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find a home, lonely heart

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-



Nicole wakes early the following morning, before the sun has crept up to the horizon, so she lies in bed a while before she takes herself from its dreamy warmth.

 

She mentally plans her day, allowing for some interruption, but hoping that, with some luck, she’ll be able to ask Waverly to their arranged date this evening.

 

There are a few things that need to occur before that can happen: Chrissy helping to find her an appropriate dress for one, and arranging some sort of picnic from Gus for dinner as a second. Despite those things, and the darkness from yesterday’s revelations over the missing girls, Nicole rises with more hope than she’s had in years .

 

She plans to seek Chrissy out early in the day if possible, to give the seamstress time to alter a dress before the evening if they do manage to find something, and to ask Gus when she departs for the day about some small offering of food for tonight.

 

The thought of dress-shopping makes Nicole feel slightly worried as the pit of nerves digs itself deeper in her stomach. Her conversation with Waverly last night, after her trip to the baths, gives her pause for a moment, that perhaps the image of Nicole as herself is enough, that she doesn’t need a more feminine appearance.

 

And what she does know of Waverly tells her that she’ll be positively polite regardless of Nicole’s attire, but she can’t stand the thought of disappointing Waverly if she does have an image of how Nicole will present in her head already.

 

It can’t do any harm, finding a dress for the evening. It’s not her, in any way shape or form, but it’s a dress. She can wear a dress. She won’t let a dress beat her.

 

It’s not her, in any way, but if it is what Waverly wants, it’s a price she’s prepared to pay.

 

Because she’d burn her hands taking the sun from the sky if Waverly asked it of her, so wearing a dress, next to that, is easier.

 

But not by much.



-



Gus is nursing a cup of something that smells like a concoction of Waverly’s making when Nicole comes down the stairs, the fragrant smell of peppermint and lemon making its way into her lungs as she walks to greet Gus.

 

She had glanced over to Waverly’s shop the second she’d raised herself from bed, reassured by the sight of Waverly drawing her hair into a ponytail while still dressed in her nightgown, which, not that Nicole was looking at all, was creeping higher up her thighs as she held her hands over her head.

 

Definitely not looking.

 

And definitely not a cause for the blush still warming Nicole’s cheeks as she talks to Gus.

 

“Mornin’ Gus,” Nicole offers, spinning her hat a little nervously in her hands as she prepares herself to ask the favour she needs for the evening.

 

“Mornin’ Deputy,” Gus replies with a smile. “Someone put jumpin’ beans in your bed last night, did they?”

 

“What? Oh, no. No, it’s not…” Nicole says as she registers that Gus is making fun of the visible nervousness in her frame.

 

“Relax, Deputy, I’m just teasin’,” Gus replies, her smile breaking wider at Nicole before she reaches to still Nicole’s fiddling. “What’s on your mind? There’s a question there, that’s plain to see.”

 

“Uh,” Nicole says before casting a quick glance around to make sure they’re alone. “It’s…it’s about tonight, and Waverly, I mean…”

 

She cringes internally at the way she trips over her own words, and she’s about ready for the earth to swallow her whole, because she’s never been this inarticulate in her life, but the thought of having to ask Gus for help for tonight is doing a fine job of making sure that changes.

 

She takes a deep breath, calming herself properly before she looks square at Gus, who’s trying desperately not to laugh, and tries again.

 

“Let me start over,” Nicole says with a grimace. “I would like to take some small thing to share with Waverly this evening. Food, I mean, if she’ll permit my company. And I’d try and rustle something up myself across town, but I fear I might not have a chance today if I get called away to attend something concerning these disappearances. Could I ask whether you might be able to put something aside from the day that I might take with me?”

 

“Of course, Deputy,” Gus answers easily, smothering a laugh. “You don’t have to sweat a bullet. I trust I don’t need to lecture you on the importance of subtlety when you are together?”

 

“Not at all,” Nicole assures Gus quickly. “If Waverly is amenable, I’ll ensure I’m able to find myself there late, when no one else is around, so no one sees me enter. I’ll… we’ll be careful, I promise you.”

 

“I believe you, Deputy,” Gus says, nodding as she holds Nicole’s gaze. “I believe you know what you’re doin’, and I believe you’ll protect Waverly, too. As much as the girl’ll let you, anyway.”

 

“She’s got an iron will, huh?” Nicole asks with a smile, thinking of the strength in Waverly’s voice when she’d spoken to Champ the night before.

 

“Like you wouldn’t believe,” Gus confirms, her eyes wide. “Although, you’ll have a good idea of it soon, if you don’t already.”

 

“I’ve seen a glimpse or two,” Nicole laughs softly. “I think it’s wonderful, that she knows what she wants enough to have conviction around it. That’s a quality I’ve found to be reasonably absent for others of our own age.”

 

“She’s always been an old soul, our Waverly,” Gus says with a fond sigh. “I always worried what that would mean about attractin’ a partner. No boy wants a girl who’s not interested in babies and knitting, and Waverly certainly never had a mind for either of them, but…”

 

But I don’t think what a boy wants matters to her at all , goes unfinished between the two of them, and Nicole has to stop and appreciate for a moment the simple fact that Gus and Curtis haven’t ignored that and pushed her towards a man, as so many parents would have instead.

 

“Anyway, it’s no trouble at all,” Gus says, changing the subject a little awkwardly. “I’m sure I can put together a few scraps for the two of you.”

 

“Thank you,” Nicole replies appreciatively as she smiles warmly to Gus. “I’m grateful for the trouble.”

 

“No trouble at all,” Gus returns with a rare softness, and Nicole can’t help but think she might be a little thankful of someone taking an interest in Waverly, even it is a different someone to whom they might have preferred. “Grab yourself some breakfast before you leave, will you? It’s gonna be a hot day today, I think you’ll need it.”

 

“Yes ma’am,” Nicole says playfully, dipping her head and catching a soft note of the tea Gus is drinking. “That smells incredible. Is that…?”

 

“Waverly’s making?” Gus answers with a proud note. “Sure is. Clever thing that she is, makin’ me something that tastes as good as this, even with the things for my aching bones. Tricking me into doctorin’ myself.”

 

“That’s sweet of her,” Nicole says in reply. “I think that’s sweet of her.”

 

“She makes a good brew, that’s for sure,” Gus returns, nodding. “And this stuff doesn’t even have booze in it. She keeps the other out on the homestead and has Wynonna bring in a small amount at a time to stop anyone catching a whiff of it and destroyin’ that shop of hers to get it. Somethin’ to look forward to, when she takes you out there.”

 

There’s an assumed ease in the way she says that, like it’s a certainty and not a possibility, that makes Nicole’s heart skip, and she has to bite her lip to stop from smiling too wide.

 

Because if Gus thinks that Waverly would take her home , then that must mean Gus has some sort of indication or inclination as to how or what Waverly is feeling, and it must be good.

 

“I’ll look forward to that, for sure,” Nicole says as her limbs tingle with something that can only be happiness.

 

She casts an eye outside, sighing at the height of the sun, before she turns back to Gus with a resigned smile. “I’d better get goin’ for now, but thank you again. I’ll see you a little later on?”

 

“Sure will,” Gus replies with a wink. “And I’ll be sure to find one of your lot if I see anythin’ out of the ordinary, too.”

 

“I’d appreciate it, Gus,” Nicole returns finally, bidding Gus goodbye and collecting something small to eat before she heads out and across the road to wish Waverly good morning.

 

The door is closed, but Nicole can see Waverly walking down the stairs at the back of the shop, and she beams when she sees Nicole walking towards her, hurrying to the door to let Nicole in.

 

She’s wearing a crisp white shirt this morning, tucked into a long grey skirt, with her hair up in a high ponytail and her apron knotted roughly around her waist, as if tied in haste, and Nicole forgets herself for a moment when Waverly unbolts the door, completely lost in the sight of her.

 

“Good morning, Deputy,” Waverly says warmly, almost shyly, pulling the door open for Nicole to step in before she shuts it behind her.

 

She doesn’t move back, though -- she doesn’t widen the space between them, staying close to Nicole’s side instead -- looking over Nicole’s figure as if trying to convince herself that the Nicole in her presence is real.

 

“A fine mornin’ it is, too,” Nicole replies once her senses return to her and she can smile charmingly back at Waverly, feeling the smaller girl’s warmth radiating towards the bare skin of her arms where they stand a handspan apart. “Did you sleep well? Are you well?”

 

“Very,” Waverly says with a nod, not taking her eyes off of Nicole for a second. “Better than I have in a long time, actually.”

 

“I’m glad,” Nicole returns warmly as she looks over Waverly’s face, soft and fresh in the morning light. “Do you not sleep well normally?”

 

“Not often, no,” Waverly answers, and Nicole could kick herself when she sees the shadow cross Waverly’s face, her words obviously bringing something dark to the forefront of her mind.

 

“I’m sorry, Waverly,” Nicole says quickly, reaching for Waverly’s hand in an attempt to comfort her. “I didn’t mean to…”

 

“Oh, you didn’t,” Waverly replies with a swiftness, shaking her head before squeezing Nicole’s hand in reassurance. “No, I mean, I don’t sleep well, but you didn’t…I can talk about it. With you, I mean. I can talk about it with you.”

 

“You’re sure?” Nicole asks softly, running her thumb over Waverly’s hand. “Because I’d never… I’d never want to upset you, Waverly. If there’s anything you don’t feel comfortable talkin’ about…”

 

“It’s okay,” Waverly says as a shy smile turns the edge of her mouth up. “I mean, I don’t think there’s much I couldn’t, wouldn’t want to discuss with you.”

 

“I’m glad,” Nicole offers with a blush of her own. “I’m glad. And I’m sorry about your sleep. If there’s ever any assistance or comfort I could provide — god, not like that — I mean…”

 

“I know what you mean,” Waverly says, laughing at Nicole’s slip. “And I think you’re helping already, I mean, it was nice, knowin’ you were just across the way. I felt safer than I have in a long time.”

