A Fateful House Party [Uskweirs #1]

(This was originally titled “Untitled Regency House Party Snippet” but I have since come to my senses.)

It’s funny the things you discover in the process of transition. I fucking love romance novels, apparently. I never let myself really read and enjoy them, even when I was nonbinary-ing, because… well, because internalized misogyny, basically. But along with all the other stuff that this process has allowed me to let go of, letting go of that baggage let me sit down and read novels about people falling in love, and it fucking rocks.

Even better, of course, is period romance, whether it’s a novel or a teevee series or a movie. I will happily sink a weekend into watching Downton Abbey or Bridgerton, a whole season in one sitting. I can never actually remember which one is which, but I’ve always loved Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility (and egg-me allowed herself to enjoy them because they were literature). I’m presently very nearly finished reading Middlemarch, which is like the ten-pound gorilla of period romance (even if it’s not strictly romance), and I’m going to feel equal parts accomplished and sad that it’s over.

And then I recently did the absolutely obvious thing and did an internet search for queer period romance, and OH MY GODS. This, friends, is the best shit. The only problem is that it’s relatively rare. I think I’m on track to read literally every bit of queer period romance that’s been published by the end of the quarter.

So of course it was only a matter of time before I started getting the itch to write similar stuff, myself.

This bit of writing has been rattling around in my head for months, now, and last weekend I sat down to actually get it down in words so I could stop thinking about it—or at least, that was the hope. Yes, it’s the first chapter of a theoretical novel. No, I have no idea if I’d actually sit down and write it all out. Yes, I have extensive notes.

I’d say “send help” but I don’t know if I’d be asking for encouragement or rescue.

Anyway, enjoy…

Monmouthshire, May 1812

Miss Amelia Quinn gained access to Uskweirs by supplying a false name.  The attendant at the door dipped his head, murmured, “Of course, sir,” and gestured her within.

There was a party being held at the manor, but by popular account there was always a party being held at the infamous country estate.  Music flowed out of the open windows into the courtyard, and as she stepped inside, the cacophony of strings and voices and laughter washed over her.  The tide of noise was more than Amelia was entirely comfortable with, but she pressed on.

The foyer of the venerable manor house was peppered with guests standing in twos and threes, drinks in hand and smiles on their lips.  With so many conversations happening at once, all voices were raised in genial competition to be heard.  Amelia registered few personal details outside of the sweep of skirts and breeches pulled taut across finely-turned legs.  She was on a mission.

Lord Ashbourne, Viscount of Monmouth and master of Uskweirs manor, was somewhere within.  Amelia intended to secure an audience with the nobleman.  She willed herself not to think about the propriety of sneaking into someone’s house party without an invitation only to seek them out.  

Her old self was not usually this brazen, but she reminded herself that this was the new her.  This was the Amelia who didn’t deny herself what she wanted—what she needed.  She was the Amelia that reached out, the Amelia who seized opportunities, the Amelia who made her own opportunities if need be.  Or at least, she hoped she was.

She was terrified.

Amelia drifted through a pair of flung-open double doors into the ballroom.  Ruffles and lace and ribbons and fabric whirled and twisted before her.  She knew what Lord Ashbourne looked like—tall and regal, almost stretched out, but that might only be how the engravers illustrated him in the papers.  No one in the ballroom seemed a likely match and she turned to go.

But she turned to stare again at the dancers, to confirm what she had thought she’d seen.  There was a man out of place in the quadrille.  She watched as he bobbed and pranced through the steps to make sure she had seen right, but she had.  He was dancing in place of a woman, sharing a smile with his dancing partner when they joined hands again.  Amelia dragged her eyes away and hurried out of the ballroom.  

Surely, she thought, scanning the rest of the thronged party, there were enough guests here that no man would be unable to find a partner.  Or the rumors really were true and the parties here really were as scandalous as she’d heard.  As she’d hoped.

She passed through a sitting room filled well past capacity.  The couches and chairs were packed to bursting, hips abutting, arms stretched out behind and tucked in front, a tangle of bodies stuffed together with no sense of propriety.  Every tabletop, too, was full of half-drunk glasses.  Gales of laughter and giggling filled the room.  Amelia spied one woman who, for want of a seat, had simply sprawled across three other guests, smiling up from the lap of her conversation partner, chatting away merrily.

