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       Aly's House, p.2

           Leila Meacham
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  Through the door’s oval pane of age-discolored glass, Aly saw Elizabeth coming up the breezeway that ran through the center of the house. Aly’s misgivings increased when she noted Elizabeth’s slow walk and bowed head, as if the weight of the thick, graying twist of hair on her neck were too much for her. Fear fluttered in Aly’s stomach. Ordinarily, despite the clumsy, brown oxfords she wore summer and winter, Elizabeth’s step would have been light, her saintly face alight with welcome for her Thursday visitor. Something must have happened to Marshall.

  “Elizabeth, what’s the matter?” Aly asked at once when the door opened and she saw the tired, red-rimmed eyes of her friend.

  “Aly—” Elizabeth spoke painfully. “I-it’s bad news.”

  “What kind of bad news?”

  “Tell her, Mother.” The voice, tense and deep, came from Marshall, who suddenly appeared beside his mother and glared down at Aly. Aly lifted an awestruck face. Tall and athletically slim, with eyes as richly dark as her mother’s sable coat, Marshall Wayne had always been the most handsome boy she’d ever seen. But between the glimpse she’d had of him last Christmas and now, maturity had added a new dimension, a force and power that almost overwhelmed.

  “You do not look at Marshall Wayne,” one of her friends once declared, “you behold him.” Beholding him now, noticing the hard new manliness of his features and form, she felt an odd sense of loss. He had gone, the boy who had grown up in this house. She would never again see the Marshall Wayne she had loved since the first grade.

  She tore away her gaze to ask of Elizabeth, “Tell me what?”

  But Marshall answered with a flash of clenched teeth, “Your father intends to foreclose on us. We got a notice from the courthouse. We have thirty days to come up with the money we owe the bank or the farm will be posted for auction.”

  Stunned, Aly stared at Elizabeth for confirmation. “But that’s impossible! My dad wouldn’t foreclose on Cedar Hill.”

  “I’m afraid you’re wrong, Aly,” Elizabeth answered in weary resignation. “We haven’t been able to keep up with even the interest on the principal for some time. We’re way behind in our payments. Marshall came home to try to get his father to declare bankruptcy rather than to let the bank foreclose, but Sy won’t hear of it.”

  Aly still could not believe it. “There’s been a mistake,” she declared obstinately. “What would the bank want with Cedar Hill?”

  Moving his mother gently aside, Marshall stepped through the door. “That’s what I intend to find out,” he said furiously. Aly backed away, awed as much by his new grandeur as by his rage.

  “Where are you going, son?” Elizabeth asked anxiously.

  “To see Lorne Kingston,” he replied, making for the porch steps. “He’s going to explain why he wants our farm!”

  Aly, after a moment’s hesitation, propelled her thin, sun-browned legs after him. “Marshall—” she called, following him down the steps and across the yard. “Let me go with you. Maybe I can talk to him.”

  Without altering his pace, Marshall laughed bitterly. “You think your father would listen to you, Aly? You?”

  She winced from his taunt, but she persisted. “You won’t get in to see him without me,” she warned. “Dad will be expecting you. He’s probably already alerted the security guards. I may not be able to talk him into changing his mind, but I can at least get you into his office.”

  Marshall halted to consider her argument, holding her gaze thoughtfully. Then suddenly, as if he’d never really seen it before, the brown eyes shifted in curious study of her face. Embarrassment seared through her. She had read the same expression on the faces of so many. No, she didn’t look at all like a Kingston, she was always tempted to say. She was well aware of the joke that explained her presence in the Kingston household—that at birth she had been placed in the wrong crib at the hospital. She showed how little she cared by working hard at being as unlike any other member of her family as possible.

  But now, having caught Marshall’s attention for the first time in her eighteen years, she wished she’d agreed to braces for her slightly protruding teeth, to a permanent for her hair, to the cream that Victoria vowed would vanish the pox of freckles covering her face. She wished she could have forced down Annie Jo’s unappetizing fare at home, the monotonous lunches at school. Then there might have been some curves to her figure, something to improve the lines of her T-shirt and jeans.

