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       Aly's House, p.6

           Leila Meacham
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  “There has never been a Kingston who did not go to college.”

  “Well, Dad, I am not a typical Kingston.” Aly picked up the check and left her father sitting at his desk, his face set in grim acceptance of that fact. After a moment of staring at the closed door, he lifted the phone.

  Aly left the bank, aching from the emptiness that always followed a bitter session with her father. It was true what she had said. She entertained no illusions about her place in the family. She knew that she was the child who never should have been. Before her birth, the family was complete. Her parents had the only children they wanted, a son and daughter who were perfect replicas of themselves.

  “They say,” her mother had said to the rest of the family peering down at the infant in its bassinet—or so Annie Jo had related years later—“that if a baby is ugly at birth, it grows up to be beautiful. Let’s hope so.”

  But she had not grown up to be beautiful nor even to own a redeemable temperament. Furthermore, her concept of the family’s position in Claiborne differed considerably from that of the other Kingstons.

  “Alyson, you are absolutely not to play with Wade Conners, you understand? We have certain standards to maintain in Claiborne, and Wade Conners doesn’t meet them. He is totally unsuitable company for the daughter of a bank president. You are not to invite him to this house ever again.”

  “But why not, Mother? He’s funny and he makes me laugh.”

  “He’s unclean and he smells bad. You could catch something from him.”

  “His mother is dead and his father is a drunk. He takes care of himself the best way he can.”

  “Really, Alyson,” Victoria chimed in, “why do you play with such creatures!”

  “Because they like me the way I am.”

  In grade school she built a playhouse next to the fence in the alley, and from there, fed all the stray dogs and cats that came to her door. It was there she entertained the Wade Connerses of her acquaintance, sneaking them in through the back door of her family’s grand home when a bathroom was required. After a while she came to be called Aly, a nickname appropriate to her nonfamily connections and one that could fortunately be explained as a shortened version of her name. Only her mother called her Alyson and would have loved her, Aly knew, if she had not proved to be a book too complicated to read. In time she was set aside and rarely picked up again. Aly watched as her mother turned her time, energy, and hopes to her other, less provocative children. But her father, a perceptive, astute man, was a different matter. As Aly drove out to Cedar Hill, she was thinking that he read her with perfect understanding and disapproved of the text.

  Chapter Five

  All right, young lady, I’ve assigned you to Joe Handlin here. He’s our stable manager, and you’ll be taking your orders from him.” Matt Taylor indicated a tall, rangy young man Aly guessed to be in his early twenties. He also looked vaguely familiar. His hair—what could be seen of it below a battered cap bearing the logo of Green Meadows—was the reddish brown hue of the large round freckles dotting his friendly countenance. “Joe, this is Aly Kingston. She’s taking Benjy’s place, as I told you. You’re supposed to teach her everything you know about running the stables.”

  The other eight members of the staff, gathered for a quick Monday meeting in Matt’s office, looked on in amusement as Joe stuck out a large, freckled hand. “Lord have mercy, Matt—in just a week?”

  Aly looked puzzled. “A week? Are you going somewhere?”

  “No, but you are.” Joe grinned amicably. The eyes, Aly could see, were not friendly at all. “I figure a week of the kind of work you’ll be doing will just about do it before we see the last of you and that little sports car out there.”

  So that was it, thought Aly in quick understanding. She glanced quickly at Matt, wondering if he had apprised his manager of their bargain. Reading her query, the breeder shook his head almost imperceptibly. Aly withdrew her hand and gave Joe an unperturbed smile. “Don’t place any bets on it,” she said.

  The meeting over, Aly followed Joe out to the large complex of stables and listened carefully as he explained her main responsibilities. She had already gathered from Matt’s briefing that the busiest time of the breeding season was over and now the staff was mainly engaged in taking care of the pregnant mares, supervising the foaling, and caring for the newborns.

