A Woman of True Honor
Book 8 in the True Gentlemen series
Valerian Dorning is handsome, charming, and absolutely pockets to let. He’s hopelessly attracted to heiress Emily Pepper, but an honorable man must bring independent means to his marriage.
Emily has been chased by enough fortune hunters to know that the fellow who balks at taking advantage of her wealth is exactly the man she needs, but she’s hiding secrets that Valerian must never learn. He needs a fortune, she needs a miracle. How can true love prevail?
Enjoy An Excerpt
A man raised with six brothers should have been impossible to ambush. Valerian Dorning’s excuse was that the typical fraternal skirmish involved a pair of fists, and those, he’d become adept at dodging.
Miss Emily Pepper’s weapon of choice was a pair of lips—hers—and luscious, soft lips they were too. Valerian’s body had no inclination whatsoever to escape her fire, and had surrender been honorable, he would have gone peaceably into captivity after at least fifteen minutes of heroic struggle.
His honor, alas for him, was yet in evidence. “Miss Pepper…” he murmured as she tucked in closer. “Emily…”
She was a well formed young woman, which Valerian noted in less genteel terms every time he clapped eyes upon her. Now, purely in defense of his sanity, he laid his hands on her person. Her upper arms seemed a safe enough place to grasp her, except that she twined them around Valerian’s neck, and his hands landed on the sides of her ribs.
Her breasts—more luscious softness—were mere inches from his touch, while his gentlemanly restraint was threatening to gallop off into the next county.
“Miss Pepper, we must not.”
Though he did. For one, glorious, demented moment Valerian kissed her back, reveling in her blatant desire and the sheer perfection of her body pressed to his. He dreamed of Emily Pepper, he cursed her in the darkness, and he subjected himself to long, cold swims in the millpond trying to exorcise her from his imagination.
This utter folly masquerading as a kiss would make Valerian’s nights only more tormented. Miss Pepper’s hands roaming his back conveyed equal parts eagerness and determination, and when a fellow had never been particularly sought out by anybody—much less by a comely female with a lively mind, a wonderful sense of humor, and a fiercely kind heart—he was easily felled.
Her questing hands wandered south, giving Valerian’s bum a luscious squeeze.
“Miss Pepper.” Do that again. “We must not forget ourselves.”
She did it again, and Valerian forgot whose royal arse sat upon the British throne. When she clutched at his backside, she brought her womanly abundance into greater proximity to Valerian’s chest, and the battle to deny arousal became an utter rout.
He stepped back lest he have to depart from the picnic with his hat held over his falls.
Miss Pepper kept her arms around his neck, her breath coming in soft pants that sent Valerian’s wayward imagination in all the wrong directions.
“I have bungled even this,” she said, gaze fixed on his cravat. “You are trying not to laugh, aren’t you?”
If anything could drag Valerian’s attention from the rise and fall of Miss Pepper’s charms, it was the note of misery in her voice.
“I beg your pardon?” Why must her hair be such a soft, caress-able brown? Why must her fingers stroking his nape bring poetry to mind?
“I cannot even manage a stolen kiss with a gentleman bachelor. My dancing is a horror, my laughter too boisterous. I will never be accepted even in Dorsetshire.”
Valerian took her hands in his and managed another half-step back. “You make Dorset sound like a province of Lower Canada. I assure you, your neighbors all hold you in very high regard.” They held her father’s money in high regard. From what Valerian could tell, the local gentry weren’t quite sure what to make of Miss Pepper herself.
“I will not attend the summer assembly.” She dropped his hands and turned, so she faced the woods that backed up to the garden of the Summerton estate. “I refuse to be made a laughingstock.”
“Nobody will dare laugh at you.” Unless, of course, she fell on her pretty fundament. Valerian had suffered the indignity of a public tumble himself, having been tripped by some brother or other, and he well knew the capacity for merriment that the publican’s punch could inspire.
Also the blinding headaches.
“They won’t laugh to my face. Shall we take a stroll to the stream, Mr. Dorning?”
Wandering the woods together was not quite proper, except that other guests were also enjoying the shady paths winding beneath the trees. The occasion was meant to feature the out of doors, and the estate where Valerian’s brother dwelled with his new wife was beautiful in any season.
Valerian offered his arm, Miss Pepper curled her hand into the crook of his elbow, and they set off at a sedate meander.
“I will miss you if you don’t attend the assembly, Miss Pepper.” A partial truth. Valerian would not miss watching every bachelor, widower, and squire stand up with her. Would not miss seeing her smile at all the babies and children. Would not miss hearing her laugh at some lout’s attempt at humor.
