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That a whole world could revolve around one person.

N.

Nicole studied the words on the small piece of paper in her hand. ‘You will always be loved. I am sorry we part this way. My darling, be well. I wish my life had been different.’

She shoved it back into the small leather wallet she carried. Safe for now. One day its meaning would be revealed to her. The wind was picking up. Never a good sign. She would need to hammer in the pegs. A large, wooden mallet in her hand she made her way out into the night. Rain beating against canvas, the circus tent groaning as the storm pounded against its sides.

A large turnout for the show meant it could not be abandoned. Money was money, even if it meant bad weather was closing in. She pulled her cloth cap down over her eyes, hoisting up her breeches, hoping her coat would not get too wet as she ventured out beyond the confines of her small world. The sound of laughter and applause as the show continued ringing in her ears.

Her one job. Keep the tent upright.

Her hands went to the long handle of the mallet, swinging it over her head, hitting the peg square. And again. And again. And again. Ever more forcefully. The rain beating down, soaking through her clothing, sending a shiver through her body. She needed to work fast. Get those stakes bedded once more in soft earth. Every hit, every strike making sure those she loved, those she cared for, those who had taken her in, were safe from the storm.

Her work done she sank to her knees panting, hands bloody from the effort. She felt weak. Something pulling at her lungs forcing her to take deeper breaths. The horse would comfort her. Make her feel better. Her friend. Someone who didn’t expect too much. All he wanted was new hay, food, water, a rub down after a performance, a lump of sugar if she could get it. The warmth of his body keeping her safe as she slept with him. Night after night, after night.

The show nearing its final act, she stood at the side watching the delight on the audience’s faces. A magic act performed before their very eyes. Nicole knew the tricks, smiling as those who didn’t were taken in. She wanted to be a magician. Or, a horseback rider. Or, a trapeze artist. Or, any type of performer really to keep the show running. For now, she was the odd job boy, tasked with doing everything no one else wanted to do.

She didn’t mind. Abandoned at birth, sent to an orphanage, running away to join the circus at the age of twelve, this was the only life, the only family she had known. Some kind to her. Some not so kind. It didn’t matter. Home was with her horse. Caspian. The one who would call to her as she entered the temporary stables, wanting Nicole’s attention. She would curl up with him, feeling his body breathe under hers, keeping her safe, keeping her warm. Their nights spent together. A relationship built on trust. On love.

The morning came. A cold breeze entering the stables, making Nicole pull the blanket over her shoulders to keep warm. Her cough waking Caspian, who squirmed beneath her body. “Hush, my friend. I be sorry. Me lungs hurt.”

Caspian snorted. Nicole’s words of little comfort, having been woken. She tried to move, the effort too much after her work pegging the tent. She fell back on Caspian’s stomach, earning another snort. “Don’t be mad. I be sick, that’s all. A moment.”

Caspian sensed Nicole’s pain, bringing his head round to nestle in her neck. “I be alright. Just give me a moment to find air.”

His body moved with her as she struggled to stand. “Good horse. I get you a treat.”

Nicole made her way out of the stables into daylight. Her eyes squinting, her body aching, her lungs burning. A new day ahead.

The Ring Master was standing outside, orchestrating the taking down of the tent. Nicole knew better than to get in his way. His gruff voice telling her she needed to lie low. Always the brunt of everyone’s short temper, she had learnt to hide, bury herself in a hundred jobs that needed doing around the tent. A message sent to another, a costume returned to the right box, an animal in need of pacifying, she was always on hand, out of sight, away from any of the theatrics of the larger characters in the troupe.

Dolls was shouting at someone at the top who had thought bringing the main part of the tent down without releasing the collected water was a good idea. He stood back as a surge of water hit anyone not prepared. Nicole was inside the tent, hearing Dolls’ commands, laughing as water sent workers cascading off canvas. She heard her name being called.

“Where’s that good for nothing,” the Ring Master shouted. “N, show these clowns what to do.”

“I be helping here.”

“N, if you are not out here this instance, I’ll swing for you.”

Nicole pulled her cap down, knowing it was pointless delaying any longer. She made her way out, earning a clip round the ear for stalling. “Take out the pegs on my order. You hear. When I shout you pull.”

Nicole rubbed her ear. It took the pain away from her lungs for a moment. She found the large hook needed to extract the wooden stakes, an easier task given how soft the ground was. She waited for Dolls to give the command, taking out each peg when the shout came. An important task, liable to send the tent crashing to the ground if taken out in the wrong order. Every other three, she repeated, counting along. Dolls had shown her how to count to five using her hand. He never bothered to teach her any more numbers. No need. She worked in a circus. Five was enough. And, as for learning her letters. Why would she need them?

She loved her life. Hard, physically demanding, in need of a good wash. She was fed, allowed to stay with Caspian, given free entertainment every night the circus was performing. She had no idea of any other life other than this. Her height meant she was good for manual work. Not the strongest, certainly the most conscientious, it had never occurred to her to dress like a woman, preferring to be treated as a boy, then a man, earning the respect of those she worked alongside.

Dolls was shouting again. She had missed her cue to take out another peg. Working as fast as she could, she moved round the tent, pulling out, cleaning off mud, placing in the sack beside her. The task complete she sank to her knees breathing heavily, knowing she would struggle for the rest of the day. Food, she needed food and ale. Aunty’s cabin door was open. She could smell warm bread as she neared, her stomach rumbling. Aunty was one of the clowns, a mother to all the strays who ended up in this world.

“Morning N. Here my lovely, take a seat I’ll get you a drink.”

“You got a sugar lump for Caspian?”

“You need feeding first. I’ll give you something for that ruddy horse of yours later.”

Nicole coughed, holding her stomach as she did so, aunty turning to look at her, concern on her face. “You alright? Here, take this. You need to rest, my lovely.”

Nicole swallowed a spoonful of dark liquid, wincing at the taste, coughing more as it entered her system. “When are they coming?”

“Today, I think. The bad weather stopped them coming yesterday. More horses for you.”

“Caspian will be upset. He don’t like change.”

“Nor do you by the looks of it. You need a good scrub and a new set of clothes. I’ll see what I can get from the costume box.”

“How many horses?”

Aunty laughed. “Horses, horses, horses. Don’t you think of anything else? Four, I reckon. Two bareback riders. Draw in a bigger crowd they will.”

“Four. I’ll need more food for them. And, hay.”

“Here. Take this to Dolls. Not that he needs any more inside him. Fat enough already.”

Nicole made her way back towards the tent, a hunk of meat and several slices of bread on a plate, a hot drink in her other hand. Better for her short stay in aunty’s cabin and the medicine, her excitement building at the thought of new horses to care for. A lump of sugar in her pocket for Caspian. She would have to break the news gently to him. New friends were arriving that would change their lives forever.

She heard before she saw them. Busy mending a large tear in the side of the tent, the noise of their arrival sent members of troupe scurrying to see who was joining. A woman with long black hair rode confidently in front on a magnificent dapple grey horse, her movements in perfect time with the motion of the animal beneath her body. Behind was a wagon being pulled by two further horses, equally magnificent, darker in colour, their heads held high, almost dancing as they made their way into the field. A fourth horse was tied to the rear of the wagon, equally proud, jet black, fierce eyes.

Nicole stopped what she was doing, standing, watching the procession. Her eyes caught the younger woman sat at the front of the wagon, steering it towards the tent. Long brown hair, tied back, delicate features, a large woollen coat pulled around her. She caught Nicole staring as the wagon came to a halt a few feet away.

“Boy, help me unharness these. And, get water.”

Nicole doffed her cap. “Shall I dance too?”

The young woman laughed. “Cheeky. Water first. Then you can dance for me.”

“For you, anything.”

She returned with a bucket of water and a few sugar lumps to introduce herself to her new friends. Caspian’s nose really would be put out when he sees these beautiful beasts, she thought, as she guided them to the stables. The woman followed holding the reins of two of the horses, Nicole in front with the other two. She could feel their power, their spirit, calming them with her words as they walked beside her.

“You’re a natural,” the woman remarked. “They like you.”

“I like them. Caspian will like them too.”

“Who’s Caspian?”

“The show horse. He’s old now. Don’t do much.”

“What’s your name boy?”

“N. What’s yours?”

“Waverly. N, curious name. Just N?”

“Just N.”

Chapter Text

Caspian was not in the least bit pleased. His territory had been taken over by four intruders. Nicole did her best to comfort him, fetching another sugar lump from aunty, stroking his mane, whispering in his ear he was her favourite. He gradually calmed down, the odd snort to let her know he was still considering the new arrivals.

Waverly was busy tending to her four, occasionally looking over to see what Nicole was doing. Admiring her gentle manner. Too often those left in charge of such beautiful beasts had a tendency to be rough, expecting the horses to do what they were told with little, or no consideration for their sensitive nature. Nicole was different. Waverly could tell she loved Caspian, as she loved her four.

“Have you been with the circus long?” Waverly asked, brushing the coat of the black horse.

“All my life. Well, most.”

“Where were you before?”

Nicole was reluctant to say. She was wary of others prying into her private affairs. “Around. Just around.”

“Travelling? A gypsy?”

Nicole nodded. Better to say that than an orphanage. A cruel one at that.

“Me too. Gypsy parents in the circus. They were in Europe.”

“Where’s that?”

Waverly laughed. “Across the water. On a boat. Different countries. Then they came here and stayed.”

“Here?”

“Here. This country. You ever been abroad?”

“Abroad?”

“You do know what abroad means?”

Nicole nodded. She didn’t, but she sensed Miss Waverly liked to test. She hated being tested as much as she hated someone prying. She might not know how to read, or write, but that did not mean she was stupid. She could count to five.

Waverly pushed for an answer. “Well. Where have you been?”

“I said around. Why do you ask so much?”

“Curious. Always have been. Wynonna says my brains will pop out my ears one day.”

“Wynonna?”

“My sister. Very bossy. Do not annoy her. She bites.”

“Bites?”

“Not really. But, she does have a sharp tongue. She’ll like you. Anyone good to the horses she likes. I’m starving. Give mine water. Not too many sugar lumps. Makes them lazy.”

Nicole did a little dance, doffing her cap making Waverly laugh. Nicole liked her laugh. Sweet, good natured. If only she would stop talking, stop asking so many questions. Caspian nudged her in the back wanting attention. She patted his side, kissing his neck, running her hand over his back.

Early afternoon. The circus was ready to move on to the next town, only a few hours or so away. A huge logistical exercise to get everything packed into crates, loaded onto wagons. The other horses needed to pull them were kept in a field unless the weather was bad. Younger than Caspian, they were working horses, Nicole tending to them each day as part of her chores.

Waverly was bringing out her horses as they passed. A smile, nothing said, Nicole wondered why she was suddenly so quiet. Then again, she hardly knew her. A brief conversation in the stables. She doffed her cap in respect, earning a laugh.

“I’m no lady, N.”

“Can treat you like one, if I like.”

“Suits me. Lady Waverly. Who are you then?”

“Just N.”

“A little more imagination. What about Lord Nicholas Nightingale of Newbury.”

It was Nicole’s turn to laugh. “Don’t tell Caspian. He’ll be jealous.”

“Lord Nicolas, can you help me with my horses. I be just a simple farming girl in need to your firm hands.”

“Stop. The others will hear. Then I’ll be for it.”

“Others? Who Lord Nicolas will hear us?”

“Those ruddy clowns. Make my life a nightmare they do. Stealing me cap. Pulling me braces.”

“Aren’t clowns supposed to make you laugh?”

“Not when you’re their fun.”

“Oh, N. You need to have more backbone. They just do it ‘cos they can. The clowns in the last circus tried to annoy Wynonna.”

“What did your sister do?”

“Cut the legs off their costumes.”

Nicole laughed. “You’re a fibbing.”

“No. I swear, she did. They were known as the Bare Brothers after that.”

Nicole held her sides, trying not to laugh too much, knowing if she did it would bring on a coughing fit. She couldn’t stop herself. Laughter and coughing in equal measures ensued.

“That’s a bad cough. You should get that looked at.”

“I be alright. It’s you making me laugh.”

“I like you N. Wish I knew what N stood for.”

“Nobody. It don’t matter. Who needs a name in a circus?”

“True. But, if you were ever to marry, how would your wife know what to be called.”

“Ain’t the marrying kind.”

Waverly studied Nicole, her face betraying she was weighing up the implications of such a statement. She moved off towards her wagon. Nicole stood watching, catching her breath, the first real laugh she could remember in such a long time. Waverly returned to fetch her other two horses. No more conversation. Nicole needed to get Caspian ready. He usually rode at the front of their procession into a new town, adorned in his finery, bells tinkling to announce the circus had arrived. He loved all the attention he received from the children who ran beside him.

Dolls was shouting. As usual. Someone had left a cage door open. Several monkeys had escaped, causing havoc. Nicole managed to capture two, hugging them, telling them not to be naughty. They grinned, knowing at the slightest opportunity they would misbehave once more. The final monkey remained up a tree. A small group had gathered underneath, attempting to coax it down with a few pieces of fruit to no avail. Waverly heard the commotion, strolling over, climbing the tree effortlessly, extracting the monkey, bringing it down.

Nicole watched. She was used to seeing exceptional agility in performers, Waverly was different. Graceful, confident, sure-footed. A thump to her back brought her down to earth.

“Put your tongue away, boy. That’s my sister.”

“No. I…She. Monkey.”

“You calling my baby sister a monkey?”

“No. She. I…”

“Wynonna, leave N alone,” Waverly commanded. “He’s my friend. And, the horses.”

“N. Bet a penny your younger brother is called O.”

Waverly laughed. “That’s naughty. N, do you have a younger brother?”

Nicole nodded. She had no idea. When you end up in an orphanage shortly after birth how was she to know who comprised her family. All she had was that small note from the person who had left her, one fateful night, at the gates of the orphanage. The note she was unable to read, the note she kept safe in her wallet from someone who gave her up. Unable to take care of her.

To love her.

She imagined so many times what her other life might have been like if she had not been left at those imposing gates. Warm, cosy, hopefully better fed. Most of all, loved. What it must feel like to be loved she had often thought. By a mother. By a father. By brothers and sisters. Did she even have brothers and sisters? No one had mentioned them. Life in the orphanage had been hard. Expected to do what you were told, when you were told, like a horse. Little room for personal sensitivity. The quieter you were the better. She learnt to keep her head down, get on with life, not stand out. Difficult given the colour of her hair and her keen mind.

The new governor put a stop to any learning. What need of an orphan to know their letters and numbers. He considered all residents of the orphanage a burden on society, expected to repay their debts for having been fed, watered and housed in full. He took an instant disliking to Nicole for no particular reason. The short whip he carried in his hand used with increasing force until one day she no longer could take the beatings.

Her thin shirt stuck to her bloody back from the last reprimand. She waited until the coast was clear, taking her few belongings, making her way down the long corridor to freedom. She stood outside, the night bitterly cold, a frost already forming on the ground, shivering, wondering where to go from the hell she had escaped.

She walked for hours, in search of somewhere, anywhere that might be in need of a young serving girl. At last she came upon the circus, in a field, the lights still on in a few caravans. Too cold, too tired to carry on she approached, knocking on that one door that would change her life.

“Oh, my word,” Aunty exclaimed, looking at the sight before her. “Come in, my lovely before you catch your chill.”

“I don’t mean to be no bother.”

“How could you ever be a bother? Here, have a sip of my ale. You hungry?”

Nicole nodded, spying the food Aunty had out on her table. Aunty’s eyes followed hers. “Let’s get you fed. Where’s your family?”

“Don’t have none.”

Aunty placed a plate in front of Nicole. “Stray. Figures. You can stay here for the night. I will check with the Ring Master in the morning what we do with you. Here, eat.”

“Please. Don’t send me back. I’ll do anything. I can work.”

“Hush, my lovely. I’ll not send you back. Take your coat off. You’ll be a pig in ruddy blanket if you don’t.”

Nicole hesitated, knowing the shirt underneath was ruined. “I be alright.”

“My lovely, I won’t steal it from you. Here, let me take it.”

Aunty removed the coat seeing the large red stains on Nicole’s shirt. “Oh, my lovely. Who did this to you?”

“No one. It don’t hurt.”

“That’s it. My decision. You’re staying here with me.”

And, that was it. Aunty’s kind heart had secured Nicole her place in a travelling circus.

Chapter Text

The procession moved off in single file. Wagon after wagon carrying the life of the circus in their bellies. Waverly’s wagon was towards the back. Dolls wanted the new horses to make a big final entrance in the next town they were scheduled to perform. Caspian as at the front, head held high, enjoying the attention, Nicole by his side, stopping him from getting too carried away.

The musicians started playing as they neared the edge of the town. Always a spectacle to watch, excited children running alongside, adults waving from doorsteps or windows. Smiles everywhere. Often the only entertainment, the circus lifted the mood of everyone who came out to welcome its arrival. A small girl approached Caspian, nervously holding out a sugar cube in her hand. Nicole smiled, taking the cube, offering it up. Caspian snorted, not in the mood for treats right now, wanting to be adored. The girl continued to walk with Nicole, her eyes looking up in awe.

“You a juggler?”

“No.”

“You a lion tamer?”

Nicole laughed. “We don’t have no lions in this circus. We got monkeys. Naughty they are.”

“What about an acrobat. Can you fly?”

“I put the tent up. I take the tent down. I tend the horses.”

“That’s boring. I want to be an acrobat when I grow up.”

“Ain’t boring. Couldn’t see the show without a ruddy tent.”

The girl giggled. “You swore. That’s rude.”

“Go have a look at the horses at the back.”

“Why?” the girl asked, clearly not taking the hint. “Don’t you like me?”

“They’re beautiful that’s all. And, the girl who rides them.”

The girl giggled again. “She your wife mister?”

Nicole nodded. The little girl skipped off down the road towards the back of the procession to spy the other horses. She had no idea why she let the little girl believe Waverly was her wife. Wife. Completely unlikely under the circumstances. It made her smile though. She had never thought about marriage. No interest. All she wanted was to look after Caspian, the other animals, keep the show going, be a part of this world forever. Nothing else mattered.

The girl came skipping back. “You fibbed. She’s not your wife.”

The procession arrived at its destination, a group of children dancing at the back, cheering as the musicians stopped playing. Now the long, hard task of setting up, unpacking the tent, bringing out boxes, feeding animals, feeding entertainers. Aunty was busy with her helpers getting a fire started to heat water. Dolls was shouting at the clowns to return his top hat, which they were using to juggle, sending the children into fits of laughter, as he chased after it.

Waverly’s wagon pulled up alongside Nicole, a large grin on her face. “So we’re married are we?”

Nicole’s face burned. “No. That ruddy girl. Never said we was.”

“Am I not good enough for you Lord Nicholas Nightingale of Newbury?”

“More than. Tis me not good enough.”

“I don’t know,” Waverly replied, winking. “I think you’re rather handsome.”

Nicole did not know where to look, or what to say. Waverly flirting with her was not what she was expecting. Should she tell her she was a girl, she wondered, or, let the flirting continue? Wisdom would probably whisper it might be fairer to tell her sooner. Not lie. She kept quiet, unable to bring herself to reveal her identity.

Waverly unharnessed her horses, tying them to the side of the wagon until the stable could be erected. Nicole fumbled with Caspian’s bridle, eventually removing it earning a sigh. She stroked his neck, retrieving the sugar cube from her pocket, offering it in her hand. He gladly accepted, his teeth crunching hard on his treat.

They could hear Dolls calling for N. His gruff voice ordering the clowns to stay away from him. Sensing he no longer was in a playful mood, they waltzed off to find someone else to annoy. It was tent time, as many hands as could be spared standing round the edge of the laid out canvas to get their travelling home up before nightfall. Everyone knew what they had to do, standing ready to help hoist it into position. Nicole’s job was to hammer in as many stakes as she could, as quickly as she could. Tiring work, the mallet swung over and over to drive wood into soil.

Half way round she could feel her lungs burning, stopping to wipe sweat from her brow, cough. She looked up, noticing Waverly watching admiringly from her wagon. She really should have told her. It was wrong to let her keep thinking she was a man. She would tell her later, perhaps, once the tent was up, once Caspian was fed and herself. Perhaps she would tell her tomorrow.

The tent up, everyone could relax. Nicole made her way to Aunty’s wagon, coughing more, in need of that horrid medicine. Sitting at the table, a spoonful of medicine inside, her lungs easing, she tore off a large chunk of bread on her plate, stuffing it into her mouth.

“Don’t eat so fast,” Aunty counselled. “Small bites like I showed you.”

“Miss Waverly calls me Lord Nicholas.”

“Does she now? And, don’t talk with your mouth full.”

“She thinks I’m handsome.”

“You are, my lovely. Don’t go leading her on, mind. That not be proper.”

“Were you ever married aunty?”

“Once. Long time ago. Ruddy sailor.”

“Where is he?”

“Davy Jones’s locker for all I care. Ran off with another. Here, drink this, then take a plate of food to Dolls. He’ll be grumpy all evening if he’s not fed.”

Nicole downed the ale, picking up the plate and a mug, heading towards the big top to see what other jobs needed doing.

Wynonna and Waverly were already inside walking the ring, deep in discussion. Waverly smiled as Nicole entered carrying sustenance for the ring master. She smiled back, knowing now was not a good time to mention her gender. She spotted Dolls off to the side, working to repair a cracked pole. She left his food nearby, hurrying out in case she was ordered to do another task, heading to Caspian. She would need to sort out the other horses, but, always tended to Caspian first lest he grew impatient and moody. She heard him nickering as she approached, his way of saying "Good, you're here. Come talk with me."

She stroked his back. “I’ll not marry anyone, Caspian. I got you.”

Horses fed, jobs done, Nicole sat by the fire with the others, listening to one of the musicians playing an accordion. Aunty and a few others were singing a rude song, laughing and clinking mugs at the rudest phrases. Sex education learnt by the amber glow of a well-stocked fire. She had not seen Waverly since, nor Wynonna. They ate in their own wagon, kept themselves to themselves mostly. Their only interaction through the horses. Aunty had started another song, the accordion player attempting to match the tune, giving up. She had a lovely singing voice, able to hold a tune, an impeccable memory for lyrics, especially ones more risqué.

She was the heart of the circus. Good-natured, unless someone annoyed her, she spent most of her time cooking for others if not called upon to perform as a clown. She had performed most acts over the years, acrobat, juggler, a bad back consigning her in later years to the kitchen and a silly costume. She loved taking care of everyone as much as she loved the laughter and applause she received as she spun plates, or had water thrown over her as part of the act. She had informally adopted Nicole. No children of her own, her heart had gone out to the frail, red-haired girl, with the deepest of brown eyes, the very first night she arrived.

It had been aunty’s idea first to dress her as a boy. Knowing Dolls was looking for a new stable lad, aunty borrowed clothing from members of the circus, cutting Nicole’s hair short. “There, you be a fine looking lad. Now for a name. Can’t call you Nicole. I’ll call you N from now on. Is that OK, my lovely?”

Nicole nodded. The kindness she had been shown by this one stranger was more than she had received in all her time at the orphanage. Her only comfort came in her friendship with another girl, Daisy, the two roughly the same age, having both been delivered to the orphanage at birth. They were family to each other. More than family, the reason Nicole had received the most severe beating the night she ran away. Caught in bed with Daisy kissing, both were dragged out of the dormitory into the governor’s office, where he beat them soundly. He told Nicole she would be moved to another orphanage the next day, away from temptation. Her last image of Daisy was of her crying, knowing they would be parted. The few clothes and possessions Nicole owned were packed up, the bag thrown into the room where she had been told to wait, no opportunity to say goodbye to Daisy.

She sat on the hard, wooden bench sobbing, realising her life was over. Not being with Daisy would be death, she concluded, deciding if she could not be with her she would rather die in the outside world than in another cruel orphanage. She dressed, her back in agony from the lashes, opening the door, peering out into an empty corridor. Her boots in her hands, she tiptoed towards the door at the end, testing the handle. Locked. She spied a window high up, big enough for her to climb through. A small table underneath provided just enough height for her to reach it, pushing the latch up, letting the window hang loose. Boots on, bag thrown out first, she heaved herself through, tumbling to the ground outside. She shivered, her breath leaving her mouth in small white clouds. Pulling her coat round her, bag in hand, she set off, looking back once to see if anyone was following. A new life about to begin.

Aunty’s trick worked. Dolls nodded to say N could stay, provided he worked hard, kept out of trouble, didn’t steal. Nicole’s little secret eventually got out, by then she was part of the travelling family where misfits fitted in perfectly. Dolls even chuckled when he found out. “Aunty, I swear I’ll swing for her one of these days.”

Nicole worked hard, kept her head down, did not steal unless it was the odd sugar lump for her new friend Caspian. It really was love at first sight when they met. She could not believe her luck. A new home, new friends and now a new horse to care for. It was her choice to sleep with him in the stable. She heard him one night distressed by a storm, calling out for her. Aunty told her not to be silly, to stay inside in the warmth. She said she would be back once she had settled Caspian. That was the last time she ever slept in aunty’s wagon, preferring to stay with her horse come rain, or snow, or hot humid nights. The two inseparable.

Chapter Text

The circus usually stayed a week in a town, maybe two depending on how many came to see their performances. Show attendance on the first night was always in the high numbers, often sold out. Queues of excited circus goers waiting to buy entry to the big top, bags of boiled sweets in their hands having stopped by the stall Nicole helped man with aunty before the show.

Nicole wanted to be a performer, watching acts, dreaming one day she would be doing what they were doing. She occasionally helped aunty as a clown, her juggling skills leaving much to be desired making her performance even funnier for those watching. Unintentional, her lack of coordination meant she was not suited to being an acrobat. That and a fear of heights.

One member of the troupe had taken her under his wing. Doc. The great Dr John Henry Holliday, knife thrower par excellence and magician. Nicole sat for hours watching him perform card trick after card trick. He tried to teach her, but she kept forgetting, getting confused, messing up. He tried to incorporate her into his knife throwing act, but she had an unnerving habit of flinching every time he threw a knife which could be disastrous. Eventually, he settled on letting her pack his magic box before each show. Content with this menial task, she never questioned anyone’s decision for her.

Waverly entered the stable early, catching Nicole asleep, her head resting on Caspian, both snoring. She smiled at the sight of them together, pulling the blanket over N’s shoulders, busying herself with mucking out her four. Their low, rumbling noises at seeing food woke Caspian first, who snorted to let Waverly know he was not best pleased. Nicole stirred, coughing, holding her stomach, sitting up.

“That really is a bad cough. Have you not seen a doctor?”

“I be alright. Just the cold air. Give me a moment.”

“No wonder you’ve got it. Sleeping out here with only a blanket.”

“Have Caspian. He’s plenty warm.”

“A woman would be warmer,” Waverly said playfully. “You need a wash, mind.”

“Rude. Caspian don’t ask me to wash.”

“Sorry. I can be rude sometimes. Wynonna says I say things before my brain is working.”

Nicole caught Waverly’s gaze. “I need to tell you something. It’s best you know.”

“I know, you’re not the marrying kind. Girl can look though can’t she?”

“At what? Look at what?”

“Your hair. Never seen someone with that colour before. Can I touch it?”

“No. It’s only hair. Dirty hair at that.”

Before she could stop her, Waverly was running her fingers through Nicole’s hair, brushing it back off her face, tidying it up. Nicole felt a flutter in her stomach, closing her eyes, letting her continue, knowing she should say something, not wanting the moment to end.

She felt Waverly’s hands stop. “There, that looks much better. Very handsome I must say.”

“Look. Miss Waverly about that.”

Waverly was already heading out of the stables calling back, asking Nicole if she could give her horses water. Nicole would. Of course she would for Waverly. Another missed opportunity.

Late morning, everyone was getting ready for the first performance of the day. A matinee, due to begin at 2.00pm sharp. Dolls was in his element, striding across the sawdust-filled centre, shouting out instructions to anyone near enough to hear. Wynonna had requested some time to practise their routine before members of the public arrived. She wanted to be sure the horses were comfortable with their new surroundings and she and Waverly were synchronised.

Waverly led two of the horses in for the first part of their routine, the other two remained outside tethered. Her thick woollen coat covered the costume she would wear in the show. Wynonna mounted first, waiting for Waverly to settle her horse, the reins in one hand a long whip in the other. She tapped its hindquarters, getting it to walk with her. As the horse picked up speed, she took a running jump, pulling herself up onto the horse, trotting round the ring to join Wynonna.

The two set off, allowing their horses to familiarise themselves with the new space, all the time being controlled through the movements of the sisters’ legs. A few more turns round the ring they brought their horses to a stop, Waverly dismounting first, giving the reins to Wynonna, running to fetch the other horses. Nicole was making her way across the field, carrying a large box of costumes. She spotted Waverly leading the second pair into the tent. Intrigued, she followed, placing the box on the ground, sitting on it, watching as Waverly handed both reins to Wynonna.

Waverly removed her coat. Her costume, made of the brightest blue velvet, was fitted to perfection, little more than a skimpy bathing suit with long sleeves. There were costumes, then there were costumes. This was a costume. Nicole’s eyes studied every inch of it, unable to tear her gaze away. She watched as Waverly walked one of the horses, picking up enough speed for her to remount. A leap and she was on its back, bringing herself parallel to Wynonna, taking one of the reins. Now with control of two horses, she picked up even more speed letting the motion of the horse beneath tell her when to stand. The action was so fast Nicole nearly missed it, watching in wonder as Waverly controlled the horse she was now standing on with her feet and the reins. No saddle, just her and a horse. As soon as she had both horses moving together in a canter, she placed one foot on the back of the second horse. She was now controlling both horses with her feet in perfect timing.

Wynonna was shouting at her to keep her head up, use the whip. Either Waverly didn’t hear or didn’t bother to do what her sister was instructing. She was in her element, a wide smile appearing on her face. Gracefully balanced, her skill at maintaining her position on a moving animal utterly mesmerising. Nicole found herself clapping in appreciation, earning a wink from Waverly and a clip round the ear from Dolls for not getting the costume box to its destination. She heaved the box up, wishing she could stay, knowing it would be one of the acts she would enjoy watching later.

Aunty was preparing lunch for everyone. “Here N, give us a hand my lovely. This kettle is heavy.”

“Seen Miss Waverly on her horse.”

“You told her yet?”

Aunty could tell by the look on Nicole’s face she hadn’t. “Oh, N. You’re a one. Don’t you go getting no ideas.”

“Ain’t me with ideas. It’s her. Said I should wash.”

“You should. I’ve been saying for weeks. I’ll fill the tin bath in my wagon.”

“Can you get me more clothes?”

Aunty laughed. “Been here two days and she’s got you doing more than I could in two months.”

Washed, new clothes laid out on aunty’s bed, she dressed ready for the performance, remembering to brush her hair back the way Waverly had. She could still feel her hands running through her hair. The softest of touches, the way Daisy would brush her hair off her face to look into her eyes. She hadn’t thought about Daisy in years. Strange she should float to the surface of her memories now.

People were beginning to arrive for the show. She needed to get to the sweet stall. She made it with only moments to spare before Dolls walked past. He stopped in his tracks, turning, striding back, looking her up and down. “You washed N. New clothes too. Someone to impress?”

“No. It was time.”

“I need you to hold the horses for the bareback riders. Can you do that?”

“Yes. I can. I can.”

“You’ve always been good with horses. And mallets.”

Nicole beamed. The ring master had asked her to assist. No one else. Her. She was glad she had washed, put on better clothes. Wait till Waverly sees me, she thought, as she served the first customer.

The stall was busy. Lots of children with their parents eager to try an assortment of confectionery guaranteed to delight, according to the sign overhead. Pear drops, sherbet lemons, cough candy, rhubarb and custard, aniseed twists, fruit pastilles. A luxury reserved for their visit to the circus. Nicole worked as fast as she could, bagging up while aunty handled the money side. Penny a bag. Aunty tried in the beginning to teach her the values on coins, how much change to give. She never appeared interested, preferring service over sums. The queue for sweets usually died down before the show started, everyone eager to get to their seats. She too would have time to get to the big top, be ready to hold the horses for Waverly.

The first act had started as she entered, standing just inside the entrance, listening to the applause, the gasps as the jugglers performed ever more amazing feats of balance. She felt a hand on her back, turning Waverly was beside her, woollen coat pulled tight so as not to reveal her costume, her make-up and hair done ready for the performance.

“Dolls asked me to hold your horses.”

“I asked him to. You’re the only one I trust with them. They get spooked easily. Especially Ferdinand, the black one. Highly strung. Hold his reins tight, let him know you’re not afraid.”

“Not afraid of no horse. Love them.”

“Wish someone loved me the way you love Caspian.”

Nicole felt her face burn again. “You’re too pretty not to be loved.”

“You think so? Must go, Wynonna will be wondering where I am. So bossy.”

She went to turn, pausing, looking back at Nicole. “I like your new clothes. Very handsome.”

She really, really needed to tell her, she realised. After the show. She would tell her after the show.

The time approached for the bareback riders to entertain. Nicole was outside, pacing nervously, hoping not to mess up. Waverly approached leading two horses, Wynonna behind. A nod as she passed, Wynonna handing the reins of her horses to Nicole, a serious look on her face. Nicole had come to understand the private faces of performers, lost in last minute thoughts about their act before entering the tent. Once inside, it became all smiles and laughter and fun for all. Only clowns were allowed to have sad faces and those were painted on.

Every performer knew what they did in the ring had the sole purpose of entertaining. It was of no concern to an audience that a performer was sad, or annoyed, or tired, or simply bored with what they did. The show went on, regardless of emotion. There to make those who watched wonder at incredible feats they could not do themselves. When your life revolved around long hours slaving away in a factory, or down a mine, or looking after children, the circus offered an escape. A way to forget your troubles and woes for a few hours at least. A tall ask. As tall as the clown on stilts.

Nicole waited for Dolls to introduce the next act, his powerful voice booming out, his whip striking the ground to add more excitement. Waverly’s act had begun. She desperately wanted to see it, knowing she needed to wait for the entrance curtain to be pulled back so she could lead the two horses in. She listened as Wynonna explained to the audience what they were about to do. A running mount, a leap from one horse to another at speed, a back flip. The entrance curtain opened. It was Nicole’s turn, walking the horses in, making sure Ferdinand behaved himself. She stood at the edge of the ring, waiting for one of the sisters to take the reins. Wynonna approached, smiling, taking them from her, leading the pair out to the centre. Nicole’s job was done.

She watched the remainder of the act. The two sisters worked perfectly together, able to control their horses with only the movements of their feet and the reins. She was drawn into their dance as they reared, spun on their hind legs, cantered round the ring. The act received a standing ovation, huge applause and the odd wolf whistle from men entranced by these scantily-clad riders. Men rarely got to see women wearing so little clothing. Nor, women for that matter. Only in the confines of a circus tent could the human form be revealed to this degree. Another world. Intoxicating. Sexually potent.

Nicole helped walk the horses back to the stable. Caspian snorted seeing her, his ears twitching, fretting he was being abandoned. She went to him, leaning her head against his neck, stroking his back, telling him she was only doing a job for Miss Waverly. She had no treats for him other than a bag of cough candy she secreted in her pocket for later. She offered him one, his nose sniffing the offending item, another snort to say that was not going anywhere near his mouth.

Horses unharnessed, rubbed down, fed, watered, Nicole sat on a bale of hay taking out the note she had in her wallet. She liked the way the words were written in delicate blue ink, letters joined together. At least, she assumed that was what she was seeing. She didn’t notice Waverly enter, her mind lost in a thousand thoughts of a life she never had.

“What’s that,” Waverly said, peering over her shoulder. “Oh N. A love letter. I knew you had someone. Can you read it to me?”

“No. It’s mine. Ain’t no love letter neither.”

“Reads like a love letter. Can I see?”

“No. I said it’s mine. It’s all I have.”

“Oh N. I’m sorry. Look I won’t pry. You’re right. It’s yours. I shouldn’t be so nosy.”

Nicole looked up, sensing Waverly really didn’t mean her any harm. She held out the piece of paper. “Here, you read it.”

“It’s beautiful. And, you say it’s not from a lover. Or, secret wife.”

“No. Don’t know who it’s from. Don’t even know what it says.”

“Let me read it to you.”

Waverly read the words, handing the note back to Nicole, spying more writing on the reverse. “N, there’s a name. Nicole Haught and the name of an orphanage.”

Nicole took the note from Waverly, her eyes lowered. “I ain’t no gypsy and I ain’t no boy.”

Chapter Text

Waverly laughed, playfully punching Nicole’s shoulder. “I know you’re not a boy. You’re a man. And, I guessed you were not a gypsy.”

“Ain't no man neither.”

Waverly stopped laughing. “But, you look like a man. And, you dress like a man. And, you have manly hands.”

“Are me hands manly?”

“And, you have short hair. And, you are very handsome. Come to think of it, a little too good looking. Oh my.”

“Am I handsome?”

“And, you are definitely not a man?”

“Last time I checked.”

“Can I see?”

“No you ruddy can’t. I don’t see yours.”

“You do. Can’t not see in that costume Wynonna makes me wear.”

“That’s different. A costume’s a costume. You’re meant to see everything.”

“Now who is being rude? I saw you looking earlier.”

“Wasn’t. Never seen a costume like that before, that’s all.”

“A pity.”

“A pity what? Not seeing a costume like yours?”

“No. You. If you had asked.”

“Asked what?”

“Never mind. We can still be friends, yes?”

“Yes. Friends, we can be friends. Would you like a cough candy?”

Waverly popped one in her mouth sucking it a few times, spitting it out. “What is that? It’s horrid.”

“Caspian didn’t like them neither.”

“Will you help again this evening? Ferdinand likes you.”

“Shush, not in front of Caspian. He don’t like sharing me with no other.”

Waverly sighed. “A pity.”

Nicole was relieved she had told Waverly finally. Although, part of her would miss the flirting, the playful banter, the side looks. She was beginning to enjoy the attention she was getting. The occasional grope by a drunk clown was the most she ever experienced in her time with the circus. Aunty had suggested once she might want to wear a dress as she grew into a young woman, Nicole replying she would not be able to swing a mallet if she was all trussed up, or tend to the horses. The latter was a lie. She had grown comfortable in her male clothing. It was her. It was who she wanted to be in her circus world. Unquestioned. Unchallenged. No one seemed to mind. It also allowed her to go unseen, invisible to those with wandering eyes and wandering hands, apart from clowns.

She had seen the eyes of those who lusted after female troupe members. She had heard stories of members of the public getting carried away, fancying their chances with those who allowed themselves to be half-naked in public. In their minds it was an open invitation, little knowing it was no invitation at all. Dolls had had to rescue one frightened young female from the clutches of a rather burly man who seemed to think he could simply kidnap the circus girl of his dreams. They were half-way out the field before her screams alerted the others, Dolls giving chase, a swift punch to the jaw, a few ripe words. The man returned later with several of his equally burly friends. When they saw the entire circus standing ready to defend one of their own, they slithered away into the night.

Another performance would start at 7.00pm. Their first night performance, almost certainly guaranteed to be a sell-out. It would be busy. Daily routine ran around show times. A growing nervousness in the air as the next show approached. The mess left after a performance usually took time to clear away, Nicole and a few others sweeping the remains of fruit and paper bags that once contained sweets from under seats, making sure fresh sawdust was down, any unwanted piles left by the horses shovelled away. The smell and the heat of the tent, the intensity of activity, kept Nicole from ever wanting to run away from the circus. It held its own magic, where anything and everything was possible. A plate able to remain spinning on a thin stick, an acrobat balancing on a thin pole, a trapeze artist flying through the air, catching a small swing, or the legs of another performer.

The monkey act was always reserved for evening shows. Less predictable, certainly less controllable, more inclined to run amok, a more adult audience would roar with laughter at their antics where younger children might be frightened. Hats stolen from heads, fruit grabbed from hands, bags of sweets snatched from unsuspecting audience members. Thankfully, they didn’t bite but were menacing enough to make grown men gladly give up what was in their hands should they be picked on. The monkey controller drew a line at them stealing beer. A drunk monkey was never good, especially if it decided to relieve itself from one of the tall poles onto the crowd below.

Such was the fun of the circus.

Doc’s act always drew the biggest gasps. His assistant, less nervous than Nicole, was able to stand perfectly still as knife, after sharp knife came hurtling in her direction. Rosita, another gypsy, able to read the palms of those who wanted to know their future. For the pretty price of a penny, naturally. Doc was developing a new act, a rotating wheel, Rosita strapped to the middle, its slow spin adding another element of danger to the act. Nicole watched as Doc and Rosita worked out the routine, the odd knife nicking an arm, or a leg. She was extremely grateful not to be a part of Doc’s newest idea.

Rosita never seemed to mind. There were rumours the two were together, although Doc had a reputation of running free, his eyes in search of anyone new to add to his collection of conquests. Charismatic, with an eye for the ladies, he knew how to lay on the charm sufficiently to get those he fancied to follow. His eyes had spied Wynonna.

Nicole stood with Doc as he prepared to go on. His mind not on his act, but on a certain bareback rider. “You spoken with the rider sisters yet?”

“Yes. Waverly and Wynonna. I tend their horses.”

“Do you think you can get me an introduction to the older sister? Waverly.”

“Wynonna. I only talks to Waverly. Could ask.”

“Two pennies if you get Wynonna to have a drink with me.”

Hands shaken, a wink from Doc, Nicole had a new mission.

The show over, Nicole led the horses back to the stables. Caspian was restless. He had been out in the field most of the day with the other horses, most of which he considered inferior. He wanted Nicole. Her attention on the other horses was not to his liking. His snorts and grunts as she entered telling her she was in his bad books.

“I be working. You must let me work. Or, I be gone. You don’t want that do you my friend.”

Another snort, a stamp of his front hoof, to let Nicole know he was offended. “I know. I’m sorry. We be friends. I’ve got you something. Not a cough candy. Here.”

She offered Caspian a sugar lump. He sniffed it, turning his head away, indignant that was all he was being offered. “Suit yourself. I give to one of the others, shall I?”

His head turned quickly, snatching the lump in case Nicole did what she threatened. “Thought you didn’t want it?”

Another snort. She rubbed his neck, resting her head against his side, stroking his nose. “Just us. No one else. Just us.”

Waverly watched from the stable entrance in silence, her eyes filling with tears, knowing the love Nicole had for Caspian ran deeper than anything. She loved her horses, treated them well, but was brought up in a family that had taught her to be practical. Not too much sentiment. A sick horse, a lame horse was no good for an act. They were there to perform for as long as they could. She entered, placing her hand on Nicole’s back, an action that made her jump.

“Caspian needed me. I’m sorry.”

“I know. Don’t ever be sorry. That’s what I love about you, you understand horses.”

“Caspian was my only friend when I got here. And, aunty. Oh, and one really naughty monkey that liked my hair.”

“N. Nicole, I know what it’s like to feel lonely even with so many vibrant people around us.”

“I haven’t been called Nicole in years. Only in the orphanage.”

“How did you end up here from an orphanage?”

“Ran away. One too many beatings. Aunty took me in. Said she wouldn’t send me back. Not to a place so cruel.”

“That’s dreadful. I thought my life was tough, but nothing compared to yours. Is that why you dress like a man?”

“Aunty’s idea so I could get me a job in the stables. Got used to it. Don’t have no bows and frills to worry about.”

“That is true. Many a time I wished I wasn’t dolled up. And, I must say you do look very good dressed as a man. You fooled me. I was quite taken.”

“Were you? But, I’m not a man.”

“Oh N. Nicole. No, I like N. This is the circus. We can be and do whatever we like.”

“I can’t be a man if I’m not a man.”

“True also. But, you can be you.”

“Doc wants to take Wynonna for a drink. He’s offered me two pennies if I can get her to say yes.”

Waverly laughed. “Tell him, four pennies and we’ll see.”

Nicole bed down for the night. It had been an interesting day to say the least. From being mistaken for a man, to not being mistaken for a man, from helping with Waverly’s act to being an intermediary in Doc’s latest romantic interest, her life in the circus could never be considered dull. Her eyes closed, shifting to get comfortable, blanket pulled up close to her head, she let her mind wander to wherever it wanted to go.

A lush green meadow on a beautiful summer’s day, the grass tall, Caspian taking a drink from a crystal clear stream nearby. Another horse, Ferdinand was drinking too. Odd, she thought, Caspian letting Ferdinand be so close to him. A voice, Waverly’s calling her to come eat. A blanket, the one she used to cover herself in the stables, laid out on the ground a selection of food and an unopened bottle of beer on display. Waverly offered her hand, empty, no food, no drink, only her. Taking her hand she kissed it lightly on the back, Waverly giggling. She could hear her words. “See, I knew you liked me.”

“I do. Let me show you.”

She kissed the back of Waverly’s hand once more. “And, maybe this.”

She kissed the crease of Waverly’s arm, eliciting a soft moan. “And, maybe this.”

She kissed Waverly’s exposed shoulder, Waverly’s eyes closing in breathless anticipation. “And, maybe this.”

Eyes locked on Waverly’s lips, their fullness, their invitation. Waverly's lips parted ever so slightly as she moved closer, Nicole knowing this was what she wanted, hoping this was what Waverly wanted. Caspian shifted, jarring her head, the moment instantly disappearing.

“Caspian! I was so close. What you do that for?”

She closed her eyes once more. The meadow, the horses, the stream, the rug, the food. No Waverly. Just her long whip, lying beside the rug, suggesting she was somewhere out of sight for Nicole to find.

The morning air caught on her lungs. Nicole coughed as hard as she could, desperate to feel right. Her cough was persistent, reluctant to leave. She had suffered with coughs for years, putting it down to her sleeping arrangements, aunty scolding her for not taking her health seriously. A doctor was expensive. She had the money, the little she earned kept in aunty’s wagon spent on little more than a few beers and a Christmas present for aunty each year. Aunty had stopped celebrating her birthday so many years ago she had forgotten which day it fell on. As Nicole had no idea when her birthday was, they came to an arrangement that they were both born on the same day as baby Jesus. It saved having to buy each other too many presents.

Nicole was always the better present giver. She knew aunty liked a drop of rum and a nice ornament for her wagon. Nothing too fancy mind. All in good taste and within reasonable cost. She and Rosita would go shopping, a handful of coins from aunty with strict instructions for her not to go mad, knowing Nicole would come back with something she would love just because it had been bought for her by that beautiful little girl who happened to knock on her door one cold, miserable night. She had said to Nicole many times her arrival had saved her from the bottle. Lonely, tired, in need of a quieter life, she had been seriously considering retirement from the circus. Perhaps a small cottage by the sea, tending a vegetable plot, her days spent reminiscing about a life on the road.

Nicole renewed her spirit and her joy for life. Those innocent brown eyes, looking at her with all the love a child of her own might have given, she pushed any thoughts of leaving the circus to the back of her mind. White-haired by the time Nicole arrived, her decision reversed in an instant so she could be there for this child for as long as she needed her. Ever mindful she was not her mother, she let her grow into the person she chose to be. So proud of her. Loving, loved, passionate about her horse, the younger heart of the circus.

