Saturday Excerpt: The Last Resort by Marissa Stapley
If you’re looking for a blend of women’s fiction and psychological twists and turns, The Last Resort from Marissa Stapley is the perfect start to your Saturday. The book goes on sale June 18, but that doesn’t mean you can’t get an early preview today!
About The Last Resort:
The Harmony Resort promises hope for struggling marriages. Run by celebrity power couple Drs. Miles and Grace Markell, the “last resort” offers a chance for partners to repair their relationships in a luxurious setting on the gorgeous Mayan Riviera.
Johanna and Ben have a marriage that looks perfect on the surface, but in reality, they don’t know each other at all. Shell and Colin fight constantly: after all, Colin is a workaholic, and Shell always comes second to his job as an executive at a powerful mining company. But what has really torn them apart is too devastating to talk about. When both couples begin Harmony’s intensive therapy program, it becomes clear that Harmony is not all it seems—and neither are Miles and Grace themselves. What are they hiding, and what price will these couples pay for finding out?
As a deadly tropical storm descends on the coast, trapping the hosts and the guests on the resort, secrets are revealed, loyalties are tested and not one single person—or their marriage—will remain unchanged by what follows.
The plane circled the coast of an ocean the color of a bowl of blueberries or the heart of a turquoise ring, depending on where you looked. For a moment, the frothy white waves shone with an otherworldly aura and everything she looked at rose to meet her. She thought the plane was crashing. But it wasn’t. It was just her.
Once they landed, the passengers were funneled into a van, where everyone avoided eye contact. Johanna’s head felt heavy against the headrest. The vehicle glided smoothly out of the airport parking lot, but when it hit a pitted highway she raised a hand to her temple. She tried to focus on a flock of birds diving and swooping in unison, tried not to picture her finger as a drill that could relieve pressure. “How do they do that, do you think?” she asked.
“How does who do what?”
“The birds. Fly together like that. How do they know?”
Her husband’s phone pinged. Ignoring her, he reached into his pocket and looked at it. He chuckled and held it up to her. “Look at this,” he said, but she didn’t want to look at it. She wanted to talk to someone about how birds communicate with one another using a method older than radio frequency. She squinted at the screen of his phone and saw the words in solidarity and a lot of bold underlines. She looked away from the amplified glare.
The van was slowing down and moving through a town that crowded against the side of the road. Shop fronts painted teal, yellow, pink and blue; taco stands; thatch-roofed stores; colorful dresses and hats hanging on poles; dogs and goats and people. Johanna locked eyes with a girl in a magenta top waiting at a bus stop and wondered who the girl was and where she lived and if she was happy or sad. She wouldn’t find out. Once, she and Ben had agreed that it was wrong to hide away from a country on a resort that had sanitized the truth out of the land it stood on, the way they were about to for the next two weeks. But the things they had once agreed upon were as foreign now as Johanna’s own face must have been to that girl, appearing in the bus window to stare, mute, at a village she would never know.
Her ears popped as the van ascended a cliff-side road. Wheels dipped into a pothole. The van rattled out and Ben reached over and squeezed her hand as if they’d narrowly escaped something—and maybe they had. The drop to the ocean was dizzying. His hand was cool and dry, but there was a nervous pulse beneath his skin, an unbalanced cadence to his breathing, like an orchestra out of sync. Her own hand was sweaty. “The bold and the underlines are a bit much,” she said. He laughed.
“It’s going to be intense.” He squeezed her hand again as she clenched her body against a wave of nausea. “But we can do this.” She looked left, breaching the unspoken code of conduct in the vehicle. The woman on the other side of the aisle who looked away, fast, had a curtain of seal-brown hair as shiny as glass. How did you get such gleaming hair? Was it something you were born with or something you paid for? The husband had silver hair that glinted, too. He was tapping the screen of a smartphone.
“Next time,” Ben said, “we’ll do something you like. That bike trip in Vietnam? Something different. I promise. Not like this.”
It wasn’t long before a structure came into view: a garnet at the top of a hill lit by a sun that had without warning begun to descend and deepen above the ocean, orange-highlighted paper gliding down.
“There it is,” said Ben, and for a moment she thought he meant the sun.
Johanna saw the high windows of the villa lit up. It was as if the structure, which scalloped down a cliffside and was ringed at midlevel by steaming mineral pools, was a giant sundial now signaling the end of the day or the lack of time they had, to be themselves, to remain unobserved. The drive- way wove in and out of trees so that the villa, cliffs and beach popped in and out of view, tantalizing, disappearing, teasing, gone. One moment, Johanna could see it all: whitewashed walls, waves pounding rock faces, white sand nestled against boulders, jagged mineral jutting into ocean; the next, she couldn’t see anything except trees and vines and playful birds.
“Wow,” Ben said.
“Yeah, I know. Gorgeous.”