Miss Pepper had a genuine laugh, one that conveyed warm-heartedness and a convivial spirit. She also had a temper, and Valerian liked that almost as much as he liked her sense of humor. Too many women pretended they never had grounds for offense, and too many men were content to believe the ladies’ fictions.
“You are being gallant,” she said. “If I’m not at the assembly, the general opinion will be that I think I’m too good for my neighbor’s company. I am getting off on the wrong foot with them and I don’t know what to do about it.”
Earlier in the year, Emily’s father, Jacob Pepper, had purchased a local estate sunk in debt. She was overseeing refurbishment of the manor house, one of many properties she would inherit upon her father’s death.
“The local folk don’t know what do about you either.” The uproar in Valerian’s breeches was subsiding to a familiar ache, and turning his mind to Miss Pepper’s social situation helped reduce the ache to a pointless yearning. “Country life comes at a slower pace than what you’re used to in Town. Your fortunes here won’t be decided in the space of a few Wednesday night gatherings at Almack’s. You have time to ease into the community.”
“You’re saying if I don’t attend the summer assembly, I can simply show up at the autumn gathering?”
“Or winter, or next spring… Though the summer gathering is in some ways the best.”
“Because the engagements are usually announced at the spring assembly, and summer is when the courting couples preen and prance about. The weather is pleasant enough that most people walk both to and from the gathering, and the whole business has a more relaxed, congenial air. I do hope you’ll come.”
As one of the many Dorning offspring, Valerian had been raised with certain expectations. First his father and now his brother held the title Earl of Casriel, making the Dornings the ranking family in the neighborhood. Dorning Hall entertained its neighbors at a summer fete and a Yuletide open house each year, and the Dorning brothers were expected to stand up with the wallflowers at any event that featured dancing.
Hospitality was expected of a Dorning, even a penniless bachelor Dorning. Especially of such a fellow, in fact, for it was among few valuables he had to give.
They reached the stream, which today ran a placid course between grassy banks. “Why did you kiss me, Miss Pepper?”
She took the bench which some obliging soul had placed by the water a century or two ago. “Why did I try to kiss you?”
“I’d say the venture was a success. May I join you?” The bench sat in shade, and the view across the stream was a sunny pasture on Dorning property. Mares cropped grass, tails whisking at the occasional fly. The foals napped at their mama’s feet or frisked about with each other like enormous milk-drunk kittens.
“A kiss is not a success when the gentleman’s primary reaction is dismay,” Miss Pepper said, arranging her skirts. “I should apologize.”
“Please don’t. I’m simply out of practice in the kissing department. My dancing is much more reliable.”
He’d made her smile, and that was… that was worth all the thwarted yearning in Dorset.
“I don’t know how to kiss, and I don’t know the country dances,” she said. “Papa’s finishing schools and governesses made sure I learned the ballroom dances, just as I have passable French and can mince about in a fancy riding habit without tripping over my skirts. That education is inadequate for the challenges I face now.”
Miss Pepper wasn’t much of a horsewoman. Valerian had seen that for himself, and her ballroom dancing qualified as passable at best.
“Dances can be learned,” he said, “as can the equestrian arts which figure so prominently in rural life. I can’t answer for the local dialect.”
“It’s impenetrably hard to understand for somebody raised in the north. I hear the staff gossiping as they work and I can’t make out a word they’re saying.”
“You will, in time. Sit on the green on market day, close your eyes, and simply listen. If you picked up French, you can learn to decipher a few misplaced consonants, Saxon pronouns, and mangled vowels.”
“I did not pick up French, Mr. Dorning. I gathered it, one word at a time, over years of hard labor at the hands of experts. Most of my governesses concluded that the daughter of a cit could not be very bright, and I came to agree with them, at least as regards languages.”
Why did you kiss me? He must not ask her that again, though neither could he explain the sheer nonsense that came out of his mouth.
“I hold dance classes every Wednesday evening for the four weeks before any assembly. The young people like an excuse to stand up with one another, and few of us want to attempt our first waltz on a crowded dancefloor.” He did not dare inform her that he charged for those classes on a donation basis.
Nobody need pay anything, but those who could afford to did put a few coppers in the jar. He needed the money, though not desperately enough to insist on payment when many of his neighbors were one bad harvest away from needing it more.
“You suggest I make a limited spectacle of myself.”
“I suggest you have some fun with our younger neighbors, who tend to be less hidebound and serious. Come a bit early and I’ll get you started. One can practice the waltz with only a single partner, and other dances require only four couples. The country dances, though, often form lines, and that means learning them in company.”
