Read an Excerpt
Chapter One: Burns Lake, 1999
Noelle had rehearsed for days what she would say, the exact words that would set her free. Not just from her marriage but from the sense of obligation she now viewed as somewhat foolish, like her diamond ring that snagged on sweaters and pantyhose, and lately, because she'd lost so much weight, had a habit of turning on her finger. Once, when smoothing lotion over her leg, she'd even cut herself with it. A tiny cut, but it had drawn blood nonetheless.
Now, though, face-to-face with her husband, none of those carefully worded phrases came to mind. Only the plain hard fact of the matter.
"I'm not coming with you, Robert." She spoke as calmly as she could with her heart thudding like bricks being dropped one by one from a great height. "In fact, I'm not coming home at all."
They were standing outside her grandmother's house, where she'd been staying for the past three weeks, since Nana got home from the hospital. But Noelle had run out of excuses. Also, there was Emma to think of. Their daughter deserved to know the truth.
"That's ridiculous. Of course you are." Robert spoke sternly, as if to an employee who had stepped out of line. He glanced in irritation at his watch. "Now come on, get your things. You're supposed to be packed already."
"Did you hear what I said? Are you even listening?" Noelle felt suddenly panic-stricken, as if at any moment she would be sucked like a twig into the swirling eddy of his insistence. "I know this was only supposed to be temporary, but I-I changed my mind."
Now Robert was stepping back to eye her warily, a tiny dent of uncertainty marring his perfect Simonized exterior. He stood with his back to the boxwood hedge: a well-built man in his forties who appeared taller than his actual height of five feet eleven inches, with thick maple-brown hair that fell in a boyish swath over his forehead, reminiscent of JFK, and pale blue eyes that seemed to generate a cold heat, like the sunlight reflecting off his silver Audi 100 parked a few feet away. He was dressed in khakis and a lightly starched blue shirt open at his throat and rolled up over muscular forearms, yet there was a contrived look to it all, as if he were aiming merely for the appearance of being relaxed and casual, traits that no one who knew him well would ever associate with Robert Van Doren. Even the gray streaking his temples seemed the work of a skillful makeup artist.
One hand was in his pocket; the other clenched about his key ring. She watched him flex his fist repeatedly, knuckles tightening, easing, tightening. The tic in his right eye, which most of the time he managed to control, was acting up. It made her think of a twitching cat's tail-a reminder that with Robert you never knew quite what to expect. It was how he maintained the upper hand with friends and enemies alike: by keeping them off-balance.
"You're not serious." A smile flickered at the corners of his mouth, then died. "This is a joke, right?"
She drew in a breath that felt like something she'd swallowed that wouldn't go down. The sultry July heat seemed to close about her like a sweaty fist. "Eventually, of course, I'll be getting my own place. But for now I think it's best that Emma and I stay here."
There was a beat of silence in which the only sound was the chirring of insects and the faint chug-chug-chug of a sprinkler down the block. Then Robert spoke. "Is it Jeanine? Are you still punishing me for that? I told you. I'm not seeing her. I was never seeing her. It was just that one time. A mistake. One lousy mistake."
He was lying, of course. She could see it in his eyes. He'd been sleeping around long before she'd caught him at it. It was almost corny enough to make her laugh: a cheap affair with his twenty-two-year-old secretary. But hadn't she once been in the same position? A girl fresh out of college dazzled by her handsome, much older boss. Besides, Jeanine was no longer the point. She was just the excuse Noelle had needed to break loose. In a funny way she was grateful to Jeanine.
"It's not just Jeanine," she said.
"Everything was fine before that," he insisted.
"For you, maybe."
It wasn't just their marriage. It was the house on Ramsey Terrace and the Filipino maid who came four times a week. It was the country club and the Junior League teas, the committees and fund-raisers, the endless rounds of cocktail parties.
"Did the old lady put you up to this?" Robert's eyes narrowed.
"Nana had nothing to do with it." Her grandmother had never much liked Robert, it was true, but she was old-fashioned when it came to marriage. "In fact, she said I should talk it over with you before I made up my mind."