 

“I’m pleased I could, I can , be of assistance,” Nicole says before she remembers what she had actually come with the intention of asking. “Speaking of providing you with a distraction, I wondered whether tonight would be amicable… I mean, if you would be free tonight to…”

 

She’s almost through her sentence when a woman bursts through the door next to them, prompting them to step back and apart to admit the woman into the shop.

 

“I’m terribly sorry, Waverly,” the woman says apologetically to them both. “Mornin, Deputy. I don’t mean to interrupt, nor bother you so early, but that damn boy of ours ate somethin’ yesterday that’s upset his gut all night. Might you have somethin’ to help him? Somethin’ perhaps to settle his stomach?”

 

“Of course,” Waverly says quickly as she drops Nicole’s hand, still having held it subtly at their sides when the woman had come in, to tie her apron more firmly around her waist. “Do you need me to come out to the house, or…”

 

“No, I wouldn’t want to trouble you,” the woman says, shaking her head. “I think he’ll be fine, although I’ll be sure to fetch you if whatever you’ve got don’t work.”

 

It’s something, watching Waverly move so quickly into her role as a healer, and Nicole could stand content and watch it for hours, but she knows she’s in the way. She’s about to excuse herself, to move out of Waverly’s path so she can help, when Waverly’s hand, soft on her forearm, stops her.

 

“I’m sorry,” she says as she gestures to the woman with an apologetic breath before her hand tightens. “But, yes. To your question. Yes. Absolutely, yes.”

 

“Yes?” Nicole asks hopefully, her blood warming in her arm beneath Waverly’s touch.

 

“Yes,” Waverly returns with a shy look to where their skin meets before looking up to Nicole with a nervous excitement. “Yes. You’ll…”

 

“Call later,” Nicole affirms, nodding as she smiles in return. “I’ll call on you later.”

 

Waverly doesn’t say anything in return, just closes her hand tighter around Nicole’s arm in anticipation, before she relaxes it and takes a step back.

 

“Well wishes to your boy,” Nicole says to the anxious woman standing by the door, who softens and smiles at Nicole. “I hope he’s feelin’ much better soon.”

 

“Waverly Earp’s magic,” the woman says, her voice a little less strained as she watches Waverly move behind the counter, collecting things in her hands before she starts crushing them together in a small mortar. “He’ll be fine in no time, I’m sure. I appreciate the well wishes, though, Deputy.”

 

Waverly spins at the mention of her name, and Nicole can’t help but admire her in that moment, so well learned and obviously respected for more than her polite company, for someone with barely two decades of experience.

 

Nicole’s seen a number of healers and the like in her line of duty, necessary as medical assistance often is to her work, and although she doesn’t know the full extent of Waverly’s abilities, she can tell she’s already more competent than a number of women and men who have seen fifty years.

 

She gives Nicole one last smile before she turns to the woman, explaining what she’s doing and how she needs to prepare the brew when she gets home, and Nicole smiles back before she slips away and leaves the two women to it, with the plan confirmed for their evening glowing in the small of her back.

 

Now all she has to do is find a damn dress.



-



Nicole’s a little worried she’ll be the last one there, having been happily waylaid at Waverly’s shop, but it’s only Nedley, Chrissy, and the other yawning deputy finishing his night shift when she arrives.

 

“Mornin’, Haught,” Nedley says as Chrissy moves to give her a quick hug in greeting. “Thanks for bein’ here so early.”

 

“Of course, sir,” Nicole says, looking to him seriously when Chrissy steps back. “Any updates?”

 

“Nothin’,” Nedley replies, sounding more than frustrated. “Not a damn thing. Did you have a chance to speak to Gus?”

 

“I did, sir,” Nicole answers quickly. “Asked whether she’d seen anyone she didn’t recognise, or had visitors she didn’t recognise, but she said she only had the regulars, and hadn’t seen anyone else around town, either. She’s going to keep an eye out for us if she does see anythin’, but no, she didn’t have any new information.”

 

“And you didn’t see anythin’ else?” Nedley asks, referring to the figure Nicole had mentioned before they’d parted yesterday. “No sign of anythin’ unusual?”

 

“No, sir,” Nicole replies regretfully, taking in the increasingly worried look on his face. “But we’ve got a whole day of light to search now.”

 

“Right you are,” Nedley replies with a little more hope in his voice. “Right you are, Haught. I think I’ll send you out on patrols in shifts today, reportin’ back every few hours, just in case anyone finds somethin’, to keep our eyes fresh.”

 

“Sounds good to me, sir,” Nicole says, nodding as she tries to offer some small condolence or comradeship to the man.

 

And Nicole feels for him, she really does, because irrespective of the fact that this is in no way his fault, the responsibility lies heavily on him as Sheriff to keep the town safe, which, in the town’s eyes, he will be failing in.

 

“Daddy,” Chrissy says quietly, taking a step towards him, placing her hand softly on his arm. “I know you’re all busy, and I don’t want to take anyone away, but…”

 

“Right,” Nedley says with a frown. “Right you are, love, I’d forgotten. Haught, I don’t want to make you feel like a babysitter, and if you want to patrol first, that’s your call, but Chrissy needs a few things from town, and I’m reluctant… I mean, I don’t want to leave her alone.”

 

“You want me to go with her, sir?” Nicole asks, trying not to sound too eager, because this would potentially give them an excuse to look in at the seamstress’s together that she wasn’t sure how she was going to wrangle otherwise, and without the dirt of the desert on her yet, too.

 

“I don’t want you to feel as though I’m only askin’ because you’re a woman,” Nedley says with a worried frown. “You know it’s not that, don’t you? It’s just that Chrissy feels more comfortable with you than any of the others, and it’ll be less of a chore for you than it will be for one of the men.”

 

“Of course,” Nicole replies warmly, looking to Chrissy. “Of course, sir. I’d be happy to.”

 

Chrissy beams at Nicole’s response before she walks to Nicole’s side. “I really am sorry to be a bother, but I’m just a little…”

 

Scared , falls unfinished between the three of them, and Nicole only needs to take one look at her to know that, while it might be convenient, and Chrissy might not have wanted or needed anything in town, and thus not needed an escort, she is genuinely afraid to be alone.

 

“I promise it won’t take long,” Chrissy says with a grateful smile and a small wink at Nicole. “Then I can get you back here to join the others.”

 

“It’s no bother at all, Chrissy,” Nicole offers kindly. “It’d be my pleasure.”

 

She watches Chrissy sigh in relief before she turns to give her father a kiss on the cheek. “We’ll be back soon, Daddy. Did you need anythin’ while we’re out?”

 

“I’m fine, darlin’,” Nedley says softly, in a voice he seems to reserve for Chrissy alone, and it lightens Nicole’s heart, watching their fondness for each other in a time where men showing gentility towards their daughters is, as she has seen it, the exception and not the rule. “Thanks for askin’. And you’re okay to go with Nicole? Because I can…”

 

“We’ll be fine,” Chrissy says easily to her father before she pats him on the arm. “I’ll keep Nicole nice and safe, right, Deputy?”

 

“Right you are, ma’am,” Nicole laughs softly in return, Chrissy walks to her, and Nicole holds her arm out for Chrissy to take, which she does happily. “Where to first?”

 

“Well,” Chrissy says just loud enough for the others to hear. “I have to call by the seamstress’s for a moment, and the general store, and maybe a few other places if you’re not bored stiff by then?”

 

“How could I be, with company such as yours?” Nicole says kindly, and Chrissy beams at the compliment as they step outside on the street together.

 

She gives her father one last small wave before she accepts Nicole’s arm again and they make their way down the street. They walk a few paces away from the jail, just out of anyone else’s hearing, when Chrissy turns to her with a playful smile.

 

“So,” Chrissy asks her quietly, grinning coyly as she tugs on Nicole’s arm. “How was Waverly this morning?”

 

“How did you…?” Nicole asks with a confused and slightly worried frown, because Chrissy had been at the jail when she’d arrived, how had she known? “Am I that…”

 

“No,” Chrissy says quickly, smirking at Nicole’s response. “You smell like her, silly. Like the shop, I mean. All sweet and botanical like.”

 

“Oh,” Nicole says as she forces her pulse to slow a little before she speaks again. “Oh, that’s good. I was worried you’d… I mean, I’d…”

 

“You’re fine,” Chrissy reassures Nicole with a soft touch to her forearm. “Although, blushing’ like that is a damn good way to give yourself away, Deputy.”

 

“I know,” Nicole says, frowning to herself. “I know. I’m not normally so reactive, I promise, I’m just… I’m nervous, I think. About this evening, and findin’ a damn dress, and all this disappearance business.”

 

“I’ve said it before, but I’m sure Waverly will be over the moon to see you in your own clothes,” Chrissy offers kindly. “In fact, I know she will. God’s truth, the girl hasn’t missed an opportunity to talk about you once since you arrived in town.”

 

“I know she’ll be complimentary regardless of what I’m wearin’, but I don’t want her to be disappointed is all,” Nicole says with a frown. “If she really doesn’t mind, then I can be myself the next time, but I don’t… I’d just rather fail on the side of formality, if you take my meaning?”

 

“Of course I do,” Chrissy replies, nodding as she looks to Nicole. “And it’s more than sweet of you to be so worried about her reaction like that, so if you want a dress, then I’d be more than honoured to help you out.”

 

“I can’t tell you what a weight lifted it is to have you be so kind,” Nicole sighs in relief. “I mean it, Chrissy. I don’t know what I’d do without you. And thank you, too, for askin’ me out with you. I was startin’ to fret I wouldn’t be able to manage it.”

 

“Don’t worry your head about it,” Chrissy says with a wide smile. “I had a plan cookin’ as soon as you mentioned it last night. I don’t take advantage of it often, but Daddy’s more than a little soft on anythin’ I ask of him since Mother passed. I thought I’d ask for an escort, and if you wanted, we’d call in, and if not, it’d be a quick trip.”

