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       Aly's House, p.12

           Leila Meacham
 
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  “Will you still be wanting to buy Sampson?” she asked, the question startling in the darkness of the car.

  “Why, yes,” Marshall said. He cast her a look. “You say I’m to deal with Joe Handlin?”

  “Yes.”

  “When will he be back?”

  “He’s back. He just took one day off.”

  When Aly disappointingly offered no further information, Marshall said, “I’ll have to let you know later about Sampson. My plans have changed somewhat.”

  “Suit yourself. He’ll be available.”

  As they drew up to the house, Aly swallowed her pride and asked, “Would you like to come in for some coffee?”

  She did not look at him as she asked, and Marshall could not force himself to say no, knowing his refusal would hurt her. “Sure. That sounds good,” he said, turning off the motor.

  While Aly was in the kitchen preparing the coffee, Marshall stood in the summer parlor looking out at the black night. He desperately wanted a cigarette, but he would not have been comfortable smoking in this house, even though Aly had thoughtfully provided ashtrays.

  It was essential that after the coffee he make a clean exit. Aly still cared for him, he thought without vanity, and he wished sincerely that she did not. Hanging around would only encourage her feelings, and she would be even more deeply hurt when he accomplished what he’d come here to do. But even without considering her, he had himself to think about. Aly Kingston was a part of him. Being with her put him in closer touch with his family, brought back all the good from the past. Being with Aly was like…going home. He could not allow those sentiments to weaken his resolve.

  “Who taught you how to ride?” he asked curiously as Aly brought in a tray with two steaming coffee mugs stamped with the logo of Green Meadows.

  Setting it down on the coffee table, she took a seat on the couch and asked with a wry smile, “Ever hear of the sailor who loved the sea but couldn’t swim?”

  Marshall looked thunderstruck. “What? Aly, you’re not saying you still don’t know how to ride?”

  “The guy who offered to teach me blew out of town the next day.”

  He asked quietly, “You haven’t been waiting for me to come back and teach you, have you?”

  “Why not? You’re here.”

  “Aly, listen.” He longed to touch her. He wanted to sit down next to her and hold one of her cool, slender hands while he explained what he must have her understand. But he remained standing, his feet apart, looking down at her with his fingertips tucked in the pockets of his western-cut slacks. “You may be upset with me for saying this, and I won’t blame you if you are, but it’s got to be said.”

  Aly looked at him calmly, her hazel eyes lovely in the soft light. Marshall took a deep breath and hurried on. “I believe I’ve detected in you some feelings tonight that are carry-overs from the past. I can’t imagine why you would still have them for me, given my behavior to you, but I don’t think either of us can deny they’re there. I—”

  Though Aly remained perfectly composed, Marshall had seen the movement of a hard swallow down the sensitive line of her throat. He swore at himself and said in a plea of frustration, “Aly, what I’m trying to say is that…”

  “There’s someone else,” Aly offered softly.

  “Not someone else, Aly, something else, something that is a big part of my life that you could never share. Forgive me for being so blunt, for hurting you, if I have. I would never want to do that, ever again. That’s why I felt it kinder to explain before I go away tonight why I won’t be calling you anymore while I’m in Claiborne.”

  “I understand,” Aly said. “I appreciate your frankness, Marshall.” Damn! If she indicated by so much as an eyelash that he had just driven a two-by-four right through her, she would strangle herself before sunup. “I take it you’re not going to want your cup of coffee?”

  “I’m afraid not, Aly.”

  “Well then, let me see you to the door.”

  Had she, he wondered, always had that way of rising gracefully? Where had she learned such poise if it did not come naturally? He followed her down the breezeway, noting how the moonlight, streaming from overhead, picked out the natural lights of her hair. At the door she turned with a friendly smile. “Well, good-bye again, Marshall,” she said with a lightness he knew assumed. The words sounded so conclusive, so awesomely final that he could not resist relieving the moment by briefly touching his lips to her cheek. But she turned toward him as he bent his head, and he found himself staring into her eyes. Hers dropped to his lips as if wondering where they had sprung from, the gesture so bewitchingly provocative and innocent at the same time that he reached out, his hand finding the small of her back, and drew her against his chest. “Marshall,” she said in surprise, her lips opening like a petal to form his name as he bent his head.

