In the excerpt below, we’re at a country Assembly. One of the organisers is Lady Avery, the wife of a local viscount. Supper is over and Major Alex Redepenning, an injured war hero and current user of the chair, is refusing to allow his broken and infected legs to spoil his fun.
The dance was a line dance, the Bloom of the Pea, and Alex—invalid’s chair and all—was taking part. Jonno promenaded him up the centre and back, and twirled him around his partner, she entering into the escapade with enthusiasm by holding the steering column of the chair when the pattern called for her to hold her partner’s hand.
Some of the bystanders, and even some of the other dancers, were crowding closer to see this original version of the Bloom.
The last part of the pattern called for the lead couple to weave down the line of other dancers, and Jonno began pushing Alex down the men’s line, as the Major turned the chair from side to side to go in and out.
They were halfway down the line when, with a loud crack that could be heard over the orchestra, the chair collapsed, spilling Alex into the man he was passing.
Jonno stood bewildered in the middle of the floor. Susan hurried to her brother’s side, getting there just after Rede. And Lady Avery hurried up to kneel beside the broken pieces of the chair.
The man Alex had knocked to the ground was getting up, carelessly shoving Alex to one side. Alex let out a muffled grunt. “Careful, man!” Rede told the stranger.
“He knocked me. Tell him to be careful,” the man protested, but Rede gave him no further attention. Alex was white as bone, his teeth gritted.
“Everyone stand back,” Rede commanded. “Give him room.”
“It was his own fault,” the felled dancer continued grumbling.
Dr Millburn pushed his way through the crowd and knelt beside Alex. Leaving him to provide the needed care, Rede focused on getting people to move back, widening the circle of gawkers.
Susan spoke to Jonno, and he pulled himself together and went off, coming back a few minutes later with John and a board large enough to provide a stretcher.
With Dr Millburn supervising, they moved Alex carefully onto the board. He had recovered enough to joke, “How convenient that I’m staying just down the hall.”
“It is indeed, Major Redepenning,” the doctor said cheerfully. We can examine you in comfort. Doesn’t seem to be too much damage done, except to the chair. Odd. I wouldn’t have expected it to come apart like that.”
Lady Avery, who—with Bradshaw her father—had been carefully examining the broken pieces, said, “It had help.”
“What do you mean?” Alex asked.
“She means sabotage,” said Bradshaw. “Someone deliberately damaged the chair so that it would break.”
“And it has been done in the last fortnight, since I gave the chair to Dr Millburn,” Lady Avery insisted.
“How can you be sure?” Rede asked.
“I gave it a complete overhaul before I sent it to him,” she replied.
“You can believe her.” That was Lord Avery. “The chair is her design. If she says it was in good order, it was. If she says it was deliberately damaged, it was.”
A dozen voices all started up at once, far more titalated by idea of a peeress who made invalid carriages than by the putative assault on Alex. In the chaos, John and his nephew carried Alex off to the bedroom wing of the hotel, followed by Dr Millburn and Susan.
Rede sent Will to find the manager of the hotel, and secure a room where he could question staff about who had access to the chair.
“We’ll need to clear the floor,” said the Master of Ceremonies. “That,” he pointed to the wreckage of the chair, “is in the way of the dancing.”
Lady Avery nodded at Rede’s quizzical look. “I have learned everything I can from where it is lying. Just give me one minute to make a sketch and we can clear floor.”
“Madam, I do not think…” the Master of Ceromines began.
“Lady Avery will make her sketch,” said Lord Avery, firmly. The Master of Ceremonies looked at the tall young viscount, and Rede, who was standing shoulder to shoulder with him, and clearly decided against arguing.
“Yes, well,” he said. Then turned and raised his voice. “Perhaps everyone would like to move through to the supper room while we clear the floor? Dancing will resume shortly.”
Lord Avery grabbed a footman by the arm as he passed. “Fetch something for my lady to draw on,” he commanded.
Lady Avery, who had been talking in low tones with her father, turned and slipped her arm into his. “I am sorry, Ran.”
He looked down at her affectionately, a tall greyhound to her little kitten. “For what?”
Lady Avery waved her unused hand at the crowd. “Now they’ll all be talking again.”
He smiled, taking her hand in his. She had removed her gloves while she examined the wreckage, and Rede felt a pang of longing when Avery lifted her hand to kiss the palm and fold her fingers over the kiss. Had he ever had someone to touch with such casual affection? His children, of course, but the Wades and Spencer had taken that from him. He saw Anne hovering on the edge of the crowd, and took comfort from her presence.
“They always talk, Min,” Lord Avery said to his wife. “Stupid cats. We don’t care, remember? I’m very proud of my lovely, clever, creative wife, and I don’t care who knows it.” He looked challengingly at Rede over her dark head.
“I am awestruck,” Rede told her. “You really designed the chair yourself, Lady Avery? Alex loved it. He already had great plans for touring our boyhood play places. I hope it can be fixed!”
Bradshaw, who had drawn closer, said diffidently, “I could take a look at ‘er, MIn. I’ve a wee workshop set up at home.”
Lady Avery laughed. “So have I, Papa. Lord Chirbury, if we cannot get it working again, we will get Major Redepenning another one.”