"Do sit down," Ella gestured to the comfortable chairs in front of her ancient, mahogany desk and perched on the edge, her calm smile belying her inner alarm. If Tony Smith and Gregory Wainwright were visiting together, it was unlikely to be good news. She drew a breath. "What can I do for you?"
There was silence as the men exchanged glances. Gregory opened his mouth, but Tony Smyth jumped in.
"We've come to complain about all the contractor trucks and vans on the estate," he said. "It's well-nigh impossible to move my machinery when bloody designers and their kit are snarling up all the roads across the estate! As if they weren’t in a bad enough state!"
It was as though someone had fired a starting pistol. Gregory and Tony spoke over each other with complaints about the state of the roads; "Choked wi' mud!", late-night working with floodlights which disturbed livestock, and lots and lots of contractors messing up the estate.
Ella listened with a sinking heart but kept her face neutral.
"That sounds dreadful. Are the roads near you in a mess, Gregory? I toured around earlier this week, and I agree there's a lot of mud around, but I didn't believe it was that bad."
"Well, since we had the rain… and then they've started bringing the diggers in…" Gregory started almost apologetically.
"You don't see the half of it!" Tony growled, his face pink with indignation. Ella smothered her irritation. There was very little she missed on the estate; she made sure of that. But the garden build – and specifically, the garden build keeping to budget – had been a worry since it started. Not that the two tenants in front of her would realise that.
"Shall I come out and have a look?"
"Aye, looking is all very well – but what are you going to do about it? I've got livestock to move, and maintenance work to do! And we all know this is a barmy project that her ladyship has started."
Ella stiffened. Tony faltered at her glance, and Gregory took up the story.
"What Tony's trying to say is that we don't quite understand why Lady Susan feels it so vital to build this new garden when the estate's already very successful. You’ve worked wonders on it since you came here, so why this new venture?"
Privately, Ella was sympathetic. The estate was firmly in the black, finally, after years of barely breaking even. Ella vividly remembered her sense of bewilderment and almost immediate panic when Lady Susan had revealed the plans for the garden. Her heart still ached as she imagined the gardens she loved, had depended on for her personal solace, massacred by the new design. After all her work to make the estate profitable, it had felt a bit of a slap in the face.
But again, those were her own thoughts. In front of Tony and Gregory, she had to appear a loyal employee.
"You know her ladyship wants to make Ashton Manor a place for generations to come. The new garden will help do that. We can't just be a stately home in acres of pretty parkland – we won't survive long term," she said.
"I don't agree," said Tony, clenching his fists on his knee while Gregory sighed. "The farms are well run, we have a cracking line in organic produce, and the house attracts thousands of visitors!"
Yes, but not enough younger visitors, thought Ella, reluctantly. Too many of the older generation, with beige macs, sensible shoes and an eye for a scone and tea at the café. But they wouldn't live forever. All heritage organisations had the problem of visitors literally dying off. Ashton Manor was no different.
"You'll need to show me the issues," she said thoughtfully, running her hand over her ponytail. "Then I can speak to Lady Susan about it personally, rather than talking about it third-hand."
"We guessed you'd say that," said Gregory. "The morning is when the disruption is worst, as the contractors come on to the estate. Blarin' radios too!"
Ella stopped herself from wincing. Loud music early morning was one of her own pet hates. Her thoughts about the garden designer and the army of contractors and hangers-on, darkened.
"Let's have a look and then I can suggest something," she said instead. "We need to accommodate the garden work and the estate work."
"I reckon this will take some doing, even for you, Miss Sanderson. We tried talking to the contractors but all they do is talk about their schedule, their deadlines. As if we don't have any deadlines ourselves!"
Ella knew all about the garden schedule. It looked ridiculous on paper, even with the number of contractors around. Driving it, of course, was the big society wedding of Jonas Keane, which would launch the garden to the great and the good in August. The guest list would look, according to Lady Susan, like a who's who of the FTSE 100.
Inwardly, she sighed. Outwardly, she stood up from her perch on the corner of the desk and gave the two men a smile that was as reassuring as she could manage.
