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       Aly's House, p.1

           Leila Meacham
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Aly's House

  Table of Contents


  Title Page



  Chapter One

  Chapter Two

  Chapter Three

  Chapter Four

  Chapter Five

  Chapter Six

  Chapter Seven

  Chapter Eight

  Chapter Nine

  Chapter Ten

  Chapter Eleven

  Chapter Twelve

  A preview of “Titans”

  About the Author

  Also by Leila Meacham


  The Books of Leila Meacham



  To my niece Jeri,

  who sees for all of us.

  A Letter to My Friends, Fans, Readers of My Later-In-Life Novels and Newcomers to the Books of Leila Meacham

  Dear Ones,

  Aly’s House is another in the series of three romance novels I wrote in the mid-eighties. For those of you who are familiar with my much later novels only—Roses, Tumbleweeds, Somerset, and Titans—you’ll no doubt notice the difference in the physical size and narrative scope and writing quality of this book. Pray, don’t be too harsh in your judgment. Aly’s House represents one of my first sorties into the field of fiction writing and was written under the coercion of a contract to the publisher of my first romance novel to produce another. There is no pain like the obligation to create a work of fiction with a plot, cast of characters, setting, beginning, middle, and end, and give it a title when you have no idea of the who, the what, the where, and the when, and all under the whip of a deadline. Thus it was with Aly’s House. “Write what you know” is the mantra creative-writing teachers tell their students and authors of books on “how to write a bestseller” instruct their readers, and for many writers that works. The elements of the novel are all in place, and they make a fine career writing about what they know. Well, that’s all fine and dandy if you know anything of interest to fill nearly two hundred pages of a romance novel or have the nerve to write about persons of your acquaintance. I had neither knowledge nor nerve.

  So I decided to write about what I didn’t know. That entailed creating people on paper I had never known, living lives I had never experienced, in places I had never been. Where to start? In one’s curiosity was as good a place as any. I had always been curious about and admiring of horses, not that I’d ever ridden or owned one. I simply thought them magnificent animals. I would begin there, within the strong human desire to learn more about a subject. Memory was another place to explore. Surely in the power of the mind to remember was stuck an indelible image, a fleeting but memorable moment, a phrase never forgotten that could trigger an idea, a character, a conflict. And then into focus came the remembrance of a farmhouse I had seen briefly from the window of a school bus returning with my students from a field trip. From its windows wafted the most heavenly supper smells that reached my nostrils as we drove by. Lights were on in the kitchen, and I could see several children bent over their homework at the table, a mother at the stove. A happy family lives there, I remember thinking at the time.

  Horses and farmhouses—I could work with that. And so out of my curiosity, Sampson was born, and from a brief glimpse fixed in memory, the house on Cedar Hill came into being. From there it was a matter of fleshing out from research, interviews, up-close-and-personal chats with horses, and imagination. A writer does not always have to have experienced to create. After completing Aly’s House, I retired my faithful old electric Smith-Corona from writing fiction to return to teaching and did not sit down before another typing machine to once again try my hand at composing a novel until twenty-five years later—this time to a Hewlett-Packard home computer. I was too old then, or wise, I’d like to believe, to worry about the outcome of my efforts. What would be, would be. It’s turned out to be a great return trip.

  I leave you with this scene from Aly’s House in which Aly, the young daughter of a wealthy banker, recollects saying to Elizabeth, the wife of a poor farmer in her modest home on Cedar Hill:

  “You live…very grandly here.”

  “Grandly?” Elizabeth had puzzled over the words, thinking no doubt of the splendid house where Aly lived, and wondered at the child’s meaning. “No, not grandly, child, but we live very happily here.”

  “Isn’t that living grandly?” Aly had wanted to know.

  And so I wish the same for you. Live grandly.

