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Excerpt from Bound by Temptation

 

Norfolk, March 1819

It was not the first time Lady Westington had awakened tied to a bed.

It was not even the second.

Clara gave her arm a firm pull, yanking hard at the tie. The room was frigid and she wished to bring her arm into the warm cocoon of covers.

Drat.

Her wrist was very firmly bound, the fabric soft but with little give. She tugged her other arm. It was caught also -- the fabric was silkier, more elastic. She tried to twist her wrist, slipping it sideways. The tie moved with it.

Double drat.

Clara did not want to open her eyes. The thick down of the pillow curled against her cheek, and she rubbed her face into it, hiding from the cold. The rough nub of the fabric abraded her skin. This was no China silk or soft linen. She shoved her face deeper.

Triple drat.

It was not her pillow.

She closed her eyes tighter. Dawn was not yet welcome. Waking up felt more painful than usual, her eyes positively blurred with sleep, her mouth dry, her brains still fogged with dreams and possibility -- that magical world of possibility that surrounded her just before waking. The bed was cozy. The covers, thick and heavy, were wrapped tightly about her legs. The first rays of sunlight were beaming across the pillow. Clara could feel their heat and glow beating down upon her hair. Turning away, she refused to welcome the morning radiance.

Strange pillows, bound arms, and all that they meant, could be suppressed for another few moments. Clara had thought these times were far in her past. It had been years since she'd indulged in such gameplaying, and then it had been only briefly.

At least there was no heavy, warm weight curled against her.

Hopefully, her judgment had not led her too far astray. Her lovers had always been men whom she liked and respected, and she could only pray that this had not changed, that her lapse had not been too great.

She sighed, fighting reality for one last breath.

There was bacon cooking. The smoky, salty smell nipped at the edge of her consciousness. Bacon was almost reason enough to start the day -- even a day such as this promised to be. Her nose twitched. She moved to scratch it.

Or, at least, would have moved, if her hand had been free. Unwillingly, she opened one eye.

A white linen neckcloth bound her left wrist tightly to the rough wooden headboard. The frame of the bed rose heavy and dark, not at all like her own delicate mahogany furnishings.

She opened the other eye. The blue wool sleeve of her gown met her eye. She followed the fabric from the fitted shoulder to the small froth of lace at her bound wrist. She wiggled her legs, feeling the warm weight of her skirts wrap around them beneath the covers. The toes of one foot wiggled free, while the toes of her other foot remained snug inside her thin silk stocking.

The villain had tied her with her own stocking! She forced her eyes to focus as she stared about the unfamiliar room.

Bloody hell. Understanding began to descend.

It was not the first time Lady Westington had awakened tied to a bed. It was, however, the first time she had awakened fully dressed, without recollection of how she had gotten there.

An edge of fear fought to hold her, but she pushed it back. There was no time for that now. Lying back, she closed her eyes and took slow, measured breaths. This was not good.

At thirty, she was no foolish girl. There had to be an explanation -- she'd been prepared to waken tied to an unknown man's bed, worn from a night of pleasure. She had not looked forward to it, but she'd been prepared to face that consequence.

Why should this be worse? Another slow breath, and it seemed almost possible that this would not be as bad as she feared. Maybe they'd merely fallen asleep before anything had a chance to happen.

Opening her eyes again, Clara considered. Where was she? She tried to sit, but the ties held her tight, limiting her view. The ceiling had once been white plaster, but was now marked with the brownish stain of water and the soft grey markings of candle smoke and soot.

There was a window to her right. An unfinished wooden frame surrounded unwashed glass. The sun shone through it, unblocked by shutter or drape. But constrained as she was, she could see no other furniture or ornamentation. There was the impression of a door beyond the foot of the bed, but she could not be sure.

A horse whinnied. Another knocked its hooves against cobblestones. A boy's high, unchanged voice called out. He'd need another moment to fetch the mash. A maid whistled as a door slammed shut.

