Lady Osbaldestone’s Christmas Intrigue by Stephanie Laurens

 

Chapter 1

December 3, 1813. The Foreign Secretary’s private office, Whitehall, London.

We need you to leave London and keep your head down until we get to the bottom of this.” Across the width of his desk, the Foreign Secretary, Lord Castlereagh, bent a stern look on the Honorable Christopher Osbaldestone. “You, sir, are far too valuable an asset to the government, let alone the war effort, to court the slightest risk of Napoleon’s agents getting their hands on you.”

Ensconced in portly splendor in one of the armchairs angled before the desk, Lord Powell, Christopher’s immediate superior, huffed in agreement. “Especially at this crucial stage in the campaign. Were he aware of the threat, Wellington himself would insist you go to ground.”

Elegantly seated in the second armchair, Christopher managed not to grind his teeth, instead adopting the bland, uninformative mask perfected by all who served the powerful in Whitehall. “Are we sure the man was a French agent?”

Powell snorted. “Fredericks saw him watching your house, then the blighter followed you all the way from Hill Street to Whitehall—and he spoke to the street sweeper in French, then caught himself and spoke in heavily accented English. What more proof do you need?”

Castlereagh met Christopher’s gaze and arched a cool brow. “Do you have an alternate explanation that would account for those facts?”

Christopher inwardly grimaced. He owned a town house in Hill Street, and Fredericks—an old friend and a still-active field agent for the firm—was his lodger. That morning, as Christopher was about to quit the house, Fredericks had happened to glance out of the window and had spotted the man in question lounging in a recessed doorway across the street. Instantly alerted—presumably in a case of like recognizing like—Fredericks had watched and seen the man straighten just as Christopher had stepped outside and shut the door. When the man had left the shadows and headed off in the same direction Fredericks knew Christopher would take, Fredericks had hurriedly set out in pursuit.

Apparently, the man had followed Christopher from Hill Street, around Berkeley Square, down Berkeley Street, across Piccadilly and south on St. James to Pall Mall, then around into Cockspur Street and past Charing Cross into Whitehall. When Christopher had gone into the building housing the Foreign Office, the man had halted. After several moments, he’d approached and spoken to a street sweeper, then turned back toward Trafalgar Square, apparently unaware that Fredericks was on his tail. Unfortunately, Fredericks had been unhelpfully impeded by a passing carriage and had lost the fellow in the increasing crowd in Pall Mall.

“The damned man looked French, too,” Powell declared as if that settled the matter.

Fredericks also reported to Powell, and Christopher had been in Powell’s office when his friend had appeared, grim-faced, to report. Fredericks had described the man as tall, dark-haired, faintly swarthy, well-built, with a noticeably military bearing, and wearing clothes of a distinctly Continental cut.

The immediate assumption everyone had leapt to was that, somehow, Napoleon had learned of the network of informers Christopher had established through his earlier years of working as a field agent throughout Europe, a network that now fed Christopher and his masters a steady stream of secret intelligence, not only from deep within the French state and its currently claimed dominions but also from the higher levels of the various courts and palaces throughout Europe, including those of Britain’s allies currently fighting alongside them in the so-called Sixth Coalition, intent on defeating the Corsican upstart once and for all. The subsequent assumption was that Napoleon’s agents had decided to kidnap or otherwise remove Christopher from the game.

Christopher drew breath and, speaking to Castlereagh, ventured, “Nevertheless, my lord, with the campaign entering such a critical phase…” He trailed off because Castlereagh, lips tight, was already shaking his head.

“I appreciate that this is a highly inconvenient time to insist you leave your desk, Osbaldestone.” Castlereagh held Christopher with his gaze. “However, the investment of years that has gone into the establishment of the network of informants that you—specifically you and no other—oversee, and the vital nature of those contacts not just in the immediate campaign but even more in what will come afterward, make it imperative that we take whatever steps are necessary to ensure that you and your network remain intact, in place, and operational for the coming year.”

Castlereagh glanced at Powell, who nodded determinedly, then the Foreign Secretary returned his compelling gaze to Christopher. “I agree with Powell that the best way to achieve that is for you to make yourself scarce while the department does its damnedest to flush out this agent and his friends. Immediately we have them in custody or have evidence that they’ve fled, you may return to London and your desk.”

