hated that you thought for even a moment, that I didn’t want you. Nothing could be further from the truth.”

“I never really believed that; not deep down anyway,” Waverly confessed. “I was just hurt, and… maybe a little angry—at myself, not you. I’m sorry I made you feel that way.”

Her palm brushing along Waverly’s cheek in a tender caress, Nicole let her fingertip catch beneath her chin. Drawing her closer, she kissed her lightly. “I understand,” she validated. “I’m sorry you were hurting. That was never my intention.”

“I know,” Waverly acknowledged. “I don’t believe you would ever do anything to hurt me.”

“Not intentionally, I wouldn’t,” Nicole assured, as she tucked a wayward lock of hair behind Waverly’s ear.

Receiving Nicole’s unspoken message: I wouldn’t hurt you on purpose, but I’m not perfect, Waverly took a moment to process it, accepting it for what it was: the truth. And then she leaned forward, pressing a light kiss to Nicole’s mouth. “I wouldn’t intentionally hurt you either,” she whispered in promise.

A soft smile flickered across Nicole’s lips. “I know you wouldn’t, Waves,” she acknowledged.

“Good,” Waverly declared, her smile dancing in her eyes. “Now, are you hungry, Officer Haught?” she asked. “It’s getting late, and I know you haven’t had dinner.”

“I’m starving, actually,” Nicole admitted, realizing after Waverly asked, that it was true. 

“Let me fix you something,” Waverly offered as she gingerly moved Stormy onto Nicole’s lap.

Stormy let out another disgruntled “Meow,” over having her nap disturbed, and in a flash, she darted toward the bedroom, as Waverly stood from the sofa.

Shaking her head at the cat, Nicole chuckled as she grasped Waverly’s hand, catching her attention before she could walk away. “I have a better idea,” she announced, gazing up at her.

“And what’s that?” Waverly sounded intrigued.

“Why don’t I change clothes, and we can fix something together,” Nicole suggested.

Waverly smiled. “I like that even better,” she readily agreed, tugging Nicole to her feet. “What would you like?” she asked, as she led Nicole around the sofa, their fingers entwined.

“Doesn’t matter,” Nicole answered breezily. She would eat tree bark if it meant Waverly would be sharing a meal with her.

Stopping, Waverly turned to her. “You always gonna be this easy?”

Realizing too late what she’d said, Waverly’s face flushed, as Nicole arched an eyebrow, that roguish smile teasing its way across her lips. Pulling Waverly to her then, she leaned down, kissing her lightly. “Only where you’re concerned,” she said with a playful lilt.

Grinning, Waverly kissed her again. “Go change your clothes, Officer Haught,” she instructed. “I’m gonna pull out that leftover chicken from the other night, and figure out what we can do with it.”

“Sounds perfect,” Nicole declared. She’d been repeatedly amazed with what Waverly could manage to create using leftovers, and she doubted tonight would be any different. Unable to help herself, she kissed her once more, and then headed down the hall to change.

Watching Nicole walk away, Waverly took a moment to appreciate the view. She thrilled at the way the muscles in Nicole’s back flexed beneath that navy shirt as she moved, and while those taupe uniform pants were hideous, to say the least, Nicole’s perfect ass filled them out quite spectacularly, Waverly noticed, not for the first time. Everything about Nicole’s body gave her a thrill, and Waverly couldn’t wait to see more of it.

A roguish grin flickered across her mouth, as she turned toward the kitchen, and then purposefully, she set on the task of making dinner. Rifling through the refrigerator, freezer, and pantry, she quickly sized up the contents, deciding what she would make. She pulled the glass cutting board out from the lower cabinet near the stove, and then began gathering ingredients. A few minutes later, she had the leftover rotisserie chicken, a wedge of fresh parmesan, a bottle of olive oil, a package of frozen spinach, half an onion left over from the dinner they’d fixed a few nights ago, two cans of diced tomatoes, chicken stock, a canister of uncooked pasta, and a bevy of herbs and spices setting out on the center island, where she began combining ingredients in Granny Haught’s timeworn, yet amazingly functional Dutch oven. Nicole used it for almost everything because it heated evenly and nothing ever stuck to it, and Waverly had quickly become a convert.

Once the oil, garlic, spinach, and chopped onion were combined, she set the Dutch oven on the burner to simmer over medium heat, ran a pot of water and set it on another burner to boil, and turned her attention to the next set of ingredients that would make up the sauce.   

Ten minutes later Nicole returned wearing a pair of loose-fitting, faded jeans, and a navy blue Dallas P.D. t-shirt, her auburn tresses falling in soft waves around her face. “Guess you figured out what’s for dinner, huh?” she said casually, more statement than question.

Glancing up from the sauce she was throwing together, Waverly’s breath caught at the sight of her. Slowly, green eyes filled with interest traced every inch of her, noticing how the t-shirt, while a bit loose, still hugged the curve of her breasts so perfectly, and the jeans hung nicely on her hips. They were a little long because Nicole was barefoot, but that only served to make them sexier, the way they bunched up just a bit atop her sock-covered feet. She took another moment, scanning upward this time, and then reaching Nicole’s face again, she smiled into those teasing russet eyes, her own face flushing with color when she realized she’d just been brazenly cruising Nicole. “Yeah, I uh… Tuscan chicken with… uh, penne pasta,” she stammered, lifting the canister of pasta, jiggling it a little bit.

Amused, Nicole chuckled to herself as she padded across the kitchen floor toward Waverly. Wrapping her arms around her from behind, she brushed a kiss against her neck. “Well, it smells amazing already,” she complimented. “What can I do to help?”

It simply astonished Waverly, how completely natural it felt to be standing there in Nicole’s kitchen with Nicole’s arms wrapped around her, talking about making dinner. It had felt natural from the start, and now that they were together, that feeling had increased exponentially. Never in her life had anything ever felt this right. And they were just getting started. Suddenly, she couldn’t wait to see what the future would bring.

Turning her head toward Nicole, she smiled and kissed her mouth. “Will you drop the pasta in, and then cut up the chicken?” she requested. “This’ll finish up whatever’s left.”

“You got it,” Nicole readily agreed. “How much pasta do we need?”

“About half a kilogram,” Waverly answered.

Converting the measurement into ounces in her head, Nicole eyeballed the pasta, dropping what looked to be about two cups into the boiling water, giving it a quick stir. “Are you finished with the cutting board?” she asked, turning toward Waverly.

“It’s all yours,” Waverly answered.

“Thanks,” Nicole said, taking it to the sink to give it a quick rinse. Drying it off, she pulled a paring knife from the drawer and quickly set to work on the chicken, while Waverly added the mixture of freshly chopped oregano, thyme, and basil, salt and pepper, diced tomatoes, and chicken stock to the Dutch oven, and turned up the heat just slightly to bring the contents to a boil.

“Once this boils, you can go ahead and add the chicken,” Waverly explained, turning then to the final ingredients for the sauce.

“Where’d you get this recipe?” Nicole asked, as she chopped the chicken into bite-sized pieces on the cutting board next to Waverly.

“Gus used to make it when Uncle Curtis was out of town,” Waverly answered, whisking together some flour and a bit of cream to help thicken the sauce. “He wasn’t much for pasta except for spaghetti and meatballs, so it was kind of a special treat for us while he was gone.”

“That sounds nice,” Nicole commented.  

A faint smile touched Waverly’s lips. “It was,” she said, her tone wistful. “I’ve always really enjoyed the times I spent alone with each of them. They both made it special in their own ways.”

“What kinds of things did you do with Curtis?” Nicole asked. She loved hearing Waverly tell stories about growing up with her aunt and uncle.

“We took care of the horses together, hiked the mountains a lot, and went fishing down by the springs,” Waverly answered. “And I loved it when he’d take me riding on his Harley,” she grinned.

“The one Wynonna inherited?”

“Yep,” Waverly confirmed with a chuckle. “You should’ve seen her when I told her it was hers. She was super excited.” The memory of her sister squealing in laughter as she scrambled into the back of Champ’s truck, growling as she straddled the bike, and then purring as she fondled it, made her want to laugh out loud even now.  

“I’ll bet,” Nicole grinned. “It’s a beautiful machine.”

Lifting the cutting board from the counter, Nicole carried it to the stove. She scraped the cut chicken into the sauce, and gave it a thorough stirring. And then she checked the pasta. “How done does the pasta need to be?” she asked.

“Al dente,” Waverly responded.

Nicole gave the noodles a stir, noting that it wasn’t anywhere near al dente yet. “Pasta’s gonna be another few minutes,” she commented. She much preferred to make her pasta fresh because it tasted better and took less time to cook; but the packaged kind worked in a pinch.

“That’s okay. The sauce isn’t quite ready yet either,” Waverly noted. Once all of the lumps were out of the cream and flour mixture, she poured it into the sauce, stirring it thoroughly. And once it returned to a boil, she turned down the heat, allowing it to simmer until the noodles were ready. She glanced at Nicole over her shoulder then, “Would you mind grating a little fresh parmesan?”

“How much do we need?” Nicole asked, reaching into the drawer for the cheese grater.

“Just enough for a garnish,” Waverly answered, keeping a close eye on the sauce so it didn’t burn or clump as it settled into a simmer.

Nicole grated the parmesan into a small bowl, and then she rewrapped the remainder of the wedge, returning it to the refrigerator. Quickly rinsing the grater, she dropped it into the dishwasher, turning her attention back to the pasta. Stirring it first, she dipped out a noodle, carefully draining the water from the spoon back into the pot. She blew on the noodle to cool it slightly, and then she lifted it with her fingers, taking a bite. It was firm, but not sticky, which seemed right to her, but this was Waverly’s recipe, and she wanted to be certain. Turning to Waverly, she offered the other half for her to taste.  

Green eyes dancing with mischief, Waverly nipped lightly at Nicole’s fingers as she took the penne noodle into her mouth, drawing a smile from Nicole. And then she bit into it. It was perfect, but she was tempted to say it needed another minute or two, just so Nicole would feed her another one. Instead, she leaned into Nicole, urging a light kiss from her, before declaring that it was, “Perfect.”

Nicole grinned. “What, the pasta… or my kisses?” she whispered flirtatiously against Waverly’s ear from where she stood just behind her.

“Both,” Waverly declared. Turning toward her, she tangled her fingers in the loose auburn waves at the base of Nicole’s neck, pulling her into another kiss, this one lingering.

Moaning softly into the kiss, Nicole smiled against Waverly’s lips. “Pasta’s gonna go from perfect to overcooked if I don’t get it off the burner,” she murmured.

“Buzzkill,” Waverly lightly accused.

Chuckling, Nicole grabbed another quick kiss, before returning her attention to the pot of boiling pasta. She switched the burner off, removing the pot to slow the cooking process. Opening a cabinet beneath the counter to the left of the dishwasher, she retrieved a metal colander, setting it in the sink.

