Authors: Debbie Viguie
“Cindy and Jeremiah,” Jeremiah said, introducing them.
“Hi,” Kim, a redhead with brilliant green eyes, said.
They shook hands with both of them. Then the second couple who were both tall, blond, and tan introduced themselves.
“We’re Jack and Jill,” the man said. “I know, but it’s true. And believe it or not I did not marry her for her name,” he said.
“But I married him for his,” Jill said quickly.
They both threw back their heads and laughed.
Almost like a pair of hyenas
, Cindy couldn’t help but think. She was about to chide herself for being unkind, but they kept going for what seemed like forever. When they finally stopped laughing it was unnaturally abrupt, almost like they had decided that was the moment to stop.
“Have you seen who’s with us?” Jill asked, without skipping a beat. She pointed to the couple standing next to Arnold.
“Do you know them?” Cindy asked.
Jack and Jill both laughed again. This time, mercifully, it was shorter than the last. As before, though, they stopped abruptly. Without even taking a breath Jill said, “Only in my wildest fantasies! That’s Dorothea and Flynn Castleback.”
“They’re millionaires,” Kim said.
“Billionaires,” Jill corrected.
Jim laughed and clapped a hand on Jeremiah’s shoulder. “I bet yours is just as into society and fashion and all that as ours are.”
Before Cindy or Jeremiah could say a word, Jill and Kim had each taken one of Cindy’s arms. “Ignore them, Cindy,” Kim said as they pulled her a few feet away. “Now we were just trying to figure out, how long exactly do you think that strand of pearls is?”
“I wouldn’t know,” Cindy said, glancing at Dorothea Castleback.
“I say it’s one really long strand looped three times,” Kim said.
“And I say that’s three separate strands,” Jill said.
“They’re very pretty,” Cindy said, having nothing constructive to add to their debate.
“Gorgeous. You can tell from here how expensive they are,” Jill said. “I tell you, if Jack ever bought me a necklace that fine I would never bring it to a place like this in a million years. I would leave it in the safe at home. You know how it is with vacations. It seems like something always gets... lost.”
And by “lost” she clearly meant stolen.
Two more couples arrived in the room and eventually Jill and Kim had seized the opportunity to tell them all about Dorothea’s pearls as well.
Fortunately within a few minutes the place had filled up. It looked like there were couples from all age ranges present. It might be interesting to hear some of their stories. There were also a few individuals that she suspected were staff at the resort.
After a couple more minutes Arnold clapped his hands together three times. Apparently it was the magic signal for silence because everyone suddenly became quiet. The man wasn’t smiling as he looked out over those assembled. She still didn’t like him and with the look on his face now she liked him less.
Jeremiah walked up behind her and put a hand on her shoulder, squeezing it gently. She took a deep breath. His touch always reassured her and helped her calm down.
Here we go
, she thought to herself.
“Ladies and gentlemen, so glad you could make it. I am Arnold Smith. I have some announcements to make, but first it is imperative that I tell you something and that you hear me, really hear me.”
He paused and looked around the room, meeting everyone’s eyes.
“All of you are in terrible, terrible danger.”
There was a ripple effect throughout the room as people shifted uncomfortably but remained silent. Jeremiah squeezed Cindy’s shoulder harder, and she could feel his muscles tensing. She couldn’t see him but she imagined his eyes were already flitting around the room, seeking out any threats.
“You heard me, right,” Arnold said gravely. “You are all in terrible danger of having stale, unfulfilling, monotonous relationships. The divorce statistics in this country are appalling and many of those who decide to stick with their marriage still find themselves feeling trapped, unloved, and unappreciated. The good news is, you’ve taken the first step toward escaping this danger. You’re here which means you’re ready and willing to work on gaining a deeper appreciation of your significant other and making the relationship a fulfilling one for you both. The staff here is dedicated to helping you.”
He paused and then he smiled. “Tomorrow we’re going to be plunging right into it and it will be fun, but it will be hard work as well. Tonight, though, we celebrate. Everyone, grab a glass of champagne and prepare to join me in a toast.”
People nearest the table began grabbing and passing glasses until everyone had one.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” Arnold said, his glass raised high. “I celebrate your relationships and look forward to helping you build ones that will last a lifetime. Cheers!”
“Cheers,” Cindy muttered as she clinked glasses with Jeremiah. She hesitated for a moment and then took a small sip of the champagne. Even though her mind had gone there, she seriously doubted that someone would have poisoned the champagne.
It wasn’t like Malcolm’s entire retreat group had gone missing, just him. It had probably been something very personal to him and not something sinister involving the entire retreat center.
She noticed that Jeremiah barely sipped his as well. She turned her attention back to Arnold.
“Okay, now that the serious portion of the evening is over, welcome to the retreat!” Arnold said.