Maintaining his impassive expression, Christopher bit back a sigh and inclined his head. “As you wish, my lord.”

Despite his best efforts, his unhappiness over the unpalatable order had seeped through. Castlereagh hesitated, then in a less hard tone, asked, “Given the season, can you suggest a suitable bolt hole?”

Christopher recognized the sop for what it was, a consolation for accommodating Castlereagh’s wishes.

Powell shifted. “We could dispatch you somewhere north, I suppose—to the Midlands, maybe? Somewhere they would find it more difficult to follow.”

“No.” Frowning slightly, Castlereagh tapped a finger on his blotter. “There can be nothing formal or organized about this—you need to simply vanish. You’re here today, but you won’t be anywhere to be found tomorrow. However, I would prefer you to remain within a day’s reach of the capital. If any urgent matter arises, I want Powell to be able to contact you, and you to return if needed.”

Rapidly, Christopher mentally canvassed all the places he might go. He hadn’t been in the field for the past five years, but the instincts of an active agent never died, and he felt them stirring now.

“It needs to be somewhere no general acquaintance would think to look for you,” Powell helpfully suggested.

An idea occurred; Christopher narrowed his eyes, assessing the prospect, then said, “My mother owns a small manor house tucked away in Hampshire, near the New Forest. It’s her dower property and was inherited from an old aunt decades ago, so few people alive know it’s hers. She retreats there in autumn and is there now, prior to heading to Winslow Abbey for the family’s Christmas gathering.”

Christopher looked at Powell, then Castlereagh. “Aside from Hartington Manor being within a day’s reach of town, the reasons I suggest it as a suitable bolt hole include that Mama and her staff will understand the situation and know what to look for and how to react should anyone turn up looking for me.”

Both Castlereagh and Powell were well-acquainted with his mother and her extensive experience of Foreign Office business; both had been juniors in the firm when his father had reigned as the head of the department.

“In addition,” Christopher continued, “in such a tiny, out-of-the-way village as Little Moseley, anyone who doesn’t belong stands out and is immediately viewed askance. While I’ll initially be noted as a stranger, within a day, everyone will learn that I’ve come to visit my mother, and no one will wonder about that. However, anyone without an obvious reason for being in the village will be considered suspicious and watched.” He paused, then added, “On top of that, none of my friends and acquaintances know of the place, nor would they imagine that I might take refuge with my mother.”

“You haven’t visited there before?” Powell asked.

Christopher shook his head. “Mama started using the house only about four years ago, so from the locals’ perspective, it will be perfectly believable that, having some time on my hands, I might come to visit and see the place.”

“Little Moseley, heh?” Castlereagh sat back. “I confess I’ve never heard of it, which suggests you might be right in proposing it.” He glanced at Powell. “Given our requirements, it seems an excellent choice.”

Powell nodded. “Indeed.” He skewered Christopher with a sharp gaze. “You need to vanish yourself down there. Keep your destination to yourself, and if you haven’t heard from me before, check in with me in the new year.”

“Yes, my lord.” Resigned, Christopher rose and nodded to Powell, then bowed to Castlereagh. “My lord.”

With that, he walked to the door, already enumerating all the things he would have to do before he quit the capital.

Lady Selkirk’s soirée, held that evening at Selkirk House, was an event Christopher had to attend if he wished to preserve the illusion that all in his life was progressing as usual. Quite aside from the fact that her ladyship had sent him a gilt-edged invitation and would notice if he didn’t appear, her soirée was the sort of gathering at which men like him were expected to be seen, a sophisticated event during which diplomats and functionaries of all stripes mingled and chatted, affording unrivaled opportunities for acquaintances and contacts to brush shoulders and exchange a quiet word or two.

Such events were a master intelligencer’s playground.

After greeting her ladyship at the door and bowing over her hand, Christopher confidently moved through the guests, progressing from one group to the next. Smiling urbanely, greeting most ladies and gentlemen by name, and exchanging news with the facility of one born and bred to the ton, he absorbed, catalogued, and stowed away all snippets of potential interest uttered within his hearing.

