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       Aly's House, p.3

           Leila Meacham
 
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  Lorne Kingston flicked an imaginary ash from the red brocade smoking jacket he affected for after-dinner wear. Rolling an expensive cigar lovingly between his lips, he regarded his daughter. He had never been able to understand it. The only one of his children whose company he actually enjoyed was his youngest, plainest, and most aggravating child. Aly was in many ways exactly like him—bold, perceptive, and intelligent—descriptions that would not apply to his other two, more physically appealing children. But Aly possessed other characteristics he could not claim: compassion, integrity, and loyalty. They made for a certain obstinance in his daughter that had always set them at odds with one another but never quite estranged them.

  Yet, oddly enough, only in her presence could he completely relax, be himself, without pretense, for he had nothing to lose or gain with Aly. She would never love him more; she would never love him less. Only with her could he enjoy a feeling of total honesty. Waving the cigar, he indicated she take the companion chair to his.

  “Too far out of town for a mall,” he said as she sat down. “You will know my plans when it is time. I would have thought you would be praising my generosity in allowing the Waynes to stay on the farm until a buyer can be found.” He puffed the cigar serenely.

  “Your generosity always pays you higher dividends than the recipient, Dad. You know the Waynes won’t stay on land belonging to somebody else. They’ll be off as soon as possible, though where they’ll go, what they’ll do, I don’t know. I had no idea Sy suffered from heart trouble.”

  “Oh, Marshall just tossed that in as a sympathy plea. Sy Wayne is as healthy as a horse. Marshall is learning the banker’s trick of bending the truth a bit in order to get his way. He should know better than to try it with me.”

  “Sy and Elizabeth’s son would never bend the truth to get his way. You shouldn’t measure everybody by yourself, Dad. One thing for sure, Marshall will just die if his father has to go to work for somebody else.”

  “I doubt that. Your young Marshall is a tough customer. I predict he will do very well in the business world, go far. The farther away from here, the better.”

  “I’m glad you recognize that, Dad. Marshall may just be in the position someday to carry out that promise he made you.”

  Lorne smiled. “Once he has a taste of money and luxury, of big-city living, he’ll be too busy enjoying the good life and paying its bills to come back to a little Oklahoma town to even any scores. Money and success have a way of corrupting even the most determined motives.”

  “Not vengeance,” declared Aly. “Not if it’s personal enough, and you can believe that foreclosing on Cedar Hill is personal enough.”

  Apprehension, light and minnow-quick, darted through Lorne’s self-satisfaction. It was gone in a flash. “Anything else you wanted to see me about?” he asked abruptly.

  “Yes. I want to borrow against my inheritance,” Aly stated, referring to the sizable bequest left her by her grandmother, the woman who had given birth to this bank vault that was Aly’s father.

  The cigar bobbed in surprise. “What for?”

  “I want to buy Cedar Hill.”

  The cigar dropped from Lorne’s mouth. Hastily, he retrieved it before the luxurious brocade could be damaged, then scowled at his daughter. “No!” he answered. “Absolutely, unequivocally no!”

  “Then I want to borrow against it to buy Sampson. The money will help the Waynes relocate, maybe provide a down payment on another place until Marshall can help out.”

  “You don’t know the first thing about horses.”

  “I can learn. Willy can teach me.”

  “Willy has refused to go near a horse for twenty years. Furthermore, you have no place to stable Sampson.”

  “I’ll find a place. If you don’t let me borrow against my inheritance, then when I come into my trust, I’ll draw out all my money and deposit it in your competitor’s bank. Think how that would affect your image as a banker and a father, not to mention the bank’s assets.”

  Lorne puffed rapidly and almost laughed, realizing she had him boxed in. He hadn’t any doubt that if he refused her the money, Aly at twenty-four would do exactly as threatened. He had never forgiven his mother for leaving the lion’s share of her fortune to Aly. It had been the one major financial reversal in his long business life. “All right,” he agreed, “but you needn’t think I’ll extend you credit or increase your allowance for feeding and stabling expenses. You better figure out a way to afford a horse. And I’d give a little thought to the possibility that Marshall might not sell to you, you being a Kingston and all.” He smiled complacently.

