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Chapter One


“Rick, please don’t go,” Lara whispered.

The look he flashed over his shoulder was chilling, only because it was terribly familiar.  He wasn’t angry, hurt, or even scared.  It was a look of resignation.  She’d seen it on her ex-husband’s face right before he walked out of her life for good.  It was all happening again.  

“I’m sorry, baby,” Rick said quietly.  “But this isn’t working.  Something’s got to change.”

She bit her lip, unsure what she could say to fix it this time.  She could tell him to forget the housework, that it didn’t matter anymore that he’d agreed to do his share, but every day she had to remind him of some chore he’d neglected to do, or had done in a less-than-satisfactory manner.  But it did matter, damn it!  She worked just as hard as he did.  It just wasn’t fair that she had to come home from work, tired and grumpy, with yet more work to do, while he could sit on the recliner flipping through a dozen channels with the remote, and still have the audacity to ask her how much longer until dinner.

She could tell him that it wasn’t his fault – the fact that their love life was about as interesting as watching paint dry.   Rick was more than good looking, although not such a knock-down gorgeous hunk that she was jealous of every woman within visual range any time they went out.   He was tall, with thick dark hair and eyes the color of liquid gold.  His shoulders were broad and muscular, although the washboard abs he’d once had back in his college days were turning into a slight paunch.  Physically, Rick was incredibly attractive.  But when he snuggled up at night with making love on his mind, she was still resentful of the dishes or laundry or dusting that she’d had to do, alone, without his help.  It was hard to turn off the resentment and feel amorous; yet turning him away only served to drive the wedge deeper in their relationship.  And now, sometimes, when she did manage to “feel like it”, Rick wasn’t able to perform.   

He never wanted to go out and do anything anymore.  Before they moved in together, they used to go dancing, or catch a movie, or take a picnic to the beach, or even just sit outside and gaze at the stars.  Now Rick’s idea of a hot date involved watching sports on television and splitting a six-pack of beer.  

He said they didn’t have to date anymore, they were living together.  That made them practically married.  She said that even married couples still made an effort to date, if they wanted to keep the romance alive.  He said it was too late for them.  He felt like a monk, for all the action he got.  

He was right about one thing.  They couldn’t keep on like this.  She was gaining weight and smoking again.  He was drinking more.  She was spending money they couldn’t afford.  His unhappiness carried over into work, and he’d been demoted after a careless mistake cost the company.  

Maybe it would be better if they just called it quits and both walked away.  Except, they had made a pact before moving in together.  Both survivors of terrible marriages and even more brutal divorces, they’d sworn that if they ever had problems in their relationship, they would seek professional help.  And if that didn’t work, they’d try another professional.  They’d sworn that they wouldn’t break up, no matter what.  Starting over again was painful, and they were getting too old to keep playing the dating game over and over and over again, in the hopes of finding the perfect someone.  

“Please,” she whispered.

Rick shook his head.  “I’ll be back.  I just need a little time alone right now.  Don’t wait up.”

The door clicked softly behind him.  Lara sank to the floor and wept.

 

Rick got behind the wheel of his 1998 Ford Mustang GT.  Turning the key, the 275 horsepower engine roared to life, then settled down to an impatient hum as it waited for him to shift into gear.  Rick leaned his head against the steering wheel and blinked back the pressure building behind his eyelids.  

He’d loved his first wife, once upon a time.  Of course, after she got done raking him over the coals, he couldn’t summon up an ounce of tender feelings, but once, he had loved her.  And he’d been so sure that Lara was the one – his true mate, Mrs. Right – which would imply, of course, that he was Mr. Right.  Lara was still a pretty woman with many nice qualities, but when he was with her, he felt completely incompetent.  

He’d cleaned the fricken’ toilet, for crying out loud!  That was what this last argument had started over.  He’d come home from work after a really rough day, and found her sticky notes posted everywhere.  One was even on the front door, where anyone passing by would have been able to read it.  “Rick, clean the bathroom”.   Not even “Dear Rick, Please clean the bathroom”.  He’d grabbed the sticky note and shoved it in his pocket, only to find another pasted to the refrigerator when he grabbed a beer.  And yet again, on the bathroom mirror.  But then, as if he wasn’t already really pissed, there was another one stuck to the toilet bowl brush.  Now, why the hell would he even notice the toilet bowl brush unless he was fricken’ using it!  

