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       Aly's House, p.16

           Leila Meacham
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  Unable to look at him, her throat tight, Aly said obstinately, “Yes, it would. We belong together, Marshall Wayne. We always have.”

  “You think so now, Aly—”

  “I’ve thought so all my life!” she cried, waving her hand to indicate the acres over which they’d just traveled. “You could share all of this with me. What is New York compared to this? What can there be about banking or—or commodities that is half as exciting as seeing that colt born this morning?” Tears glimmered in her eyes. Her voice broke as she said, “Who would ever love you as much as I?”

  “Honey—” Marshall had not taken his hand away. “That’s not the point.”

  The statement made her look directly at him. She was glad that in the growing darkness he had not seen the tears she had blinked away. “No, it isn’t, is it?” she said, her voice hard. She was a bigger fool than she’d thought. Marshall had not been falling in love with her. “You know,” she said, “you are a most fortunate man to have been spared the suffering you’ve caused so many women, deliberate or not. Your love will never lie bleeding.”

  Marshall took his hand away. “Oh, I don’t know,” he said. “Maybe we’d better start back now.”

  “And just how,” she snapped, her heart breaking, “do I get Sure Susan to understand that?”

  Darkness fell as they neared the barn, though the moon still smiled. “I’ll put the horses away,” Marshall said. He looked at her in concern. “May I take you out to supper somewhere?”

  “No thank you,” Aly said, her chin raised, her voice remote. “I have work to do at the office. Thanks for the ride, Marshall. I’ll never forget it.”

  She left him to walk back down to her office alone, aware from his expression that he had understood the barbed irony of her last remark. That was unfair, she reprimanded herself as she hurried along the lamplit bridle path. Marshall didn’t take you on any ride you didn’t hop on willingly. You ought to be thankful he put the brakes on when he did. Otherwise you’d be in worse shape when he leaves than you are already.

  But there were tears in her eyes when she answered the phone that rang as she unlocked the door to her office. It was her father, calling to inform her of two displeasures. “Aly, is Marshall working out at Green Meadows?”

  “He’s filling in for Joe until next Sunday.”

  “Have you taken leave of your senses? You know how vulnerable you’ve always been to Marshall!”

  “And you know how invulnerable Marshall has always been to me.”

  “Alyson, a man doesn’t have to admire a woman to divest her of everything!”

  “Anything else, Dad?”

  “Yes,” Lorne snapped. “The proxies are continuing to come in negative.”

  “You don’t have anything to worry about, Dad. Take my word for it. Good night.”

  Aly was still holding the phone when Marshall came in the back door. “Trouble?” he asked.

  “That was my father,” she explained.

  Marshall grew rigid. “What did he say to upset you so?”

  She smiled at him faintly. “Nothing that I didn’t know already.”

  “Aly—” Marshall went to her, taking her by the shoulders. He studied her closely for the signs he expected, but her face seemed drawn only from the emotional travails of the day. “Let me help if I can.”

  “There is nothing you can do. Dad is just Dad. Not to worry,” she said, patting his hand and moving away from him.

  “No matter what our differences,” he said to her back, “I’m not leaving until Joe comes back. You need all the help you can get out here.”

  She faced him. “I’m glad,” she said simply. “Now if you’ll excuse me, Marshall, I have work to do.”

  Preparations for Easter Sunday kept Aly busy during the remainder of the week. She saw Marshall infrequently but strained for a glimpse of him every time she passed an office window or walked along the bridle paths. The pasture next to her house was mowed, the terrain checked for holes that might hide rattlesnakes and other dangers for children searching for Easter eggs in the grass. Aly met with the leaders of womens’ groups that annually set up and manned booths selling refreshments, baked goods, and seedlings for spring gardens. The far corner of the pasture was reserved for a catering firm that would be serving a noonday meal of barbecued beef and ham and all the trimmings for a price, which would be shared with local charity organizations. By Saturday afternoon, boxes containing hundreds of brightly colored eggs lined the breezeway.