Snippets such as that a senior Spanish general’s nephew had recently joined the staff at the Spanish embassy. Also that a count from Liechtenstein had arrived in London, but was not present that evening; Christopher made a mental note to set one of his juniors to find out more about the count and what had brought him there.

“I say, Osbaldestone.” Harry Plummer from the War Office paused by Christopher’s elbow as they were about to pass each other. Without looking directly at Christopher, who obligingly paused as well, Harry murmured, “As you’ve no doubt heard, Schwarzenberg’s marching his men through Switzerland, but a little dicky bird told me he’s finding his supply lines stretched. Any chance of some help from our trade boys now that Wellington’s dug in for the winter?”

“I can’t say,” Christopher replied in the expected noncommittal style, “but I’ll pass the information on.”

Harry nodded and resumed his ambling. Christopher did the same, making a mental note to direct another of his junior staff to ferry a request to the Ministry of Trade, where it would, no doubt, support a War Office memorandum. With Wellington dug in in the foothills of the Pyrenees, facing Soult and Suchet, similarly snowbound, it was possible those involved in supplying the country’s armies might have time to have a natter with the Swiss about how much importance Britain and its allies attached to the defeat of Napoleon.

He was diligently circling the room when he realized that a niggle of awareness had been dancing along his nerves for the past fifteen minutes. He was being watched.

His nerves leapt. After being followed earlier in the day, he had to wonder if the two episodes were connected.

He was far too experienced to turn and search for the culprit, even in that setting. Indeed, especially in that setting; such an action would alert others present, others who didn’t need to know anything about his current difficulties.

Keeping his relaxed smile firmly in place, he continued to move from group to group, surreptitiously watching from the corners of his eyes, especially when he quit one group and moved to the next.

Finally, he spotted his stalker—and yes, she was definitely following him in a manner that suggested she was angling for a moment in which to pounce.

Damn! His lips tightened in annoyance combined with disbelief; he immediately forced them to relax into an easygoing line again.

Why the devil was Miss Marion Sewell dogging his steps? He supposed he could guess; given his oh-so-close call only three nights before, he was starting to feel as if he had a target blazoned on his back, one that proclaimed him a thirty-six-year-old bachelor of excellent family, significant wealth, and sound prospects.

On Tuesday evening, he’d learned just how dangerous ladies who focused on such criteria could be. He’d attended a highly select ball and had, as usual, been trawling for information—he had long ago learned that the mothers and sisters of young men posted overseas often possessed and readily shared more military and diplomatic details than most men would ever imagine they even knew—when a young lady had paused beside him and, eyes downcast, whispered that she had something of a highly sensitive nature to convey to him.

He’d shown his interest, and she’d suggested they meet in the small gazebo set in the extensive gardens. His mind wholly focused on his job, he’d agreed; her approach had been so very similar to one many of his contacts used that the request and arrangement hadn’t triggered any suspicion.

Indeed, he’d swallowed her lure—hook, line, and sinker. At the appointed time, he’d set out to meet her via the direct route—a path giving off one end of the terrace—but several couples had been standing by the windows overlooking said terrace and studying the night sky, thus forcing him to take a roundabout route and approach the gazebo from the rear.

He’d turned the last corner in the path, looked ahead, and seen, clearly illuminated by the moonlight, three older ladies—the minx’s matchmaking aunt and two of her bosom-bows—hiding in the bushes that crowded the railing of the gazebo on that side. Their attention had been avidly fixed on the interior of the small structure.

He’d been walking silently, a blessing from his past. He’d halted, stared at the scene for half a minute, then turned on his heel and walked away.

He’d been rattled to his boots by the realization of how close he’d come to being snared, all because he’d been so caught up in his work that he’d trusted a young lady intimating that she had a secret to impart. That, he’d sworn, was one mistake he would never make again.

And now, mere days later, here was Marion Sewell, of all the young ladies in London, following him with what, to him, was transparent intent. He had to wonder if the matchmakers of the ton had declared open season on him.

Over the months since she and her family had returned to London, he hadn’t caught more than a glimpse of Marion. He’d been introduced to her long ago, when she’d first made her come-out. Now he thought of it, that had to have been ten years ago; she must be all of twenty-eight and, he believed, still unmarried.