 

Nicole’s more than a little blown away at the forethought, and she resolves so do something special in order to show Chrissy how thankful she is, for her thoughtfulness and for helping her.

 

“That is incredibly kind of you,” Nicole offers with a soft smile. “And an impressive amount of forethought, Miss Nedley. You would do well to think of a future usin’ that brain of yours.”

 

“You think so?” Chrissy asks, her brow turned up in surprise at Nicole’s comment.

 

“I really do,” Nicole affirms with a tone of conviction in her voice that makes Chrissy glow. “I think it would be a shame not to use it.”

 

“Most of the time people either think I’m simple for bein’ a woman, and quiet,” Chrissy says, bowing her head a little shyly at Nicole’s compliment. “But I’d like very much to do somethin’ like you, Miss Haught. Not based on what men tell me I should or shouldn’t do. In fact, I’ve had a fancy towards the law since I was old enough to understand what it was. Not the active part that you and Daddy do - I know I’d be dreadful at that - but the written part of it, I’ve always had an interest in.”

 

“Law, huh? I think pursuing your interest in that is a fine idea,” Nicole replies kindly. “A fine idea, Miss Nedley. I think you would excel at anything you put your mind to.”

 

“Well, thank you kindly, Deputy,” Chrissy says with a small bow at Nicole’s side. “That’s very sweet of you. Perhaps I’ll ask Daddy if he might try and help me find some reading material. If he doesn’t lock me in my room, or send me straight to church for the simple suggestion.”

 

That gives Nicole an idea, a way to show Chrissy how grateful she is for her friendship, and she smiles before Chrissy leads them up to the seamstress and dressmaker’s, and Nicole’s nerves drive everything else out of her head.

 

“Danger’s no problem, but tryin’ on a dress makes you nervous?” Chrissy asks her curiously when she hears Nicole exhale shakily at her side.

 

“Yes, it damn well does,” Nicole replies through gritted teeth, eyeing the store warily, as if it contained some dangerous animal or unnatural threat.  

 

“Well, lucky you’re with me then,” Chrissy says easily, taking Nicole’s hand, and all but dragging her inside. “Because this doesn’t scare me one bit.”

 

The shop is quaint, but filled with so many dresses Nicole doesn’t even know where to look, let alone start, and one smiling woman roughly the age Nicole guesses Chrissy’s mother would be if she were alive, at the end of the store, who calls to Chrissy and beams at seeing her walk in.

 

“Miss Nedley,” the woman says warmly as Chrissy presses a kiss to her cheek. “How good it is to see you.”

 

“And you,” Chrissy replies, smiling widely when the woman takes Chrissy’s hands in her own. “I’m sorry I haven’t been in as of late. Daddy’s been busy, and…”

 

“Don’t worry your head about it,” the woman says with a wave of her hand. “It’s fine to see you here now. And tell me, who might your escort be? Not your father’s new deputy?”

 

“One and the same,” Chrissy replies, dropping the woman’s hands so she can pull Nicole, standing back a little, to the forefront of the conversation. “Miss Jessie, I have the pleasure of introducing you to Nicole Haught.”

 

“The pleasure’s mine,” Nicole says as she reaches forward to shake the seamstress’s hand. “You have a lovely shop.”

 

“I think you’ll find it is mine, Deputy,” Miss Jessie says with a smile. “I’ve heard a number of good things around town about you already, and that’s not an easy thing to achieve here where everyone’s as foul-tempered as an old mule at times.”

 

“That’s kind of them to say,” Nicole replies, blushing slightly as she drops the woman’s hand.

 

“Kindness earned,” she says with an approving nod before she looks back to Chrissy. “Especially if you have our Chrissy here on your side. She’s an eye for a good soul, this one.”

 

“So I’ve heard,” Nicole returns with a fond look to Chrissy.

 

“Now, what brings the two of you here today?” she asks with a glance between Chrissy and Nicole. “Surely not just pleasant conversation?”

 

“Well... that, too,” Chrissy offers charmingly, threading her arm through Nicole’s. “But, no, we do have a purpose, Miss Jessie. We need to find Deputy Haught here a dress.”

 

“Of course,” the woman says with a smile, no hint of teasing or alluding to the fact that Nicole would look ridiculous in one, turning around Nicole to take stock of her frame instead. “Of course, Deputy. I’d be delighted to assist. Did you have anythin’ you were wanting specifically, or…?”

 

Nicole throws a desperate help me glance to Chrissy, who steps in to talk to Miss Jessie for a moment, patting Nicole reassuringly on the arm. They debate a few styles before the seamstress walks around the room, collecting a few things over her arm, and walks back to Nicole.

 

“I think these’ll suit your colouring and frame,” she says objectively as she looks Nicole up and down again, biting her lip in thought. “I’ll look to see if I’ve got anythin’ else while you try these on.”

 

“Yes, ma’am,” Nicole replies, following the woman behind a screen divider. Nicole watches as she drapes the two dresses in her arms over the top of the divider before she walks away, asking Chrissy a couple additional questions as she sorts through a few more styles.

 

Nicole starts peeling her clothes back as she kicks her boots off: her vest, then woolen pants, before she shrugs her shirt off, leaving her in her underthings. She peers around the side of the divider, not quite sure how to approach this next part by herself.

 

The seamstress catches her look of distress and walks over quickly with a kind smile to assist. She instructs Nicole to slip her undershirt off and leave only her drawers on while she waits off to the side to give her some privacy, before she tells Nicole to try and thread her arms through and pull the dress on over her head.

 

She manages to do as asked, with some difficulty, before she’s in the dress enough for the seamstress to move behind her and help with the last few adjustments, fastening the stays at Nicole’s back to hold it closed.

 

She leads Nicole over to a mirror so she can check her appearance in the first dress, a long, olive green, with a small flare of petticoat at the bottom. She has a frown prepared, ready to scowl at her own appearance, expecting the worst, but she’s more than a little surprised to see how good the dress looks.

 

It’s a completely different appearance from her usual daily image, but it’s not, as she had worried, absolutely ridiculous.

 

“Oh, Nicole,” Chrissy breathes in admiration, watching Nicole in the mirror before she walks to Nicole’s side. “You look lovely .”

 

And she has to admit, she really doesn’t look terrible. She’s uncomfortable as heck, but she looks okay. Good, even. It’s not an overly formal dress at all; it’s practical, but lovely. More suited for a day spent socialising than working, but not by a great deal, which Nicole feels much more comfortable in compared to some of the more extravagant dresses she can see around her.

 

“You certainly do, Deputy,” the seamstress says as she walks behind Nicole, drawing in a few of the darts to tighten it around her slim waist. “The green suits you. A few alterations, and I think that’ll do nicely. Although, you could humour us and try the blue on, if you wanted? Don’t bother with the grey, I think it’ll be too dull in comparison to those.”

 

“If you think so?” Nicole asks unsurely as she spins to look at the others. “I mean, I think this one will do just fine, but…”

 

“Try the blue,” Chrissy says with an excited jump in her voice. “Please.”

 

Nicole gives them both a quick nod before she turns to allow Miss Jessie to unfix the fastenings so she can pull the gown off over her head.

 

“Do you plan to wear your hair up or down, Deputy?” Miss Jessie asks as she waits for Nicole to appear from behind the screen again.

 

“I’m not sure,” Nicole says with a nervous waver in her voice, because god, she hadn’t even thought of that. “Down? Maybe down? What do you think?”

 

“Down,” they both say in unison, before Miss Jessie’s voice separates out. “It’d be a shame not to, with that lovely colour of yours. Nothin’ too fancy, just a simple style will do. Does it behave when it dries?”

 

“More or less,” Nicole answers as she finishes straightening the skirt of her second dress before she takes a breath and walks out to show the others. “It normally sets reasonably straight if I leave it unbraided after I bathe.”

 

Nicole steps away from the screen to showcase the second dress, however the two women waiting for her don’t say a word, staring at her instead with a dumbstruck expression on their faces.

 

She’s about to move back out of sight, embarrassed by how obviously terrible it must be for them to fall silent when they’d been talkative just a moment ago, when Chrissy finally speaks.

 

“Good Lord ,” she says with wide eyes, reaching for Nicole’s arm to pull her in front of the mirror. “You look…”

 

“Awful?” Nicole asks with her eyes fixed shut, too afraid to look at herself. “Ridiculous?”

 

“I’m not sure gorgeous does you justice, darlin’, but it’s the closest I can think of at the moment,” Miss Jessie says in amazement as she moves behind Nicole, smoothing down the skirt and pulling it in at the waist again, tightening the fit slightly.

 

She almost doesn’t recognise the figure standing in front of her, even with her her hair pulled back in its braid. She’s tall and soft and ladylike, the deep blue complimenting the red of her hair, the tapered middle and fitted bodice and sleeves accentuating her slim figure, and the length of the skirt highlighting her stature.

 

Chrissy walks behind her before she comes in close to Nicole’s side, looking up at her hair before gesturing vaguely to the woven strands. “May I? Take it down, I mean? Just so we can see? I can help you retie it before we leave.”

 

“Sure,” Nicole says a little hesitantly, but one glance at Chrissy soothes her a little. “If you think I should?”

 

“Absolutely,” the seamstress says, looking more than pleased with her handiwork, now alive on Nicole’s body. “If you don’t mind us playin’ dolls with you, love. It’s not often I get a figure like yours in one of my dresses. I’d like to see what the full picture looks like, if you’d be so kind as to oblige me?”

 

“Of course,” Nicole says pliantly, bending a little to Chrissy’s slightly shorter reach so she can pull the leather tie loose as the seamstress moves around Nicole’s waist, pinning small sections in.

 

Chrissy threads her fingers into the length of Nicole’s braid as Nicole watches their reflection in the mirror, before Chrissy pulls gently, and the long red strands fall loose at Nicole’s shoulders.

 

Miss Jessie whistles approvingly, standing back with her hands on her hips as she surveys Nicole’s completed reflection while Chrissy takes a step back, as well, to do the same.

