Nathan strode down the street, eyeing the shadows settling over the town. He was nearly finished with his rounds, and having already bedded Newton down for the night, was on his way to lock up the jail and head home for dinner with Allie.
Elizabeth Thornton stood just outside the library, a look of panic on her face. As he loped closer, he realized that her usually well-styled hair was mussed and there was a bruise forming on her cheek.
"What's wrong?" he asked, trying to remain calm despite his racing heart. "What happened?"
Elizabeth was trembling, glancing between him and the door of the library. He could see the dim light of candles glowing in the window. "Lucas…he…" she stuttered, raising a shaky hand to point to the door. "I…it was an accident!"
Nathan gently moved her aside and hurried quietly to the door. Gun in hand, he peered cautiously inside. He quickly put the gun away as he stepped back to her side. Looking rapidly up and down the street, he pulled Elizabeth into the library and closed the door.
"What happened in here?" he demanded, gesturing around them.
As expected, there were several candles placed and lit around the room and an open box with more of them dumped on the floor; someone had clearly decided to forgo the efficient and safer lanterns hanging on the walls. There was a table set up in the center of the room, with more candles, a lacy tablecloth, and the remnants of two meals on it. One of the plates was tipped over and a bottle of wine lay on its side, the contents spilled across the table and dripping onto the floor. On the opposite side, Lucas Bouchard lay unmoving, his eyes open and glassy and a small pool of blood under his head.
"Elizabeth, what happened?" Nathan asked again, stepping close enough to place a hand on her shoulder. She jumped, startled by his touch, and backed away, her eyes glued to Lucas's body. "Elizabeth?"
She finally met his gaze, her blue eyes haunted.
"He invited me to here for dinner," she said quietly. "He said it was a celebration for my book being published. Just dinner and a celebration between two friends. But when I got here…" she trailed off, staring at the glowing candles as if seeing them for the first time. "When I got here, he had all of this set up. Candles, wine, flowers… romance. I told him so many times before that I didn't want…that I'm not ready to court anyone yet, but he wouldn't listen." She started moving towards the table, unaware of Nathan gently taking her arm and holding her back. "He said we could just "pretend" it was a date, like practice for when we went on a real one. I said I wasn't comfortable with that and I tried to leave. He… he got angry."
Nathan inhaled sharply, glaring at the man on the floor. Forcing his tone to remain steady, he prodded her softly. "Then what happened?"
Elizabeth closed her eyes and held her breath, tensing up as the images flooded through her mind. It took several minutes before she calmed down enough to continue. "He got angry. Slammed his hand down on the table and accused me of leading him on. I said that I hadn't, that I never offered him any encouragement, but he kept yelling. He said he had invested too much time and money into trying to win me over, and that I owed him. He grabbed my hand and pulled me from my chair and…he tried to kiss me."
Nathan studied her hands, noting the swollen fingers and red marks around her wedding rings.
"I pushed him back and tried to get away, and we bumped into the table," she explained, gesturing to the upturned plate and fallen bottle. "He let go of my hand and I tried to run, but he grabbed me from behind, pulling me back. I struggled and tried to scream but he covered my mouth so…I bit him. He cursed and let me go and I pushed him as hard as I could. I ran for the door… I was sure he was going to follow me, but then I heard a crash. When I looked back, he…" She waved her hand helplessly towards the mess.
Nathan walked slowly through the room, examining everything. The state of the wine and the table supported her story, as did her physical appearance. Stooping down, Nathan noted small marks on the palm of Lucas's hand, the size and shape of a person's teeth. He looked around, trying to figure out what had caused the wound on the back of the man's head. Standing, he stepped closer to the bookcases, noting the trace of blood and hair on the corner of one of them as well as the books themselves slightly shuffled. Turning to the side and measuring his own height against the solid wood frame, he nodded grimly.
