Read The Lady Most Willing . . . Online
Authors: Eloisa James Julia Quinn,Connie Brockway
The Lady Most Willing . . .
A Novel in Three Parts
For our husbands . . .
. . . Paul. He might not throw cabers,
but give him a pair of scissors,
and he can slice a wasp in half in mid-air.
As far as I’m concerned, that’s the
modern-day equivalent of slaying dragons.
. . . Alessandro, because we met on a blind date,
and although it didn’t take place in a Scottish castle,
one might argue that our characters
find themselves in a similarly happy situation.
. . . the good Dr. Brockway, whom I forgive
for not gaining a single pound since the day we wed.
No truer love has a woman than this.
ome said the legendary storm of 1819 that screamed down from the north pushed madness ahead of it. Others said the only madness exhibited that night was born inside a bottle of contraband whiskey. And then there were those who claimed that magic rode vanguard to the snow, sweeping the halls of Finovair Castle and inspiring its laird to heights of greatness . . .
Or something along those lines.
All that’s known for certain is that it was a chilly December day when Taran Ferguson led his clansmen to the brow of a hill from which they could see Bellemere Castle glowing like a jewel in the dark Highland night. As his men told the story later, the wind whipped Taran’s tartan back from his shoulders as he forced his steed to paw the air, then brought the magnificent beast back down to earth.
Nearly disbalanced, ’tis true, but that was part of the miracle: he’d drunk a bottle of whiskey and kept his seat.
“A glorious and sacred task lays ahead of us this night,” he bellowed. “Our cause is just, our purpose noble! Down yonder sits the Earl of Maycott . . . The
Earl of Maycott!”
This brought forth a roar from his men. And perhaps a belch or two.
“He sits amongst his gold cups and fine china,” Taran continued grandiosely, “seeking to worm his way into our good graces by bidding the finest Highland families to dine and dance with him.”
His clansmen glowered back at him: none of them, including Taran, had been invited. Not that they’d wanted to be. Or so they told themselves.
“No English interloper will seduce a Scottish lassie on my watch,” Taran shouted. “Scotland is for the Scots!”
There was another obligatory roar of approval from his men.
“Ye ken full well that I have been sowing wild oats since my dear wife died, some twenty years ago,” Taran continued. “But sadly, laddies, ye also know that none of those seeds bore fruit, for it takes a rich field indeed to nourish a seed as mighty as that of the Ferguson.” Taran had the good sense not to wait to see how this was received. “My line is threatened with extinction. Aye. Extinction! And where, I ask you, will you all be then? Where will your children be without a Ferguson laird to see to their well-being?”
“A better place than we are now,” one of the men muttered, pulling his tartan closer against the screaming wind.
Taran ignored him. “Yet all is not lost! You ken I have two nephews by my younger sisters.”
Unhappy mutters met this statement. One of Ferguson’s sisters had married a refugee from the French Revolution, a penniless comte. The other had wed an English earl who turned out to be as disagreeable as he was English.
Taran raised his hand, quieting the grumblers. “It’s the half-French one, Rocheforte, who’ll inherit my castle.” He paused dramatically. “Think on it, lads. If my Frenchie nephew marries a Scotswoman, his son will be one of us—a true Scotsman!!” He slashed the air with his broadsword so vehemently the momentum nearly carried him off his saddle, but at the last moment he righted himself. “Or mostly. And it’s the same for my English nevvy as well.”
“I’m sorry to tell you but the earl is engaged to an Englishwoman!” one of the men called out. “Me wife’s cousin lives in London and wrote about it to me wife.”
“Oakley was going to be wed,” Taran said briskly, “but he caught his intended practicing steps with her dancing master that were never meant to see a ballroom floor.” He paused dramatically. “Her
“Didn’t you just say your other nephew is French?” one of his men asked, rubbing his hands on his kilt for warmth.
Taran brushed this aside. “It pains me to say it, but neither lad can be trusted to find a bride worthy of Finovair. And marry they must, or our birthright will crumble to dust.”
