Who-hoo! Here is a sneak peek of Royal Time, my newly finished novella. This is the fourth and final book in the Royals of Beaumont novella series that I’ve written under the name Rachel Branton. Each book can be read alone, but the whole series is connected by way of friends who find their royal happily-ever-after. These are cute, romantic stories that are fast, uplifting reads. Pre-order links coming soon, and will be released the first part of December. Thanks and be sure to leave me a comment!
I stared at the sun-whitened stone of Castle Forêt’s inner wall with a frown. Most of the stone making up the castle had held up well over the centuries, but this section had some serious issues.
“Sorry,” I told my friend Harper Fontaine, whose recent marriage to the owner of the castle had provided me with the opportunity of a lifetime to re-engineer an ancient castle and the walls surrounding it. “This entire section will have to be removed completely and a new foundation set. The stones are unstable at best, which is why they’ve tilted or fallen. My guess is that when the king lived here in the late fourteenth century, they didn’t only repurpose the stone in the outer wall to expand the main castle but also cannibalized these sections, and they were replaced later by someone who didn’t really know what they were doing.”
Harper sighed. “They were probably tired of hauling the stones so far. Can’t really blame them. And I doubt the king made it out this way very much.”
“Well, at least the expansion on the castle itself was done correctly.”
Because of this, we’d made excellent headway on the main castle since Harper’s marriage five months earlier. But the walls around the courtyard were an issue she needed to make a decision on quickly for the renovations to continue on schedule.
“At least whoever replaced them did it with matching stones,” came a disembodied voice from somewhere above us.
I squinted up into the late morning sun as my business partner and other best friend Amelia Giraud—or Mel for short—came into view on top of the wall. “Right,” I agreed. “We can reuse most of these, so we won’t have to bring in too much more stone.”
“And we can fill in with stones still remaining in the outer wall.” Mel carefully picked her way over the eroded stone to the tall ladder we’d brought for the purpose, her blond hair blowing in the early May breeze. “That’s what we recommend. My calculations say there are enough to replace the damaged foundations and the stones suffering from the most erosion.”
The past six months, we’d both put in long days, researching and studying the castle, our fresh engineering degrees from Stanford University not exactly up to the task of restoring ancient stone edifices. But we’d consulted with experts, hired several good local crews, and gained years of experience you couldn’t get in a classroom. This wasn’t a design on a computer in a high-rise office; we were in the trenches, and it was amazing.
A year ago last May, I had been the first to urge Mel to come to this country nestled between Switzerland and Germany near the French border to look for her half sister, Kami, who was married to Beaumont’s king, but I’d never dreamed I’d stay—or that she and Harper would. Yet here they were married to native Beaumontian nobles, and I would be here for at least another two years of renovation.
“Taking down the rest of the outer wall will change the land some,” I added, “but using that stone is the best way to preserve history and keep the inner wall as close to the original as possible. But that only works if you’re not going to replace the outer wall. If you’re keeping it, we’ll need more matching stone.”
Harper, holding the ladder for Mel, waited until she was down to say, “Tristan and I have talked about that possibility, and we agree that replacing the outer wall is simply not feasible, even with his funds, except maybe the stair section that runs from the second courtyard down to the lake. What do you think about that?” Wind blew her dark hair into her mouth, and she swiped it away, turning her face to the breeze. “The records say the stairs were built at the same time as the castle enlargement when the king lived here. I’m not sure why they’re not as well-engineered as the rest.”
“I think that’s a fantastic compromise,” I told Harper. “And building next to the water is a lot more difficult than on dry land, so I’m not surprised sections there have the same issues. The walkway right off the courtyard is actually solid. I was thinking of using some of those stones to repair this wall because they’re closer than the far outer wall, but if you want to keep the walkway to the stairs, we’ll leave them. It’ll be expensive to repair the stairs themselves but well worth it both in terms of resale value and use. Not that you’re going to be selling the castle anytime soon.” I grinned at her. “Too bad we can’t go back in time to when the stones were first cannibalized so we could convince them to bring in new stone and engineer the lake stairs correctly. We’d have a lot less work to do now.”
Harper laughed. “Right. Or to when they rebuilt the wall, so we could make them do the foundations better.”
“Not sure I’d want to go back to either the fourteenth or sixteenth centuries,” Mel put in with a little roll of her eyes. “Even here in Beaumont. Funny that the wall work they did two centuries after the castle expansion was so poorly done. You’d think they’d have learned more in that time. But even the walls built originally withstood better than the sixteenth-century repairs.”
