The Lady Most Willing…
Who is The Lady Most Willing?
When Laird Taran Ferguson’s nephews refuse to wed and secure his birthright, he takes matters into his own hands, raiding a ball and kidnapping four likely brides—a bonny lass, an heiress with a slight reputation problem, a rich English beauty, and a maiden without a name or a fortune. But which one is ready to fall in love with the Scottish lord? Add a very angry duke, a decrepit castle, and a fierce Highland storm that is holding all of Taran’s “guests” captive to the mix, and readers will find themselves transported to a world of temptation, passion, and new and unexpected love. This historical romance novel in three parts—a single story with three compelling voices—is one that will not soon be forgotten.
Inside the Story
I loved the Duke of Bretton's dry sense of humor in The Lady Most Likely..., so when Eloisa, Connie, and I decided to work on a second collaboration together, I quickly claimed him as my hero, even though The Lady Most Willing... is not in any way a sequel to The Lady Most Likely....
I am not much of an expert on medieval castles, so I will admit that I assumed that people made butter in the buttery. It's actually a service room for storing beer and other alcoholic drinks. The name comes from the medieval French word botte, which comes from the Latin buttis, or "barrel." Incidentally, the word "bottle," derives from the French bouteille, which in turn comes from my favorite Latin word ever: butticula.
It turns out I also didn't know very much about the traditional Highland sport of caber tossing. It turns out that the win does not go to the man who throws the caber the farthest, but rather the one who comes closest to landing the large log in the most vertical position.
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An excerpt from The Lady Most Willing...
Catriona Burns was a practical girl. One had to be, living as she did in the Highlands of Scotland. When it was December the twenty-second, and the sun rose for barely six hours per day, and temperature hovered somewhere between freezing and dead, one had to be prepared for anything.
But not this.
It was two in the miserable morning, she'd lost feeling in at least eight of her toes, and she was standing outside in three inches of snow. With an earl. And a French comte. And a duke. Who'd been kidnapped.
"Taran Ferguson, you insufferable miscreant," she practically yelled. "What do you think you are doing?"
"Aye, well, y'see..." He scratched his head, glanced at the carriage as if it might offer advice, and then shrugged.
"You're drunk," she accused.
His mouth twisted so far to the right it seemed to turn his head. "Just a wee bit."
"You kidnapped the Duke of Bretton!"
"Well now, that was a mistake..." He frowned, turning to his loyal retainers. "How did we end up with him?"
"Indeed," bit off the duke. Normally speaking, Catriona would not have found him terribly fearsome. He was a rather good-looking fellow, with thick dark hair and deep-set eyes, but there was nothing wild or untamed about him.
That said, when the Duke of Bretton speared Taran Ferguson with a furious stare, even Catriona took a step back.
"What were you doing in the carriage?" Taran demanded.
"It was my carriage!" roared the duke.
There was a moment of silence--well, except for the French comte, who wouldn't stop laughing-- and then Taran finally said, "Oh."
"Who," the duke demanded, "are you?"
"Taran Ferguson. I do apologize for the error." He motioned toward Lady Cecily, then waved his hand past both Chisholm sisters. "We only meant to snatch the women."
Marilla Chisholm let out a delicate cry of distress, leading Catriona to let out an indelicate grunt of annoyance. She'd known Marilla for every one of her twenty-one years, and there was no way she was the least bit distressed. She'd been trapped in a carriage with a duke, only to be deposited at the feet of two other titled gentlemen?
Please. This was Marilla's wildest dream, come true and then inflicted upon the rest of them. Catriona looked over at Marilla's older sister Fiona, but whatever she was thinking, it was well-hidden behind her spectacles.
"Bret," said one of the men--the stiff and serious one who had already apologized six times.
The duke's head snapped around, and Catriona saw his eyes widen. "Oakley?" he asked, sounding well and truly shocked.
Lord Oakley jerked his head toward Taran and said, "He's our uncle."
"Our?" the duke echoed.
Lord Rocheforte --or was it Mr. Rocheforte? Catriona didn't know, he was French, for heaven's sake, for all that he sounded British. Whoever he was, he clearly saw no gravity in the situation, for he just grinned and held up his hand. "Hallo, Bret," he said in a jolly voice.
"Good God," the duke swore. "You, too?"
Catriona looked back and forth between the trio of men. They had that air about them--five hundred years of breeding and a membership to White's. One didn't have to venture far beyond the highlands of Scotland to know that once one reached a certain social level, everyone knew everyone. These three had probably shared a room at Eton.
"Didn't realize you were in Scotland," Mr. Lord Rocheforte said to the duke.
The duke cursed under his breath, following that up with: "Forgot the two of you were related."
"It still quite frequently comes as a shock to me, too," Lord Oakley said in a dry voice. Then he cleared his throat and added, "I must apologize on behalf of my uncle." He jerked his head furiously toward Taran. "Apparently, he--"
"I can speak for myself," Taran cut in.
