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Take My Hand

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Sunlight filtered in through the slatted boards of the hayloft, highlighting specks of dust in the air and warming the stacks of bales where the kittens played. Waverly sat cross-legged, smiling as her favorite kitten, a little calico female named Clover, pounced on the tail of a black-and-white kitten named Susie, who startled and tumbled down onto a bed of loose hay below.

It was the first warm day of spring, and although she had long since finished her chores, Waverly didn’t want to leave the loft. She picked up Clover and nuzzled her close against her neck, closing her eyes and breathing in the scent of sweet alfalfa as the kitten’s purr began to rumble against her cheek.

“Waves!” she heard her sister Wynonna belt out from the livestock yard below. “Dammit, Bessie, move your…Waverly! We gotta go!”

With a sigh and one last kiss to the top of Clover’s fuzzy head, Waverly got up from the bales, brushing hay and kitten fur from her petticoat. At her movement, the kittens scattered and ran to hide in the crevices of the haystacks. She slowly descended the wooden ladder from the loft, taking care to avoid the creakier rungs. Now eye level–almost–with Wynonna, she smiled sweetly at her sister. “Yes, Wynonna. We wouldn’t want to miss the dance and disappoint Daddy.”

Picking up on the hint of sarcasm in Waverly’s voice, Wynonna laughed, and slung her arm around Waverly’s shoulder as they started to walk toward the house together. “Oh, come on, Waves. This dance is the most exciting thing to happen in Purgatory in months, sad as that is. And anyway, I want to see Doc. He’s finally back in town.”

“Yeah, well, I wouldn’t mind going a little longer without seeing Champ.”

Wynonna just squeezed Waverly closer. There was nothing more for her to say about Champ, really. They’d both argued with their father, who had his mind set on marrying Waverly off to the arrogant young rodeo star. Nothing would change his mind, and Waverly was running out of excuses for why she resisted. In fact, she was starting to feel worn down about it, herself. It wasn’t like staying at the homestead with her father once Wynonna moved out was any more appealing.

It took them over an hour to get ready, mostly because Wynonna kept getting distracted, fussing over her hair and Waverly’s, and tearing apart the kitchen in a string of curses as she searched for the iron.

Despite the fact that she loved music and loved to dance–and loved the silky fabric of her new blue dress–-Waverly couldn’t shake the dread she felt at this feeling that her future was already spoken for. That she would have to marry Champ Hardy and settle for being his housewife. Things would be so much simpler if she had the guts to just be alone. It made her think of Nicole Haught, a young woman Waverly had seen around town. Nicole was living with Chrissy Nedley’s family, but seemed determined to learn how to do the hard work of a rancher, with no regard for what the people in town might think of her. Some people whispered about her and how strange she was, sure, but Nicole had also garnered a level of respect around town. She was hardworking, polite, kind, and pretty–a combination that made it hard for anyone to think poorly of her for long. Waverly thought Nicole wouldn’t be the type to settle for someone like Champ.

Wynonna knocked at her door, interrupting Waverly’s thoughts. “We doin’ this, or what?” Wynonna asked. She looked glamorous, dressed in a tight-fitting, bright-red gown.

“Oh, Wynonna,” Waverly said. “You’re gonna knock Doc’s socks off.”

The town dance was at Shorty’s, a small saloon on Main Street. Waverly knew it well, mostly from the times she’d had to go fetch her drunk father to get him back to the homestead in time for evening chores. It was already packed, as if the whole town had turned out for the dance–and maybe it had. Wynonna squeezed Waverly’s hand and went off in search of Doc. Champ sidled up to Waverly and took her jacket to hang it up for her, always a gentleman until his third or fourth drink.

