Chapter Twenty-Four

Seemingly oblivious to the tension she was causing between Isaac and Lucas, Julie accepted Mr. Franklin's invitation to meet him in Union City. His mother was in the process of planning the annual charity ball and welcomed Julie's assistance. Not only did that give Mrs. Franklin a willing assistant for a few days, but it would offer Julie a glimpse into all the behind-the-scenes work that went into organizing such a formal event. While she had been a part of her mother's parties and charity socials, Julie had never been exposed to something of this magnitude.

"Mother just assumed I didn't care or that I wasn't capable of handling any of the major details," Julie had lamented. She intended to expand the fundraising efforts for the Hamilton Children's Society once she returned home but didn't know how or where to start. The invitation to work with Mrs. Franklin was a godsend.

Nathan, Elizabeth, and the children would be traveling to Union City at the same time. It was the next stop on Elizabeth's book tour, and they had already decided to make a long weekend out of it when Isaac came to them with his idea. In addition to her offer to mentor Julie, Catherine Franklin invited the entire Grant family to stay with them during their trip. When Nathan and Elizabeth tried to politely refuse, not wanting their rambunctious son or Elizabeth's strange cravings and periodic sleep troubles to disturb the household, Mrs. Franklin insisted. She assured them that, having raised Isaac and his brother, their house was more than capable of withstanding a young boy's boundless energy, and the staff were more than willing to accommodate any dietary requests or nocturnal wanderings.

Though Julie herself merely told Lucas that she was going out of town for a few days, others in Hope Valley showed less hesitation. Unlike the last time, when no one wanted to tell Nathan about Elizabeth's overnight trip to Union City, it seemed everyone was willing to tell Lucas about Julie's upcoming excursion. Even knowing that her sister and brother-in-law would be there as chaperones did little to alleviate his jealousy, and he had a newfound regret for how he'd taunted Nathan back then.

Taking advantage of the fact that Isaac had returned to Union City to prepare for their arrival, in addition to his own business ventures, Lucas arranged an elegant dinner for himself and the vivacious red head. Having learned from his past with Elizabeth, he was very clear in his invitation that it was, in fact, a date, even closing the saloon for an entire evening to ensure their privacy.

"As I'm sure Mr. Franklin will take the opportunity to wine and dine you while you are in his town, I want to make certain you remember that there is someone here who is just as eager for your company," he vowed. Julie found herself unable to refuse, agreeing to the date but adamant that it was just one date.

"I know you have your misgiving," she told her sister. Elizabeth was sitting on the bed, watching Julie do her hair and makeup. "And you have every reason not to trust Mr. Bouchard. I don't even know that I trust him." She shrugged, laughing easily. "But I may as well enjoy my time here. Who knows? Maybe he really has learned his lesson. Perhaps one day we will all be one big happy family!"

"Bite your tongue!" Elizabeth replied, not finding any humor in the suggestion. Yes, Lucas was treating her sister very well, better than he had her in fact, but it didn't change her hesitations.

While Julie was finishing getting ready upstairs, Nathan escorted Lucas into the parlor. The two eyed each other, the saloon owner struggling to find a neutral topic of conversation while the Mountie's scowl continued to deepen.

"Where are you taking her?" Nathan demanded.

Lucas forced a smile. "We are having dinner at the saloon," he explained. "I have closed it for the night to allow us some privacy."

Nathan narrowed his eyes, his frown deepening. "So, you'll be alone. Just the two of you. With no witnesses."

"We're having dinner!" Lucas huffed indignantly. "It's not a crime."

"And after dinner?" the interrogation continued. "You're bringing her straight back here? No moonlight drives or horse drawn carriage rides through the woods?"

"And what's wrong with a romantic walk or ride in the woods?" Lucas countered.

"Nothing, if that's all there is. But if that romantic ride ends at an isolated cabin filled with candles and champagne…"

"Just what do you think would happen?" Lucas sputtered, clearly offended at the implication.

Nathan shrugged. "Anything. Nothing. I don't know and I certainly don't want to find out. Even a man with best of intentions can be swayed in a moment of passion, and I'm still not sure what your intentions are." He stepped closer, getting toe to toe with the other man. "Bring her straight back here after dinner."

