Nicola Cornick: Miss Verey’s Proposal

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Nicola Cornick Miss Verey’s Proposal
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    Miss Verey’s Proposal
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Alex, the Duke of Delahaye, is determined to see his younger brother safely married to provide the necessary heir. Unfortunately the chosen bride, Miss Jane Verey, is less than amenable!

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Nicola Cornick


Miss Verey’s Proposal

The third book in the Suffolk series, 2000

To my family


Prologue

‘Say you’ll do it, Jane! Oh, please say you will!’

Miss Sophia Marchment leant forward, blue eyes pleading, golden ringlets a-tremble.

Jane Verey bit her lip, looking troubled. ‘Oh, Sophy, I would truly love to, but-’

But the truth was that Miss Verey liked her food all too well and her friend was suggesting the unthinkable. Sophia’s face fell a little.

‘But, Jane, it is such an adventure! If you go to bed without supper and do not look behind you, you will dream of your future husband!’ Sophia clapped her hands. ‘Why, to my mind it is worth any amount of food!’

Jane thought longingly of the fresh loaf she had watched Cook bake only that day, the newly churned butter and the thick slices of ham that had been steeped in ale. Her mouth watered. No, it was impossible…

Sophia was pushing the book of legends towards her. The binding was coming loose and there was a dusty smell and crackling paper that implied great antiquity. Reluctantly, Jane peered at the faded words.

‘…for if you go supperless to bed on St Agnes Eve and take care not to look behind, you will conjure dreams of your future husband…’

The bare branches of the oak outside Jane’s window tapped impatiently on the glass. She jumped. Sophia was leaning forward, her golden curls gleaming in the candlelight.

‘You see! Tonight is St Agnes Eve! Oh, Jane, do not condemn me to do this alone!’

Jane could foresee all manner of practical difficulties. How was one to close the bedroom door without looking behind? How was a dream to be interpreted if it contained not one man, but two-or even three? She was about to confront Sophia with these problems when her friend spoke again.

‘Molly, the second parlourmaid, swears that it is true, Jane! Twice now she has tested the legend and on both occasions she dreamed of Gregory Pullman, the farrier, so she knows it must be true!’

Jane could not see the logic of this. The last time she had seen the farrier he had been attempting to tumble a maid behind the stables and the girl had certainly not been Molly.

‘Does Gregory realise yet that he is to marry Molly?’ she inquired practically. ‘It might be twenty years or more before he grasps the truth, by which time she will have become a sour old maid! And is this not the same girl who washed her face in dew on a May morning, swearing it would make her beautiful, then caught the cowpox-?’

Sophia dismissed this with a wave of one white hand. ‘Oh, Jane, how you do run on! It will do you no harm to miss your supper just this once.’ Her blue eyes considered her friend’s more-than-ample form. ‘And you may dream of some desperately handsome man! Oh, please…’

Jane’s stomach made a monstrous rumbling noise. To starve herself voluntarily seemed an intolerable thought, but Sophia was looking quite wretched.

‘Oh, very well,’ she capitulated reluctantly, reflecting that Sophia would never know if she got up in the middle of the night and went in search of some food.

Three hours later, Sophia had returned to Penistone Manor and Jane had trailed off to bed, looking very sorry for herself, but remembering not to look behind her.

‘It’s not natural, madam,’ Cook complained to Lady Verey. ‘A growing girl of fifteen should not be refusing her food like that! Why, she’ll waste away!’

‘Jane’s growing in more than one direction!’ Simon, her elder brother, said heartlessly but with some truth. ‘She can live off her fat for a while!’

In the middle of the night Jane awoke, suffering from huge hunger pangs. The wind had increased whilst it was dark and small flurries of rain hit the glass in the windows. Disappointingly, Jane could not remember having a single dream, despite the fact that she had followed her instructions exactly. But perhaps, on a full stomach, she might have more success…

She slid out of bed, shivering in her thin cotton nightdress. She almost changed her mind when she thought of the warm, downy nest of sheets and blankets she had just left. The door creaked a little on its hinges as she started to open it and the dark passageway stretched away towards the top of the stairs. Jane had never been a superstitious child, but suddenly the old house of Ambergate and its shadowy corners seemed unfamiliar and unfriendly. Jane braced herself. She was about to push the door wide and take her courage in both hands when she heard a step at the top of the stairs.

A man was just turning the corner and coming down the corridor towards her. Jane shrank back with a gasp. The door was only open a crack, but through the narrow aperture she could see him clearly, for he carried a candle in one hand. She knew that she had never seen him before in her life, for she would most certainly have remembered. He could not be a servant and, for a moment, she wondered if he was in fact an apparition conjured up by a fevered mind that had been weakened by lack of food.

The first impression that Jane had was that he seemed very tall in the flickering candlelight and was clothed with an informality suitable only to his own dressing-room. His cravat hung loose and his white shirt was unbuttoned at the neck, revealing the strong brown column of his throat. His pantaloons clung to muscular thighs and the candlelight reflected on the mirror-polish of his Hessians. Jane caught her breath, staring in strange fascination. He was very dark, with silky black hair that seemed to gleam in the faint light. One dark lock fell across his forehead and he flicked it back with an impatient hand. His black brows were drawn together in a frown that made the saturnine face seem even more forbidding. Then those dark eyes turned thoughtfully towards Jane’s door and she shrank back even further into the shadows, convinced that he had seen her. For a long moment he seemed to hesitate, staring directly at her door, before disappearing. There was no sound but for the soft click of a door closing further down the corridor.

Some ten minutes later, Jane found that she was able to move again and dived into the refuge of her bed, all pangs of hunger banished by fright. It was even longer before she was able to sleep, convinced that she had definitely seen an intruder or a ghost and reluctant to leave her room for help against either. Eventually she fell into an uneasy sleep and dreamed of the dark stranger who stalked the corridors of Ambergate.

When she woke in the morning, both her common sense and her appetite were restored.

‘Why did you not tell me that we had a house guest, Mama?’ she inquired, at breakfast, helping herself to two portions of kedgeree. ‘I saw a gentleman in the corridor last night and was almost caught in my shift!’

Lady Verey exchanged a look with her husband, who cleared his throat but said nothing.

‘We have no guests, my love,’ Lady Verey said, giving her daughter a sweet smile. ‘You must have been dreaming. And if you will eat cheese before you go to bed…’

‘I had no supper last night and I did not dream it!’ Jane declared stoutly, but she knew she was fighting a losing battle. Her mother’s face wore the gentle but stubborn smile that meant that a topic was closed. Her father rustled his newspaper loudly.

‘Always has her nose in a book,’ he said shortly. ‘Mistake. Shouldn’t let the girl read. Stands to reason.’

Lady Verey turned her sweet smile on her spouse. ‘Just so, my dear. Do you go into Penistone today? Perhaps Jane could accompany you-I have an errand for her with Mrs. Marchment…’

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