Harper grinned at us both. “I really appreciate your help on this. I know you’ve been putting in more than eight hours a day.”
“Are you kidding? This is fun!” Mel hugged her.
Harper swirled her key ring around her finger. “Come on. I bet the guys are back with lunch.” She and Mel started toward Harper’s Jeep.
“Hey,” I said. “Remember, I’m a guy too.”
Mel snorted. “As if the constant stream of women you’ve been dating here didn’t tell us that.”
“I can’t help it if these Beaumontian women love blond hair and killer green eyes.” It was true. My looks were unusual among the sea of dark hair and eyes, and it made me stand out. Unfortunately, I hadn’t yet found my soulmate like the girls had. It was enough to make me wonder if something was wrong with me. Recently, I’d even started turning down dating opportunities.
Mel must have noted something in my expression because she dropped back from Harper’s side to walk with me. “Emerson Shaw, you are the most romantic man I know, including my husband, and you know how wonderful I think he is,” she said, hooking her arm in mine and tilting her head to lay it briefly on my shoulder. “Of course women love you. Including us.”
Everyone except one certain woman, I thought but refrained from saying as I opened the passenger front door for her and then climbed in the back seat, burying my hands in the pockets of my black leather jacket.
We drove over the dirt road until finally reaching the newly repaired cobbled drive that led up to the main castle. The castle had two beautiful turrets, hidden rooms, and even garderobes with ancient toilets that had once ingeniously dumped into an underground waterway leading down to the lake. Fortunately, those hadn’t been used for at least a hundred years, and the analysis done on the lake showed that swimming was perfectly safe. One of the first things we’d done was to secure the turrets and plumb the bathrooms. The ballroom had been next since Harper and Tristan were nearly professional ballroom dancers, though neither would admit to it. Widening the entry doorway had been by far the biggest challenge, and I was still proud of the massive wood door we’d had specially constructed. It wasn’t something a civil engineer would usually take care of, but I’d enjoyed it so much that I’d even helped the local artisan stain the door.
Harper and Mel’s husbands, Tristan Fortier and Damien Giraud, were in the courtyard near the door to the modernized kitchen, which we’d moved from the courtyard itself to inside the castle proper. The men had positioned our meal on a stone table with matching stones that served as stools. Harper had moved several of the tables here from the countryside near the castle to the courtyard, where they would one day sit in the shade of some newly planted trees.
We walked under the archway leading into the courtyard, and the full table came into view. I stopped as I saw Jianne there—Lady Jianne Selmone, to be exact. My breath caught in my throat exactly as it had the moment I’d first seen her. My reaction had astounded me then—and still did. I had imagined myself in love before with other women, most recently Mel’s young sister-in-law, who had ended up leaving Beaumont to study in England, but things felt different with Jianne from the very first day. My heart had somehow known her. That was what made this whole situation hard. Because she didn’t seem to feel the same way or appear to even notice that I was serious about her. Despite my efforts to woo her, she never looked at me the way so many other women did, and I didn’t know those women well enough to begin thinking seriously about them.
Oh, she laughed at my jokes and accepted my invitations to dinner, but she insisted on paying her half and introduced me to everyone as a friend. It bothered me. I even spent hours at her aunt’s where she lived, listening to the older woman go on and on. Sure, the woman was an excellent cook, shooing away her servants so she could make exceptional meals for us in her enormous kitchen, but it was Jianne I really went there to spend time with. I think the old lady knew of my secret longing and approved, but that didn’t make a difference to Jianne, and that worried me.
It also bothered me the way she sat so close to Tristan, who happened to be both a prince and a duke. She was his fourth cousin or something, and they’d dated shortly some time back, and while I knew he was completely in love with Harper now, maybe Jianne still felt something for him. Maybe that was why she wouldn’t give me the time of day.
Romantically, that is.
But Jianne and Harper were good friends, and I should probably stop obsessing about how Jianne might feel about Tristan.
Mel and Harper rushed to greet their husbands with hugs and kisses, and I felt a tug of jealousy. Mel and I’d once had an understanding that if we both weren’t married by a certain age, we’d marry each other and raise a couple of kids, which we both wanted. While I was happy for her, and in no way pining for lost chances, her good fortune—and Harper’s—only made my current lifestyle unsatisfying. Although maybe it wasn’t their relationships that had made the difference but meeting Jianne. Before she entered my life, I hadn’t worried about the future. Now I had the strange sensation of being the only one looking in from the outside.