Whatever Lucas was going to say in reply was halted as Julie and Elizabeth descended the stairs. Turning to the women, he nodded briefly towards Elizabeth before smiling brightly at the radiant woman beside her. "Darling, you look magnificent!"

Julie beamed, the curls around her face highlighting the soft blush on her cheeks. "Why thank you," she cooed in reply. "You don't look so bad yourself."

While Lucas held his hand out to help down the last couple of stairs, Nathan gathered his sister-in-law's coat, holding it out to help her into it. "I don't want to leave Elizabeth and children here alone, so Bill is staying late tonight at the jail," he explained. "If anything feels off or you want to come home, just go to him. Elizabeth or I will be waiting up for you."

Julie laughed, turning to kiss his cheek. "Thank you for looking out for me, but I'm sure Mr. Bouchard and I will be just fine, won't we?"

Lucas rolled his eyes at Nathan's overprotectiveness, but smiled nonetheless as he held his arm out to Julie. "We will be just fine," he assured them. "And we'll come straight back here after dessert, you have my word."

"Not that it means much," Nathan muttered as the pair stepped out the door and crossed the porch. Elizabeth came to stand by his side, her hand on his back as they watched Lucas help her sister into the car and then hurry around to get in himself. Julie waved out the window as they drove away.

"For a minute there, I wasn't sure he was actually going to let you leave with me," Lucas said, only half joking as he helped her into her chair. They had spent the drive back into town talking about their favorite restaurants in Europe, Lucas promising that their meal tonight would rival anything she had tasted there.

Julie was silent for a moment, unsure if and how to respond. Finally, she went for the truth. "Can you really blame him?" she asked gently as he took the seat across from her.

He looked at her, shocked and hurt at the accusation. "What do you mean?"

She sat up straight, looking him directly in the eye. "What have you done to earn his trust?" she asked bluntly. "You spent three years competing for the same woman. In that time, you belittled him at every opportunity. You disregarded Elizabeth's feelings and put her in an awkward position. And even after they were married you refused to back off."

Lucas wanted to argue, but could merely sit in silence, shocked by her honesty and embarrassed by the truth. He had done all of those things, and more. Heaving a sigh, he reached across the table, cautiously placing his hand atop hers. "I am so sorry for all of that," he insisted. "I am used to winning in business, and I thought of my attentions towards your sister as another game. I wanted to prove that I could win her over, and when I realized that Nathan had feelings for her, it raised the stakes."

"So, you decided to pressure her into seeing you?" Julie didn't pull her hand away, but nor did her face soften. "All the times she told you 'No' and you still poured on the romance…you don't think that made her uncomfortable? Scared even?"

He shook his head. "I convinced myself she was just playing coy, that she wanted the attention."

Julie was quiet, watching shadows move past on the boardwalk outside the curtained windows as she gathered her thoughts. "And after they were married, when you continued to pursue her, what was that?"

Lucas took a deep breath, holding it for a moment. He wanted the evening to be about them, but it was clear there were still deeds in his past he had to account for. Considering how much he wanted to make their relationship work, he would do it. "I was a stubborn fool," he admitted. She raised her eyebrows at his candor but didn't interrupt. "I was certain I was the better man for her and was determined not to lose. I had convinced myself that she wanted me to fight harder for her."

"Because love is worth fighting for," she said softly. He nodded. "But did you love her?"

He shook his head. "I loved the idea of being with her. I loved the idea of winning."

"What changed your mind?" She knew what her sister and brother-in-law thought, but she needed to hear from him.

Lucas smiled softly, squeezing her hand. "It was you, my dear. I had seen the evidence of your sister's pregnancy for the first time, and it shocked me to realize I had lost. That their connection really was that strong. They created a child together. Nothing I could buy her could compete with that. And just as I was reevaluating my life here and forming new plans for my future, you waltzed through my door. After all the bitterness and regret, you were a breath of fresh air, a new inspiration."

Julie couldn't help but be charmed by such glowing praise.

They enjoyed their dinner, an elegant beef and vegetable dish with scalloped potatoes and airy rolls covered in melted butter, salad with vegetables sliced into fancy shapes and topped with a creamy seasoned dressing, and Julie's favorite crème Brulé for dessert. Lucas had even created a special cocktail for the evening, it's bright red color a match for her shiny hair. Between courses, they danced, the tables cleared away to make space for the Victrola and to glide smoothly around the room.