"Will one of you pick me up, or shall I meet you?"
"I'll call at seven and go round with you," Gregory said, shaking her hand in farewell.
They left, leaving Ella chewing her lip and winding her dark ponytail around her fingers.
Bloody Connor McPherson, she fumed. Lady Susan had kept her away from the architect of this monstrosity ever since they'd disagreed on the plans in the early stages.
'Disagreement' was putting it mildly, she reflected. In retrospect, perhaps she could have been less outspoken, more like her usual mild, diplomatic self. But the changes planned to some of her favourite parts of the estate had made her incoherent when she'd met the designer. She couldn’t explain her thoughts about what the garden and the estate meant to her, they were too personal to share with a stranger. So she hadn't been able to talk about her impending sense of loss of a place that had brought comfort to her battered soul. Had helped her, in short, to rebuild. To add fuel to her fury, Connor McPherson had been arrogant and dismissive.
And if the physical changes weren’t bad enough, she was also concerned that the reserves she’d been building up for the estate would just be sucked into the bottomless pit of the new project.
She sighed. It was too late now, but she cursed her loss of control, which meant she had no voice in the garden build. Lady Susan was managing the contact with the designer herself and had suggested Ella might focus instead on keeping the rest of the estate intact. Ella had no knowledge of the figures and had to hope Lord Ralph would be able to check his wife’s wilder impulses.
It could only have been worse, Ella mused, if she’d been asked to help with the wedding. She suppressed the shudder across her slender shoulders. Yes, she wanted to steer well clear of that.
But now the garden plans were affecting the tenants and that, she thought, was definitely her area. Though before she waded in, she needed to see it all for herself, otherwise her employer would dismiss her opinion as sour grapes.
* * *
Ella drew a deep breath as she stopped the Land Rover, pulling the handbrake up with uncharacteristic viciousness. She sat for a few minutes, working out what she would say to Lady Susan, and how to say it. The October sun glinted at her through the changing leaves and gradually, as the mellowness of the landscape penetrated her mood, she calmed down.
She knew every inch of the estate; she’d made it her business to get to know the roads, the buildings, and the tenants and their peculiarities, over the years. Surely Lady Susan would give her a hearing?
She glanced in the driving mirror before climbing out of the vehicle, smoothing her hair. Slate grey eyes regarded her steadily. Her brows, perhaps a little thick, had drawn together, and she attempted to stop frowning. No need to go in looking like thunder, she thought.
The heavy door to the manor opened and a very tall man stepped out, laughing mid-sentence. He ran a hand through his thick black hair and stooped to hear the little bird-like woman who followed him to the doorstep. He laughed at something she said and then, to Ella's surprise, kissed her employer on the cheek. Her ire, which she'd damped down, roared into life again.
As she reached for the door handle, he waved a careless hand to Lady Susan and strode to his car, a ridiculous, low-slung sports affair. Before Ella's foot hit the ground, he had gunned the engine and disappeared in a spray of gravel. Lady Susan was still smiling when Ella joined her.
"Morning, Ella. How are you?"
"I'm very well, Lady Susan, thank you. Could I speak to you for a few minutes?"
Lady Susan's warm brown eyes were rueful.
"Oh, dear. What have I done?"
Ella shook her head.
"It's about all the garden contractors on the estate."
"Ah. You'd better come into the drawing room then."
Ella followed Lady Susan into the room, appreciating as always its beauty and the cheerful log fire that chased away the chill from the autumn morning. There were two cups on the low coffee table, both empty. Connor McPherson was certainly making himself at home, she noted, adding to her irritation.
"Now – what's the problem, Ella?"
Lady Susan sounded slightly defensive. So, mused Ella, she knows. But she doesn't want to talk about it.
"I rather think we might need to mend our fences with some tenants," Ella started quietly. "They're concerned at the upheaval from the garden project. Having been around the estate, I agree with their concerns."
Lady Susan sighed.
"A bit of mud? Surely not."