If Clara screamed, she'd be heard. She took reassurance in that small fact. Whoever had done this to her had not bothered with a gag.

She drew in a deep breath. She needed to pause and think, to be reasonable. If she screamed, she would be rescued. One layer of worry vanished. Her imminent danger was not of a physical nature. She could be found whenever she wished.

But did she want to found, lying here, bound to the bed? The scenes that filled her imagination were not pleasant. The promises she had made to Robert and to herself preoccupied her. Her stepson was engaged to the daughter of the greatest prig in the county, and any hint of impropriety on her part would ruin everything.

Given her history, she could not think of a single explanation that would excuse her circumstances. Countesses, particularly soon-to-be dowager ones, were not supposed to be tied to beds, much less discovered in such circumstances.

Screaming could only be a last resort.

Damnation. Powerlessness was an unaccustomed position for her. She let her head fall back against the pillow and closed her eyes against the bright light of the window.

What had happened last night? Worry worked at her again, and this time it was harder to suppress. Trouble was not unfamiliar, but this blur of memory and thought allowed an edge of panic to creep in.

She'd had Mr. Green to the Abby for dinner. Upon that point, she was clear. Robert had been out. There'd been roast duck. Cook had surpassed herself, the skin so crisp it crackled like parchment.

And Mr. Green. She shut her eyes tight at the thought. He'd been so young, so hopeful, so completely inappropriate. If she ever chose another lover, it would not be one whom she needed to train.

Clara yanked hard at her bindings again. She did not think Mr. Green could ever have conceived of strapping a woman to a bed. She doubted he'd even heard of such a thing.

She had let him down gently -- she hoped. How he'd ever gotten the idea that she might welcome him to her bed she didn't know, but she'd done her best to let him know it wasn't going to happen. And certainly not in Norfolk. She had never indulged herself here. She had too much respect for Robert.

Robert mustn't find her like this, or even hear of it. Lord Darnell would force Jennie to cry off the moment even a whisper of scandal graced her name again. She had to get free before that happened. She pulled hard again. Leaving your partner trapped had never been part of her play. Equal control was essential in all games.

She pushed with her feet against the mattress, trying to inch her way up the bed. If she couldn't pull free, maybe she could work enough give into the bindings to loosen them. The fine knit of the stocking moved with her, but the cravat might be gaping some.

She worked toward it. Maybe, she could get it with her teeth. A good tug and she'd be free.

Damn, she couldn't reach. The other arm held her fast. She twisted and turned, straining hard --

And collapsed backwards on the pillows. Whoever had tied her knew what he was doing. She assumed it was a he. This didn't seem like a woman's work.

Stay calm. She repeated it over and over again. At worst this would be a prank -- not a kind one, but surely one without real evil intent.

Think logically. Do not give in to desperation.

So what had happened? How did a fine duck dinner and a man who still had fuzz on his chin translate into her current situation?

Mr. Johnson had come by to visit with Robert after Mr. Green left. She had the sudden image of his craggy, old face lit by the dying embers of her fire. Robert hadn't been home. Had she suggested cards? She rather thought they'd played a few hands.

An image of a lively game and the sound of a whistle playing in the background flitted through her mind. It wasn't her home. She could feel the smoothness of cards in her hands and taste the bitter bite of ale on her lips.

The Dog and Ferret.

She'd persuaded Mr. Johnson to take her to The Dog and Ferret. The whys escaped her. She lifted her head and let it fall back into the pillow with a thud. She'd never done such a thing before. Why had she last night?

It wasn't impossible to imagine. It wasn't even out of character. She'd stopped at The Dog for refreshment on many a hot afternoon; why shouldn't she have stopped by for an evening of cards with the local lads?

Well, she knew the whys very well, but it still didn't mean she wouldn't have done it. She'd been Clara Bartom, squire's daughter and local hoyden, long before she'd been the Countess of Westington.

Respectability could only be taken so far.