A few people cheered, most clapped.
“We are going to have a seriously great time getting intense and personal. This is a safe place. Emotions might run high, but that’s okay. Sometimes you might hate me, you might even hate your spouse, but I guarantee that when you leave here it will be with a newfound appreciation for them.”
Around the room heads were bobbing up and down.
“For some of you this may be your first time doing something like this, that’s okay, we’ll hold your hand through the entire process. Others might have been to a couples’ retreat somewhere else before. I’d encourage you to just empty your mind of any preconceived notions you might have. I can assure you that we are unlike anything you’ve experienced before. We delve deeper and play harder here than anywhere else.”
More head bobbing around the room. She noticed that while most people were smiling there were a few that looked a bit skeptical.
All of the staff had grins plastered on their faces. They were all huge and seemingly so identical that it was a little creepy. Clearly their instructions for the evening consisted of “smile like your life, or at least your job, depends on it.”
“Alright everyone, go ahead, mingle, get to know the other couples and the staff. You’re going to be working closely with all these people for the next week. In about half an hour we’ll head over to the dining room for dinner.”
Around them couples started introducing themselves to one another while Jeremiah and Cindy made a beeline for some of the staffers ringing the room. The first one they reached was a young woman with long brown hair that fell to her waist. She was very petite overall.
“Hi, I’m Cindy and this is Jeremiah,” Cindy said, extending her hand to the woman.
“I’m Summer. I’m the yoga instructor. You must be our dating couple, is that right?”
“Yes,” Cindy said.
“I have to say it is highly unusual to see a dating couple here. We’ve had a couple of engaged couples that were just trying to get in pre-nuptial bonding, but I don’t think we’ve ever seen a dating couple before,” Summer said as she shook hands with both of them.
“We...have some issues we’d like to work through,” Cindy said, suddenly regretting that she hadn’t let them just pretend to be a married couple. By being the only dating couple to ever attend the retreat they were sticking out like a sore thumb instead of blending into the background. There was nothing that could be done about that now, though.
“Well, this is a great place to do that,” Summer said. “I wish you both the best of luck.”
“Thank you,” Jeremiah said.
They moved down the line and introduced themselves to a tall, well-muscled man named Dimitri who turned out to have a thick Russian accent.
“And what do you do here, Dimitri?” Jeremiah asked.
“I am the ballroom dance instructor,” he said.
“Excuse me?” Cindy asked, sure she couldn’t have heard him right.
“I teach dance, the ultimate physical expression of intimacy and partnership between a man and a woman.”
“Oh, okay,” she said, feeling a bit flustered. Jeremiah was a much better dancer than she was and she always felt a bit nervous at the thought of dancing.
She hastily moved on to a short man with glasses and thinning hair. “Hi, Cindy,” she said, holding out her hand.
“Dr. Carpenter, staff psychologist,” he said.
His hand was limp in hers as she shook it which unnerved her more than the intensity of the ballroom dance instructor. He turned beady eyes toward Jeremiah. “And you must be the boyfriend,” he said, and the way he said it made it sound very unflattering.
“Yes, I am,” Jeremiah said, a little aggression coming out in his voice.
Dr. Carpenter did not extend his hand to Jeremiah, instead he deliberately put his hand in his pocket.
Cindy was shocked at the display of rudeness. Dr. Carpenter didn’t know Jeremiah, they’d only just met. There was no need to be condescending and rude toward him. Plus, wasn’t the guy’s job to help all the couples deepen their relationships and smile while doing so? He couldn’t possibly be this way with everyone, could he?
Jeremiah put his hand on her waist and gently pushed, signaling that they should move on. She did and they presented themselves to the next staff member, a woman with dusky skin, dancing eyes and a brilliant smile.
“I’m Jasmine,” she said brightly.
“Jeremiah and Cindy,” Jeremiah said, stretching out his hand.
She rolled her eyes. “Please, I’m a hugger,” she said, stepping forward and hugging first him then Cindy. “Trust me, by the time I’m through with you, you’ll both be huggers, too,” she said.
“What do you do here?” Cindy asked when Jasmine had finally let go of her.
“I mostly run some of the small group sessions,” she said. “We focus a lot on communication and intimacy. Or, as my girl Ursula said, ‘the importance of body language’.”
Cindy couldn’t help but laugh out loud when she realized Jasmine was quoting from the Disney movie,
The Little Mermaid
“See, you know what I’m talking about,” Jasmine said with a mischievous glint in her eye.
Cindy could have stood and talked with the other woman all night. She had a way of putting someone at ease even if she was a hugger. She kept in mind, though, that they needed to meet as many of the staff as they could to aid in their investigation.
“I look forward to talking with you later,” Cindy said before they moved on.