What would Amelia’s parents think of such a party?  What would they think of her, if they knew she was here?  Her heart pounded in her chest.  She didn’t care, she told herself, which wasn’t wholly true, but it was more true now than it had been yesterday.  Besides, they had never properly debuted her to society, so really, her ending up here was on their heads.  The thought made her giggle uncontrollably.

A footman appeared at Amelia’s elbow, bearing a platter of coupes filled to the brim with champagne.  She gratefully accepted one, if only to forestall her giggles from progressing further.  She thanked the servant and caught his eye long enough to ask, “Do you know where I might find Lord Ashbourne?”

Lord Ashbourne apparently preferred the cool of the gardens to the heat of the house, and the footman gave her simple directions to get there.  She sipped at her champagne and set off, fussing with her ill-fitting jacket.  This, in turn, reminded her of the breeches she’d struggled into, how maddeningly tight they were, and how if she walked too quickly the fabric would audibly creak.  She downed the rest of her champagne and let her head swim at the fuzzy burn of alcohol rather than let her mind blunder onward to complaining about the cravat, too.

Her route out of the house took her through a spacious parlor that had been turned into a labyrinth of guests sitting at small tables playing cards.  The din of conversation was muted, here, but interrupted every few moments by shouts and groans from one table or another.  Amelia threaded her way through the tables, trying not to bump into the players, who were all focused on their cards, anyway.

A man seated on the opposite side of the table right before her threw down his cards in crowing victory.  The rest of the table’s melodramatic groans quickly gave way to jeers and pointing at another player who had revealed his cards with good-natured chagrin.  The winner beckoned him to draw closer.  He complied with a smile.

Amelia watched in fascination as the two men shared a lingering kiss as the rest of their table cheered them on.  When one of the men began to crawl into the other’s lap, she realized that she was staring.  She beat a hasty retreat—but turned back when she had put two tables between her and the display.  They were still kissing.  The rest of their table had apparently turned to conversation and shuffling the cards for a new deal.

Where in hell was she?

Amelia burst out of the house and onto the back portico.  The cool night air seemed to welcome her, brushing away the cloying atmosphere from inside.  She took a long, steadying breath and looked around to orient herself.  Steps swept down onto a wide terrace, the first of many that structured the elaborate gardens behind the house.  There were scattered people out enjoying the gardens in the gathering twilight.  A few pavillions were set out on the lawn below.  That must be where the master of the house was holding court.

She had some time to collect herself as she decended the steps, chiding herself for her shock.  She had come all the way out to the edge of Wales, to the most notorious manor in the kingdom, to sneak into a party she hadn’t been invited to.  And she’d done it all alone, without a chaperone or guide.  She had no reason to be scandalized.

Was she scandalized, though?  Shocked, certainly.  None of this was something that one was accustomed to seeing.  She had imagined quite a lot of it, if she was being honest, but her mind’s eye was not seeing.  And sure, she’d slipped out of her parents’ townhouse before, to visit houses of ill repute, even.  There she saw everything put on gaudy display, but somehow it was different when it was ladies and gentlemen, not professionals plying their trade.

Perhaps it just took some time to get used to.

Amelia hoped that she’d have the opportunity to get used to it.

Snippets of a conversation came to her through the cool garden air, equal parts muffled words and titters.  Probably a pair of lovers, she thought, flirting on the other side of the tall hedge she walked down.  Scandalous anywhere else, of course: a man and a woman, out of the sight of their chaperones, would ruin both their reputations.  But perhaps it was different, here at Uskweirs.  Perhaps it could be simple, innocent fun, instead of needlessly and permanently labelling them as a slut and a cad.  Amelia turned the corner at the end of the hedge, stumbled to a halt, and gasped.

It was not a man and a woman.  It was a man, a woman, another man, and another woman.  They were not flirting.  They were quite naked.  Clothes were strewn all around them on the close-clipped garden grass.  The four of them were arranged like nested spoons except for the last woman, who sat astride the other woman’s face— Amelia looked away.

“Hey there, handsome!” called the woman whose tongue wasn’t already engaged.  It took a moment for Amelia to realize that she was being addressed.  She hazarded another glance at the quartet, who had not slackened their pace for her sake at all.  The woman crooked a finger at Amelia.  “You wanna join us?”

Amelia stammered something politely negative as she staggered back around the thick hedge.  Laughter followed her, but she couldn’t tell if it was directed at her, or the natural product of the open-air bacchanal she fled from.

