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       Aly's House, p.15

           Leila Meacham
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  Aly nodded. “Go on.”

  “By the time Victoria arrived in New York, I could afford her. I guess I called her up because I wanted to complete something, then put it behind me.”

  “Was that the only reason?” Aly asked.

  “No.” Marshall met her steady gaze. “I hoped to hurt her, get back at your father through her. I’d always known Victoria wanted me. I was a prize scalp she never got to hang on her belt, so I decided to give her the chance to rectify that situation.” He paused. “Am I shooting myself in the foot with this disclosure?”

  “No,” Aly assured him. “I’d like to know the truth.”

  “So I began to take her out, and—would you believe?—I liked her. Behind all that scented fluff and self-centeredness was a disappointingly pleasant, decent person. I couldn’t have hurt her no matter who her father was.”

  “So you gave up that idea,” Aly said. “Did Victoria…like you?”

  “Yes,” Marshall answered, understanding her meaning. “If I hurt your sister, it was simply to spare her further hurt. I stopped seeing her when I realized she…cared too much.”

  In the silence, Marshall went to stare down at the moonlit paddocks and fields. Aly’s eyes roved over him admiringly, longingly. Nothing had happened, he had said. Did that mean that his and Victoria’s chemistry had simply not ignited or that, quite literally, nothing happened? Did she have the right to ask, given the fact of their own new intimacy? No, she decided. She did not. The question of whether Marshall and Victoria had been together would have to be her own private concern.

  Evening had invaded the porch, held off only by the lamps burning on either side of the couch. “Will you be staying the night?” Aly asked.

  “No,” he said, still staring out at the night. “It’s late. You need your sleep for all the work we have to do tomorrow.”

  Marshall turned too late to see her small smile. Aly accepted the decision without question and escorted him down the breezeway, their arms linked. At the hall tree, he took down his hat. “I’ll be out early in the morning. Not here. Green Meadows. See you there.”

  “I’ll look forward to it,” she said. “Do you think you might be here through Easter?”

  “Easter? When is it?”

  “Next Sunday. It’s early this year. Green Meadows sponsors an Easter egg hunt in the afternoon for children eleven and under. It’s become a traditional event. Everybody comes. You’d have a chance to see a lot of folks you’d miss otherwise.”

  Next Sunday. The Tuesday after that was the stockholders’ meeting. Would Aly have learned about Hattie’s shares by then?

  “I wouldn’t miss it,” Marshall said. His gaze questioned her face. “Think you can put up with me that long?”

  “You know the answer to that.”

  “It isn’t that I don’t want to stay—”

  “I understand,” she said, smiling and lightly touching his lips with her fingers as if to assure him no more need be said.

  Did she? he brooded. Her eyes seemed to hold the understanding of all mysteries, insight into all his secrets and machinations. The lids closed as he lowered his head, shutting off her soul from his view.

  Chapter Eleven

  Dumbfounded, Aly said, “Victoria, what do you mean, you won’t be coming to the Easter egg hunt next Sunday? This is Peter’s last year for it. Next year he’ll be ineligible. Where will you be?”

  “In Duncan. Warren’s folks are planning a huge family reunion, and we simply don’t have any choice, Aly.”

  “But—but—can’t you drive down after the hunt?”

  “No, we can’t. It would cut the visit too short. Some of Warren’s relatives would be leaving by the time we got there. Besides, we’re going camping Thursday through Saturday, then driving to Duncan from wherever we decide to stop overnight.”

  Aly did not argue. The memory of the last time she had seen her sister was still fresh in her mind and heart, and Aly did not want to risk upsetting her. They had spoken several times on the phone since then, but Victoria had not been out to Cedar Hill, causing Aly to wonder if Victoria feared running into Marshall.

  “Does Peter know?”

  “Not yet. I’ll tell him Thursday morning, and I’d appreciate your not mentioning our plans to the rest of the family. You know how jealous Mother will be that we’re spending Easter with the Simses. I’ll tell her before we leave.”

