Lady Osbaldestone's Christmas Intrigue by Stephanie Laurens

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.