"So how was the park?" Elizabeth Thornton Grant asked as she watched her husband shed his jacket and loosen the first two buttons of his shirt.
"It was fine…." Nathan Grant was studiously examining a small piece of fuzz on his pant leg rather than meeting his wife's gaze.
"Nathan?" she asked, more intently now. "What happened?"
He finally looked up, amusement in his eyes. "We…may have another love triangle on our hands."
"Oh, dear," Elizabeth murmured. "Who did Allie meet?"
Nathan laughed nervously. "It wasn't Allie."
Now Elizabeth rolled her eyes. "And whose hearts is Julie set to break now?"
Nathan's mouth lifted in a smirk as he shook his head again. "Not Julie."
Elizabeth gaped at him, stunned into silence. After a moment of sputtering and unintelligible half questions, she finally managed to speak. "Jack? Our Jack?"
"Yup." Nathan's eyes were filled with mirth.
"He's five." Elizabeth was still stunned.
"So is Annabelle Montclair," her husband laughed.
"Edward's daughter? I didn't even know they were in town?"
Nathan shrugged. "Apparently, Jack, Allie, and I weren't the only ones who wanted to go fly a kite today. Edward was teaching his little girl the same thing. We ended up sharing a picnic together."
"And what makes you so sure Jack has a crush on Annabelle?"
Nathan chuckled. "You know those chocolate chip cookies that your housekeeper makes? The ones that Jack won't even share with me?" Elizabeth nodded. Jack had learned very quickly how to get Mrs. King to make her special cookies for him, and he was loath to share them with anyone. "He gave her his last cookie."
After over a decade in the classroom, Elizabeth was very familiar with little boys and their crushes. She had been the object of a few of them and had seen several others blossom into real relationships. She had been the one to tease Nathan when she saw Robert and Harper starting to pay more attention to Allie, though she also promised to keep a close eye on them. It seemed he was going to reciprocate her taunting now.
"Hold on," she said, realizing there was more to this story. "You said it was a triangle. Who else is involved?"
Nathan couldn't help but laugh at her obvious dismay. "Well, it seems Jack has drawn the attention of an older woman. Meredith Kensington and her father were also at the park, and she spent the afternoon trying to get him to play with her."
Elizabeth covered her eyes and shook her head, a small laugh escaping. After his disastrous marriage proposal, her old friend had returned to Hamilton. Not even a week later, Charles met Estella Grayson, the daughter of one of Thatcher Shipping's biggest investors. They had a whirlwind courtship and married within a year. Last Elizabeth had heard, they had four children and another one on the way. Their oldest, Meredith, had just turned eight.
"And what did Edward and Charles have to say about the whole situation?" she wondered out loud.
Nathan chuckled. "Well, they obviously both think their daughter is perfect and don't want to see her get hurt, but they were trying to be fair. Charles admitted that Annabelle may have a slight advantage, given her father's new assignment in Union City. They will be heading there once his leave is over. Edward was courteous enough to point out that Meredith's family has a closer relationship with the Thatchers, making her Grace's likely choice."
"You make it sound like they're getting married!" Elizabeth laughed. "There's an excellent chance he's going to forget about both of them by tomorrow!"
"Did Dad tell you about Jack's little girlfriends?" Allie joked.
"He mentioned it," Elizabeth replied, rolling her eyes. "I tried to tell him that Jack is probably going to forget all about them by tomorrow."
"Oh, I wouldn't count on that," Allie argued. "At least not little Annabelle."
Allie nodded empathically. "The kid's got it bad."
Allie grinned. "And he knows what he's doing, too! He gave her a cookie, picked her flowers, and even promised her a ride on Sargent…when they're both a bit bigger." The teenager laughed as Elizabeth's face fell. "I think he was really paying attention to all the stuff Dad did when he was courting you. Flowers, treats, and simply spending time together. Gifts that mean more than the fancy stuff."
Elizabeth was silent for a moment, trying to collect her thoughts.
"So what are you going to do?" Allie asked.
"Well, first things first… I want to talk to Jack. Maybe we'll arrange a couple of play dates for the kids, see if they really get along. But regardless, we're leaving in a few days, and I doubt any of this will last beyond a letter or two once we get home."
"Did you have fun at the park with Allie and Daddy today?" Elizabeth asked as she helped her son into his pajamas.
"So much fun, Mama!" he exclaimed. "We played on the swings and Allie let me hold the kite once she got it flying, and Daddy helped me feed the ducks without falling into the pond…"
"My goodness, it sounds like you had quite the afternoon."
"And I met a girl."
Elizabeth paused. "You did?"
Jack nodded excitedly. "Her name is Annabelle. She likes chocolate chip cookies, too. And she likes chasing frogs, and she knows how to ride a pony, and she smells like flowers."
"My goodness," Elizabeth said, trying to sound surprised. "She sounds like a very nice girl."
"She is," Jack beamed. "I met another girl, too. Her name is Meredith. She seems nice but she's bigger than me and she doesn't like frogs. But she smells pretty, too."
