Thursday, February 11, 2016

Not Long Ago: First 2 Chapters

A Time Travel Romance Novel by Susan A. Royal

While doing research for a novel set in the Middle Ages, Erin and her employer, March, are transported to a time where chivalry and religion exist alongside brutality and superstition. Things are not quite right at the castle, and Erin and March feel sure mysterious Lady Isobeil is involved. Erin must cope with crop circles, ghosts, a kidnapping and death before the truth of her journey is revealed.

Forced to pose as March’s nephew, Erin finds employment as handsome Sir Griffin’s squire. She’s immediately attracted to him and grows to admire his courage, quiet nobility and devotion to duty. Yet, she must deny her feelings. Her world is centuries away, and she wants to go home. Despite that, Erin can’t stop thinking about her knight in shining armour.  

Chapter One

I saw him the other day. It happened when I cut across Market Street and passed in front of the fancy new coffee shop. On the other side of spotless glass, waitresses in crisp black uniforms served expensive coffee in fancy cups and saucers. One man sat alone at a table by the window. No one I knew, just a handsome stranger who glanced up as I passed. Our eyes met and I froze in the middle of a busy sidewalk crowded with impatient people. Annoyed, they parted, sweeping past me like water rushing downstream.

What I saw left me reeling, as though someone had knocked the wind out of me. My glimpse deep inside the man’s essence unnerved me, but I couldn’t look away. Who was he? The waitress stopped at his table. He turned, lowering his cup into its saucer and shook his head, his mouth curving into a familiar smile that made my heart lurch.

After she left, his eyes returned to mine. A moment before, I thought they’d held a spark of recognition. Now, I saw nothing. I felt cold, as though he’d slammed a door in my face and left me standing outside in the rain.

I had no other choice but to move on.

It wasn’t just recognition—I knew things about him too. Things I had no reason to know. An image flashed in my mind: the curl of hair at the nape of his neck; a scar snaking down his arm. I’d put it there, after all.

I knew the man before me was an excellent horseman, accomplished swordsman, and an honorable man. Beyond the shadow of a doubt. How could I be so certain?

There was something else. A chilling realization crept up my spine. He didn’t belong in my world. Not in the coffee shop, not in the city. Not anywhere. None of this should have happened. We should have been no more than casual observers sharing a moment before going our separate ways. But something went wrong.

* * * *

A year ago, I was unemployed and bordering on panic. I’d filled out applications, sent resumes, interviewed and waited. Nothing. Fresh out of college, I was on my own and without a job. My parents were dead, my brother working out of the country. If I had sent word, Aidan would have wired money right away, but I wanted to do things on my own.

“You are incredibly stubborn.” His words, not mine. I prefer to call it determined. I’ve always been that way. Maybe it helps me survive.

I’d been bugging Angie, the girl at the employment agency. Frustrated, I begged her for something — anything — I could do. I’m sure she wished I’d go away. The last time I called, giving her my best groveling and pleading performance to date. She finally relented. “Okay.” I could hear her pencil tapping against the desk. “There is one position I’ve been unable to fill.” Hesitation filled her voice. “But, it’s only temporary.”

“What kind of work?” I tried not to sound too eager.

“I’ve been asked to find an assistant, a go-fer or whatever you want to call it.” I heard the sound of paper being shuffled. “The man’s a successful author with extreme methods of writing. He’s doing research for a new book and becomes so completely absorbed in his work he has no regard for schedules or meals. It’s not unusual for him to work hours at a time without stopping,” she said. “And he expects his assistant to do the same.”

“So, you’re saying he’s a workaholic?”

“Let’s just say he’s eccentric. He’s rejected most of the temps I sent before they even made it through the door. One or two got a little further, only to quit after the first day.”

I kept after Angie, and she finally admitted the worst. “The last girl I sent called me from the elevator in hysterics. He had bellowed at her in some hideous language before coming at her with a sword. She thought he was about to cut her up in little pieces.” Angie started tapping her pencil again. “Later, he apologized and explained that he was acting out an ancient method of swordplay, so he could get it right before he put it down on paper. It didn’t matter, she refused to go back.”