  He meant only to kiss her fully, then take his leave and be damned to all the Kingstons. But her mouth moved beneath his, and he tasted a seductiveness of flesh that he had never known before. His senses leaped, his arms tightened. He pressed her into him, aching with a new and deeper need than any he had ever felt.

  “Aly,” he whispered between a grin and a groan when he’d released her mouth.

  “The stick-figure kid herself,” she assured him softly, her mouth moist, her eyes shining.

  “No, not any longer.” Tenderly he cradled her face in his hands. Moonlight glimmered in her eyes, glistened off her teeth, flooded her face with an unimaginable beauty. He could have cried from the loss that filled his soul. “You have become irresistible, Aly Kingston. It is possible you could break my heart.”

  “Oh, I’d never do that, Marshall Wayne. I would be the best keeper of your heart imaginable.”

  He lowered his head to kiss her again before she could see the quick spring of sorrow in his eyes, and Aly kissed him back, her lips unreserved and full of promise.

  “Now,” Marshall said afterward, taking a deep breath, “this is my advice to you. I think you’d better let me go, or I won’t, if you catch my meaning.”

  Aly smiled seductively, keeping her arms around his waist, nuzzling his earlobe. “It was your idea to go in the first place, you may remember.”

  “Aly.” Resolutely, Marshall set her from him. Again, the moonlight fell on her face, and his breath caught. He cleared his throat. “About this riding business,” he began. “Don’t you find it a little embarrassing that you don’t know how to ride?”

  “Nobody knows but you and Joe and Willy. I’ve managed to keep the fact a secret.” Aly yearned to have him stay. Forever and ever.

  “Well, look,” he said gruffly, fingertips going back into his pockets, “if you don’t have any plans tomorrow night, I’ll come out and give you your first lesson. I promised it to you, and I never break my promise.”

  The hard fact of his last statement broke the spell between them. For a fraction of a second their glances locked, then Marshall’s skewed away. His handsome face closed. Aly suddenly thought of the white Continental. There had not been a rental sticker anywhere on it. He must own the car and had arranged to have it delivered to Oklahoma City. But it didn’t matter. So what? Marshall would be back tomorrow night. She had won this first round.

  “Will six o’clock be all right with you?” Aly asked. “And how about supper afterward here at the house?”

  “Suits me,” he said. He did not touch her again, but opened the door and stepped out onto the porch. At the bottom of the steps he looked back up at her standing in the doorway. “By the way,” he said, “thanks for planting the geraniums.”

  “You’re welcome, Marshall.”

  At his motel, Marshall stepped out onto the veranda of his upper floor room, lighting a fresh cigarette. The burning sensation was back in his chest. Before he got back to the motel, because he would have had to go through a switchboard there, he tried Hattie Handlin’s number and received no answer. Claiborne folks, even for a Saturday night, were usually in bed by now. He co
uld only deduce that Hattie was out of town.

  Tomorrow he would drive by her house. His presence in the neighborhood would rouse no suspicions. He was merely out on a nostalgic drive through the residential sections of his hometown. Maybe he could find out something. Right now he must try not to worry over something that might have a perfectly harmless explanation. Hattie could have gone to see a sick relative. Rather than trust anyone with a message, she had decided to wait until she got back to get in touch with him, knowing that he would be here for several weeks. After all, there was plenty of time for their transaction.

  He drew deeply on the cigarette, staring out toward Cedar Hill. Aly, though, might be a problem he hadn’t counted on. He still felt the warm imprint of her body, the responding pressure of her lips. She had felt so good in his arms, and it had been an effort to let her go. The next time he might not be able to.

