Elizabeth felt her throat constricting. Her emotions were in turmoil. She had ridden here to get away from town, to feel the cool fall air filling her lungs. To forget the turbulent feelings that still raged within.

But she couldn't. Peace eluded her, the same way it had eluded her for the past eight months. Maybe she should have ridden somewhere other than her land. The land Jack had bought. The land where they were supposed to spend their lives together.

That dream had died the day Jack did. Tears filled Elizabeth's eyes as she thought of his last moments. Moments she now had a window into, thanks to Nathan.

She vividly remembered the day a month ago when his secret had been revealed. She had gone to the Mountie office looking for him. After she and Lucas had mutually decided to part ways and simply remain friends, she and Nathan had begun to repair their own relationship. She still didn't think she could give him what he wanted, but she had missed their friendship. Nathan had taken to doing little things that showed his love: wrapping her in a blanket as she kept vigil for Ned outside the infirmary, bringing her flowers as he passed by her home on his rounds, offering to watch little Jack so she could continue editing her manuscript. She knew he did it because he loved her. He hadn't asked anything in return; he had simply been there. Her heart had begun softening toward him, and she had headed for his office in the hopes of asking him if they could finally get that dinner together. She wasn't sure she could love him, but maybe they could finally talk about that fateful day when he had declared his love and she rode away. They had never talked about it, and she knew it was festering between them. They needed to clear the air and figure out where to go from there.

When she had reached the office, she heard him and Bill talking. Slightly disappointed, she turned to leave, then froze when she heard Jack's name.

"It wasn't your fault, Nathan. But you're going to have to tell Elizabeth about Jack eventually. That's not something you can keep hidden from her forever."

"I know," Nathan said, his voice raw. "But it's going to hurt her, Bill. I don't want to be the one to cause that pain."

Bill never had a chance to respond. Elizabeth came into the office, her eyes glued to Nathan. Both men shot from their chairs, faces whitening. Nathan's mouth worked as he looked at her, knowing she had overheard enough to know he had a connection to her late husband.

"What about Jack, Nathan?" Elizabeth said, her voice low.

Bill looked between them. "I'll be right outside if you need anything," he said, slipping quietly out the door. It shut behind him, leaving Nathan and Elizabeth alone.

Nathan looked at Elizabeth with a helplessness in his eyes. She had sensed that there was something Nathan wasn't telling her about his time at Fort Clay, but he had insisted he never met Jack. She could tell whatever their connection was, it was a painful one. Painful enough he had never told her about it.

They looked at each other for what seemed to be an eternity. Elizabeth couldn't bring herself to ask the question again, and Nathan couldn't seem to bring himself to start talking. Finally, he sighed. "How much do you want to know?" he asked quietly, his voice resigned.

Elizabeth wavered for a moment. How much did she want to know? Part of her wanted to walk out of Nathan's office and forget that she had overheard anything. But the stronger part of her wanted answers. She needed answers.

"Everything," she answered.

Nathan visibly steeled himself. "Everything," he repeated, sounding defeated. Before starting, he motioned to a chair. "Do you want to sit?"

Elizabeth shook her head, wrapping her arms around herself. She felt better able to handle this standing.

Nathan drew in a deep breath. "You already know about my suspension for disobeying orders while at Fort Clay," he stated. Elizabeth nodded, and he continued. "What you don't know is that Superintendent Hargraves wanted to punish me further. He felt I got off too easily for not following his directives. The suspension was brief and more of a slap on the wrist. The higher ups were glad I arrested the cattle rustlers. Hargraves was not. For months, I knew I was supposed to head an assignment that was considered prestigious, but at the last minute Hargraves took it from me. He claimed it was because someone else was better qualified, but I knew it was as punishment." He pressed his lips together. "I was supposed to spend two months training new recruits starting in March of 1915."

Elizabeth gasped, unable to say a word. Jack's sudden assignment.