  “Why don’t you ever curl your hair?” Marshall asked suddenly, impatiently flicking aside her bangs, touching her for the first time in their lives. “How do you see with that mop hanging down in your eyes?”

  The bangs had been her one attempt to conceal her freckles, especially abundant on her forehead. “I—I’m going to the barbershop next week.”

  The dark brows quirked in reluctant humor. “The barbershop?”

  “It gets Mother’s goat for me to go to a barber.”

  “God, Aly, why do you cut off your nose to spite your face? All right,” he said, his tone taking them back to business, “come on then. You drive your car, and I’ll take mine.”

  Aly followed the Ford in her sports car, her eyes never straying from the dark head in front of her. Blast her father! If this were true, the Kingstons would never be able to dig out of this hole with Marshall. She could read his hate and anger for anything remotely connected with the family name in every rigid movement of the broad shoulders, every turn of the sculpted profile. For the moment at least, she would not allow herself even to consider a foreclosure on Cedar Hill—what it would mean to the Waynes and to herself. She still believed there had been a mistake. What could her father possibly want with a farm? Farmland wasn’t selling right now, and Cedar Hill was too far out of Claiborne to be developed as commercial property. It wasn’t as if the bank couldn’t afford to let the Waynes ride for a while. The oil boom had the Kingston State Bank flourishing. Other farmers were allowed an extensive grace period during bad financial times. Why not Sy Wayne? This whole thing had to be a mistake. Surely her father wasn’t intending to foreclose on Cedar Hill.

  But Aly knew too well the president and chairman of the Kingston State Bank, and depression hung over her like a dark cloud by the time they drove into the bank’s parking lot. Marshall helped himself to one of the two spots marked president and chairman, the shabby black Ford a seedy contrast to her father’s new white Lincoln Continental in the other. Aly had to hurry to catch up with Marshall’s fast stride, reaching him as he threw open both of the heavy glass doors at once and strode defiantly toward her father’s office in the rear of the bank. Their entrance attracted the immediate and fascinated attention of the tellers and employees at desks around the room. Aly could tell from their expressions that news of the foreclosure was out. By tonight it would be discussed at every supper table in town.

  Mrs. Devers, her father’s secretary of many years, observed Marshall with stern disapproval. She could not see Aly, only a pair of extremely thin legs in tattered jean shorts behind him. “Yes, young man, what is it?”

  “I want to see the senior Lorne Kingston.”

  “Do you have an appointment?”

  “He doesn’t need one, Mrs. Devers,” said Aly, stepping from behind Marshall. “We’re together.”

  “So I see,” pursed Mrs. Devers critically. “Your father is busy at the moment, Aly. He doesn’t wish to be disturbed.”

  “Too bad,” said Aly, sailing past the older woman’s desk. “Come on, Marshall.”

  Lorne Kingston Sr.—warned by two sharp buzzes of the intercom that trouble was on the way—was already rising from behind his desk when Aly and Marshall entered. Buttoning his coat over a flawlessly ironed shirt, he said, “I can’t say that I’m surprised to see you, Marshall, even though I understood from your father that you were busy studying for your finals.”

  “Is that why you waited until this week to have the sheriff serve notice of an intent to foreclose?”

  Lorne Kingston—tall, graying, imp
erious—straightened slim shoulders. “You flatter yourself. I fear you’ve wasted valuable time on a useless trip if you’ve come home to convince me to change my mind about foreclosing. I’m sure, however, that your coming has been a comfort to your folks.” His glance cut sharply to Aly, taking in the T-shirt and ragged-edged jeans. “Young lady, the family asks so little of you. Is it too much to expect you not to come into this bank unless you are suitably attired?”

  Stunned that the bank did indeed plan to foreclose, Aly replied in amazement, “This is an emergency.”

  “Your appearance will do little to aid it. Now, Marshall, have your say and get out. I’m a busy man.”

  Marshall’s dark eyes flashed. “I want to know why you want Cedar Hill.”

  “Frankly, I don’t want it. The place will be a liability to the bank until it’s sold. All we want out of it is our vested interest in it. As I explained to Sy, anything over and above will be returned to him as equity. That’s a promise.”

  “Even if the bank buys it at auction and sells it later for a profit?”