  Aly walked out onto the porch at Cedar Hill, glad of the night wind that blew through her hair, cooling the fever that Marshall had kindled. He was staying in the new motel on the other side of town, he had said. She gazed in its direction, hugging herself to keep the contact of him with her awhile longer. What was the “something else” in his life that he could not share? Could she displace it, she wondered.

  Even as she thought it, the light wind ran caressing fingers over her body, reminding her of Marshall. She shuddered deliciously. Well, she certainly intended to try.

  Chapter Nine

  Marshall Wayne credited much of his financial success to the near infallibility of his instincts. The next morning as he drove slowly by Hattie Handlin’s trim, modest bungalow, this set of faculties told him that the final phase of his carefully planned scheme was in trouble. Hattie’s ancient Chevrolet was in the carport, but the yellowing newspapers in the front yard indicated that she had not been home for several days. Where the hell had the woman gone to?

  She was to have been waiting for him on Friday to sell him her shares in the Kingston State Bank, a purchase that would put him in control of fifty-one percent of the stock. Even more important was the proxy letter she had agreed to give him authorizing him to vote her shares in the stockholders’ meeting next week. For though he would own the stock, his name would not be on the current list of stockholders eligible to cast a ballot in the reelection of the board of directors. The list was compiled twenty days in advance of the meeting. Those not on the list would have to wait until next year to vote. Marshall had no intention of waiting. He had come to depose Lorne Kingston this year.

  But he had to have that letter. Surely Hattie hadn’t changed her mind or been approached by Lorne Kingston with a better offer? Alarm shot through him at the possibility, quickly discarded. The old reprobate couldn’t possibly know of his intent, and Hattie Handlin hated Kingston as much as he did. She was still smarting from the snub given her nephew by Victoria years ago. Little old ladies like Hattie did not forgive arrogant young ladies like Victoria easily. Also, shortly after Hattie was widowed, Lorne Kingston had approached her about investing her insurance money in something guaranteed to provide her with a financially secure old age: Kingston State Bank stock. He had even offered to sell her some of his own personal shares. The rest of the story was history. “It’ll be a pleasure to let you have the shares, Marshall.” Hattie had smacked with malice over the phone when he had called with his offer. “I figure I know why you want ’em, and I’m countin’ on you to put a certain Mr. Big Shot in his place. You just give me a call when you get into town. I’ll be waiting.”

  Marshall wondered if Hattie had told Joe about their negotiations. She had promised not to. He wanted no one at this point to know about his purchase of the shares. By not buying them until after the twenty-day period, his name would not appear on the stockholders list. As far as anybody knew, Marshall Wayne did not own or control a single share. By the time he showed his hand, it would be too late for Lorne Kingston to stop him.

  But also, Marshall had to admit, part of his pleasure in dethroning Kingston and ruining his son’s expectations of being named president and chairman when his father retired next month was the surprise he anticipated seeing on their faces when he walked into that meeting and presented Hattie’s letter. By then the proxy ballots of the forty-one percent of the shares he controlled would have been counted and their negative results known. All would have registered against retaining the current board. He relished the mental picture of the shocked reactions when the Kingstons and the board realized they were out. In the general business meeting following, he, as majority stockholder, would then nominate a new board, men he knew would agree to serve, and they in turn would elect him president and chairman. God, what a sweet victory! But he had to have that letter.

  Coming up the street was a white pickup. As the two vehicles drew abreast, Marshall stiffened as he saw the logo of Green Meadows on the door, then looked up at the face of the driver. Joe Handlin’s green eyes widened in recognition, and he motioned Marshall to pull over. The pickup backed up alongside the Lincoln, and Joe rolled his window down. “Well, hello there, Marshall,” he said. “I heard you were back in town. What are you doing in this neighborhood? Anything I can help you with?”

  Marshall listened for anything in the tone or words to indicate that Joe knew the answer to that question. “Just driving around town,” he answered. “It doesn’t seem to have changed much. Your aunt still live on this block?”