Her N.

Chapter Text

Waverly sat on her bed while Wynonna prepared breakfast. Wynonna could tell something was on her younger sister’s mind. Lost in thought, she played with the yellow wool hair of the rag doll Wynonna had given as a gift on her fifth birthday. As Wynonna explained all those years back, it was on loan. Somehow it never got returned.

“Tell me, or I take the doll back.”

“You can’t. You gave her to me remember. Mother said you can’t take back what is given.”

“I can. Anyway, you’re too old for that doll.”

“So are you. You’re not having her. So there.”

“Just tell me. Has someone upset you? You’re not still pining after that stupid Hardy boy?”

“No one upset me.”

“Your face says different. Let me take little dolly from you.”

“It’s mine. You’re horrid. Wait till I write to mother and tell her you stole my doll.”

“Here, dolly dolly. Come to mama. I might cut dolly’s hair, like your stable friend.”

“Right. That’s it. Dolly and I are leaving. Forever. Never to return. Aren’t we dolly?”

Waverly made the dolly nod its head. “See, dolly agrees.”

“It’s that stable boy. Bet he’s tried it on.”

“She. And, no she hasn’t tried to kiss me.”

“Just as well. What? No. He is a she?”

“Ran away from an orphanage.”

“And orphan boy. Sorry, girl. But, he’s, she’s wearing the wrong clothing.”

“It’s how she likes to dress. Her name is Nicole. I prefer N. More mysterious.”

Wynonna shrugged. “If you say so.”

“And, you are not having my dolly.”

Wynonna picked up a pair of scissors, opening and closing them slowly. “Snip, snip, snip.”

Waverly let out a playful scream, running from the wagon, clutching her adopted doll in her arms. “You’ll never get her. She’s mine. Forever.”

She ran to the only person she knew would help her. Nicole was mucking out the horses when she entered, looking up, wondering why Waverly was out of breath, carrying a doll in her arms.

Waverly panted. “Can you look after Mabel for me? Wynonna wants to cut her hair.”

Nicole took the doll, straightening its dress, brushing its hair back. “Is that what sisters do?”

“It’s her way of getting me to talk. She dangled Mabel over a bridge once till I told her who I kissed.”

Nicole lowered her eyes, remembering her dream, not wanting to stare at Waverly’s full, inviting lips. She had only known her for a few days and already her life was changing. A shift, a movement towards she knew not what. Drawing her out of hiding. Here she was trusted by Waverly to look after Mabel and her horses, trusted by Doc to get him that drink with Wynonna.

“Did you ask Wynonna about Doc?”

“Oh no. Sorry, completely forgot. I’ll ask her later. Little worried if I go back without Mabel she’ll cut my hair.”

“Would she?”

“Cut my hair? No. Although, I do like your hair…”

“Would she have a drink with Doc?”

“Maybe. I’ve seen her looking at the ring master.”

“Dolls ain’t no drinker. Big heart with a bigger stomach aunty says.”

“Do you fancy going for a ride with me later?”

“I can’t.”

“Pity. I was hoping to give Ferdi a run. He’s a little too spirited in the ring if he doesn’t get a good gallop.”

“Can’t ride. Wants to.”

“We’ll have to change that. Would you like me to teach you?”

“I ain’t standing on no horse’s back. Too ruddy dangerous.”

Waverly laughed. “No, silly. Bareback. I can teach you how to ride Caspian without a saddle.”

“Caspian, you hears what Miss Waverly said. We’re going riding.”

Mabel safely hidden with Nicole, Waverly returned to her wagon to finish breakfast. She remembered to tell Wynonna of Doc’s invitation. Wynonna said she might consider for six pennies. Waverly grabbed the final slice of bread on her plate heading once more to the stable. Nicole had fitted Caspian’s bridle in readiness. Waverly made swift work of Ferdinand’s, leading him out first into the field. She waited for Nicole to catch up, walking together to the furthest corner. Caspian looked at Nicole to say he was not entirely comfortable with what was happening. She stroked his side, whispering in his ear he was the best horse.

Waverly tied Ferdinand to a fence rail, returning to where Nicole was with Caspian, standing off to one side, calming herself, removing any tension from her movements. She moved slowly towards Caspian, pausing, allowing him to adjust to her presence, moving nearer, pausing, letting him know they had all the time in the world to become friends. Approaching, she kept her gaze down as a sign of respect. She waited for Caspian to turn his head towards her offering her hand as he did so. A sniff, Nicole could see Waverly studying Caspian’s body language, waiting for him to settle. Nothing rushed. Gentle movements gaining trust, opening the way to a new friendship.

Sensing he was ready, she placed her other hand on Caspian’s neck, stroking it telling him he was the most beautiful horse she had ever seen. Waverly took the reins from Nicole, another pat on Caspian’s side. “Shall we go for a walk you and me, my beauty?”

Caspian walked off alongside Waverly, letting her lead him wherever she wanted to go. Nicole could see Waverly was experienced handling horses. To see Caspian melting in Waverly’s hands made her quite emotional. Left empty-handed, she watched as her best friend happily walked off with another. A pang of jealousy rose up, not wanting anyone to take her horse away from her.

Having walked, Waverly broke into a slow run, Caspian picking up speed beside her, clearly enjoying the interaction. All the while Waverly was watching for the moment she might mount. She attempted a leap, Caspian sensing her movement, jumping to one side. Bringing him back to a fast walk, waiting, waiting, another opportunity came, her speed meant she was on Caspian’s back before he could react. Nicole could tell he really wasn’t sure about this new arrangement, bucking his hind legs in an effort to unseat his new rider. Waverly patted his neck, continuing to stay on, more than able to handle his movements. She made several wide circles round Nicole, bringing Caspian to a halt, giving the reins to Nicole.

“Walk him with me on his back. I can feel he’s getting used to it.”

Nicole did as she was told, letting Caspian walk behind with Waverly seated. Several wide circles, Waverly dismounted allowing Nicole to continue walking him. She stood waiting for Nicole to come back round, taking the reins once more, breaking into a slow run, mounting once more, picking up speed, letting Caspian feel her above him. Repeating the steps over and over, Nicole watched as Caspian grew more and more confident with someone riding him this way. Waverly dismounted, walking Caspian back, stopping by Nicole.

“I’m going to put you on Ferdi, while I ride Caspian. He’s a little jumpy still and Ferdinand is used to being ridden bareback.”

Nicole followed Waverly to where Ferdinand was waiting. “You’ll not leave go will you?”

Waverly laughed. “No. I’ll have the reins. Trust me.”

“I do. It’s Ferdinand I don’t trust.”

“He’s fine. I’ll help you up.”

“What do I do when I’m up?”

“Hold on. I won’t go fast. Just a slow walk.”

Waverly tied Caspian to the rail, standing to one side of Ferdinand, her hands linked in readiness for Nicole to mount. Nicole looked at what she had to do. It was one thing being next to a horse, an entirely different matter being on one. As much as she trusted Waverly, the prospect of getting on the back of a horse terrified her. She approached tentatively, unsure she was doing the right thing. Waverly smiled, patiently waiting for Nicole to become settled, just like Caspian. Eventually Nicole could put it off no more, using Waverly’s hands to step up.

Her first attempt sent her toppling backwards landing on her backside with a thud. She groaned, rubbing the part that had hit the ground hardest, righting herself, attempting a second go. Her weight forward, she managed to throw her upper body over Ferdinand’s dragging one leg over his back as Waverly pushed her other leg up, hanging on for dear life. This was definitely outside her comfort zone. Waverly instructed her to sit up, get steady on Ferdinand’s back, hold his mane. She could feel herself shaking, not sure what she would do if Ferdinand suddenly decided to make off with her.

Waverly untied the reins, walking slowly round the field, letting Nicole get used to being on the back of a horse. She watched as Nicole gradually relaxed her legs, letting the motion of Ferdinand beneath her guide her movements. A natural synergy developing. Sensing Nicole was ready, she drew up by Caspian, taking his reins leading him out, letting both horses walk together. Remounting, she was now at the same height as Nicole, smiling across, knowing they had made enormous progress in one session.

Not wanting to push too far on the first lesson, they took a slow walk back to the stables, Waverly dismounting first, tying up Caspian, all the while holding onto Ferdinand’s reins. She would take him for a gallop later. Nicole slid off his back, the feeling of firm ground under her feet more welcome than ever. Breathing a sigh of relief, a desperate urge to hug Waverly, stopping short, realising they needed time to establish the boundaries of their friendship.

“That was ruddy great.”

“I’m glad. Caspian’s a natural. He’s a very good boy.” She patted his side, earning a sigh. “And, you were very good too,” patting Nicole on the backside.

“Ouch. That’s where I landed.”

“On your cheek?”

“Me arse.”

“It’s called a cheek.”

“No, me arse.”

“It’s also called a cheek.”

Nicole looked confused. “How you know all this stuff?”

“I read. I have a book. I can teach you to read if you like.”

“That’s a lot of teaching. Me brain will pop.”

“It won’t. You will be able to read the note for yourself.”

“What can I give you? Can’t just takes. I got to gives.”

“Oh, N,” Waverly replied, wondering whether she should be cheeky. “There is one thing you could give me.”

“Anything. Name it. I get it for you.”

“Your lips.”

“Which part of me is that?”

Waverly giggled. “You know full well.”

Nicole hesitated, studying Waverly’s face. “Is that what you want?”

“If you want to. I usually have to fight the boys off. This feels strange. Good. But strange.”

“But, I’m not a boy. And, you still want to kiss me?”

Waverly nodded. “There’s something about you N. I need to know.”

Nicole removed her cap, throwing it behind, placing her hands on Waverly’s hips. The most exquisite, beautiful living doll, with soft, sweet smelling clothes, and curves, and bones under skin. She was shaking once more, so was Waverly, all cheekiness departed now the moment was upon her. Lips so close, full, inviting, warm breath against skin. Drawing nearer, and nearer, and nearer.

Nicole stopped short, hesitant to do what she dreamt of doing, knowing Waverly had asked, not knowing if this was too soon. She pulled back, looking at Waverly’s face, eyes now closed, lips slightly apart. So tempting, so beautiful.

“I can’t. Tis not be right.”

Waverly opened her eyes, a look of frustration. “You don’t want to?”

“No. I do. I really do. But…”

“N, for ruddy sake kiss me. I’m dying here.”

It was what they both wanted.

Their first kiss.

Chapter Text

Waverly set up her own schoolroom in the stable using one bale of hay for a seat, another for a desk. She sat patiently beside her new pupil on the same bale, taking in her smell. Earthy, outdoors, horses. The unmistakable scent of ‘eau de cheval’ wafting from her clothes. A long piece of white chalk in her hand, she wrote the letter N on the small black slate in her other hand. “I say it, you repeat it.”

“Repeat what?” Nicole asked, clearly distracted. “Can we do lips again?”

“Only if you learn your letters. This is N. Say it. N.”

“What? Say what?”

Waverly realised this might be more of a challenge than she initially thought. Nicole appeared unable, or unwilling to focus even on one letter, wondering if it might be too late for her to learn how to read and write. Never one to give up, a character trait drummed in from an early age by her father, she would persist. She enjoyed being a teacher, had played schoolrooms with her dolly when bored and alone, teaching Mabel how to write her name. Now she had a real pupil, albeit more demanding than her doll.

“N. Give me your finger. We can touch the letter together.”

“Can we touch lips? All the touching I need.”

“N! Look, if you learn five letters I’ll let you kiss me. Deal.”

“Two letters. Two kisses.”

“No. It’s my school. Five letters, two kisses. Now concentrate and stop looking at me like that. All soppy eyes.”

“You’re a hard master. Alright, where’s me five?”

“It’s, where are the five,” Waverly corrected, seeing a confused look appear on Nicole’s face. “Never mind. We’ll start at the beginning. These are the first five letters of the alphabet.”

She wrote out the five, taking the chalk, pointing to each, saying its name out loud. “Now you repeat after me. A.”

Nicole repeated the sound. Waverly said the next letter, Nicole repeated the sound, till they got to the fifth letter. “Now can I have me kisses?”

“Not yet. You need to write each letter and tell me the sounds.”

“You never said nothing about no writing. That’s more work. So I reckon more kisses.” Nicole counted on her fingers, calculating what two plus two made. “I need four kisses, that’s right. Four. One, two, three, four.”

“Well, I’ve learnt two things about you already. You can count and you’re cheekier than any boy.”

“Can I have me kisses now and I write after?”

Waverly sighed. “Alright. One kiss if you write the letter A for me and say its sound.”

Nicole took the chalk from Waverly, attempting to hold it, not knowing how. Frustrated, desperate for that kiss, her fingers fumbled for a way to keep it steady. She huffed, eventually gripping it like a stick, fingers curled tightly round its shape. Waverly gently uncurled her hand, positioning the chalk the way it should be held, letting Nicole get used to the sensation of having it rest against her fingers.

Sensing this was all new, Waverly placed her hand over Nicole’s guiding it to the slate, positioning the chalk in one corner. Starting at the bottom of the letter, she moved Nicole’s hand in a straight line up diagonally, bringing it down to make the inverted V of the first letter, moving the chalk to the middle, running a line across to complete its shape. Nicole stared at the first letter she had ever written. Magical.

Waverly studied Nicole’s face, her eyes wide with accomplishment. “That’s the letter A. You wrote the letter A.”

“What’s the next letter? Show me the next letter.”

“Don’t you want a kiss?”

“After I does me letters. Move my hand.”

Waverly laughed. “Oh N. You are funny. This is the next letter.”

Waverly proceeded to guide Nicole’s hand to write the five letters, repeating the sounds over, and over so she would begin to recognise which sound went with which shape. Seeing how much Nicole was enjoying the experience, she had one final treat for her.

“Would you like to write Caspian’s name?”

“You hear Caspian. I be learning your name.”

Waverly wiped the slate clean, placing the chalk on the slate once more, showing Nicole how to move it to create the letters of his name in capitals. Too much to teach lower case in this first lesson, she would save that for later. Nicole stared at the name she had written. “That’s C, that’s A…”

“That’s an S,” Waverly continued. “Next is a P. Then I. What’s the next letter?”

“A. That’s A.”

“Yes. And, the last letter is your name. Well, the first letter of your name. N.”

“N. Caspian, you have my name. Can I write it again?”

“You can. Go over the letters with the chalk. Now, for those kisses.”

Nicole looked up, beaming. “I wrote Caspian.”

A sharp thump to the arm brought her back to her senses. Wiping her mouth, brushing her hair back from her face, she leaned forward, taking Waverly’s hand in hers, kissing the back softly. “That’s one.” She moved up Waverly’s arm to the crease. “That’s two.” She moved to Waverly’s neck, pushing her shawl from her shoulders, moving the collar of her shirt to one side. “That’s three.” Their eyes met, the fire in Waverly’s telling Nicole her actions were having the desired effect. She brought her lips closer, her breath on Waverly’s cheek. “And, this is four.”

Their second kiss. Long and slow, allowing the moment to exist on its own. Nothing rushed, every sensation felt. A learning experience for both of them. They would have remained locked in their sensuous exchange had Caspian not farted loudly sending them into fits of giggles. They had been together for less than a week, both feeling they had known the other for eternity. Their growing friendship more a reintroduction, lovers finding each other again across time, across distance.

A homecoming.

Waverly needed to take Ferdinand for a gallop before the matinee performance. Nicole had a hundred jobs she needed to do. She sat looking at the letters on the slate. She had done that. She had written Caspian’s name. Waverly had taught her. Also, they had kissed on the lips for a second time. The warm feeling in her heart was quickly replaced by a sharp pain in her ear as Dolls clipped her round the head, yelling he had been looking for her for ages. She followed him out, Dolls moving at a pace towards the entrance to the field, needing help to erect a sign.

Task completed, Nicole returned for the slate on her way to aunty’s wagon. She found her leaning over her small wooden table cutting bread in preparation for lunch. “Look what I has. I wrote Caspian’s name.”

“Did you my lovely? How clever. Did a certain Miss Waverly help you?”

“She did,” Nicole replied, beaming. “The first letter is C. Then A. Then N. That’s my name.”

“Oh my lovely. That’s not your name. That spells CAN.”

“No. N. I only knows five letters. A, B, C, D, E.”

“My word. You do. Oh, N. I’m so proud. And, you know N too. That’s six letters.”

“Six. Is that after five?”

Aunty had tears in her eyes. “It is my lovely. See, you’ll be able to work the sweet stall on your own soon.”

“Could I? But, I wants to keep working with you.”

“And, I with you. I’m not getting any younger N. There’ll come a time when I may needs to put my feet up.”

“I know. I’ll do everything for you. Told you I would. You tell me when and I’ll do it.”

“Oh N. Pass me that bottle of rum, I needs to calm me nerves. What did I do to deserve you?”

“Don’t know. Something bad I reckon.”

Aunty was now crying, her arms wrapped round Nicole, hugging her close, burying her head in her shoulders. “My lovely N.”

Waverly knocked on aunty’s door looking for her N. She watched as the two embraced, sensing they needed this time together, walking slowly back to her wagon alone. Wynonna had taken one of the horses to town to buy provisions. She would be back later for the first show of the day. A mother to Waverly since ever she could remember, her own mother having picked up the gin bottle after her birth and never put it down.

From a well-known Romanian family of acrobats, Waverly’s mother fell for her husband at first sight. Tall, handsome, raven haired, he came from another large gypsy family, the Erpoli’s from Italy, bareback riders, their act in high demand. The couple met when their respective families joined one of the largest travelling circuses in Europe, marrying after only a few months courting.

He taught Waverly’s mother how to ride, how to perform ever more daring tricks. Her natural balance enabling her to learn quickly, adding finesse to the stunts. Ambitious, they worked hard to make a name for themselves, eventually deciding to go it alone with their own act. Success came in France, Waverly’s mother dazzling audiences with her acrobatic feats. They heard of a static circus in England looking for new acts from Europe, paying very well. An opportunity too good to miss, they boarded a boat one frosty spring morning, accompanied by two small girls and four horses, heading to a new country and a new life.

Everything went well the first few years in their newly adopted circus and country. A name change ensued, more by mistake, than design having been misheard by the customs officer tasked with registering incoming passengers at the Port of Dover. Their name became Earpole. A few choice jokes at the family’s expense, Waverly’s father shortened it to Earp.

Their act was well-received, gradually moving up the performance order to become the star attraction. At the peak of their demand, Waverly’s mother fell pregnant for a third time, forced to give up performing earlier than with her previous two. The pregnancy left her constantly tired and depressed, a difficult birth and constant back pain afterwards meant her career was over.

Their father continued with the act on his own until Willa and Wynonna were old enough to join him. Wynonna had her father’s strength and timing, Willa had her mother’s grace and agility. The trio worked well, rebuilding their reputation as the Extraordinary Earp Entertainers.

A proud Italian, more modern than most men of his time, he wanted the very best for his daughters, sending them to school at the earliest opportunity. Himself taught by a kindly ring master, a desire for knowledge awakened, he sought the way of books for his children. It was unusual for circus folk to know how to read or write. There’s was the life of the road, taking their chances. He had enough foresight and common sense to know the world was changing, that his daughters might need something more than a tent and a talent for riding horses to make it in the world they were moving towards.

Being the youngest, Waverly spent more time in school than her older sisters, relishing each day she would learn her letters and numbers. She wanted to be a teacher, or a ship’s captain, or a doctor, or a scientist, little knowing so few of these professions were open to women at that time. Eventually, she grew to love the circus, any thoughts of other professions diminishing, knowing in her heart she was meant to follow her family much to the annoyance of her father. Watching her the first time she mounted a horse, he changed his mind. She was a natural.

The family spoke a mixture of English and Italian, with the odd Romanian swear word thrown in for good measure. They would sit reading a story together each evening, or looking through the large book their father had purchased at a street fair, showing maps of the world. They practised the names of faraway countries, dreaming of the day they would visit each and every one.

Willa being older was often out, catching the eye of a certain magician, marrying early as seemed to be a growing tradition in their family. Leaving to join another circus, they occasionally saw her if she was close enough to ride over. Waverly took her place in the act. Combining all the skills of her sisters, plus an ability to send an audience wild through her winks and waves. Many came to see the performance just for her, many came to gaze at the most beautiful woman they had ever seen dance on the back of a horse. Many came to dream about her, like Nicole. She knew she had their eye, she enjoyed the attention, recognising even at a young age their act was in demand, understanding it meant money coming to the circus.

When their mother became ill, their father knew it was time for the older generation to retire, returning to Italy, finding a small plot of land with a house, somewhere to grow vegetables and fruit, helping at the largest villa in the next town in the stables. Left on their own, Wynonna decided it was time for her and Waverly to find a new circus. She put the word out, receiving a reply from Dolls in less than a month saying he was interested in their act.

A new world opened up for them.

Chapter Text

Waverly sat on the steps of her wagon waiting for Nicole to walk past. Hers was closer to the stables. She watched as Nicole left aunty’s wagon, slate in hand, still gazing at the first word she had ever written. Waverly could see the look on her face, heart-melting, childlike. Masculine in bearing, easily mistaken for a boy given the way she dressed and carried herself, Nicole had one endearing character trait which fascinated Waverly. Innocence. As if the world was as simple as a piece of cake. She gave the appearance of not having a care in the world, happy with her lot, not wanting much other than to look after her horse and those who loved her, like aunty.

Waverly had met kind-hearted people before. Nicole, her N was different. Her N. How funny, someone she had known for only a short time touching her heart and her lips so soon. Her choice to kiss N in was in equal measure out of curiosity and desire. To know what it would feel like to have those full lips against her own. She had kissed others, nearly lost Mabel off a tall bridge over her first kiss. Another girl. Wynonna didn’t appear to mind, as long as she knew who it was. The circus being the circus families lived together, entertained together, close proximity giving rise to all manner of relationships, families mingling, marriages encouraged.

As much as Waverly enjoyed the attention received from an audience, she wanted someone to call her own. With Willa gone, with her parents gone, a new family to get to know in the circus they had newly joined, for now it was just her and Wynonna. She could make friends easily, male friends too easily, her father having had to step in on occasions when a circus lad became too enthusiastic over his youngest daughter. His biggest worry before leaving England was for Waverly, knowing she would have to stand up for herself once he was no longer around, Wynonna reassuring him she would be there as her protector.

Waverly desperately wanted someone to love her, not the charismatic character she played on the back of a horse. Most chose not to see the real Waverly, the studious, sometimes sad, sometimes lonely Waverly, preferring the vivacious blue velveted performer they ogled night after night. Observant enough to see the winks and nudges between circus lads, even while twirling on the back of a horse, she chose the youngest Hardy boy to date eventually, he being the lesser of evils in her opinion. Gentle, caring, giving the impression he was interested to know her thoughts, a little boisterous on occasions when with his older brothers. Attentive. Her father sent word he approved.

And yet, something was missing. A spark, a genuine connection. The one she shared with N. Her N. She would teach her all the letters, get her to read for herself the note she carried in her wallet close to her heart. She would teach her to ride so they could gallop across fields together. Did it matter she was a girl? A little. For society’s sake. For acceptance. But then, this was the circus. No, she liked N for who she was, carefree, not worried in the slightest about offending society by the way she dressed. Her N.

Nicole walked towards Waverly’s wagon lost in thought, staring at the slate. Waverly aimed a piece of cake she had in her hand, missing, breaking off another piece, missing again. “N, would you like to learn more letters?”

Nicole walked by, completely ignoring her, a smile on her face.

Waverly chased after, not sure why her N was acting this way. “I said, would you like to learn more letters?”

Nicole jumped, not realising Waverly was beside her. “Yes. You teach me more.”

“Why did you ignore me? I was calling. You walked past.”

Nicole lowered her head. “Don’t hear so well. Only got one good ear.”

“Oh N, I’m sorry. From birth?”

“From that ruddy bastard at the orphanage.”

Waverly grabbed her, pulling her in, forgetting they were in the middle of a field surrounded by the other wagons. “Which is your good ear?”

“Me right. I can see lips. Aunty taught me a little. Knew I couldn’t hear proper.”

“So, you can hear me?”

Nicole nodded. “Unless I be ill. Can’t hear naught then.”

Waverly held on tighter, her new friend had melted her heart completely. “That’s settled. I’m going to teach you to read, to write, to ride a horse, and if I can find a book in the library, how to read hands.

Nicole grinned. “That’s a lot of kisses.”

Waverly took her hand, leading her N back to the wagon. “Can you stay with me for a little while?”

“Need to get your horses ready for the act. Caspian needs a run in the field.”

“The horses can wait.”

Nicole sensed Waverly’s loneliness. So many times she had felt lonely in the orphanage, adrift, no port to call her own. Her friendship with Daisy driven as much by survival as genuine desire. Two small urchins left to the mercy of those who cared little for their well-being. Hugging each other to sleep most nights, an inseparable bond forming as they grew older. It was Daisy who suggested they see what kissing was like. She said it was to practise for when a boy kissed them. Nicole didn’t care if a boy ever kissed her. All she wanted was Daisy, warm in her arms, warm in her bed, warm against her lips, a warm heart against a cold world.

They entered the wagon, about the same size as aunty’s, fewer ornaments, Waverly moving a basket of laundry to one side, stepping over a few clothes Wynonna had left on the floor. A small space, easily cluttered, the two sisters still to learn how to work it to their advantage. She led Nicole to her bed, sitting on the edge, patting the space beside. “Wynonna will be back soon. We could talk, or…”

“What do you want to talk about?”

“Oh nothing. Maybe we could lie on the bed and play being a family.”

Nicole looked confused. “Or, I could kiss you.”

“I meant that, silly. But, you need to take that jacket off. It’s too scratchy.”

“Ain’t complained before?”

“And, your waistcoat. And, definitely your boots. Wynonna will have kittens if we get mud on the bed clothes.”

“Want me to dance too?”

Waverly giggled. “Only with your hands.”

Waverly undid her boots, placing them to one side, moving back on the bed, waiting for Nicole to join her. Nicole watched, knowing she wanted to be here with Waverly, nervous about how fast things were moving. She remained seated on the edge of the bed, head lowered, not wanting to misread the situation.

Waverly edged forward, taking Nicole’s hand. “What’s wrong? N, have I offended you?”

“No. I. Only. I like you. Caspian likes you.”

“So, if you like me what’s the problem?”

“What if I fall in love with you, and…”

Waverly gasped. “Oh N, I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. You’re right. I shouldn’t. Its only, I like you too. I’ve known you such a short time and I can’t stop thinking about you. But, you’re right.”

Nicole looked into Waverly’s eyes. “I lost someone dear to me when I ran away from the orphanage. Wanted to die. Aunty saved me. Can’t give me heart again unless it’s right, it would kill me.”

A tear trickled down Waverly’s face, Nicole collecting it on her thumb, brushing a few loose strands of hair from Waverly’s face. “I have to tell you something.”

“What?” Waverly asked, seeing the concerned look on Nicole’s face. “Tell me.”

“Caspian nibbled Mabel’s foot. I mended her. Has new booties.”

It did the trick. Waverly rolled her eyes, thumping Nicole on the arm. “I leave you to look after our child and your ruddy horse eats it.”

“She be alright. Might hobble a bit with wonky legs.”

Waverly grabbed her sides unable to stop herself laughing. “Oh N, what did I do to deserve you?”

Nicole left first, scanning the field to see who was around. A circus thrived on rumours and gossip. The last thing they wanted was their growing friendship to be the talk of the tent.

Doc spotted her first, walking over, putting his arm round her shoulder. “How is my date coming along?”

“Six pennies.”

“What! Tell her five and a kiss on the cheek. And, don’t tell Rosita of our little arrangement.”

Nicole grinned. “Five pennies, one kiss.”

Doc studied her face. “You look mighty pleased with yourself. Am I missing something?”

“Five pennies, one kiss.”

“That’s right,” Doc replied. “You’re making me nervous. Tell me, or I put you on that wheel of mine and throw knives at you.”

Nicole shook her head, knowing no money had been exchanged for her kisses with Waverly. She knew in her heart she would never have to buy her friendship, or her kisses. It was simply a question of letting what had started grow at its own pace. Nothing rushed.

Wynonna returned from market, provisions dumped on the only remaining visible surface in their wagon. She pulled out a book, buried beneath a package of bacon and an assortment of vegetables. “I got this for you. Moby Dick. We can read it together. Why aren’t you in your costume?”

“Have you ever loved someone Wyn?” Waverly asked. “I mean not like mama and papa, or Willa and me, really love someone?”

Wynonna paused. “Who says I love you? No. Maybe. Once. Why?”

“Nothing. Only, did your heart feel strange?”

“Wasn’t my heart felt strange. You’re too young for me to explain.”

“No I’m not. I’m old enough to know. So, you’ve had that funny feeling in your tummy?”

“Obviously. Like the first time it happens on a horse. Remember.”

Waverly blushed. “Oh. That feeling. Is that love?”

Wynonna laughed. “No, but it’s great for your pizda!”

Waverly gasped. “You can’t say that. Papa would have kittens you swearing.”

“He no be here. Help me with these bags. And, get into your costume.”

Chapter Text

Sunday was a day of rest, hence no shows to prepare for. It gave everyone in the circus time to relax, enjoy the one day that was their own. Wynonna was off out somewhere, Waverly wanted to go riding. With N. Anywhere they could be alone, out of sight from the rest of the circus. To enjoy each other's company. Her first thought was to sneak N into her wagon again, deciding there would be too many curious eyes and too many wagging tongues, especially in broad daylight.

A ride it would have to be.

She packed a few things for a picnic into a basket, stealing one of Wynonna’s bottles of beer from the shelf, repositioning the others so as not to make it obvious. Not a big drinker, not a drinker at all, she knew Nicole liked ale. She had tasted it on her lips. Placing the writing slate on top, she tucked two pieces of chalk down the side in case they fell out.

Nicole’s riding ability was progressing. A fast learner, from not being able to get on a horse, to barely being able to stay on one, she now could mount and dismount with ease and had a fairly good posture when seated on Caspian. Still too nervous to ride without assistance, Waverly kept hold of the reins allowing their horses to walk together across fields and down country lanes. She had found the perfect spot while out on a solo jaunt. A quiet field, with a small stream at the bottom where the horses could drink, an easy ride for her N.

Sunday, or not, Nicole still had plenty of chores that needed doing, Waverly becoming increasingly impatient as Nicole rushed back and forth on errands for Dolls, helping Doc sort out his magic box, cleaning out the monkey cage. Waverly’s life was beginning to revolve around Nicole’s.

She found Waverly sitting on a hay bale in the stable late morning, arms folded, the packed picnic basket by her feet, moaning to Caspian. “It will too late to go, if she doesn’t hurry up,” she huffed. “You and I will have to eat the cake.”

Caspian’s ears pricked up at the mention of cake. “Just one slice. The rest is for N. She needs fattening up.”

Caspian snorted, letting Waverly know he considered the very idea of sharing any treats with Nicole an affront to his elevated position in their relationship. Panting, having run across the field to get to the stable, Nicole remained in the doorway, bent over, one hand on her knee, the other hand up, struggling for air. “Give us a moment.”

“Well Caspian, look who finally came back to us. Kept us waiting all the morning.”

Regaining her breath, pulling herself upright, she smiled at the scene before her. “One last thing before we go.”

Waverly huffed. “I might as well go on my own. Do please hurry up.”

Nicole removed her cap, folding it in her hands. “Thought you liked me kissing you slow.”

“That’s your last chore?”

Nicole nodded. “Saved it till last. If you don’t want to, if you don't wants me to kiss you, we can go.”

“No, we have time. Plenty of time. How do you do this to me?”

“Does what? Ain’t done nothing yet.”

“Make my tummy feel funny. Every time you say you will kiss me.”

“Mine does that too. When you laugh. And…”

“And what? What else? Tell me.”

Nicole’s face burned. “Nothing. Do you want that kiss, or not?”

“If you put it that way. Not. Unless you tell me what makes you feel funny.”

“Can’t. Ain’t be proper.”

Waverly grabbed Nicole’s hand, pulling her down to her level, staring into her eyes. “I’ll use gypsy magic on you to make you tell me.”

They were facing each other, Nicole on her knees looking deep into Waverly’s eyes. “Your legs. Tries not to look, but when you be on Ferdinand, and your skirt be up.”

“Right, that’s it. You are for it Lord Nicholas for being so impertinent. I must whip you soundly.”

Nicole recoiled at the one word that brought her more fear than any other. Scrambling to get away, terrified Waverly might actually do what she threatened.

“N, what’s wrong? What have I said?”

“I not be whipped again, ever.”

“No. No. No. I didn’t mean it. N, forgive me. I’m sorry. Please, I would never do that to you.”

Nicole sat hugging her knees, head down, unable to meet eyes. She felt Waverly’s hand stroking her hair, her other hand on her arm, knowing Waverly had not meant to scare her. She looked up, eyes watery, desperate to hold back her emotions.

“I’ll never say that to you ever again,” Waverly soothed. “Friends?”

Nicole nodded, wiping her eyes on her sleeve, feeling ashamed in front of the one person she wanted to impress. “Ain’t your fault. You ain’t the one who marked me.”

“My words upset you. Please tell me we’re still friends.”

“Course we are. Can I have me kiss now?”

“Oh N. Don’t do that. Don’t make me feel like this for you.”

“My lips are a dancing for your sweet taste.”

“Where on earth did you learn that?”

“Aunty. One of her songs.”

Waverly pulled Nicole towards her, holding onto her collar, letting their lips dance in sweet embrace.

They made their way down the narrow country lane Waverly had come across until they reached the opening to the field she spied on a previous ride. Dismounting, leading the horses in, she walked them towards the middle of the field, holding Caspian while Nicole joined her on the ground. Nicole stood looking at the view, her blanket from the stables slung over her shoulder, wondering how this could be. The same field, the same stream, the same everything as in her dream. Pure coincidence? Kismet? Déjà vu?

Waverly led the horses to the stream, walking back to Nicole who had remained motionless since dismounting, unable to fathom how she could be living her dream.

“What is it?” Waverly asked. “You’ve gone pale.”

“Dreamt of this place. And, you. And, kissing you.”

“You’ve been here before? It’s beautiful.”

“Ain’t never been here. I kissed you four times. That’s how I knew how.”

“Maybe we were meant to be here. Maybe you were meant to kiss me four times.”

“I’d do more than kiss you four times. Come here.”

Nicole threw the blanket on the ground, pulling Waverly towards her by the waist, eliciting a small squeal in anticipation. Young lovers alone, in a field of dreams, enjoying what young lovers enjoy doing most.

Waverly sat up, brushing her hair back, looking at her N lying on her back gazing up. The look of contentment on Nicole’s face letting Waverly know she was with the person she most wanted to be with in that moment. Nicole’s jacket removed, waistcoat removed, braces hanging, shirt untucked, one hand behind her head, the epitome of rugged beauty. Waverly’s fingers traced the buttons on the upper part of Nicole’s shirt.

“If I show you mine,” Waverly said tentatively, “will you show me yours?”

“Ain’t nothing to see.”

“Let me. I want to lay my head on your soft skin.”

“You been listening to aunty’s saucy songs.”

Waverly’s hands reached for the end of Nicole’s shirt, beginning to lift it. “Can I? I just want to see.”

Nicole’s hand stopped her. “I be marked. Ain’t nobody seen but aunty.”

“Marked. I don’t understand. Who marked you?”

Nicole sat up, bringing her knees to her chest, contemplating how best to explain how her back came to be marked. “I got beat bad. Daisy got beat too, cos of me. Aunty saw what he’d done the night I came to her door. That’s why she took me in. That’s why she kept me. Said I ain’t going back to no place that did that.”

“Did what? N, did what?”

“I can’t show you. I be marked that’s all.”

“N. Look at me. It’s alright. I have a mark on my side where Willa spilt boiling water by accident. I was a baby. One day we will show each other our scars.”

Nicole looked at Waverly. She was the first person she had told. No one else needed to know. Aunty had seen the marks left when she removed her shirt the first night, sobbing at the sight, pouring herself a large rum, offering the glass to Nicole as she bathed her wounds with salt water. She did the best she could, dressing her back daily. The physical wounds healed quickly, the emotional wounds took longer. Nicole would cower if so much as a hand moved quickly in her direction. Aunty warned everyone to be especially gentle with her N, lest they get the back of her hand.

The first few nights after leaving the orphanage she would wake in a cold sweat, terrified someone would find her, take her back, lock her away from aunty forever. Aunty would comfort her, rock her in her arms, saying they would have to drag her away over her dead body. No one came. When the circus moved on the nightmares became less frequent. They would pass through the town once a year, parading along the streets, Nicole hidden away in aunty’s wagon, peeking out in case she might see anyone from the orphanage. The only person she wanted to see was Daisy. How she longed to see her face once more. She never did. Orphans rarely got to venture beyond the gates.

She would often wonder what became of her Daisy, until one day she didn't. Now a faded memory, a name no longer echoing in her head. A ghost. Her new, exciting life in the circus replaced most of the bad memories. It was another reason she preferred dressing as a boy. A new identity, new persona if you like, a way of hiding who she really was from anyone who might recognise her. It also allowed her to mentally detach from the life she had led before the circus. She was a new person, with a new family. And, a new name.

“I know,” Waverly announced, “let us write our names.”

She retrieved the writing slate from the basket and both chalks. “Let’s start with your name.”

“I be N.”

“No. Well, yes. Don’t you want to write your full name?”

Nicole looked unsure. It was the name she had in the orphanage, the name she had chosen to leave behind. “I likes N.”

“N’s perfect. Sorry, I’m sorry. I love your name. Why am I like this with you?”

“Show me your name with your hand. I like you leading me.”

“Stop it. You’re making me feel funny again. And, stop looking at me like that.”

“Like this.” She kissed the back of Waverly’s hand.

“Don’t you dare! You’re doing this to distract me.”

“And, like this.” She kissed the crease of Waverly’s arm.

“I swear N, do not make me fall in love with you.”

“And, like this.” She pulled down Waverly’s shirt, exposing her shoulder.

“N, stop, my stomach feels really funny.”

“And, this.” Nicole pulled Waverly into the most passionate kiss they had shared, feeling Waverly’s body go limp in her arms falling back onto the rug. Shaking her like a rag doll to revive her, panic setting in. “Waverly, what’s wrong. Wake up.”

She opened one eye, grinning. “You’ll be the death of me Lord Nicholas.”

Picnic over, a slow ride back to the circus, neither wanted the day to end. Another kiss in the stables, Waverly pretending to swoon once more earning a pat on her backside for being cheeky. “You’ll not be fooling me again Lady Waverly.”

“I feel safe with you, N. I can be who I want to be, like you.”

“I just be me. Just N.”

“You’re more than just N. You’re my N. No one else can have you.”

“Don’t knows about that. Caspian be wanting me, and aunty, and Doc. Dolls can’t do nothing without my help.”

“But, they cannot have your lips, or your beautiful eyes, or your rich, red hair.” She paused, knowing what she most wanted. “Or, your body.”

“They be yours.”

“Is there anything you want from me?”

Nicole stepped back, pretending to study Waverly’s body, considering what she most wanted. “Your heart. That’s all I wants.”

Waverly gasped, pulling Nicole close once more, resting her head against Nicole’s chest. “I can hear your heart. It’s beating fast. Oh N, my N, what a pickle we are in.”

Chapter Text

Aunty was hanging out washing as Waverly passed, humming a tune. “Hello my lovely. You seem mighty happy.”

Waverly smiled, introducing herself. “You have a beautiful wagon.”

“Kind of you to say. There’s a brew on. And cake. Made it this morning. Could do with the company. N’s off somewhere with Dolls.”

“She told me.” Waverly followed aunty inside, taking a seat, studying the many ornaments.

“They be from N for me birthday. Such a good heart that one.”

“When is N’s birthday?

“Same as mine. December 25th.”

“That’s lucky having the same birthday and on Christmas Day.”

Aunty smiled. “Ain’t our real birthday. N don’t know when she was born. I’m too old to remember. Or, care.”

“Oh, I see. Silly me.”

“Ain’t silly. You weren’t to know. When’s yours?”

“September 8th.”

“I’ll have to let N know. Will you still be with us?”

“I’m not sure. Wynonna is keen to get our name known. I hope we are. I like the people.”

“Do you now. And, would those people happen to be a certain N?”

Waverly lowered her head in an effort not to give too much away. “Oh, my dear. Don’t worry, N’s a good child. Can’t stop her talking about you. Waverly this, Waverly that. You’ve made quite an impression.”

Waverly looked up, feeling the heat in her cheeks. “She’s very good with our horses. And Caspian.”

“Before you came all I heard was what that ruddy horse of hers was up to. Grateful you took her mind off him. Ain’t healthy how much she loves that horse.”

“Horses are like people. Sensitive. Have to be handled the right way.” Waverly took a bite of aunty’s fruit cake. “This is delicious. My sister makes ours. Not as good as this. Can I ask you something about N?”

“Of course, my lovely.”

Waverly paused, unsure whether she should mention what was on her mind. “I don’t mean to pry, but, N said she was beaten at the orphanage.”

Aunty turned from the small stove, sad eyes meeting curious eyes. “She said that? She don’t like talking about that place.”

“Only, she mentioned being marked. I’m not sure what she means.”

Aunty slumped on the small wooden stool opposite, tears welling. “It’s not my place to say. She came to me like an angel in the night. That’s all there is to it. No children of me own. And, this little angel turns up looking for someone to love her and, well how could I not.”

“You’re right, how could you not. Thank you for the tea and cake. I must get the recipe. N’s doing well with her reading. I want to teach her to write next. And, maybe sign language for her hearing.”

“Oh my, you be an angel too. Ain’t many would do that for N. She ain’t one for learning books. You must have a special touch with her.”

Waverly smiled, feeling her face getting hot again. Leaving aunty’s wagon, a few slices of cake wrapped in paper to take back to Wynonna, she spotted Nicole and Dolls returning. Nicole jumped off the cart as it approached so she could walk with her. “I got you something.”

“Oh N. You shouldn’t. That’s very kind of you. What is it?”

“Can’t show you here. Come to the stables later. I has to help unload the cart.”

“Did Dolls see you buy it?”

“No. I stays with the cart while he had an ale, or two. Spotted it on a stall.”

“I had tea and cake with aunty. She says you talk about me all the time.”

“Not all the time. I tells her about some things.”

“It’s fine. She loves you dearly.”

“And, I her. Wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for her.”

“Oh, N. I’ve got that feeling. Like my stomach is jumping. And, my head is spinning.”

“Ain’t swooning on me again?”

“I must be tired that’s all. Maybe if a certain someone could rub my back.”

“Ain’t no one but me allowed to do that.”

“I meant you silly. Go, before Dolls starts shouting.”

Nicole went to kiss her, realising at the last moment what she was doing, pulling back. Waverly watched as she skipped off in the direction of the big top, at peace in her own little world.

Doc passed by, doffing his hat, smiling. Waverly smiled back. “I hear you want to take my sister for a drink.”

Doc stopped, weighing up whether he should discuss his romantic interest with the younger sister. “Pray tell me, does she have someone special?”

“Yes. Me. But, she’ll have a drink with you for nine pennies.”

Doc laughed. “I seem to recall the going rate was five pennies.”

“Suit yourself.”

“I will consider the offer. Good day to you.”

Waverly curtseyed, Doc removed his hat, making a large gesture with it as he bowed. Waverly liked him. He had a confidence only someone like Wynonna could handle. Never shy to tell a man when and how they had overstepped her invitation. Not unfriendly, she had a way of scaring off most who were not able or willing to handle a fiery woman. Their father, papa, had told her many a time to be gentle with those who came a courting. She would nod, giving the impression she was listening, all the while knowing she would handle her life, especially her love life, in her own unique way.

Wynonna’s desire to move on from the permanent circus where they had spent most of their childhood, was in part to establish their own act beyond the shadows of her father’s. His act had been extremely successful, even as a solo performer. His name brought in large crowds to watch him perform ever more daring acrobatic feats on the back of a galloping horse. By the time the girls joined him in the ring, his hair was greying, his joints aching after each show, yet his name still continued to attract many who came just to see him entertain.

When he and mama left for Italy, the crowds who came to see their father’s act gradually thinned. Wynonna had two choices, work extra hard to build up her reputation in one place, or hit the road and spread the Earp name further, hoping pastures new would mean pastures greener. The upkeep of their show horses was expensive. They had enough money put aside, left to them by their father, yet Wynonna knew it would only last so long. Without the draw of the large crowds, they had once enjoyed, their reserves could soon dwindle, leaving them with no option but to quit the circus for good. Something she did not want to contemplate. Not yet, anyway.

Waverly had been correct in telling aunty she might not be with this circus come September. It was early March now, their arrangement with Dolls was for six months. If the act was successful, if they drew in a big enough crowd they would discuss extending that arrangement. Otherwise, Wynonna would move them on to the next circus that would have them.

She cautioned Waverly before they arrived not to become too friendly with anyone, knowing any friendship formed might have to end if their act was not generating enough business. Easier said than done when it came to Waverly. Her ability to care for that one sick puppy and love it back to life was her gift to the world.

Had she not been born into the circus, Wynonna was sure Waverly would have become a nurse, or a school teacher, or a governess to extremely rich, over-stuffed, over-privileged children who would adore her. She also knew she would make a wonderful mother one day. Hardly surprising, therefore, how quickly she took Nicole under her wing, determining to improve her. Nicole had not needed improving before Waverly arrived. And yet, any yet, here she was blossoming, growing, coming back to life because of Waverly’s loving touch.

Nicole was brushing down the horses when Waverly entered, sneaking up, placing her hands over N’s eyes feeling her jump. “So, what did you get me? I’m dying to know.”

Nicole pulled out a small square packet from the same inner pocket she kept her wallet, no bigger than her hand, tied with string. “Hope you likes it. I be no good at choosing. Here.”

She handed it to Waverly, watching as she undid the string, unfolding the brown paper. Waverly removed the ribbon. A beautiful emerald green colour. The colour of her eyes. “Oh N. It’s…it’s.”

“You don’t like it. I can get another. There be lots of colours. We can go tomorrow.”

“N. It’s perfect. Help me put it on. And, the colour. It really is perfect. Thank you. I must get you something.”

Nicole pointed to Waverly’s lips. “Could I have those?”

Waverly curtseyed. “You may, Lord Nicholas.” She moved closer, placing her hand on Nicole’s chest. “I can feel your heart.”

Nicole mirrored Waverly’s hand, placing it on her chest, feeling her breathing increase. “And, I yours. Ain’t never felt that before. Me tummy’s dancing.”

“Mine too. This is such a pickle. Wynonna told me not to do this. But, I can’t help myself with you.”

“Do what?”

“Get too close, in case we have to move on.”

