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       Aly's House, p.14

           Leila Meacham
 
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  How, he demanded in frustration as he lit a cigarette, had everything skittered so far off track? Five days ago when he stepped off that plane in Oklahoma City, everything he needed to destroy Lorne Kingston was in the bag. Nobody but that double-dealing conniver stood to get hurt, not even Lorne Junior, who, for the first time in his life, could get his backside out of that bank and go to work like other men’s sons.

  But now Aly was involved, and the last thing he wanted was to hurt her. Unbidden, before he could stop it, the memory of her in his arms last night flooded over him. He saw her face gazing up at him, her head pillowed on the golden cushion of her hair. Unable to stanch them, he felt again the desires that had put all others out of his mind, that had made him loath to leave her in the early hours of the morning before she could wake and make him stay.

  Marshall cursed under his breath. What an ironic turn of events. It would be only a matter of time before Aly found out that he’d made Hattie an offer for her stock. Joe would have every reason to tell her. He might even go to her father with the information, who wouldn’t waste a panicky second informing Aly.

  And what then?

  Marshall took a deep draw on the cigarette, feeling the acrid smoke burn a trail to his lungs. In disgust he looked at it, then flicked it into the street. Aly was right. He hadn’t liked them before. He didn’t now. A motorist, his face friendly and familiar, waved at him. Marshall waved back, feeling his chest loosen somewhat. It was good to stand here in the peace and quiet of morning and be hailed by old friends. Quite a contrast from New York. He would be going back now, all that he’d come home for—and more besides—lost to him once again.

  He began to walk. Up the block was the Kingston State Bank. He had been avoiding it as he had been avoiding the sight of Lorne Kingston. He had not wanted to lay eyes on him until the day of the board meeting. He hoped the old boy still stood tall and straight, still had that superior way of looking over his glasses at you as if you’d asked to go to the bathroom in his house. He wanted no reason to feel sorry for him, no reason later to regret what he’d done. But now he wanted to see him. He wanted a look at the bank.

  Marshall crossed the street and sauntered down the sidewalk until he drew abreast of the bank on the other side. Then, slipping his fingers into the top of his jeans pockets, he stood there looking at it, imagining the name Kingston removed from the sign and himself as president and chairman. Wayne State Bank. It could still be his. That was the biggest irony of all. If he chose, it could still be his.

  His glance sharpened as two men, one old, one young, pushed open the double glass doors from inside the bank. Lorne Kingston and his son. Lorne Junior was heavier than when Marshall had last seen him, but his father, though completely gray now, was still trim and suave. He still walked with that arrogant air of self-esteem that Marshall had looked forward to extinguishing. As he watched their progress down the street, observed the deference they were accorded, hate surged anew within him. How quickly people forgot. The ruined acres of Cedar Hill, which had lain exposed to public scrutiny for at least three years, were evidence of what Lorne Kingston could do to people like the Waynes. Yet he and his son could still be treated with respect, slapped on the back, and welcomed into the coffee klatch of local businessmen and farmers that gathered about now at Willard’s.

  Marshall, his thirst for vengeance fully returned, watched as Mrs. Devers—grayer, a bit stooped, but amazingly fast on her feet—rushed out of the bank in pursuit of the two Kingstons. At once Marshall became interested in the window display behind him. In the glass he saw the pair turn at the cry of their names and wait for the excited woman. They conferred, then in alarm all three hurried back and reentered the bank.

  Marshall smiled, welcoming the surge of pleasure through his bitterness like a draught of fresh air in a stale room. He started back down the street toward his car. Temporarily at least, he had thrown a rock into the spokes of the biggest wheel in town.

