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       Aly's House, p.10

           Leila Meacham
 
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  Marshall did not speak for a second or two. Then surprising her he touched with wonder the sweep of a blond wave that had evolved from her straight bangs. “Tell me something,” he said. “Those braces. Weren’t they a little rough on the school quarterback?”

  She answered with a broken laugh, “The school quarterback wasn’t interested in me then. I still had a long way to go.”

  Marshall stepped back to view her figure. “Well, you got there,” he said, bringing his gaze back to her face. “Or are these curves due to some miraculous and expensive assistance also?”

  “They came of their own accord about the time the braces were off.” To divert the turn of the conversation, Aly said, “There’s someone else here that I know you’ll want to see.”

  “Who?”

  “Willy.”

  Marshall stared at her in speechless astonishment before letting out a whoop of pleasure. “Willy, here? Where in the world did you find him, Aly? I thought he’d disappeared for good when Dad died.”

  “I did, too. I had to hire a detective agency to track him down. When I got in touch with him I offered him a job.”

  “How did you get him working around horses again? Give him one of those offers that can’t be refused?”

  So he remembered, she thought, and without rancor, too. He was grinning. Aly said with a smile, “You might say that. I offered him a home.”

  Marshall smiled his approval. “So the old fellow has a home again.”

  “For as long as he lives, if he wants it. He’s up at the main barn this morning. I’ll let you surprise him. He’ll be so happy to see you. Well,” Aly took a breath and extended her hand, “good-bye, Marshall. It was good to see you again. Call when you want to pick up Sampson. I’ll have the sale agreement ready. My stable manager, Joe Handlin, will take care of you. Have a good vacation.”

  Marshall said slowly, “Why not you? Why won’t you be taking care of me?” His hand closed around hers reluctantly.

  “Oh,” she shrugged, “this time of year when the breeding season is well under control, I usually take buying trips. I doubt that I’ll be here when you come again.” She drew her hand away, gave him a brief smile, a curt nod. “So long,” she said formally and left him to walk back toward her office, glad that he could not see the tears that filled her eyes.

  Back at her desk, she blinked them away quickly and turned over in her mind the questions Marshall had not asked, wondering if their omission was by design or from lack of interest. He hadn’t inquired about her family, her marital status, or where she lived. He had made no comment about Cedar Hill.

  She did not believe for a second that he was here for a vacation. She might accept that he had returned to buy Sampson from Matt Taylor, but why appear just at this time? He could have well afforded the horse before now. And this place he said would be available in a month. Where was it? How long did he plan to stay in Claiborne on this…vacation?

  A blue station wagon turning into the entrance of Green Meadows gave her a shock. Good heavens, it was Victoria, and in the back were four small bobbing heads. Aly glanced at the clock. She had forgotten that they would be out this early since school had been dismissed at noon today for a statewide teachers meeting.

  The Continental was still parked in front. Aly pushed back her chair, hoping she could get rid of her sister before Marshall returned to his car. She knew how Victoria looked during the day and wanted to spare her the embarrassment of meeting an old heartthrob in a faded housedress and slippers. But just as she got up, Marshall rounded the corner. In no hurry, he waited for the blue station wagon to pull in alongside the Continental. Oh, damn! Aly muttered in consternation, seeing Victoria’s stark, gaping look as she spotted him. She only hoped that Marshall, used to that kind of feminine reaction, would not recognize her, but at his double take, she hurried out.

  “Victoria?” Marshall was asking. “Victoria Kingston?” He seemed planted to the spot.

  “Victoria Sims now,” Aly informed him breezily, stepping between him and the station wagon to block Marshall’s view. She waved to the happy, noisy little boys bouncing around in the backseat. “Hello, guys!” she sang out, hoping the diversionary tactic would give Victoria a few seconds to compose herself.

  Victoria rolled down the window, her pale lips twitching uncertainly. “Is that Marshall?” she asked.

  “Yes,” Aly answered with a strained smile, conscious that Marshall was coming around to join them.

  Victoria looked up at the handsome face appearing over Aly’s shoulder, smiling faintly. “Just a minute and I’ll get out,” she said in a small voice. Aly could have sunk through the ground for her. Victoria was attired in her most unbecoming tent dress. “I’m not dressed for meeting old friends,” she apologized, tucking a loose strand of fair hair back into a careless topknot.