“Who is he?” I thought if I read up on him, it might give me an edge. I needed all the help I could get.

“He writes under a pen name, and don’t even think about asking him what it is, unless you want to make a quick exit.” Angie gave me a few minutes to let her words sink in. “Well, what do you think?”

“I’d like to give it a try.” I had nothing to lose, and neither did Angie.

“All right, I’ll set up the interview. But don’t say I didn’t warn you.” Five minutes later, she called back with directions to an elegant, century-old apartment building located downtown.

Later that day, I rode the elevator to the top floor of the building. The doors slid open to reveal plush floral carpeting. I made my way past elaborate gold sconces set against dark wood paneling, feeling as though I’d stepped into another century. At the end of the hall I stopped before a heavy, paneled door, took a deep breath and rang the bell.

A gentleman in his fifties answered the door after the third ring. His Scots-Irish ancestry was evident from his reddish brown hair, short beard and ruddy complexion. He met me with a ‘whatever it is, make it quick, can’t you see you’re interrupting me?’ look.

Flustered, I introduced myself, waving my resume in the air as though it were a magic charm. He took it without a word, ushered me inside and shut the door. Dressed in slacks and a white shirt with the cuffs rolled back, he wore eyeglasses hung on a chain around his neck. He lifted them, still folded, to peer at my resume.

“Aahhh, another lamb to the slaughter.” He spoke with a British accent, while his direct blue eyes bored holes in me. “Call me March.”

I had no clue if it was his first or last name. In a nervous voice, I began to rattle off any of my limited skills I thought he might find the least bit impressive. He paused only to pitch my carefully typed paper atop a stack of mail covering a table in the foyer. I wondered how many resumes like mine gathered dust there. March took my arm. “Let’s continue our conversation in the library, shall we? I was about to brew some tea. Would you care to join me, Erin?” He had a nice smile. I accepted his offer, telling myself Angie had probably exaggerated. March seemed slightly old-fashioned, but in a charming way.

While he went to get tea, I perched on one of the matching chairs placed on either side of a glass-topped table and allowed my gaze to wander around the large, airy room. Overflowing floor-to-ceiling shelves covered three walls. Reference books on history and geography shared space with studies on witchcraft, astronomy, astrology, quantum theory, physics and music. On the fourth wall, large glass doors led to an ornate wrought iron balcony with a view of one of the town’s oldest cathedrals and the quaint little park next to it.

In the middle of the library a huge wooden desk hid under maps, handwritten notes and large, heavy volumes, their pages marked by dozens of post-its sticking out from all sides. I wondered how the man ever managed to write anything in such chaos; however, I’d seen enough to whet my appetite. Working for him would be very interesting. However, I was getting way ahead of myself. He hadn’t offered me the job, yet.

March returned with tea on a silver tray and served from dainty cups and saucers while we made small talk. He studied me as he stirred milk into his cup. “I’m certain my reputation has preceded me.”

A gulp of hot tea almost made me choke. “What do you mean?”

“You’ve been made aware of my unconventional work habits, I’m sure.” With a nod, I set my cup and saucer on the tray.

“I expect my assistant to be available at all times, and I can be cranky when I don’t get my way.” He crossed his legs and leaned back in his chair. “Think about it. Are you willing to work under those conditions?”

Eyes averted, I studied my hands and wondered what to say. Ultimately I decided on honesty. “I really need the job.” After such a lame explanation, I expected him to see me to the door with polite regrets, saying I wasn’t suited for the position. But he didn’t.

He waved at the overburdened desk. “This disorder requires immediate attention. We’ll start tonight.”

We finished our tea and began going through the mess, making stacks of the books he could use, and transcribing his handwritten notes. After midnight we stopped and ate, probably because he heard my stomach growling. When the grandfather clock in the foyer struck two, I’d been holding yawns back for over an hour.

