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       Aly's House, p.17

           Leila Meacham
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  “Oh, Dad,” Aly spoke in disappointment. “You can’t have the stockholders’ meeting on your mind at a time like this?”

  Ignoring the question, Lorne said, “Most of the proxies have arrived, and as I suspected, they have voted against retaining the present board. That look young Marshall gave you a while ago—you know the one I mean. Has it any significance?”

  “None whatsoever. He was just needling you.”

  “And I need have no fear that you will do something foolish?”

  “Not in the least.”

  “Good,” he said with satisfaction. “I have always relied on your word, Aly, for the simple reason you’ve never broken it.”

  Only part of Claiborne found itself in the path of the storm. The wrath of the tornado veered away from most schools, churches, and businesses, bypassing the wealthiest and poorest residential sections to concentrate almost solely on the middle-class neighborhoods. Victoria’s house was in one of these. The Kingston State Bank remained unscathed.

  “Never mind, darling,” said her mother the next morning as the Kingston women gathered to help Victoria sort through the mess for salvageable items, “you can live with us until a new house is built. This time you’ll build in our neighborhood.”

  Which will insure protection from further tornadoes, Aly flashed to Victoria, who smiled wanly in understanding, her eyes still glazed from the shock of finding her home demolished. “Where do you want us to start?” Aly asked.

  “You start over there,” said Victoria, pointing to a space that had once been the library. “You’ll know what’s important among Warren’s papers to try to salvage. The rest of us will just look for anything keepable.”

  Due to the rain that had fallen in the wake of the tornado, everything was sodden. The women had been sorting for an hour with very little to show for their labor when Aly came across a heavy-duty, letter-sized portfolio half-buried in the mud. Aly untied the string and drew out a number of documents. One was Victoria’s marriage license. Though damp, the signature of the justice of the peace and the typed information stating date and place of the marriage remained decipherable. Aly puzzled over the date. It declared that Victoria married a month later than the anniversary she and Warren celebrated each year. There must have been a mistake.

  On the verge of bringing it to Victoria’s attention, Aly lifted her head and looked across what was left of the hall at her sister sorting through the remnants of a record collection. Then something—a conviction that went through her with a decimating certainty—made her cry out. Victoria glanced over at her, the blue eyes wide with alarm. “Aly? What’s the matter?”

  “Nothing really,” Aly said, her vision hazy. “I—had a pain across my chest, that’s all.”

  Victoria got up, her expression worried. “What kind of pain?”

  “Pleurisy, I guess.” She smiled fleetingly. “Grandmother used to have it.”

  “You’ve never complained of it before.”

  “I was in the rain so much yesterday, trying to round up the horses.” Aly rubbed the area above her left breast. “I probably caught a cold or something…”

  “Let me get Mother—”

  “No—no, Victoria.” Aly looked over at their mother a good distance away. She was intent on the task of sorting through her grandson’s clothes. “Here,” she said, pushing the documents back into the folder. She thrust it at her sister. “These seem relatively undamaged. I’d better go home. Don’t say anything to Mother.”

  “Aly, your eyes look like a wasteland. Are you sure you’re all right? Why don’t I come with you?”

  “No, I’m fine, really, Victoria. Say hello to your men for me.” She summoned a smile and called good-bye to her mother and sister-in-law, who was working a number of rooms over. Forcing her legs to her car, she saw that Victoria still gazed after her as she drove off, the mud-covered portfolio in her hand.

  In the car, Aly moaned her grief aloud, gripping the steering wheel. She sped toward Cedar Hill, where she had always taken her griefs. Elizabeth, she sobbed inwardly. Elizabeth!

  She left her car in front and used the handrail to help her up the porch steps. Once inside she collapsed on the chair by the refectory table. She sat there, staring at the aquarium whose denizen-life had begun to return to normal after the disruption of the storm.

