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       Aly's House, p.8

           Leila Meacham
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  As the plane landed, Marshall deliberately remained in his seat and was not deceived by the indifferent glance the woman from the airport cast his way as she stepped into the aisle. He read it as clearly wondering if he were staying on board. Why did she seem so familiar? Again, she seemed to him a little disconcerted, and he was all but convinced that she knew him and had chosen not to acknowledge him. Well, that was not so surprising. Sometimes shy women found him a bit intimidating. He watched her pull on her coat, draw her hair out from under the collar, and stand it close to her face. Her hair shone beneath the lights, soft and bouncy. Intrigued now, he waited for her to leave the plane, then went to stand partially inside the door next to the flight attendant. He smiled and explained, “I just want to see if the young lady with the bouncy blond hair looks back.”

  When Aly did so, the hostess looked at him with a knowing smile and asked saucily, “Was there any doubt?”

  Her heart pounding, Aly hurried into the comparatively quieter atmosphere of the Will Rogers World Airport than the busy Dallas/Fort Worth terminal she had just left, and kept her vision straight ahead. She would not look back to see if Marshall had deboarded. That little trick he had just pulled might have been nothing but outrageous flirtation, something to mollify his ego since she didn’t fall all over him in Dallas, but she thought Marshall’s ego healthier than that. She had felt his eyes on her all during the flight. Well, what did it matter? If he were coming to Claiborne, he would understand well enough why she’d ignored him. And she could add: You scared me, Marshall. I remember the way you left, what you thought of us, the promise you made. Now I want to know why you’re back.

  But he wasn’t coming on to Claiborne. He was staying on the plane, headed for St. Louis. One last furtive look back as she went out the exit did not find him among the group of passengers headed toward the baggage pickup.

  She had no luggage to claim. She had gone to Dallas only for the night to purchase a Thoroughbred stallion she’d coveted for Green Meadows for some time. She should have been feeling elated at the acquisition. The addition of the stallion’s lineage to her breeding stock would make the farm competitive with the best of the long-established Kentucky operations. But seeing Marshall again had unnerved her. She felt an odd anger and resentment toward him, unsure if she were disappointed or relieved that he was going on to St. Louis.

  It was five o’clock. Aly walked to her station wagon in the long-term parking lot, buttoning her coat. The last of winter still gripped the plateau city of Oklahoma City. Red residue of an earlier passing dust storm hung in the sharp cold air and lay in shallow drifts against curbs and tire wheels. Leaving the airport, she glanced in the rearview mirror as if expecting to find a familiar dark head behind the wheel of a rental car. Feeling foolish, she told herself that even had he gotten off the plane, Marshall would not have had time to take possession of it.

  Suppose they had shared a seat on the plane and she had introduced herself, Aly conjectured as she maneuvered the car out into rush-hour traffic. Suppose he had been pleased that they had met again after all these years? What would they have discussed? General news from home, naturally—births, deaths, marriages, and divorces. Claiborne’s economy, the drought, the oil bust, wheat prices. She would have deliberately skirted the subjects of Elizabeth’s death, Cedar Hill, her father’s pending retirement, and her brother’s assumption of his title as president and chairman of the Kingston State Bank. But she would have willingly shared news of Willy and Sampson, told Marshall about getting a degree in animal science from the University of Oklahoma—she who had been so opposed to going to college—and about buying Green Meadows from Matt Taylor six years ago when a massive heart attack had forced him to retire.

  And Marshall? What would he have offered about himself, his career, his success in New York City? There had been no news at all of him since Elizabeth’s burial in the cemetery outside of town. It was only weeks after Marshall had brought his mother’s body home that she had learned that he had been in town. The caretaker at the cemetery had told her the news when she went screaming into the little shack that housed his equipment and coffeepot. He’d made her drink a cup of the scalding brew before he relinquished a shred of information about Marshall. “He was a fine sight, he was,” the old man said with a note of pride. “Very rich-looking and successful. His folks would have been so proud of him.”