  In the breezeway, Aly was just hanging up the phone when she saw Marshall coming up the steps. Today he wore a western straw hat, an addition to the jeans and boots, which she thought made his true image complete. She stayed in her chair, watching him reflect a moment on a pot of geraniums, then go back down the steps. Afraid that he might be leaving, she hastened to the door, but was cautioned by some instinct to peep through the glass first. Marshall was making for the pecan trees, his long-legged stride recalling another time when she followed him down the steps in beseeching pursuit. She watched him stop in the shade of the newly budded limbs, their shadows gamboling over him in merry play. What was he thinking, standing there like that in the stance of men whose lives are spent in constant surveillance of crops and animals and weather? What was Marshall surveying? The yesterdays of Cedar Hill? The succession of seasons and cornfields and the secondhand vehicles once parked between the trees?

  Aly thought she knew. She had just spoken with her father. He had sounded out of breath, for he had just run from Willard’s to the bank after Mrs. Devers had gone to tell him the results of the first proxy forms. All had voted against retaining the board.

  “My God, I can’t believe the finesse, the years involved in this! He’s out to get us, Alyson. I’m convinced that all those proxies will come in negative now that I’ve learned Marshall came here to buy Hattie Handlin’s shares—”

  “Did he?” she asked calmly.

  “You know he did! Joe told me so himself when I called him at the funeral home minutes ago. I offered to buy Hattie’s shares. But he won’t sell to me—says he’s not selling to anybody, which means Marshall can’t get his hands on them either. Now, Aly, you’re his only prayer for getting the ten percent he needs. I know he’ll try to fleece your shares out of you. He’s started already if I’m to believe Joe. But I’m telling you that if you’re fool enough to let him, the family will disown you. You’ll never set foot in this house again. I’ll keep Peter from you—”

  “You can forget the threats, Dad,” she had cut in. “I’m not about to sell my shares to Marshall Wayne. I wouldn’t do such a thing to him.” She had hung up, leaving her father still on the line trying to figure out her last remark.

  But what would she do if Marshall asked her for the shares? Watching him come back to the house, his face drawn from the struggle within him, she had a moment of panic. She knew what her answer would be, but Lord, what would she do! How could she order him out of her life? How could she live the rest of it with the memory that for a while, a precious, beautiful while, he had been such an intimate part of it?

  But he wouldn’t ask her for those shares, she decided resolutely, opening the door, her smile ready and welcoming. Miracles never went awry.

  “Good morning!” she greeted him happily. “Why so glum, chum? Having second thoughts about working during your vacation?”

  “Not about that.”

  “About last night then?” she asked, sweeping off his hat as he gathered her to him.

  “No,” he said, holding her as if she’d been about to fall. “Never about last night. Never, never about last night.”

  The day went fast with barely enough time to eat the sandwiches Aly had packed for Marshall and Willy and herself for lunch. Almost hourly a horse trailer or van arrived either to deliver or pick up their valuable cargoes. Marshall, with the instinctive understanding of a born horseman, took charge of loading and unloading the stock. Calm and patient, he was able to soothe the crankiest of the travelers in the tricky process of leading them from vehicle to paddock where stiff legs and tempers could be run off.

  Gratefully, Aly left Marshall to the chores she would have had to see after in Joe’s absence and devoted her time to the necessary paperwork and entertainment of her visitors. She was even able to take time to slip into town to pay her last respects to Hattie at the funeral home, where she unfortunately had an ugly encounter with Joe.

  “I hear Marshall Wayne is my temporary relief.”

  “News travels fast.”

/>   “That surprise you in this town? He going to fill in the full week?”

  “Yes.”

  “So I guess it’s lucky for you that I had to be off this week.”

  “He offered to help out, and I’m grateful for it, Joe. That’s all there is to it.”

  “You know, your dad made me a pretty tempting offer this morning. I’ve been thinking about it, and the more I think about it, the more tempting it seems. Especially if it means cutting Marshall’s legs right out from under him. Know the offer I’m talking about?”

  “I know, Joe. Here’s mine. If you sell those shares to my father before the board meeting next Tuesday, you will never get another job with a major horsebreeding operation in this state.”

  “It’s that way, is it?”

  “It’s that way. Leave it be, Joe. You made the right decision when you told my father no this morning. Let it ride now.”

