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       Aly's House, p.11

           Leila Meacham
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  Also his feelings for Aly worried him. He shouldn’t be seeing her tonight, but he was one who always paid his debts, and he owed Aly Kingston. Last night he’d gone to bed full of shame after Willy’s disclosure about Benjy Carter. So old man Kingston had been responsible for Aly losing her job, had he? God, what a reprobate! He remembered the day she had explained about Sampson, and how he’d disbelieved her and told her he never wanted to see her again. He could still see the look on her face, though he hadn’t thought of it since. That had been unforgivably cruel of him. He had known of her slavish devotion to him since grade school. His mouth twisted wryly. Aly and her deals. How like her to make such an offer to Matt in the first place.

  She was a fine human being. There was no other way to describe her. He appreciated now how hard for her it had been growing up in her family. His mother had described Aly Kingston as an orphan of the saddest kind, the kind abandoned within the home. Aly’d been wonderful to Willy, and she’d loved and revered his parents. Those geraniums up at the cemetery—they were Aly’s doing.

  Still, it bothered him to think that now he owed her consideration. He wanted nothing or no one to interfere with the sweet, pure, unadulterated joy he expected to feel when he deposed Lorne Kingston, when he plucked away his son’s birthright as Kingston had done his. True, right or wrong, the man was Aly’s father; the son, her brother. It would be her family’s livelihood that he would be taking away, and for all their differences, Aly loved her father.

  But, he thought regretfully, that would just have to be Aly’s problem. He had no intention of allowing any consideration to deflect him from the one thing that provided meaning in his life. Following the thought, Aly’s house came into view.

  For an astounding moment Marshall thought that, here on this soil that had borne and bred him, something had snapped in his mind. By some cerebral quirk, he was transported back into time, far, far back—back before New York and Wharton and the foreclosure, back to the days of his boyhood, back to the house on Cedar Hill. His parents had finally managed a new coat of paint. The house gleamed a crisp yellow in the last rays of the sunset. White shutters and trim stood out fresh and bright. The roof had been repaired and the oval pane of glass in the front door replaced with a clear new one.

  Marshall slowed the car, peering through the windshield to impress upon his mind as many details as he could before they dimmed. But as he drove closer, he knew he was viewing no mirage, experiencing no hallucination. His heartbeat filled his ears as he realized that Aly’s house was the exact replica of his boyhood home. There was the wide front porch, the swing, the broad-armed chairs with a table in between, the pots of red geraniums lining the steps. There were the two pecan trees, not as full as the ones he remembered, nor as old—nothing was as old here, but the feel of the place was the same. He stared beyond the pecan trees, almost expecting to see a field of corn crowding the cyclone fence, to hear the clink of cowbells coming up the path, to find his father coming from the barn to meet him…

  Profoundly shaken, Marshall drew to a stop before the porch steps and sat for an incredulous moment behind the wheel. Oh, God, why had she done this? What did this mean? She could have built for herself a house of any size, style, shape, and design, but she had chosen to resurrect the house on Cedar Hill.

  Throat on fire, tears hot as irons behind his eyes, he opened the car door. This was not at all what he had expected. Not at all. He had the uncomfortable, almost helpless sensation that the tables were being turned on him.

  “I’m sorry,” Aly said when she opened the door and saw his expression. “I should have warned you. Come in, Marshall.” She stepped aside for him to enter and asked as he walked with a slight hesitation into the breezeway, “Are you…terribly shocked?”

  For a moment Marshall could not answer. “It’s very beautiful,” he said softly.

  “Come. I’ll show you the rest of it.”

  “Let me stand here awhile first.”

  His first impression was that everything was as he remembered. Similar pieces of furniture—a refectory table and chairs, a hall tree, and an umbrella stand—stood against the left wall. The hall, off which familiar rooms opened, led as in former times to a back porch. The difference was that everything his eyes fell upon represented the kind of warm, gracious luxury his mother would have preferred for Cedar Hill. The back porch, for example, was not screened but jalousied to let in fresh air and light. Everywhere was air and light. He lifted his gaze to find the source of the sunset glow that filled the breezeway and discovered that a skylight served as the central section of the roof. Through it, filtered sunshine had made lush the exotic plants grouped dramatically along one wall. The other housed an aquarium in which tropical fish of breathtaking colors and iridescence swam in waters of aquamarine blue.

  “Marshall?” Aly asked gently, touching his arm. When he turned to her, she saw his eyes were shadowed with memory. “Are you ready to see the rest of it?”

  “Yes,” he answered briefly.

  “May I take your arm?”

  He held it out and covered her hand with his own when she took it, as though in need of human contact. They began their journey.

  It was both a trip back into the past and into a future that now would never be his. Though the rooms were larger, the colors fresher and fabrics richer than the hodgepodge with which his mother had had to make do, Aly’s house was essentially unaltered from the one where he’d grown up. Some things had not changed at all. The view from the front windows was the same. The wind whistled the same tune around the corners of the chimney. In the parlor a last slant of light from the sunset struck the exact spot on the hearth where it had fallen in years past. Its extinction usually signaled the time of day his mother would come in and turn on the lamp at the end of the sofa. Releasing his arm, Aly did that now, and he started at the first light pouring out from the shade, wanting her back at his side, close to him, her hand in the crook of his arm.

