Let's give a warm welcome to today's guest blogger, Tarah Scott!
Award winning author Tarah Scott cut her teeth on authors such as Georgette Heyer, Zane Grey, and Amanda Quick. Her favorite book is a Tale of Two Cities, with Gone With the Wind as a close second. She writes modern classical romance, and paranormal and romantic suspense. Tarah grew up in Texas and currently resides in Westchester County, New York with her daughter.
MY HIGHLAND LORD
London Heiress kidnapped by the Marquess of Ashlund, read the headlines. Yet no one tried to save her.
Phoebe Wallington was seven years old when a mass assassination attempt rocked Regency England. Her father was the only accused traitor to elude capture. Now as a grown woman and a British spy, she is no closer to learning what really happened that day.
Phoebe's quest for the truth takes a sudden turn when she's kidnapped by a suspected traitor. But Kiernan MacGregor, the Marquess of Ashlund, may not live long enough to stand trial. Someone wants him dead. And Phoebe stands in the killer's way.
It Takes a Spy to Catch a Spy
"What happened next was a frenzy of killing…"(1) This is how the night might have ended for the Ministers gathered at Lord Harrowby's London home, February 23, 1820 if not for the intervention of Her Majesty's spies. The Cato Street Conspiracy, as the mass assassination attempt was dubbed, was led by Arthur Thistlewood, leader of the radical Spencean Philanthropists Society, and was one of the most daring assassination attempts in England's history. Thistlewood and his men were stopped by John Stafford, Bow Street Sheriff and supervisor of the Home Office spies.
The trap Stafford set was a full blown sting operation worthy of a modern day spy movie. Spies were installed in Thistlewood's organization and a few members were recruited as snitches. A notice was placed in the paper that the Cabinet would be meeting at Harrowby's and money was funneled into the organization for the weapons needed to carry out a mass murder. Thistlewood snatched up the bait like a hungry lion and he and his men set up their headquarters at the Horse and Groom, a public house on Cato Street that overlooks the stable. On the day of the planned assassinations as the would-be criminals gathered for the task they believed would herald in a new era for Great Britain, Stafford's men swooped in and arrested them. One Bow Street officer was killed—run through with a sword by Thistlewood himself—and the guilty men scattered. Over the course of a few days most of the top conspirators were found. Two months later, they were tried and hanged for High Treason.
But one man escaped: Mason Wallington, Baron Arlington. Mason's daughter Phoebe Wallington knows her father wasn't guilty of treason. He was a patriot, a man who put his life on the line by spying for the Crown. So why was he denounced as one of the traitors he had been commissioned to watch? That is what she intends to find out. What better way to discover the truth than to become a spy herself?
Mason Wallington may be a fictional character in The Cato Street Conspiracy, but the events are real. There is, of course, much more to the story of The Cato Street Conspiracy than what little bit I mentioned here. Arthur Thistlewood believed God had presented him with the opportunity he'd been waiting for, a way to murder the top government officials in one swoop, and the government conspiracy to stop him seems to stop short of the Queen herself.
This is the dramatic backdrop that motivates Phoebe Wallington, heroine of My Highland Lord. What isn't as clear is the motivation behind Kiernan MacGregor's actions. This trail will test her skills as a spy in a way she never considered possible.
(1) Take from Enemies of the State: The Cato Street Conspiracy by M.J Trow
Phoebe shifted against the bed pillows and glanced at the mantle clock. Ten minutes before six. Her gaze fell to the low burning embers in the hearth. Morning was upon them and the commotion of the earlier hours had long since died. Yet, as promised by Kiernan MacGregor, Mather stood outside her door. Mather had shown the good sense to untie her before positioning himself as guard. Her first thought had been that Kiernan regretted his rash outburst of temper, but Mather’s “You ought not to have ignored his commands, Miss,” did away with any notion that his master had enough sense to comprehend his sin.
A perfunctory knock sounded on the door, then it opened and the object of her thoughts filled the doorway. Phoebe straightened.
“My one burning question, Heddy,” he said, closing the door as he stepped inside—she noted Mather no longer stood outside the door—“is why you were following Alan Hay?”
“That offense didn't warrant you tying me up as if me as I was the criminal,” she retorted.
Kiernan snorted. “I would have done far worse if you were a criminal.” He strode to the chair to the right of her bed and sat down. “Answer the question.”
“If I answer incorrectly, will you tie me up again?”
Phoebe forced herself to relax against the pillows and raised a brow. “A simple case of ennui.”
He blinked, and Phoebe feared she had earned another trussing up, then his expression grew speculative. The look abruptly disappeared and he settled into a corner of his chair.
He draped an arm over the chair’s back and drawled, “Ennui, you say?”
Despite his lazy expression, Phoebe was startled by the decided lack of interest in his voice. “Yes,” she replied.
He gave a single nod. “Your quest for adventure nearly got you killed, my dear.”
“It was an exciting adventure,” she rejoined in a bright voice. “Wouldn’t you agree?”
“Indeed,” she emphasized.
“I am pleased,” Kiernan said.
Phoebe frowned. “What are you talking about?”
“This fine bit of coquettish flirting.”
She stiffened. He was right, which made the analysis all the worse. “This isn't an evening ball,” she snapped.
“And I am not an earl.”