Waverly giggled to herself when she caught sight of the colander. The holes on the sides were shaped like miniature pineapples. Ever the pragmatist, it was probably the most whimsical thing Nicole owned, and Waverly absolutely loved it. And as Nicole reached for the pasta pot, Waverly turned her attention back to the sauce, still thinking about how adorable those pineapples were.

Moving back to the sink, Nicole poured the contents into the colander, allowing it to drain thoroughly. “Is the sauce ready for this?” she asked.

Checking the sauce, Waverly gave it another quick stir. “Looks good,” she announced, giving Nicole the go-ahead. She stepped out of the way then, and lifting the cutting board from the counter, she gave it a quick scrub in the sink to remove the chicken residue. Once it was dried, she tossed the towel onto the counter, setting the cutting board back on the center island. She moved to the counter near the window then, pulling one of three small black planters, each containing three individual pots, from the windowsill. Grabbing the scissors from the countertop, she clipped a sprig of basil from the plant, and then setting both the scissors and the sprig on the counter, she returned the planter to the windowsill.  

In the same planter with the basil, Nicole grew oregano and thyme. In the next, she grew fresh rosemary, parsley, and chives, and in the third planter were mint, sage, and the Vietnamese coriander, which gave her fresh cilantro. Waverly loved that Nicole grew fresh herbs in her kitchen. They used them almost every time they cooked, and it made all the difference.

A few feet away, Nicole dropped the pasta into the Dutch oven, stirring it into the sauce. “This really looks amazing, Waves,” she complimented. “Smells even better.”

“Wait ‘til you taste it,” Waverly said temptingly, as she quickly chopped the basil. Then, moving toward the cabinet to the right of the sink, she pulled two plates down, setting them on the counter near the stove. And then she turned to the drawer where the silverware was kept, pulling out two forks, setting them on the center island near the basil and parmesan.  

Resting her hips against the countertop, Nicole folded her arms across her chest, her eyes never leaving Waverly. She loved watching her navigating her space. It hadn’t taken long for Waverly to learn where everything was, and she moved around with ease and confidence, like she belonged there with Nicole. And she did belong there, Nicole acknowledged, smiling to herself.

“Would you like some wine with dinner?” Nicole offered.

Waverly smiled as she edged around her, moving toward the stove. “Sounds nice,” she answered.

“Red or white?” Nicole asked, deferring to Waverly. She’d long-since ceased questioning her judgment when it came to wine pairings. Waverly was never wrong on the subject. Shoving away from the counter, she moved to the refrigerator, opening the door.

“Red for me, thanks. I think it goes better with this,” Waverly answered over her shoulder. Turning the burner off, she began plating the food. “If you want a white, that Chardonnay we had with the chicken the other night would be good.”

Deciding she preferred a red, Nicole pulled the bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon they’d opened a few days earlier from the bottom shelf, closing the refrigerator door, and setting the bottle on the counter nearby. Reaching into the corner cabinet to the left of the sink, she pulled down two wine glasses, and then she popped the cork on the bottle, pouring the dark liquid into the glasses in equal measure. She recorked the bottle then, returning it to the refrigerator.

As Nicole poured the wine, Waverly brought the plates of food to the center island, sprinkling both servings first with the freshly chopped basil and then with a dusting of parmesan. Finally, lifting the prepared plates from the countertop, she moved toward the dining room table, Nicole following behind her with their glasses of wine, in hand.

When she reached the dining area, Waverly noticed the living room lights were dimmed, and on the table, she found their forks sitting atop neatly folded cloth napkins, and the candles in the centerpiece aglow, casting a soft ambient light across the table. Pleasantly surprised, she smiled at Nicole as she set the plates down next to the place settings. “When did you manage this?”

“While you were working on the garnish,” Nicole answered with a grin.

Reaching for Nicole’s hand, Waverly pulled her close. “I didn’t realize you were such a romantic, Officer Haught,” she husked.

Leaning down, Nicole nuzzled against Waverly’s ear. “Sweetheart, you have no idea,” she whispered, skimming her mouth along the taut cord of muscle in Waverly’s neck.

Waverly’s heart skipped a beat at the sound of Nicole’s voice, the warmth of her breath against her skin. She turned her head, capturing Nicole’s mouth in a kiss that took Nicole completely by surprise, her fingers tangling in those soft auburn waves.

It took only a moment for Nicole to gather her bearings, and then she was grasping Waverly’s waist, pulling her impossibly closer as she took control, deepening their kiss.

Waverly felt an unfamiliar dipping quickening that echoed deep in her belly in response to being so under Nicole’s control. She always hated it when Champ would exert control over her, but with Nicole, it felt entirely different; surprisingly arousing.

The kiss was brief, but hungry in a way neither had ever known, and when Nicole lifted her mouth, she was met by eyes that swirled with desire that matched her own. Gratified, a soft smile flickered across her lips. “We should probably eat dinner before it gets cold,” she whispered in suggestion.

Green eyes flickering up to meet Nicole’s again, Waverly bit her bottom lip lightly, releasing it slowly. “Right…” she murmured, the corners of her mouth twisting into a smile.

They settled into their usual places at the table then, sharing the meal they prepared together. It was really no different than any other night they’d shared a meal together at this table. Except that it was completely different, in that there were no questions, no uncertainties lingering between them. They were together. Really together. And that made all the difference in the world.     

Friday, May 27, 2016… The Earp Homestead—10:30 p.m. Mountain Daylight Time

Waverly and Nicole were laughing together about something Waverly had said in the car, as they came through the front door into the living room at the homestead. Her backpack was slung over her right shoulder, secured with her hand, and a freshly pressed uniform that looked like she’d just picked it up from the dry cleaners, in her left hand, Nicole held the door open with her foot, allowing Waverly, who held a large canvas bag filled with groceries in one hand, and Stormy in her cat carrier in the other, to pass through ahead of her. Nicole followed quickly behind, the glass in the door rattling as it closed behind her.  

It wasn’t the first time Stormy had come to visit the homestead. In fact, she already had her own food and water bowls, along with a stash of cat food in the kitchen, a litter box that was tucked into an alcove in the main floor bathroom, and a bevy of toys scattered around the house—all at Wynonna’s suggestion. She’d tried to sound nonchalant about it when she suggested that Nicole bring Stormy along when she came to visit, especially if she planned to stay the night—it just made sense since Nicole spent so much time at the homestead, that Stormy not be left all alone—but neither Nicole nor Waverly were fooled by her act. They knew she liked the cat, despite her adamant contentions otherwise. And so Stormy had become a regular fixture around the homestead, traveling back and forth with Nicole, and even Waverly at times, during Nicole’s week away.      

Just as Waverly set the cat carrier and bag of groceries on the floor, Wynonna came shuffling into the room, an open bottle of beer in her hand. “Oh, hey,” she said in casual greeting, continuing her path toward the sofa.

Stormy started rattling the carrier door, caterwauling the moment she heard Wynonna’s voice.

“What are you doin’ home?” Waverly sounded surprised, but not unpleasantly so. After her conversation with Wynonna earlier in the day, she just hadn’t expected to see her again until Monday.

“Change of plans,” Wynonna shrugged, trying to sound more blasé than she felt, as she dropped down onto the sofa. She’d had enough emotional interaction for one day, given her earlier conversation with Waverly, and then with Gus before dinner. “Dolls reinstated me.”

“That’s great, Wyn!” Waverly said supportively. Stooping down, she released the latch on Stormy’s carrier, and the cat bolted out before she could even get the door completely open. A moment later, she pounced into Wynonna’s lap, purring loudly, as she rubbed her head against Wynonna’s chin.

Amused by the cat, Wynonna chuckled. “I take it you guys worked out your squabble,” she commented, grinning as her eyes moved back and forth between the two of them.

They laughed at Stormy’s antics, and then Waverly glanced at Nicole, smiling. “That we did,” she confirmed. “And what about you? Did you figure things out?”

“Yeah,” Wynonna answered, and she scratched Stormy’s back in the place she loved it most. “And I had dinner with Gus tonight,” she reported. “We kinda worked some stuff out too.”

“I’m really glad,” Waverly said supportively.

Given what Waverly had told her earlier about Wynonna and some of the things she was dealing with, Nicole decided it best to give them a few minutes to talk. She nudged Waverly’s arm with her elbow, catching her attention. “Hey, I’m gonna go drop my stuff in your room, and then I’ll take care of the groceries, okay?”

The expression on Waverly’s face said she was grateful Nicole understood what she needed without her even having to ask. “Thank you,” she said quietly. “Should only be a couple more bags in the back of the SUV.”

“No problem,” Nicole said, brushing her hand lightly against Waverly’s arm before reaching down to pick up the grocery bag. “I’ll be back in a bit.”

Waverly had to curtail the urge to kiss Nicole before she left. It caught her off-guard how quickly that inclination had become second-nature, and for the first time, she realized it wouldn’t be as easy as she thought to keep their relationship from Wynonna. Not that she didn’t want her to know, but it was so new to her that she just wanted a little time to savor it, to savor Nicole and all that she’d brought to her life.

As Nicole left the room, Waverly slipped out of her boots and took off her coat, hanging it on one of the hooks behind the door. And then she moved toward the sofa, taking a seat next to Wynonna. “You want to talk about what happened?” she asked, tucking a foot up beneath her.

“Not particularly,” Wynonna answered. But she knew she had to. Waverly needed to know the whole story about Shorty’s. She was quiet for a moment, as she rubbed Stormy’s ears, enjoying the appreciative purrs she received in return for her efforts. Why couldn’t people be so easy to please? And then she turned toward Waverly. “I put down another Revenant today,” she divulged.

“Really?” Waverly sounded surprised. “What happened?”

“Apparently he came into Shorty’s lookin’ for me while Dolls was there with Nedley,” Wynonna explained. “So Dolls hauled him in.”

“Yeah, I remember him,” Waverly recalled. “What did he want with you, anyway?” she asked warily.

“You’re not gonna like this, Waves,” Wynonna said hedged.

“Just tell me, okay?” Waverly pressed.

Closing her eyes, Wynonna took in a deep breath. “Bobo bought Shorty’s,” she divulged on a labored exhale.

“What?” Waverly exclaimed, her heart pounding in her chest.

“Yeah, I know,” Wynonna commiserated.

Immediately, Waverly was on her feet, pacing the room. “How in the frickin’ hell did that happen?” And then she stopped, turning to Wynonna again, an expression of sheer horror on her face. “Does Gus know?”

Wynonna nodded. “I broke the news to her while I was there,” she said. “She didn’t take it very well.”

“I can only imagine,” Waverly sighed, crossing her arms over her chest as she began pacing again. “Well, we have to do something!” she declared. “We have to stop him.”

“It’s a done deal, Waves,” Wynonna said regretfully.

Feeling defeated, Waverly simply nodded.

“Dolls thinks we can use it as an opportunity to gather intel, though,” Wynonna added, hoping to raise Waverly’s spirits, even if only a little.

