The Gilded Conspiracy // Prologue

      “To lose her betrothed so late in life. She’ll be a spinster by mourning’s end,” a neighbor with a rather immense black bonnet tsk’d.
      “Lord Julius was a kind man. He always encouraged my son to take up an apprenticeship and learn a trade. Poor dear, that Lady Irene.” Her companion, a formidable society lady who spent her time meddling in others’ affairs, agreed with her friend.
      “Poor indeed. The Lonely Heiress once again. It took her so long to find a rare gem like him.”
      Spinster.
      Poor.
      The Lonely Heiress.
      Whispers from neighbors who came to pay their respects still hung like a heavy cloud over Lady Irene Washburn long after her housekeeper, Mrs. Oakden, ushered them all out at half past four.
       Flames crackling in the dying fire in her parlor’s hearth, a sound which once brought much comfort, did little to calm her pounding heart. Lady Irene, used to bearing the weight of London’s gossip in the ton, felt it press into her chest like a disembodied entity on this day, her Julius’ wake day, more than any other day before.
       She sat, back rigid within the confines of her corset, in her favorite Aubusson chair. The very same chair she’d spent the last ten hours in receiving company, and let out a careworn breath. Her thoughts, engulfed in grief and whispers so deep, felt as veiled as her vision impeded by the black crape veil covering her head.
       Irene turned her head to the empty hall off the parlor, the veil she must now wear for two more years, bunched against the back of her chair. Only then did she discover a silver cup of tea her faithful housekeeper had brought her some time ago.
       Try as she might, Irene couldn’t bring a hand to the cup, its shape engulfed by the afternoon sun streaming in through the window behind her. The sun set early this time of year, and Irene blinked as she stared at the golden sunlight. She gave up on the tea and stood. Skirts of the darkest ebony silk, once gathered around her on the floor, straightened as her crinoline did.
       Irene freed her veil from the bonnet covering her hair and draped it over her arm. Enough of this, she thought. Why must I mourn so much? This is my third mourning gown in ten years. My God, why have You cursed me so? Irene ran a hand along the dress’ simple bodice, ready to turn in for the night.
       Those whispers were right. At four and twenty, by the time her deep mourning finished, she may as well turn to a life of spinster-hood. Or join a convent. She’d met Lord Julius Nicholson a month after her mourning period ended for her family. Lost them all to cholera. Julius taught how to love again, and trust that love.
       The pendulum wall clock in the foyer struck the first chime of the new hour. One. Two. Three. Four. Five.
       Five times it chimed. Mrs. Oakden would soon be in to see about her evening meal. No. She’d dismiss tonight’s meal. Her appetite, as fleeting as life itself, still hasn’t returned since she first received news of Julius’ accident.
       Irene took a step toward the door to the foyer and stopped, listening intently to all the noise in her house. The fifth chime hadn’t ended. Instead, it added its lingering toll to the ever growing whispers in her mind.
       Shaking her head, Irene moved forward and reached the foot of the stairs. Irene brought a hand to her temple where a sudden pain throbbed.
       With no warning the seams between the mahogany floorboards gleamed amber, the sudden intensity puffing up her skirts and loosing the veil from her arm. A scream caught in her through as tall, thin beams of shimmering light wove their way from her home’s entrance to the clock’s place on the foyer’s back wall.
       Her bethrothed’s handmade clock.
       The glowing streaks of light shrank back to the clock and crackled louder than anything Irene had ever heard and she dropped to the floor with a shriek. Nothing could’ve kept her mouth, set in an unmoving line all day, from dropping open at the sight of the clock’s elaborate face. Golden sparks dropped to the hall’s floor as the clock’s Roman numbers pulsed with an otherworldly hue of blue she’d never seen before.
       Lady Irene gathered up her skirts and what remained of her courage and fled to her darkened room. Once there she slammed the door shut and backed away, her hands balled over her chest as she tried.
       The amber light had followed her and now danced, as it were a ball, in the hallway, its brilliance sending streaks ‘round the cracks between the door and the frame. Words unexpected, terrifying words, accompanied it. “Irene. My Irene.
       For the first time since she learned of her love’s death, Irene forced one word from her lips. “Julius?”
       “Yes.”

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