She lifted her head and pounded it back into the pillows again. She had to get free before she was caught. It took everything she had not to press a futile struggle against her bonds. It was not strength that would free her, but her mind.

She began to recite curses under her breath. A fish caught on the line -- that's what she was.

Now, if only she knew whose line.

She tried to distract herself by thinking on her life. Her wants were simple: to stay in Aylsham until Robert was wed, and then to return to London and her life -- her new life. It was time to begin pursuing the quiet, graceful life she desired, a life with love and a family, a life far different from the past years. It was time.

Only, bloody hell, it was hard to think of a peaceful life when she was flat on her back tied to a bed. There was no distraction from that reality.

Who the hell had done this to her?

As if in answer, she heard the click of a key in a lock, and the door creaked open.

###

He'd been gone longer than he planned. Jonathan Masters balanced the tray carefully as he turned the key and maneuvered the door open. Luckily, the woman was surely still asleep. He was not much experienced with drunks, but he understood enough to know that it would take hours to waken from a stupor such as hers, and probably longer before she'd admit to being alive. He'd only overindulged on one occasion himself, but that had been enough to know that she was not in for an easy time of it.

She'd probably wish she'd been dead before he even entered the picture.

He pushed at the door with one hip, the tea on the breakfast tray sloshing in the pot. He should have let the maid bring it. The services of a butler were not in his repertoire.

But then, that was the least of his should-haves. He was not a man prone to regret his actions, but last evening there had been plenty to rue. He should not have stopped at this badly managed inn. It wasn't even a proper inn; it was more of a tavern.

He should not have spent six months trapped in a bloody carriage, chasing his youngest sister from one corner of the kingdom to the other and back again. He had responsibilities of his own, and trying to find Isabella interfered with all of them. No sane man would have attempted it. He should let his hired agent act in his stead. And he certainly shouldn't have attempted it over the winter. Even these bloody muds of early spring weren't an improvement.

He should never have allowed his valet to stay behind in Ipswich. Who cared that the man sounded like a frog and was running a fever high enough to heat the carriage to a toasty warmth? It was his valet's place to stay with him, no matter what. He should not have insisted the poor man stay to be coddled by that overly familiar innkeeper's wife.

And he certainly should never have partaken of his evening repast in the public taproom. As they didn't have a private parlor, he should have taken his meal in his room.

And to top his list, he should never have looked at the bloody woman -- he allowed himself to curse a second time, a rare indulgence -- it didn't matter that she might be the most exquisite thing he had ever seen. She'd been like a porcelain doll on a shelf of -- that was much too feminine a metaphor. He should be thinking of toy soldiers or alabaster marbles, but the thought of comparing her creamy skin and dark locks to anything less than feminine was inconceivable.

He should have resisted temptation.

And he certainly shouldn't have been persuaded to pull up a chair in the tavern and play a hand. He had great reason to avoid gambling. It was true that on occasion he might make up a fourth when needed, but he did so only to fulfill social obligation. He knew too well the price of such a vice.

Procrastination was only delaying the inevitable. He had to face her. Tension tightened his shoulders, drawing them up. He stopped, the door halfway open, and considered. He could still call the authorities.

Last night, he'd decided that giving her a good fright was a more fitting punishment than actual imprisonment. It went against his basic beliefs to imprison a barely conscious woman for unsuccessful petty theft. He'd once been given another chance, and had promised to try and do the same.

He was the most sensible of men. How had he ended up with a woman tied to his bed? It was a most undesirable situation.

He should yell for the landlord and be done with it.

He desperately needed to be on the road again, needed to find his sister. The rains might begin again at any time, making his way impassable. He'd heard his sister had found employment in North Walsham near Norwich and he didn't want to miss her again. Too much of the last year had been spent tracking Isabella. He'd only returned to his estates for the final harvesting last fall and he refused to let this year follow a similar path. He was already missing some of the early planting.

He pushed the thought away.

