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.”