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       Aly's House, p.9

           Leila Meacham
 
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  Aly looked out across the early spring peace of her fields and paddocks. Today the scene did not soothe and edify. This morning she felt tired and sore and tender. She felt eighteen again.

  The telephone rang, its sudden, unexpected interruption causing her to spill her coffee. Good Lord, but she was jumpy! The caller was her stable manager. His aunt had taken ill early this morning, he explained, and he’d had to call an ambulance to take her to the hospital. He would not be out to Green Meadows until she was stabilized.

  “Take as long as you need, Joe,” Aly told him in concern. “Willy and I can manage.”

  She glanced at the clock as she hung up. She would have to hurry now if she was to give herself the extra attention she had planned before she left for the office. Joe usually opened up for her and was to have been on hand this morning for the delivery of two mares to be serviced by Green Meadows studs.

  Marshall drove through the wrought-iron gates of Claiborne’s one cemetery and followed the road around to two pink marble monuments identical in size and shape. He parked his car and got out, standing a moment by the white Lincoln before walking slowly toward the twin memorials he had ordered to mark the graves of his parents. The muscle of his heart contracted as he reached them and stood looking down at the names etched in stone.

  His father had not lived long when the sale of Cedar Hill to a residential development company had forced him and his mother off the land. The company intended to begin construction at once, as Lorne Kingston had known when he told Sy Wayne that he could stay at Cedar Hill until a buyer could be found. The buyer had been in the wings even before the foreclosure. The farm had been resold immediately for an incorporated city designed to house the growing number of highly paid oil executives working in Oklahoma City. Unfortunately for Sy Wayne, but as previously agreed, the buyer had taken it off the bank’s hands for the exact sum that had been invested in it, so the Waynes did not realize a profit. Lorne Kingston, however, as a silent partner in the development company, realized plenty. The discovery had driven another nail into the Kingston coffin.

  His parents had not been able to find a place to live in Claiborne and had gone to Texas, where they went to work as caretakers of a small farm in the eastern part of the state. To Marshall’s sorrow and exasperation, they had refused to accept any help from their son, arguing that he needed every cent he made to live in New York and that they had the ten thousand that Aly had paid for Sampson.

  It wasn’t quite two months later that Elizabeth went to the back door of the shabby little farmhouse and called down to her husband in the barn that supper was ready. In that hour before nightfall, he had gone to mend a couple of harnesses from the Cedar Hill days. Elizabeth called again, but Sy did not come. She said later that she had known what she would find, and she had turned off all the burners before she ran down to the barn. She found Sy lying face-up in the straw, the harnesses still clutched in his hand. Death had caught his countenance in the anguish that Marshall knew had stilled his heart.

  He had persuaded his mother to come live with him in New York. Marshall bought her the first fine clothes she had ever owned and a mink jacket her second Christmas in the city. But her eyes mirrored always the memories of another place, another life, and she began to fade. When the realization hit Marshall that something besides homesickness and grief was wrong with his mother, it was too late.

  “Mother, there is radiation. There’s cobalt and drugs. God, there are lots of things that can be done!”

  “No, son.”

  “Mother, please—”

  “No, Marshall.”

  He had brought her body home to be buried beside his father in the company of friends they had loved. From time to time he wondered about the graves on the windswept hill, if they were being cared for properly. Now he saw that they were. Somebody had planted flowers before the headstones, red geraniums like the kind his mother had grown in clay pots on the steps at Cedar Hill.

  The unexpected kindness moved him, and blinking hard, he bent down and yanked at a grass runner attempting to encroach on the territory of one of the plants. He had expected pain in coming back. Claiborne was a reminder of all his losses. All that he had ever loved or cared about had been here, and now there was nothing to come home to. But he would change that. He would belong in Claiborne again. He had come to take back what was his.

  He stood up, brushing dirt from his hands, gazing at the stones. Mom… Dad… I’ve come home. Nothing will ever make your son leave again. The thought was comforting as he walked away toward his car.