  Aly stood up to go. “I’ll let you know the amount I want to borrow—”

  “Six thousand, five hundred. Not a cent over.”

  “Now, Dad, you know that wouldn’t go far toward the purchase of another place for the Waynes. Besides, Sampson is worth a lot more than that. Matt Taylor was practically stealing him.”

  As she neared the door, her father startled her by saying, “Do you suppose you will ever outgrow your obsession for Marshall Wayne? He could never be interested in anyone like you, you know. And once Cedar Hill is sold, the Waynes will probably have to leave Claiborne. There’s no work around here for a man like Sy, no place to live. They’ll probably want to leave anyway. That damnable Wayne pride won’t let Sy keep his family in a town where they’re at the mercy of local pity and charity. Chances are, after the auction, you may never see Marshall again.”

  How was it possible that after all these years, her father could still hurt her? She thought herself inured to him. But she wasn’t, she found. “That possibility pleases you, doesn’t it, Dad. Did you by any chance foreclose on Cedar Hill to hurt me?”

  “My dear,” said Lorne, his tone softly chiding, “I never once thought of you in regard to the foreclosure on Cedar Hill.”

  Chapter Three

  The bustle of the flight attendants as they began serving drinks to the first-class passengers failed to penetrate Aly’s reverie. Not until the smartly aproned young woman tapped her shoulder, and her seat mate snapped his tray table down, did the question she’d just been asked register, bringing Aly back to the present with a jolt.

  “What?”

  The hostess patiently repeated her litany. “May I serve you a cocktail, some wine, or a soft drink?”

  “Oh, no, thank you. Nothing for me.” Aly rested her head against the seat back again as the attendant supplied a Bloody Mary and a miniature tray of cheese and crackers to the man in the window seat.

  Marshall, from his vantage point three rows back and across the aisle, watched the elegant young woman sigh and close her eyes again.

  As soon as they were airborne, Marshall had drawn a polite but definite curtain between himself and his garrulous seat mate, then adjusted the back of his seat to get a better view of the woman he had first noticed in the airport. There was something naggingly familiar about her. At first he had been charmed by her embarrassment that he had caught her staring at him. He was unused to that kind of reaction from women of her age and…liberated modernity, he supposed he’d call it. Most would have continued to stare boldly, invitingly, issuing a kind of challenge that lately he had come to find less and less provocative. He had been a little touched by her disconcertion and had treated himself to an inspection of his own while she pretended such interest in her ticket, noticing then how really lovely she was. Her figure had the certain long-lined elegance that he always associated with the sleek grace of a thoroughbred, an impression he thought was further heightened by her clothes, an elegant tweed suit with a simple white blouse. And the way she wore her hair, a full, sun-streaked mane of it, golden and glorious. Now he felt sure he knew her. Could she be from Claiborne? Then why hadn’t she recognized him? He hadn’t changed that much in thirteen years. Of course, this woman—he guessed her age to be about thirty—would have been eighteen or so when he left Claiborne, not likely to remember him since he would have been away at Wharton while she was
in high school. And he couldn’t recall any eighteen-year-old who had shown the promise of this woman’s kind of beauty. Still…something about the small nose, the firm little chin made him think he knew her. She was unmarried, he noticed from her ringless left hand resting on the armrest. It was a pleasing, capable hand with buffed, well-trimmed nails, the kind of hand that diamonds would not suit.

  His mother’s had been like that. He still had the simple gold wedding band she had asked him to keep shortly before she died. “A special girl waits for you, son, the kind of girl who will want this ring around her finger.” He had never met that special girl, and none of the women he knew would want a plain, gold band. Its simple eloquence would be lost on them. Somehow he knew that it would not be lost on the woman up the aisle.

  He closed his eyes. He could simply inquire, of course, but her manner had made it plain that she would not encourage conversation from a stranger on a plane, even one she clearly found disturbing. He would just wait and see if she got off in Oklahoma City. Someone from home he recognized might be meeting her plane.

