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       Aly's House, p.5

           Leila Meacham
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  He grinned in appreciation and cuffed her chin. “You will too, no doubt. But if I go, I won’t leave without saying good-bye or telling you where I can be reached if you ever need me.”

  Good ol’ Dad has really gummed up some lives, Aly thought bitterly as she drove out of the yard.

  Chapter Four

  Driving toward Claiborne past the gently rolling farmland that made up Cedar Hill, Aly’s mind turned to Willy. It was so sad. He had thought he had a home with her parents for the rest of his life. He’d not been paid high wages, but his salary included a comfortable, roomy apartment over the garage and free board, if Annie Jo’s meals could be counted as a fringe benefit.

  A former jockey, Willy had suffered a shattered hip when his horse had fallen during a race. After release from the hospital, he left the Kentucky bluegrass country of his birth and followed a string of odd jobs down into the flat plains of Oklahoma. He’d avoided horses ever after, not because he held his injuries against them, but because he could never ride again. “Me working around horses would be like an alcoholic working in a liquor store,” he once explained to Aly. “Too much pain, too many memories.”

  He had come to them the month she was born. Her father had hired him to be on hand to drive her mother to the hospital in case he wasn’t around. He hadn’t been, and Willy had been the one careening around corners and running red lights in the wee hours of the morning to get her mother to the emergency entrance in time for delivery. Annie Jo and Willy had been the first to wave and smile at her through the nursery room glass, and so it had been ever since. They were always the ones to whom she took her triumphs and tragedies.

  Well, she thought, at least at Cedar Hill Willy had a home for a while. Once she found a place for Sampson, she would concentrate on one for Willy.

  Several hours later, Aly sat seething behind the wheel of her sports car parked in front of the Newton Riding Stable. She’d just been informed by the owner that he had no room to stable another horse, even though Aly had spied two empty stalls with blank nameplates. “What about those?” she had asked, pointing to the end of the stable.

  “They’re reserved for two boarders coming in at the end of the week.”

  “Which boarders?”

  “That’s none of your business, young lady.”

  “My father put you up to this, didn’t he? He called you and warned you that I’d be out, looking for a place to keep Sampson. You’re afraid that the bank will call in your loan if you rent a stall to me, aren’t you?”

  The nervous shift of the stable owner’s eyes confirmed to Aly that she had correctly appraised the situation. She’d had the same experience at the other stable.

  Now what was she to do? Where could she go for stable space? Which farmer or rancher was not in hock to the Kingston State Bank? The only resident she could think of was Matt Taylor, still referred to as the Connecticut Yankee even though he had come down from New England a quarter of a century before. Hardworking, frugal, and solvent, he owned Green Meadows, one of the finest horsebreeding farms in the state and a neighbor to Cedar Hill. Money changed hands between him and her father because the profits from the farm were deposited in the Kingston State Bank and the bank paid Matt interest on them.

  But Matt was bidding for Sampson. Why would he want to rent a stall to her when he found out that she, too, had made an offer for the horse. He would be sure to figure out that the sale was contingent on her securing space for him. Aly put the sports car in reverse gear. Right now she had no other choice but to sound Matt out about it. The worst he could say was no. Dadblameit! She knew the reason for her father’s interference. It wasn’t the loan. He wanted nothing to prevent her going to college. Aly would have preferred his usual indifference. She’d had more experience with it and had learned how to deal with the pain.

  She found Matt in his office, a spacious, comfortable room with large plate glass windows overlooking barns, stables, paddocks, and grazing fields. Green Meadows had produced a number of racing champions, and its stock was noted to be sound, sturdy, and healthy. Aly respected and liked Matt Taylor, a heavy-set man in his early forties who was never too busy to play host to schoolchildren on field trips.

  The breeder had never lost his Eastern accent, and his quick clear speech with the hard consonants fell sharply on Oklahoma ears. When she arrived, he was shouting into the phone. “You can tell Benjy Carter that I have no intention of bailing him out of jail on this drunken charge, not this time! You can tell him for me, his former employer, that he can rot in there for all I care.” He banged down the phone and scowled at Aly.