Nicole pulled her hand away. “When?”

“Not for a while. Ages yet. Oh N, I don’t think I could leave. Not now. And, we have so much to do together. All the learning, and…”

Nicole was backing out of the stables, a look of despair on her face. She fled, Dolls calling after her needing help with another broken tent pole, cursing her for not being close enough to hear him. He would have to get another member of the troupe to hold the pole for him. He preferred N to do it.

Waverly was beside herself. She knocked on aunty’s door, tears streaming down her face. Aunty had been sleeping, it took a while for her to answer, tiredness and a few too many rums at her age could do that. Drowsy, wondering who needed her, it took a moment for her recognise Waverly, ushering her in, offering her another slice of cake.

“N’s run off. I told her we might only be with the circus a few months.”

“Oh, my lovely. She’ll be alright. She’s a lot like a horse. Too sensitive sometimes. She be back in time for the show, and food. She ain’t one to go without food. Not our N.”

“Are you sure? I’m so sorry. I should never have encouraged our friendship.”

“Oh, my lovely. You and me. You and me. The night she came to me, those eyes and that smile. And, the way she hasn’t a care in the world. How anyone could do that to a child?”

“Do what? Aunty, what did they do?”

“She was in a bad way. I don’t know how she got this far. I would have died if it were me. And, her shirt. Oh my, covered. And, her back. Oh my, makes me cry even now. She walked all that way, in all that pain. I never seen nothing like it. Oh my.”

“Aunty, are you absolutely sure she’ll come back? I feel dreadful. I did this to her. The one place she feels safe and I’ve driven her away.”

“Hush my child. She be alright. I knows my N. She’ll be back.”

The matinee performance came and went. No N. One of the clowns stood in, holding the horses for the sisters. Ferdinand decided to play up, rearing as he entered the tent, to the gasps of the audience. Wynonna frowned, wondering why N wasn’t on hand to calm the horses. The evening performance was upon them, still no N. A light rain had begun to fall as crowds of eager circus goers lined up to buy sweets from aunty’s stall, waiting to enter the big top. Even she was beginning to worry. It was not like N to miss a show for anything. Even when ill, even when her lungs told her to rest she would carry on, making sure the show kept going.

By the end of the evening performance the rain was coming down hard. Those who were inside the tent pulling coats and hats over their heads, knowing they had a long walk back to the town. No one had seen N since she ran away. The show over, the sisters brought their horses back to the stables, Waverly sobbing uncontrollably by the time they reached the entrance.

Wynonna was astute enough to know this had something to do with N. “Waverly, tell me. You can’t keep this to yourself.”

“I made N run away. I told her we wouldn’t be here long. And, she ran off. And, it’s all my fault. And, she ran away from an orphanage. And, I made her run away from here.”

“Waverly. Breathe. She’s just some stable lad, lady, who looks after our horses. She’s not important. Dry your eyes. I know everything is new. I know you miss mama and papa, but we are together. And, we will be successful. You wait and see.”

“She’s not some stable lad,” Waverly shouted, “she’s my N. And, I don’t want to be famous, or successful. I just want someone who is mine. You hear. Mine.”

Wynonna stepped back, allowing herself to understand what her sister was saying. “Waverly, look at me. You mean the world to me. Is N special?”

Waverly nodded. “I can’t help it, Wyn. I look at her and my world stops.”

“My sweet baby sister, we love who we love. You love N. Does she?”

“I think so. I mean, she ran off when she thought I was leaving. Wyn, if I lose her…”

“You won’t. Perhaps don’t mention this to papa when you write to him, but if N is the one, then we make this work for us. She’s very good with horses. Could do with someone like that on our side.”

Waverly hugged her sister. “Oh Wyn, I love you.”

Chapter Text

Early morning and N was still missing. Everyone had spent a restless night worrying where she might be. Dolls, the clowns and dozens of helpers had searched the fields leading to town, calling out, lanterns swinging in the ceaseless rain. Cold, wet, tired they returned to the circus, ready to begin another search when it was daylight. Everyone agreed this was not like N.

She had walked for miles, clothes sodden, past caring, shivering as any remaining warmth in her body washed away. She stumbled, hitting her knee on a large stone as she went down, groaning on impact. Rolling over, biting the top of her index finger to take her mind off the pain, she sat for a while, attempting to make sense of it all, unsure what to do next, where to go.

One thing she knew, she could not sit there all night, pulling herself up, hobbling on. Her cough persistent now, her lungs burning. She wanted to be with aunty and Caspian. Safe, warm, dry. Not wandering aimlessly with nowhere to go, nowhere to run, or hobble. Where could she go? She had no home other than the circus, no family other than her circus family, no life other than what she did, day in, day out for Dolls, and Doc, and aunty, and everyone who needed her.

She understood her adopted life was one of change. She knew performers came and went, that the circus meant constant movement of people, of possessions from one town to the next. Unpack the tent, pitch the tent, perform, pack up the tent once more. Unpack, pitch, perform, pack. Unpack, pitch, perform, pack. The relentless routine for everyone involved. She knew that. She knew Waverly would need to move on eventually. She knew that.

“It be fine,” she reassured herself, “it be fine.” She shuffled along, each step jarring her injured knee, her breathing laboured. “I has me horse. That’s all I need. Don’t need no one who breaks me heart.”

She stopped, wondering where she was. So far away from those she loved. “I be alright. I turn me self around. I goes back. Ruddy knee. I ain’t never giving me heart. I ain’t never. She can go for all I care. Ain’t need no learning neither.”

No longer able to go any further, her knee too painful to stand on, she sunk down against a tree, praying the rain would wash away the feelings she had for that one person who continued to dance in her mind. “Ain’t having me heart,” she yelled into the night. “Hears that, Waverly Earp, ain’t having me heart.”

The search resumed shortly after 7am. Aunty and Dolls took the cart heading away from town, the clowns were tasked with scouring the fields alongside the road into town. Waverly and Wynonna were on horseback, high enough to see over hedges into fields beyond, asking anyone who passed by if they had seen a tall lad with red hair on their journey.

A woman said she had seen someone fitting that description out by Taylor’s farm, about three miles north. Said she had called out as she passed by, receiving no response, assuming the person was resting. The woman’s face betrayed her thoughts. Wynonna thanked her for her time, instructing Waverly to find Dolls, sensing it would be better if she found N alone. Waverly was reluctant, wanting to go with Wynonna, she too fearing the worst. Wynonna was firm, telling her they would need the cart, that this was the most sensible thing to do. She galloped off following the directions the woman had given, Waverly heading in the opposite direction to fetch Dolls.

Wynonna rode as fast as she could, another storm was on its way. She saw her legs first, stretched out, a tear in the left leg of her trousers, the edges around which were now a deep crimson. She slowed, bringing her horse to a halt, dismounting, looking down at the pitiful sight before her. She was sure she was looking at a dead body, N’s skin a pale grey colour, her cap resting over her eyes. No movement. She realised the woman who came across her had probably thought the same, not wanting to mention it. Kneeling down, she touched N’s hand. Icy cold, her soaked clothes hanging on her body. Wynonna could feel tears running down her face. She heard the cart approach, Waverly trotting ahead leading the way. She wiped her eyes, trying not to let Waverly see she had been crying, trying to block her sister’s view. It was no good, Waverly saw N, dismounting, running to her, shaking her by the collar.

She stirred, moaning at being violently woken in that manner. She coughed then winced as the pain in her knee returned. Pushing her cap off her face, her eyes opening slowly, she came face to face with the cause of her anguish. She wanted to kiss her, hold her in her arms forever, knowing she had already given her heart to her. The very first moment she had seen her, in fact.

She could see Waverly was saying something to her, her lips moving, those full red lips ripe enough to be tasted. A muffled sound. She closed her eyes again, wanting to sleep, beyond cold, beyond caring.

Another shake, her eyes opening once more. Dolls was kneeling by her, talking to her. Shouting, she could just make out his words. She closed her eyes. Why couldn’t everyone leave her alone? She felt arms under her, lifting her up, being carried. She would sleep now, muck out Caspian in a while. Just a little while longer. Someone stroking her hair, someone holding her hand. Too much fuss. She just wanted to rest under the tree till it was daylight. She would go home when the sun rose.

A hard surface underneath her body, the smell of hay, her eyes remaining closed. Still too early to move. Aunty would have food on the table, a warm mug of tea, bread from the oven. Caspian would need his feed, a sugar lump. The movement of the cart woke her a little, a blanket over her, her head resting on aunty’s lap. Safe at last. She went to move, the effort too much, aunty placing a hand on her shoulder. She could feel her own body shivering, wet clothes sticking to her. She had to get home, she had so many chores to do. Everyone would be waiting. Dolls would be annoyed, she worried, probably another clip round the ear for being late. Just needed to sleep a while longer.

Arms under her body once more, movement, steps, the familiar smell of aunty’s wagon. She was home. She could sleep now, the longest sleep. So, so tired. Her lungs ached, her knee ached, her whole body. Someone removing her coat, then her waistcoat, someone pushing down her braces, lifting her shirt, then her vest. She didn’t care. Too tired to open her eyes. A warm, dry shirt slipped over her head, arms being pulled through sleeves. Boots removed, socks, she was being laid down, trousers removed, long johns. Someone touching her knee. She called out to let them know she was in pain. Why couldn’t they leave her alone? Let her rest. Just needed to rest. Just needed to sleep a while longer.

Waverly was in the wagon, helping aunty with N’s clothing. In shock, not quite knowing what to do, watching as Nicole’s body was revealed to her. As her shirt was lifted, she saw the first marks across the top of her shoulders, once the vest was removed the marks that bastard had left were exposed. She tried not to gasp, but the sound escaped before she could stop herself. Aunty was too absorbed in caring for her N to hear. She instructed Waverly to fill a bowl with water from the kettle, to place it on the small table. Finding the salt she added a few pinches, tasting the water, adding a few more pinches. Taking a cloth, aunty washed away as much of the blood as she could. Not a deep gash, it would heal quickly, more bruised and swollen.

Nicole was stirring, attempting to get up, presumably wanting to go to Caspian. She mumbled something about her heart, aunty moving nearer to hear. “What’s that my lovely, your heart. What about your heart?”

“I ain’t giving it to no one,” she whispered. “I ain’t giving it to no one.”

“Oh N. Who’ve you gone and fallen in love with, hey?” Aunty looked up, seeing Waverly’s face, looking back at N, looking up once more. “No. Has she? Oh my, me own child. Is this why she’s like this?”

Waverly nodded. “She ran away because of me. I’m so sorry. It’s all my fault.”

“Hush my dear. Ain’t no one’s fault. N did this to herself. Don’t you go blaming yourself.”

“But, if I hadn’t mentioned I would be leaving, she wouldn’t be in this state.”

“Come, sit, you look as pale as N. Here, have some of me rum to warm you. N told me of a girl in the orphanage. Daisy, think her name was. Cried for weeks, begging me to help rescue her Daisy.”

“What happened to Daisy?”

“No idea my lovely. Never found out what happened. N stopped crying, then stopped talking about her, not that she said much to begin with. It was years later she told me why she had been beaten. Having a chat we was about the birds and the bees and she came out with it. Shocked me at first. Still, always knew my N was special. So, I be fine with it. And, with you.”

Waverly took a sip of rum, instantly regretting it. Too polite to spit it out, she swallowed coughing as the alcohol hit the back of her throat. “I didn’t mean for it to happen. She’s different. I can’t explain.”

“No need to. That’s between you and N. Now, my lovely help me sit her up. She needs a hot toddy inside her and a few spoons of medicine.”

A few sips of the drink aunty had prepared, two spoons of medicine, they laid her back on the bed to sleep.

Waverly stroked her hair. “Does she need a doctor? I can pay for one. I have money.”

“Oh my angel. Dolls is in town now looking for one. Don’t you be a worrying. I’ve seen N like this before. Working herself too hard. She’ll be fine. Up in no time. Why don’t you get some rest? You have to perform.”

“I’ll come back later. Can I say goodbye before I go?”

“Course, my lovely. I needs to bring me washing in. More rain on the way.”

Aunty left them alone, N sound asleep, her breathing raspy. At least she was back where she belonged, where she was loved. Waverly bent down close to Nicole’s ear. “I’ll not leave you. I’m staying for good. Whether you give me your heart or not. N, I’m yours. You hear me.”

She kissed her forehead, placing a hand on her shoulder, exiting aunty’s wagon.

N had heard nothing.

Chapter Text

The doctor arrived. Young, too young aunty believed to be any good, certainly too young to be treating her precious N. Dolls said he came highly recommended by the town folk, reassuring her N would get the best treatment available. The doctor checked the wound on Nicole’s knee first, agreeing it was bad, but in his opinion did not need to be stitched, applying a salve, bandaging it. He listened to her lungs, possibly bronchitis, although could not rule out pneumonia, prescribing a cough syrup and a restorative tonic.

This was all he could do in a time before antibiotics. He failed to notice she was chilled to the bone. The actions of her circus family saved her life that day. Finding her when they did, laying her on hay, covering her with a blanket, bringing her to aunty’s warm wagon, making her drink the hot toddy. They looked after one of their own.

Dolls paid the doctor two shillings for his time, telling aunty he would go to the chemist immediately for N’s medicine. A proud man, not one to show his softer side, he had grown fond of N, had come to rely on her, someone who never questioned him, never said a cheeky word, looked up to him. An unlikely, yet endearing friendship in their own small world of misfits.

He returned an hour later, delivering the items to aunty, telling her he needed to get ready for the matinee performance. He would get someone to run the sweet stall for her. Aunty sat beside N, gazing at her face, brushing her hair back. “We be alright now, my lovely. Don’t you go running off again, mind. Gave me such a fright. I near drowned in rum worrying about you. Don’t you go a worrying your head about no girl, neither. If that’s who you love, that’s who you love. Now rest, I be taking care of you again my child.”

Aunty administered the cough syrup at regular intervals as prescribed. It certainly was doing the trick, her cough easing, her breathing less laboured. Mrs Winslow’s Soothing Syrup, prescribed to children as the most effective cough suppressant available, now with a new ingredient. Heroin, advertised as the non-addictive substitute for morphine. Nicole slept soundly for forty-eight hours.

Waverly made frequent visits, talking with aunty, eating more of her cake. She would look over at her N, hoping she was getting better, still feeling guilty she had caused her to run away. Aunty filled her cup once more. One could never have enough tea, her answer to all of life’s problems. Or rum.

Another show to perform, she promised to be back later, aunty pulling her into a hug, telling her she was glad N had found someone like her. She made her way to the stables to sort out the horses having taken over N’s chores. Caspian was restless, he wanted his N, not having seen her in days. She laid her head against his neck. “Caspian, it’ll be alright. N’s a little poorly. She will be with you soon. You have me and, I promise, I will love you as much as N loves you. I got you a sugar lump. See.”

She held out her hand, Caspian sniffing it, turning his head away. “I can give it Ferdi if you don’t want it.” His head shot round taking the lump from her hand. “There. I know you. N is lucky to have you.”

Nicole opened her eyes, looking around, unsure where she was. Attempting to sit up, she hit her head off the cabinet above the bed, the thud waking aunty who had dozed off at the small table, while cutting bread. Feeling better than she had in a long while, her lungs no longer hurt as they had, the pain in her knee gone.

Aunty attempted to stand, a bad back and a night on a cold floor not beneficial at her age. “You alright N? I be there in a moment. Rest.”

“I needs feed Caspian and the other horses.”

“Waverly is doing that. You lays still, I’ll put a brew on for us. Oh, my aching bones. May need a spoon of that syrup you takes.”

Nicole was already attempting to get up, her body weak, her knee weaker. She knew as soon as she put weight on it she would not be able to stand. “Got to get to the horses. Where’s me clothes?”

“Alright. Alright. Give us a ruddy moment,” aunty snapped, feeling her age. “N, help me up my lovely, me back’s playing up.”

Nicole ignored her, her ears still affected by her long night out in the wilds. Her lungs and her knee too, if only she knew. Mrs Winslow’s Soothing Syrup doing more to mask the pain in a body than cure it.

“N,” aunty shouted. “Is your hearing bad again?”

“I needs me clothes.”

Aunty used the table to get herself upright, groaning as she did so, turning to face N, holding her chin so she would look at her. “N, can you hear me?”

Nicole studied aunty’s lips, seeing them move, realising she couldn’t hear. She shook her head in an effort to clear them, the motion of doing so making her light-headed. Falling back on the bed once more to stop the world. Aunty was bending over stroking her face, saying something. A muffled sound. Her eyes closed, letting Mrs Winslow dance in her dreams.

Waverly had had another restless night. Sharing the only bed in the wagon, Wynonna had to wake her several times to stop her from falling out. The same dream. N against that tree, shaking her, her lifeless body in her arms, looking down at vacant eyes. The green emerald ribbon in her hand, her words swirling with the rain. “I’ll wear it forever. N. I’ll wear it forever.”

She couldn’t sleep. The wagon suffocating, her thoughts even more so. Slipping out of bed, she felt for her woollen coat.

Wynonna’s voice made her jump. “Where are you going missy at this time of night?”

“I need to check on the horses. Caspian doesn’t like to be on his own. He’ll be scared.”

“Get back into bed now. You have shows tomorrow. A horse can be lonely for one night.”

“But…”

“Waverly Earp, if you do not get back into bed this instance I’ll forbid you from seeing N.”

As much as Wynonna was trying to help, it was the one statement she should not have said to her sister in that moment. She felt Waverly’s quiet sobs, her hand searching for the matches on the shelf above to light the oil lantern, unable to find them she resigned herself to comforting her baby sister in the dark.

“Hush now. I’m sorry. I won’t come between you and N. You need to rest. You can’t do N’s work and perform. You’ll be exhausted. You’re looking paler by the day. You’re not eating. And, I’ve heard you throwing up outside the wagon. I know this is all new. I know you’ve had a scare with N. Things will settle down. I’m going to speak with Dolls in the morning. Ask him if we can stay longer.”

Waverly sniffed loudly. “Thank you. I don’t know if N will want me after all this.”

“She wants you. Trust me. Her tongue hangs out watching you perform. Thought only boys looked like that at you.”

“Wyn! That’s rude. Does she? Does she really? Says she likes my legs.”

“I did not want to hear that. Or, have that in my head. Bad thoughts. Bad thoughts. That girl is in love, I can tell.”

The horses mucked out, fed, watered, Waverly made her way to aunty’s wagon, a small tin of biscuits in her hand Wynonna had bought in town. She knocked on the door, waiting for it to open, smiling at seeing aunty. She hardly knew her, yet liked her already for who she was, no airs or graces, simply aunty who cared for their N.

“My sister asked me to give you these. She says thank you for the cake and could she have the recipe please.”

“Oh my. Come in, come in. Have you had food? I’m making N hers.”

“Is she awake? I don’t want to disturb.”

“You could never disturb my lovely. N’s been up a while. Hearing’s bad though. Look at her when you speak. It’ll right itself in a day, or so.”

Waverly climbed the steps behind aunty, seeing N sitting up. She looked pleased to see her, a smile on her face reassuring Waverly she might still have a chance at remaining friends.

Nicole watched as Waverly pulled up the stool, sitting beside the bed. She wanted to take Nicole’s hand, hold it in hers, tell her how sorry she was. Her head down, unable to look at N, she could feel her emotions getting the better. She wished she had kept quiet about the possibility of leaving. She wished they were back in the stable before N fled, she wished it was all perfect, as it had been, wondering if it would ever be perfect again.

She felt N’s hand touching the ribbon in her hair, her voice louder than usual. “Looks pretty.”

Waverly looked up meeting deep brown eyes. “I’ve worn it every day. N, I’m not leaving. I don’t know if you can understand me. But, I’m not leaving. I wish you could read a little better. I could write it for you. N, seeing you like that. Why? Why did you do that to yourself? I thought I’d lost you.”

Nicole was trying to understand Waverly’s lips, failing given how fast she was speaking. She touched Waverly’s lips, a sign aunty had taught her to say slow down. Aunty noticed, instructing Waverly to say everything again in smaller phrases.

“N. I am staying.” She placed one hand on her heart, pointing the index finger of her other hand towards N. “I stay here.”

Nicole shook her head, lowering Waverly’s hand. “You need to go. Ain’t be fair on you.”

“N, I’m not leaving you. I wish you could hear me. I wish I could tell you everything. Slowly. Waverly, slow down. N, I am here.”

“Don’t need you here. I has Caspian.”

It was Waverly’s turn to flee, too upset to remain where she believed she was no longer wanted. Aunty tried to stop her, scowling at N after she had left. Holding N’s chin, making her look at her. “That was cruel. You need to say sorry.”

“Ain’t having me heart, aunty. She ain’t having it.”

“N, my lovely. It’s a bit late for that. She already has it. Don’t she? Now, don’t you go breaking hers.”

“I needs to feed Caspian.”

“No you ruddy don’t. Waverly is doing it. She loves you. And, you better love her back.”

Nicole pulled her head away, knowing what was really in her heart, knowing aunty knew what was there too. She looked around for her clothes. “Where are me clothes? Get me my clothes.”

Aunty gave her another stern look, mumbling under her breath. “Ain’t your ruddy servant. Honestly, N, you’re acting strange these days.”

Clothes on, she hobbled down the steps of the wagon in search of Waverly. Her head muggy, the magical medicine in her system, her ears not working. She knocked on Waverly’s wagon, Wynonna appearing, surprised to see her up and about, her lips moving, Nicole unable to understand anything she was saying. Wynonna could see the confused look on her face, descending the steps, pointing towards the stables.

She was there with the horses, brushing Ferdinand, Caspian overjoyed seeing his N enter. His neighing made Waverly turn her head, sad eyes revealing she had been crying. She turned away, not wanting to be rejected again by the one person she no longer could live without. She shrugged off the hand on her shoulder. She pulled away as Nicole went to hold her hand.

N’s voice boomed out. “Don’t be sad.”

Waverly refused to turn round, knowing Nicole wouldn’t be able to hear what she was saying. “How can I not be sad? I’ve fallen for you. I thought you were dead on that lane. I died seeing you like that. And, I’m dying inside again because you don’t love me.”

“Waverly, I love you.”

“No you don’t. If you loved me you wouldn’t want me to leave. Or, you’d follow me. Or, I don’t know. I might as well leave if this is how it’s going to be. Maybe I’ll find someone who really loves me. Who will take care of me. Who won’t run off when it all gets too much. And, you can have your ribbon back.”

“Look at me. I said, I love you.”

Waverly turned round. “You’re shouting. And, no you don’t love me.”

“Don’t know what you be saying,” Nicole’s voice still loud. “Did you say you loved me?”

Waverly shook her head, the edges of her mouth turning up a little, desperately trying not to smile.

“I think you do,” Nicole continued. “I knows you do.”

“I said you don’t love me. Of course, I love you. I love you. I love you. I love you. There, I’ve said it.”

N’s face lit up. “Even me lungs and ears?”

“I hate you right now N. But, I need you more than ever.”

“I’m going to kiss you now. Can I kiss you?”

Waverly tried not to laugh, but Nicole’s way of speaking when her ears were playing up made everything more amusing. Pulled into an embrace, she felt N’s soft lips once more, the sensation too exquisite, feeling herself sink. Thoughts of losing her N, of being parted from her, of her lifeless body under the tree, suddenly too much. It was all Nicole could do to keep her balance as Waverly’s body became heavy in her arms. Her face pale, her arms limp, her eyes closed. Nicole shook her, patting her face, eyes opening at last. “Oh N, I feel funny. I think I’m going to be sick.”

Nicole, unable to understand what she had just said, looked on as Waverly turned her head, throwing up on the hay below. Sitting her on a bale, panic setting in once more, she hobbled out to get Wynonna. A small crowd had gathered outside having been drawn to the stable by N’s raised voice, listening to her profess her love for Waverly.

If only she could have heard their applause and whistles.

Chapter Text

Nicole banged on the door of Waverly’s wagon, Wynonna’s voice yelling from inside. “Alright, alright, hold your horses.”

The door flew open, nearly knocking Nicole off the steps. “She is in the stables,” she pointed. “In the stables.”

“Waverly’s sick. Don’t look too right.”

Wynonna grabbed her coat and boots, scrambling to put everything on at once, as she followed Nicole back the way she came. Waverly was still sitting on the hay bale when they entered, Wynonna putting an arm round her sister’s shoulder. “What’s wrong? You look really pale.”

“I’m fine. A little tired that’s all.”

“Come and rest. Nicole can see to the horses.”

“She can’t. She’s not well. She should be in bed.”

Wynonna looked at Nicole for help. “N, tell her she needs to rest.”

“Wyn, you know she can’t hear. Let me finish here, please. I need to do this.”

“I keep forgetting she can’t hear. N, I would just like to say I’m glad you’re alive, but you were an arse running off like that, leaving my sister worried sick, and…”

“Wyn, stop. That’s really cruel of you,” Waverly yelled, her eyes filling with tears. “Her life hasn’t been easy. And, I made it worse.”

“I’ll grant you that. Two weeks knowing you and she’s now deaf, limps and has a stupid smile on her face all the time.”

Waverly lashed out, catching Wynonna on the shoulder with her fist. “I hate you. I wish I had gone with mama and papa to Italy. You’re just jealous I have someone.”

“Right. Jealous. Of Miss Hoppity here. Oh, that’s right, she can’t.”

Waverly screamed. “Why are you so mean to me? I feel awful and you’re not helping.”

“Thank you. That’s all I needed to hear. Stop being a martyr Waves. It’s not helping anyone. I know you love N. You soldiering on, doing her work, when you’re not well is not going to make her better. Understand. We need to make this work for everyone.”

“Oh Wyn, I’m sorry. It’s just I’ve not felt like this before. Don’t know if it’s love, or homesickness.”

“Waverly, you need to rest. What we do is physically exhausting. Look at papa, look how tired he was before he stopped performing. I can’t do this on my own. I need you to be well for me.”

Waverly hugged Wynonna. “I love you. And, N.”

Nicole stood watching the sisters’ interaction, unable to make out what they were saying, each speaking too fast, with too many words for her to be able to understand. Seeing them hug she hoped they had found out what was wrong with Waverly. Her voice made both sisters jump. “She needs to rest.”

Wynonna exaggerated a nod, shouting her response. “Yes N, she needs to rest.”

“Wyn, stop it,” Waverly rebuked. “You are so naughty sometimes.”

Wynonna nodded, shouting at Waverly. “Yes, I know. Now, go lay down please for everyone’s sake.”

Waverly did as she was told leaving Wynonna and Nicole together with the horses. Wynonna looked at Nicole, Nicole looked at Wynonna, neither knowing how to make conversation with the other. Nicole smiled, Wynonna continued to stare, finally finding the words she most wanted to say. “N, you better be worth all this trouble.”

“She ain’t trouble. I love her.”

Wynonna rolled her eyes. “Go rest. I will sort out the horses.”

Nicole didn’t move. “I needs to sort out the horses. Caspian needs me.”

Wynonna threw her hands up in the air. “Fine. Do the horses. I’m going to check on Waverly.”

She stormed out, leaving Nicole to fend for herself.

Waverly was laying down, her eyes closed when Wynonna entered. “I know you’re not asleep. What’s wrong my little chickie?”

“You haven’t called me chickie in ages. I like that.”

“Tell me. Is it your stomach, or your head, or what?”

“My stomach. It keeps fluttering. And, I feel sick in the morning.”

Wynonna stood looking at her sister. “Waverly, when did you last have a you know what?”

“I’m not sure. I’m not like you. Not as clockwork.”

“Waves. I’m being serious. When was the last time?”

Waverly sat up. “I’ve missed one. But, that happens.”

Wynonna pulled up a stool. “You might be, you know, if you've missed one. If you are being sick, feeling tired, very emotional. Did Hardy do this?”

“I’m not emotional. And, no. We were standing up.”

“No, no, no. Please, please, please, tell me you did not fall for the, you cannot get pregnant standing up trick.”

“But, you can’t. Can you? He said it was his goodbye present. To remember him. I can’t be. Wyn, I can’t be. We only did it the once.”

“Oh, sweet child. It only takes one time, straight up or flat out.”

“But, I’m with N. I can’t. Wyn, I can’t.”

Wynonna reached out for her hands. “It would explain why you’ve been feeling the way you have.”

“How am I going to explain this to N?”

“Slowly and loudly, would be my guess.”

Waverly’s sobs could be heard by everyone apart from N.

Nicole finished mucking out the horses, her breathing becoming more laboured, her knee aching. Another couple of spoons of Mrs Winslow’s magical medicine would see her right. Caspian was fretful, not wanting his N to leave. She patted his side, distracted, until he nudged her for more affection. She laid her head against his neck, remembering the first time they had met, seeing this beautiful creature she was to look after. His wary eyes meeting hers, sensing she was nervous, patiently waiting for her hand to touch him.

It was aunty who had taught her how to be with horses, how to talk to them. Not be scared. Having grown up on a farm in the West Country, south of Bristol, she was used to being around animals, taking Nicole’s hand, getting her to introduce herself to Caspian. “He wants to be your friend N. Look, his eyes are following you.”

“But, what if he bites me aunty?”

“Caspian don’t bite. Do you, my lovely. You be kind to N here. N, hold out your hand, let him see the sugar lump.”

Nicole nervously held out her hand, letting Caspian sniff what she was offering. His snort making her drop the lump as she pulled her hand back. “He don’t want it aunty.”

Aunty laughed. “That’s just Caspian playing with you. Pick it up, put your hand out again. Caspian, you be good now. Or, N won’t look after you. You hears.”

Caspian’s ears pricked up. Nicole’s hand shaking, aunty holding it for reassurance. Caspian sniffed the lump once more, delicately taking it from Nicole’s hand. “It tickles aunty. His tongue.”

“I know, my lovely. He likes you. I can tell.”

“Can I ride him?”

“Perhaps. In time. You need to become his friend first. He’s a funny old fellow this one. Only let’s a few love him.”

“Like me aunty. Ain’t needing no one but you and Caspian.”

“Oh, my darling N. There’s a whole world out there waiting for you. There’s more than us old bones for you to love. Let’s go have some tea, shall we. These old bones need a rest. And, a drop of rum.”

Nicole hobbled back to aunty’s wagon, her knee telling her she needed to rest. She flopped on the bed fully clothed, aunty shouting at her to take her boots off, forgetting her hearing was bad. As soon as her head hit the pillow she was asleep. The effort of tending to the horses too much in her present condition. She didn’t hear Wynonna enter. She didn’t hear the conversation they had about Waverly’s condition. Her world was still dancing to the tune of Mrs Winslow.

She woke early evening, her boots off, aunty preparing something for them to eat before the evening performance. She sat up, remembering not to hit her head again, her body aching, her knee throbbing. “I needs me medicine.”

Aunty turned, a look on her face telling N something was wrong. She pulled up the stool, sitting beside the bed, taking Nicole’s chin in her hand. “N, Waverly is pregnant.”

Nicole attempted to understand aunty’s lip movements failing to catch the last word. “Is Waverly alright? Let me go to her. She be sick.”

“N, look at me. Waverly is with child.”

Nicole processed the words aunty was saying. Had she just mouthed the word ‘child,’ she wondered. No, she had got that wrong. “Where is Waverly?”

“N. With child.” Aunty pointed to her stomach, her hands making a rounded shape.

“A baby?”

Aunty nodded. “I’m sorry N. I really am. Let me get you your medicine.”

Nicole sat on the edge of the bed. She had only been asleep for a few hours. How could all this have happened in the space of a few hours? “She needs me. Where are me boots?”

Aunty returned with the cough mixture. “N, she needs to be with the father of her child.”

Nicole pushed the spoon away, spilling the cough mixture on the floor. “My boots,” Nicole yelled, scaring aunty, who backed away no longer knowing the child before her. “Aunty, please, let me go to her.”

“Oh N, go. I can’t stop you.”

Nicole pushed her feet into her boots, wincing as the pain in her knee jolted through her body. She needed to be with her, needed to hold her in her arms. Too many missed opportunities, too much time wasted. No one, not the father of her child, was going to take Waverly from her now. She hobbled out into the night, knowing what she had to do.

Chapter Text

People from the town were arriving for the evening performance. Word had spread of the scantily-clad women riding bareback, attracting a larger number of young men than usual, eager to feast their eyes on exquisite female form, little knowing one of those forms was undergoing a transformation.

Nicole hobbled to Waverly’s wagon hoping to find her resting. Wynonna was getting ready, ushering Nicole in, closing the door behind, taking her hand, leading her to the window seat, making her sit. She sat opposite on the one stool they had available, staring intently, chewing her bottom lip, wondering where they all went from here. “N, I don’t know if you can understand what I’m saying, but, she says she doesn’t want you involved. She thinks it’s not fair on you.”

Nicole understood only a few words of what Wynonna was saying. “Where’s she?”

“Stables. Getting the horses ready. N, I agree with her, this is not your problem. She’s…”

Nicole reached over, placing her fingers on Wynonna’s lips. “Too fast. Can’t understand.”

“She. Is. Sorry.”

“Does she want me?”

“N. She’s worried sick. Speak slower, I know. She. Thinks. You. Do. Not. Want. Her. Now.”

“I loves her more.”

“You. Are. Shouting.”

“I’ll tell her. She ain’t doing this alone. She has me.”

Wynonna nodded. “And me. N, wait till the show is over, then talk to her. She’s terrified Hardy will find out and come for her with his brothers. I should have taken more care of her, but I’ve been distracted, what with the move and the act. Sorry, sorry, did you get any of that?”

Nicole shook her head. “I speak to her now. I be there for her and the child.”

Wynonna reached across the table for Nicole’s hand, shaking her head. “Wait. Till. End. Of. Show. You. Talk. Then.”

“You want me to wait?”

“Ruddy hell, this is hard,” Wynonna replied, shaking her head, pointing to the door. “You. Go. Speak. End. Of. Show.”

Limping out into the cold Nicole headed for the big top, her movements slowed by the crowds queuing to enter, eager to see Waverly perform, oblivious to her condition. She edged her way round the tent to the performers’ entrance. The clowns were outside waiting for the start of the show, whooping and cheering as their N approached.

News had got round of her romantic interest in Waverly, two male clowns pretending to embrace, deciding at the last moment to dance together in front of her. The other clowns clapped, their mood raised in readiness for their imminent performance in the ring. Nicole smiled, their attention welcome, taking her away from her worries for a moment. One clown tapped her on the shoulder, attempting to snatch a kiss, managing to capture her cheek as she limped past.

She entered the tent, spying Dolls with Rosita laughing together. Dolls eyes pulled away from Rosita as he spotted her, waiting for her to approach, his voice the only one loud enough to break through. “N, you rascal. You and Waverly.”

Nicole blushed. The circus really was an extremely small community, where everyone knew everyone’s business, although, no one appeared to know about the pregnancy yet. It was not for her to tell.

The curtains covering the main entrance were being pulled back, allowing the waiting crowd to flock in, moving at a pace to get to their seats. The show got underway, acts entered, performed, left the ring. She wished she had a few more spoons of Mrs Winslow inside her. Her knee was throbbing, her head thumping, an edginess growing as the effects of the new cough syrup began to wear off. She needed air, the frenetic movement in the tent becoming too much.

Standing outside, the tranquility of the night calmed her senses, the pain in her knee easing a little. She decided to wait for Waverly in the stables. At least she could sit down, be with Caspian. Caspian, he had slipped from her mind with all that had happened. She would go to Caspian. As she neared the stables she saw Waverly coming out with two of the horses, her head down, woollen coat wrapped tightly over her costume. She didn’t see Nicole approach, only realising she was in front of her when one of the horses neighed. Sad, despairing eyes betrayed her despite the show make-up she was wearing.

Nicole took her shoulders, gazing into her eyes. “I be here. For you and the child.”

Waverly tried to fight back the tears. She had been crying for most of the afternoon. “N. It’s fine. You don’t have to do this. This is my problem, not yours. I can’t ask you to take this on.”

Nicole touched Waverly’s lips. “Slow down. Waverly, I be here for you. If you want me. Do you want me?”

“Yes. N, I do. But, not like this. Can we talk later? I’ve got to get the horses to the tent. And, there’s so much to talk about. And, I don’t know what I’m going to do. Let me go. We’ll talk after.”

She pulled the reins of the horses to get them to move, Nicole standing out of the way to let her pass. In the dim light she had missed all of what Waverly had said, unable to see her lips, Waverly speaking too fast, too many words. She would wait for her. But, first she would go take that cough syrup.

Caspian was overjoyed to see her. As much as he liked Waverly, she was not his N. His head nodding as she entered, his tail swishing. She stroked his neck, resting against his side, the cough mixture easing the pains in her body. “I don’t know Caspian. I be unlucky and lucky. I be sick, but I got a new family to care for. I just hopes she’ll have me. I ain’t losing her. You hears. I be a ruddy fool running off. When I has all this. And, a baby.”

Caspian moved his head round to cradle N. “You knows what, I be learning me letters. That’s what I’ll do. I wants to read to the little one every night. And, aunty can sing, not her rude songs mind. Ain’t having that. Not near me child.”

“N, I know you will love us,” Waverly said as she entered the stable once more, having overheard most of what she had revealed to Caspian. His movements alerted Nicole to her presence, turning round, watching her approach. Waverly placed her hand on Nicole’s chest. “I promise we will speak. I need to get the other horses to the ring. N, this is such a pickle.”

Nicole waited, dozing off where she sat. She should have been resting in aunty’s wagon. She should have been taking care of herself. Getting herself better. The collar of her coat pulled up, her arms wrapped round her body, she sat waiting. Waiting, for her new family to return to her.

Wynonna led the first two horses in, Waverly behind. The show had gone well, their name was slowly gaining recognition, the act bringing in more money for the circus to the satisfaction of Dolls. He was happy for them to stay, so long as they kept attracting big crowds. Easy enough when you’re not pregnant, a slightly more delicate matter when one of the act was with child.

Horses unharnessed, rubbed down, watered, Wynonna left Waverly to wake Nicole, who by now was lying on the top of a hay bale fast asleep. It took several shakes for her to wake up, looking around, wondering why she was in the stables.

Sitting herself up, her head still muggy, she focused on Waverly’s face. She looked tired, drawn, sad. No amount of show make-up could ever hide true emotions. A performer could smile, dance, twirl, juggle, hiding as best they could what was in their hearts, far enough away from an audience to fool them into thinking the circus was one big happy family there to entertain to their heart’s content.

A façade. A mask. Private lives, private problems remaining outside the ring. Revealed only to those who knew them as people, not performers.

Waverly took Nicole’s hands in hers. “Oh N, you’re cold. You shouldn’t be out like this. Let’s go back to aunty’s.”

Nicole remained seated. “I be here for you and the baby.”

“I know you are. But, I can’t ask this of you. I brought this on myself. Damn your hearing. N, look at me. I can’t ask this of you.”

Nicole studied her lips. Those lips, ready to burst, ready to kiss. “You are my family now.”

“N, let’s go back to aunty’s. I’m worried about you. You shouldn’t be this cold. Not after. Please.”

Waverly pulled Nicole up, feeling the effort. “N, you need to take care of you. I can’t look after you and a baby. You have to get better.”

She led Nicole away from the stables towards aunty’s, feeling her heavy movements through her hand, knowing Nicole had sat in the cold waiting for her when she should have been inside in the warmth. Her heart breaking once more. Having found someone who cared for her, this was where they were now. How easy it would be for her to run away too, leaving every single problem behind. She wouldn’t. She couldn’t do that to Wynonna. Or, N. She would never do that. But, everything was a mess. An utter ruddy mess. All of her making she believed.

Aunty was warming her feet on the stove when they entered, a few too many rums inside, trying to sing one of her sea shanty songs to herself. “Oh, my lovely, how are you feeling?”

“I’m fine. N’s really cold again. I told her she shouldn’t be out. She needs rest.”

“So do you my dear in your condition. I be here if you need me. Delivered enough little ones to know how it all works by now. You needs rest too. I’ll see to N. Don’t you fret.”

Aunty took N’s chin. “Go lie down. For Waverly.”

Nicole was too tired, too sick to argue. She flopped on the bed, legs hanging over the edge waiting for aunty to remove her boots.

Waverly sat on the stool watching the performance. “Will her hearing come back?”

“Takes a while. She be a fool for herself, sleeping with that ruddy horse of hers. I tells her, N you’ll catch your death. Would she listen?”

“I know N has a good heart. I know she wants to help, but I got myself into this pickle.”

“Here, my lovely, have some tea. Let me tell you something, our N ain’t given her heart to no one till you came. I feared she would be wedded to that ruddy horse of hers. She be a good heart, that’s all I knows.”

Chapter Text

Morning light filled the wagon, the door partially open allowing fresh air to enter clearing away the past. Nicole turned over in the small bed, aunty’s singing piercing the silence she had had to endure for the past few days. Her health improved for a good night’s rest, she was on the mend. She could hear the words of the song, a sailor leaving his family to go far away, promising to return with treasures. She had heard it many times, but the words now carried more meaning given everything that was happening.

Aunty entered with a basket of laundry, smiling at N. “Good morning, my lovely. I be making us something. You stay there.”

“I be feeling better. Let me help you with that.”

“Oh N, you are a good one. What would I do without you? Like me own flesh and blood you are.”

“I loves your singing, aunty. I be teaching it to the little one.”

Aunty laughed. “Not the rude ones I hope. Ain’t for no baby’s ears. N, your hearing! Oh, my lovely. Knows it would come back.”

“I needs me leg done. And, I ain’t taking no more of that ruddy syrup. Can’t keep awake on it. Ain’t proper.”

Aunty helped N remove the bandage. The wound was healing, aunty bathing it and the doctor’s salve preventing it from becoming infected. Her knee was still swollen, the fall having jolted her knee cap. It would mend in time, with rest and without further injury. That was the curious thing about N, the Gods, the heavens, the Universe, whatever you may call it kept a loving eye on her. Some might simply call it luck, or good fortune, someone higher up looking after her.

Dressed, knee bandaged for support, food consumed at speed to the amusement of aunty, she descended the steps of the wagon, taking in the new day. She was alive, she had Waverly, the baby, aunty and Caspian in her life. The world was perfect.

Knocking on Waverly’s wagon, she remembered to take a few steps down in case Wynonna flung open the door. Waverly appeared, tired eyes, red from crying greeted Nicole’s huge smile. She motioned with her hand for her to come in, pointing to the window seat, grabbing a mug to pour her a tea. Wynonna was still in bed, snoring, the sound making Nicole grin.

Waverly placed the mug in front of Nicole, sitting on the stool, head down. No words spoken. Not knowing what to say, how to say it to make her N understand she would do this on her own.

Nicole reached across the table, taking her hand, feeling the slight resistance, knowing Waverly was struggling to come to terms with what was happening to her. “I be a fool for running away, when I has all this.”

Waverly nodded, her head remaining down, forcing herself not to cry. She felt Nicole’s hand rubbing the back of hers gently. So gentle. “N, I wish this wasn’t happening. I am the fool, for believing that Hardy, for getting myself like this. I wish, I wish, I don’t know what I wish. I’ve ruined it for everyone. And, you can’t even hear me. And, that’s my fault too.”

“I be hearing you. Ain’t nothing your fault. It be all fine. Grand.”

“You can hear? You can hear my voice. N, that’s wonderful. So, you can hear everything?”

Nicole nodded. “Ain’t have you worrying about two of us. You needs to look after the little one. And I needs to look after you.”

“Oh N, I know you want to. And, I know you will. But, you can’t. This is all a mess.”

Nicole got up, moving round the table, pulling Waverly up, holding her in her arms. “Push me as far away as you wants, I be coming back every time. You hear. Ain’t leaving you ever again. Ain’t leaving the little one neither.”

She felt Waverly’s sobs, her right hand stroking her hair as she held her. “I been dying for your lips my Waverly. I be a wanting to taste them.”

Wynonna’s voice broke their moment. “Can you please not do that this early in the morning. You’ll put me off my food.”

“Morning Wynonna,” N replied. “It be a fine morning for kissing a beauty.”

“You can hear! N, you can hear. That’s ruddy marvellous. Calls for a celebration. Go on then, one kiss, but wait till I close my eyes.”

Nicole took Waverly’s chin. “May I Lady Waverly?”

“You may Lord Nicholas.”

Their kiss was soft, sweet and long, very, very long to the annoyance of Wynonna. “Have you two finished yet?” she grumbled, opening one eye, realising they were still connected by lips. “Enough. That’s it. Break it up. You’ll go blind N if you carry on.”

“No I won’t,” she replied as she pulled away from Waverly. “I be in the stables if you needs me.”

Waverly didn’t want her to leave, tugging at her hand as Nicole went to move away. “Are you sure? This is a lot to ask. Of you, of anyone. I don’t want you to feel you have to.”

Nicole turned to face Waverly once more, taking both her hands. “I be the most sure ever. I needs to learn me letters, so I can read to the little one.”

Tears flowed once more, Nicole hugging her, whispering in her ear all would be right.

A few other members of the circus were up, busying themselves with their morning chores. Rosita was outside her wagon hanging up washing, waving as N passed. Nicole stopped, an idea entering her mind to cheer Waverly up. “Will you come with me to the market, I needs buy something.”

“I’ll check with Doc. He might be able to take us in his cart. Don’t want you walking all that way with a bad leg.”

“I be mending. Would you read my hand again?”

“I can do it now if you like. I have time. Come in.”

Nicole placed her upturned hand on Rosita’s table, waiting to hear what was to come in her life. Rosita studied the lines on her hand, nodding. “Very good. I see a journey before you. A long journey, somewhere far away from here. You will meet someone important to you. Someone who will change your life.”

“Can you see anything else?”

“Only, that you’ll come into lots of money. And, live in a big house.”

Nicole laughed. “You always says that. Ain’t likely is it. What about Waverly?”

“I would need to read her hand. I hear you have taken a fancy to her.”

“Will you read her hand for me, if she wants, mind.”

“For you N, anything. You know that.”

“I knows. You been good to me. And, Doc. I needs to feed Caspian. I be back for the market.”

Rosita gazed at her back as she left. Rosita had considered if she wasn’t with Doc she might fancy her own chances with N. The novelty of her, the way she carried herself like a man, arousing feelings in Rosita beyond simple friendship. She had never mentioned this to N, not wanting to ruin what they had. She was glad she had found someone, someone like Waverly, although in her heart she was a little jealous Waverly got to be with N, not her. Still, as long as N was happy.

Horses tended to, Caspian led out to the field to run with the others, Nicole returned to aunty asking her if she needed anything from the market. A list in hand, money in pocket, she waited for Rosita to put on her coat, fix her hat. Doc was in his cart, ready to take them to town. The market was busy, women out buying their daily provisions, a stall holder shouting at some urchins trying to steal an apple. Nicole knew what she wanted, searching each stall with her eyes, finding the one she remembered from her last visit with Dolls. A book stall, selling all manner of stories.