Voice wavering, Nathan continued. "I was assigned to push papers for those two months, reviewing the information for the recruits while Jack trained them. I heard a lot about Jack in that time, but we never actually met. Then in May…" He stopped suddenly, rare tears filling his eyes.

Tears filled Elizabeth's eyes as well. She wanted to tell him to stop, not sure she could handle what she knew was coming. He had seen Jack die. She wasn't sure how she knew that, but she knew. His pain was too strong and too raw to have just heard about it.

"It had been raining for days," Nathan whispered, his throat working. "Hargraves ordered a training mission through the mountains, claiming that the rainy conditions were perfect for showing the recruits how to deal with sloppy weather. I told him it was too dangerous. He laughed in my face. He said if Jack didn't have a problem with it, neither should I. Then he told me that's why Jack was the better Mountie. He wasn't afraid to take risks and he agreed that the weather conditions were a good way to bring real training to the recruits. When I still insisted that they cancel the training, Hargraves said if I was that worried about it, I could follow them to make sure nothing happened. I had a bad feeling about that mission, so I decided to do just that." He broke off, looking at Elizabeth with concern. "Elizabeth?"

She could feel herself swaying, suddenly unable to draw in a full breath. Her knees buckled and she fell forward, but Nathan caught her in his arms. He led her to a chair, seating her before kneeling next to her. He pressed two fingers to her neck, where she knew he could feel her pulse racing. He quickly rose and got a cup of water, handing it to her. "Drink this," he ordered.

Elizabeth obeyed automatically, her mind racing. Swallowing the water, she handed the cup back to Nathan, looking into his concerned blue eyes. "Jack chose to go that day?" she asked, her voice barely audible. "Even knowing the conditions were dangerous?"

Nathan's eyes clouded, his mouth falling open. "I didn't mean to imply that…" he said, but Elizabeth cut him off.

"There's nothing to imply, Nathan," she said, sitting up straight. "Did my husband know that he was walking into a dangerous situation, and did he choose to go anyway?"

Pressing his lips together, Nathan looked down at the floor. That gave Elizabeth all the answer she needed. "I see," she said flatly. Silence stretched between them for several long moments before she waved a hand. "Continue," she said quietly.

"Are you sure?" Nathan asked, searching her eyes. Elizabeth nodded stubbornly.

Nathan sighed. "I followed them," he said. "It was at a distance, and I don't think they even realized I was there. Everything was going fine, even with the rain. Then suddenly there was the tell-tale sound of a landslide…" His voice broke again. "I started galloping toward the recruits, seeing the mud heading straight for them. Jack saw it too. He managed to push two of them out of the way before the mud took him and several others."

Elizabeth hadn't realized other men were caught in the mudslide that took Jack. She had thought only her husband died that day. "Others died too?" she asked in a choked whisper.

"Yes," Nathan said, his voice low. "We lost five men that day."

Wondering why she had never thought to ask for details before, Elizabeth felt her throat tightening. "What happened next?" she asked.

Nathan swallowed. "I joined in the rescue mission," he said. "Eight men were buried in the mud. We got all of them out, but the five that died were too far gone. We knew they wouldn't survive long."

Another knowing swept over Elizabeth, but she had to hear the words from Nathan himself. Staring into his eyes, she asked what she already knew. "Who found Jack?"

Grief shone from Nathan's eyes. "I did." He unconsciously took her hands in his. "I promise you, Elizabeth, I did everything I could to keep him alive."

"Was he conscious?" Elizabeth asked brokenly, gripping Nathan's hands like a lifeline.

"No," Nathan said softly. "He didn't suffer much. He died within minutes."

"Did he wake up at all?" Elizabeth asked.

Nathan hesitated. "Once. Right before he died. He opened his eyes and said your name, looking at the sky." His eyes closed. "Then he was gone."

Elizabeth didn't know when she had started crying, but sobs were quietly shaking her body. "Were you with him the whole time?" she asked, her voice small. "He was never alone in those final minutes?"

