"Nathan! Nathan, wait up!"
Nathan turned to see Bill hurrying toward him. "I'm so glad I caught you," Bill said, sounding uncharacteristically out of breath as he stopped by Nathan's side. "I need your help with something."
"What might that be?" Nathan asked.
"Dinner," Bill said. "I need help making dinner."
Blinking, Nathan stared at his friend. "You do realize that of the two of us, you're the one who knows how to cook, right?"
Bill waved a hand. "You're a fine cook too. Besides, this has to be perfect. You doing anything right now?"
"Great," Bill said, propelling him toward the café. "Let's go."
Nathan gave Bill a look, which Bill ignored. In fact, Nathan had been about to do something. He was on his way to Elizabeth's, hoping to finally have a talk with her. After resolving to keep fighting for her love, he knew they needed to have a conversation. They had not said a word about that fateful day when Nathan told her he was in love with her. He knew it was eating at her as much as it was him. Nathan wasn't sure how to bring up what had happened between them, but he did know that they had to talk about it.
They hadn't been talking much for a couple months now. With a little sigh, Nathan figured he could put off the conversation for another few hours. If Bill needed his help, he would help.
"So, why does this meal have to be perfect?" Nathan asked as they entered the café.
Bill tossed him an apron before tying one around his own waist. "It's for a date," he said matter-of-factly.
Nathan raised a brow. "Oh? You finally asked Molly to dinner?"
Bill cleared his throat. "Maybe." He drew a bunch of parsley from a paper bag, handing it to Nathan. "Here. Chop the parsley."
Nathan looked at the handful of green herbs. He'd never chopped parsley before, but how hard could it be? "What are we making?" he asked, pulling a knife from a drawer and starting on the herbs.
"Italian chicken with pasta and vegetables," Bill said. "Simple but hearty. And it'll look pretty on a plate."
Nathan paused in his chopping, glancing at Bill. "Since when do you care about presentation?" he asked, feeling amused. His friend must have it bad for Molly.
Bill shrugged. "Since this is an important evening," he said. "Now finish chopping!"
Nathan chuckled, cutting the parley into small pieces. Bill started a small pot of sauce on the stove, directing Nathan to put in the chopped herbs as he finished. "Now the garlic," Bill said, handing him some cloves. "And remember...mince it before you start stirring it into the sauce."
Nathan smirked. "What? You didn't like the whole garlic last time we cooked together?"
"No," Bill said bluntly. "It should always be minced. Always."
The two men continued to work, chopping veggies mostly in silence. Neither one was a man of many words, and their silence was companionable. Just as they were finishing up, Bill looked at Nathan. "I have one more favor to ask," he said, crossing his arms in front of him.
Nathan took off the apron, hanging it in its proper place. "Okay," he said, meeting Bill's gaze.
Bill gave him a small smile. "I'm a bit nervous about this evening. Would you mind being here for me, say at 6:00? Obviously there will be people here other than me, but it would be nice to know there's a familiar face in the crowd."
Nathan smiled, placing a hand on Bill's shoulder. "Of course, Bill," he said. "I'll be here."
Bill eyed his outfit. "Change beforehand, if you don't mind," he said, brow raised. "You'll need to look presentable."
Nathan glanced down at his blue plaid shirt. "What's wrong with this?" he asked. "It was good enough for Jesse's bachelor party."
"Think vest, not plaid," Bill said. "Okay?"
"Okay," Nathan said, deciding to humor his friend. "I'll go home and change and be back here at 6:00."
Bill grinned. "You're the best! Thanks, Nathan."
"Anytime," Nathan said, smiling.
Bill watched as Nathan walked down the street, then poked his head out the door. "All clear!" he called.
Rosemary looked around the side of the building. "Wonderful!" she said, coming into view with Allie beside her. They entered the café, where the dinner was simmering away and smelling delicious. "We only have a short time to get everything ready. Did you get Nathan to promise to come tonight?"
Bill nodded, feeling satisfied. "I did indeed." He chuckled. "He seems to think I have a date with Molly."
Rosemary laughed. Allie grinned. "Uncle Nathan would come to that conclusion," she said. "Did you make it sound like you had a date with Mrs. Sullivan?"
"Maybe a bit," Bill admitted. "But I never came out and said it. So it was all your uncle assuming."
Rosemary waved her hands. "Let's get the dining room set up," she said. "Did you put up the closed sign yet, Bill?"
He nodded. "Surprisingly, Nathan didn't seem to notice," he said. "But we did come in through the kitchen door."
Rosemary nodded, motioning Allie toward the dining room. "Let's get this place fit for a date!" she said, grinning.
Allie clapped her hands. "Finally!" she exclaimed.
