Chapter 1: Casey
Robin stared at her left hand. The pale strip on her ring finger was almost invisible now. She had gone twenty-seven years without a breakup, and now she’d had two in one year.
She had been neither surprised nor heartbroken over the breakup, but breakups were never fun, no way about it. She’d been dating Casey O’Keefe for three months, and it had been pleasant all the way through, if not particularly passionate. He was two years younger than her, and the owner of Ginger, a successful bakery in Waterloo. Robin had met Casey on a week-long stakeout. She had sat in his bakery for hours at a time, waiting for her client’s wife to leave the office across the street. Casey was friendly, sweet, and very ginger, and Robin had liked him enough to give him her number when he asked for it.
They’d had fun together for three months. Casey took Robin to street fairs and basement concerts together, things that Matthew would have considered too cheap and dirty. They crashed galas and snuck free cakes into their bags, they went to indie art shows that displayed paintings of naked women with octopus heads, they had picnics in ancient graveyards and tried to find the strangest headstone. Robin discovered a new side of London, a middle ground between Matthew’s stark corporate world and the gritty underbelly that she navigated with Cormoran every day. She fell in love with the city all over again.
Casey was a very devout Catholic, which meant that he was perfectly content to move slowly on the physical aspect of their relationship. They had fooled around plenty, and then gone a bit further, but they had never actually had sex. They hadn’t even seen each other fully naked. Robin was fine with that.
Then last night they had walked along the Thames and Casey had broken it off.
“I’m tired of feeling like a temporary fix,” he’d said, “A placeholder until you find somebody better.” Robin wanted to deny this, but she couldn’t think of a very convincing argument. The truth was that she’d had one foot out the door since the day they’d met. So she kissed him and told him that she was sorry, and she told him that he was a wonderful man who would make some woman very happy. And she told him that she’d had a wonderful time with him, and she thanked him for showing her a side of London that she’d never seen. Then she went home and cried for about an hour, and was ready to move on.
She had enjoyed being single after her divorce, being able to do what she wanted when she wanted. She had never lived alone before, and she was delighted to realize that she could eat what she was hungry for when she was hungry for it, and sleep in until noon on weekends. She could go to movies by herself, and cry at Disney films without being teased for it. One of the greatest parts of being single was that she no longer had to worry about Matthew and Cormoran. She could stay at work for as long as she liked, tailing people all hours of the night, if that’s what she wanted. Cormoran had put another desk for her in his office, with a folding screen divider to give them a semblance of privacy, though usually the divider stayed half-folded in one corner. They enjoyed sharing a space, and being able to bounce ideas off of one another easily. Without Matthew’s constant judgemental shadow, Robin found it easier to be open with Cormoran, and talk about things that weren’t strictly work related.
Would she tell him that she was single again? She couldn’t deny a small, tight line of tension between them, a constant reminder of what could have been. Lord knows all of their friends and family were expecting them to end up together. But she knew Cormoran. To jeopardize their work, their friendship, the risk was too great. Cormoran was no coward, but he wasn’t impractical.
Robin unlocked the door to the office and went in. She would wait to tell Cormoran she was single until it came up naturally.
Chapter 2: Regina
Cormoran ran his hands through his hair in frustration. Robin giggled and he shot her a baleful glance.
“What’s so funny?” he asked.
“When you do that to your hair you look like a grumpy lion,” Robin said.
Cormoran shook his head and turned back to his computer, but he couldn’t help but smile.
“What’s got you down?” Robin asked.
“Money. Once we finish up with Nose Hair we’re going to be out of clients.”
“You act like we didn’t just make a windfall in the August rush.” She shook her head, remembering the insanity of the month before, when they juggled fifteen clients in a month. They had even needed to assign Alyssa to some basic surveillance gigs just to cover their asses. “Is it busy like that every year?”
“It’s the heat. It drives people nuts.” He sighed and leaned back in his chair. “That money will only last us so long. After paying you and Alyssa, we only have enough rent for two more months.”
“This slump is not going to last more than two months, Cormoran. It never does.”
Cormoran surveyed her through narrowed eyes.
“Does it ever get exhausting?” he asked, “Being so damn optimistic all the time?”
“Better than the alternative.”
There was a tap on the door and Alyssa stuck her head in.
“There’s a Regina Oni here to see you,” Alyssa said, “She doesn’t have an appointment but should I send her in anyways?”
Robin’s eyebrows shot up.
“Did you say Oni?” she said.
“Yes,” Alyssa said, “Why? Do you know her?”
“I know her podcast,” Robin said, “See her in.”
Cormoran looked at Robin curiously.
“A podcast?” he asked.
“It’s a psychology podcast called ‘Truth Speaks’. It’s on relationship counseling.”
Regina Oni entered before Cormoran could respond. She was a small woman, but when she walked she owned the room. Her hair was straightened and pulled back into a tight bun, and she reminded Robin of a bird.
“Miss Oni,” Robin said, “I’m Robin. I have to say, I am a fan of your podcast.”
“It’s wonderful to meet you,” Regina said, shaking Robin’s hand with a talon grip, “Your reputation has preceded you as well. I hear you are the best in the business.”
Cormoran offered Regina a chair, and she sat.
“So what can I help you with?” Robin asked.
“I need help proving an infidelity,” Gina said. Robin raised her eyebrows. It seemed like an unorthodox method for a couples’ counselor to take. “Not for a client,” Gina said quickly, reading Robin’s expression, “It’s a coworker. I believe that he’s seducing his female clients.”
“What’s this man’s name?” Robin asked.
“Colin Lachlan. We’ve worked together for years, and we've recently come together to start a luxury couples’ retreat center in Scotland, where couples can work on their issues away from the distractions of life. But unfortunately his wife died last year, and he has responded to the grief by sleeping around.”
“Why do you think that?” Cormoran asked.
“We live next door to each other, on the grounds of the retreat centre. I’m always seeing different women, women I've never met, coming out of his house in the morning. I’ve been willing to turn a blind eye until recently, saying that sex is a common response to grief, and that it was none of my business. But I’ve noticed that in his work he’s started holding individual therapy sessions with just the female clients in a partnership.”
“Is that uncommon?” Cormoran asked.
“One-on-one sessions can be helpful in particularly difficult relationships, but this is becoming a pattern. And recently I found an email, sent to me by accident, by one of his female clients. A love letter. When I confronted him about it he claimed that it was transference.”
“Transference?” Cormoran asked.
“Transference is when a patient transfers their feelings of desire onto a therapist,” Robin explained to him, “Believing that they’re in love.”
“Yes,” Regina said, "Very good."
“I studied psychology at university,” Robin said, blushing.
“Transference does happen occasionally,” Regina said, “But I’m still nervous.” She stirred her tea and stared into the whirlpool in her cup. “I’m not concerned about him . We all have our vices, even counselors. But I am worried that he’s preying on his clients at a very difficult time in their lives, and taking advantage of their heartbreak. Our job is to heal relationships, not tear them apart.”
“Absolutely,” Robin said. She glanced at Cormoran, who nodded. “We'll take it.”
Chapter 3: Identities
They discussed the case over sandwiches and tea at Pret a Manger.
“Have you read the love letter yet?” Cormoran asked.
“The email?” Robin said, “Yes. Standard smut, though not very well written.” She placed it on the table between them. Cormoran looked over it.
You know what I need, and you’re the only one who can give it to me. I will do anything you want. I will pay anything, do anything. I am begging on my knees. Please help me find relief.
“We can’t all be Shakespeare,” he said.
“The most obvious response would be to go undercover as a couple at the retreat,” Robin said.
“You do love undercover work don’t you,” Cormoran said.
“Do you have any better ideas?”
“Yeah. Talk to his past clients. If he’s been making advances, surely somebody will be willing to talk.”
“Good luck with that,” Robin said, “First of all, we don’t even know who his clients are, and due to patient doctor confidentiality we never will. Second of all, there’s no guarantee that they would talk, and if we go snooping around word will get back to Lachlan.”
“What are the details on this couple’s therapy conference?” he asked.
“It’s a week long event at a retreat center near Greycrook.”
“It’ll be hard to get away from the office for a full week.”
“It’ll be good for us. We could use a vacation after the insanity of August,” Robin said.
“And if we get any cases while we’re off?”
“Alyssa has proven herself more than capable. She’ll just tell them we’ll meet when we get back. It seems silly to put off a case we have in exchange for the possibility of a future case.”
Cormoran ran his hands through his hair.
“You’re right,” he said, “Of course. I just hate putting you out as bait for some skeezball.”
“I wouldn’t have to be bait. I wouldn’t have to be the one seducing him. But we do need to go on this retreat and get a closer look.”
“I know. I still don’t like it.”
“How many times do I have to tell you that I can take care of myself?” Robin said.
“I know, I know. I’m sorry. I’m just overprotective. I’m working on it.”
“Keep it up and I’ll start calling you Dad,” she said.
“Oh God, let’s not even think about that.”
“What, that doesn’t turn you on?” she teased.
“Not even a little bit?”
Robin giggled into her tea.