Not being able to read, she wanted Rosita to help her choose, she being educated. Like Waverly and Wynonna, Rosita’s family were Italian, having a similar outlook on life as Waverly’s father. Book learning was a good thing, even for girls. Nicole picked up one book with pictures. “I needs a book for a little one. I wants to read it.”

The book seller selected another book from his table. “This one is very popular with children. Just So Stories by Rudyard Kipling. Highly amusing, especially the tale of The Butterfly That Stamped.”

Nicole took the book from the man, opening its pages, gazing at the illustrations. Rosita was busy studying the spines of the hardback books on display, selecting one for herself. Nicole handed her the recommended book. “Rosita, this be any good for a child?”

Rosita took the book, reading a few lines of the first story. “It should be. Who is it for?”

“For Waverly. I wants her to read it to me. So I can read it. What be the price?”

“Three pennies. It might be a little dull for you. Wouldn’t you rather a more adult story.”

“No, tis fine. If it be for a child.”

“Suit yourself. Shall we join Doc in the ale house?”

“You go. I be with you after. I needs get aunty a few things.”

Nicole handed over the twelve-sided threepence for the book, waiting for it to be wrapped in paper, thanking the book seller. Her first book. Purchase in hand she made her way round the market for aunty, stopping at one final stall where she purchased the green ribbon. Selecting a pale pink one this time, she gave the stall holder one penny, placing the small packet next to her wallet.

Doc was showing several gentlemen a card trick when she entered, a small pile of coins on the table in front of his tankard of ale. Rosita was sipping a gin, watching as Doc bamboozled the men into handing over more coins, unable to work out how he was able to hide the queen from them. “One more time gentlemen. Ready, chase the lady.”

He moved his hands in quick rotation, cards jumping over cards, finally pausing to allow one of the men to point at the card he thought might be the queen. Doc flipped the card over revealing it was not. The man hit his forehead, utterly baffled at having lost once more. Shaking hands, the two gentlemen found another table, muttering to themselves, none the wiser at having been fooled.

Nicole grinned at Doc, who winked at her, pushing a tankard of ale in her direction. “It is so refreshing to partake in a little business to fund our lifestyle. Here N, drink up, I best not stay too long in case the coppers get wind of me. Don’t want to fall foul of the law in this fine establishment.”

Drinks downed, money pocketed, a swift exit made. Waverly was laying down asleep when she entered. Nicole pulled the stool up, brushing her hair back, gazing at her face. A smile appeared, eyes remaining shut. “That’s nice, I like that, you smell of ale.”

“I be at the market with Doc and Rosita. I got you something, and the baby.”

Waverly opened her eyes, seeing the small packet. “Another ribbon, I’m guessing. Thank you. What’s the larger package?”

“Open it. You’ll see.”

Waverly unwrapped the book, scanning the pages. “Just So Stories. Oh N, it’s beautiful. You shouldn’t have. So thoughtful.”

“I be needing you to teach me it. I needs to know what it says. Will you help me?”

“For you N. Anything.”

Chapter Text

Nicole managed to obtain most of the items aunty had asked her to get at the market. She had waited her turn at one stall, busy with women buying raisins, and walnuts and all manner of ingredients for cakes and pies. Used to getting it for aunty at Christmas time, to spice up her cakes, she picked up one large root of ginger, handing it to the woman trader. “That’ll be a farthing to you lad. Misses up the duff is she?”

Nicole shook her head. “Cake. Needs it for a cake.”

The trader laughed. “Bun in the oven more like it.”

She could smell the ginger being boiled as she passed by aunty’s wagon on her way to fetch Caspian from the field, wondering what aunty was doing with it this early in the morning. She normally only baked cakes late afternoon, once her small oven was warm enough. She decided not to investigate, knowing she needed to feed the horses in the field, bring Caspian in, get Waverly’s horses ready for the afternoon show.

Leaving Caspian out too long made him irritable, the energy of the other horses having a tendency to get him agitated. He spotted her as soon as she entered the field, galloping over, nickering as he approached, telling her he missed his beloved N. He wanted her to be with him always, wanted her to sleep close once more. Be there for him.

She sensed his anxiety, waiting for him to slow, watching as he walked the last few steps towards her, breathing on her face. She leant her head against his neck, stroking his back, telling him everything that was going on between her and Waverly. His ears moved to listen, to hear N’s voice again, letting out a sigh to say he would allow her to continue to be with Waverly. She hugged his neck telling him no matter what happened with Waverly and the baby he would always be her one true love. They simply needed to make room for the two new additions to their family.

“You’ll like the little one,” Nicole soothed. “I be having a real family now Caspian. A real family. Never thought I be saying that.”

Caspian back in the stables, horses harnessed ready for the show, she returned to aunty’s wagon, a pan sitting on the stove with a few slices of ginger floating in water. Aunty appeared in the doorway. “That be for Waverly. Helps with the sickness. I be taking her some to help her over the first months. You go easy on her N. She be fragile.”

“I knows aunty. Will you help us with the little one when it’s time?”

“Would be an honour to bring it into the world. She be scared right now, what with being new here and all this. I tells her she has us to call on. No one does this alone, not in the circus.”

“I wants her to be happy. And, the baby. What if I get it wrong?”

Aunty pulled her into a hug. “Oh N, how could you ever get it wrong?”

“But, I ain’t never had a little one to care for.”

“Neither has Waverly. You’ll learn together. And, there’s folk here to help you. Don’t you go a fearing.”

“Circus folk have been good to me.”

“And to me N. I’ll tell you this. Had a hard life till the circus came where I be living. Took me in, gave me a reason to keep going. Couldn’t have a child of me own. That’s why me drunken husband up and left.”

“We be all the family we need. And Waverly and the baby. Have a big enough heart for all of you.”

Aunty’s eyes teared up, counting her blessings that she had N. “You were made to love. And, be loved. That bastard who beat you made you think you couldn’t be loved. But, I watches. I sees. I listens. I knows what you mean to everyone. Not just to your old aunty.”

The knock on the door startled aunty, breaking away, wiping her eyes on her sleeve. Waverly was standing on the steps, an empty mug in her hand. Aunty welcomed her in, pulling out the stool, Nicole sitting on the bed to make room. Waverly looked better than she had in the past few days, more colour in her cheeks.

“Thank you for the tea. It really helped. I was worried I would be sick on the back of a horse.”

“Sweet ginger tea, never fails. Calms the stomach.”

Waverly kept glancing at Nicole, wanting to speak to her in private, without aunty. Nicole understood, suggesting they check on the horses. Alone in the stables, Waverly pulled Nicole into an embrace, more passionate than ever. “Can we go somewhere after the show?”

“Of course. I go where you wants.”

“Thank you for not giving up on me. You and aunty. I’m so emotional right now. I know I have you. And…”

Nicole put her fingers to Waverly’s lips. “Too many words.”

She held Waverly in her arms, knowing the person before her was meant to be in her life.

The afternoon show over, they took a stroll across the fields looking for a quiet spot to be together. Aunty had given Nicole a few pieces of cake and an earthenware bottle filled with more of her ginger tea, two mugs clinked together in the basket she was carrying. They came across a meadow, secluded, away from prying eyes, Nicole laid her blanket on the ground, waiting for Waverly to sit, placing the basket to one side.

Neither was in a hurry to talk. They simply wanted to be together, lying on the earth, wrapped in each other’s arms. Nicole closed her eyes, knowing this was all she wanted in life. To be there with Waverly. She could feel Waverly playing with the top button of her shirt. Her eyes remained closed, not wanting anything more than this moment.

Waverly broke the silence. “What are you thinking?”

“Ain’t thinking about nothing.”

“You must be thinking about something. Everyone thinks about something.”

“Alright. I be thinking this be all I need.”

“Nothing more?”

“What more could I want? I be with the person I care for most in this world.”

“Do you want to know what I’m thinking right now?”

Nicole opened her eyes, turning her head. “What be on your mind?”

“I’m thinking you need to take off your jacket.”

“Does you now. And, what else be on your mind?”

“Oh, that perhaps you need to take off your waistcoat.”

“Is that so?”

“Maybe your braces too.”

“Waverly Earp, you’ll be the death of me.” She sat up, removing the items of clothing, laying back beside her love. “And, what if I asked you to remove your jacket.”

Waverly sat up, eagerly accommodating Nicole’s request. “Can I touch your skin? I need to feel you N. I want to be closer to you than anyone else.”

Nicole untucked her shirt, letting Waverly slide her hand underneath, feeling her unbutton the top of her undergarment, her hand reaching inside, resting it against her stomach. The sensations of skin on skin the most exquisite Nicole had ever experienced. Her eyes closed, her mouth falling open, her heart pounding on her ribcage to be free. She let Waverly explore, her body responding to each new touch.

She felt Waverly’s hand pull away, opening her eyes to find out the reason. Waverly began lifting Nicole’s shirt towards her arms, determined to see as well as feel her new lover. Nicole’s body craved more, yet her mind resisted, fearing Waverly would be repulsed by the scars, eyes pleading not to expose her ugliness.

Waverly saw the look on Nicole’s face. “My love, it’s alright, I’ve seen your back. I love you more for what you’ve had to endure.”

“When? When did you see it?”

“Aunty and I removed your wet clothes. N, they are a beautiful part of you. You know what they say to me? You survived, despite what was done to you.”

Nicole sat up. “You saw everything?”

“I’ve not stopped thinking about your body since.”

“Even me?” pointing between her legs.

Waverly nodded. “N, your body is beautiful, just like your heart.”

She took a moment, allowing her mind to adjust to the new reality that Waverly had seen everything already. She gazed into Waverly’s eyes. “I be ready, but only if you be ready to show me yours?”

Waverly clapped her hands together. “I thought you’d never ask.”

Nicole chuckled as Waverly sat up on her knees, scrambling to undo buttons on her shirt, a new urgency in her actions. She paused for a moment, realising N was not moving, merely watching her. “So, it’s like that is it? You see me first.”

“I be enjoying you, that’s all.”

Nicole reached for the end of her shirt, pulling it over her head, cold air brushing against her body, making her shiver, her cough returning. Her hands went to the unbuttoned part of her underwear, slipping her arms out, letting it fall about her waist. She crossed her arms in front of her chest, the air touching her skin causing certain parts of her anatomy to respond. Waverly gently opened her arms, gazing at her body, a look of delight on her face. “You are so, so beautiful.”

Waverly released the delicate red lace around the neckline of her garment, unbuttoning the front, pulling her arms out, letting it fall to her waist. Nicole’s eyes were everywhere, feasting on the form before her. They fell on Waverly’s scar on her left side, now understanding what she meant about the scars on her back. It was a part of her, a beautiful, unique part of her. Not believing it possible, the sight of Waverly’s scar made her fall in love even more.

Chapter Text

It was time for the circus to move on. The same routine, except Dolls had given N strict instructions to rest. He wanted her well. He also didn’t want to upset aunty. Afterall, she kept him fed, too well sometimes. N watched as the tent was brought down, longing for her job of peg puller, shaking her head as it came down unevenly, Dolls stamping his foot in frustration at the incompetence.

Their whole livelihood relied on that one large performing area. If it was destroyed, they would all be out of work. That’s why he preferred N to do it. In all the time he had worked in a circus he had never met anyone as dedicated, as consistent, as careful as N. She understood the huge responsibility in performing such a simple task as removing a stake of wood from the ground at the right time, in the right order to allow the tent to collapse evenly on itself.

The next town they were to perform in was the one Nicole dreaded returning to each year. It was where the orphanage was located. Every time she knew they were headed that way it stirred up memories of the miserable life she had endured before she ran away. Waverly was right, she had survived, but only just and at a cost emotionally. She would forever be tied to that hellish place. Abandoned, unloved, considered a burden on society, the governor only too pleased on hearing she had fled. He hoped she had perished beyond what he considered the cosy confines of the orphanage, little knowing she would find her way to better people than him.

Aunty could always tell she was anxious, reassuring her, telling her to be brave, to show those ruddy bastards she wasn’t afraid. She was. The thought of that place still terrified her. She would go quiet as they entered the town, eyes alert for danger, knowing the orphanage was not far from their procession route. A few times she had been sick on arrival, aunty making her lie down, taking over her chores.

The work of establishing the circus in their usual field began. Circus folk busy with their respective tasks, Nicole felt lost without her involvement in the frenetic activity that was their way of life. She hung around, waiting for anyone to ask her to carry a box, or unpack ropes. Dolls caught her helping the clowns with their equipment, telling her to go rest. She needed to be in the middle of it all. As much as Dolls was being kind, he was also isolating her from her circus family.

Lonely, in need of comfort Waverly found her with Caspian. She could see in her eyes Nicole was troubled, unaware this was the very place where her life changed. Resting her head on Nicole’s back, her arms around her waist, wanting Nicole to know she was there for her.

Nicole placed a hand on Waverly’s, gently rubbing it as much for her own comfort as any offered. “I be well enough to work. Be a burden if I ain’t a working.”

“N, you’ll be working soon enough. Dolls means well.”

“But, folk will talk I be lazy.”

“Let them. Come, I need a few items in town. It’ll take your mind off here for a while.”

Nicole was silent, stroking Caspian, hesitant to venture into town in case the ghosts of her past came back to haunt her.

Waverly pressed for an answer. “I can go by myself if it’s a problem.”

“No. I be going with you.”

Waverly could hear she wasn’t keen. “What? Tell me. N, tell me. I’m not a mind reader.”

“This is where I’m from.”

“The orphanage? It’s here? That settles it. I can go alone. You stay.”

“I be fine. I needs to move on. Ain’t no use if I be scared.”

“N. You don’t have to do this. Really, I can take care of myself.”

“I be going and that’s settled.”

Waverly squeezed her waist. “So forceful. I really need us to find another field.”

“I take you to market, then I take you to the nearest field I can find.”

“N, stop. I won’t be able to contain myself.”

The two rode into town. Busy, as every town was on market day, they took their time looking round the stalls, Nicole gradually relaxing, knowing she was safe with Waverly by her side. A few women smiled as she passed not realising who she was, Waverly noticing everything. Clearly, Nicole’s good looks and her demeanour caught the eye of those out for a catch. She dearly wanted to hold Nicole’s hand, make it known they were together, knowing it was not appropriate to parade any relationship in public.

They came upon a woman selling hair clips, a wooden tray in her hands, showing them to those who were interested. Waverly viewed the selection, settling on a delicate clip with a turquoise blue butterfly pattern, showing it to Nicole who agreed it was very pretty. Nicole handed over the money to the trader, looking at her face, wondering where she had seen her before. She was familiar, very familiar and yet, for some reason could not place her. The trader too was studying Nicole as if she recognised her, although could not be sure, much to the irritation of Waverly.

They moved off, Nicole lost in thought, Waverly wondering where her mind had wandered off to, wondering whether being back in this town was too much. She tapped Nicole’s arm in a bid to get her attention. “Thank you, you really shouldn’t have.”

“Shouldn’t what?”

“Bought me this hair clip.”

“It be fine. What else do you want?”

“N, you seem distracted.”

“I swears I knows that woman.”

“Go and ask her. Maybe she was at the orphanage with you.”

Waverly saw Nicole physically shudder at the mention of that place. “Come, let’s go back to the circus. I’m feeling tired.”

They walked slowly to their horses, Nicole’s mind still on that woman. Standing next to Caspian, lost in thought once more, Waverly knew Nicole needed to find out who she was. Taking Nicole’s hand she led her back through the market, searching for that woman. They spotted her, sitting outside the ale house, laughing with another woman.

Waverly approached, dragging Nicole behind her. “My friend wants to know your name.”

“Does he now?”

“Daisy, is that you?”

The woman’s expression changed. No longer cocky, the mention of her name making her study Nicole’s face intently. “Oh, my word. It can’t be. I knew you were alive. Why are you dressed like that?”

“I be with the circus. They took me in.”

The woman brushed past Waverly grabbing Nicole, pulling her into an embrace. “I prayed I would see you again. Every day I would look out, hoping you might return.”

“I wanted to come for you. I really did. Asked aunty to help, but she be afraid they would take me back.”

Waverly huffed beside Nicole, letting her know she was beginning to feel like a spare plate. Nicole looked over, realising she had not introduced her. “Daisy, this be Waverly. She’s with me.”

“I’m not with you,” Waverly corrected. “We are together.”

Nicole sensed Waverly was not entirely happy with her reunion with a long lost friend. “I best be going.”

Daisy held onto her arm. “Someone came to the orphanage after you left. A man. The governor was in a bit of a state. I was called to his office. Heard him apologising for your disappearance.”

“Who was he?”

“Said he had family business with you. Had a letter in his hand. Said he needed you to have it.”

“Daisy, I be having no family, you knows that.”

“It’s true, I swear to you. On my life. Well-dressed he was, wanted the Governor to make enquiries in town.”

“When? When did he come to the orphanage?”

“About a year after you ran away. Told everyone you were still alive. No one believed me. Told the gentleman too. I missed you. You stayed in my heart.”

“And, you in mine Daisy.”

Waverly had heard enough, slipping away. Nicole caught up with her. “Waverly, what’s wrong. Are you tired?”

Waverly attempted to hide her annoyance. “Tired, yes. Very tired. You stay with your friend, I’ve got things to do.”

Nicole stopped her. “I be knowing when someone is cross with me.”

“That woman was all over you. And, that cock and bull story about a man and a letter.”

“You be jealous.”

“No. I am not jealous. I’m merely stating what I saw.”

Nicole grinned. “And, if I says I love Daisy, what then?”

Waverly glared at Nicole. “Then you can have her. I’m not sharing you.”

Waverly went to mount Ferdinand, Nicole pulling her back. “You are my life. You knows that. Ain’t been with anyone else. Ain’t ever going to, neither.”

“N, I’m scared. There I said it. Things are happening. And, I don’t know what to do. And, I don’t know what is for the best. And…”

Nicole pulled her close. “Too many words.” Removing her cap she kissed Waverly, feeling her melt in her arms. “Ain’t no one but you.”

Waverly broke away, a smile on her face. “Can we please find a field, I’m fit to bursting. And, don’t think I’ve forgiven you for making me jealous.”

Nicole laughed. “I be a willing for you to punish me.”

“N, stop it. I’m too giddy right now. And, stop looking at me like that, it’s making my stomach flutter.”

Aunty was making more ginger tea as they entered her wagon. “You two look pleased with yourselves. N, your shirt is out.”

Nicole tucked her shirt in, Waverly winking at her as she did so. “Bought you something aunty.”

“Oh N, my lovely. Don’t you be wasting your money on me, not with a child on the way.”

“I spots it on a stall. Waverly helped me pick it. It can go with the others.”

Aunty unwrapped the small package. A tea cup, made of bone china, white with a floral pattern in pink. Dainty. She was overjoyed, her heart warmed by N’s thoughtfulness. She placed it on the shelf with her other ornaments, standing back to admire it. They were her way of pretending she had money, lived in a large house, decorated with fancy possessions. She dreamt of being rich enough to have tea parties, where the finest china would be brought out, serving the upper-class ladies of the community. Even a circus clown could dream. Even if those dreams were fanciful.

Waverly sat drinking aunty’s sweet tea. “What do we do about that letter?”

“I ain’t setting foot in that orphanage.”

“What’s that about a letter, my lovely?”

Waverly put her mug down. “N ran into Daisy in town. She claims someone was looking for N, something to do with family business. Had a letter for her.”

“N, is that so?”

“Whatever is in that letter, it could be important,” Waverly replied.

“Ain’t important enough for me to go back. And, they ain’t be a handing it over to me, neither.”

“Why not? It’s yours. You have every right to it.”

“Not when they don’t knows if I’m me.”

“You have that note in your wallet. It’s worth enquiring.”

“But, what if they keeps me?”

Waverly rubbed her arm. “N, you’re grown now. The orphanage no longer has a hold on you.”

“I needs think. I needs talk to Caspian.”

Waverly rolled her eyes. “Honestly, you and that ruddy horse.”

Aunty was the first to laugh. “I know my lovely. That ruddy horse.”

Chapter Text

Nicole had made up her mind. No ruddy letter would get her to return to that miserable place ever again. No matter what aunty, or Waverly said to convince her otherwise, their reasoning fell on deaf ears. Fearful ears. She nodded in feigned agreement, knowing what they said was true. Knowing whatever was in that letter was meant for her. Knowing whoever wrote that letter wanted contact with her. Knowing whoever they were had sent someone to the orphanage for that sole purpose. Important enough for all these actions, hence by extension, important enough for Nicole.

She understood all of this. She simply was too scared.

She did not want to retrace her steps. She did not want to look at that heavy oak door that had sealed her in, nor look down that long dark corridor of the orphanage, nor smell that rancid smell of cheap meat cooking that seemed to hang in the air forever. She did not want to see the look on those poor orphan faces ever again, those unfortunate enough, like she once was, to be unloved.

She could not explain this to Waverly or aunty. Their concern was for N. Nicole’s concern was for her soul. That the orphanage might suck out any joy in her life.

She woke that night in a cold sweat. The mattress on the floor had become hers, aunty having returned to her own bed, Nicole too old and too tall to fit alongside, as she had when she was younger. Sitting up, knees pulled towards her chest, she rocked back and forth calming herself from the nightmare. One in which she was locked in the very room she had been forced to wait the night she fled, unable to get away, laughter echoing along the corridor outside, the voice of the governor loud enough for her to hear, telling her there was no escape, telling her she would be alone in that room forever.

Caspian was asleep when she entered the stable, his ears twitching as she pulled the blanket over her body, lying against his for comfort. As soon as he felt her weight, his head came round to welcome her back. She was safe with him, no one would lock her away, or beat her ever again.

She patted his side. “I be alright. I be staying here for good. I saw Daisy. She be grown now. Still as pretty. She be in my heart. But, I loves Waverly more. She be jealous of Daisy. Ain’t no reason.”

Caspian snorted to let his N know she was keeping him from his beauty sleep. “I be quiet now. Ain’t got no one else I can talk to mind.”

The cold morning air made her cough, that and sleeping on damp hay. The few days sleeping in aunty’s wagon had done more to ease her lungs than any medicine, if only she realised. Waverly marched in, annoyed Nicole was back where she should not be.

Hands on hips, determined to give Nicole a piece of her mind. “And, I suppose you’re going to tell me Caspian was lonely and needed you.”

“Morning to you too.”

“N, you were told to rest. You are moping because you are not allowed to help Dolls. And, you do this. And, how am I to look after a child and you. Have you thought of that?”

Nicole grinned, exactly the wrong thing to do in that moment. “You be mad at me a lot. I like you when you are a cross with me.”

Waverly stamped her foot. “And, we’re going to get that letter.”

Nicole was fast realising Waverly liked to do things her way. She adored the fire that danced in her eyes when she was riled. She would need to learn how dance with her, around her. Raising herself up, she trotted after Waverly who by now was stomping back to her wagon, muttering to herself. Knocking on the door, she waited for Waverly to open it. Knocking again, she heard Wynonna shouting at Waverly to see who was waking her at this time of the morning. Waverly’s voice saying it was N and she wasn’t going to open the door.

Nicole knocked again, Wynonna nearly knocking her off the steps. “She says she’s not letting you in. What have you done now?”

“Ain’t done nothing. That’s the problem.”

“Waverly, she says she hasn’t done anything.”

“Tell her, she’s a fool for not going to get that letter from the orphanage.”

“N, you’re a fool for not going to get that letter. What letter?”

“There be a letter at the orphanage for me. Did Waverly not say?”

“Waverly, why didn’t you tell me about the letter?”

“Because, N won’t go. And, she doesn’t care about me, or the baby.”

Wynonna grabbed her boots and coat, ushering Nicole down the steps, taking her by the arm, walking away from the wagon so as not to be overheard. “She’s a little, how can I put it, annoying at the moment. Once she gets something in her head, it’s hard to convince her against it. My suggestion would be go get the letter, let Waverly read it.”

“I be honest with you, I’m too scared. I can’t be going back to that place.”

“N, I understand, I really do. But, we’re talking Waverly here. Do you want her bringing this up every time she gets in one of her moods?”

“No. But…”

“Then go. Take someone with you. Like Dolls. He’s big enough to scare anyone who might scare you.”

Nicole paused, absorbing Wynonna’s wise words. Wynonna knew Waverly better than her, knew she was a like a dog with a bone as they say, would never stop talking or thinking about something once she fixated on it, would not let it rest until she got her way. The suggestion of Dolls was also something she had not considered. She would ask, or perhaps Doc. Her own small army against an enemy who had done her wrong. Her biggest fear remained, however, setting foot inside that orphanage, seeing that bastard governor. His small, mean eyes, the whip, tapping it against his leg, relishing the thought of inflicting pain on those who held no power in his captive world.

They walked back to the wagon, Wynonna entering first in case Waverly had decided to throw something at Nicole. She was seated at the table, pulling raisins out of the piece of cake on her plate. “I’m not talking to you. And, if you think you can just let this go. And, not even go see what that letter says.”

Wynonna winked at N. “Waverly, my chickie, firstly you are talking to N. Secondly, N is going to get the letter.”

“Oh, so I ask and you refuse to go. Wynonna asks and now you are going.”

“That’s because I’m older and wiser. Waverly, put that cake down. N, duck.”

The piece of cake ricocheted off the wagon wall. Nicole stooped to pick it up, handing it to Wynonna, who looked at her. “Caspian can have that. Waverly, listen do you want N to get that letter, or not?”

“I don’t care.”

Wynonna sat beside her, putting her arm round her sister. “N is terrified to return to that place. You are right, it would be in her interests to read the letter, but also you have to understand she was a prisoner there. Only she knows what it was like. I’m assuming it was too awful to even contemplate setting foot inside again. The things she must have endured. Breaks my heart.”

Waverly looked up realising how selfish she was being. “Oh N, I know what they did to you. I’ve seen. I know it must be painful for you to even consider returning. It’s just. What if that letter. No, you’re right it’s not important. I won’t say another word.”

Wynonna lifted the cake tin from the table, taking the small plate in front of Waverly at the same time. “And, we all know you won’t say another word. N, run.”

Wynonna and Nicole were seen running out of the wagon, Waverly lobbing boots in their direction as they retreated. “Wynonna Earp, I hate you sometimes. And, Mabel’s mine.”

Dolls was sitting on a stool, sewing another tear in the tent canvas, as Nicole approached. He looked up, his eyes staying on her as she drew near. He resumed his sewing as she stood watching.

“I be well enough to do that.”

Dolls continued to sew. “And, have aunty chase me round this field at getting you to work.”

“I needs to work. I be lazy if I don’t.”

Dolls stopped sewing, looking up, knowing he was the most powerful person in their small community, able to tell others what to do. “And, what if you got sick again N? What if you were too unwell to ever work? Where would I be without you?”

“I be needing your help. I needs get a letter from the orphanage. I can’t go on me own.”

“Consider it done. Could I mend this first? I don’t want one of the monkeys finding a way out.”

“I be grateful. You been good to me and aunty.”

“Don’t get sentimental on me N. I’m not one for emotions. And, no tears. Can’t abide tears.”

“I be taking Waverly with me too.”

“She’s a pretty thing. Very talented. I’m letting them stay on. Quite partial to the older sister. If you could put in a good word for me.”

Nicole remembered Doc was also interested in Wynonna, realising with all that had been happening she had not done anything to progress his request. She now was in the tricky position of having two male suitors interested in Wynonna, she being their go between. She would talk to Waverly. Once she stopped throwing things at her.

The cart set off on its journey, Dolls holding the reins, Nicole, Waverly, Wynonna and aunty in the back. She really was going with her own personal army. She sat quietly, Waverly holding her hand, aunty teaching Wynonna one of her saucier songs. The one about a soldier and his gun. Too rude to sing at that time of day, without rum in their bellies, Wynonna was in fits of laughter enjoying aunty’s performance.

As they neared the orphanage Waverly could feel Nicole’s hand gripping hers more tightly. “N, it’s alright. We’re all here for you. No one is going to take you away from us.”

Nicole nodded, wanting to believe her, knowing it was her childhood fears keeping her trapped. She wanted to be sick. She wanted to run away. She wanted to be anywhere but here, in a cart, heading back to hell.

Reaching the gates, Dolls jumped down, ringing the bell, waiting for someone to allow them entry. An elderly man approached, body bent in two from years of hard work and a poor diet. He asked what their business was, Dolls explaining they were here to collect a letter. The gate opened, Dolls driving the cart along the cobbled path, Nicole watching as the gate closed behind them.

She was visibly shaking. “I not be well. I needs get out.”

Waverly stroked her arm. “N, we do what you want to do. If you want to go, we can go.”

Everyone was looking at Nicole, her body unable to do anything other than remain in the cart, moving ever closer to the building. Dolls drew up by the entrance, tying up the horse, helping aunty down. Wynonna and Waverly exited next, leaving Nicole sitting looking at that door. And, that window. The door still as large and evil-looking as it had been when she was last there. The window, from which she escaped, tiny by comparison. How she managed to fit through, she wondered, realising desperation had allowed her to do the almost impossible. All with her back raw from the beating she received.

The door opened, Nicole feeling her legs buckle under her, Waverly holding her up. They entered, a young boy ushering them into the room Nicole knew to be the governor’s. The orphanage smelt different. Warm bread, polish, fresh flowers. The corridor was still as dark, but it had a more homely feel to it, as if someone cared. It took her a while to adjust.

A large desk was positioned by the window, two chairs for visitors placed one side, a larger chair the other. She remembered this room, although the décor had been changed. More welcoming. A middle-aged woman entered, smiling, making her way round the desk. “I understand you are here for a letter, is that correct?”

Waverly answered. “Yes, we have been told a letter was left here many years ago. We wondered if it was still here.”

“I can certainly check. But, first I need to establish who you are, and why you believe a letter would be here.”

Waverly nudged Nicole to speak. “I be here for a while. I be hearing a man came to find me.”

The woman looked at Nicole. “Were you an orphan here?”

Nicole nodded. “I be here with Governor Svane. He be sending me to another orphanage.”

“Dr Robert Svane is no longer with us. I assumed his position as governor. I’m sure we can check the records we have for you. Do you have anything that identifies you?”

Nicole pulled out her wallet, removing the note she carried with her. “I has a letter. It was in me belongings when I be moved.”

The new governor took the note reading both sides. “Unfortunately, this does not have sufficient information for me to be able to trace you.”

Nicole opened her wallet once more. “I has this. And, half a coin. It be the only things with me when I left.”

The new governor took the swatch of cloth, a number embroidered on it. “This, I believe is the billet number you would have received on entry to this establishment. If you could give me a moment, I will check our records.”

The woman stood, smiling at Dolls, clearly impressed by his presence. They waited, Nicole silent, Wynonna and Waverly looking round the room, Wynonna extracted a book from the shelf behind the desk, reading a section out loud. “Master Bates led Oliver into an adjacent kitchen, where there were two or three of the beds on which he had slept before; and here, with many uncontrollable bursts of laughter, he produced the identical old suit of clothes which Oliver had so much congratulated himself upon leaving off at Mr. Brownlow’s, and the accidental display of which to Fagin by the Jew who purchased them, had been the very first clue received of his whereabouts.”

Waverly listened to the extract. “So, clothes are important to Oliver. People are choosing his clothes for him, defining him as a person. What do you think N?”

“I be wondering who Master Bates is?”

It as Wynonna who now had uncontrollable bursts of laughter. “Master Bates. Aunty, you don’t happen to know a song about Master Bates do you?”

“Wynonna!” Waverly chastised. “This is hardly the time, or the place for such vulgarity.”

Nicole was looking at both sisters, utterly perplexed. It was left to Dolls to explain with a hand gesture, before she got the joke.

The woman returned, a large, leather-bound journal in her hand and an envelope. She placed the journal on the desk, sitting once more, the letter tantalisingly placed within reach. She read the entries under the number Nicole had supplied, looking up once she finished. “It says you ran away on February 14th. Is that correct?”

“I be beaten and Daisy. I feared I would die if I be moved.”

“My child. No need to explain. Governor Svane was not the kindest of men. I understand your reasons for not wanting to remain in this establishment. It also says that a gentleman from a firm of London solicitors visited, leaving this letter for you. How did you know it was here?”

“I be seeing someone who was in the orphanage with me. Daisy.”

The new governor smiled. “Ah, yes. Our Daisy. Such a sweet character.” She handed the letter to Nicole. “This is what you came for. I wish you well. I trust this has not been a wasted journey.”

Nicole held the letter in her hands. Whatever was inside, Waverly would be able to explain.

Her life about to change once more.

Chapter Text

The writing on the envelope was elegant, black swirly ink, clearly left by someone who knew how to hold a pen. Nicole’s billet number had been added, in pencil, in the top right corner, tying it to her. Waverly was desperate to open the letter, eyeing it in Nicole’s hands as they returned to the circus.

Whatever it contained, they would know shortly.

They gathered in aunty’s wagon, Dolls remaining outside given the limited space, listening at the door. Nicole handed the letter to Waverly. “It be for you to read. I be dishonest if I didn’t tells you I be nervous.”

Waverly rubbed her arm. “Whatever is in here was meant for you.”

Waverly carefully unsealed the envelope, extracting one single sheet of paper containing only a few words. “Well, that’s a disappointment.”

“What does it say?” Nicole asked.

“It’s from a firm of solicitors, Messrs Bird & Bird, Furnival’s Inn, Holborn, London. It says you are requested to attend the reading of the last Will and Testament of Alice Russell, née Haught. Failure to attend will result in all assets passing to Mrs Constance Templeton after the specified period.”

Everyone wondered who Alice Haught was and why she would leave everything to Constance Templeton.

“Given the date of the letter,” Waverly surmised, “I’m guessing whatever Alice Russell left you is now in the hands of Constance Templeton.”

“Well, at least you now know what the letter says,” Wynonna offered. “Sorry, it wasn’t better news N. I reckon you’ll have to stick with us for a while longer.”

“I be happy with that. I fears it would take me from here. And, Waverly.”

“Oh, I would have gone with you.”

Wynonna grinned at Nicole. “Got her for life, N, unfortunately.”

Wynonna dodged a punch to the arm, saying she would be in their wagon should anyone need her. Dolls went back to checking the tent for any further repairs, aunty needed to check on the camp fire. Waverly sat with the letter still in her hands, pondering its contents. “It says after a specified period. What if there’s still time?

“I not be getting me hopes up. I be happy here, with you and the little one. I be not needing any more than that.”

“N, I know you are content with your lot. That’s why I love you. But, someone, somewhere has left you something. It’s worth investigating at the very least. I can write to the solicitors.”

“You loves me?”

“I may love you,” Waverly replied coyly. “You may have a body that fills my dreams, and you may have a voice that makes my knees go weak. But, do not let that go to your head N.”

“I be dreaming about your body too, Lady Waverly.”

“I’m getting hot and flustered now. You do this to distract don’t you?”

“I be distracted with your beauty. And, your hands. I spied a field not far.”

“No, don’t you do that. Don’t you get me all worked up so I forget the letter.”

“I be laying me hands on your warm skin. And, kissing your neck.”

“Alright. We go to that field, but I’m writing that letter. You hear.”

“I only hears your sweet lips.”

They were seen walking at a pace away from the circus, returning a few hours later looking decidedly more relaxed. Waverly had managed to button up her shirt incorrectly to the amusement of Wynonna. Nicole looked like the cat that got the cream. Which she had. Several times.

They sat at the table in Waverly’s wagon, holding hands, Waverly contemplating how best to reply. “I think we need them to come to us. That way we don’t have the expense and the inconvenience of travelling to London.”

“That be a good idea,” Nicole offered. “I be needing you if they come.”

“One bridge at a time. So, here’s the plan. We ask them if you are still in time to receive whatever is in the Will. If you are and they turn up, we’ll know what this is all about. And, you can ask them who Alice Russell is, and, Constance Templeton.”

“I be with a smart one.”

Waverly pulled out her writing set which she used to keep in contact with her parents. Carefully inking her pen, she wrote Nicole’s reply, explaining the letter had only just come into her possession, asking whether she still had a legal claim on the Will, asking for someone to visit from the law firm. The letter sealed, they rode into town to post it, Waverly not wanting to waste any more time.

Knowing the stigma around the circus, she was careful to give their return address as that of the post office, a common practice. The market was quiet when they arrived it being the end of the day. Waverly went into the post office while Nicole waited with the horses, hoping not to get a response, hoping this would be the last of it. She was doing this for Waverly, more than herself, reluctant to change any part of the life she now had. She was blissfully content. Needed nothing other than what she had right now.

She heard a familiar voice behind her. “Hello Nicole. I wondered if I’d see you again.”

Nicole turned round. “Daisy. I went to the orphanage. That bastard be gone. Got me letter.”

“He was mean to me after you left. Got less food. I wish you had taken me with you.”

“I wanted to. I kept hoping I could get you out. Aunty said it was too dangerous. I be sorry.”

“It’s alright. It was meant to be. At least you’re alive. Not sure about you dressed as a man. Although, you do look dashing.”

“Does she now?” Waverly interrupted. “We meet again.”

“Waverly, I’m not a threat. Nicole and I go back a long way, that’s all. I’ll leave you now. Stay well my Nicole. Waverly, I’m glad to have met you.”

“Daisy, wait. I’m sorry. That was rude of me. Will you have a drink with us?”

Daisy smiled. “Only if you’re buying. Haven’t sold many clips this week.”

They sat in the ale house, Nicole and Daisy recounting their time together in the orphanage, Nicole telling her about life in the circus, Daisy telling her about life in the orphanage after she ran away and her life now. Waverly listened, taking in all the new information about Nicole. She craved to know her, to understand her. The more she heard, the more she fell in love with her N. A hug outside the ale house, Nicole promised to visit again soon. They took a slow ride back to the circus, aunty having prepared supper.

Wynonna was already seated at the table when they entered aunty’s wagon, a few rums in, singing along to another of aunty’s more adult songs. “I was telling aunty about mama and papa. She’s heard of papa. Says she may have met him once many years ago.”

“We’ve written to the solicitors. There might be something in it for N.”

“Or, a huge bill.”

“Oh no. I never considered that. What if it is bad news? What if I’ve made it worse for you?”

“Waverly, it be fine. They can’t take what I don’t have. Anyway, you ain’t told them I’m here.”

“That’s right. Oh N, I think you might have more brains than me.”

“Let’s eat,” aunty interrupted. “Whatever N has it can keep.”

They waited a week before returning to town. Waverly stood in line at the post office hoping a letter would have come. She approached the counter, asking if there was anything for a Miss N. Haught. The post master checked his records, going to the pigeon holes on the back wall, removing something from one, returning to the desk, asking Waverly to sign for it.

Nicole could see the excitement on her face as she emerged, waving a letter in her hand. “We have a response. Please let me open it. I’m dying to know what it says.”

“No. I be a waiting. We can open it later.”

Waverly stood hopping from foot to foot. “But, what if it’s good news. Don’t you want to know?”

“I be fine. Maybe I put it in me jacket and forgets about it.”

A thump to her arm told her Waverly knew she was being teased. “It’s enough with Wynonna, without you starting. Please, please, please let me open it.”

“Alright. But, don’t get your hopes too high.”

Waverly opened the letter. “N, they’re coming here. Oh my, they say they will be arriving at noon on Thursday and will meet you at The Coach and Horses ale house. You are to bring the letter and any means of identity you may have with you.”

“What day is today?”

“It’s Tuesday. Oh N, they’re coming here. You know what that means?”

Nicole shook her head.

“It means this is important enough for them to come from London. It also means you’re still in time to make a claim on the Will, otherwise they would have said so in their letter.”

Nicole lowered her head, wanting to be pleased, not wanting her life to change. “N, what’s wrong? This is good news.”

“But, what if it ain’t?”

“How can it not be good news?”

“What if it changes me? What if I can’t stay with the circus?”

“But, what if it’s an improvement?”

“Ain’t nothing to improve. I has you and the little one. And aunty. And Caspian.”

Waverly hugged her. “You do. And, it’s all I need too. But, I have a feeling this was meant to be.”

“You be sounding like Rosita now. Big houses and fancy money.”

“Shall we see if Daisy is at the ale house? We can tell her your news.”

They found Daisy sitting outside, Nicole buying another clip for Waverly and one for aunty. Not that aunty needed it, but she wanted to give money to Daisy without making it obvious. A few drinks, more stories shared, Daisy wished Nicole luck with whatever might come of her meeting with Messrs Bird & Bird. Nicole invited her to visit the circus. She said she would consider. She had never been to the circus, Nicole telling her she would reserve two seats for her and a friend for Saturday’s show.

Thursday couldn’t come soon enough for Waverly. She was more nervous than Nicole, up early, busying herself, consuming several mugs of aunty’s sweet ginger tea to calm her stomach. She knocked on aunty’s door, Nicole still fast asleep on the floor. Aunty told her to come in, both trying not to step on their N, as they manoeuvred their way round the small space.

“I be a giving N a clean shirt and coat. Ain’t going to no meeting looking shabby.”

“I’m a bundle of nerves right now. N is so calm about it all.”

“She not be one for speaking her emotions. Her legs do that for her.”

“She reminds me of a horse sometimes. So sensitive, yet calm. I’m sure that’s why she bonded with Caspian so quickly.”

“I be a thinking the same thing. For all they did to her, they never broke who she was. She’s the sweetest thing that ever entered me life. I tells you that for nothing.”

“Oh aunty, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to upset you.”

“Tears of joy, my lovely. Tears of joy. I be blessed with N. Why a mother would ever give her up?”

“Circumstances, I’m guessing. But, we get to love her.”

A voice rose from the floor. “I be listening.”

Waverly giggled. “I should have said horrid things about you in that case. I swear N, your head won’t fit out that door one of these days.”

“Me head be fine. It’s me body needs growing.”

“N, move the mattress, my lovely. You needs a full breakfast if you be meeting important folk.”

Aunty laid a plate of food in front of N, Waverly turning green, still not good with food in the mornings. Aunty gave her a slice of bread to pick at while Nicole tucked into the feast before her.

They were early in town, Waverly worried she might have to leave N alone to return to the circus for the matinee performance. As much as Wynonna had told her to stay with N, she didn’t want to let Wynonna down. They waited outside the Coach and Horses, the town busy once more with the market. The church clock struck twelve, no sign of any gentlemen. A half hour went by, then another, the clock striking one. Waverly was getting anxious, deliberating whether to stay or return to the circus.

Nicole saw them first. Two well-dressed gentlemen making their way towards the ale house. They entered, Nicole and Waverly following behind, the two gentlemen finding an empty table near the window. Nicole approached, cap in hand, standing in front of the table. The older gentleman rose, studying Nicole, wondering if she was a beggar.

“I be Nicole Haught.”

The older gentleman looked confused. He was expecting someone dressed in woman’s clothing. Not a man, as clearly was standing in front of him. “Young man, I have business with a Miss Haught. Whoever you are, this is of no concern to you.”

Nicole removed her wallet, extracting the swatch of cloth and the half of the coin in her possession. “These be mine. From the orphanage. I be who you are seeking.”

The older gentleman took the swatch from her, opening his case, removing a large leather wallet from inside. He proceeded to retrieve a number of papers, one of which had a similar swatch pinned to the top right corner. He placed Nicole’s against the one in his possession. It matched.

He handed the swatch back to Nicole, taking the half of her coin, matching it precisely to the half he had secure in a small packet also attached to the paper. “How come you by these?”

“I be given them at the orphanage. I be moved and they put them in me bag.”

“How can we be sure these are yours?”

Nicole removed the note she had in her wallet. “I be having this too. It be with me always.”

The older gentleman took the note from Nicole, reading it, turning his head to whisper something to the younger gentleman. “This note was mentioned by our client. She said she left it with her child. I’m sorry, but none of these prove you are who you say you are.”

Waverly looked crestfallen. They had come this far, for nothing. Nicole was satisfied she had done all she could. It no longer mattered that she may have inherited something, or not, from one Alice Russell, née Haught. She had never known this woman. All she knew was someone had given her up at birth, someone who clearly hadn’t loved her enough to keep her, whatever the circumstances.

Nicole smiled at the gentlemen. “I be me. N. That’s all I needs to know. Ain’t needing no proof.”

Nicole turned to leave, the older gentleman stopping her. “There is one more thing that would prove definitively you are who you say you are.”

“And, that be?”

“Our client mentioned a birthmark on the right ankle of her child. The distinctive shape of a crescent moon.”

Waverly thought hard, trying to remember if she had seen it, realising N tended to keep her socks on, no matter what state of undress they ended up in. She glanced round, Nicole no longer by her side, watching her back as she headed out of the ale house. Waverly managed to stop her outside, Nicole's head lowered, her cap still in her hand. "Tell me. N, tell me. Have you got the mark, or not?"

"Don't need to prove to no one I be who I am. They don't believe me anyway."

"N, you didn't answer my question. Do you have a mark on your ankle?"

Nicole stood looking at Waverly, the words of Wynonna drumming in her head, that she would never hear the last of it if she didn't conclude this one matter, once and for all. In that way it would be put to bed and she could go back to living the life she so desperately wanted to keep. It was fine for Waverly to want more in life, if what was being offered here was indeed more. For all she knew Alice Russell may have left her nothing of value. Or, debts to be paid. She had all the value in her life right there before her. Waverly's eyes were insistent.

Entering the alehouse once more, the gentlemen were sat discussing the matter, tankards of ale now in front of them. Nicole pulled up a stool opposite, sitting, removing her right boot, then her sock. Standing she placed her bare foot on the stool for the older gentleman to see.

He looked at Nicole’s ankle, then at her face, making a small bow. “I am honoured to meet you.”

Chapter Text

The younger gentleman offered his seat to Waverly, who suddenly was feeling as N felt, that their world was changing before their eyes. She had not considered anything other than making sure Nicole got what was due to her. Loyal to those she loved would be an understatement when it came to Waverly. She had punched one of the older Hardy brothers in the face once for making insinuating comments about Wynonna. He had gone to hit her back, the youngest Hardy boy pulling her away just in time. When Wynonna found out a Hardy boy had dared raise his hand to her baby sister, she floored him with a single punch of her own. The Earp’s were nothing if not protective of each other.

Nicole waited as the older gentleman removed a number of papers once more from the large, leather wallet in his possession. He sat for a moment placing them in the order in which he wanted to present, finally looking up. “Before we start, may I introduce myself. I am Mr. Horatio Bird, solicitor to your family and this is my nephew, Mr. Chase. I must say, it left me vexed you were not at the orphanage when I visited. I had stern words for the governor and his ill-handling of the situation. That you were able to run away from that establishment, without so much as an enquiry made as to your whereabouts.”

“I be beaten. Had no choice.”

“I am very sorry to hear that. It was on my instructions, at the behest of Mrs. Templeton that said governor was removed. Clearly, not fit to do his job. Or, any job for that matter. I hear he drank himself to death not long after his removal.”

“He starved me friend. And, beat her too.”