Champ led Waverly over to the crowded dance floor, weaving past other couples until they were close to the band. The song they were playing was fast-paced, a jaunty fiddle tune, but Champ draped his arms heavily over Waverly’s shoulders and began swaying her slowly, just slightly out of time with the beat. Her hands hovered at his sides briefly, until she settled them at his waist, but he pulled her body closer so that her hands clasped at his back. Over the top of his shoulder, Waverly could see Wynonna talking with her on-again-off-again boyfriend, Doc, near the refreshment table. Although she couldn’t hear them, Waverly knew Wynonna was flirting, her hand on her hip and a wide smile on her face as Doc leaned close to murmur in her ear. Waverly closed her eyes and tried to find something to enjoy about Champ. His arms were strong and sure, but they held her tightly in a way that made her feel claustrophobic. He sighed against her neck, breath hot and brandy-sweet. “Isn’t this nice, Waverly?” he mumbled against her. “When you’re my wife, we’ll go to all the dances you want.”

Waverly had to bite back a response about not wanting to go to any other dances as Champ’s wife, let alone this one. Instead, she asked him about the latest rodeo as they danced. Having his undivided attention on her made her uncomfortable, and it usually worked to get him talking about himself.

“Hush now, I know you don’t want to hear about that stuff anyways,” he said. “Let’s just enjoy each other, yeah? I’ve been missing you.” He squeezed Waverly tighter, his hands roaming freely down her back.

“Excuse me,” she mumbled, extracting herself from his arms. “I need to use the ladies’.” Champ scoffed and rolled his eyes, but stepped aside to let her pass.

In the blissfully empty women’s washroom, Waverly leaned against the paneled wall and tried to relax. She wished she hadn’t come to the dance at all, hadn’t let Wynonna talk her into thinking it would be a fun distraction. Quiet nights at the homestead weren’t what she wanted a distraction from. She’d much rather be cozy in her bed, with blankets piled up around her, with a mug of tea and the stack of books she’d picked up from the county library.

When she’d steeled herself enough to step out of the washroom, it took Waverly’s eyes a moment to adjust to the dimly-lit cigar haze of the dancefloor. She searched the crowd for Champ, but he wasn’t near the band anymore. It wasn’t until she turned toward the refreshment table to look for Wynonna instead that she saw him. He was talking to Stephanie, a girl about Waverly’s age who worked as a nanny for the owner of the rodeo arena where Champ rode. Waverly watched them, unnoticed, as Stephanie reached for Champ’s hand, and he followed her to the corner of the dance floor, pulling her body close to his like he had done with Waverly just a short time before. But where Waverly had felt stiff and awkward, Stephanie practically melted into Champ’s arms. Something like jealousy welled up inside Waverly–but she wasn’t jealous of Stephanie; not really. It was more like the feeling she got when she wasn’t invited to a party she didn’t even want to attend in the first place.

Waverly pushed through the heavy back door of the saloon, generally only used by the man who brought crates of alcohol and boxes of cigarettes to stock the bar. The breeze was a welcome relief on her hot skin, and she leaned against the doorframe in the alleyway, closing her eyes.

“Waverly, right?” came a soft voice from just a few feet away. Waverly looked up in surprise to see Nicole Haught leaning against the outside wall of Shorty’s just to her left. She was wearing a lovely lavender gown, her auburn hair loose from its usual bun and longer than Waverly had thought. Waverly had to shake off the surprise not only of seeing Nicole there at all, but also of seeing her looking so different from her usual ranchwear.

“Yes, that’s right,” Waverly said, pulling herself together enough to respond. “And you’re Nicole. I’ve seen you around town.”

“Yeah, I’m staying at the Nedley ranch.” She pushed off the wall and took a few steps closer to Waverly. “He knew my folks and offered to let me do some odd jobs to help them out.”

Waverly nodded. “Yeah, I heard about that from Chrissy. I’m just surprised to see you here. I mean, I’m surprised that a town dance would be your thing.” Nicole quirked an eyebrow and smiled, and Waverly blushed. “Not that…not that I know what your ‘thing’ is. I mean…”

Nicole laughed. “It’s okay. It’s not my thing. What gave it away, though?”

Waverly shifted and let the door close behind her, and leaned against the wall next to Nicole.

“Well. It’s not every day you see a woman wearing pants in Purgatory.”

“Hey, it’s not like I could milk cows or fetch water from the pump in this,” Nicole looked down at her dress. “I feel a bit silly, to be honest. Chrissy let me borrow this gown, and I just feel like I’m playing dress-up.”

