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       Aly's House, p.18

           Leila Meacham
 
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  Victoria did not seem to notice the pain in her sister’s eyes. Settling herself, she began her narrative. “He called me up out of the blue and asked me out. You can imagine how surprised I was. Here I thought he hated every one of us Kingstons after what Dad did to Cedar Hill. I’d always had as mad a crush on him as you did, I think. So I jumped at the chance to go out with him. I was rather glad to be burying the hatchet, at least between us. Dad could look after himself, as I saw it. Anyway, we went out a few times, and I…” Victoria flushed and looked away. “Well, you know how irresistible Marshall is.”

  “Yes,” Aly said softly.

  “So I—I fell for him, only he didn’t fall for me. He was nice about it and all, nicer than he had to be, actually, but the plain truth was, he dumped me.”

  “Victoria, you don’t have to say anything more.” Aly laid a restraining hand on her sister’s arm.”

  “Yes, I do, Aly, or you won’t understand everything fully.”

  “All right, Victoria.”

  “So after Marshall left my life, I went a little crazy, I think. Nobody had ever thrown me over before, and it was a strange and frightening feeling. There I was alone in New York and blue. I started eating. I gained weight. I began to lose my confidence. And that’s when I met—” She stopped, looked at Aly covertly. “No names. I’m not going to tell you his name. But he was tall and dark-eyed and handsome as the dickens, and I was so in need of a man to bandage my ego.”

  Aly withdrew her hand carefully, so as not to give away the surprise and relief beginning to course through her. Light glimmered through the darkness of her despair. “This man…looked like Marshall somewhat?” she suggested.

  Victoria considered. “Well, a little, I guess. Both have the same kind of dark eyes and those long, lean frames that are so sexy. I had to prove to myself that just because Marshall didn’t want me in that way didn’t mean another ultraattractive man wouldn’t.”

  “I understand, Victoria,” Aly said, her profound relief giving way to the horrifying realization of what she had done. The rest of the story came to her ears as a garble. Her mind had jumped to the scene of Marshall in the conference room voting her proxy against the board…

  “…And Marshall’s sudden appearance brought back everything, panicked me so,” Victoria was explaining when Aly returned to her. “He—he—was so close to my secret, like a threat to it. He saw me one night with—with the man I was seeing. We were in a restaurant and I had to introduce them. I was afraid that somehow Marshall might guess…Peter looks so like his father. And then when you said what you did about my marrying Warren on the rebound—well, Aly, you can imagine how I felt!”

  “Yes, I can imagine.” Aly swallowed.

  “I lied about Marshall because I thought that might protect my secret. If I hadn’t known Marshall in New York, how could he have met Peter’s father, you see.”

  “I see,” said Aly.

  “But if I hadn’t known…that man in New York,” Victoria caught herself, “I wouldn’t have had Peter. And I might not have married Warren. And I might have stayed that stuck-up pain-in-the-you-know-what.” Victoria’s laughter bubbled out as she hugged her sister. “And you and I might not have become such good friends, dear sister of mine.” She looked at Aly contritely, her mouth pursed in pretty appeal. “I’m sorry I lied to you, and I’m sorry we had to miss your Easter party. Forgiven?”

  “Forgiven and the rest forgotten,” Aly said. A cold inertia had taken control of her limbs. “It’s just as well you were in Duncan Sunday,” she managed to add.

  “Well, I’m going to get out of here and let you get some rest. You look tired, Alyson. Oops, there’s your phone. Want me to get it?”

  “Uh, no,” said Aly quickly, getting to her feet. “I’ll get it, Victoria. Thanks.” It was probably their father, and she wanted to spare Victoria the news of her betrayal as long as she could—to remember the moment between them untarnished.

  “Toodle then,” said Victoria, going to the door. “I’m going to Duncan in the morning to pick up Peter. Okay if he stays with you tomorrow night? He’s dying to.”

  Aly smiled faintly. “I’ll be here.”

  Moving slowly, Aly reached the phone on its fifth ring. She lifted the receiver. “Alyson?”

  Her heart clutched. “Yes, Dad?”

  “My dear, you are indeed your father’s daughter.”