  “You can rest easy if you’re worried about having anything to do with the breeding operation,” Joe explained. “That’s left for the experienced horsemen. What you’ll be doing is mucking out stalls, grooming, watering, and feeding the horses. It’s a full-time, never-ending job, with no glory to it and little reward except knowing that the finest four-legged creatures on God’s earth have good food, fresh water, and clean stalls. If I ever find a horse in your care lacking any of the three, you can bet I’ll ask Matt to can you. Benjy may be a drunk, but I could count on his affection for horses. I don’t know that I can yours. Matt tells me you barely know one end of a horse from the other. That so, Miss Kingston?”

  “That’s so, Joe,” Aly puffed, nearly having to run to keep up with him. “But I’m a fast learner and a hard worker. Please call me Aly.”

  “I call only my friends by their first names, Miss Kingston.” Joe pushed open both halves of a wide Dutch door and entered a large barn. Aly, her cheeks warm from the rebuff, followed Joe’s rangy figure down an immaculate concrete corridor to a small glass-enclosed office on the right. Joe stepped inside and pushed a button. Instantly soft music flooded the barn and equine heads began to appear over the tops of stall doors.

  “Horses like music,” he explained, going back to the first stall. The quarterhorse inside was wide awake and happy to see Joe. She nuzzled Joe’s shirt pocket as he slid his hand along the well-muscled neck. “Don’t have no sugar for you this morning, sweetheart,” he said. “I brought you something else this morning. Come over here, Miss Kingston, and meet Lady Loverly.”

  Aly obeyed. The horse’s abdomen was huge. “Why,” she exclaimed, glancing at the swollen udders, “she’s expecting!”

  Joe glanced at her in surprise. “She sure is. How’d you know?”

  “Women know these things, Mr. Handlin,” Aly said loftily, stressing the last name and deciding not to confess that she had stayed up way past midnight reading a book that Marshall had given her. “When will she foal?”

  “In about a month. In the meantime, we have to keep her away from the stallions. Should one cover her”—Aly could guess what that meant—“Lady Loverly would most likely abort, and we would lose a valuable foal, not to mention what might happen to my sweetheart here.” He patted the chestnut neck one last time and moved on to the next stall, explaining that the first thing he did “of a morning” was to go into each horse’s stall and check him or her all over—“to make sure nothing has happened during the night.”

  “Like what?” asked Aly.

  “Well, the horse could have injured itself in some way or become sick. And of course with the mares, there’s always a slim chance of a miscarriage.”

  Aly watched Joe lift the white-socked foot of a Thoroughbred stallion and examine the hoof closely. She could come to like Joe, but it was plain he had reservations about her. She suspected the reason had to do with her last name. She asked suddenly, “Weren’t you a classmate of my sister?”

  Joe raised up and placed his hand at the base of the Thoroughbred’s ear. “Feel right here,” he ordered.

  Aly placed her hand where his had been. “It’s warm,” she said.

  “It should be. Anytime that area feels cool, it’s a symptom of a temperature. Horses can’t talk, you know. They can’t let you know that they have a pulled muscle or a toothache or an upset stomach. You have to look for the symptoms that indicate their problems.”

  “But didn’t you two date for a while?” Aly persisted as they moved to the next stall.

  Joe did not look at her. “I wouldn’t say that we dated. When she was a sophomore, I took her out a co
uple of times, that’s all. I was a senior then.”

  Now Aly remembered the gawky, carrot-topped boy that Victoria had kept waiting in the uncomfortable elegance of the Kingston living room. Awkward and self-conscious, in jeans too short for his lanky height, he had stood first on one foot and then the other as he’d tried to make conversation with Eleanor—as out of place in such surroundings as he was in Victoria’s love life. Aly had wondered at the time what her sister was up to.

  As if recalling the same memory, Joe fastened a hand on the stall door and turned to her, his light green eyes silvering with the remembered humiliation. “Your sister got me to go out with her as part of a hazing routine when she pledged the Cotillion Club. I didn’t know that, of course. I should have suspected something when the prettiest girl in school came on to me out of the blue. But I didn’t. After two dates, when her quest was completed,” Joe spit out the words, “she brushed me off quicker’n you would a red ant.” He barked a laugh, the eyes glittering. “You Kingstons aren’t noted for the way you handle folks. Or maybe you are, come to think of it. I hear your old man just foreclosed on the Wayne farm. That so?”