  “Yes. I think even you would agree that’s more than fair. And until we do find a buyer, your family is welcome to stay on the land and pay us minimal rent. Naturally, the stock, equipment, and crops will be sold at auction. Now is there anything else?”

  Her father’s generosity astonished Aly. Ordinarily in a foreclosure, the bank pocketed all profits above the note value. The excess was never returned to the mortgagee, not by the Kingston State Bank. Knowing her father, she figured the offer must have been made to preserve the bank’s image in Claiborne. Residents would not look kindly upon the foreclosure of Cedar Hill. Her throat tightened as she looked at Marshall. He seemed to be having trouble with his next words.

  “Yes—I—it’s about Sampson,” he said a little less steadily. “Matt Taylor has offered me six thousand for him. I’ve accepted a position at the Chase Manhattan Bank after graduation. If you’ll take the money from Matt to pay the interest in arrears, I’ll use every cent I can spare from my salary to pay off the debt.…”

  “Sampson?” Aly interrupted in disbelief. “You would sell Sampson? But—but, Marshall, you can’t. You love that horse!”

  “Stay out of this, Aly!” he snapped, his eyes still on Lorne. “How about it, Mr. Kingston.”

  “No.” The word fired out bullet-quick.

  “No?” Aly echoed in surprise. “But why not, Dad? Marshall isn’t asking for anything but a chance to pay back the bank.”

  “I said no. The bank has given Sy that chance for years. And to grant an extension based on a promise that you would meet the farm’s obligations, Marshall, is ridiculous. The board would laugh me out of my president’s chair. You’re a young man. You’ll find that every cent you earn will be needed to meet your own expenses in these first years of working, especially in New York. You’ll need clothes, a place to live. You’ll have transportation and social expenses, insurances—an endless list to devour your salary.”

  “Mr. Kingston.” Marshall stepped closer, his tone modified, and Aly held her breath at the plea she heard in it. “You control the board. This bank is yours. Whatever you say goes. If you suggest an extension, the directors will go along with it. That farm represents my parents’ lives. My dad will never be able to hold his head up again if he loses it. Also—” Here Marshall had to run a tongue over dry lips. “He’s got a bad heart, Mr. Kingston. Moving away from Cedar Hill, taking my mother away from the house she loves, could literally kill him. I’ll do anything—sacrifice anything to pay off their debt if you’ll just give us a little more time.” Aly, wide-eyed with the certain knowledge of what was coming next, shrank inside herself when she heard him force out, “Please don’t foreclose, Mr. Kingston. I’m begging you.”

  She caught the glittering triumph that appeared briefly in her father’s gray eyes and despised him utterly in that moment.

  “No, Marshall.” Lorne shook his head implacably. “I’m afraid you must take some of the blame for this. I warned Sy when he remortgaged the farm to send you to Wharton that the bank would not be lenient again if he fell behind in his payments. You could have gone to any number of less expensive schools on the scholarships you were offered. But no, Sy had to have the best for his son. Well, I hope the price was worth it. Now you must excuse me. I have work to do.…”

  “Damn you.” Marshall grated, color mounting beneath the smooth olive skin of his face. He stepped threateningly closer to Lorne and jabbed a finger into the silk tie. “You know that remortgage was your idea. You knew he wouldn’t be able to meet his note. You promised him that the bank would carry him if he fell behind in his payments. You intended all along to foreclose. Now I want to know why. Why do you want Cedar Hill?”

  “Get away from me, you impertinent ingrate,” ordered Lorne angrily, his thin nostrils flaring, “or I will have you arrested for assault, and you can spend exam week in jail. That should do wonders for that illustrious grade point average, which now seems to have been earned at too great a sacrifice. Just how did you think your father got the money to send you to Wharton, I’d like to know?”

  Not moving, Marshall said, “He told me he had some old World War II bonds stashed away.”

  “A regrettable deception, apparently,” said Lorne dryly, obviously relieved at the entrance of two security guards, men who had been Marshall’s football teammates in high school. “Your father could have declared bankruptcy,” the banker reminded him. “Then he would have retained everything.”

  “You knew damn well Dad’s pride wouldn’t let him do that. You banked on it—literally.”