“I really hope she doesn’t have anything to do with it,” Cindy whispered to Jeremiah.
“I would be genuinely surprised if she did,” he replied.
They met five others before Arnold announced that it was time to head to dinner.
In the dining room they discovered that there were three couples assigned to each table.
Cindy was pleased to see that they were at a table near the door which was perfect if they needed to make a hasty exit. She was less thrilled to see that Jack and Jill were at their table. She had been a bit put off by Jill and Kim when talking with them earlier. The other couple at their table she hadn’t met yet.
“Isn’t this fabulous?” Jill said in a giggly voice as they all prepared to sit down. “It would only be better if Kim were here, too.”
Cindy glanced around the room. Kim and Levi were sitting down across the room by a large picture window. Cindy noticed that they were at Dorothea and Flynn’s table and that Kim had wasted no time in trying to get her hands on the older woman’s pearls. Kim was leaning in and touching them as though examining the strand.
“Looks like she’s sitting at Dorothea’s table,” Cindy said.
Jill spun quickly, eyes zeroing in on Kim and Dorothea.
“Why that little-” Jill started to mumble under her breath before she grabbed a passing staff member by the arm. “Excuse me, I really need to be moved to that table over by the window.”
“I’m sorry, ma’am, all the seating arrangements have been finalized,” the man said.
“But you don’t understand, I have to sit over there,” Jill wailed.
“Ma’am, I assure you every table is an excellent one.”
Cindy could swear she could actually see the gears in Jill’s mind turning. She was clearly not going to let Kim get the upper hand when it came to schmoozing the rich, older couple. She glanced at Jack to see what he thought of his wife’s behavior. He stood beside his chair, just watching the exchange, face passive.
“It’s not good enough!” Jill said, her voice raising and drawing the attention of more people.
“What seems to be the problem?” Arnold asked, suddenly appearing.
“I’m, I’m claustrophobic. I simply must sit by the window where I can see outside,” Jill said. “That table,” she added, pointing.
Cindy gaped at her. It was such an obvious bald-faced lie. The others had to see through it.
“Come with me and we will see what we can do,” Arnold said.
With a smug grin Jill set out after him, and Jack followed behind. Cindy watched as they reached the other side of the room. Arnold said something quietly to the people at that table. After a moment Dorothea and Flynn rose, much to Jill’s obvious chagrin.
A few moments later the older couple were seating themselves at Cindy and Jeremiah’s table.
“I’m sorry they made you move,” Cindy said.
“We volunteered,” Flynn said. “It seemed like a good excuse to move.”
“I don’t know what was wrong with that one girl. She kept touching my throat. I thought she was going to attempt to strangle me,” Dorothea said.
Cindy bit her lip to keep from laughing out loud. Once she had managed to restrain herself she said, “I know she and the girl you swapped seats with were admiring your pearl necklace earlier. I imagine she was just trying to get a closer look.”
“Any closer and I would have been wearing
around my neck instead of the pearls,” Dorothea said drily.
“That’s an image I’d rather not see,” Jeremiah said.
“Me either,” Flynn chimed in.
They made introductions around the table. The third couple were Beth and Tristan from Nevada. They seemed nice, but they were both very quiet. They had been married for ten years. Dorothea and Flynn had been married for thirty-six years.
Cindy glanced over to the table by the window and saw that both Jill and Kim were staring over at them. She had a sudden, insane urge to give them a little wave, but she restrained herself. It wasn’t a good idea to antagonize anyone here, particularly since they didn’t want to draw attention to themselves.
“You doing okay?” Jeremiah asked.
“Yes,” she said, turning to him with a smile.
As dinner dragged on Cindy found herself with more and more butterflies in her stomach. It was as though with every passing moment the reality of the fact that they were here as spies to ferret out the truth came home a little bit more. The anxiety must have started showing on her face because suddenly Jeremiah was rubbing her shoulders.
“You need to relax, there’s no need to worry about work or anything else right now,” he said. He looked at the others. “My Cindy is a bit of a perfectionist, and she sometime has a hard time letting go.”
Around the table heads bobbed up and down in understanding.
“I’m sorry, it’s been a busy few weeks and I’m afraid it will take me a little while to unwind and put it all behind me,” she said.
“You will, though, dear,” Dorothea said sympathetically. “This is the place to do it as well. The staff here are always so courteous and friendly they make it easy.”
“You’ve been here before?” Cindy asked.
“Many times,” Flynn said with a smile for his wife. “We’ve found it very helpful to come once a year and really get in touch with each other, reconnect.”
“So you’re here every year?” Jeremiah asked.
“Yes, just like clockwork. We come to celebrate our anniversary. We used to take trips, but we realized that we were engaging in activities that were focusing us outward instead of inward on us and our relationship,” Dorothea said.