"After he fell, why didn't you go for help?" Nathan asked. More than anything, he wanted to cross the room and gather Elizabeth into his arms to comfort her, but he knew he couldn't let his feelings for her cloud the investigation. "You could have gotten Faith or Carson, Bill… I'm sure even Hickam or Lee would have tried to help…"
"I was too afraid," Elizabeth admitted. "I thought they would blame me. Everyone would say it was my fault." Her eyes were filled with tears as she continued. "What if they all thought like he did? What if everyone thinks I've been leading him on? That I've been leading you on? You have been nothing but patient with me while I work through my grief and I know you deserve better than the hot and cold treatment I've given you…"
"So why did you call me over?" he asked. "You could have just left. Did anyone know you were going to dinner with Lucas?"
"Just Rosemary and Lee. They're watching Jack." Her eyes got wide and her face paled even more. "Jack! What's going to happen to Jack if I'm in jail?"
Nathan shook his head, grasping her shoulders and shaking her very gently to get her attention. "No one is going to jail," he assured her. "No one is going to blame you for what happened here tonight. Come on," he urged, trying to guide her towards the door. "Let's go get Bill."
"No!" Elizabeth cried, cringing away. "You can't tell Bill! He's a judge! He'll have to arrest me!"
"Elizabeth, calm down!" Nathan nearly shouted, stunning her into silence. When she finally met his gaze, he explained. "We have to tell him. Unless you're planning to haul Lucas's body out into the woods to let the animals scavenge it, or to burn this whole building down to get rid of it, we have to talk to Bill. Just tell him everything you told me. I'll give him my assessment of the room and the situation. He will rule Lucas's death a not so tragic accident, and we will move on."
"What about his mother?" Elizabeth gasped. "How am I supposed to look at Helen Bouchard, knowing that her son died in front of me and I did nothing?!"
"If she or anyone else asks, you tell them it was an accident. If it makes you feel better, tell them he tripped on the extra candles and fell into the bookcase."
Elizabeth stared at him in disbelief. "You…a Mountie…you want me to lie to everyone?"
Nathan scowled. "Think of it as protecting his reputation. Unless you want to tell everyone the whole story of what happened here tonight, I think blurring the truth a little is best. It was an accident. You didn't stab or shoot him. You were acting in self-defense when you pushed him away. Your back was turned when he fell. For all you know, he really did trip on the extra candles. Heaven knows, there are enough of them lying around…"
Elizabeth studied him silently for a moment. "Why are you helping me?" she asked softly.
"It's my job," he said simply. Stepping closer, he reached up to cup her cheek gently. "And because love is worth fighting for. I would do anything for you, Elizabeth. You know that."
She stared into his eyes for a moment, taking in his strength and using it to bolster her own. When he gestured towards the door again, she went along quietly. Nathan pulled the door closed, taking the key from her trembling hand to lock it. "Just in case," he murmured. They hurried down the street to the café and Elizabeth waited outside while Nathan went in the kitchen door and pulled Bill aside.
"We have a bit of a situation," he explained quietly. "Lucas Bouchard is dead."
Bill's eyes widened briefly but he quickly shuttered his expression. "I have to go," he told Clara. "Make sure you lock up when you're done. There should be some of the apple pie left over—I know that's one of your favorites. Take it home with you."
Clara nodded, turning back to the skillet in front of her. She would have to ask Jesse to help her finish with the last few customers, but they'd make it work. Nathan's serious and secretive tone, along with the fact he was still in uniform at this hour, made it clear it was Mountie business.
"Elizabeth, what's going on?" Bill asked as he stepped outside. He took in her shaking hands and tearstained face. Like Nathan, he also noted her messy hair and the mark on her cheek. "Let's go to my office."
Bill locked the door behind them, waiting until Nathan had helped Elizabeth into a chair before going around to take a seat behind his desk. "What happened?" he demanded. "Nathan, you said Lucas is dead?"
Nathan pulled his chair closer to Elizabeth, putting his hand over hers as he explained what he had seen and heard in the library. Bill asked a few questions of his own, then said he needed to see the scene for himself. "You can stay here if you like," he assured Elizabeth. "Nathan and I will take another look around and then we'll come back."