  Would she have learned that he was married, had children, possessed a home, a family dog or cat, perhaps another Sampson since he loved horses so? Would he have brought out pictures, smiling with unabashed pride as he indicated the loves and possessions that had finally filled out his life?

  Aly didn’t think so. For all the successful aura about Marshall Wayne, he didn’t look to her the least “filled out.” Something was still missing, and she thought it had to do with all those things people take snapshots of and carry around in their wallets. Marshall Wayne was not married now and had never been. A hard little core of certainty told her this was true. She believed she would have known intuitively had he married, just like Elois Cranston had known that her son, days before she got the telegram, had been killed in Vietnam.

  Ten miles before reaching the city limit of Claiborne, Aly turned off onto a country road leading to a ranch house. She’d promised the rancher the delivery of two horse blankets when she returned from Dallas, not having had time to stop the afternoon before. He and his wife pressed her to stay for a cup of coffee, and it was close to six-thirty when she once again reached the highway. She stopped to wait for an oncoming car, wondering whether she should mention to her family at dinner tonight that she’d seen Marshall. There was no reason to, she decided, just as the car flashed by.

  It was a white Lincoln Continental, a fact that registered only after the identity of the man driving it. The driver was Marshall Wayne, and he was on his way to Claiborne.

  Aly sat motionless, possessed by sheer terror for a few moments before reason returned. What was she so fearful of? Most likely this visit had nothing to do with Marshall’s threat of thirteen years ago. At thirty-five, Marshall Wayne could very well be at that stage in his life when he felt the need to return to his roots, to go home again. But there, of course, was the rub. There was no home anymore. No farm, no house, no Cedar Hill—not the way he remembered it. She must warn her father. He must be prepared for the possibility of an unpleasant encounter with him. Marshall had rented a white Lincoln Continental. The car could be a simple coincidence or a chilling intimation.

  Someday, Aly, my car—my Lincoln—will be in that spot.

  She had not forgotten that vow, and neither, she was sure, had he.

  Chapter Seven

  The number of family members that assembled each week for the ritual of Eleanor’s Thursday night dinners had increased. Both Victoria and Lorne Junior were married: she to the county school superintendent and, as anticipated, he to the daughter of a local insurance man. Both in-laws, fortunately for them, had arrived too late to the Kingston ranks to suffer unduly from Annie Jo’s cooking. During a year in New York when she had tried to break into modeling, Victoria had taken a class in the culinary arts and come home to share with Annie Jo the skills she had learned. Now, besides the improvement in the food, another bright spot had been added to the Kingston table—the presence of the only Kingston grandchild, Victoria’s engaging ten-year-old son, Peter.

  “Aunt Aly, Aunt Aly!” the child cried in pleasure as she entered the front door of the house. Aly knew that he had been watching for her from the windows of the living room where the family was gathered for their predinner cocktails. His joy at seeing her momentarily swept aside the gloom of her thoughts.

  “Hi, mutt!” She laughed as he threw his arms around her waist. He was a handsome little boy, having inherited a striking combination of physical features from his parents—Victoria’s blond hair and classically shaped face as well as his father’s brown eyes and fine, straight teeth. “Coming out to Aly’s house tomorrow afternoon?

  “You bet!” he piped. “An’ I’m bringin’ Chuck ’n’ Andrew ’n’ Timmy—”

  “And no more,” remonstrated his mother, coming out into the hall. “Three of your friends are enough to spend the night at Aunt Aly’s.” She smiled at Aly, her cheeks as plump and shining as small apples. “He’d bring the entire fifth grade if you’d let him.”

  “Why not?” Aly embraced her sister fondly. “There’s plenty of room, and they do have the best time.”

  “Well, you’ll have to let me supply the food. I have a new cake recipe I want to try anyway.”

  Taking her nephew’s hand, Aly swung it between them as they entered the living room, suggesting a mood she did not feel. “Hello, everybody,” she greeted her family, deciding to get it over with. “Guess who’s in town?”

