Charlie didn’t notice she was crying until she felt Jake’s hand on her shoulder.
‘What’s wrong? Is it Dad? Don’t mind him, he isn’t himself lately.’
‘I was awful to him,’ she said. Charlie wiped tears away and looked at her brother. ‘What do you mean?’
‘Charlie, he’s fine. Everything’s fine. You need to focus right now on your match tomorrow. Are you feeling good?’
‘I’m feeling fine. That seems to be the operative word these days.’
‘Don’t be nasty. Dad’s here to watch you win this tournament because he loves you and you’re the center of his universe and you always will be, even if you say something obnoxious over dinner one time. Can you move on?’
Charlie dabbed her eyes and tried not to smudge her mascara. ‘Yes.’
‘Good. Now, I wasn’t going to say anything until after the Open, but I am super-close to closing a deal for you. A big deal.’
‘You are? How big?’
‘The biggest yet.’ Jake’s grin was unmistakable.
‘What’s bigger than Ralph Lauren?’
‘You want to guess or you want me to tell you?’
‘I thought you were talking to the Ralph Lauren people,’ Charlie said. ‘They were all excited to sign an American, but you were trying to clear it with Nike to make sure there would be no overlap on court. Am I making this up?’ Charlie tried to keep up with all the things Jake was pursuing on her behalf, she really did, but there were always so many details.
‘Swarovski? Are you serious? You’re not serious.’
‘They’ve never signed a tennis player. You told me that yourself!’
‘I did indeed. They’ve never found someone they thought was glamorous enough. But they really like the new Charlie rollout that Todd and I have planned. The whole new public image: stronger, more confident. You, just more fabulous. They probably think they can get a bargain, too, because your ranking slipped post-injury, but I obviously won’t let that happen.’
The car pulled up to the Park Hyatt just as Natalya stepped out of a red Lamborghini convertible. She was wearing a red beaded Valentino dress, low-cut in the back and exposing easily an entire foot of naked thigh, paired with five-inch sparkly silver sandals.
‘That works,’ Jake said with admiration.
‘Do you see how long her hair got? Overnight? Who the hell can maintain extensions on tour?’ Charlie whispered. ‘I’m lucky if I can wash it.’
‘Charlie, Charlie, Charlie. So naive.’ Jake placed his hand protectively on the small of her back and guided her toward the red carpet. ‘She brings her own hair and makeup when she travels.’
‘She does not!’
Jake guided her past the small cluster of photographers who were busy snapping Natalya. They’d almost made it inside when she heard her name. When she turned around, Natalya was smiling at her with the warmth of a feral cat.
‘Charlotte! I wasn’t expecting to see you here,’ Natalya said with a laugh.
Charlie inhaled slowly and reminded herself to stay calm. ‘Oh, well, since it’s a mandatory player party, and I am, in fact, a player …’
Natalya’s smile narrowed. ‘Maybe you’ll find a man tonight. Stranger things have happened!’
It was all Charlie could do not to shout her news about Marco. It would almost – almost – be worth it just to see the reaction on Natalya’s face. But before she could come up with a response, she felt Jake give her a little push to the side.
‘Hi, Natalya,’ Jake said, reaching out to kiss her cheek. ‘It’s good to see you.’
Natalya turned her gaze to Jake, making no effort to disguise her blatant appraisal.
‘Why, hello,’ she purred flirtatiously.
He likes men! Charlie wanted to scream.
Natalya brushed back a handful of fake blond hair and gasped. ‘I’m being so rude! Have you met my date yet? Benjy, this is Charlotte Silver and her brother, Jake. Charlotte and I have known each other since we were wee little ones playing as juniors. She’s on a comeback after a huge debacle at Wimbledon last year. How are your injuries, by the way?’
Charlie was spared responding when Natalya’s date stepped forward and thrust out his hand. ‘Benjy Fuller, pleasure to meet you,’ he said. He was just as tall as most of the male players, somewhere in the six-foot-four or six-foot-five range, but he must have weighed at least forty or even fifty pounds more. His sandy brown hair was cropped short and tight and his shoulders nearly bulged out of his sport coat. And then it hit her. This wasn’t just any huge guy named Benjy: standing before her was the legendary starting quarterback for the Miami Dolphins, a man who had broken nearly every QB record in his eight-year, two-time Super-Bowl-winning career.
‘Benjy Fuller?’ Charlie said, her mind racing. ‘Wait, today is Wednesday in Australia, so it’s Tuesday in Miami … Aren’t you playing on Sunday? How can you be here right now?’
Benjy laughed as Natalya clung protectively to his behemoth arm. ‘A football fan, huh? Love it.’
Natalya giggled. Her dress sneaked up even higher. ‘He’s such a sweetie! They have a bye this week so he got an extra day off. I sent a plane for him and he came all this way for just two nights! I’m a lucky girl, no?’
Benjy patted Natalya’s nearly naked backside. ‘I can sleep more on that plane than I can at home. Couldn’t pass up the chance to come wish this girl good luck in person. Watch her kick some butt.’
More giggling and groping ensued.
Charlie glanced down at her own dress, which now felt more like a small shower curtain, and said, ‘Well, that’s just so great. We’ve got to head in now. Nice meeting you, Benjy. And good luck, Natalya.’
Natalya pursed her heart-shaped lips and leaned over to peck Charlie on the cheek. She smelled of expensive perfume. ‘You have some spinach or something between your teeth,’ she whispered ever-so-sweetly. ‘Thought you’d want to know.’
And without another word, Natalya and Benjy waved to their crowd of admirers and swept into the party.