A Matter of Indiscretion (Lords of Lancashire #3)

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With his facility for languages and gift for diplomacy, Thomas Pearce is perfectly suited for his recent position in the Foreign Office. Or so he imagines until he receives his first assignment. Instead of a safe consular post in a friendly country, Thomas is going straight into the eye of the continental storm: France. There is, it seems, a small matter of indiscretion just outside Paris that requires immediate attention. An indiscretion by the name of Sabine Rousseau, who happens to be the illegitimate daughter of Britain’s premiere.

When a handsome gentleman claiming to be a long-lost cousin arrives at her family’s home, Sabine is suspicious for reasons she can’t articulate. Perhaps it’s just that he’s far too attractive for her to think of him as a relative. She is, therefore, not entirely displeased when he privately announces they aren’t kin. Her pleasure dissipates, however, when she learns he has come to smuggle her out of France…and why.

Now, Sabine and Thomas must make their escape, and it won’t be easy. Her uncle considers her a ticket to curry favor with Napoleon and won’t let her disappear without a fight. To avoid detection, the couple must pretend to be amorous newlyweds…and this proves the most difficult task of all. Because it isn’t long before neither of them is pretending, and a small matter of indiscretion may become large.


London, England—late February 1805

The corridor outside the Foreign Secretary’s office was colder than a harlot’s embrace. Not only did the walls of the building offer little protection from the winter chill, but a fierce draught whistled along the narrow passageway, likely making it colder inside than out.

As he sat on the bench beside the door and waited to be summoned, Thomas Pearce pulled his lapels together and wished he had brought his overcoat. He sincerely hoped the Secretary kept a healthy fire burning in his grate. Otherwise, Thomas might develop the grippe and be of no use to anyone. A facility for languages was, after all, of little value if one lost one’s voice.

It had been three weeks since his application to the Foreign Office had been accepted, and this was to be his first meeting with his superior. Thomas presumed he would receive orders to his diplomatic post today, although he was a bit surprised to be called here for that purpose. Typically, such a menial task would be performed by some minor functionary, not the Secretary himself. But perhaps the oddity could be explained by the fact that Lord Harrowby and Thomas’s father, the Earl of Ormondy, were personally acquainted, thanks to their years together in parliament.

Whatever the reason for the change in protocol, Thomas would be glad to begin his assignment. Although at the moment, he did rather favor the notion of Italy or Portugal over, say, Russia or Hapsburg. Nor, come to think of it, would he object to posting to one of the Caribbean colonies. From what he had heard, it was never cold there at all.

He rubbed his hands over his arms and stared longingly at the office door, which chose precisely that moment to pop open. Out of the open doorway poked the graying head of none other than Lord Harrowby himself. He beckoned Thomas into the rather small, dimly lit office with a wave of his hand. The room boasted no windows, the only opening the single door through which Thomas had entered.

Shelves lined one wall, and upon them were stacked multiple, haphazard piles of paper as well as envelopes of various dimensions, while all along the back wall, boxes were stacked high behind a well-worn desk. Fortunately, the third wall was occupied almost entirely by a large, open fireplace, and a sizable flame licked at a large log that had been recently placed there. All in all, it was not a particularly impressive place of business for the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs of Great Britain.

“Close the door behind you, my boy,” Harrowby said. “This is a matter of some discretion.”

Since when did revealing a diplomatic posting require discretion? Thomas closed the door, an eerily familiar sinking sensation working its way from his chest to his stomach. It was the same feeling he’d experienced hundreds of times before, whenever Walter and Freddie Langston had introduced their latest harebrained scheme. Schemes Thomas always knew were ill-advised but for some reason went along with, anyway.

The Foreign Secretary moved behind his desk and shuffled through a stack of papers. He gestured toward the chair on the opposite side. “Have a seat, Mr. Pearce.”

Thomas sat. The sinking sensation did not abate. It had now landed squarely at the bottom of his stomach, where it rested like a stone.

“So,” the secretary said, sitting down with the papers he’d apparently been trying to locate in his hand, “I believe you have excellent French.”

The stone grew larger and heavier. This did not sound like a routine posting to a friendly European capital or a sultry Caribbean colony. “So I’ve been told,” Thomas answered warily. Under the circumstances, modesty seemed the best policy.

Harrowby knocked the stack of papers against the desk in an attempt to straighten it. “Says in your file you speak it with no trace of an accent. Like you were born there.”

“My grandmother was French. My brother and I learned it from her as children.”

“Good, good.” The secretary thrust the pile of papers in Thomas’s direction. “This will fill you in on the particulars.”

Thomas took the stack, which was approximately half an inch thick, and wondered what the devil he had stepped into. “If I may ask—”

“Where you’re being posted.” Harrowby waved his hand again. “Don’t worry, my boy, this isn’t a permanent post, just a small errand. I needed someone with impeccable French and…well, certain inherent credentials I couldn’t find elsewhere on short notice.”

