Home > Lady Osbaldestone's Christmas Intrigue

Lady Osbaldestone's Christmas Intrigue
Author: 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.”

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