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The Perfect Recipe

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The crackle of the microphone bounced off the walls of Shorty’s as Randy Nedley took center stage, the room quieter than it had been all afternoon. 

He walked slowly to the mic, envelope in hand. Clearing his throat, Nedley began to tear it open. 

“And the winner is...drum roll, please.” 

A loud boo from the back of Shorty’s met him instead. 

“Oh, get on with it, Nedley,” Wynonna yelled. She held up her hand, whiskey sloshing over the edge as she pointed at him. “We don’t have all day, just tell us who won the damn thing.”

“Wynonna,” Gus hissed. She looked back at the stage. “Go on, Randy. Please continue.” 

Wynonna gagged at the kind eyes Gus threw toward him. It was met with a swift smack to the back of the head. 

“Well, that was unnecessary.” Wynonna rubbed the spot Gus had hit, then drained the rest of her glass. 

“Thank you,” Nedley said, the slightest blush now on his cheeks under the fluorescent lights and unwanted attention.

He grabbed the mic again, cleared his throat once more, and looked at each of the seven contestants, all donning the same bright red apron and standing behind their designated tables. Empty bowls and cutting boards in complete disarray on each one, spices looking like a Jackson Pollock painting across the white cloth. 

The tension of nerves and excitement continued to build as he slowly lifted the card.

“And the winner...of the 37th Annual Chili Cookoff for Freedom is...Nicole Haught!”

Cheers erupted as Purgatory’s newest resident walked towards the stage to accept her prize, a small trophy shaped like a kidney bean, with two tomatoes on either side.

Well, cheers from everyone except the tiny Amazon known as Waverly Earp, who could be heard next to her sister grumbling at her own table, spilled remnants from her homemade chili covering the tablecloth. 

This was the third time she had gone up against Nicole in one of the town’s many food challenges, and it was only the third time she had lost in her entire culinary career. 

Including the vegan food contest two months prior. 

And Waverly did not like losing, especially to Nicole, who was pompous and cocky and owned a freaking butcher shop that was also a restaurant right across the street from her vegan restaurant. 

Said butcher shop and restaurant that used to be a bank that was built the same year the town was founded and drove a truck that was too big and too flashy and too loud and was obviously bad for the environment and had a really nice face with a top-shelf ass and arms that she clearly worked out and…

“Baby girl.” Wynonna squeezed her shoulder, shaking Waverly out of her spiral and releasing her grip on her apron. “I’m going to go grab you some loser whiskey and another glass for myself.”

She started to walk away, then turned around, smirking. 

“And probably some more of Nicole’s chili because that was delicious,” Wynonna said.

“Et tu, Wynonna?” Waverly asked, her face getting hot as the anger continued to build.

“If that’s ‘fuck you’ in another language, I love you too, Waves.” Wynonna smirked again and walked away, leaving Waverly at her table.

“Of course, the one that probably had bacon and a bunch of meat in it won. God forbid this town enjoy eating vegetables,” Waverly mumbled to herself. She began to clean off her knives and pack her spices a little more aggressively than she normally would have into her bag. “She probably doesn’t even understand the for freedom part of this contest.”

“Actually, my chili is vegan,” Nicole said. “And please, enlighten me about every aspect of the contest I just won.”

Waverly felt her heart leap up to her throat as she turned around, only to see Nicole standing behind her with a small bowl in her hand. 

“Jesus, Nicole.” Waverly’s hand lowered from her heart. 

She had been startled by Nicole’s presence, not because of how sexy Nicole’s hair looked when it fell over her left eye just so. 

Or how she actually pulled off the aprons everyone had to wear even though her hair was almost the same color. Nope. None of that. 

“You practically gave me a heart attack,” Waverly finally said, her heartbeat still refusing to settle. 

“I am genuinely sorry about that,” Nicole said with a small chuckle and a shrug. She sat down on the edge of Waverly’s table, looking so at ease, so comfortable, and pushed the bowl towards her. “But, since it is vegan I figured you may want to try it. It’s delicious.” 

Waverly had avoided trying Nicole’s chili all afternoon, even though she could hear people practically swooning over a bowl of beans and tomatoes every time they had walked by. 

The swooning only made her want to try it less, her own Earp pride once again getting the best of her, something that always seemed to happen when she and Nicole went up against each other in one of these contests.

