"I'm not a complete idiot, despite appearances to the contrary," he told Merripen dryly as they rode out to the east corner of the estate one morning. "The arrangements you've made are obviously working. I don't intend to foul things up in an effort to prove I'm lord of the manor. That being said… I do have a few improvements to suggest regarding the tenant housing."
"A few inexpensive alterations in design would make the cottages more comfortable and attractive. And if the idea is to eventually establish a hamlet of sorts on the estate, it might behoove us to come up with a set of plans for a model village."
"You want to work on plans and elevations?" Merripen asked, surprised at the show of interest from the usually indolent lord.
"If you have no objections."
"Of course not. It's your estate." Merripen regarded him speculatively. "Are you considering a return to your former profession?"
"Yes, actually. I might start as a jobbing architect. We'll see where some earnest dabbling might lead. And it makes sense to cut my teeth on my own tenants' houses." He grinned. "My reasoning is they'll be less likely than outsiders to sue me."
On an estate with a crowded wood like the Ramsey lands, a thinning of the forest was necessary every ten years. By Merripen's calculation, the estate had missed at least two previous cycles, which meant there was a good thirty years' worth of dead, sickly, or suppressed-growth trees to be cleared from the Ramsay forests.
To Leo's dismay, Merripen insisted on dragging him through the entire process, until Leo knew far more than he had ever wanted to know about trees.
"Correct thinning helps nature," Merripen said in response to Leo's grumbling. "The estate wood will have healthier timber and far more value if the right trees are removed to help the others grow."
"I'd rather leave the trees to settle it amongst themselves," Leo said, which Merripen ignored.
To educate himself, and Leo, further, Merripen arranged a meeting with the small staff of estate woodmen. They went out to examine some targeted standing trees, while the woodmen explained how to measure the length and mean transverse area of a tree to determine its cubic contents. Using a girthing tape, a twenty-foot rod, and a ladder, they made some preliminary assessments.
Before Leo quite knew how it had happened, he had found himself atop a ladder, helping in the measurements.
"May I ask why," he called down to Merripen, "you happen to be standing down there while I'm up here risking my neck?"
"Your tree," Merripen pointed out succinctly.
"Also my neck!"
Leo gathered that Merripen wanted him to take an active interest in the estate and all its affairs, great and small. It seemed these days that an aristocratic landowner could not simply relax in the library and drink port, no matter how appealing that scenario was. One could delegate estate responsibilities to managers and servants, but that meant one ran the risk of being fleeced.
As they went over other items on a daily list that only seemed to get longer as the week progressed, Leo began to comprehend just how overwhelming a job Merripen had undertaken for the past three years. Most estate managers had undergone apprenticeships, and most sons of the peerage had been educated from a young age in the various concerns of the estates they would someday inherit.
Merripen, on the other hand, had learned all of this- livestock management, farming, forestry, construction, land improvement, wages, profits, and rents-with no preparation and no time. But the man was ideally suited for it. He had an acute memory, an appetite for hard work, and a tireless interest in details.
"Admit something," Leo had said after a particularly stultifying conversation on farming. "You do find this tedious on occasion, don't you? You must be bored out of your skull after an hour of discussion on how intensive the crop rotation should be, and how much arable land should be allocated to corn and beans."
Merripen had considered the question carefully, as if it had never occurred to him that he should find anything about the estate work tedious. "Not if it needs to be done."
That was when Leo had finally understood. If Merripen had decided on a goal, no detail was too small, no task beneath him. No amount of adversity would deter him. The workmanlike quality that Leo had derided in the past had found its perfect outlet. God or the devil help anyone who got in Merripen's way.
But Merripen had a weakness.
By now everyone in the family had become aware of the fierce and impossible attachment between Merripen and Win. And they all knew that to mention it would earn them nothing but trouble. Leo had never seen two people battle their mutual attraction so desperately.
Not long ago Leo would have chosen Dr. Harrow for Win without a moment's hesitation. To marry a Gypsy was a sure comedown in the world. And in London society it was perfectly reasonable to marry for advantage and find love elsewhere. That wasn't possible for Win, however. Her heart was too pure, her feelings too strong. And after having watched his sister's struggle to get well, and the grace of character that had never faltered, Leo thought it a damned shame that she couldn't have the husband she wanted.
On the third morning after their arrival in Hampshire, Amelia and Win went for a walk on a circular route that eventually led back to Ramsay House. It was a fresh, clear day, the path a bit muddy in places, the meadows covered with such a wealth of white oxeye daisies that at first glance it looked like new-fallen snow.