  “Benjy Carter at it again, Mr. Taylor?”

  “Got picked up driving on the wrong side of the road out of Claiborne loop-legged drunk. I’ve had it with the boy, even though it means I’ll be shorthanded until I can find somebody reliable to replace him. That’ll be hard to do what with the oil companies siphoning off all the good help these days. What can I do for you, Aly?”

  “I’d like to rent a stall from you for a horse I want to buy.”

  Matt’s broad brow furrowed like a newly sown cornfield. “Why, Aly, I’m not in the stall-renting business. You’re buying a horse? What kind and who from?” His surprised tone suggested disappointment that she was not buying from him.

  Aly sighed. “I was afraid you’d ask me that. I might as well level with you. I want to buy Sampson, Mr. Taylor. Marshall leaves to go back to Pennsylvania tomorrow, and I have to find a place for Sampson by then or he won’t sell to me. He’ll…sell to you. I’ve tried both stables, but they’re full.”

  “You must be offering him considerably more than I am.”

  “I am.”

  “Well, now,” Matt stroked his chin thoughtfully. “I got to say, Aly, that helping you means cutting myself out of a good piece of horseflesh, and I don’t see how I can do that. Fact is, knowing how much Marshall loves that horse, I’m surprised he’d even think of selling him to you, not because you’re a Kingston, mind you, but because you’ve never been known to have anything to do with horses. You’ll be going off to school in the fall, won’t you?”

  “No, Mr. Taylor, I won’t. I intend to get a job here in Claiborne if I can. And believe me, I’ve heard all the arguments about why I wouldn’t be a good owner for Sampson, but I will be.”

  Matt looked at her with compassion. “A job, Aly? In this town? It’s no secret how your dad feels about your going to school. Who’s going to give you a job that would thwart his wishes?”

  Aly stared at him. An idea had just popped into her head. “How about you? You’re not afraid of Dad’s clout, and you’re shorthanded, right? You need somebody to take Benjy Carter’s place, right? How about me?”

  “How about you?” Matt chortled. “Why, you don’t know the first things about mucking out stalls and taking care of horses!”

  “Mr. Taylor, I can learn.” Aly’s hazel eyes deepened in earnestness. “I’m a good worker and as reliable as they come. Ask anybody. And—and—you can hire me pretty cheap.”

  The last piqued Matt’s Yankee frugality. He squinted at her closely. “How cheap?”

  Aly thought carefully. “For Sampson’s room and board,” she said slowly, “I’ll come out here every morning and work until noon. The rest of the day my services will cost you minimum wage.”

  “You’ve got to be out of your mind, young lady. Nobody works for wages like those!”

  “I will,” Aly said emphatically, beginning to have hope that she had made a deal. “Working here will give me a chance to learn about horses. I’ve always been curious about them. And you’ll be pleased with the quality of my work. I’m sure of it.”

  Matt Taylor walked over to one of the windows to think over her offer. Aly tried to guess what he was thinking. Was he worried that she’d be too slight to handle the chores or too scared of the horses?

  “Tell you what,” Aly said, “if you’ll agree to my terms, after a month if you’re not satisfied with my work, I’ll sell S
ampson to you for the price you would have paid—six thousand dollars.”

  Matt’s mouth hung open. “You mean you’d lose the difference between what you paid and what I offered?”

  “That’s right.”

  “And you’d trust my evaluation of your work?”

  “You’re known as an honest man, Mr. Taylor. I know you’ll deal fairly with me.”

  “Mucking out stalls is hard, dirty work. What if you don’t like it and just decide to quit?”

  “Then you’d have another reason Sampson would become yours.”

  Matt Taylor smiled and held out his hand. “Folks who work at Green Meadows call me Matt,” he said. “When can you start?”

  The bargain struck, Aly drove out to Cedar Hill to inform Marshall that Sampson had a new home. She found man and horse in the barn and paused just inside the door, reluctant to interrupt the last moments between them. They were in deep conversation—Marshall talking in low tones and Sampson occasionally responding with a soft whinny.