Rosemary leaned down, whispering something to Allie. The child's eyes lit up and she grinned, heading for the door.
Bill raised a brow. "Where's she going?"
"To the library," Rosemary said, a secret smile on her face. "There's something there that we will need for this evening."
Bill shook his head with a chuckle. "I can see those wheels turning in your head, Rosemary. I can't wait to see what you've come up with this time."
Rosemary grinned. "Let's just say it's the perfect touch."
Elizabeth sat on her porch steps, watching her son as he played with his train. Jack moved it all around, calling out "choo-choo!" regularly. She smiled, feeling free. Her life might be uncertain right now, but she treasured these moments of peace with her son.
She had realized after a picnic and near kiss with Lucas that she simply didn't feel for him what he wanted her to feel. She'd been hesitant to tell him, not wanting him to be hurt, but he had recognized the look in her eyes. He'd looked at her with an inscrutable expression for a few moments, then smiled wryly. "This isn't going to work, is it?" he asked.
Elizabeth had bitten her lip, then shook her head slowly. "I don't think so, Lucas," she said softly. "I'm so sorry."
His smile became more genuine. "I must admit I'm disappointed. But I'm not surprised. The writing has been on the wall from the beginning. I was trying to make something happen that wasn't meant to be."
Elizabeth was still puzzling over that last statement. She hadn't asked him what he meant, but here, with lots of time to think, she wondered what he meant by the writing being on the wall. Unbidden, her mind wandered to Nathan. Steady, faithful Nathan. She knew they were long overdue for a conversation. The problem was, she wasn't sure she was ready for that.
Her thoughts were interrupted by Rosemary coming out of her house. "Elizabeth!" she exclaimed, grinning from ear to ear. "Lee and I are going to dinner at the café. Will you and Jack join us?"
Elizabeth smiled, thankful for the distraction. "I'd love to," she said.
Rosemary glanced at her dress. "Why don't you put on something a little prettier?" she suggested. "That green dress from the graduation would be perfect."
Laughing, Elizabeth shook her head. "If I didn't know you better, I'd probably take offense at that," she said, looking at Rosemary's fancy dress. "But since this appears to be a dress up dinner, I'll comply." She left Jack in Rosemary's care and changed, then came back out to find Lee waiting with his car. The four of them piled in and began the short drive to town. Lee parked outside the café, and they all got out. Rosemary was holding Jack, and she suddenly smacked a hand to her forehead. "Oh! I completely forgot. I have to pick something up at the mercantile for Jack." She gave Elizabeth an apologetic look. "I want him to see it right away. Would you mind terribly if I take him with me?"
"Of course not!" Elizabeth said, smiling. "Lee and I will hold down the fort until you get back."
"Lee!" All three of them turned as Molly approached. "Carson needs to talk to you about something." She gave Elizabeth and Rosemary a little smile. "I'm sorry to take him away as you're heading into dinner, but it'll just be a moment."
Lee glanced at Elizabeth. "Is that alright?" he asked. "We'll be back as soon as we can."
Elizabeth chuckled. "I've been in the café by myself before. I'll be fine." She watched as her friends hurried to their destinations, then turned and walked to the café door. Pushing it open, she started when she saw Bill standing right in front of her.
"Bill!" she exclaimed, a hand going to her heart. "What in the world are you doing? I could have hit you with the door!"
Bill smiled. "I was far enough back that you wouldn't." He reached out, taking her hands. "Elizabeth, I hope you forgive us for this little ambush. But sometimes we need a bit of a push in the right direction."
Brow wrinkling, Elizabeth tilted her head. "What does that mean?" She glanced around, and it occurred to her that the café was empty. During dinner rush hours. At the same time, she heard the kitchen door open. "Bill?" a voice called. Elizabeth's heart lurched as she recognized the voice.
Her eyes widened as she looked at Bill. "What did you do?" she whispered.
Bill simply smiled.
Nathan came through the curtains. "Bill, where is everyone? I thought Molly…" His voice trailed off as he caught sight of Elizabeth. His eyes went from her, to Bill, to the empty café. In the span of five seconds, he took in the situation and came to some kind of conclusion. Eyes narrowing, he crossed his arms and looked at Bill. "This is a set up."
"That it is," Bill said. "A set up with love from your friends." He winked. "Enjoy your evening." With that, he slipped out of the café, leaving Nathan and Elizabeth alone together.
An awkward silence descended between them. To escape it, Elizabeth looked around the room, taking in what had been done. There was a table in the middle of the room set prettily with a lace tablecloth and fine silverware. The lights around the café were dimmed. A shallow vase of violets was set in the middle of the table, and soft music played from a Victrola in the corner of the room. It was pretty but simple. Meaningful. Elizabeth couldn't help wondering who had decorated the café.