Elizabeth shook her head, clinging to Nathan's hand. "Don't leave me!" she pleaded. "Please don't leave me alone here!"
Nathan gathered her into his arms, letting her tears soak into his shoulder. He and Bill shared a look, both of them feeling helpless.
Once Elizabeth had calmed down, Bill once again explained that he and Nathan had to go down to the library to look around. "If you're not comfortable staying here alone, you can come with us, but you'll have to stay outside," he advised. She nodded, still retaining a tight grip on Nathan's hand as the trio made their way down the street. Elizabeth sat in one of the chairs out front, while Nathan and Bill unlocked the door and stepped inside. The candles had burned out, so Bill lit the lantern at the door and looked around.
"I can't say I ever liked the guy, but I never expected this," Bill said, gesturing to the signs of Elizabeth's struggle. "I'm surprised you didn't just haul him out to the woods and let the animals have him."
Nathan glared at the body on the floor. "I thought about it," he admitted quietly. "Lucas liked to run away whenever things got tough or didn't go his way. It wouldn't take much to get people to believe he'd left because Elizabeth turned him down. But there would always be the chance that someone would find him out there, and then there would be more questions." He sighed, glancing back at the door. "I don't think Elizabeth could have lived with that. I don't think I could have lived with that. I've sworn to protect and serve, to uphold the right. It had to be this way. For her. For Allie."
"Well, I agree with your assessment of the situation," Bill stated matter-of-factly. "There are obvious signs of a struggle, both in the room and on Elizabeth. Even if she had gone for help, I don't think anyone could have saved the guy. I've seen enough head injuries in my day; I firmly believe he died quickly. Now we just have to figure out what to do with the body, get this place cleaned up, and then it can be 'case closed'." He paused, watching the younger man for a moment. "I'll notify the Bouchards about their son's death. Why don't you see Elizabeth back to her house and then head home to that girl of yours. I bet she's getting pretty worried about you by now."
Nathan nodded, glancing once more around the room, his gaze finally settling on the dead man. "It's not up to me to judge you, Bouchard, here or wherever you are now. I can't say I wish you peace, not right now anyway, but I'm sorry it had to end like this. I just pray that Elizabeth can put this behind her and move on with her life—whether that's with me and Allie or someone else. So long, Lucas."
Word of Lucas's death spread quickly the next day. Rosemary, having heard the whole story from Elizabeth, agreed with Nathan's suggestion to blur the truth. She wasn't looking to save the saloon owner's reputation, but rather to protect Elizabeth's. Everyone showed their schoolteacher compassion, bolstering her strength and applauding her courage. No one accused her of anything, assuring her instead that she was not to blame for either the accident or her reluctance to enter a courtship with Lucas. "Take your time," they told her. "You'll know when you're ready," everyone promised.
And in time, they were right. While she still struggled with her grief over Jack and feared losing Nathan to a similar fate, Elizabeth's heart slowly opened once again to the town's Mountie. They married in the spring, moved into their new house on Elizabeth's land that summer, and welcomed a new baby the following year. Allie and Jack settled easily into being siblings, and Elizabeth's novel was deemed a success by her publishers and bookstores across the country.
Bill bought the saloon, and for a time struggled to juggle both it and the café, until an old friend returned to town. Abigail Stanton and her son returned to Hope Valley for Elizabeth and Nathan's wedding and decided to stay. She and Bill came to an equally beneficial agreement as far as ownership of the café, and they agreed to play fairly in terms of competing for customers.
Even after the building was cleaned, most people were reluctant to go into the library, too uncomfortable knowing someone had died inside. When a larger space opened up, the town council voted unanimously to move the library there, making it once again a welcoming and popular place for people of all ages to spend their time.
With so many good things happening, and the fact that the Bouchards had their son's body transported back to their family plot, Hope Valley soon forgot about the former saloon owner, focusing on better and brighter things.