Jane Lark’s next steamy historical romance, The Scandalous Love of a Duke, is published this Thursday! To get you in the mood, start reading the first chapter, below!
Katherine’s fingers grasped the pale uneven trunk of the beech tree. Laughing, she braced her body to stop her descent down the grassy slope, her grip slipping on the thin strips of peeling bark.
She turned back to catch her friend’s hand.
In fits of giggles, Margaret fell against the tree too.
“Shhh … ” Eleanor whispered, her fingers pressing to her lips as she struggled to tame her own intemperate humour. “They will hear us.” Eleanor was Margaret’s younger cousin.
More giggles erupted from the large group of younger girls behind them. Eleanor was the most boisterous of them though.
Looking across her shoulder, Katherine smiled.
Katherine was the outsider here. The odd one out. A Spencer. All the other girls were the Duke of Pembroke’s grandchildren. Katherine was nothing compared to them. Her adopted father was a mere lowly squire. But Katherine had grown up amongst this family. These girls were more sisterly to her than her sister. Her brother Phillip was John Harding’s friend and John was another of the Duke’s grandchildren, the eldest, and his heir.
One day John would own the land they stood on, and a dozen other estates. He’d be rich.
John. His name stilled Katherine’s heart and slowed her breathing as a secret longing welled inside her.
She no longer felt like laughing, she clung to the tree, her palms pressing against the trunk as her gaze reached through the veil of branches and leaves that stirred gently on a warm summer breeze.
“Can you see them?” Caroline, one of Margaret’s younger sisters, whispered.
“What are they doing?” Margaret leant forwards, looking over Katherine’s shoulder.
“Swimming,” Eleanor gasped with another giggle. “They’re naked.”
The girls about Katherine broke into fits of laughter again, their fingers pressing over their mouths.
“Hush,” Heather, Margaret’s older sister, who was the eldest of the girls, urged them to be silent. She was eight and ten. She had already curtsied to the Queen. Her father was an heir to a duke too. All the other girls were the daughters of dukes or earls. Katherine loved them all, but even so she wore the weight of her lower birth as prominently as her second-hand scarlet cloak. She stood out.
“We should not have followed,” Heather said.
“Papa, will kill me,” Eleanor laughed, breathlessly pressing her fingers against her chest.
“And Grandfather will kill John,” Margaret whispered.
The girls looked at one another as Katherine looked about them all. John was their pattern card. All his younger cousins followed him like shadows, emulating everything he did. They were all in awe of him. But Katherine’s feelings were much more than just awe. She loved John, secretly, but without hope or expectation. When she was with him her heart ached and raced, and well… She did not know how to explain it.
The others whispered and giggled.
Katherine focused on the boys cavorting in the lake. They seemed oblivious to the girls obscured by the curtain of leaves.
They were splashing water at each other, shouting and baiting one another, laughing. John, pale skinned, lean and athletic, lunged at Katherine’s brother, gripped his shoulders and pushed him underwater. The game grew more aggressive. Phillip thrust up and retaliated, lunging back at John, and when John dodged him, Phillip dived beneath the water and pulled John under.
All the boys, a dozen or more of John’s friends from Oxford, broke into an uproar then, as the game became a mêlée.
They were not boys though, not anymore, no more than she was a girl. They were young men, and she was on the brink of womanhood. She could be married now if she wished. The problem was the only person she wished to marry was unattainable. John.
“We should go,” Heather breathed beside her. “We shouldn’t be here.”
Eleanor made a mischievous face at her older cousin. “Killjoy.”
“Give them their privacy,” Heather pressed.
Eleanor pouted, she was only thirteen. “We didn’t know they were going to swim—”
“And that is precisely why we should go back before we are missed,” Heather caught hold of Eleanor’s arm. “Come on, they will start the celebrations soon.”
The other girls began peeling away.
Katherine would have to go back too, but she would rather be in the water. Her gaze returned to the lake. The day was hot, and the heat was heavy, clinging and oppressive. She understood why they’d shed their clothes and dived in.
“Kate!” Eleanor called, in an are-you-coming voice.
Katherine glanced back and nodded before taking an irresistible final look at the boys.
John was standing in the shallow water, near where the lake dropped over a weir into a cascade, taunting her brother.
The lake rose to the indent of muscle at his hip.
Katherine’s breath caught, trapped in her lungs.
He’d lost the coltish look he’d had a few years ago when she’d first met him, he was physically magnificent now. He was over six feet tall, sinuous and muscular. She longed to touch him and her heart raced as warmth flooded her veins.
“Kate!” Eleanor called again.
John’s head turned and his ice blue eyes spun in the direction of the trees where she was hiding. His gaze reached between the leaves as they stirred into motion on the warm breeze sweeping up from the ornamental lake. Katherine felt the intensity in his eyes.
There was an aura about John, an attraction which drew everyone in. His looks were striking and he had a presence which captured people’s attention when he was in a room.
He was born to lead people, or perhaps bred to do so.
His fingers lifted and swept his damp jet-black hair off his brow, but his gaze didn’t leave the trees.
He had an inherent grace too.
He was calm and silent in nature, though strong-willed. He won most arguments with her brother. But he had an instinctive awareness of others, and he’d been kind to her. John had acted like a brother to her. He was always considerate. He’d included her even when Phillip forgot to, and John had never grown tired of her dogged company as Phillip sometimes did.