"He was never alone," Nathan said, reaching up to wipe the tears from her cheeks. "I held his hand until he passed."

Unable to stay in her chair any longer and needing comfort, Elizabeth suddenly found herself in Nathan's arms. Their tears mingled together in their shared grief.

Elizabeth found that she couldn't be upset with Nathan. If he had told her sooner, she might have been angry. But seeing his brokenness and his grief made her realize that he was hurting over Jack's death too. She could only imagine how hard it must have been for him to come to Hope Valley, knowing he was replacing Jack Thornton, a man he hadn't been able to save. A thought floated through her mind, and she asked the question against Nathan's chest.

"Why did you come to Hope Valley, Nathan?"

His arms reflexively tightened around her. "Hargraves had me assigned here," he said. "After Fort Simpson. He blamed me for Jack's death. To be honest, I blamed myself. If I hadn't disobeyed orders, this never would have happened. I think this was his way of trying to punish me further."

Elizabeth pulled back slightly to look up at him, taking in his tear-streaked face. One thing she was certain of. "This wasn't your fault, Nathan," she said. "Jack's choices were Jack's choices. He could have chosen not to go to Fort Clay. To be honest, it always bothered me that he took that assignment mere days after our wedding, after he had been gone for months in the Northern Territories. And from what you said, he could have chosen not to go on the training that day. But he did. This is not on you."

Something had changed between them in that moment. Nathan had gently cupped her cheek in his hand, his eyes boring into hers. The air between them crackled with their shared attraction, the attraction Elizabeth had been trying to deny for so long. "Do I have any chance at all, Elizabeth?" he asked softly.

She didn't have to ask what he meant. "I don't know, Nathan," she replied. "I don't know if I can risk that kind of pain again."

His hands dropped slowly to his side. "But you feel it too, don't you?"

She couldn't deny it, so she didn't say anything. Nathan smiled faintly. "I won't give up on us," he said. "I promise you that."

Elizabeth swallowed. "Why are you willing to go through this, Nathan?"

Nathan's eyes gazed into hers. "I think love is always worth fighting for. And I love you. I fought it so hard because you were Jack's widow, but I fell anyway. I will wait as long as it takes, Elizabeth."

Elizabeth shook herself back into the present. She still wasn't sure where her heart lay. She knew she was working through anger at Jack. Anger for leaving her so soon after their wedding. Anger for putting his life in danger. Anger that he put the Mounties first.

But that didn't tell her where her heart stood with regard to Nathan. And he was still waiting. Still showing that he loved her. At least twice a week she would open her door to fresh flowers sitting in a vase, with a note in Nathan's handwriting that simply said "I love you." He made a point of gently touching her arm if they happened to have a conversation with one another. He always talked to her before and after school if he dropped Allie off or picked her up. He had even carved a few toys for little Jack out of wood, toys that quickly became her son's favorites.

Elizabeth couldn't tell what was still holding her back. Was her fear truly that great? Was she letting herself miss out on another great love because she was scared to lose Nathan the way she'd lost Jack?

She knew the answer was yes. She cared for Nathan deeply. The thought of losing him was a terrifying one. By building walls around her heart, she ensured that she wouldn't feel that pain again.

Heart breaking inside, she knew that she couldn't take that risk again. This time, little Jack was involved too. How could she fall for a man who had a dangerous job? How could she risk little Jack losing another father?

She shook her head. The cost was too high. As much as she cared for Nathan, it was better to be his friend.

A niggling doubt ate at her mind. Nathan wasn't one to take unnecessary risks. Where Jack had gone looking for adventure and danger, Nathan was content to stay close to home, serving and protecting the town he loved. He had a daughter to consider. He had told Elizabeth he would quit the Mounties if that's what it took for them to be together.

She sighed. It seemed every time she came close to a decision, a new thought came to make her waver. She stood, pushing the thoughts aside. A part of her knew she should face them and sort them out, but she was too tired to try. Instead, she swung herself onto Sergeant's saddle and urged him into a gallop. With the wind whipping her hair and numbing her face, she let herself forget everything for the moment.