  “Certainly you are,” said Marshall, and Aly blessed him for his warmth. He held out his hand. “How are you, Victoria?”

  “As you can see,” she laughed nervously, “a little heavier, but very happy, Marshall. What brings you back to Claiborne?”

  “I’m on vacation.”

  “Vacation? In Claiborne? With your kind of money?”

  “Well, you know what they say,” Marshall responded easily. “There’s no accounting for taste.”

  “No, I guess not,” Victoria said uncomfortably. She addressed her sister. “I just came by to get the key to the house. Don’t worry about lunch. I packed each of the boys a sack to take with them when they go exploring, and I bought you and me chicken salad with French bread and wine…” Her voice trailed off in embarrassment.

  Marshall took the hint. “Well, ladies, I won’t keep you. Nice to see you again, Victoria. Aly, Willy looks great. I’m grateful to you.” He waved at the two women and started for his car.

  “Marshall, don’t go just yet,” Aly called to him. “Victoria, go on up to the house. I’ll be along in a minute. I think the boys are about to explode to get out. There’s lemonade in the fridge.” She handed her sister a key.

  Watching the station wagon drive off, Aly asked quietly of Marshall, “Surprised?”

  “Very. I hope it didn’t show.”

  “Not at all. Now it’s my turn to be grateful.”

  “She was so beautiful once. She’s married, I take it.”

  “Yes. Her little boy Peter was in the backseat. He was the one with the very blond hair and dark eyes. A wonderful little guy.”

  “What happened that she…changed so.”

  Slightly irritated, Aly said, “Being a man, you may not be able to discern this about Victoria, Marshall, but happiness is what happened to her. Right after coming back from New York, she married a great guy who loves her for something other than her looks.”

  “Hey,” Marshall soothed. “You don’t have to defend Victoria against me. More power to her if she’s happy.”

  “I thought all Kingstons had to be defended against you.”

  He examined her face as he thought about how best to answer that charge. Aly Kingston was actually as much of a shock to him as her sister had been.

  “Victoria is not on the list,” he said.

  “But the rest of us are, is that it?” Aly demanded. A strand of golden hair had blown across her lips, and Marshall noticed how sensitively shaped they were.

  “You’re fast getting off it. It’s hard to hold a grudge against a lady who has been as good to my two old friends as you’ve been. Besides, you’re awfully pretty. See you, Aly.”

  As he drove off, Aly hoped he had meant that last remark.

  She found Victoria in the kitchen removing things from a picnic basket. She suspected that her sister had begun humming when she heard Aly coming in the front door. “Marshall looked good,” Victoria said casually.

  “Yes, didn’t he?” agreed Aly, taking down two wineglasses. She preferred not to drink at midday since alcohol made her sleepy. Victoria, she knew, would go home and take a nap. “May I ask you something?” she ask
ed.

  “Ask away,” said Victoria.

  “Did you know Marshall in New York?”

  Victoria turned to her in the gesture disclaiming surprise she had perfected as a youngster. Aly could see through it clearer than water. “Know Marshall in New York? Why, of course not. Whatever made you ask such a thing? Don’t you think I would have mentioned it?”

  “Then why did you say ‘with your kind of money’ a while ago?”

  “Oh, I don’t know,” Victoria replied, licking at the icing that had spread and cooled around the edge of the cake board. “I suppose because of the Lincoln Continental.”

  “It could have been rented.”

  “Oh for goodness’ sake, Aly, how would I know?”

  Aly knew Victoria was lying. Wetting her lips nervously, she said, “Victoria, forgive me. I wouldn’t upset you for the world and I don’t want to pry. But this is important. Marshall is back in Claiborne for a reason, and I don’t think it has anything to do with a vacation. Marshall could have easily known you were in New York twelve years ago. I wrote Elizabeth when she lived with Marshall that you had gone. I even told her the name of the modeling agency you were working for. Did Marshall get in touch with you? Did he get you to fall in love with him, then drop you as punishment for being a Kingston? Is that why you married Warren so suddenly when you got back—on the rebound?”