"No," Lord Oakley said, "you can not."
"Don't you speak to me like that, boy!"
Oakley turned to Taran with a fury that even outstripped the duke's. "Your judgment--"
"He was asleep in the carriage," Catriona blurted out, jumping into the fray. The men went silent for long enough to stare at her, so she quickly added, "When you and your men threw us inside. His grace was already there, asleep."
"Did he wake up?" Mr. Lord Rocheforte murmured.
Catriona blinked, not sure if she was meant to actually answer. But she had a feeling that if she did not maintain control of the conversation the other three men would come to blows, so she said, "Not right away."
Rocheforte started laughing again.
"How can you find this funny?" Lord Oakley demanded.
"How can you not?" Rocheforte sputtered.
"I feel faint," Marilla twittered.
"You do not," Catriona snapped. Because really, the whole thing was bad enough without Marilla's nonsense.
Marilla gasped in outrage, and Catriona had no doubt that she would have hissed something monstrously insulting if they had not an audience of unmarried gentlemen.
"Might we go inside?" the Duke of Bretton asked, each syllable icy sharp.
"Of course," Lord Oakley replied quickly. "Come in, everyone. We will get this sorted out and have everyone back on their way home" --he glared at his uncle at that-- "posthaste."
"We can't go home," Catriona said.
"What do you mean?"
"The roads are impassable."
Lord Oakley stared at her.
"It's a miracle we even made it here," she told him. "We certainly cannot return tonight. There is no moon, and" --she looked up at the sky-- "it's going to snow again."
"How do you know?" Lord Oakley asked, with perhaps more than a touch of desperation.
She tried not to stare at him as if he were an idiot, she really did, but his white-blond hair was practically glowing in the moonlight, and with his mouth still open in horror, he looked like a traumatized owl. "I have lived here my entire life," she finally said. "I know when it's going to snow."
His reply was something that should never be uttered in front of a gently-born female, but given the circumstances, Catriona opted to take no offense.
"Let's get inside," he muttered, and after a moment of confusion, they all piled into the castle.
Catriona had been to Finovair Castle, of course; Taran Ferguson and his crumbling abode were the Burns's third-closest neighbor. But she'd never been so late at night, after most of the fires had been allowed to die down. It was so cold the air had teeth, and none of the young ladies was wearing a coat or pelisse. Catriona's gown had been sensibly tailored with long-sleeves, as had Fiona's, but Lady Cecily's powder blue confection had little cap sleeves, and Marilla's practically bared her shoulders.
"There's one in the drawing room," Lord Oakley said, hurrying everyone along. It was difficult to believe that he was related to Taran; they looked nothing alike, and as they passed the candlelit sconces, Catriona could see that Lord Oakley's features were uncommonly stern and severe.
As opposed to Mr. Lord Rocheforte, who had one of those faces that looked as if it didn't know how not to smile. He was chuckling as they made their way through the cavernous Great Hall, although Catriona did hear him say to the duke, "Oh, come now, Bret, surely you see the humor in this."
Catriona pricked up her ears, but she didn't hear "Bret's" response. She didn't dare steal a glance at the duke, not when they were all in such close proximity. There was something about him that made her feel uneasy, and it wasn't just the fact that he was certainly the highest ranking individual to whom she had ever been introduced.
Except she hadn't been introduced to him. She'd only watched him from across the Maycott ballroom, as had the rest of the local peons. The Earl of Maycott was one of the richest men in England, and heaven only knew why he had wanted his own Scottish castle, but want it he had, badly enough to spend a fortune restoring Bellemere to a level of magnificence that Catriona was fairly certain it had never enjoyed, even when it was in its supposed glory.
Once the work was completed, the Maycotts had decided to hold a ball, inviting a few of their London friends but, for the most part, the local gentry. Only so that their first annual Icicle Ball would be a crush, or so the local gossips claimed.
Or at least that was what the local gossips said. And while Catriona knew better to believe everything she heard, she always listened.
The Chisholm daughters had been brought to meet the duke, of course. They were heiresses, quite possibly the only heiresses this corner of Scotland had ever seen, and they'd each had a season in London. But not Catriona. Her father was a local squire, and her mother was the daughter of a local squire, and as Catriona fully expected to one day to marry a local squire, she didn't see much sense in begging an introduction to the visiting aristocracy.
Catriona still wasn't sure how she had come to be snatched up along with Lady Cecily and the Chisholm daughters, but she'd been the first to be tossed into the carriage. She'd landed squarely atop the duke, who responded first with a snore, and then with a frisky hand to her bottom.
Then he'd called her Delilah and started nuzzling her neck!
She'd jumped away before she could dwell upon the fact that it all felt rather nice, and then the duke had fallen back asleep.
Someone, Catriona had decided acerbically, had got into the Maycotts' good brandy.