  After she hung up, Aly sat down at her desk in thought, feeling let down. Peter would be heartbroken about missing the hunt. When did the plans for this family reunion in Duncan materialize? Why hadn’t Victoria mentioned them earlier? Was the reason because she had wanted to delay as long as possible the disappointing news that her family would be absent at Green Meadows, a day traditionally important to the Kingstons?

  Or, Aly wondered, turning over in her mind what Marshall had said about Victoria last night, was it possible that her sister’s vanity would not allow her to be around Marshall right now? But that wasn’t like Victoria. If her sister minded what she looked like, she would have changed it, and she would never hurt Peter for the sake of her vanity. Aly sighed. She would just have to accept the fact that this year Victoria and her family would be in Duncan for Easter. She had seen for the last time her nephew scampering jackrabbit fashion over a field dotted with brightly colored Easter eggs.

  The back door of the office opened abruptly. Marshall, out of breath, poked his head in and announced, “Marigold is about to foal. Willy said you wanted to know.”

  Aly pushed the button activating the answering service for the phone and hurried with Marshall up the bridle path to the birthing barn. She cast him an amused look. “You’re sure…?” Excitement flared in his dark eyes.

  “I’ll buy you the best steak dinner in Oklahoma if I’ve missed my guess. She came up to the fence this morning when I went out to check on her and as good as told me she was just about ready to get this show on the road. She headed right into her stall with no problem.”

  “I’ll settle for a riding lesson tonight in case you’re wrong.”

  “You got that anyway. But I’m not wrong.”

  “The foal’s sire is Sampson, you know.”

  “I know,” said Marshall.

  In the barn, Aly dispersed the men standing around to other duties and sent Willy to the office to answer the phone, grateful that Marigold would provide yet another experience to convince Marshall he belonged here. She determined that his prognosis was correct. Beads of perspiration dotted Marigold’s shoulders and chest, and her tail twitched ceaselessly. As they entered the stall, a stream of white liquid squirted out of a swollen teat.

  “She’s ready,” declared Marshall. “Time to wash her.” Aly backed away, letting Marshall take charge and watched him wrap Marigold’s tail and cleanse the mare with a mild soap and warm water. Almost as soon as he completed the job, Marigold’s sides caved inward, just in front of her hips, a sign that the foal was getting in position to be squeezed through the birth canal. Aly assisted Marshall in helping the mare to lie down, making her as comfortable as her condition would allow.

  “Good girl,” Marshall kept repeating, stroking the mare’s laboring side. Aly stayed unobtrusively in the background, hoping it would not be necessary to remind him that a mare in labor needed her privacy. Unless Marigold needed assistance, she was best left alone during the birth. As if being nudged by her thoughts, Marshall got reluctantly to his feet. “I guess we’ve done all we can for you, girl. The rest is up to you. We’ll be nearby if you need us.”

  “We can keep an eye on her from the office,” Aly said, referring to the waiting room equipped with a closed-circuit television set for monitoring births. “I’ll make us some coffee. This may be a long wait.”

  “I don’t think so, but unless I’m needed somewhere else, I’d like to see this through no matter how long it takes.”

  “I believe that can be arranged.” Aly smiled.

  In the waiting room, snugly outfitted with
a sleeping cot and easy chairs, refrigerator and stove for the comfortable waiting out of long hours of labor, Aly made coffee while Marshall stood glued to the monitor screen. One pair of eyes on Marigold was sufficient, she thought, electing to watch him. How very perfect he looked here like this, how very foreign to Wall Street and city crowds and pin-striped suits. He was coming around, she was sure of it. Banking could offer no excitement compared to this. The stockholders’ meeting was a week away. If he made no move to part her from her shares before then, she would take that as an indication that he didn’t want her stock—he wanted her.