  She had been talking all the while on their tour, using her free hand to point out this and that while he worked through the emotion of the moment. He was grateful for her sensitivity. He could not have spoken. He was finding feelings and sensations that squeezed shut his throat and sandpapered his eyes. By the time they reached the kitchen where he had measured his growth on the pantry door, he was wondering if he could get through the evening at all.

  “My old room,” he managed to ask when they had circled through to the breezeway again. “You didn’t show me my old room.”

  “Oh,” Aly said dismissively, “there’s no flavor of the past there. I was only in your room once, you know.”

  “Is it the guest room?”

  She hesitated. “No,” she said after a few seconds, steering him back to the porch where she had set out ice and glasses for drinks. “It’s my room.”

  When he was seated on the couch and watching her at the small bar built into the wall next to the kitchen—a definite innovation for Cedar Hill—Marshall decided that he couldn’t face the evening without her. Even if her company wasn’t what he needed, just the pleasure of looking at her would have been comforting. Tonight she was beautiful, from the golden crown of her head down to her neatly shod feet.

  “Why, Aly?” he asked as she handed him a drink. “Why did you do this?”

  She sat down across from him smoothing imaginary wrinkles in the lap of her denim skirt. The fiddling gave her somewhere to focus her attention, Marshall knew. Suddenly she stopped and looked directly across at him, her chin a little high. “Because,” she said, “I loved the old house on Cedar Hill. I spent the happiest days of my childhood in it. Maybe because when I was there, I was the happiest with myself. In my parents’ home, I was mean, spiteful, and jealous. It was only when I was at Cedar Hill that I knew a nicer me. I suppose that when the time came to have a place of my own, I just naturally thought about a house like it. I—I—know it must gall you to think of a Kingston living here in—in a house like your former home on land t
hat you still love.”

  “Yes,” he answered honestly, “it does somewhat. This land should still be mine, you know. I had always hoped to come back here and buy it back.”

  “Is that the real reason you went out to Green Meadows yesterday? Is that the reason you’re back in Claiborne?”

  Inwardly Marshall sighed in enormous relief. “Yes,” he lied, smiling to show there were no hard feelings. “However, I concede I’ve been beaten to the draw.”

  “You’re not angry, Marshall?” All at once, Aly felt much lighter, happier.

  “No, I’m not angry, Aly. If Cedar Hill had to belong to anyone other than me, I’m glad it’s in your hands.” He took his gaze around the room appreciatively. “The house is beautiful, exactly as Mother would have liked to have seen it.”

  “It’s a tribute to her and your father, you know, and what Cedar Hill meant to me. It’s strange how this house affects everyone who spends any time in it. It’s almost become the focal point of our family gatherings, oddly enough. I hope that doesn’t distress you, Marshall, but you’d be gratified to see how much nicer everybody is when we gather here.”

  He smiled thinly. “Even your father?”

  Aly nodded with a small chuckle. “Even my father. He’s mellowing, Marshall.”

  Marshall finished his drink in a long swallow. “How about something to eat?” he asked.

  Leaving the house, he walked down the porch steps behind Aly without haste. After he had seen her into the car, he paused at the door on his side and looked back at the house. He would not be able to see much of it in the darkness when he brought Aly home, and he wouldn’t be back after tonight. It had been a mistake to come after all.

  Jimmy’s was a large, sprawling dance hall and restaurant whose outside sign declared that it served the best chicken fried steak in the state. “New Yorkers would call this paste,” Marshall said, picking up a knife to cut through the white, highly peppered gravy covering the batter-coated beef. “Then they’d scrape it off and apply half a bottle of catsup.”

  “The height of ignorance!” responded Aly, thoroughly enjoying her first unadulterated bite of the house specialty. “Why do you stay up there among all of those uncivilized folks?”

  “Because New York is the best place to do what I do best.”

  “Really?” Aly sounded surprised. “I can’t imagine your talents limited to a geographical location.”

  Startled, Marshall glanced up at her, unsure of her meaning. Her expression seemed innocent enough. Under the circumstances, he should let the remark pass. But he was curious.

  “And what do you think those talents may be?”

  Aly could have kicked herself. The words had come out before she’d had a chance to catch hold of them. She’d hoped they’d float right by unnoticed but such was not the case. “Oh,” she said casually, “I would assume the talents involved in making money.”

  “Is that what you would assume?”

  “Yes. No—” She looked up, knowing her face must look as red as the tomato in her salad. She forced herself to meet his gaze levelly. After all, she was not eighteen anymore. She was a grown woman with every prerogative she had the nerve to take. And she’d always had plenty of nerve. “No, that is not what I meant.”

  Marshall thought that over in silence, their gazes holding. “I didn’t think so,” he said after a while and went back to his steak. He brought up the topic of Benjy Carter. “I can’t apologize enough for not believing you that day,” he said feelingly. “I should have known you were far too responsible to let something like that happen.”