“You could be a merchant—or a farmer—for all I care." Phoebe narrowed her eyes. "Who are you? You keep company with Lord Stoneleigh, which means you're not lowborn, and the villagers here look to you for leadership. You are no merchant—or a farmer, for that matter."
He laughed. "If I was a merchant, would my money be enough for you, or is a title required?"
She forced her temper back. "Sir, I understand you believe I am Hester—”
He coughed as if to clear his throat.
Phoebe crossed her arms beneath her breasts. “I understand you believe I am Hester and that you're doing your friend a service.”
“Heddy.” He leaned forward and reached for the hand she had stuffed beneath her arm.
Phoebe stiffened, but he pried the hand free and lifted it to his lips. His mouth against her hand caused her pulse to jump and warmth spread up her cheeks. His eyes registered curiosity, but he released her hand and reclined in his chair again.
“Forgive me for laughing,” he said.
“I can forgive the mistaken identity—as inconvenient as it is—but tying me up goes beyond the pale.”
“I'm pleased to have your forgiveness, regardless of the reason.”
“When this escapade is finished, you will find yourself at a disadvantage.”
“Heddy,” he said with resignation, “I find myself at a disadvantage now.”
She gave him a dry look. “I doubt that. When do you plan on sending word to the authorities of the murder plot against the duchess—or have you already done so?”
Kiernan leaned back in his chair. “No need to concern yourself with that.”
"But—my God, you don't intend to report them. You will stand idly by while a murder is planned and executed?”
“What is one murder in exchange for fifteen thousand?" he replied. " Or do fifteen thousand Highlanders hold less value to you than a single noblewoman?” He paused. "Perhaps, the gratitude of the duchess' male relatives interests you more?”
Phoebe shot to her feet. “Even Heddy wouldn't lower herself to such debased actions.”
“Lower herself?” Kiernan laughed, although the sound held none of his characteristic humor. “Heddy, I have seen—”
“By heavens," she burst out. "I am not Heddy.”
“No?” he murmured. When all she did was give a frustrated growl, he rose, “Well then—" He yanked her against him.
His mouth crashed down on hers and she froze. One arm slipped around her waist while the other cupped her neck. She gasped, but he hugged her closer. His tongue invaded her mouth, the taste of him, shocking and intoxicating. His arm tightened, but the kiss, the thrust of his tongue, softened to a feathery touch. He shuddered, and her heart leapt into a furious rhythm.
His mouth moved slowly against her lips. She became aware of the hard bulge pressing against her abdomen and clutched at his shoulders. Heat streaked from the unexpected throb in her breasts to her stomach, then lower. He abruptly tore his mouth from hers and buried his face in her neck. Phoebe swayed. His low laugh washed warm across her ear and she shivered.
“You temptress,” he breathed. “I understand what Regan sees in you.”
“Just because I was in Heddy's coach doesn't mean I am her,” she said through a gulp of air.
Kiernan straightened away from her and stared down at her, eyes intense. “I wonder if Regan would believe me if I swore I didn’t know you're his lover." His gaze slid down her body, and she couldn't find the will to move even as his eyes lifted again to her face. "You make testing the theory tempting. In fact—"
His fingers tightened on her arms and she realized he intended to test the theory that instant.
Her head swam. A mental picture rose of Kiernan's large hands on her naked breasts, his mouth—Phoebe managed the presence of mind to tug free of his grasp. “I-I care nothing for what Lord Stoneleigh believes.”
Kiernan tweaked a lock of her hair. “I think you do, sweetheart.”
Her knees felt as if they were made of rubber and she feared they would buckle. By heavens, she had to get away from the man. Despite the shakiness in her legs, Phoebe crossed to the window and stared out at the open road leading to the trees in the distance. “What have you done with the prisoners?”
“Prisoners?” The lazy drawl had returned to his voice.
Phoebe turned. “You freed them, didn't you?” But he had said as much a moment ago. He'd been in a rage when Robbie threatened to shoot her, then he had let them go. Why? “You have made yourself a conspirator to an assassination attempt,” she said.
“I had hoped Regan would meet us here," he said, "but I can't wait any longer. I must press north. Connor will be here to see you early this morning. If he says you can ride, we'll travel together.”
How was she going to escape him and get word to Alistair of the plan to assassinate the duchess? Phoebe closed her eyes and rubbed her temples.
“Are you ill, Heddy?”
“There's a good chance I will be.”
“Shall I fetch the chamber pot?”
“Only if you wish me to brain you with it.” She looked at him. “Don't you understand what this means?”
“That you are ill, or that you wish to do me bodily harm?”
“Lord Stoneleigh isn't coming—because I am not Hester.”
“If that is true, when I return, you and I will get better acquainted.”
Her pulse quickened. “It is imperative I return home,” she countered.
“And I must continue north,” he replied.
Why force her to go with him? At this point, his attempt to play cupid was dashed. Had he come to doubt she was Heddy? Surely he wasn't serious about getting better acquainted? Phoebe recalled him saying he's planned to get in introduction to her at Drucilla’s soirée.
“What is so pressing that you must return to Edinburgh, Heddy?”
She shook her head. “Not Edinburgh, England.”
“What awaits you in the north?” she said. “You don't strike me as a man displaced from his home.”
“My home is nowhere near the duchess.”