  Five minutes later, Marshall pulled off the road alongside the white split-rail fence that marked the boundary of Cedar Hill. Now that’s a nice change from the barbed wire of the old days, he thought, his eye following the well-groomed line of railings down the highway to where he knew it must merge with those of Green Meadows Breeding Farm. He had learned a few years ago that Matt Taylor had purchased Cedar Hill when the development company had failed, a natural enough move since Green Meadows butted against one side and the back of its property line. Marshall had been relieved at the time. At least the land would not be sold in parcels, making it more difficult to buy it back. Now he only hoped he could strike a bargain with the tight-fisted old piker. Matt should be close to retirement now and glad of a chance to sell off some of his holdings. Marshall planned to offer him a price his Yankee principles of economics would not let him turn down.

  Marshall’s approving gaze swept over the immaculate rolling acres where healthy horses grazed in the early spring sunshine. A wide, well-paved road ran up to the hill that had given the farm its name. Matt had replanted the cedars, Marshall was glad to see, and it was his guess that they screened a compound of barns built on the same spot as his former home. He’d have to do something about that in time.

  The scene was quite a contrast from the last time he had stood here. He had come to bury his mother. The gate had been padlocked then, and he’d been glad that she had been spared the sight of what was once her home. The house and pecan trees, the cedars, the fields and barns had all been destroyed, of course. In their place had been left an abandoned construction site of what was to have been a posh city for the oil executives pouring into Okalahoma City in those days. Marshall had surveyed the unfinished roads, cracked slabs, and half-constructed buildings, their structures like unsightly skeletons in the raw dusk of that winter’s day, until hatred for the man responsible had blinded his vision. Not even knowing that Kingston had lost millions on the failed project comforted him. What a sweet deal the man thought he’d had!

  Lorne had not banked on a partner in the land company as unscrupulous as he. By the time the first foundations were poured on Cedar Hill, charges had been brought against the company for land fraud in another part of the country. Kingston awoke one morning to read in the paper that his partner, rather than face allegations, had absconded with what was left of the firm’s assets. Bankruptcy proceedings immediately followed, tying up the land in litigation for a number of years, and finally Matt Taylor had bought Cedar Hill.

  Shaking off his memories, Marshall turned away and made for his car. He was eager to get on with the next phase in his plans.

  Aly looked up from her desk in Matt Taylor’s former office and through the wide windows saw the white Continental turn into the entrance of Green Meadows. She had been expecting it. All morning she had looked up every few minutes, hoping, dreading to see the car coming down the drive, growing more anxious with each hour that passed. For years she had conditioned herself for this moment. She had always known that one day Marshall would return to Claiborne, and she had planned what she would say and do when they met face-to-face. It had been a goal in her life, their meeting. She had hoped fate would allow her to be ready for him. She deserved that. This morning as she had chosen her clothes and spent longer than usual on her makeup and hair, she had been grateful for the forewarning she’d received. Marshall wouldn’t catch her by surprise. She would meet him looking
her best, her speech rehearsed, her manner prepared.

  Now, seeing him get out of the car and walk by the windows to the door, all her fortifications blew away like leaves in the wind. She felt a sense of betrayal, a helpless outrage at herself that she should sit here like this, going pale, blank, and numb—when she had functioned so admirably in her dreams.

  Marshall had his head down, concerned with the mat that looked as if it might catch under the door when he opened it, and did not see her immediately. When he did, a tremor of surprised pleasure passed through him. “I knew you looked familiar,” he said with a smile and approached the desk. She had hazel eyes, very clear and bright. Their expression distressed him slightly. It reminded him of the startled look of a fawn, wary of the sudden appearance of the hunter. For one so pretty, she was amazingly shy. He asked very kindly, “Who are you?”

  She was really quite regal when she stood, Marshall thought. He wondered if habit or nerves caused her to balance with her fingertips pressed to the desk, like an executive addressing a board meeting. He felt as if he’d been shot in the chest when she said, “Aly Kingston, Marshall. Welcome home.”

