June 17, 2022

Prologue: The Dowager

Previously: Dramatis Personae

October, 1814
Mayfair, London, England

The opera was Mozart, as it was always Mozart these days, simply because that was whom the Queen favored.

It was widely known the Crown had invested a rather sinful amount of coin in a production of Lucio Silla, starring the infamous soprano Siena Rosso as Celia, which surprised the ton seeing as it wasn't one of Mozart's more famous accomplishments. So it appeared that with an early winter on the horizon, Her Majesty's boredom was already setting in.

Operas were perfect to see, be seen, but most importantly, go unseen if one were so inclined. And as fate would have it...one was.

Penelope Featherington slipped away from her family's box just before the overture, not that any of them were paying attention. Her family was doing so well these days that they cared for little outside of being noticed. Her mother had redecorated their entire country home over the summer, and she and her sisters had all-new dresses for fall and winter. Hideous gowns they were, ranging from blinding citrus tones to all manner of vile green shades, but they cost a pretty penny and her mother made sure all the ton knew it.

Her own gown this evening was a puff-sleeved copper abomination accented in gold and bronze, no doubt intended to evoke the splendors of autumn. She could afford her own gowns by now, of course, but she didn't dare. If she started spending her own coin, it would raise questions as to where and how she got it. Instead, she indulged her sartorially challenged mama and donned her garish dresses with grace.

Not that a fine dress would do her any good. She'd completed two unremarkable seasons thus far and landed exactly zero prospects. She figured spinsterhood was inevitable, but she reasoned it was bearable so long as she kept trading in the ton's best--and worst--kept secrets.

It was colder than usual for October; but she was a plump woman, plump enough to ward off the chill. She stood outside the opera hall just as darkness was falling. It got dark so quickly these days. She was early; her accomplice hadn't arrived yet, and behind her, she could hear the overture beginning.

A carriage finally pulled up and she stepped forward, but then stopped when she noticed the footman stepping down. She blinked, realizing the carriage belonged to someone else entirely. The footman opened the door and out stepped a man. He was tall, dark-haired, dressed as any proper Englishman of means. And yet...there was something a bit off about him, for he kept adjusting and stretching, as though he were unaccustomed to the clothes.

He turned to help his companion, and Penelope's jaw dropped. As she drew closer, into the lights, Penelope got a good view of her. The lady was dark-skinned, slender, and tall. She was dressed in a very long gown with split sleeves and bare shoulders despite the cold. The man considerately draped furs about her while she adjusted the long twin streams of pearls of her headdress. Whoever she was, she was dressed finer than any English lady of means; surely with her beauty, garb, and demeanor, she had to be nothing short of an Empress.

Speechless, Penelope watched the fashionable pair climb the steps and enter the opera house.


Elizabeth woke, groggy and disoriented for a moment. As she lay for a moment and stared at her ceiling, she wondered if she'd ever get used to being back in England.

The opera had been pleasant enough, even if the Queen's choice was a bit dull. She'd deliberately arrived late to avoid having to speak to people, and had left early for the same reason. She planned to settle down in Mayfair and eventually make friends, of course, but just not yet. She still needed to get her bearings.

She rolled over slightly turning to her right. After twenty years of marriage, she still expected to see him there. Andrei, her late husband, had never believed in separate bedrooms until the latter years, when his ailing health forced him to leave their bed. Even so, she still expected to see him there, with his tousled gray hair. She hated to admit she missed his soft snoring, and the gentle rise of and fall of his chest.

Light streamed through the curtains. Weak light, of course; winter was almost here. Almost everything in her room was white--the curtains, the drapes about her bed, her bedding--and that would need to change. She missed the blue walls of her late husband's estate; she needed some furs on her floors and bed to comfort her, garish as they might seem here. Elizabeth continued to lie still, eyes roaming her bedchamber. It wasn't as big as the one back in St. Petersburg, but then again, everything in Grosvenor Square was much more compact.

There would come a day when she would once again be the lady her parents tried to raise her to be, but that day was not today. She was still weary from being on the ship, and she was exhausted from dealing with...him.

Elizabeth crammed her eyes shut suddenly, sinking back into the softness of her pillows and pulling the warm covers over her face. He was still here. These days, it felt like he was everywhere.

"Rise and shine, madam," her new lady's maid greeted. Clementine was a tall beauty, with creamy light brown skin and a curly hair peeking out from under her bonnet. "Your bath is almost ready."

"Good morning, Clementine," Elizabeth greeted wearily. "I presume the morning repast is the usual tea and toast?"

Clementine raised a thin dark eyebrow. "Per your instruction." After a beat, she added, "I suppose the cook can add some ham and perhaps eggs, if you like."

Elizabeth sighed gratefully. "That would be marvelous, Clementine." She sat up, yawned and stretched.

To get rid of him, Elizabeth had implemented some strict rules since her return. He had to eat English food, wear English clothes, speak English, attend events with the English, and not whine about any of it. She'd hoped he'd tire of all the changes and return to Russia, but he instead he'd simply adjusted.

As she stripped down and sank into her copper tub, her nostrils filled with the scent of lilies. At her expression, Clementine smiled.

"Lily soap is all the rage in Mayfair," the maid chuckled. "You can thank the new Viscountess Bridgerton for that."

"Oh?" Elizabeth's eyebrow raised.

"Legend has it the Viscount was so enamored of her scent that he felt compelled to propose to her instead of her sister, who was the season's Diamond," Clementine smirked. "Madame Delacroix says the debutantes and spinsters won't use any other fragrance."

"Thank God, I'm a widow," Elizabeth leaned back, closing her eyes. "Speaking of the modiste, did she confirm for this afternoon?"

"She did, madam," Clementine assured her.

"Good," Elizabeth smiled. "It's true I'm a bit late, but now that I'm back in England, it seems only fitting that I get a whole new wardrobe."

After her bath, when she was dressed and perfumed, the Dowager Countess sauntered down to a late breakfast. He was there, of course, reading a pamphlet and heavily sugaring his tea.

"It would appear we made the local scandal sheet," the Count mused in greeting, his accent thickly pronounced. He handed it to her before she could sit down.

Elizabeth skimmed the paper, and the haughty voice of a pompous older woman practically jumped off the page.

Dear Reader, it smugly announced, it would appear the ton has a new member. A certain lady, rumored to be a Dowager Countess, was spotted arriving fashionably--and understandably--late to Her Majesty's insipid presentation of Lucio Silla. Accompanied by a certain foreign gentleman (with whom she is so obviously familiar), one might wonder as the specifics of their relationship, seeing as the Dowager is a widow.

Elizabeth suddenly slammed the paper down, eyes burning like furnaces.

"Who the fuck is Lady Whistledown?!??"

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