“you can’t be serious!” Nadia told her mother.
She tried to keep her voice level and calm despite a stab of panic. She’d known her life would never be the same after what had happened, and she’d known that being summoned to her mother’s private study hadn’t boded well, but nothing could have prepared her for the bombshell that had just exploded in her face.
Esmeralda Lake sat rigidly on the edge of the sofa. “It will only be for a week,” she said, but the promise was hardly comforting, especially when her expression was so forbidding. “Two at the most. Just until some of the … furor … dies down.”
“You don’t think sending me to an Executive retreat is going to fuel the fire?” Nadia asked incredulously. Retreats billed themselves as relaxing spas, places a busy Executive might go to for a quick break from the stresses of life. There was no press allowed, and there was no access to the net, or even to telephones, allowing said stressed-out Executive to experience an unparalleled escape from the troubles of the world. Which all sounded nice in theory, but everyone knew Executives went to retreats to escape some kind of scandal. You went to a retreat when the press found out you had a drug problem, or when you’d been caught cheating on your husband, or when you were having a nervous breakdown. You went there to hide, because you had something to be ashamed of.
“You were arrested for treason, Nadia!” her mother snapped. “Everyone has seen the footage of you being marched through the lobby in chains. Our only hope of quieting the gossip is to get you out of the public eye.”
“But I was exonerated!” Nadia protested. “I didn’t do anything wrong.” She paced in front of the sofa on which her mother sat, having sprung from her own seat the moment Esmeralda had told her she was being sent away. The idea of being locked in a retreat, away from her friends and family, unable to contact anyone—and unable to find out what was happening in the outside world—made her feel dizzy and slightly nauseous. She had escaped execution only because she, with some help from her sister, Gerri, had recorded the Chairman admitting not only that he’d had his own son killed, but also that he was providing human test subjects for Thea, the world’s first true artificial intelligence, to experiment on. But if the Chairman ever located the recordings, she would be in mortal danger, and behind the walls of a retreat, she’d never even know it.
“Don’t be such a child,” her mother said, showing no sign of sympathy. “Whether you did anything wrong or not is irrelevant, and you know it. It’s the perception that matters.”
Unfortunately, Nadia did know that. Despite her being publicly exonerated, people would want to believe Nadia had done something to bring it on herself. The idea that a completely innocent person might have been arrested and humiliated as Nadia had been didn’t sit well with Paxco’s elite, and if they could convince themselves Nadia was guilty of something, even if it was just stupidity, they would all sleep better at night.
“Please don’t make me go,” Nadia begged, knowing it was a lost cause. Her mother had decided before Nadia had set foot in the room, and there was no changing her mind.
Esmeralda’s eyes softened, but only a little bit. “It won’t be so bad. After everything that’s happened, a little time away from it all will do you good. And Tranquility is truly a beautiful facility, especially at this time of year. Their gardens are breathtaking.”
“How would you know?” Nadia challenged. “Did your family send you there to hide you away like a shameful secret?”
A part of her knew she was being unfair to her mother. From Esmeralda’s standpoint, sending Nadia to a retreat for a week or two was the obvious choice. Without her presence in the public eye, the press would gossip itself out and then lose interest as soon as the next scandal occurred. There would be murmurings when Nadia reemerged, but nothing like the feeding frenzy that was happening now. If Nadia weren’t so painfully aware of how precarious her situation was—and how dangerous it would be for her not to know what was going on in the outside world—she might even have had to reluctantly agree that spending some time at Tranquility was just the thing.
“Enough!” Esmeralda said firmly. “You’re going, and that’s final. You can be as angry with me as you like, but I’m doing this for your own good. Your whole future is at stake here, and we have to be smart about managing the damage control.”
Nadia’s eyes burned with tears she refused to shed. Yesterday, she had engaged in a battle of wills against the Chairman of Paxco and his sadistic hatchet man, and she’d won. Against her mother, however, there was no victory to be had.
“Fine,” she said as her shoulders slumped in defeat. “When do I leave?”
“I’ve arranged a car for you at four o’clock.”
This just got better and better. She’d hoped she’d have at least a few hours—long enough for Gerri to get home from work so that Nadia could have another conversation with her. They’d spoken briefly this morning, and Nadia had urged her sister not listen to the blackmail recordings. She’d promised to explain the why of it tonight when they had more time, though she was still unsure what she could say to keep Gerri’s curiosity in check.