"It sounds as if your mind is already made up."
"Yes." She swallowed hard. "Yes, it is."
She dropped her gaze to his long shadow slicing the driveway into two neat halves. Late-afternoon sunlight lay in tiger stripes over the grass beyond, and the summer heat seemed to press down like a hot jar. Birds called from the feeder and she caught the flash of a cardinal out of the corner of her eye. When she looked back up at Robert, she was shocked to see that there were tears in his eyes.
"Jesus." He exhaled through his teeth, a faint whistling sound. "Jesus, Noelle, how the hell did it come to this?"
How indeed? When eight years ago her first thought each morning upon waking was, How did I get so lucky? Shy, skinny Noelle Jeffers, still a virgin at twenty-one, how had she managed to catch the eye of her much-sought-after boss? A man who might have been a movie star for all the whispered speculation around the office, all the hearts that beat faster when he was near. She remembered clearly the first time he'd stopped to chat with her. Her pulse had raced, and she'd become so tongue-tied she was certain she'd made a fool of herself. But two days later he'd asked her out to dinner.
"I don't know. Maybe we got off on the wrong foot to start with," she hedged. "I was so young...." Making excuses was easier than casting blame, she'd found.
"We didn't get off on the wrong foot. I did a stupid thing, that's all." He corrected her, almost angrily.
"I'm not punishing you, Robert." Maybe she owed him Jeanine. After all, it couldn't have been easy for him those first few years, living with a drunk. But that was beside the point.
"Really? Because that's what it feels like." There it was again, that nasty, grating edge, like a rusty tin can poking up from a neatly tended flower bed.
"I can't help that." In her head she heard the clipped no-nonsense voice of Penny Cuthbertson, her therapist at Hazelden: Keep in mind, Noelle, it's far more difficult to reclaim power than to hold on to it in the first place.
But Noelle couldn't remember a time when she'd taken a stand against Robert. From the very beginning he'd been in charge. First as her boss, then as her husband. She'd wanted the wedding ceremony to be held at St. Vincent's, but Robert had insisted on a grand outdoor affair at the country club instead. And when she was pregnant with Emma, he wouldn't let her near kindly old Dr. Matthews, who'd looked after her practically since she was a baby herself. (Never mind that the high-priced obstetrician in Schenectady was off skiing in Aspen when she went into labor.) Even when her drinking got so bad she could no longer hide it, Robert had stepped to the fore. He knew someone on the board at Hazelden, an old crony from Stanford. Within hours a room was available.
But now she was taking the lead, and Robert wasn't happy about it. Noelle could almost feel the seismic upheaval taking place in his mind, and as he moved toward her, she automatically took a step backward, edging off the driveway onto the lawn. In eight years of marriage he'd never once raised a hand to her but for reasons she couldn't quite put her finger on, she was afraid. She realized now that she'd always been a little bit afraid of her husband. Maybe that's why she had never dared to challenge him; she didn't want to know what he was capable of.
The hand he lifted, though, was conciliatory. "Noelle, please. If you don't care what it'll do to me, to us, think about Emma." His voice was low, cajoling.
She felt a hot flare of outrage. "Don't you dare drag Emma into this. That's not fair."
"Is it fair to tear a family apart?"
Suddenly Noelle felt tired. Her head had begun to throb. "Let's call it a draw, okay? It's not you. It's not me. It's everything. Maybe Jeanine was just the straw that broke the camel's back."
"It's not too late. We could start over."
She shook her head. "Oh, Robert, you know I was never cut out for that lifestyle. All those parties and committees. If I'd had to listen to Althea Whitehead drop one more mention of her ski lodge in Telluride, I think I would have screamed." She didn't add that her old friends from school, girls she'd practically grown up with, weren't exactly comfortable with her role as Mrs. Van Doren either. Over the years they'd drifted away, one by one.