  What a wrench it had been for both of them when Marshall had left for college. The stallion had refused to eat for several days and remained listless and despondent for weeks afterward. At Christmas, they’d had a glorious two weeks together before Marshall had to leave again, and once more Sampson pined.

  “It happens that way sometimes with unweaned foals,” Willy explained, referring to the spindly-legged, malnourished little colt that Sampson had been when Marshall bought him. Rejected by his mother and neglected by his busy owner, the little fellow was slowly dying of starvation when Marshall heard of his plight.

  Marshall had gone to the owner and offered the only thing of value he owned in exchange for the colt—a prized flintlock gun left him by his grandfather. The owner had agreed to the trade, and Sampson had gone to live at Cedar Hill, where he and Marshall became all but inseparable. Now after six years, Sampson was to have a new home for a while, his master was explaining, but he’d come for him as soon as he could.

  “Marshall?” Aly called softly.

  Both master and horse looked in her direction, their eyes grave and unwelcoming. Feeling an intruder, she said kindly, “I have a place for him.”

  “Where?” he asked shortly, but Aly knew that pain made him brusque.

  “At Matt Taylor’s. He’s agreed to let me keep Sampson at Green Meadows.”

  “At Green Meadows?” Marshall said in surprise. “How did you swing that?”

  Aly shrugged, smiling slightly. “Offered him one of my special deals. Now how about us? Do we have one?”

  Intrigued, Marshall came close to her, one corner of his mouth lifting in a grin. “We do,” he said. “Let’s shake on it.” When Aly gave him her hand, he laughed. “Come on, Aly. How’d you do it? How did you get Matt to agree to board Sampson?”

  “I never give out trade secrets, Marshall,” she replied, liking the strong but sensitive feel of his hand. No use telling him about the bargain between Matt and me, she thought. She was confident that her labor at Green Meadows would be beyond reproach. Sampson was in no danger of being lost because of shabby work. She planned to make herself indispensable.

  Marshall’s brown eyes glowed in admiration. Aly knew he was relieved that Sampson would have such a good home. “You are something very special, Alyson Kingston,” he said approvingly. “Why haven’t I ever noticed before?”

  “You never looked,” she said with simple candor, hoping that now that he was, her freckles weren’t standing out like copper pennies. At least she had gone home and changed, not wanting to make her father any madder than he already was when she went to the bank. At home she’d also trimmed her bangs and applied a light touch of makeup. “But then,” she added hastily, “there’s not much to see.”

  “There’s plenty to see. But you have to see it first, Aly. Then make the most of it.”

  “I wouldn’t know how to do either one—”

  “Get Victoria to help you.”

  “I wouldn’t give her the satisfaction!” Aly said, suddenly angry. How did this conversation get turned around to Victoria! She realized he was still holding her hand. He held it firmly when she tugged at it.

  “Hey,” he said mollifyingly, “don’t get your dander up. It was just a suggestion.” He released her hand. Aly thrust both of hers into the pockets of her skirt.

  “Okay, so we have a deal,” she said. “I’ll leave Sampson here until after the auction.”

  “Aly, you can change your mind, you know.” Her heart began to beat faster as Marshall stepped closer. His voice was quiet and gentle. “You don’t owe us anything. You’re not responsible for what your father does.”

  “I know that,” she said, lifting her gaze upward. They were almost touching. Aly felt suddenly enclosed with him in a special, very private place, just the two of them and Sampson. “It’s just that I—I may never have another opportunity to do anything for your family, Marshall. They mean the world to me, you know. And besides, I’m not buying Sampson for keeps. I expect you to buy him back from me, remember.” She smiled at him, and once again her face underwent a startling transformation.

  Marshall caught her to him, taking her breath away. “Thanks, Aly,” he whispered gratefully. “Thanks for everything. Sampson will be all I have left of Cedar Hill.”