  His smile vanished immediately. It couldn’t be. Not this svelte, golden-haired beauty. To steady himself, he reached inside of his casual outdoor jacket and brought out a cigarette. “What happened to you?” he asked, a mild frost cooling his tone.

  “What do you mean?”

  “You know what I mean. You,” he indicated to her with the cigarette before putting it between his lips. “Aly Kingston, the stick-figure kid.”

  “Oh, I suppose I grew up.”

  “I suppose you did,” he mocked, snapping the lighter shut and taking a chair. Aly sat down also. He swept a look over her. “You used to have hair that hung in your eyes and looked like dried straw. Now it’s…different,” he amended his original thought.

  “I finally bowed to the wonder-working miracle of a permanent.”

  “You should have bowed sooner. What happened to your freckles? There were hundreds of them as I remember.”

  “They faded.”

  “And your teeth? Weren’t they sort of bucked?”

  “Braces, when I was a freshman in college.”

  “In college?” The dark brows arched. “I seem to recall that college was not in your plans.”

  “Well, my plans were changed for me. I got a degree in animal science after I’d become interested in horses when I worked for Matt.”

  “Where is Matt anyway? He’s the man I’ve come to see.”

  Aly hesitated only long enough to push an ashtray toward him. “Matt had a coronary about six years ago and had to retire. He lives in Florida now.”

  Marshall sat up straighter. The rich brown eyes were very still. From their depths flashed the hard glitter of deeply buried topazes. “Did he sell Green Meadows?”

  “Yes,” she answered.

  “Who bought the place?”

  “Me.”

  Shock vibrated through him. He sat paralyzed for the time it took him to assimilate this new information. Aly Kingston owned Green Meadows? Then that meant that she…Good God! Why had he never considered that possibility?

  “Yes, Marshall,” she said, sympathetically reading his deduction, “I own what used to be Cedar Hill. As you are obviously aware, Matt bought it after the development company went broke.”

  Marshall’s mouth twisted. “No wonder you didn’t acknowledge me in the airport.”

  Aly flushed, beginning to get a little angry. “Well, there were other reasons, too. We didn’t part the best of friends, you may recall. You say you came to see Matt. Would your visit have anything to do with Sampson?”

  Marshall took a deep drag on the cigarette. Smoke wafted out of his nose before he answered. “He’s the reason I’m here, yes. Is he still at Green Meadows?” It was only half a lie. Sampson was one of two reasons he had driven out here today.

  “Yes,” Aly said, able to smile for the first time. “He’s still here. Sampson is one of my top breeding stallions. Would you like to see him? He’s having a little rest from his chores today.”

  “Sounds like some job that boy has gotten himself. Yes, I’d like to see him.”

  Aly consulted a chart on the wall. “He’s in the west paddock. I’ll have to take you out there myself. My stable manager is out today, and I can’t spare one of the men to go with you. We can walk from here.” She reached for a blazer with the insignia of Green Meadows on the pocket. Marshall stubbed out his cigarette and stood up as she came from around the desk. His jacket, plaid shirt, and jeans appeared new, Aly noticed. In contrast, his boots were old and scuffed, beyond the claim of shoe polish. She recognized them from the Cedar Hill days. Had he kept the boots for sentiment, or did they represent some kind of symbol to him, like the white Continental?

  “Sampson can’t be the only reason you’ve returned to Claiborne,” Aly commented as they walked down the bridle path.

  “He isn’t. I’m treating myself to a little vacation. I haven’t had one in a long time.”

  “You’ve come to Claiborne for a vacation?” Her tone was patently skeptical.

  “What better place for some peace and quiet?”

  She refused to glance his way. “You bring your family with you?”

  He gave a mirthless laugh, perceiving her motive in asking. “You should know the answer to that. You were with me on the flight. I’m not married. I haven’t had time for a wife and children. The family I had is buried at the edge of town. What about you?”

