Lady Osbaldestone's Christmas Intrigue
An original Stephanie Laurens novel
Volume 4 in Lady Osbaldestone's Christmas Chronicles
PRINT ISBN: 978-1-925559-43-9
E-BOOK ISBN: 978-1-925559-44-6
Release Date: October 15, 2020
#1 New York Times bestselling author Stephanie Laurens immerses you in the simple joys of a long-ago country-village Christmas, featuring a grandmother, her grandchildren, her unwed son, a determined not-so-young lady, foreign diplomats, undercover guards, and agents of Napoleon!
At Hartington Manor in the village of Little Moseley, Therese, Lady Osbaldestone, and her household are once again enjoying the company of her intrepid grandchildren, Jamie, George, and Lottie, when they are unexpectedly joined by her ladyship’s youngest and still-unwed son, also the children’s favorite uncle, Christopher.
As the Foreign Office’s master intelligencer, Christopher has been ordered into hiding until the department can appropriately deal with the French agent spotted following him in London. Christopher chose to seek refuge in Little Moseley because it’s such a tiny village that anyone without a reason to be there stands out. Neither he nor his office-appointed bodyguard expect to encounter any dramas.
Then Christopher spots a lady from London he believes has been hunting him with matrimonial intent. He can’t understand how she tracked him to the village, but determined to avoid her, he enlists the children’s help. The children discover their information-gathering skills are in high demand, and while engaging with the villagers as they usually do and taking part in the village’s traditional events, they do their best to learn what Miss Marion Sewell is up to.
But upon reflection, Christopher realizes it’s unlikely the Marion he was so attracted to years before has changed all that much, and he starts to wonder if what she wants to tell him is actually something he might want to hear. Unfortunately, he has set wheels in motion that are not easy to redirect. Although Marion tries to approach him several times, he and she fail to make contact.
Then just when it seems they will finally connect, a dangerous stranger lures Marion away. Fearing the worst, Christopher gives chase—trailed by his bodyguard, the children, and a small troop of helpful younger gentlemen.
What they discover at nearby Parteger Hall is not at all what anyone expected, and as the action unfolds, the assembled company band together to protect a secret vital to the resolution of the war against Napoleon.
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.
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