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Under Currents

Nora Roberts

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  To the Greenbrier Girls

  JoAnne, workout companion

  Kat, my sweet, sweet Baby Mama

  Laura, the handler of everything

  Mary, shopping pal

  Sarah, spirit magnet



  Cruelty and fear shake hands together.


  Child abuse casts a shadow the length of a lifetime.



  From the outside, the house in Lakeview Terrace looked perfect. The dignified three stories of pale brown brick boasted wide expanses of glass to open it to the view of Reflection Lake and the Blue Ridge Mountains. Two faux turrets capped in copper added a European charm and that quiet whisper of wealth.

  Its lawn, a richly green skirt, sloped gently toward a trio of steps and the wide white veranda banked by azaleas that bloomed ruby red in spring.

  In the rear a generous covered patio offered outdoor living space with a summer kitchen and those lovely lake views. The carefully maintained rose garden added a sweet, sophisticated scent. In season, a forty-two-foot sailing yacht floated serenely at the private dock.

  Climbing roses softened the look of the long, vertical boards of the privacy fence.

  The attached garage held a Mercedes SUV and sedan, two mountain bikes, ski equipment, and no clutter.

  Inside, the ceilings soared. Both the formal living room and the great room offered fireplaces framed in the same golden brown brick as the exterior. The decor, tasteful—though some might whisper studied—reflected the vision of the couple in charge.

  Quiet colors, coordinated fabrics, contemporary without edging over into stark.

  Dr. Graham Bigelow purchased the lot in the projected development of Lakeview Terrace when his son was five, his daughter three. He chose the blueprint he felt suited him and his family, made the necessary changes and additions, selected the finishes, the flooring, the tiles, the pavers, hired a decorator.

  His wife, Eliza, happily left most of the choices and decisions to her husband. His taste, in her opinion, couldn’t be faulted.

  If and when she had an idea or suggestion, he would listen. If most often he pointed out why such an idea or suggestion wouldn’t suit, he did—occasionally—include her input.

  Like Graham, Eliza wanted the newness, the status offered by the small, exclusive community on the lake in North Carolina’s High Country. She’d been born and raised in status—but the old sort, the sort she saw as creaky and boring. Like the house she’d grown up in across the lake.

  She’d been happy to sell her share of the old house to her sister and use the money to help furnish—all new!—the house in Lakeview Terrace. She’d handed the cashier’s check to Graham—he took care of things—without a second thought.

  She’d never regretted it.

  They’d lived there happily for nearly nine years, raising two bright, attractive children, hosting dinner parties, cocktail parties, garden parties. Eliza’s job, as wife of the chief of surgery of Mercy Hospital in nearby Asheville, was to look beautiful and stylish, to raise the children well, keep the house, entertain, and head committees.

  As she had a housekeeper/cook three times a week, a weekly groundskeeper, and a sister who was more than happy to take the children if she and Graham needed an evening out or a little getaway, she had plenty of time to focus on her looks and wardrobe.

  She never missed a school function, and in fact had served as PTA president for two years. She attended school plays, along with Graham if work didn’t keep him away. She embraced fund-raising, both for the school and the hospital. At every ballet recital since Britt turned four, she’d sat front row center.

  She sat through most of her son Zane’s baseball games as well. And if she missed some, she excused it, as anyone who’d sat through the nightmare of tedium that youth baseball provided would understand.

  Though she’d never admit it, Eliza favored her daughter. But Britt was such a beautiful, sweet-natured, obedient young girl. She never had to be prodded to do her homework or tidy her room, was unfailingly polite. In Zane, Eliza saw her sister, Emily. The tendency to argue or sulk, to go off on his own.

  Still, he kept his grades up. If the boy wanted to play baseball, he made the honor roll. Obviously, his ambition to play professionally was just a teenage fantasy. He would, of course, study medicine like his father.

  But for now, baseball served as the carrot so they all avoided the stick.

  If Graham had to pull out that stick and punish the boy from time to time, it was for his own good. It helped build character, teach boundaries, ensure respect.

  As Graham liked to say, the child is the father of the man, so the child had to learn to follow the rules.

  Two days before Christmas, Eliza drove the plowed streets of Lakeview toward home. She’d had a lovely holiday lunch with friends—maybe just a couple sips more champagne than she should have. She’d burned that off shopping. On Boxing Day, the family would take its annual ski trip. Or Graham and the kids would ski while she made use of the spa. Now she had a pair of gorgeous new boots to pack along with some lingerie that would warm Graham up nicely after his time on the slopes.

  She glanced around at the other homes, the holiday decorations. Really lovely, she thought—no tacky inflatable Santas allowed in Lakeview Terrace—by order of the homeowners’ association.

  But, no point being modest, their home outshined the rest. Graham gave her carte blanche on Christmas decorating, and she used it wisely and well.

  The white lights would sparkle when dusk rolled in, she thought. Outlining the perfect lines of the house, twining around the potted firs on the front veranda. Gleaming inside the twin wreaths with their trailing red and silver ribbons on the double doors.