Cormoran loved this new, post-divorce Robin. It had been over a year now since Matthew’s infidelity had been revealed, and Cormoran had watched as Robin blossomed in her newfound independence. She drank more, and stayed out late, and made suggestive jokes. She went on dates and flirted with bartenders. She was still Robin, still cautious and gentle and kind, but she walked with the confidence of a woman swimming in her own freedom. Even though she had been dating one man in particular, Casey O'Keefe, for a few months, she maintained the lightness and ease that she had adopted over the past year. It was the sexiest thing Cormoran had ever seen.
“We’d have to go undercover as a couple,” Cormoran said, “How would Casey feel about that?”
Robin flushed slightly.
“Actually, Casey and I are no longer seeing each other,” she said.
“Really!” Cormoran found himself tying his napkin into a knot under the table. “I’m sorry to hear that.”
“Yeah well we’d only been together since July, so it wasn’t incredibly serious. Which was part of the problem, I guess. He wanted to get more serious.”
“Been there,” Cormoran said, “When did this all go down?”
“Sunday night. I should have told you, but it didn’t seem to come up, and-”
“It’s fine. I understand.”
“Anyways, a faked relationship won’t be a problem,” she said.
“Right. Yeah. Good.” He scratched his neck. “That’ll be grand.”
It had taken six months for Cormoran to finally believe that Robin and Matthew were officially over and not just on a break. Then it took three more months for him to build up the courage to admit to himself that his feelings for her were more than just a temporary crush. Before he could officially reveal his feelings, however, she was dating Casey and the window of opportunity had closed. So he stayed quiet. Now, though, a faked relationship with newly single Robin… He shook the thought off like it was a persistent gnat.
Robin pulled out her laptop and started writing up a new file on their fake identities.
“Alright, so we’re married,” Cormoran said, “How did we meet?”
“Shouldn’t make it too different from reality, so let’s say we met at work.”
“Good thinking,” Cormoran said, “And we work as… Gastroenterologists.”
Robin made a face.
“Nobody will ask any questions if we’re gastroenterologists. Nobody wants to know. And if they do, I’ve picked up enough from Nick to get by.”
“Okay, you’re a gastroenterologist, I’m your secretary.”
“Colin is not going to approach me if he thinks I spend my days elbow deep in shit.”
“We’re at this couples’ retreat because we’re having marital problems.”
“Right. Our sex life has dried up,” Cormoran said.
Robin raised her eyebrows.
“That way we won’t be expected to be overly demonstrative,” he explained, “Any awkwardness around public displays of affection will be easily explained.”
“But I can’t be too prudish, or Colin won’t make his move.”
“Right. You’re sexually frustrated.”
“Possible porn addiction.”
“Thanks. And our names?”
“Something familiar enough that we’ll answer to it.”
“I’ll be… Sandra,” Robin said, grinning.
“You’re never going to let me live that one down, will you. Alright, you’ll be Sandra, and I’ll be... George.”
“Oh God, that’s my uncle’s name,” Robin said.
“No wonder our sex life dried up.”
Chapter 4: Alyssa
Robin booked George and Sandra two tickets to the retreat in a week’s time. That would give her enough time to cement their identities and do background research on Colin Lachlan. She scanned the retreat itinerary. Activities, lectures, and group therapy. Group therapy. She would need to make sure that their identities were air-tight. It would be hard to fake a personality under the careful questioning of a therapist. Lachlan had written a book on the advantages of group therapy that she wanted to read before meeting him. She would also need some new clothes if she wanted to fit in with the wealthy couples who would be attending the retreat. Some sexy outfits for snagging a man, some dowdy pajamas for sharing a bed with Cormoran. God, how would she manage faking a relationship with him? She laid her head on her keyboard and groaned.
“You alright in there?” Alyssa called.
“Oh, hi Alyssa,” Robin said, straightening up. “What are you doing at work? I thought you had to watch the girls today.”
Alyssa came to the doorway.
“Yeah, their school is on holiday,” she said, “But Christopher offered to babysit today.”
“You call him Shanker.”
“Oh.” Robin supposed she’d always know that Shanker wasn’t his real name, but she had never given it much thought. “I never thought of him being much of a babysitter.”
“Ah, he’s good enough in a pinch. He knows I’d kick his ass from here to China if anything happened to them.”
Robin was still a sceptic, but she figured that Shanker would do just about anything for Alyssa.
“How are the girls liking their new school?” she asked.
“They like it just fine,” Alyssa said, “Angel has been having some problems with fighting, but we’re working through it. She’s feisty.”
“I wonder where she gets that from,” Robin said, smiling, “I’m glad to hear that they’re doing alright.”
Alyssa gestured to the computer.
“You sounded frustrated just now,” she said, “Want some tea?”
“Nah, I’m okay,” Robin said, “Thanks, though.”
“Want some whiskey?” Alyssa asked.
Robin laughed. She liked Alyssa.
“If it wasn’t eleven in the morning I might take you up on that.”
“What are you working on?”
“Creating identities for Cormoran and myself. The therapy case. We’re going undercover as a married couple.”
“Fake romance,” Alyssa said, raising her eyebrows suggestively, “I’ve seen enough TV to know where that’s heading.”
“Cormoran and I are just friends,” Robin said.
“Maybe to you.”
“What do you mean?” Robin asked.
“He likes you.”
Robin rolled her eyes.
“Please,” she said, “He just sees me as a colleague.”
Alyssa raised her eyebrows and pursed her lips.
“Mmm-hmmm,” she said.
“I’m serious,” Robin said.
“Ok, fine,” Robin said, “You want to know the truth?”
“Okay,” she said, “The day after Matthew and I broke up Cormoran took me to Thorpe Park to cheer me up.”
“Shut up. Anyways, I might have gotten a little tipsy, and I might have... asked him to stay the night.”
Alyssa was smiling a giant shit-eating grin.
“Uh huh, keep going.”
“He said no,” Robin said.
Alyssa’s grin fell.
“Yeah. He said he didn’t want to be a drunken one-night blunder.”
“Well, Strike is a gentleman,” Alyssa said, “He could mean that he wanted a more committed relationship.”
“That’s what I thought. But I waited nine months before I started dating again. He had every opportunity to make a move, but nothing happened.”
“I don’t really care anymore,” she said, “I’m over it.”
“How can you and Strike both be so brave in every aspect of your lives, but both be so afraid of love?” Alyssa asked.
“Okay, Nicholas Sparks,” Robin said, “First of all, cut the Bridget Jones routine. Second of all, I’m not afraid of love. It’s not being loved back that’s the problem.” She leaned back in her chair. “But enough about me, what’s going on with you and Christopher ?”
“I’m leaving now,” Alyssa said.
“Oh, you can give it out, but you can’t take it?” Robin asked, laughing.
“Are you saying something?” Alyssa called from the other room, “I can’t hear you!”
The week moved forward without event. They closed out with the Nose Hair client, they packed, they made preparations for a week away.
Then it was Friday. Robin pulled up in the Land Rover at ten. Her nails were newly manicured and her hair was blow-dried into an immaculate golden wave. Her eyeliner was so straight it could have been applied with a slide rule.
“You look nice,” Cormoran said as they pulled out.
“Thanks. I figured if Regina is paying for me to look like a poncy elitist, why not look the part.”
“The Land Rover doesn’t fit much with that image, does it?”
“Hopefully nobody will notice.” She looked him up and down. He was well dressed too, in an ironed button-down and tighter jeans than normal. “You don’t look half bad yourself.”
“I mentioned to Lucy that we were going on a luxury retreat and she had a near conniption. She said that wealthy men don’t wear, quote, ‘saggy baggy grandpa trousers,’ and made me go shopping.”
“I like it,” she said, “You look very svelt.”
“I look like a wannabe hipster. You know how hard it is to put tight jeans on over a prosthesis? It’s a bloody nightmare.”
“Beauty is pain.”
Robin handed Cormoran a sandwich and they ate in silence for a stretch.
“I’ve been reading Lachlan’s book,” Robin said, “It’s quite informative, actually.”
“Any clues as to his character?”
“Not especially. He really stresses that couples should talk a lot about what they like about each other. I assume that he’ll bring that up during the sessions. I think if he asks me what I like about you, a good tactic would be to mention some qualities that you two share.”
“For example, he’s very tall, like you, so I could say that I like how tall you are. He’s a therapist, so I could say I like how you’re a good listener. He’s an authority figure, so I could mention that I’m turned on by you being my boss. Honestly, if you turn this red every time we talk about anything sexual our cover will be blown in minutes.”
“Sorry,” Cormoran said, blushing furiously, “Just not used to it.” He sighed. “I know we said that it would be best if our characters mirrored life as closely as possible. But I don’t want us to get confused, and start overlapping truth and fiction. Messing with psychology, that can really fuck up your head.”
“I know. I was a psychology major, remember? I think as long as we can be open with each other outside of our characters, and talk about what was real and what wasn’t, we’re going to be okay.”
Cormoran nodded along, but the thought of being open and honest with Robin was absolutely terrifying to him.