“N, Mr. Bird doesn’t want to hear about Daisy.”

Mr. Bird held up several sheets of cream-coloured paper, handing one sheet to his nephew. “I have before me the last Will of your late mother, a Mrs Alice Russell of Howton Conquest, a village not far from here. It was on her instructions that we find you so that you may inherit what was left on her passing. There is also the matter of a debt in the sum of £100 to be paid, I’m afraid.”

Nicole was standing once more, backing away from the table, knowing full well she did not have that kind of money to pay that kind of debt. At most she had £4 to her name, a lot by her reckoning, although could not be sure, aunty keeping most of her money in a jar on the top shelf of her wagon. Waverly grabbed her hand to stop her running. “Sit, you need to listen to what these men have to say. N, sit.”

Nicole had heard enough. “I be poor. I have a child on the way and I can’t be paying no debt.”

“Young lady, it is not for me to enquire as to the child on the way. That is not my concern. What I will say is the debt should be of no concern to you either. Please be seated, there is a lot to go through and we must be on our way to London no later than 3pm.”

She sat, the huge debt all that was on her mind, distracting her from what Mr. Bird was about to tell her. Waverly noticed, squeezing her leg to get her to pay attention, which only distracted her more. She didn’t want to listen. She didn’t want to have Alice Russell interfere with her life. She had caused her enough anxiety already. And, she never knew the woman.

Mr. Bird noticed he had lost Nicole’s attention. “May I continue? Your mother married one George Russell, sadly not having any children by that marriage. On his death some assets passed to your mother, who on her death bequeathed them to you.”

“There be assets?” Nicole asked.

“Failing to find you, the assets were placed in the care of a Mrs Templeton as custodian, a woman who nursed your mother up to the time of her death.”

“So, there not be assets?”

“Now your identity has been established, I am satisfied you hold claim to said assets. It was made very clear to Mrs Templeton that should you be found all assets would pass to you.”

“So, there be assets?”

“N, shush. Let the man finish. So, to clarify there are assets?”

Mr. Bird smiled. “There are assets.”

“What kind of assets?” Waverly asked.

Mr. Chase offered the long sheet of paper he had in his hand to Nicole, who looked at it, failing to understand what was written. She handed the list to Waverly, who sat reading each line. Nicole waited for her to look up, not knowing what she had, or didn’t have, other than £100 in debt.

When Waverly finally raised her head she had a strange look on her face. Nicole was worried, thinking it might be her sickness returning. “Waverly, you be alright? You gone pale.”

Waverly’s hand was shaking, unable to hold the sheet of paper still. “Is this true? Is this all N’s?”

“I believe so,” Mr. Bird replied. “There may be a number of smaller items not accounted for on the list. The main items are recorded, as far as I am aware, along with their value at the time the estate was inspected by one of my employees for the purposes of drawing up the Will.”

“Waverly, you best be telling me. I be nervous now.”

Waverly looked at N, her eyes scanning her, as if seeing her in a completely new way, which she was. “N, you have a house, land, paintings, furniture and stables.”

“Stables? Show me, where does it say stables?”

Waverly’s hand was still shaking, placing the paper on the table, pointing to the word for Nicole to see. A huge smile came over her face. “Wait till I tells Caspian. He be having his own home. He’ll be thinking he’s a king.”

Mr. Bird was keen to continue. “We need to arrange for you to visit the estate. I can send word to Mrs Templeton that we have found you. I will ask her to send a carriage. Where shall we say you are to be collected?”

Before Nicole could stop herself she had blurted out the circus, the two gentlemen looking at each other, then at Nicole. “I be living there. They be me family.”

“I understand,” Mr. Bird replied. “I assume it will be easy enough for Mrs. Templeton to locate this circus. May I buy you and your young lady a drink?”

“Waverly, we have stables.”

“N. I think you have a lot more than stables.”

Mr. Bird and Mr. Chase stayed for one more drink, Waverly not partaking, not a drinker, although on this occasion she could easily have downed a triple brandy without any encouragement but for being pregnant. She sat quietly, listening as Mr. Bird explained how they had made every enquiry in that town as to Nicole’s whereabouts. It never occurred to anyone to consider the circus. They assumed she was lost, like so many other children who ended up on the streets.

Nicole shook hands with the gentlemen, the list of assets in her hand, along with her mother’s Will. She still had no idea who Alice Russell was, although she now knew Mrs Templeton was a carer of sorts to her. Waverly remained quiet. The most she had ever been.

“You be alright?” Nicole asked as they left the alehouse. “You not be yourself. Is it the little one?”

“No. It’s just. Oh no, I completely forgot. I was meant to be back for the performance. Wynonna will kill me.”

“It be my fault. You can blame me. I be keeping you.”

“N, I’m scared. What if this changes everything?”

Nicole rolled her eyes. “I be saying that. You wanted me to have that ruddy letter.”

Tears welled in Waverly’s eyes. “So, you’re blaming me for all this? I knew it. I knew you didn’t love me.”

“Waverly. I be loving you more each day. And, the little one. I be scared too. I be wanting me life at the circus with me family. Alice Russell ain’t me family. You are.”

Waverly hugged her. “I don’t know what’s wrong with me lately. I keep pushing you away. I just want it to be right.”

“It is right. And, I be telling you, push me as far as you like, I be coming back. Got me for life too.”

“Oh N. What did I do to deserve you?”

“Showed me your body that’s what you did.”

“That’s rude. Do you want to see it again?”

“Always. Ain’t be no painting that be as beautiful as you.”

Another detour to their field, Waverly demanding N remove her socks this time, just to make certain she hadn’t missed any other features on her beautiful lover. Wynonna was leaving the stables when they returned, not looking best pleased. “If you say you are going to be here, be here. Ferdinand decided to play up. I nearly came off twice.”

“Oh Wyn, I’m really sorry. We got delayed.”

“Right. Delayed. As in delayed on the ground. You have grass stains on your shoulder. Honestly, I leave you two together and you’re like rabbits.”

“N has a house.”

“What? And, you didn’t think to tell us.”

“No, she’s only just found out. And, paintings, and furniture, and stables. And land. Quite a lot of land.”

Wynonna was eyeing N in the same way Waverly had in the alehouse. “Is that what Alice left you?”

Nicole nodded. “And, £100 in debt.”

“Ruddy hell. How are you going to pay that? We don’t have that kind of money.”

“I be selling the house I reckons. Has a stables. Still, I be having a stables here. Caspian ain’t to know.”

“Did I hear right? As in stables. And, paintings. And, furniture. And, land. Sorry, I just need to ask this. But, how rich are you exactly?”

Waverly handed over the sheet of paper listing Nicole’s assets. They watched as she read the list, looking up at Nicole with a shocked look on her face. For once she was speechless. Utterly speechless. Her mouth was moving, but she no longer had the ability to construct coherent sentences. She handed the sheet back to Waverly, her hand shaking.

“I best be showing this to aunty. She’ll be pleased I hope. Will you eat with us?”

Wynonna nodded, still unable to know what to say. She grabbed Waverly’s arm as she was about to follow Nicole, motioned she needed to speak to her in private. Waverly told Nicole to go on and give aunty the good news.

Wynonna waited until Nicole was out of range. “Does she know how rich she is?”

Waverly shook her head. “She’s just happy that the Will mentions stables. This is all too much, Wyn. I can’t stay with her. She’s beyond me. People will talk I’m just using her for her money.”

“Are you seriously out of your mind. You would drop N because she now has money. Lots, and lots, and lots of money. And, she’s worried over a £100 debt. The poor girl, she really has no idea.”

“Wyn, I love her. I just don’t want her feeling she has an obligation to me and the baby. Not now she has all this.”

“Answer me one question Waverly Earp. Why were you with N before she got the letter?”

Waverly paused to think. “Well, her body mostly. Oh, and that thing she does with her…”

“No, no, no. Do not tell me what that thing is. I do not want that in my brain, ever. You were with N, because she’s N. No one else is N. With, or without money. Mind you, with money she’s suddenly looking a whole lot more attractive.”

Waverly slapped her arm. “Wyn! Stop it. She’s mine.”

“Precisely. There are a hundred girls who would have her in a heartbeat if they found out she is that wealthy. N loves you. And, she’s committed herself to you and the baby. That’s worth more than anything. The fact that she’s dripping in money is also rather fortunate. Don’t mess this up.”

“But, she’ll have to leave the circus and go do whatever she has to do in her new life.”

“Stop worrying. She might still end up being plain old, penniless N by the end of all this. Although, if that list is right, she’s very wealthy. And, she has no idea. What I would give to be her.”

“She’s not plain. Or, old. And, that thing she does with her…”

“Not listening. Not listening. Not listening.”

Nicole was seated at the table when they entered, aunty cutting bread. Aunty smiled on seeing Waverly. “N says you helped her with the gentlemen. You are such a good child. What did N do to deserve someone as good as you?”

“Well…” Waverly replied, wincing as Wynonna pinched her arm. “Ouch, I wasn’t going to say. I was merely going to say N is N. And, that’s why I love her.”

Nicole blushed. “I not be fitting through that door me head will be that big.”

“N, have you told aunty what you’ve inherited?”

“No, I be waiting for you. You be the one reading it.”

“N, do you want me to read it to aunty?”

Nicole nodded. “Aunty, you best be a sitting. And, you best be a having rum ready.”

Aunty grabbed the bottle from the shelf, needing no further prompting, pouring a large glass, offering it to Wynonna who gladly accepted. “N, you be joining us?”

“I not be liking rum. Waverly? You be having one?”

“Don’t like it either. Nor, the baby.”

“Does we toast your good fortune now, my lovely N, or after Waverly has read the list?”

“I be thinking now. I be grateful for me family and I be grateful we can share this.”

Aunty raised her glass. “To N.”

Waverly started at the top of the list, reading every single asset out loud, including the value assigned. Nicole could see aunty’s face change as Waverly made her way down the items, her hand gripping her glass. When Waverly had finished, aunty sat staring at her N, unable to move. Wynonna refilled aunty’s glass, bringing it to her lips, helping her take a swig.

“I be a fainting. Is that…is N having all that? A house?”

Waverly nodded. “And, furniture. And, paintings. And, stables. And, land.”

Tears came to aunty’s eyes. “A house? A real house. Oh, my lovely. N, you has a house. Oh, my. Me head’s funny.”

Wynonna had her arm round aunty. “Felt the same way you did aunty. It’s all a bit of a shock.”

“Aunty,” N offered. “I may not be keeping the house. I be in debt £100. We ain’t got that money.”

Aunty looked at her in amazement. “N, that £100 debt is nothing. If this list is right, you be worth more than £100. Where’s that rum?”

“So, I can keep the house?”

Waverly rubbed her arm. “And, the stables.”

“Wait till Caspian hears. I be telling him now. Let’s go break the news to him. He be having his own stables. And, Ferdinand, and the other horses. Do you think it’s a big stables?”

Waverly smiled. “I think so, N. I really do. Come on, let’s go tell Caspian.”

Wynonna refilled her glass, forgetting she had another show that evening. “And, no delaying in those stables.”

Chapter Text

Aunty thought it best not to tell too many circus folk. At least, not until they established what exactly N had inherited. It was one thing having a long list in their hands, quite another to see for themselves what that list looked like in reality. Many a slip between the cup and the lip, aunty cautioned N, knowing her sudden good fortune could just as easily evaporate before their eyes.

She made Nicole sit at her table, taking her hands. “Don’t you go spending your money like water. There be poor folk who won’t take kindly to fancy ways.”

“Ain’t be having no money, aunty,” Nicole replied. “I be in debt mostly.”

“N, my lovely, you be having a lot of money. But, it will cost you. I be a seeing folk who be wealthy. Ain’t like us.”

“I be the same. I be N. Stables, or no stables.”

“I knows you’ll always be my N. And, I’ll always be aunty. Just remember your heart in all this. You have a good heart and that’s all that matters, money or no.”

“Aunty, we be having tea parties now. We be bringing your cups to the house. Like a proper family.”

Aunty looked away. “I be staying here N. Can’t be doing with all the fancy at my age. And, who will feed Dolls if I ain’t here?”

“You has to come. Ain’t going without you. Ain’t leaving you behind. I’ll die without you.”

“N, my child, you can’t hold onto me apron forever. You needs to make your own way now, with Waverly and the baby. I be settled here. Tis for the best.”

There were tears in Nicole’s eyes. She wiped them with her sleeve, unable to stop her heart breaking. “This be a curse, not a blessing. I be fearing this. Can’t do this on me own. Can’t. I needs you, aunty. You were the one who kept me alive. Wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for you.”

Aunty brushed Nicole’s hair back from her face. “I be still here. Tells you this. I be staying for a little when the baby comes. Ain’t missing that for all the tea in China. Now, don’t you go a fretting about me.”

Nicole was broken. The despair she felt the night she fled the orphanage surging to the surface once more. For all the good that was coming into her life, this was the worst thing that could happen. The thought of losing the one person she cared most about in the world too much. She leant her head on her arms, sobbing, unable to stop the grief.

Waverly entered hearing the state Nicole was in, rushing to comfort her. She had never seen her like this. Not her N. “What’s wrong? What’s upset you like this?”

“It be me,” aunty explained. “I be telling her I stays with the circus. She don’t want old bones rattling around that house of hers.”

“Aunty, this is a big change for everyone. N needs you now more than ever. Look at her. She won’t survive this without her family.”

Aunty sat quietly looking at her N breaking her heart. “Alright. I be going for N’s sake. But, I ain’t being no toff mind. Too old to change me ways. And, me wagon stays with me.”

Nicole looked up, her face wet and flushed. “I be nothing without you.”

Aunty pulled the rum bottle from the shelf, grabbing a mug. She was pleased for N, knowing she deserved everything good that was coming her way. But, like N, she was scared. Scared of change, scared that the world she had come to know would move on without her, leaving her in some god-forsaken place where she didn’t fit in. The circus life was a hard life, relentless. She knew what N was offering her was a way out of all the drudgery. She had long dreamt of retiring to her own little place, content with her lot. Yet, when it came to the possibility of realising that dream, she was unable to let go of the life that had seeped into her aging bones, much like the rum she consumed.

Waverly suggested they go for a walk, give aunty some space. The look on Nicole’s face as she left the wagon was that of an orphan once more. She was lost. It was as though the world that had taken her in, the world she loved, was closing its doors on her. Waverly walked them to their field, letting Nicole sit and cry once more.

She knew Nicole needed this. She understood how she felt. It was the same for her on realising she was pregnant. A life-changing moment takes time to sink in. After the shock and excitement, now came the cold hard reality of what Nicole’s change of fortune truly entailed. Nicole needed to experience her own grieving process, as Waverly had had to do.

Nicole eventually looked up. “I be sorry. I be sad that’s all.”

“Oh N, you need to go through this. Aunty means well. She’s scared that’s all. Like we all are.”

“She don’t want to come with us.”

“You need to give her time to adjust. We all need time to adjust. It’ll be fine. Trust me.”

“You won’t leave me neither?”

“Got me for life N, as Wynonna would say.”

“I don’t want any of this. I just wants you and aunty.”

“What about Caspian? I thought you loved that horse more than me.”

“And, Caspian. I be loving you both.”

“Oh, I see. It’s like that is it? I’m the same as a horse to you am I?”

“No. Waverly, please. I be all wrong. I loves you more.”

“N, I’m teasing you. I love Caspian too. This will work. We’ll make this work. Dry your eyes, my love, and give me a hug. We are stronger for this.”

Nicole nodded, not feeling particularly strong in that moment, knowing she needed to be there for Waverly. They made their way back to the circus, Waverly had to get ready for the evening performance, Nicole needing to get the horses harnessed. She was quiet as she prepared them, Caspian sensing something was off. He made a fuss until she came over and comforted him, unable to tell him what was in her heart. She didn’t have to. No words were needed. He knew. He was able to sense when his N was sad. He brought his round for her to stroke his nose.

They waited the next day for any sign of a carriage. Dolls had been brought in on the matter, aunty feeling it was only fair he should know there were changes afoot. He congratulated N, suggesting she not rush any decisions, that he would be happy to advise her should she need him. He was nothing, if not a true friend and ally. Saturday came, the evening performance upon them. Daisy showed up with a male friend, Nicole spotting her as she entered the field. Still as pretty as ever, she felt a small flutter in her heart on seeing her. Approaching, cap in hand, she guided them to the sweet stall to introduce Daisy to aunty, then to the stables to meet Caspian and the other horses. Waverly was fitting the last of the harnesses as they entered, smiling at Daisy and her male companion.

The big top was packed it being a Saturday night, the monkeys badly behaved as usual, stealing one man’s cap, depositing it at the top of the main pole, requiring one of the acrobats to climb up to retrieve it much to the delight of the audience. Nicole had resumed her role of bringing in Waverly’s horses for the act. It took her mind off the events of the past few days. She could see Daisy watching her as she entered, her heart beating faster.

The show over Daisy was introduced to Dolls, who appeared to be taken by her beauty. Nicole invited Daisy to join them in aunty’s wagon for a drink, Daisy declining saying she needed to get back to town. Kissing Nicole on the cheek she made her way out of the field with her beau, Nicole’s eyes following her until she was no longer in sight.

Sunday morning, a day of rest. Nicole slept in, cosy under her blanket on the floor of the wagon. Waverly stepped over her to get to the table, aunty placing a mug of sweet ginger tea in front of her and a slice of bread. This was all Nicole wanted, listening to aunty and Waverly chat about the evening show, laughing between themselves at things only circus folk would understand.

They heard the commotion outside, Waverly accidentally kicking Nicole’s shoulder as she stepped over her to see what was happening. Nicole groaned, turning over, wanting to stay where she was, at least for a few more minutes. An elegant carriage, pulled by a pair of magnificent black horses had entered the field, managing to get one wheel stuck in the soft earth. The clowns were busy assisting the driver to free it. The wheel released, the carriage continued into the field, stopping close to the main tent. Dolls emerged carrying a bundle of costumes that had not been put back in the correct box, cursing out loud.

The driver enquired where he might find a Miss Nicole Haught. Dolls had no idea who he was talking about, suggesting they try in town. Waverly was making her way over as the driver began to move off. “Are you looking for Nicole?”

The driver nodded. “I’m here to take her to Howton Hall.”

“She’s resting. If you come with me I can introduce you.”

The gentleman hopped down, going to the window of the carriage, speaking to someone. He opened the carriage door, allowing the person inside to step out. A woman, roughly the same age as aunty, elegantly dressed from head to toe in black chiffon, emerged from the carriage, looking around at the circus folk gathered to see who had come to visit. Taking her hand, the driver helped the woman down the steps, the woman continuing to hold his arm as she walked across the field, Waverly leading the way towards aunty’s wagon.

Nicole remained on the floor, refusing to move despite aunty’s repeated warnings she would throw a bucket of water over her if she didn’t move. Waverly entered first shaking Nicole, telling her people were here to see her. She sat up, knowing the day had finally arrived. Reluctantly, she stood, rolling up the mattress, placing it on aunty’s bed along with her blanket and the bundle of clothes she used for a pillow. Emerging from the wagon she looked at the woman before her, all fancy, everything she and aunty feared.

The woman smiled, a warm smile, inviting. “I’m looking for Miss Nicole Haught.”

“Who wants her?”

“Boy, if you would be so kind as to get her for me I would be most grateful.”

“I be Nicole.”

The woman moved closer, studying her face. “You have your mother’s eyes and her hair. My name is Constance Templeton. You may call me Aunt Connie. Delighted to meet you finally.”

She curtseyed, something Nicole was not expecting, nor the clowns who were in their element repeating the gesture behind her back. “I would be pleased if you would join me for lunch at the house. My driver can take you back after.”

“I be bringing Waverly and aunty.”

“But, of course. There’s more than enough room in the carriage. May I say this is the first time I have visited such a place. I am looking forward to you telling me all about your life here.”

“Ain’t be nothing to tell. I be happy here, that’s all.”

Waverly nudged her. “What she means is she would be delighted to explain the circus to you. I’m Waverly.”

“A pleasure to meet you Waverly.”

“Would you like to come inside,” Waverly offered. “Aunty’s making tea.”

“That is kind of you. I should like that very much.”

Nicole stood to one side, allowing Aunt Connie to enter, Waverly introducing aunty. The two aunts eyed each other, getting a sense of who the other was, both smiling eventually, aunty offering her hand having wiped it first on her apron. “Ain’t no airs and graces here I’m afraid. We’re simple folk.”

“Don’t let my clothes fool you, my dear. It may not appear so, but I have known hard work and honest folk like yourselves. I am glad Nicole found you when she did. I have heard some of her story from Mr. Bird. Such a dreadful business. My only regret being we did not keep searching for her. But then, she was with good folk so all’s well as they say.”

Aunty was warming to the stranger sitting in her wagon. A mug of tea presented and a slice of her homemade cake, they sat idly chatting about the weather while N went to tend Caspian, Waverly not leaving her out of her sight in case she made a run for it.

“She seems nice,” Waverly offered, pretending to brush Ferdinand. “Not what I was expecting. Well, the carriage I was expecting. And, the fancy clothes. And, did you see the horses? They’re worth a penny or two.”

Nicole remained silent, mucking out Caspian’s stall, filling his food bucket.

“I know this is hard. N, are you listening me? Let’s just go and see the house. And, the stables. That’s all. Nothing more.”

“Ain’t going. You and aunty can go. I be staying here.”

“N, that would be rude. Aunt Connie has come all this way to meet you. You have to go.”

“She ain’t me aunt. Ain’t calling her that never. I only has one aunt. And, that’s aunty. Ain’t having two.”

“N, look at me. I can’t make you go. I don’t want you to go if it’s not in your heart. But, this is part of who you are. You can run away from it all you like, but it’s still you, like your scars.”

“I don’t want to change Waverly. I like it here. I likes the people. If I go with her, I has to leave all this behind. And, how can you come with me and do the shows? Answer me that.”

“N. One problem at a time. You don’t have to leave here if you don’t want to. No one is forcing you to leave. And, as for the shows, there’s going to be a time when I can’t do them, not with the baby growing inside. Wynonna understands that. We’ll work round this.”

Nicole came over, pulling Waverly towards her by the waist. “Alright, we goes and have a look. No harm in looking. And, you won’t leave me?”

“N. Stop worrying. I’m right here by your side.”

Chapter Text

By the time they arrived back at aunty’s wagon the rum bottle was out. Aunty had filled two of her finest cups, offering one to her guest.

“Oh my, I have not had a drink this early in years,” Aunt Connie said, raising her glass. “Your good health.”

Nicole stood in the doorway no longer able to understand her life. Here was aunty about to break into song by the look on her face, happily mixing with someone she considered above her, the aunts clearly having bonded over their love of alcohol before a socially acceptable hour. Waverly brushed past, sitting on the bed, listening to the women grow more comfortable with each other.

A sharp thump on her back informed Nicole Wynonna had made an appearance. “So, you off then?”

“I be going to lunch at a hall. Be taking Waverly and aunty. You be welcome too.”

“And miss all the boring work here. Not likely. No, you go, Waverly needs something to lift her spirits. There’ll be plenty of time for me to visit. As long as there’s enough room.”

“Won’t be knowing till I sees it. Reckon we could use the wagon mattresses if there not be enough room. I be happy sleeping on the floor, give you and Waverly the bed.”

“Thank you. N, I know this is not something that happens every day. Well, not in my family. Take it for what it is. You’ve got a chance to make something of yourself. And, Waverly. And, the baby. I mean it’s not as if you were any use here, what with your ropey hearing and gammy leg.”

“Is that so? What else be wrong with me?”

“Well, there’s the hair. Couldn’t let you go without mentioning the hair.”

“I be knowing you Wynonna Earp. The way you talk to Waverly. You be liking me secretly.”

“Nothing of the sort,” Wynonna replied, winking. “I’m merely letting you know how I really feel about you. Alright, I don’t want to lose you, or Waverly, but if you have the opportunity to rise above all of this, then I give you my sister with our family’s blessing. But, tell her Mabel stays here with me.”

Nicole wanted to hug Wynonna, instead offering her hand. “I be making the best of it. Even with me hair. I be telling you now, Mabel comes with us.”

“Alright. You can have Mabel. So where’s that lazy, fat sister of mine. I need to speak to her before she gets too big for her costume.”

The journey to Howton Hall was a little over an hour. Aunty chose to break up the silence with one of her less risqué songs, Nicole now wondering whether she might have miscalculated bringing aunty along. At least she was happy to be heading to Nicole’s house. Waverly’s hand was under hers, reassuring her she was not alone. Gazing out the carriage window, the view of open fields, punctuated by woodland made the journey slightly more pleasurable. A journey to a world she had not been part of, until now.

The carriage pulled into a long driveway, lined with enormous oak trees planted when the house was built. Aunt Connie could see Nicole was anxious, touching her knee, explaining the route to the house. “Your mother never got to see Howton Hall. She would have loved the trees and the stables. Oh, how she loved horses. You look so much like her, I am quite emotional. Although, that could be the rum talking.”

“Who was my mother?”

“Such a beauty. Such a sweet temperament. She married George after your father abandoned her. It broke her heart to give you up.”

“But, she did. And, I be put in that place, with that bas…”

“N, your mother didn’t know,” Waverly interrupted. “Aunt Connie why did she do that?”

“Her family disowned her. It was all the doing of that Conquest fellow. She turned to Nicholas, your father, for help and he shunned her. Dreadful.”

“What drove her to give up N?” Waverly pressed.

“My dear, an unmarried mother, having been abandoned by her own family, she was left with little choice. She was forced to leave her village, take lodgings in the town where you were left. Had it not been for her dear brother giving her money, she would surely have perished, along with her unborn child.”

Nicole listened. Her life revealed along a tree-lined drive to wherever her mother had eventually ended up. As curious as she was to know her ancestry, the fact remained. She had been abandoned at birth to a fate that so easily could have resulted in her early death. That she survived, that Daisy had survived was down to fierce determination and luck. They had learnt to exist in a brutal microcosm of society, finding what little comfort they could. Without fancy clothes, without fancy food, without fancy anything. All they had was each other in that orphanage, a cold, harsh place that chose not to love them because of who they were. Through no choice of their own.

The driveway opened up onto a long gravel path, Howton Hall looming large on the horizon. Nicole remained distant. She wanted to feel excited. She was excited in a way, simply to be in a carriage pulled at speed by two powerful horses. And yet, she was troubled. Troubled by whoever Alice Russell was. Alice had all this, while she and Daisy had cowered at the hands of Robert Svane’s brutality. Why, why had she not sent for her?

Waverly could tell her N was ready to run. Her hand, resting on Nicole’s leg, could feel her muscles jumping, a sure sign she was not handling the situation well. Any good horse owner knows how to read the body language of their beloved animal. She wondered whether she should give her time to calm down, or carry on. She decided Nicole needed a moment.

She asked if the carriage could stop, explaining the motion was making her feel sick. Aunt Connie tapped on the roof, the driver bringing the carriage to a halt. As soon as it had come to a stop Nicole was out the door. Waverly unable to keep up, what with the baby and the adrenalin coursing through Nicole’s veins, she watched as Nicole walked quickly back along the path. She would have walked all the way to the circus had Waverly not shouted for her to stop.

“N, I can’t chase you down a ruddy path. Stop, I’m out of breath.”

Nicole stood, her back to Waverly, looking out over her lands. “I had all this and he beat me.”

Waverly caught up, bending over to catch her breath. “You know what your trouble is?”

“What be my trouble? Really. Don’t tell me. My hair?”

“What? No, I love your hair. You’re a thoroughbred. That’s what you are. Easily spooked. I had to end up with a thoroughbred. Mind you, so much better to train.”

“Oh, that be so,” Nicole replied, turning round. “And, how be you training me?”

“With my eyes,” Waverly replied, bringing her focus on Nicole, walking backwards slowly, knowing Nicole would not be able to resist.

Waverly remained silent, allowing Nicole to follow her to the carriage. No words needed. Moving them towards the door of the carriage, waiting for Nicole to approach.

As soon as she was close enough, she grabbed her collar, whispering in her good ear. “And, my tongue.”

She felt Nicole’s body shiver, such was her power over this thoroughbred.

“I be going on for you. Only you. But, we find a private place where you use your tongue, or I not be coming back.”

Waverly winked, knowing she had her N under control once more.

A large, imposing house came into view, nestled in magnificent grounds within a rolling landscape stretching out before them. Nicole’s eyes were fixed on the looming sight, assuming the carriage would drive past to a significantly smaller house that was hers. In her mind’s eye she had envisaged inheriting a dwelling with one, possibly two bedrooms. If it had running water and a room to keep Caspian’s horse tack dry she would have been as happy as a pig in mud.

Surely, this was not what her mother had left her in the Will. Waverly was speechless, knowing this was precisely what Nicole had inherited given the value inked beside its entry on the list. She had never seen such grandeur in her entire life. Even she was beginning to think about making a swift exit, her foot tapping nervously on the floor of the carriage. Aunty had failed to see anything, her eyes closed, humming another song.

Aunt Connie tapped Nicole’s leg once more. “Howton Hall is rather drafty, unfortunately, and a devil to clean all those windows.”

“I thought I has a house where we could live.”

“There is more than enough room for you all to live here. There are some twelve bedrooms, several dining rooms and drawing rooms. There is even a library. And, servant quarters. There are five permanent members of staff in the house, three gardeners, a carriage driver and stable hands. Another six from the village are called upon when required at the house.”

Waverly squeezed Nicole’s leg. “You have staff.”

Nicole looked pale. None of this made sense. She looked at Waverly for reassurance. “N, it’s all good. Try to relax.”

She couldn’t. All that was on her mind was the £100 debt and now a substantial house, with a lot of windows to clean, along with a lot of people working at that house. Her voice shook as she spoke. “How…how be I paying for this?”

Aunt Connie laughed. “Oh, my dear child, your estate has adequate income. Your mother was independently wealthy. There are the farms, the mine, not to mention the plantations in India. There is more than sufficient monies coming in to maintain this house.”

The butler, a housekeeper and three maids were at the entrance, in attendance. The driver opened the carriage door allowing Aunt Connie to exit first, her guests emerging with mouths open, all except Nicole, who now was focusing exclusively on where she could be alone with Waverly. Her mind having closed down to all other stimuli, lest it be overwhelmed.

Chapter Text

Alice Haught sat on a small case by the side of the road, waiting for someone to take her away from the village. Her father’s words ringing in her ears. She was no longer his daughter, having brought shame on their family with her bastard child. Her mother stood behind him, crying, wanting to comfort her only daughter, knowing it would only infuriate her husband.

Her life had been perfect until that day. The daughter of a respectable farmer, her natural beauty attracted the attention of the eldest son of the Conquest family, wealthy farmers whose name was linked to the village in which she grew up. Howton Conquest, set in beautiful Bedfordshire, in the heart of England. Her family were not wealthy, certainly not as wealthy as the Conquests, but she wanted for nothing, food plentiful, with enough money over to buy her a fancy dress once a year, as well as having her own horse which she loved dearly. She would spend hours with her grey mere, talking to her, telling her everything that was on her mind.

Nicholas Conquest had been relentless in his pursuit. His family were arrogant enough to think they could have whatever they liked. And, he liked Alice. Shy, unsure of Nicholas, she took her time to say yes to his repeated invites, eventually agreeing to go on a ride with him one afternoon. He was charming, if a little too confident for her liking. Her father was overjoyed. He could see the benefit of a union between their two families.

The rides became more frequent, as did the stops at one of the barns on the Conquest farm. A little too much cider on one such trip left her disoriented, Nicholas taking advantage of the situation. He assured her she would be his wife one day. A lie. He merely wanted what was before him. When he had had his way with her, she no longer was of interest. He stopped calling at the house, her father furious with Alice, assuming she had done something to cause Nicholas’ sudden disappearing act.

When she found out she was pregnant, she and her mother went to the Conquest farm. Nicholas denied all knowledge of having been with her, accusing Alice of going behind his back with some other farm hand. The smirk on his face as she left the house making her realise he had never loved her, merely taken her for a ride.

She left with little to call her own. A few clothes, no money. Her beloved horse left behind. Her youngest brother followed her along the lane out of the village, having overheard their father. He had stolen money from his father’s chest, hoping to go with her wherever she was headed. She told him to return home, that she could not look after him and a child. He handed her the money, promising to take care of her horse until she returned. She cried at the thought of never seeing him again, knowing she would not be welcome back in that household.

Alone, a baby coming, she worked at the Coach and Horses alehouse, the very same inn where Nicole learnt of her inheritance. The inn keeper’s wife was on hand to deliver the child. A girl, with the most beautiful eyes and with the most gorgeous hair. She fell in love with her the moment she saw her, naming her after her beloved grandmother, not that bastard who abandoned her to her fate.

She had little choice but to give her up. As much as the alehouse had provided her with work and lodgings, they could no longer have her and a baby. The thought of giving Nicole up shattered her already broken heart. Watching as her baby was taken from her near destroyed her. She made sure she would be able to identify her child, leaving the swatch, half a coin and that note, reading it for the last time before handing it to the young woman in the governor’s office:

‘You will always be loved. I am sorry we part this way. My darling, be well. I wish my life had been different.’

She stood for hours looking in through the gates of the orphanage, desperate to retrieve her child, knowing she had no way of looking after her. The few coins she had left, she bought a ride to London, saving enough money to pay for passage on a ship away from the miserable existence that had become her life.

She had secured work in India, in one of the large plantation houses. The voyage from England to India took six months, another three months travelling inland to reach her final destination. Any thought of returning home abandoned on realising how far away she now was. Arriving at the plantation she met Constance, housekeeper to George Russell, a wealthy tea plantation owner, who took a shine to Alice. She was happy, although wistful, remembering the child she had left behind, wishing her life had been different, as her note said.

When George died, he left the plantation to Alice, they having been married for five years. She no longer needed a husband, having enough money coming in to make her own way. The plantation thrived, allowing her to buy another, then another. An advisor suggested she invest her money in England, purchasing the mine and a farm, eventually Howton Hall in its lands. All close to where she grew up.

Malaria had taken her husband and it was malaria that would take Nicole’s mother. Constance cared for her, Alice confiding in her of the existence of a child, pleading with her on her deathbed to return to England, telling her where she was, telling Aunt Connie to give her the Will. Aunt Constance could so easily have ignored Alice’s instructions, but she loved her like her own child, promising she would do as instructed, wanting her beloved Alice to be at peace.

There is such a thing as luck in this life. Nicole had been lucky the night she found the circus. The night aunty decided to take her in. Save her from the hellish place from which she had escaped. But, there was something bigger working through Nicole's life. A good heart. Aunt Connie had a good heart, as did aunty. And, in her own way Alice. If only her life had been different.

Nicole was still to learn all this. She assumed her mother had not cared for her. Had enjoyed her wealth, while she suffered. Aunt Connie would reveal what she knew of her mother’s life in time. Far too much to begin with. For now, she wanted Nicole to enjoy what her mother had left her. All Nicole wanted to enjoy was Waverly’s tongue.

Unable to concentrate, Waverly squeezed her hand as Aunt Connie introduced the staff to her. Waverly could tell this would be a wasted journey if she didn’t calm Nicole, asking if the house had a bathroom she could use, the butler guiding her to one upstairs, Waverly dragging Nicole behind her. Making sure the door was locked, she unbuttoned Nicole’s shirt, then her vest, proceeding to use her tongue to the moans of her lover. Knowing they had but a short window of opportunity to enjoy each other’s company, she worked fast, hoping the butler was not listening outside.

Nicole looked decidedly more relaxed when they left the bathroom, holding hands, making their way down the grand staircase, standing in the marble entrance hall wondering which door to take. Aunt Connie appeared from one, ushering them in. Tea had been served, aunty holding a delicate cup in both hands, the widest smile Nicole had ever seen on her face. She was home.

A light lunch served in the main dining room, they retired to the larger drawing room, aunty falling asleep in one of the comfortable armchairs by the fire. Aunt Constance took the lovers on a tour of the house, passing the bathroom where they had indulged, Nicole attempting to pull Waverly back in, earning a thump on the arm. Tour complete, they made their way down the main stairs, Aunt Constance stopping at a large painting of a woman in a flowing white dress. “This is your mother. My Alice. George had this commissioned for her thirtieth birthday. They were so in love.”

Nicole looked at Waverly, then the painting. “Who was George?”

“In India. That is where I met your mother. We worked at the same house. They were married amongst the tea plants. Her dress was exquisite. I still have it here.”

“Who was George?” Nicole persisted.

“His family come from here. Well, not far from here. Woburn. They planned to return to England one day, live in George’s house. It was never meant to be. Oh, I miss her. And, George of course. So much fun that lad. Not what you would expect of a Duke.”

“Sorry, a Duke?” Waverly asked. “George was a Duke.”

“Of Bedford. Tenth Duke of Bedford. Owned Woburn Abbey. It all passed to his distant cousin on his death. Your mother was Lady Russell.”

“So, N’s mother was a Lady. And, her step-father was the tenth Duke of Bedford.”

“Correct. Although, your mother’s title was through marriage. Sadly, that’s gone. Still, you have enough independent wealth to marry a title I dare say.”

Nicole glared at Aunt Constance. “I be marrying no title.”

“So like your mother. Although, she did marry a title. She could be spirited. Quiet too. Not one for expressing her feelings too often. Unless it was to one of her horses.”

“N has a horse. Caspian. I have four of my own. I ride bareback, in the circus, with my sister.”

“I would love to see that. I am sure you are an exceptional rider. And, I would love to meet Caspian. Shall we find your aunt?”

Aunty was snoring loudly on their return, Nicole nudging her awake. She spluttered, mumbling something about needing to feed Dolls. Aunt Constance suggested they all stay the night, aunty declining, wanting to get back to her own wagon. As much as she had enjoyed herself, she was not ready to give up her life in the circus. She instructed N and Waverly to remain, telling them to enjoy what they had.

They watched as the carriage disappeared down the driveway taking aunty home. A light supper, aunt Constance showed them to their rooms, Nicole making a note of where Waverly would be sleeping, knowing she would be back at the first possible opportunity. Aunt Connie kissed Nicole on the cheek, saying she would see her in the breakfast room the next morning.

Nicole sat on the bed, looking at the elegantly decorated room. It would have been her mother’s if she had ever returned to England. The bed was plump, white sheets covered by several blankets, Nicole bounced on it a few times enjoying the sensation. She wondered if Waverly’s bed was as comfortable, taking the oil lamp from the stand, opening the door to her room, checking the corridor was clear.

Making her way along, she stopped outside Waverly’s bedroom, tapping lightly on the door waiting to be let in. “Waverly it be me.”

Trying the doorknob a few times, she knocked again. “Waverly, let me in. I be freezing in me shirt.”

The door opened, Waverly pulling her inside. “What kept you?”

“I be waiting till I hears no one.”

“You can’t stay. This is my room. Just look at that double bed. And, there's a wash room. And, a dressing room, with a full mirror.”

“Why can’t I stay? I be lonely in me own room. I be wanting to lie next to you.”

“I’m teasing. But, you must be quiet. This isn’t our field. Your aunt may hear us. You’re not the most quiet when it comes to…”

Nicole placed her fingers on Waverly’s lips. “I be quiet if you wants me to. But, I be wanting your tongue Lady Waverly.”

“Oh N, you really are Lord Nicholas. Well, in my dreams. Who needs a title anyway?”

“I be N. Plain and simple.”

Chapter Text

Light streamed in through the bedroom window, welcoming the lovers to a new day and a new life. Despite being in an extremely comfortable bed, they had not had much sleep. Nicole tried her best to be quiet, but Waverly knew just how to send her mad with pleasure. She too was growing to understand what Waverly liked and what she did not. Ever bossy, she would make her N do something again if it was not just so.

It was the crashing of a tray on the floor that woke them with a start. Having forgotten to relock Waverly’s door, one of the maid’s happened upon them, the shock of seeing the pair entwined causing her hands to lose their grip. Apologising profusely, she began picking up pieces of broken crockery, using her apron to wipe the floor, tears coming to her eyes fearing she would be fired.

Waverly jumped out of bed to help, realising she needed to put something on, frantically grabbing the nearest item, which happened to be Nicole’s shirt. She rushed to help the maid. “It’s alright, please don’t worry. Here, let me do that.”

“I’m so sorry miss. I should have knocked. I’ll get you another tray. Please, forgive me.”

“What’s your name?”

“Mary miss. I should have knocked. I really should have knocked.”

Waverly placed a few shards of crockery on the tray. “Mary, there’s no harm done. If you don’t say anything about us, I’ll say I dropped the tray by accident.”

“Oh, miss I don’t want you saying that for me. I don’t want you getting into trouble.”

“I can be so clumsy sometimes. It’s our secret.”

“Thank you miss. I promise I’ll knock in future.”

The maid finished wiping the floor, putting the last few shards on the tray, Waverly taking it in her hands, placing it on the table just inside the door.

Nicole watched from the bed, knowing Waverly was doing this as much for them as the maid. There was no telling what the household would think of their new mistress naked in bed with her female lover. They could only hope those who worked at the house were discreet. They could also only hope Aunt Constance would be as sympathetic to their relationship as aunty and the circus folk.

Nicole was reluctant to leave the warmth of their cosy bed, turning over, pretending not to hear Waverly’s repeated commands to get up. She wanted to lie there forever. “I be resting. You need to rest too. Come back to bed, just for a moment. I be wanting you in me arms.”

“N, no. We’ve already caused one commotion with that poor maid. You need to go back to your room. Now. Go, please, before someone else finds out you’re not in your room.”

“I not be able. Me leg stopped working. Needs you to rub it alive.”

“N. I’m not rubbing anything unless you go back to your own room. No, don’t give me that look.”

“I be helpless. Just one rub and I be going.”

Waverly huffed. “Alright. One rub, then you go. Promise. Which leg?”

“Ain’t me leg that needs rubbing. Come here and I be showing you.”

“N! Stop. Is that all you think about?”

“I be thinking about your lips too.”

And that was that. Nicole eventually made it back to her room, a tray having been left for her. She gulped the cold tea, shoving a piece of toast in her mouth, as she dressed. Aunt Constance was seated at a long table in the breakfast room, Nicole finding the room after trying a number of doors.

She smiled as Nicole entered. “Good morning, did you sleep well?”

“Ain’t been in a bed that big before. Ain’t been in a room that big neither.”

“This is all new to you. It will take time to adjust. I am here for you, as I would have been for your mother.”

Nicole sat opposite Aunt Constance. “Why didn’t she send for me?”

“To India? I believe she considered doing so, after George died. Sadly, her health was poor. Malaria. Her intention was to return to England, but it was not to be. The journey would have been too much for her.”

“But, I could have lived here. Would have been better than that ruddy orphanage.”

Constance placed the piece of toast she had in her hand back on her plate. “I agree. That would have been preferable. Having seen the conditions you lived under in that dreadful place it would have been the right thing to do to remove you.”

“But, she didn’t. And I got beat for it.”

“Dearest N. May I call you N? There are things your mother regretted deeply. Leaving you in the orphanage was her biggest regret. I believe, although I must be careful speaking for your mother as she is no longer here, she could not bring herself to see you knowing what she had done to you. Where she had left you.”

“She was ashamed of me?”

“No, my child. She was never ashamed of you. She was ashamed of herself. She kept a lock of your hair close to her heart. Always.”

“Ain’t never going to love her.”

“There is no need. N, you were dealt the cruellest of starts in this world. No one should have to endure what you went through at the hands of someone incapable of loving those in their care. What you have now, what your mother worked so hard to achieve is her way of compensating for the wrong done to you. But, it will never make it right. Ever.”

“Ain’t staying here. I knows who my family is. This ain’t mine.”

“N, whatever you decide to do it will be your choice. I cannot make you stay where you are not comfortable. But, you are wrong. This is all yours, if you want it.”

“I be going back to the circus. Aunty needs me, and Dolls. I be looking at the stables before I go. And, I be helping you clean the windows.”

Aunt Constance laughed. “Oh N. No, my dear, the servants clean the windows. I would be more than happy to show you the stables. Will Waverly be joining us?”

“She be resting. What with the little one on the way.”

“Oh my, she is pregnant? That is wonderful news. Is the father with the circus?”

“Ain’t seen the father. He be at her last place. She be with me now.”

Aunt Constance studied Nicole’s face. “You are together?”

“I be hers and she be mine. If she’ll have me. Changes her mind when I be annoying her.”

“Forgive me, but you speak as though you are a couple.”

“Ain’t having no one else in me life.”

“Is that why you dress like a man?”

“It be aunty’s idea. She be getting me a job in the stables. I be dead if it weren’t for her.”

“And, you want to continue dressing as a man?”

“Ain’t doing with no fancy clothes. Ain’t never putting a dress on neither.”

“N, you must do what is right for you. I must say Waverly is delightful. I am looking forward to seeing her ride. And you. Your mother was an excellent horsewoman. She understood them.”

Waverly opened the door. “There you are. So many rooms. Good morning Connie, that bed is so comfortable. Sorry, I may have accidentally broken a cup. And, a saucer. And, a plate. The tray fell out of my hands.”

“Good morning my dear. I will get one of the maids to clear it up for you. I hear you are with child. Congratulations.”

Waverly looked at Nicole. “Yes, not sure how long I can keep riding. It’s already a bit of a struggle getting on a horse. Still, can’t grumble. Well, I can grumble, but I won’t.”

“N wants to see the stables before she goes. Would you like to join us?”

“I would, although I could do with something inside me.”

Nicole grinned, earning a thump on the arm from Waverly. “Will you come watch the performance? It’s usually not as busy during the day. We can introduce you to the others. I will tell you now, don’t get too close to those monkeys. They are very cheeky.”

“I would love to. N has told me of your arrangement. As long as you are discreet I am sure it will go no further than this house. And, N tells me she intends to remain in male clothing. I can arrange for a tailor to visit should you both wish to have something new to wear.”

“Oh N, you could try wearing a dress. It would be fun seeing you in one.”

Nicole stood, sensing those around her were attempting to move her life in a direction not to her liking. “Ain’t changing me clothes. I be waiting outside.”

They watched as she left the room, Waverly taking Nicole’s seat, helping herself to two slices of toast. “Thoroughbred. Best not go head to head with her, otherwise she closes down, or runs away. It’s her way of dealing with things. Always approach sideways. Less likely to spook her.”

“I understand. It will take time for us to learn each other’s ways. And, you are happy with her? Forgive me, I was a little surprised to know you are together.”

“I am, although I worry she’s with me because of the baby. I don’t want her to feel she has to stay with me. I know she will, but I want her to want me too.”

“It is so refreshing having you and N here. It has been lonely without N’s mother and George. I am hoping N changes her mind and decides to stay. It would be a joy to have you around.”

“Connie, may I say something? You seem at ease with us circus folk. Not many outside our world like us. They fear us and our ways. I think it’s unsettling N a little. She expects the world to be cruel and heartless. To not love her. It’s all she knew growing up.”