“How so?” Waverly asked, intrigued.

“By planting a bug,” Wynonna answered.

“I’m definitely game,” Waverly quickly agreed.

“No way in hell are you goin’ in there, Waves,” Wynonna insisted.

“I work there, in case you’ve forgotten,” Waverly sarcastically reminded. “They’d never suspect at thing, me goin’ in there.”

“You’re seriously gonna keep that job?” Wynonna couldn’t believe her ears.

Waverly cringed. “Of course not,” she answered. “I’d never work for that shithead. But he doesn’t need to know that right away.”

“Who doesn’t need to know what?” Nicole asked as she reentered the room after putting the groceries away. The expressions on Waverly and Wynonna’s faces stopped her in her tracks. “Sorry… Should I leave and come back later?” she asked, not wanting to intrude on anything classified.

“No, of course not,” Waverly said, reaching out toward Nicole.

Nicole’s gazed shifted guardedly from Waverly’s face, to her hand, and back to her face again, the unspoken question reflecting in her eyes.

Realizing what she was doing, Waverly took the cue from Nicole, dropping her hand. And then she held Nicole’s gaze steadily. “You should know that uh, that I’ll be quitting my job at Shorty’s,” she announced.

“What?” Nicole sounded both surprised and a little bit concerned. “Why?”

“Gus sold the place today,” Waverly answered.

“Okay?” Now Nicole was confused. They’d all known it was coming. Why was it suddenly such a big deal that Waverly would actually quit?

“To Bobo Del Rey,” Waverly added, her tone wry.

“Well, shit,” Nicole muttered, stunned by the revelation.

“Exactly,” Waverly affirmed with a sigh.

“I take it Gus didn’t know he was the buyer,” Nicole deduced. Shrugging out of her jacket, she hung it behind the front door next to Waverly’s.  

“No, he used a broker to put one past her,” Wynonna supplied.

“Well, it certainly isn’t my place to tell you what do, but I can’t say I’m sorry to hear you’re quittin’,” Nicole said to Waverly. “There’s just somethin’ evil goin’ on there. I can feel it.”

Wynonna barked out a sarcastic laugh. “You don’t know the half of it.”

Nicole glanced toward Wynonna. “I know I don’t,” she acknowledged, her gaze clear and steady. “But I’m hopin’ at some point you’re gonna get around to fillin’ me in.”

“I wish I could, Nicole. I really do,” Wynonna said sincerely. She really did hate keeping her in the dark. “But Dolls is back, and he’ll have my ass if...”

Raising a hand, Nicole effectively stalled Wynonna’s comment. “I get it, okay?” she said simply. “I don’t want you jeopardizin’ your job. Just know that if you ever need me, I’ve got your back, Wynonna. No questions asked.”

Truly grateful for the offer, a faint smile touched Wynonna’s lips. She knew, without question, that Nicole meant every word. She wished she could still feel that certain about Dolls, but her trust in him had been shaken by his inaction earlier that day, and it would take a long time to restore it. “Thanks, Nicole. I, uh… I really appreciate that.”

“Yeah, thank you,” Waverly said, her tone filled with gratitude as she moved to Nicole, wrapping her in a hug.

Nicole hugged Waverly in return, being careful about how she touched her. It was Waverly’s call as to when Wynonna would be told about their relationship. “There’s nothin’ I wouldn’t do for either one of you, or for Gus,” she vowed.

“We know,” Waverly affirmed, squeezing Nicole tighter for a brief moment, before letting her go.

“So… you guys wanna watch a movie or somethin’?” Wynonna asked. She’d had all the sappy bullshit she could stomach for one day.

Waverly glanced at Nicole, who nodded in agreement. And then she grinned at her sister. “Sounds good,” she said. “What do you wanna watch?”

“Anything but a…” Wynonna began.

“Musical,” they all three said in unison. And then they laughed together.  

“Can I get you a beer, Nicole?” Wynonna offered, tipping her nearly empty bottle toward her friend.

“Stay put. I’ll get it,” Waverly said, holding up a hand, halting her sister from getting up. “You seem to have a lap full of pussy again,” she teased, amused that Stormy always seemed to end up napping in Wynonna’s lap.

“Yeah, that never gets old,” Wynonna said sarcastically, causing Waverly and Nicole to laugh.

“You need a fresh one?” Waverly asked her sister as she turned toward the kitchen.

“Yeah,” Wynonna answered. “Thanks.”

Watching Waverly until she was out of sight, Nicole moved across the room toward Wynonna. “Sounds like your day ended a whole lot better than it started,” she commented as she settled into the opposite corner of the sofa. She remembered vividly how out of sorts the elder Earp had been when she encountered her that morning, and this was far more palatable.

“Well, seein’ as it started with a failed psych evaluation, I’d say anything short of a lobotomy would be an improvement,” Wynonna replied sardonically.

“You really do hate shrinks, don’t you,” Nicole commented, more statement than question.

“Yup,” Wynonna confirmed, popping the ‘p’.

“Sorry it started out with such bullshit,” Nicole commiserated.

“Thanks,” Wynonna replied. “And thanks for comin’ out here to stay with Waves this weekend,” she added. “I really didn’t wanna leave her alone.”

“It’s no problem,” Nicole said casually. “We probably would’ve spent it together anyway.”

“Mm…” Wynonna nodded, thinking nothing of it. Nicole was there all the time, it seemed, so it wouldn’t even surprise her if it was true. That’s why she’d asked Waverly if Nicole would be around for the weekend in the first place.

“So what are we watching?” Waverly asked, padding back into the room on sock-covered feet.

“No idea,” Nicole answered. “What are you in the mood for?”

The smoldering expression in Waverly’s eyes told Nicole exactly what she was in the mood for, and Nicole bit her bottom lip to stifle her response. Instead, she suggested they watch something innocuous, like a romantic comedy. And after some rather animated discussion, they settled on a sweet, romantic story with a little science fiction twist to keep Wynonna guessing.  

Saturday, May 28, 2016… The Earp Homestead—1:30 a.m. Mountain Daylight Time

Quietly, Waverly crossed the room, staring out the window into the darkness of night, noting only the dim glow of the lamplight from the barn that indicated Doc was home. Her arms were wrapped tightly around herself; whether as a subconscious means of self-protection, or to stave off the chill in the house, she couldn’t be certain—and neither could Nicole.

Approaching from behind, Nicole brushed her hands along the center of Waverly’s back and up over her shoulders, giving them a light caress. A soft sigh fell from Waverly’s lips, and she leaned back into the solid support of Nicole’s body, knowing without a doubt that she would be there.

Reveling in the closeness once again, Nicole slid her arms around Waverly’s midsection, nuzzling against her neck. Silently, she breathed in the scent of her—wildflowers on a spring afternoon, just like always. “You okay, Waves?” she asked quietly, her fingertips gently splaying across the soft, warm skin of Waverly’s bare belly.

“I don’t know what’s wrong with me,” Waverly confessed, her voice tight with apprehension. She was honestly at a loss as to how to explain it. Since the moment they first kissed, she’d been thinking about being with Nicole. Really being with her. She couldn’t wait for it to happen.

After dinner, they busied themselves with cleaning the kitchen, and then packing Nicole’s things. And once all the potential distractions were eliminated, they’d landed on Nicole’s sofa for an encore of their encounter in Nedley’s office. Their kisses grew increasingly more heated, hands and mouths tentatively exploring, leaving them breathless once again. Waverly had been the one to put the brakes on this time, explaining that she didn’t want to start something they couldn’t properly finish because, much to Nicole’s delight, once she got Nicole into bed, she had no intention of letting her out again until Sunday afternoon.  

While they were both happy to see Wynonna when they arrived at the homestead, they were also a little disappointed. The plan had been to unload the groceries, and basically go straight to bed. But with a wrench in their plans, they’d willingly adjusted—Wynonna was never the one to instigate socialization, and for her to ask about watching a movie with them was huge. And though their plans were briefly curtailed, Waverly had driven Nicole to near distraction during the movie, her fingertips lightly grazing the seam of Nicole’s jeans on her inner thigh as she leaned against Nicole’s side.

Blissfully, Nicole relaxed into her touch, feeling herself grow harder, the pulsing between her legs growing impossibly more intense, with every stroke of Waverly’s fingertips, and by the end of the movie she was afraid she might go off just from the pressure of her jeans against her as she walked to Waverly’s bedroom.

Once they were finally alone in her bedroom, Waverly kissed her with the same fierce passion she had that very first time. It didn’t take long for the embers that had smoldered all evening to reignite into a full-blown flame. Nicole’s t-shirt hit the floor, with Waverly’s sweater following close behind. And then Nicole’s fingers were tangled in Waverly’s hair, her mouth skimming along the taut cord of muscle in Waverly’s neck. Waverly groaned in appreciation, her fingers fumbling with Nicole’s belt. Their breathing grew labored as they stumbled toward the bed, falling onto the mattress with Waverly landing on top. 

Their kiss broke from the impact of their landing, finding them both breathless, panting for air as Waverly gazed down at Nicole. Her eyes searching Nicole’s, she swallowed hard around the rising uncertainty. And then without warning, she was pulling away, looking restless, unsettled, and a little confused, as she pushed herself backward and onto her feet again, her breaths coming in short, almost desperate gasps.

She didn’t know what was wrong, exactly. All she knew was that, despite all of her bravado, she wasn’t ready for this. Not yet. She felt ridiculous. Moments before, she’d been absolutely certain of what she wanted, and now, she wasn’t certain of anything, except that she definitely did love Nicole. Perhaps that was what scared her the most.  

The shift happened so quickly it left Nicole’s head spinning. She sat upright, watching Waverly carefully for any signs of physical distress; though she didn’t expect to find any. This was likely an emotional response to uncertainty, which Nicole definitely understood. It was a lot to process all at once, and if she were being honest, she would admit that she’d even anticipated it. At the moment, her only concern was making sure that Waverly felt safe and understood. And with that foremost in her mind, as Waverly moved toward the window, Nicole followed closely behind.       

That was how she found herself standing there half-dressed in the middle of the night, her arms wrapped around Waverly from behind, as she whispered reassurances to her. “Who says there’s anything wrong with you at all?” she said gently, more statement of comfort than question as she pulled her impossibly closer.

“I wanted this, Nicole,” Waverly said, her voice quavering. “I really did.”

“I know, Baby,” Nicole murmured, brushing Waverly’s hair aside. Lightly, her lips skimmed the outer shell of Waverly’s ear—a gesture of comfort, not seduction. “I know…”

“And I still do,” Waverly clarified. “I want you.”

“But?” Nicole gently pressed.

Waverly turned to her then, and peering up into those warm russet eyes she found nothing but love and understanding reflecting back at her. “But I just… I’m really nervous right now, Nicole,” she confessed, her entire body beginning to shake. “Believe me, my body is totally on board with this, but… my head is freakin’ out here. And I don’t know why. It’s not like I’ve never…”

She looked like she was on the verge of a breakdown, and Nicole’s heart nearly broke from watching it. “Hey…” she whispered, her fingertips whispering across Waverly’s cheek. “It’s gonna be okay.”

