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The Reef

Nora Roberts



  The present contains nothing more than the past, and what is found in the effect was already in the cause.

  —Henri Bergson


  J AMES LASSITER WAS forty years old, a well-built, ruggedly handsome man in the prime of his life, in the best of health.

  In an hour, he’d be dead.

  From the deck of the boat, he could see nothing but the clear silky ripple of blue, the luminous greens and deeper browns of the great reef shimmering like islands below the surface of the Coral Sea. Far to the west, the foamy froth and surge of sea surf rose up and crashed against the false shore of coral.

  From his stance at the port side, he could watch the shapes and shadows of fish, darting like living arrows through the world he’d been born to share with them.

  The coast of Australia was lost in the distance, and there was only the vastness.

  The day was perfect, the jewel-clear shimmer of the water, dashed by white facets of light tossed down by the gold flash of sun. The teasing hint of a breeze carried no taste of rain.

  Beneath his feet, the deck swayed gently, a cradle on the quiet sea. Wavelets lapped musically against the hull. Below, far below, was treasure waiting to be discovered.

  They were mining the wreck of the Sea Star, a British merchant ship that had met its doom on the Great Barrier Reef two centuries before. For more than a year, breaking for bad weather, equipment failure and other inconveniences, they had worked, often like dogs, to reap the riches the Star had left behind.

  There were riches yet, James knew. But his thoughts traveled beyond the Sea Star, north of that spectacular and dangerous reef to the balmy waters of the West Indies. To another wreck, to another treasure.

  To Angelique’s Curse.

  He wondered now if it was the richly jeweled amulet that was cursed, or the woman, the witch Angelique, whose power—it was reputed—remained strong in the rubies and diamonds and gold. Legend was that she had worn it, a gift from the husband it was said she murdered, on the day she was burned at the stake.

  The idea fascinated him, the woman, the necklace, the legend. The search for it, which he would begin shortly, was taking on a personal twist. James didn’t simply want the riches, the glory. He wanted Angelique’s Curse, and the legend it carried.

  He had been weaned on the hunt, on tales of wrecked ships and the bounty the sea hoarded from them. All of his life, he had dived, and he had dreamed. The dreams had cost him a wife, and given him a son.

  James turned from the rail to study the boy. Matthew was nearly sixteen now. He had grown tall, but had yet to fill out. There was potential there, James mused, in the thin frame and ropey muscle. They shared the same dark, unmanageable hair, though the boy refused to have his cut short so that even now as Matthew checked the diving gear, it fell forward to curtain his face.

  The face was rawboned, James thought. It had fined down in the last year or two and had lost the childish roundness. An angel face, a waitress had called it once, and had embarrassed the boy into hot cheeks and grimaces.

  It had more of the devil in it now, and those blue eyes he’d passed to Matthew were more often hot than cool. The Lassiter temper, the Lassiter luck, James thought with a shake of his head. Tough legacies for a half-grown boy.

  One day, he thought, one day soon, he would be able to give his son all the things a father hoped for. The key to it all lay quietly waiting in the tropical seas of the West Indies.

  A necklace of rubies and diamonds beyond price, heavy with history, dark with legend, tainted with blood.

  Angelique’s Curse.

  James’s mouth twisted into a thin smile. When he had it, the bad luck that had dogged the Lassiters would change. He only had to be patient.

  “Hurry up with those tanks, Matthew. The day’s wasting.”

  Matthew looked up, tossed his hair out of his eyes. The sun was rising behind his father’s back, sending light shimmering around him. He looked, Matthew thought, like a king preparing for battle. As always, love and admiration welled up and startled him with its intensity.

  “I replaced your pressure gauge. I want to take a look at the old one.”

  “You look out for your old man.” James hooked his arm around Matthew’s neck for a playful tussle. “Going to bring you up a fortune today.”

  “Let me go down with you. Let me take the morning shift instead of him.”

  James suppressed a sigh. Matthew hadn’t learned the wisdom of controlling his emotions. Particularly his dislikes. “You know how the teams work. You and Buck’ll dive this afternoon. VanDyke and I take the morning.”

  “I don’t want you to dive with him.” Matthew shook off his father’s friendly arm. “I heard the two of you arguing last night. He hates you. I could hear it in his voice.”

  A mutual feeling, James thought, but winked. “Partners often disagree. The bottom line here is that VanDyke’s putting up most of the money. Let him have his fun, Matthew. For him treasure-hunting’s just a hobby for a bored, rich businessman.”

  “He can’t dive worth shit.” And that, in Matthew’s opinion, was the measure of a man.

  “He’s good enough. Just doesn’t have much style at forty feet down.” Tired of the argument, James began to don his wet suit. “Buck take a look at the compressor?”

  “Yeah, he got the kinks out. Dad—”

  “Leave it, Matthew.”

