Only… the margaritas hadn’t exactly mellowed me out. Instead, they’d fueled my rage at one giant tennis slut. Which was why I was climbing out of the taxi and staring up at Nicole’s giant iron gate, gauging my ability to climb it. Sober, there was at least a five percent chance I’d make it over. Now? My likelihood had fallen into the negative percentile.
I went for the keypad instead, pressing the call button and leaning over, putting my mouth close to the speaker.
“Can I help you?” a sharp male voice crackled through the speaker.
“I’m here to see Nicole.”
“Elle North. She knows my husband.” It was a gamble. I thought about adding a threatening line, something along the lines of tell her she better talk to me or else, but I’d used up my badass moves with the ripped twenty, and that hadn’t exactly gone smoothly. I wasn’t prepared for this guy to call my bluff when I had nothing else up my sleeve.
The gates, shockingly enough, began to part. I walked unsteadily up to the massive Mediterranean home, and ran through a cliff notes version of my speech, which had sounded really good in front of my bathroom mirror, but was quickly falling apart in my head.
“Elle.” Nicole stood on the front steps, a pink bathrobe wrapped tightly around her large frame. “I’m glad you’re here. Come in.”
I paused, surprised. She was glad I was here?
* * *
“Look.” Nicole spoke before I had a chance to. She closed the ingrained wooden door that would look killer on our house and turned to face me. “I owe Easton and you a massive apology.”
“Yes, you do.” My anger was deflating quickly at the ashamed look in her eyes and I struggled to hold onto it. “What you did—”
“It was criminal, I know. And it’s even worse because I’ve been in that situation. I’ve been that girl.” She looked over her shoulder and I realized there was a woman, standing in the dimly lit foyer. Not quite the security team I had envisioned, unless the security team wore Miami Heat T-shirts and mesh shorts. “This is Jessica, my girlfriend.”
The surprise must have shown on my face, because she pulled the neck of her robe up self-consciously. “Yeah. I screwed up a lot of things on that flight.”
“I’m going to head to the den. Give you two some privacy.” She nodded to Nicole and to me, then left, her lanky frame towering over both of us.
“Wow,” I said quietly. “She’s tall.”
“Tall, and still upset with me.” She gestured toward a low bench tucked into the curve of a grand staircase bigger than Chelsea’s guest house. “This has been hard for her.”
I was surprised she even told her about it. Then again, everything about this visit—her wet hair, make-up free face, crestfallen expression, the girlfriend—all of it was a surprise.
“There’s absolutely no excuse for what I did.” She settled onto the bench beside me and the robe gaped at the knee, revealing blue pajama pants and bare feet. “I was drinking, and afraid of the opportunity and feeling…” She tilted her head. “Feeling like a little girl in a man’s world. Everyone we’d met with that weekend had been men. My agent. Easton. The MGM rep. The game designers. And all of them—including Easton—had spoken to me as if I was made of glass. Or… like I was twelve and dressing in my big sister’s clothes and makeup, pretending to be grown-up and they were going along with it to be nice to me. I didn’t feel like anyone there really cared about me. What I wanted. What I thought. I started in this world when I was fourteen, and my manager and agents and parents made all of my decisions. I was this commodity—a brand—and other than being told where to go, and when to practice, and who to play… they didn’t have use for me. None of them looked at me as anything other than a cash register until my coach put his hand up my shirt one day and really looked at me. Wanted me. And for something that had nothing to do with tennis.”
My stomach twisted and I could feel the third margarita revolting at the thought. “Nicole, you—”
“On the plane,” she said quietly, “I was drinking and I had this really weird moment where I felt like it was happening all over again. My life being controlled. My self-worth reduced to just a commodity. My future and money being decided for me. And I had this ridiculous craving for my coach. I needed someone to look at me as someone other than Nicole Fagnani, the tennis player. I needed to be seen as a woman. Desired as a woman. Craved.” She let out a helpless laugh. “And he was right there. And I just… I just wanted to feel a reaction from him. Proof that I wasn’t just a paycheck. It was so, so stupid of me.” She brushed a hand over her cheek, wiping away a tear that had fallen.