She would have time to figure it out later.

Nathan hung his hat on its hook, relieved to be home. He was feeling more tired than usual, but he attributed that to his busy schedule. Bill had told him to slow down before he made himself sick, but Nathan needed to keep busy, if for no other reason than to keep his mind off the constant ache in his heart.

He had never been in love before, but since meeting Elizabeth he had been falling slowly but surely. Now he was in so deep he wasn't sure how he would survive without her in his life. He clung to hope that she would overcome the fear holding her back.

Nathan knew that Elizabeth loved him. He knew it as surely as he knew he loved her. But he also knew that she was still running scared. She had been running scared for eight months. It had nearly broken him to watch her date Lucas for a time. But within a few weeks of their courtship, the two of them had realized that they didn't really have much in common. They had parted as friends, and Nathan still saw them together around town from time to time, laughing and talking, except now he knew it was only as friends. He had even seen Lucas frequenting Fiona's barber shop much more often than necessary. He had a sneaking suspicion that the two of them were forming an attachment.

Love was in the air in Hope Valley. Everyone seemed to have been bitten by it. The only ones who couldn't seem to find their way together were Nathan and Elizabeth.

Nathan had faith that Elizabeth would come around. He just wasn't sure how long it would take or how painful the waiting would be.

He rubbed his forehead, trying to ease a headache that had slowly been forming. He'd seen Elizabeth and little Jack in a car with Lee and Rosemary. They were all driving to Union City for the formal unveiling of Elizabeth's newly published novel. They would be gone for a few days. Nathan had watched as they slowly drove past, lifting a hand in farewell. Elizabeth had waved too, and as Nathan watched the car disappear down the lane, he saw Elizabeth turn and look back at him.

That small gesture had given him hope.

The pressure in his head increased, and Nathan realized he hadn't eaten much today. He was thankful Allie was spending the night with Opal. He wasn't sure he would be good company tonight feeling the way he was. Nathan rarely got sick, but he wondered if he had caught a small bug. He went to the stove, heating up some soup from earlier in the week. He hoped the soup and a good night's sleep would cure this ailment.

The next morning, Nathan woke feeling worse than he had ever felt before in his life. His entire body hurt, his head was burning with fever, and he felt like he was suffocating. Fear gripped him. Something was very wrong.


He heard Allie come into the house. Nathan struggled to his feet, wheezing as he did so. The tiny effort sent him into a coughing fit. Allie appeared in his doorway. "Dad?" she said again, this time sounding scared.

Nathan stood, wanting to tell her it would all be alright, but he found he was unsteady on his feet. The room started spinning. Nathan closed his eyes as another coughing fit took him. Stars danced across the room when he opened his eyes, and he could feel himself falling. He heard Allie scream before he hit the floor, everything going black.

Elizabeth returned from her trip feeling tired but happier than she'd felt in a while. She looked down at her book, tangible proof that she was now a published author. It felt surreal.

The time in Union City had been fun and lighthearted. She had enjoyed spending time with Lee and Rosemary. They had taken in plays and tried new restaurants. It had been a breath of fresh air, but she had to admit she was happy to be home.

As they passed Opal's rowhouse, Elizabeth noticed Allie sitting on the front porch steps as Opal held her. It looked like both girls were crying. Elizabeth frowned. "Lee, can you stop the car, please?"

"Of course," Lee said, putting it in park. Elizabeth got out, holding little Jack in her arms. Lee and Rosemary came out as well, all of the adults focused on the sad children in front of them.

"Allie! Opal!" Elizabeth exclaimed. "What's wrong?"

Allie opened her mouth, but she couldn't answer. Instead, she burst into sobs. A sick feeling filled Elizabeth. Allie would only be crying about one thing. Frantic, she looked at Opal. "Opal?"

The little girl had tears on her cheeks as well. "Mountie Nathan is dying," she said sadly, more tears falling from her eyes.

