"He is so tall, isn't he, and look how handsome he looks in his uniform." said a young blonde girl.

"He is handsome, Sarah, the most handsome man here," said the other blonde girl, her curls bobbing wildly in excitement. "Look at that smile and the dimple in the chin.

Elizabeth Thatcher frowned at the silliness she could hear from her companions. She didn't know the two ladies well; they were acquaintances from Teachers College, and in the short time she had spent with them today realised that was all they had in common. She had agreed to go with them to the park for lunch, wanting a change from eating at school as she usually did. She had a feeling lunch was going to be an ordeal and one she vowed not to repeat. Elizabeth was only halfway through unpacking the picnic basket, and she had already rolled her eyes three times at their giggling chatter. They reminded her of her younger sister Julie who could be quite immature when it came to men.

"Elizabeth, you must come and see who Sarah and I are talking about," exclaimed Anna, her voice high pitched with excitement.

Elizabeth tried to distract them, taking a deep breath, sitting back on her haunches, smiling, "wouldn't you rather sit and eat? We don't have much time before we need to get back."

Sarah looked at Elizabeth, eyes wide in shock, "who can eat at a time like this? If we don't catch his eye now, we might never get another chance; time is running out for me to find a husband, and one so handsome would be perfect."

It was clear to Elizabeth that it wasn't worth wasting her time with the two young women; they had different priorities from her. What was the point of going to College if all you did was turn around and marry the first person you met, handsome or otherwise? Elizabeth planned to graduate at the top of her class and head West. She wanted to make a difference in the world; teaching children was her calling, and she wanted to be the best teacher she could be.

Sitting back on her haunches, she glanced at her companions; while she had no intention of joining them, she didn't want them embarrassing her by behaving poorly. As she looked at them, she couldn't help noticing what had caught their attention, a group of young men in uniform. Mounties, she thought, trainees most likely; otherwise, they would be at their posting, not playing a rather boisterous baseball game in the park. The worst of it for Elizabeth is that they were not that far away and quite likely to hear her companions if they spoke any louder.

As Elizabeth looked over, she inadvertently made eye contact with the very person Sarah and Anna had been discussing. Her breath hitched, and her heart started pounding faster in her chest; she blushed. Handsome didn't come close to describing how stunning the man was. His thick wavy black hair swept back from a strong face with full lips, a chiselled jaw, and a small dimple in his chin. His eyes made him more than handsome; fringed in thick dark lashes and, from where she sat, appeared to be a startling blue. 'I will need to get closer to confirm the colour,' she thought. Shaking her head, she tried to clear it. What was she thinking? She had no intention of getting closer to him or anyone.

As she sat, her mind racing, she realised she was still staring at the man, and to her shame, he had noticed. His face broke into a lop-sided smile, his lips stretching further up on the right-hand side. That crooked smile started her heart racing all over again. She quickly looked away, busying herself with the food, trying to calm her ragged nerves.

She turned her back on the baseball game, picked up a sandwich quarter and her book and began reading, paying no attention to anyone. She read the same line for the third time before giving up; it was no good. She couldn't concentrate, not here.

Calling her friends, she said, "I think I must head back to the school; there is something I remembered I need to do before the end of the day." She gathered her things and decided to leave the food for the girls. Otherwise, there would be no reason for them to be at the park, and they needed an excuse to be there.

Elizabeth ignored the baseball game nearby and looked at her friends instead. It was difficult to ignore, especially considering the wild laughter and good-hearted teasing she could hear from the group. It was only a small park, making it almost impossible to pretend they weren't there. Ignoring the cries of dismay from Anna and Sarah, she stood, preparing to leave, shaking her skirts to loosen any debris from the picnic rug and adjusting her hat.

Elizabeth turned from her friend's heading back to College; as she stepped forward, shouts of alarm behind her finally caught her attention when she heard her name amongst the voices. "Elizabeth, watch out!" she heard Sarah scream, starting to turn; she felt intense pain in the back of her head, and then - nothing.

Nathan watched in horror as the beautiful woman he had caught staring at him earlier got hit in the head with a foul ball from their game. Nathan followed the ball's trajectory from where he stood between bases, planning to steal third, he was too far away to prevent the accident, but he needed to try.

As he heard shouts and yells around him, including her friends, he ran towards the woman, 'Elizabeth,' he thought, as he listened to her friends call out her name. It suited her; it was pretty and delicate like her.