  “Think no more about it, Marshall. You were in no mood to be generous that day. Besides, everything worked out for the best. If I hadn’t worked for Matt, I’d never have discovered how crazy I am about horses, and if I hadn’t lost Sampson, I’d never have gone to college to learn about the breeding business, and then I wouldn’t have been ready to take over Green Meadows by the time I had the opportunity to buy it. Certainly it wouldn’t be the success it is today.”

  Marshall said with a touch of rancor, “I’m sure that makes your father feel justified in what he did.”

  “No doubt,” she said, taking a sip of wine. The specter of her father had descended between them, chilling as a sudden cloud passing over the sun. She cast about for a change of subject, but Marshall seemed determined to keep them in the past.

  “When did you find out that Mother had died?”

  Aly said without looking at him, because she could not be sure of her expression, “I went out to the cemetery one day to plant some geraniums by your father’s headstone and found Elizabeth’s grave.”

  “God—” He looked away from her, the blood leaving his face, appalled and sickened by his heartlessness. How could he have been so brutal to this woman whose only crime had been to love his family—and him, at one time. “Aly.” He looked back at her, his eyes burning with the misery of his shame, and reached for her hand. “How can you ever forgive me? It was unconscionable of me not to let you know.”

  “I should have realized when my letters were returned that something terrible had happened. I should have tried to contact you in New York, but I didn’t want to intrude.”

  “I can imagine why not,” he said ruefully, still holding her hand. “I moved right after Mother died…” How could he explain to her the anguish that had led him to hurt her so? As long as he lived he would never forget the Sunday he had stood with his mother at the foot of Cedar Hill. They had been out at the cemetery to lay his father to rest. The wrecking crews had already been at the farm by then, of course. The fields had been cleared and the pens and barns demolished. The cedars lay where they had been yanked out by their roots, and the pecan trees burned to the ground. But it had been the sight of the house, gutted and crippled but still standing like some animal too proud to fall, that had broken their hearts. Nearby had stood a crane with a ramming ball suspended from its long neck, suggestive of a prehistoric beast standing guard over its helpless prey. The house had seemed to stare down at them out of its empty eyes as though aware of their shock and grief, as if it understood their helplessness to prevent what was coming in the morning. His mother had begun to sob uncontrollably, her shoulders shaking with the rending despair that would never leave her. That day the fate of the Kingstons was sealed. When his mother died two years later, he never once thought of getting in touch with a member of the family that had caused his own so much sorrow.

  Aly pressed his hand in understanding, moved by his contrition and the sense of some inner grief that she could only guess at. “All apologies accepted. All forgiveness given. Let’s not talk any more about the past, Marshall. Let’s talk about what you’ve been doing with yourself these last thirteen years. And could we have more wine?” she asked, to prolong the evening. They had finished their meal and she didn’t want him to take her home. Would he see her again before he returned to New York, she wondered. And how long would that be, now that Cedar Hill wasn’t for sale?

  Marshall released her hand to signal the waitress. While they sipped through another carafe, he told her about New York and allowed her to draw him into a discussion about investments.

  “So commodities are your bag.” She smiled interestedly after he’d explained the basic principles of the futures market.

  Marshall patted his lips with his napkin to cover his amusement. She hadn’t heard a word he’d said about trading wheat and grain futures, the financial medium through which he’d amassed a fortune. Her interest had been assumed to draw out the evening. He regretted that he wouldn’t be seeing her again after tonight. “I’m out of the business now,” he answered with a straight face. “Now I’ve opted for tax-free municipal bonds.” He glanced toward the dance hall next door where a western band had struck up the first tune of the evening. Marshall folded his napkin. “Shall we go take a couple of spins around the dance floor?” he invited with a smile that only he knew was sad.

  Once there, she came into his arms wi
th the shy smile she’d always flickered when his mother said, “Say hello to Aly, son.” The memory caused him to hold her protectively tighter, his arm fitting neatly around her slender waist, her hair soft against his chin. She smelled like a rain-washed morning, and he could have drowned in the freshness of her. “Hello, Aly,” he whispered in her ear.

  In the intimate nook of his neck and shoulder, a smile broke across her face. “Hello, Marshall,” she said, remembering.

  “How come you’ve never married?”

  “I’ve never been asked by a man I love.”

  “Have there been many of those?”

  “Only one.”

  “Anybody I know?”

  “Not the way I do.”

  Aly felt him tense slightly, and when he did not respond, regretted the honesty of her remark. An awkward few minutes passed in which she could think of nothing to say to rescue the moment.

  Apparently Marshall couldn’t either. When the song ended, he smiled regretfully into her eyes. “Time I got you home,” he said.

  On the return trip to Cedar Hill, conversation died, leaving an uncomfortable silence. Aly thought the grief of her disappointment would burst her heart. Marshall wasn’t going to see her again, she was certain. This evening had been for apologies, and now that they’d been given and forgiveness received, the chapter was closed, the missing page restored. She ought to be feeling happy now, ready to get on to other men eager to come into her life. Through the years her business had put her in touch with quite a few. She had met none whose memory could keep her awake at nights. Only one face, one smile, one man could do that. And she wondered dismally if he had not ruined her for all others.

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