Spoken with such gentle certainty, Nicole’s assurance was like a balm to Waverly’s tattered soul. Without words, she wrapped her arms around Nicole’s waist, burying her face in Nicole’s chest, drawing in the crisp, familiar scent of her skin. And Nicole responded in kind, pulling Waverly close against her own body, where she simply held her, tenderly caressing her soft skin as her hands gently stroked up and down Waverly’s back.

Neither of them knew how long they stood there, locked in their embrace. But when Waverly finally released her, Nicole smiled down at her. “Come sit with me,” she encouraged, offering Waverly her hand.

Waverly nodded, and taking the proffered hand, she followed Nicole over to the bed. Sitting down, Nicole patted the bed next to her. But Waverly climbed into her lap, her knees flanking the outer edges of Nicole’s toned thighs, instead. And then she draped her arms around Nicole’s neck, hugging her again, this time, even tighter.

Nuzzling into Waverly’s neck, Nicole returned the hug, holding her close for several minutes. And then, leaning back, she tenderly cradled Waverly’s face in her hands. “Listen to me, okay?” she gently implored.

Searching Nicole’s eyes, Waverly simply nodded again.

Nicole offered a reassuring smile. “I want you, Waverly Earp,” she said softly, as she gazed into those soft green eyes, so filled with uncertainty. “In my life. In my arms. In my bed… But if you’re not ready to make love, I’m okay with that. I’m content just to hold you, to have you near. I just wanna be with you.”

“Really?” Waverly gasped, her eyes flooding with tears. No one had ever been so tender with her, so loving. And no one had ever offered her such a complete sense of autonomy, with absolutely no guilt. 

A soft smile formed on Nicole’s lips, her eyes shining with sheer adoration. “Really,” she whispered, feathering a light kiss across Waverly’s mouth. “I get that this is all completely new to you. It’s different, and… maybe even a little bit scary. So we don’t have to do anything you’re not comfortable with, Waves. We don’t have to do anything at all.”

Waverly looked nervous, doubtful, but she didn’t vocalize it.

She didn’t need to. Instinctively, Nicole understood. “You’ve spent your whole damn life tryin’ to prove yourself to other people, doin’ whatever you have to do to make sure they stay. Well, you don’t have to do that with me, Waverly. You don’t have to be perfect, and you’re not responsible for keeping me happy. And you certainly don’t have to have sex with me to keep me interested,” she reassured.

“But… I got you all worked up,” Waverly said apologetically. Champ used to get so angry when he’d get worked up, only to hear that Waverly didn’t want it. He always expected her to take care of it for him—after all, it was her fault, he’d argue, even if he’d done it to himself. “Shouldn’t I at least…”

Shaking her head, Nicole gently shushed her. “Not gonna lie, I’m really turned on right now. But that’s my problem, not yours,” she adamantly declared.

“But I’m the one who kept touching you,” Waverly said ruefully. “I knew what it was doing to you, and I kept it up.”

“And I could’ve asked you to stop at any time, Waves,” Nicole reasoned. She didn’t need to ask where this was coming from; she already knew. Champ Hardy was a complete fucking dickhead. Never again would Waverly ever have to deal with that kind of emotionally manipulative bullshit. “But I chose not to because, quite frankly, I liked what you were doing,” she admitted. “That’s on me.”

“Really?” Waverly sounded almost afraid to believe her. It was always her fault with Champ, even if he’d gotten worked up without her even touching him. Sometimes she didn’t even need to be in the same room!

“I promise,” Nicole reassured. “Trust me, when you decide you’re ready, I am all over it, because I want you, Waverly.” Christ, I’ve never wanted anyone more, she thought, but didn’t voice. “But until then, just know I’m not just some dickhead who’s gonna threaten to walk if you don’t put out on the first date… or the second, or even the tenth.”

Nodding, Waverly sniffled. How did Nicole always manage to make her feel better when she thought she deserved to feel worse? “What about the eleventh?” she asked, smiling through her tears.

Amused by Waverly’s use of wry humor to ease even the most intense situations, Nicole chuckled softly. “Not even then,” she answered, her tone of voice saying it would always be true.

And then she took Waverly’s face into her hands again, pressing a tender kiss to her lips. “There’s no timetable here, Waves. No pressure. And I promise you, no matter how long it takes, I’m not goin’ anywhere. So… how ‘bout for right now we just let go of any expectations when it comes to sex, and just let things happen as they will,” she suggested. “If whatever we’re doin’ gets to be too much for me, I’ll let you know. I promise. And you can do the same for me, ‘cause I really don’t want anything you don’t want.”

Delivered on a whisper, the tender sincerity in Nicole’s voice made Waverly’s love for her deepen exponentially. “You have no idea what that means to me,” she said, tears streaming down her face.

And suddenly, she knew what it was that scared her. She knew, without a doubt, that making love with Nicole would change her, would change her life, in ways she’d never imagined possible. But it wasn’t about the physical act, at all! Not that she didn’t enjoy a good fuck with Champ once in a while, but mostly sex was all about him—it was something she did to keep him happy, because he was less of a dick when she put out. But with Nicole, for the first time in her life, it would actually mean something to her emotionally. And while the thought of being physically intimate with Nicole was exciting to contemplate, it was also really scary to think that everything she’d ever known to be true about relationships would suddenly be made false, replaced with needs and feelings that were categorically foreign to her. And most of all, she feared opening herself up to that kind of vulnerability, only to have it taken away from her someday.  

Silently, Nicole watched as a series of emotions played across Waverly’s features—fear and uncertainty, gratitude and relief, and then spontaneous enlightenment, followed by another wave of uncertainty. “I probably don’t,” she admitted. She understood the pressure of unjust expectations, but the idea of feeling so abandoned and alone was completely foreign to her. “And that makes it even more important to me, to keep my word.”

“I know that you will,” Waverly said with conviction. That was one thing she would never doubt. She touched Nicole’s face then, allowing her fingertips to linger against her soft skin. “I still want you to stay with me tonight,” she said softly, as she leaned in, brushing her mouth against Nicole’s the way that she’d wanted to so many times before. She loved the simple fact that she could do that now. No more holding back. “Will you?”

The depth of Waverly’s vulnerability nearly broke Nicole’s heart in two. Gently, she touched her face, wiping away her tears. Skimming a thumb across her lower lip, she kissed her tenderly. And then she met that trusting gaze, holding it steadily, as she whispered, “There’s no place else I’d rather be.”

Wrapping her arms around Nicole’s neck, Waverly hugged her again, this time tighter than ever. It wasn’t out of gratitude or desperation that Waverly clung to her, but out of a sense of acceptance and belonging, the likes of which she’d never felt before.

Instinctively, Nicole understood that, and releasing a slow sigh of relief, she buried her face in Waverly’s neck, as she wrapped her arms around Waverly’s body, pulling her impossibly closer. 

When they finally parted, by mutual silent agreement, they went about their nightly rituals. They crossed paths frequently as they prepared for bed, each time sharing a light touch, a smile, or even a brief kiss. It was like a perfectly choreographed dance. And thirty minutes later, both of them showered and changed, they were crawling beneath the crisp, cool sheets and heavy comforter on Waverly’s bed.

The warm water had done little to quell Nicole’s arousal, but it allowed her to refocus her mind, thus enabling her to control it. For that, she was grateful. Reaching toward the antique nightstand, she switched off the lamp, leaving the room illuminated only by the moonlight that streamed through the blinds, filtering through the sheer curtains that hung beneath heavy cerulean drapes that were tied back at the center. She smiled to herself, remembering the afternoon she and Waverly had installed the blinds and traverse rods, and hung the newly purchased window treatments.

When shopping for the drapes, they also picked out a warm comforter for Waverly’s bed. A few shades lighter than the drapes, it matched her blanket and throw pillows, perfectly coordinating her room. And when they were finished, the simple accouterments completely transformed Waverly’s bedroom, prompting her to suggest that they do the same in other rooms throughout the house. Nicole was more than happy to oblige—she enjoyed the work, and loved every moment she spent with Waverly in the process.       

Curling into Nicole’s side the way she usually did, Waverly released a deep sigh of contentment, as she nestled her head against Nicole’s chest, her arm draped loosely across Nicole’s body. The comforter was warm, but Nicole’s body was warmer, as she felt herself being wrapped securely in Nicole’s arms. It felt familiar, and yet, entirely new and different in the most breathtaking way. “I love being with you this way,” she said softly.

Nicole shifted just slightly, and tilting her head, she pressed a lingering kiss against Waverly’s forehead. “Mm… me too,” she quietly concurred.

Delivered on a contented sigh, Nicole’s response bolstered Waverly’s confidence in what she was feeling. “Does it feel… different… to you tonight?”

Nicole nodded. “Yeah,” she breathed, the sense of awe in her voice validating Waverly’s experience. “It feels… solid now; like… I don’t have to be scared that you’ll disappear anymore.”

Pushing up on her elbow, Waverly met Nicole’s gaze, marveling at how her eyes shimmered in the moonlight. “You were scared of that?” She sounded surprised.

“Yeah,” Nicole admitted. “Really scared.”

The vulnerability in Nicole’s voice, in her eyes, was palpable, and it made Waverly’s heart ache in the most beautiful way, not because Nicole was feeling it, but because she had chosen to share it with her. “I’ve never felt this way about anyone, Nicole,” she whispered in confession, her fingertips lightly caressing Nicole’s side. “And I may not really know what to do with that just yet, but I promise you, I’m not going anywhere.”

“I believe you,” Nicole assured, pressing a light kiss to Waverly’s lips.

Waverly settled back into Nicole’s arms then, and Nicole shifted onto her side, bringing them face to face, their heads resting on Waverly’s favorite pillow. And then Nicole smiled into those beautiful green eyes. “I’ve never felt this way about anyone either,” she confessed.

"Promise?” Waverly asked, seeking reassurance.

“Cross my heart,” Nicole whispered, slowly tracing an ‘X’ across her heart with her index finger.

Taking Nicole’s hand into her own, Waverly pulled it toward her, pressing a lingering kiss against her palm. And then, with her palm still pressed against the back of Nicole’s hand, she entwined their fingers, nestling their joined hands against her chest.   

In desperate need of more contact with her, Nicole used the leverage from the arm that lay beneath Waverly’s shoulder to pull her closer, their bodies meeting, pressing together at every possible juncture, as she smiled into those captivating eyes. “So I was thinking,” she said quietly, setting the stage for what was to come.

Waverly arched curious eyebrow. “Should I be scared?” she teased, drawing a chuckle from Nicole.

“Hardly,” Nicole assured.

Waverly grinned. “Then what have you been thinking, Officer Haught?” Her tone said she was intrigued.