She was more careful about her route through the gardens from there on out, keeping to the broader, more open areas, where she could see what she was walking into.  This did not mean she avoided other nude couplings—the gardens were apparently full of such assignations—but she was at least able to give them a wide berth.

It occured to her that the viscount might be one of the disrobed men that she was avoiding, and she worried not only over missing him but also making a poor first impression.  Finally she concluded that, even if he were, she would hardly be able to have a chat with him while he was… otherwise engaged.

Someone, somewhere, was calling out a name, now, not in the throes of passion, but as if they’d lost their friend in the maze of gardens.  That seemed plausible enough.  Amelia turned at another call, this time clearer; the caller had appeared at the opposite end of the terrace that she was about to exit.  A stout gentleman in a dark blue jacket and cream breeches, it looked like.  She turned onto another gravel pathway and down the steps to the next terrace below.

“Mister Frobisher!” rang out the call again, and Amelia shook her head at the futility of the search.  Wherever Mister Frobisher was, it was doubtful he wanted to be found.  The searcher was apparently following the same path that she was, as the voice seemed to grow closer and clearer.

Something nagged at the back of Amelia’s brain.  She was most of the way across the terrace before she remembered where she’d heard the name Frobisher before: it was the false name she’d supplied to the doorman.  She stumbled to a halt and looked behind her.

“There you are, Mister Frobisher,” laughed her pursuer, and strode down the pathway with an extended hand.  “I didn’t expect to see you here, but in London next week.  What a happy coincidence.”

Amelia bit back a swallow.  As the figure came closer to both her and the light of a nearby bonfire, she could see that what she had mistaken to be a stout gentleman was in fact a woman in the clothes of a gentleman.  A handsome woman, with strong features, jet black hair cut short and pulled back in a sailor’s knot, and a generous bustline gamely contained in what must have been a inventively tailored jacket.  Amelia hardly knew what to make of her.  She extended her hand to shake and said something clever, like “Um.”

“Theresa Chesterley,” the woman introduced herself with a fierce smile.  “We’ve corresponded by post.  You’re printing some pamphlets for me.  The Daughters of Wollstonecraft.  I can’t tell you how happy I was to find someone who’d take on material that is so maligned and yet so important.”

Of course; Amelia had only realized the need for a false name while reading in the carriage-house the night before.  She had seized the name closest to hand: the publisher of the book she was reading.  “I’m sorry,” she stammered.  “I think you’ve… got me confused with someone else.”

Chesterley tipped her head, expression cloudy.  “The doorman said you were Mister Frobisher.  You’re not Edwin Frobisher of Fleet Street?”

“Oh, ahm, no,” Amelia scrambled to answer.  “That’s my—my brother.  I’m… John.  John Frobisher.  I’m not in printing.  Like my brother.  Edwin.”

The woman considered Amelia for a long moment, eyes slowly narrowing.  And then, quite suddenly, her hand came down like a clamp on Amelia’s elbow and a knife had appeared in her free hand.  “Edwin Frobisher doesn’t have a brother.”

“Oh my, that’s… that’s not at all necessary,” Amelia begged.  “It’s… it’s a false name, I admit it; but there’s no need for—”

The knife pressed up against Amelia’s ribs.  “Who’d you come to malign and denigrate, hm?  Which of my friends’ lives did you think you’d ruin with exposure?”

“No, it’s not that—” Amelia gasped, but her captor wasn’t hearing any of it.

“Start walking,” she directed, with a shove towards the lawn.  “I’m taking you to Ashbourne.  For his sake, not yours, because I’m a considerate guest.”

Amelia decided not to mention that she was looking for the Viscount, herself.

Ashbourne was, in fact, under the white pavillion on the lawn.  A number of rugs had been laid out across the grass, populated with couches and chairs and endtables to hold the ubiquitous drinks.  Most of the seating stood empty; twilight had fully fallen and what guests had been enjoying the lawn had since left it to seek other diversions.  Two older men reclined on a single couch, one in an eye-wateringly bright fushcia jacket, the other in pale powder blue.  The man in pink was resting his head in the lap of the man in blue, and they were sharing a private chuckle when the two ladies came into the tent.

The man in blue noticed them first.  “Miss Chesterley, have you brought me a present?  At knifepoint?”