  “Yes, I come by certain of my…attributes honestly.” Pain shot across her chest. Her father’s anger, over its first explosive phase, had settled into the smoldering, more deadly stage of a white-hot wrath. Those who did not know him had often mistaken the agreeable tone he was using now as friendly. Aly knew better.

  “That was a stroke of genius if ever I saw it.”

  “That’s one way of putting it,” she said, beginning to get puzzled. Her father had given a hearty chuckle. This was a new touch.

  “It was a hair-raising gamble, Aly, but I won’t scold.” Lorne chuckled again. “I’d have done the same thing.”

  In the short silence Aly struggled to make sense of his words. Something was askew here. “And just how did I gamble?” she asked, her voice neutral.

  “Oh, come on now, Alyson. You couldn’t have been one hundred percent sure that Marshall would vote your proxy in favor of the board. You couldn’t have been that positive of his love for you!”

  Aly stood up, pinching off an exclamation just in time. She battled to keep her voice steady. “How—er—exactly how did it happen, Dad?”

  “Well, about five minutes before the meeting Marshall strolled in with your proxy letter. I nearly had heart failure when I read it, Aly. Naturally he kept us all in the dark until the vote was taken for retaining the board. You know what we were expecting. I can’t begin to describe to you my feelings when Marshall’s hand went up in our favor. I don’t think I’ve ever known such a feeling. I doubt I ever will again…” He cleared his throat.

  Aly, her legs weak now, sat back down. “He had us, you know,” Lorne said softly. “He had us, Aly. But you know that I could never even begin to imagine Marshall’s…regard for you. I’m proud of you, Alyson. I’m proud of both of you.”

  “Thank you, Dad,” she whispered.

  “Bring Marshall around Thursday night for dinner. I’d like to know that young man better, and since he’s apparently about to become a member of this family, it’s time we put aside our differences. Frankly,” he laughed shortly, “I’m relieved he’s to become my son-in-law. Your brother needs all the help he can get in running this bank.”

  “I’ll…ask him about Thursday,” said Aly quietly. Through the oval glass, she could see a white Lincoln Continental approaching the house.

  Walking to the door, she saw Marshall alight, the sun catching the sheen of his well-groomed head. Had he voted in favor of the board because he loved her or because, when push came to shove, he could not be less than Sy and Elizabeth’s boy? She could not be sure. Examining his taut expression through the glass, she saw nothing to indicate her father’s assumption was correct.

  The suspense widened like an aching chasm inside her. Her breath came short and fast as she opened the door. Marshall reached back inside the car for something he slipped into his coat pocket.

  Seeing her, he straightened and there was a moment of measuring silence before Marshall spoke. “I was hoping I’d find you here.”

  “Were you?” Aly asked noncommitally.

  “I’ve just come from the stockholders’ meeting.”

  “I know. My father just called.”

  “Then he told you how I voted your letter of proxy.”

  “He told me.”

  Approaching the porch, his gaze steady as hers, Marshall said, “I’m assuming the reason for that magnanimous gesture was to clear the books once and for all of any debts you somehow felt still outstanding between the Waynes and the Kingstons.”

  Aly remained silent. There was time enough for explanations later—if there was a later and if exp
lanations were necessary.

  “Or was it because, once you discovered why I was back in Claiborne, you thought I richly deserved the stock I’d schemed to get?” Marshall asked ironically as he propped a foot on the bottom step.

  “Why did you vote in favor of the board, Marshall?”

  “Don’t you know why, Aly? Because I love you. Your proxy gave me the chance to prove that it’s you I want and not your father’s bank.”

  Aly put out a hand involuntarily, reeling from the shock of joy coursing through her. “Marshall—You love me? Why didn’t you tell me before—”

  “Aly, honey, don’t you understand?” Taking the steps two at a time, he reached her and drew her into his arms where he rocked her gently, soothingly, like a child. “If I’d told you how I felt about you, that I want to spend the rest of my life trying to make you happy, you’d have just been more hurt when you found out the truth about why I’d come back to Claiborne. Nothing would have convinced you of my sincerity. You would have thought all I’d said had been a lie for the purpose of weaseling your stock out of you. I knew you’d toss me out on my ear once you’d learned why I was back. By not promising you anything, at least I could spare you something…”

  Aly had begun to cry quietly from relief and emotional exhaustion. She felt weak all over and had to fight from sagging against him. “I feel limp as a rag,” she muttered against the silk of his tie.