“Hey, Jianne,” I said, coming to her side. “Nice to see you. I didn’t realize you’d be here.”
She smiled, and my heart did a funny little wonderful dance that almost felt painful. “Harper wanted my help with the dining and guest rooms,” she said in very good British English, “so I decided to take a couple days off from my current project and make it a long weekend. I have some ideas about how we can remodel the old kitchen in the second courtyard into an outside barbeque for entertaining purposes. It would be the perfect backdrop for a swimming pool.”
I settled on the stone stool next to hers. “That’s a great idea. There’s plenty of space now that they don’t need to house soldiers, though you gotta admit, having an authentic medieval garrison here would be awesome.”
She laughed. “It would, yes, but only if they were in proper uniform. My aunt has an entire collection of clothing from that period that’s been handed down through the generations. I bet some of those were worn at this very castle.”
“We should hold a medieval ball here after we complete the castle renovations. Maybe she’d lend us a few costumes.”
Her eyebrows raised together in that way I loved. I’d tried teaching her to arch just one, but she was one of the few people in the world who couldn’t do it. We’d spent countless hours trying and laughing.
“A ball?” she challenged. “I thought you hated those things.”
Not when I’m with you, I wanted to say, but that was too forward for where our relationship was.
“It’s possible, I suppose, that she might lend the reproductions she has made but never the originals,” she went on without seeming to expect an answer. “Those are way too brittle. She’s extremely protective of even the reproductions, but she likes you. They are currently in France on a temporary display, or she would have shown them to you, I’m sure.”
“She did mention them once or twice.” My head had been full of Jianne, but I wasn’t that inattentive. I actually liked the old woman.
“You are always sweet with her.” Jianne touched my bare forearm, and it took a concentrated effort not to put my hand over hers and bring it to my lips.
“So what about the stables?” I asked to distract myself. “Keep them or take them out?”
“Out,” Harper said, sitting on the tall stone next to Jianne, where Tristan had been when we’d come into the courtyard. “You know that old entry I told you I wanted to make wider? That will lead to the new stables outside the walls. Much better pasture for them when we’re here, and much less smell.”
Jianne laughed again, and my eyes found their way back to her. She had the most beautiful wavy dark hair and brown eyes so deep they pulled me in. Three tiny freckles nestled in an arc under her right eye near her nose, and there were two more on the other side. I loved those freckles with a passion that was probably unhealthy. Harper once said that Jianne had the kind of looks that men went to war for, and I had to agree. She’d been sitting at least a foot away from Tristan when we arrived, and I’d wanted to punch his face.
“Well, I’m glad you’re here,” I told Jianne. “I’d like to get your opinion on the stairs down to the lake while you’re here this weekend.” She always had good suggestions, even on the engineering side of things. She had a way of making everything she touched more beautiful.
“Yes,” Harper agreed, “I’d love your opinion.” She stared at me hard behind Jianne’s head in some warning that escaped me altogether.
I ignored her. Jianne was perfectly able to take care of herself. The one time two weeks ago when I’d almost kissed her at her aunt’s, she’d laughed in my face. I hadn’t dared try again. Yet.
Mel pushed a couple of wrapped sandwiches in our direction. Her eyes were laughing, and I suspected she knew my thoughts. Mel knew far too much about me. My life would have been so much easier if we’d fallen in love, but the occasional kisses we’d shared over the years with that hope in mind had fallen dismally flat for both of us.
“Thanks.” Jianne swept up a sandwich. “I love these.”
“It’s just a sandwich,” I said.
“No, it’s a jambon de forêt sandwich made by Viviana Bazin,” Tristan corrected as he sat down next to his wife. “They can trace their ancestors back to the fourteenth century. Apparently when the royal family lived here at the castle, their family was highly favored by the queen.”
I began to unwrap the fat little bundle. “Oh, now I remember you talking about these.” The sandwiches were made of some kind of special ham with killer bread baked by a local woman at a tiny dive of a restaurant called The Chef’s Table. But a sandwich was a sandwich, after all, so I was prepared to be underwhelmed. At least they’d also bought pastries.
“He’s not kidding,” Damien said as if sensing my skepticism. “They’re so good that I’m tempted to buy the restaurant.”
Tristan smirked. “Already tried. No deal.”
I studied the sandwich momentarily. There were layers of ham and lettuce and tomatoes. Nothing overtly special. The aroma of the bread, though, was heady. I bit into it—then again and again before I slowed down enough to admit that it was the best sandwich I’d ever eaten.