“Half there already,” someone muttered.
“It behooves us”—Taran paused, so pleased with the word he thought it bore repeating—“it
us, my fine companions, to make sure both my nevvies marry Scotswomen. Or at the very least, someone with enough blunt—”
“Get to the bloody point!” shouted someone with freezing fingers and a wife at home. “What are we doing here?”
No one could fault Taran for missing a good exit line. “What are we doing?” Taran bellowed back. “
What are we doing?
” He rose in his stirrups and, wielding the great broadsword of the Ferguson over his head, shouted,
“We’re going to get us some brides!”
emind me again,
are we here?”
Byron Wotton, Earl of Oakley, took a fortifying gulp of his whiskey and nudged his chair closer to the fire. Castles were notoriously difficult to heat, but it was bloody
at Finovair. He knew his uncle was short on funds, but surely something could have been done about the arctic breeze that ran like a snake through the sitting room.
“I believe you left a woman at the altar,” his cousin Robin said with an arched brow.
“We were a month away from the wedding,” Byron shot back, perfectly aware that he had risen—or rather, descended—to Robin’s bait. “As well you know.”
He might have pointed out that he’d caught his fiancée in the arms of her dancing master, but really, what was the point? Robin knew the whole story already.
“As for me,” Robin said, leaning forward to rub his hands together near the fire, “I’m here for the food.”
Anyone else might have taken it as the dry riposte Robin had intended it to be, but Byron knew better. With nothing to his name but a defunct French title, Robert Parles (Robin to everyone but his mother), quite likely
come to Finovair for the food.
A rush of cold air hit Byron in the face, and he bit off a curse. “Did someone leave a window open?” he asked, scowling as he glanced around the room. The sun had gone down hours before, taking with it its pathetic delusion of warmth.
Byron stomped to his feet and crossed the room to inspect the windows. Several were cracked. He peered out, into the worsening storm. Was someone out there? No, no one would be so mad as to—
“What happened to Uncle Taran?” Byron asked suddenly.
“Hmmm?” Robin had let his head loll against the back of his chair. He did not open his eyes.
“I haven’t seen him since supper. Have you?”
Robin snorted and sat up straighter. “You missed the show. After you went off to God knows where—”
“The library,” Byron muttered.
“—Taran got up on the table in his kilt. And let me tell you”—Robin gave a shudder—“that is
a kilt one cares to peer under.”
“He got up on the table?” Byron could not help but echo. It was outlandish, even for Uncle Taran.
Robin gave a one-shouldered shrug. “Some of his liegemen came to drink with him after supper, and the next thing I knew, he was on the table, thumping his chest and raving about the glories of the past, when men were men and Scottish men were thrice as manly. Then he called for his claymore and the whole lot of them disappeared.”
“You didn’t think to ask them where they were going?” Because that was the first thing Byron would have demanded.
Robin eyes met his with the barest hint of amusement. “No.”
Byron started to comment, but he was cut off by the welcome sound of their uncle, bellowing outside the castle.
“Speak of the devil,” Byron said, with some relief. Their uncle was a bosky nuisance, but neither of them wanted to find him facedown in a snowdrift.
“Best go drag him to the fire and thaw him out,” Robin said, putting down his glass. “Garvie says we’re in for a three-day blow.”
They left the great hall and pushed open the huge front door, where they discovered a small clutch of their uncle’s clansmen milling about the keep, thumping their chests and clapping one another on the back. They wore full Highland kit, kilts and fur cloaks, and the torches they carried sputtered beneath a thickening snowfall. Taran stood at their center, grinning like a madman.
“God, look at all those knees,” Robin murmured.
“Whose carriage is that?” Byron asked, peering at a gleaming black vehicle drawn up just where the torchlight gave way to darkness.
Taran pushed his way through his men. “I’ve brought you brides!” he shouted over his shoulder to his nephews. “Come out here, lasses!” He pulled open the door of the carriage with a flourish.