He shot her a withering look. "How do you think my dad built our business? Working nine to five like the poor slobs punching time clocks? He threw parties, joined organizations, invited the right people to dinner. It's no different now. You think I'd have gotten the variances for Cranberry Mall without knowing Carl Devlin's golf handicap or that Reese Braithwaite prefers Habana Gold Sterlings to Honduran Excaliburs?"
"Stop." She put her hands over her ears. "Just stop."
Robert abruptly fell silent, scrubbing his face with a hand that appeared less than steady. He looked defeated all of a sudden. "Christ, Noelle, what do you want from me? Do you want me to get down on my hands and knees and beg?"
Noelle thought for a moment. What exactly did she want from him? Suddenly she knew. "I want a divorce."
His mouth hardened, and he stared suspiciously at this new, possibly dangerous entity that had taken the place of his formerly quiescent wife. When he spoke, all pretense at cajoling had been dropped. His voice was harsh with controlled fury.
"Do what you want," he snarled, jabbing a finger at her, "but don't think for one minute I'm going to let you have Emma. I'll fight you, Noelle. I'll do whatever it takes." He loomed close, his face mere inches from hers. His right eyelid was twitching uncontrollably, and she thought of Dorian Gray, a handsome man whose real face, hidden in the attic, was monstrous. "You think any judge in his right mind would give you custody? A woman everybody knows is a drunk?"
Noelle felt the blood drain from her face. He was standing so close she could see the hairs in the nostrils of his perfect aristocratic nose, the tiny scar on his chin where his older brother had accidentally struck him with a hockey stick when Robert was ten. And those eyes, pale blue with a rim of black around the pupils, eyes that seemed to stare fixedly, like those of a Siberian husky. For a moment she was certain he would hit her.
She felt a flash of anger, cold and invigorating. It took all her control not to lash back, remind him it had been six years since her last drink, and not even six months since she'd caught him in the arms of another woman. That would have been giving Robert exactly what he wanted, the battle he was far better equipped to wage than she was.
She forced herself to reason with him instead. "You'd only be using her to get back at me, and-and I know you wouldn't do that to Emma. You're a good father, Robert. You'll still see her. We'll work something out."
For a long moment his expression remained stony. Then all at once it seemed to collapse inward. He blinked, rocking back on his heels. The fist in which his key ring was clutched unfurled slowly. He stared down at his open palm in wonder almost. Even from where she stood, Noelle could see the red welts in his palm where the keys had bitten into it.
"You're right," he said. "God, Noelle, I'm sorry. So sorry." Covering his face, he began to weep softly. She'd never seen him cry, not like this, and it stunned her into touching his arm lightly in sympathy. When he lifted his head, his pale eyes were bloodshot, his misery starkly written in a face filled with self-loathing. "It's all my fault. I screwed up. You have every right to hate me."
"I don't hate you," she told him, her own throat tightening.
He stared at her with that awful bleak expression, pleading softly, "Can I ask just one favor? Will you give me that much?"
She waited in silence, not quite trusting him.
"Have dinner with me tomorrow night. I'll reserve a table at the Stone Mill," he continued in a rush. "We'll talk about Emma, what's best for her. That's all, I promise. Like you said, we're her parents, both of us. Nothing can ever change that."
Noelle hesitated. She didn't doubt he truly cared for Emma. And if he was as sincere as he seemed, she owed it to her daughter to accept his invitation. At the same time a voice inside her whispered, It's a trap. Don't fall for it.
But that was silly, she told herself. What harm could there be in two civilized adults sitting down to a meal? They'd be in a public place, and if things turned nasty, she could always leave. Besides, Robert was far too careful to risk such a scene.
That's what lawyers are for, persisted the voice. Can you honestly believe he'll give you what you want?
Maybe not. But it was too soon for lawyers. How could it hurt at least to hear what he had to say? She searched his face for an indication, however small, that she was being set up. But the only thing she saw was raw, naked appeal.
Nevertheless, it was with great reluctance that Noelle found herself answering, "I'll see if I can get Aunt Trish to baby-sit. Nana's not really up to it yet."
Robert gave a wan smile. "I'll pick you up around seven, okay?"