  “Look!” he shouted, pointing to the television picture. Aly abandoned the coffeepot and went to his side. Marigold’s fetal fluid was gushing out from beneath her tail, a signal that birth would soon follow. Aly checked her watch to begin timing the sequence of events that would determine a normal delivery.

  Eventually, after a laborious ten minutes for both Marshall and the mare, a small hoof appeared. Marshall grinned delightedly. “Hot dog!” he said. “So far, so good!”

  Finally, as first the tip of a nose, a pair of eyes, ears, then a full head appeared, the little foal slid free of its mother. Marshall gave a whoop of joy. “It’s a boy!” he shouted, throwing open the door. “Bring the disinfectant!”

  “Yes sir,” Aly said with a quiet chuckle.

  An hour later, leaving the little colt busy suckling his first meal, Aly and Marshall walked out into the sparkling morning sunshine. “Boy, that was something!” he declared, throwing back his chest and rubbing it in the satisfied manner of a father just told he has a strapping son. “I’d forgotten how good something like that can make you feel. It’s been awhile since I’ve experienced that kind of miracle.”

  “Or any miracle, I’ll bet. New York doesn’t seem the climate for them.”

  “At least it can make you appreciate one when it happens. What do you have lined up for today?”

  Aly could hardly keep her pleasure from showing. Thank you, Marigold. “The funeral’s today, and I’m also finalizing arrangements for Sunday. The ladies’ clubs in town are supposed to do all the work, but each year I get roped into more responsibilities. All I’m supposed to provide is the pasture for the egg hunt and a few horses to ride.”

  “Can I help?”

  “You already are.” She smiled, wanting to thank him with a good long kiss. “See you here tonight for my first riding lesson?”

  “After the men leave. People are beginning to gossip about us, and I don’t want to leave you with a spotted reputation—” He called himself a fool the moment he’d said it. Aly looked as if he’d struck her, and of course he knew why.

  After several seconds in which she stared at him in dismay, she seemed to draw herself up. “That’s noble of you,” she said tersely. “By the way, my family will be here Sunday, including Dad. I just thought you ought to know in case you’d like to change your mind about coming. Also, the family will be having dinner together at the house that evening.”

  Marshall felt as if a cold wind had blown across the sunny morning, chilling the words, the feelings, the moments of a while ago. Hurt lay in the hazel eyes, a stricken sorrow that twisted in his heart like a knife. But he could not retract the statement. He would be leaving. He would have to go once she learned why he’d come. He said quietly, “If I’m still here, I’d like to come. Willy and I can fend for ourselves Sunday evening.”

  Wordlessly, she left him. Marshall watched her walk down to her office with her shoulders squared against her pain in a way he himself knew only too well.

  “I am assuming,” Marshall said, “that you know to mount a horse from the left?”

  “You would assume correctly, but must you stand so close while I try?” The question was asked curtly, an indication that Aly had not forgotten the morning. She stood with her hand on the saddle pommel of a patient mare that now and then turned her head as if to inquire if Aly were sure she wanted to go through with this.

  “Good question, Sure Susan,” said Aly, catching the look and turning to interpret for Marshall. They stood so close that her breasts nearly touched his chest. “She wants to know why it’s necessary for me to ride her?”

  “How else are you to learn to ride?”

  “I think the better question that she and I both have in mind is why learn to ride at all? I mean, in my thirty years of living on this earth, I’ve managed to survive without the joy of cantering across the plains. Why start now?”

  “Because otherwise I wouldn’t have an excuse to stand near you, touch you, put my arms around you without causing talk.” Marshall reached to grip the pommel with one hand and the rear of the saddle with the other, enclosing her in an embrace made more provocative because he did not touch her. “Why didn’t you tell me the trainers would be working late tonight?”

