Shirtless and sweating under the soft blaze of the Hampshire sun, Leo and the tenants dug ditches and drainage canals, moved rock, and hauled soil. At the end of the day Leo ached in every muscle, nearly too tired to stay awake during dinner. His body toughened and became so lean that he was obliged to borrow trousers from Cam while the village tailor altered his clothes.
“At least work keeps you from your vices,” Win quipped one evening before supper, rubbing his hair affectionately as she joined him in the parlor.
“I happen to like my vices,” Leo told her. “That’s why I went to the trouble of acquiring them.”
“What you need to acquire,” Win said gently, “is a wife. And I’m not saying that out of self-interest, Leo.”
He smiled at her, this gentlest of sisters, who had fought so many personal battles for the sake of love. “You don’t possess a molecule of self-interest, Win. But as sound as your advice usually is, I’m not going to take it.”
“You should. You need a family of your own.”
“I have more than enough family to contend with. And there are things I would much rather do than marry.”
“Oh, cut out my tongue and join the Trappist Monks … roll na**d in treacle and nap on an anthill … Shall I go on?”
“That won’t be necessary,” Win said, smiling. “However, you will marry someday, Leo. Both Cam and Merripen have said that you have a very distinct marriage line on your hand.”
Bemused, Leo looked down at his palm. “That’s a crease from the way I hold my pen.”
“It’s a marriage line. And it’s so long, it practically wraps around both sides of your hand. Which means you will someday marry a fated love.” Win raised her fair brows significantly, as if to say, What do you think of that?
“Romas don’t really believe in palm reading,” Leo informed her. “It’s nonsense. They only do it to extract money from fools and drunkards.”
Before Win could reply, Merripen entered the parlor. “Gadjos certainly know how to complicate matters,” he said, handing a letter to Leo and lowering to the settee.
“What is this?” Leo asked, glancing at the signature at the bottom. “Another letter from the solicitor? I thought he was trying to un complicate matters for us.”
“The more he explains,” Merripen said, “the more confusing it is. As a Rom, I still have trouble understanding the concept of land ownership. But the Ramsay estate…” He shook his head in disgust. “It’s a Gordian knot of agreements, grants, customs, exceptions, additions, and leases.”
“That’s because the estate is so old,” Win said wisely. “The more ancient the manor, the more complications it’s had time to acquire.” She glanced at Leo. “By the way, I’ve just learned that Countess Ramsay and her daughter Miss Darvin wish to come for a visit. We received a letter from them earlier today.”
“The devil you say!” Leo was outraged. “For what purpose? To gloat? Take inventory? I’ve still got a year left before they can lay claim to the place.”
“Perhaps they wish to make peace and find an acceptable solution for all of us,” Win suggested.
Win was always inclined to think the best of people and believe in the essential goodness of human nature.
Leo didn’t have that problem.
“Make peace, my arse,” he muttered. “By God, I’m tempted to get married just to spite that pair of witches.”
“Do you have any candidates in mind?” Win asked.
“Not one. But if I ever did marry, it would be to a woman I was certain never to love.”
A movement at the doorway caught his attention, and Leo watched covertly as Catherine entered the room. She gave the group a neutral smile, carefully avoiding Leo’s gaze, and went to a chair near the corner. With annoyance, Leo noticed that she had lost weight. Her br**sts were smaller, and her waist was reed slender, and her complexion was wan. Was she deliberately avoiding proper nourishment? What had caused her lack of appetite? She was going to make herself ill.
“For God’s sake, Marks,” he said irritably, “you’re getting as scrawny as a birch branch.”
“Leo,” Win protested.
Catherine shot him a look of outrage. “I’m not the one whose trousers are being taken in.”
“You look half dead from malnourishment,” Leo went on with a scowl. “What’s the matter with you? Why aren’t you eating?”
“Ramsay,” Merripen murmured, evidently deciding a boundary had been crossed.
Catherine shot up from her chair and glared at Leo. “You’re a bully, and a hypocrite, and you have no right to criticize my appearance, so … so…” She cast about wildly for the right phrase. “Bugger you!” And she stormed from the parlor, her skirts rustling angrily.
Merripen and Win watched with open mouths.
“Where did you learn that word?” Leo demanded, hard on her heels.
“From you,” she said vehemently over her shoulder.
“Do you even know what it means?”
“No, and I don’t care. Stay away from me!”
As Catherine stormed through the house, and Leo went after her, it occurred to him that he had been craving an argument with her, any kind of interaction.
She went outside and partway around the house, and soon they found themselves in the kitchen garden. The air was pungent with the smell of sun-warmed herbs.