"We're being watched," Nathan said softly. Elizabeth looked at him, and he tilted his head toward one of the windows. She saw Rosemary and Allie giggling outside before their faces darted from view. She raised a brow.
"Bill, Rosemary, Allie, Lee, and Molly," she said, shaking her head. "They're playing matchmaker. I'd be willing to bet this was Rosemary's idea."
"Or Bill's," Nathan said. "He corralled me in here earlier to help him make a special dinner. He led me to believe it was for him and Molly." He cleared his throat. "Apparently it was for us."
Elizabeth looked up at him. "You made dinner?"
"I helped," Nathan said. "Bill had me chopping a lot and stirring the sauce. That was about it."
Elizabeth smiled in spite of herself. She looked at the table, then back at Nathan. "I guess we could share a meal together. Since our friends went through so much trouble to make it happen." Her heart started pumping harder as she realized they were about to have dinner together for the first time since they'd known each other. She also realized how good he looked in his choice of outfit. He was wearing the same pants, shirt, and vest that he'd worn the last time they tried to make it to the café for dinner.
A pang went through her as she remembered the look on his face when she told him she wasn't feeling well. She knew she had hurt him. And she had hurt him even worse when he told her he loved her and she had ridden away without a word. Their interactions since had been few and far between, fraught with tension and words left unsaid.
Nathan held her chair for her, and Elizabeth thanked him with a smile. They began eating in silence, neither knowing where to begin.
"This is delicious, Nathan," Elizabeth said finally. "Thank you."
He smiled. "You're welcome."
They chatted a little bit about Jack and Allie, staying in the safe territory of their children. They had nearly finished their meal when Nathan put his fork down and took a deep breath. "Elizabeth, we need to talk," he said, looking at her directly for the first time since they'd sat down.
Captivated by the directness of his blue gaze, Elizabeth nodded slowly.
Nathan looked like he was fortifying himself. His shoulders squared and he sat a little taller, leaning forward with his arms on the table. "Elizabeth, I know you said you can't be with me. I know you said it because you're afraid. And I know you have feelings for me." His directness startled Elizabeth slightly, but everything he said was true. She felt an astonishment that he could read her so easily. Though his words might have sounded arrogant to anyone not familiar with their situation, Elizabeth heard the humility in his voice, the vulnerability. He was opening his heart to her again, despite the fact that he could be rejected once more.
Nathan exhaled and continued. "What I don't know is whether you would be willing to put your fear aside and give us a chance. I know that's not an easy ask, Elizabeth." His throat worked and he was quiet for a few moments. "What I am asking is that you fight for us. I think we could have something beautiful together, if you're open to it. I'm willing to fight for a chance at love. Are you?"
Elizabeth stared at him. She had always believed love was something that had to be fought for. And now here was Nathan, his heart open wide, asking her to fight for them.
Could she do it? Could she take her own philosophy on love to heart and put it into action? The fear that was gripping her was very real. It felt like a vice on her heart as she contemplated the possibility of letting herself love Nathan. The possibility of loving another Mountie. A Mountie who could be taken from her at any time in the line of duty.
Her throat convulsed. She had always considered herself to be emotionally strong, but she realized in that moment just how weak she was. Tears filled her eyes. She wanted to say yes. She wanted to be brave. But she just didn't know if she had it in her.
Nathan patiently waited for her answer, a mix of hope and dread in his eyes. Elizabeth swallowed hard. "I don't know…" she said faintly, not even sure if he could hear the choked words. Nathan shifted in his chair, and the slight movement drew Elizabeth's eyes to something hanging behind him on the wall. She gasped audibly, her mouth dropping. Nathan turned to see what she was looking at, and he let out a surprised breath as well.
Someone had taken the plaque he made for her from the library and hung it in the café. Emerson's words stared back at Elizabeth, a beacon of light in her darkness.
Always do what you are afraid to do.
The words washed over her, dispelling the strength of her fear. It didn't disappear completely, but Elizabeth realized in that moment that she would rather face the fear of the unknown with Nathan than willingly face life without him. She swallowed, holding out her hand to him. The music playing in the background was sweet and light, sounding like a new beginning.
"Dance with me?" she asked, looking him right in the eyes.
A slow smile filled Nathan's face, a smile she hadn't seen in quite some time. "With pleasure," he said, taking her hand and standing. He led her to an open spot between the tables, then drew her into his arms. They moved to the music quietly for a few minutes, taking in the sudden change in their relationship. Elizabeth's heart felt free, despite the fear still lingering there. For the first time in a while, she felt like she had found a home.