Elizabeth's world came to a screeching halt. "Dying?" she whispered. She swayed on her feet. Rosemary put an arm around her, steadying her. "Where is he?" Elizabeth asked.

"At his house," Opal said.

Lee sat beside the girls, a stricken look on his face. Putting an arm around Allie and Opal both, he started murmuring words of comfort. A steely resolve came over Elizabeth. She handed Jack to Rosemary, giving him a kiss. "Please watch him for me," she said, lifting her skirts and running down the path without another word. When she reached Nathan's house, she barely noticed the "do not enter" sign on the door. She burst inside, startling Bill who was reading a newspaper on the couch. "Elizabeth!" he exclaimed, getting to his feet. "You can't be here! You'll have to quarantine…"

Elizabeth ignored him. "Where is he, Bill?" she asked. "Where is Nathan?"

Bill heard the determination in her tone and knew there was no use arguing. "He's upstairs in his room. First door on the left," he said.

"Thanks, Bill," she said, making her way up the steps. She paused at the threshold of Nathan's room. She knew it wasn't considered proper for her to enter a man's bedroom unchaperoned, but these were highly unusual circumstances. She pushed the door open.

Nathan was lying on his bed. He was so still, but Elizabeth could hear his ragged breathing. It sounded like his lungs were full of fluid. She winced at each breath he took. It sounded painful. She sat in the chair that had been placed by his bedside, studying him. His face was red and flushed, beaded with sweat. Even from where she was sitting, Elizabeth could feel the heat emanating from his fevered body. His head started to move from side to side, unable to rest even in his sleep.

Tears welled in Elizabeth's eyes. She took his hand in hers, feeling the sweat on his skin. She sensed rather than heard Bill behind her. "Opal said he's dying," she said, her voice breaking. "Is that true?"

Bill placed a hand on her shoulder. "No one knows, Elizabeth," he said gently. "Carson has been working around the clock to make sure Nathan has the best care possible. Unfortunately, there hasn't been much change since Nathan collapsed three days ago."

A sob made its way from Elizabeth's throat. Three days. And she hadn't been there for him. "He can't die," she cried. "He just can't. I can't lose him!"

The irony of her words hit her as soon as she said them. She had been pushing this man away for over eight months, terrified that his job could take him from her. Now here he was, possibly dying, and it had nothing to do with him being a Mountie. She felt sick at all the time they had lost because of her stubbornness and indecisiveness.

She was rocked by a moment of clarity, a clarity stronger than anything she had known before. She was in love with Nathan Grant. She had been in love with him for a very long time. She couldn't pinpoint when she had fallen, but she knew it had grown out of their everyday interactions and the little ways he had shown her that he cared.

She loved him.

But it might be too late. If Nathan died, he would die thinking that she didn't love him. He would die without knowing just how much she cared for him.

Elizabeth couldn't bear the thought. She pressed his hand to her heart, sobbing. "Don't die, Nathan," she whispered through her tears. "Come back to me. I love you."

Bill's hand squeezed her shoulder. "The whole town is holding vigil for him, Elizabeth. Joseph is leading a third prayer service this evening."

"Bless him," Elizabeth murmured. Joseph Canfield had become the new pastor of Hope Valley, and he was already as beloved as Frank had been. He clearly cared for the people of their little town, attending to their spiritual needs with kindness and love.

Nathan began coughing, the deep, wet coughs tearing at Elizabeth's heart. Bill moved forward, placing a pan beside his friend and then turning Nathan onto his side and slapping his back hard. The liquid that came from Nathan's mouth onto the pan made Elizabeth feel sick, but she wasn't going to leave. When Nathan's coughing finally subsided, Bill removed the pan.

"This is a good thing," he said gently. "If the fluid is coming up from his lungs, it means he could recover."

Elizabeth listened to Nathan's breathing. It still rattled with the fluid inside, but she chose to cling to hope. "I hope you're right," she said softly.