"No, I'll meet you there." If I take my own car, I'll be able to escape, at least. For some reason the thought did little to dispel her uneasiness.
The Stone Mill, situated along Route 30 about five miles north of town, was where Robert had taken her on their first date. Over the years they'd eaten there often, and though she preferred its cuisine to the country club's, Noelle found it equally pretentious. Pulling into the tree-lined parking lot, she saw the usual assortment of late-model luxury cars, their hood ornaments twinkling like so many miniaturized trophies in the glow of the fairy lights strung from the wisteria over the mill's recessed entrance.
As she stepped into the vestibule, the hum of conversation floated toward her. She glanced about at the rough stone walls and low-beam ceilings lit by candlelight and nodded to an older couple seated at a table near the captain's station, a stout gray-haired man and his equally stout wife. They looked vaguely familiar. Where did she know them from? Robert would have been annoyed at her for not remembering, she thought.
She spotted him at a table by the window. Catching sight of her at the same time, he rose and began winding his way toward her. Despite herself, she was struck by how handsome he looked. His tailored charcoal suit hugged his muscled frame like a glove. His brown hair shone with gold and silver highlights as he ducked to clear a spotlit beam. And she wasn't the only one who'd noticed. Heads turned to follow his progress. Eyes flickered with admiration and envy.
For a brief moment Noelle felt as she had on their first date: privileged merely to be in the company of such a man. As if she, too, were bathed in the glow he cast.
But she knew what the others didn't: that the bright charm could be flicked off as abruptly as a light switch, followed by either silent coldness or a stream of criticism. Her dress was too short or too long. She was wearing too much makeup. At the party the night before she'd talked too much or hadn't been lively enough. And for God's sake, wasn't there something she could do about that hair?
"Grant, how's the rib eye tonight?" Robert stopped to greet the mayor, Grant Iverson, clapping him on the shoulder in a gesture of easy familiarity that wasn't lost on the diners who glanced their way. Iverson and his blade-thin blond wife, Nancy, beamed up at him, their smiles stretching to include Noelle.
"Bloody, the way I like it." The mayor chuckled, a stocky man in his early fifties with heavy jowls bracketing a toothy grin who reminded her of the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz. He nodded in her general direction. "Noelle, nice to see you out and about. Robert tells me you've been under the weather lately."
"Actually, it's my grandmother-"
But he was already turning back to Robert. Dropping his voice, he growled, man to man, "Out celebrating, eh? You son of a gun. You actually pulled it off."
Robert shrugged modestly. "It could have gone either way."
"Like hell." Iverson winked broadly.
Nancy lifted her glass, square-tipped ruby fingernails twinkling against the deeper hue of the wine, wine that, in the old days, Noelle would have had to put away a whole bottle of to get through an evening like this. "Here's to the man of the hour."
Noelle fixed a smile in place, as if she'd known what they were talking about. Clearly some business deal had been successfully concluded. With Robert, there was always a deal in the works, one that depended on long-standing relationships with men such as Iverson, who, let's face it, wouldn't be sitting here-not on his fat expense account as mayor, at least-had it not been for the Van Dorens' support.
As they sat down at their table, she glanced out the window at the floodlit water sliding smooth as practiced lies over the millrace. She could see her reflection in the glass-hollowed eyes, a sharp-boned face surrounded by a cloud of black hair that seemed to flow out into the darkness beyond. Noelle offered up a tiny prayer: God, help me get through this.
"What was that all about?" she asked, arranging her features in what she hoped was a pleasantly neutral expression.
"The new superhighway. They voted on it up in Albany, just this afternoon as a matter of fact. Twenty million in state funds, with tax incentives for local linkups." He grinned in triumph.
"Congratulations," she murmured. She didn't have to ask to know the Burns Lake exit would be within shouting distance of the mall he was building.
"Iverson's in pig heaven just thinking of all those tax dollars. Look at him." She caught a note of scorn in his voice for the man whom moments before he'd been heartily clapping on the shoulder.