  Victoria, her blue eyes wide with astonishment, gaped at her sister. “Alyson, have you gone insane? What an absurd notion! Don’t you dare go dragging out your speculations around Mother and Dad, do you hear me? What has gotten into you?”

  Aly went to her sister and touched her face gently. “Victoria, Marshall Wayne threatened to get even with Dad, you know, one way or the other. What better way than through his children? If he’s back to seek vengeance against the rest of us, I think we have a right to know.”

  “Well, little sister,” Victoria said icily, throwing things back into the basket, “if I had known your precious Marshall in New York, wouldn’t Elizabeth have known? She was alive at the time. Did she ever mention me to you in her letters? No, I can see she didn’t,” Victoria said hotly, glancing at Aly’s expression. “How could you accuse me of—of marrying Warren on the rebound! The very idea!” She grasped the picnic basket. “You, my dear, have just talked yourself out of a delightful chicken salad lunch. Tell the boys I’ll pick them up tomorrow afternoon.” She slammed the back door.

  “Aunt Aly, who was the man at Green Meadows today?”

  “A man who grew up in Claiborne. He’s your mother’s age. He lives in New York now.”

  “Did you like him?”

  “I liked him.”

  “Did he like you?”

  “No.”

  “Then how come you liked him?”

  “It wasn’t for the way he treated me, but for the way he treated others that I liked him. Marshall was always very kind and thoughtful to everyone else, especially his parents. He never hurt anyone that I know of.”

  “Then how come Mother is afraid of him?”

  “Is she, you think?”

  “Her hands were shaking when we left, and she didn’t introduce me like she always does.”

  “Well, darling, your mother was startled at seeing Marshall. She wasn’t dressed to meet him, you see. We women like to look our best when handsome men from the past come back to visit. You’ll see someday when you’re every bit as handsome as Marshall. You’ll make many a girl shiver and quake.”

  “But he has dark hair and I have blond.”

  “Well, blond men are handsome, too. Especially, tall, dark-eyed blond men. Now go to sleep, sweetheart. Your compadres are already long into dreamland.”

  Later, out on the porch, Aly reflected on the conversation she’d had with her nephew. Was what Peter had noticed in his mother actually fear, panic, or piqued vanity? Aly was almost certain that Victoria and Marshall had gotten together in New York—maybe even had an affair. The knowledge hurt and saddened her—angered her, too. It was clear who had come out on the short end of the stick. Marshall had had his little fling with the beautiful daughter of the man he despised, then cast her aside like a dirty shirt. Scratch a line through Victoria Kingston. Who was next on the list?

  The phone rang. She answered it quickly so the children would not be disturbed. It was probably Joe, calling to inform her about his aunt.

  But it was Marshall. “Aly? Marshall Wayne. I hope I’m not calling too late.”

  “No,” she said, her heart in her throat. “I was still up. What can I do for you?”

  “I had dinner with Willy tonight.” Dinner. In the past, it had been supper.

  “How nice. What has that to do with me?”

  “He told me about Benjy Carter. I owe you an apology, Aly. It’s thirteen years overdue. May I see you tomorrow night?”

  Emotions warred within her. She wanted to see him, but she didn’t. This was probably how he had entrapped Victoria. “Well, I—did Willy tell you where I live?”

  “No, but I’m sure I can find it.” The tone was somewhat dry. “I’ll take you somewhere for dinner. Jimmy’s still open?”

  “Yes. It’s bigger and better than ever.”

  “Then let’s go there. Seven o’clock be all right with you?”

  “Yes,” said Aly, her mouth dry. “I’ll be ready.”

  “So where do I pick you up?”

  “At my house, Marshall, here on Cedar Hill.”

  Chapter Eight

  The next evening as she dressed for her dinner date, Aly felt almost nauseated from anticipation. All day she had been immersed in her thoughts of Marshall, so deeply submerged, in fact, that Joe Handlin had been compelled at one point to snap his fingers before her eyes and holler, “Hello in there! Anybody home?”

  She had shot up from the depths of her contemplation so fast that she had weaved uncertainly, unable to focus clearly on Joe’s concerned face. “Aly? You okay?”