“My dear. I have lived a life. Several lives. I have seen many things on my travels. India opened my eyes I can tell you. You are correct, few are like me. Although, I would caution not to be too open with your feelings, especially with the staff. At this level of society, a good scandal sells a lot of newspapers. Be mindful N is now in an elevated position. She will need to carry herself accordingly.”

“She’s not going to like that. Best leave it to me to handle. I have a way with horses.”

“I shall do that. Speaking of which, shall we join N to see the stables. I have a feeling she will love them.”

Nicole was quiet as they walked to the stable block, her mouth falling open on reaching the entrance. Red brick on the outside, with cream coloured walls inside, individual stalls painted in the same colour. She was home. The smell of fresh hay and manure filling her nostrils. She entered, taking her time to absorb the one place she had looked forward to visiting.

The horses were magnificent. Proud, well-groomed, beyond anything she could possibly have dreamed. She was careful in her approach, letting each horse take its time to introduce itself, getting to know her and she them. She made a mental note of the exact stall Caspian would have, wondering if Waverly would bring any of her horses with her. Not that she was staying. But, if she were to stay, this is where she would live. And, Waverly’s bed. If she could combine the two she would have died and gone to heaven. She thought it best not to mention to Waverly just yet her thoughts on sleeping arrangements.

Waverly and Connie held back, letting Nicole explore to her heart’s content. The smile on her face when she looked round told them she might just consider staying a little longer. Waverly took Connie’s arm leading her back towards the house. “I think she’s found her place. Don’t be surprised if you find her sleeping in there one night. She has a tendency to prefer hay.”

“If you have time for a ride, I can arrange for one of the stable hands to prepare the horses for you.”

“Another time, perhaps. I need to get back, otherwise my sister will worry. And, the show starts at 2pm.”

“Of course. I will accompany you. I would like to speak with aunty again. She is a dear soul. And, her songs. Oh my.”

“Don’t get her singing any of her rude songs. Not here anyway.”

The carriage made its way back to the circus, the driver remembering to stay out of the ruts made by the other carts on entering the field. They pulled up outside aunty’s wagon, Nicole jumping out, opening the door for Aunt Constance and Waverly as she had seen the driver do. She wanted to help. She wanted to feel useful. She didn’t want to sit in some stuffy drawing room, stuffing herself with cakes and tea. She wanted to be outside. Most of all she wanted to be with Caspian.

She waited as long as she could, Waverly sensing she needed to see her horse, nodding at her to go. She was off, across the field, desperate to tell Caspian everything. He was equally overjoyed to see her, the other horses too thinking they were about to be fed. She worked quickly, making sure Waverly’s horses were tended, finally getting to Caspian who was not best pleased at being kept waiting.

She held out her hand with two sugar cubes. “I be stealing these for you. There’s more where these came from. I be seeing your new home. It’s grand. The other horses are not as beautiful as you. It be a big building. Has new hay. I reckon we’ll do just fine there. But, I be not sure. I be loving here. Ain’t going to lie Caspian, I be torn. I needs this for me, but, Waverly and the little one needs a home. Can’t think of just me. Has to think of them too.”

She felt Waverly’s hand on her back. “You know, I don’t need to talk to you. I just need to listen to you and Caspian. Now, if Caspian could talk I would know everything about you.”

“I be selfish. I be not asking you what you want?”

“N, I will go wherever you go. I will do whatever you want to do, as long as we are together. As long as you want us to be together. Please do not do this only for me and the baby. This has to be for you too. You have to want this. I mean the house does have very big beds. And, it would be a shame not to try them at least one more time. With the door locked of course.”

Nicole grinned. “You be thinking you can train me, don’t you?”

“No, N. I know I can.”

“You be as cheeky as those ruddy monkeys. Come here. Got some training of me own to do.”

Chapter Text

Wynonna was keen to catch up with her sister. She waited for her in aunty’s wagon, sitting with the two aunts drinking tea, Waverly eventually making an appearance looking somewhat ruffled, pieces of hay sticking out of her hair. Wynonna rolled her eyes knowing where she had just been and what she had just been doing.

Letting Waverly have a few moments to chat with aunty, she motioned with her eyes she needed to talk to her alone. The two sisters returned to their wagon, Wynonna sitting her down, wanting to know what N’s place was like. Waverly indicated the size of N’s house with her hands.

“So, you’re saying big.”

“Oh, it’s big. As in, big. And, the stables are big too. Wynonna, they have huge beds and staff bring you breakfast each morning.”

“I knew it must be after I saw its value on the list. And, there was N offering to sleep on the floor and let us have the bed. She had no idea did she?”

“It’s all a shock to her. Connie is nice. Knew N’s mother in India. She died over there. Sad N never got to meet her. Or, her father.”

“Who is her father?”

“Well, her real father left her mother. That’s how she ended up in the orphanage. But, her other father. Well, he’s not really her father. He’s a step-father. Although, that’s not right either. He’s the husband of…”

“Will you get to the ruddy point? Honestly, one day with toffs and you’re already talking like them. Never saying things straight.”

“Oh, and you’ve met lots of toffs have you? I’ve met more toffs than you. And, I don’t ramble. I’m merely trying to work out who George Russell is to N.”

“Fine. Who is George Russell? The suspense is killing me.”

“Only the tenth Duke of Bedford. That’s all.”

Wynonna looked at her sister. “You are ruddy teasing me. You better be ruddy teasing me. Waverly, are you telling me N’s a toff?”

“Yes. Well, no. Her mother was Lady Alice Russell, but she lost that title when she died.”

“Really. You do surprise me.”

“No. That’s not what I meant. Wynonna, you’re confusing me. George’s cousin got the title. N doesn’t have one. And, there’s me teasing her about being Lord Nicholas.”

“Please, please tell me you two are not into role playing. It’s bad enough knowing you get up to stuff at every opportunity.”

“The maid caught us. Dropped a tray.”

“I’d drop a tray if I saw you. What was a maid doing watching?”

“She wasn’t watching. She was bringing us breakfast in bed. I told you. Those beds Wyn, so comfortable.”

“I am going to move on from this conversation. The bigger question is, where does N go from here?”

“She’s really not happy about any of this. I think she’s angry at her mother. I can understand. She had all this and her mother left her in the orphanage.”

“Does she know why? Mind you, if her mother married a toff she may not have wanted N in the picture. Not the done thing announcing an illegitimate child. I say Lord Russell, here’s one I made earlier.”

“Wyn, that’s rude. Funny, but rude. Don’t you ever say that to N. She’s sensitive enough about all of this as it is.”

“I won’t. Will cost you. Half of Mabel.”

Waverly shrieked. “You are not cutting her in half. She’s already had her leg nibbled.”

“Is she into dolly nibbling? I know you gave her to N. Is that what toffs do? Nibble dolly legs.”

“Wyn, I love you. You’re crazy, and I hate you sometimes, but I love you. I don’t want to leave you, ever. I’m as confused as N.”

“Listen, let everything rest for a day, or so. No one needs make any big decisions. And, she hasn’t asked you to go with her. For all we know, she may take Mabel. Didn’t you say she was into legs?”

The last comment earned Wynonna a thump to the shoulder. But, it got Waverly thinking. As much as it was wonderful waking up next to her N, in a beautiful room, in a beautiful bed, there were no certain outcomes. Nothing was decided and any decisions would mean giving up something for everyone concerned.

If Nicole chose to stay with the circus she would be giving up a life in Howton Hall, and the stables, and all the comforts that came with them. She would have her money, but there’s only so much she could buy, a new wagon for them perhaps, unless she chose to start her own circus, which Waverly could not see her doing. She was a follower, not a leader. She knew enough about horses, and N, to know Nicole’s temperament was not suited to being in charge. She liked to be led, at least when it came to the bedroom. Or, in a field.

If Nicole chose to give up the circus, she would have to change her ways, whether she wanted to or not. As Connie had counselled, N would be moving in a different world, with different expectations, with different obligations. She wanted N to be happy, at the very least at peace with whatever decision she made. She knew she was too close to the problem to guide her properly. Nicole knocked on the door wanting to know if she should harness all four horses, or just two.

Wynonna invited her in. “So, your house has servants.”

“And, lots of windows. Ain’t be having to clean them. And, a stable.”

“And, your mother was a lady.”

“Ain’t knowing her. Don’t knows what she was.”

“N, if you want to stay with the circus, it will be alright. Waverly and I have some money from papa. Waverly doesn’t have to keep performing if it becomes too much for her. We support each other. You don’t have to do this for her.”

It was the second time Nicole wanted to hug Wynonna. “I be worried, I be honest with you. Ain’t used to a big house. Or, a big bed. Or, not working.”

“Yes, I’ve heard about the big bed. And, what you did to that poor maid. This new life is not something you take on lightly. I have no idea how you take on this new life. It’s beyond me. But, I will say this. Give yourself time. Don’t rush any decision. And, I hear you nibbled Mabel’s leg. Shame on you.”

“I never. It be Caspian. Be eating no legs but…”

Wynonna had her hands over her ears. “Do not say. N, I’m warning you. Do not say what you do to my sister.”

Nicole grinned, knowing she could counter Wynonna’s cheek with her own. She winked at Waverly, holding up four fingers, Waverly nodding. “I be getting them ready. You be alright to ride?”

Waverly nodded again, knowing she was tired, knowing she wanted to impress Aunt Constance.

The show got underway. The two aunts sat in the front row clearly enjoying themselves. Doc’s revolving wheel act with Rosita had been perfected. It really was a showstopper, his throwing skills and Rosita’s calmness at having sharpened knives directed at her, while tied to a spinning wheel, made the audience gasp. One small boy ended up crying, thinking Rosita was going to be killed, much to the amusement of those around him.

It was the turn of Waverly and Wynonna, the act getting off to a great start, Nicole standing outside waiting for her cue to bring in the other two horses. The curtains opened, Nicole holding the reins tightly, sensing Ferdinand was unsettled. She wanted to stroke him, calm him down. He seemed ill at ease, as they all were. Wynonna took the reins, seeing the look on Nicole’s face, knowing Ferdinand was playing up. She gave a sharp pull on his reins to tell him to behave, smiling at Nicole.

The act was midway through. Nicole watched from the side, ever in awe of Waverly’s skill on the back of a horse. She knew the next move she had to perform, jumping from the back of one horse onto Ferdinand. She had seen it many times. So beautiful, so graceful. She could see Waverly positioning herself to make the jump, her feet finding their balance, the horses moving faster and faster round the ring. Her eyes fixed on Waverly’s legs, watching them tighten, knowing she was about to cross over.

A clown knocked over one of his planks, the sound exploding in the tent, causing the audience to jump, their eyes too having been fixed on Waverly. It was too late, she had already begun her jump, landing awkwardly on Ferdinand, the sound of the plank falling making him move out of position. Nicole watched as Waverly lost her balance, falling backwards, landing heavily in a heap on the ground.

Motionless.

The crowd gasped. Wynonna grabbed the reins of Ferdinand, narrowly missing Waverly’s head as they made another circle of the ring. Bringing the horses to a halt, she dismounted, rushing to Waverly who remained on the ground. Nicole’s legs wouldn’t move. She looked on, fearing she was dead, looking at the body being held by her sister. Adrenalin kicked in. She was in the centre of the ring, people shouting. Noises. So much noise. She lifted her body, carrying it away from the tent, aunty rushing to help, knowing this was serious. Aunt Constance followed, not knowing what to do, waving to her driver to be on hand should they need to find a hospital.

Nicole knew what she had to do.

Chapter Text

Waverly was coming round, wondering why she was in Nicole’s arms. She went to sit up, Nicole adjusting her position in her arms. “I need to get back. N, put me down. I have to finish the show.”

Nicole carried on walking towards aunty’s wagon, determined that Waverly would not be put in any further harm. “N, put me down. Please. I fell that’s all.”

“Ferdinand nearly kicked you. You can’t do this, not with the little one.”

“That’s not your decision. Put me down. Now. Or, else.”

Nicole put her down, Waverly standing for a moment, attempting to regain her balance. She went to walk back to the tent, legs buckling under her, falling to the ground, her head spinning, a ringing in her ears. Nicole helped her up, lifting her once more in her arms, carrying on towards aunty’s wagon.

“I just need a moment,” Waverly insisted. “I’m fine. N, stop worrying.”

“You can’t stand. I be looking after you now. Ain’t having you hurt anymore.”

“I’m not some doll you can carry around. I’m used to this. It’s what I do. N, you’re making my head hurt. Put me down.”

Nicole put her down once more, Waverly holding onto her arm for support, knowing she was fighting against a bad fall, knowing she should rest. She didn’t want to admit to herself, or Nicole, her loss of balance was through being pregnant, through not giving herself enough time to rest before the performance. Her all night session with Nicole, much as it was exhilarating, had left her without enough stamina to perform the moves on the back of her horse. Ferdinand had spooked many times before, she had always been able to adjust to his sudden change in position. Not this time, too many factors were against her.

Her mind had also been elsewhere. Thoughts running through it about the future. About living in that big house. Or not. About whether she and N would stay together. About leaving Wynonna, about leaving her life with the circus, about no longer earning her own money. Nicole had mentioned several times feeling redundant, useless, if she did not have some form of work to carry out. She too wondered what her life would be like without riding bareback for a living. And, how would she fit in with toffs? She was a circus girl, born of gypsies, born in a circus wagon to a mother who spoke little English.

She lay on aunty’s bed, her head spinning, waves of nausea rising, keeping her eyes closed to stop them taking over. Aunty rushed in, moving Nicole to one side, brushing Waverly’s hair from her face. “Oh my lovely, that was a nasty fall. How be your head?”

“It’s fine. I just need a moment. I think I’m going to be sick.”

Aunty managed to grab a bowl just in time as Waverly hung over the edge of the bed. Nicole poured her a mug of water, offering it, finding a cloth to wipe her mouth. “Sorry, I’m so sorry. I feel much better now. Thank you.”

“You be resting there.” Aunty instructed. “You be right in no time. I’ll make some of me tea for you. N, take Connie to Wynonna’s wagon. I be over shortly.”

Nicole did as she was told, Aunt Constance looking worried. “Will she be alright?”

“I be taking her to the hall. Can we stay till she’s right?”

“Of course. My dear, it is yours, you can stay as long as you want.”

“And, I be needing a doctor. I be worried she be hurt. Can I have some of me money now to get him?”

“I have money with me,” Aunt Constance offered. “I will get our driver to fetch a doctor from town.”

“Dolls be knowing him. I be asking him.”

Nicole rushed off to find Dolls, returning moments later, he looking as worried as everyone. He gave the address to the driver, offering to go with him, the driver declining the offer.

Dolls shook his head. “I told those ruddy clowns to move the planks. I told them. How is she?”

“She be poorly. I needs take her home. I be gone for a few days. We be back when she’s right.”

“N, go. We can manage here while you look after Waverly. I would never forgive myself if anything happened to her. You take good care of her. Come back when you’re ready.”

“I be asking you something? I pays if you let me.”

“N, I think I know what you’re going to ask. And, the answer is yes. He’s due to be put out to pasture anyway.”

“But, I wants to give you money. I can’t take and not give.”

“You’re doing me a favour taking that old nag. I’m not one for taking money just because it’s offered. We shake hands and it’s done.”

Nicole had tears in her eyes. Once more, her circus family were there for her when she most needed them. She knew in her heart she would never abandon them. And yet, in this moment she needed to do what was right for Waverly and the baby. In her mind, the right thing was to give her every possible comfort and care she could afford. And, that would be best done at Howton Hall.

Wynonna had stabled the horses, running over to see how Waverly was. “N, what’s happening? I knew I should have done the act on my own. She looked really tired this morning.”

“I be taking her to the house. She needs rest. Ain’t going to get it here. You be coming with us?”

“Does Waverly want to go?”

“No. She be wanting to finish the show. Ain’t got her balance. And, she be sick.”

“I need to see her. She can be a stubborn little chickie. Let me talk to her, knock some sense into that head of hers.”

“I be paying for a doctor. I wants her well.”

“N, you know her independence is just an act. Little miss I can manage all on my own. Thinks she has to be tough all the time. You need to be firm with her if you want this to work between you. Don’t let her get her own way all the time.”

Nicole watched as Wynonna entered aunty’s wagon, knowing she had her sister’s best interests at heart. She also now knew Wynonna was giving her advice on how to handle Waverly. Such was the bond forming between them. How could she leave her family? How could she turn her back on them? They were the salt of the earth. Decent. Honest, at least with their own kind. Loving. There for each other, in times of need and to share an ale or three.

She stood behind Wynonna as she whispered in Waverly’s ear. She could see she was crying, wanting to comfort her, wanting her to know everything would be alright. She guessed Wynonna was telling her to go to Howton Hall, to rest, to let her body grow a child without the punishing routine of riding a horse. Wynonna kissed her on the forehead, taking Nicole by the arm, leading her outside.

“She’s scared. She gave herself a fright falling off Ferdinand. I’ll stay with you as long as I can to get her settled. Remember, be firm. She’s had me all these years telling her what to do. Our mother hit the bottle, left me to care for Waverly.”

“Ain’t knowing that. She never said. Never talks about her.”

“So, do we bring mattresses to your place?”

“It be having enough bedrooms. I think.”

“I’m teasing. Waverly said it’s big enough to fit the whole circus.”

The carriage returned with the doctor. He proceeded to check Waverly, recommending rest and a tonic. He also checked the baby, listening for a heartbeat, nodding his head, reassuring her all was fine. She burst into tears, relieved no damage had been done, her hand instinctively going to her small bump, rubbing it. She had been lucky this time. She would take the doctor’s advice and Wynonna’s. She would rest.

Wynonna rode behind the carriage, Caspian’s reins in one hand. Waverly rested her head on a folded blanket on Nicole’s lap, the two aunts sitting opposite, aunty holding onto her rum bottle as if her life depended on it. She was asleep by the time they arrived at the house, the light fading, the butler waiting outside having heard the carriage approach. Nicole shook Waverly, realising she needed to extract herself from under her head in order to get her out. She stirred, lifting her head, immediately regretting the move. She managed to miss the butler as he opened the door, throwing up to one side of the carriage. Nicole lifted her in her arms, carrying her upstairs to the main bedroom, laying her on the bed. She looked unwell. Aunty would make her some of her sweet ginger tea.

Nicole could hear Wynonna’s voice echoing around the marble entrance hall, whooping with delight on seeing N’s house. The butler did not know what to make of the new arrival, standing looking at Mrs. Templeton for instructions. She told him to prepare a light meal for the party to be served in the small dining room. Wynonna was already opening doors peering in, expletives flying in every direction, unable to stop laughing.

Nicole emerged from the bedroom, descending the stairs, watching Wynonna explore the house. It was the first time she had felt happy to be there. Apart from the first night in bed with Waverly and viewing the stable block, seeing Wynonna’s delight, seeing the wonder on her face she slowly was beginning to understand what she had been left by her mother. And, to think had it not been for a chance reunion with Daisy she might never have known about her inheritance.

She would make it up to Daisy. Her Daisy, who like aunty had kept her alive when she had lost all hope. Leaving Daisy behind almost destroyed her. That was her one regret in life. She would find her, perhaps offer her a job at the house. At the very least make sure she was comfortable. They had had the worst possible start in life, but now she had the means to make it right for both of them.

Wynonna rushed over, hugging Nicole, still laughing. “N, this is enormous. I’ve never seen this many rooms. Do I get breakfast in bed too?”

Nicole nodded. “Waverly be in my room. She be sick again.”

“I best check on her. Which one is your room? Sorry, I’m laughing. Which one? Hark at me.”

“Ain’t be staying. I be back when she’s right.”

“Of course. A cold damp stable, or a mattress on the floor is so much better than this old place.”

“I be knowing you knows how to play me mind. But, you be right.”

She guided Wynonna to the bedroom, leaving the sisters to be with each other. The carriage driver had taken Caspian and Ferdinand to the stable block. She was annoyed, having wanted to take Caspian herself, introduce him to his new home. She entered, seeing Caspian in the wrong stall, not the one she had chosen for him. She led him out, stroking his side, seeing the look on his face. “It be our new home. It be better than we knows. I be looking after Waverly and the little one here.”

Caspian really wasn’t sure of his surroundings, refusing to go into his chosen stall, Nicole realising he wanted to be next to Ferdinand. “Show me where you want to be? It be your choice too.”

Caspian led her back to the stall he had just left, Ferdinand’s head poking out calling for Caspian. Nicole stroked Ferdinand’s side reassuring him she would keep them together. She stayed with them until they were settled, the driver appearing from the far end having tended to the two carriage horses. “Good evening miss. I put the horses together. The black one wouldn’t settle without the other.”

“That be Ferdinand. And, this be Caspian. He’s mine. He be fussy. He be wanting his feed early. And, plenty of water. I be giving him treats only. Ferdinand be restless. He be feeding after Caspian. Don’t be touching his ears. And, Caspian don’t like his nose touched in the morning.”

“I understand miss. I will take good care of them. Caspian is a fine horse, if I may say so.”

“He be that. He be a friend to me.”

She returned to the house. Aunty had found her favourite armchair by the fire, boots off, feet toasting, a glass in her hand filled with rum. Aunt Constance was pouring a drink for Wynonna, offering to pour one for Nicole. She shook her head, wanting to check on Waverly once more.

“She’s sleeping.” Wynonna advised, seeing Nicole hovering in the doorway. “I can take her something to eat later. Come sit with us. Connie is going to tell us about her time in India.”

Constance had had an interesting life. Daughter of a dock worker in Southampton, she grew up around the slums and dockside store houses, caring for her younger brothers and sisters. With not enough money to support them all, she was sent out to work at one of the mills until her father could get her a job in the port. A young shipwright took her fancy, Richard Templeton, marrying at the age of seventeen. They made the best of their life, Constance falling pregnant, sadly losing the child. Unable to bear him children, her husband’s eyes began wandering then his hands, eventually finding another to bear him a child. Her father ordered her to stay with him, her mother too, worried she would end up back with them, another mouth to feed in their already crowded household.

Desperate to escape a life leading nowhere but misery, she found work on a tea clipper heading to India, eventually ending up in the employment of one of the larger tea plantation owners. She was twenty two, alone, a long way from England, at the mercy of those who took her in. The thought of returning to England faded as the years slipped by, adjusting to a life on a faraway continent.

She liked Alice the moment she met her. Lively, if somewhat spirited. Always eager to help. Always chatting, a little like Waverly if truth be known. She had a quiet side too. Constance would catch her sitting of an evening, holding the locket in her hand, looking out over the tea plantation. She had smiled when first asked what was in the locket, merely saying her heart. Constance had assumed it was the photo of a beau left behind, only discovering it contained a lock of Nicole’s hair when Alice finally revealed the existence of an abandoned child.

She wept as Alice told her story of leaving her beautiful baby in the hands of another. She hugged her, telling her she would find her child, give her what was hers. She never questioned Alice’s decision not to bring Nicole to India. That was Alice’s choice. When Alice died Constance packed up her things, sending them on to England, closing the door on the plantation house for the very last time, heading back herself to find Alice’s heart.

Chapter Text

By the time they retired to bed, aunty had entertained everyone with some of her more adult songs. Constance tapped her feet to the tune, highly amused, hoping the staff had not overheard the lewd lyrics. She had rattled around the house on her own, lonely, lost, the beauty and fragrance of the tea plantations now a distant memory. The occasional visitor dropped by for afternoon tea. Apart from the vicar who was a regular, always in search of a wealthy benefactor able to contribute to the upkeep of the church, particularly its leaky roof. She obliged with a large donation each Christmas and a hamper for the vicar’s family as a token from the estate.

The task of keeping the estate running until such time as it passed directly to her, or Alice’s child, was not taxing as such. It ran itself for the most part, the staff attending to its upkeep without too much assistance, making sure repairs were carried out, larders stocked, the gardens managed, the butler overseeing all bills. A genial fellow, late fifty’s married to the housekeeper, the pair keeping the house in order. Not one for gossip, accepting his new mistress had different ways, he was more than happy to turn a blind eye to what went on in the bedroom, counselling other members of staff to do the same, if they wanted to keep their jobs.

Then there were all of Alice’s businesses. Not one of Constance’s strengths, she continued to use the services of two accountants, one being Mr. Jeremy Chetri, very capable if a little young. His business acumen exemplary and his profound knowledge of the Indian tea market making him popular among plantation owners. The other was a Mr. Randolph Nedley, acquaintance of the Russell family, with a well-established accounting practice in London. Alice had never met him, unable to visit given the vast distance between them. She relied on the good judgement of her husband’s family and George, who was an astute businessman.

Nicole knew none of this. Having been nothing more than a stable lad and tent peg puller, the concept of owning a business, let alone several, was as alien to her as words on a page. Constance had told her she was independently wealthy. To her that meant nothing. All she understood was she had a large house, possessing lots and lots of windows, with an equally large stable block surrounded by trees. Lots and lots of trees. She would need to become acquainted with all matters, learning how manage the entirety of her inheritance. If she so chose.

Waverly had continued with Nicole’s learning, as best she could, the urgency of reading words on the chalk board often overlooked for the urgency of reading lips, as her N called it. If only she had known this would be an important skill in the future. The reading of course. And writing. Not the joining of lips. Oh for the gift of foresight. Nicole would also need to learn how to count beyond five, her mother’s finances requiring a keen eye for bigger numbers. So much to do, so much to learn, Nicole was happy simply to be sharing a bed with Waverly.

The butler was summoned by Constance to show aunty and Wynonna to their rooms. Nicole could hear Wynonna whooping as he opened the door to her room, she giving him strict instructions on what she wanted for breakfast. She would need to return to the circus mid-morning to resume solo performances. For now, she was more than content to be living the high life. Aunty was a little too drunk to care which room she got, attempting to give the butler a kiss on the cheek, he resisting.

Nicole opened the door to her bedroom as quietly as she could, entering, making sure she locked it once inside. Waverly was lying on top of the bed, still dressed, a blanket over her, a tray of food untouched on the small table beside. She had had nothing to eat all day. Nicole knelt before her, brushing her hair back, worried she needed something inside her, as much for the growing child as her. Waverly stirred, opening her eyes, gazing at Nicole, a smile forming. She went to get up, the motion of which made her retch, holding onto the edge of the bed not sure if she was about to throw up.

Nicole grabbed the bowl one of the maids had left, holding it out in case the worst happened. Several deep breaths, allowing herself to adjust to her new upright position, she eventually looked up, feeling sorry for herself. Nicole put the bowl down. “It be alright. I be here. Shall I undress you?”

“Oh N, I’m too ill to do anything tonight. Can we wait?”

“No, no. I be not wanting anything. I be worried you need to rest. Here let me help you.”

“I wish I didn’t feel like this. I wish I wasn’t pregnant.”

Nicole held her hands. “I be here. Look what we have. A ruddy great house. Needs a little one to make it alive. And, aunty. She be drunk.”

“But, I thought we weren’t staying. I thought we were only here for a few days. I can’t stay N. I’m not leaving Wyn. Ever.”

“Hush. Wynonna’s here. She be telling the butler what she be liking for breakfast. I be giving her a room of her own.”

“I need to go back. This is your life. Not mine. I need to work. And, what if you decide to throw us out. Me and the baby. And, what if I can’t get back to Wynonna. I think I’m going to be sick.”

Nicole managed to get the bowl in place just in time before Waverly threw up. The stress of the fall, of thinking she might have hurt the baby, of all the recent changes in her life compounded. Nicole moved the bowl away. “I be as scared as you. Ain’t never going to throw you out. This be for us. I be not knowing which is best, but I knows it be with you. You tell me and I be following.”

She had no idea what to tell her N. All she wanted to do was close her eyes and all her imaginary problems be gone. She began unbuttoning her shirt, Nicole assisting, their hands occasionally brushing against each other. Together in a strange new world.

The knock on the door the next morning woke Waverly from a deep sleep. She felt better, much better, the dizziness had eased and the ringing in her ears had stopped. She turned over, listening to Nicole snore, thumping her in the back to make her stop. A groan told her the message had been received. She felt more relaxed being at Howton, able to accept she was there, for now, for however long Nicole chose to stay. Getting up, she unlocked the door retrieving the breakfast tray from the floor, placing it on the table by the door. Two cups, two saucers, two small plates, the staff clearly knowing this was not a single occupancy room.

Another knock on the door. Louder. Wynonna’s voice booming out. “Waverly I need to head back to the circus. I’ll be over after the evening performance.”

She rushed to open the door, pulling Wynonna inside. “I should be alright to ride today.”

“Really? After a fall like that. You have all this and you would risk it, and the baby, going back into the ring. Is that how I raised you? To be a fool.”

“No. I just. I don’t want you to be alone. Can you stay? Please, for me. And, the baby. Please.”

“I’ll only be gone for the shows. I’m not missing out on this for anything. I got everything I asked for on that tray this morning. Bacon. Haven’t had bacon in years. Waverly, this is where you need to be right now. And, me. Definitely me. I could get used to this.”

“Are you telling me to stay here so you can come back?”

“Yes. That’s exactly what I’m telling you to do. Stay here. Eat bacon. Enjoy watching N nibble Mabel’s leg. Do all the things toffs do. And, you’re right about those beds. So comfortable. Don’t break your poor sister’s heart making me sleep in a cold wagon when I could have a nice comfy bed.”

“Wyn, stop it. You always do that. Pull on my strings. I’ll stay. For you. Only you. And, the bacon.”

“Make sure N knows I’m coming back. I do not want her locking the door on me. Rest, little chickie. I want you and the baby well, not throwing up on the butler.”

“Oh no. Did I really? How embarrassing.”

A hug between sisters, Wynonna sauntered down the main stairs towards the entrance door. Waverly got back into bed, Nicole having begun snoring again earning another shove. “What, I be sleeping.”

“N, I’m feeling much better. I was just wondering how tired you are?”

Nicole turned over, eyes wide awake. “I be awake. Will you throw up on me?”

“Only if you want me to.”

They had a leisurely morning, enjoying the luxury once more of a large, warm bed and breakfast served on a tray. Aunty was still asleep when they emerged from their room mid-morning. She would remain there till the afternoon, the comfort of sleeping somewhere warm at her time of life and with her bad back something to be relished.

Aunt Constance was in the library sorting through papers and correspondence. A cheque written to clear the £100 debt to Messrs. Bird & Bird for their services, another large donation to the orphanage where Nicole had been placed. It had been Constance’s first donation that had ensured Dr. Robert Svane was removed swiftly from his position, a new governor put in his place, along with better conditions introduced. Mr. Bird had been nothing, if thorough in his report back to her, relaying his poor impression of the running of the institution under Svane. There is something to be said for having the opportunity to express an opinion, knowing that opinion would be heard, more importantly acted upon, rather than fall on deaf ears.

Nicole headed to the stables to make sure Caspian and Ferdinand were being taken care of, as per her instructions. Waverly was left to wander about the house wondering what to do. Opening the door to the library she spotted Connie at the large desk, busy writing, a large stack of papers to one side. She looked up, overjoyed to see Waverly up and about at last, inviting her in. “My dear, how are you? You gave us all a fright.”

“I’m fine. Much better. Thank you. Sorry if I threw up over the butler.”

Constance laughed. “I think he will manage. Have you eaten? I can get the housekeeper to make you whatever you want. Come, sit with me. I could do with the company.”

Waverly moved into the room, taking up residence in one of the armchairs closest to the fire. “This is a beautiful room. So many books. I used to go to the library every Saturday morning with papa. We would choose books for us to read during the week. I’m teaching N to read, and write, and count.”

“I was meaning to ask. Such a delicate matter, but with N taking on her mother’s estate, and all her businesses, she will need those skills if she is to succeed. There are many beyond this family ready to take advantage of those naïve enough to place their trust in them.”

“I’m sure once she realises she has to deal with all her mother’s things she’ll be a little more serious. She gets easily distracted.”

“And, what of your sister? Will she stay with us? I have a feeling aunty has made herself at home already. She’s quite a character. I remember songs of hers on the dockside. Such happy folk. Not two pennies to rub together and yet, they made the best of life.”

“Aunty is a character, I give you that. Wyn too. She’s not one for getting close. Likes to keep her distance until she’s sure.”

“Will you be staying? I could arrange for a tutor to come in and give N private lessons. And, she will need to change her clothes at some stage.”

Waverly laughed. “She changed her clothes once when I arrived. I’m guessing give her another year and she might be ready for a new outfit. And, a wash.”

“I must say you have a similar temperament to N's mother. I miss her. I wish she could have seen N. Just once. It was not to be. I hope N gets to visit the plantations one day, perhaps. In the meantime, I will make arrangements for her to visit the farms and the mine. She will need to understand those as much as tea.”

“Thoroughbred. That’s all I’m saying. Never the direct approach with N.”

“Never the what?” Nicole asked, entering the room. “You be telling aunt how to train me?”

“I merely said, you’re a fast learner, who likes to take on new challenges. Shall we go for a ride?”

“You be not up to riding, not after the fall. I be asking if the carriage will take us.”

“N, my dear” Aunt Constance interrupted, “whatever you want to do you simply have to say. The butler will organise it for you.”

Nicole’s face broke into a grin, Waverly picking up on it. “What? What’s that face for? N, tell me.”

“I be thinking a picnic. In a field.”

Waverly rolled her eyes, knowing fields were as enticing to N as pollen to a bee.

Chapter Text

Both performances had gone well. Wynonna returned in high spirits to enjoy another night in a comfy bed. Waverly had waited up despite Nicole insisting she should rest, offering to stay up with her. As much as she wanted the company, she also wanted to speak with Wynonna alone, even though it was past midnight by the time she arrived.

Flopping into an armchair in the drawing room, pulling off her boots, she gladly accepted the double whiskey being handed to her. “I think I’ve got a real chance with this act. Papa always said there was a turning point to his name becoming known. You should have seen the crowds tonight. Most were standing, applauding by the end. How are you feeling?”

“Better. Listen, I want to come back with you. I can’t stay here like a caged bird. And, N wouldn’t let me ride today. She means well, but I’m worried I’ll end up miserable and lonely.”

“Right. Miserable and lonely, while being well fed, having your breakfast brought to you on a tray. I’ve been dreaming of bacon all day.”

“Wyn, you’re not helping. I know this is something not to be sniffed at. And, I know if I asked N she would give it all up to be with me. But, that would mean her missing out on what’s hers.”

Wynonna held out her glass for a refill. “I must say, not that I know much about whiskeys, but this particular whiskey is as good as bacon.”

“Wyn, what do I do? Help me.”

Wynonna took a sip of her drink, placing the glass on a small table beside her. “Have you discussed any of this with N? You need to talk to her, tell her what’s going on in that pretty little head of yours. She’s not a mind reader. And, by the sounds of it, you two clearly haven’t had the talk yet.”

“I know she loves me. And, I know she wants the best for me. And, I know…Wyn, I don’t know. I really don’t know what I want other than the thought of losing you is making me feel miserable.”

“Waverly, Waverly, Waverly, you’re mixing up two problems. I am one of your problems. N is the other. Let’s deal with me first, because I’m the most important. What do you want to do about me?”

“Stay with you. Keep travelling, keep performing as we always have. Share the wagon with you.”

“And, you can do all that with a child?”

“Yes, maybe. We would make it work.”

“We would, but it will be hard. Harder than you realise. The circus life isn’t for the weak, or the lazy. Or, let’s be honest, the very young. You would have to care for a child and perform.”

“So, you’re telling me to stay. You don’t want me and the child with you, is that it?”

“Little chickie, if I was telling you that I would have told you that straight to your face. I am getting you to look at what is worrying you. To make you face the problem. What did papa say? A problem faced is a problem solved. Now, your second problem is N.”

“She’s not the problem. It’s all this. I don’t feel I fit in. And, it’s all N’s. None of this is mine. I’ll be dependent on her. I’ll have to do what she says.”

“And, there we have it. It’s not N, or her enormous, comfy, bacon-filled house that’s the problem. Is it? It’s having to bow to N. You think now she has all this you won’t have the upper hand.”

“That’s not fair,” Waverly shouted. “I don’t mind taking orders.”

“Really? You rejected that other boy who kept asking you out for the youngest Hardy because he was more of a pushover. I think you like N because you can boss her around. She’s like a puppy dog around you. All eyes and wagging tail. I bet if you asked, she’d bark and roll over.”

“I hate you.”

“You hate me because I happen to be right. And, I suspect, hear me out, you’re telling yourself you need to stay with me because you’re unsure about giving this, giving N, a chance. So what if you don’t have what N has. So what if she tells you what to do. Is that so bad?”

“No. Yes, actually it is. What if I want to see you and she stops me?”

“You’re mixing two problems again. Firstly, could you ever imagine N doing that? Secondly, I could never imagine you letting N get away with telling you to do that. You have a mouth Waverly, and a brain. Least I think you have a brain. Use them. If you need to say no to N, say it. If you need to do something and N disagrees tell her. It’s called being in a relationship.”

“Why can’t it be as before?”

“Because it’s not. This is where we are. Everyone has to deal with it. We can all wish for things to be different. I wish mama and papa were here still. I wish mama wasn’t drunk all the time. I wish I had bacon every day, and this whiskey. Make the best of what comes your way. N has a good heart and quite a lot of money. Both attractive features. She wants someone to share all this with. I would be more than happy to take on the role, except for the bedroom part.”

“But, what will you do without me? Won’t you miss me?”

“Sorry, who are you? Of course I will. I’ll miss your annoying whiny voice. I’ll definitely miss you telling me to clear up. Oh, and I’ll miss you sneaking my beers for N.”

“It was only two.”

“Four. I’ve lost four. I’ll want compensation.”

Waverly sat on Wynonna’s lap, hugging her for dear life. “So, we make a go of this.”

“Do you think I could get some bacon now? I’m starving.”

Waverly entered the bedroom, Nicole snoring, clearly having not been able to keep awake for her return. She undressed, got into bed, turned the light off, snuggling next to her N. She would have that talk tomorrow, first thing. Well, maybe the second thing.

The familiar knock on the door told her breakfast had arrived. She hoped Wynonna had got her bacon. They would never hear the last of it if it did not appear on her plate. She retrieved the tray, taking a sip of warm tea, biting into hot buttered toast. Wynonna’s motherly chat had been reassuring. She knew she had a tendency to overthink things. To make a problem out of what essentially was not a problem, depending on how you viewed it. To Wynonna’s credit, she had always been like papa, a pragmatic head firmly fixed on square shoulders. She was more like mama, apart from the drinking, always thinking a problem bigger than it actually was.

Wynonna was right. If this life was being offered to her, if N wanted her, she would make the best of it. She would not, however, be told what to do. Ever. N turned over, her arm searching for Waverly. Feeling an empty space, she opened her eyes, sitting up, bringing her knees to her chest, watching Waverly hover by the tray. A look on her face that said she was in the wrong for whatever reason as yet unknown to her.

“You can’t tell me what to do. You hear. If I stay, I have to do what I want, when I want. You hear.”

“Dance for me.”

Waverly’s hands went to her hips. “No. Never. Don’t you dare think because you have all this you can boss me around. Wynonna said I can say No to you whenever I like.”

“I be wanting you to dance for me.”

“I said No. So there. Can’t make me dance.”

Nicole smiled. “Your sister be wanting me to be firm with you. I be firm with you. And, you be saying no. That be how it works.”

Waverly realised Nicole understood. “Oh N, I’m sorry. Wyn says it’s best I stay here, what with the baby. She also said I need to talk to you. That I need to tell you what I'm thinking, not bottle everything up.”

“So, tell me. What be you thinking?”

“Well, we could stay here a little while, just till I feel better. And, you need to learn about the estate and the businesses. And, read. And, write. And, count. And, maybe have a bath.”

“I be doing a lot by the sounds of it.”

“And, maybe Connie could tell you about your family.”

“Ain’t needing to know about me family. I has me family here. Won’t dance for me mind.”

“I’m never dancing for you. No, your other family. Your father.”

“Ain’t be needing to know about him neither.”

“Fine. It was just a thought. You don’t have to do what I say.”

“So, that be it. I dance for you.”

Waverly rolled her eyes. “Why do I end up with the cheeky one?”

“Be thinking the same.”

Wynonna was already up, tucking into a large breakfast in the smaller dining room, a mound of bacon on the side of her plate. Waverly sat opposite, watching her consume slice after slice, apparently with no intention of stopping until it was all gone. She looked up once the fifth slice disappeared, letting out a loud belch. “Pardon me. How was your talk with Lord N?”

“Good. I told her I wouldn’t dance for her.”

“I did not want to know that. Does she understand you’re worried?”

“Yes. No. I don’t have your words. You speak to her. Tell her what’s on my mind.”

Wynonna rolled her eyes. “Anything else you want me to tell her? I mean, why don’t I just sit between the two of you and translate.”

“Wyn, this isn’t easy. I can't say it like you. N keeps looking at me like I’m this little doll.”

“Knew it. She has a doll fetish. Knew something was wrong with her. Where is N?”

“Having a wash. I told her she needed one.”

Wynonna laughed. “And, you were worried N would order you about. I’m worried for N. Poor girl doesn’t stand a chance.” A piece of toast narrowly missed Wynonna’s head. “That girl better learn to duck, that’s all I’m saying.”

Washed, a clean shirt on, Nicole went to check on Caspian and Ferdinand. Both eager to see her. A sugar lump delivered, an update given to Caspian on the latest events in her life, Ferdinand listening intently, she made her way back to the house. Wynonna had ordered more bacon, Waverly was picking at a slice of toast. Nicole didn’t know which side to sit on, opting to stand in case either decided to launch something at her.

Wynonna could tell she was nervous, patting the seat next to her, Waverly watching as Nicole chose that seat rather than one next to her. “Waverly has something to say. Waverly tell N what you’re thinking.”

“I want to stay, but I don’t want you bossing me around.”

Nicole looked at Wynonna, then at Waverly. “I be never bossing you around. I be doing your bidding.”

“Said that,” Wynonna concurred. “N, tell her what’s on your mind.”

“I be wanting to take care of you. I don’t like this house. And, I don’t like the money, but I want what be best for you and the little one.”

“Waverly your turn. What do you say to N?”

“I don’t like this house either. And, I don’t like you having all this money. But, you’re right it would be best for us.”

“So, we all agree both of you hate the house, but will stay. And, I get to visit as often as I like. Plus, take a bottle of that whiskey back with me. Well, that was painless.”

Nicole got up, moving round the table to sit next to Waverly. “I be staying for you. I be learning all I need to learn. I be washing. I be changing me clothes. I be even dancing for you if you want me to.”

“And, I’m out of here. I don’t want to lose all that lovely bacon listening to you lovebirds. N, can I come back tonight?”

“No. I be locking the door. You be eating too much of me bacon.”

Waverly’s fist caught her on the shoulder. “I be joking. I be joking. Wynonna, this house be yours too. Always.”

Chapter Text

Aunt Constance had resumed her position in the library. There was always paperwork to get through. As much as she had others on hand to assist in the task of managing the estate and businesses it all took time, and effort. She was tired, like aunty, the years having caught up with her. At least her own heart was now at peace, knowing she had fulfilled Alice’s dying wish to pass on her inheritance to her child. With no children of her own, with little family left that she knew of, Constance had worried Howton Hall and Alice’s legacy would end up with some ungrateful relative.

She adored N. Something untarnished about her, like so many she had met in India. She had spent many a pleasant afternoon with Alice visiting the markets, its street traders calling out to those passing to buy their spices and remedies for anything from a sick stomach to head lice. Alice had teased once she would buy the head lice potion for George, just to see his face. He understood her humour, playing along, such was his love for her.

George had wanted children, Alice’s body not able to bear more after Nicole, the birth too difficult. It took the inn keeper’s wife all her strength to pull the baby out, her tiny foot caught resulting in the distinctive birthmark on her ankle. George had been kind, accepting his love for Alice was enough, knowing a male heir in his family would be found to take on the mantle of the next Duke of Bedford.

Titles meant little to George. His heart yearned for bigger adventures, seizing the chance when it came to set sail for a distant continent. He assumed he would return home after his adventures to marry some stuffy aristocrat, too boring, too dull, but sufficiently well connected to satisfy his family’s requirements. When Alice arrived his idea of who he wanted in his life changed. Like a cool evening breeze, after a hot tropical thunderstorm, she entered his heart and never left.

Shy, not fully understanding who she was working for, Constance took her under her wing, knowing she would need time to adjust. Eventually finding her way, she settled into life on the plantation. She could be bossy. Ever so bossy, especially with George once they were married. She was not shy in that respect, telling him exactly where he had erred, where he needed to correct his behaviour. George would listen, quietly, respectfully, the hint of a grin on his face, nodding, waiting for Alice to finish, acknowledging her points were well made and sensible. She would turn to Constance for advice, she guiding her to be understanding, to let George have his freedom where needed, lest she chase him away.

Waverly opened the door, waiting to be invited in, moving to the armchair, watching Connie sort through the morning post. “We might stay for a while until I’m feeling well again.”

“My dear that is wonderful news. I do understand all this must be unsettling for you and N. Please do not think for a moment you must go through this on your own. I am here for you and, I believe aunty has made herself quite at home. I am glad. Now, what say you to a ride in the carriage later?”

“I’d like that. I’ve suggested to N she ask you about her father’s family. And, Alice’s. She’s not keen.”

“I know only a little about the Conquest family, so I may not be of much assistance in that respect. I do know Alice’s youngest brother runs the farm where she grew up. She talked about him on a few occasions. I believe the farm is not doing so well. I made enquiries, but have heard he’s a proud man, reluctant to accept help.”

“I’ve been teaching N to read. Could you find a tutor for her? She might be less distracted.”

“I can certainly look into it. I would love for her to take on this work in time. She appears bright. I believe she will learn quickly.”

“I’ll leave you to finish your work. If there’s anything you want us to do for you.”

“My dear, just you being here is more than sufficient. I worried I would be alone in my final years and here we are. I must say I could not have asked for better company.”

Waverly approached the desk, wondering if she should hug Connie. Deciding not to overthink things she gave her the longest hug, pulling away only when she heard sniffling. “I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean to upset you. Forgive me.”

“No, my dear. It has been a while since anyone hugged me. Alice used to do so all the time. I shall be out shortly. Perhaps you and N might like to take a walk in the grounds. I will have one of the servants fetch you when I am ready to depart.”

The carriage ride took them to Howton Conquest, passing the village church opposite The Knife and Cleaver tavern, proceeding along the High Street to The Royal Oak tavern. As with most English villages, it catered for the soul and the stomach. Surrounded by countryside, the carriage continued along Chapel End Road towards the farm where Alice had lived. She had walked this lonely road back to the village the day her father threw her out of his house.