  Leila Meacham

  Chapter One

  With a sigh, Aly Kingston laid aside the newspaper she had bought to read while waiting for her flight to Oklahoma City. Texas newspapers, like those in her own home state, were filled these days with little but the woes brought on by the oil glut. Every other story seemed devoted to a small town, bank, or school district struggling to survive without the revenue of a once high-riding industry caught in a slump. She didn’t have to read about them. In Claiborne, she saw evidence of all three daily.

  How fast the house of cards had fallen once the demand for oil decreased, leaving everybody but a fortunate few caught in the collapse. She had been among the fortunate few. Her business had not been founded on the vagaries of oil production, but on the breeding of quality horses and purse-winning racing stock. So far she’d suffered only the enviable problem of trying to keep up with the demand.

  She had just about decided to browse in the gift shop when a tall man—dark, slim, impossibly handsome—strode into her vision from the concourse. She sat transfixed, disbelieving, her heart nearly failing at the sight of the familiar figure headed for a panel of telephones directly in front of her.

  It was Marshall Wayne. There was not the slightest doubt that it was he. Time had not changed him, merely polished and refined, strengthened and enhanced his figure—just as she had known it would. She would have known him anywhere, at any age. A whole gallery of his portraits, sketched mentally each year, still hung in her heart.

  He had not seen her. She looked hurriedly around for the newspaper to shield her face until she could adjust to the shock of seeing him again. A man one seat over had picked it up, and she decided against asking for it back to avoid calling attention to herself. Opening her purse, she took out her ticket—anything to read, to focus on—while her heart stilled and her vision cleared. Marshall had lifted the receiver and was dialing.

  What was the matter with her? How could she react this way? Here she was, almost past thirty, successful, admired, and respected, yet still at the mercy of some paralyzing infatuation with a man she suspected wouldn’t spit on her if she were on fire—even after thirteen years.

  His back was to her. She looked up from the ticket surreptitiously, hurriedly taking in the long, lithe form she remembered—the shape of the dark head, the set of the shoulders. His suit was impeccable, superbly tailored and rich in quality. So time had brought it all, had it—the money and importance he had so craved? She was glad, though not surprised. For people like Marshall Wayne, blessed with such intelligence and looks, success was a plum waiting to be picked.

  So in the few minutes before she caught her plane, why didn’t she simply get up and walk over to him, present herself? Prosperity and time had probably long assuaged the sting of the old injuries and animosities, just as her father had predicted. Other than an occasional unpleasant memory of them, Marshall probably never thought of the Kingstons at all anymore, certainly not of her. For her own sake, she would so like to put some sort of an end to this—this unfinished business between them. She thought of it as an essential page ripped out of a book. All these years she had wanted to put it to rights, restore it, smooth it out so that she could close the book. Just a few minutes to explain was all she needed. Then he could be on his way and she hers, t
heir chapter finished, done.

  She would have to tell him who she was. He would not recognize her now. Even she sometimes had trouble recognizing the rather stunning, fashionable woman in her mirror, the woman she sometimes thought of as “Emmalou Fuller.”

  So why didn’t she just get up and do that once he’d finished his phone call?

  Suddenly, as if someone had called his name, Marshall turned to her, the receiver cradled in his shoulder while he fished for something in the breast pocket of his coat. Their glances struck, fused, and held for several rapt seconds before Aly lowered hers in embarrassment, burning with an adolescent blush that crept slowly over her face through the roots of her hair. Good God! She might just as well still be in grade school, still be sitting at his mother’s table when he walked in the kitchen door.

  Say hello to Aly, son.

  The ticket blurred with the poignancy of the memory, of the sudden vivid recollection of those long-ago afternoons and the sound of Elizabeth Wayne’s voice, silent over a decade now.

  Aly remembered the first time she had heard that beloved voice, one winter afternoon when she and Willy had stopped by Cedar Hill on the way home from school. Willy had taken the basket of clean wash into the farmhouse and returned with the faultlessly ironed pieces; and she had helped him hang the shirts and carefully stack the folded things in the back of the big car. Then the Cadillac had refused to start. Elizabeth had come out onto the porch in her print housedress and apron and called to Willy, bent over the motor with her husband, “Do you think the little girl might like to come inside the house? She’s probably cold out there.”