  She had always assumed that Victoria had eloped with Warren on the rebound after an ego-shattering affair in New York. And this only after the facts indisputably cleared Victoria from the suspicion that she was pregnant when she married. Today’s evidence proved otherwise. Peter was one month on the way when his mother stood before that justice of the peace.

  Now Victoria’s odd reaction to Marshall, her denial that she had seen him in New York were explained. No wonder she had not introduced Peter to him. No wonder she had taken her family somewhere else for Easter. She had wanted to keep Peter away from his father. Marshall was Peter’s father.

  Aly picked up her most recent picture of Peter from the table. She should have suspected the truth earlier. Already father and son were beginning to look alike. Those dark brown eyes and lean good looks they had in common. How long before Peter’s hair turned darker, increasing their resemblance? Elizabeth had said that Marshall had been born with blond hair. The irony was that Marshall did not suspect the truth either. He had no idea that Victoria had been pregnant with his child when she left New York.

  Now what? Victoria was worried sick that Marshall might discover the truth. No doubt right now she was blessing the tornado that justified leaving Peter in Duncan for a few days. Marshall would be gone by the time she collected him again. He most likely would never come back now that he had lost the bid to take over the bank.

  The phone rang beside her, all but jerking her out of her skin. She answered it reluctantly, thinking Victoria was calling to check on her welfare. But Joe was on the other end. “Aly?” he said.

  The silky way he said it sent a crawly feeling down her backbone. “Yes, Joe?”

  “In sorting through Aunt Hattie’s desk, I came across the last annual report of the Kingston State Bank. Found it mighty interesting reading after I had a friend of mine who knows about such things explain it to me.”

  “That so, Joe?” Aly struggled to keep her voice conversational.

  “Uh-huh. He told me some things that you should have told me, Aly. He told me that you don’t have to own the majority of stock to control it. I reckon Marshall came to town in control of enough shares to take care of your dad for good once he bought Aunt Hattie’s stock. But then I imagine you figured that out for yourself the night I was out there.”

  Sitting very still, Aly did not reply. Joe continued. “So I figure that since I’m not selling my shares, Marshall is out there at Green Meadows sniffing after yours, a fact you also know. Would I be right about that, Aly?”

  After a brief pause, Aly replied, “Go on.”

  “Well, right now I’m just guessing, but knowing you, I figure that you’re giving that lad enough rope either to reel him in or to hang himself. Which is it?”

  “Joe, that has to be my business.”

  “I see. Well, Miss Kingston, I don’t mind sharing my business with you, not at all. Because I still owe you for Benjy, I’m gonna wait until this all-fired important stockholders’ meeting for this little game of yours to play itself out. Then I’m selling my shares Wednesday morning, the minute Judge Peabody finishes the probate hearing and releases Aunt Hattie’s assets to me. Otherwise, I end up with nothing, don’t you see—no money and no girl.”

  Aly froze. “Who—who—do you plan to sell them to?”

  “Why Marshall, of course. That way I have the satisfaction of doing what Aunt Hattie would have wanted.”

  “Joe, listen!” Aly gripped the receiver. Good Lord, if Joe sold them to Marshall, he would stay in Claiborne. As majority stockholder, he would be able to accomplish on Wednesday what he would not be able to do tomorrow. Even if she informed her father now of Jo
e’s intent, he would not have enough time to block the takeover. “Sell the stock to me,” she pleaded. “I’ll pay you anything you ask—”

  “Too late, Miss Kingston,” Joe sneered. “You should have made me that offer before you threatened me on account of Marshall. Now you’re going to find that not only did you lose a man you never had, but you’ve just lost the best stable manager in Oklahoma. The only thing you’re getting from me is the promise that I won’t say anything to Marshall until Wednesday. You can send me the wages I got coming. So long, Miss Kingston.” He hung up.

  Aly sat in stunned anguish. It would only be a matter of time before Peter matured into a recognizable semblance of his real father. What would Marshall do when he perceived the likeness? Would he identify himself to Peter? Would he fight for him? A custody battle would cause more scandal and damage, ruin the Kingstons more thoroughly than taking over a hundred of their banks.