  Home. A misnomer when applied to Claiborne. He couldn’t call Claiborne home. His parents were dead, his birthplace demolished, Cedar Hill laid to waste, most of his friends moved away—all the ties that bind cut long ago. Even so, more and more often he found his thoughts back in Oklahoma, buried in the past. It had begun—this going back—one cold January day in New York over a year ago. His accountant had handed him his balance sheet, smiled, and asked, “How does it feel to know you don’t have to work another day in your life to be able to enjoy it to the fullest?”

  He had studied the polished toe of a hand-sewn shoe, one of many pairs that occupied a closet filled with equally expensive custom suits, and considered an answer. “Cheated,” he had replied at last to the astonished man, “very cheated.”

  On the way back to his bachelor apartment on the Upper East Side, he had thought on his reply and decided, feeling slightly disillusioned, that the view from the top was never as good as expected on the climb up. He had found it so with everything he had attained: money, position, possessions, women. Always there was disappointment. The glow did not last, and afterward the darkness was deeper than before.

  But this strange disappointment had come to exist only at the periphery of the main objective in his life, a goal he had been pursuing singe-mindedly since his graduation from Wharton. This disappointment did not affect his pursuit in the least. The accomplishment of this goal would be different—would not disappoint, only elate and fulfill him, and he could hardly wait. Marshall smiled to himself. He hoped they thought he’d forgotten—the Kingstons. Their surprise would make his victory all the sweeter.

  In the front of the plane, Aly glanced at her seat mate happily munching away on packaged cheese spread and seed-speckled crackers. Though the days of positive distaste for nourishment were behind her, the sight of the airline-furnished treat caused a familiar feeling of revulsion she hadn’t experienced in years. So much was coming back that she hadn’t felt in years. She wondered what Marshall was thinking, this close to Claiborne, if the past and its feelings were as fresh and poignant to him as they were to her. Was he, too, remembering that awful time he had come home to confront her father? She closed her eyes again, slipping from the first-class cabin back to her bedroom and the morning after the scene at the bank.

  She was dreaming. In the dream she was still in grade school, and her mother had a ton of laundry for Willy to deliver this afternoon, just like last week; and maybe Elizabeth hadn’t gotten to it all, and they would have to wait for the last few pieces to be ironed. She hoped so. She would be able to finish her biology notebook on the kitchen table and wait for him to come in the back door from his chores.

  And, as if seeing Marshall weren’t enough, this was the Thursday of the month his mother always baked apple pies, one for supper and one for the freezer. Nobody in the world baked apple pies better than Marshall’s mother, and Aly would be given a big, juicy slice to enjoy while Elizabeth finished the last of her dad’s long-sleeved white shirts…

  “Aly, wake up! Get up, you hear me! Willy has quit!”

  Aly woke with a start, her heart thudding sickeningly from having been jerked from the peace of her favorite dream.

  “Annie Jo, for heaven’s sake!” she complained. “Don’t you know a person can have a heart attack being yanked awake like that?”

  “Willy’s quit. He must have just up and left early this morning!”

  “What?” Aly threw off the covers and sprang out of bed. “What are you talking about?”

  Annie Jo, a thin black woman whose placid countenance and smooth skin belied her hard forty years, wrung her slender hands and repeated piteously, “Willy’s quit. I just found out. Somethin’ about your pa’s foreclosure on the Waynes. His room’s been cleaned out, and he left a note sayin’ he wouldn’t be back.”

  Aly slipped into a robe and regarded her family’s cook and maid with compassion. Annie Jo and Willy had fought like cats and dogs for twenty years, mainly because of Annie Jo’s cooking, but they were genuinely fond and protective of each other. “I’m not surprised, Annie Jo. Fact is, I don’t know why Dad didn’t anticipate Willy leaving. He and Sy Wayne are the best of friends, and Willy wouldn’t be one to stomach what Dad has done. Did the note say where he had gone?”