Instead, he shoved the door fully open and stepped in. He would deal with one problem at a time. Piece by piece was the way to build a tower or solve a puzzle.

He would finish with the woman, and then he would find Isabella. He would not fail her again. Nudging the door closed with his hip, he set the tray on the table and then locked the door with care.

He turned.

The woman was awake.

He couldn't see her face clearly, as she lay sprawled across the bed, but the poker stiffness of her body left no doubt that she was awake. Awake, and not calm.

Why hadn't she screamed? He would have expected her to raise a bloody ruckus. He'd meant to gag her, but had delayed it, given her deep slumber. It had seemed wrong to shove a stocking between her delicate lips while she slept.

He set the tray down on a corner table and strode toward her. Questioning her would take but a moment. He would frighten her with the possible consequences of her actions, and when she was properly chastised he would let her go, sure that she would never resort to such measures again.

He would not let her go the way of his mother. If only somebody had put a stop to her wild ways. This time, he would take control.

Stepping into the woman's view, he met an angry pair of flashing eyes. He had not realized they were golden. He'd sat with her, lifted a pint with her, and he'd not noticed her remarkable eyes.

He would have expected fear, but all he saw was fury.

He glared back at her. He would not be distracted. He had one purpose, to confront the little thief, get her to confess and scare her into mending her ways.

He waited for her to speak. Silence was power.

She continued to glare at him, her lips pulling into a tight scowl.

He waited.

She pursed them tighter.

He waited – and sure enough it came.

"Who the bloody hell are you and what the bloody hell am I doing tied to your bed and where the bloody hell am I? What on the bloody earth did you do to me last night?"

"That's not very original. Surely you've a more potent curse than 'bloody.'" He ignored his own multiple use of the word in his thoughts mere moments before. He glared down at her. "And I am the one to ask the questions."

She had the lightest sprinkling of freckles across her nose. He shouldn't have noticed.

As if catching his regard she wrinkled her nose. "If you don't release me and answer my questions I'll scream."

He stayed calm. "Why haven't you already done so?"

He watched her swallow, caught the tinge of fear in the movement. She was not as cool as she would like to appear.

She swallowed again and answered with some poise. "I only waited to be sure it wasn't a prank or a mistake. It wouldn't have done to throw a fit before I knew the situation. I can assume that as I don't know you, sir, that it was not a hoax." She held her voice calm, but he could see the pulse racing at her throat, see her thoughts race within those remarkable eyes.

"Please, if you're going to scream, go ahead and get it over with. It can only help resolve the situation faster," he said, letting her know that he was the one in control. Hysterics were the last thing he wanted, but he thought she was too intelligent to bring about her own demise with more speed than necessary. He knew how this game worked. She'd soon start to flirt with him, use her womanly powers to change his mind. Unfortunately for her, he'd long been immune to such forms of persuasion.

His mother had been a master at the art, and he would never follow in his father's footsteps in this manner.

She opened her mouth and for a moment he thought she was going to surprise him and scream. One loud cry, he was sure, and there'd be a man at the door within seconds. It might not be a well-kept inn, but it was a busy one.

Her mouth shut with a pop and he could see consideration in the way she pursed her lips. The longer she kept the constables away, the longer she'd have to persuade him to let her go.

“What did you do to me last night? How did I end up here?” she asked.

“You know the answer to that as well as I.” He was not going to be dragged into meaningless conversation.

She did not like his answer. Her eyes flashed with anger again and he could see her consider her best move.

"Untie me." She spoke with the accent and command of the highest born lady, and for a moment he almost doubted himself, but no true lady would be found downing ale and winning at cards. And no true lady would have laughed like she did, the absolute joy of the sound filling the room with sunshine. He hadn't known that sunshine had a sound before last evening. No, ladies did not laugh like that.

"Untie me, or I will scream. You should have gagged me." She definitely knew how to sound like she was used to wielding authority.

But so was he. "You're not going to scream."