They lapsed into silence again. Cormoran reread the information on George Austin, then dozed for a spell. The radio played news of Kate Middleton’s morning sickness. City turned to hills and back again. After a spell Cormoran glanced over at Robin, who was biting furiously at her nails.
“You okay?” he asked.
“Why wouldn’t I be?” Robin said, a bit snappier than she’d intended.
“You’ve bitten off your new manicure.”
Robin glanced down at her hands and sighed.
“I guess I’m a bit nervous. I don’t know how good I’ll be at catching Lachlan’s eye. I’ve never been much of a seductress.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean I got together with Matthew in secondary school, and back then seducing somebody meant doing the bend-and-snap.”
“I don’t know what that is but it sounds incredibly painful,” Cormoran said.
“I knew a girl who threw her back out doing it,” Robin said.
“But you’ve been on dates and such since ending it with Matthew.”
“You mean those three times I went out to dinner with those utter wankers? Those dates were all online situations that ended poorly.”
“That just sort of happened. He asked me out and I went with it. I didn’t have to woo anybody.”
“You don’t have to woo Colin Lachlan either, you know. We’re only coming to this thing to get a closer look. Maybe talk to some clients, see if he does anything suspicious. You’re not going to prostitute yourself for this case.”
“I know, I know. You’re right.”
They drifted back to silence. She started biting her nail polish off again. Cormoran sighed.
“Alright, fine,” he said, “You want to know how to flirt?”
“There’s only three things you need to do. First, you make eye contact. Second, you laugh at all of his jokes. Third, you listen to him like he’s the most fascinating man in the world. That’s it.”
“That’s it?” Robin asked, incredulously, “That’s how you get so many women?”
“I wouldn’t say so many…” he protested. Robin gave him a look. He grinned. “Fine,” he said, “Yes. That’s how I get so many women.”
“There’s not a facial expression or something? I’m not supposed bite my lip or thrust my tits out?”
“I personally have never had much luck with thrusting my tits,” Cormoran said, “But I’m not well endowed in that regard.”
Robin was still giggling by the time they pulled into the front drive of the retreat center.
Shout out to my old therapist, who gave me the same advice on how to flirt.
Chapter 6: The Arrival
First one is short, so there's two today.
The retreat centre looked like something out of a fairytale. It was a large, elegant brick mansion, carefully designed to look like a country cottage. Bushy trees gave an air of wilderness to the otherwise pristinely manicured lawns and gardens, and a gentle little stream burbled around the front of the house.
“This is incredible,” Robin said, “I know money can’t buy happiness, but God, this does come close. Can you imagine coming to places like this all the time?”
“Charlotte used to come to places like this,” Cormoran said. Robin looked at him, surprised. He didn’t often mention their time together. “After one suicide attempt she stayed at a place that looked just like this. She called it a platinum band-aid covering a festering wound.”
“That’s very poetic.”
“She had a way with words,” Cormoran said.
They parked around back, then came into the front where they were met by Gina Oni.
“You’re our first arrivals,” she said, “That’s good. Plenty of time to get settled before we begin supper.”
She led them on a brief tour. The kitchen, the dining room, the common room, the ballroom. Robin found her head swimming with the beauty of the place. She couldn’t stop shooting Cormoran expressions of incredulous amazement. I must have the best job in the whole damn world.
“You’ll be room 203,” Gina said, “It’s quite private, so you don’t have to worry about your work being overheard.” She handed them each a large folder. “This is your itinerary, a workbook for the sessions, and your keys. We will see you down for dinner at seven.”
The room was light grey, with large window looking out on the grounds and a bed like a massive white cloud in the middle of the room. Robin flopped backwards onto the bed and beamed up at the ceiling.
“This is incredible,” she said, “God, how did I get so lucky.”
Cormoran looked down at her, her red hair fanned out against the white duvet, and had to agree.
Chapter 7: Remember When
Robin spotted Colin Lachlan towards the head of the dinner table and squeezed in next to him.
“Colin, hello, I'm Sandra Austin,” she said, “I'm a huge fan of yours. I've read your books so many times. I even went to a book signing, but I doubt you remember me.”
“She quotes you constantly,” Cormoran said, sitting beside Robin, “She gave a copy of your book to everyone for Christmas.”
“Oh,” Colin seemed a bit shocked by the sudden heap of praise. “Well, thank you very much, Miss Austin.” Colin was a tall man, greying at the temples but still quite attractive. He spoke with a deep, gentle cadence that instilled almost immediate trust. Robin wondered if he was actually trying to seduce the women on the retreat. She imagined that it wouldn’t be overly difficult.
“Please,” she said, “Call me Sandra.”
“Alright Sandra, and what is it that you do?” Colin asked.
“I'm an administrative assistant. Which is just the fancy word for secretary.” She giggled.
“Well, the world wouldn’t function very well without secretaries, would it,” Colin said.
“You should tell that to my husband,” Robin said. Eye contact, laugh at his jokes, listen to him. You can do this.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Cormoran said, “I’m George, by the way.”
“And what is it that you do, George?”
“I’m a gastroenterologist.”
Colin’s smile stiffened and he nodded politely before changing the subject to the weather. Cormoran caught Robin’s eye and smirked. Told you nobody would ask questions.
The dinner was shepherd's pie, with carrot cake for dessert. Cormoran watched Robin as she talked with Colin, making simple, vapid conversation about their trip down from London and their hometowns. She was glowing, beaming up at Colin like he was the reincarnation of Christ, bubbly and animated. She was clearly taking Cormoran’s advice, keeping eye contact and laughing constantly. She was also taking her own advice, biting her lip and leaning forward quite fetchingly.
“So tell me, Colin,” she said, “In your book you talk frequently about your wife. Is she here this week?”
“No, actually, she passed away about a year ago.”
Robin’s eyes widened in surprise.
“Oh, I’m so sorry to hear that,” she said.
“Yes, it was very difficult. I’m writing my next book on the grief process.”
“I look forward to reading it.”
“Now if you’ll excuse me,” Colin said, “I think we’ll begin.” He stood, and the room fell silent.
“Welcome, everyone,” Colin said, “Thank you for being here, and being on time. As most of you know, my name is Doctor Colin Lachlan, but you can call me Colin. I know you’ve met a bit at the meet-and-greet, but maybe we could go around the room and give your name and how long you’ve been with your partner.”
Each couple went around the room as the serving staff collected the plates. Amy and Max, together for ten years. Connie and Frederick, twenty years. Bella and Ramone, seven years. Sheila and Patrick, one year. Savannah and Steven, thirty years. Around the room, until it reached Robin and Cormoran.
“I’m Sandra, this is my husband George. We started dating five years ago.”
“Excellent,” Colin said, “Now that we all know a little bit more about each other, we can get started. We’re going to begin with a bit of an activity. My partner Gina is going to hand out some paper, and pencils…” Gina waved at the mention of her name. “This first activity is called ‘Remember When’. I’m giving you two minutes to write down the first time you saw each other. If you’d like you can also write about your first date, or your first conversation. Now, rather than the bare facts, I want you to write about your feelings at the time. What did you think about them? What was the first thing you noticed? What were your impressions? You only have two minutes, so I don’t want you to overthink it. Any questions?” There was a pause as everybody glanced around the room. “Alright, then. The two minutes start…. NOW!”
Robin and Cormoran glanced at each other, shrugged, and started writing.
“ My first feeling when I met George was sheer terror,” Robin wrote, “I was on my way of to the office, and a woman knocked into me and nearly pushed me down a flight of stairs. George reached out and caught me. That spike of adrenaline and the relief when he caught me was so intense, when he offered to buy me tea I just couldn’t say no.” Robin chewed on her pencil, thinking. She was writing as Sandra, of course, trying to imagine what her undercover counterpart would do and say, but the timer up front was ticking away and she had barely anything written. She went back to the paper.
“I was immediately intrigued by him. He was very quiet at first, almost gruff. It took me awhile to really understand him. I felt like he valued me, and cared about what I had to say. I wasn’t immediately attracted to him, but I always wanted to know more, to get closer. I wanted to be around him all the time. I’ve always felt as though we’re two halves to one whole.”
The timer dinged and there was a rustle across the room as couples hurried to finish their last thought.
“Alright, finish that thought and then put your pencils down,” Lachlan said, “Now we’re going to trade papers with your partner.”
Cormoran looked like he’d swallowed a goldfish.
“We have to trade ?” he said.
“It’s okay, George,” Robin said, “I know you don’t really mean it.” To the rest of the room it would sound like the scathing burn of a bitter wife, but Robin hoped Cormoran would hear it for what it was: a reassurance that she wouldn’t read anything into it, that she knew he didn’t love her in that way. Cormoran sighed, then nodded and slid the paper across the table to Robin. Robin looked down.
“My first impression of Sandra was that she was kinder than I deserved. She came into my life like a ray of light. Everything she did brought beauty. My life was chaos. My mind was cluttered and dark, and she made sense of everything. She’s incredible.” Robin could feel herself turning red and pressed a hand to her cheek. “ My first impression was that she really cared. She went above and beyond in her work. She went the extra mile not because she was going to be paid well for it (she wasn’t), but because she cared about doing things right. She has a big heart, and this shows in every aspect of her life.”