“You know the chili isn’t going to bite you, yeah?” Nicole raised her eyebrow, pushing the bowl just a smidge closer to Waverly. “Unless you can’t handle spice, then it might bite you a little. I, personally like a lot of bite though.”

“I – oh my god, just give me the damn chili,” Waverly said, annoyed and flustered and annoyed at being flustered. “I can handle spice just fine, Nicole, thank you very much.”

“I bet you can, Earp.” 

Fudgenuggets, that smells amazing. 

Nicole handed her a spoon she had gotten out of her apron.

“Then prove it, Earp.” Nicole’s eyes danced with mischief, waiting for Waverly to take it. Then she winked at Waverly, which almost led to the bowl of chili being on Nicole’s head. 

If only it hadn't smelled so delicious. 

Waverly took a spoonful and brought it to her mouth. As soon as the aroma reached her nose she got notes of cumin and smoked paprika. Waverly took a small bite, surprised when she was greeted by a hint of lime, adding extra acid she wasn’t using enough of in her own. Her mouth watered as she went for another bite, almost groaning at the smooth texture of what she was 99 percent sure were sweet potatoes. The flavors continued to sing on her tongue, creating the perfect melody. 

And that made Waverly cranky. 

“Careful, Earp,” Nicole smirked, her eyes still filled with mischief. “Your mask is slipping.” 

Waverly, who was swallowing her third spoonful of Nicole’s dumb delicious chili, swatted at her face, only to find her red-rimmed glasses. She pushed them up the bridge of her nose, suddenly confused, and suddenly annoyed that Nicole had been able to fluster her tonight.

Again.

She glared at Nicole, whose stupid big beautiful brown eyes were slowly getting softer, and Waverly knew what was coming next if she lowered her line of sight just slightly.

Those damn dimples. 

While Waverly didn’t particularly like Nicole, she wasn’t blind. Or straight.

“What are you talking about, Nicole?” Waverly asked, taking another spoonful of Nicole’s chili and choosing to ignore the very deep dimples now very clearly on Nicole’s face. Her face suddenly felt warm from the heat of the chili.

Or the way Nicole’s intense gaze made Waverly feel like she was staring right into her soul. 

Nope, definitely the chili. 

“I’m not wearing a mask,” she finally said, not able to take the look or the silence. 

“Not a literal one, no.” Nicole got up from her seat and leaned more towards Waverly. “That mask of annoyance that seems to creep onto your face every time you see me or talk to me sure was slipping away though when you took a bite of my chili.” 

Nicole looked around the room then continued. “You can smile and wave around so many people in this town, them never knowing when you’re clearly not ok. I see you though, Earp, and see right through that mask. That smile. That wave.”

Waverly felt her stomach drop as Nicole – who was practically a stranger – called her out on the act she had perfected years ago. That smile and that wave were how Waverly had survived so long in Purgatory with a last name like hers, especially after Momma left and Daddy had died. Both gone but never forgotten by the people of that town, who wouldn’t let Waverly or Wynonna forget them or their last name either. 

In that very moment, Waverly wasn’t sure if she felt sick or like her stomach was full of butterflies. 

Maybe she had been wrong about Nicole. Maybe there was more than what she had seen at first glance. And second. And third. More beneath the surface of really well-fitted flannels and jeans that hugged in all the right places. 

Because there must have been something more there if Nicole saw her so fully, so soon. Right?

Nicole leaned even closer, the smell of vanilla-dipped doughnuts now overwhelming Waverly’s senses, and whispered, “It almost looked like you were going to say something nice to me.”

Or maybe not.

Waverly sneered. There it was. That too cocky attitude that she hated that constantly oozed off of Nicole. There was nothing below the surface here, she had simply gotten lucky when she called Waverly out. 

“You know nothing about me, Nicole,” Waverly said, her eyes full of anger, mostly at herself for considering letting her guard down in front of Nicole.  

Waverly gathered her things and looked to see what almost seemed like real guilt just around the edges of Nicole’s eyes. 

It almost made Waverly stop.  

Almost.

But instead, she stormed out of Shorty’s, the taste of Nicole’s chili still on her lips, a bitter taste on her tongue. 