As he reached her, he dropped to his knees beside her. He reached out to her but pulled his hand back as he got a closer look at her. Pretty wasn't a strong enough word to describe the woman lying on the ground; she was beautiful, breathtaking. Her skin was like porcelain, her cheeks lightly flushed with colour, and her bowlike lips were a delicate rose pink. Lush brown curls spread out around her head as she lay unmoving on the ground.

Nathan reached forward again, this time calling on his training in first aid to feel the back of her head, trying to determine if she was bleeding. There was no blood; however, there was a large lump where the ball had connected. As his fingers brushed the bump, he heard a slight groan escape Elizabeth's lips, and he stilled his hand, trying to prevent further pain.

"Elizabeth? Elizabeth? Can you hear me?" Nathan asked gently, not wanting to frighten her.

"Blue," she mumbled, "a beautiful blue," Elizabeth uttered the words as she opened her eyes and looked into his.

"What did you say?" Nathan questioned; his brow furrowed; her response to his question made no sense; maybe the ball had struck her harder than he thought.

"What...What happened? Who are you?" Elizabeth couldn't believe she had said the words out loud; she felt her cheeks redden and tried to sit up; a blinding pain sliced through her head at the movement. "Oh," she groaned, placing her hand on the lump on her head, lying back down. As she felt the lump, she realised that Nathan's hand was next to hers, and she noted how close he was, leaning over her.

This time Elizabeth ignored the pain in her head and sat up; as she did, she felt lightheaded and was glad when Nathan grasped her upper arms and held her still. "Can you tell me what happened, please?" she begged, looking into those mesmerising eyes.

"The ball." he said briefly, 'It, it... hit you," he stammered. Nathan didn't know what was happening to him; he was usually shy around new people, including women, but this was different; he could barely catch his breath. he could feel himself staring at her but couldn't look away.

He mentally shook himself, 'get a grip, Grant', he scolded. Still holding her arms, his tone firmer, he asked, "how are you feeling? Do you feel lightheaded?" Running feet, slapping on the ground, finally broke his gaze from hers as he looked up to see his friends and hers coming toward them. Remaining kneeling, he asked her friends, "Do you have far to go to get home? I do think an escort is required."

Anna and Sarah started talking at once, tripping over each other to be the one to give him the address of the College where they lived. Nathan held up a hand, halting their words, smiling at each; he laughed, "slow down, Ladies, I can't understand a word, and I do want to know where home is."

Anna and Sarah fell silent; the smile he sent their way quieted them. Elizabeth answered his question before they could decide who would speak, "I am staying with family. I don't live with Anna and Sarah." Elizabeth attempted to stand, Nathan, gripping her elbow to assist her, glancing at the two women, "I believe it was me he thought needed escorting home," she said scathingly. Shaking off Nathan's hand on her arm, she said, "thank you, sir. I can make my own way home."

Nathan heard her protest but ignored it, "I am sorry, Maam, I cannot let you walk home after that blow to the head. I am training to be a Mountie, which includes some medical training, and it tells me you must be accompanied." He whipped his head around, finding his fellow trainees standing close by, "Trainee Kinslow, is that the right medical protocol in these circumstances?"

Gabriel pressed his lips together before answering, hiding a smile, "absolutely, trainee Grant, this young lady cannot travel home alone."

Elizabeth rolled her eyes at the two of them; she knew what they were doing; however, she did feel a little unsteady on her feet and would appreciate help getting home. "Could I convince you to secure me a carriage instead of escorting me home?" she asked, hopefully.

"I am sorry, Maam, that won't do. I will have to escort you all the way home, to be sure, Miss..." Nathan left his sentence hanging, waiting for Elizabeth to provide her name. He knew her first name, but he wouldn't presume to call her that without invitation.

"Thatcher, Elizabeth Thatcher," she said, extending her hand.

"Trainee Royal North-West Mounted Police Nathan Grant, a pleasure to meet you, Miss Thatcher." her hand fit neatly within his much larger one, and he felt a jolt of electricity as their hands met. He glanced at their joined hands; the smile slipped from his face; he had never felt anything like that before. Nathan could tell Elizabeth felt it too, her mouth formed an 'o', and he heard her inhale sharply before she hastily withdrew her hand from his.

Elizabeth looked at Anna and Sarah, "thank you for the picnic, Ladies. I shall see you tomorrow." Her gaze travelled over the people standing around; she hadn't realised how large the group was and felt her cheeks redden again. "Thank you all for coming to my aid. I am sure I will be fine." Bending down, she reached below the hem of her skirt and pulled out the offending baseball, "would anyone like to claim this?" she asked, one eyebrow arched and a slight smile on her face.