But he wasn’t looking out the window. He was inclining his head sideways, toward the woman with the burnished hair and her husband with his premature silvers. “The entire ride.”
Johanna pressed her fingertips against her eyelids. “What are you talking about?”
“He’s on his phone. We’re supposed to put them away.” Johanna heard the man say something about a safety check.
“We’re responsible for these people,” he said in an urgent voice. “Shortcuts aren’t an option here. Redo it. Yes, the entire thing. I’ll wait.”
“Well, we’re not inside the resort yet,” Johanna said. “You had yours out.”
“Workaholic,” Ben whispered. She understood. He needed to feel they were somehow ahead of the class. To believe that, in comparison to all the others, their marital problems were minor. We always knew he was going to work in law, his mother liked to say. He knows the rules to everything. He also liked to argue—but that was another matter.
The van was at the edge of a circular driveway beside the sprawling white jewel of a building. The engine shut off. Towers, turrets, balconies, white railings, a steep terra-cotta roof and the individual villas scattered like diamonds leading to the beach. There were so many villas. More than necessary, it seemed, for only twelve couples.
“Recharge your marriage in a stunning and intimate fairy-tale setting,” said the pamphlets Ben had brought home the morning he had gone to church with his parents and come back with a desperate plea in his eyes. Please, let’s do this. Don’t leave. Let’s fix us. The place really was like a fairy tale, but Johanna was remembering the dusty collection of stories she had discovered as a child on her grandmother’s shelf, tales she had read in childish horror—a horror that is always tempered by delight at finding something not really meant for impressionable minds—about pecked-out eyes and a dead beast, or a love-struck mermaid turning herself into sea foam to save her lover. True love, Johanna had learned at a very young age, had consequences. Happy endings always cost you something.
“Come on, let’s go,” Ben said.
Outside the van, workers in white linen were unloading the luggage. She smelled sea salt on the breeze, sunbaked kelp, the sizzle-scent of garlic and chilies from some distant kitchen. Someone put a champagne flute of mango juice in her hand. She pressed the cool of it against her forehead and thought of their wedding reception at the MacArthur, only two years before. The bubbles in the champagne that day went straight to her head. Johanna had walked in on her mother-in-law crying into a friend’s shoulder in the bathroom. “I’m just so happy,” she lied when she saw Johanna.
“She could have chosen a dress that covered those tattoos,” the friend whispered as Johanna left. Johanna had her first migraine that night. Not a great start to their honeymoon.
She sipped the juice. She could hear the ocean far away and lounge music closer up, flowing from speakers set into the rocks. Ben walked ahead, glass in hand, and Johanna hurried to catch up. A woman was stepping forward to greet him, a woman Johanna knew—though it was disconcerting to know someone you’d never met. This was the woman pictured on the books Ben had brought home, the woman from the TED Talks he had played for her on his laptop, the voice from the podcasts they had listened to while cooking dinner. This was the gleaming smile she had seen on the clips from Dr. Oz and The View.
“You must be Johanna,” Grace Markell said.
Johanna forgot about her headache as Grace reached for her hand. Grace didn’t shake it, though. She held it in hers. She held it long enough for the connection to have meaning but not so long that it felt awkward. She looked into Johanna’s eyes as she did this. Her eyes were gray, like storm clouds.
“Welcome to Harmony,” she said. “Thank you for coming.”
“Thank you for having us,” Johanna murmured as Grace released her hand. A younger, shorter woman with ash-blond hair swept into a tight bun and heavy makeup on her face was standing beside Grace. She looked as if she were about to go on television.
“I’m Ruth,” she said, pumping Johanna’s hand up and down. It was endless.
“Nice to meet you,” Johanna said, letting her hand go limp. “Ruth is our assistant.” Grace checked her clipboard. “I don’t think you’re on her roster—”
She shook her head. “No, you’re on mine and Ben is on Miles’s. But you’ll see Ruth around. She runs a few of the group sessions.”
Ruth smiled brightly. There was fuchsia lipstick on her tooth. Then she held up a clipboard bearing a white piece of paper covered in black type.
“You both need to sign this, please,” she said. “It’s the couples’ contract.” Johanna signed without looking at it; Ben gave it a cursory glance, then scribbled his name.
“The porters are taking care of your luggage,” Grace said. “You’ll find a table upstairs on the terrace with your names, your check-in package and everything else you need. We’re gathering there now.”
“Our bags…are where?” Johanna’s nervous elation turned to sudden panic. She’d put her carry-on bag on top of her luggage, and now it had vanished. She needed that bag: her pills were in there.
“In your villas by now,” said Grace with a final smile, one that was likely meant to be reassuring.
“I just need to go to our villa and—” Johanna began. But Grace was gone, moving along to greet another couple with Ruth slightly behind her, a gosling following a goose. Johanna felt bereft as Grace reached for someone else’s hand.
Ben pulled her along. “Come on. Let’s go.”