"I will scream and summon the authorities and --"

He did nothing but continue to stare down at her, unwilling to let her see his exasperation.

"Untie me." Again the words were spoken with that tone of almost royal prerogative.

"No, I want to be sure you're available for your visit to the magistrate." He needed to frighten her, needed to be sure she would never be so foolish again.

"The magistrate?" A definite edge of concern entered her voice.

"What else would you expect?" God, he wished he'd just called for help last night. He tried to do a single good deed by not sending an unconscious woman into custody, and this was his reward. He had made her his responsibility, and he took responsibility very seriously.

"I certainly don't expect the man who abducts me and ties me to his bed to be the one threatening to call in the authorities." She sounded calmer, more in control. She twisted her head toward him. "I must use the chamber pot. Untie me."

It was probably a trick. Still, he was a gentleman. He walked to the window. It was a good drop down with nothing to grab. She would not be leaving that way.

He turned back to the room.

There was nothing she could use as a weapon. Not a single brass candlestick or fireside poker. She might be able to swing the single chair, but he doubted she could get much force behind it.

He walked to the small table and poured a cup a rapidly cooling tea. It was not of the quality to which he was accustomed.

Cup in hand, he walked over and considered her. She was glaring at him again, those golden eyes shining like a cat's. She made no further argument, but let her eyes do her speaking.

He sighed. There was no help for it. His cravat loosened easily and she brought her arm down to her side quickly, rotating the wrist to loosen the muscles. Her expression did not speak of gratitude.

The other tie was not as easy to undo. The fine knit of her stocking slipped through his fingers as if it were alive. He grabbed her slender wrist in one hand and tried to work at the knot. Her skin was so warm in the cold of the room, her pulse rapid beneath his fingers. Focusing on the knot was impossible.

"Get out of the way. I'll do it," she ordered.

His grip stayed firm. He didn't speak, just continued to work the knot. She smelled of cinnamon. How did she manage that? It was almost as if she had biscuits stashed in her bodice. There was a temptation to search.

The knot. Pay attention to the knot.

"Hurry up, or I'll piss on your boots."

"Keep your temper and hold your bladder. Rushing me won't help. You'd have been better off with less fine stockings -- your legs must freeze in these. I can't imagine that they don't just slide down under the garter."

She rolled her eyes at him. It was enough to make his fingers stop mid-task. The soft silk of the stocking caught on his nail at the sudden jerk. Nobody, save his sister Violet, had ever bestowed such an expression upon him.

"Don't stop. I am not joking about my needs. There was a great deal of ale involved last night." She squirmed and her breast brushed the back of his hand. Its warm weight tempted him to turn his hand, to cup her with his fingers, to --

No, this was undoubtedly her plan. He would not be tempted.

He kept working on the knot, giving not the slightest indication of his attraction. Perhaps it was his renewed determination that had it slide apart almost instantly.

The stocking dropped to the floor as he stepped back.

"Take care of your needs and then we'll talk." His voice was deliberately harsh and unforgiving. He stepped back to the window and stared down at the cobblestones of the stable yard below.

"Aren't you going to give me privacy?"

"No."

He heard the soft hop of a bare foot against the boards of the floor. The floor must be icy beneath her feet. He could picture her standing, her back straight, and an unforgiving glare marking those fine features. Giving in would not come easily to her.

A smile raised the corner of his lips as he imagined her ire. This was a battle he could not lose.

She stomped across the room and he knew he had won.

He waited and gave her an extra moment before turning. He could afford to be gracious.

The smile on his face grew as he further imagined her expression at his victory. He turned and --

She was eating his bacon. Perched on the edge of the table, the plate on her lap, she held the thick rasher and devoured it avidly. She licked her fingers and smiled up at him. The smile remained as she picked up his cup of cold tea and sipped that also. Her eyes peered at him over the rim of the mug. They were laughing.

She had gone from fear and anger to laughter in less than a minute. His mind filled again with the sunshine of her laughter the night before.