Robin glanced up at Cormoran, who couldn’t manage to make eye contact with her.
“Is everybody done?” Colin said, “Good, now let’s talk about the purpose of this assignment…”
Colin started talking about memories and keeping the spark alive in a marriage, but Robin couldn’t focus on what he was saying. You’re undercover you little fool, she thought, he didn’t mean any of it. But there it was, in his spiky scrawl. She reread it again. “ Everything she did brought beauty.” He was more poetic than she’d expected, but then he did have a strange habit of quoting Latin classics. She wondered if he would ever stop surprising her.
Robin looked up. The rest of the room was standing.
“Oh, sorry, lost in thought I guess,” she said.
“Classic Sandra,” Cormoran said, “My little space cadet.”
“We’re going into the ballroom,” Colin said.
Chapter 8: Dancing
Y'all know I couldn't write a fic without dancing.
The group stood in the ballroom as Gina began to speak.
“I’m Regina Oni, as I have said before, and we are going to begin by leading you in one of my favorite activities.
“I’d like to start by telling you a little story about my parents,” she said, “My mother moved to Nigeria at eighteen as part of her gap year, where she met my father at a dance hall and they fell in love almost immediately. At nineteen she got pregnant, so they got married. Their relationship had their ups and downs. Her family was from a poor rural town here in Scotland, his family was very wealthy. They had language and cultural barriers. At one point, when I was five, my father developed a flirtation with his secretary. He told my mother that he wanted a divorce, so that he could be with this woman. My mother agreed, on one condition. Every evening for a month, he had to dance with my mother. He didn’t have to take her out anywhere special, he didn’t have to be especially good at it. He just had to dance. Of course my father went along with it, he thought it was silly. He thought he could do what she wanted for a month, divorce her, and live guilt-free.”
Robin yawned, tired from six hours of driving. She wondered where the story was going.
“So the first evening they went into the living room, put on an old Elvis record, and started dancing,” Gina continued, “Their first dance was what he expected. Stiff and awkward. At five years old I thought it was great fun, and my sister and I joined in, dancing around them together. My father told his secretary that the divorce was still on.
“The next evening as my parents danced, my father began to look at my mother, and remember all of the dances they had danced when they were younger. The night they met, their early dates as teenagers, and on their wedding day. He began to realize that he had missed being close to her.
“In the days that followed he took her out to ballroom dancing clubs. He realized that since my sister and I were born, they hadn’t gone out on dates together, or spent any quality time together. My father realized that he had been lacking intimacy in their marriage. Not just sex, but real intimacy. The trust that comes with physical contact. It only took him three weeks to tell his secretary that he was staying with my mother. He continues to dance with my mother every night.”
Robin wondered how her marriage with Matthew would have fared if they had danced together every night. She couldn’t imagine it helping overly much.
“Now, I’m not saying that intimacy will immediately heal your relationships,” Regina said, “But it can help rebuild lost trust and remind you of past feelings. Because of this, and in honor of my parents, every night after dinner we will have dancing.”
Cormoran swore under his breath. Robin tried not to smirk.
“Do you think I can plead my leg?” Cormoran whispered.
“Just stand and sway,” Robin whispered back, “I doubt they’re going to make us boogie down.”
Cormoran snorted so loud that several people turned and glared, which made him giggle even more.
“Partner up, everyone,” Gina said, “We don’t need to be expert dancers here, it’s just about closeness.”
La Vie en Rose started playing from a set of speakers and couples around the room paired up to dance. Cormoran turned to Robin.
“I guess I’ll just…” He moved his hands to her waist, barely touching her.
“Right, yeah, that’s fine, I’ll put mine here, or maybe…” She took one of his hands in hers and put the other on his shoulder.
They swayed stiffly, Cormoran staring blankly over Robin’s head, Robin keeping her eyes on their feet, both hoping desperately that the other wasn’t disgusted by their sweaty palms.
“I feel like an awkward seventh-year at her first school dance,” Robin said.
“I know what you mean,” Cormoran said, “I half expect a teacher to pop up with a ruler, telling us we’re standing too close.”
“I trust Gina, I love her podcast, but I don’t know how dancing is supposed to build romance,” Robin said, “It feels so contrived. It just makes me nervous.”
“You mean you don’t find seventh-year flashbacks incredibly arousing?” Cormoran said, grinning.
“Ah, yes, my sexy days of baby fat and braces,” Robin said, “I was a little butterball as a kid.”
“I bet you were cute,” Cormoran said.
“Not in seventh year. But then my fat rearranged itself into curves, so it mostly worked out okay.”
“Better than okay.” He regretted the words immediately and felt himself turning beet red. “I mean, not in a creepy way. I just meant that you’re an attractive woman. Or, you know. In a non-partisan way, I have noticed that you’re not bad looking.” He winced at the sound of his voice. How was he suddenly so awkward? He hadn’t been this flustered around a woman since he was about thirteen.
Robin just smiled and leaned in closer, matching the sway in her hips to his.
Chapter 9: Shmoozing
After dancing was cocktails and schmoozing, which went smoothly and without event. Cormoran was a natural mingler, winning over the older women with tales of his nephews and a general decrying of millennials’ technology addiction.
Robin hunted down Regina and Colin, who were discussing Gestalt Dream Theory. To her pleasant surprise, Robin found that she remembered enough from her university days to join in. She enjoyed being back in a psychology setting, speaking to like-minded people. Faking attraction to Colin wasn’t an entirely unpleasant task. He kept interesting conversation, and was friendly enough. He didn’t made dirty jokes or rude comments about women, the way that Matthew’s coworkers used to. Robin couldn’t see any immediate signs of lechery, and wondered if Regina was mistaken.
Then, before they knew it, it was time for bed and couples began drifting off to their rooms. Robin excused herself, leaving Cormoran to finish up his conversation (questioning why millennials weren’t having children).
By the time Cormoran managed to extract himself and head up to the room, Robin was already there. She stared down at the bed with her hands on her hips, like it was a puzzle she couldn’t crack. She was already in her pajamas, a pair of sweats and a tank top. Cormoran found himself staring at her freckled shoulder blades. How could shoulder blades be so damn erotic? She wasn’t even wearing anything overtly sexy, but God.
“I think you did a better job at seduction than I did,” Robin joked, “I’m pretty sure half of those women wanted to propose marriage to you.”
“Bit of an age gap, isn’t it?”
“Age is just a number.”
“I could use a wealthy benefactor.” He gestured to the bed. “Is this going to be weird? Sharing a bed?”
“Not if we don’t make it weird. It’s a big one, so we’ll both have our own space. I used to share with my brothers all the time on holidays. We just made a wall out of pillows between us, and had our own blanket sets.”
“Right. Yeah. Shouldn’t be any different than that.”
Cormoran went into the bathroom to change into his pajamas and brush his teeth. He splashed water on his face. Siblings. Just like siblings. You can do this.
When he came out on his crutches Robin had made a wall of decorative cushions down the center of the bed, and was making up her side with her own set of blankets. She had seen him without his leg once before, back on the Quine case, but that day he had pinned his trouser leg neatly in on itself; she had never seen the scarred bare stump hanging out the bottom of his shorts. It felt strangely intimate, and she tried not to look as he climbed onto the bed.
“Light off?” she asked.
She flipped off the lamp.
“Goodnight.” They lay in the dark, painfully aware of the other’s breathing.
Chapter 10: First Morning
Shorty short short, but the other was a little thin too.
Robin woke up to the sound of birdsong outside her window, and the first rays of sun filtering onto the ceiling. She had been up most of the night, acutely aware of Cormoran’s weight next to her, petrified of rolling over and accidentally touching him in her sleep. She turned to look at him. His face was slack and soft, gentle in sleep. He was dreaming, his lips moving slightly. Robin smiled. Sleep stripped years of wear and anxiety off of his face, and for the first time Robin could imagine what he must have looked like as a boy. A curl had fallen down over one eye, and it was all she could do to not reach out and brush it back. Soon her alarm would ring, and they’d step back into their role as a bitter old couple. But until that happened she could stay here in this pale morning light, watching Cormoran breathe.
Chapter 11: Day One, Breakfast and Lecture
So the daily schedule goes: Breakfast, lecture, group therapy, lunch, leisure time, dinner, dancing, mingling.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
At eight Robin woke up a very disgruntled Cormoran and headed down to breakfast alone. The seats next to Colin were already filled, so she sat down at the other end of the table, next to a man she remembered being named Max.
“Good morning,” Robin said, “Lovely day, isn’t it?”
“Yes, I was expecting it to be chilly,” Max said, “It looks like I didn’t need my coat.”
“Apparently this town had the UK’s highest recorded temperature,” Robin said, “It’s their one claim to fame on Wikipedia.”
“You did your research. I like that.” Max stuck his hand out. “I’m Max.”
“Do I hear a Yorkshire accent?” Max asked.
