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       Aly's House, p.13

           Leila Meacham
 
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  Hattie died an hour later, and soon after the news came Marshall shepherded Aly out of the hospital. “You’re upset,” she declared, “and it isn’t because of Hattie’s death. What’s the matter, Marshall? What was going on back there between you and Joe?”

  “Nothing. The guy’s in love with you. He thinks I’m here to shoot him out of the saddle.”

  Don’t I wish, she threw back mentally, but asked, “What’s that got to do with stocks?”

  “Oh, that was just a play on words between us men, honey. Didn’t mean a thing. Where can we go for a bite to eat?”

  “Back to the house,” she said, disarmed by the endearment and remembering his statement to her back at the hospital. I need you more. That had a nice ring to it. “I have supper ready to pop into the oven,” she said. “Fricasseed chicken. Hattie would want us to enjoy it.”

  Marshall dragged his eyes away from the road where they had been focused in severe thought. The distracted smile he gave her did little to convince Aly of his interest in the meal. “Fricasseed chicken, huh? With rice?”

  “And apple salad and pecan pie for dessert.”

  “Sounds like one of Mother’s meals.”

  “It should. She taught me all I know about cooking—the recipes are hers.”

  “Great!” he said with a heartiness that did not quite ring true. Aly observed him out of the corner of her eye. What was happening here all of a sudden? What had that exchange been about back at the hospital? She guessed she’d just get Joe to tell her.

  In the parlor, while Aly put the finishing touches on their meal, Marshall roamed about like a caged animal, stopping every now and then to draw on the cigarette that he had lighted without thinking. How in hell could he rectify this unforeseen set of events? Why hadn’t he thought of this possibility earlier and bought Hattie’s stock sooner? The voice of logic reminded him that to have done so might have tipped his hand to Lorne, who could have exercised any number of options to block the takeover. Calmly he considered the facts. Joe Handlin knew about his arrangement to buy Hattie’s stock, that was certain. What else did he know or guess? How much had Hattie told him? Marshall conjectured that the attack may have hit her before the proxy letter had been written. Realizing she could be dying, she had told Joe about the shares, possibly instructed him to sell as agreed. But Joe had no intention of selling him those shares now, and if they were sold to Lorne Kingston, who might very well make Joe an offer now that Hattie was dead, then the dream to remove Kingston and take over the bank was finished. Unless he could get his hands on another ten percent, his shrewd accumulation of the stock would be worthless, and a costly, all-consuming ambition that had been the purpose of his life for thirteen years would be down the drain. But where was he to get it?

  “Marshall?” Aly called from the doorway between the parlor and dining room. “Supper’s on the table.”

  He turned to her slowly, fixing her with a gaze dark and considering. Aly marked the cigarette, the odd expression, the aloofness of his manner with a chill of apprehension along her spine. “Marshall?” she asked quizzically, in the tone of one identifying a stranger.

  He blinked, then smiled, connecting them again. He noticed the cigarette. “Sorry,” he said, stubbing it out in the one ashtray in the parlor. “I have the feeling you don’t approve of these.”

  “You didn’t either before.”

  “That was before.”

  They had just sat down at the table when the doorbell rang.

  “Who the hell is that?” Marshall demanded with unwonted feeling.

  “I’ll go see.”

  It was Joe. Through the oval glass, Aly could see him standing impatiently under the illumination of the porch light, casting malevolent glances at the Lincoln Continental. His eyes looked red-rimmed and swollen.

  “Hello, Aly,” he said when she opened the door. “I’m glad to see you’re still up and dressed.” He pushed back his cap nervously.

  “Why shouldn’t I be, Joe?” she said. “It’s only eight-thirty.”

  “Marshall here?”

  “Yes.”

  “Can I talk to you?”

  “Certainly. Come in.”

  “No. I mean out here.”

  “Joe,” Aly tried to keep her voice gentle, but what was he doing here? He ought to be in church or with his relatives or seeing to funeral arrangements—anywhere but here, keeping a birdwatch on her and Marshall at such a time. “Anything you want to say to me can be said inside. Marshall is my guest. It’s rude to talk out here.”