  Her eyes shut and stinging, her throat hurting, she pushed her face into the hard comfort of his shoulder, thinking, No, Marshall, I am what you have left of Cedar Hill. I have it all inside of me for safekeeping, all the memories of all the years. Slipping her arms around his waist, they stayed clasped in friendship and mutual loss for several minutes before Marshall extricated himself and sealed their new bond with a kiss on her forehead. “When I come back for the auction, I’ll teach you how to ride Sampson,” he promised. “In the meantime, you two can become friends.”

  “Oh, Marshall, I can hardly wait!” Aly said, beaming. “I’m going by the bank now to pick up the check and sign the loan papers. When are you leaving in the morning?”

  “Before daybreak. You want us to meet in town somewhere—”

  “No, I’ll bring the check back out here. I have some things of Willy’s to bring him anyway.”

  “Good,” Marshall said. “I’ll have the sale agreement ready. Come for supper. Mother’s having fried chicken.”

  “Oh, yum!” Aly said, enormously happy. She gave him a smile. “See you tonight.”

  At the bank, her father’s displeasure had transformed into grudging admiration. How the devil had she managed to talk Matt Taylor into keeping Sampson on his place? Had she agreed to rent the horse for stud service? What deal had she made? He bombarded her with questions as Aly followed him into his office.

  “None of your business,” she answered. “And I think it was pretty low of you to use the bank as a means to keep the other stables from renting to me. However, I must say, things have worked out for the best.” She looked infuriatingly pleased with herself, a front assumed to needle her father. Behind the cheerfulness lay the worry that he might find out about her agreement with Matt and somehow wreck it. He was capable of that.

  “It was for your own good,” her father said, taking a seat at his desk. The paperwork for the money borrowed from her inheritance along with the check for ten thousand dollars were in a file folder on the desk. “That horse will be an enormous liability and will keep you tied down. It will further influence you not to go to college in the fall. I don’t care where, as long as you go. Your argument that you have no interests or goals at this point doesn’t matter. Your sister didn’t either when she went to college.”

  “She still doesn’t, as I see it. Majoring in sorority is not my idea of pursuing a goal.”

  “Your sister will be graduating with a degree in elementary education!” Lorne stormed, anger making his fine gray eyes icy.

  “If she doesn’t fail one more course,” Aly corrected mildly. “If her grades are any reflection of the kind of teacher she’ll be, I wouldn’t want my kid in her class.

  “Young lady—” In frustration Lorne Senior adopted what Aly called his lecture pose: elbows at right angles on the desk, fingers laced tightly, eyes penetrating over the top of his glasses. “Your problem is that you’re jealous of your brother and sister. They know where they’re going. They’ve taken steps to provide for their future. You should go and do likewise, rather than stay in Claiborne mooching off your parents until you come into your inheritance.”

  “I don’t have to go to college to find myself. All I have to do is put my right hand on my left elbow, and my left hand on my right elbow,” Aly demonstrated, “and I have found myself. And starting tomorrow morning I won’t have to mooch off you and Mom anymore, Dad. I’ve got a job. I’ll pay you rent for my room.”

  Lorne drew back in sharp surprise. “A job? Where?”

  “At Green Meadows.”

  Perplexity gave way to gradual comprehension, clearing Lorne’s expression. “So that’s how you got Sampson a stall. I heard at Willard’s this noon that Benjy Carter got canned because of another DWI charge. You got his job, didn’t you? But why would Matt hire you?”

  Aly changed the subject. “Have you had the paperwork for the loan drawn up? Is that it on your desk?” She snatched it up before he could grab it. Opening the folder, Aly read the contents and said, “Very good. Give me a pen and I’ll sign.”

  “You’re making a mistake doing this, Aly,” Lorne pronounced heavily as she signed her name.

  “Doing what?” she asked. “Borrowing against my inheritance or not going to college.”


  “Well now, Dad,” Aly returned the pen to its holder, “the first mistake I could avoid if you denied me the loan of my money. As trustee, you can do that. But that move would cost the bank several million dollars once I turned twenty-four. A sacrifice that, as president, you’re not willing to make to save me from myself. So you can imagine what I think of your concern on that point. And as for going to college, I’m not at all sure that you and Mom want me to go for my benefit or for the sake of family appearances.”

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