 

If she almost didn’t recognise herself before, she really doesn’t now.

 

Her hair falls down free, well past her shoulders, shiny and clean without the influence of the dust and dirt of the day clinging to it yet. There’s a soft wave through it, too, the result of having braided it still a little damp before she’d fallen asleep last night.

 

Miss Jessie’s right. She could hardly have found someone better to fill the dress out, nor natural tone to complement the colour.

 

“Gorgeous definitely doesn’t do you justice, my dear,” Miss Jessie says with a pleased smirk, crossing her arms over her chest. “Do you like it?”

 

“I guess so,” Nicole replies a little awkwardly as she wrings her hands together. Because she agrees, she does look lovely, beautiful even. But she doesn’t look like her . “I mean…”

 

“I think you look beautiful , Nicole,” Chrissy says as she slips her arm through Nicole’s in a quietly reassuring gesture, sensing her unease. “I think it’ll be perfect. If you still want it, that is.”

 

The seamstress senses Nicole’s hesitation and Chrissy’s quiet tone, and, much to Nicole’s relief, she backs away, giving the two of them a small moment of privacy together.

 

“You’re not sure?” Chrissy asks her softly. “You know you don’t have to do anythin’, Nicole. What I said to you this mornin’ still stands. I’m sure she’ll love you in whatever you choose to wear.”

 

And god, she’s so torn.

 

Because on one hand, she does look nice, really nice, and if this is what Waverly wants, a more feminine look for Nicole during the hours she’s not at work, then a dress like this is almost certain to turn her head.

 

But, on the other hand, it’s just not her.

 

And it’s so hard, because her feelings for Waverly are so strong that she could do it, she could change that part of herself if it was what Waverly really wanted.

 

But she’s not sure if that’s right .

 

“Nicole,” Chrissy says gently after a minute, bringing Nicole out of her reverie. “Are you okay? Is everythin’…”

 

“It’s okay,” Nicole replies, shaking her head to clear the mental fog as her eyes fall on the stranger in the mirror. “I’m okay, my apologies, I’m just not used to seein’ myself look like this, I guess.”

 

“You really don’t have to do this if you’re not comfortable enough in it,” Chrissy offers quietly once she knows Miss Jessie is out of earshot. “I mean, you look absolutely beautiful , Nicole, but you should only do this if you feel alright doin’ it. Waverly’ll understand either way. You know she will.”

 

And Chrissy’s right, she knows Waverly will, but she doesn’t want to give Waverly Earp her okay . She wants to give Waverly Earp her greatest dream.

 

And she’s crazy not to do this, to dress in the way society expects of her for Waverly, at least once. And if it is what Waverly wants, what she’s expecting of and from Nicole, then they’ll cross that bridge when they come to it.

 

“No,” Nicole says with a resigned smile. “I will, at least once. For her. Besides, it does look okay, doesn’t it?”

 

“Okay?” Miss Jessie says with a wry smile as she walks back over to the both of them. “Lord, girl, you look like the belle of the damn ball.”

 

“Thank you, ma’am,” Nicole responds with a blush, dropping her head in embarrassment. “That’s fair kind of you.”

 

“My pleasure, Miss Haught,” the seamstress says easily. “So, have you made your decision?”

 

“Yes,” Nicole replies, exhaling nervously as she looks to Miss Jessie with a smile. “I’ll take it.”



-



They leave the seamstress’s with a promise that the dress will be ready for Nicole to call back and collect by the afternoon, ready for her evening plans with Waverly, and Nicole feels so much lighter for the relief in having found something to wear, even if she’s not completely certain how she feels about it.

 

Chrissy’s comforting presence at her side makes her feel a little better, too, and she reassures Nicole again once they step out onto the street, that even with the dress in hand later that afternoon, there was still no expectation on her to wear it if she didn’t feel enough like herself in it.

 

Nerves aside then, and based on the small confidence garnered from Miss Jessie and Chrissy’s reactions, Nicole finds herself a little excited to see what Waverly will think of her in the dress, too.

 

The thought of Waverly sends Nicole’s mind in a spin of its own, because she’s been so focused on the practical side of being ready for the evening, that she hasn’t put much thought into actually being nervous for the event.

 

Until now .

 

Because they’ve more than enjoyed each other's company in the small moments they’ve managed to steal together over the last few days, but they have the whole evening ahead of them tonight. Potentially hours.

 

She’s going to be with Waverly Earp.

 

Alone.

 

For hours .

 

And it’s not that she’s expecting anything to happen, per se, because someone like Waverly Earp deserves to be courted. Properly courted .

 

And Nicole can’t wait to potentially have the chance.

 

The fact still stands, though, that they’ll have the entire evening together. To talk, to learn , about everything Waverly wants to share, and in return to know about Nicole.

 

Alone.

 

She’s going to be alone with Waverly Earp. For hours .

 

Where they can sit close, and maybe touch occasionally, and Nicole can look, she can see , without having to monitor or watch her every move, lest someone else see something they absolutely should not.

 

She’s going to be alone with Waverly Earp. And good God , all of a sudden, she’s nervous about it.

 

Cripplingly nervous about it.

 

And she’s done this before - courted before, dated before - but that had been completely in the dark, without so much as a soul to speak to it about, because if she found out, if she caught so much as a hint that someone might have known, it would have been over.

 

Nicole doesn’t blame her, not really, because fear drives people to do things they would never ordinarily consider. Fear trumps reason. Fear is louder than love, for some.

 

It was for her at least.

 

So Nicole’s only ever courted in secret before, not ever asking another for advice, because she didn’t have any other choice. It was easier then, to know that what she was doing was just okay , or that it was the best she could do, anyway, because she could only rely on herself.

 

And there were no expectations before, because she hadn’t ever courted before either, and they’d been younger, not by much, but some small amount. Small, but large enough for Nicole to know how wrong they were for each other with a few years of hindsight under her belt.

 

But now she has Chrissy, and Chrissy can talk to Waverly. They’re not bound by some societal gag-order, not completely anyway. And they’ll have expectations, however well-meant or excitement-born, and not intentionally difficult, but there.

 

And it makes Nicole that much more nervous, because she wants to meet them all. She wants to give Waverly everything she’s never had, and everything she doesn’t know she wants.

 

Waverly.

 

That’s why the stakes are so high, that’s why the nervousness is now bubbling in the pit of her stomach. Because for the first time in a long time, Nicole has a great deal to lose.

 

And that’s a huge worry to her, but it’s incredible, too.

 

Because she has Waverly. Well, she has the potential of Waverly.

 

She has something she already knows she would lay almost anything on the line for. That she knows soon enough, she will lay everything on the line for, the second she has an indication that Waverly might reciprocate her feelings in any small way.

 

Because that’s who Nicole is; she’s loyal to a fault, and devoted, and she loves, deeply , and she knows she’s good at those things because she had loved them, she had fallen hard for Nicole’s everything, before fear got the better of her.

 

She will give everything to Waverly, and more, more than she could before, when she was younger, because she’s older and wiser now, and she knows more.

 

If that’s what Waverly wants.

 

If Waverly doesn’t let fear get the better of her.

 

Nicole doesn’t think Waverly will, not with the small display she had seen in front of Champ, but being subjected to hatred, pure hatred, is hard. And Nicole doesn’t think you know how anyone is going to react to being subjected to that until they are.

 

She thinks Waverly is stronger than that, though. Braver.

 

For the better or worse of it, Waverly has endured . Waverly has courage.

 

More so than Nicole feels like she has in this moment, that’s for sure.

 

“You’re a million miles away, huh?” Chrissy asks, bringing Nicole out of her head again as they stand outside the General Store.

 

“I’m sorry, Chrissy,” Nicole replies with a frown, admonishing herself. “God, I’m so sorry. I’m just… I’m nervous for tonight. I wasn’t before, but I hadn’t really let myself think about it, in the event nothin’ happened. But now it is, and I’m… Lord, I’m nervous.”

 

“Again I say, you can walk into danger, but courtin’ one tiny young woman, and you’re afraid,” Chrissy says quietly with a smile to Nicole, her expression softening when she sees how worried Nicole is. “Hey, look, you’re going to be lovely, Nicole. I’ve seen the way you look at her, like she drew the sun, and she sees that, too.”

 

“I just don’t want to…” Nicole trails off before she looks to Chrissy hopefully. “I want to make sure she has a nice time. I want to make sure I don’t say anythin’ that bores her out of her mind, or upsets her.”

 

“I highly doubt you’ll bore her,” Chrissy says, rolling her eyes. “You can’t not have seen the way that girl hangs on your every word.”

 

Nicole blushes a little, because she has noticed that, just a little bit, that Waverly gives her full attention to Nicole, that Waverly looks for her as much as she looks for Waverly in return.

 

“Is there anythin’ I shouldn’t bring up?” Nicole asks quietly as they stop outside the store. “Is there anythin’ I need to know not to ask over?”

 

“She’s a pretty open book, that girl,” Chrissy says fondly. “There isn’t much she won’t talk about, even her family history, to the right people. And I think you might be the right people, Deputy.”

 

“You think so?” Nicole asks, her voice gently hopeful.

 

“I really do,” Chrissy returns with an equal gentleness.

 

“I just... I want her to know I’m interested in her,” Nicole says nervously. “I want to talk about things she wants to talk about.”

 

“I think you could talk about coal, and that’d still interest her as long as it was you sayin’ it,” Chrissy replies, laughing softly before she looks around to ascertain their privacy. “If I may be so bold, there must be somethin’ you can draw from… I mean, you’ve courted women before, haven’t you?

 

“I have,” Nicole answers with a blush. “I mean, only one to the point of some sort of an actual relationship, but yes, I have.”

 

“Others not to the point of a relationship?” Chrissy asks with interest.

 

“A lady never tells,” Nicole replies as her blush deepens. “There may have been one or two along the way, for one reason or another needin’ comfort, but not like this. None like Waverly.”