  “Yeah. She’s been wanting to move to an apartment, someplace smaller, ever since Uncle Rupert died. Wants me to rent the place from her, but I can’t do that. I live out close to Green Meadows so I can be near Aly if she needs me.” This last information was dropped pointedly, in a way that made Marshall think it was for his benefit. He filed it away for later.

  “How is your aunt, by the way? She must be nearing seventy by now.”

  “Not so good, I’m afraid. She had a severe heart attack last week and has been in intensive care at the hospital ever since. I’ve come by this morning to pick up her mail and the newspapers in the yard. Open invitation to burglars.”

  Marshall kept his expression of polite concern and interest firmly in place. “I’m sorry to hear that,” he said. “What are her chances of making it?”

  “Pretty slim. I’ve been trying to get used to the idea. She and Uncle Rupert raised me when my folks died, you remember.”

  “I remember. I’m sorry, Joe.”

  The two men drove off with a wave, but green eyes and brown ones surveyed each other in sideview mirrors. As classmates, the two men had never been particularly friendly, but they had respected each other. Joe had his cap set for Aly, Marshall surmised, and the man saw him as a threat to his hopes. He would concern himself about that later. Right now he had to concentrate on what he would do if Hattie Handlin died before he got his hands on her proxy letter.

  “That doesn’t look suitable for riding,” Marshall said, appraising the dusky blue blouse and skirt Aly was wearing. She stood framed in the doorway of her house, the subdued light of the breezeway glowing softly on her hair. “You’re not trying to get out of that riding lesson, are you?”

  “Not at all, Marshall.” Actually, until the phone call from Joe, she had thought of nothing else all day unless it was the meal she had painstakingly prepared. “I’m sorry, but our plans have changed,” she explained. “I tried to get you at the motel, but you were out. My stable manager’s aunt is at the hospital near death. I thought I ought to be with him right now. Willy is there, too.”

  Aly saw something like a shock wave pass over the well-cut features. Now that she looked at Marshall closer, she thought she detected signs of strain about his eyes. Had he been battling with himself about coming here this evening? “Do you mind if I come with you?” Marshall asked. “I remember Joe Handlin.”

  “I was hoping you would want to.” She smiled. “Come in while I get my jacket.”

  At the hospital they found Joe and Willy in the waiting room reserved for the family of patients in the
intensive care unit. Joe’s face fell visibly when he saw Marshall, and he took Aly’s hands possessively, pulling her aside for a private conference. “Thanks for coming, hon. I don’t think Aunt Hattie can last much longer.” He cast a glance at Marshall. “I appreciate you bringing Aly out, Marshall. I’ll see that she gets home.”

  “Aly and I had a date tonight. I’ll see that she gets home,” Marshall stated quietly.

  Willy moved into the tense moment with a placid comment that prevented the discussion from getting out of hand. Soon Hattie’s family began to arrive from neighboring counties. “See the vultures gathering,” Joe remarked uncharitably, sighting the first group coming down the hall. “They all think Aunt Hattie remembered them in her will, but I know she didn’t. She left everything to me.” He looked directly at Marshall as he spoke. “Everything. The house, some bonds, a few shares of stock…I think I’ll hold on to the stock. I see no reason to sell it. No reason at all.”

  Aly looked from one to the other, reading a secret communication between the two men, sensing their hostility. Why was Joe discussing Hattie’s will almost within earshot of her deathbed? Joe adored his aunt and would have been satisfied with just the memory of the love and attention she’d showered on him through the years. She saw Marshall’s jaw go rigid. “One thing about stock,” he said. “If you hold it too long, the price could go down.”

  “Sometimes their value isn’t counted in dollars.”

  The arrival of Joe’s relatives prevented further discussion. As greetings and news of Hattie’s condition were exchanged, Marshall gripped Aly’s arm. “Let’s get out of here as soon as we can,” he ordered in a low tone.

  “I can’t, Marshall. Joe needs me.”

  “I need you more. He has his family.”

 
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