“You won’t let me fall on my backside?”
Her question was endearingly in earnest. “No guarantees, Miss Pepper. Anybody can take a tumble—I have myself—but I do promise to help you up.”
“You have fallen on the dance floor?”
“Went sprawling before the entire company. My brother Hawthorne gave me a hand up”—Hawthorne’s boot might have precipitated Valerian’s fall, purely by accident, of course—“swatted at me a few times, and gave me a shove in the direction of my partner, who like the rest of the group, was laughing uproariously. I made it a point to conquer the dancefloor thereafter.” And the drawing room, and any battlefield where a man could be felled by manners or deportment.
“Very well,” she said, rising. “I will join you for these tutorials, and we shall see what progress can be made, if any.”
They ambled back to the garden where the buffet had been set out, and still Valerian had no answer to his question—why had she kissed him?
“Shall I come for you on Wednesday afternoon?” he asked, as they rejoined the guests in the garden.
“Please. My driving skills are as wanting as my dancing abilities. I will look forward to our next meeting, Mr. Dorning.” She bobbed a slightly jerky curtsy and left him standing by the fountain.
“Margaret likes her.” That comment came from Valerian’s brother Hawthorne, who was the host for the day’s gathering. “Margaret has a very discerning nature, witness, she married my humble and handsome self.”
“When will you stop sneaking up on the unsuspecting?”
“When the unsuspecting stop focusing on a lady’s departure so intently that they become oblivious to all else, though I grant you, Miss Pepper has a comely form.”
Hawthorne, the tallest and most muscular of the Dorning family, was a farmer at heart. He might have been admiring a yearling heifer’s well sprung barrel so dispassionate was his assessment. When it came to his darling Margaret and the two little girls he was raising with her, he was anything but dispassionate.
“The lady needs a few pointers regarding country dances,” Valerian said. “I am happy to provide them.”
“You look happy.” Hawthorne slung a muscular arm across Valerian’s shoulders. “You look overjoyed, awash in ebullience, a testament to—oof.”
Valerian had elbowed him hard in the breadbasket, which had the desired effect of dislodging Hawthorne’s arm and the agreeable result of improving Valerian’s mood.
“Marriage has made you soft, Thorne.”
“Soft-hearted,” Hawthorne replied, gaze going to his smiling, blond wife.
Spare me from besotted siblings. “I will leave you to your wedded bliss and thank you for a pleasant gathering. Please make my farewells to Margaret, would you?”
“Make them yourself. What is so urgent that you must be among the first to leave?”
Valerian wanted to study up on his country dances, though he knew them all by heart, and he wanted time to think. Had Emily Pepper’s kiss been simply another attempt to acquire a needed skill?
A plausible explanation and a very lowering thought.
“I do occasionally have matters to see to, Hawthorne. My manuscript wants polishing, for example. My thanks again for a lovely afternoon.” Valerian made a perfectly correct bow and sauntered away, offering parting words to a few neighbors as he gained the path that led back to Dorning Hall. When he was safely back into the woods and thus out of view of the gathering, he crossed the stream and turned his steps along the track that led to the mill pond.
Even on this gorgeous summer day, the water would be obligingly frigid, or at least it had been that morning.
The Sunday crème cake had been an extravagance, but Valerian had been in a self-indulgent mood since leaving Emily Pepper at the Summerton picnic on Saturday. He’d taken his plunge in the mill stream—a near-daily ritual of late—and then trudged home to resume kicking himself for offering to teach Miss Pepper the country dances.
“Because I am an idiot,” he muttered, turning his gig down the lane that led to Pepper Ridge.
The London publisher who’d shown an interest in his manuscript had been merely polite. His note had been nearly perfunctory. No talk of subscriptions, serialization, or—damn it all to hell—money. Sycamore had either ignored or missed Valerian’s hints that he was available to assist in the management of Sycamore’s club, but then, Ash was fulfilling that role quite well.
Leaving Valerian to man the exalted post of dancing master without portfolio.
Pepper Ridge rose up at the end of the drive, an edifice that to outward appearances exemplified the stately country home at its finest. The interior told another tale, much like a well-dressed bachelor’s empty pockets contradicted his fine attire.
Valerian brought his horse to a halt at the foot of the terrace steps and handed the reins off to a groom. “Clovis might appreciate a bucket of water. I should not be long.”
“Very good, guv’nor. Come along, horse.”
