Devlin Barrett was never meant to be Viscount Marston, but when his older brother and father die within a day of each other, Devlin not only inherits the title, but three younger sisters, all of marriageable age, and must retire from his former profession. He is unprepared for the responsibility thrust upon his shoulders and determines the best way to care for his sisters, and see that they are happy is to marry them off quickly as possible. He knows what is better for them, even if they don’t agree. And until they are settled, his life, and future, is on hold. Unfortunately, the lady he wishes to make his wife, refuses to wait until he is free. Louisa Whitton needs to find a husband of her own choosing before Christmas, and is left with only three months to accomplish her goal. She failed to land one during the Season and the little season is her last hope. While visiting her sister in the country before returning to London she meets the perfect gentleman, thus foiling the plans her grandfather has of her wedding a man of his choice, and probably a vicar like her father. However, Marston refuses to even think about courting her until his sisters are wed and has the audacity to ask her to wait. Louisa knows her grandfather will never agree to a long courtship and sets out to find the perfect substitute for Marston during the first week of the little season.
Devlin Bartlett spotted his prey. No visit to Bentley Manor was complete without teasing Lady Madeline Trent unmercifully. She was strolling along the brick walk, sidestepping the puddles from the recent rainfall. The gold in her blond hair gleamed from the bright sun, and for a moment he wished he could have thought of Madeline as something more than a younger sister. Instead, he would have his fun and then seek out his old friend and former colleague, John Trent, to deliver the message from the Home Office one last time. His life as a courier and spy had come to an end. But he wouldn’t dwell on the reasons now. It was too glorious a day and a certain lady needed his attention.
He fell into step behind her. It wasn’t like Madeline to stroll calmly. Where was the bundle of energy that usually radiated off of her being? The lady before him exuded tranquility.
As he came closer, her scent wafted back toward him. Devlin closed his eyes and inhaled a light fragrance that reminded him of warm, lazy June afternoons, and of moonlight and wicked promises.
It had been months since they had seen one another. Could Madeline have changed so much? He had never been drawn to her like this before—the way a man is drawn to a woman.
A grin pulled at his lips and narrowed the distance between them. Coming up from behind Devlin put his hands over her eyes. “Guess who?”
The woman stiffened. “What the devil?”
The sound of her voice was all wrong and Devlin had a sneaking suspicion the lady he’d just accosted was not Madeline. He let his hands drop, and she turned to face him, her jaw tight, eyes narrowed. This most certainly was not his childhood nemesis but an entirely different delectable creature. Her eyes were blue, for one. There was also a spray of delicate freckles across her nose, and her lush lips were far more kissable than Madeline’s had ever been. She also shared a remarkable resemblance to Lisette. Could the two be related? Devlin shook away the thought.
“Devlin is the name. Many people have confused it with devil, though I can’t for the life of me understand why.” He linked his hands together behind his back. “Of course, the spellings are similar.”
Her eyebrows rose, and her mouth relaxed. He hoped it wasn’t because she intended to scream for help.
“Do you often sneak up on unsuspecting misses walking in gardens?”
“I apologize.” He bowed his head toward her. “I thought you were Madeline.”
“So, it is only my friend you attack?” She tilted her blond head with the question.
Devlin stepped back, affronted, and put a hand over his heart. “That was hardly an attack. Simply a prank.”
The lady before him folded her arms across her chest and the right side of her mouth tipped up. “A prank? You seem to take great liberty with Madeline. Are you courting her?”
She shook her head. “I didn’t think so.”
What was that supposed to mean?
“I am certain she would have mentioned you.”
Devlin stuck his right leg out, pointed his toe and executed the perfect court bow from days gone by. “Devlin Bartlett, Viscount Marston, at your service.” He would have kissed the back of her hand, but it was not offered and she still had her arms folded over her ample breasts.
Devlin righted himself. “Usually when a gentleman introduces himself the lady follows suit.”
“Miss Louisa Whitton.” She stuck her hand out as if to shake his. Very unusual.
