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.
End of Excerpt
This book will begin shipping on February 18, 2020
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 •