Nadia hoped Gerri would follow her instructions even without knowing why. Knowing the Chairman’s terrible secret was just too dangerous, and Nadia had to keep the information—and the recordings—deeply hidden. Even from her own family.
“How am I supposed to pack for a week or two in thirty minutes?” Nadia asked.
Her mother looked surprised. “That’s not how retreats work, dear. They’ll provide everything you need.”
“You’re telling me I can’t take anything with me?” Panic was making her light-headed. At least if she was packing a suitcase, she could try to smuggle a phone in with her. Something, anything, to keep her in touch with the outside world.
Her mother put her hands on Nadia’s shoulders and looked her in the eyes. “It will be all right,” she said, and there was true warmth in her voice for the first time since Nadia had set foot in her study. “I know a week seems like forever at your age, but it will be over before you know it. And maybe you’ll like it there. You never know.”
But Nadia did know.
Her mother was making a genuine effort to soften the blow, but she’d never exactly been the nurturing sort, and it didn’t come naturally to her. It was not an oversight that Nadia’s father wasn’t present for this conversation. He must have agreed to Esmeralda’s plan, but he would have had trouble holding firm in the face of Nadia’s distress. So he just avoided the whole thing and left it to his wife. Nadia tried not to hate him for it.
She couldn’t think of anything to say. Nothing that she wouldn’t regret later, at least. Without another word, she broke away from her mother’s hold and marched toward her bedroom. She might not be allowed to bring anything with her, but she had some arrangements to make before she left, and she had less than thirty minutes to do it.
* * *
The Tranquility Executive Retreat was located on Long Island on thirty acres of beautifully cultivated, ridiculously expensive land. Most Executive retreats were located upstate, the better to isolate their guests, both from the press and from society in general. Executives who went to upstate retreats generally didn’t leave, nor did they receive many visitors, having disgraced their families and friends with whatever scandal had caused them to enter the retreat in the first place. Tranquility was for Executives who could still be reclaimed into society, and whose family members wanted convenient access for visits.
Her mother bid her a chilly farewell, and Nadia was hardly feeling warmer herself. Understanding why her mother was sending her away didn’t make the sting of it hurt any less. And the fact that she was being whisked away so quickly, without having a chance to say good-bye in person to anyone but her mother, didn’t do much for her peace of mind, either.
She managed a quick phone call with Gerri before leaving. “Please remember what I told you this morning,” she said vaguely. “Please promise me. I’ll explain when I can.”
Gerri didn’t like it one bit—she had to be dying of curiosity, if nothing else—but she got the message and made the reluctant promise.
Nate hadn’t answered his phone, so Nadia was forced to leave him a message. She was just going to have to trust him to protect their secret—and to find a way to contact her and let her know if the worst should happen and the Chairman found the recordings.
When Nadia’s limo approached, the small cluster of reporters who’d chosen to stake out the garage entrance perked up, snapping pictures wildly. The limo, of course, had tinted windows, so all they were getting was a photograph of a car, but that didn’t seem to discourage them. Several of them charged the limo and knocked on the glass, shouting questions. Another stood directly in the limo’s path to block the way. Blocking the car was illegal, and one of the security officers who’d been assigned to control the press started forward to remove the obstacle. However, Nadia’s driver was apparently under strict orders not to stop for any reason. When the reporter stepped into his way, he didn’t lessen his speed. The reporter had to dive to the side before the security officer could remove him. Nadia wondered how that little drama was going to play with the media.
About eighty minutes later, the limo pulled up to the massive iron gates of Tranquility’s entrance, and Nadia got her first look at the facility that she hoped would be her home for no more than one week.
The gates were closed and guarded by a security booth, which housed two security guards. Stretching out from both sides of the gates was an iron fence about seven feet tall. Each fence post was topped by a fleur-de-lis, the center of which looked wickedly sharp and forbidding. The decoration did little to hide the reality that the fence was meant to keep unwanted visitors—like the press—out. The limo drove through, and Nadia shivered at the suspicion that the fence worked just as well at keeping guests in.
Nadia couldn’t see the facility itself from the entrance. The driveway curved shortly past the gates, and a wall of trees that ran parallel to the fence blocked everything beyond from view. No reporter with a zoom lens would intrude on the privacy of those who took refuge behind this retreat’s walls.
Nadia swallowed a lump of dread that formed in her throat when she looked over her shoulder and saw the gates closing behind her.
“One week,” she murmured to herself under her breath. “Two at most.”