At what point her feelings had changed from sisterly to something else, she couldn’t say. Perhaps she’d always felt differently about John. But now it was obsession.
His gaze seemed to strike hers, though surely he had not seen her. She smiled. All the girls in his family were stunningly beautiful, it carried from their mothers. In John that beauty was breathtakingly masculine. She could not take her eyes off him when she was near him.
“John!” her brother called.
John’s gaze ripped away, his awareness disengaging from the trees and returning to the lake.
Katherine caught her breath, dragging air into her lungs, and turned back.
Eleanor and the others were already at the top of the slope looking down.
Katherine lifted her hand to say she was coming, and then began to climb.
Egypt, December, Seven years later
John let the handle of the spade rest against his midriff, set one hand on his lean waist and wiped his brow with his forearm. Then he lifted the wide-brimmed leather hat from his head and tipped his gaze to the endlessly clear, blue sky.
God, it was hot here, but it was the middle of a bloody desert.
“Water, please.” He looked at one of the native men in his train. Almost instantly the water skin was in John’s hand.
The warm fluid slid down his throat, relieving the dryness.
He handed the skin back.
They’d found a new tomb but it was buried beneath centuries of sand.
Dropping his hat back on his head, John then bent and began digging again. His blade slipped easily into the sand, but half of each shovel load slid back into the hole. He cursed and increased his pace.
“My Lord, I have it!” Yassah, the man who’d been John’s right hand for years, called. John let his spade fall and moved to where Yassah worked, dropping to his knees to scoop sand out with his bare hands.
“It is the entrance.” There was a flare of excitement in John’s chest. The hours of hunting and digging were worth it for this moment of success.
Before Egypt, John had drifted, despondent. This was why he had come and this was why he stayed.
“It is open, robbed,” Yassah stated. He was on his knees too.
Empty. Damn. But there would still be the paintings. John leant back, resting his buttocks on his heels. “Hand me the spade.”
Later, John sat beneath the canopy before his tent, in a canvas chair, his feet resting on the sand. The sky was red, and the sun glowed on the horizon, about to fall. Then suddenly it literally dropped over the edge of the world, leaving only the blue-black darkness and a million glinting stars, the stars he’d seen painted on the ceiling of every temple.
The sun had never set like this in England.
He drew on the tip of a thin cigar and then let his hand fall when he exhaled.
The tomb they’d discovered today had been an official’s. It was empty, but it wasn’t treasure which excited John anyway. It was the emotion of the search and the find.
John took another draw on his cigar.
He was in a thoughtful mood, brooding.
His gaze reached up to the darkness and the stars. The black of night was like polished jet here, not the dull pitch it was at home.
When his grandfather had packed John off on the grand tour to sow-his-wild-oats abroad, the intention had been John would return with his youthful dissipated fire burnt out. The only problem was nothing in England drew John back.
The images from the dream he’d had last night crowded into his head. It was a dream he’d had a thousand times. This was the root of his melancholy mood. He always felt like this when he’d dreamt it.
In the dream, he was a child, looking from the window of his grandfather’s grand black coach. He saw his mother, with her dress clutched in one hand as she ran behind them, reaching towards him. His stepfather was there too, behind her, his expression violent with anger.
But it wasn’t only a dream, it was a memory. A memory John had never asked to be explained. A memory he’d never admitted he had.
His grandfather had taken him from them, he’d never understood why.
His childhood had been lonely before that.
Perhaps that was why he felt so comfortable in a desert.
He’d been given back to his mother a few weeks later. But the memory his head constantly echoed in a dream was the defining moment of his life. The point he had been torn in two, by his grandfather’s will and his mother’s love. One was hard, cold and aggressive, the other warm, welcoming and enchanting. But the second had been a childish need. What abided in him now was the barren land his grandfather had cultivated.
John’s earliest memory was of his grandfather saying he had no mother, when John knew he did. He’d not been allowed to speak of her. He’d never known why. She’d written to him for years, and then she’d come. She’d taught him kindness and consideration, empathy and understanding, while his grandfather had encouraged restraint and harsh judgement.
Now, John was just constantly angry at the world. This was the reason he’d stayed abroad. He was his grandfather’s monster. The years spent in Europe had taught John that.
He took another drag on his cigar, and then exhaled.
Good God he’d been his mother’s child, naïve and foolish, when he’d arrived in Paris. Obvious prey for the she-wolves hunting those grounds. He’d been seduced by their world and fleeced. It had taken months to learn the art of disengagement. It had left him bitter. His grandfather had achieved his wish: John did not trust a soul.
The choice he’d made after that was the only one open to him – not to go back. Not going back was his defiance. The only way he could win the battle against his grandfather.
Then he’d found Egypt and a purpose, something beyond himself. Something which made him feel again. The only problem was this loneliness at night.
When it was dark, the isolation became stark and these memories flooded in. In his youth he’d covered them with friendships. In his dissipated years he’d smothered them with sex. He’d had nothing to do with women since he’d come to Egypt. There was no hiding from recollections here.
He tilted his lips in a mock smile. He thought of his stepfather, and his brothers and sisters, who kept increasing in number. It was Christmas in four days. He imagined all his family together. Occasionally he wrote home to tell them he was still alive.
He took another drag on his cigar, clearing his thoughts.
He didn’t wish to think of them, nor England. He thought of the tomb he’d found.
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