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Authors: and Connie Brockway Eloisa James Julia Quinn

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The Lady Most Willing . . .

A Novel in Three Parts

Julia Quinn

Eloisa James

Connie Brockway

Dedication

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.

—JQ

. . . 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.

—EJ

. . . 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.

—CB

Prologue

S
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
English
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
French
dancing master.”

“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
behooves
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!”

Chapter 1

Finovair Castle

Kilkarnity, Scotland

December 1819

“R
emind me again,
why
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
freezing
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
had
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
not
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.

A fresh, pretty face appeared for a moment, and then a slender hand grasped the inside
handle. “There are no brides here,” she said smartly. The door slammed shut.

Byron stared in shock. “Bloody hell!” he breathed. He looked at Robin. Even as his
cousin’s brows rose, a smile was growing on his handsome face. “This is not amusing,
Rob. That was a
lady
.”

“Damned right that was a lady,” Taran bellowed. “A spirited one, too. I got three
of them with money, birth, and looks enough.” He pointed a gnarled finger at Robin.
“You’ll pick one of these, nephew, or I’ll do it myself and lock the two of you in
a room until you have to get married.” He glanced at Byron. “You might as well take
one, too,” he added magnanimously.

Byron started down the steps with a groan.

Taran gave the door a sharp tug and a dark-haired girl tumbled out. “Lads, this first
lady be—” He stopped. Stared. “Catriona Burns, what in the devil are you doing here?”
he demanded.

“You abducted me!” the dark-haired young lady retorted, hands on her hips.

“Well, if I did it were a mistake,” Taran said. He looked over at Byron and Robin.
“Don’t even think about this one, lads. Nice lass, no money.”

Byron heard her outraged gasp even above the sound of Robin’s hopeless laughter.

“Move aside, Catriona. The rest of you lassies get out here,” Taran bellowed, peering
into the carriage. “My nephew needs to take a good look before he chooses one of you
for his bride.”

“I cannot believe that you visited an outrage of this nature on young ladies,” Byron
stated, shooting his uncle a murderous look. Taran was a moth-eaten bear of a man,
still more brawn than beef, dark hair shot through with the same silver that colored
his beard. He didn’t look cracked, though he obviously was.

Byron reached the carriage just in time to offer an arm to the lady who appeared in
the open door. In the light of the torches, snowflakes drifted onto hair the color
of dark rubies.

“There’s a good one!” Taran announced. “Fiona Chisholm. She’s a bit long on the shelf,
but I brought her younger sister, too, if’n you want a more tender lamb. Each of them
has a tidy fortune.”

“I deeply apologize for my uncle’s lunacy,” Byron said, bowing over Miss Chisholm’s
hand once she was on the ground. “You must be feeling nearly hysterical with fright.”

There was laughter rather than terror in the young lady’s eyes. “Having long acquaintance
with the laird, I am not as frightened as I might be. You have the advantage, sir,”
she said, dropping a curtsy.

“Byron Wotton, Earl of Oakley.”

“Lord Oakley, it is a pleasure to meet you.”

“This is my younger nephew. Lives in England,” Taran put in. “Robin there will be
inheriting Finovair. He’s the one ye’re here to marry.”

Robin had crossed the courtyard and now moved to stand at Byron’s side. “Robert Parles,
Comte de Rocheforte,” he said cheerfully. “Call me Robin. Pleased to meet you, Miss
Burns, Miss Chisholm.”

Byron handed Miss Chisholm to him and put his hand out to help yet another lady, this
one smaller, with curling toasty brown hair, delicate features, and brilliant, deep-set
brown eyes.

“Maycott’s daughter,” Taran said proudly. “Lady Cecily. She’s the best of the bunch:
worth a fortune and pretty as a penny. Though”—he lowered his voice—“she
is
English. But she’s been out a fair few seasons now, too, and shouldn’t be too picky
at this point.”

The lady’s eyes grew round.

“Uncle, I implore you to shut your mouth,” Byron said. “Lady Cecily, I can find no
words to apologize for the terrible imposition committed against you.”

Lady Cecily seemed about to reply when Robin edged Byron aside, taking her hand and
bowing. “Oh, I don’t think I can apologize,” he said. “No one’s ever kidnapped a lady
on my behalf before. But then,” he continued, grinning wolfishly, “no one has ever
had to.”

The girl’s eyes widened again, and even in the fitful torchlight one could see her
cheeks turn rosy. For a second, Robin froze, staring down at her. Then he abruptly
looked away, releasing her hand, and stepped past her, craning his neck to peer into
the carriage. “Who else is left in there, Uncle? One of George’s girls? I always fancied
marrying into royalty.”

“This is a serious business!” their uncle said with a scowl. “Only one left, I think.
Fiona’s sister.”

His ancient lieutenant nodded gravely.

Byron ground his teeth. “Robin, please escort Miss Burns, Miss Chisholm, and Lady
Cecily into the castle. It’s freezing, and they aren’t wearing cloaks.”

“Didn’t have time for that,” Taran said cheerfully. “I snatched them straight out
of the ballroom. Marilla Chisholm, there’s no hiding in that carriage,” he bellowed.

The last young lady appeared, pausing dramatically at the top of the carriage’s steps.
She was very young, very blond, and very beautiful, and she swayed gently. “What is
happening?” she cried, her voice wavering. “Oh, what is to become of us?”

“You are perfectly safe, Miss Marilla.” Byron held out a hand to support her as she
stepped down. “I am Lord Oakley. I offer our deepest apologies, and my assurance as
a gentleman that you will be speedily returned to your family.”

“No, she won’t,” Taran said. “Snow’s already closed the pass. Should be two to three
days before anyone makes it through.” He pushed the carriage door shut. “Let’s get
inside. It’s as cold as a witch’s teat out here, and we’re done.”

The carriage door slammed open again and an exquisite Hoby boot landed decisively
on the ground. A deep, irritated voice said, “Not quite!”

Byron’s jaw dropped.

Robin turned around. “Holy hell, Uncle, you’ve kidnapped the Duke of Bretton!”

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