  “Yes, Joe. Just preoccupied, that’s all.”

  “Wouldn’t have anything to do with Marshall Wayne, would it?”

  “Now, Joe, don’t be jealous.”

  “Why shouldn’t I be? I don’t need Marshall coming in here warming himself at a fire that I’ve been trying to kindle.”

  “You’re crude sometimes, Joe. Did you know that?”

  “I love you, Aly.”

  “I know.”

  Joe Handlin, like Sampson, had come with the purchase of Green Meadows. Before then, the facts about the night Lady Loverly aborted her foal had come to light, thanks to Benjy Carter’s “getting religion” after he realized the horrible truth of what alcohol addiction had forced him to do. Benjy, tearful, repentant, and fearing for his soul, had gone to Matt and confessed that he had been promised by “a man over the telephone,” payment of his bail and enough liquor to see him through Christmas if he would do what had to be done to get Aly Kingston fired. He hadn’t wanted to do it, but the hounds of hell were eating him alive, and he’d have killed his own mother for one drink. Learning the truth, Joe had felt so guilty over the matter that on his day off he had driven to Norman where Aly was attending college to apologize in person for wrongfully accusing her. She had been grateful for his invaluable assistance when she took over Green Meadows, but with it had come an affection that she neither encouraged nor wanted. His feelings could make for a tricky situation if she saw much of Marshall, a possibility that might be likely now that she, too, had been removed from his list.

  At four o’clock when she finished making her rounds of the stables, Willy had limped with her down to her office. “I enjoyed having supper with young Marshall last night, Punkin. It’s so good to see him again. I’d often wondered about him, what had happened to him when his folks died.”

  “It’s been my guess that he’s been busy making money…and remembering.”

  “You got both those right, kiddo.”

  “You sound worried.”

  “I am a mite. I think a right smart of the boy,
but I’d be mighty put out with him if he included you in anything he might have in mind for your pa. He ain’t got no cause to hurt you, Aly, none a’tall. Cedar Hill came to you fair and square. I hope you didn’t mind, but I told him how it was that you came to lose Sampson and your job with Matt Taylor.”

  “I don’t mind. I’m glad you did. It clears the air on that score at least. What makes you think Marshall plans to hurt us?”

  “It’s not anything he said. It’s just a feeling I had when I looked at him, heard him talk. Has he seen the house yet?”

  “No. He’ll see it tonight. He’s taking me to Jimmy’s.”

  When Victoria arrived shortly afterward to pick up the boys, she had shooed them into the station wagon without much more than a hello to Aly.

  “Victoria, what is the matter?”

  “Did you boys tell Aunt Aly that you had a good time?”

  To their choruses of yes, Victoria had bunched the fullness of her tent dress around her thighs and slid beneath the wheel. “Nothing is the matter with me, Aly. You upset me yesterday, that’s all.” Without another word she had driven off, leaving Aly staring after her in deep concern.

  At her dressing tables, Aly consulted herself in the mirror. Old sins cast long shadows. That had been a favorite maxim of her grandmother’s, quoted often in the presence of her only child. Aly wished her father had taken heed. His sins stood to cast their shadows over the lot of them. Who of them would suffer the most from the menace of their shade?

  Slowing his car at the gate of Cedar Hill, Marshall looked up at the spiky green sentinels guarding the hill. So she’d built herself a house, had she? he thought in chagrin, and on the exact spot where his family’s had been, he’d bet. He might have guessed as much when Aly told him she’d purchased Green Meadows. Well, for the moment he’d push that problem aside and deal with it later when he’d successfully dispensed with the first one.

  Unease rode high in his chest, like a hiatus hernia. Things were not going as smoothly as he’d planned. Hattie Handlin had not been answering her phone. Yesterday her nephew had not been at work. Were the two circumstances related, and did they imply trouble for him? He couldn’t afford to show the smallest interest in either one. The news was out that he was in town. His bitterness over the foreclosure had not been forgotten, nor, it seemed, his promise to Kingston. A mere mention that he’d inquired about Hattie—or even Joe—would be enough for some people in certain quarters to know why he’d showed up just now. He’d just have to sit tight and wait until tomorrow.

 
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