Her heart had been Nathan's for a long time. She just hadn't been able to admit it to herself or anyone else. He pulled her a little closer, and Elizabeth let her head rest on his chest. Her arms slid around his back as his did the same to her. They stopped dancing, simply resting in each other's embrace for a time. Eventually, Elizabeth pulled back, looking up at Nathan from the safe circle of his arms.
"I'm sorry for all the hurt I've caused you," she said sincerely. "In running from my feelings, I let fear win and I hurt you. I hurt Allie. That was never my intention, but it happened anyway. Please forgive me."
Nathan took in a deep breath, leaning forward to place a tender kiss on her forehead. "I forgive you," he said softly, cupping her cheek in his hand.
Elizabeth's tears flowed from her eyes onto his hand. "Why are you so patient with me?" she whispered. "You should have given up on me a long time ago. I deserved that."
Nathan rubbed the tears from her cheek. "Because I love you," he said simply. "I've loved you for a long time. True love doesn't give up, does it?"
Throat working, Elizabeth shook her head. "No," she said. "It doesn't." She rested her head against his chest once more. "Thank you for not giving up."
He held her close, tenderly running a hand through her hair. "Elizabeth, I want you to know that I was serious when I said I would quit the Mounties. I love my job, but if it's an obstacle between us in any way, I'll give it up in a heartbeat. All you have to do is say the word."
Elizabeth looked up at him once again. His blue eyes were sincere and direct. She knew he meant what he said. For a brief moment, she wondered if she could actually ask him to give that up. A part of her wanted to. A part of her wanted him to find a job that had less risk.
But she couldn't ask that of him. She knew Nathan loved the Mounties. She also knew that he wouldn't take unnecessary risks. Nor would he take assignments that took him far from home. He would do whatever it took to come home to her. She knew that without a doubt.
"No, Nathan," she said, shaking her head. "I can't ask you to give up your job. Being a Mountie is a part of who you are. If I love part of you but not all of you, then is it really love?"
Nathan's eyes caught fire as his crooked smile made an appearance. A teasing tone sounded in his voice. "Love?" he asked, raising a brow. "Are you saying what I think you're saying?"
Elizabeth's mouth dropped in surprise. She was. Without realizing she had done it, she admitted out loud she was in love. With Nathan.
"Yes," she said, hearing the wonder in her own voice. Her hands slid up until she was hugging him around the neck. "I love you, Nathan. I've been denying it for a long time, but I love you so much. You are very dear to me."
His arms pulled her closer, and she instinctively knew he was going to kiss her. He searched her eyes first, silently seeking permission. In response, she raised herself on her tiptoes and pressed her lips to his. She heard his slight grunt of surprise, but then he enveloped her fully in his arms and kissed her with all the pent-up feelings that had been growing between them for the last two years. Elizabeth surrendered herself completely to him, letting his love and passion fill her heart.
Neither one heard the door open, but the sudden sound of cheering and applause broke them apart. Startled, they looked over to see Bill, Molly, Lee, Rosemary, and Allie grinning from ear to ear and clapping, while little Jack looked on with a smile. Allie broke from the group and wrapped her arms around both of them. "I'm so happy!" she exclaimed, laughter bubbling from her.
Jack toddled over and joined the group hug. Nathan lifted him up into his arms, holding him with one arm and Elizabeth with the other while Elizabeth held Allie close. The four of them made a picture-perfect family, and the adults looking on couldn't help but hope that soon the Grant family would become a reality.
"I knew this would work," Rosemary said, clasping her hands to her heart. "All we had to do was get them in a room together and they would do the rest."
"It was one of my better ideas," Bill said, puffing out his chest in pride.
Rosemary gave him a look. "Your idea?" she exclaimed, her hand going to her hip. "This was my idea!"
"No, I said…"
Lee interrupted them. "You both had a great idea," he said, smoothing over the ruffled feathers with a laugh. "We'll give you both credit for your matchmaking abilities. Okay?"
"Fine," Bill and Rosemary said in unison. They looked back at the little family, who were completely oblivious to the others in the room. They were living in their own little world, the love and care between them clear as could be.
"Methinks we'll have another wedding before too long," Molly said with a smile, watching as Nathan kissed Jack's cheek and made a face at the child. Jack giggled and clapped, asking for more.
"Oh! I can't wait!" Rosemary exclaimed. "Can you just picture it? The two of them at the altar, speaking their vows, and then Allie and Jack join them for a family blessing? I think spring would be the perfect time…"
"Here we go," Lee muttered to Bill under his breath as Molly and Rosemary began planning a wedding between the newest Hope Valley couple.
Bill laughed. "Let them plan," he said with a wink. "And for the record, I doubt they'll be able to wait until spring."