As he helped her with her coat, Lucas placed a soft kiss on her cheek. He raised her hand to his lips and placed another on the back of her fingers before wrapping her arm around his. "I hope you think of me while you're away."

Lucas nodded to Bill, standing in the shadows outside the jail watching them get in the car, and drove her directly back to the Grants house, as promised. As they pulled up the drive, they could see the light in the front room glowing brightly, and a shadow moving around inside. The curtains fluttered briefly as someone, likely Nathan, peeked out at them. Not wanting the evening to end but with no intention of antagonizing Elizabeth and Nathan, Lucas walked Julie to the front door, waiting until she was inside and the door latched before returning to his car.

He couldn't help but feel there was still a chance for them.

"So…" Elizbeth wondered. "How was it?"

Nathan was banking the fires and putting out the lights downstairs while she helped Julie get ready for bed. She brushed her sister's hair, braiding it loosely like she did Allie's before placing the brush back on the dresser.

Julie turned to face her, her eyes shining and her face aglow. "It was wonderful!" she gushed. "We got off to a bit of a rough start," she admitted. "We talked about how things started and ended with you and all the trouble he made for Nathan. I know you don't believe it, but I really do think he's sorry about all of that."

"Uh huh," Elizabeth murmured non-committedly. "We'll see."

"After we talked, we had the most scrumptious dinner. He had the salad vegetables sliced into little hearts and flowers, and the beef was just to die for. And he made me my own drink! He said he's going to put it on the menu, a sweet and spicy cocktail he's calling… you know? I don't remember what he's going to call it, but it doesn't matter. It's the thought that counts. He wants everyone to know how special I am to him!"

Elizabeth shook her head, still worried. "Just be careful," she warned. "You and I both know men, especially wealthy men used to getting their way, can have a real way with words. It's their actions that say the most."

"Well from what I saw tonight, dear sister, that man is utterly enchanted. With me."

Julie and the Grants left for Union City a couple of days later. Much to Nathan and Elizabeth's dismay, Lucas had met them at the train station to see Julie off, bidding her farewell with a kiss on her cheek and a bouquet of flowers.

"What are you going to do with those when we arrive?" Allie asked. "Are you going to tell Mr. Franklin they're from your beau back here?"

Julie laughed gaily, her eyes sparkling with mirth as she replied, "I think Mr. Franklin is more than aware of Mr. Bouchard's interest in me."

"So, you're just going to let them both court you?" the girl asked, incredulously.

Her aunt shrugged, still laughing. "I wouldn't say I am courting either one of them. I am enjoying their company, but first and foremost, I am here to see you and my sister and the family you all are making here, not to mention your charming little town. This trip to Union City to see Mr. Franklin gives me the opportunity to collaborate with his mother. I can't wait to see all the things I'll learn from her that I can take back to Hamilton with me to use for the Children's Society!"

"And if he's waiting at the train station with roses?" Nathan said quietly as he put his arm around his wife and son. "Do I have to warn off another suitor?"

Elizabeth sighed, worry clear on her face as she leaned against him.

Isaac Franklin was indeed waiting at the station for them, armed with small bouquets of flowers not only for Julie but Elizabeth and Allie as well. Offering Nathan a firm handshake, he held out a small wooden car to Jack, welcoming all of them and expressing his hopes that they'd had a safe and smooth journey. If he noticed the roses atop Julie's bag, he didn't mention them.

"I can't believe there are so many people here!" Allie exclaimed. She and Nathan waited off to the side while Elizabeth sat at a table in the middle of Barnum's Books. Despite being the biggest bookstore in Union City, the line of people waiting to meet the author of A Single Mother on the Frontier was wrapped all the way around the store and out the door.

Nathan nodded. Not a fan of crowds himself, he could almost see the excitement radiating out of his daughter. Just like you, Colleen, he silently lamented. It's a wonder she hasn't tried to go meet them all. No sooner did the thought cross his mind than Allie turned his way.

"Can I go talk to people?" she pleaded. "I want to hear what they think of the book, what drew them in."