  Feeling her senses beginning to respond in spite of the severe lecture she’d given herself this morning, Aly nonetheless met his gaze impertubably. In the next field over, several trainers were putting a number of Thoroughbreds through their paces. “The owners of those animals are picking them up sooner than expected,” Aly answered, wishing she could slip her arms up around his neck and draw him down to her. How heavenly to feel herself enfolded and borne away to the same sensual oblivion where he had taken her once before. But she would never be taken there again, she knew that now. What a fool she had been to think there were only two courses of action open to Marshall.

  She saw another possibility: he could string her along until she was sick with love for him. Then, perhaps playing on the antipathy he guessed still existed between her and her father, casually let out the truth about his scheme to take over the bank. The final step had been to buy Hattie’s stock, but that failing, he guessed his thirteen-year venture had come to nought, and he’d be heading back up to New York. Unless, of course, she could see her way clear to let him have her shares. Then he could take over the bank and live in Claiborne for the rest of his life. How would she like that?

  At which point she hoped she still had the wherewithal to give Marshall Wayne succinct instructions about what he could do both with his suggestion and the rest of his life.

  She was such a black-and-white, all-or-nothing kind of person. A third possibility had not occurred to her—that Marshall might care too much for her to divest her of her shares but not enough to stay. What an idiot she had been to think her house and the breeding farm, a few snapshots from the past and a foal’s birth—that she—could lure him back to Claiborne.

  “Kindly back away before we give those trainers something to talk about tomorrow,” Aly ordered crisply.

  Marshall dropped his arms. Something she could not decipher flashed in his eyes. “I’ll hold the reins while you mount,” he said. When she had slung herself onto the saddle, he handed them to her. “We’ll ride in that direction,” he instructed, pointing toward two bluffs in the distance.

  Aly already knew how to sit a horse and the rudiments of rein direction. Because she lacked the beginner’s fear of horses, soon she and Marshall, astride Sampson, were riding at a prudent speed toward the bluffs. The twilight lingered, a moon rose to give them further light, and the strain between them settled into an accepting silence as they rode through meadows carpeted in wildflowers.

  The bluffs, almost twin in size, gave the impression that eons ago some tremendous force had bowled across the plains and severed them in two. The fissure between them created a narrow valley that Aly wanted Marshall to see. In late spring it offered a scenic delight so unusual that a trip to the bluffs on horseback had become one of the major activities at Green Meadows on Easter Sunday.

  “My God,” breathed Marshall as they reined in at the mouth of the valley. “What are they?”

  “Love-Lies-Bleeding is the common name,” Aly answered, naming the mass of red wildflowers whose spiked clusters were just beginning to form. Later on the blooms would droop in long tassels like ropes of chenille, creating a spectacular sight. They filled
the valley floor from one end to the other as if their seeds had been accidentally jostled from a giant hand countless springs ago. Nowhere else in Oklahoma were they known to bloom and flourish. “I discovered this valley when I was trying to decide how much land I wanted to buy. I took a jeep out on a surveying mission and came upon this sight in June six years ago.”

  Marshall turned in the saddle to look back over the distance they had come. “You own all this land?”

  Aly nodded. “If my plans for Green Meadows materialize, I’ll need every acre. Shall we go wading?” She indicated the sea of red flowers undulating in the late evening breeze.

  Marshall urged Sampson forward. “Love-Lies-Bleeding. That’s an unusual name. Rather sorrowful. Where does it come from?”

  “I don’t know, but it seems appropriate. These flowers never seem to wither; they thrive with very little care in dry heat and poor soil and can be transplanted easily.” She gave him a quick, unforgiving smile. “Much like the cultural properties of love.”

  “Is that so?” Marshall answered quietly.

  “Much like mine, anyway,” Aly said flatly, and fell silent. They did not speak again until they had traversed the valley. Side by side they rode through the moving sea of tasseling blooms, watched over by a merry, fat-cheeked moon hanging above the crevice directly before them. At the other end, when they had reined in, Marshall leaned over and laid his hand over hers on the pommel.

  “I knew this would happen, Aly,” he said gently, “and I’m sorry. It wouldn’t work between us, you know, no matter what you might think now.”

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