“Yes, I grew up in Masham. You?”
“I have an aunt in Helmsley! What a small world.”
“This is my wife, Amy.”
Amy was tall and gaunt, with piercing blue eyes and short blonde hair. She was thin but muscular, and had the jumpy energy of a boxer about to go into the ring. Her eyes kept darting around the room, and her fingers fidgeted on the table. She nodded to Robin.
“Nice to meet you,” she said.
“I looks like we’re in the same group for group therapy,” Max said, looking at his folder.
“I guess we’ll get to know each other very well then,” Robin said.
After breakfast the ten couples all went into a meeting room, where they sat on squeaky metal chairs and listened to Gina give a lecture on conflict.
“Let’s cut to the chase,” Gina said, “You’re all here because you’ve been having some troubles in your relationships.” Heads bobbed in agreement around the room. “I spoke to each of you in the application process, so I know some of the issues you’re dealing with. You’re struggling with a wide variety of situations, from infidelity to economic differences. But you’re all dissatisfied in some way, and you are all disagreeing in some way. Now, disagreement isn’t a bad thing, really. We all disagree. That’s what makes us human. However, we have to learn how to disagree in a healthy way.”
Cormoran glanced over at Robin. She was listening raptly and taking diligent notes. He smiled. She was a psychologist at heart.
“Now let’s start by talking about listening,” Gina said, clicking open a Powerpoint presentation. “Often in a disagreement, we see the problem as being somebody else. You think, ‘if they could just change, this would all be better.’ Now I’m sure that we’ve all experienced this in some way or other, but telling somebody to change often makes them less likely to change. Anyone who has been told to calm down can attest to this.”
Cormoran managed to pull his eyes away from Robin and looked over at Colin Lachlan. Colin was a few years older than Cormoran, but he clearly took better care of himself. He was in excellent shape, with an natural even tan. His hair was neatly trimmed and gelled back, and the silver at his temples lent him a dignified air. Cormoran couldn’t remember the last time he had attended a gym. He looked down at his own belly protruding over his belt and vowed to start swimming again.
“Certainty makes us feel secure,” Gina said, “And in arguments we hold onto the certainty that we’re right and they’re wrong. We assume that only one person can be right. But most of the time the truth is more complicated. Now, that doesn’t mean that we have to give in. It does mean, however, that we have to listen. Just because you’re trying to understand them doesn’t mean you’re losing the argument.”
Cormoran thought back to his old arguments with Charlotte. What would have happened if he had made more of an effort to understand her? But he had made an effort. He had listened to her stories of abuse and neglect, he had researched her plethora of psychological disorders, studied her origins, tried to crack her codes. And in the end the truth he had discovered was worse than the lies: under all of it, she didn’t care about him at all. Under all of it, she just wanted to control him.
“There’s a lot of ways that you can be a good listener,” Regina was saying, “First, acknowledge that it’s okay for them to disagree. Repeat what they said, so that you make sure you understand. Clarify what they’re saying, so that you don’t misinterpret. Put their feelings into your own words. Play detective. This means asking questions and gathering information. And remember, it’s okay to admit ignorance. They might have information that you don’t have. Rather than fighting, you’re just trying to learn more about the issue.”
Six months ago Charlotte had given birth to a son with Jago Ross. A beautiful baby boy named Kelly, with Charlotte's dark eyes and a tut of perfect blonde hair. She’d sent Cormoran a message the day after he was born. “I’ll never love him the way I loved yours.” He had thrown the phone across the room. The screen still had a large crack down the center, held together by packing tape. Charlotte lived in Croy now, in the Ross manor not two hours away from the retreat centre.
Robin nudged his knee with hers, shaking him out of these dangerous thoughts. He glanced over at her and she leaned into him.
“Pretty sure if Matthew had said any of those things when I confronted him I’d have wanted to punch his tongue out his ass,” she whispered.
Because it's a therapy retreat, there's gonna be a fair amount of psycho-babble. I majored in Peace Studies in college (combination of poli sci, history, and hippie madness), so I've taken a buttload of conflict resolution classes and figure might as well use them.
Chapter 12: Day One Group Therapy
The retreat comprised of ten couples, twenty people in total. After Gina’s lecture they split in half and separated into two different rooms for group therapy. Regina had made sure to place Robin and Cormoran in Colin’s group.
“I’m sooo glad I’m in your group,” Robin gushed, sitting down next to Colin, “I can’t wait to hear your brilliant insights.” She was laying it on thick. Cormoran caught her eye raised an eyebrow. Don’t overdo it now. Robin grinned and squinted one eye in a half-wink that only he could see. The intimacy of that one tiny gesture swept through Cormoran in a wave of heat that nearly sent him reeling. He looked away, trying not to turn bright red.
“Welcome to group therapy,” Colin said, “Let’s begin this session by going around the room, sharing our names again and, in one sentence, your own personal hopes and goals for this week.” He turned to the woman on his right. “Constance, let’s start with you.”
“My name is Connie, and I hope to reignite the spark in my marriage.”
“I’m Frederick, and I hope to find a solution to our constant bickering.”
“My name is Max, and I hope to come up with some insight on how to help Amy.”
“I’m Amy… I want to learn how to be there for my husband, in spite of my PTSD.”
Robin’s ears pricked up at this, and she made a mental note to connect more with Max and Amy later. She remembered the profound guilt she felt after being attacked, for not being a good enough girlfriend for Matthew. She had attended a support group afterwards, and it had proved very helpful to speak to other women who had felt the same thing.
“I’m Genevieve, and I’d like to rebuild the trust that I broke when I cheated.”
“I’m Leon, and I’d like to learn to forgive my wife.”
Around the room until they reached Cormoran and Robin.
“I’m George, and I’d like to be able to satisfy my wife..." He cleared his throat. "Physically.”
“I’m Sandra, and I’d like to regain intimacy with my husband.”
Colin clapped his hands together.
“Right. Well, now that we’ve done that. You all attended Regina’s lecture this morning, and I’d like to hear some of your thoughts, or questions.”
There was a silence as the people in the group glanced around, hoping that somebody else would speak first. Cormoran raised his hand.
“I struggled with the points a bit,” Cormoran said, “She said that you need to listen. But that’s such a two-way street. I tell Sandra all the time that it hurts me when she watches pornography, but she doesn’t listen. She does it anyways.”
Robin snorted and rolled her eyes.
“I’m a woman , George, I have needs . You haven’t had sex with me in six months.” Cormoran opened his mouth to respond when Colin interjected.
“Alright,” Colin said, “Let’s back up here.” Robin and Cormoran both sighed huffily and turned to look at him. “We’ve talked about all of our goals, and I think the subject of sexuality is an important one here in this group. Does anybody have any thoughts on how we, as a team, can address this issue?”
Several couples looked around the room, worried about jumping in the middle of George and Sandra’s argument. Finally the woman named Genevieve cleared her throat.
“I think that it’s possible that we’re looking at too shallow of an issue,” Genevieve said. "We’re talking about George’s feelings when it comes to Sandra’s pornography, and we’re talking about Sandra’s feelings when it comes to George’s sexual practices, but we’re not talking about what may have caused either of those things.”
“That’s a very excellent point,” Colin said, “You’re both trying to get to the heart of the problem, but you’re tackling two completely different problems. George is tackling the problem of pornography, Sandra is tackling the problem of sexual frustration. So your connections get crossed. So what next steps do we take?”
The man named Leon raised his hand.
“I guess we need to find the root of the problem,” Leon said.
“I don’t know why I haven’t wanted to have sex with Sandra,” Cormoran said, “I just don’t want to.”
“Do you not want to have sex with Sandra ?” Colin asked, “Or with anybody?”
“I don’t know,” Cormoran said, “I haven’t tried with anybody else. Whether or not I’m sexually attracted to Sandra, I still love her.” He stared down at his hands. “I love her with all my heart.”
“How do you feel when he says that, Sandra?”
Robin shut her eyes and tried to stay in character. What would Sandra say?
“I… I find it hard to believe that he loves me, when he can’t be intimate. I feel like he sees me as his sister, not as a wife. I am still attracted to him, emotionally and… and sexually, but I can’t live like a nun.”
“Has your relationship been sexual before this?” Colin said.
“Yes. Up until the past six months, it’s been excellent,” Robin said.
“Then what happened?”
Robin and Cormoran shared a glance. In all of their planning, they hadn’t considered this question. Cormoran thought back on his past relationships for inspiration, but he had always had an illustrious sex life, even when every other aspect of the relationship was going down the tubes.
“I don’t know…” He turned to Robin. “What happened six months ago?” he asked.
“How am I supposed to know?” she said.
“I guess…” Cormoran reached into his brain for answers, and there it was. “I guess six months ago my ex-fiancee had a baby.”
Robin stared at him. This was, in fact, true. She had seen the tabloids, “The Honorable Jago and Charlotte Ross Introduce New Son, Kelly Ross,” but Cormoran hadn’t mentioned it.
“Did you know about this, Sandra?” Colin asked.
“I heard it in passing.”
“Let’s talk about this fiancee,” Colin asked, “What was her name?”