“We both have tomorrow night off, so… I wondered if you’d like to go on a real date with me.” Nicole’s tone asked the question.

“We’ve had plenty of real dates,” Waverly contended, her eyes dancing with mischief.

“Yeah, but this would be the kind where I get to kiss you,” Nicole clarified.

“Well, you could kiss me right now, if you wanted,” Waverly intoned.

“Does that mean this a date?” Nicole asked, with that playful grin on her face.

Waverly shook her head. “No, Officer Haught… this is definitely not a date,” she answered, emphasizing the denial of Nicole’s assumption.

“What is it, then?”

Waverly’s expression turned serious, and gazing into soft russet eyes that glimmered with devotion, her fingertips fluttered along Nicole’s cheek. Leaning in, she kissed her tenderly then, and when she met those eyes again, this time finding subtle shades of inquiry, she whispered, “It’s coming home…”

The promise in Waverly’s voice caused Nicole’s breath to catch in her chest, her heart trilling beneath her breasts. The reaction was so powerful she could feel the reverberations deep within her soul. Gasping, she offered a tremulous smile, those soft russet eyes glistening with unshed tears. That tearstained gaze locking onto Waverly’s, she slipped her hand behind Waverly’s neck, tangling her fingers in those long wavy tresses, as she gently rolled Waverly onto her back. And then she was kissing her with a passion that literally took Waverly’s breath away, welcoming her home to a place that neither of them had ever been before.

TBC in Chapter 11—Exploration and Discovery…

Chapter Text

The Ten Times Waverly Earp was Definitely NOT on a Date with Nicole Haught


“I don’t need magic; I need your arms around me at 3:29 a.m., when the dark is too much.

I need you to be real when nothing else is.”

— A.R. Asher



Chapter 11 – Exploration and Discovery:


Sunday, May 29, 2016… The Earp Homestead—9:30 a.m. Mountain Daylight Time

The sun was up. And so was Nicole—despite the fact that she and Waverly had been awake well into the night yet again. They’d barely slept at all on Friday night, and had been awoken by Wynonna at the ass-crack of dawn the following morning, with some hair-brained plan to bug Shorty’s to get Intel on Bobo Del Rey. Well, it had sounded hair-brained to Waverly, until she heard that it was Dolls’ idea. Then she was on-board. Except that Dolls wanted them to wait, and Wynonna was having no part of that. She wanted it done immediately. Bobo needed to pay for stealing Shorty’s away from her family, and unlike Doc, for her, justice would be both glorious and swift. Thus, she’d dragged Waverly from bed early Saturday morning, leaving Nicole and Stormy alone to fend for themselves.

It was Sunday morning now, and as Nicole lay there, Waverly by her side, her thoughts drifted back to the previous morning, and the conversation that had ensued with her sisters after Waverly grudgingly crawled from the bed to shower. Grabbing her phone from the charmingly antiquated bedside table, she’d Skyped Hayley first, chatting with her briefly before adding Kyler who, in turn, brought Trinity into the call. Technology was a wonderful thing.

“So, you’d better spill it, Cole,” Kyler demanded the moment Trinity was on the line. “None of us heard a word from you last night. And after all the drama yesterday… How could you leave us hangin’ like that!” It was more bantering scolding, than actual question.

Nicole couldn’t stop the grin that hijacked her lips. “Well, I was a little busy last night,” she commented, feeling her face flush at the memory.

“Busy?” Trinity intoned, her curiosity instantly piqued. She loved a juicy tale.

“Waverly?” Kyler sounded intrigued.

Nicole’s immediate response was a slight nibble at her lower lip accompanied by a deep flushing of her face, and immediately followed by a bashful grin.

Hayley let out an excited squeal, causing the others to laugh. “Seriously?” she shrieked. “It finally happened with Waverly?”

“Depends on what you mean by ‘it’,” Nicole replied drolly. “But yes, we’re uh, we’re… together now.”

“‘Bout time you two got your act together,” Kyler grinned. “I swear…” 

“Oh, my god! Oh, my god! Yay, I’m so excited for you, Cole!” Hayley gushed, as she scrambled to sit upright in the center of her bed, stacking pillows all around her. “Tell us everything!”

“Yeah, don’t leave out a single detail,” Trinity eagerly agreed, settling into the breakfast nook in their parents’ kitchen with her morning coffee. She was still annoyed that she’d been left out of all the juicy details thus far, and didn’t want to miss a thing.

Laughing, Nicole shook her head. “Omigosh, guys, I don’t even know where to begin,” she said, sounding almost overwhelmed, but in the most blissful way. “I’ve never felt so happy in my entire life.”

“Christ, Nicole, when are you finally gonna admit you’re in love with this girl?” Kyler challenged.

Nicole stiffened her chin determinedly. “She’s not a girl,” she challenged. “She’s a woman.” She’s all woman, she thought, stifling another blush as she remembered how amazing it felt to have the curves and valleys of Waverly’s compact body pressed against her own. Even fully clothed it was a breath-stealing experience.  

“I stand corrected.” Kyler chuckled at the fight in Nicole’s tone. She was making this way too easy. “But that does nothing to answer my question.”

Making a face at her sister, Nicole grumbled something about her being a smartass, before addressing the question directly. Well, sort of. “Maybe I think that’s something I should tell her, before I say it to anyone else.”

Kyler grinned in response. That was close enough to an admission for her. “Point taken,” she granted. “So what’s stopping you from telling her?”

“Never mind that,” Trinity interrupted. She couldn’t stand it a moment longer. “How did things finally come together?” she queried. “I want details!”

Nicole laughed at her younger sibling’s exuberance. And then she spent the next half hour telling the story about Waverly showing up at the police station, launching herself into Nicole’s arms, lips first, and crash landing them on Nedley’s couch, where she declared her feelings; though not in so many words.

They laughed heartily at Nicole’s reaction to Waverly’s curiosity about eating geoduck, and when she got to the part about Nicole being the thing Waverly wanted to do most in her life, Hayley exclaimed, “Oh, my god, did she seriously say that?” causing all of them to laugh.

“Yeah,” Nicole snorted. “She did.”

“How in the hell did you keep a straight face?” Kyler queried.

Nicole chuckled. “Honestly, I think I was still in shock over her practically jumping me in my boss’s office. I’m pretty sure I sat there with a dumbstruck expression or some goofy-ass grin on my face the entire time she was babbling.” She paused for a moment, reflecting. “God, she’s adorable when she babbles,” she sighed wistfully.

“I would’ve paid money to see that,” Kyler commented, earning her an enthusiastic round of agreement from her younger siblings.

“Shut up,” Nicole groused playfully.

“So where is she now?” Trinity asked. “‘Cause you’re clearly in her bed.”

“Yeah, that’s definitely not your bedroom,” Hayley chimed in, her grin causing a dimple much like Nicole’s to form on her left cheek.  

“She’s in the shower,” Nicole answered.

“Alone?” Kyler interjected with a smirk.

Nicole made a face at her. “Yes, alone,” she answered dryly.

“Pity for you both,” Kyler intoned, drawing a giggle from Hayley at the sexual innuendo.

Nicole grinned at Hayley’s giggle. The subject of sex was the one area where she could definitely tell Hayley was still a young’un, as granny would’ve called her. Ignoring Kyler, she explained, “She and Wynonna have to go into work for a few hours this morning. Their boss called with a job for them, and apparently it can’t wait until Monday.”

“Geez,” Hayley grumbled. “What a frickin’ buzzkill.”

“You’re tellin’ me,” Nicole grumbled. “So much for spendin’ the day in bed,” she sighed.

“Really?” Hayley sounded surprised, though she didn’t know why. Nicole was straight-laced, so to speak, but it wasn’t like Hayley regarded her as some paragon of virtue.  

“Well, not like that,” Nicole responded with a laugh. “I mean… we were looking forward to spending the morning together.”

“Ah…” Hayley sighed in commiseration.

“It’s all good, Hayles,” Nicole said. “We’re going ice skating this afternoon. And out to dinner in the Big City tonight.”

“So… it this like a real date?” Trinity teased, stressing the authenticity part.

Nicole’s only response was a giddy grin that drew laughter from her sisters. And then their conversation turned to things she would rather not discuss, but she knew that none of them would be satisfied until she spilled every last detail.

Waverly stirred beside her, and Nicole couldn’t help but smile as her attention returned to the present. She was grateful that she’d chosen to call home before their first date, rather than after, because she definitely wasn’t ready to share last night’s details. Not with anyone other than Waverly. At this point, they had awoken in bed together more times than she could count, but none of those mornings ever felt quite like this. No, what she felt this morning was something altogether different. With Waverly’s cheek pressed against the outer edge of her breast, and those fingertips warm against her skin, and that leg, draped possessively over her thigh, nothing had ever felt so right.   

“I had a really great time with you last night,” Waverly whispered, drawing Nicole’s attention as she snuggled closer against Nicole’s side beneath the heavy, worn quilt. Slowly, her fingertips traced along the delicate ridge of Nicole’s ribs beneath her tank top. She was referring to their first official date—the one where, unlike the countless weeks of non-dates, Nicole could kiss her anytime she wanted—and vice versa.

And kiss, they had.

A lot.

It was almost ridiculous how much time they’d spent kissing. Like two teenagers who had just discovered the excitement of making out. It started as they were getting ready, and barely slowed as they drove out toward Lake Louise where Nicole had planned an ice skating excursion for them early Saturday afternoon. Being on the ice did little to deter them. They could barely keep their hands off of one another; neither could they stifle the goofy grins that hijacked their lips as they kissed. And it continued throughout their romantic dinner at the quaint little Italian place in the Big City later in the evening, lasting well into the night after they returned to the homestead, crawling together beneath the covers of Waverly’s bed.

When it came to ice skating, despite their combined lack of experience at what might be considered a national pastime for most Canadians, the afternoon was a lot of fun for both of them. They celebrated their mutual successes—they seemed to stay upright longer when they were connected to one another, which seemed counterintuitive, but was true, nonetheless. And they laughed together at their slips and stumbles on the ice, taking advantage of those moments where one had to catch the other, by sharing a kiss or two, sometimes more.

There came a point where each of them flirtatiously accused the other of fumbling on purpose, just for an excuse to end up in the other’s arms—an allegation which neither of them even bothered to deny. And much like their hiking excursion a few weeks earlier, they both agreed that they couldn’t wait to go skating again. Perhaps someday they would combine the two, hiking into the higher elevations to skate on one of the many frozen lakes that were hidden amongst the peaks and valleys of the picturesque Canadian Rockies.

After skating, they returned to Nicole’s apartment to shower and change for dinner, because it was closer than driving all the way out to the homestead. Nicole made certain they didn’t have much downtime while they were there, because she knew if they lingered for long at her place, they would never make it to the Big City for dinner. Not that she would’ve minded an evening alone at home with Waverly, but she’d promised her a real date, and she fully intent upon delivering. Based upon Waverly’s reactions throughout the evening and the following morning, she held no doubt that she had succeeded.