Her father sighed, smiling resignedly and nodding. "But stay inside," he insisted.

Allie grinned, scrambling off to greet the people in line. She was obviously thrilled to share with them her side of Elizabeth's story, and more than once pointed her father out across the room. The fact that the author's real life was reflecting the events of her story made for even more excitement.

"We should have planned to include all of you in the tour stops from the start." Helen Bouchard appeared at Nathan's side, a very contented smile on her face. "Your wife's book has done remarkably well, especially for a first time author, but when people see you and realize how much of her story is real… We couldn't have asked for better publicity."

Nathan shrugged, still uncomfortable with the attention. He was thrilled for Elizabeth and knew that she was enjoying seeing the response to her novel, but he would have preferred the attention stay on her.

"And that charming little boy…" Helen continued.

Clearly uneasy about the large group of strangers, Jack had started the afternoon hiding against his father's shoulder. Nathan had worried that the boy would get upset as people started to approach Elizabeth, but he merely watched silently. After the first half hour of the signing, he'd started smiling and waving back to the people in line. Eventually, he had been distracted by what his mother was doing, and insisted on sitting next to her. Jane Barnum had supplied a stack of paper and some crayons, and Jack contently colored pictures for a while. Then one woman asked if he would sign her copy of the book, and it started a whole new game. Elizabeth now held each book out for him to add his own squiggle before returning it to the customer.

Nathan nodded, but his keen eyes picked up on Jack rubbing his eyes again. When the boy started to pout as his mother showed him the next book, he stepped in. "Sorry, folks, but I think our little apprentice has had enough."

"Actually, I think it's time we allow Mrs. Thornton Grant to take a break," Helen announced. "We will resume shortly."

"I appreciate your patience," Elizabeth added, beaming at the crowd as she stood. "I never imagined so many people would be touched by my story. Thank you all so much for coming here today. If you are unable to continue waiting, please leave your name with Mrs. Barnum, and I will be sure to leave a note for you."

The people waiting smiled and waved and began talking a bit louder amongst themselves, but no one moved from the line. Helen gestured for Elizabeth to follow her to a small parlor, offering her juice or coffee and some finger sandwiches. Nathan, after ensuring that Allie was coming to join them, followed with Jack. The little boy managed a small sandwich and a couple of cookies before falling asleep. Elizabeth finished eating while he dozed against her chest, then relaxed back herself, closing her eyes. Nathan set his plate aside and picked up Elizabeth's hand, gently massaging her tired fingers.

"Are you sure you're up for this?" he asked, concerned by the fatigue he could see on her face.

Elizabeth opened her eyes, smiling sweetly at him. "I'll admit this is a bigger crowd than I expected, but I'll be alright. I want to finish."

Nathan nodded, smiling back as he raised her hand to kiss the tops of her fingers. "We're eating in tonight," he insisted. "I know Mr. and Mrs. Franklin invited us to join them, but you need to make it an early night."

"You worry too much," Elizabeth chided gently. "But thank you for taking such good care of me."

"Are you ready to go back out?" Allie asked, clearly excited to rejoin the crowd.

"Come here, buddy," Nathan said quietly, lifting Jack and laying him on the small sofa across the room. Moving two of the dining chairs against the edge to keep the boy from rolling onto the floor, he quickly turned back to give Elizabeth a quick kiss. "I'll stay here with him."

Elizabeth smiled teasingly. "Sure, hide out in the back while I go out to face the lions."

Helen and Nathan laughed and Allie teased, "I know some of them are a tad over-zealous, but I don't think they're going to bite you."

"If we don't get back out there soon, they might," Helen joked, directing Elizabeth back to the table.

While Julie and Isaac were busy with the Arts Society gala, Nathan and Elizabeth took the opportunity to have a formal date night. Not only did she hope to dispel any lingering hard feelings over her trip to the city with Lucas, but it would probably be their last chance for something so intimate and formal before the new baby arrived in a few months. With Allie and Jack spending the evening with the Franklins, who were enjoying getting practice in as grandparents, Nathan and Elizabeth dressed for a night out.

"Hopefully, this goes better than our last date," Nathan joked as he struggled with his tie.

