Page 33 of The Singles Game

The elevator doors began to close, but they slid open again when Charlie stuck her hand between them.

‘What are you doing?’ Natalya snarled, all of her fake niceness evaporating in an instant.

‘Watch yourself,’ Charlie said in a voice so low it could have been mistaken for a growl.

‘How dare you even—?’

Charlie threw the train bag that she’d been holding in a dumbfounded shock through their entire run-in straight into Natalya’s arms, who caught it with a loud oomph.

‘I hope you have a great time with your boyfriend tonight, Natalya,’ Charlie said, leaning in through the doors she held open. She was pleased to see that Natalya looked downright afraid. ‘Because I’m coming for you. I may not beat you next week, or the week after that, but mark my words: it’s going to happen. And I am going to love every second of it.’

With that, Charlie stepped backward out of the elevator and watched Natalya’s mouth hanging open as the doors swept shut. She glanced quickly around the lobby to make sure no one else was watching and then she allowed herself a small, satisfying fist pump.

As she swung open the white picket fence and let herself into the Ivy’s front porch area, Charlie heard the unmistakable clicking of cameras and flashbulbs. All at once, a crowd of paparazzi had gathered in a small swarm on the sidewalk, and with them a group of young, highly groomed Sunday afternoon shoppers. Not knowing what was happening, Charlie froze.

A moment later she felt Todd’s hand on her back. ‘They’re not here for you yet, sweetheart. But they will be soon.’

Charlie felt herself flush, first with embarrassment, followed quickly by annoyance. ‘I didn’t think that,’ she huffed, following him to a round table on the patio. She took a seat facing the street and saw what all the commotion was about: Blake Lively and Ryan Reynolds, pushing their daughter in one of those strollers that cost as much as a used car.

‘Seriously, feast your eyes, Charlie, because that is exactly what it’s going to be like for you when Meredith does her thing.’

‘Are we talking about me already? Good, that’s exactly how I like it.’

The woman standing in front of their table was in her mid-thirties and only five feet tall because of her heels, but it was the mane of cascading red curls that caught Charlie’s attention.

‘Your hair is amazing,’ Charlie breathed, before remembering they hadn’t even been introduced.

‘You think? Mostly I hear that I look like Little Orphan Annie,’ Meredith said, yanking on a red lock.

‘I was thinking more like Merida from Brave.’

Meredith laughed. ‘I like you already. I’m Meredith Tillie, and you are obviously Charlotte Silver.’

‘It’s really nice to meet you,’ Charlie said, finally remembering to stand and shake Meredith’s hand.

Todd motioned for everyone to sit just as his phone rang. ‘Get to know each other,’ he barked, heading for the picket fence.

‘He’s just so charming, isn’t he?’ Meredith asked, and batted her eyelashes like a Southern belle.

‘Adorable. Truly.’

The women smiled at each other. Maybe Todd’s whole image makeover idea wouldn’t be quite as terrible as Charlie had been anticipating. Meredith seemed likable. They each took a sip from the fruit smoothies the waiter had brought, and Meredith explained how she’d gotten started in the business, moving from FIT into a design house, PR firm, crisis management, and now her own image consultation company. Charlie couldn’t imagine having six careers before age thirty. Or even two.

‘Who have you worked with?’ Charlie asked.

Meredith smiled coyly. ‘Well, I sign a lot of NDAs, as you might imagine, so no specifics, but let’s see. There was the woman who left Scientology after decades, and she hired me to take her from cult whack-job to respected author. The teenage pop star who got knocked up at seventeen while hooked on meth; she’s now the face of L’Oréal and about to appear on an upcoming season of Dancing with the Stars.’

‘Wow, is she really? I know exactly who you’re talking about.’

‘No names, please,’ Meredith said with a raised hand. The other she tapped on the table in concentration. ‘Who could forget the actor who broke into the biz by giving blow jobs to every movie exec in town and unfortunately developed a bit of a reputation as a male hooker? We reworked some things with him and he was just featured on the cover of GQ as the embodiment of a twenty-first-century Renaissance man – speaks Mandarin, volunteers at a women’s shelter, dates a Victoria’s Secret model, blah, blah, blah. Oh, and the revered mother of four and highly respected politician who must have been the only woman in all of history with a debilitating gambling problem? I mean, seriously, a female blackjack addict? It’s ridiculous. Anyway, it took a lot of hard work, but I just got her elected for a second term. So you see, it’s a mix.’

‘What’s a mix?’ Todd asked as he wedged his pear-shaped bottom into the petite chair between the two women. He waved his hand at a busboy and asked him for a martini.

‘My clients. I’m giving Charlotte a little background.’

‘She likes when you call her Charlie,’ Todd said.

‘She can call me whatever she wants,’ Charlie said.â?©

‘Relax,’ Todd crooned, flipping through the menu. ‘Don’t get bitchy. Everything’s fine.’

‘At the risk of sounding rude, I am a little stressed-out. Being that I don’t have a gambling problem or a meth addiction or a penchant for prostitution, I’m not sure what’s so horrible about me that it warrants Meredith’s services.’ She turned to Meredith. ‘Forgive me for saying so – and you certainly seem nice enough – but I think this is a waste of everyone’s time.’

Meredith and Todd glanced at each other.

Todd rolled his eyes. ‘Of course you’re not some crackhead. No one’s suggesting anything of the sort. But let’s be real here. We need—’

‘I think what Todd is trying to say is that, yes, I am probably overkill for what we’re trying to accomplish here. You don’t need me to tell you you’re great just the way you are – pretty girl, sweet as they come, stellar reputation, hard worker, great potential, huge crowd-pleaser. Plus your background – poor girl from the wrong side of the tennis tracks who lost her mother so early – plays really well with fans. It’s all great, Charlie. But if we can make it even better – and trust me, we can – it’s only in your best interest to do so.’