"It's not just the mud on all the roads coming off the main road – although that's pretty bad. It's the number of lorries and workers blocking the principal access routes to the farms at Downey, Steen and Hartsford. The contractors park all over the place, and the farmers can't move livestock or machinery easily. Which, at this time of year, is important as they move cattle off the open land."
Lady Susan sat silently.
"I've been out all morning with Gregory Wainwright and Tony Smyth, and I'm astounded that they haven't shot anyone yet. The contractors don't seem to understand that this is a working estate, which is making things a bit… tense," Ella added.
She paused, watching Lady Susan, who pursed her beautifully shaped mouth.
"I know you're on a schedule…" Ella offered tentatively.
"Yes, we are, and it's already under a lot of pressure because of the dreadful weather we had at the end of September!"
Oh dear, thought Ella, dismayed at the sharpness of her employer’s tone.
Lady Susan absently picked up her coffee cup with thin fingers, realised it was empty and put it down again. She reached for the still warm pot and poured another cup, looking enquiringly at Ella to see if she wanted one. Ella shook her head and waited.
"You know how important it is to complete the garden by next August, and Connor’s brought extra hands on board. Perhaps they’re not fully informed… But really, Gregory and Tony came to you to complain?" A note of anxiety had crept into Lady Susan's voice.
"And George, later."
"It may just be a matter of sorting out some clear working practices," Ella said. "If we can get Mr McPherson to understand the issues that his workmen are causing the farms, I'm sure we could find a solution. Perhaps you could referee a session between Gregory et al. and the contractors?"
Lady Susan threw her a glance.
"As it’s estate business, it would be better if you did it, Ella. You're much more diplomatic than I am."
Inwardly, Ella groaned. "I'd be happy to."
"And Connor, of course."
"If you consider his presence necessary?"
Ella's stomach curdled at the prospect.
"Naturally, it is! And in some respects, if the contractors are getting on everyone's nerves, then it's a very good job that he'll be spending more time here." Lady Susan beamed at her.
"Yes, we spoke about it this morning. I've offered him Daffodil Cottage for the duration of the project, rather than him travelling backwards and forwards from London."
"Daffodil?" Ella said faintly, thinking of the worker's cottage adjoining her own.
"Yes, I know you were about to search for new tenants for it, but it can wait until next year given how important it is to get the garden completed. Are you all right, my dear? You look a little pasty."
Ella waved her hand and managed a smile.
"No, no, I'm fine. When will Mr McPherson be moving in?"
"Connor, dear. Mr McPherson sounds rather formal, given we've been working with him for four months. He needs to sort out some things in London, and then he'll be with us next week. It's what the project needs, really, don't you agree? The designer on site to tackle some of the problems you're now having to deal with?"
"Yes, of course."
"And after all, it will be nice to have a neighbour, won't it? I know you like your privacy, but I do occasionally worry about you with so few people around you."
"Really, Lady Susan, I'm fine. You don't need to move Mr McPher… Connor next door!"
"Well, that is the cottage that's most convenient for the house and main garden, isn't it?" Lady Susan peered over the edge of her coffee cup, a shrewd expression in her eyes. "Unless you've a violent objection?"
She had. Violent objections.
"No. No, of course not," she managed eventually. Lady Susan looked politely sceptical. Carefully she placed the cup back in its saucer and gestured to the model which covered the whole of the enormous table by the window.
"I know you’re concerned about the design, Ella, but this is part of my vision of the future for Ashton Manor."
Not just the design, Ella thought, crossly. It was a double whammy – ripping out the heart of my favourite parts of the garden and potentially bailing you out with my precious reserves if it all goes wrong! She wandered over to the model of the garden. Curves, straight lines and triangles all clashed together in her opinion, although she acknowledged grudgingly that the water features looked interesting. But was it worth destroying the existing garden? No. Not in her view.
Ella could hear Lady Susan sigh from across the room.
"I hope you and Connor can come to some compromise between you about the work – and the cottages, for that matter. But be in no doubt, Ella – we need the garden to open on time and I'm counting on you to facilitate that."
Having Connor McPherson next door would be the equivalent of him parking his tank on her lawn. Ella forced a smile.
"I'll do my best."