  Aly’s head jerked up. Her body stiffened as an idea began to form. She would make a trade. She would trade her shares for Peter…She got up, paced in thought for a few minutes. No one need ever know her real reason for giving Marshall the stock that would allow him to take over the Kingston State Bank. Everyone would think that she was so besotted over him—hadn’t she always been?—that he’d been able to finagle her into selling out her family to him. But with acceptance of her stock would go a condition. Marshall would have to promise that he would leave Claiborne and never return. He could run the bank from a distance. He could sell it. He could appoint a chairman and a president. She didn’t care what arrangments he made as long as they did not include living in Claiborne where someday he would discover Victoria’s secret.

  She sat down again, confused and sorrowful. Was she doing the right thing? Did she have the right to keep Marshall from knowing his child? Did she have the right to do this to her father and Lorne Junior? Her family would never forgive her. They would call her a traitor and a fool, a woman who not only lost her family and the bank, but lost the man for whom she had sacrificed them. But what else could she do? A little boy’s happiness was at stake, his future, his life. None of their lives, their happiness were more important than his. Her father, Victoria, Marshall—they all had themselves to thank for the decision she was forced to make. Peter shouldn’t be made to suffer for the mistakes that would drive a wedge between himself and the man he thought his father. He shouldn’t have to bear the ridicule and scandal that would be sure to follow. He might never recover from such a trauma.

  Slowly, Aly pulled out a drawer in the refectory table. She took out paper and pen. “Dear Marshall…” she began.

  The Claiborne Public Library, its plain white stucco frame embellished by a decade’s growth of climbing ivy and banks of bright yellow forsythia, had been spared so much as the disturbance of a leaf by the tornado. The building reposed on a lush lawn at the end of the residential street where her parents lived, and Aly hoped that her car would escape notice from someone in the house.

  Miss Trudy Templeton, the aged librarian with whom Aly had been friends since she was old enough to read, greeted her visitor warmly. “Alyson, dear, I was so happy to hear that Green Meadows was spared. What a shame if that beautiful house had been destroyed and those lovely horses left homeless.”

  “We were very fortunate, as were you, it seems,” said Aly, looking around at her childhood sanctuary. “I have a favor to ask you, Miss Trudy. I want you to witness and notarize something. You’ve still got your seal, haven’t you?”

  “Oh, dear me, yes. Wouldn’t give it up for the world. How else would I be privy to half the secrets of Claiborne? Not that I ever tell them, mind you,” she twinkled conspiratorially.

  A few minutes later, Miss Trudy was affixing her seal to a letter of proxy giving Marshall the right to vote her shares in the coming stockholders’ meeting. The librarian glanced over it, then at Aly. “Lordy sakes, but this news would rival the tornado were I to make it known.” She emphasized the last heavily. “Are you sure you want to go through with this?”

  Aly nodded, remembering how Trudy Templeton had disapproved the foreclosure of Cedar Hill. “By tomorrow at lunch everybody will know its contents anyway, so after that you might as well go ahead and add your earful.”

  What’s this? Marshall asked himself, thinking he knew as he tore open the flap of an envelope bearing the return address of Cedar Hill. Before going to his motel room he had checked at the desk to see if Aly might have left him a note explaining her disappearance. They had not been worried about her out at Green Meadows until Victoria had appeared in the doorway of one of the barns exclaiming that she’d not been able to find Aly anywhere. Then they’d all been frantic until Aly called Willy to say that she was in Oklahoma City.

  “Where is she staying in Oklahoma City?” Victoria had demanded when Marshall called her after speaking with Willy.

  “I don’t know, Victoria. She wouldn’t say.”

  “When will she be back?”

  “She didn’t say that either.”

  “Marshall Wayne, you’re the cause of all this!” The phone had gone down with a bang, and Marshall had felt a claw of fear rake his spine.