Devlin gently grabbed hold, turned it, and placed a kiss on her exposed wrist. This intriguing creature dared him to want to do all sorts of delectable things considered scandalous in polite society. “It is an honor to make your acquaintance, Miss Louisa Whitton.”
She yanked her hand back as if she was burned, the light taint of a blush stained her cheeks as her last name struck a chord. “Whitton?”
She took a deep breath and sighed. “Yes. My grandfather is the Duke of Danby and my father is his fifth child, third son, and Vicar Whitton.”
Apparently she was used to people noting her lineage.
Miss Whitton tilted her head as if to study him. “Your Christian name is rather uncommon.”
“My mother thought it sounded romantic.” He leaned in to whisper. “She was addicted to gothic and horrid novels.”
“It is lovely.” She bit her upper lip. Was she trying not to laugh?
“The staff, while I was growing up didn’t always get it right, however. There were several occasions they called me Devil or Demon. It is really unfair, I tell you.”
“Somehow I think they got it right.” A dimple appeared at the corner of her lovely mouth.
Devlin put a hand over his heart. “You wound me. I was nothing but the most enchanting and delightful child.”
Louisa seriously doubted Lord Marston had ever experienced an angelic moment in his life. The hint of mischief in his warm brown eyes was in complete contrast to the offended demeanor he tried to put forth. Why hadn’t Madeline ever mentioned this gentleman to her? More importantly, why hadn’t Madeline set her cap upon him? There must be something about Lord Marston that made him an impossible candidate for marriage, because she couldn’t imagine her friend letting him slip through her fingers otherwise. Apart from his carefree and highly inappropriate behavior toward a young lady to whom he had not been properly introduced, there was something intriguing in his manner. Or, perhaps it was simply the fact that he stood tall, a head above her, with broad shoulders yet a lean frame as if he hadn’t allowed any portion of his body to go soft.
Louisa’s face heated. Goodness, she should not be thinking about his lean frame. She didn’t know anything about him.
“Marston, is that you?”
Louisa and Lord Marston turned toward the voice of her brother-in-law, John Trent. Elizabeth, Louisa’s sister and John’s wife, walked by his side.
“John.” Lord Marston grinned before a perplexed look came to his face. “Lise—,”
“Marston,” John interrupted. “Allow me to introduce my wife, Elizabeth Trent.”
Louisa narrowed her eyes at the stranger. He’d almost called her sister Lisette. This triggered a suspicion of exactly how Marston knew her brother-in-law, and sister for that matter. Not that they were any the wiser. As far as those two were concerned, they thought she still believed they’d met in France, after her sister became a widow of course. However, Louisa had learned the truth, the complete truth, this last Christmas after listening through secret panels and at doors at Danby Castle.
Thank goodness she had, or otherwise she would have been more worried about the stack of special licenses on her grandfather’s desk. He had not yet determined who her husband would be, and thus, he had set her aside for the moment.
Louisa didn’t dare think grandfather had forgotten. No, there were still a handful of Whitton grandchildren of an age to be married, and, if Louisa didn’t take matters into her own hands soon, her grandfather would see her married to a virtual stranger before this year was at an end.
“It is an honor.” Lord Marston bowed before Elizabeth. When he straightened, he kept glancing between the two women.
“We are sisters,” Louisa finally clarified.
“Two lovely sisters, indeed,” Marston replied. “Trent, how did you meet your bride? I thought you were roaming the Continent until recently.”
Louisa folded her hands before her and adopted a pleasant smile, waiting to hear the lies spill forth from her brother-in-law’s lips.
“While I was traveling in the south of France,” John began to explain. “I made the acquaintance of Elizabeth.”
Marston nodded, and Louisa fought not to let her mind wander. She’d heard the story so many times she could recite it herself. Still, she kept an interested expression while John told a blatant lie. Worse, Marston listened intently, as if he believed every word. If what she suspected was true, he knew it was a lie, as well. But, until she knew for certain, she would continue to put forth the demeanor that had served her well through the years. She behaved as the perfectly dutiful daughter of a vicar, and nobody ever suspected she was up to a blasted thing whenever she was found lurking outside of closed doors or cracked windows. It amazed Louisa at what she got away with, because no one would ever expect her to misbehave or step out of her assigned role, unlike her sister Elizabeth, who was a spy for the English crown, though nobody knew that of course.