So he’d cleaned the bathroom.  But then Lara laid into him for over an hour about not doing it right.  She dragged him into the bathroom and proceeded to do it over, teaching him the right way to do it, like she was his nagging mother and he was six years old.  

Then, as she’d got down on her knees to wipe the base of the toilet with a paper towel, her sweater had risen a little, and her jeans rode low, baring a few inches of smooth creamy lower back, nicely indented, as it disappeared down beneath the waistband to join a very luscious bottom.    As the first stirrings of arousal tingled through his groin, he’d wrapped his body around hers, pretending to imitate her gestures, while nuzzling her neck.  

She hadn’t responded well.  He shouldn’t have been surprised.  He could not honestly remember the last time they’d had sex, let alone made love.  Lara yelled at him and stomped off in a huff.  Hours later, he had to guess that she wasn’t going to make dinner, and he’d slapped a couple of sandwiches together and eaten them both.  Later still, she yelled that he was so selfish, to fix something for himself and not make one for her.  

Nag, nag, nag.  At times, he was envious of the old days.  His father had never cleaned a toilet in his life.  And his grandfather had never prepared a single meal.  Their wives practically waited on them hand and foot.   What Rick needed was a truly old-fashioned girl.  Too bad there were none left.

He rammed the engine into reverse and backed out of the driveway.  An old friend had bumped into him a few months back, bragging something about this great retreat he’d sent his wife to.  When she’d come back, she was a changed woman.  Rick didn’t believe a single retreat could fix all their problems, but he was desperate.  He dug the address out of his pocket while waiting at a stoplight.  Punching in the number on his cell phone, he let him know he was coming over for advice.

Lara dragged herself off the floor when her tears ran dry and she was thoroughly chilled.  Munching on a pint of ice cream didn’t help.  Then she’d climbed into the tub for a long, hot soak and another bout of tears. Lethargic and miserable, she crawled into bed for yet another restless night of poor sleep and terrible dreams.  

The bed dipped when Rick climbed in beside her.  She felt his arm around her, but more tears filled her eyes.  She should give in, let him make love to her, but she was completely drained.  

“Honey, are you awake?” he said, gently brushing back strands of her long, blonde hair.  “Lara, wake up.  I’ve got something I want to show you.”

She’d seen it before.  And frankly, lately, it wasn’t much to look at.  She bit her lower lip, angry with herself for even thinking such a nasty thought.  

Rick moved away, but only long enough to turn on the lamp.  He shook her shoulder.  “Come on, honey.  You know we need to talk.  And now I’ve got something I want to tell you about.  A sort of vacation.”

“There’s no such thing as a sort of vacation, Rick.”  She hated how shrewish she sounded.  

“Okay.  Not a vacation.  A retreat.  I heard about this great retreat, to help couples.  It looks great, and I want to send you.  Wouldn’t you like that?  Not to have to cook or clean or do anything, for six weeks?”

Lara bolted upright.  “Six weeks!  I can’t take off work that long!  And neither can you!”

“Um, baby.  This is just for you.  They have a weekend seminar for the guys, but girls get to go there and stay.”

“That’s crazy.  And you’re crazy.  How are we supposed to work out our issues, if we don’t go together?  Huh?”

Rick puffed up his pillow and leaned back against the headboard.  He pulled some papers on his lap, rustling them and making curious little grunts.  Lara closed her eyes as she tried to shut him out, but her curiosity got the best of her.  She sat up and leaned against his shoulder.

“Okay, Mr. Not-Quite-A-Retreat.  Show me what you got.”

The colorful brochure on his lap caught her eye immediately.  A big, stone mansion on a beautiful carpet of lush, green lawn.  Massive weeping willow trees.  Wrought iron gate.  The ocean in the background.  A gorgeous sky- golden and blue – either a sunrise or a sunset, Lara couldn’t be certain.  It did look peaceful.

“How does it work?  What will I do all day?”

“I don’t know for sure, Lara.  But it’s a retreat.  It wouldn’t be much of a vacation if you didn’t rest, would it?”

Lara read the captions under the glossy pictures.  They didn’t reveal much.  Feminism verses traditional rolls.  Discover your inner beauty.  Sounded nice, but vague.  Still, there was something about that big, stone structure.   It was a castle, and she could be the fairy princess, if only for a few weeks.

“How much does it cost,” she asked hesitantly.  It wouldn’t pay to show too much interest if it wasn’t going to work out.  

“Don’t worry about it, honey.  Remember, we promised each other.  We’d try anything and everything to save our relationship.  And this is a good place to start.  Besides, I already paid for it.”