 

“I know you’ll be just fine,” Chrissy says, a calm wave passing through Nicole when Chrissy’s arm loops through her own. “Just be yourself, Nicole. And she’ll love you more than she already does.”

 

Nicole exhales shakily, trying to will the comfort Chrissy is offering to settle her thumping heart. She closes her eyes for a moment, breathes calm , and opens her eyes again, soothed.

 

Chrissy takes Nicole’s pace for a moment, stilling before she feels Nicole come back to the present.

 

“Now,” Chrissy says with a nudge to Nicole’s side. “Let’s see if I can’t get an actual chore done so Daddy doesn’t think I’m hopeless, hmmm?”

 

“I don’t think your father would ever think for a moment that you’re hopeless, Miss Nedley,” Nicole says, frowning at Chrissy playfully. “But I take your meaning. Actually, I wanted to get a small thing for Waverly, too. There was a piece of ribbon she saw yesterday that I think she’ll… that I’d like to take as a small token tonight.”

 

“Lord,” Chrissy breathes in an exasperated voice. “Why aren’t the young men in this damn town half as chivalrous as you are? You put them all to shame, you know.”

 

“They could do with workin’ a little harder for their young women,” Nicole says wryly, and she believes it, too, completely unagreeable with the mediocrity the women of this time settle for.

 

“I’ll be sure to tell the young man that courts me,” Chrissy replies with a cynical sigh. “If someone ever decides to take that burden on.”

 

“You are anythin ’ but a burden, Chrissy Nedley,” Nicole says firmly. “Anyone who says less than that can come and tell me to my face.”

 

“Nicole Haught,” Chrissy replies fondly, squeezing Nicole’s arm in appreciation. “What in the world would I do without you?”

 

“Well, you’d certainly be around a heck of a lot less sin,” Nicole says, laughing. “That’s for sure.”

 

“Wouldn’t have it any other way,” Chrissy says before she pulls Nicole towards the door. “Come on, let’s get your girl somethin’ nice, huh?”



-



A few things for Chrissy, and a small packet of lace wrapped up and hidden carefully in her pocket later, has the two of them walking back towards the jail.

 

“What do you think’s goin’ on?” Chrissy asks Nicole with a slightly scared hint on her tongue. “I mean, with these disappearances?”

 

“Honestly, I haven’t a clue, Chrissy,” Nicole replies regretfully. “But I know your father’ll be doing everything he can to find out. The rest of us, too.”

 

“It’s strange,” Chrissy remarks as they walk up to the door of the jail, lingering outside for a moment. “I couldn’t have told you what it was like to be scared before a few days ago, it’s been that long since I’ve felt any real fear, but this… I hope we can stop it before it gets any worse.”

 

“So do I,” Nicole replies, smiling reassuringly to Chrissy as the fear slides down her own back like icy river water. “So do I.”



-



They arrive to a rather solemn mood in the jail, five or so faces looking hopeful at their entrance before they realise it’s only Nicole and Chrissy returning, and their hopeful gazes fall.

 

No one has any new information, nor has anyone found any other clues as to where either of the two women might be, or any other piece of information that might tell them exactly who is behind this.

 

The only small blessing is that there haven’t been any further reported disappearances; no more distraught fathers arriving to advise their daughter or wife has gone missing, too.

 

Yet .

 

Nedley debriefs Nicole quickly before he asks whether she’ll take up one of the patrols around to some of the nearby houses to see whether anyone’s noticed anything. Or if anyone acts unusually to her visit.

 

“You feel alright goin’ alone?” Nedley asks her quietly before she gets ready to leave. “Not because you’re… I mean, I asked the other men the same question. I don’t want you to think I’m sendin’ you all into danger, Haught. Your safety is as much my concern as the people we’re lookin’ for.”

 

“I appreciate the offer, sir,” Nicole says gratefully. “But I think I’ll be fine. Lady Jane has a good nose for danger, she’ll get us both out of there if she doesn’t like the smell of somethin’.”

 

“You’re sure?” Nedley asks one last time. “Because there ain’t no shame in wantin’ help. The boys went out this mornin’ in pairs.”

 

“I’m happy to go with one of the others if you’re worried, sir,” Nicole offers, watching the concerned look on his face. “It’s no skin off my nose either way. If I didn’t know Jane so well, I’d take you up on that, but I feel safe with her. She knows when somethin’s up. Lord knows she’s gotten me out of danger before.”

 

“Smart horse,” Nedley says appraisingly, grinning before he nods. “Well, if you’re okay, then we can divide ourselves up and search a bit more ground. You feel anythin’ you don’t like, you hightail it out of there, alright?”

 

“Yes, sir,” Nicole replies, smiling at his concern before she moves to gather herself and leave.

 

She stops by Chrissy, seated behind one of the other deputies’ desks on the way out, reaching out to give her hand a light squeeze.

 

“Thank you for this mornin’,” Nicole says with a soft smile. “I can’t tell you how much I…”

 

“I know,” Chrissy returns as her hand closes over Nicole’s. “It was my pleasure, Deputy. Thank you for comin’ to keep me company.”

 

She tips her hat to Chrissy one last time, taking a step away when Chrissy’s hand in her arm stills her for a moment.

 

“Be careful, won’t you?” Chrissy asks quietly as a parting comment. “It won’t do for me to have to tell Miss Earp you’re standin’ her up because you’ve gone missin’ your darn self.”

 

“Of course I will,” Nicole winks back. “Wouldn’t dream of anything but.”

 

Chrissy gives her a heavy nod that says good before she turns and starts to walk down the Main Street towards the stables to collect Lady Jane.

 

The animal is beyond delighted to see her, and Nicole’s glad she thought to put a few sugar cubes in her satchel on the off-chance she was able to come and visit her friend at some stage today.

 

“I think she missed you,” Mattie says, smiling as she walks over to greet Nicole with her hands on her hips. “She was a grump yesterday afternoon.”

 

“I’m sorry,” Nicole offers apologetically, feeling more than a little guilty at not having made it to see her yesterday. “I don’t mean to leave her without at least coming to check on her, the day just got away from me.”

 

“Don’t worry your head about it,” Mattie breezes flippantly. “She was fine, and that’s what she’s here for, so you don’t need to mind that she’s not bein’ taken care of. We cheered each other just fine didn’t we, Lady J?”

 

The horse nickers in response as Mattie runs her hand down the animal’s neck, and Nicole watches on, pleased at how well Lady Jane seems settled in her presence. She’s someone I can trust then, Nicole says to herself. Good .

 

“And I’m not surprised you didn’t get to me yesterday. Nedley stopped by and asked a few questions before he told me about what’s been happenin’,” Mattie says, her voice solemn. “I don’t envy your job at times like this, Deputy.”

 

“I’m glad Nedley mentioned somethin’ to you,” Nicole replies. “I had a mind to ask you myself. You’re okay out here by yourself?”

 

“Just fine,” Mattie says, smiling wryly. “A rifle next to the bed is better than a husband any day.”

 

“You’ve got that right,” Nicole says under her breath, but Mattie must just hear it, because she smiles a little knowingly before changing the subject.

 

“Anyway, we’ll be just fine. This lot makes a hell of a racket if anyone’s here that isn’t meant to be,” she says as she gestures around to the other horses in the stable.

 

“Good,” Nicole nods in reply. “Good. And you know where to find us if anythin’ happens or you notice anythin’ unusual?”

 

“You’ll be the first to know, Deputy,” Mattie offers with a smile. “Now, will you be takin’ Lady J out with you today?”

 

“I will,” Nicole says, scratching between the animal’s eyes. “I need to go check a few of the surroundin’ houses, stick my nose in, see if anythin’ comes up from it. I’ll bring her back later in the day, if that’s alright?”

 

“Right as rain, Deputy,” Mattie replies, opening the stall for Nicole to lead her horse out by the bridle before she sets the saddle on Lady Jane’s back and gestures her readiness to Nicole. “She’s all yours. Look after her, Lady J, alright?”

 

“Best friend anyone could ask for, aren’t you,” Nicole says fondly as she swings easily up into her saddle before she leans down to wink at the animal. “Thanks, Mattie. We’ll be seein’ you.”

 

“Ride safe, Deputy,” Mattie replies, watching Nicole ride away, and it’s faint, but Nicole thinks she can hear a parting note of find that asshole, Haught, before they take us all.



-



Nicole is thoroughly exhausted by the time she makes her way back from the seventh homestead, sliding up into the saddle again before setting Lady Jane back on the route towards town.

 

Seven houses and not one clue.

 

Nothing, except a few newly wary fathers and worried mothers. At least, she thinks gratefully, at least there aren’t any other disappearances. At least no one else has gone missing. Thank the Lord for small mercies.

 

Or, no one else has gone missing that they know of, Nicole adds soberly.

 

There hadn’t been one single thing out of place at any of the homes she had visited, nor any of their behaviour out of the ordinary. Nothing. Like the women had just vanished without a trace.

 

Christ , she thinks as she bites her lip in frustration, what if we can’t find them. What if we don’t intercept them before they take others.

 

She’s about to give Lady Jane a gentle nudge before something out of the corner of her eye catches her attention. A tiny flash of red shooting behind a tree on the very edge of the property she hadn’t quite left.

 

It’s likely just a rabbit, but something, maybe her curiosity on high alert, makes Nicole slide off the back of her horse. Her boots crunch lightly on the gravel when she makes makes contact with the ground, and she leads Lady Jane by the halter in the event that she needs to be able to take off in a hurry, but another few hesitant steps reveals she needn’t have bothered.

 

The red shape, huddled and trembling with its hackles raised and its back against the tree, is a tiny pup.

 

The owners of this land didn’t have a dog, though. They’d made a point of noting that when Nicole suggested they let any animals they did have give them an indication of danger, and to note if any of them were acting strangely.

 

She drops Lady Jane’s halter, motioning for the horse to stay where she is for a moment, before she crouches down to present a less imposing stature to the small puppy.