  “Ah, well, that’s to your sorrow. Pride is a luxury your family has never learned it cannot afford, Marshall. Now your friends here will see you to the door.” He nodded to the two young men, who began a reluctant approach to Marshall. “Alyson,” Lorne said to her sharply, “you will remain.”

  “Do you think I’m dressed for it?” she asked coldly, earning an irate glance from her father.

  “Tom…Clay…You can cool it. I’m going,” Marshall said without taking his eyes off Lorne. “But first I have something to say to our town’s leading citizen here. You’re going to pay for this, Kingston,” he vowed through clenched teeth. “It may take years to get you, but you can be assured I will. You’re going to regret the day your greed ever led you to foreclose on Cedar Hill. That’s a promise you can count on.”

  Lorne drew back slightly but returned the hostile look. “That sounds very much like a threat, Marshall, and made in the presence of witnesses, too. You’d better hope I’m never the victim of foul play. You’d be the first one suspected.”

  “I doubt that. I have the feeling I’d be standing somewhere back in a long line.”

  Aly saw her father’s lips whiten. “Get out,” he said with glacial restraint. “Get out now, Marshall. Aly, don’t you dare leave.”

  Oblivious to the lecture her father was delivering to her back, Aly stood at the window overlooking the parking lot and watched Marshall talking with his two friends. She maintained an obstinate silence, hoping her father’s wrath would play out before Marshall left. Her sympathy would mean nothing, she knew, but she just had to tell him that all was not lost. Already she was conceiving a plan that might soften this blow.

  Released at last, she hurried outside to find the security guards gone and Marshall fixedly contemplating the white Continental. With a face like sculpted stone, he vowed softly before she could speak, “Someday, Aly, my car—my Lincoln—will be in that spot. Someday I will be the president and chairman of this bank.”

  His words carried total, blood-chilling conviction. Aly stared at him, forgetting what she had planned to say. Then, abruptly, without glancing at her, he went around to the driver’s side of his car and got in.

  “Marshall—” Holding back her bangs with one hand, she bent down to the window while he started the motor. “I—I’m so ashamed, so sorry…”

  He looked up at her, the brown eyes opa
que with desolation. “I know you are, Aly. This has nothing to do with you. You shouldn’t feel in the least responsible.”

  Aly drew up, feeling a little better. She stepped back and watched him drive away, knowing what an effort it cost him to take the turn out of the parking lot at a judicious speed. But then Marshall Wayne was noted for his cool head. He’d never let anger make a fool out of him. She glanced toward the Lincoln Continental. There was not a doubt in her mind that he meant what he said.

  That evening Aly confronted her father in the study. “Now that you’ve said your piece, I intend to say mine,” she declared. “You’ve been guilty of some pretty underhanded tricks, Dad, but this one takes the cake.”

  “You watch your tongue, young lady, or—”

  “Or what? You’ll take away my car? I’ll walk. But if I walk, I talk. And boy, would I have plenty to say.”

  “Aly, as I explained to Marshall, the Waynes have been carried on the bank’s debit rolls for years. What else could I do? I knew Marshall ought to go to Wharton. But Wharton is expensive. I told Sy that. I pleaded with him to send his boy to Oklahoma University.”

  “O.U.? For a student like Marshall? You’ve got to be kidding, Dad. Marshall Wayne has the most exceptional mind that ever graduated from Claiborne High School. He’s Ivy League material through and through. Why didn’t you just set him up a college fund at the bank? Then he could have paid it off when he got out of school. That would have been the truly charitable thing to do.”

  When her father offered no comment on her suggestion, Aly continued. “But you wanted the Wayne land, didn’t you? And Marshall’s education was a way to get it. You approached Sy with the idea first, talked him into sending Marshall to Wharton. How would Sy, just a poor Oklahoma farmer, have known of such a place? To help his brilliant son off to a good start in life, you suggested he remortgage the farm. That way Sy wouldn’t think he was accepting charity. Then, when he wasn’t able to meet his note, you would step in and foreclose, something that Sy never anticipated because you promised otherwise. Who’s going to buy that land from you, Dad? Some development company coming into Claiborne with its first mall?”

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