Charlie immediately tried to imagine what it would look like to be able to introduce her mother to her future fiancé. Her mom had missed it all, of course: Charlie’s first period, the prom, the college dorm room, the first time competing in a Grand Slam. Charlie’s parents had eloped in the late eighties when her mom found out she was pregnant with Jake, so they never had an official engagement or a proper wedding. Maybe that was why Charlie felt increasingly uneasy as friends started to get married off?
The sound of a chime brought Charlie back to the massage. ‘I’m finished now. Please take your time sitting up and getting dressed,’ her therapist was whispering. ‘We’ll wait outside.’
‘That was great,’ Piper said, rubbing her eyes. Even with pillow indentations across her cheek and bloodshot eyes, Piper looked like a supermodel. She shrugged on a robe as Charlie tried not to stare.
As if in answer, Piper raised her eyes in Charlie’s direction and said, ‘You’re looking great these days.’
Charlie rolled her eyes. ‘Uh-huh. That’s why Todd can’t shut up about these last five pounds.’ Charlie grabbed her thighs in both hands. ‘Wanna trade?’
The girls walked out of the suite and toward the locker room. ‘You think Marco Vallejo is thinking about anything except how hot you look as he mounts you every chance he has? Seriously, Charlie. Enough with the ugly duckling complex. You may have been a little thicker a few years back, but you’re officially hot now. I just want to hear how you’re handling this whole casual sex thing. Because the Charlie I know isn’t exactly a sleep-around kind of girl.’
‘Well, there’s a first time for everything, I guess.’
‘From everything you’ve described, he’s not your boyfriend. He’s not even really your friend. You have to be okay with that for it to work. Are you okay with it?’
‘I have to be. That’s definitely the arrangement.’
The girls took their snacks to the patio outside, where they sat down in front of a small wood-burning fire.
‘I don’t have feelings for him,’ Charlie said quietly, realizing the truth for the first time. ‘I just like having someone.’
‘He’s way better than just someone,’ Piper said, taking a sip of tea.
‘You know what I mean.’
‘I do. I know it gets lonely traveling that much. You’re gone all the time. You have nothing even resembling a normal life. And historically you’re a serial monogamist. Trust me, I’ve thought about it a lot. Ronin and I talk about how hard it must be for you all the time.’
Charlie turned to look at Piper. ‘Seriously? Those are your words of wisdom? “My fiancé and I talk all the time about how epically fucked-up your life is”?’
Piper reached over and gave Charlie’s arm a poke. ‘Shut up, you know that’s not what I mean. It’s all coming from a place of concern.’
‘Oh, good. That makes me feel much better.’
‘Well, it should. I do worry about you. Maybe having a boyfriend wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world. Maybe you and Marco should try actually going out to a movie or dinner or something normal people do. Have a conversation. Tell him about yourself. Ask him questions. He must have some interest outside of tennis. Maybe find out what it is …’
‘Can you even imagine what the media storm would be around that? If we went out on a real normal-people date? There would be cameras everywhere.’
‘Oh, come on, who cares? Two consenting adults who both just happen to play the same sport start to date? Is it really so scandalous?’
Charlie thought about this. When Piper put it that way, it was true: it didn’t sound so crazy. During the handful of times they’d hooked up and gone to great lengths to keep it quiet, it hadn’t even really occurred to her that the secrecy might not be necessary. What was the worst thing that could happen? They would try dating and it wouldn’t work? So what? A few reporters would ask some annoying questions about it, a couple of talking heads would give big ‘I told you so’s the same way they do whenever relationships between professional athletes – or actors or musicians or anyone in the spotlight – failed, and who cared? Why had they been so determined to keep things quiet? Who, exactly, was it benefitting?
‘You’re right,’ Charlie said, slowly nodding.
‘What?’ Piper feigned an incredulous expression.
‘What is the big deal if we do start dating for real? Like you said, he’s one of the only guys in the world who understand where I’m coming from.’
‘Plus he’s magnificent.’
‘So long as we both understand that our careers come first, I don’t see why it couldn’t work.’
‘Not to mention that he’s spectacular-looking.’
‘I mean, I haven’t had anything resembling a serious relationship since … my god … college. Brian was the last one.’ Charlie gazed skyward as she calculated.
‘Have we talked about how great his hair is?’
‘The few-month fling with the tennis journalist? Not my finest moment. But at least he was a nice guy.’
‘Even his name is sexy.’
‘Oh, and the downhill ski racer I met on the flight to Monaco. Talk about competing schedules.’
‘Would you think it’s weird if I told you I fantasized about his abs?’
‘Christ, Piper. I’m pathetic! Do you realize it’s been since my freshman year in college that I’ve had a relationship longer than a few months? I’m twenty-five years old. And practically a virgin.’
Piper smiled and patted Charlie’s hand. ‘Let’s not get carried away here. You’ve dated. You’re just not … what’s the best way of saying this? The best picker. And you have some challenging circumstances, what with your whole lifestyle and all. It doesn’t mean all hope is lost.’
‘Thanks.’ Charlie looked down at her phone. ‘Oh, I’ve got to run. I have to be back in LA in an hour and a half. If there’s traffic, I’m never going to make it.’
‘Love you, C. Thanks for a great day. I’m now only half pissed off you’re missing my engagement party.’
Charlie kissed Piper’s cheek. ‘See? Money can buy friendship. An important lesson.’