The restaurant wasn’t fancy, by any means—Waverly didn’t want that; not for a first date anyway. “Too much pressure,” she said with an eye roll, accentuated with an exasperated sigh. Nicole was in agreement. She didn’t want either of them to feel pressured; she just wanted them to be who they were together. So they dressed casually—jeans, light sweaters, and boots.

Nicole’s hair was pulled back in a messy tuft, just the way Waverly loved it—and Waverly’s tresses flowed loosely down her back, allowing Nicole to run her fingers through it as they kissed. They held hands on the drive to the Big City, and Nicole kissed her under the canopy just outside the restaurant, before ushering her inside, her hand pressed lightly against the small of Waverly’s back—a gesture meant to convey courtesy, respect, and intimate connection.

The restaurant was lovely, and what it lacked in refinement, it made up for in ambiance with its cozy, candlelit booths tucked away in little alcoves, allowing them the luxury of seclusion. The food was indescribably good; the company, even better, as they lingered over a dinner of penne pasta with grilled chicken breast in a sun-dried tomato cream sauce, complete with a thoughtfully chosen wine—Waverly’s pick, of course—romantic music, and a perfect piece of shared cheesecake with blueberry topping to accentuate their intimate conversation.

“This is the most romantic date I’ve ever been on,” Waverly whispered as they huddled close together in the booth, savoring that shared piece of cheesecake.

“Darlin’, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet,” Nicole promised, laying on the charm with her best Southern drawl.

Finding it adorably swoon-worthy, Waverly laughed softly. “Hmm… Is that so?” she flirtingly intoned.

“Yep,” Nicole affirmed, looking quite smug. And then she laughed and pulled Waverly close, kissing her.

“What else ‘ve you got up your sleeve, Officer Haught?” Waverly inquired.

“Mm…” Nicole hummed, feigning deep contemplation. “What would you say to another leisurely hike in the mountains, where we drop into one of those quaint little teahouses for a bite to eat? Or… even just a walk in the park with a picnic lunch? I’ve got a basket,” she grinned proudly, her tone conveying that this added little tidbit should surely sweeten the deal.

Pleased with what she was hearing thus far, Waverly grinned. “Go on…” she encouraged.

Nicole beamed. “Okay,” she readily agreed, having plenty more ideas where those came from. “Fishing down by the stream? We could build a fire, and cook up our catch,” she suggested.

“You think fishing is romantic?” Waverly challenged, sounding less than enthused, but Nicole knew she was only teasing.

“It will be with you there beside me,” Nicole said without missing a beat.

“Sweet-talker,” Waverly accused, drawing a soft laugh from Nicole.

“We could always stay in, too,” Nicole suggested. “Home-cooked candlelight dinners complete with your favorite wines, followed by a long soak in a hot tub…”

“You know, there’s a lot of food involved in these dates,” Waverly pointed out. “I’ll have to invest in a gym membership to keep from getting fat!”

A roguish grin played across Nicole’s mouth. “Oh, I’m sure we can think of a lot more fun ways to burn off the calories,” she intoned.

Intrigued, Waverly arched an eyebrow. “You don’t say…”

Nipping lightly at Waverly’s lower lip, Nicole grinned. “Oh, but I do say…” she husked.

Waverly laughed, and kissed her then, murmuring something about putting her lips and tongue to better use than just talking. And Nicole was more than happy to oblige.

“Mm…” Nicole hummed, brushing her lips against Waverly’s temple the following morning as they lay wrapped around one another in bed. Waverly’s hand was still buried beneath Nicole’s tank top, moving slowly against her skin. She delighted in the sensation of those fingertips tracing along the well-defined ridges of her abs. “Same for me. I’ve never had a better first date,” she confessed. “And I’m not just talking about what came after…”

The sexy half-register drop in Nicole’s tone as she uttered that last comment caused Waverly’s skin to flush and her body to tingle all over. She struggled with the urge to bury her face in Nicole’s chest at the mere mention of what had happened between them. Instead, she bolstered her courage and arched an eyebrow in challenge. “No?”

“No,” Nicole reiterated. Not that she hadn’t enjoyed their little impromptu… dessert, but… it wasn’t the highlight of the evening. Tilting her head then, she smiled into those brilliant green eyes that glistened into her own. “Pretty sure it was the spectacular company that set last night apart from all others.”

“I could say the same,” Waverly grinned in agreement. “I love every second I get to spend with you, Nicole.”

Nicole’s eyes lit up. “Every second, huh?”

Sliding her leg over firm thighs, Waverly leaned up on her elbow, her breasts pressing against Nicole’s torso causing a stirring of arousal deep within them both. “Every. Single. One,” she affirmed, punctuating each word with a light, playful kiss. “But… I have to admit…” She nibbled her lip as excitement waged war with embarrassment inside her. What had she been thinking! “The things we did...”

“Yeah?” Nicole intoned. She blushed at the memory, her senses sharpening to the visceral reaction that was occurring in her body.

Suddenly feeling even more bashful, Waverly felt her face flush brighter in response to the husky undertone of Nicole’s voice. “I’ve never experienced anything so erotic in my life, Nicole,” she murmured clandestinely.

“Neither have I,” Nicole confessed, her mouth slowly skating along the outer shell of Waverly’s ear before settling in that sensitive spot just behind the lobe, lingering.

Waverly shivered in response. A good kind of shiver. She couldn’t believe how quickly Nicole had discovered that spot—or how effective she was at utilizing it! “You really never did anything like that before?” she managed.

“Not with another person, no,” Nicole answered. And then she blushed again. “Honestly, I still can’t believe I actually did it with you,” she admitted, emphasizing Waverly’s presence.

“I’m glad you did,” Waverly whispered against Nicole’s ear. Turning the tables on her, lightly, she nibbled at the tender lobe. “And I wouldn’t mind if you did it again,” she said suggestively, as her fingertips moved higher beneath Nicole’s shirt, making contact with her breasts, lightly caressing them. “God, that was sexy… watching you…” She felt herself grow hard and wet again just thinking about it.

Nicole groaned out her pleasure. “And what about you?” she inquired, as she turned onto her side. Encircling Waverly fully in her arms, she pulled her impossibly closer, trapping Waverly’s hand between their bodies.  

“Wait,” Waverly said suddenly. Her eyes shifted nervously. “You mean you want me to…”

Abandoning the question under the intensity of that mesmerizing russet gaze, Waverly gulped, as Nicole answered.

“Yes…,” Nicole breathed, her body reacting to the mere thought of it. “God, yes…”

The memory of their encounter last night flooded Waverly’s thoughts as she contemplated the idea of reciprocating. She still couldn’t believe all that had happened—or how completely right it felt to be with Nicole in such an intimate way. They’d been in bed, kissing and touching, though tentatively, when Waverly slid her hand beneath Nicole’s tank top again, allowing her fingertips to wander.

The sharp intake of Nicole’s breath encouraged her, and instinctively, she reached up, curling her palm around the warm, smooth edge of Nicole’s bare breast—it was the first time she’d been brazen enough to actually touch Nicole’s breasts beneath her shirt, and the silky softness of that firm globe beneath her fingertips, the weight of it in her palm, was enough to embolden Waverly like nothing else ever had, as the intensity of their kisses escalated.

Again, Nicole gasped sharply when a thumb swept across her sensitive nipple, the edge of a manicured nail scraping it, causing it to pebble. Such a light touch, but it felt so damned good because it was Waverly doing the touching. She couldn’t wait to feel that subtle caress other places.

“Is this okay?” Waverly asked, tentatively.

“God, yes…” Nicole whimpered. And then she rolled slightly toward Waverly, meeting her gaze. “You can touch me, kiss me, any way you like, Waves.”

“Really?” Waverly felt like she’d been given the whole world. It both excited and frightened her.

Breathless from Waverly’s touch, Nicole nodded. “If I’m uncomfortable with something, I’ll let you know. I promise.” Even as she offered reassurances, she knew she would never have to say a word, because there was nothing Waverly could possibly do, or want in return, that Nicole would want as well.

Waverly offered a nervous smile. “I wanna see you,” she whispered in entreaty. “Take off your shirt?”

The tone of Waverly’s voice begged permission, and Nicole grinned as she nodded her enthusiastic assent. Twisting, she lifted her torso from the mattress, quickly stripping her shirt off, leaving her clad in nothing but a pair of black Calvin Klein boy-shorts as she tossed the matching tank top onto the floor beside the bed in one fluid motion. “Anything you want, Waves. Anything.”

“Careful now,” Waverly cautioned with a flirty inflection as she sat upright next to her. Her breath caught at first sight of Nicole’s bare torso, and then slowly, her eyes traversed the newly-exposed skin, taking in the chiseled abs that clearly indicated Nicole’s dedication in the gym, and the alluring curve of breasts, the smooth, creamy flesh and faintly darker flesh encircling the most delicate little rose-colored peaks that stood proudly in the centers of those perfect globes, before dipping down into the silky valley of luscious flesh that lay between. She felt an unexpected urge to trace her tongue across every inch of it.

God, you’re beautiful,” she murmured distractedly, her own nipples tightening in response as fingertips followed, exploring the fascinating new terrain. Nicole’s warm skin felt delightful beneath her touch, and she found herself lost in the sensations; marveling at the way those nipples tautened against her palms, drawing audible gasps from both women. Never in her life would she have thought she’d find another woman’s breasts so captivating, so… arousing. Now she understood the allure. She swallowed hard, and glancing upward, she met dark eyes that were clearly fascinated by the response in her own.

“Why should I be careful, Waves?” Nicole asked the moment their gazes locked. Her pupils were dilated, her breaths, shallow and skin flushed, and her only real awareness was the sensation of Waverly’s fingertips dancing along her skin and corresponding pulse she felt beating erratically between her legs as Waverly touched her.

“You’re in danger of spoiling me,” Waverly answered, mesmerized by the light that shimmered into her gaze.

That dimple bloomed, and Nicole tilted her head, her eyes searching. “I’ll take my chances.”

“Oh, you will, eh?” Waverly questioned playfully.

“Uh-huh,” Nicole confirmed, her utterance delivered as slowly as the nodding of her head. “Spoiling you would be my honor,” she declared on a whisper. And then sitting upward on the bed again, she twisted her torso, and threaded her hand into the thick chestnut waves at the base of Waverly’s neck, gathering her close, kissing her thoroughly.

Groaning into their kiss, Waverly murmured, “You do say the sweetest things to me, Officer Haught.”

Nicole grinned, loving the sound of her name as it slipped from Waverly’s tongue into her mouth. But before she could even respond, Waverly shifted, straddling Nicole’s thighs, their kiss never breaking as she settled in Nicole’s lap, her own fingers tangling in those silky auburn locks, as Nicole’s hands slid down, grasping Waverly’s trim waist. She pulled Waverly impossibly closer, holding her with a gentle firmness against her own body as their kisses intensified.  