  “Just this one day,” Matthew said stubbornly. “I don’t trust that prissy-faced bastard.”

  “Your language continues to deteriorate.” Silas VanDyke, elegant and pale despite the hard sun, smiled as he exited the cabin at Matthew’s back. It amused him nearly as much as it annoyed him to see the boy sneer. “Your uncle requires your assistance below, young Matthew.”

  “I want to dive with my father today.”

  “I’m afraid that would inconvenience me. As you see, I’m already wearing my wet suit.”

  “Matthew.” There was an impatient command in James’s voice. “Go see what Buck needs.”

  “Yes, sir.” Eyes defiant, he went belowdecks.

  “The boy has a poor attitude and worse manners, Lassiter.”

  “The boy hates your guts,” James said cheerfully. “I’d say he has good instincts.”

  “This expedition is coming to an end,” VanDyke shot back. “And so is my patience and my largesse. Without me, you’ll run out of money in a week.”

  “Maybe.” James zipped his suit. “Maybe not.”

  “I want the amulet, Lassiter. You know it’s down there, and I believe you know where. I want it. I’ve bought it. I’ve bought you.”

  “You’ve bought my time, and you’ve bought my skill. You haven’t bought me. Rules of salvage, VanDyke. The man who finds Angelique’s Curse owns Angelique’s Curse.” And it wouldn’t be found, he was sure, on the Sea Star. He lifted a hand to VanDyke’s chest. “Now keep out of my face.”

  Control, the kind he wielded in boardrooms, kept VanDyke from lashing out. He had always won his rounds with patience, with money, and with power. Success in business, he knew, was a simple matter of who maintained control.

  “You’ll regret trying to double-cross me.” He spoke mildly now, with the faintest hint of a smile curving his lips. “I promise you.”

  “Hell, Silas, I’m enjoying it.” With a quiet chuckle, James stepped inside the cabin. “You guys reading girlie magazines, or what? Let’s get going here.”

  Moving quickly, VanDyke dealt with the tanks. It was, very simply, business. When the Lassiters came back on deck, he was hitching on his own gear.

  The three of them, VanDyke thought, were pathetically beneath him. Obviously they had forgotten who he was, what he was. He was a VanDyke, a man who h
ad been given or earned or taken whatever he wanted. One who intended to continue to do so, as long as there was profit. Did they think he cared that they tightened their little triangle and excluded him? It was past time he dismissed them and brought in a fresh team.

  Buck, he mused, pudgy, already balding, a foolish foil to his handsome brother. Loyal as a mongrel puppy and just as intelligent.

  Matthew, young and eager, brash, defiant. A hateful little worm VanDyke would be pleased to squash.

  And James, of course, he mused as the three Lassiters stood together, sharing idle conversation. Tough and more canny than VanDyke had supposed. More than the simple tool he had expected. The man thought he had outwitted Silas VanDyke.

  James Lassiter thought he would find and own Angelique’s Curse, the amulet of power, of legend. Worn by a witch, coveted by many. And that made him a fool. VanDyke had invested in it, time, money, and effort, and Silas VanDyke never made poor investments.

  “There’s going to be good hunting today.” James strapped on his tanks. “I can smell it. Silas?”

  “Right with you.”

  James secured his weight belt, adjusted his mask and rolled into the water.

  “Dad, wait—”

  But James just saluted and disappeared under the surface.

  The world was silent and stunning. The drenching blue was broken by fingers of sunlight that stabbed through the surface and shimmered clear white. Caves and castles of coral spread out to form secret worlds.

  A reef shark, eyes bored and black, gave a twist of its body and slid through the water and away.

  More at home here than in the air, James dived deep with VanDyke at his heels. The wreck was already well exposed, trenches dug around it and mined of treasure. Coral claimed the shattered bow and turned the wood into a fantasy of color and shape that seemed studded with amethyst, emerald, ruby.

  This was the living treasure, the miracle of art created by seawater and sun.

  It was, as always, a pleasure to see it.

  When they began to work, James’s sense of well-being increased. The Lassiter luck was behind him, he thought dreamily. He would soon be rich, famous. He smiled to himself. After all, he’d stumbled onto the clue, he’d spent days and hours researching and piecing the trail of the amulet together.

  He could even feel a little sorry for that asshole VanDyke, since it would be the Lassiters who brought her up, from other waters, on their own expedition.

  He caught himself reaching out to stroke a spine of coral as though it were a cat.

  He shook his head, but couldn’t clear it. The alarm bell sounded in one part of his brain, far off and dim. But he was an experienced diver and recognized the signs. He’d had a brush or two with nitrogen narcosis before. Never at such a shallow depth, he thought dimly. They were well shy of a hundred feet.