Coming up beside him, Elizabeth gently tugged the offending piece of material from his hand and tossed it on the bed. Smiling, she reached up to unfasten the top button of his shirt. "Thank you for being willing to suffer, but I will not be offended if you leave the tie at home." Straightening his jacket and brushing off an imaginary piece of dust, she added, "I want you to enjoy our evening, not feel like you're strangling the whole time."

Nathan grinned, placing a gentle kiss on her head before guiding her out the door. The children were almost too busy playing to bid them goodnight, and he quickly found himself helping Elizabeth into one of the Franklins' cars and directing the driver to a restaurant Isaac had recommended.

Having made reservations, they were quickly seated, and drinks provided. Elizabeth admired the plush cushions of their booth, wondering if The Queen of Hearts would ever offer upholstery of this quality, and the colorful walls. Nathan, meanwhile, appreciated that the decorations were elegant but simple. When he first heard the name of the restaurant, an Italian word he couldn't pronounce, he was sure they would be inundated with flowers, candles, and forced romance. Instead, the walls were various vineyard inspired colors-deep rose, golden yellow, rich plumb- with small landscapes throughout. The lights were dimmer than natural daylight, but not obtrusively dark. It felt comfortable, despite the formal attire of the patrons, and no one seemed bothered by Nathan's lack of a tie and loose button.

While they were waiting for their entrees, they laughingly recalled their previous attempt at a formal date, on Valentine's Day, and how it did not turn out remotely the way Nathan had planned. He had arranged for Laura to stay overnight with the children, ensuring he and Elizabeth had plenty of time to make it back from Brookfield or the option to stay the night if it got too late. Unfortunately, she had come down with the flu that morning, and while the Coulters and the Yoests both offered to let the children stay with them, neither Elizabeth nor Nathan wanted to disrupt their friends' plans.

"It was just as well," Elizabeth shrugged. "Since both children succumbed to the same stomach bug after dinner. I don't think our friends would have appreciated that. "

Nathan feigned a pout, trying to look put out. "How romantic," he lamented. "Instead of kisses and candy, we spent the night caring for vomiting kids."

"A lesson in true love," she replied, patting his hand. "An example of 'for better or worse, in sickness and in health'". Nathan joined her laughter, leaning down to press a kiss on her temple just as the waiter arrived with their dinner.

Today, the stomach issues they had to contend with centered around Elizabeth's pregnancy. She had grumbled as she was getting dressed, her now obvious belly making it difficult to see herself as attractive. Nathan had been very quick to reassure her, enthusiastically enough to nearly make them late and require a quick fix to her hair and make-up, and repeated his praises over the course of the night. The other problem was her ever-changing mood when it came to food. One minute she wanted steak, the next fruit and cheese. When another waiter walked past their table with a fish and vegetable dish, she changed her mind again. Their waiter, a new father himself, kindly advised the kitchen about Elizabeth's quick changing appetite. She ended up eating all of her walleye and rice, along with a third of Nathan's steak and potatoes.

"And would you care for dessert?" the waiter asked, his grin making it obvious he already knew the answer.

"Mmmm," Elizabeth sighed. "We can share something. Should we get the chocolate torte or the cheesecake with berries?"

Nathan smirked as he looked at the waiter. "We'll have one of each." Glancing back at his wife, he added with a wink, "If I'm lucky, I'll might actually get a bite of one of them."

"Hey!" Elizabeth tried to argue, but he merely nodded at the empty plates being removed from their table. She huffed as she sat back, but gave in after only a few seconds and laughed, too. "I'm eating for two, remember?"

Nathan smiled, gently rubbing her rounded belly. "I know," he said proudly. "Which is why I won't argue with you stealing my food and eating all the dessert." She beamed back at him. "Do we need to get the recipe for those salmon puffs for Gustave?" he asked. "If he's catering to your sister's every culinary desire, maybe he'd be willing to try something for you."

"Ohhh," Elizabeth hummed, her eyes lighting up. "Do you think he would?"

"Just get your sister to ask him. Then I'm sure Lucas will insist."

A/N- Yes, I might have taken a dig at one of my own stories there when Nathan worries about those good intentions being swayed. And yes, I did give my least favorite saloon owner a nice date. I make no promises that his good luck will continue. ;-)