  Victoria seemed to have taken the news as uncomfortably as their father, Aly was thinking, looking over her coffee cup at the subdued expression of her sister. The earlier lighthearted mood so characteristic of her had vanished, leaving the merry fullness of her face lax with dour introspection.

  Aly wondered sympathetically if Marshall’s return made Victoria regret all the weight she had gained when she was pregnant with Peter. And not only that, Aly observed reluctantly, there had also been a general decline in Victoria’s looks over the last ten years. Noting the haphazard hairdo and unbecoming dress, Aly concluded this was more because of inattention to grooming than a real loss of beauty. Neither husband nor son seemed to mind. Victoria was an integral part of their athletic and outdoor pursuits—interests that were not conducive to rigid diets and beauty routines.

  Until just now, Victoria had not seemed to mind either. “I gave up Dr. Stillman for James Beard!” was her usual laughing response to startled friends who had not seen her for a long time. After her marriage, a new Victoria had emerged—happy, comfortable with herself, and a marked improvement on the sister Aly used to know. The two of them had become the best of friends.

  It had been a surprise to them all that Victoria had married Warren Sims, a fourth-grade teacher with whom she had taught in Oklahoma City. Ordinary in appearance except for his quiet smile and warm brown eyes, he was the kind of man not likely to leave an impression at a first meeting. But Warren was discovered to be the type in whom still waters run deep. Time and association revealed a wit and humor, a wisdom and an intelligence that made him a favorite of them all.

  At first the family had feared the worst when Victoria brought him home on her return from New York and announced that they were a month married. Eleanor’s incisive eye had shot at once to her daughter’s waistline, and she had consulted her husband about the wisdom of finding Warren a teaching position somewhere out of state, perhaps Alaska. But Peter was not born until a full eight months later, an event that proved disappointing to the local keepers-of-the-calendar for such occasions. Lorne Senior had then manipulated circumstances that brought his grandson and daughter home permanently from Oklahoma City. He simply arranged to have his new son-in-law instated as principal in one of the local elementary schools.

  Now, glancing up to catch Aly’s eye, Victoria smiled absently, but Aly had seen her sister’s sad expression. Nostalgia had glazed over the still-beautiful blue eyes, and Aly suspected that Victoria had gone back into the past for a visit with the girl she once had been.

  “Aly, may I see you in the study?” Lorne Senior asked as the family gathered in the hall making their farewells.

  “Of course,” she said, guessing that his long face had to do with Marshall.

  “Have you had an offer over the last few years to buy your bank stock?” Lorne asked immediately after the door was shut.

  “Kingston State Bank stock? Are you kidding? Right now I doubt if I could give it away.”

  “Don’t be impertinent,” Lorne said sharply, tugging at the collar of his white shirt. Not since Elizabeth had cared for them had he had a shirt whose collar did not chafe.

  “What’s the reason for the question, Dad? You look more worried than usual tonight. I thought the bank was starting a slow turnaround.”

  “Oh, it is, it is,” Lorne dismissed her remark irritably.

  “Then what’s the matter? Why did you ask about my stock?”

  “I found out this week that several members of the board have been approached over the last few years by an out-of-state firm wanting to buy their shares. Recently they were approached again.”

  “Were they offered a good price?”

  “Yes, that’s what puzzles me. Why would anyone want to buy bank stock considerably above its book value?”

  “Maybe the stock is expected to go up?” At Lorne’s chastising look, she said, “Well, so what if a tender offer is made for the outstanding shares? We’re still the majority stockholder.” From the way her father took a seat at his desk, Aly felt compelled to ask, “Aren’t we?”

  Lorne shook his gray head. “Not anymore. I…had to sell a substantial number of my shares to cover some personal loans. The family is no longer in possession of the majority of the stock.”

  Aly approached the desk incredulously. “You mean that—that you’re no longer in control of the bank?”

  “That is not what I mean!” Lorne trounced vehemently on such a heresy. “The board members own nine percent among them. They’re loyal to me. They would never sell. And with each of you children owning ten percent and with my ten…”

  “That totals forty-nine percent,” Aly said, her glance steady, “still not a majority.”