*****

The Next Day

Nicole sat in her restaurant, waiting for the lights to go on in the one across the street. In her hand was a hand-written copy of her now prize-winning vegan chili that she had been folding, then unfolding, for the last seven minutes.

“She’s not going to be able to read it with the creases you’re currently leaving in that recipe, Haught.” Nicole felt a small smile on her lips as Rosita sat down next to her.

Nicole set the paper, unfolded, on the counter. She turned to look more fully at one of her best friends – and the restaurant’s Beverage Director – who had a too well-knowing smile on her face. 

“Do you want to tell me why you have a handwritten copy of Grandma Haught’s vegan chili? Which, by the way, when I asked for a copy of, you told me it was legally not allowed to be known by anyone other than her and you?” Rosita questioned with an only slightly teasing tone. 

Nicole felt the blush begin on her cheeks when Rosita looked across the street, to a restaurant that was still dark.

“Ah,” she smiled. “Is this about the Tiny Earp? Or the Hot Earp?” 

Rosita, unfortunately, often knew Nicole better than she knew herself, which was a blessing when it came to things like the restaurant and helped them work together as seamlessly as peanut butter and jelly, but a curse when it came to almost anything else. Like Nicole’s love life.

The two had met 10 years ago at a tiny restaurant in Georgia, right outside of Savannah, where Nicole was a line cook and Rosita was a bar back. They were right out of college, eager and ready to work, and had bonded quickly, finding they had more in common than just being two of the only women who worked there. 

Finding out the other was also into women was the icing on the very rainbow cake. 

For the better part of four years, Rosita and Nicole worked together there, each coming into their own and moving their way up the ladder. Restaurant life was hard and the hours were long, but more often than not, they found themselves on the roof of Nicole’s apartment building, splitting a few bottles of red wine, coming up with a plan for when they would be able to open their own restaurant together.

And then – after six years too long where they went their separate ways to work in restaurants across the world – they did. 

In Purgatory. 

Where Nicole was currently trying to avoid a conversation with Rosita and hoping the lights would go on across the street so she could go have an incredibly awkward conversation instead.

But, Nicole wasn’t so lucky. Rosita kicked her chair slightly to get her attention back. She raised her eyebrow, waiting for an answer. 

“The tiny one,” Nicole mumbled, looking at Rosita sheepishly. “Also, if you think the other one is so hot, why haven’t you just asked her out?”

Rosita waved her hand dismissively, even though Nicole could see the lightest dusting of pink becoming apparent on her face. Rosita had commented on Wynonna more than once since they opened the restaurant and had barely said more than 100 words to her. 

“This isn’t about me, Nic.” Rosita pointed at the paper on the counter. “This is about you giving this recipe to the Tiny Earp. Grandma Haught is going to roll over in her grave when she hears about this.”

“She’s still alive! You and I FaceTimed with her yesterday!” Nicole yelled, laughing at Rosita, but also hoping she would never tell Grandma Haught about what she was about to do. Or what she had said last night.

Ugh, last night.

The contest had gone even better than Nicole had expected. She knew this recipe was tried and true, but she had never won anything with it. Nicole honestly just loved the flavors, the way they danced and came together as she sliced and diced and pureed. How it let her bring a little bit of her old home to her new home. 

But then she won, and she was honestly elated that this town had yet again taken so kindly to her and her Grandma’s cooking. Recipes that had been passed down for generations. 

Or at least passed down two. 

So when Nicole got on stage to accept her trophy – which definitely looked like a penis but still had a proud place in her office above her desk with the others she had won – she was met with only anger from the eyes of Waverly Earp. 

Nicole was pretty sure that if looks could kill, she would have died under those fluorescent lights.

But, as Nicole got off the stage and wandered back towards her table, she thought, yes, now would be an excellent time to talk to Waverly, the owner of the city’s only vegan restaurant, who she never got along with, and ask her to try a chili she had just beat Waverly’s own with.

Her grandma had always told her that she had a little too much confidence for her own good, which had landed Nicole in trouble more than once. 

Genius.

Clearly, it was a genius plan.

Super smart. Especially the part where she told Waverly she liked a bit of bite. Jesus Christ. 

So when it looked like Waverly was actually enjoying the chili she had made, Nicole went in and made some choices and said some words she immediately regretted. The look on Waverly’s face after she had told her she saw through her mask had been somehow both beautiful and heartbreaking. Beautiful in its shock that someone really saw her for her and past the charade, and heartbreaking for the same reason. 