He glanced at his watch and frowned. “I’m terribly sorry, Erin. It seems I’ve done it again.” He nodded to himself. “It won’t do for you to be out on the streets at this late hour. Come. I’ll show you to the guest room.”

By the time March left me at the door of the cozy guest room, my stomach churned with uncertainty. He seemed harmless, but how much did I really know about him? I locked the door behind him and called Angie. “Maybe I should have listened to you after all.”

“Erin?” Her voice was groggy. She must have been sound asleep. “Where are you, and why are you whispering?”

I explained.

Her yawn was loud and clear. “Listen to me. You’re perfectly safe. He’s not a crazed killer, only unconventional. Get some sleep, and let me do the same.”

After an apology, I hung up. I can take care of myself. Isn’t that what I’ve been saying all these months? But I shoved a chair up under the doorknob, just in case.

Chapter Two

At half past nine the next morning, a sharp knock on the door jolted me awake. Bright sunlight streamed in through the windows. I staggered out of bed, opening the door to squint down at a little woman with the merriest blue eyes and the widest smile I’d ever seen.

“Good morning to you.” She balanced an overloaded breakfast tray like she’d had plenty of practice and pushed the door open. “Knowing March’s terrible habits, I’m sure he insisted on working until all hours, with no time for a decent meal. You’re probably famished.” She set the tray on the table beside the bed and put out her hand. “My name is Kathleen. I keep everything running around here.”

Confused, I shook her hand. “I’m Erin—wait, you’re his housekeeper? Do you live here, too?”

“You didn’t think he managed things all by himself, did you?” She laughed until she shook all over.

“Are you talking about me behind my back again, Kathleen?” March stood outside my door, coffee mug in hand. Like me, he was still wearing the same clothes he’d worn the previous night. “Erin’s only just started work, and you’re corrupting her already.” He drew his brows together. “I don’t stand a chance.”

Kathleen gave me a broad wink. “He likes to think he’s in charge, and I humor him. Now, eat before your food gets cold.” She breezed off down the hall.

March cleared his throat. “You heard her. We’ve a mountain of work, and you’re wasting valuable time.” He turned, heading toward the library without even asking how I’d slept.

Oh, well. It’s not like I hadn’t been warned. I did my best to look presentable, in spite of my wrinkled clothes.

Thirty minutes later, I joined him. “You didn’t tell me you had a live-in housekeeper.”

“Didn’t I? I’m terribly sorry. I assumed you knew. Kathleen has taken care of me for many years, and I’m very fortunate she puts up with me. She told you the truth. I don’t know the first thing about anything domestic, cooking in particular. I’m quite sure I’d have starved by now, if not for her.” He held a large, dusty volume. “Shall we begin?”

I didn’t know at the time, but we’d already set the pattern for our working relationship. March immersed himself in his books, researching his subject, striving for accuracy and staging each scene with meticulous care. I organized, filed, sent faxes, made appointments, took notes and listened. The next few weeks were incredible. We lived and breathed medieval history, and I began to look forward to what each new day would bring. After reading about knights and chivalry as a child, I’d romanticized about the medieval times, and I found it fascinating to be doing actual research on the subject.

* * * *

Together, we traced routes on old maps and studied diagrams of castles. We read about the day to day experiences of people who lived in the Middle Ages, and I imagined them going about their everyday lives. March obtained accurate replicas of a knight’s armor and weaponry, and we tried our hand at fighting with a sword. I learned all the moves required, but I was hopeless. Without the upper body strength required, I could never imagine using one to protect myself.

We spent most of our days in the library with the balcony doors opened to catch the breeze, ballads from the Middle Ages playing softly in the background. One afternoon, we even attempted medieval dance. We’d managed to get hold of the proper music, but March could find no diagrams available. So, we did a lot of educated guessing, while Kathleen encouraged us.

“How lovely!” she said, when we’d made it all the way through one piece without tripping each other up. “You have quite the knack, Erin. You look as though you’ve been dancing to this sort of music all your life.”