  “It’s a damn good furlong ahead of anybody else,” her father declared.

  “Who has the rest of the shares?”

  “Dear Lord, Aly!” Over the top of his glasses, Lorne leveled a reproving look. “Don’t you ever read the annual report?”

  “Nonfiction is more my line,” Aly said flatly, inferring that the impressive publication of the bank’s assets and liabilities yearly sent to the shareholders glossed over the facts. It also listed the names of those owning stock in the bank.

  Lorne ignored the implication. “Hattie Handlin owns ten percent. The rest is divided among four out-of-state firms who have purchased them at irregular intervals through the years.”

  “So we’re talking about an outstanding fifty-one percent.”

  “Yes, and I’m not worried that those big eastern stockholders will join ranks with Hattie and try to wrest control of the bank from me. Their proxies have always been favorably disposed toward the board’s recommendations…”

  “The major one being your renomination as president and chairman,” Aly said slowly, more to herself than to her father.

  “Exactly,” Lorne returned with satisfaction. “It just makes me uncomfortable to know that I’m not leaving Lorne Junior sitting in as secure a position as I enjoyed.”

  “Are you worried that Marshall might be behind the purchase of those out-of-state shares?” Aly asked, watching her father’s expression carefully. “Suppose Hattie is approached about her shares? Suppose she sells? That would give somebody out there,” she waved an arm, “fifty-one percent of stock.”

  “I’m perfectly capable of making my own calculations, Aly,” Lorne snapped, confirming to his daughter that she had struck a nerve. “If I could just find out how much the stock was sold for, the details of the transactions, but none of the original shareholders will tell me anything.”

  “Is that so surprising? You dumped your stock when you saw the sky about to fall, sold it high to people who had been your friends for years…”

  “That’s just a guess on your part, Aly.”

  “I know you, Dad, so I don’t have to guess. Why don’t you buy Hattie’s stock, if you’re so worried. Then you’d at least have control of fifty percent.”

  “I tried to,” Lorne admitted, “but she wouldn’t sell to me.”

  “Oh, Dad, how you have made friends and influenced your enemies,” said Aly dryly. “So what do you think? Is Marshall involved with this? It’s strange that he’s in
town less than two weeks before the annual stockholders’ meeting to re-elect the board. Have those out-of-state firms sent in their proxies?”

  “No,” Lorne answered, looking away with a thoughtful frown. “They’re usually in by now. Hattie hasn’t voted, either, but she’s usually at the meeting to cast her vote against the board in person. However, I have no reason to believe the proxies won’t be favorable. I’ll just rest easier when they’re in.” He brought his glance back to focus confidently on Aly. “No, to answer your question about Marshall, I don’t think he has anything to do with this. I can’t imagine why he’s back in town. Probably he’s come back to gloat, now that he’s made it and we’ve fallen on bad times. That would be typical of a dirt-farmer’s son.”

  Aly viewed her father gravely. “For your sake as well as Lorne Junior’s, I hope you’re right,” she said, and left the room.

  The next morning, Aly woke early and took her coffee out onto the back porch, from which she could view the precise, manicured layout of Green Meadows Breeding Farm. In the first light of dawn, the green, white-fenced acres sparkled with dewy perfection and serenity.

  Aly always began her day from here. In the five years she had lived in her house, the early morning scene had never failed to rouse in her an appreciation of her good fortune, to fill her with the joy of possession. From here, perspectives were gained, proportions took shape, fears quieted. From here, sipping her coffee, she was able to slay the dragons that attacked in the night.

  This morning, though, the demons would not be stilled. The anxious questions that had tormented her sleep still trailed behind her, demanding and persistent. Why had Marshall returned to Claiborne? Did his presence here have anything to do with the stockholders’ meeting in two weeks? What would be his reaction to her house should he happen to see it? How would he feel about what had happened to Cedar Hill? And how did she feel about Marshall? Did he have the power to hurt her again? When he had gone, would she be left as bruised, as empty, as lost as he had left her before?

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