“You what!”

Rick shrugged, but his expression was set.

“You had no right!  What if I can’t get the time off?”

“You’ve got more overtime than God.  If they don’t give you the time off, you should just quit.  Let them see what it’s like to manage without you.  I bet when you come back, they’ll be begging you to take your old job back, with a raise.”

Lara couldn’t resist a grin.  Rick was probably right.  She was just a PBX operator at a major resort hotel outside of Portland, but she’d been there longer than most of the other employees, including the managers.  She knew how things worked, and how to get things done, while everyone else had to look it up in some manual and hope that they got it right.  

“Well, I’ll think about it,” she admitted.  

Rick gave a deep, weary sigh.

“No, honey, really.  I willthink about it. I promise.  I just need a little time.”

Rick set the brochure aside, then turned off the light.  Lara froze, fearful he’d want to snuggle and make-up, but she was just too drained to be able to work up the effort.  When he didn’t make any advances, she felt herself relax.  She missed making love.  She missed the intimacy, the feeling that she had once wielded over him – the way she could drive him from relaxed to crazed with just a glance and a few tender strokes.  But it had been a long time since their intercourse had anything to do with making love.  She felt tears press against her tear-swollen lids, felt pressure build in her sinuses.  Angrily, Lara turned her back to him and pretended to sleep.

 

That night she dreamed about sunny days on at a beach, tanned lifeguards bringing her cocktails and lighting her cigarette for her, massage therapists rubbing in the tanning oil, and maybe even sitting in on that feminism verses traditionalism lecture, if only to find other women dealing with her same issues.  

The next morning Rick had her bag all packed for her before she awoke.  “I feel like you’re kicking me out,” she pouted.  “I’m going to have to repack it anyway, in case you forgot something.”

“I didn’t,” Rick insisted.  “The retreat provides almost everything.  They printed a list on the back page of the only items you’d need.”

How nice.  How very – controlling.  Lara felt a twinge of apprehension.  

“Come on, baby.  The plane leaves in an hour.”

“Plane?”

Rick slung her small overnight bag over his shoulder and took her hand as he tugged her toward the door.

“Yes, plane.  You know, big bird, floats on air, defies gravity.  Most of the time, that is, except when it doesn’t.”

Lara gulped.  He knew she hated flying.  She stiffened and tried to pull out of his grasp.  “I changed my mind.  I – I’m not going!”

“Lara.  It’s all paid for.  Until you knew about the plane, you were excited about it.  I know you were.  So don’t let your little phobia ruin what could be the best thing to ever happen to us.”

“I can’t!  Rick, you don’t understand!”

“If you ever loved me, you’ll do this.”

Lara blinked.  This was it.  The final ultimatum.  Put herself – her life – at the risk of a machine.  Have her stomach rocked at impossible speeds and dizzying heights, while her overactive imagination played scenes of her bloody demise over the six-o’clock news of the latest plane crash, or watch Rick walk away, forever.

He tugged.  She followed.

“I could give you a pill to help you relax,” he suggested.

Lara glared at him.  “I don’t do drugs.”

“It’s not a drug.  Not really, well, not an illegal one.  Just a sedative, so you could sleep on the plane.”

“I don’t do drugs.  Not weed, not aspirin.  Nada.”

They didn’t talk on the ride to the airport.  There wasn’t much to talk about.  Their lack of communication was a big factor in their current problems, and now she was going away for six weeks.  It might as well be six months.  Six weeks was a month and a half.  A lot could happen in that time.   The resort where she worked could be bought out, the employees laid off.  Rick could meet someone new before she got back.  

She almost lost her nerve when she saw the plane.  Maybe a major jet, like a Boeing 747, would have instilled a greater sense of security, but the thing her luggage was tossed into was more like a boat with wings.  A small boat.  The plane would only hold a handful of passengers.  The wheels were set inside huge pontoons for water landings.   Another woman about her age ran up and hugged her.

“Isn’t this great!  I just can’t believe it.  Six weeks on an island, with nothing to do!  It’s like a fantasy!”

An island.  That explained the pontoons.  Rick gave her a quick peck on the cheek and nudged her towards the open hatch.  Lara let him and the eager woman maneuver her onto the plane.  A third woman joined them, yelling at her significant other even after the hatch was closed and the plane started down the tarmac.  

“Hi,” the eager woman said.  “My name’s Beverly.”

“Lara,” Lara said.