The reminder would have been more comforting if Nadia could actually believe it. Her parents might think of her stay here as something harmless and temporary, but when Chairman Hayes found out, Nadia was sure he would do his utmost to ensure that the retreat served as a permanent solution to his problem. After all, what damage could Nadia do to him when she was to all intents and purposes imprisoned, allowed no contact with the outside world?
The grounds the limo wended its way through were lovely, as advertised. Flowerbeds bursting with out-of-season blooms lined the driveway and surrounded white gravel walking paths. In the relatively short drive from the gate to the front drive, Nadia saw no fewer than three pristine white gazebos and two artfully placed ponds, one with water lilies, one without. No doubt the decorative gardens and paths continued all the way around the building.
Tranquility’s main building was a modern reinterpretation of a classic Gothic mansion. It had all the turrets, peaks, and gables associated with the Gothic style, but they were fashioned of steel and glass rather than stone and wood. The effect might have been cold and sterile, if it weren’t for the profusion of flowers growing on trellises and in window boxes. In her present state of mind, Nadia couldn’t quite persuade herself to think of the place as inviting, but it was at least making an effort.
As the limo pulled up to the curb at the front entrance, a woman in khaki trousers and a powder-blue shirt adorned with the Tranquility logo exited the building and descended the short set of stone steps, smiling brightly in Nadia’s general direction, though of course she couldn’t see through the tinted windows.
“Here we are, Miss,” the driver said unnecessarily as he put the limo in park. No doubt he was preparing to get out and open Nadia’s door for her, but the woman beat him to it.
“Thank you,” Nadia said to the driver, feeling awkward. Ordinarily, she would tip him after such a long drive, but her mother had insisted she couldn’t bring a purse. He touched the brim of his hat and nodded.
“You must be Nadia,” the woman said, her smile so wide and bright it made Nadia’s cheeks ache in sympathy. “My name is Marigold, but you can call me Mari. Welcome to Tranquility!”
“Um, thanks,” Nadia said, for lack of a better response. She wanted to yell at her driver to hit the accelerator and get her out of here, but that wasn’t an option, so she reluctantly climbed out of the car.
“You’re going to have a wonderful time here,” Mari gushed, taking Nadia’s arm and steering her up the steps.
Nadia sincerely doubted that, and she couldn’t help casting a longing glance over her shoulder as the limo drove away. She was now officially stuck here until her parents chose to send for her.
If Mari noticed Nadia’s melancholy, she chose to ignore it. “Let’s get you checked in, and then I’ll show you around and help you get oriented.”
Mari led Nadia to an elegant locker room, decorated with brass and marble and more of the ubiquitous flowers. Several of the lockers had electronic key cards sticking out of them, and Mari opened one of those for Nadia, handing the card to her.
“You can change out of your street clothes here,” Mari said cheerfully. She pointed into the locker. “You can choose a robe, or a pants and tunic combo, whichever you prefer. Everything’s your size and super comfortable.”
“You mean I’m not even allowed to wear my own clothes?” Nadia asked in dismay. She hadn’t thought through exactly what it meant that she hadn’t been allowed to bring luggage.
Mari’s smile didn’t dim. “The goal here at Tranquility is for our guests to leave the outside world behind entirely. You don’t have to dress to impress here. You just have to be comfortable.”
Nadia crossed her arms over her chest. She’d hardly call her casual pants and knit top “dressing to impress,” although, of course, they were of the highest quality and custom-made by a top designer. “I’m perfectly comfortable dressed the way I am.”
She’d kind of hoped her obstinacy would crack Mari’s maniacally cheerful demeanor, but it didn’t. “Trust me, your spa wardrobe will be even more comfortable. Once you put it on, you’ll never want to take it off.”
In the past, Nadia had always been dutiful and obedient, as befitted an Executive girl. A girl in her position, slated to marry the Chairman Heir while still not old enough to make a legally binding agreement, couldn’t afford to set a foot wrong, and she’d had that drilled into her head for as long as she could remember. Not that long ago, she would have done as she was told without protest, but she was tired of doing what she was told. Being dutiful and obedient hadn’t stopped her from being embroiled in this awful mess.
“I prefer to wear my own clothes,” she said, putting all the stubbornness in her core into the words.
For the first time, Mari’s smile faltered just a little. Her facial expression didn’t change much, but her eyes were somehow a shade less warm.
“You will not be allowed into the facilities in street clothes,” Mari explained patiently. “Proper attire is required if you want to use the pool, the spa, the gym, or any of our dining facilities. You’ll miss out on all the features that make a stay at Tranquility relaxing and enjoyable.”