The tip of Waverly’s tongue teased lightly along the outer edges of Nicole’s lips, requesting entrance, and Nicole felt the reverberations splay throughout her entire body. Opening to her, Nicole welcomed her into the slick warmth of her mouth, her breath catching at the first stroke of Waverly’s tongue against her own. The second stroke was nearly her undoing, and willingly, Nicole relinquished control to Waverly, emboldening her to take over the kiss that Nicole had initiated, deepening it, as she skillfully maneuvered Nicole back down onto the mattress.

Her hands gently palming Nicole’s breasts, Waverly lingered on that warm, inviting mouth until the need for air prevailed, and finally, she gasped before gliding her lips and tongue along the taut cord of muscle in Nicole’s neck. Lingering, again, she thrilled at the sensation of Nicole’s pulse tripping erratically beneath her mouth, as finally, she spread out atop Nicole’s body.

The friction from the fabric of Waverly’s t-shirt against Nicole’s nipples caused her to groan in pleasure, her legs parting in invitation. Waverly’s slender hips slid effortlessly between toned thighs, where she settled in; her mouth slowly making a path along smooth skin, inching across Nicole’s chest toward her waiting breasts.

Glancing up only momentarily, those coppery-green eyes met Nicole’s darkening russet ones, silently seeking permission. Nicole grinned in response—a tacit means of assent—and then closed her eyes, settling her head back on the pillow as she awaited the sensations she knew would soon envelop her.

Meticulously, Waverly kissed around the outer edges of Nicole’s breasts, making sure not to miss even a single delicate point along the contours of that creamy flesh as she explored this new horizon. Her pace was achingly slow, and the mounting pressure between Nicole’s thighs was a delicious treat. The closer her mouth moved toward those straining nipples, the louder and more insistent Nicole’s whimpers and groans grew, much to Waverly’s delight.

And when finally, the warmth of Waverly’s mouth enveloped one of her ultra-sensitive peaks, once again Nicole felt the sensation splay throughout her entire body before focusing its attention on the incessant throbbing between her thighs. Reflexively, her hips lifted from the mattress, pressing against Waverly, and she wondered briefly if anyone had ever actually lost their mind from such glorious stimulation, before falling completely under Waverly’s unwitting control.    

Once held within the warmth of Waverly’s mouth, Nicole’s nipple throbbed beneath the tongue that danced around it, flicking playfully until Nicole was squirming, her body begging for more. And then grinning around that stiffened peak, Waverly sucked and nibbled lightly, alternating between the two in accordance with Nicole’s verbalizations. She reveled in the responses she received.

“Harder,” Nicole groaned almost desperately. She was so turned on she could barely withstand the stimulation, but that didn’t stop her from wanting more. And when Waverly complied, the sensation caused Nicole’s hips to jerk, and her fingertips tightened in that thick wavy mane, holding Waverly’s mouth firmly against her. And then Nicole was lost, coherent thought giving way to mindless sensation, as Waverly’s soft, insistent mouth and curious tongue explored and delighted her almost to the point of…

“Waves…” Nicole quietly groaned as she pulled away just slightly. Another minute and she might just lose her mind. “Hey, can we just… ease up for a sec?” she requested breathlessly.

Confused, Waverly backed away, her brow furrowed. “Did I… do something wrong?” she asked worriedly.

“What? No!” Nicole said, surprised. And then she calmed. “No,” she reiterated, more gently this time, as she brushed her fingertips lightly across Waverly’s cheek. “You’re, uh… you’re doin’ things a little too well, actually,” she admitted with a sheepish grin.

“And that’s a problem?” Waverly intoned.

“Well, yeah,” Nicole said. “‘Cause… I’m about to, uh…”

The expression on Nicole’s face told Waverly exactly what Nicole was about to do.

Waverly gulped. “You are?”

She blinked twice in disbelief, and then made a face that was piqued with curiosity and awe. “I mean… could you?” she asked in a low, almost secretive tone. In past instances where Nicole insinuated such a thing, Waverly hadn’t quite taken her seriously. This time, both Nicole’s face and body language indicated that she definitely should.

Nicole grinned at Waverly’s expression; part nervousness, part intrigue. “Well, I never have before,” she answered. “But… yeah, I uh, I definitely could.”

Arching an eyebrow, Waverly gave Nicole a curious look. “Are you always this fast on the trigger, Officer Haught?” she asked flirtatiously; an attempt to ward off the butterflies that fluttered in her belly. The mere insinuation was enough to incite a visceral response that was concentrated in a very precise point between Waverly’s legs.  

“Hardly,” Nicole laughed, denying the presumption. “Truth told, it uh… it usually takes me a while,” she admitted. “But with you, well… I do seem to be a bit trigger-happy.”

“A bit?” Waverly challenged with a grin, drawing a chuckle from Nicole.

“Okay, a lot,” Nicole conceded. “A whole lot, actually,” she added, her tone turning serious.

Waverly fell headlong into Nicole’s resolute gaze, her green eyes conveying such a deep place of vulnerability that it nearly broke Nicole’s heart. “It’s really only with me?” she queried, equal parts anxious and intrigued by the notion.  

The sincerity in Nicole’s eyes was palpable as she gazed up at Waverly. “Everything is new, and different with you, Waverly,” she professed, her tone barely a whisper as her fingertips brushed lightly across Waverly’s cheek. “I don’t… even have words to describe it.”

“It’s the same for me, Nicole,” Waverly whispered in confession, her gaze never leaving Nicole’s. “Nothing’s ever felt like this before, and I… I don’t ever want this feeling to end.”

The truth of those statements was so profound it was almost overwhelming—for both of them. And yet, neither would’ve wanted it any other way. Nicole had never met anyone who evoked such fierce feelings of love and protectiveness in her—until Waverly. And now, she couldn’t imagine feeling any other way about her. She only hoped that Waverly felt as strongly for her—or that perhaps she would, one day. And as for Waverly, Nicole Haught made her want things, feel things, she never imagined she would. It wasn’t that she didn’t think she could; just that she’d never met anyone who made her feel so safe, so completed wanted and treasured, in all her life.

Nicole smiled into those eyes so filled with vulnerability and trust. “We’re just getting started, Waves,” she whispered. And then she leaned up, pulling Waverly down on top of her as their mouths connected in another lingering kiss.

Several minutes later, Waverly felt Nicole’s hips begin to stir beneath her once again. She pulled back just slightly from their kiss, meeting that desire-laden gaze. “Do you, um… do you need to?” she asked, that tone of secrecy returning. “I mean… I wouldn’t mind if you did.”

The expression on Waverly’s face spoke volumes about what she was suggesting; still, Nicole struggled to comprehend it. “What, you mean?” Now it was Nicole’s turn to look uncertain, and maybe a little nervous. 

“Well, yeah,” Waverly shrugged.

“Right here with… with you?” Nicole sought clarification. Her head was spinning.

The expression in Waverly’s eyes answered her affirmatively.


Delivered on a gasp, Nicole’s utterance of Waverly’s name came off as an amalgam of surprise and intrigue. She felt her face flush a deep crimson as she contemplated the implications of Waverly’s suggestion. Never in her life would she have suggested something so… erotic, but with Waverly, it seemed at once wildly intriguing and perfectly fitting. The fact that it was Waverly making her feel so out of control made it all the more thrilling.

“Unless… you want me to leave.” Waverly looked a little uncertain.

“What?” Suddenly Nicole sounded surprised. “No, of course I don’t want you to leave,” she said gently. “I just… I’m surprised you suggested it, that’s all.”

“Honestly, so am I,” Waverly blushed. “But… I bet it’d be really sexy, you know, to watch you…”

Nicole grinned, her nipples tingling at the mere thought. “Yeah?”

Waverly nibbled her bottom lip. “Uh-huh,” she murmured, nodding slowly.

Drawing in a deep breath, Nicole fought to steady the surge of nervous excitement that swelled deep inside her. It felt like a roiling tidal wave with an urgent need to break against the shore. “Tell me what you wanna see,” she elicited.

For a moment, Waverly fixated on the pulse that throbbed in Nicole’s neck. And biting her lower lip, she traced a single fingertip along the smooth valley between Nicole’s breasts, gently guiding it along the curve beneath the right one, and over to the left. “I wanna see everything,” she whispered seductively. “Show me what you like…”

Audibly, Nicole gulped, those beautiful russet eyes wide with uncertainty. “Waverly, I don’t know if I can…”

A faint smile flickered across Waverly’s lips. “Then I think we should stop,” she said softly. “We have plenty of time, Nicole.” As much as the thought of watching Nicole excited her, she would never want her to do anything that made her uncomfortable.

The corners of Nicole’s mouth twitched. Shouldn’t she be the one whispering reassurances about why it was okay to wait? “That’s not what I want, Waves,” she whispered.

“Then what do you want?” Waverly husked.

“I want you to kiss me again,” Nicole answered, her eyes searching Waverly’s. “Touch me… Make me forget why I’m so nervous.”

That slight smile flickered again, as Waverly nibbled her bottom lip. “I’m nervous too, if that helps,” she offered.

“It does,” Nicole affirmed. “More than you know.”

“Maybe we should do what we did last night,” Waverly suggested.

Nicole arched an inquisitive eyebrow, and waited.

“Screw expectations, and… just see where things go,” Waverly supplied. And then she grinned. “Well, so to speak.”

That drew a laugh from Nicole. Instantly, a wave of calm engulfed her. Waverly had that effect on her. “That sounds like an amazing plan,” she declared, her fingertips threading into the thick chestnut tresses at the back of Waverly’s neck. And then she leaned upward, drawing her into a sultry kiss.

It didn’t take long for their passion to rise once again. And this time, as Nicole’s hips began to stir beneath her, Waverly’s breath hitched in her chest, her mouth never leaving Nicole’s breast as she watched with rapt attention, Nicole’s left hand sliding effortlessly beneath the waistband of those soft, black Calvin Klein’s. 

Sunday, May 29, 2016… The Earp Homestead—10:00 a.m. Mountain Daylight Time

The mere memory of those soft sounds of pleasure delivered on staccato breaths, the sight of those deliberate fingers moving stealthily beneath soft cotton, Nicole’s heart beating wildly against her cheek, and the visceral response that echoed deep within her own body as Nicole climaxed in her arms late in the night, threatened to send Waverly over the edge. It was palpable enough to bring her back into the present moment, where she found Nicole gazing at her, an expression equal parts desire and concern glistening in those clear, russet eyes.

“You okay, Waves?” Nicole quietly inquired, tracing a fingertip along Waverly’s cheek. “You look a little flustered.”

“Yeah, I, um…”

She didn’t even know what to say. Did she dare admit that she was about to get off from nothing more than the memory of watching Nicole bring herself to climax?

Leaning close, Nicole tipped Waverly’s chin, brushing her lips across Waverly’s mouth, and then nuzzled against her ear. “You still thinkin’ about last night?”