Valerian had arrived early. Having two sisters, he was well acquainted with a young lady’s notion of time when an outing required dressing for the occasion. To his surprise, Miss Pepper received him almost immediately.
She bobbed a curtsey, frills and flounces flapping at her hems and bodice. “Will I do, Mr. Dorning?”
God save the poor woman. “You would do superbly for an evening at Almack’s.” Her dress bared most of her arms and a considerable expanse of her décolletage—not the done thing for an informal late afternoon gathering—and the heavily gathered and embroidered underdress was overlaid with a silk demiskirt that fell to about six inches above the underhem.
The dress was both too much and not nearly enough.
Miss Pepper smoothed a hand over her skirts. “We are not bound for Almack’s.”
“Shall I be honest?”
“Somebody had better be. Briggs claimed this was precisely the outfit to make a fine first impression.”
“That shade of soft blue is lovely, the material is gorgeous, and the workmanship exquisite.”
“Put me out of my misery, Mr. Dorning. I’ve chosen poorly, haven’t I? Poorly for Dorset.”
“You have chosen well for a London formal dinner.” Though even for an occasion such as that, the ensemble was overdone and not particularly flattering. “Let’s have a look at your dressing closet. I’m sure we can find something better suited to rural socializing. How do the renovations proceed?”
“I have no idea.” Miss Pepper took off up the stairs at a good clip, lacy trim fluttering. “I look in on the job at the end of every day, and the head carpenter claims they are proceeding quite on schedule. If that’s so, shouldn’t I hear hammers banging and saws sawing?”
“Incessantly.” Grey was preparing to demolish the family wing of Dorning Hall, and even that effort resulted in a ceaseless din.
“The master suite is three doors down on the left,” she said when they’d reached the top of the stairs. “Note the silence. By this hour of the afternoon, the workmen usually bestir themselves to make some sort of racket, but much of the day I’m not sure what goes on in there. They have removed the old wallpaper, taken up the worn carpets, removed the fixtures and the wainscoting, and carted those away, too, but that has taken them nearly two weeks.”
That list of preparatory tasks should have taken a competent crew a day, possibly two. “Let’s drop in, shall we?” Valerian started for the master suite before his hostess could stop him. “Our dower house at Dorning Hall was struck by lightning last autumn. I oversaw the selling of the salvageable brick, stone, timber, glass, and fixtures. I can assure you, tearing down a single set of rooms for refurbishing should not take two weeks.”
He opened the door without knocking and interrupted what appeared to be a game of dice.
“Taking a break, gentlemen?”
“So we were,” a tall, spare man with thinning blond hair said, getting to his feet without any apparent haste. “The afternoon break, as it happens. Back to work, lads. And who might you be, sir?”
The lads glanced around, then produced awls, hammers, and nails.
“Let’s have this discussion in the corridor,” Miss Pepper said as one of the men began to pound a nail in what Valerian was certain was a random location. Miss Pepper marched out, her fancy dress earning stares all around.
“Mr. Dorning, may I make known to you Mr. Prentiss Ogilvy. Mr. Ogilvy, Mr. Valerian Dorning.”
“From Dorning Hall?” Ogilvy asked.
“The very same. You’ve been at work for the past two weeks, as I understand it.”
The Dorning name took some of the shine off Ogilvy’s arrogance. “Give or take. These old houses can’t be hurried, I always say. We’re making fine progress, though, like I tell the miss here.”
His speech wasn’t that of the Dorset countryside, and Valerian hadn’t recognized any of the men working for him.
“Where do you hail from, Mr. Ogilvy?”
Ogilvy winced as a crash sounded from the master parlor. “Over Portsmouth way. We go where the work is, and Mr. Pepper was powerful eager to get this job started.”
“And when will that be?” Valerian inquired.
“Beg pardon, sir?”
“When will you start on the job? From what I can see, you’ve been sitting about for two weeks, doubtless swilling some fine Pepper Ridge ale, and pretending that a day’s worth of demolition takes a week to complete. Perhaps between rounds of dice, it does.”
Ogilvy grasped his dusty lapels. “Now see here, Mr. Dorning, the Ogilvys has been carpenters and masons since Good Queen Bess’s day, and if the structure isn’t to be damaged in the stripping down, then care must be taken.”
The ale on Ogilvy’s breath would have knocked Valerian’s horse onto its muscular rump. “You disposed of rugs and fixtures for Miss Pepper. How carefully did you account for the proceeds?”
Ogilvy’s gaze darted to Miss Pepper, who was remaining admirably silent. “Proceeds, sir?”