But then Nicole had continued talking. Turning a maybe kind moment that could have led to a real conversation into one where her confidence soared too high; where she got a little too cocky. 

This – the guilt over how Waverly’s face snapped back into ice and daggers when she left had made Nicole toss and turn the entire night – was why she was currently sitting in her restaurant with a handwritten copy of her grandma’s very secret vegan chili. A peace offering among chefs. Hopefully.

“While you clearly stopped paying attention to me, the lights turned on,” Rosita said, nudging her in the shoulder. Nicole looked across the street to see Waverly turning on her open sign, moving about her restaurant with practiced ease.

“Shut up,” Nicole mumbled. She grabbed the recipe then ran her hands down her jeans, suddenly feeling sweat prick at the back of her neck and on her palms. 

“Try not to piss her off too much, Haught,” Rosita said, shoving Nicole out the door. She moved slowly across the street, stuffing the recipe into her back pocket, hoping the creases didn’t get any worse. 

While Waverly’s restaurant was less than 20 steps away from Nicole’s own, the exterior couldn’t have looked more different. The restaurant easily stood out on the block, one of the few that had been built in the 21st century. Everywhere else was dark brick and chrome, but not here. 

It was bright and light, with baby blue awnings and a seafoam green trim. Three tables sat out in front of the restaurant’s massive windows, their striped umbrellas already up to protect them from what was going to be a sunny day. 

Nicole looked back at her own restaurant as she approached the door, only to see Rosita with a too overeager smile and thumbs up. 

She grabbed the recipe out of her pocket and opened the door, quietly closing it behind her.

“Um, hello?” Nicole yelled. She stepped further inside, looking around for any sign of Waverly. 

“Hey, sorry, we’re not quite open yet,” Waverly yelled from the kitchen. “Take a seat and I’ll be there in a minute!”

“No rush,” Nicole replied. She wandered around the space, realizing this was the first time she had ever actually been inside Waverly’s restaurant. 

The sun shined bright through the big bay windows, giving the restaurant a cozy feeling. What surprised Nicole the most though was the decorations. Given the beach vibe of the outside Nicole had expected that to translate inside, but what she found was the total opposite. The walls were covered in blueprints of old buildings in Purgatory, plaques of distinct honors given to Wyatt Earp. It should’ve looked tacky and like too much, but somehow it seemed just right here. Like an ode to a time long gone. 

Nicole spotted a series of three photos off to the side of the door. She moved closer, her eyes instantly landing on the picture in the middle of Waverly and Wynonna dressed as cowboys. Waverly couldn’t have been more than 6, a bored looking pre-teen Wynonna next to her, and on either side stood who Nicole was pretty sure were her Aunt Gus and Uncle Curtis, two she had seen around town. Curtis and Shorty often came into her restaurant for their weekly Thursday meal of steak and bourbon. 

Lost in the picture – and the way Waverly's eyes crinkled around the edges – Nicole didn’t hear her exit the kitchen. 

“What can I get for you?” Waverly stepped out, throwing a towel over her shoulder. Her eyes sparkled until they landed on Nicole, finally seeing her for the first time. The shield back up and in place. “Oh, Nicole.”

“Hi,” she waved, incredibly awkwardly given the piece of paper still in her hand. A moment of silence passed between them. Then another. “Um, hi.”

“You already said that,” Waverly said, clear annoyance in her voice. She put her hands on her hips and nodded towards the piece of paper that Nicole loosely – and still pretty damn awkwardly –  held in the air. “Is there something you want? Or are you just here to brag about your chili more?”

Oh, oh no. 

“Um, not to brag, per se.” Nicole took a few steps closer to Waverly, seeing her hazel eyes full of fire. “But um, you seemed to not think my chili was the worst yesterday, so, I, ugh, I brought you a copy of the recipe. Handwritten.”

She shoved her arm towards Waverly, the piece of paper dangling in the air. Waverly looked at it, then back at Nicole, then back at it once more. Her eyes lifted up and stared. 

“Do you think I don’t know how to make a decent vegan chili, Nicole?” Waverly crossed her arms over her chest. “I own a vegan restaurant.” 