  And of course the living room tree—all twelve feet—white lights, silver and red star ornaments. The great room tree, the same color scheme, but with angels. Of course the mantels, the formal dining table, all tasteful and perfect.

  And new every year. No need to box and store when you could arrange for the rental company to come sweep it all away afterward.

  She’d never understood her parents’ and Emily’s delight in digging out ancient glass balls or tacky wooden Santas. They could have all that with their visit to the old house and Emily. Eliza would host them all for Christmas dinner, of course. Then, thank God, they’d head back to Savannah and their retirement.

  Emily was their favorite, she thought as she hit the remote for the garage door. No question there.

  It gave her a jolt to see Graham’s car already in the garage, and she checked her watch. Let out a breath of relief. She wasn’t late; he was home early.

  Delighted, especially since someone else had the car pool, she pulled in beside her husband’s car, gathered her shopping bags.

  She went through the mudroom, hung her coat, folded h
er scarf, removed her boots before sliding into the black Prada flats she wore around the house.

  When she stepped into the kitchen, Graham, still in his suit and tie, stood at the center island.

  “You’re home early!” After setting her bags on the wet bar, she moved quickly to him, kissed him lightly.

  He smelled, lightly like the kiss, of Eau Sauvage—her favorite.

  “Where were you?”

  “Oh, I had that holiday lunch with Miranda and Jody, remember?” She gestured vaguely toward the family calendar in the activity nook. “We topped it off with a little shopping.”

  As she spoke, she walked to the refrigerator for a bottle of Perrier. “I can’t believe how many people are still shopping for Christmas. Jody included,” she said, adding a scoop of ice from the ice machine, pouring the sparkling water over it. “Honestly, Graham, she just never seems to get organized about—”

  “Do you think I give a damn about Jody?”

  His voice, calm, smooth, almost pleasant, set off alarm bells.

  “Of course not, my darling. I’m just babbling.” She kept the smile on her face, but her eyes turned wary. “Why don’t you sit down and relax? I’ll freshen your drink, and we’ll—”

  He heaved the glass, smashing the crystal at her feet. A shard dug a shallow slice across her ankle with an added sting as scotch splattered over it.

  The Baccarat, she thought with a little frisson of heat.

  “Freshen that!” No longer calm and smooth, not nearly pleasant, the words slapped out at her. “I spend my day with my hands inside a human being, saving lives, and come home to an empty house?”

  “I’m sorry. I—”

  “Sorry?” He grabbed her arm, twisting as he slammed her back against the counter. “You’re sorry you couldn’t be bothered to be home? Sorry you frittered away the day, and my money, having lunch, shopping, gossiping with those idiot bitches while I spend six hours in the OR?”

  Her breath began to hitch, her heart to pound. “I didn’t know you’d be home early. If you’d called me, I would’ve come straight home.”

  “Now I have to report to you?”

  She barely heard the rest of the words that hammered at her. Ungrateful, respect, duty. But she knew that look, that avenging angel look. The dark blond hair, perfectly groomed, the smooth, handsome face suffused with angry color. The rage in those bright blue eyes so cold, so cold.

  The frisson of heat became electric snaps.

  “It was on the calendar!” Her voice rose in pitch. “I told you only this morning.”

  “Do you think I have time to check your ridiculous calendar? You will be home when I walk in the door. Do you understand me?” He slammed her against the counter again, shooting a jolt of pain up her spine. “I’m responsible for everything you have. This home, the clothes on your back, the food you eat. I pay for someone to cook, to clean so you can be available to me when I say! So you damn well will be home when I walk in the door. You’ll damn well spread your legs when I want to fuck you.”

  To prove it, he rammed his erection against her.

  She slapped him. Even knowing what was coming—maybe because of what was coming—she slapped him.

  And that rage went from cold to hot. His lips peeled back.

  He plowed his fist into her midsection.

  He never hit her in the face.

  * * *

  At fourteen, Zane Bigelow’s heart and soul centered on baseball. He liked girls—he liked looking at naked girls once his pal Micah showed him how to bypass the parental controls on his computer. But baseball still ranked number one.

  Numero uno.

  Tall for his age, gangly with it, he longed to get through school, be discovered by a scout for the Baltimore Orioles—he’d settle for any American League team, but that was his number one pick.

  Totally numero uno.

  He’d play shortstop—the amazing Cal Ripken would have retired by then. Besides, Iron Man Ripken was back at third.

  This comprised Zane’s ambitions. And actually seeing a naked girl in the—you know—flesh.

  Nobody in the world could have been happier than Zane Bigelow as Mrs. Carter—Micah’s mom—drove the car pool gang home in her Lexus SUV. Even if she had Cher singing about life after love playing.

  He didn’t have a passion for cars—yet—just a young male’s innate knowledge. And he preferred rap (not that he could play it in the house).

  But even with Cher singing, his sister and the other two girls squealing about Christmas, Micah deep into Donkey Kong on his Game Boy (Micah’s desperate Christmas wish was the new Game Boy Color), Zane hit the highest note on the happy scale.