First the invocation of Good Queen Bess, now the echoing. The man was a crook and a stupid one.
“I’m sure the contract you signed obligated you to account for any salvage sold on behalf of the owner. You are entitled to a commission—fifteen percent is the highest I’ve seen—but not to loot the premises. Where is your accounting?”
“The, um,”—Ogilvy ran a finger around the inside of his wrinkled neckcloth—“the carpets and such haven’t sold yet. I sent them to Portsmouth to get a better price.”
“Did you send the books too?” Miss Pepper asked, all eager good cheer.
“Them books are in the stables in crates.”
“Because,” Valerian said, “storing old books in a horse barn is sure to safeguard their value, but for the attentions of the rats, mice, and other vermin, to say nothing of the damage stable cats can do. You may go back to work, Mr. Ogilvy.”
As Mr. Ogilvy slipped through the door, the noise coming from the master suite spiked, then receded to a thumping din.
Miss Pepper paced off, skirts swishing. “I told Papa that a crew available on short notice was a crew with little to recommend it. I told him to read the blasted contract, because I haven’t had the time. The salvage was to be sent to Dorset, not to a booming port town nearly seventy miles away. Portsmouth has access to every trade route frequented by British ships. Nobody there has need of my old carpets or door latches. I had no idea that I was due the proceeds of the salvage.”
“I knew better than to trust Ogilvy. I knew better, and I did not listen to my own instincts.” She stalked up the corridor, coming to a halt outside a door with lambs and geese carved into the panel. “I sat in that stuffy parlor and let Briggs lecture me on the finer points of pall-mall, which I have no intention of ever playing, and which she has not played for at least fifteen years. I am good at reading contracts—very good—and I should have been…” She rested her forehead on the door, the wind abruptly dropping from her sails. “Forgive me, I am in a temper.”
“I adore your temper.”
Temper put a little color in her cheeks and fire in her eyes. Temper cut through her careful manners and the subtle watchfulness she carried beneath her polite behavior. Perhaps she had kissed Valerian in a temper of some sort, for kissing also animated her.
“You do not adore my temper.”
“A gentleman never argues with a lady, but in this case, I must. What’s to be done about Ogilvy?”
“Nothing will be done. Papa is too pleased to be once again embroiled in his mercantile adventures, and I am to entertain myself with putting the house to rights. If Ogilvy takes a year to do a job that should last only a month, Papa won’t mind.”
She pushed open the door and led Valerian into a sitting room done up with gold and azure fleur-de-lis wallpaper, dark blue velvet curtains, and the delicate, ornate furnishings popular in the previous century.
“My dressing closet is through the bedroom,” she said. “Briggs will be horrified that you’re in my private apartment, but she’s very likely having her nap at this hour. She’s perpetually horrified lately. Dorset doesn’t seem to agree with her.”
Miss Pepper’s movements were brisk, her tone equally matter-of-fact, and yet Valerian was certain he was in the presence of an upset female.
“Do you want to spend your time refurbishing the house?”
“So the likes of Ogilvy can condescend to me and deceive me while wasting Papa’s money? He has done little in the two weeks he’s been here, as you noted, Mr. Dorning, and this house has more than two dozen bedrooms. The thought of spending years… No, I do not want to spend my days pretending I have authority to refurbish this dratted hulk of a dwelling.”
Not merely an upset female, a furious female. “If you don’t want to take the house in hand, what do you want to do?”
Valerian had followed her right into the confines of the dressing closet, a room about eight feet square. With rows of dresses lining two walls and trunks and wardrobes on the other two, the space was crowded indeed.
“I am a dab hand at business, if you must know, Mr. Dorning. Lately, Caleb and Tobias have taken over the jobs I used to see to in that regard. What I want…” Miss Pepper stood close enough that her light floral scent blended with the lavender sachets fragrancing her wardrobe.
“Yes?” Such soft brown eyes she had, and such storms brewed in her gaze.
“Is to kiss you again.”
End of Excerpt
A Woman of True Honor is available in the following formats:
Grace Burrowes Publishing
February 18, 2020
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A Woman of True Honor is Book 8 in the True Gentlemen series. The full series reading order is as follows:
Book 1: Tremaine’s True Love • Book 2: Daniel’s True Desire • Book 3: Will’s True Wish • Book 4: His Lordship’s True Lady • Book 5: My Own True Duchess • Book 6: A Truly Perfect Gentleman • Book 7: A Lady of True Distinction • Book 8: A Woman of True Honor • Book 9: A Lady’s Dream Come True •