  Willy, the family’s chauffeur and handyman, had extricated himself from beneath the hood and inquired of the freckled face staring out the backseat window, “You want to go inside, Punkin?”

  “Sure,” she said, scrambling out with her science book, her cold toes throbbing in her loafers.

  “If that’s homework, you’re welcome to sit here at the table and work on it,” Elizabeth Wayne invited as they entered the warm, fragrant kitchen. It smelled of apples baking and clean laundry. “Hungry? How about a glass of milk and a piece of apple pie?”

  Aly had nodded and sat down at the oilcloth-covered table partly piled with stacks of folded laundry. Soon a large slice of flaky pie and a glass of milk were set before her. Her stomach began to clamor. Slowly, her eyes on the pie, she removed her coat while Elizabeth went back to her ironing. Aly rarely ate anything. She didn’t care for the food at home, and the cafeteria lunches at school were even more unappealing. She had lived with hunger so long she was no longer conscious of it. That afternoon she ate the pie and drank the milk so fast she was ashamed of herself. Marshall’s mother would think they starved her at home. Her stomach ached later, but only because it had never been so full.

  After that, the kitchen at Cedar Hill became her favorite place in all the world and Elizabeth Wayne her favorite person. Every anxiety faded away the moment she set foot on the linoleum floor and sat down at the oilcloth-covered table with her homework. Always there was something good to eat and the warm comfort of Elizabeth’s presence nearby.

  She had never known anyone as kind as Elizabeth, not even her grandmother, who in certain moods had a tongue like a lash and an eye as piercing as a stiletto. Such moods seemed inconceivable in Elizabeth. Her voice was gentle and her eyes too peaceful ever to possess such a look. They were the same soft brown as her hair, which she wore away from her face in a bun. Aly thought Elizabeth’s hands were the loveliest she had ever seen. Their only adornment was a gold wedding band, narrow and plain but somehow very elegant on Elizabeth’s slender finger.

  Willy looked forward to Thursday afternoons, too. He and Sy Wayne were the best of friends. They played dominoes every week, and a delay with the ironing gave him the opportunity to go down to the barn for a visit. It also gave Aly the chance to feast her eyes on Marshall Wayne, if only for the few minutes it took him to wash his hands at the stainless steel sink or to drink a glass of water. He never said more than hello to her, and that at the prompting of his mother. “Say hello to Aly, son,” Elizabeth would say, and Marshall, in a mumbled undertone, would grudgingly obey. He didn’t like her, she knew, not because she was four years younger and skinny and plain but because she was a Kingston. That had been a fact she had just always known, like she knew that she was not loved as much as her older brother and sister.

  The printing on the ticket cleared. The present returned. Marshall’s eyes were still on her. Aly squirmed slightly under his direct scrutiny. Why didn’t he look away? What about her had caught his attention? He couldn’t possibly remember her. She herself could hardly remember the skinny, lank-haired little girl she had been back in the days of her mad crush on him. Then, with a little start, she realized he must find her attractive. Now there was an ironic twist that almost warranted making herself known.

  Hello, Marshall. I’m Aly Kingston. Remember me? And what would she have said then if the deep brown eyes showed that he did not? Don’t you remember, Marshall? I’m the girl who lost Sampson for you. I’m the daughter of the man who foreclosed on your father’s farm. No, it wouldn’t do. It wouldn’t do at all. She would have to let him go, let the page stay missing from her life.

  He had lit a cigarette, the smoke spiraling before his unwavering gaze. That, too, was new. Elizabeth would sigh in her grave if she knew. Her son, a smoker! Aly wondered if, for the sheer devilment of it, he intended to stare at her all through his call.