  “It’s about Marshall that I’ve come.”

  Aly pulled the door shut behind her. “What about him?”

  “He’s up to something, Aly. I’m not exactly sure what, but it has to do with Aunt Hattie’s Kingston State Bank stock. He came here to buy it. She told me so herself just before the ambulance came to take her to the hospital.”

  Aly received this information calmly, though its impact was like a blow to her stomach. “So?” she said, keeping her tone mild. “What has that got to do with me?”

  Alarmed at her attitude, Joe struggled to keep his voice down. “Well, doesn’t that bother you, Aly? Doesn’t that tell you something? I figure Marshall wants that stock in order to gain control of your father’s bank somehow.”

  Aly’s mind was working fast, adding up certain expressions, comments, feelings, facts noted and learned in the last few days. The sum appalled her only a little less than her own stupidity. So Marshall had not come to buy Cedar Hill. He had come for Hattie’s stocks. She should have realized that fact when they were mentioned at the hospital. Their loss explained the look that had been on Marshall’s face, his distraction during the drive home. It explained that strange expression he had turned to her when she called him in to supper. Dear God! Now that Hattie’s stock had fallen through the crack, did that mean he intended to come after hers?

  Aly transferred her attention to Joe. Until she could get a handle on this, she had to do something about Joe. His curiosity, if not extinguished now, could spread like a brush fire. He would question and probe and dig until he unearthed answers satisfactory to his resourceful intelligence. Also, she had to prevent him from selling those shares—either to Marshall or her father.

  Though she already knew, Aly asked, “How many shares did your aunt own?” When Joe cited the number, she said, “That represents only ten percent, Joe, not enough to give Marshall much clout even if he did own them. They would have to be combined with others to give him the needed majority to oust my father.”

  Joe, all perked ears now, asked narrowly, “Exactly how does that work?”

  “Well, to remove my father as chairman, a new board of directors opposed to him would have to be elected. That would come about only if those owning the majority of stock, fifty-one percent, voted to oust the old board and elect a new one. Only the board of directors can hire or fire a chairman.”

  “So that means that if Marshall owned fifty-one percent of the stock, he could sweep the board clean all by himself.”

  “That’s right, but he doesn’t. He doesn’t possess a single share, according to the annual stockholders’ report.”

  “Then why the hell would he want to buy Aunt Hattie’s measly ten percent?”

  Aly shrugged. “You got me. Maybe just to be a thorn in Dad’s side at the stockholders’ meetings the way Aunt Hattie has been for years. Marshall came to Claiborne to buy Cedar Hill from Matt, you know.”

  At Joe’s look of surprise, she grinned. “He didn’t know that I had bought it.”

  Joe returned the grin with satisfaction. “Looks like that boy is being cut off at the pass from every direction. So you think he thought that since he’d have a claim in Claiborne again, he’d just buy himself a seat in the meetings with Aunt Hattie’s shares?”

  “That’s what I think, Joe. I’d just hold on to that stock if I were you. The bank’s turning around. Those shares may become a very valuable asset one of these days.”

  J
oe settled his cap down over the pale green eyes decisively. “I’m satisfied,” he said, “but I got one more question to ask you, Aly. Why is he hanging around—you being a Kingston and all?”

  “I think he thinks I may be persuaded to sell Cedar Hill.”

  “And what form might that persuasion take?”

  “You’re getting a little personal now, Joe.”

  “Well then, answer me this. Could you be persuaded to sell Cedar Hill?”

  “You know the answer to that, friend.” Aly allowed a conspiratorial glint to appear in her eye, relieved to see Joe’s slow, acknowledging grin.

  “That’s my girl,” he said. “Now, you think you could do without me for about a week? I got so many things that need doing right now—”

  “I insist that you take next week off, Joe,” Aly said commiseratively, seeing the wash of sorrow back in his eyes. Moved by compassion for him, she pressed her hand to his cheek. “Take as long as you need. Willy and I can manage.”

  He squeezed her hand in response, then kissed its palm. “Don’t manage too well,” he said.