  That evening, accompanying her on the nightly tour of the stables, Marshall asked, “Tired?”

  “Not as much as you are, I’d bet. You’ve had a long day.”

  “I’ve enjoyed every minute of it. I can’t remember when I’ve enjoyed a day more, but I could sure use a beer when we get up to the house.”

  “You got it. Want to stay for supper?”

  “I ought to take you out.”

  She laughed at his unenthusiasm. “I put on a roast awhile ago, hoping you’d stay. No need to go back to the motel to change. You can wash up at the house.”

  In the bathroom, Marshall finished drying his face and hands and looked at himself in the mirror. The first of the proxies had arrived today. He had ordered that they come in a trickle, all negative, with the last of them delivered the day before the meeting. He wanted to draw out Kingston’s pain, make him sweat and worry. It had been an excellent plan. By now he was to have had Hattie’s proxy letter. He could go out on the porch in a moment, accept a beer from Aly, sit down at her supper, and never feel a pang. After all, he’d made it clear long ago how he felt about her father, what he hoped to do, how his white Continental would someday be parked in the president’s spot at the bank.

  But now—now everything had changed. His lips twisted wryly. So much for the dramatic point of the white Continental. His stomach had never felt tied in so many knots. He kept waiting for the phone to ring. It could be Joe or it could be her father, both with news that would make Aly fix him with a look in a moment that said she knew his motives for last night, for today, for the rest of the week.

  He looked long at his face in the mirror. He had always accepted without the least conceit that his looks could lead women to make fools of themselves. But not Aly. Aly was the kind of woman who, once one of those calls came through, would be able to say to him what long ago he had said to her. He could never come back then, never come home again.

  He sighed, hanging the towel neatly over the rack attached to the same spot as the one he’d known years ago. This was what it was like to feel old, he thought.

  She handed him a beer when he joined her on the back porch. A table had been set for two at the far end, and the savory aroma of roast beef drifted in from the kitchen. The jalousied windows had been rolled out, and the porch was redolent with the smells of rich earth and spring grass. Below, the panorama of Green Meadows stretched out under the silver light of a full moon.

  “You look delicious,” he said, taking the beer. She had changed into a long colorfully embroidered caftan in yellow cotton and tied a narrow ribbon in the same shade around her hair.

  “Thank you.” Aly smiled. “I’ll put on some records in a minute. Right now I want to hear the weather news. One of the trainers said that a tornado had been sighted near Oklahoma City.”

  “Have you ever had any damage from tornadoes here at Green Meadows?” Marshall asked, taking a seat on the couch and resting his arm on the back. He could hardly take his eyes off her.

  “No, and we’re long overdue. Our luck can’t hold forever. I just hope we have all the visiting stock out of here when one of those rip-snorters heads this way. Our own animals know us, and we won’t have any trouble leading them to the barns.”

  Marshall drank his beer, observing her golden head bent close to the small radio on the bookshelf. Her expression was intense as she listened, and he thought with admiration what a great place she had here, how orderly and prosperous. The men thought highly of her, obvious from the way they discussed her every remark and action with respect and affection. Despair pushed deep in his chest, and he fought the urge for a cigarette. Damn you, Hattie Handlin! Why’d you have to die?

  Aly turned off the weather news, flicked on the stereo. “Anything you’d like?” she asked.

  “Are we speaking of records?”

  She threw a pillow from a nearby chair at him. “Yes.” She laughed. “At least for now.”

  “You choose.”

  She stacked a selection of instrumentals on the turntable, then joined him on the couch with a glass of wine. “This is nice. This is the time of day when it’s good to be with someone. I’m glad you’re here, Marshall.”

  “No happier than I am,” he said, realizing how much he meant it. He pulled a little away from her, wanting nothing more than to draw nearer, to lose himself in all that clean shining wholesomeness, to kiss her hard enough to feel the ridge of those straightened little teeth. He got up abruptly to stroll over to the windows for a better view of the night vista of Green Meadows.