That said, in her case, being unwed at such an advanced age was more a reflection of where she’d spent the decade since her come-out. In that same year, her father, Sir Nathaniel Sewell, had been posted as ambassador to the Imperial Court of Russia, and Marion and her twin brother, Robert, had accompanied her parents to Moscow. For a lady of Marion’s ilk, eligible beaux would have been thin on the ground in the imperial court and also in the Hapsburg court, which had been her father’s subsequent posting.

Sir Nathaniel had returned to London permanently only a few months ago. He now occupied a similar position at the Foreign Office as Powell and Christopher’s brother-in-law, North, reporting directly to Castlereagh.

Determined to avoid creating the sort of momentary opening he suspected Marion was waiting to seize, Christopher drifted toward the middle of the room so that, when he moved to the next group between him and his hostess, stationed near the door, he was surrounded on all sides by other guests.

From the corner of his eye, he saw Marion, who’d been unobtrusively drifting in his wake, check, then halt by the side of the room. She was of above-average height and somewhat more than passably pretty, with an alabaster-and-cream complexion that set off the lustrous golden-brown waves of her hair, currently swept up into an elegant knot on the top of her head. She was too far away for him to see her eyes, but he knew they were a curious shade of aqua blue, quite mesmerizing in the way they reflected her moods.

With her strong yet ladylike features—large eyes set under well-arched brown brows, pale rose-tinted lips, straight nose, and firm chin often set in determined lines—exuding an indomitable, intrinsically feminine resolve, in his younger mind, she’d featured as a slender and elegant Amazon.

He hadn’t forgotten how he’d viewed her then, or that he’d wondered whether the nascent attraction he’d felt for her—quite different to what he’d ever felt for other ladies—had been reciprocated. Regardless, that had been ten years ago and was surely water long under the bridge; they would both be very different people now.

Still, he had to admit he was surprised to find her hunting him; he wouldn’t have thought her the type.

Then again, an unkind observer might point out that she was twenty-eight and still unwed and he was more than eligible. Conversely, and possibly even more dangerously, her twenty-eight years notwithstanding, as Sir Nathaniel Sewell’s diplomatically experienced daughter, she would be considered an excellent match for him.

Now, she stared at him as if willing him to notice her and come to her; he could feel the compulsion in her gaze as it bored into him, but determinedly ignored it.

Step by step, group by group, he adroitly edged closer to the door. Finally, he crossed to Lady Selkirk’s side. When she turned to him, he took his leave of her with his customary flair.

Her ladyship smiled on him, then tapped his arm with her fan. “Do remember me to your mother when next you see her.”

Blithely, Christopher swore he would, reflecting that he would be able to discharge that promise sooner than anyone might suppose.

Without glancing at the room—at Marion, who he felt certain was still watching him—he walked out into the hall and started down the stairs. If his banishment from London held any silver lining, it was that he wouldn’t need to remain constantly vigilant against the wiles of the matchmakers and Marion Sewell. At the very least, he could forget such irritations existed until he returned to London.

The thought of appealing to his mother for advice rose in his mind and provoked an immediate, self-protective shudder. If his mother discovered that the matchmakers had started targeting him…it was entirely possible she would step in, take charge, and organize a campaign he wouldn’t be able to defend against. There was a reason she was still regarded throughout the ton as not just a grande dame but something of a social general.

No. He would have to make sure she didn’t get wind of the Marriage Mart’s sudden interest in him.

He collected his hat and greatcoat from a footman and made good his escape.

Reluctantly dismissing the notion of marching after Christopher and chasing him down the street, Marion Sewell drew in a deep breath, then released it in a slow exhale. It didn’t really help; her temper continued to smolder.

She felt frustrated and thoroughly exasperated. She was fairly certain that Christopher had been aware of her wish to speak with him and had chosen, instead, to avoid her. She was—now—loweringly aware of how her careful pursuit of him around the room might have appeared to anyone who had noticed and, most especially, to him. From his reaction, she assumed that, in the years since they’d last interacted, he’d grown sensitive over having ladies chase him; for all she knew, he might have cause to feel so. He remained an undeniably attractive man—handsome in a conventional way, with his tall, lean, ineffably elegant figure and a sophisticated aura that didn’t quite mask an underlying hint of sharpened steel.