“Char-” He caught himself and cleared his throat. “Sharon.”
“When were you two together?”
“Six years ago. Shortly before meeting Sandra.”
“Why did you break up?”
“She… She faked her own pregnancy. I think. Or something like that.”
“What a profound breach of trust,” Colin said, “That must have been very painful.”
Cormoran blinked. He didn’t know how this had gotten so deeply real in just a few moments.
“Yes. Yes, it was.”
“So then finding out that she had a baby, did that bring back some of those feelings of mistrust and vulnerability?”
“I suppose so.”
“George, I want you to look at you wife.”
Cormoran turned to Robin.
“Is this Sharon, sitting here?”
“No, obviously not.”
“Sandra, would you ever hurt George the way that Sharon did?”
“No, never.” She met Cormoran’s eye. “I would never, ever hurt you.” Her eyes dropped to her lap. “I just wish you would have told me this,” she said, “I wish you would talk to me.”
Cormoran was silent.
“Do you hear your wife, George?” Colin asked.
“Yes…” Cormoran’s voice was low, almost a whisper.
“What do you hear her saying?”
“That she wants me to talk more.”
“How do you feel about that?”
“She doesn't know what she's in for.”
“Can you explain that further?”
“I'm so fucked up. She doesn't want to know what's in my brain. The things I've seen, the things I've done. I don't want her to know.”
Across the room, Robin could see Amy blinking hard.
“Why not?” Colin asked.
“Because it would hurt her. I want to protect her.”
“Sandra? How do you feel about that?”
“Frustrated. He's always trying to protect me, and it makes me feel like he thinks I'm weak.”
“I don't think you're weak,” Cormoran said, “Christ, Sandra, you're one of the strongest people I know. But that doesn't mean I'm going to intentionally cause you pain.”
“But by not telling me you're causing me pain anyways.”
“Let’s open this conversation up to the group,” Colin said, “Does anybody have anything to contribute?”
“I feel the exact same way as George,” Amy said, “It’s like he’s reading my thoughts.”
“How so?” Colin asked.
“I was in the military and saw some terrible things. I did some terrible things. And I try to tell Max about it, but it’s just so hard.”
“Max, how do you feel about this?”
“I don’t know what to say when she does tell me,” Max said, “How far can ‘I’m sorry that happened’ really go?”
Cormoran thought back to the months after he returned from Afghanistan, his leg and his mind in pieces. He’d felt like he was walking around with an arrow stuck through him: he had a primal need to pull it out, but doing so would cause such a hemorrhage he didn’t think he could survive it. It had been a slow process, involving therapy and a lot of alcohol, but eventually he’d begun to speak up about it. The responses had varied, from shock and horror (Lucy) to mild pity (Charlotte). Ultimately, though, it had been Nick and Ilsa who had sat and listened, and told him that they were there for him.
“A long way,” Cormoran said, “A damn long way.”
After lunch was leisure time. Robin and Cormoran followed Colin and a few other couples out to the property behind the house, where there was a neat little patio around a glittering blue swimming pool. While the others swam, Robin and Cormoran lounged on the adirondack chairs, Cormoran with a beer and a paperback mystery, Robin with an iced tea and an issue of Cosmopolitan.
“Cosmo?” Cormoran said, “Really?”
“Don’t knock it till you’ve tried it,” Robin said, “They have some really good articles.”
“Yes. Did you know that sleeping naked improves sleep, reduces stress hormones, and boosts your immune system?”
“You know what else boosts your immune system?” Cormoran said, trying not to think about Robin sleeping naked, “Eating dirt.”
Robin flipped the page of her magazine and hummed in interest.
“Here’s an article about how women who wear hijabs are often given sub-par medical treatment,” she said.
“Really!” Cormoran said, “That actually does sound interesting. Come over here, show me. I’d like to read that.”
Robin raised her eyebrows. Cormoran patted the space next to him on the deck chair. It was a large chair, but it would still mean getting quite close. He nodded to her, his eyes serious, so she got off her chair and sat down next to him.
“Thanks,” Cormoran said softly, “I wanted to check in.”
Robin curled up into his side and held up the magazine for him to see. Cormoran wrapped his arm around her shoulders and pretended to read. He had rolled up his sleeves in the heat, and Robin found herself staring at the hair on his arms. Snap out of it, girl.
“So what do you think?” he asked. Robin could smell him and tried to focus. He smelled like rain.
“You mean do I think Gina's suspicions are correct?” she asked.
“Too soon to say,” she said, “I didn’t get a creepy vibe from him, though. He seemed to really want George and Sandra to work out their issues. If he just wanted to get in my pants I feel like he’d be trying to break us up, not the opposite.”
“He was… quite effective,” Cormoran said. Robin could feel his breath on her ear when he spoke.
“I know,” she said, “We’re going to have to give George and Sandra some more issues to work out.”
“That should be fun,” he said, “What are some reasons to argue?”
“Political differences,” she said.
“I’m interested, go on.”
“You make me dress up as Margaret Thatcher in the bedroom.”
Cormoran burst out laughing.
“That’s a good one,” he said, “What else could we fight about?”
“I feel like your being a gastroenterologist has all kinds of untapped potential.”
“Are you thinking poop fetish?”
They clinked their glasses and drank.
“This is quite lovely,” Cormoran said, “We should do all of our briefings like this.” Robin shot him a look over her sunglasses. “I mean, you know, by a pool,” he said hurriedly. Robin smirked a bit to herself.
“Indeed. Now if you don’t mind, I think I’ll utilize said pool.”
She got up, cracked her back, and, before Cormoran could realize what was going on, peeled off her sundress and tossed it back onto her chair. She was wearing a high-waisted 1950s style red bikini with polka dots. It wasn’t an especially revealing swimsuit, but somehow Cormoran felt like he needed to close his eyes to protect her privacy. She did a perfect dive into the cool blue water and came up laughing.
His impure thoughts were interrupted when Amy sat down on the chair next to him, a beer in hand. He nodded in greeting.
“What military branch were you?” Amy asked without preamble.
Cormoran set his book down and considered. He thought about denying his military experience, but wasn’t sure if she would buy it. Then again, he didn’t want her looking him up and discovering his true identity.
“Armoured Corps,” he lied, “How’d you know?”
“Something about you,” she said, “The way you stand, and walk, and eat. It just fits.”
“Old habits die hard. What branch were you?”
“Navy.” She pointed to his leg. “Where’d this happen?”
“Bosnia,” he improvised.
“Yep. I’ve still got a piece of Fallujah in my spine,” she said, “You’re not supposed to know that, though. Women aren’t supposed to be in close combat, dontcha know.”
“I know. I’ve seen the fucked up way the military treats women.”
“I just wanted to thank you for what you said in group therapy,” Amy said, “I don’t think Max really understands how important it is to me, to just have him there, listening, and saying that he’s sorry and that it sucks.”
“Yes, well, I had PTSD before. I know how it goes.”
“I’m sorry. That sucks.”
“There you go, now you’re the one saying it,” he said.
“I guess the tables have turned.” Amy sipped at her beer. “How’d you learn to deal with it?” she asked.
“Therapy. Time. Accepting the love of friends and family. Hobbies, and goals.”
“Were you with Sandra at the time?”
“No, another woman. She was even more damaged than me. That probably appealed to me.”
“With Sandra it’s totally different,” Cormoran said. He glanced over at the pool, where Robin was swimming. “She’s had her own share of trauma. But she’s just… Fantastic.”
“And the PTSD got better? Actually?”
Cormoran looked down at his prosthesis, hidden under thick denim in spite of the heat. Did it ever really get better?
“I know it sounds cheesy, but it’s like ocean waves,” he said, “You can’t stop them, but you can learn how to surf.”
Now women are allowed into close combat, but at the time they weren't.
Dinner was served at six thirty, and Cormoran and Robin sat next to a couple named Savannah and Steven, who had been married for thirty years.
“We just sent our last son away to university,” Steven said, “We’ve never been married without kids before.”
“We got married when I got pregnant,” Savannah said, “And for the past thirty years it’s just been one baby after another. We figured that this retreat would be just the thing to figure out this new stage in our relationship.”
“Thirty years,” Robin said, “What’s the secret?”
“The secret is being married to the most wonderful woman on earth,” Steven said. The group awwwed around the table.
“The secret is keeping the young spark alive,” Savannah said, “We may be married for thirty years, but Steve is still my Sugar Plum.”
“And Savannah is still my little Snuggle Bunny.” Watching them was like eating a full cup of straight sugar, and Cormoran felt rather sick. He shared a glance with Robin, who had to bite her lip to keep from laughing.
“Aren’t you two just the cutest thing,” a woman named Sheila chimed in, “Nicknames and all. Patrick and I use pet names too, but they’re not as sweet as yours.”
“She’s Gorgeous, and I’m Patty,” Patrick said.
“That’s very cute,” Savannah said. Then, to Robin’s horror, Savannah turned to her. “What about you, Sandra?” she asked, “Do you and George have nicknames for each other?”