  That afternoon Aly happened to be on the back porch when she spotted Marshall in a field adjoining the one cleared for the hunt. He had brought out two Thoroughbreds in a horse trailer to turn loose for grazing. “Marshall!” she called to him from the back door, waving to catch his attention. He did not see her, and the distance was too great for her to be heard. She went down the steps through the cedars to the edge of the cleared field, afraid that he would be pulling out in the trailer before she got there.

  It had been a terribly depressing day. Tomorrow completed Marshall’s week. How soon afterward would he leave? It would have been better if Peter had been around, helping her to sort the eggs, getting more and more excited as Sunday drew nearer. But, come to think of it, maybe he wouldn’t have been so excited this year. He was growing up. Already his face was maturing, slimming into the devastatingly spare features she thought so handsome in a man.

  “Marshall!” she called again with an ache in her throat. Speaking of handsome! He had turned her way, and her heart caught at the swift smile that lit his face when he saw her. How tall he was, how virile and lean in his jeans and western shirt. How could she live when he had gone?

  Cupping her hands around her mouth, she called to him, “Would you like to come up to the house for a cup of coffee?”

  He waved in response. “Be right there!” he hollered back, and she thought he looked delighted.

  Aly ran back to the house, her heart lighter. Had it only been ten days since she saw Marshall in the airport in Dallas? It seemed both a lifetime and, at the same time, only a few precious seconds, as evaporative as raindrops in her hand. But she would make the most of the days left, holding them fast as long as she could.

  She had the coffee on by the time he came up the back steps. “Good afternoon,” she hailed him cheerfully, taking his hat. “As your dad used to say, ‘Come in and take a load off your feet.’ ”

  Marshall laughed. “He did say that, didn’t he? How have you been, Aly?”

  All week he had expected to look up from his chores to find her storming up the bridle path with blood in her eyes. But still she didn’t know, he could tell from her happy smile at seeing him, at his being here. God, how he wished he could stay!

  “Busy,” she answered, gesturing toward the breezeway. “I don’t know how we would have managed this week without you, Marshall.”

  Marshall glanced toward the breezeway. “What’s out there?”

  “See for yourself.”

  Marshall walked to the door of the long hall. “Good Lord!” he exclaimed at the sight of the eggs. “You have been busy. Did you do all of these yourself?”

  “Can’t take credit for a single one. I’ve just been collecting them. I have my share already boiled and ready to dye tonight. Want to help?”

  Marshall turned to her with a doubtful look. “Sure it’s all right?”

  “Marshall,” she said on a deep, frank sigh, “if you say no, I think I just may kill myself.”

  “Can’t have that.” He grinned. “I’ll pick up supper when I go to the motel to change.”

  When Marshall arrived later with their dinner—a box of commercially prepared chicken, slaw, and fresh tomatoes and ears of corn bought at a roadside stand—Aly had changed into a pink terrycloth jumpsuit. It hugged her slim figure becomingly and brought out the healthy color of her cheeks. Her hair had been brushed into a shining topknot from which a few tendrils had escaped at the nape of her neck. A light application of makeup enhanced her ey
es and mouth.

  “You look refreshed,” said Marshall, handing her his purchases. Actually, she looked downright seductive in a squeaky-clean kind of way. “That shower did wonders for you.”

  “It was a bath,” she said.

  “Yes,” he said, drawing closer. “You smell like bubble bath.”

  Aly cleared her throat, wondering if he could hear the hammerblows of her heart. “Thanks for the meal,” she said, the packages between them. “I’ve been too busy even to think about eating. You want to dye first and then eat, or eat first and then dye?” She rounded her eyes at him over the sacks, the joy of being with him making them bright.

  Marshall considered a moment. “Let’s have a drink first and dip while we sip. Then we’ll sup.”

  “Cute.” Aly laughed, leading him down the breezeway. “Real cute.”

  Two dozen brilliantly dyed eggs later, they sat side by side on the porch couch with their feet propped on the coffee table and admired their handiwork. “They’re masterpieces,” proclaimed Marshall proudly. He was on a third Scotch and water, and Aly couldn’t determine if the pleasure of her company or the liquor was responsible for his high spirits. She didn’t care. She intended to enjoy every minute as it came.