“It’s really nice. The color looks good on you,” Waverly said honestly. “But I like the pants too. I wish my father would let me wear them.”

Nicole nodded, then tilted her head toward the saloon. The band had switched to slower tunes now; ballads that drifted drowsily through the slats of the wall. Waverly recognized the song, and smiled. “So what brings you out here in the alley, instead of dancing in there?” asked Nicole. “You’re with Champ Hardy, right?”

Waverly shook her head. “Not ‘with,’ exactly. More like my father wants me to marry Champ so he can get me out of his hair.” Waverly rolled her eyes. “But yeah, I was dancing with him. Now he’s all over Stephanie. I don’t think he even noticed I left. I’d just go home, but I need to wait for Wynonna.”

“Well…why don’t you dance with me? It would be a shame to waste this pretty song, and that pretty dress.”

Waverly laughed, thinking Nicole was joking–but her eyes looked earnest and kind. Nicole pushed off the wall and stood in front of Waverly, holding out her hand.

Waverly just looked at it for a moment, at Nicole’s slender fingers, her upturned palm. Women didn’t dance together in Purgatory–at least, not to a slow song, not just the two of them. But Nicole didn’t take back her offer, or laugh at Waverly as she considered. And there was nobody else here to see. So what was the harm?

“Really? We’re doing this?” Waverly asked. She couldn’t help but smile as she placed her hand in Nicole’s, and Nicole grinned in response. “Well. Okay then, Ms. Haught.” Waverly stepped forward closer to Nicole, who slipped one arm around Waverly’s waist, and entwined their fingers with the other hand.

It took them a moment to find their footing, giggling as their knees bumped. But then Nicole began to lead, easing into a steady sway in time with the faint music drifting out from the saloon. Waverly felt herself relax, leaning into Nicole–but still acutely aware of her. The slight scent of vanilla, the smooth fabric of her dress. Nicole looked down at Waverly as they found rhythm, her dark lashes against pale cheeks, the hint of a smile on her lips. She was soft and graceful, but strong and sure in her movements as she guided them in a slow, easy circle. Waverly sighed and pulled her closer at the waist until they were more hugging than dancing.

Waverly fit perfectly against Nicole, her cheek resting against the cool, creamy skin of Nicole’s neck. Nicole rested her hands lightly at the small of Waverly’s back, their bodies close and lavender silk sliding against blue as they danced. She could feel Nicole’s heartbeat, steady and a little bit fast. Waverly wondered if Nicole could feel hers too–it was practically racing.

The song ended. Nicole stopped turning them and loosened her grip slightly, but didn’t drop her hands. Waverly lifted her head to meet Nicole’s eyes. She felt off-center and lightheaded, as if she’d been in the sun for too long, despite the cool breeze and twilight sky. “Well,” Nicole said with a smile, sounding almost breathless. “You’re a pretty good dancer, Waverly Earp.” Nicole’s eyes were dark, her pupils wide. Holding her gaze, Waverly felt as though a question were forming in her mind that she couldn’t find the words for. She tucked a tendril of auburn hair behind Nicole’s ear, her fingertips lingering at Nicole’s cheekbone, then tracing down her jawline. Nicole held very still, watching her.

The back door of Shorty’s flew open with a bang, and Waverly dropped her hands and took a step back. “There you are,” Wynonna announced, her expression turning from one of victory to surprise to intrigue as she took in Nicole and Waverly, their faces both flushed, smoothing down their dresses. “Right. Well. Waverly, we need to get going. Doc’s taking us back to the homestead. I’ll, uh…give you a minute. But meet me out front in a jiffy, ’kay?” With a brisk nod at Nicole, Wynonna ducked back through the door.

Waverly met Nicole’s eyes with a shy smile. “Sorry, she just startled me. That was…really nice.”

“It was,” Nicole nodded. “I need to get going too, and find Chrissy inside. We should dance together again sometime, though.”

Waverly nodded, a warm feeling blooming in her chest. “I’d really like that.”

Nicole started to head into Shorty’s, then turned back to meet Waverly’s eyes again. “I mean it.” She winked, and disappeared into the crowd.