“Erm, yes,” Robin said, “George is my…” She racked her brain for the first pet name she could think of. “Bear… Cookie…” She looked over at Cormoran, who raised his eyebrows. “My Bear Cookie. Yep.”
“Bear Cookie… Isn’t that a type of fungus?” Sheila asked.
“Yep,” Robin said, her face a mask of innocence, “That’s right.”
“And Sandra is my Monkey-Butt,” Cormoran chimed in.
After dinner the group returned to the ballroom for more dancing, this time to “As Time Goes By”. Cormoran leaned in close to murmur into Robin’s ear, feeling the warmth of her cheek not quite touching his.
“Bear Cookie?” he said, “Really?”
“Better than Monkey-Butt,” she said.
“Monkeys are cute. Bear Cookie is a type of mold that grows on trees.”
“Mm. It’s because you grew on me over time.”
Cormoran laughed out loud. Then, to both of their surprise, he leaned down and kissed her on her forehead.
“What’s that for?” Robin asked.
“Can’t a man kiss his Monkey-Butt if he so desires?”
Robin found herself so overwhelmed in giggles that she had to excuse herself to the restroom and splash cold water on her face to calm down.
When Cormoran got out of the shower that night, Robin was sitting in bed, reading. Cormoran took a moment to appreciate the image. The yellow light of the bedside lamp turned her skin gold, and she chewed a piece of her hair as she read.
“What’s the book?” Cormoran asked, climbing in on his side of the cushion wall.
“It’s one of Colin’s. It’s about the benefits of group therapy over individual. It’s actually quite good, I’m enjoying it.”
“Read me some," he said.
“Go on, give me an excerpt.”
“Alright.” She cleared her throat. “‘ It is necessary for every member to feel a that they are valued by the group, and to feel that they are useful to one another,’” she read, “‘Before they join the group, it is important to stress to the members that, in joining the group, they are committing to listen to and assist to one another.’” Robin glanced down at him.
“Go on,” he said.
“‘The most important aspect of group therapy is the acknowledgement that you are not alone, and that you have a whole team of people working alongside you to make it right.’” Cormoran felt the gently lilt of her voice wash over him, and he closed his eyes.
“‘To emphasize this point, it is beneficial to phrase questions in the first person plural sense. For example ‘What can we do to fix this problem’ rather than ‘What can you do’ or ‘What can he do’.’” Robin was interrupted by a gentle snore, and looked over to find Cormoran asleep. She smiled to herself and turned out the light, hugging one of the pillows to her chest.
I don't know if Bear Cookie fungus a thing in the UK. I'm in the Redwoods over here, so they're everywhere. I've always loved the name.
Chapter 15: Day Two Breakfast and Lecture
Cormoran and Robin woke up at the same time the next day, and went down to breakfast together. Breakfast that morning included pancakes, cereal, and a large bowl of fruit in the middle of the table. This immediately grabbed Cormoran’s attention.
“Peaches!” he cried, “I love peaches. Where the hell do they find peaches in September?” Cormoran proceeded to grab a very ripe peach and dive into it with great vigor. Robin looked away, but couldn’t keep her eyes to herself for long. He wasn’t an animal when it came to table manners, but the peach was very ripe and he was devouring it with gusto and passion that made Robin weak in the knees. Juice dripped down his chin and Robin looked back down at her breakfast. She was glad that she’d gotten herself oatmeal. There would never be anything sexy about oatmeal. She was grateful when Regina called them all back into the lecture hall for another talk.
“All arguments are ultimately wrapped up in one main issue,” Regina said, once they were all seated in their folding chairs. “That issue is identity.” She clicked the PowerPoint to a the word IDENTITY. “You can’t change your core identity, or the issues that are there. But you can learn to identify it.”
Robin thought back to her relationship with Matthew. In Matthew’s mind, her identity belonged either to him or Cormoran. He couldn’t fathom the idea that she had an identity of her own. So when she showed interest in her job he couldn’t believe that she was doing it because she loved the work. In his mind, she had to be doing it because she loved Cormoran.
“When our identity is challenged, that triggers what’s called a core fear,” Gina said, “These core fears question our self-worth. We begin to ask ‘Am I competent? And I good? Am I lovable?’”
Robin hadn’t stayed at the job because of Cormoran. At least, not solely because of him. She wouldn’t have stayed if he had been rude or disrespectful, of course. He had been kind, and had shown an interest in her as a talented employee. But it was the job that had called her, not him. At least at the time.
“Now we can’t change our core identities, but we can be a little be less rigid with them. For example, part of my core identity is that I’m a kind person. That’s incredibly important thing to me. Now, if my husband accuses me of saying or doing something that hurt his feelings, suddenly that identity is in question. Am I a kind person? How can I be kind if I hurt my husband’s feelings? Now if your identity is incredibly rigid, it’s prone to extremes. I tell myself that if I’m not always kind to everybody all the time, I must be a horrible person. With a rigid identity, I’m either a hero or a villain. So when my husband tells me that I hurt his feelings, I want to deny it completely and invalidate what he’s saying. However, if I can see my identity as more flexible, then it’s easier for me to validate his feelings. So instead of saying ‘I’m a kind person all the time,’ I can say ‘I’m a kind person who isn’t perfect all the time, and that’s okay.’”
Robin still loved the job. If she wasn’t working with Cormoran she’d probably open up her own PI business. But the thought of doing anything without Cormoran made her suddenly incredibly sad. It felt right, having him next to her. She’d harbored a massive, aching crush on Cormoran for ages, but after nine months of singleness she had finally tried to move on. That attempt had been unsuccessful, clearly. As much as she’d tried, Casey had been right when he’d said he was a placeholder for someone else. The ghost of Cormoran had loomed large in their relationship, keeping her from any real commitment. She wondered if it would always be that way.
Chapter 16: Day Two, Therapy
“So how has it been going since our meeting yesterday? Has anybody seen any progress?” Colin asked.
“Well, Genevieve and I had a long conversation,” Leon said, “My wife was unfaithful, and, like George and Sandra, we weren’t going deep enough to the true root of our problem. I thought that the problem was her infidelity, but in actuality it was a much deeper issue in our relationship. When we heard George and Sandra talking about their own struggles identifying the problem areas in their relationship, it made us realize that we need to go about the issue in a different way.”
“And did you have success with that?” Colin asked.
“I realized that I had stopped expressing to Genevieve that I found her desirable. We had sex, but I stopped paying her compliments. I just assumed that after eleven years of marriage she already knew all of those things and didn’t need to hear them out loud anymore. I thought that she could infer them from my actions.”
“It’s important for me to have vocal affirmations,” Genevieve chimed in, “I’m getting older, and I’m not as beautiful as I used to be.”
“Do you agree with that statement, Leon?” Colin asked.
“God, no. Genevieve is more beautiful than ever. That’s why I didn’t say anything. I couldn’t fathom her ever thinking otherwise.”
“That’s excellent progress,” Colin said, “Sometimes in the business of day-to-day it’s easy to forget those things.” He looked over the group. “Anybody else seen any progress? George? Sandra?”
“We had sex, if that’s what you’re asking,” Cormoran said. Robin cleared her throat loudly.
“Excuse me, you had sex,” she said, “I laid there, enduring.”
“I’m sorry, I did what you wanted, I made love to you. I did everything right. Just because you didn’t enjoy it doesn’t mean that I’m at fault.”
“Oh yeah?" Robin bit, "So whose fault is it?”
“Alright, let’s open this up,” Colin said, “Does anybody in the group have any thoughts on this issue?”
“Well, this sounds very familiar,” Frederick said, “Connie and I had very similar problems when we were younger. We were having sex, but just because we thought we had to, in order to be a happy couple. That obligatory feeling leads to bad sex, and it isn’t healthy.”
“Right, well the alternative is not having sex at all, and that has not been working for us,” Robin said.
“Let’s back up a bit here,” Colin said, “Genevieve and Leon were just talking about vocal affirmations. I think that these two subject can be tied together quite nicely.” He turned to Robin. “What do you find attractive about George?”
“You think by listing off all the reasons I’m attracted to him all our issues will clear up?” Robin said.
“Why not?” Colin said.
“Because our problems aren’t that simple.”
“But maybe it’s worth a shot,” Colin said, “If you feel comfortable doing so.”
Robin glanced at Cormoran. She was grateful that they’d discussed this in the car ride over. She shut her eyes and took a deep breath, trying to center herself. We practiced this. It’s just a character. That’s what he thinks.
“Alright, well he’s really smart,” she said, “I find that very sexy. He’s always been very mature, very solid and grounded, while I’m a bit wild. That might be our age difference, but I like that.” She could feel Colin watching her, and she felt a sudden cringe of anxiety in her chest. She didn’t want to lie, she didn’t want to read from some script designed to make her more attractive to Colin. She looked over at Cormoran, who was staring at her with a serious, attentive expression. “I love how kind he is,” she said suddenly, “He likes to pretend that he’s this big tough guy, but he’s actually incredibly gentle and sweet. He cares about people, and he wants to protect them.”