  “You’ll come tomorrow?” she asked.

  “Wouldn’t miss it. Your whole family will be coming, you say?”

  “Victoria and her family won’t be. They’ll be at a family reunion in Duncan.”

  “Too bad,” he said. “I’d have liked to have seen her again, met her husband and son.”

  Which means, Aly thought, her joy suddenly gone, that tomorrow would be his only opportunity to do so. He’d be leaving before he saw Victoria again.

  By evening’s end, a sadness had descended between them. “Good night, beautiful lady,” Marshall whispered at the oval-glassed door. He touched a tendril of hair curling softly next to one ear. “Remember always, Aly, that it wasn’t you.” He kissed her quickly and was gone.

  Dawn had just broken the next morning when Aly and her group of organizers assembled to begin hiding the eggs. Several husbands as well as Willy had been commanded to erect booths and canopies and unload pickups. The group had just gathered around a table Aly had set up with coffee and doughnuts when a white Lincoln turned up the drive of Cedar Hill.

  “Lor’, if it ain’t Marshall, Punkin,” said Willy. “I didn’t think he planned to help.”

  At the sight of the handsome head behind the wheel, Aly felt her own dawn break inside her. “Neither did I,” she said and went to meet him.

  Marshall assisted the men first, but after a while he came to take eggs from Aly’s box and camouflage them with sand and grass near where she hid hers. No words passed between them. Aly watched the deft, slender hands, conscious of the simple specialness of their shared labor on this Easter morning as the sunrise broke over them.

  When they had finished the far corner of the field, Aly picked up the empty box. “All through,” she said regretfully.

  “Not quite.”

  She was suddenly in his arms in the shadow of the caterer’s shed. For the second it took his head to descend, Aly glimpsed a look that she would have sold her soul to understand. Afterward she searched his face. “Seems to me that was rather desperate, Marshall Wayne. Are you by any chance trying to make up your mind about something?”

  “No,” he said brusquely. “Let’s get back to the others.”

  “Well, Marshall, and to what do we owe the pleasure of your unexpected return to Claiborne?” asked Lorne Senior affably. Aly knew that the expansive manner was being assumed to imply there was nothing to worry him on this lovely Easter Sunday. He regarded Marshall as if he were a mere speck of dust easily brushed off his impeccable dark blue suit.

  The Kingston family, as in all years past, had been the last to arrive. Like royalty, they descended from their new Cadillac—black, as in all years, but bought on the installment plan this time—and strolled, smiles fixed, toward their waiting subjects.

  Marshall returned the broad smile, his eyes cold. “I was curious to see if anything had changed.”

  “That so?” said Lorne, lifting lordly brows. “And have you found anything changed?”

  “Cedar Hill for the better since the last time I saw it. And of course Aly. Otherwise, I’ve found everything and everyone very much the same.”

  “You must find that gratifying.”

  “I do. Believe me.”

  For a finite second the gray eyes looked uncertain. Lorne turned to his son. “You remember Lorne Junior.”

  Lorne Junior, his waist and neck beginning to show the ease of his nine-to-five position at the bank and his six-to-ten position at home, wrung Marshall’s hand congenially. “Guess you’ll be leaving soon, huh? Can’t imagine there’s anything here now for a big-city feller such as yourself.”

  “Oh, I don’t know…”

  Aly, listening to this well-gloved sparring with suspended heartbeat, sensed her father stiffen as Marshall looked her way.

  A record crowd enjoyed the finest spring day for the Easter event in its six-year history. So glorious was the sunshine, so clear the sky and delicate the breeze, that when Willy, who happened to be in the house when the phone rang, came limping out at top speed to report a tornado on the way, those who heard him at first disregarded his babble as a sick joke. But no sooner had the report begun its rounds than a change occurred in the atmosphere. The light little breeze, like a kitten suddenly turned tiger, began to nip through thin Easter dresses and lightweight suits. Leaden gray skies overtook the sunshine. A vigilant hush fell over the crowd except for the squeals and laughter of children playing in the field.