Nicole sat quietly looking out the carriage window, Waverly asking lots of questions, most of which Connie was not able to answer. How different her life could have been if Nicholas Conquest had been a decent man. Her mind imagined herself in the fields surrounding the farm, helping with the harvest, riding horses, playing with the other children of the village. Instead, she was forced to wash laundry for hours and hours each day, her hands sore from the starch in the water, she and Daisy singing to each other quietly to keep their spirits up.

Constance noticed N had not said anything since entering the carriage. “Forgive me, is everything alright?”

“I be wanting to know where Conquest lives.”

“His farm is in the other direction, on London Lane. I can ask the driver to take us past if you wish.”

“Did he marry?”

“I believe so. Our butler knows his family. He may know more. I have packed a picnic. We can stop near the lake if you wish.”

“Ain’t hungry. I be wanting to go back.”

“N, that’s rude,” Waverly scolded. “Apologise. Aunt Connie has taken time out of her busy day to come with us and you’re sulking, for whatever reason.”

“Ain't sulking. I be angry. They be having all this and I be scrubbing clothes in an orphanage.”

“Oh N, I’m sorry. I keep forgetting. What if we return to Howton and have a picnic on the lawn?”

Nicole nodded, not really in the mood for eating. The thought of Nicholas Conquest marrying, when he could so easily have made his relationship with her mother legal, saving her all the suffering she had had to endure as a child, stuck in her throat. The carriage pulled up outside the house, Nicole jumping out, helping Constance and Waverly down, her mind elsewhere. “I be checking on Caspian. I be joining you after.”

They watched as she marched off towards the stable block, head down, clearly upset by what she had learnt on their outing. Constance took Waverly’s arm, guiding her towards the house. “She is a sensitive soul. I hoped by showing her where Alice grew up she would feel some connection. Sadly, I overlooked the dreadful life she led in the orphanage. Go to her. She needs you.”

Waverly hugged Connie, following Nicole, waiting at the entrance to allow her a chance to offload her feelings to Caspian. She could hear her telling him what she had seen. How she would have taken him riding in the fields around the farm, little realising she may never have met Caspian had she not ended up in the circus. She waited until Nicole had finished, moving in, putting her arms round her waist, resting her head on her back. “I can’t make it right for you. I can’t take away the pain you and Daisy suffered. I can only love you now, and forever. I hope that’s enough.”

Nicole turned round, her eyes wet, the saddest look on her face. “I be thinking of asking Daisy to live here. I be making it right for her.”

Waverly felt her muscles stiffen. She understood why Nicole wanted to do the right thing for Daisy. She understood the bond they had. She understood Nicole cared deeply for her. And yet, she was nervous. Don’t overthink this, she counselled herself. She needs to do this. I need to trust her and Daisy. She hugged her, knowing she would need to adjust to a lot more than simply living in a big house.

She decided not to tell Wynonna just yet of Nicole's intention to bring Daisy to the house, believing it best to let things find their own way. Nicole took the carriage early next morning in search of her friend, waiting near the tavern where Daisy had last been seen. It was gone midday before her familiar face appeared. She looked tired, although still with a smile on her face, chatting with another woman as they made their way towards the entrance. She stopped when she saw Nicole, the smile on her face widening, running to hug her. “Where’s Waverly? How is she?”

“She be well. We be living at the house. I be asking if you want to live with us.”

“N, that’s a lovely idea, but I’m with someone. We have a room in a house. It’s adequate, if a little small.”

“Me house is big enough for all of us. I be wanting you to come. And, Waverly. It be you who told me I has it.”

“I’m grateful for your offer, truly. But, I can’t accept it. You can buy me a drink, if you like.”

They sat drinking ale, Nicole explaining to Daisy where she now lived, who her mother was, who she married. Daisy was pleased for her, wishing her well, giving her another hug. As she went to leave, Nicole thrust money in her hand. “This be for you. If you want more, I be giving it to you.”

“N, I can’t. This is too much. I’ll take it, for you, but I'm happy with my lot, as you should be. Give Waverly a hug from me. Wish her well. And, the baby.”

Nicole watched as she made her way to the exit, wanting to go after her, wanting to tell her she would always be there for her. As her protector.

Chapter Text

Waverly was in the kitchen when Nicole returned. Not normally one for allowing house guests into her domain, the housekeeper had been gracious enough to let Waverly help in the preparation of a cake, little knowing she possessed no practical knowledge of how such things came to be. All the cooking and baking was done by Wynonna after their parents moved to Italy, she not trusting Waverly, given her tendency to add extra ingredients to spice things up. She had made biscuits with mama once, everyone eating them wondering what on earth she had added to the mixture. Willa guessed eventually. Pepper.

Nicole remained sullen. Her rejected offer for Daisy to come home with her adding to her dark mood. She hoped the money she had left would be sufficient. She would talk to aunt, perhaps find a way to make regular payments, enough to make her life comfortable. She was at a loss what to do with Daisy. She was equally at a loss what to do with her own life, returning to the bedroom, sitting on the side of the bed, gazing out the window at the vast, manicured grounds. She felt useless, utterly useless. What need had this house of a peg puller, she wondered. There were staff to do all the jobs she was capable of and more staff to do those she could not. She would go mad if this was to be her life.

Her life. Sent to the laundry room at the age of five, barely able to see over the large tubs where mountains of clothes were washed. The orphanage made money by taking in washing from the town, relying on its enslaved workforce to carry out the tasks adults would find strenuous. Up at 5am each day, a meagre breakfast consisting of cold tea and broth, if they were lucky, stale bread if they were not, they would spend the best part of the day hanging over steaming vats of water, removing the stains from other people’s clothing and sheets. She and Daisy had fantasised about running away. They had it all planned, hiding in one of the laundry baskets, jumping out when they reached the edge of town.

They dreamed of building a small house somewhere, away from everyone. Just the two of them, growing vegetables, making bread, not ever doing any washing. A childish fantasy, born out of misery and hope. They hoped for a better life, one that let in the light, not one stuck in the basement of a dismal institution where they hardly ever saw the sun.

If she had known where she would eventually end up, perhaps the life she had had to endure would have been less painful. But, she had been only a child. That was her whole life. All she wanted was to be loved, to be taken care of, for someone to read her a bedtime story in the comfort of a warm, cosy room.

She needed to go somewhere, anywhere, away from Howton. Heading to the stables, Waverly spied her from the kitchen window, wiping flour from her hands, running to find out how her meeting with Daisy had gone. “N, wait. Did you see Daisy?”

Nicole carried on walking, her mind elsewhere, her hearing limited if she was not focusing on the person speaking to her. “N, is Daisy coming here?”

She entered the stables, calling to the head groom to get Caspian ready. Waverly entered, out of breath, now realising carrying a child was harder work than she envisaged. Nicole was pacing back and forth, clearly agitated. “N, I was calling to you. What’s happening?”

“I be going out.”

“Not without me. Not again. Don’t leave me here while you go gallivanting.”

Nicole looked confused. “I be riding. That’s all.”

“Tell me. You’ve never ridden without me. This isn’t like you. You’ve been in a mood since the carriage ride. I might as well go back to the circus at this rate. I’d be more welcome there.”

Nicole realised she was shutting Waverly out. “Daisy ain’t coming. I be riding to the circus to clear me head. I needs to work. I be asking to do something, anything. I can’t stay here. Not like this.”

“You were going to go to the circus without me? Just like that. How could you. N, how could you. I knew this would happen. I knew you’d leave me here, go off doing your own thing.”

Nicole took her in her arms. “I be sorry. Waverly, I be sorry. Ain’t knowing what’s right any more. I be lost. You be well enough to ride?”

“Of course I’m ruddy well enough to ride. Stop treating me like a doll.”

Nicole suddenly felt the overwhelming urge to kiss her. In all the madness, Waverly was the one person who could help her navigate this strange, new territory. Their emotions flaring, passions getting the better, they made use of the empty stall in the far corner of the stable block, the head groom unsaddling Caspian as discreetly as he could, leaving them to their afternoon of making up on a fresh bed of hay.

Fields and stables, they were Nicole’s weakness. And, Waverly. She would do anything for her, the two walking hand in hand back towards the house, knowing they had each other. Dinner was served in the small dining room, aunty having made an appearance. She looked rested, more colour in her cheeks, having spent a few nights in the warmth of a comfortable bed. So much for not wanting to mix with those above her, she was easily the most adapted of the whole party, taking everything in her stride. Her unlikely bonding with Aunt Constance also bringing a new joy to the house, the pair singing along to shanty songs once the rum and brandy started flowing.

Wynonna strolled in shortly after 10pm, Dolls having moved her act to the front of the bill to allow her time to ride to Howton after the evening performance. Her presence was like electricity, those flagging suddenly coming alive when she entered the drawing room. “Anyone miss me? I was spectacular this evening.” Waverly rushed to hug her, never wanting to let her go. “I’ve only been gone a few hours. You couldn’t have missed me that much.”

“I’ll get Doris, the housekeeper, to make you something to eat,” Waverly offered. “N, pour Wyn a large whiskey, she needs it.”

“She has all me bacon, now me whiskey. Ain’t be having much left at this rate.”

Waverly shot her a glare. “I be pouring. I be pouring. Say when.”

Wynonna let Nicole keep pouring until the glass was full. “When. Thank you squire. So, what have you little chickies been up to today?”

“Well,” Waverly started. “N, went to town to find Daisy to ask her to live with us, and I made a cake.”

“So I shouldn’t eat the cake.”

“Wyn! That’s rude. I did very well. Daisy isn’t coming. She wants to stay in town.”

“N, are you happy with Waverly making a cake?”

“I be eating it. Tasted of pepper. Be good though. I be liking it.”

Wynonna spat out her whiskey. “Waverly, you and pepper. What is it? So, Daisy is not staying?”

“I be giving her money. She be alright. She be with someone.”

“I’m sorry to hear that. I know how much she means to you. Do you think she might want to work at the circus? I could ask Dolls?”

Nicole’s eyes lit up. “That be a thought. Dolls could use her. I be asking him tomorrow.”

“N, leave it with me. That’s what family is for. We help each other. Now, please, please tell me there’s bacon for supper.”

Wynonna’s ability to eat bacon was now legendary within the house. Pulling up an armchair next to aunty, who was fast asleep in front of the fire, she wiggled her toes to let the heat get to them. Waverly sat on her lap, hugging her, dozing off as the heat of the room and her romantic interlude in the stables earlier got the better. Wynonna shifted underneath to get comfortable waking her.

Wynonna had news from the circus. Not wanting to upset Waverly, she had waited to let her know they were about to move on to the next town on the circuit. She wrapped her arms round Waverly’s waist, waiting for the right moment. It was now, or never. “How is the house?”

Waverly sat up, sensing this was not Wynonna’s usual way of conversing. “Fine, why?”

“Only, Dolls needs to move on. We’re packing up day after tomorrow. We’ll only be a few hours away. I can ride here still. You can’t get rid of me that easily. N, you better order more bacon.”

She felt Waverly’s body become tense, searching for the words to reassure her baby sister. “I’m not leaving you. I’ll ask Dolls if I can cut back on my performances, perhaps spend a few days here with you. You’d like that, wouldn’t you N?”

“What if I came with you for the first few days,” Waverly suggested, the panic clearly showing in her voice. “I could help with the horses, and get food ready. N, will come too. Won’t you N.”

Nicole nodded, desperate to be back doing her old jobs. “I be needing to get aunty’s wagon.”

“I can bring aunty’s wagon back the next time I’m here,” Wynonna offered. “You two stay here. Enjoy yourselves. I will need to inspect Mabel on my return. N, she better have legs when I get back.”

The pleading look on both their faces told Wynonna she was not going to win this discussion. “Fine. Come back with me. We can work out what we’re going to do with Dolls. Honestly, what am I to do with you two chickies?”

Waverly and Nicole were beaming at each other, knowing they needed to feel the circus once more in their blood. Nicole gently shook aunty, who was snoring loudly. She woke with a start, looking around, not sure where she was for a moment. Nicole explained to her she would be retrieving her wagon, aunty’s face betraying her thoughts that N intended for her to sleep in that rickety old thing. Nicole had to reassure her she had a room in the house, earning a hug.

Constance sat nursing a brandy, gazing into the fire. Never had she imagined ending up with such heart-warming people. Full of life, making their own entertainment. She knew she was blessed, truly blessed. Waverly bounced off Wynonna’s lap, earning a groan, happier than she had been in days. Knowing she had a long day tomorrow, she bid goodnight to everyone, hugging Connie, nearly spilling her drink. She made eyes at Nicole not to delay too long.

Chapter Text

They rode into the field to cheers. N and Waverly had been missed, such was the deep bond between fellow circus folk. It was a bittersweet moment, knowing their lives were heading in a different direction to that of their adopted family.

Dolls was busy clipping a new peg puller round the ear. Nicole smiled, remembering the times she had been subjected to his way of getting her to pay attention. Playful, to a degree, what might appear harsh to those outside their community, to her it had been endearing. She had encountered worse. She knew he cared for her in his own way, not like that bastard at the orphanage. Dolls waited for them to approach, shaking Nicole’s hand, kissing Waverly on the cheek.

Nicole removed her cap, hoping his answer would be yes. “I be wanting to pull the pegs. It be me last time.”

“I see. Where am I going to get a decent peg puller like you N?”

“Be thinking the same. Ain’t no one pulling pegs like me.”

“True. Very true. So, you are decided on leaving?”

The words stabbed Nicole in the heart. In no way was she decided. Not in the slightest. If she could have stayed with Waverly and the baby she would have. Yet, a new life, a new destiny awaited, one she needed to explore, comforting herself with the belief they could always return to the circus should things not work out at Howton Hall.

She knew what she was giving up by leaving. It had been heaven on earth compared to the life she had before. The orphanage. Those in charge expected her to pay her way, not be a burden on society. That was the world she had existed in. That was the world she had come to accept. No mercy, no justice, no nothing. You work for your keep as one of the wretched, abandoned souls of society. To Svane she was a non-person, of little value other than to make money for him by scrubbing the dirt out of others’ lives. Day in, day out. He cared not she was unable to read, or write, or count. That was of no concern. All he cared about was her dressing in the grey rags that passed for a uniform, doing the work she was set, not answering back.

Entering the circus she had stepped into a magical world, a relatively safe world, far safer than the one she ran away from. A world where it also mattered little whether she could read, or not, or write, or count. Unlike the orphanage, there were those on hand to help her. Aunty, Rosita, Doc even. Finally Waverly. All they desired of her was she be N, their N. If she chose to wear men’s clothing, so be it. If she chose to sleep with a horse, so be it.

Dolls invited them to his wagon. A farewell drink was in order, Wynonna bringing the bottle of whiskey she had acquired from Nicole’s house. They sat and talked about the future, Dolls happy for Wynonna to continue solo, as long as she was able and the act continued to bring in the crowds. Waverly had insisted she might return once things settled down, Nicole and Wynonna looking at each other, knowing better than to try to dissuade her.

Wynonna mentioned Daisy might be in need of work. Dolls nodded, remembering N’s pretty friend from her visit to their world, always happy to consider someone interested if they were prepared to work hard. He was in need of someone to take over aunty’s work, Nicole offering to ride to town to discuss the possibility with her, dependent on her current arrangements.

Wynonna needed to get ready for the matinee performance. Waverly was in two minds whether to go with Nicole to find Daisy, or stay and help Wynonna. She decided, after much deliberation, she wanted to stay with Wynonna, Nicole heading off in search of her friend.

Wynonna got into her costume, sensing Waverly wanted to do the same. “You won’t fit anymore. They weren’t designed with a baby pouch.”

“I don’t think I could mount a horse at the moment. I can’t even run fast anymore, my energy’s gone.”

“Mama said that. It’s the baby. Needs more of you as it grows. Must say I’m a little nervous there will be a mini you to boss me around. Can imagine the mite…Aunty Wyn, do this, Aunty Wyn, do that.”

“I’m not bossy. You’re the bossy one. And, Willa, she kept telling me what to do. Actually, maybe she didn’t. Anyway, you’re really bossy.”

“Says Miss Bossy.

“Do you want me to tell the butler to lock you out? I can you know.”

Wynonna laughed. “I know full well you’ll get the butler to do your bidding. Can I give you a piece of sisterly advice? Let N have a say in things. She loves you. Why I have no idea. But, she does. And, that means she’ll do anything for you. Half the fun is not getting your way all the time.”

“I never got my way. You and Willa always got first choice on everything.”

“Waverly, Waverly, Waverly. Oh, for your memory. Papa gave you first choice always. You were his little chickie, remember. Pollo bambino. No one was to upset you or, they answered to him.”

“I miss them terribly. Mama’s doing well. Papa’s letter said she was enjoying cooking again and not drinking as much. Do you think we can visit?”

“Perhaps. I’d like them to see the baby. You’ll need to explain it to papa.”

“Oh no. He’ll have kittens. I still haven't told him about the house, or leaving you. You know how he worries.”

“You’re his favourite. Could always say the baby is N’s.”

“Right. Yes, I’d need to check with N though. The baby feels like N’s. I’m lucky to have her aren’t I, Wyn?”

“You are, little chickie. You are.”

Dismounting, making sure not to put weight on her weaker knee, Nicole hung around The Coach & Horses watching, waiting. No sign of Daisy. The woman she was seen with passed by, heading into the tavern, Nicole approaching, hoping to find out where Daisy might be.

“Haven’t seen her,” the woman replied. “Not been in the market for days. Probably that man of hers done beat her up again.”

Nicole felt her heart beating through her chest, eyes scanning the woman’s face. “Where? Where be her house?”

“Duggan Lane. Last on the row, by the fields. Red door. Wouldn’t go there, not if he’s home.”

Nicole was in no mood to let whoever may have laid a hand on Daisy stop her. She mounted Caspian, riding as fast as she was able, desperate to get to her. Entering Duggan Lane, she slowed, trotting past cottages built for farm workers, given their small size. Reaching the last house, she spotted the red door, easing herself off, knocking loudly. No reply. She hammered again, standing back seeing the upstairs curtain being pulled back, Daisy’s face appearing at the window. She waved hoping Daisy would let her in. Instead, she opened the window, leaning out, panic flaring in her eyes.

“Daisy, let me in. I be here for you.”

“I can’t. He’s locked the door. I can’t get out.”

“Can you jump? I be catching you.”

“I don’t think you could catch me. I might be able to get the bedroom door open. Wait there.”

Daisy disappeared from the window, Nicole standing looking, wondering where she might appear next. The downstairs window opened, Daisy’s head emerging. She looked a mess. Bruises on her face, a deep cut on her lower lip. Nicole’s heart broke seeing her this way, knowing she probably suffered the same, or worse, at the hands of Svane.

“Nicole, it’s fine. You need to go. He’ll be back soon. Please, I don’t want you getting into trouble.”

“Not be leaving. I be staying. He can deal with me.”

“It’s because of you this happened. He took the money.”

“Did you tell him it be from me?”

“He didn't believe me. Said I'd been seen with a man entering the tavern. Please, go. I don’t want any more trouble.”

“I be staying. Be coming to ask if you want a job at the circus.”

“I can’t. Nicole, please, please leave. For me.”

“No. Ain’t leaving you. You come with me, or I wait outside.”

“This isn’t your fight. You have to let me go. You can’t keep protecting me.”

“Ain’t protecting you. I left you once. Ain’t leaving you again.”

Daisy huffed, knowing Nicole would stay and fight her man, if necessary. “Alright. Alright, let me grab a few things.”

She disappeared once more, a bundle of clothes tied up in a sheet thrown out of the upstairs window a few minutes later, nearly knocking Nicole over. Daisy appeared at the downstairs window once more, Nicole pulling her out as best she could, standing holding her in her arms. “Knew I be coming back for you.”

“Took your time. We need to hurry. You’ll have to help me up, my arm’s not good.”

Nicole helped her onto Caspian, he not being particularly pleased at having two riders. They eventually made it back to the circus, the afternoon show having started. Nicole guided Daisy to Wynonna’s wagon, letting her sit inside while she went to find Waverly. She was holding one of the horses outside the ring, waiting to lead him in for the next part of Wynonna’s solo act. She saw the look on Nicole’s face, knowing something had happened. The curtain went back just as they were about to speak.

Nicole waited outside, Waverly appearing a few minutes later. “Did you find her? N, what’s wrong?”

“She be beat. It be my fault. Her man took me money. Thought she had been with me.”

“Oh N. How is she?”

“Ain’t good. Her arm be hurting. And…”

“What? N, what’s wrong?”

“He be hurting her face.”

“Where is she? Does she need a doctor?”

Nicole started walking back towards the wagon. “N, where is she?”

“Here. Be saving her. Can’t leave her. Not again. I can’t.”

“N, it’s alright. Calm down. She’s with us now. No one can hurt her anymore. You did it. You got her out.”

Nicole could not face Waverly, her eyes stinging, knowing all the feelings he had held back over the years were bubbling to the surface. She wanted to run away, find a field where she could let her heart burst open with all the remorse she felt leaving her Daisy in the institution that night. Her one regret. Her only regret. Not rescuing her. Daisy was family. Plain and simple. In the vacuum of having no one to call their own, they had become their own family, looking out for each other, sharing what little they had. Learning to love in a world that gave them no reason to love. That was the strength of their bond to each other.

Waverly entered the wagon trying not to gasp, Daisy catching her reaction, knowing what Waverly was looking at upset her. Her wrist was throbbing, her body tired from having had to defend herself. Waverly’s heart went to her. “Right, that’s settled, you’re coming back with us until you’re well again. No argument. We’ll get a doctor to attend to you. You need rest and a good meal.”

“Waverly, that’s really kind of you, but I’ll be fine here. I just need a few days for my wrist to settle. It doesn’t hurt so much now.”

“You can’t work in a circus if you’re not fit enough. It’s hard work. Dolls will consider you once you’re well. It’ll only be for a few days. We have enough room. And, bacon. Unless Wynonna has eaten it all.”

“I don’t want to be any trouble. Nicole, I’m sorry about your money. I truly am. I should have kept quiet about it. I thought he would be happy, knowing we had a bit extra for a place of our own. I think he just wanted the money to get drunk.”

“Ain’t worried about no money. Be worried about you. You’re me own flesh and blood.”

Wynonna bounced up the stairs of the wagon, entering, realising all was not right. “Ruddy hell, what happened to you?”

Nicole attempted to explain. “Daisy’s fella took her money and drank it.”

“Not following. How can you drink money?”

“No. He be thinking she be with me, so he took my money.”

“Waverly, can you translate. I have no idea what’s happening here.”

“N gave Daisy money,” Waverly clarified, “and, Daisy’s man beat her up for it. I’ve told her she’s coming back with us to Howton. And then, if Dolls is happy with the arrangement, she can come work at the circus.”

“Waverly, do you think you might let N decide a few things. Afterall, it’s N’s house. And, Dolls might need to be brought in on all of your decisions.”

“I’m merely telling everyone what they need to do.”

“I know. And, there’s me thinking you were the bossy type. How foolish of me.”

She ducked as a cushion headed in her direction.

News got round the circus community that N’s friend had been roughed up. The clowns borrowed Dolls’ horse and cart, waiting for the gentleman who was handy with his fists to return drunk from the pub. He deserved a thorough beating, instead they chose a more creative form of punishment. A short journey back into town, he was left tied to the statue of the mayor, his trousers removed and long johns, allowing all who came across him to view his shortcomings.

Chapter Text

Aunty’s wagon hitched to Ferdinand, they set off for Howton Hall, Nicole forgetting all about pulling the pegs for Dolls. Another time perhaps. Her priority was Daisy, to get her to the house, to send for the doctor. She rode behind on Caspian, worried about Daisy’s wrist, the cut on her lower lip was deep, the blue-green colouring around her left eye significant. She was glad Daisy was coming back with them, Waverly being right the circus was no place for those not able to work. Dolls had told her not to return until she was fully mended. She was grateful for all the support being shown by those who had cared for Nicole, yet felt uneasy about accepting too much from them. She was not used to this level of kindness, assuming most in life cared little for her.

She could not believe her eyes as the wagon pulled onto the oak-lined path leading to the house. Sitting up front with Waverly, her mouth fell open as Howton Hall came into view, unable to tear her eyes from it. “It can’t be…is this where you live?”

“N would never have known about it if not for you. It has twelve bedrooms, and a library. Aunty lives here with us and Connie. And, there’s staff. And, stables. N, loves the stables more than the house I think.”

“But, it’s huge. I had no idea. I’m so glad I told her about the letter.”

“We have a lot to thank you for. Not sure N’s all that happy to be here. It’s different from the circus. We’re both coming to terms with the change.”

“Can imagine. This really is something. Will you miss the circus?”

“Of course. Well, my sister mostly. It’s the first time I’ve been away from her. She pretends she’s not upset, but I know she’s putting on a brave face.”

“Will you ever go back?”

“I’m thinking about it. Wyn says it would be hard performing and looking after the baby. N would love to go back. She misses her old work. We’ll see.”

“I could look after the child for you. I mean, if I ended up working there.”

Waverly looked at Daisy. She hardly knew her, had been jealous of her, but here they were, sitting side by side, heading towards Nicole’s house discussing how she might look after her child.

Aunty was outside waving as they approached. “There’s my beauty. I be telling Connie about me ornaments. She be clearing a shelf in the drawing room for them. Oh my, what happened to you?”

Daisy got down from the wagon, holding her wrist. “Hello again. It’s nothing. My fault for opening my mouth. Nicole and Waverly have kindly said I can stay for a few days.”

“My lovely, stay as long as you like. Plenty of rooms. That eye looks nasty, let me see if there’s steak to put on it.”

Aunty guided Daisy into the house, leaving Waverly and Nicole to take the horses to the stables. Nicole was silent once more, anxious to get help as quickly as possible. “Be thinking I be riding back to town for the doctor.”

“No, it’s best you stay here,” Waverly instructed. “One of the grooms can go in the carriage.”

“I be not liking her arm. It be broken I fears.”

“It may well be. The way she’s holding it. Oh N, how could someone do that to her?”

“It be in his blood. That’s all I be knowing.”

“At least she doesn’t have to put up with that treatment ever again.”

Nicole stroked Caspian, lost in thought, wanting to be by herself for a while. Waverly went to instruct the groom, giving Nicole space. Aunt Constance was on hand assisting aunty, equally shocked at the injuries, shaking her head unable to comprehend such treatment.

It was all becoming too much for Daisy. The kindness being shown, the stress of the beating, her escape, being in Nicole’s house suddenly overwhelming her. She burst into tears as aunty went to place the steak on her eye. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry. That steak is too expensive to use on me. Please, don’t fuss, I’m not used people fussing over me.”

Waverly entered the drawing room, Nicole following her eyes falling on Daisy, rushing to console her. “I be here. What be wrong? Ain’t ever letting you go back to that man.”

“You’ve all been so kind. I don’t deserve this. I really don’t deserve this.”

“I be feeling the same when aunty found me. We be thinking no one could love us. Be telling you now, we be as worthy as any. Let aunty help your eye. It be sore looking.”

Waverly had tears in her own eyes. Daisy was the same as her N, conditioned to believe they were unlovable, Daisy not realising the treatment she received from her man was not her fault. She hoped, in time, Daisy would come to realise she was loved, not just by Nicole, but by those who had ended up at Howton Hall.

The doctor arrived early evening, agreeing the wrist was broken, resetting it for her without any pain relief, immobilising it afterwards. Aunty gave her two glasses of brandy to dull the pain, everyone watching the doctor while he worked. He told her to rest, keep her arm in a sling, applying arnica paste to reduce the bruising on her face, unable to do much for the cut on her lip. He offered to return in a few days to check on her, his manner far more accommodating knowing she would be a guest of Howton Hall.

Nicole showed her to one of the bedrooms, asking a maid to find her a nightgown and prepare a light meal. She helped her undress, trying not to look at her body, knowing her eyes were roaming. Daisy placed a hand on Nicole’s arm. “It’s fine. Remember how we kept each other warm those cold nights.”

Nicole nodded, wanting to lay with her, to comfort her, her feelings becoming muddled. She had no idea why. Daisy was her friend, her family, she was with Waverly. Yet, she was being pulled towards her in a way she had not expected. She could feel her cheeks burning, knowing she needed to remove herself from the room.

The maid returned with a tray carrying a bowl of soup, several slices of buttered toast and a warm cup of tea. She asked Nicole to sit with her for a while, Nicole declining, saying she needed to check on Caspian, that she would send Waverly up. Their eyes locked for a moment, enough for Daisy to realise why Nicole had become awkward around her. “Nicole, I understand. Really. We were young, naïve, we didn’t know what we were doing. You’re with Waverly now.”

Nicole turned, leaving the room, knowing she had not been naïve in the orphanage.

Waverly went to sit with Daisy, the pair talking about the house and her pregnancy. They really were good together, Waverly’s natural exuberance and Daisy’s quiet acceptance creating an easy friendship they both hoped would be lasting.

It gave Nicole a chance to speak her feelings to Caspian. “I be thinking a wrong thing, Caspian. It be not right. Not now. Not with Waverly. I be confused. It be alright. I be thinking of the baby. That be doing it. Think of the little one.”

Ferdinand was kicking the front of his stall, looking for attention. She stroked his neck, reaching in her pocket for a sugar lump for him. “Don’t you be a telling Waverly. She be mad enough with me giving you a lump like Caspian.”

He sniffed her hand for another lump, Nicole looking round in case Waverly came in, retrieving another, letting Ferdinand have an extra treat for bringing aunty’s wagon back for her.

Aunty had placed all her ornaments on her allotted shelf in the drawing room, standing back admiring her collection. She rushed to Nicole as she entered the room. “How is she? Dreadful what happened to her. She’s a pretty thing too, someone doing that to her face.”

“She be wanting to work at the circus. Arm needs mending first.”

“That will take time, my lovely. Bones be a long healing. At least she’s here. N, you look tired. Have you had something to eat?”

“No. Nor Waverly. She needs to feed for the baby. She be with Daisy.”

Waverly entered. “She’s sleeping. I could do with rest myself. I’ll see if Doris can bring us a tray in our room. N, are you coming?”

“In a moment. You be going. I needs be talking to aunty.”

“Fine, don’t be long. I may be asleep if you’re not quick.”

Aunt Constance retired to the library to finish off some correspondence. Waiting until they were alone, Nicole paced the room, knowing she needed to tell aunty what was on her mind, not knowing how to start. “Here, my lovely, come sit, tell me what it is?”

Nicole sat in the armchair next to aunty’s staring into the fire. “I be having feelings for Daisy. It be wrong, but…”

“Oh N, my lovely, you and Waverly are good together. And, you have the baby. Don’t you go thinking you can be with Daisy. Wouldn’t be right. Be breaking Waverly’s heart and yours.”

“Be knowing that. Be telling me self that. Be worried Waverly seeing it in me eyes that’s all.”

“You’re a good child. Always have been. It would upset Waverly if you told her. She won’t take kindly to you making eyes at Daisy, but she’d be more upset if you said you had feelings.”

“I be not knowing what to do aunty? I be loving Waverly and the baby.”

“I know you do N. Sleep on it. Think carefully what you be doing with Waverly’s heart. She be too precious for that.”

Chapter Text

Waverly was fast asleep when she entered the bedroom. Undressing, putting on her night shirt, she climbed into bed, turning out the light. Her thoughts were still with Daisy. She understood aunty’s advice not to say anything in case it worried her. She also knew Waverly was able to sense when she was withholding something from her. If she suspected, caught her looking, even worse caught her deliberately trying not to look, she would be in trouble. Big trouble. Waverly trouble.

Unable to sleep, she got up, wondering what to do with herself. Deciding she would go downstairs, sit in the drawing room with her thoughts, she left the bedroom, careful not to make too much noise. Waverly was a light sleeper, hoping her soft snores meant she was sufficiently asleep not to hear her moving about. She passed Daisy’s bedroom, stopping momentarily, wondering whether she should check on her. Bad idea, she counselled herself, being caught in Daisy’s bedroom would not be right. She continued on, an oil light having been left on a table at the foot of the stairs, the butler presumably still up.

She entered the drawing room, the fire fading, giving out just enough heat to warm her. Not a spirit drinker, she had nothing to do but sit and look at the dying embers in the fireplace. She heard the door open, assuming it was the butler, not bothering to turn round. She felt a hand on her shoulder, reaching up, instantly knowing it was not Waverly’s, knowing who it belonged to. “My wrist was throbbing, I was hoping to get another brandy to take the edge off. I’m sorry, I’ll leave you.”

“It be fine. I be getting it for you.”

“Do you often sit here, alone, at night?”

“Can’t sleep.”

“Is it because of me?”

Nicole’s silence provided Daisy with the answer. “I’ll go in the morning. I don’t want to come between you and Waverly. I don’t want to be the cause of anything.”

“You be staying. And, you be right, we be older. The orphanage was long ago.”

“Are you happy here?”

“Be happy enough.”

“But, are you happy here? I know you well enough to see when you’re keeping things back.”

“Be missing the circus. Be missing me work. Ain’t knowing what to do here.”

“You have so much to be thankful for. Always remember that. You were always the lucky one. I knew you’d find a way to keep going. The one that got away.”

Nicole was gazing at her, distracted by the cut on her lower lip, wondering if it was sore. Her hand reached out to touch it without realising, her fingers brushing against her face, Daisy’s eyes closing, accepting the touch. She pulled away quickly, knowing she had already gone too far. “I be going to bed. There be more brandy if it be helping.”

She went to leave, Daisy standing, placing a hand on her back, her soft touch causing Nicole’s whole body to respond. Without turning round, she let Daisy’s hand rest on her. “I be wanting to. Daisy, I be wanting to. Ain’t knowing what to do.”

“Nothing. You do nothing. I’ll not be called a homewrecker. Not even for you Nicole.”

She wanted to turn round. Her entire body was screaming at her to turn round, knowing if she did she would be not be able to stop herself, destroying everything she had with Waverly. She moved away, eyes fixed on the door, no longer able to look at her friend.

Waverly was still asleep, having turned over to face her side. She eased herself into bed, hoping not to disturb her. “I suppose Caspian needed another talking to.”

Waverly’s voice made her jump. “I be…I be checking the fire downstairs.”

Waverly’s eyes opened, studying Nicole’s face. “And…”

“And, it be alright.”

“That’s good. Don’t want the house burning down.”

“Ain’t be wanting that.”

She turned away from Waverly, feeling her snuggle in behind her, knowing she was cheating on her with her feelings for Daisy. She wanted to say something. She couldn’t. She still couldn’t sleep, extracting herself from Waverly, sitting on the side of the bed.

Waverly sat up. “If you don’t tell me, I’ll be forced to tickle you. Or, use gypsy magic. Your choice.”

She went to tickle her, feeling her muscles twitch, something she had never done before. “Is it Daisy?”

“No,” she replied, a little too quickly. “I be checking on Caspian.”

She stood. It was now or never. She had to tell her. She had to. She would consult with Caspian first. He would know what to do. Boots on, coat thrown over her night shirt, she went to leave the bedroom. “Are you worried about Daisy? Her man won’t find her here. Plus, you have enough staff to deal with him if he comes knocking. N, get back into bed. Caspian’s fine.”

Nicole stood at the foot of the bed, looking at her beloved Waverly, not wanting to hurt her, not wanting to lie to her. “I need…Waverly, I be needing to tell you...”

“What? Tell me. What do you need to tell me?”

“I be looking…”

“At what? For heaven’s sake, where’s Wyn when I need her.”

“I be looking at…”

“Right. You’ve been looking at what?”

The pause told Waverly Nicole was struggling with whatever it was she was looking at. “Whatever it is, you can tell me. N, there’s no point us being together if you can’t tell me.”

“Daisy.”

“You looked in on Daisy. Is she alright? I feel so sorry for her. What with her man, and losing the money, and her wrist. I’m so glad she’s here. We did the right thing bringing her to Howton.”

“I be looking at Daisy.”

The penny was finally dropping for Waverly. She sat looking at Nicole, absorbing what she was saying, trying not to get annoyed. “Looking, as in looking. Or, looking, as in liking. Which one?”

“I has feelings. Ain’t knowing they were there until I saw.”

Waverly’s voice was rising. “Saw what? N, what did you see?”

“I be helping her. She be using a nightgown. Didn’t look long. I swear.”

“Long enough, by the sounds of it. Are you saying you fancy Daisy?”

“Aunty told me not to say anything. She ain’t be wanting me to upset you with the baby.”

“Is that right? So, you told aunty before telling me you fancied Daisy. Am I missing anything here?”

“No, I be worried you be seeing me eyes.”

Waverly was out of bed, searching for her clothes in the dark. “And, you thought to tell aunty, not me. The one you were thinking of cheating on.”

“I…I would never. I be telling you now, so I not be cheating.”

Waverly’s voice woke most of the household, apart from aunty. “What am I? The spare lover.” Nicole went to approach her, to calm her down. “Don’t you dare come near me. You were going to, weren’t you? Don’t lie. Don’t treat me like a fool and lie to me. You were, weren’t you?”

Nicole nodded, knowing she was adding another nail in the coffin of their relationship. “I be sorry. I be going to the stables. You need rest with the baby.”

Waverly’s voice was at rage level. “That’s right, go running to your ruddy horse. Or, is Daisy out there waiting? No, I’m going. The circus hasn’t left yet. At least Wyn wouldn’t cheat on me. How could you? After all I’ve given up to be here with you.”

Nicole knew she had to let her cool down, otherwise they would end up destroying whatever remained of their shattering relationship. She felt Waverly’s hand shove her out of the way, pulling the door open with such force it bounced off the table. Aunt Constance had heard some of the commotion, appearing from the library, watching as Waverly stomped past. “Waverly, is everything alright?”

“Fine. Just fine. Couldn’t be more perfect.”

“My dear, join me. Whatever is bothering you needs a listening ear.”

Waverly hesitated, wanting to get Ferdinand, wanting to ride back to Wynonna, knowing at this time of night, in her condition, it would not be the most sensible thing to do. She was going back, that she was certain of. And, no one would stop her. But, a moment to consider her options would be helpful.

She followed Connie into the library, a solitary oil lamp illuminating the desk, the glow of the fire adding a little more light, making the room feel more homely than during the day. She paced back and forth, her body telling her she was running on adrenalin, needing to do something, anything, seething at N’s imminent infidelity.

Connie sat in one of the armchairs, watching, waiting, letting Waverly calm herself. At last she could see Waverly was slowing. “Come, my dear, sit with me. I do not say I can help, but I can listen.”

Waverly was at the point of crying, flopping into another armchair, rubbing her fingers against the palms of her hands. “She was about to cheat on me. Connie, she was going to cheat on me with Daisy.”

“Waverly, I am sorry. N’s behaviour is unacceptable. Her actions are disrespectful to you and to Daisy.”

“I don’t blame Daisy. She’s lovely. She wants to look after our child when we return to the circus.”

“Forgive me, but is that your intention? I thought, I am sorry, I hoped you would stay.”

“We are staying. No, I’m leaving first thing. I don’t know. How can I stay where I’m not welcome?”

“My dear, if you need me to take you back to the circus tomorrow in the carriage, I shall do so. But, may I ask if it might not be in your interests to discuss the matter with N and Daisy before leaving.”

“Oh, I’ve discussed the matter with N. She can have Daisy.”

“Has she expressed any remorse for her actions?”

“It’s too late for that. Connie, I love her, I really do, but sometimes, I don’t know, it’s like there’s a wall around her. As if, she won’t let me in past a certain point.”

“Dear Alice was the same. So lovely and yet so distant. I thought it was giving up N, but I suspect it came from her family rejecting her. I believe they have learnt to keep the pain out, but at a cost of not letting love in.”

Waverly gasped. “That’s it. I feel that. I’m so angry with her right now, but I feel sorry for her too.”

“Love is not pity. It is stronger. N may not understand her feelings for Daisy. I do not want to speak for her. It is for N to do so, but from what you are saying, her feelings may be driven by something other than desire.”

“Connie, you’re like papa. And, Wyn, although Wyn is a law unto herself. I’m hot-headed like mama. Papa was always saying, deep breaths, let it pass.”

“I was fortunate to live in a culture where the study of scriptures was permitted for women. I spent years learning their philosophy, and Vedanta, the most ancient of Indian scriptures. It has taught me to look at life differently.”

“I’ve never been to church. We weren’t really accepted, as gypsies. Celebrated Christmas. Papa would cook, mama wasn’t as good as papa.”

“I would love to meet your parents one day. If their daughters are anything to go by, they must be charming.”

“Oh, Connie. What am I going to do? I don’t want to leave, but I can’t stay.”

“Vedanta teaches there are four paths. Love, knowledge, selfless work and meditation. All problems are solved using these.”

“But, I am selfless. I came here. And, I know N. Well, I thought I knew her. And, I love her. What’s that other one?”

“Meditation. Sitting with a problem.”

“I’m not sitting with N. She’s caused me enough problems already.”

Constance smiled. “I mean the problem N is causing you. I can show you how to meditate if you like.”

“Will it make me feel less angry at N?”

“It might. It may also help you feel less anger in yourself.”

N was distraught, knowing if she chased after Waverly she would push her further away, wanting to go to her. Unable to bear the pain any longer, she dressed, heading downstairs, hearing voices in the library. She stood outside the door, her good ear as close as possible trying to hear what was being said. It was difficult, but she caught Waverly saying she had discussed the matter with her, that she could have Daisy, that she would not stay where she was not wanted.

She was the problem, Nicole concluded. Why not let Waverly and Daisy have the house, and everything that went with it. Afterall, she couldn’t be trusted. She had betrayed her lover, betrayed her dearest friend, both family to her. What use had she of this house? Her mind made up, not needing anything other than her boots, she walked the lonely path to the stables. Caspian was asleep, Ferdinand resting, standing in one corner. She had to make a decision, walking along the stalls, waiting to see who came to her.

One of the carriage horses stuck his head over the front of the stalls. The nameplate read Evadere. “Hello there. I be N. You’re like me own Caspian. You be fancying a ride? It be late, but we be going places. Be making a mess of it here. Ain’t a good rider, so you be careful, mind.”

She opened the stall, leading Evadere out to towards the tack room. She found his harness, matching the letters on the nameplate to that on a peg, carefully putting it on him, no need of a saddle. She had spied a mounting block just inside the stables, knowing she would need it, Evadere being taller than Caspian and Ferdinand. She waited for him to settle, standing on top of the block, knowing once she was on his back she would be leaving Howton for good.

No longer sure whether to return to the circus, she chose a different path. Little money on her, she rode out into the night in search of a new future.

Chapter Text

Waverly was certainly calmer for her meditation session with Connie. She kissed her goodnight, needing to sleep at least for a few hours, deciding to return to the bedroom. It was dark when she entered, Nicole nowhere to be seen. She wondered whether to go searching for her, assuming she was either with Caspian, or in another bedroom, hopefully not Daisy’s.

Morning came. Waverly felt she had only been asleep for a few minutes. Her body heavier, the growing child inside sucking much of her energy. She rose, the breakfast tray not yet delivered, she headed downstairs. No one was around. She decided to check the stables, in case her N had decided to sleep there. Entering she heard Caspian and Ferdinand nickering to each other. Reassured Nicole would never go anywhere without Caspian she returned to the house.

The butler greeted her, offering to bring her breakfast in the small drawing room. She asked if he had seen N. He shook his head. “I will check the house for you.” He returned ten minutes later. “She does not appear to be in any of the rooms.”

“Thank you. Is Daisy in her room?”

“I believe so ma’am. I can check if you like.”

“No. It’s fine. I don’t want to disturb her.”

Waverly sat wondering where she might be. She hadn’t left the estate otherwise Caspian would be gone. She decided to go exploring herself. She had to find her. They needed to talk about what N was feeling and how they would handle it. She entered every bedroom except those being used by aunty, Connie and Daisy, hesitating outside Daisy’s door, praying Nicole was not inside. She knocked, waiting for a response, the sound of shuffling noises inside.

Daisy appeared, looking tired, wondering why Waverly was waking her so early. “Daisy, I’m sorry. Have you seen N?”

“No. Look, I know she’s confused. She seems to think there’s something between us. Waverly, there isn’t. I can tell you that now. I love her as a sister. And, I love you as Nicole’s partner. I’ll pack my things and go. I told Nicole I will not be a homewrecker. Both of you mean too much to me.”

Waverly pulled her into a hug. “Please. Stay. This is N’s doing. I don’t know what’s going on in her head, but I’m guessing what with you, and all this, she’s not dealing with things.”

“I was thinking of getting lodgings at the Coach and Horses. I would need a little money, but at least I would not be a distraction. Waverly, please don’t worry about me. I know how to take care of myself.”

The dam broke on Waverly’s emotions, sobbing uncontrollably in Daisy’s arms. “I can’t let you leave. None of this is your fault. I’d never forgive myself if you left this house. My orders, you stay. But, I do need to find N. She ran away from me before, my heart is telling me she’s gone.”

Daisy dressed, Waverly helping her, the two searching the house from top to bottom. They were at a loss as to where she might have gone. Knowing she was not in the house, they went to the stables, the head groom appearing assuming they wanted to ride. “Have you seen N? Has she been in yet?”

“I believe she may have taken Evadere. His stall is empty and his tack is gone. I can prepare Caspian and Ferdinand for you if you wish.”

Waverly’s face drained of colour, Daisy putting her arm round her. “She’s probably gone for a ride to clear her head. She’ll come back.”

“She won’t. Daisy, she nearly died the last time she did this. I’ve done it again. And, I have no idea where she is.”

“My guess would be the circus. We could take the carriage.”

They sped towards town, Waverly looking out one side, Daisy the other in case they spotted N along the way. Arriving at the circus, the tent was already down, wagons being loaded with all the equipment. Wynonna was busy getting the horses ready, she looked sad, not her usual bubbly self. The driver pulled up near the wagon, Waverly jumping out, hugging her sister. “Please tell me you’re not coming. I’ve enough to deal with without having to look after you two as well.”

“It’s N. I made her run away again. She was cheating on me. Actually, she wasn’t cheating on me. She was thinking of cheating on me. Anyway, what was I saying?”

“Slow down. N is missing, is that what you’re saying?”

“She took Evadere, not Caspian. I thought because Caspian was in the stables, and Ferdinand…”

“Waverly, stop. Where do you think she’s gone?”

“Here. She must be here, or nearby. Wyn, I keep messing this up.”

“The two of you really need to learn how to fight and stay in the same room. Or, same house, it’s big enough. I’m not going to be around all the time, so when we find her, can you please, please both of you sit down and work everything out, as calm, mature adults.”

“I know. I got angry with her. Said I was coming here. I need to think before I speak.”

“Now there’s a thought. Right, we need to figure out where N is. I haven’t seen her, but that doesn’t mean she’s not hiding in a trunk somewhere, hoping to avoid being shouted at by the person who supposedly loves her.”

Waverly’s eyes began to water. “That’s not fair. I’m miserable enough.”

Wynonna pulled her back into a hug. “We’ll find her. She’s Miss Predictable so she’ll probably head to a place she knows.”