  Regardless, he tapped his tanks. VanDyke was already watching him, eyes cool and assessing behind his mask. James signaled to surface. When VanDyke pulled him back, signaled toward the wreck, he was only mildly confused. Up, he signaled again, and again VanDyke restrained him.

  He didn’t panic. James wasn’t a man to panic easily. He knew he’d been sabotaged, though his mind was too muddled to calculate how. VanDyke was an amateur in this world, he reminded himself, didn’t realize the extent of the danger. So he would have to show him. His eyes narrowed with purpose. He swung out, barely missing a grip on VanDyke’s air hose.

  The underwater struggle was slow, determined, eerily silent. Fish scattered like colorful silks, then gathered again to watch the drama of predator and prey. James could feel himself slipping, the dizziness, disorientation as the nitrogen pumped into him. He fought it, managed to kick another ten feet toward the surface.

  Then wondered why he’d ever wanted to leave. He began to laugh, the bubbles bursting out and speeding high as the rapture claimed him. He embraced VanDyke in a kind of slow whirling dance, to share his delight. It was so beautiful here in the gilded blue light with gems and jewels of a thousand impossible colors waiting, just waiting to be plucked.

  He’d been born to dive the depths.

  Soon, James Lassiter’s merriment would slide toward unconsciousness. And a quiet, comforting death.

  VanDyke reached out as James began to flounder. The lack of coordination was only one more symptom. One of the last. VanDyke’s sweeping grab pulled the air hose free. James blinked in bemusement as he drowned.


  T REASURE. GOLD DOUBLOONS and pieces of eight. With luck, they could be plucked from the seabed as easily as peaches from a tree. Or so, Tate thought as she dived, her father said.

  She knew it took a great deal more than luck, as ten years of searching had already proven. It took money and time and exhausting effort. It took skill and months of research and equipment.

  But as she swam toward her father through the crystal blue Caribbean, she was more than willing to play the game.

  It wasn’t a hardship to spend the summer of her twentieth year diving off the coast of St. Kitts, skimming through gloriously warm water among brilliantly hued fish and sculptures of rainbow coral. Each dive was its own anticipation. What might lie beneath that white sand, hidden among the fans and sea grass, buried under the cleverly twisted formations of coral?

  It wasn’t the treasure, she knew. It was the hunt.

  And occasionally, you did get lucky.

  She remembered very well the first time she had lifted a silver spoon from its bed of silt. The shock and the thrill of holding that blackened cup in her fingers, wondering who had used it to scoop up broth. A captain perhaps of some rich galleon. Or the captain’s lady.

  And the time her mother had been cheerfully hacking away at a hunk of conglomerate, the chunk of material formed by centuries of chemical reactions under the sea. The sound of her squeal, then the bray of delighted laughter when Marla Beaumont had unearthed a gold ring.

  The occasional luck allowed the Beaumonts to spend several months a year hunting for more. For more luck, and more treasure.

  As they swam side by side, Raymond Beaumont tapped his daughter’s arm, pointed. Together they watched a sea turtle paddle lazily.

  The laugh in her father’s eyes said everything. He had worked hard all of his life, and was now reaping the rewards. For Tate, a moment like this was as good as gold.

  They swam together, bonded by a love of the sea, the silence, the colors. A school of sergeant majors streaked by, their black and gold stripes gleaming. For no more than the joy of it, Tate did a slow roll and watched the sunlight strike the surface overhead. The freedom of it had a laugh gurgling out in a spray of bubbles that startled a curious grouper.

  She dived deeper, following her father’s strong kicks. The sand could hold secrets. Any mound could be a plank of worm-eaten wood from a Spanish galleon. That dark patch could blanket a pirate’s cache of silver. She reminded herself to pay attention, not to the sea fans or hunks of coral, but to the signs of sunken treasure.

  They were here in the balmy waters of the West Indies, searching for every treasure hunter’s dream. A virgin wreck reputed to hold a king’s treasure. This, their first dive, was to acquaint themselves with the territory they had so meticulously researched through books, maps and charts. They would test the currents, gauge the tides. And maybe—just maybe—get lucky.

  Aiming toward a hillock of sand, she began to fan briskly. Her father had taught her this simple method of excavating sand when Tate had delighted him by her boundless interest in his new hobby of scuba diving.

  Over the years, he’d taught her many other things. A respect for the sea and what lived there. And what lay there, hidden. Her fondest hope was to one day discover something, for him.

  She glanced toward him now, watched the way he examined a low ridge of coral. However much he dreamed of treasure made by man, Raymond Beaumont loved the treasures made by the sea.

  Finding nothing in the hillock, Tate moved off in pursuit of a pretty striped sh
ell. Out of the corner of her eyes, she caught the blur of a dark shape coming toward her, swift and silent. Tate’s first and frozen thought was shark, and her heart stumbled. She turned, as she had been taught, one hand reaching for her diver’s knife, and prepared to defend herself and her father.