Noelle wondered what her father's reaction would be. Out of respect for her, Dad had been fairly restrained in the pieces the Register ran on Van Doren & Sons. But their brand of progress-the kind that razed historic buildings and erected lakeside condos and malls where unspoiled tracts of woodland had stood-had been chafing at him for years, she knew. Her divorce would be just the excuse he needed to begin firing with both barrels.
The waiter appeared, a slender young man with a crew cut so blond she could see the pink outline of his scalp. They both ordered their usual: diet Pepsi for her, scotch and soda for Robert.
While they were waiting for their drinks, Robert reached across the table and took Noelle's hand. "I would have ordered champagne, but it's never the same drinking it alone."
She frowned and withdrew her hand to fuss with her napkin. Why was Robert waxing nostalgic about her drinking? He'd poured her into bed too many times to remember those days fondly. And why was he acting as if yesterday's conversation hadn't even taken place?
She forced herself to hold his gaze. "This morning Emma asked how much longer we were staying with Nana, and I told her the truth: that we weren't going home."
The smile dropped from Robert's face. He picked up the knife beside his plate, idly examining it. Pinpoints of reflected light spun and flashed on its polished blade. "What did she say to that?"
"She was afraid you'd be mad." Noelle's throat tightened as she recalled her five-year-old daughter peering up at her in confusion, blue eyes filled with tears.
He cast her a sharp glance. "Christ, Noelle," he swore softly. "What did you expect? Did you think I'd be happy about all this?"
She hesitated before replying, "No, of course not. But is it really that big of a change? We hardly ever saw you as it was."
"What are you suggesting?"
"I'm not suggesting anything."
He glared at her, then let out a breath. "Okay, you have a point. I know I haven't been around much lately. Between the mall and Sandy Creek...well, you know how it is." He spread his hands in a helpless gesture. "But dammit, you're right, I should have been paying more attention to you and Em. Then maybe I wouldn't have had to get hit over the head to be reminded of what really counts." His homespun humility was almost sickening in its insincerity.
She refrained from asking how much of his precious time had been taken up with Jeanine. Coolly she said, "Why don't we stick to discussing Emma?"
He sat back, clearly put out that she wasn't falling for the Hallmark routine. "What did you have in mind?"
"How does two nights a week and every other weekend sound?"
"Just dandy. For you." Robert bared his teeth in a cheerless smile.
Noelle shivered as if caught in a sudden draft. When their drinks arrived, she couldn't bring herself to pick up the chilled glass. Gathering her courage instead, she said, "I'm sure we'll want to discuss this with lawyers at some point. I just thought, well, for the time being..."
She dropped her eyes to the candle flickering in its ruby glass holder. It reminded her of when she was little, praying in church. Her prayer had never varied: that one day her mother would be there to tuck her in every night, not just on the rare occasions when Mary was around. It wasn't like that with her and Emma. Noelle felt a pang at the thought of being separated from her daughter, even for one night.
"You're right about lawyers-it's much too soon for that. So I guess that doesn't leave me much choice. If I have any chance of winning you back, I'll have to go along." His expression was smooth, considering. She must have looked surprised because he gave a short, mirthless laugh. "Were you afraid I'd make a scene? Really, darling, you know me better than that."
"Let's just say you're used to getting your way." It wasn't an insult. Robert took pride in the fact.
"I have no intention of shirking my responsibility toward either you or my daughter." He lifted his scotch tumbler to his mouth, eyeing her over its rim.
She felt her neck and face grow warm. Money was a touchy subject for her, mainly because she had none of her own. Noelle sometimes thought she'd been happiest as a teenager, working summers and on school holidays at the Register. But what had been the good of all those high hopes of a career in journalism when all she had to show for it was a handful of freelance articles published in magazines no one had even heard of?
"You've always been generous." She wasn't gilding the lily about that, at least.
"You're the mother of my child. Nothing could ever change that." He picked up his menu. "Shall we order now...or after you've checked up on Emma?"
She hesitated, uncertain how to respond. Was this a test of some kind? Noelle chafed at the idea that she had anything to prove as far as her mothering was concerned. On the other hand, Robert was used to her being overprotective-the legacy of her own mother's benign neglect, she supposed.