“Have you nothing to say about my expertise?” March crossed his arms, pretending to be hurt.

Kathleen laughed. “As a dance partner, you make a wonderful author.” Although they teased each other without mercy, plainly they enjoyed each other’s company.

* * * *

When I returned from my apartment early one evening, March met me at the door, his eyes bright with excitement. Behind him, a large wooden crate crowded the foyer. “It just arrived. You probably passed the delivery men in the hall.”

 I had no idea what he meant, until I remembered him mentioning his inspiration to set his story in the Middle Ages had been an artifact from a friend’s private collection.

“You cannot believe how bloody thrilled I am! I began to think Archard had backed out of our gentleman’s agreement. I wouldn’t put it past him either, the old reprobate.” He disappeared for a moment, returning with a crowbar and a hammer. “I wined and dined him for at least three weeks, trying to persuade him to let go of this piece. I was so amiable it was revolting.”

He pulled each nail from the wood with extreme care. It took him half an hour to remove the lid, only to discover another container inside, cushioned in Excelsior packaging. The suspense was unbearable. I could understand how a museum curator must feel at the unveiling of some long awaited archeological find.

March carried the smaller box into the library. Beyond the balcony doors, the sky had faded into darkness. I made my way around the room, switching on lamps. When March removed the lid, we looked inside to find more packing and another, smaller box. He opened the last container and lifted out something wrapped in muslin. After carefully removing yards of material, he set a small container in the middle of the desk. “There it is, exactly as I remembered it. What do you think, Erin?”

I frowned, unable to understand his excitement over a nondescript metal box so tarnished that the faint engraving covering it was almost invisible.

He scrutinized it through a magnifying glass before he darted over to the bookshelves, pulling first one, then another heavy volume down, trying to find a match. “Strange. If this does date from medieval times, I should be able to place the symbols, but I can’t find anything even close. I’m at a loss.”

“Has the box been carbon dated?”

“Archard assured me he had done so after he unearthed it on a farm in Wales over forty years ago. Perhaps he led me astray. The closer I look, the more I wonder if this was a very nasty joke at my expense. He’s probably having a great laugh because I paid him handsomely for the bloody thing.”

Still peering intently at the markings, he didn’t even glance up when Kathleen appeared at the door, her lips pressed into a thin line. After March acknowledged her with a vague wave of his hand, she and I exchanged glances. “I’ve a lovely roast and vegetables if anyone is interested,” Kathleen said. When she got no response, she rested her hands on her hips. “At any rate, I’ve left it in the oven. Don’t leave it too long or it will taste like shoe leather. If there’s nothing else you need, I’ll be going to bed.”

March managed to tear his attention away for a moment. “Thank you, Kathleen. Sleep well.”

While March was busy, I slipped away, helping myself to food and wine, while peering through the kitchen windows. Outside, flashes of lightning streaked through dark clouds building up overhead. It looked like we were going to have rain and soon. When I returned, I found March slumped over the desk, his head in his hands. “Haven’t you figured out how to open it?”

“I’m at a loss.” With extreme care, he picked the box up and turned it over. “I’m certain it does, but I’ve found no visible latch or hinges.”

“Do you think there’s a hidden catch somewhere? I used to have a trinket box that opened that way.”

His shot me a look of annoyance, but held it up and allowed me to run my fingers over its top and sides. We were so intent on examining it neither of us noticed the room growing darker or the wind rattling the glass in the balcony doors. I must have touched a spring, allowing the lid to pop open. We both gasped with surprise. Inside was a smooth black object. March lifted it from the box, and without thinking I reached out my hand. As soon as I touched the artifact, it began to glow. Bright flashes like lightning, only ten times brighter, enveloped us. A loud clap of thunder made my ears pop, and then the lights went out.

After blinking several times, I could see again, but nothing I expected. Instead of the library, we were in a room with low ceilings and a dirt floor. A fire on the hearth glowed just bright enough for us to know we weren’t alone.

Not Long Ago by Susan Royal is available at:

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