 

Nicole offers her hand out slowly to the animal, trying to coax it forward to greet her, and it pauses for a moment before it senses the lack of danger around Nicole and takes a hesitant, shaking step.

 

It’s a reasonable size, Nicole thinks as she appraises the animal, obviously still a puppy, but too large to just have normal dog in it’s blood. The body is slender and gangly, even for a puppy, with huge paws it has yet to grow into, and she surmises that whatever this animal is, at least one of its parents was enormous.

 

“Come here, little one,” Nicole says gently, trying to soothe the small body into taking another step towards her. “I’m not gonna hurt you.”

 

Her soft voice does the trick, reassuring the animal enough that it takes the last two steps to press its dry nose against Nicole’s hand, drawing in her scent.

 

She stays still for a moment, allowing the pup to grow accustomed to her smell before she brings her other hand slowly to move down its back. A girl, she surmises as the animal moves a little closer to her, leaning into her affection.

 

The little body is malnourished, quite severely so, and it breaks Nicole’s heart a little because she knows the owners of this house aren’t likely to feed her if she were to show up on their doorstep, and the next homestead isn’t for a good hour’s ride. In this sun, there’s no way an already tired and starving animal would make it that far, and even then, there’s no guarantee they would offer it food.

 

Nicole knows it would be significantly easier to just leave the animal here, but she can’t bring herself to, so she sighs and turns back to Lady Jane instead.

 

“What do you reckon girl? Should we take her with us?” Nicole asks herself as much as Lady Jane. The horse snorts before it takes a step towards them, and Nicole smiles at the yes she takes from the gesture.

 

“What do you think, huh?” Nicole asks the pup in front of her, quite happily leaning against Nicole’s leg for support now. “Do you want to come home with us?”

 

She’s already running through the justification speech to Gus, even though she knows there’s no way the woman will allow her to bring a puppy into the Inn, before she has another, better idea.

 

“You know, I think you might just make someone a very sweet birthday gift, little girl,” Nicole says, smiling as the pup allows Nicole to pick her up. She ponders for a moment about how she’s going to transport the small animal home before her elbow knocks the satchel at her waist.

 

Not exactly its intended purpose, Nicole thinks wryly as she opens the satchel and places the pup in it, its little head and huge paws propped over the top.

 

She clicks softly, gesturing for Lady Jane to move towards her, which the horse does warily, eyeing the bundle in Nicole’s hands. She holds her hand and then the bag containing the pup out for the horse to familiarise herself to the scent she normally associated with predators. Lady Jane sniffs a few times before swinging her head away, satisfying herself that she’s okay for the animal to be in her presence.

 

“Good girl,” Nicole says to the horse before she scratches between her big brown eyes, grateful for Lady Jane’s acceptance. “Let’s get back to town, shall we?”

 

She holds the bag with the pup in it close to her chest before swinging up into the saddle, a little less smoothly than normal, in an attempt to jostle the bundle as little as possible. She settles into her seat, checking on the puppy, who’s busy looking up at Nicole with a mildly curious, but reasonably relaxed expression, before she nudges Lady Jane forward into a walk.

 

It takes her longer to get into town with the pup nestled carefully in front of her, but not by much, because she wouldn’t have ridden Lady Jane at a gallop back into town in this heat regardless of their extra package.

 

Gus is going to kill me , Nicole thinks to herself as she nears the edge of town, what was I thinking? Nicole doesn’t even know if Waverly likes dogs, she just thought the companion would be nice in her shop alone at night, even more useful as a guard against anything malevolent in the darkness.

 

She supposes Mattie might take the small warm body in her arms if Waverly doesn’t want her, and breathes a little easier having identified a backup plan. Just in case.

 

She heads straight to the stables so Mattie can give Lady Jane a well-deserved water and brush after her long day of helping Nicole.

 

The sun is low in the sky when she returns, late afternoon, she supposes, as she swings down from her horse carefully. She looks down to check on the pup, but she’s fast asleep, lulled by the rhythmic movements of the larger animal’s gait, apparently more than comfortable in Nicole’s presence to allow sleep to overtake it.

 

“What in the sweet hell have you got there, Deputy?” Mattie asks quietly as she approaches Nicole. “Is that a pup ?”

 

“I guess so,” Nicole replies with a guilty shrug. “I’m not entirely sure what breed she is. I was thinkin’ some kind of hound, maybe? I found her on the edge of one of the farms, and couldn’t leave her there. She was starving.”

 

Mattie levels her with an expression that says you’re too soft for your own good before she gestures Nicole closer so she can inspect the small red furball in Nicole’s satchel.

 

She peers down with interest, her hand moving for the animal before she stops, conscious of waking her or spooking her. Nicole smiles at Mattie’s conscientiousness, and her obvious experience with animals that leads her to temper her own curiosity for the sake of the pup’s comfort.

 

“She’s beautiful, even as rough as she is half-dead. Look at her feet, she’s going to be big,” Mattie says softly. “What on earth are you going to do with her? I doubt Gus’ll let you keep her.”

 

“I thought I’d… I mean, I was going to see if I might gift her to…” Nicole starts before she trails off, unsure how much she can safely reveal to Mattie. But the other woman’s no idiot, and she smiles knowingly at Nicole before she finishes Nicole's sentence.

 

“Waverly Earp?” Mattie asks wryly, patting Nicole on the arm reassuringly as Nicole feels her own face drain of blood. “Don’t worry, Deputy. Your secret’s safe with me. I’ve got enough of my own, god knows I can keep another.”

 

Nicole blows a shaky breath out between her teeth before she looks to Mattie gratefully.

 

“I won’t pretend most folks ‘round here won’t be ready to condemn the two of you, but I won’t be one of ‘em,” Mattie offers. “I had my great love, and now that he’s gone, I’ll care for this lot rather than give another my broken heart, but I won’t begrudge no one love.”

 

“I’m sorry,” Nicole says sincerely. “Truly, Mattie. I’m sorry. Can I ask what…?”

 

“Tuberculosis,” Mattie replies, the anger in her voice. “Damn disease. He was fine until he wasn’t.”

 

“That’s terrible,” Nicole says as she watches the light go from the other woman’s eyes.

 

“We had a few good years together,” Mattie says, coming back to the present when the pup stretches in her sleep, making them both smile. “I’m glad the two of you have found each other.”

 

“Nothin’s… I mean, I don’t know what’s goin’ to happen yet,” Nicole says as a frown crosses her features. “We’re… I’m takin’ Waverly a small picnic tonight, but we’re not… we haven’t… I think she’s interested, but she’s not… she hasn’t done this before.”

 

“And you have?” Mattie asks curiously, interested.

 

“Yes,” Nicole admits with a reasonable level of confidence that Mattie’s not going to run to the minister for a trough of holy water. “I mean…only once properly, but yes, I have.”

 

“Fair enough,” Mattie says, nodding as she takes the information in. “Well, mind you don’t hurt that girl more’n she’s already been hurt, alright? Lord knows she don’t need no more pain in her life than she’s already had.”

 

“Of course not,” Nicole says quickly. “I wouldn’t dream of it. I think she’s… I mean…”

 

“It’s okay, Deputy,” Mattie offers, smiling at Nicole’s reaction. “I know you mean well. I just meant that others do, until the goin’ gets tough, and then they get goin’ with it.”

 

“I’m the one that stays,” Nicole says with a firm voice. “If there’s one that’s runnin’, it won’t be me. But I hope… I mean, you never know, but… I don’t think Waverly’ll run.”

 

“Nor do I, Deputy,” Mattie returns, eyeing Nicole for a moment. “And I trust you know what that means? For the both of you?”

 

“Absolutely,” Nicole replies with conviction that she hopes shuts down the question Mattie has about how serious she is about this, that she might not know what she’s getting herself into, because she does. With an old, broken heart as proof, she does .

 

“Good,” Mattie says finally, nodding, pleased with her interrogation. “Now, if you’ve got some business to attend to before your evenin’, how about you leave that bundle with me. Give you a chance to speak to Gus and get ready without worryin’ about this wee thing.”

 

“Would you mind?” Nicole asks hopefully, because it would be an enormous help to have Mattie assist with the pup.

 

“Of course,” Mattie replies, looking down to the small red shape in Nicole’s arms. “Give me a chance to try and get some food and water into her, too.”

 

“I’ll come and fetch her just before sundown?” Nicole asks as she picks the little sleep-heavy body up out of the bag. The pup stirs, panicking a little before Nicole’s voice calms her. “It’s alright, girl. Mattie here’s a friend, okay? She’s gonna look after you for a while, and I’ll come and get you later, okay?”

 

The little shape resists for a moment before she settles in Nicole’s arms and allows her to hand the red ball to Mattie carefully.

 

“Christ, she’s heavier than she looks, isn’t she?” Mattie asks, surprised at the weight behind the pup. “She’s gonna be a big girl, that’s for damn sure. As long as she’s trained well, she’ll make an excellent companion, I think.”

 

“So do I,” Nicole smiles at the little animal in Mattie’s arms. “I’m so darn fond of her already.”

 

“I’m surprised she went with you, to be honest,” Mattie admits with a note of surprise in her voice. “Most wild pups’ll bite you and run as soon as look at you.”

 

“Maybe she recognised a kindred spirit,” Nicole says quietly, reaching to run her fingers through the soft fur.

 

“I think she must’ve, Deputy,” Mattie replies, casting a look to Nicole. “You know, if an animal’ll trust you, so will I. I’m never sure of outsiders, but I think you’re one of the good ones, Haught.”

 

“I appreciate that, Mattie,” Nicole returns kindly. “And for takin’ care of her for a while. You’re sure she won’t be a burden?”

 

“Not at all,” Mattie says, shaking her head. “You’ll be lucky if I’m willin’ to part with her when you come back, I think. She’s a sweet little thing.”

 

“That she is,” Nicole says with a soft tilt of her head. “Anyway, I’d best be off, I need to liaise with the others before I head off to get ready. You’re…?”