  “You ought to,” he said above her head. “It’s taken a long time and a lot out of you to reel this boy in.”

  Aly looked up, grinning through her tears. “Have I done that?”

  “Without a doubt. Look inside my coat pocket.”

  Aly felt in his pocket and drew out an old brown velvet ring box, very faded and worn. “Open it,” Marshall said softly.

  In the space between them, still in the circle of his arms, Aly lifted the lid. Inside, wedged in the ring groove, was a narrow band of gold. Aly looked up in flushed wonder, her throat tightening with emotion. “Elizabeth’s ring!” she breathed.

  “She always said a special girl waited for me, one who would want that ring around her finger. She was right, as usual—about the special girl, I mean. I sure am hoping she was right about the rest.”

  “Marshall,” Aly said, her eyes luminous, her heart about to burst, “how can you have the least doubt?”

  “Well,” he said, tilting her chin, “there’s a way to put to rest any doubts I may have.”

  As she closed her eyes, waiting for Marshall’s lips to descend, Aly was conscious of the moment as both a conclusion and a beginning, the joining of two ends of time in a never-ending revolution, like the ring she would soon wear on her finger. They had been brought a full cycle, she realized. Everything had changed and yet all seemed the same as the day she first set foot on Cedar Hill. Wrens still chirped in the pecan trees, geraniums bobbed in clay pots, and the swing still creaked in the noonday breeze—a curious blend of the past and present, of time passing and standing still. And they were still here, too, she and Marshall, their hearts united at last.

  Aly sighed against him, her arms tightening around his waist in loving possession. Marshall responded likewise. Out in the pasture, the russet stallion Sampson lifted his head, scenting the wind. He gave a glad whinney. His master was home.

  In the sweeping tradition of the New York Times bestselling Roses, Leila Meacham delivers another grand yet intimate novel set against the rich backdrop of early twentieth-century Texas. In the midst of this transformative time in Southern history, two unforgettable characters emerge and find their fates irrevocably intertwined as they love, lose, and betray.

  Turn the page for a preview of

  TITANS

  On sale now.

  Prologue

  From a chair beside her bed, Leon Holloway leaned in close to his wife’s wan face. She lay exhausted under clean sheets, eyes tightly closed, her hair brushed and face washed after nine harrowing hours of giving birth.

  “Millicent, do you want to see the twins now? They need to be nursed,” Leon said softly, stroking his wife’s forehead.

  “Only one,” she said without opening her eyes. “Bring me only one. I couldn’t abide two. You choose. Let the midwife take the other and give it to that do-gooder doctor of hers. He’ll find it a good home.”

  “Millicent—” Leon drew back sharply. “You can’t mean that.”

  “I do, Leon. I can bear the curse of one, but not two. Do what I say, or so help me, I’ll drown them both.”

  “Millicent, honey… it’s too early. You’ll change your mind.”

  “Do what I say, Leon. I mean it.”

  Leon rose heavily. His wife’s eyes were still closed, her lips tightly sealed. She had the bitterness in her to do as she threatened, he knew. He left the bedroom to go downstairs to the kitchen where the midwife had cleaned and wrapped the crying twins.

  “They need to be fed,” she said, her tone accusatory. “The idea of a new mother wanting to get herself cleaned up before tending to the stomachs of her babies! I never heard of such a thing. I’ve a mind to put ’em to my own nipples, Mr. Holloway, if you’d take no offense at it. Lord knows I’ve got plenty of milk to spare.”

  “No offense taken, Mrs. Mahoney,” Leon said, “and… I’d be obliged if you would wet-nurse one of them. My wife says she can feed only one mouth.”