The third woman glared at them.  She folded her arms across her chest.  “Let’s not “bond”.  I’m taking the next plane out and I don’t give a damn where it’s going.  Anywhere, except back here.”

“I’m sorry to hear that,” Beverly said, and she did sound sorry.  

Lara was so wound up with her own problems, that she didn’t have room to feel sorry for someone else.  

“I’m looking forward to this,” Beverly gasped.  “I need this!  One day maybe I can send Johnny on a retreat.  I love him, you know.  But sometimes, well, you just get stuck in a rut, and nothing’s good anymore.”

Beverly chatted on, and if she noticed that her two companions seemed disinterested, she didn’t let it stop her.  Her voice was soft and sweet, with a very feminine breathless quality that made Lara think of playboy bunnies, even though she’d never met one.  Before long, Lara found herself drifting off.  She woke up just in time for the plane’s descent, so she could rattle off her litany of prayers to assorted deities begging for their protection.   And then it was over.  The plane was tied to a rickety dock; Lara and Beverly exited the plane.

“Ma’am, we’ve arrived,” the pilot said, gesturing towards the third passenger.

“I’m not staying,” she repeated.  “You can just take me back.”

“But I’m not going right back,” he apologized.  “I’m staying the night.  If you still want to leave in the morning, you’ll have to check with the business office for a refund and about booking your passage.”

Beverly gave the woman a bright smile.  “Who knows?  You may even find yourself enjoying the first night so much, you don’t ever want to leave!”

“Hardly,” she muttered.

A gorgeous hunk in a white uniform met them, slinging all their bags over his shoulder at once, as he escorted them to a waiting limousine.  The drive to the resort was not far.  The charming wrought iron gate pictured in their brochure was in reality an imposing ten-foot security fence.  Who needed a security fence on an island?  Lara felt a second twinge of apprehension.  Was this place legitimate?  Or was it something out of a horror flick, and she the sacrificial lamb?

The front lawn was filled with women.  Some were much older, some were barely out of their teens.  There were white women, black women, Asian women, and even a few men.   Most of them were dressed up more than Lara would have thought necessary for a retreat.  She and Beverly were among the few to be wearing jeans.  The others wore flowing skirts, spiky heeled shoes, and sheer blouses made out of sensual fabrics that clung in all the right places.  And boy, did they have the right places!  Lara couldn’t remember seeing that many beautiful women gathered in one location.  

Two of the women came up to Lara and hugged her.  “We’re so glad you came,” they said brightly.  “You’re going to love it here!”

Lara stiffened, wondering if they weren’t just a bit strange.  

Beverly had no such qualms.  She hugged them back and agreed with them.  

Waiters circulated, offering an assortment of beverages and plates of thick, chewy fudge brownies - her greatest weakness.  Lara gobbled one, and when no one was looking, she grabbed another.  She hoped she didn’t gain ten pounds on this retreat, but if they served brownies very often, she’d be lucky if that was all she gained.

She caught snippets of conversation, although she felt oddly lethargic and wasn’t inclined to join in.  The new guests complained about their man problems.  ‘He doesn’t help out, he doesn’t communicate, he isn’t considerate, he isn’t romantic, he isn’t fill-in-the-blank’.  Lara tuned them out.

It wasn’t hard to do.  Her ears were ringing, and the conversations sounded like they were talking underwater.  She staggered, as a wave of dizziness came over her.  A waiter guided her into a chair with a pleasant smile.  

Dusk was just settling in when the doors were opened and the assembled guests were ushered inside.  Lara was shown to her room, where her small bag had already been deposited.  The attendant didn’t even wait for a tip, but quickly disappeared down the hall after informing her that dinner would be at seven o’clock sharp, and don’t be late.  

Lara just stood in the center of the room and gaped.  A huge, four-poster bed stood on one side near the floor-to-ceiling window.   It was so high, that a small footstool was provided so she could climb onto it.  It was lusciously adorned with a rose-printed comforter and scads of lace and satin pillows.  

The walls were charmingly papered in Victorian prints with roses and cherubs.  Heavy drapes graced the windows with a complementary pattern.  There was a fireplace in the room; a fire already laid just waiting for a match.  A love seat and footstool faced the fireplace.  The carpet was so thick, she couldn’t see her own feet, and the air was fragrant from the bouquet of roses on the end table.  In fact, everything seemed prettier, brighter, sharper, cleaner.  Lara giggled, wondering briefly if they had put something in those brownies.