Catriona had only a minute alone with the sleeping duke before the other three ladies were tossed into the carriage, and then he had woken up. She shuddered to think how much brandy he'd have had to drink to sleep through that. Marilla was shrieking, Lady Cecily was banging on the ceiling with her fist, and Fiona was yelling at Marilla, trying to get her to shut up.
Sisters the Chisholm girls might be, but there had never been any love lost there.
The duke had tried to get everyone to be quiet, but even he wasn't able to break through the din until he bellowed, "Silence!"
It was at that moment that Catriona realized that the other ladies had not yet noticed he was in the carriage. Lady Cecily's jaw dropped so fast Catriona was surprised it stayed hinged. And Marilla --good Lord, but Catriona had never liked Marilla-- she had been immediately tossed onto his lap by a nonexistent bump in the road.
He had not, Catriona had noticed with some satisfaction, responded by squeezing her bottom.
She wasn't certain how long they'd been trapped in the swiftly-moving carriage. Ninety minutes at least, perhaps two hours. Long enough for the duke to announce that no one was to utter a sound until they arrived at their godforsaken destination. Then he went back to sleep.
Or if not sleep, then a crackingly good imitation of it. Even Marilla had not dared to disturb him.
But whatever good sense Marilla possessed had fled when she'd stepped out of the carriage, because now she was chattering to the duke like an outraged magpie, clutching his arm --his arm!-- as she went on about "shocking this" and "insupportable that."
The duke gave a little tug, but Marilla had no intention of releasing her prey, and he gave up. Catriona could only think that he'd decided the heat of her hand was worth the annoyance.
Catriona couldn't fault him for that. She'd have cuddled up to Marilla just then if it meant raising her temperature a few degrees. The only people who didn't seem to be shivering madly were Taran's two nephews, who, it had to be said, were almost as pleasing to the eye as the duke, and not the sort of men one would think would need to have women snatched from a party.
Then again, Taran Ferguson was as eccentric as the summer day was long. And the last time she'd seen him he'd been going on about the fate of Finovair after he was dead and in the ground, so she supposed she shouldn't be too surprised that he'd go to such lengths to secure brides for his nephews.
Lord Oakley led the entire crowd into a small sitting room off the great hall. It was shabby but clean, just like most of Finovair, and most importantly, there was a fire in the grate. Everyone rushed forward, desperate to warm their limbs.
"We'll need blankets," Oakley directed.
"Got some in that trunk," Taran replied, jerking his head toward an ancient chest near the wall. His nephews went to retrieve them, and soon they were passing the blankets along like a chain until everyone had one draped across their shoulders. The wool was rough and scratchy, and Catriona wouldn't have been surprised if a flotilla of moths had come spewing forth, but she didn't care. She would have donned a hairshirt for warmth at that point.
"Once again," Lord Oakley said to the ladies, "I must apologize on behalf of my uncle. I can't even begin to imagine what he might have been thinking--"
"You know what I was thinking," Taran cut in. "Robin's dragging his feet, pussyfooting around--"
"Uncle," Oakley said warningly.
"As no one is going anywhere tonight," Mr. Rocheforte said. "We might as get some sleep."
"Oh, but we must all be introduced," Marilla said grandly.
"Of course," Taran said, with great enthusiasm. "Where are my manners?"
"There are so many possible replies I can hardly bring myself to choose," the duke said.
"I am, as you all know, the laird of Finovair," Taran announced. "And these are my two nephews, Oakley and Rocheforte, but I call them Byron and Robin."
"Byron?" Fiona Chisholm murmured.
Lord Oakley glared at her.
"You seem to be the Duke of Bretton," Taran continued, "although I don't know why you're here."
"It was my carriage," Bretton growled.
Taran looked back at his men, one of whom was still toting his claymore. "That's what I don't understand. Didn't we bring a carriage of our own?"
"Uncle," Rocheforte reminded him, "the introductions?"
"Right. Maycott's probably busted it up for kindling by now, anyway." Taran let out a sorrowful sigh. "Speaking of Maycott, though, this one is his daughter Cecilia."
"Cecily," Lady Cecily corrected. It was the first word she had spoken since their arrival.
Taran blinked in surprise. "Really?"
"Really," Lady Cecily confirmed, one of her brows lifting in a delicately wry arch.
"Hmmph. So sorry about that. It's a lovely name."
"Thank you," she replied, with a gracious tilt of her head. She was remarkably pretty, Catriona thought, although not in a flashy, intimidating way like Marilla, whose blond curls and sparkling blue eyes were the stuff of legend.
"These two are the Chisholm sisters," Taran continued, motioning to Fiona and Marilla. "Fiona's the elder and Marilla's the younger. They're good Scottish ladies, but they have been down to London. Got a little a polish, I hear. And that's about it."
Catriona cleared her throat.
"Oh, right!" Taran exclaimed. "So sorry. This one is Catriona Burns. We took her by mistake."