  “Only that Mr. Kingston could send what he owed him to the Waynes. Oh, Aly, this place ain’t goin’ to be the same without Willy. It’ll be lonesome enough when you go off to college,” she wailed.

  Aly put her arms around the woman. “I’m not going anywhere, Annie Jo, so don’t worry about that. I’ll get dressed and go out to Cedar Hill. Maybe I can talk Willy into coming back.”

  But she rather doubted it, Aly thought moments later as she came down the stairs. In the dining room her family was assembling for the ritual of breakfast, presided over by Eleanor Kingston, Aly’s mother. “Good morning, all,” Aly said, entering and heading for the silver coffeepot on the sideboard. Nothing was yet on the table. She wondered if Annie Jo had charred the bacon, burned the toast, and overcooked the eggs before or after she had been told about Willy. Probably before, Aly judged, as Annie Jo came through the swinging door with breakfast platters showing congealed grease.

  “Willy has left us, Aly,” said her brother, Lorne Junior. “The nerve of that guy. After all we’ve done for him.”

  “Nobody believes in gratitude or loyalty anymore,” complained Eleanor at her head of the table. At fifty, she was still a beautiful and stylish woman with a head-turning figure. Her delicate features and blond hair, long-lashed blue eyes and full breasts had been inherited by her first daughter, Victoria, who was away finishing her last semester of college.

  Aly sipped her coffee. “It was precisely gratitude and loyalty that caused Willy to leave. Sy Wayne is his friend. He could never work for someone who had pulled the rug out from under his buddy.”

  “As usual, you’re allowing sentiment to cloud the facts, Aly,” Lorne Junior remonstrated. “Dad didn’t pull the rug out from under Sy Wayne. Foreclosure happens when money lent in good faith is not repaid.”

  “If you say so, Lorne Junior,” said Aly, glancing at her father, who was reading the paper with an air of unconcern. She rather liked her brother, an amiable soul whose only drawbacks were his slow intellect and blind devotion to their father. Eight years older than she, Lorne Junior had managed, just barely, to graduate from college with a degree in banking. Being groomed to take over his father’s position as president and chairman when he retired, he lived at home, content with his room on the top floor of the family’s impressive three-story house, his private entrance, and the lack of responsibility for his own meals, laundry, and housekeeping. He drove a Porsche, which he had ordered in a conservative gray, and planned to marry in due time the daughter of a local insurance man. The pathway before him he saw as wide, straight, and unimpeded. If he had a worry, it was simply that he lacked the perspicacity of his
father in banking matters, but experience and time would make up for that. In thirteen years when his father planned to retire, he would be ready to step into his shoes.

  “It’s not every family,” he reminded his sister, “who would hire a cripple.”

  “Certainly not for what we paid Willy,” Aly agreed. “The law would come after them.”

  “Aly, sit down and eat your breakfast,” Eleanor ordered, pressing delicate, rose-tipped fingers to her temples. “I have a headache from all this.”

  “Sorry, Mother,” Aly apologized lightly, taking a seat near her father, who, she knew, had missed not a word.

  Drinking her orange juice and swallowing the vitamins that probably prevented what would later come to be known as anorexia, she nibbled indifferently at a piece of cold toast. Because she seemed healthy enough at her yearly physicals, her mother never badgered her to gain weight, blaming Aly’s extreme thinness on a chemical disposition inherited from her husband’s side of the family. “Food doesn’t take with you, Aly, because you have the Kingston metabolism. Like your father, you will always be thin.” Such had not been the lot of the other children, who took after Eleanor in their tendency to gain weight. Eleanor never seemed to notice that Aly simply could not force down Annie Jo’s meals and complaints about the cafeteria food fell on deaf ears. Mass-produced snack and fast foods held no appeal either, so Aly subsisted on vitamins, juice, fruit, and milk. Her father and brother, she knew, managed their nutritional requirements by dining daily on the home-cooked lunch specials at Willard’s Cafe down from the bank.

  “Have you thought any more about where you will keep Sampson when you buy him?” Lorne asked, folding the paper and laying it aside to salt and pepper his eggs.

  “At one of the stables around town.”

 
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