“An interloper,” the woman responded, not letting go of Amelia’s arm.  “Impersonating my publisher.  I don’t know who he’s here for, but I thought I’d bring him to you.”

The pink-clad man didn’t bother to sit up, but watched Amelia from the other man’s lap, eyes alight.

“I apologize, Lord Ashbourne,” Amelia blurted quickly, before everyone else in the tent could decide her fate for her.  “I gave a false name.  I’m here without invitation.”

The man in pink tittered.  “Invitation.  Invitation!  Can you imagine?”

“My dear, no one is here by invitation,” Ashbourne chuckled, absently petting the balding pate of the man in his lap.  “Committing such details to paper is just tempting fate.”  

“If it comes to it, my lord,” Chesterley offered, “I can dispose of a body so no one will find it.”

All the blood rushed out of Amelia’s head and she teetered on her feet.  What had she got herself into?

But the viscount’s lips only twitched upwards at the woman’s suggestion.  “I don’t think that will be necessary, Theresa.”  He then leaned back and considered Amelia for a long moment, his pale grey eyes roving up and down, lingering on her hands, her face.  “In fact, I think you can dispense with the knife entirely.”

“Milord?”

Now Ashbourne rolled his eyes.  “Thank you for bringing this to my attention, Miss Chesterley, but I think I have the situation under control.  You may go.  I’d like to speak with my guest in private.”

Whatever other civilized rules were ignored here, a dismissal from a viscount was not one of them.  Chesterley released Amelia’s elbow, made the knife disappear, and stalked off into the night.  The handful of others under the pavillion decided it was time to see the rest of the party.

“Won’t you have a seat?” Ashbourne asked as if Amelia had not been held at knifepoint until a moment before.  “I am, of course, Lord Ashbourne.  This creature splayed out like a drunken kitten is Lord Mulvey.  And what may we call you, my dear?”

“Think before you answer,” Mulvey advised, eyes closed.  “You shouldn’t lie to a great lord of the land.”

Amelia sat down on a chair that was mostly facing the two lords, folding her hands together between her knees.  She obviously couldn’t continue with Frobisher.  Not that she had come here to lie to Ashbourne, great lord of the land or no.  She had imagined this moment, over and over again, in her mind’s eye.  She would stand before Lord Ashbourne, give her proper name, and ask for his help.  But now that the moment was before her, she quailed before it.

“I thought I’d be standing up,” she murmured.

Ashbourne didn’t answer immediately.  “Then by all means, stand, if it makes it easier for you.”

She laughed off the suggestion, but then she stood, anyway.  He watched her patiently.   “My name is Amelia Quinn, milord.  And I am hoping that you can help me.”

He nodded once, slowly, as if he had known her name all along, breeches and cravat or no.  “A pleasure to make your acquaintance, Miss Quinn.  How can I help you?”

“You see, it’s a… it’s a strange request.”

“We get a lot of interesting requests here at Uskweirs,” the viscount assured her, the correction so mild she almost missed it.

“Yes, milord,” she agreed with a slight smile, and paused to gather herself.  She’d already given him her name, after all.  “They say a lot of interesting things about Uskweirs.  That you can help with a lot of interesting situations.  And perhaps you can help with mine.”

Lord Ashbourne lifted a single eyebrow.  “I’d like to try, Miss Quinn, but you’ll have to tell me what it is, first.  You need to say it out loud.”

Amelia steeled herself, fists clenched.  Forced herself to speak the words: “I don’t want to live as a man any more.”

When she opened her eyes—when had she closed them?—Lord Ashbourne was watching her with a soft, avuncular smile.  “Of course you don’t, my dear.  It doesn’t seem to suit you at all.”

“It doesn’t,” she breathed.  “But it seems… impossible.”

“Difficult and impossible are two different things,” Lord Mulvey opined from Lord Ashbourne’s lap.

“Indeed,” the viscount agreed.  “Miss Quinn, may we have the pleasure of your company for an extended visit to Uskweirs?  We’d be ever so happy to have you.”

Amelia sat, hard, as the relief hit her.  Distantly she realized she was crying.  “Thank you, milord.  I’d love to.”

And there you have it. Equal parts period romance and We Have Always Been Here. I’d love to read the rest of this novel; the only question is if I’m willing to write it in order to make that happen. Because I don’t have enough projects already on my plate!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *