The Lady Most Likely* Quinn, James and Brockway continue the conceit that this is more than a collection of novellas. Where it worked well in the former, it's less successful in The Lady Most Willing. Unlike the prior collection, the stories fail to flow into one tale. I struggled to finish the book. Changes in character that might be forgiven in a grouping of shorts stood out strongly when presented as part of a whole. Adding to my boredom was no real sense of suspense. Here are the couples. Watch them pair off. Four men, four women, an engagement every few chapters.
In the first tale we meet the obligatory duke and his future duchess, the mistakenly kidnapped Catriona Burns. This was the most captivating of the couples, despite being as instantly forgettable as the rest. Catriona becomes our narrator, despite not being the actual narrator of the book. It's a shock when she abruptly departs at the next chapter heading. Now our heroine is Fiona of the ruined reputation and passive aggressive acceptance. This isn't quite the Fiona we think we've gotten to know, nor is her suddenly malicious sister Marilla the same desperate girl we've been reading about. (Where did this strong dislike between the sisters come from?) Instead of two very different girls tolerating each other it's open dislike with a veil of civility. Marilla switches from overly eager young colt to vengeful nemesis. I liked the new version of Fiona but I didn't understand her. The new Marilla I'll get to later. (Catriona is now reduced to ducal snuggle sessions.)
Fiona spends most of her tale in sexual longing. Or not. Honestly, my initial interest in her quickly turned to page skimming boredom. (Everyone thinks I'm a whore. Let's have sex.) There was some weird subtext going on I didn't quite grab hold of or care enough to unearth. Fiona, thought to be sexually open is actually the victim of unwanted male desire. As a result she's repressed her natural desires. Faced with a spoiled young sibling, she carefully guards her inner passions so they cannot be detected. (Sensing a theme?) Of course this leads to sex in the stables. Because that's what this character would do when faced with something she wants. (I liked Fiona better when she was throwing the hero over and planning an independent life.)
Our not so final heroine Cecily has an abundance of everything. Blessed with face, fortune and indulgent parents she has been waiting for The One. Of course she finds him in less than a second. Meeting her hero's eyes as she leaves a carriage, Cecily is certain he's the man she's meant to wed. There is so much going on with Cecily that I don't know where to start. I don't believe at love in a glance, I think it requires at least a conversaton. A women with Cecily's options and experience deciding to seduce a man with a love them and leave them reputation was a hard hurdle to jump. Add in her later qualms about whose place it is to make the first move and Cecily just annoyed me. Toward the end of her story she started to reclaim my attention but it was too late, the book was done. And this brings me to the fourth heroine, Marilla.
I had serious problems with the presentation of Marilla. Is she a woman making the most of an opportunity? Is she a hateful bitch determined to ruin her sister? Is she an underage seductress playing games far above her experience? Is she a sensualist used to indulging herself? Marilla has only one consistent aspect to her character. The other women dislike her. The other men (save her hero, presented as no prize at all) hold her in mild contempt. Every woman in the book is given a sympathetic viewing but Marilla. She's fairly young, she's ambitious, she wants to have fun and she wants to marry someone who will indulge her. During Fiona's story she's malicious, but for the rest of the book she's misguided and impetuous. Because she is obvious in her desires and open in her goals, the other characters strongly dislike her. This rather made me dislike them. It's not that Marilla was so likeable. None of her faces were sympathetic. In a book where each character's personality quirks were explored and explained, only Marilla was freely disdained. Her happy ending is a father figure of a husband. I had issues.
The Lady Most Willing was far from the worst book I read this year. If the shorts were sold independently I'd say grab Catriona's chapters and forget the rest. Since they come as a bundle, you'll have to decide for yourself.
*In reviewing my former thoughts about The Lady Most Likely I discover that a homophobia ran through it not unlike the homophobia on display in Eloisa James recent short Seduced By A Pirate. I need to quit Eloisa James. We're not good for each other.