From years past, she knew he was intelligent, with an incisive mind, quick wit, and a ready, often-honeyed tongue. Despite the impact of his physical attributes, it had been his intellect that had captured and fixed her attention all those years ago.

She could, therefore, readily imagine that, over the years, other ladies had pursued him with matrimonial intent. Not until some time after she’d embarked on her plan to stalk him—until she could engineer an apparently purely social encounter during which she could murmur her request in his ear—had she realized how he might interpret her behavior.

Bah! Bad enough that I’m committed to surreptitiously engaging with him, but now I’ve managed to put the wind up him.

She glanced around, then without any rush, made her way toward her hostess. Drawing on her extensive experience as an ambassador’s adult daughter, she paused to exchange farewells with several ladies and traded gracious nods with various others along the way. Given her age and said experience, her presence in Lady Selkirk’s drawing room without her mother or father in attendance was accepted without remark; most would assume she was attending in her parents’ stead.

Without conscious thought, she allowed polite words to trip from her tongue, while inside, she dwelled on the abject failure of her evening. Clearly, the simple plan of approaching Christopher at a social event wasn’t going to succeed, at least not without attracting attention from others, which, in the circumstances, was to be avoided at all costs; she suspected that, in the social sphere, Christopher would prove adept at avoiding unwanted encounters.

So she would need to find some other way of crossing his path, preferably in an unthreatening fashion—such as encountering him in the park—or alternatively, in a way he couldn’t avoid.

She finally found her way to Lady Selkirk. After thanking her ladyship and complimenting her on her event, head high, her customary serene mask in place, Marion glided from the room.

Apparently, accomplishing the task her absent twin had begged her to undertake wasn’t going to be as straightforward as he—or she—had supposed.

At five o’clock the next morning, Christopher walked out of his front door, closed it behind him, paused on the porch to tug on his driving gloves, then descended the steps to the pavement. His curricle stood waiting by the curb, the reins of his blacks in the hamlike hand of his recently acquired valet-cum-groom, Drummond.

After Lady Selkirk’s soirée, Christopher had returned home to find Fredericks and Drummond waiting for him. Fredericks had introduced Drummond as an operative with the firm who had been sent by the powers that ruled them to watch Christopher’s back.

“Just in case the Frenchies try to kidnap you,” Drummond had dourly informed him.

Christopher had exchanged a long-suffering look with Fredericks, then studied Drummond.

The middle-aged man—tending to portly, brown-haired, brown-eyed, the sort of man who would pass largely unremarked by most—had caught Christopher’s eye and opined, “I don’t think that’s at all likely, any more than you do, but we all know better than to waste breath arguing with Powell, especially not when he’s got Castlereagh behind him.”

Fredericks had handed Christopher a glass of whiskey. “You’ve grown too damned valuable to the firm, my friend. In the circumstances, they’re not going to let you venture anywhere without protection.”

Christopher had snorted and downed the whiskey. He’d savored the glow, then asked, “Have you given Drummond the description of the man you saw?”

Fredericks had nodded. “I’d swear he has a military background, possibly even still serving, but beyond the word of the street sweeper, I don’t know that he was French.”

“Was the boy sure it was French the fellow muttered and not some other language?” Drummond had raised the glass he’d held and sipped.

“He was. Apparently, there are émigrés living near the boy’s home, and he’s familiar with the language—enough to be sure.”

“Well”—Christopher had carefully set down his glass on a side table—“all we can do is keep our eyes peeled for the man, but if by chance he does follow us into the country, it sounds as if he’ll stand out like the proverbial sore thumb.”

With nothing more to be said, Christopher had informed Drummond of the hour at which he wished to depart, causing Drummond to shudder, but he hadn’t otherwise complained. Adhering to his orders, Christopher hadn’t mentioned where he intended to go, and neither Fredericks nor Drummond had asked. The three of them had retired to their beds, with Drummond taking the spare room Christopher kept prepared to accommodate Foreign Office agents on temporary furlough, those he and Fredericks knew.

Now, Christopher reached the curricle and climbed to the seat, then accepted the reins from Drummond. He waited until the heavy man had hauled himself up to the perch behind the seat, then flicked the reins, setting the blacks trotting.