 

“We’re okay, Deputy,” Mattie nods before she shoos Nicole away with the hand not curled under the pup. “You go do your things, and we’ll see you back here later.”

 

“Oh,” Nicole thinks suddenly when she jostles her gun at her side, her quick mind jumping ten steps ahead of her. She had a fleeting thought earlier in the day about how in the sweet hell she was going to find a way to keep her gun on her this evening while wearing her dress, and suddenly, while glancing at Mattie’s belt, Nicole has an idea. “Mattie, you wouldn’t have any old lengths of leather to spare lyin’ around, do you?”

 

“Might have,’ Mattie answers, her eyes narrowing. “I can try and dig somethin’ out before you come back later, if you don’t need it now?”

 

“No,” Nicole sighs gratefully. “No, that would be wonderful, thank you.”

 

“My pleasure, Deputy,” Mattie says, eyeing her suspiciously, like she wants to ask Nicole why , but she almost doesn’t want to know. “Now get on out of here. We’ll have everythin’ ready for you when you get back.”

 

Nicole tips her hat to Mattie in thanks before she turns on her heel and makes her way back towards the jail to share her lack of news with the others.

 

Christ, Nicole thinks to herself as she stuffs her hands in her pockets, kicking dirt with each step. Let someone have found something. Anything.

 

She spots a few MISSING PERSON posters up, pinned to the outside of the jail when she walks onto the porch, and she’s thankful that someone had gone and fetched them from the print shop for her and started hanging them up.

 

The sooner the town’s on alert, the better, Nicole thinks warily, eyeing the printed black letters on the page, as if willing them to reveal the location of the two missing women by some stroke of magic or witchcraft.

 

They don’t, of course, so it’s with a heavy heart that she walks into the structure she’s beginning to feel a sense of home with.

 

The mood in the jail when she steps her tired legs through the door isn’t promising. Nedley is hunched over in his chair, looking through a set of documents -town records or family trees, Nicole supposes - with Chrissy perched at his shoulder pointing out one thing or another, and one of the other deputies is walking laps around the jail, trying to jog his memory or stir a thought.

 

“Haught,” Nedley says as he sees her approach, slipping his glasses of the edge of his nose to rub at his brow. “Did you…?”

 

“Not a damn thing, sir,” Nicole replies, frowning with disappointment. “Almost every house I could reach in a half day’s ride, and nothing.”

 

“Nothin’?” Nedley asks with an equal tone of disappointment in his own voice. “Not…”

 

“A hair out of place or one drop of suspicious activity or behaviour,” Nicole replies, shaking her head. “Nothin’, sir. Absolutely nothin’.”

 

“Christ,” Nedley says, rubbing his hands harder over his eyes, and Nicole can see the strain in his shoulders. “How can there be nothin’? These girls didn’t disappear into thin goddamn air, did they?”

 

“There’ll be somethin’, Daddy,” Chrissy consoles as she runs her palm over her father’s back. “You’ll find somethin’, I know you will.”

 

“At least we haven’t had any more reported disappearances, have we?” Nicole adds hopefully, looking to Chrissy or the other deputy for confirmation.

 

“No,” the deputy says, walking over to Nicole. “Small mercies, huh?”

 

“I think so,” Nicole replies, trying to squeeze as much positivity into her tone as possible. “Chrissy’s right, sir, we’ll find something. And in the meantime, we’ve got the town vigilant, too.”

 

“Vigilant and panicked,” Nedley says critically, frowning up to Nicole. “I’m sorry, Haught. I don’t mean to be so negative, it’s just…”

 

“It’s okay, sir,” Nicole returns softly, and she means it, because she can only imagine the stress Nedley’s under with the town now watching his every move, waiting for him to fix everything and catch the person responsible while reclaiming the missing women. “Truly, it’s alright. We’ve got your back, you know that, right?”

 

He looks to Nicole, his frown melting slightly at her show of support, before a hesitant smile turns his face. “I know, and I appreciate it, Haught. I really do. Lord knows I’d be a dead man without you lot behind me.”

 

“They’ll have to come through me first,” Chrissy says firmly at Nedley’s side.

 

“I know, sweetheart,” Nedley softens as he looks to his daughter. “And a hell of a job they’d have gettin’ through you, too.”

 

Chrissy looks to Nicole for a moment, as if trying to prompt something before Nicole’s mind catches her wave of thought. The dress, she remembers suddenly. We have to go and pick up the dress.

 

“Sir, I wonder if you’d mind me doin’ one last walk up and down the street before I turn my hat in for the night,” Nicole says under the guise of being able to pass the dressmaker’s, too. “Just in case there’s somethin’ that wasn’t there earlier in the day?”

 

“That’d be great, Haught,” Nedley breathes wearily. “Take Chrissy with you if you don’t mind the company? We’ve kept her cooped up with us boring men all day.”

 

“It’s been a fine day, Daddy,” Chrissy says, nudging his shoulder, which causes him to smile. “But I wouldn’t mind the fresh air, if it’s going to be a few hours ‘till we ride home.”

 

“See if you can’t find us somethin’ for dinner?” he asks her softly. “Whatever you’d like, alright?”

 

“Sure thing,” Chrissy replies happily, giving her father one last squeeze on the shoulder before she slides off the arm of his chair and over to Nicole. “Ready now?”

 

“Sure thing,” Nicole answers as Chrissy slides her hand into the crook of Nicole’s arm. “We’ll see you soon, sir.”

 

“Thanks, Haught,” Nedley says, sighing, but Nicole thinks she can hear a hint of relief in there now, too.

 

The two of them walk out onto Main Street in the early evening light, and Nicole gives the street one good look before she takes a step down any further.

 

Activity has petered off, as it seems wont to do when the dusk takes over the day, and there are only a few people walking up and down now, similar to this time yesterday evening when Nicole had done the same thing.

 

She casts a glance down to the spot where she thought she saw the figure last night, but there’s nothing; only the dusty street and one or two familiar faces talking down the way. She throws her gaze around one last time before she looks to Chrissy, smiling and gesturing that they can carry on.

 

“Is your father okay?” Nicole asks Chrissy with a frown. “I know this can’t be easy on him, but if there’s anythin’ I can do to lessen the load, you’ll let me know, won’t you?”

 

“Of course,” Chrissy says, smiling at Nicole’s thoughtfulness.  “And I think just lettin’ him know you’re there like you did about does it. He takes so much worry on himself so no one else has to, you’ll be hard pressed to get him any less wound than he is now.”

 

“I wish there was more I could do,” Nicole says, frustrated. “I wish there was anythin’ I could do. I’ve never felt so helpless before. Normally we have a lead or some small clue, but we haven’t found a damn thing. It really is like they’ve vanished into thin air.”

 

“Well, we both know that’s not possible,” Chrissy offers by way of solace, chuckling lightly. “There’ll be somethin’ somewhere. You’ll find it, Nicole. You or Daddy or the both of you. I know you will.”

 

She wants to take Chrissy’s calm words to heart, but try as she might, she just can’t. All of a sudden, the frustration boils over and she stops still in the street, looking to Chrissy with a panicked expression.

 

“But what if we don’t?” Nicole asks with exasperation. “God, what was I thinkin’, setting’ this up for tonight? I should be out there lookin’, doing something, not indulging myself.”

 

Chrissy levels her with a glare that Nicole guesses she’s given her father more than once in his life, and thank god she chooses that moment to be the more settled of the two, because her firm, but gentle voice quiets Nicole’s racing pulse almost immediately.

 

“You should be spending time with someone who probably needs the distraction and reassurance as much as anyone else in this town,” Chrissy says clearly. “Remember that, alright? This is probably panicking Waverly a heck of a lot more than she’s lettin’ on. And even if she didn’t need the company and reassurance, you can’t starve yourself of good just because you think you’re not helping. Because you are Nicole. And you can’t run yourself ragged, neither. You need to rest. You need to find yourself some calm, so you can help those without it, because trust me, the next few days? Somethin’ tells me you’re gonna need it.”

 

“You’re right,” Nicole replies as the air leaves her lungs in a sigh. “Of course you’re right. I’m sorry, Chrissy, I didn’t mean to panic, I just feel so…”

“I know you do,” Chrissy says, her voice kind as she pats Nicole’s arm and leads her along into a slow pace again. “I know, which is why it’s so important to have a night to forget all about this so you can come at it tomorrow with a fresh pair of eyes, huh?”

 

“Anyone ever tell you you’re far too clever for your age?” Nicole asks with a smile, her mind racing a little slower now.

 

All the time,” Chrissy replies, her turn to sound exasperated as she rolls her eyes dramatically. “Isn’t that dull?”

 

“I think it’s wonderful,” Nicole says kindly, bumping her hip against Chrissy’s and they walk the rest of the way to the seamstress’s in quiet, light chat.

 

“So, what have you got planned for the evening, then?” Chrissy asks Nicole just before the reach the shop.

 

“Actually,” Nicole says, smiling when she remembers the pup waiting for her with Mattie that she hasn’t mentioned to Chrissy yet. “I did somethin’ a little crazy today.”

 

“Nicole Haught, crazy?” Chrissy asks, aghast. “I don’t believe you. What could you have possibly done in between all that rangin’ today?”

 

“It was kinda there that I found her,” Nicole replies, smiling shyly.

 

“Her?” Chrissy questions, pulling Nicole up short to look her in the eye. “You found her ? Don’t tell me this is another long lost girl, Nicole, because I’m as open-minded as they come, but that might be a step too far.”

 

“No,” Nicole laughs, looking down at a slightly worried Chrissy with a wide smile. “It’s not that at all. Even I’m not that progressive, Chrissy, don’t worry. No, it’s… I found a pup out on one of the ranges this afternoon. She was half-starved and almost a goner, and I almost didn’t see her, but she came when I held my hand out, and she was so beautiful, I couldn't leave her there.”

 

“You bought a pup back into town?” Chrissy asks incredulously. “Is it wild, or tame, or?”

