Author: Tarah Scott
Genre: Historical Romance
Tour Host: Lady Amber's Tour
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.
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.
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The criminal was alive and well. Yet, the one man who could have exposed him was dead. Phoebe stared at the clipping of the obituary notice printed in The Times five days ago. The knowledge of his death settled around her as black as the darkness surrounding her carriage. The lantern flickered with the sway of the carriage as she slid her gaze over the paragraph that extolled Bow Street Sheriff John Stafford’s criminal expertise, and past the mention of his involvement in The Cato Street Conspiracy. A man’s life reduced to two paragraphs. For the hundredth time since she'd first read the obituary, she settled her gaze on the final line.
September 1837, John Stafford died in his London home.
Phoebe refolded the clipping, set it on her lap, and pulled another document from her reticule. She ran her fingers along the age-yellowed edges of the only letter her father had written to her mother, the letter she had shown John Stafford when she'd visited him in his home five years ago. She unfolded the foolscap and, with a deep breath, began reading. Her lips moved in tandem with the words she'd long ago memorized.
May 20, 1820
My Dearest Amelia,
Please forgive this letter so long overdue. I am well and I have found safe haven—at least for the moment. You have, no doubt, heard the news that I am wanted for high treason, and now you know that my suspicions were correct. Amelia, you cannot know how my accusers make even the most abhorrent criminal look like one of God’s angels. I sorely underestimated the depth of their deceit. Fool that I am, I did not anticipate being branded a traitor in their stead.
I know your heart is heavy, my love, but no more so than mine. It is shocking to learn that one’s leaders are willing to sacrifice their countrymen for money and power. Ironically, had I known then what I now know, I would be guilty of their accusations. Do not shudder. I know I speak treason, but you cannot comprehend the fine line between reason and desperation when all choices have been eliminated.
Would it shock you to hear that I relish the day I shall destroy my accusers? They have taken all I hold dear: you, our darling Phoebe and, lastly, my freedom. While I cannot like Arthur Thistlewood—his motives are not pure as he would have us believe—in one thing he was right: those few rich and powerful men who rule supreme in our society have stolen our rights.
I have a plan, which, of course, I cannot elaborate upon here, but I must uncover the truth. Otherwise…well, otherwise, I am no better than Thistlewood—or those men who brought him to justice.
I do not know when I will have another opportunity to write. Give Phoebe my love, and do not despair. I have not.
Your loving husband,
It wasn't until her mother's death ten years ago that Phoebe learned her father sent this letter. The letter, hidden amongst her mother's personal correspondence, had been folded with a newspaper clipping dated February 24, 1820, the day after the Spencean Society's planned assassination of the Cabinet. The newspaper clipping, a statement made by Lord Sidmouth to the London Gazette concerning the charge of high treason against Thistlewood and his murder of bow street runner Richard Smithers, also mentioned the bounty on Thistlewood's head. The paragraphs were framed by a note written in her father's hand on the sides.
Sidmouth could not have yet known that Thistlewood killed Smithers. Here is proof positive the noose had been put around Thistlewood's neck before he even planned the assassinations.
"Why?" Phoebe whispered. Why had her father been falsely accused and why had he cared that the government ensured Thistlewood's capture? Thistlewood was a known murderer, a man—a sharp sideways jostle yanked Phoebe back to the present.
Another jolt cut short the exclamation.
Phoebe yanked back the curtain and peered into the darkness. No lights dotted the countryside as they should have and the moonlit sky revealed open fields beyond the road.
She quickly refolded the letter and clipping, stuffed them into her reticule, then opened the door an inch and called, “Where are we, Calders? I don’t recognize this road.”
“Taking a shortcut, Miss,” came the muffled reply.
“Wha—" The coach listed, and she slammed the door with the force of the movement, tumbling back against the cushion. "By heavens."
Phoebe seized the handle again. The door was yanked from her grasp and flung open. A man filled the doorway. Phoebe jerked back as a rush of air guttered the lantern flame. Her heart jumped when she lost sight of the intruder for an instant, then the light flared to life again. The man gripped the side of the open doorway of the slowing carriage, one leg braced on the floor. She took in eyes bluer than any she'd ever seen, an angled face, and a fit body leaning forward on one powerful leg—a leg clad in finely cut trousers. Thievery paid well these days!
She cut her gaze to his and he grinned. Phoebe pooled her strength. Understanding flickered in his eyes the instant before she kicked his shoulder with a slippered foot. With a loud grunt, he toppled from the coach. She lunged forward, caught hold of the flapping door, and hung her head out the doorway, scanning the road behind for the brigand. The coach was slowing even more, and her heart leapt higher in her throat when he jumped to his feet and starting toward them.
“Calders,” she yelled, “lay whip to the horses. Quickly!”