  “Yes,” Aly answered stiffly, embarrassed and feeling the helpless anger that always afflicted her when she encountered people hurt by members of her family. She pulled at the stall door, but Joe held it shut. Apprehensively, she glanced up at the hostile face.

  “Then you better hear this, Miss Kingston. I don’t know what you’re doing out here, or what your old man has on Matt that would force him to hire you, but horses ain’t like people who can be played with and dropped when you lose interest. Thursday is my one day off a week. If I come back out here on Friday morning and find that my horses haven’t been properly cared for, I’ll give you a thrashing you’ll never forget. I don’t give a damn if you are a Kingston. I’ll take my chances with your old man when I get through with you. You got that?”

  “I got it,” said Aly. “Now we better check on—” she glanced down at the name printed on the white card in the nameplate. “Old MacDonald here. He has a runny nose. Isn’t that a sign of congestion?”

  At six o’clock when her day was finished, Aly’s fatigue was matched only by her elation. I could really get into this! she decided on the way out to Cedar Hill. Tonight when she returned home, she would stop by the public library before closing time and check out some books on the breeding of horses.

  Elizabeth, to stave off the loneliness of Marshall’s departure, had asked that she have supper with them again, and Aly, her mouth watering from the smell of roast pork and dressing, was ready to faint from hunger by the time she sat down at the sumptuously laden table on the screened-in back porch.

  “Aly,” Elizabeth said firmly as she heaped a plate for her guest, “you’ll have to start eating more if you’re to do a man’s work for Matt Taylor.”

  “I know,” said Aly, her mouth full of the succulent tender meat, “but I can’t seem to get down anybody’s food but yours.”

  “Then you’ll just have to start taking your meals with us.”

  Aly stared at Elizabeth. Willy and Sy looked up, too, and all eating momentarily halted. “Why don’t you stay with us until the farm is sold?” Elizabeth suggested. “I’ve talked Sy into staying until then. No point in leaving my garden to die. We’ll stay until someone else takes over. You’re welcome to live with us until then.” She passed some more gravy down to Aly, pretending not to notice the surprise of her listeners. “You’ve always loved this house. There isn’t too much time left to enjoy it. I’d like for you stay with us, Aly. Besides,” she added, her smile fond, “how else can I teach you how to cook?”

  “Elizabeth…Sy…,” Aly looked from one to the other, reading the hope of her acceptance on both their faces. Willy winked at her, the black eyes hopeful. “I’d love to,” she said. “Oh, how much I’d love to.”

  Over her parents’ indignant protests, Aly moved out of the family home on Elm Drive out to Cedar Hill, where she was given a simple, spare, but immaculate room next to Marshall’s. At the end of the first week, weary but contented, Aly lay awake in her room thinking of the new direction her life was taking. She was finding to her great amazement that she loved being around horses and the men who worked with them. It was a frank, forthright kind of labor that suited her own direct manner and straightforward nature. She had made mistakes this week, but they had been forgiven as honest ones, and she was certain that at the end of the month, Sampson could be declared rightfully hers.

  By then, both Marshall and Victoria would be home—Marshall for the auction and Victoria for the summer. Her older sister had already accepted a teaching job in Oklahoma City. Aly thought of the pictures hanging on the wall in the next room. Did Marshall care for Victoria? Had all these years of indifference toward her been a façade to protect his pride from the ruthlessness of her beauty. Had he deliberately avoided the trap into which poor Joe Handlin had fallen? She knew Victoria had always had a hankering for Marshall. But for what, for how long, was anybody’s guess.

  In the following days, Sy looked for work at the surrounding ranches and farms. Nobody was hiring except the oil companies, and Elizabeth drew the line at her husband going near a dangerous drilling rig, even if he’d been qualified. Each night at the supper table, he seemed more drawn and depressed, his spirits not lifting even when he and Willy sat down to play dominoes.