With London still slumbering, they made good time to Vauxhall Bridge. After clattering across, Christopher turned his horses’ heads sharply right and sent them pacing smartly down the Wandsworth Road. The day looked set to be overcast, with gray clouds obliterating any hint of blue, but there was no scent of rain on the nevertheless chilly breeze.

Finally, Drummond stirred and asked, “So where are we headed, then?”

“To my mother’s dower house in a tiny village by the name of Little Moseley, by way of Guildford, Winchester, and Romsey.” After a moment, Christopher added, “I didn’t see anyone watching us or even taking note of our passing.”

“No more did I,” Drummond rumbled. “No doubt everyone who can is still sleeping.”

Christopher grinned at Drummond’s aggrieved tone; clearly, the man was not an early riser.

“He’s what?” Stunned, Marion stared at Gordon Carter, a friend of her brother’s she’d persuaded to help her.

A sharp breeze flicked the dangling ends of the ribbons of her bonnet into her face—almost as if the elements were laughing at her. About them, only a few hardy souls had braved the dismal afternoon to stroll on the lawns leading down to the Serpentine.

Gordon raked a hand through his hair and repeated, “Gone. He’s not there. He should be at his desk, but he isn’t, and no one knows where or why he’s gone or when he’s expected back.” He paused, then added, “Given it’s you—or rather, Robbie—who’s asking, I did a little nosing around. It seems Osbaldestone was called into a private meeting with the Foreign Secretary yesterday afternoon. Powell attended as well, but no one else, and everyone’s being terribly tight-lipped over what the meeting was about, but the gist of it is that Osbaldestone came out after the meeting, issued various orders to his underlings—essentially putting his desk in order—then he left the building and hasn’t come back.”

Marion struggled to keep the depth of her consternation from showing, with mixed success.

Gordon sighed. “Before you ask, I checked at his house, and he’s not there, either. His housekeeper was in, and she said she thought he left before dawn in his curricle with another man, who had stayed overnight.”

Marion drew in a deep, deep breath, then released it on a muted yet explosive “Damn!”

Realizing she’d shocked Gordon, she explained, “He attended Lady Selkirk’s soirée yesterday evening. I was there, but he proved difficult to pin down. In retrospect, I should have tried harder.” Even if it had meant chasing him down the street.

Clearly, she’d made a strategic error in following her brother’s, the count’s, and her own assumption that approaching Christopher in a social setting would be the easiest and least-remarkable way of making contact. She should have had the sense to send a note via Carter to pave the way for such a social encounter, and now, it seemed, she’d missed her chance.

Yet she couldn’t fail; Robbie, let alone everyone else, was counting on her.

She glanced at Gordon. “Do you have any idea where Osbaldestone has gone?”

Gordon grimaced. “Not the faintest. I asked around, and no one seems to have the slightest inkling. It’s a complete mystery.” He paused, then lowering his voice, added, “Everyone assumes that, for reasons unknown, he’s been ordered into hiding. He’s rather central to the war effort, you know.”

She blinked. “He is?”

Gordon nodded. “He’s…well, I’ve heard people say he’s a master intelligencer, that he operates a network more widespread and comprehensive than that of any of our enemies—or our allies, come to that. He’s the sort of fellow the higher-ups are inclined to protect at any cost.”

She frowned. “I see.” She wondered whether Robbie had known that. She doubted it, for it seemed that Christopher’s true position in the firm was shaping up as a very real hurdle.

After a moment, she asked, “Do you know who the man who left with him is?”

“Not exactly, but I suspect he’s one of ours, ordered to stick to Osbaldestone’s side.”

“A guard?”

“That would be my guess.” Gordon reached into his pocket and drew out the letter Marion had given him that morning. He held it out. “In the circumstances, I didn’t think you’d want this lying on Osbaldestone’s desk until he got back. Given the season, that might not be until the new year.”

She grimaced and took the letter. “That was sound thinking. Thank you for attempting to deliver this and for learning all you have.” Where that left her…

“I wish I could have been more help.” Gordon glanced around, confirming that there was hardly anyone about. He turned back to her and studied her face. “So how are you going to get Robbie’s message to Osbaldestone now?”

She allowed her frustration to show. “To be perfectly honest, I really don’t know.”