  In alarm, Aly looked around for Marshall who materialized beside her as if out of her thoughts. He took her arm just as someone pointed and cried, “Oh, my God! Look what’s coming!”

  Chapter Twelve

  Get under the van!” Marshall shouted above the hysterical din of screams and shouts, the freight-train roar that suddenly filled the once-still afternoon. He scooped up two children whose faces still registered the shock of seeing their Easter baskets snatched from their hands by the dusty winds preceding the black funnel twisting across the plains.

  Aly obeyed, managing, with Marshall and his charges right behind her, to herd another small child under the low frame of the Winnebago just before the fury hit. Ear-deafening and unearthly in its power, it slammed like an enraged beast into the vehicle, rocking it back and forth over the helpless victims pressed into the earth below. The ground exploded around them, stunning and choking, pelting arms and legs with burning rubber. Aly could only surmise that the van must have been picked up and set back down with such force that all six tires had blown at once.

  Later they learned the insanity lasted only five minutes. To Aly it seemed more like a lifetime in hell. She would remember always, more profoundly than the moment she realized they had survived the ordeal, the sound of Marshall’s voice in her ear when the calm had come. “Aly? Aly? Say something to me, honey!”

  “I’m all right, Marshall,” she assured him, spitting out dust and shifting away from the protection of his body to release three squirming little figures who wriggled out from under the Winnebago in crying search of their parents.

  Marshall squinted at her through sand-coated lashes. The side of his mouth quirked. “I’ll say one thing. When Alyson Kingston throws a party, she throws a party.”

  Overcome with inexpressible gratitude, Aly answered by wordlessly laying a grimy hand against his gritty cheek. Marshall’s hand closed over it. Then they heard the first stirrings and cries of the survivors. “Not everybody seems to have had a good time,” she said. “Let’s go see what that gatecrasher did.”

  They crawled out from under the wrecked camper to a spectacle not quite resembling the atomic aftermath Aly had expected. Vehicles lay overturned and the debris of canopies and sheds littered the fields. A whole side of beef, dripping barbeque sauce, had caught in the saggin
g fence. She took a deep breath and looked toward the house. Miracle of miracles, it was still there. The top of one chimney had been sliced off, part of the roof had lost some shingles, and the cedar trees in front lay in a straight, serried file as if felled by one gigantic ax stroke at their base. But the house still stood.

  Searching for her family among the dazed and recovering people who had not made the safety of the house and storm shelter but had hidden under cars and trucks, Aly was amazed that no one had suffered more serious injury. The cries seemed to be coming more from fright and relief than pain.

  “I think we just got a nip of the damned thing,” opined a weather-wise farmer to Aly, looking off toward the direction the tornado must have taken. “I think it’s headed straight for Claiborne.”

  Others agreed and while Marshall and Willy headed for the barns to check on the horses, Aly went to the house to seek her family, grateful that Peter and his parents were in Duncan.

  Her father met her at the door of her house, impeccable and calm, but startlingly aged. “Aly!” He said her name with such relief that for one of the few times in her life, she went to him and put her arms around him. She felt him tremble as he embraced her.

  “It’s all right, Dad. I’m okay. How’s Mother?”

  “Shaken up, of course, but otherwise all right. She’s lying down. We were in the house when it hit. On occasions like these, people are inclined to get sticky fingers. We thought our presence might be an effective deterrent.”

  “Thank you, Dad. I noticed a couple of windows broken in your car, but it should get you and Mother home. That is…”

  Lorne looked at her sharply. “That is what?” he said.

  “Well, the tornado seems headed for Claiborne. We must have just gotten a sideswipe—”

  “Good God!” exclaimed Lorne.

  “Let’s go check the weather news. That is, if the electricity is still on.”

  “It was last time I checked. Also the phone is still working.” Her father pulled out a gold pocket watch. “I think, however, I’ll go collect your mother and we’ll be on our way. I’m curious to see the damage, which should have been done by now.” He turned back to her as they started inside. “By the way, Aly, if I don’t see you before Tuesday morning—”

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