Nathan moaned, his head sweeping from side to side once more. Elizabeth glanced around, seeing a basin with a washcloth nearby. She dipped the cloth in the cool water, then wrung it out and patted Nathan's face with it, removing the sweat clinging to him. She rinsed it and wrung it again, this time laying it against his forehead. Nathan's thrashing stilled and he seemed to breathe a little easier. Elizabeth wasn't sure if that was her imagination or not, but she hoped it was a good sign. Settling into the chair, she took his hand again.

She wasn't leaving until he was out of danger.

Over the next two days, Elizabeth worked tirelessly to nurse Nathan. She kept cool cloths on his head, turned him when he coughed so the fluid could escape his lungs, and made sure he drank water the few times he was alert enough to drink. He was delirious whenever he was awake, not recognizing that Elizabeth was there. She continued to speak to him, wanting him to hear her voice even if he didn't recognize it.

Carson told her Nathan had somehow contracted the Spanish flu. It was a deadly virus that was taking down men and women in their prime, a virus that had spread throughout most of the world. Nathan's chances of survival went up each day he remained alive, but he wasn't yet out of the woods.

Elizabeth refused to leave Nathan's side. Now that she had been awakened to the love she had for him, she couldn't bring herself to be away from him for a single moment. She deeply regretted the time they had lost, and she vowed to herself that she wouldn't allow fear to dictate her actions any longer.

Carson had warned her that she couldn't be around anyone for a week. Anyone who came into contact with a sick person without proper protective equipment had to quarantine for seven days to ensure the virus didn't spread. Elizabeth felt a pang at not being able to see her son for a week, but she knew Rosemary and Lee were taking good care of him. Right now, Nathan needed her.

On the third day, Elizabeth woke slowly. She sat up, rubbing a crick in her neck from sleeping in a chair once again. She looked at Nathan. He was totally still, but something was different. Fear gripped her heart, but then she realized what it was. Nathan's breathing was no longer wet and ragged. While it didn't sound normal, it didn't sound like he was drowning anymore. His face was pale, but when she put a hand to his cheek, it didn't burn her skin. Hope sprang to life, and Elizabeth pressed Nathan's hand to her lips, tears of joy falling from her eyes.

He was getting better.

Nathan's eyes started moving. Elizabeth watched him, nearly holding her breath. Would he be coherent this time? His eyes opened slowly. He blinked several times, squinting in the morning light. Turning his head, he saw her sitting there. Surprise lit his eyes. "Liz'beth?"

The tears came faster when he said her name. She pressed his hand to her heart. "I'm here, Nathan," she whispered.

"So...cold," he said, shivering slightly. Elizabeth stood, grabbing another blanket from the stack she had found in a chest at the end of his bed. She laid it over him. "Is that better?" she asked.

Nathan nodded, though his body continued to shake a bit. Elizabeth held some water to his lips. "Drink," she instructed gently. He did, drinking about half the water in the glass. Elizabeth smiled. "That's good," she said softly, laying a hand on his head. His hair was damp and matted, his blue eyes dull and tired. But he was awake.

She sat beside him, taking his hand in hers again. "I was so afraid I was going to lose you," she said softly, running her free hand gently through his hair to work out the tangles. "I've known fear, Nathan, but this felt different from anything I've known before. I was scared I would lose you without you knowing how I feel about you."

"I already know," Nathan said, his words slurring slightly as he smiled up at her. "You just needed some time."

Hot tears burned Elizabeth's eyes as she looked down at the patient, loving man before her. "Why didn't you give up on me?" she whispered. "I put you through so much pain, but you never gave up. You could have dated any one of the eligible women in this town…"

"No," Nathan said, shaking his head. "No, Elizabeth, I could not have done that. I love you and no one else. There has never been anyone for me but you."

Elizabeth's heart began racing. She pressed a kiss to Nathan's hand and then held it to her cheek, her tears falling onto his skin. "You've fought for my heart for so long now," she said in a choked whisper. "Thank you for never giving up."