  From the couch, Aly watched him. He doesn’t know what to do about this evening, she said to herself. He’s battling with his conscience about whether he should stay. If he’s falling in love with me, he won’t. If he’s still after those shares, he will. Who would win out by evening’s end? The man who had come to depose her father or the man she loved as Sy and Elizabeth’s boy? She knew on whom she’d put her money. But, goodness, she would miss him tonight!

  Dinner was saved from being an awkward affair by Aly pretending not to notice. Taking pity on Marshall’s plight, she kept her distance from him and conversed lightly about matters of the day.

  “Let me help you with those,” he offered when the meal came to an end and Aly got up to take their plates into the kitchen.

  “If you like,” she said. She hung back to allow Marshall to precede her into the kitchen. Then, brushing by a bookcase next to the door, her long dress somehow caught the edge of a scrapbook. Down it went on its face, jostling out contents that Aly had purposefully loosened earlier in the day.

  “How clumsy of me,” she bemoaned, in what she thought a convincing tone, as Marshall returned from the kitchen. Hands full, she stood looking down helplessly at the fragile, timeworn album in danger of spine damage.

  “I’ll get it,” he said, kneeling down to pick up the book and collect the snapshots and clippings. Aly remained until his attention caught, then left him poring over the material in fascination.

  When she brought in their coffee and pecan pie after an interval she judged sufficient to her designs, Marshall was sitting on the couch thoroughly immersed in the contents. He looked up wonderingly, nostalgia soft in his eyes. “Where did you get all these?” he marveled, holding up a number of photographs of himself and his parents at Cedar Hill.

  “Don’t you remember when I used to follow you around with my camera? Probably not,” she said reminiscently. “But in those days I took so many pictures that the snap of my shutter and the pop of my flash were about as common as the sound of cowbells.”

  “Apparently so, from the number of these pictures,” Marshall mused. “And the clippings! You must have cut out everything ever written about me.”

  “Which ought to give you some idea of the extent of the crush I had on you,” Aly pointed out saucily. Her eye had an impish gleam.

  “Fortunate for me that you didn’t leave it in the past along with your camera,” he said. He looked again through the photographs. “I’m grateful that you took these, Aly. I’d like to have some reprints made from them if you don’t
mind. I have very few keepsakes from Cedar Hill. My parents rarely took pictures. Film and developing costs were just not in the budget.”

  “Get the whole batch reprinted if you like,” Aly said. She picked up a shot of Marshall taken through the back window of the Cadillac as he got off the school bus when he was in the sixth grade. He wore the usual durable flannel shirt, jeans with darkly patched knees, and what Aly called his Thursday scowl, the look he assumed when he saw the Kingston car in his front yard. “What a proud little boy you were! How you hated being poor!”

  “Still would,” he said unequivocally, taking the picture from her. He shook his head as if he found it hard to believe that the boy in the picture had ever been he.

  “Has being rich made you happy?”

  “Not particularly, but I’d rather be unhappy rich than unhappy poor.”

  “Marshall, did you know Victoria in New York?”

  The question took Aly as much by surprise as it did Marshall. He asked cautiously, “Have you ever asked her that question?”

  “Yes.”

  “And?”

  “She denied that she saw you.”

  Marshall frowned. “I can understand that. I was not one of Victoria’s greater successes. Nor she mine, for that matter.”

  “What happened?” Aly asked quietly.

  Marshall got up to replace the album on the shelf. His back to her, he answered, “Nothing. That’s what happened. You had written Mother that Victoria was working for a modeling agency in New York. I decided to see her.” Slipping his hands into his pockets, he turned around, his mood pensive, the dark eyes grave. “I don’t know what I had in mind. To be frank, I’d always been ambivalent about Victoria. She was the daughter of a man I hated—I’m not telling you anything there you didn’t know, Aly,” he said as her brows lifted. He went on, “But like all of us boys, I’d had a yen for her since grade school. She was unaffordable, beyond my reach, so I kept my distance from her.” Marshall flashed her a grin. “That Wayne pride, I guess.”

 
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