“No, no, I’m sure you know how to make a vegan chili!” Nicole said. She dropped her arm by her side, the recipe with it. “The recipe’s my Grandma’s though, and well, you can’t have enough vegan chili recipes, right?” 

She put on what she knew was her most charming smile as she shrugged. Nicole wasn’t sure if it was her dimples or the mention of her Grandma, but Waverly’s eyes seemed to soften as she looked at Nicole, not breaking eye contact. Waverly seemed to be searching for something in her eyes. 

“Fine,” Waverly said. She put her hand out. “Give me the recipe. I’m not saying I’m going to make it, but, maybe.”

Nicole felt her dimples deepen as she handed the recipe to Waverly, who looked it over immediately. 

“I knew it! I knew it had sweet potatoes!” Waverly giggled, actually, full out giggled, and even though Nicole had never heard her make that sound, she was pretty sure she could get used to it. If they were friends or whatever. Waverly snapped her fingers then looked at Nicole, a new brightness in her eyes. “It had hints of lime too, yeah?”

Nicole nodded, suddenly quite proud of her Grandma’s recipe, and feeling her normal confidence begin to grow back. “She uses some lime juice and just a tiny bit of zest.” 

“The juice I figured out, but I didn’t realize it had zest too,” Waverly smiled, a genuine smile Nicole wasn’t expecting. “How long has she used this recipe?”

“Ages,” Nicole said with ease. “As far back as I can remember. She used to add bacon but then her doctor told her she had to cut back on the red meat – something she hated hearing, by the way – and decided to make it vegan.”

“I honestly think she did it just to freak people out,” Nicole moved closer to Waverly, her newly refound swagger itching them closer together. “For years she just had it labeled as ‘chili’ on the menu, and if anyone asked what was in it she would tell it was none of their business.”

“She sounds like my kind of woman,” Waverly smiled, those crinkles from the photo by her eyes. 

“Oh, yeah?” Nicole smirked. “What’s your kind of woman?”

Nicole cringed internally the second the words had left her mouth. She watched as those walls behind Waverly’s eyes built back up.

“Not overly cocky redheads, that’s for damn sure,” Waverly crossed her arms again. “Don’t you have some cows to go murder?”

Nicole went to reply, to apologize, when the bell on the door startled them both, followed by Robin coming inside. 

“Waves!” He shouted, slightly out of breath. “Waves! It’s happening. It’s happening on Saturday in the park!” 

“Oh my god!” Waverly gasped, her eyes wide. “Is it really already that time of year?”

“Sure is!” Robin said. “And you’ll never guess who they’re pairing up as this year’s commentators. Mercedes and –”

“Sorry to interpret,” Nicole said, as she did just that. Waverly and Robin turned around, acknowledging her for the first time since Robin had gotten there. “What are you talking about?”

“Oh, the Annual Potato Lickin’ Chicken Kickin’ Wild Wild West Throwdown, Robin’s eyes sparkled, handing Nicole a bright orange piece of paper announcing the contest. “Every year all the restaurants in the Ghost River Triangle get together and Bunny does this big drawing where she selects two restaurants at a time. Those two then become a team and compete together.”

“Those two restaurants work together throughout the whole month. Each week they hold a different contest in the park and each contest earns teams points,” Robin continued, his building excitement contagious. “At the end of the month, the points are added up, and the team with the most points gets to split the prize money between the two of them.”

“Kind of like that Netflix show, School of Chocolate?” Nicole asked, tilting her head.

“Exactly!” Robin smiled. “The only catch is you don’t get to pick who from your restaurant cooks. It’s always the owner, and it becomes very clear, very quickly which owners are still working in their kitchens.”

“Well, I look forward to winning it then,” Nicole winked at them both. 

“You don’t win alone,” Waverly mumbled. “You would know that if you lived here for longer than five minutes.”

Nicole – still reeling from the high of a new contest to win and her brief moment of civility with Waverly – chose to ignore her mumbling.

“Mind if I keep this flyer?” she asked.

“Nope, they’re literally all over town,” Robin said. 

“Cool, thanks!” She waved at them both then turned around. “Don’t enjoy the chili too much, Earp. People will start to think you may actually like me.” 

The blush on Waverly’s face as Nicole left was worth the glare she got in return.