"It sounds like we will be having the Montclairs over this week," Grace announced once they were settled in the parlor with their evening beverages. "Allie told me about Jack's little crush."
Elizabeth shook her head, still in disbelief about the whole situation.
William chuckled as Grace smirked and added, "It does seem rather fitting, doesn't it? Since you once had a crush on Edward…"
"I did not!" Elizabeth argued, her face flushing bright red with embarrassment as she turned to face her husband. "I didn't." Everyone laughed as she buried her head in Nathan's chest.
Nathan snickered. "Oh, come on. My mother was more than happy to tell you all about me and little Susie Simpkins." He hugged her closely, kissing the top of her head and then turning towards Grace. "So, Elizabeth and Edward, huh?"
"Our families were in the same social circles, and they went to the same school for a few years. Edward was always there to escort one of the girls to various balls and parties, but Elizabeth seemed to be the one he accompanied most." Grace paused, smiling at her daughter. "It was only natural that he would be the first boy Elizabeth had feelings for."
"But to be fair, I think Edward's feelings for her were much stronger than hers for him," Julie interjected, finally trying to lessen her sister's humiliation. "And they don't compare to her feelings for Jack and you."
"What about Charles Kensington?" Nathan had heard about his proposal and the strain it put on his friendship with Elizabeth.
Grace chuckled. "Ah, yes…Charles. He and his family were at all those same parties and balls, though he had private tutors instead of attending school with the girls. I must admit, there was a time I had hoped to see Elizabeth marry him, if for no other reason than it would have kept her in Hamilton. But I know now that was never going to be the best thing for her. Watching the two of you together..." She smiled.
"So, what are we going to do about Jack?" Allie asked.
Elizabeth and Nathan joined Edward and Rose Montclair as they watched the children run around the yard. Grace had planned a lunch gathering, allowing the children to play while most of the adults conversed. Julie and Allie were leading Jack and Annabelle in a game of tag. Edward and Nathan shared experiences with the Mounted Police, while Elizabeth offered Rose suggestions for shopping and dining in Union City. They were already planning to meet for dinner a couple of months down the road, once the Montclairs settled into their new home.
The mothers watched as Jack stopped running to help Annabelle with a loose shoe. When the little girl kissed his cheek in thanks before scrambling off again, they both groaned.
"And here I thought my daughter was exaggerating when she told me she had a boyfriend," Rose muttered, shaking her head.
"And I was sure Jack's feelings would blow over by breakfast the next morning," Elizabeth commiserated. The women looked at each other and laughed softly. "How's Edward going to feel about this?"
Rose glanced back at her husband, thankful to see him engrossed in conversation with Nathan. "Maybe the less we tell him, the better."
Meanwhile, the two Mounties were covertly observing the game on the lawn.
"Well, at least I know that between you and Jack Thornton, the boy will be a proper gentleman," Edward sighed. "I'm guessing there's going to be some letters and visits between these two."
Nathan shrugged. "Or they may hate each other by the end of the train ride home."
Edward laughed, catching the attention of their wives. When the ladies joined them, he shared Nathan's prediction.
"I don't know whether to hope you're right, because it will make things easier when we return to Hope Valley, or to wish this continues, because they really do make such a cute pair," Elizabeth sighed.
The Grants and Montclairs departed Hamilton a few days later, their children still in the throes of puppy love. Annabelle and Jack kept each other entertained, having Allie read them stories, coloring, and playing the games of make-believe that children excel at. It made the three days confined to the train more bearable for everyone. There were the expected tears from both of them when Jack and his family were getting back on the train in Union City, but their parents' promises to help them write letters when they were all settled at least prevented tantrums.
Jack sat quietly in his mother's lap, staring out the window. The occasional sniffle told her that he was still sad to leave his new friend behind. "We're almost home, sweet boy," she told him as the landscape outside gave way to the familiar lands around Hope Valley.
Nathan shared a look with Elizabeth as he rubbed the boy's back. "What do you say we stop at Abigail's for dinner before we head home," he suggested. "I don't know about you guys, but I could really use a nice big slice of cake."
Jack peered up at his dad, a slight smile on his face. "Chocolate cake?"
Allie laughed, reaching across the aisle to tickle her brother's belly. "Is there any other kind?
"Elizabeth!" Ned called out as she stepped into the mercantile. "I have a letter for you." He turned to pull an envelope out of the slot behind him, handing it across the counter. "Actually, it's for Jack."
Elizabeth took in the return address and sighed. Thanking Ned, she hurried down the street to the jail. Thankful to find Nathan alone, she closed the door and sank into the chair in front of his desk.
"What's wrong?" he asked, concerned by the look on her face.
"Jack got a letter today," she said, holding it up. Their son had settled back into life in Hope Valley, going to school and playing with his friends, but he still asked about Annabelle regularly. Edward and Nathan had interacted a couple of times on Mountie business, but they had not made any firm plans for dinner yet.
Nathan grinned. "Aww. Annabelle finally wrote him back."
Elizabeth sighed, shaking her head. "No. This one is from Hamilton…so probably from Meredith."
Nathan's smile faded and his eyes widened.