  Mrs. Mahoney’s face tightened with contempt. She was of Irish descent and her full, lactating breasts spoke of the recent delivery of her third child. She did not like the haughty, reddish-gold-haired woman upstairs who put such stock in her beauty. She would have liked to express to the missy’s husband what she thought of his wife’s cold, heartless attitude toward the birth of her newborns, unexpected though the second one was, but the concern of the moment was the feeding of the child. She began to unbutton the bodice of her dress. “I will, Mr. Holloway. Which one?”

  Leon squeezed shut his eyes and turned his back to her. He could not bear to look upon the tragedy of choosing which twin to feast at the breast of its mother while allocating the other to the milk of a stranger. “Rearrange their order or leave them the same,” he ordered the midwife. “I’ll point to the one you’re to take.”

  He heard the midwife follow his instructions, then pointed a finger over his shoulder. When he turned around again, he saw that the one taken was the last born, the one for whom he’d hurriedly found a holey sheet to serve as a bed and covering. Quickly, Leon scooped up the infant left. His sister was already suckling hungrily at her first meal. “I’ll be back, Mrs. Mahoney. Please don’t leave. You and I must talk.”

  Chapter One

  Barrows homestead near Gainesville, Texas, 1900

  On the day Nathan Holloway’s life changed forever, his morning began like any other. Zak, the German shepherd he’d rescued and raised from a pup, licked a warm tongue over his face. Nathan wiped at the wet wake-up call and pushed him away. “Aw, Zak,” he said, but in a whisper so as not to awaken his younger brother, sleeping in his own bed across the room. Sunrise was still an hour away, and the room was dark and cold. Nathan shivered in his night shift. He had left his underwear, shirt, and trousers on a nearby chair for quiet and easy slipping into as he did every night before climbing into bed. Randolph still had another hour’s sleep coming to him, and there would be hell to pay if Nathan disturbed his brother.

  Socks and boots in hand and with the dog following, Nathan let himself out into the hall and sat on a bench to pull them on. The smell of bacon and onions frying drifted up from the kitchen. Nothing better for breakfast than bacon and onions on a cold morning with a day of work ahead, Nathan thought. Zak, attentive to his master’s every move and thought, wagged his tail in agreement. Nathan chuckled softly and gave the animal’s neck a quick, rough rub. There would be potatoes and hot biscuits with butter and jam, too.

  His mother was at the stove, turning bacon. She was already dressed, hair in its neat bun, a fresh apron around her trim form. “G’morning, Mo
ther,” Nathan said sleepily, passing by her to hurry outdoors to the privy. Except for his sister, the princess, even in winter, the menfolks were discouraged from using the chamber pot in the morning. They had to head to the outhouse. Afterward, Nathan would wash in the mudroom off the kitchen where it was warm and the water was still hot in the pitcher.

  “Did you wake your brother?” his mother said without turning around.

  “No, ma’am. He’s still sleeping.”

  “He’s got that big test today. You better not have awakened him.”

  “No, ma’am. Dad about?”

  “He’s seeing to more firewood.”

  As Nathan quickly buttoned into his jacket, his father came into the back door with an armload of the sawtooth oak they’d cut and stacked high in the fall. “Mornin’, son. Sleep all right?”

  “Yessir.”

  “Good boy. Full day ahead.”

  “Yessir.”

  It was their usual exchange. All days were full since Nathan had completed his schooling two years ago. A Saturday of chores awaited him every weekday, not that he minded. He liked farmwork, being outside, alone most days, just him and the sky and the land and the animals. Nathan took the lit lantern his father handed him and picked up a much-washed flour sack containing a milk bucket and towel. Zak followed him to the outhouse and did his business in the dark perimeter of the woods while Nathan did his, then Nathan and the dog went to the barn to attend to his before-breakfast chores, the light from the lantern leading the way.

  Daisy, the cow, mooed an agitated greeting from her stall. “Hey, old girl,” Nathan said. “We’ll have you taken care of in a minute.” Before grabbing a stool and opening the stall gate, Nathan shone the light around the barn to make sure no unwanted visitor had taken shelter during the cold March night. It was not unheard of to find a vagrant in the hayloft or, in warmer weather, to discover a snake curled in a corner. Once a hostile, wounded fox had taken refuge in the toolshed.

 
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