Shuffling feet and the tops of heads answered her question. Gabriel finally took pity on the group and reached for the ball. "Our apologies Miss Thatcher; we are very sorry you were injured."

Elizabeth nodded her head toward Gabriel and the group, accepting the apology. Her breath caught again as Nathan stepped toward her and looked at her; his piercing blue eyes were mesmerising, she thought as butterflies filled her stomach.

Nathan collected Elizabeth's items from the ground before holding out his arm for Elizabeth. Once she took his arm, he started walking to the park's edge, where he could flag down a carriage. "So, Ms Thatcher, I will need your address when you can, so I can direct the carriage."

Elizabeth rattled off the address where she was staying, watching him as she gave him the details. Often when she told people her address, their behaviour changed; she understood this was because it was in an affluent area of Town. She was impressed by Nathan's expression; it didn't change, so he wasn't intimidated by wealth or was wealthy in his own right. Either was fine with her; she hated when people treated her differently when they found out her background and who her family were.

Nathan secured a carriage quickly and directed the driver to where Elizabeth was staying. As they started their journey, Nathan settled into the seat opposite Elizabeth, smiling at her gently, "How are you feeling now, Ms Thatcher, any better?"

"Other than a slight headache, I feel better, thank you, and thank you for escorting me home...I am sorry, I am not sure what to call you. Do I refer to you as Trainee Grant?" Elizabeth had never met a Mountie before and didn't want to offend him.

"I do get called Trainee Grant at the academy, but outside of there, it's plain old Nathan Grant, although I would like it if you called me Nathan," smiling as he said it, he hoped that wasn't too forward.

"Of course. Nathan," she said, blushing, "please call me Elizabeth". At that moment, the carriage lurched, and she pitched forward in her seat. Instinctively, she reached out to brace herself, and her hand landed squarely on Nathan Grant's knee. This time she didn't just blush; her face turned completely red from her indiscretion. "I am so sorry, Nathan, I, I..."

"Please, Elizabeth," he said, placing his hand over hers, his voice soft, "it couldn't be helped." He smiled at her as he lifted her hand and settled her back against her seat.

As Nathan opened his mouth to say more, the carriage came to a halt, arriving at their destination. Nathan stepped out first, talking to the driver, asking him to wait while also stepping up and knocking on the door of the home to announce their arrival. The door opened, and the next Elizabeth knew, she was being ushered out of the carriage and hustled inside. Elizabeth was very disappointed; she barely got to say goodbye to Nathan or say thank you to him again. Looking over her shoulder as the door closed, she saw him shake his head in defeat, a sad smile on his face. Elizabeth walked slowly to find her Aunt, to tell her what had occurred; as she walked, she felt strangely unhappy but couldn't put her finger on the cause of this; she shrugged; maybe it was the bump on her head.

As she lay on the lounge in her bedroom, she thought about Nathan Grant as her Aunt fussed around her. Between insisting she didn't need a Doctor or her parents called or to rest, she remembered his eyes and smile and the gentle way he touched her. Nathan Grant was the most handsome man she had ever met, and under different circumstances, she would certainly try and find out more about him. Unfortunately, circumstances weren't different; she was graduating shortly and would seek a position away from Hamilton and her parents, and Nathan Grant.

As it returned him to the park, Nathan sat back in the carriage, thinking about Elizabeth Thatcher. Yes, she was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen, but it wasn't just that; there was something about Ms Thatcher that intrigued him. Unfortunately, he was about to graduate from the Mountie academy, and postings could take him all over the country. It was likely to be far from here, and the privileged Ms Thatcher, he was sure, would be assigned a school in Town teaching students just like her.

6 weeks later

Thatcher Home, Hamilton

"Coal Valley, I have never heard of it," exclaimed Julie Thatcher when Elizabeth told her where she had secured her first teaching position. Flouncing down onto Elizabeth's bed, she asked petulantly, "why would you want to go there, so far away from civilisation and your family?"

Royal North-West Mounted Police Training Academy

Reviewing the letter Nathan handed to him as they sat in their barracks at the academy, Gabriel commented, "Coal Valley, that isn't far from my posting in Brookfield, Nathan." Smiling, he said, "we will be Neighbours if you count a couple of hours ride between town neighbours."

The newest residents of Coal Valley smiled at their companions, impatient to begin the exciting new chapter of their lives, determined to make a difference in the place they would now call home.