  When he was gone, Aly went back inside, pausing briefly in the breezeway to collect her thoughts. She hadn’t lied to Joe. She had simply not told him the whole truth. She had not explained that to oust a chairman of the board, a stockholder did not have to own fifty-one percent of the shares. He merely had to control them. The only reason Marshall would have sought Hattie’s shares, had come at this time to buy them, was because he already controlled forty-one percent. What, she wondered, growing cold, would be his next move?

  “Your dinner is probably cold,” Marshall commented in annoyance when she took her place at the table. “Who was that?”

  “Joe Handlin,” she said, in case he had come to check on her and saw him on the porch. “One of the boys” would have been a suspicious evasion. Her body felt numb.

  “What did he want?”

  “A week off. I gave it to him. He needs it.”

  Marshall had waited for her to begin the meal. Now he cut into a chicken breast with what she knew to be feigned enthusiasm, took a bite, and chewed blissfully. “Excellent,” he pronounced.

  “I hope this meal won’t provoke painful memories,” Aly said, keeping her eyes on her plate and taking her time in slicing her own portion.

  “Not at all. I’m glad Mother’s culinary talents live on in you, Aly. I’m glad so much of what I cared for lives on in you, as a matter of fact.” He underscored the sentiment with a devastating smile, emptying her heart. When she did not respond, he paused from his eating, watching her. “Anything the matter?”

  She looked up, eyes innocent. “Joe’s on my mind, I guess. It will be hard on him for a while with his aunt gone.”

  Marshall went back to his fricasseed chicken. “You’ll be shorthanded with Joe gone,” he said. “How about letting me fill in for him until he comes back?”

  Aly’s head popped up. “You mean work here at Green Meadows?”

  “Why not? I’d very much like to help you out.”

  “But—but this is your vacation.”

  “I can’t think of a better way to spend it. You know, Aly, it crossed my mind when I was growing up to turn Cedar Hill into a horse breeding farm someday. Don’t look so surprised. I thought Mother would have told you. Sampson was my first purchase toward that possible goal. I’d enjoy working around here for the next week. What with Sampson here and Willy and the house—and you—I’d feel almost home again.”

  How warm and winning the words sounded. They were what she wanted to hear, and he probably knew it, but were they the truth? Was his offer genuinely extended to help her out, or was it a pretext made to give him the opportunity to seduce her shares from her? She would have to wait and see. She was no longer sure of him, of Sy and Elizabeth’s son.

  Then, as she considered him, a notion so stunning, so unbelievable, so absolutely right, smacked her with such force that she was obliged to cough delicately into her napkin. So what if Marshall’s motives might be less than honorable, she asked herself. Why not give him reason to change his mind—his heart! Why not give him reason to abandon this whole ridiculous idea of taking over the Kingston State Bank! Take the offensive! That had always been her father’s favorite dictum in business and in that respect at least, she had proved to be his daughter.

  So why not take it now? Why not go after Marshall, seduce him? Why not woo him, win him, keep him here forever! He belonged in Claiborne. He belonged on Cedar Hill with her. He just thought he wanted to become president and chairman of the Kingston State Bank. What he really wanted was to marry her and help her run Green Meadows.

  Taking a sip of water to clear her throat, Aly set down the glass and smiled, completely restored. “It’s a deal,” she said. “Can you start in the morning?”

  They decided to clear away the dishes before having pie and coffee on the porch. In the kitchen Aly hummed while Marshall carried in the dishes from the living room. He studied her covertly, in an anguish to know if Joe Handlin had spilled the beans about the shares. From Aly’s cheerful manner, he decided that Joe, not understanding their actual importance to him, had not. Maybe he had been too broken up over his aunt’s death to mention them.

  Did Aly ever read the bank’s annual report? Did she know or care that her family no longer held a majority of the stock? She could not possibly know whose hand controlled forty-one percent of the outstanding shares. But did she suspect? And if Joe told her later about his offer to buy Hattie’s ten percent, which she knew wouldn’t be honored now, then what would she deduce?

  A feeling of loss swept through him, a melancholia that sent him to stand behind Aly and wrap his arms around her. He kissed the top of her head. “Just think, a whole week together. A whole anything-could-happen week.”