 

“I think it’s too small to be one way or the other just yet, although it’s parentage definitely shows some type of hound. Mattie thinks so, too. Her little paws are enormous,” Nicole answers, a warm feeling spreading into her chest at the thought of the animal. “Anyway, I thought about bringin’ her in for myself, but then I thought... Well, Waverly’s in that shop all by herself at night, and if I can’t be there to protect her, I’d feel a damn sight better if she had some company. The pup might not be big yet, but she will be, and I reckon she’d give someone who wasn't supposed to be there a good bite, in spite of her small size, even now.”

 

“You found Waverly a dog?” Chrissy asks, her mouth still agape as she tries to process the information, and it sends a cold spike through the heat of her chest when Nicole realises Chrissy might be able to shed some light on whether or not Waverly would even like a companion like that.

 

“Is it ridiculous?” Nicole questions Chrissy as her face lines in worry. “Is she not fond of animals, or allergic, or…”

 

“No,” Chrissy replies, shaking her head, laughing gently. “Truth couldn’t be further from that, in fact. That girl loves animals more’n anyone I’ve ever met. Even Mattie, who’s lookin’ after Lady Jane. It’s just… I’m laughin’ because you say you don’t think you know what to talk about to make her happy, or what to do, but it’s like you know exactly what she wants without actually knowin’ .”

 

“Thank god,” Nicole sighs in relief. “So she might like her, then? I didn't make some terribly misguided decision?”

 

“Not at all. I think she’ll love her, Nicole,” Chrissy says brightly. “Does she have a name, yet?”

 

“No,” Nicole answers, shaking her head. “I thought I’d let Waverly name her. If she wanted to keep her, that was.”

 

“I think she’ll definitely want to keep her,” Chrissy says with a smile. “Wait till you see that girl’s face when you walk into that shop. She’s goin’ to think you damn near walked in there with the sun in your arms.”

 

“You really think she’ll be okay with it?” Nicole asks unsurely. “I mean, I know it was her birthday not too long ago, and I knew I couldn’t get her anythin’ in town without arousing too much suspicion, so…”

 

“It’s perfect ,” Chrissy affirms, looking to Nicole brightly. “Wait, if she’s not here, where is she now?”

 

“Mattie’s lookin’ after her until I run it past Gus,” Nicole replies. “I didn’t just want to turn up with her at the Inn and expect Gus to let me through the door.”

 

“Probably a wise thought,” Chrissy says, smiling at the same thought running through Nicole’s mind regarding Gus shooing her outside with the little red bundle in her arms.

 

“I thought so,” Nicole returns with a smile of her own. “I thought I’d pick up the dress, call by the Inn, speak to Gus and collect the bundle of food I asked her to set aside for me and anythin’ else I want for tonight, stop by the baths, go pick the little one up and then surprise Waverly. You really don’t think it’s a terribly misguided idea?”

 

“I think it’s a wonderful idea, Nicole,” Chrissy offers kindly. “I know you think you’re lucky, but I hope you know Waverly’s damn lucky in this equation, too.”

 

“You think so?” Nicole asks uncertainly before her heart warms a little against Chrissy’s affirmation, quieting the question in her palms. “I mean, I know it’s fast, and I know it’s a forward gesture, but…”

 

“I think it fits,” Chrissy says, beaming up to Nicole. “I think it fits, Nicole. I know it’s fast by normal standards, but the two of you… I don’t know, maybe I’m speakin’ out of turn, but it feels like… it feels like maybe the two of you were made for each other.”

 

They floor Nicole, Chrissy’s words, they floor her.

 

Because honestly, in the dark, lying in the bed she now knows Waverly had once lain in, listening to the steady beat of her own heart, Nicole has thought the same thing.

 

It’s difficult, not knowing quite where Waverly sits, even though she thinks they’re on the same page, but Nicole knows this thing with her, their connection , even platonically, it’s different to anything else she’s ever experienced with another person.

 

It’s deeper . And she can’t wait for tonight, to see where this connection might take them next.

 

Because she’s not sure where Waverly stands, she’s not , but she thinks she knows - based on the way her touch lingers on Nicole’s body, and the way her breath catches when Nicole comes close, and the way her gaze finds Nicole from across the street - she thinks she knows.

 

And it makes her nervous and terrified and tremendously excited all at the same time.

 

“I’m sorry,” Chrissy says after a moment, drawing Nicole’s attention back to the ground beneath her feet instead of the sky above them. “I must be a sentimental fool tonight, I didn’t mean to…”

 

“It’s okay, Chrissy,” Nicole replies, stopping Chrissy mid-apology with a hesitant smile. “I think… I mean, I think that’s how I feel as well, I just… I don’t want to let my hope run away with me, just in case she doesn’t…”

 

“I know you don’t,” Chrissy says softly, and her voice is kind and brimming with something she wants to say, something exciting, but knows it’s not her place to, so she holds back. Just. Spilling only a fraction of her secret out instead. “But, I think that maybe… it’s okay to be a little hopeful. I mean, I can see, Nicole. I can see the way she looks at you. I think it’s okay to be a little hopeful.”

 

“You do?” Nicole asks, and she thinks that she knows what Chrissy is saying, that she knows more than Nicole does, that Waverly has told her something, some small piece of information that’s causing Chrissy to smile wider than Nicole’s seen yet.

 

“I do,” Chrissy returns firmly, and Nicole’s hope dawns . “Now, let’s go and get this dress, huh? Before I hold you up for a second longer and keep you from your girl.”

 

My girl, Nicole thinks dreamily. My girl. Waverly Earp could be my girl, and I could be hers . If she’ll have me. Maybe, maybe, maybe .

 

“Dress,” Nicole says, bringing herself out of her reverie as she looks towards the seamstress, waving to them from the door of the shop.

 

“Dress,” Chrissy nods, pulling an ever-increasingly nervous Nicole with her in that direction.

 

The seamstress beams and beckons them both inside, laying the dress out across the counter before she shows the alterations to Nicole, and she doesn’t really know or understand the first thing about the mechanics of dressmaking, but she’s aware of enough to know that Miss Jessie has done a beautiful job.

 

“This should fit you like a glove,” the seamstress says happily, smoothing her hand over the fabric to press out non-existent crinkles and lines.

 

Ordinarily, Nicole would try on a piece of clothing before she left the tailor’s or seamstress’s, in the event that another alteration was necessary, but she’s so dusty from the length of her day again, she’s loathe to get the fabric even a little dirty.

 

“Thank you for makin’ time for it so quickly,” Nicole offers kindly, and while she’s still not sure about this damn dress, she’s hugely grateful that she has this other option. “I really appreciate it.”

 

“Oh, my pleasure, Deputy,” Miss Jessie says, waving Nicole’s thanks away. “It’s a point of personal pride when I can make a dress that looks as good on someone as this does on you. He’s one lucky man, whoever’s takin’ you out to see this.”

 

The assumption makes Nicole’s skin crawl a little, but she knows it’s far better that the seamstress assumes that than it is to have her question who else the dress might be for.

 

“He sure is,” Chrissy inserts at her side, and Nicole’s more than a little thankful at her filling in the gap when she can only clench her teeth at the plain need to have to do it in the first place. “Speakin’ of which, we should get the deputy here movin’ so she won’t be late.”

 

“Of course,” the woman offers quickly before she begins to wrap the dress into a parcel for Nicole. “Now, I know you’re plannin’ on wearing your hair down, but I’ve cut a length of ribbon to match the colour in case you do braid it.”

 

“That’s very kind of you, ma’am,” Nicole says in return, smiling at a mildly jubilant Miss Jessie as she hands over a few coins to pay for the dress and alteration. “I’m indebted to you.”

 

“Hush,” she says with another wave as she deposits her newest takings into the till at the counter. “You just make sure you tell ‘em where you got it from, alright? That’s thanks enough.”

 

“I sure will. Thank you again,” Nicole replies, taking the package and tipping her hat to Miss Jessie one last time before she and Chrissy walk from the shop and back out onto Main Street.

 

The sun is beginning to set now, the perfect time for Nicole to go about her last few chores before meeting Waverly in an hour or so, by which time the mostly deserted street will only be more so, and she’ll have a suitable cover to be able to slip into the shop, hopefully without being seen by anyone beyond Gus, Mattie, and the woman at the baths.

 

“I wish I could see Waverly’s face when you turn up there soon,” Chrissy sighs wistfully. “Between the dress, if you choose to wear it, and the pup, she’s not going to know what to do with herself.”

 

“It won’t be too much, will it?” Nicole asks Chrissy as they make their way back down to the jail so Chrissy can return home with her father. “It won’t be too overwhelming?”

 

“Just overwhelming enough,” Chrissy winks. “In the best way, of course. Do you think you will wear it then?”

 

“I think so,” Nicole says, nodding before she looks down at the parcel in her arms. “I think I will. There’s no harm, not at least once. Especially after the trouble you’ve gone through to help me with it today.”

 

“Don’t you worry about me,” Chrissy says firmly, levelling Nicole with a glare. “You just do what you feel comfortable with, alright? Pay no mind to me. It was a pleasure helpin’ you, Nicole. Truly.”

 

“Thank you, Chrissy,” Nicole returns kindly, struck again with how lucky she is to have found Chrissy here. “I couldn’t have done any of this without you.”

 

“Sure you could,” Chrissy replies, nudging Nicole in the side with her elbow. “It’s just a heck of a lot more fun with me around, huh?”

 

Nicole laughs at Chrissy’s effortless optimism, feeling a little less anxious in the presence of Chrissy’s positive air as they arrive at the jail. Chrissy slips her arm out of Nicole’s elbow and pulls her into a tight hug, whispering one last good luck, I can’t wait about hear about it in the morning, before she pushes Nicole gently back out onto the street and on her way.

 

She takes a deep breath, turning for the other end of the street where she’s scarcely been today, and the excitement and nerves start to creep up her arms again.

 

-