The coach halted and she tumbled through the door, and landed on her side. A dull pain throbbed deep in her shoulder. She pushed onto an elbow and fingered the tender place on her arm. No blood. Thank God she'd worn a cloak.
The carriage creaked and Phoebe looked up to see the murky form of her coachman as he dropped to the ground. She scrambled to her feet and turned in the direction of the highwayman. He wasn’t hastening to them as expected, but strolled forward while dusting off his trousers. She turned on unsteady feet to face Calders and her eyes came into sharp focus upon the face of a stranger.
She recoiled, then narrowed her eyes on him. “Where's Calders. What have you done with him? If you harmed him—”
"Never fear, madam, he is unharmed."
Phoebe whirled at the sound of the velvet, deep voice belonging to the highwayman.
"I promise," he said, "Calders was simply delayed.”
A sudden pounding of hooves riveted her attention onto the distant shadowy forms of four approaching horsemen.
“There!” one of the newcomers shouted. “There she is.”
She looked back at the highwayman in time to see him step toward her. He seized her arm. She tried to yank free, but he began dragging her toward the carriage.
“Mather,” he said in a low voice, “get this coach underway. Now."
Phoebe dug her heels into the ground and was abruptly hauled over his shoulder. She cried out, but he didn't slow his pace.
“Release me, you fool!" she shouted. His shoulder dug into her stomach with each long, hurried stride he took. Phoebe kicked, despite the pain.
"Be still" he ordered, and clamped his arm down on her legs.
She thrashed harder. A shot rang out. She jerked her head up, but found herself tossed onto the cushions of the carriage.
The highwayman jumped into the carriage after her. “Damnation.” He slammed the door shut. “They mean to put a ball through me.”
He pounded on the coach roof and it lurched into motion. Phoebe clutched at the door handle, but pitched forward despite the effort. Her captor shoved her back against the cushions, holding her firm as he pulled back the curtain and peered out the window.
"Bloody hell.” He looked at her. “Fine time for shenanigans.”
She frowned. “Perhaps you should keep a tighter hand on your band.”
“They are not my band, madam.” His gaze was still fixed out the window. “They are, however, a persistent band and will reach us momentarily.” He twisted to look in the direction they were headed, then pounded on the carriage roof and shouted, “Mather, make for that abandoned farm up ahead.”
The carriage veered and Phoebe bounced left and right despite his hold on her. Stories of runaway carriages conjured pictures of broken necks and twisted bodies, and she envisioned herself pitching forward head first into the opposite seat. The arm pinning her to the cushions suddenly encircled her waist. Another jolt of the carriage, and her unwanted companion yanked her tight against his chest.
Her senses flooded with the aroma of wool and musky sandalwood. They listed when the carriage swayed perilously to one side. Phoebe seized his lapel and buried her face deeper in his chest. If there was a God in heaven, she would land on the brigand when the carriage rolled and he would break his neck while saving hers.
The carriage halted. He threw back the door and jumped to the ground, dragging her with him. The farmhouse stood a few feet away. Phoebe scanned the distance. The riders approached at a gallop and would soon reach the barn that sat sixty feet from the house. The highwayman grabbed her hand and started around the side of the ramshackle farmhouse. She started to yank free, but hesitated. Two bands of extortionists? Why—and which was the more dangerous?
They rounded the building, then he pushed her against the wall, and demanded, “Which of your other admirers am I dealing with?”
Other admirers? Phoebe flushed. Adam.
She had refused Adam's offer of marriage three times this year alone, but hadn't considered that her childhood friend would kidnap her in an effort to coerce her into accepting his proposal. But if this man was Adam's friend, where was he—and who were the other thugs? God only knew, but at least Adam's friends didn't pose any real danger—other than the possibility of her ending up in Gretna Green.
Her kidnapper drew a pistol from the back of his waistband. Phoebe pressed closer to the rough stone of the farmhouse. He stepped forward two paces past her, extended a steady hand, and leveled the weapon on the oncoming riders. A shot rang out and shouts damned him to the darker parts of hell.
He ducked back behind the farmhouse. “Never thought I’d need more than one shot.” He stuffed the pistol back into his waistband. “How many did you count, Mather?”
“Only three? Not terrible odds.”
“If you say so, sir.”
“Do you hear that?” the highwayman whispered.
Before Phoebe could reply, he hurried along the building to the rear. She took two quick steps to the corner at the front of the house and peered around the edge toward the road. The brigands were nowhere in sight.
“Bloody hell,” her captor cursed, and Phoebe turned. “They left their mounts on the other side of the barn.” He hurried back to where she and his man stood. “Mather, your second pistol, if you please.”
The older man handed over the Murdock Scottish flintlock pistol he gripped.
"You haven't got a spare pistol you can give me?" she asked. The highwayman's head snapped in her direction. "I need protection," she said.
"I am your protection."