"Aunt Trish is baby-sitting," she said. "I'm sure everything's fine."
"I'm sure it is, too."
But the seed had been planted, and after a minute or so Noelle began to grow restless. "Maybe it wouldn't hurt. Just a quick call to say good-night."
She excused herself, but when she phoned home, it was her grandmother who answered. Nana reported that Trish and Emma were engaged in a heated game of old maid. Emma of course would be up way past her bedtime, but that was Aunt Trish for you. Noelle had to smile. In some ways her aunt was as much a kid as Emma.
By the time she returned to the table, Robert was already on his second scotch and soda. She hadn't touched her Pepsi and reached for it now.
"I should have saved my quarter." Noelle smiled, sipping her drink. "Emma was too busy to come to the phone. It looks as if my aunt is turning her into quite the little card sharp."
"She's a smart kid."
"Too smart for her own good sometimes." Noelle was remembering how when Emma was only three, she'd figured out a way to climb onto the kitchen counter where the cookie jar was stored: by pulling open the oven door to use as a stepstool. "She's a bit of a handful for Nana right now."
"Knowing your grandmother, she'd be the last to admit it." He chuckled. "Speaking of which, what's the latest word from the good doctor?"
She felt a prickle of irritation, not liking the tone with which he referred to Hank Reynolds-as if a country doctor were beneath his consideration. "She's doing about as well as can be expected." Noelle hadn't told him of her grandmother's decision to refuse further treatment. He wouldn't understand...and probably wouldn't care.
Several minutes later another waiter, a sallow-faced middle-aged man with an elaborate comb-over, appeared to take their orders. As Noelle peered at the menu in the dim light, its spidery print swam before her. She blinked, struggling to bring it into focus. All at once she felt light-headed, tipsy almost. A wave of panic, a knee-jerk reaction from the years when a night out had been little more than an excuse to get drunk, swept over her.
"Darling, are you all right?" Robert's face loomed close.
"Right as rain." One of Nana's favorite expressions, which struck her as silly all of a sudden. What was right about rain? It was cold and spoiled everything; it made her hair frizz. She began to giggle uncontrollably, clapping a hand over her mouth.
Robert eyed her with the same patient, long-suffering expression she remembered from the old days, but there was something different about it now, something she couldn't quite put her finger on. Absently she rubbed her arm, recalling his steely grip on her elbow, the thousand and one times he'd had to steer her out of a restaurant or party, all the while smiling and chatting as if nothing were out of the ordinary.
"Are you sure? You look pale," he said.
The room reeled. She had to clutch hold of the table to keep from tipping out of her chair. "It must be something I ate." But lunch was hours ago, and she hadn't had a bite since.
"Either that, or a bug you picked up. Half my crew is out sick with the flu." He covered her hand with his, and this time she didn't pull away. The room was revolving slowly, dreamily, like a carousel. "Come on, I'll take you home. Can you make it to the car?"
"I-I think so." But when she stood up, the floor rocked beneath her, and she immediately plopped back down again. She leaned over and whispered fiercely, "Robert, what's wrong? What's happening to me?"
"You'll be fine. We've got to get you home, that's all."
She nodded, her head bobbing like a balloon on the end of a string. It dawned on her that she'd heard those words before. It was exactly what Robert used to say when she was too drunk to manage on her own. Yet she hadn't touched a drop.
He slipped something in my drink. He must have.
In some small, still corner of her mind an alarm bell was going off. She opened her mouth to call for help, but it was too late. The room appeared to be closing in on her, as if she were viewing it through a rapidly narrowing lens. The light was fading as well, leaving only a velvety grayness pricked with starry points of light. The last thing Noelle saw, as she slipped from her chair onto the floor, was the all-too-familiar look of disgust on the middle-aged waiter's sallow, peering face.
Reprinted from The Second Silence by Eileen Goudge by permission of Viking Group, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc. Copyright © 2000 by Eileen Goudge. All rights reserved. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.