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SWEPT AWAY BY A KISS
by Katharine Ashe

Genre: Regency Period, England, Historical Romance

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Pressing down upon his anger, Steven did not need to study the complex series of knots spread across Valerie’s body to know how long it would take him to unbind her, and to understand what Bebain hoped to accomplish with this sick game.

“Punishment if you remain bound,” he said, silently damning the priestly guise that encouraged Bebain’s insane imagination. “When did he do this?”

“Two hours ago. Or three.” For the first time since boarding the ship, Valerie’s voice quavered, hinting at the desperation hidden behind her direct gaze.

Steven rose to his knees, forcing a calm to his movements he did not feel. He scanned the elaborate system of knots wrapped around her body.

“Where is your knife?”

“In my shoe.”

He moved to the clothing piled upon the chair, all save her shift. Bile rose in his throat. The madman tied a woman like an animal, yet folded her garments neatly for reuse. Steven drew the tiny weapon from the lining of the costly leather boot and turned back to the bed.

“This will not be of use upon most of the knots. They are too close to your skin.” Watching her pale face, he sat at the foot of the bed and grasped the rope stretching from her ankle to the post. He set the knife to it.

“No.” Her voice was rough. “Do not use it. Then he will know I have it.”

Steven regarded her steadily, a rush of sharp heat sweeping through him. Valerie’s body, clad in the sheerest silk, tensed against the bindings. Color dusted her cheeks. She craved freedom, but from much more than these tethers. She would not let this setback cow her into submission or carelessness. Desire curled in Steven’s blood, mixing with respect and fresh anger.

He pushed aside the sensations.

“I should have thought of that.”

“Why?” She scanned his clerical robe. “Are you accustomed to concealing knives from pirate captors?”

He lifted a brow and returned to his task. “I will break the glass on the lamp. It will appear I used that to cut the rope.”

“Clever,” she murmured. “Perhaps you are a dab hand at deception after all, despite your avowal the other day.”

Steven did not respond. He could not. He’d told her he preferred the truth, but everything he let her believe about him was a lie.

He cut into the rope. It was slow work.

“It is a very small knife,” she finally said, quietly this time.

“It will do.”

“I never imagined it would be of any use, and now I have employed it twice in a single day.”

He felt her gaze upon his back as he worked, like a touch. The blade was thin but sharp. The rope snapped and Valerie curled up her leg, her bare skin brushing across linen. Ignoring his heightened pulse, Steven moved to the other side of the bed and set to the bonds attached to the foot-post there. In a minute, the sliced rope slipped through his hand. She drew her knees together.

“And for the rest?” she asked.

He turned to face her, unsurprised at the upward tilt of her chin. A brave woman, Valerie Monroe, and infinitely more seductive in her defiance than any man’s warped fantasies could render her with ropes and gags.

Steven studied the complex network of twists and loops. A lynch knot wound about her neck, interwoven with another rope. That one, doubled back upon itself, crossed her shoulders, twined between and beneath her breasts, around her hips, and finally restrained her wrists against her abdomen in repeating knots. All lay flush against her body. To untie or even cut each tether, the one before it must first be loosened, or the succeeding knot would tighten and, working its way up, grip her neck like a noose.

Steven drew in a long breath.

“He has contrived a series of lynch knots. Not impossible to unravel, but each connected to the next, beginning at the top. This will take some time.”

“That’s all right. I have no other engagements this evening.”

Steven met her candid gaze. In the gathering twilight, her eyes glowed the color of storm-tossed waves. One slender, dark brow perched higher than the other. He allowed himself a muted grin.

“No names yet upon your dance card, my lady?”

“Not yet, although I still have hope.” Her lashes fluttered, but guardedness flashed beneath the pretended coquetry.

“Valerie.”

“Please begin now.” Without any movement, she seemed to straighten her shoulders.

“The sooner I am free of these, the better.”

Undeniably seductive.

“I will have to touch you.”

She held his gaze in silence. Steven wanted nothing more than to cup her cheek in his palm, pass his thumb across her abused lips, and speak soothing words. But the longer he returned her look, the faster the heat rose in his blood, spilling through his limbs, rocking him with long suppressed need.