He smiled, his eyes starting to droop. "I'll never give up on us," he said, his words running together. He shivered again. "So cold," he murmured.

Elizabeth knew more blankets weren't going to fix Nathan's chills. She pulled the covers back and lay down beside him before covering them both with the blankets. Nathan inhaled sharply as she slid an arm around him, sending him into a coughing fit. When he recovered from it, he gave a little laugh. "I know I'm mentally fuzzy right now, but I do know that this would raise pretty much every eyebrow in Hope Valley."

"Then I guess it's a good thing the eyebrows of Hope Valley are not here," Elizabeth replied. "Now try to get some sleep. You're going to need a lot of it to fully recover."

Nathan smiled, his eyes closing. He fell asleep quickly, and Elizabeth noticed that his body stopped shaking within a few minutes. Clearly her body heat was helping. Feeling a sense of exhaustion herself, she closed her eyes and drifted into sleep.

Bill found them like that a few minutes later. A soft smile formed on his lips. Carson had said once Nathan's fever broke, he was likely to get chills for a brief time. Bill knew without a doubt that the reason Elizabeth was laying beside Nathan was to keep him warm. As he took in the two of them together, he wondered if they would finally find their way to one another. All of Hope Valley knew they were perfect for each other. Elizabeth was the only one who seemed to wonder. But Bill had heard her tell Nathan she loved him time and again over the past few days. Nathan's illness had broken through her fears and reserve. He had a feeling there would be a new couple in Hope Valley before too long.

Silently, he sat in the chair beside the bed, keeping watch over two of the most important people in his life.

Nathan grew stronger every day. Carson had Elizabeth move back to her own house for the remainder of her quarantine period, checking in on her every day to make sure she didn't develop symptoms of the Spanish flu. She and Bill both made it through their quarantines without getting sick, and Carson gave them the all clear to be around people again. He had kept her updated on Nathan during his daily visits. From what he told her, Nathan was nearing one hundred percent again and would be able to return to work in a few days.

Feeling the need for some fresh air, Elizabeth saddled Sergeant and rode to the same place she had rejected Nathan so many months ago. The chilly fall air filled her lungs as she swung down from her horse and sat on the log. So much had changed since she'd last been here.

Her heart was open again. She was ready to love, ready to build a life with the man who loved her in return. She hadn't yet said the words to Nathan, at least not that he had heard. She'd told him a hundred times while he was sick, but she wanted to tell him now that he was better and could fully understand what she was saying. She didn't know what he had been able to process in his delirium and the haziness he'd shown when he was once again conscious.

A horse whinnied, alerting Elizabeth to an approaching rider. She turned, her heart skipping a beat as she saw Nathan riding toward her. She stood, waiting for him. It wasn't lost on her that this was the exact same situation she'd found herself in eight months ago. This time, however, things were vastly different between them.

Nathan smiled at her as he rode up, pulling Newton to a halt and jumping down from the saddle in one fluid motion. "Hi," he said, smiling a little shyly.

Also overcome with a sense of shyness, Elizabeth blushed and smiled back. "Hi."

The air between them was filled with electricity. Elizabeth could feel it pulling her toward Nathan like a magnet. She took an involuntary step toward him as he did the same. He reached out, placing his hands gently on her shoulders. "Elizabeth," he said, his voice soft. "Thank you for taking care of me when I was sick. Your presence gave me the strength I needed to fight."

Elizabeth's mouth dropped. "You knew I was there?"

He nodded. "I don't know how I knew, but the moment you stepped into that room, something changed. I wasn't aware of it at first, but my dreams were suddenly filled with you instead of nightmares. I heard your voice through the fog. I heard words I'd been longing to hear for quite some time." He stepped closer, his eyes never leaving hers. "It gave me a hope I hadn't known for a long time, Elizabeth." His arms left her shoulders and slid around her back, pulling her close. "Tell me I wasn't dreaming," he pleaded, his heart open and vulnerable to her once again.