It must be her own private lure, her own scheme to manipulate him into letting her go without calling the authorities.

It was that laughter that had enticed him over to the card table, that had begun this whole fiasco. His heart hardened against it. He was not a fool.

With firm determination, he walked toward the woman and, reaching out, plucked the cup from her fingers. She did not resist. He grabbed the pot and refilled the cup. Then, with deliberate precision, he drank from the exact spot she had.

He too could play intimate games.

Her eyes narrowed and then relaxed, their focus glued firmly to the spot where his mouth caressed the stoneware.

He could taste the bacon. Her lips had left behind its savory essence. His tongue slipped out to fully taste the remainder.

Her eyes followed the movement, her pupils growing large. She brought the slice of bacon she still held up to her mouth and bit it slowly, the soft crunch causing him to salivate.

He was intensely aware that her lips had been on the cup only seconds before. He had meant his as a gesture of disregard, but now it was something more.

Her tongue darted out, mimicking his gesture, as she caught a crumble from her lip. He swallowed and felt his nether regions harden. Her eyes stayed locked on his and he could almost feel the heat of each deep breath that filled her chest.

She took another careful bite, licking her fingers delicately. With deliberate care she ran the tip of her tongue over her shiny lips. Her chin tilted down, but those huge golden eyes still held him. She knew exactly what she was doing. Her glance never left his face, but he could sense her awareness.

She slipped off the edge of the table, her hips swaying in a timeless female rhythm as she approached. A foot before him, she stopped. The hint of a smile marked her mouth, but it was so subtle as to be almost undetectable. "I've stolen your breakfast. Wouldn't you like a bite?"

Her arm rose and she rubbed the edge of the bacon against his lip. Again his mouth was filled with the rich savory flavor, but this time he was staring at her mouth, still slick and shiny, the lips slightly parted, the pink of her tongue visible between the small white teeth.

He shifted from foot to foot, uncomfortable. This would not do. He leaned forward and took a bite of the bacon, crunching through it with speed and a touch of cruelty.

She pulled back at the force of his bite, her hand shaking. Then she gathered herself together and let her shoulders fall back, her breasts rising with the movement. Even beneath the warm wool of her gown, their full curves enticed.

Her game was clear.

He stepped back, not in retreat but to gather his forces. His back brushed the cold stone mantel of the fireplace. How had he imagined that there were no weapons for her in this room?

He turned on his heel and walked to the side. He would not be trapped, not by any woman.

"Are you done with my breakfast?" Again, the words were harsh, but why should he pretend kindness? It was time to be sure she was properly chastised, and then send her on her way. He would not waste any more time.

"I'd actually like more tea." She spoke quietly, forcing him to focus on her mouth. "I find I have quite a thirst after last night. Do you mind?" Her gaze moved to the teacup he still held cradled in his hand.

He bloody well did mind. Damn, he was using that word again. Why did everything seem so damn bloody this morning? "Here, take it." He held out the cup, making sure their fingers did not touch.

She accepted it with a crooked grin. She understood his care and it amused her. She walked toward the table, her skirts swirling about her rounded hips.

He was tempted to stare out the window again, but that would be cowardly. He would give her but one moment, and then be done with this whole affair.

He let his gaze roam over her again, taking every measure of her charms. Then, with cold calculation, he turned back to the fire and rested his head against the high mantel staring down into the dark ashes. He waited as he heard the slosh of the pouring tea and slight gurgle of her swallow. He kept his gaze firmly on the hearth.

He had intended direct confrontation this morning, but given her seductive games, a less aggressive approach might be called for -- might get him out of here sooner, back on the road faster. He would not change his words, but he forced himself to moderate his tone.

"Tell me. Why did you steal my watch? Surely it would have been easier to slip a few notes and some coin from the table? Or did you steal that as well?

 

Coming in July 2016

Angel in Scarlet

Sarah's Surrender

 

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