That smile flickered across Waverly’s lips, as something else flickered deep within her body. “Aren’t you?”

“I can’t think about anything else,” Nicole confessed, her own face taking on a slight flush.

Feeling her heart begin to race again, Waverly gulped. “And you really want me t…”

Leaning in again, the heat of Nicole’s mouth skimmed along Waverly’s neck, and lingering over a pulse point, she reveled in the sensation of Waverly’s pulse thrumming beneath her tongue. And then she slid upward, nipping at Waverly’s ear, causing Waverly to groan. “You have no idea how much,” she husked. “I know you need it. I can feel you…”

Nicole didn’t have to elaborate. Waverly knew exactly what it was that Nicole was feeling against her thigh. Her breaths growing increasingly shallow as her body reacted to the soft, inviting timbre of Nicole’s invitation, Waverly nibbled her bottom lip. “Okay,” she managed.

Delivered on a strangled breath, Waverly’s acquiescence was nearly Nicole’s undoing. “Really?” she gasped, barely able to restrain her excitement.

A nervous laugh tumbled from Waverly’s lips, and she nodded slightly. “Oh, yeah… You keep talkin’ to me like that, and you can have anything you want,” she breathed. “Now get over here, and light my fire, Officer Haught,” she grinned, threading her fingers in that thick auburn mane.

And then her mouth was on Nicole’s as she pulled Nicole toward her, welcoming the weight of Nicole’s body atop her own. Every time Nicole touched her or kissed her, she created an inferno of want that smoldered deep within Waverly’s core, and she knew it wouldn’t take much to get her so hot she would do anything Nicole wanted, without fear of ever having even one single regret—except perhaps that it had taken her so long to admit that Nicole Haught was everything she’d ever wanted, and more.

Saturday, June 4, 2016… Ghost River County Municipal Offices—5:17 p.m. Mountain Daylight Time

How are you holding up? Nicole texted as her shift was nearing the end. She was holding her breath, praying that she wouldn’t get sent out on a call before she could get out of there. Waverly was waiting for her at home, and she couldn’t wait to get there. Forty-three minutes and counting… And when she finally arrived, they planned to have dinner together before heading over to the Poker Spectacular. 

It’s a lot to process, Waverly replied, referring to Willa’s return. “Shocking” wasn’t the word for it—it was… words failed.

Nicole could practically hear the exhaustion in Waverly’s text, and she ached to just touch her, to hold her, and reassure her. The past eighteen hours had been taxing, to say the least, and she honestly didn’t know how any of them were still functioning.

I know, she responded empathically, wishing there was something more she could say. Though her response was simple, it was the truth. Waverly had called her almost immediately after Wynonna came home with the stranger she presumed to be their dead sister, Willa. Gus’s instincts said Wynonna was right; but Waverly still wasn’t quite ready to accept it, despite the DNA evidence that confirmed it earlier that afternoon. And despite the fact that Nicole was buried in reports regarding the return of the young girls from the Pine Barrens, the moment she heard the fear and uncertainty in Waverly’s voice, she headed straight for the homestead, where she stayed with Waverly, Wynonna, and Gus all night long, much to Dolls’ consternation. The more time the Sheriff’s deputy spent around Willa, the greater the chance she would discover the truth and jeopardize his mission.   

She’s been gone almost my whole life, as far as I remember, Waverly continued.

Her text seemed like a cut-and-dried statement, but Nicole heard it for what it was—Waverly reaching out to her for comfort and understanding.

I can’t even imagine, Nicole answered. And she couldn’t. She couldn’t imagine not having any one of her sisters in her life, let alone losing them as a child, thinking they were dead for most of her life, and then having them turn up on her doorstep one night, the victim of some demonic lunatic. Waverly and both of her sisters, as well as their aunt, had been through hell, and Nicole’s heart ached for them all. 

In other news, Wynonna asked me if we were “best friends,” Waverly reported, remembering the expression of disbelief on her own face. Was Wynonna seriously that oblivious?

That one really took Nicole off guard, and all she could say was …whaaaa?

She supposed that was good though; it meant Wynonna hadn’t heard anything on the nights Nicole stayed over. Not that they’d actually had sex. They’d come close a time or two, but much to their mutual frustration, they were always interrupted by some random phone call that required Wynonna and Waverly to be dragged out of the house in the middle of the night for some mission neither of them could explain to Nicole. On those nights she was grateful to have Stormy there by her side. And the following morning, she always found herself having to stifle the urge to shatter Dolls’ cell phone into bits the moment he came strutting into the station.

Waverly responded with a single unicorn emoji, drawing a smile from Nicole when she saw it. She loved that the little unicorn had become their “thing”—it was like their own secret code—one that said: “I love you,” without actually using the words. Opening her emoji keyboard, she smiled to herself as she texted one back in response.

And then leaning back in her chair, Nicole propped her feet up on the edge of the desk, allowing thoughts of Waverly to come to her—that smile that always reached her eyes, that laugh so deep it could touch Nicole’s very soul. They were conjured up so effortlessly that Nicole knew they were never far from her mind. She couldn’t help but smile as she recalled their encounter before leaving the Homestead for work earlier that morning…


Saturday, June 4, 2016… The Earp Homestead—5:30 a.m. Mountain Daylight Time

“Nicole has an early shift this morning, so we’re just gonna… pop out… for a bit before she has to go,” Waverly announced after clearing away their breakfast dishes. She’d had about all she could stand of this vigil they were throwing over their potentially not-so-dead older sister, who was still sleeping soundly in Wynonna’s bed like some sort of princess. She just wanted a few minutes alone with Nicole—hopefully without interruptions.

Gus nodded almost imperceptibly, the expression in her dark eyes, one of approval. “You girls go on out,” she said. “We’ve got this.”

“Don’t go too far, okay, Waves?” Wynonna said, her tone, pleading. “Dolls should be back with those DNA test results soon.” The expression on her face told Waverly that regardless of the results, her big sister needed her when the truth came out.

The tone of Wynonna’s voice made Waverly soften a bit. “We’ll just be a few minutes,” she assured, as she brushed a supportive hand across her sister’s back. “And I’ll come right in if Dolls gets here before Nicole has to leave.”

Wynonna nodded and gave her a faint smile, but it didn’t reach her eyes. “Thanks.”

Taking a step forward, Nicole gently squeezed Wynonna’s shoulder. She couldn’t help but notice how tight the elder Earp’s muscles were—how much stress she was carrying with her. “Things are gonna work out, Wynonna,” she said, attempting to offer reassurance. “No matter what happens with the DNA test, you did the right thing last night.”

“Meaning?” Wynonna challenged, not at all ready to accept the compliment. Her insides were coiled tighter than a spring, and she feared snapping at any given moment. She honestly didn’t know which would be worse: being right about Willa—or wrong.

“You offered that young woman a place to lay her head when she had nowhere else to go,” Nicole gently reminded, recalling the expression of loneliness and abandonment on Eve’s face as she watched all of the other girls being taken home by their families, leaving her standing all alone in the police station the night before. Had Wynonna not collected her, Nicole would have done so herself. “There’s no greater kindness than opening your home to a stranger in need. I should know… You and Waverly and Gus have done the same for me.”

A light chuckle fell from Wynonna’s lips, unbidden. “Who the fuck are you kidding?” she muttered. “You were never homeless.”

“Not physically,” Nicole said with a shrug, as she strained to keep a hold on her emotions. These people had welcomed her into this strange place, made her feel at home during a time when “home” felt so very far away. And she was deeply grateful.

Nicole’s statement was simple, yet profound, and knowing the depth of her emotions, though not the full meaning behind those words, Waverly moved closer to her. She wrapped her arms around Nicole’s waist from behind, holding her protectively, her cheek resting against Nicole’s bicep. “Well, you’re home now,” she whispered soothingly. “In every way that counts.”

“She certainly is,” Gus piped in, stifling her own tears as she gave Nicole’s arm an affectionate squeeze.

The corner of Wynonna’s mouth twisted into a wry grin. “Guess you’re stuck with us now, Haught,” she said with gruff affection.

Nicole offered a genuine smile as her glance swept the room, making eye-contact with each of the Earp women, in turn. No, Gus wasn’t technically an Earp, but that’s how Nicole thought of her, because she was an integral part of what made Waverly and Wynonna the dynamic women they were. “There’s no place I’d rather be,” she declared forthrightly.

Just as Nicole finished her statement, Stormy rubbed the side of her face against Wynonna’s boot, mewling loudly the song of her contentment. Having grown rather fond of the feline, despite her resolve to hate the creature, Wynonna laughed and stooped down, giving the top of her head a good scratching. “I think Stormy agrees.”

They shared a quiet laugh then, careful not to wake their guest. And then Waverly and Nicole excused themselves, making their way out the back door and across the barren yard toward the shelter of the barn. It wasn’t cold outside. Not in the least. But they both wanted shelter from prying eyes to say their goodbyes… or perhaps a little more.

The moment the barn door slammed shut behind them, Waverly spun Nicole around, her mouth making contact with Nicole’s as she maneuvered them backward toward the wall nearby. Nicole groaned appreciatively, and surrendered control—something she had never willingly done with anyone ever before. There was something about Waverly Earp that simply brought her to her knees, in the most delightful way, and she never wanted that to end.

Her mind already in a fog from the way Waverly’s mouth moved against her own, Nicole barely registered the sensation of her Stetson falling backward onto the ground or her uniform shirt being unbuttoned and yanked unceremoniously from her trousers. And then Waverly’s hands were slipping inside, burrowing beneath her tank top, quickly making their way to her breasts, and the jolt of arousal that hit when those fingertips found her nipples quickly brought her back to reality. “We don’t have time for this, Waves. I’ve gotta get to work,” she said pleadingly.

“Screw work,” Waverly insisted. “Every time I touch you, we get interrupted. It’s really pissing me off,” she groused.

Gently untangling Waverly’s hands from beneath her tank top, Nicole held them with a tender firmness as she met Waverly’s gaze. “I know. Me too,” she readily agreed. “But I can’t just blow off work, Waves.” She still had reports to finish from the previous night, because she’d clocked out immediately upon receiving Waverly’s call about Willa.

The corners of Waverly’s mouth fell into an uncharacteristic pout, her eyes downcast as disappointment clouded their crystal clear green depths. “I just really wanna be with you, Nicole,” she whispered pleadingly.

Gently, Nicole tipped Waverly’s chin, meeting her gaze. “I know, Baby. And believe me, I want it too,” she said softly, as she brushed her mouth across Waverly’s in a light caress. “You have no idea how much.”

“Oh, I definitely think I do,” Waverly grinned, tearstained eyes flashing with mischief as she recalled how hot, and hard, and wet Nicole was for her when they were in bed last night, only to be left frustrated yet again by Wynonna’s untimely knocking at their door. “I just don’t get how we literally had entire days’ worth of time alone before w