She could read the love in his eyes. Instead of terrifying her, it thrilled her. She smiled, letting her arms embrace him in return. "You weren't dreaming, Nathan," she said, her voice catching. "I love you. I'm sorry it took me so long to figure out what was in my heart. It's you. It's always been you."

A boyish grin broke out on Nathan's face, and he let out a laugh of pure, unfettered joy. His eyes shone with emotion. "Come with me," he said, taking her by the hand. "There's something I want to show you."

Trusting his lead, Elizabeth followed him as they rode for quite a while. When they finally reached their destination, Nathan helped Elizabeth from her horse. She looked around, recognizing Bill's land. "What are we doing here?" she asked.

Nathan smiled, putting an arm around her. "This is my land," he said proudly. "I bought it from Bill six months ago."

"Six months?" Elizabeth gasped. "I didn't know that! I thought you decided not to buy it."

"I did," Nathan admitted. "I was in a bad place at that time. But then I realized that I still wanted to put down roots, if for no other reason than Allie. She deserved a good home. So I built one."

Elizabeth looked up at him. "You built one?"

He nodded, turning her to face a copse of trees. Elizabeth gasped. A beautiful house stood there, large and sprawling, completely finished. "Nathan!" she exclaimed. "You built that?"

"I did," he said. "And as I said, I built it for me and Allie...but I admit I had you and little Jack in mind as well. I built it in the hopes that the four of us would live here together." He blushed slightly. "The four of us and any other children that might come along."

Elizabeth caught her breath. Nathan was thinking long term. They hadn't been on a single date, but he knew what he wanted. Love. Marriage. Family. He wanted that with her.

And she knew with all her heart that she wanted the same with him. They had fallen in love, not with grand dates and sweeping gestures, but in the little, everyday moments of life, sharing their hearts and their hopes with each other.

She smiled up at him, feeling a little coy. "What exactly are you proposing, Constable Grant?"

His face lit with his crooked smile. "I'm proposing a life together," he said directly. "That is my intention. I love you, Elizabeth, and I love your son. I have no intentions of playing with your heart. I want us to get married and live here together whenever you're ready. I'm not asking you to marry me right now, but I do want you to know that I will be asking you soon."

Elizabeth grinned, batting her eyes at him. "Why, Nathan Grant, this is awfully sudden! We haven't even had that dinner yet."

Nathan chuckled, wrapping his arms around Elizabeth. "Well then, Mrs. Thornton, how about getting dinner with me this evening at Abigail's?"

"I'd be honored," Elizabeth said softly, slipping her arms around his back. She smiled up at him. "And for the record? Whenever you do get around to asking me to marry you...the answer will be yes."

Nathan smiled, his eyes tender and full of love. "Noted," he said softly, his eyes going to her lips. Elizabeth lifted her chin and closed her eyes as Nathan's lips found hers for the first time. He was gentle with her, aware that this was the first time she had been kissed since Jack. Elizabeth appreciated his thoughtfulness, but she wanted more. The years of tension and attraction that had built between them made this kiss feel like the culmination of something life-changing. She pulled him closer, taking their kiss deeper. She sensed Nathan's surprise, and he paused briefly, pulling back and searching her eyes. Elizabeth smiled, her heart fully and completely his. Wonder flashed across Nathan's face, and he kissed her with a renewed passion, holding nothing back.

Elizabeth held tightly to Nathan, feeling his love wash over her in waves as she returned his kisses. For the first time in a long time, she felt at peace. She was in love with the perfect man for her. She knew there were still things they would have to sort out as they navigated their new relationship, but for now she knew they were exactly where they needed to be.

Nathan pulled back, holding Elizabeth close to his heart and resting his head on hers. They stood that way for a long time, looking at the house that they would one day occupy together with their children, gently swaying back and forth. Here in his arms, Elizabeth felt like she had found a home again.

She couldn't wait for the next chapter of their lives to begin.