“Ah-ha.” Jianne grinned at me. “You like it?”
“It’s okay,” I conceded. “Actually, I’m thinking about asking this Viviana out. Maybe she’d give me the recipe for the bread.”
Jianne laughed with abandon, head back, her white throat exposed. It looked so soft that I wanted to . . .
I nearly choked as she bumped my arm with hers and sent an electrical shock racing up my skin. “You’re so funny,” she said. “But I bet she has a daughter or granddaughter you could date.”
“I won’t settle,” I insisted. For anyone but you. I hurriedly took another bite to distract myself from those dangerous thoughts.
“So give us the rundown,” Tristan said after swallowing his own mouthful. “Harper texted that the foundations in the wall aren’t great. Is that going to add time?”
“Actually, we think we can hit or beat our current two-year goal if we use the existing stone from the outer wall,” Mel began, launching into details of the build. I was content to let her do the talking while I concentrated on my amazing sandwich. She summed up her spiel with, “We’ll update the engineering plan, but basically, it means big equipment and manpower.”
I downed the last bit of my sandwich with a drink of Beaumontian soda that tasted like Dr. Pepper with a hint of lime. “The trickiest part will still be stabilizing the ramparts near the back part of the castle and either adding a wall or a railing. I’m assuming you don’t want your kids taking nosedives from the walk. They didn’t seem to care that much back in the old days. Guess soldiers were expendable.”
“Or just sure-footed,” Tristan quipped. “Especially our soldiers.” That had Jianne laughing again. It was a beautiful sound, even if her attention was on him.
I set my drink down and stood. “I’m going to walk down to the lake. I’d like to get a jumpstart on seeing what’s there now that I know Harper wants to keep it. Save me some of those pastries.”
“No guarantees,” Tristan said.
Everyone laughed except Mel, who was watching me, a worried line between her eyes. “I’d better go too,” she said. “Can’t have him getting the credit for all the good ideas. I’ll bring my phone and double-check the measurements I already took of the stairs on my engineering app.” Of course, she was actually coming to grill me about my feelings. Sometimes having two women as your best friends was annoying. I’d have to make a point to spend more time with their husbands.
“That useless thing?” I teased. “Phone apps have no business in real engineering.”
“Ha!” Mel said. “You’ll see. It will save our bacon one day.”
“Only if my computer dies and the internet goes out permanently.” It was an argument we enjoyed repeating.
“Well, I’m going too.” Jianne stepped off her stool. “To make sure these two don’t drown each other over an app. Besides, I’ve never actually been down to the lake, and since Harper and Emerson asked me for advice, I want to make sure there’s a nice place for a gazebo on the dock.”
“Great idea.” I was suddenly feeling happier than I had moments before, though technically I’d been trying to get some distance between myself and everyone—especially Jianne. Although since I had asked her opinion, maybe a part of me had not-so-secretly hoped she’d come along.
“You guys go without us,” Harper said. “Tristan and Damien promised to help me with the shades in the ballroom. The installers didn’t get them right, but they are too high for me to fix by myself. It shouldn’t take long. We’ll come down after.”
Mel grabbed the box of pastries. “Just to make sure you do, I’ll take these with us for safekeeping. If you want them, you’ll have to join us. You guys bring the drinks.”
Harper grinned her acceptance of the terms, so Jianne, Mel, and I went through to the second courtyard and out the back entrance. The women chattered as we crossed the field to where the walkway from the ramparts led off the outer courtyard and fell into ruins as it angled down toward the water. I was content to let their voices play over me, noting that this land had likely looked very similar for hundreds of years. How many peasants and nobles had walked this very path?
“There should be a large patio here at the summit,” Jianne said as we reached the first ruins of the stairs. She walked ahead of us between the scattered stones and wildflowers, her hands outstretched as if getting a feel for the place. A breeze stirred the end of her red-patterned dress and the coils of her long, dark hair. “Look. The stairs have prevented the tree growth here, so we have a marvelous view all the way down to the water.”
For a moment, I couldn’t breathe, seeing her there, her arms stretched out. The idea of staying here and working closely with her for two more years was both a delicious promise and a terrifying sentence, depending on her feelings for me.
“Give her time,” Mel said softly from beside me.
I jerked my head toward her, having forgotten she was there. “What do you mean?” My voice was thick with disuse or maybe emotion.
“I don’t know all the details,” she said softly, “but I gather from Harper that Jianne had a hard life growing up with her father. Haven’t you ever wondered why she lives with her aunt and not with him? Or on her own?”