“Like a field. I can check the one we used to visit. It’s not far.”

“Do that. I’ll ask around here. Come back if you find her. Or, not. We won’t be setting off for a few hours.”

Waverly gave directions to the driver, the carriage pulling up by the gate, Waverly and Daisy entering, no sign of a horse or Nicole. Waverly couldn’t think where else she might be. Returning to the circus, they sat in Wynonna’s wagon, the three trying to get inside N’s mind.

Wynonna tapped the table with her fingers. “Did she have any money on her?”

“No. I’m not sure,” Waverly replied. “Some, maybe.”

“Right, so let’s assume not much. I’m guessing she hasn’t gone far. Is there anywhere she liked? A place, town, I don’t know another field?”

“Wyn, I can’t think straight. The last time we found her she was at the side of a lane, almost dead. What if she’s fallen off her horse and is lying somewhere, injured. What if we never find her?”

“And breathe. Waverly, we will find her. You have my word. Plus, N is not the adventurous type.”

“Oh, I don’t know. She’s pretty adventurous when it comes to…”

“No, no, no. And, not in front of Daisy. Sorry Daisy. Waverly, this is N. Where in her tiny brain is her favourite go to place?”

“The stables. Wait, there’s a field with a stream near the last town. No, she’d never find it. Although, maybe. No, it’s too far. But, it might be. She loved that field...”

“Waverly, yes or no. If we go and she’s not there we’ve wasted more time. What do you want to do?”

“Stop shouting at me. I can’t think if you’re shouting at me. I don’t know where else. If she’s not there I’ve lost her.”

“Right, we go. Are you able to ride? Daisy can follow in the carriage.”

“Of course I can ride. I just need you to give me a leg up that’s all.”

Wynonna went to find Dolls to explain what had happened and to say she would follow him to the next town. Dolls offered to help find N in his cart, Wynonna thanking him for his offer, knowing it best the circus carry on without this interruption. One of the clowns would take her wagon and horses to the next field, that being the way of the circus. The clowns always there to help their own.

The group set off, Wynonna in front, taking the main road back to the last town, heading for the field where the circus had stayed, allowing Waverly to retrace her route to where N had kissed her four times. The gate was open when they arrived, Wynonna trotting in, spying a horse down by the stream, N throwing pebbles in the water, lost in her own world. She approached, dismounting, Waverly doing the same. The carriage arrived a few moments later, Daisy unsure whether to follow, or leave them to talk. She decided to wait, now wishing she had never left the cottage with Nicole.

“So, this is where you go,” Waverly said when near enough. “Is that how it’s going to be?”

Nicole continued to stare at the water. “I be no good to anyone. I be making you mad.”

“I’m always mad. You should know me by now. N, we can’t go on like this.”

Nicole lowered her head, assuming Waverly was about to finish their relationship. “I be leaving the house to you and Daisy. Best I be gone.”

“No. You’re coming back with me. Daisy is staying. We deal with this like adults.”

“First time ever,” Wynonna muttered, earning a glare from Waverly.

“Ain’t happy there. Ain’t making anyone else happy.”

Waverly eased her body down beside Nicole, placing a hand on her back. “N, I know you love me. I’m glad you were honest enough to tell me you had feelings for Daisy. I know Daisy doesn’t want us to part. And, I may have overreacted just a little.”

Nicole turned to face her. “I be so sad. Don’t have work. Don’t have the circus. Don’t have you anymore.”

“My love, you have me. And, Daisy. And, aunty. And, Connie. And, Caspian. And, Wynonna.”

“I’m after the ruddy horse,” Wynonna interrupted, earning another glare. “Fine, I’m after the horse.”

“You be saying you not be wanting to stay.”

“Yes. Alright, I may have said that. But, then Connie and I did this meditation thing and it helped me a lot. I’m a hot-blooded Italian, remember. I have a tendency to explode. I’m sorry.”

“I be sorry I upset you. I be happy to sleep in the stables.”

“Can you please stop fantasising about living in the stables. Honestly, you have a big house with lots of rooms. You are not sleeping in the stables.”

“I don’t want to hurry you chickies,” Wynonna suggested, “but, I need to get back, otherwise I’ll be out of a job.”

Nicole stood, holding out a hand to help Waverly up. She groaned, the weight of the baby making everything more difficult. Daisy had remained in the carriage, expecting to be banished from Nicole’s house. Waverly hopped in, giving her a hug, telling her things were alright, knowing both Daisy and N needed a lot more of her love and understanding and perhaps a little less of her Italian passion.

Wynonna watched as the carriage set off, bringing her horse up alongside Nicole’s. “Take good care of her for me. And, can you please stop running off. I’m exhausted having to chase after you.”

Once more Nicole wanted to hug Wynonna, instead she held out a hand to shake. They parted, Wynonna leading Waverly’s horse down the lane, Nicole watching until she was out of sight.

Chapter Text

Back at Howton, Aunt Constance suggested the pair might want to take a moment to sit in the library and talk through what had happened. Nicole’s ability to do a disappearing act was discussed. Waverly’s ability to go full ‘Italian’ was also discussed. Much as they needed to, Daisy was not discussed, both having decided it was something neither wanted to explore in case it ended up in another Waverly outburst, with Nicole running off.

Daisy remained in the house. Nicole still had feelings for her, accepting they were not reciprocated. Waverly understood Nicole had feelings for Daisy, but had found in her a new friend, one who was not a threat. Someone who could tell her about young N.

“She stole a pie once from the governor,” Daisy began, as she stirred the cake mixture for Doris. “Right under his big, fat nose. Too busy hitting her to see what she was doing.”

“Can imagine N doing that. She said he hurt her ear, has trouble hearing in one.”

“He enjoyed it. Could see it on his face.”

“How did you survive in such a dreadful place?” Waverly asked.

“Made the best of it. We’d hide in the laundry cupboard, dressing up, pretending to be wealthy. Think that’s why the governor hated her. Carried herself different.”

“But she wasn’t posh, or anything then.”

“I don’t mean she acted all airs and graces. She just had a way, like the world couldn’t get inside.”

“She lets so few in. You. Caspian. And, Aunty.”

“And, you Waverly. She’s let you in.”

“Really? Sometimes I feel so close to her. And, then she’s gone again.”

“Used to disappear on me too. I’d draw circles on her hand with my finger. Told her it was the path back to me.”

“That’s so sweet. Oh no, my eyes are watering and I’ve got flour all over my hands.”

“Don’t you go getting another ingredient in the cake mix,” Doris teased.

Constance had finally found a tutor for N. A young man by the name of Mr. Jett, his teaching credentials impeccable, willing to relocate from London for a fee. He came on the highest recommendation from Randolph Nedley, Mr. Jett’s services having been used by a number of his wealthy clients, looking to have their spoilt and unruly children educated at home to a standard that allowed them to succeed at the higher level of society they occupied.

Nicole had been informed of Jett’s imminent arrival. She was made to sit in the main drawing room, on a hard chair, in front of the four women in her life, each trying in their own way to get her to accept tuition would be beneficial. Uppermost in Nicole’s mind was the need for no further learning, other than the ability to read that one book to the baby.

“N, look at me,” Waverly’s voice softer than usual. “What if Daisy and I take lessons with you? Remember how I guided your hand. Remember when you wrote Caspian for the first time.”

“Be knowing enough.”

Aunt Constance stepped in to offer guidance. “You are quite right. You have more than enough learning. There are, however, parts of the business I would dearly love your help.”

“I be helping if you need me. Be knowing no more than five, mind.”

“All is of use,” Constance replied.

“Ain’t be learning nothing more than I needs. Tells you that now.”

Lessons began 9am sharp each morning, with a short break mid-morning, continuing until either Nicole’s eyes glazed over, or lunch was served. Daisy was overjoyed to learn how to hold a pen and how to write her own name. Waverly liked to show off, Mr. Jett setting her ever harder maths questions. Nicole would sit eyeing Waverly’s work, along with the attention she was receiving from Mr. Jett, he suggesting she call him by his first name, Robin, Nicole glaring at Jett if he so much as leaned over Waverly to look at her work.

Several weeks into their new routine, Waverly found her still in the stables after one mid-morning break, refusing to return to the library, accusing Jett of touching Waverly’s hand too many times that morning. “N, he needs to do that to get me to hold the pen correctly. Fine, I’ll ask him not to in future. Will that help?”

“I be sitting there and he be making eyes at you. I sees.”

“You should be getting on with your own work and not looking at me, or Robin.”

“Robin. What sort of name be that? Be a girl’s name.”

Waverly stifled a laugh. “You’re doing so well. If you keep going, you’ll be able to read to the baby. I thought that’s what you wanted?”

Nicole moved closer. “I knows what I be wanting right now.”

“We can come back after lunch, but you’re going in and finishing today’s lesson.”

“I be just wanting one kiss.”

“N, no. Alright, one kiss. That’s all.”

Nicole pulled her into an embrace, edging them towards the stall at the end, hoping Waverly would give in to her charms. She pulled away just as Nicole was about to move them inside. “Don’t you dare. I’m warning you.”

Too late, Nicole was already unbuttoning her waistcoat and shirt, taking Waverly’s hand and placing it inside her vest. She saw Waverly’s eyes respond, knowing she had won, knowing she didn’t have to go back and face another few hours of learning stupid numbers. They emerged just before lunch, Waverly vowing not to be distracted by Nicole’s advances ever again, telling her she would be banned from the stables if she didn’t concentrate on her studies.

Robin was sitting at the dining table with Daisy, deep in discussion about India, when the pair entered, Nicole grinning, knowing she had outwitted him at least on this one occasion. He asked if Waverly was feeling better, assuming that to be the reason for their absence. Waverly played along, Nicole inclined to tell Robin where they really had been earning her a pinch from Waverly. Robin suggested Waverly should rest for the afternoon, offering to extend the day’s lesson into the afternoon for Nicole to catch up on what she missed, thereby outwitting her.

With lessons underway, Constance felt it was time for Nicole to visit the mine in Wavedon, fourteen miles from Howton Conquest. Most of the journey there was spent with Nicole gazing silently out the window. “It was George’s idea to invest in the mine, given how close it is to his ancestral home," Constance informed. "He said he could smell a good opportunity. Your mother too.”

“I knows how to pull pegs and look after horses.”

“My dear, you are just beginning on this new journey. The world of the circus is a wonderful world, full of the most loving people I have ever come across. But, there is a bigger world waiting for you, full of wonders you have yet to see.”

The carriage pulled up outside the foreman’s office, hearing him shout at some wayward lad who had a stick of dynamite in each hand. Nicole immediately felt the connection to her days in the circus, watching the interaction, knowing the young lad was probably doing his best.

The driver helped Constance down from the carriage, stepping back to let Nicole exit. She had been issued with a new black suit, immaculately tailored to her body, a crimson waistcoat, starched white shirt and matching cravat. She refused to don the top hat that went with the outfit, preferring to let her short hair flow naturally. A dark grey overcoat completed her attire, looking ever the part of a wealthy mine owner.

Constance introduced Nicole, the foreman offering her his hand. “I can show you the workings if you have time.”

Nicole nodded, not sure what workings were. Aunt Constance was on hand. “That would be most useful. We will need to take away the sales ledgers. I will have the driver return them in the morning.”

“My men were grateful for the extra food supplies this winter for their families. How’s Doris? And, Arthur. Bet my sister’s keeping him in line.”

“She is well. I have a hamper of cakes she prepared for your men. I need you to take Nicole under your wing Cedric, she has a keen mind, so you would do well treating her accordingly.”

“Connie for you, I would train her with my own hands.”

Nicole looked at Constance, then Cedric. “Ain’t done no mining.”

“Connie told me you understand hard work. You are welcome here.”

He escorted them to the entrance of the mine, cautioning it would be dangerous from that point onwards. Constance had been down a few times, not relishing the thought of returning, knowing N needed to see where her wealth came from. They sat in a small cart on tracks leading deeper into the mine, pulled by a pony, workers passing on either side, covered in grime from their work underground.

This was a new world for Nicole, watchful eyes taking in all before her as they ventured deeper into new territory. The cart stopped short of the main excavation area, a large cavern opening up before them, men on different terraces hueing out clay for cleaning woollen cloth. Cedric invited them to leave the cart, offering his arm to Constance knowing the ground was uneven.

Nicole viewed the scene, attempting to understand how her money came from such activity. Then she spotted them. A group of children, barely older than herself when she fled the orphanage leading horses into the centre of cavern. Their clothes had seen better days, their hands and faces in need of a good wash, Nicole’s life transitioning in that moment. This was no place for children.

Her voice echoed around the cavern, causing workers to stop. Constance had not seen such rage in Nicole. “No child works here. You hears me, no child works here.”

Cedric looked at Constance, then Nicole, hoping to shed light on those who were employed to dig out the clay. “They are the children of miners. Small enough to work the horses and get to the tight spaces.”

Constance needed to explain. “The children of workers bring in more money. I have instructed Cedric to make sure they are paid well, fed and schooled when not working. The families are grateful.”

Nicole was in no mood to be placated. “Is this my mine?”

“My dearest N, it is. And, what you decide will be acted upon. If you wish for no children to work here, then you simply have to instruct Cedric. But, remember these families rely on their wages.”

“I don’t want children working in me mine. Ain’t what I want for them. They be needing to read, and write and count, not dig out clay.”

“Cedric you have heard Miss Haught’s instructions. We will need to address the financial implications and whether you require additional men to replace the children.”

Cedric scratched his head. “I reckon I’ll need to pay the men a little extra so they don’t riot.”

Nicole kicked a lump of clay away from her foot, leaving a large grey mark on the side of her polished black boot. “Ain’t having no children here.”

“N, it is done. Now, would you like to see the rest of the works?”

“Not if there be children,” Nicole sulked.

“I think it best we return home. We can visit another time, once Cedric has made the necessary changes.”

The journey home was equally quiet, Nicole unable to remove from her mind the image of those poor children.

Constance felt the need to break the silence. “N, forgive me, you may not like what I am about to say, but it must be said. Your decision today was impeccable, truly from your heart and extremely wise. Yet, it has consequences you may not have considered. I am never one for employing the young, but the local families often have children in order to send them to work to bring in money for their families. Without their wages, families very often struggle to survive.”

“I be working laundry when I be their age. Be knowing what it’s like.”

“I understand. Really, I do. But, all actions have consequences. It is an unfortunate fact of life, one I have struggled with myself, coming to the conclusion it would be better for those children to work than starve.”

Nicole was no longer sure of her decision. “It be right for me.”

“It was right. And, I will ensure Cedric addresses any shortfall in wages. We can only hope the children are not forced to work elsewhere.”

Nicole pondered her actions. She assumed her decision was positive not wanting those poor children to have to work underground. And yet, Constance was telling her she may well end up causing them more suffering simply because she had acted on her passions. “I be not knowing how to do this. It be harder than I thinks.”

“It will be fine. A caring employer is far better than an uncaring one. You have sufficient monies coming in from the plantations to accommodate your wishes for the mine. I merely wanted you to understand the nature of business and life in these parts.”

“I be needing your help more than you needs mine, I reckon.”

“I am here for you. Now, we must pay your farms a visit soon. But, not today.”

Waverly was waiting for her, standing by the entrance, watching the carriage approach. As soon as Nicole emerged she could tell she was not happy. Aunt Constance smiled, kissing her on the cheek. “She did very well today. I trust your afternoon went equally well.”

Waverly nodded, wanting to speak to Nicole, Constance sensing her presence was no longer needed. She took Nicole’s hand leading her to the stables. “I love your outfit. Very you. So, how did it go? Tell me.”

Nicole did not want to dwell on what she had seen, or worry Waverly. “It be fine. What were you doing?”

“Something isn’t fine. Please don’t shut me out. I know I have a tendency to explode, but I’d rather you told me if there’s something bothering. And, clearly something is bothering you.”

“I be seeing children.”

“Right. Where? In the village. Were they in your village?”

“In the mine. They’re young, like me. I told the foreman to let them go.”

“Oh N, children. That’s dreadful. How young?”

“I reckon eleven or twelve. I not be knowing if I did the right thing.”

“How can children that young be working in a mine? Isn’t it dangerous?”

“Very. But, they are bringing in money for the family. And, I tells them they can’t.”

“You’ll just have to pay compensation.”

“Compo what?”

“Compensation,” Waverly repeated, proud she knew the word. “Something you give to cover a loss.”

“I be finding all this harder than I thought.”

“How about you compensate me in the stables for having been away all afternoon.”

Chapter Text

Wynonna was coming to stay. She had sent a postcard addressed to: The Big House with Bacon, c/o Howton Hall, Howton Conquest. Waverly was beside herself with excitement, getting Doris to check on their bacon supply, getting the butler to check the cellar for Wynonna’s favourite whiskey, making Nicole have a bath. She sat on the edge gazing at Nicole’s body as she soaked, her legs too long to stretch out.

Waverly’s words tumbled out. “I’ll have to show her the cardigans aunty is knitting. And, the boots. Do you think she’s staying long? I hope she’s staying for at least a few days. That would be fun. I can’t wait to see her. Do you think I could get a new dress? I’ll bake her cake. That’s it, I’ll bake her one of my special cakes. And, she hasn’t met Robin.”

Nicole closed her eyes, accepting Waverly would be like this until Wynonna arrived. “N, what do you think?”

“About what?”

“About Wynonna coming to stay. You don’t seem very pleased?”

“I am pleased. I be thinking I needs to eat a lot of bacon before she comes.”

A wet sponge hit her on the shoulder. “You’re not eating any bacon. It’s for Wyn. Do you think Daisy might like a new dress? We could go shopping together. You could come with us.”

“Ain’t getting in no dress. I be having trousers. They be enough.”

“No, silly. Daisy and I will have dresses. Do you think there’s a shop that sells baby clothes? And, a pram. And, we need a crib. And, blankets. And, dolls, lots of dolls.”

“What if it be a boy?”

“I’m sure it’s a girl. I’ve set my heart on a girl. If it’s a boy I will dress him in girl’s clothes.”

“When is she coming?”

“Four days. Oh N, I miss her so much. Do you think she misses me? I’m sure she does. She would never say. I bet she does miss me. You’d miss me if I wasn’t here, wouldn’t you.”

Nicole was lost in her own thoughts. “N, would you miss me if I wasn’t here?”

“No. What? Going where?”

Waverly retrieved the soggy sponge from the bath hitting Nicole in the face. “Ouch. I be going to the farms tomorrow. I can get more bacon.”

“Would you. And, perhaps we need more whiskey. I’m so excited.”

Nicole’s visits to the three farms she owned were more successful than her visit to the mine. Constance acquired another two close to the estate on her return to England. The farm Alice had purchased while in India was the largest, the others smaller, but profitable nonetheless. Aunty accompanied them, needing a day out to take her mind off her aching bones. She looked so much better for her time at Howton, Nicole noticing a new spring in her step.

The trip to town was planned for the next day. The market was busy as usual, Daisy’s friend spotting her, waving, not sure whether to approach. Daisy made the first move, the two catching up on all their news. She returned, whispering to Waverly what the clowns had done to her man. They headed to the most expensive dress shop. Waverly tried on several dresses, asking Nicole’s opinion, getting blank looks, eventually turning to Daisy to get her opinion.

“The green dress really suits you. It’s a perfect colour and soft at the front. Hides your bump.”

“Do you think? I do like it. N, what do you think, the green, or the blue?”

“The blue,” Nicole replied, seeing the look in Waverly’s eyes. “The green. Definitely the green.”

“The green it is. Right, Daisy you need to try on dresses. Shall we pick a few?”

“That’s very kind, but I’m fine with this dress. Please don’t spend your money on me.”

“I insist. We both get a new dress. Come on, it’ll be fun. I can see you in pink.”

Daisy smiled, not wanting to offend. She emerged from the changing room wearing the most exquisite deep pink dress. It suited her to perfection, Nicole trying not to look at her.

“N, what do you think? Doesn’t Daisy look wonderful in that dress?”

Nicole felt her cheeks burn, shuffling her feet, desperate to leave the shop as quickly as possible. Dresses purchased, a long list of items still to buy, they headed out to find aunty. They found her in the haberdashery shop selecting different balls of wool and more knitting needles. The next shop on the list was for baby clothes and equipment, Waverly pushing several large-framed prams back and forth to get a feel for which one she might like.

Daisy hung back, her eyes dwelling on the cribs and delicate blankets, Waverly assuming she was giving her room to manoeuvre the cumbersome prams in the limited space of the shop. She appeared ill at ease, something clearly bothering her, making an excuse she needed air, the shop being rather stuffy. Waverly watched as she left, looking at Nicole to go after her, Nicole looking back not entirely sure that was a good idea. Waverly’s eyes were insistent, Nicole huffing, following Daisy out guessing Waverly wanted time to indulge in all things baby with aunty.

She found Daisy sitting on a bench outside, head down, playing with a cotton hankerchief. “Is it the baby?”

“No. N, listen I think it best if I come back here. I’m sure I can get work, and if you could give me a little money, perhaps a room somewhere.”

“Waverly will never forgive me if you go. I knows I be acting strange, but…”

“It’s not that.” She paused, not wanting to add more problems to the situation. “It’s just. I think I might be pregnant.”

Nicole nearly fell off the bench. “I’ve been nothing but trouble. I need to leave, let you and Waverly have your life.”

“You are not leaving. Not with a child on the way.”

“I can’t take Waverly’s joy away from her.”

“Let you go once and it broke my heart. Ain’t having it broken again.”

“Please don’t tell Waverly.”

“She needs to know. You need to tell her.”

Nicole took Daisy’s hand, dragging her back inside the shop, standing behind her waiting for Daisy to reveal her condition. Waverly looked up, delighted at having found the one pram she knew was going to be hers. She saw the look on Daisy’s face and Nicole’s wondering what had transpired in the few minutes they had been outside.

Nicole put her hand on Daisy’s shoulder. “Waverly, I’m really sorry, but I maybe pregnant.”

Waverly gasped, rushing to her, hugging her with all her strength, clearly overjoyed. “That’s wonderful news. Really wonderful news. The babies will have each other. This is so perfect.”

Wynonna arrived the next day, having ridden for most of the morning. Waverly was resting, the trip to town and preparations for Wynonna’s stay leaving her more tired than usual. Nicole and aunty welcomed Wynonna, she looking for Waverly, worried she was not on the steps to greet her.

“Upstairs. She’s well. And, the baby. How is the circus?”

“Good turnout most evenings. Dolls is thinking of dropping the afternoon shows, apart from Friday and Saturday.”

“And, the horses?”

“The new lad is keen. Inexperienced, but caring. I’m teaching him how best to handle mine. He’s a fast learner.”

“So it carries on.”

“N, they all miss you. The clowns keep annoying me, asking if I’ve heard anything. I must get Waverly to write more. I’ve reread two of her letters so many times the ink’s fading.”

“I’m learning to write. And, my numbers. Not as good as Waverly, mind.”

“And, by the sounds of it you’re going all posh on us.”

“I’m not. I’m speaking as I always have. Ain’t losing that.”

“If you say so. Let’s go see that lazy sister of mine.”

Wynonna bounced up the stairs, flinging the bedroom door open, kneeling by the side of the bed. Waverly stirred, eyes opening, taking in the sight before her. “Wyn, you’re here. I’ve missed you so, so much. We’ve got lots of bacon and whiskey. Daisy’s pregnant.”

Wynonna looked at Nicole standing in the doorway. “N, for a girl you do seem to have a lot of pregnant women around you.”

“What? No, it’s not me.”

“I know. I’m pulling your leg. Speaking of which, where’s dolly Mabel. N, you better not have eaten her legs.”

“Her legs are fine. I’ve missed you too.”

Waverly refused to stop talking for the rest of the afternoon, Wynonna rolling her eyes at Nicole, Nicole grinning. A large meal was prepared, wine flowed, and ale and lots of laughter. Aunty was in her element, breaking into song after her third glass of wine, Constance joining in, Wynonna in hysterics as the lyrics became more and more blue. Waverly noticed Mr. Jett paying a lot of attention to Daisy, winking at Nicole. They retired to the main drawing room, Nicole pouring Wynonna several large whiskeys, everyone staying up until the early hours.

Waverly did not want to leave the company of her sister, falling asleep on her lap, having to be woken gone 1am. There were a few tears, Nicole consoling her, saying she would have plenty of time tomorrow to enjoy her sister’s company. With most of the party retiring to bed shortly after Waverly, Wynonna and Nicole finally had an opportunity to spend some time together.

“How are you finding being a toff?”

“Different. Some good, some bad. I be banning children from my mine. Can’t be having that.”

“Do you think you’ll stay? I mean I could always take this off your hands. You could go pull pegs again.”

“I could. I be staying for a while. I be wanting to ask you something?”

“As long as it’s not how to shut Waverly up. That I have no idea.”

“I be thinking of asking Waverly if she will be with me for life.”

“You want to marry her?”

“I knows I can’t. Not in a church. I be thinking we could do it here, when the circus comes back. If Waverly wants me.”

“N, it’s a lovely idea. Just one question, are you absolutely sure you want to spend the rest of your life with Miss Chatterbox? I mean there are quieter women out there. I had forgotten how much she talks. Thank heavens your hearing is bad.”

“I be not knowing what to do about your parents. Do you think they would agree?”

“Mama would. Papa may take convincing. It’s fine. They’re circus folk, and Waverly is their special child. You know mama nearly lost her. Can’t imagine a world without Waverly. Can you?”

Nicole shook her head.

Chapter Text

Wynonna’s visit was over too soon. Waverly sobbed as she watched her ride away, several bottles of whiskey in her bag, knowing it could be weeks before she saw her again. Nicole took her on a picnic to cheer her up. The carriage pulled up near the lake on the estate, Nicole helping her down, walking across the field carrying a small hamper and a rug.

They found a spot, perfect for what Nicole had in mind, helping Waverly to sit, placing the hamper at the side of the blanket. She paced back on forth letting Waverly talk about all things Wynonna. After, what seemed like an eternity, Waverly stopped, watching Nicole deep in thought, not having listened to a word she had said.

“What’s on your mind? You’re not too upset Wynonna took your whiskey?”

“She could have a crate of the stuff for all I care. I needs ask you something. I be asking Wynonna.”

“I wish you would speak to me first,” Waverly huffed. “I mean I think that’s how relationships work.”

“I be wanting to know if you are happy here.”

“And why would Wynonna know that and not me? Honestly N. You really annoy me.”

“I be asking you if you are happy here.”

“Yes. Is that it? That’s all you wanted to ask me?”

“You are definitely happy here. And, you are happy with me?”

“I have my moments. Now is turning into one of those moments. Fine, I’m happy here. And, I’m happy with you.”

Nicole stopped pacing, sitting beside Waverly, taking her hand. “Would you be happy with me forever?”

“I might moan, I may on occasions shout. Wait, are you asking…”

“I be asking. If you be having.”

“Is this what you asked Wynonna?”

Nicole nodded. “I be wanting to spend my life with you Waverly Earp.”

For once Waverly was lost for words. It took her several moments for Nicole’s proposal to sink in. “You are asking me to be your wife?”

“I was thinking Dolls could do it when the circus comes back.”

“You want to marry me?”

“I know we can’t be married, but I wants you to know ain’t having no one else in me life. Ever.”

“Oh N. Yes. I want that. I want that more than anything. And, the baby can be a bridesmaid. And, maybe Daisy’s baby too, if it arrives in time. You know I suspect Robin has intentions for her. I’ve seen the way he looks.”

“He be looking at you the same way.”

“N, I love you being jealous of Robin.”

“I be happy for Daisy if she be happy.”

“So, do I get a ring?”

“The biggest I can find. We can have someone come to the house. I be wanting the best for you.”

Nicole’s adopted family were overjoyed at the news, aunty crying, a few tears shed by Constance. Daisy hugged her two dearest friends, knowing they were happy together, knowing her soulmate was happy at last. She took Nicole’s arm, strolling out to the rear garden, needing a moment alone with her N. “I’m so happy for you. N, you deserve this. And, Waverly. I will be there for you always.”

“I be loving you, but I knows it now. Waverly has my heart. I confused saving you with caring for you. Are you happy with Robin?”

“Very. It’s lovely having a gentle man, not someone who treats me bad. Will you give me away when the time comes?”

“Has he asked?”

“Not yet. I’m hoping with your news he will do the honourable thing.”

“Will you stay? Waverly, I will miss you.”

“He’s thinking of opening a school in town. He has some monies put aside and a few generous benefactors.”

“I will give you money. Tell Jett whatever he needs for his school it is his.”

“N, we can’t take your money. You’ve been more than generous. We’ll manage.”

“No. You won’t manage. I will make sure you succeed. It is my gift to you.”

The couple threw a party, inviting all the staff to attend and their families. It was a wonderful evening, a local band playing, guests enjoying the good news. Mr. Jett took the opportunity to propose to Daisy, perhaps not the done thing given it was Waverly and Nicole’s event, yet it was a perfect moment in a perfect setting. Everyone was overjoyed.

The party was in full swing when a worker from the mine arrived with urgent news. The mine was flooding, several miners trapped, a number of ponies unaccounted for. Constance called Nicole into the library to discuss what would be best to do. “I am so sorry N, but we need to go, show we support the community. We can return once the situation is under control.”

Waverly appeared round the door. “Everything alright? Cake is being served.”

“The mine be flooded.” Nicole instructed. “I be back shortly.”

“But, it’s our party. Can you go later?”

“This be serious. There are men trapped.”

“Oh no. Yes, of course. Go. I’m sorry. What was I thinking?”

Nicole took Ferdinand, Constance following in the carriage. It was chaos when they arrived. Men shouting, Cedric nowhere to be seen. He had gone into the mine to help, having not been seen for several hours, many of the men suspecting he was drowned. Nicole searched for whoever might be in charge, spotting the young lad who she had seen on her first visit holding the dynamite.

“Who be in charge? Tell me. Who be leading the rescue?”

The boy looked shocked. “Me dad’s down there. I don’t know. No one. I need to find my dad.”

“Stay here. I will find him. Get the men to tie ropes together.”

Nicole stripped down to her shirt, Constance begging her not to go in. “It be my mine. Ain’t having no one die on me.”

“N, it is too dangerous. This is not your job. Others are coming to help.”

“I be useless if I just stand around. When I pull on the rope tell them to get me out.”

A man tied the rope around her waist, another man having the same done to him. “I come with you. Two are better than one and I knows the route.”

They entered the mine, lanterns held high, the water rushing past their ankles. Nicole could feel her heart pounding, the lantern in her hand shaking. They edged along, the sound of water growing louder, a workman having hit an underground stream sending a torrent of water into the cavern. Those who were able to scrambled out before the water rose too high. Some were not so lucky. One man had fallen badly, trapped by rubble where he fell, other workers forced to abandon him in the rush to get ahead of the rising waters.

The horses had been left tied, calling out to anyone who might hear. Nicole’s ears were struggling with the cacophony of sounds, but the anguish of the horses cut through everything. She had to get them out and anyone still down there. The water was up to their waist now, both struggling to move against the current, their lanterns swinging, casting eerie shadows against the walls. They made it to the cavern, holding onto the side walls to get their balance, the man signalling they needed to make their way along the edge to the back wall.

Nicole’s priority was to free the horses first, handing her lantern to the man, wading out into the centre. The horses were terrified, rearing, trying to free themselves. It took all her strength to pull their ropes free, submerging herself to feel for the stake that bound them. The first five horses free, she moved through the water to release the others, diving down feeling for the stake. The thud on her back from a hoof caused her to swallow water, rising to the surface, coughing, spluttering, the man now by her side taking over. The horses free, he helped her to the edge, resting her against the wall. His lantern shone on her face then her shirt, a red stain growing as the light remained on her. He shouted to her she was hurt, Nicole nodding, trying to breathe, the water remaining in her lungs.

A man’s voice could be heard, screaming for help. Their lanterns lifted, they searched, seeing his frantic waving towards the back of the cavern. Cedric was with him, holding him up. The man with Nicole told her to stay put, that he would go, Nicole shaking her head, not quite knowing what she was doing. They moved off, edging nearer, until Cedric and the trapped man were in arms reach. The water was rising faster now, almost to their shoulders, no way to get out. All they could do was wait and hope those outside could get to them in time.

Pumps had been sent from other mines. A large group of men had arrived to assist in the rescue, beginning the process of pumping the water out. It would be a long, slow process, taking many hours. Nicole was fading, the wound on her back throbbing, the cold of the water making her head flop forward, liable to drown had it not been for the men with her. They kept her upright, the trapped man holding her head up, the others shouting at her to stay awake.

The water level began to drop, the sound of voices echoing along the tunnel searching for any survivors. The trapped man called out leading the rescue party towards him, feeling Nicole’s body getting heavier in his arms. They got to them just in time, any longer and the cold would have been too much.

The rope around her waist untied, rescuers carried her out, warm blankets thrown over her, the carriage told to take her to the hospital. Constance went with her, knowing she had saved lives, knowing she had so very nearly ended her own life.

The doctors assessed her condition. The wound on her back was deep, needing stitches, possible fractured collarbone. Of more concern was the inhalation of water, the doctors fearing it might affect her lungs. Constance sat by her bed, Nicole having remained unconscious since extraction from the mine. She had sent the carriage back to the house, not wanting to alarm Waverly, yet knowing she needed to be made aware of Nicole’s condition, fearing the worst.

Waverly burst into the room, eyes red, Daisy and Robin following, then aunty. All looked at Nicole struggling to breathe, her shoulder heavily bandaged. “What’s happening? Connie, what’s happening? Please tell me she’s alright.”

“The doctors are doing their best. Her lungs have taken in water. They are worried it will cause complications.”

“This can’t be happening. Connie, this can’t be happening. She can’t be here. I’m not letting her go. Not here.”

“Waverly, she is in capable hands. And, she’s strong.”

“Why? When we had everything. Why did she do this?”

“Because she’s N. She still thinks she needs to rescue others. I should have known. I should have seen it.”

“Oh Connie, it’s not your fault. You know how stubborn she is. I can’t lose her. She’s all I have.”

“We won’t,” Daisy reassured. “She’s N. She will find a way back to us. Come, let’s see if we can find a doctor.”

Chapter Text

Waverly sat drawing circles on Nicole’s palm. “N, find me. Please, please find me. I can’t go on without you.”

Nicole stirred, the first time in twelve hours, coughing uncontrollably, her eyes opening wide. “N, it’s me. I’m here.”

She went to sit up, the effort too much, her right hand reaching for her shoulder. She tried to speak, her mouth moving, no sound coming other than a croak. Waverly brushed the hair away from her face. “I could have lost you. And, you went in to save ruddy horses. N, you’re too important to everyone for ruddy horses.”

Waverly felt the squeeze on her hand. Nicole was smiling. She had everything she needed right there. No circus, no big house, no horse compared to her beloved Waverly. She motioned with her hand for Waverly to get her paper and a pen. She returned a few minutes later with the items borrowed from one of the nurses. Nicole proceeded to write, her ability to hold a pen needed some work, her ability to convey what was in her heart had been mastered.

The note simply read: I stayed alive for you.

It took several weeks for Nicole to recover. Her elevated position in life and her money securing the best treatment. Waverly made a huge fuss on her return to Howton, not allowing her anywhere near the stables, making her spend most of the day in bed, she by her side reading to her.

The love between Waverly and Nicole only deepened as they approached the birth of the child. Waverly had felt restless for most of the day, unable to get comfortable, finding little pleasure in anything. Nicole annoyed her more than usual, which was strange given she had not had a cross word to say against her since the mine rescue.

The pain in her back grew worse, aunty taking Nicole to one side, telling her it might be time, sending Nicole into a panic. The doctor arrived, an argument ensuing between him and aunty, she having delivered enough babies to not need his assistance. He left, instructing Nicole if she needed his help to send for him. Aunty and Daisy sat with Waverly during the first few hours, Nicole too stressed. Constance took her for a walk in the gardens reassuring her all would be well.

The baby arrived seventeen hours later. A beautiful baby girl. So delicate in features. Nicole gazed at her, unable to hold back her emotions, knowing she would be her heir. All she inherited from her mother would be given to this perfect bundle of life. It no longer mattered she had never known her own family. All that mattered was this life, held in the hands of the person she loved most in the world.

A telegram had been sent to Wynonna. She rode as fast as she could to be with her sister and the baby. It was the first time Nicole had seen her cry. She held the baby, trying not to get tears on her, proud to be an aunt. She sat for hours with Waverly in the bedroom, the pair talking the way only sisters can. Wynonna was thinking of leaving the circus, wondering whether to set up a riding school in town. Dolls and her had become close, early days, but he made her happy. Doc and Rosita were heading to America, the prospect of earning big money in a larger travelling circus.

The world was changing. Little did they know in just a few years the world would be at war, that the life of the circus as they had known would fade, that horse acts would become a thing of the past. Change and growth. Change and growth. And decay. Things entering our lives. Things leaving our lives. For now, everyone was blissfully happy. A new child had entered their world. One that would have the best of everything, including the love of two devoted parents.

Nicole sat Alice on her knee, gazing into big green eyes, just like her mother’s. “You know, you and me will go riding on Caspian one day, when you’re older. He’s my best friend, but don’t tell your mother. I have so many adventures for us.”

The baby shook the rattle in her hand, grabbing at Nicole’s chest in the hope of sustenance. “I can’t help you there. I can see if Doris has something for you. My darling Alice, I have a wonderful book to read you. About elephants, tigers and a butterfly that stamped. Your mother won’t let me read it to you just yet, but, we can perhaps read a little. You and me.”

Alice laid her head against Nicole’s chest, dribbling down her shirt. Aunty came in, taking Alice from her, hugging her to her chest. “She be the best baby ever. I tells you that now, N. Never known a better baby. Ain’t that right Alice. My lovely.”

“Aunty, do you think Alice will understand my journey?”

“Ain’t be nothing to understand. She be knowing love. Don’t need no journey for that but in your heart.”

“True. But I’ve seen the good and the bad in life. How do I teach her?”

“N. It be all in your heart. You be teaching her what a good heart is. That’s all she be needing to know.”

“I was the luckiest person finding you that night aunty. I can’t thank you enough for all you did for me.”

“N, my lovely. You saved me. It’s me who should be thanking you. You are everything to me. Ain’t needing no big house, or all the comfy beds to know I be the luckiest alive that you came to me. My lovely, lovely N.”

Christmas was upon them, Waverly overseeing all the decorations in the house, Nicole and Alice watching as she ordered everyone around. “We best not tell mama the fairy is upside down. Shall we go see Caspian? He has a present for you.”

They made their way to the stables, Caspian and Ferdinand making a lot of fuss at their arrival. Nicole placed a sugar cube in Alice’s hand telling Caspian to be gentle, holding Alice's tiny hand out in hers, much like aunty had done the first time she offered a treat to her best friend. He took the cube, sniffing Alice who gurgled. Ferdinand got a treat too and a stroke, Nicole walking along the stalls to the tack room. There in the centre was a beautiful wooden horse for Alice to play on when she was a little older. Nicole sat her on it, moving it back and forth to the delight of the little girl.

They could hear Waverly’s voice outside, calling for Alice, Nicole lifting her from the horse causing her to burst into tears. Waverly entered, seeing the horse, laughing, knowing this was something Nicole had sourced without her knowledge. “It has a saddle. Alice will learn to ride bareback first.”

“I tried getting one without a saddle, but they all came with one.”

“It’s fine. Alice, it’s time for your feed. N, there’s lots still to do in the house and Wynonna will be here soon.”

“I’m going. And, yes Doris has everything you asked for.”

Waverly approached, taking Alice, kissing Nicole on the lips. “I miss that end stall.”

Nicole covered Alice’s ears. “Hush. Alice don’t listen to mama. She’s being naughty.”

“Not as naughty as I want to be later.”

The Christmas celebrations were the best Howton Hall had seen in a very long time. Nicole and Aunty agreed to exchange gifts early, aunty crying at the present her N had chosen especially for her. A glass display cabinet for all her ornaments and a beautiful gold necklace with a tiny cup and saucer pendant.

Wynonna and Dolls arrived the morning of Christmas Eve, laden with gifts. Wynonna had bought Alice a cowboy hat, Waverly scolding her it was too large and too silly to wear. Wynonna shrugged her shoulders, knowing Nicole would keep it safe until Alice was old enough for it. Drinks flowed, laughter flowed, everyone in high spirits.

Nicole waited till Christmas Eve to give Waverly her present. She held Alice, the pair watching as mama opened the blue velvet box containing the most exquisite diamond necklace to match the ring Waverly had chosen for their engagement. It suited her perfectly, Nicole spending weeks on the design, having it made especially for her love. Handing Alice to Waverly, she removed the necklace, placing it on her neck, fixing the clasp at the back. She looked stunning. There is something to be said about the beauty of wealth. And then, she saw it, the first present she had ever bought Waverly.

“You’re wearing it. But, I could get you a better one.”

“It was from you when you didn’t have much. I’ll wear it forever. Well, maybe not forever. As long as it matches the dress I’m wearing.”

Nicole pressed a soft kiss into Waverly’s neck, wanting her more than she had ever wanted anyone in her life. “Never change. Promise me, you’ll never ever change.”

Daisy and Robin arrived early Christmas morning. The baby was due in a few weeks, both looked radiant and in love. Robin’s school was doing well with Nicole’s generous contribution. Daisy planned to teach once the child was a little older. She and Waverly had agreed once the child arrived she would spend time at Howton Hall, allowing Robin to concentrate on tutoring. Waverly was looking forward to having her friend in the house once more, they having taken up residence in the rooms above the school.

Dolls said he would be more than happy to officiate the wedding. The circus would be in town at the end of February, the date set for the wedding March 1st 1908. Nicole hired a big top tent, which she had erected in the grounds of the estate, helping to drive in the pegs, showing those less experienced how it was done.

It was a clear crisp day, Nicole little knowing it was the exact same day she had arrived at the circus. Everything was ready, Waverly rushing around in a panic, checking on flowers, and catering, Nicole telling her to calm down, earning her a few sharp words. She took Alice to see Caspian and Ferdinand, who had been dressed in their finest for the occasion. “We’re keeping out of mama’s way. Alice you be good for me. No tears. Mama may cry. And, I may cry. That’s fine. Aunty Wyn said she’ll look after you tonight so mama and I can be together. But, we’re not leaving you. I’ll never leave you. You hear.”

Alice gurgled, her mouth forming the sound ‘ma.’ “Alice, you said ma. You are the cleverest child. Now, if I could get you to say N that would really annoy mama.”

Waverly was getting flustered, Wynonna giving up on calming her, leaving it to aunty. “Now, my lovely, all is done. You go get ready, or, you be late to your own wedding.”

“Where’s N? If she’s with that ruddy horse. And, where’s Alice? She needs to get into her dress. Honestly, I do all this and everyone disappears.”

Nicole entered with Alice, the two giggling about something, realising Waverly was glaring at them. “Alice said she wanted to see Caspian. I swear.”

“Right. As if she can talk.”

“Alice. Say mama. Say mama.”

Alice mouthed the sound ‘ma’ once more, sending Waverly into floods of tears. The wedding was put back half an hour while everyone consoled Waverly. Nicole entered the big top, the smell of fresh sawdust hitting her, the cheer from her circus family and gathered family and friends deafening. Dolls stood in the middle wearing his ring master outfit, looking as dapper as ever.

Waverly’s mother was next to Constance seated in the front row, Waverly’s mother waving, her father in the house waiting to escort his daughter. The clowns were seated behind, pretending to kiss each other, Nicole trying not to look at them.

Wynonna rushed in holding Alice. “I think she's calm enough to get started. Best get it over with in case she begins crying again.”

The band began to play, Dolls motioning for everyone to stand, the clowns continuing to misbehave. Nicole stood waiting to see Waverly enter, her whole life coming in full circle to this moment.

The entrance curtain was pulled back, Waverly entering in the most beautiful dress Nicole had ever seen. She couldn’t take her eyes off her, the diamond necklace completing her outfit. How could she have been this lucky, she wondered, how could she have come from nothing to everything.

Waverly's father stood beside her, Wynonna behind, Alice cooing in her arms, shaking her rattle. The moment complete.

The vows over, everyone moved into the grounds, staff offering guests champagne. Tables were set up inside the tent for the wedding breakfast, the guests entering once more to take their seats. Food and champagne flowed, aunty having been told to keep her singing until later in the day.

Nicole stood, a speech in her hand, shaking, knowing she was about to tell her story in front of those gathered. Waverly touched her arm. “N, you’ll be fine.”

Dolls tapped his glass to gain everyone’s attention, nodding to N to start when ready.

She took a moment, gathering her thoughts, looking at her handwritten notes. “Thank you for coming to our day. Waverly, Alice and I are honoured. This has been an interesting journey for all of us. I had no family I knew of, apart from Daisy, my first angel, then another angel, aunty, took me in when I was at my lowest. She taught me the world isn’t filled with only monsters. That there are angels, those with a good heart who are put on this earth to find us lost souls. And, if I wasn’t already the luckiest person alive, I have another angel, Constance, whose patient guidance has shown me how to appreciate all I have been given. But, the most beautiful angel to have entered my life is sitting beside me today as my wife…”

Wynonna waved baby Alice’s hand in the air. “What about me?”

The guests laughed. “Sorry, yes. Baby Alice is also an angel. Wynonna you’re an angel too. The kindest, sweetest friend I could ever ask for. And, no you’re not having the house.”

“Right, I’m kidnapping Alice. Alice we’re making a run for it, you and me. Ready.”

Nicole and Waverly made a discreet exit just after 11pm, both kissing Alice, Wynonna promising not to kidnap her. Daisy’s little boy, Felix, was fast asleep in her arms, Nicole suggesting she and Robin stay over in one of the rooms, an offer gladly accepted.

The morning came, the married couple wrapped in each other’s arms, letting the world go by. They planned to travel. Paris, Venice, then Waverly’s parents for a few weeks. Waverly’s father was accepting of the relationship, recognising Nicole was in love with his daughter and she had an extremely large house. Waverly had her map book open as Nicole entered the library, showing Alice all the places they would visit. “I’m showing Alice where mama and papa live and all the sights she will see. I’m so excited. N, do you think we could visit India one day, Constance has told me so much about her time there.”

“It’s a big world. I want Alice to see as much of it as we are able to show her. But, I also want her to stay close to her roots. I was thinking of maybe setting up a small circus in the grounds, putting on shows for the local children.”

“Oh N, that’s a wonderful idea. And, I could start riding again.”

Nicole took Alice, hugging her close, sitting in an armchair, opening their favourite book. She began. “This, oh my best beloved, is a story, a new and a wonderful story, a story quite different from the other stories, a story about the most wise sovereign Suleiman-bin-Daoud, Solomon the Son of David…It is not the story of the Glass Pavement, or the Ruby with the Crooked Hole, or the Gold Bars of Balkis. It is the story of the Butterfly that Stamped.”