  “You said it,” Aly said. “This is the tornado season, you know, so I’m doubly appreciative of your offer, Marshall. I usually try to hire extra men this time of year simply to help us round up the mares and foals in the pastures when we get the warnings, but temporary help is hard to come by. I have no trouble when school is out because I can hire teenagers, but right now—”

  “Is that all you’re thinking about—how much help I can be? I had other things in mind, too.”

  Still in his arms, she turned around to face him, the movement alluring and feminine, igniting his desire. Her eyes were wide and quizzical. “But, Marshall, I thought—last night you said—”

  He slipped his hand up through her hair and drew her to him. “That was last night,” he said roughly. “I haven’t been able to get you out of my mind, Aly.” It was true, he thought, as he covered her mouth. Her lips parted. He could feel the sensuous touch of her hands finding their way around his neck. She moved against him, whether consciously, he could not tell. All he knew was that she was drawing him away on some sea of passion, or feeling, heretofore uncharted in his experience. His last awareness before he found himself opening the door of his old room to lead her inside was to ponder the two questions of how could he live with what he was about to do and how could he live without it.

  Chapter Ten

  Aly’s built-in alarm woke her at the usual time Monday morning. For a few blissful minutes she lay on her back, letting herself slowly come awake to the memory of the night before. Then, without opening her eyes, she reached over to the other side of the bed to feel for substantial evidence that it had not all been a dream. Her hand fell upon empty bedsheets.

  “Marshall?” she exclaimed, sitting up in surprise. She listened for sounds of him in the adjoining bathroom, and when none came, she hurriedly threw back the covers and pushed into a pair of slippers by the bedside. Drawing on a robe, she went down the breezeway to the kitchen.

  He had gone. A note by the coffeepot explained, in an endearingly prudish fashion, that he thought it wise his car not be discovered in front of her house should one of her men show up there Monday morning. “Claiborne isn’t New York, you know,” he wrote, saying th
at he had gone to the motel and would be back out to Green Meadows after breakfast.

  Aly put the coffeepot on and went out onto the porch to wait for it to perk. She sat down on the couch and drew her robe around her, snuggling into it as she thought with sublime satisfaction that some realities were better than dreams ever could be. He was right about the car, of course, but if she’d known Marshall would be gone when she awoke, she doubted if she would have slept.

  All night long she had marveled at the miracle of his presence beside her. And because it was a miracle, then that meant it was supposed to be. It was just that simple. Marshall would fall in love with her, go back to New York to resign his position (if he hadn’t already), and then return to Claiborne to marry her. They would reside on Cedar Hill and live happily ever after. She wasn’t one to put much stock in fantasies, but she did believe in miracles.

  Oh, Marshall would have a struggle on his hands right now, she could appreciate that. How confused he must be this morning, how frustrated to know she was his only hope to accomplish what he’d set out to do thirteen years ago. And to be so close… Now he’d have to decide whether his hate for her father outweighed his growing love for her. And she knew it was love. There had been something so tender, so genuine in his awe of her, his feeling for her, something so beyond what he had expected from both of them for the night to have been called anything but an expression of love.

  She would have to give him time to come around. In the meantime, she wouldn’t give him the minutest reason to believe she was on to him, that she knew why he had come to Claiborne, why he’d offered to fill in for Joe, why he’d made love to her—and might again before he called off this whole thing with her father. And he would call it off. She knew Sy and Elizabeth’s son. Come time for the board meeting in eight days, Marshall Wayne would not be attending.

  Marshall walked out of Willard’s Cafe where he had just had breakfast into the sunshine of a fresh spring morning. Skies were blue, the breeze was gentle, the air invigorating, but he took no notice of any of these end-of-winter beneficences that as a boy on his morning chores had made his family’s farm the finest place in the world to be. His chest felt so tight that the mitigation of a deep breath wasn’t worth the pain of it. He yearned to take a swing at something, anything good and solid, but preferably the jaw of Lorne Kingston. Damn, if it wasn’t for him, how different everything would be! How simple and uncomplicated—how beautiful.

 
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