As for Louisa, those in the parish at home assumed she would follow in her mother’s footsteps and marry a vicar herself.
They were wrong. Louisa would remain a spinster, whether Grandfather liked it or not, before that happened. She just needed a bit more time to find the right gentleman who would offer some excitement. And the best way to learn who the best candidate was, was to remain quiet and listen.
“I finally agreed to play the part of her deceased husband so Danby wouldn’t force her to remain at Danby Castle. When he found out the truth—”
“Truth?” Marston interrupted John with a raised eyebrow.
Yes, the truth would be nice for a change, Louisa thought to herself.
“That we traveled alone and were unmarried,” John explained slowly.
Marston nodded, and Louisa was hard put not to snort.
“He insisted his granddaughter had been compromised and that we should marry.”
The devil with the warm brown eyes chuckled.
“It wasn’t really force.” John looked down at Elizabeth. Unmasked love shone each time he looked at his wife, and Louisa’s heart lurched. Would any man ever look at her like that? Elizabeth returned his gaze.
Marston cleared his throat. “I can see that.”
John sheepishly looked away from Elizabeth and shrugged.
“I was sorry to hear about your loss,” John said a few minutes later.
“Thank you.” Marston nodded. “It has been an adjustment.”
The group turned and began to stroll back to the seating area in the gardens. “Do you have any plans?” John continued.
Marston didn’t say anything for a moment but glanced at Louisa. “I have to give up the life I have lived these past six years.”
Louisa would love to ask if that meant that he couldn't be a spy any longer and shock all three of them.
Elizabeth sank into a chair. “What happened, if you don’t mind me asking?”
Louisa took the one beside her. There was no way she was going to leave them to discuss matters without her. If she were gone, then there would be no pretense to talk around the secret subject, and she so enjoyed them trying to search for the right words to convey an entirely different meaning.
“My older brother was killed in February after coming to the assistance of his friend who had been set upon by footpads. I was with Father when we were told. He had an apoplexy and died within the day.”
Louisa brought her hand to her heart. “Goodness, how horrible for you.”
Marston offered a weak smile. “Thank you.” He turned back to John. “I’ve now found myself in a position I never expected, nor prepared for.”
John hitched a brow. “Managing estates and duty to title?”
“Worse,” Marston ground out.
“What?” Elizabeth sat forward.
“Three younger sisters, all of marriageable ages.”
John snorted. “I never thought to see the day when you were a guardian of young women.”
Louisa suspected nobody in their right mind would give him that duty intentionally. His sisters were safe, of course, but she wouldn’t trust him with a non-relation. If the kiss he’d planted on the inside of her wrist was any indication, Lord Marston had probably been kept far away from the proper young ladies of the ton.
“When I learned you were here I decided to visit and escape Bartlett Court. Those three are about to drive me to Bedlam.” Marston pushed his fingers through his deep auburn hair, and Louisa suspected he may not be exaggerating. “They insist on attending the Little Season. I will meet them in London at the end of the week.”
“I don’t see the harm,” Elizabeth uttered.
Marston leveled his eyes on Louisa’s sister. “When you meet them, you will understand. Trying to guard one is difficult enough, but all three may prove to be impossible.”
Louisa giggled. “Certainly they can’t be all bad.”
“Trust me, they are.” He pushed his fingers through his hair again then pulled at his cravat. The thought of his sisters really was unnerving the poor man. “I do have my own plans, however.”
“Yes?” Louisa prompted.
“I plan to marry each of them off as quickly as possible.”
Just like Grandfather!
Why did gentlemen think the best way to deal with an unmarried lady was to simply marry her off as if that solved everything? Well, he may be a handsome, interesting devil, but he could be someone else’s. With a huff she stood. “Good day, Lord Marston.”