Nadia couldn’t care less about the recreational opportunities she might be missing out on. However … “Are you telling me I can’t get any food if I’m wearing my own clothes?”
“You will not be permitted into the dining hall or into the cafes if you aren’t properly dressed, and I’m afraid we don’t provide room service.” A sharp edge had entered her voice, and Nadia knew she was well on her way to making an enemy.
Giving in was harder than she’d thought it would be, but in the end, Nadia knew she had no choice. If her stay here were only going to be a day or two, she might have gone hungry just on principle, but she couldn’t hold out for a week. She refused to contemplate the possibility that it might be longer.
“Fine,” she said with a frustrated huff. “I’ll change clothes.”
“A good choice,” Mari commented smugly. “I’ll wait outside while you change. You can put your street clothes in the locker for the duration of your stay. Let me know when you’re ready and I’ll give you the tour, then show you to your room.”
Nadia couldn’t manage a gracious response, so she settled for saying nothing.
* * *
Nadia drew the line at changing into Tranquility underwear. She donned the powder-blue tunic and pants, which, as promised, fit her perfectly. Fearing Mari might check and notice that the undies were still in the locker in their sterile plastic packaging, Nadia unwrapped them and stuck them in the generous pocket of her pants. The bra made an odd-looking lump, but she hoped the tunic would hide it sufficiently.
Closing the locker, Nadia rested her forehead against the cool metal, trying to compose herself before she had to face the smiling demon again. There was a part of her that couldn’t believe this was really happening to her. She’d always believed that Executives who were forced to hide away in retreats had brought it on themselves, had scorned them for their lack of self-control or social skills. She’d suffered from the quaint delusion that at least some part of her future was under her control. Now she knew how wrong she had been. About everything.
Fighting off her sense of impending doom, Nadia let Mari know she was ready, and they began their tour.
If Nadia had checked herself into the place voluntarily, she might have found the Tranquility Retreat appealing. The grounds truly were beautiful, and the array of spa services available was almost dizzying. She could spend all day every day being shamelessly pampered, without a duty in the world. She could take a dip in the heated pool, steam her pores in the sauna, take yoga and aerobics classes, or just sit around doing nothing. She could eat in the grand dining hall, or at one of a handful of smaller outdoor cafes with lovely views and impressive menus. There were movies every night—shown from disc, naturally, rather than streamed from the net—and an impressive library brimming with books. But whereas many of the guests at Tranquility probably enjoyed being completely cut off from the outside world, Nadia already felt like she was suffocating.
The main building housed the administrative offices, the guest rooms, the library, and the dining hall. Another building about fifty yards away housed the spa and the entertainment center. There were two other buildings that Nadia could see as Mari dragged her along for what felt like an endless tour. Those buildings were much more utilitarian in form, plain rectangles with regularly spaced windows and only a few embellishments here and there. They were also a considerable distance away, and Mari ignored them as if they didn’t exist. Nadia suspected those were the psych and rehab facilities, where the “guests” were literally prisoners, unable to leave of their own free will.
“What are those buildings?” Nadia asked as Mari led her back to the main building at the end of the tour. Although she’d already guessed for herself, she was curious what Mari would say.
Mari kept smiling away, nauseatingly chipper. “Those are for our guests who require extra care,” she said breezily. “Everything you need will be in the main building or the spa, so the extra-care facilities aren’t included in the tour.”
“Could I go there if I wanted to?”
Mari looked at her as if she might be going nuts. “You could go to the lobby during visiting hours, if you wanted to, but there’s nothing of particular interest to see. Unless you know someone who is staying there?”
Nadia shook her head. The only person Nadia knew who’d spent any time in a retreat was Nate’s mother, and she barely remembered the woman. Nadia had been only six when Eleanor Hayes had entered an upstate retreat as a permanent resident. The Chairman Spouse had not been seen in public since, nor had she communicated in any way with Nate—or anyone else in the outside world that Nadia knew of.
“Speaking of visiting hours,” Mari continued, “they are Wednesdays from five P.M. to eight P.M., and Sundays from noon to three. You’ll be eligible for visitors after you’ve been with us for five nights, although we encourage friends and family to give our guests at least two weeks of complete peace before visiting.”
Mari beamed, as if the idea of being completely cut off from friends and family for two weeks were her idea of pure bliss. It took everything Nadia had to keep the barrage of scathing remarks that came to her mind from spilling out of her mouth.
Copyright © 2014 by Jenna Black