  Now he drew out two sheets of paper. His eyes would not let him believe the first. It was a signed, witnessed, and notarized letter of proxy giving him the right to vote Aly’s shares in the stockholders’ meeting tomorrow. The note stated that the shares would be reissued in his name at one o’clock on one condition. The condition was explained.

  Fatigue gone, every corpuscle alert to the significance of the terse wording, Marshall crumpled the note in his hand. So now she knew. She knew everything. And she had given him the means to destroy Lorne Kingston.

  At nine o’clock the next morning while Marshall, she assumed, was dressing for the stockholders’ meeting, Aly had finished a third cup of coffee in the restaurant of the motel where she had spent a sleepless night. No use dallying any longer, she said to herself. She had to get back and face all the music. Where did the negative implication of that cliché come from, she wondered irrelevantly. Face the music. She loved music. After today there would be little enough of it in her life.

  Aly summoned the waitress for her bill. At the door, hand on its crossbar, she paused a moment, reflecting that from this exit on, her life would never be the same.

  At five minutes until ten, Marshall Wayne strolled into the conference room of the Kingston State Bank where the rest of the stockholders had already assembled and were helping themselves to doughnuts and coffee. Marshall nodded pleasantly as he approached the refreshment table, seemingly unaware of the gradual silence falling at his entrance. He had never looked more urbane. Faultlessly attired in a gray suit and crisp blue shirt, silk tie and highly polished shoes, he appeared the ultimate New York banker.

  “Good morning,” he said congenially as Lorne Senior, complacency sliding from his face like gray paint down smoothly weathered wood, cut through the group to confront him.

  “What are you doing here? You’re not a stockholder.”

  “Today I am.” Marshall handed the banker Aly’s proxy letter.

  Lorne read the contents, then gaped at him in speechless incredulity for a full minute while Marshall casually munched a doughnut. “She—she—can’t do this!” Lorne gasped at last. “She can’t do this…”

  Oh, Lord, not now, Aly lamented silently, seeing Victoria’s blue station wagon parked in the drive. Of all people she could do without seeing at the moment, it was Victoria. Immediately, she regretted the thought. After this morning, her sister might never set foot in her house again.

  “Where have you been?” Victoria demanded, meeting Aly at the door. “We’ve all been worried sick about you. Why didn’t you let us know where you were going?”

  “I’m sorry to have worried you,” Aly said. “I—I just wanted to be alone for a while. It must have been a delayed reaction to the shock of the tornado, seeing your house and so many others destroyed—”

y! It wasn’t that, and you know it. Nothing in this world has ever made you turn tail and run, Aly Kingston, nothing! Not even dear old Dad!” She yanked open her purse and pulled out the marriage license. “It was this, wasn’t it, that made you leave so suddenly yesterday.”

  Aly wanted to deny it, but she hadn’t the strength. She nodded slowly.

  “Well, let’s go in here and talk about it,” Victoria said in a softer tone and took Aly’s arm. “To tell you the truth, I’m relieved that you know, although I am a little surprised at your reaction. You’ve always been so broadminded and accepting. I’d have predicted that you’d simply shrug and say so what.” She led the way into the front parlor.

  Aly stared after her. Victoria’s brain power had not improved since her marriage, but her sensibilities had. Surely she had not missed all these years how much she cared for Marshall.

  “Now let’s just sit down and have a woman-to-woman talk,” Victoria suggested, patting the sofa. “I want to tell you about Peter’s father.”

  Reluctantly, Aly sat down beside her. “If you don’t mind, Victoria, I’d really rather not know about Peter’s father—”

  “Well, I want you to know!” Victoria declared in a voice that echoed her old self. “I don’t want you thinking badly of me.”

  “I don’t think badly of you, Victoria.”

  “Well, you’re acting like it,” she said, and added, “Aly, Peter will never know, so you don’t have to worry about that.”

  Aly swallowed. “I hope you’re right.”

  “I lied to you about not knowing Marshall in New York.”

  “Yes, I know. He told me,” Aly whispered.

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