  Aly went with Elizabeth in search of a place to live once the farmhouse reverted to other hands. Never before had Aly realized how short of rental property Claiborne was. Every available accommodation had been snapped up by oil-field workers, and Aly was surprised that her father had not taken advantage of the situation by building apartment houses.

  “Marshall wants us to come up to New York to live with him,” Elizabeth confided, “but Sy won’t hear of it. We’d be lost in the city. What would we do with ourselves while Marshall is at work? And he doesn’t need us on his hands, not with all the mountains that son of mine intends to climb.”

  At night, lying in her bed, Aly beseeched heaven to assist her in finding a way to help the Waynes and Willy. For fear of asking for too many miracles, she did not ask to be granted Marshall’s love. She would settle for friendship, more miracle than she had ever hoped for. She was counting the days when he would be home to teach her how to ride Sampson.

  She was learning how to cook, and each day she looked forward to the meal she would help Elizabeth prepare that night. “My jeans have shrunk!” she wailed one morning as she sat down to breakfast.

  Elizabeth suppressed a smile. “Have they now?” she said, sliding a thick slice of ham onto Aly’s plate. “Have you weighed yourself lately?”

  Later that morning, Aly stepped on the scales in the birthing barn where newborn foals were weighed. Her mouth dropped open. She had gained five pounds while living with the Waynes! That evening, naked, she inspected herself in the full-length mirror attached to her closet door. The hollows of her collarbone and pelvis seemed less prominent, her hips and breasts a trifle fuller. Was it possible, Aly speculated, that only a few pounds more would give her a tolerable figure?

  “You know, you remind me of a girl I went to school with,” Elizabeth said one evening when Marshall was three days away from coming home. They were on the back porch shelling pecans gathered from the fall bounty of the two trees in the front yard.

  “How’s that?” Aly asked, her mind on the sad question of who would be gathering the nuts next year.

  “She was awfully plain.” Aly’s head popped up, but Elizabeth went on with her story. “When we were seniors, our gym instructor predicted the futures of all of us girls, and in most cases time has proved her right.”

  “What did she predict for you?”

  “That I would probably marry a farmer and live a hard but happy life, not so surprising since I was engaged to Sy at the time. But it was her prediction for Emmalou Fuller that surprised us the most.”

  “The plain one, the girl I remind you of?

  Elizabeth nodded, her hands busy with the pecans. “She said that Emmalou was a late bloomer and would develop into a beautiful woman by her late twenties. Hers, the teacher said, was the kind of beauty that got lovelier with time, like sterling.”

  Aly’s hands were motionless. “Did that happen?”

  “Oh, yes. She moved away from Clarksville after we all graduated. Years later I ran into her in Tulsa. I hardly recognized her, she was so beautiful. She was a career woman by then, very fashionable and modern. She was thirty years old.”

  “So the gym teacher’s prediction came true.”

  “Well.” Elizabeth pondered a moment. “I have my own theory about that. Emmalou’s beauty was always there, in my opinion, but in her mind she thought herself unattractive and no competition for the other girls she considered so much prettier. She refused to do the best she could with the looks she had—sort of like children who won’t play games they cannot win. I don’t think Emmalou was exactly a late bloomer. I think she just moved away from an environment where she could not blossom.” Elizabeth looked at Aly with affection. “I have a feeling you might be an Emmalou Fuller, child.”

  Later in her room, Aly ruminated over Emmalou’s story, objectively studying herself in the mirror in search of a wealth of hidden beauty that she, too, might possess. Other than clear, nicely shaped hazel eyes and fairly good skin beneath the freckles, she couldn’t find much potential for Elizabeth’s prediction coming true. And furthermore, there was nowhere she wanted to go “to blossom.” It was the darndest thing. Like most of her friends, she ought to be perishing to get away from Claiborne, out from under the critical eyes of her family and the censure of being a Kingston. But she had no desire to leave, not yet. Not until she had a reason. Her father was right, of course. She ought to be thinking about what she intended to do with the rest of her life. But those thoughts could wait another summer, at least until Marshall came home and left again, until she could see how this job with Matt worked out.

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