Beverly knocked on her door, before letting herself in.  “Isn’t this fabulous?  Oh, your room is so pretty in pink and white.  My room is similar, but the colors are seafoam and aqua.”

Lara wasn’t sure what Beverly blabbed about.  Tucking her arm in her new friend’s, they followed the flow of traffic to the dining room.  

They sat eight to a table, with dozens of tables.  A small, circular stage was in the center of the room, but at the moment the stage was empty.  Lara glanced around.  She didn’t see a band anywhere, getting out their gear or tuning instruments.  She felt a little deflated, as she loved dancing.  But she was too hungry to fret about it, and the dizziness was spreading.  Her arms felt heavy.  If the food didn’t arrive soon, they might have to spoon-feed her.

And then it came.  More waiters, all hunks capable of scoring a perfect ten on the hunk scale, balanced large trays, setting a plate before each guest.  Lobster Alfredo and buttered asparagus with a colorful orange garnish on a bed of spinach leaves.  Another waiter set a goblet of white wine before her, and a basket of hot-from-the-oven dinner rolls.  Lara licked her lips, hoping she wasn’t actually drooling.  

“I am going to gain a hundred pounds here,” she muttered, grabbing a roll and slathering it with butter.

“I know.  I just feel so special,” Beverly said.

“We don’t always have such a feast,” one of the other women at their table informed them.  “This is in honor of our new arrivals.  Tomorrow you can count on something much lower in carbs.”

“So how long have you been here,” Lara asked.

The woman gave her a blank look, then she shrugged and glanced away.  Red stained her cheeks.  “I’m not sure,” she whispered.

Another woman quickly butted in.  “Time flies, you know.  Liza, you’ve been here five weeks.  Only one more week, and you’ll be going home again.”

Liza didn’t look convinced.  Her chin dropped and she fiddled with her napkin.  “Yes, of course.”

Lara meant to ask her what that was all about.  Something here didn’t feel right, starting with how fuzzy she felt.  But she couldn’t seem to stay focused.  Beverly said something, and the conversation moved on.  

A hush swept across the hall in the wake of one man’s entrance.  He walked tall, dripping with charisma and sex appeal like a toothpaste commercial.  He was dressed in a white shirt with full sleeves, laced at the chest with a leather cord, and tucked into snug fitting black trousers.  He looked like a pirate.  A pirate king.  Lara felt heat pool in her groin and she dabbed drool from her lips on a napkin.  

“Good evening, ladies,” he began, flashing an impossibly perfect smile.  “And may I extend the warmest welcome to our newest guests and future converts.”

A round of applause followed.  Lara blushed, squirming in her seat.  Okay, enough already.  She hated being the center of attention.  Still, it was kind of nice to feel so accepted.  Like she didn’t have to apologize for breathing.  Except, what was that about converting?  She thought this was going to be a vacation, not a religious experience.

He went on talking.  She didn’t have a clue what he said, but she could listen to his voice all day.  It was deep, resonating through her on an intimate level, like he could see right inside her.  She moistened her lips, wishing that there weren’t so many beautiful women in the room, as he would never notice her.  But then, he looked right at her and paused in his speech.  His lips quirked in a lazy smile, and Lara wondered that she didn’t drop in a dead faint right there. 

Beverly poked her in the ribs.  “Making eyes at the Master already, are we?”

“M-m-master?”  

Beverly laughed.  “That’s John Masters, the owner of this whole resort and workshop retreat.  I don’t think it means anything serious, but I’ve heard a few of the other women call him that.  Must be some private joke.  Although, I wouldn’t mind calling him ‘master’ in a few fantasies!”

Lara felt her face flush with embarrassment.  “Not even half a day away from your beloved, and already you’re fantasizing about another man,” she teased.

Beverly shrugged, but did not look the least bit ashamed.  “Nothing wrong with a healthy fantasy life.  Haven’t you ever heard the expression, look but don’t touch?”

“Yeah, my mom used to say that all the time.  She was usually referring to chocolate though, not men.”

“Men, chocolate... there’s a difference?  They’re both pretty hard to resist, incredibly sensual, and you just know you’re going to regret it if you indulge.”

They shared a laugh before another woman at their table shushed them.  “Here, have another brownie,” she offered.  “And pay attention!”

The third brownie was the clincher.  The table swam before her eyes.  The room tilted, then faded entirely.  The droning, mesmerizing voice disappeared.  Lara lost consciousness.