“Good,” Colin said, “Now George, are you attracted to your wife?”
“I… What?” Cormoran looked like he’d been given an electric shock.
“Do you think that your wife is sexy?”
“Uh, yes, of course. I married her, didn’t I?”
“People get married for all kinds of reasons. Now, what attracts you to Sandra?”
“I…” Cormoran felt the blood coursing through his face.
“The first thing that comes to mind.”
“Her sense of humor,” Cormoran said, “She makes me laugh.”
“Good, good,” Colin said, making a note on his clipboard, “What else?”
Cormoran searched his mind for something innocent, something normal, anything that wouldn’t reveal his true feelings.
“The way she smells,” he said, “She smells like like coconut, but also sand? Does sand have a smell?”
Robin didn’t know where to look. She was biting her thumbnail, blushing so hard she could feel her pulse beating in her face.
“You’re doing great. Give me three more things.”
“I love her curves, and how soft she looks-- feels,” he corrected quickly, “How soft she feels. Her hair, obviously. And…” He looked over at Robin, praying that their friendship could withstand these confessions. No matter how much they insisted that it was purely part of the characters, he couldn’t invent physical characteristics. “And I love her mind. She’s incredibly brilliant, and whenever she solves a problem, it just… Christ, it’s amazing.”
Chapter 17: Day Two Leisure Time
Robin and Cormoran didn’t speak through lunch, and afterwards Robin said that she needed to go for a run.
She was furious, and every pounding footfall seemed to echo the drumming of anger in her mind. She’d shared things she didn’t want to share, and Cormoran had shared things that Robin didn’t want to hear. She felt violated and exposed. She was mad at Colin for making them say things. She was mad at herself for meaning the things she said, and mad at Cormoran for not meaning them. She was mad that Casey had broken up with her, and mad that he had every reason to. She ran until her breath came out in forced wheezes and her chest ached. What was wrong with her? Why couldn’t she get over one grumpy old nicotine addict? Did she somehow have daddy issues that had never been addressed? She felt pathetic, stupidly running after a man who would never want her. She was an independent woman now, she wasn’t supposed to get hung up on love.
She reached a small overlook with a view of the valley spread out below, where she paused to catch her breath and wipe the sweat off her forehead. She sat on a little bench and listened to the birds singing in the trees above her. It was beautifully calm here, the leaves just beginning to turn. She took a slow drink from her water bottle, then began the slow walk back, her anger burnt off.
She had told Alyssa that she wasn’t afraid of love, she was afraid of not being loved back. But that wasn’t true. She was afraid of love. She was afraid of feeling something so much, of letting it take her over, control her. Her love for Matthew had eaten away at her bit by bit until there was almost nothing left. She was afraid of the lack of dignity that came with love, embarrassing yourself in front of the world and being too far gone to even care. She couldn’t do that again, not for anybody. She had to take care of herself now. She couldn’t take care of anybody else, and nobody else was going to take care of her. She followed her own rules. For years she had been introduced as “Matthew’s girlfriend,” “Matthew’s fiancee,” or “Matthew’s wife,” her whole identity wrapped up in her relation to him. She couldn’t do that anymore. She didn’t want to belong to anybody else, or to be an add-on to anybody else’s introduction. She was Robin Ellacott, nothing more.
She was back at the retreat centre before she could finish working this hard little knot out in her head. Amy was sitting under a tree, reading, and she waved Robin over.
“Hi Amy,” Robin said, “What are you reading?”
“Pippi Longstocking,” Amy said, “Children’s books are just about the only thing I can handle reading right now. Most other things give me flashbacks.”
Robin nodded. She had read Nancy Drew compulsively after she was attacked.
“I loved Pippi when I was younger,” Robin said, “She’s so wild. I dressed up as her for halloween three years in a row.”
“George only has one leg,” Amy said suddenly. Robin smiled. She liked how Amy brought up strange and taboo subjects with no context.
“One and a half, really,” Robin said, “It’s just the shin down.”
“He hides it well. I didn’t realize at first.”
“He doesn’t like being treated like a special case.”
“Understandable. But you don’t have a problem with it.”
“With his leg?”
“With his baggage, and his issues.”
“God no. I mean, we all have baggage and issues.” Robin saw the hunger in Amy’s eyes and sighed. She knew the feeling, the desperation to be accepted for your brokenness, to be told that it doesn’t matter. “Listen, even when he’s in a bad mood, when he’s grumpy and cynical and depressed… God, he’s still just one of the best parts of my day.”
Amy blinked quickly and smiled.
“Thanks,” she said.
Chapter 18: Day Two Dinner
Dinner was lavish, as always, grilled lamb with little round potatoes. Robin wondered how Colin and Regina managed to afford such a luxurious retreat centre. True, the retreat itself cost more than she and Cormoran made in months, but with the special counseling, the regularly cleaned rooms, and the five-star meals, it barely added up. Then she started to eat and all thoughts but the joy of the food vanished from her mind. She was glad she’d gone on her run, or she would have trouble getting into her trousers.
After they had eaten for a spell, Regina cleared her throat and the room fell silent.
“So tonight at dinner we’re going to have a bit of a conversation starter," Regina said, "Let’s go around and each couple will share who proposed and how.” Robin and Cormoran shared a glance. They hadn’t prepared for this particular question. Cormoran nodded slightly, telling Robin that he would handle it.
“I’ll start,” Regina said, “My husband proposed to me thirty years ago. He took me on a hike at our favorite trail. There was a big overlook, where you could see for miles. Once there he got down on one knee and told me that he loved me and wanted to spend his life with me.” Gina’s face softened as she told the story. “I said yes, of course. We went down the hill, and he had surprised me by having my whole family fly in from Nigeria. We had a huge party.”
She nodded to Amy to continue around the room.
“I proposed,” Amy said, “We were so drunk.” Beside her, Max chuckled at the memory. “I was leaving for basic training the next day, so we all went to Blackpool and got wasted. I said, ‘let’s get married.’ So we went to the courthouse and did it.”
“We were very spontaneous back then,” Max said.
“And very broke.”
“Leon proposed,” Genevieve said, “He took us to the restaurant where we had our first date, and put the ring on top of a cupcake.”
“She nearly swallowed it,” Leon said.
“I proposed,” Frederick said, “I was in a band, and we wrote it into a song.”
“I’m very shy,” Connie said, “I hated how public. But I said yes anyways.”
Around the room, each couple shared their story.
“He proposed on the beach at sunset. It was perfect.”
“She proposed in a letter while I was away at school.”
“I couldn’t afford a ring, so I did a painting of the perfect ring, the one she deserved, and I gave that to her instead.”
It was Cormoran’s turn, and he took a deep breath, casting a nervous glance at Robin before he spoke.
“Well,” he said, “She first brought it up. She asked if I would ever want to get married, and I said yes, of course. Then I proceeded to… well, to panic is the word. I wanted the proposal to be perfect. Something with emotional significance. I thought about the place we first met, but that was a hallway at work. Hardly romantic. The restaurant where we had our first date had been shut down. There weren’t any sunset beaches nearby. I carried my mother’s wedding ring around in my pocket everywhere I went. I was in a state of high anxiety for months.”
“I thought he was having second thoughts,” Robin said.
“Then there was a day… She was in a cab on her way to meet me, and there was an accident.” A crease of pain flashed across his forehead. “I was nearby, and I ran the whole way. I was so scared. I saw her there in the car, and I realized that I didn’t want to live one day without her. And any proposal would be a perfect proposal, because it was her. Anything with her and me would be perfect. So I sat in the cab with her, and I started laughing…” Cormoran blinked several times. “And I told her I loved her, and I took the ring out of my pocket. And she said yes.” He sniffed. “Thank God, she said yes.”
Dancing after dinner was now becoming a routine, and Cormoran and Robin moved together like they’d been doing it for years.
“That was quite the story,” Robin said as they danced.
“What can I say? I’m quite the romantic.”
“It reminded me of the last night of the Quine case.”
“I suppose it shares some similarities.”
“How did you propose to Charlotte?” she asked. She could feel him tense slightly. Normally she would rush to reassure him that he didn’t have to answer, but this time she just waited.
“We had been fighting about it for quite some time,” he said, “She wanted to know what our future held, which was a reasonable request.” He sighed and she could feel his chest rise and fall under her hand. “Look, you met me right after Charlotte got violent. But I wasn’t some innocent victim. I never hit her,” he added hurriedly, seeing Robin’s face, “But I had trouble committing. I sent mixed messages. I spent all my time away, and put her off.”
“Well, you knew that it wasn’t a good match.”
“She brought out the worst in me,” Cormoran said, “She brought out the worst in everybody. So we fought, and she threatened to leave me if we didn’t get married. So I agreed to get married.”
“That was it?”
“Yeah. Never even got a ring. Couldn’t afford it, but honestly I think she prefered life without it. She liked having men fawn over her.”
“And yet somehow your fake story was so romantic.”
“Different people, different circumstances, isn’t it? I’m quite the charmer if I want to be. And tonight I wanted to be.”
Robin laid her head on his shoulder and smiled.