“You cannot be serious.”
“I assure you, I am. Deadly serious.”
Alistair, Viscount Chisholm, stared across the desk at the serene countenance of his superior, Mr. William Wickham, Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department. Unofficially, Mr. Wickham was also the man entrusted with the running of Britain’s intelligence gathering network, an important job as the war with France dragged on and on.
Right now, though, Alistair wondered if Mr. Wickham had lost control of his senses. He sat studying Alistair, his hands clasped together on his desk, looking to all intents and purposes as if he had just invited Alistair to his club to dine, rather than having delivered him the details of the most vexing mission of his career to date.
Alistair pushed back his chair and, standing up, strode around the room, ending up looking out of a large window with a vista over a manicured garden. He cut a dashing figure but appeared a man who cared little for the way he looked, preferring to leave those details to his valet. He ran his hand through his fair, golden hair, undoing all the work his man had done this morning to brush it into a fashionable Brutus. His posture, stiff and unyielding, showed his dislike of the assignment he had been offered.
Mr. Wickham cleared his throat. “I have your orders right here, Alistair, signed by the secretary himself.”
Alistair turned and strode back to the desk and placed his hands palm down on it, leaning forward.
“You cannot expect me to go into the field with an untried, untested…woman,” he spat.
“Is it a woman, or is it this particular woman?” Mr. Wickham asked, unperturbed by Alistair’s stance.
“You do know that she tricked Hampshire into marriage, right? That she’s nothing but a conniving, manipulative …commoner?”
He said the word as if it were the very worst of diseases.
With a tight smile, Mr. Wickham replied, “I am a commoner too, you know.”
“But you are different, William,” Alistair said, dropping back down into his chair. “You are a man who has proven his worth to the crown, who has worked hard and earned his place. And, you do not seek a position above your station.”
“Heaven forbid,” Mr. Wickham muttered under his breath.
Alistair continued, oblivious to Mr. Wickham’s interjection. “But this… this…” He waved his hand about as if he was trying to find a word.
“Woman?” Mr. Wickham supplied helpfully.
“This woman,” Alistair continued, “has ensconced herself in polite society and refuses to budge, even though her boat sailed with the death of her husband. Now, she swans about, taking lover after lover, and spending exorbitant amounts of money so she can find herself yet another poor fool to sucker into marriage.”
“You make her sound like a dreadful person,” said Mr. Wickham absently as he busied himself with pen and paper.
“Indeed she is,” agreed Alistair. “The very worst of encroaching, grasping harpies.”
“Then she should do very nicely as a seamstress in a boutique.”
Alistair turned to Mr. Wickham, his mouth agape. “Have you not heard a word I said?”
“Yes,” replied Mr. Wickham agreeably. “I have merely chosen to ignore them all.”
“You cannot be serious.”