“I guess I thought it was a chaperone kind of thing that nobility do in Beaumont.”
She laughed. “Maybe a little. But for her there’s another reason.”
I knew more than I was letting on, of course, about Jianne’s controlling jerk of a father, but I wondered if maybe there was something else that had something to do with why Jianne and Tristan had only dated for a few months. “Anyway, Jianne treats me like a brother. Like you do.”
Mel shrugged. “It’s not like us, but maybe that’s what she needs right now.”
Mel’s smirk widened at the frustration in my voice. “Think of it as justice. It’s about time you know how all those women who fall in love with you feel.” Before I could answer, she hurried forward to join Jianne, who had stopped to pick a bright purple wildflower.
We examined the wall of the walkway where it met the crumbling stairs, with Mel taking notes on her phone. Afterward, we made our way down into the small valley among the grass and shrubs, examining the stones of the staircase itself.
“Not as bad as I thought,” I said as we approached the water. “Though some definite structural problems. You know, I think there might have been a flood or something here that added to the issues.”
Mel trailed her fingers along the white stone. “Could be.”
“Look!” Jianne said, pointing. “A little door.”
Sure enough, a short, heavily worn wooden door had been set into the side wall of the staircase. “Must be storage for gardening tools,” I said. “Looks to be well above the current water level. But it could be access to a plumbing exit leading down from the castle kitchens or something.”
“Let’s open it and see.” Jianne grinned at me temptingly.
How could I say no?
The wood of the door was swollen, but it wasn’t locked, and with the aid of a stick and a bit of brute force, I was able to get it open. Ducking my head and using my phone as a flashlight, I peered inside. “Looks like an actual hallway. Some kind of stone on the floor.” I pushed against the walls before bending and going inside.
Jianne crowded in after me. “Short gardeners,” she whispered.
“And skinny ones,” I said. “It looks a little wider up there.” Six more feet and I stepped into a small room with a waist-high circular stone structure. “Looks like a well.”
“Not a well,” Mel said, balancing her box of pastries on the circular stone wall and peering inside. “Looks like access to a passageway for water waste.” She pointed to a large hole several feet down. “Might be what’s connected to that hole we found in the kitchen. I bet it’s a tunnel from there, just like there were tunnels from the garderobes’ towers.”
Jianne drew a swift breath of air and pushed past me to where a small wooden bucket sat on a stone ledge set into the wall. Inside the bucket, various tools looked as if they had just been stored by their owner. She dug through them. “A billhook and a hammer. And look at this saw. From the seventeenth century, if not from much earlier. We have to take these to Tristan and Harper. At the very least, they’ll want to display them at the castle.”
I examined the tools, which appeared slightly rusted but in rather good shape for being hidden here this long. “They really are something.”
From the room, a narrow corridor angled to the left as if continuing into the side of the hill. “I wonder what else is in here?” I mused.
“We’ve come far enough,” Mel warned, picking up the box of pastries. “We’ll need to get safety gear at the very least. And test the stones as we go.”
“Let’s hurry and get what we need then.” Jianne picked up the bucket of tools. “I want to change into pants.” She grinned at me with excitement that matched my own.
I winked at her, though she probably didn’t see it in the dim light. “Let’s do it.”
We pushed through the tiny corridor until we were once again outside, blinking at the brightness of the afternoon sun.
Mel and Jianne turned toward the bottom of the staircase, probably intending to examine the stairs there before starting up the other side, but I didn’t follow. “Wait a minute,” I said. “Something’s not right.”
“What do you mean?” Jianne paused and looked back at me, a smudge of dust on her face that I really wanted to brush away—any excuse to touch her.
Focus, I told myself.
“Those stairs didn’t look like that when we got here.” I felt a little crazy saying it, but the stairway had been falling apart, and now only the bottom section was constructed—and less than halfway at that. The ceiling of the room we’d just left wasn’t finished, and there was no door, ancient or otherwise.
Mel gasped. “He’s right. What happened to the staircase?”
“And look at the lake!” Jianne’s face creased in worry. “The trees are different, and the water isn’t clear anymore. It’s . . . polluted. Are those dead fish?”
“Never mind the fish,” Mel said. “Let’s get up there and see what’s happened.” She motioned to the top of the valley.
We hurried up the slope until we reached the top where we’d stood only thirty minutes before among a litter of fallen stones. It was the same little valley with the same natural lake, and we could see the castle in the distance, but everything else was completely changed.
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Copyright 2022 Teyla Rachel Branton
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