“I don’t understand, sir.” Thomas was beginning to feel as if he’d started in the middle of a very bad penny horrid. “Where, exactly, are you sending me?”

“To France, of course. Where else would you require impeccable French?”

Thomas closed his eyes. Dear God, anywhere but France. He’d assured his grandmother there was absolutely no possibility of his being posted to France, not when hostilities had just been renewed. The position he’d applied for was of a purely consular nature, entailing nothing more dangerous than extreme boredom at the hands of some dreadfully dull diplomat. Or so he’d believed.

“But why?”

“As I said, this is a matter of some discretion. I’m sure you’ll keep what I’m about to tell you in the strictest confidence.”

If the Secretary didn’t trust Thomas’s ability to keep a secret already, he’d made a rather grave mistake in handing over the stack of papers. Nothwithstanding, Thomas supposed an affirmative response was expected at this juncture. “Of course, sir.”

“Well,” Harrowby said, clearing his throat and purpling ever so slightly, “it has come to our attention that our esteemed premiere engaged in a…well…an indiscretion, you might say. About twenty-five years ago.”

Thomas arched an eyebrow. William Pitt’s personal asceticism was a matter of some discussion in political circles. Some held the view that he was simply too absorbed in matters of state to chase skirts, while others contended it wasn’t skirts he’d be chasing if he had the time. Either way, it was difficult to see how this long-ago affair had come to be a matter of concern for the Foreign Office. Unless… Thomas’s eyes widened.

“I see you have intuited the difficulty. Or at least part of it. Hazard a guess, Mr. Pearce. Show me you are suited to this line of work.”

“The woman was French,” Thomas guessed. “And there was a child.”

Harrowby slammed his palm on the desk. “Just so. I told Blake you would be precisely the man for the job. He thought I should choose a more seasoned diplomat, you know.”

Under other circumstances, Thomas would likely have been flattered. As it was, he was more than slightly alarmed. “But…why does the existence of a half-French by-blow of the premiere require the attention of the Foreign Office, sir? I’m afraid I haven’t quite got that.”

“Ah, well, the trouble is, Mr. Pitt was quite unaware that he had a child—a daughter, to be precise—until just over a week ago. One of our embedded spies intercepted a message from the girl’s uncle to none other than Napoleon himself. In it, the uncle claims he houses under his roof one Sabine Rousseau, the flesh and blood of the British Premiere and Chancellor of the Exchequer. We were, of course, skeptical of this assertion, as I am sure you can imagine, but after Mr. Pitt confirmed that he could, indeed, be the young woman’s father, action became imperative.”

Thomas might be new to the practice of statecraft, but history had been one of his long suits in school. The implications of the circumstances the Secretary had described were painfully obvious. Once Napoleon became aware of her existence, he could use Pitt’s daughter as a weapon against the British. Or try to, at any rate. “Could the premiere not deny his relationship to the woman?” he asked hopefully. “She is hardly likely to come to any real harm. This is not the Middle Ages, after all. That seems rather easier than the alternative.”

An alternative that clearly involved him slipping into France, convincing a young woman who was likely unaware that she was Pitt’s daughter to willingly leave the country with a complete stranger, and then getting back to England, all without being caught. No doubt his old partners in crime, the Langston twins, would consider such an undertaking little more than a lark, but Thomas had always been the politician in their crew, smoothing things over after the deed was done rather than greasing the wheels for its accomplishment.

“That was my recommendation, as well, but I fear the Premiere would have none of it. You see, in addition to revealing the young lady’s relationship to Mr. Pitt, her uncle also intimated in his letter that she is well aware of her heritage and has, in fact, been supporting the resistance to Bonaparte’s rule at the behest of her father and the British government. Although we know this is untrue—at least, we know that whatever she may be doing, she is not doing so under our guidance—Mr. Pitt is extremely concerned for her safety under the circumstances. Joseph Fouche is not someone anyone should risk running afoul of, but she would certainly be brought before him and possibly tortured in an attempt to extract a confession and information.

“Moreover, the young lady’s mother is recently deceased, which leaves the Premiere her only living parent. He does not wish to see his daughter put in harm’s way, however recently he came to know she exists.” Harrowby leaned forward, resting his elbows on the desk and steepling his fingers together beneath his chin. “This is an important assignment, Pearce,; an opportunity to make a positive impression on both me and the Premiere. I hope you are up to the challenge.”

The Secretary’s meaning was implicit—Thomas’s future in the Foreign Office depended on this mission. Refusing to accept the task in the first place would be seen as a failure…and end his career before it had even begun.

Thomas squared his shoulders and thought of warm, sunny Caribbean islands. “I am, sir.”

He’d never felt more unprepared for anything in his life. Or more determined to succeed.