  The announcement of her flight to Oklahoma City rescued her from a thirteenth reading of what to do should her luggage get lost, and she returned the ticket to her purse and gathered up her coat and overnight bag. Marshall turned back to the phone, and Aly stood up in relief, storing away a last picture of him before heading toward the departure gate.

  A boarding line had already formed. She took her place at the end of it feeling a need to go back, knowing that she was letting something go that would never happen again. “May I see your ticket please?” the flight attendant asked, her eyes and smile on someone drawing up behind Aly. In confusion Aly realized she’d put the ticket back in her purse. Now she would have to juggle coat and luggage to get it.

  “Allow me,” said Marshall in a cool voice tinged with amusement, and took her case.

  “Thank you,” Aly murmured, going weak, rifling with undue fervor through her purse for the first-class ticket. Finally she located it and retrieved her case without meeting his eyes. Now a new sensation overcame her. Marshall on the same plane bound for Oklahoma City? What did that mean? Did he have business there? Or could he possibly be going on to Claiborne? Why? Fear, sharp and cold, replaced the nebulous feelings of a while ago.

  “We’re unusually crowded in first class today,” the flight attendant was saying to the three of them surrendering their tickets and boarding passes. “Three A is the single here on the aisle.” She smiled at Aly. “And these”—her eyes moved past Aly to Marshall and her smile warmed—“are the last two vacant seats on the other side of the aisle in the rear. In the smoking section.”

  “Thank you,” said Aly quickly, sensing Marshall’s disappointment as she slipped into the aisle seat. He and the woman behind him, a voluble talker in a red coat, moved on past her to the back section.

  Once settled, Aly drew in toward the middle of the seats, away from the aisle, and turned her gaze out the window. Her abstraction was so complete that the flight attendant did not disturb her to take the coat folded on her lap. The plane began to taxi down the runway. Presently it gathered speed and lifted off, tearing through clouds almost immediately. Aly watched their filmy drift for a while, then closed her eyes, feeling herself being borne back into time. She was eighteen again. It was the first of June, and she was driving her graduation present, a smart little sports car, out to Cedar Hill…

  Chapter Two

  As Aly parked in front of the old clapboard farmhouse, she looked briefly toward the space between two large pecan tr
ees, a habit begun when the ancient pickup Marshall had driven in high school signaled that he was home. Today her automatic glance extended into a long stare of surprise. The black secondhand Ford that had replaced the pickup when he went off to college was parked between the trees.

  Marshall was home! But why? Finals at Wharton, Elizabeth had told her, were next week. And then, at last, he would graduate from the finest business school in the country. Perplexed, Aly remained behind the wheel of her new car and considered what could possibly have dragged Marshall away from his books at such a crucial time. She knew of no one who was sick or who had died. Could good news have brought him home to Claiborne? She hadn’t heard of any, but she certainly didn’t want to contribute a negative note by lugging in a basket of wash for Elizabeth’s ironing board. Not when she knew how Marshall felt about his mother having to do such work to make ends meet, especially for the Kingstons.

  Besides, she looked the mess she usually did. If she’d only known he would be home, she would have tried to do something to her hair, her face—worn something other than cutoff jeans and a T-shirt. Not that Marshall would have noticed. He never had. He had a special look for the Kingstons, a way of looking right through them, clear out to the other side, as if they didn’t exist. It was a type of disdain particularly nettlesome to Victoria, Aly’s older sister and Marshall’s classmate. “Somebody ought to take him down a notch or two.” Nobody ever did.

  But, Aly sighed, if she didn’t pick up the ironing today, her father would be deprived of his weekly supply of perfect shirts. She’d be sure to get that long look of silent reproof that she couldn’t stand. Maybe today Elizabeth had the ironing ready to pick up, and she could depart without any to-do. She’d leave the basket of wash in the car and bring it back tomorrow when Marshall was gone. Surely he wouldn’t be staying long, not with finals next week.

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