  Aly shook her head. “I’ve been busy, too,” she said, her heart twisting at his last remark. “Marshall—about Elizabeth and Sy—you know how sorry I am.”

  “Yes,” he said, “I know.” They had reached their destination. Marshall looked out upon the empty paddock. “I don’t see him,” he said.

  “He’s there,” Aly assured him. “Over behind that feeding shed. Marshall,” she warned, “he may not remember you.”

  “He’ll remember me,” he said with certainty. “Just see if he doesn’t.”

  They stood in silence for a few moments, Marshall waiting for the stallion to sense his presence as he had done in years past when he returned from college. Aly stole a look at him. His nearly black hair was still sumptuously full and untouched by gray, even at the temples. His complexion had the high color of good health and his body the lean look of a man who kept himself physically fit. She wondered if he ever missed the hard work, the fields and animals, the space and air of country living. Did he, she wondered, ever long to hear the sound of cowbells in the dusk?

  Her attention went back to the field, and a small exclamation escaped her as Sampson ambled from behind the shed, ears pointed in their direction. Marshall’s expression cleared. Years fell away. He might have been in college again, home for the summer. “Sampson!” he breathed in delight. “Just look at you, boy!”

  The stallion was certainly a grand sight, Aly allowed, feeling a thrill of pride. The late morning sun gleamed on the high shine of his reddish brown coat and the smooth conformation of powerfully developed muscles. He did not move but watched warily as Marshall opened the gate.

  Sampson, remember him, Aly urged silently as Marshall walked across the paddock toward the motionless horse, harness in hand. At the sound of his name called by the stranger coming toward him, the stallion whinnied softly and twitched his tail, his attitude guarded and vigilant. He won’t come if he doesn’t recognize him, she thought, saying a prayer that Sampson would not break and run as Marshall neared. That was a favorite devilment of his when her horsemen tried to catch him at night, and one that she’d never taken many pains to break him from. Sampson stood still only for Willy or Joe to slip a harness over his head.

  Now her heart held as Marshall stopped. He dropped the harness, clapped his hands, and gave a short, clear whistle. “Sampson,” he called, and Aly could hear the emotion in his voice, “don’t you remember me, boy? It’s Marshall. It’s Marshall come home.”

/>   Unable to breathe, Aly watched as the animal cautiously moved forward, sniffing the air. Marshall stayed where he was, and when the stallion drew nearer, put out his hand as he had done when the horse had come to greet him all those school vacations ago. Suddenly Sampson’s head arched, his tail hiked. He gave a loud neigh and began to trot the rest of the way toward Marshall. Aly’s vision blurred as the two met in the paddock in a joyous reunion. Thirteen years. Sampson remembered after thirteen years. Some of us never forget, do we, boy?

  Marshall smiled and waved at her as he slipped the harness over Sampson’s head. At the gate Aly waved back, watching as Marshall mounted to canter bareback around the paddock, man and horse a magnificant pair. How much at home he looked up there on Sampson, she thought, with his straight back silhouetted against the Oklahoma sky—so much more like the Marshall she remembered than the man in the pinstriped suit.

  “He’s yours if you still want him,” Aly told him when he had dismounted. “If I’d known how to get in touch with you when I bought Green Meadows, I’d have called you about him. The price is the same as our original agreement. Ten thousand dollars.”

  Marshall, patting the horse’s neck, still absorbed in the joy of the reunion, said to her in surprise, “Why, that’s awfully generous of you, Aly. I know how valuable he is to you, but I sure would like to have him back. I don’t have a place to keep him now, but I will in about a month. Will your offer keep until then?”

  “My offer will keep until you refuse it, Marshall.”

  The three of them together like this reminded Aly of another time when for a short, achingly tender few moments she and Marshall had been friends. It was a memory that had never left her, one she thought about almost always when she looked at Sampson. She would miss the stallion, her last link with Marshall. But a deal was a deal. She said with a small smile, “I think I’ve always kept him for you.”

 
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