  No school for ten whole days! Even the prospect of being pushed into skiing—not his favorite sport, especially when his father kept pointing out his little sister skied rings around him—couldn’t dampen his mood.

  No math, ten days. He hated math like he hated spinach salad, which was a lot.

  Mrs. Carter pulled over to let Cecile Marlboro out. There was the usual shuffling, hauling of backpacks, the high-pitched squeal of girls.

  They all had to hug, because Christmas vacation.

  Sometimes they had to hug because it was, like, Tuesday or whatever. He’d never get it.

  Everybody called out Merry Christmas—they’d called out Happy Holidays when dropping Pete Greene off, because he was Jewish.

  Almost home, Zane thought, watching the houses go by. He figured to fix himself a snack, then—no homework, no freaking math—close up in his room and settle in with an hour on Triple Play on his PlayStation.

  He knew Lois—off till like après ski—planned to make lasagna before she left for her own family holiday stuff. And Lois’s lasagna was awesome.

  Mom would actually have to turn on the oven to heat it up, but she could handle that much.

  Better yet, Grams and Pop got in from Savannah tomorrow. He wished they could stay at his house instead of with his aunt Emily, but he planned to ride his bike over to the old lake house the next afternoon and hang awhile. He could talk Emily into baking cookies—wouldn’t even have to talk hard for that.

  And they were coming for Christmas dinner. Mom wouldn’t even have to turn on the oven for that one. Catered.

  After dinner Britt would play piano—he sucked at piano, which equaled another regular dig from his dad—and they’d do a sing-along.

  Corny, totally corny, but he sort of liked it. Plus, he sang pretty good, so he didn’t get ragged on.

  As the car pulled over at his house, Zane exchanged fist bumps with Micah.

  “Dude, Merry.”

  “Dude,” Micah said. “Back atcha.”

  While Britt and Chloe hugged as if they wouldn’t see each other for a year, Zane slid out. “Merry Christmas, Chloe. Merry Christmas, Mrs. Carter, and thanks for the ride.”

  “Merry Christmas, Zane, and you’re always welcome.” She shot him a smile, made eye contact. She was really pretty for a mom.

  “Thank you, Mrs. Carter, and Merry Christmas.” Britt practically sang it. “I’ll call you, Chloe!”

  Zane slung his backpack over one shoulder as Britt climbed out. “What are you calling her for? What could you have left to talk about? Y’all never shut up all the way home.”

  “We have plenty to talk about.”

  Britt, more than a full head shorter, shared his coloring. The dark hair—Britt’s nearly to her waist and pinned back with reindeer barrettes—the same sharp green eyes. Her face was still sort of round and babyish while his had gone angular. Because, Em said, he was growing up.

  Not that he was ready to shave or anything, though he did check carefully every day.

  Because she was his sister, he felt honor bound to give her grief. “But y’all don’t actually say anything. It’s like: Ooooh, Justin Timberlake.” He followed up with loud kissy noises, making her blush.

  He knew Timberlake was her not-so-secret crush.

  “Just shut up.”

bsp; “You shut up.”

  “You shut up.”

  They back-and-forthed that until they reached the veranda—switched to snarling looks, as both knew if they went inside arguing and their mother heard, an endless lecture would follow.

  Zane dug out his key, as his father decreed the house stayed locked whether or not anyone was home. The second the door cracked open, he heard it.

  The snarl dropped from Britt’s face. Her eyes went huge, filled with fear and tears. She slapped her hands over her ears.

  “Go upstairs,” Zane told her. “Go straight up to your room. Stay there.”

  “He’s hurting her again. He’s hurting her.”

  Instead of running to her room, Britt ran inside, ran back toward the great room, stood, hands still over her ears. “Stop!” She screamed it. “Stop, stop, stop, stop.”

  Zane saw blood smeared on the floor where his mother tried to crawl away. Her sweater was torn, one of her shoes missing.

  “Go to your rooms!” Graham shouted it as he hauled Eliza up by her hair. “This is none of your business.”

  Britt just kept screaming, screaming, even when Zane tried to pull her back.

  He saw his father’s hate-filled eyes track over, latch on to his sister. And a new fear flashed hot inside him, burned something away.

  He didn’t think, didn’t know what he intended to do. He shoved his sister back, stood between her and his father, a skinny kid who’d yet to grow into his feet. And with that flash of heat, he charged.

  “Get away from her, you son of a bitch!”

  He rammed straight into Graham. Surprise more than the power of the hit knocked Graham back a step. “Get the hell away.”

  Zane never saw it coming. He was fourteen, and the only fights he’d ever participated in consisted of a little pushy-shovey and insults. He’d felt his father’s fist—a blow to the gut, sometimes the kidneys.

  Where it didn’t show.

  This time the fists struck his face, and something behind his eyes exploded, blurred his vision. He felt two more before he dropped, the wild pain of them rising over the fear, the anger. His world went gray, and through the gray, lights sizzled and flashed.