‘Why now? I was winning before Wimbledon, and no one seemed to care that much. Not like they care about Natalya.’ Charlie sipped her black decaf coffee and wondered if she could call down for an order of pancakes.
‘Natalya is a Russian and gorgeous and ranked number one. She can work a red carpet better than Angelina Jolie. She exclusively dates celebrities. She’s a controversial bitch. And she has one hell of a team working every detail for her. She’s an inspiration, Charlie. But Todd and I think you can do even better.’
‘I refuse to be a controversial bitch. You know that. I just don’t think it’s—’
Jake held up a hand. ‘I know. Kisses and sunshine. No one’s asking you to be as nasty as she is, but you should be seen as stronger. Tougher. What we’ve all been talking about.’
‘So you agree with Meredith’s whole image rollout?’
‘I do. I think it’s very well conceived. You stay true to yourself as a decent person, but you present as a fighter. A warrior. You just fought back from a devastating injury, a spectacle on Wimbledon Centre Court, and we think the public is going to eat it up. The Warrior Princess is who they want.’
Charlie felt something stirring inside, a frisson of excitement. Or terror. She couldn’t be sure, but she needed a moment. ‘I’m kicking you out now. The car is picking me up in thirty minutes and I need a shower.’
‘I’ll see you at the site later this afternoon. We good?’
Charlie headed toward the bathroom. ‘All good,’ she called behind her as she did a little skip. She felt no uneasiness, even after the drug test debacle. She was too excited by the idea of the Warrior Princess arriving at the player party on the arm of the hottest male player on tour. She liked the sound of that.
red carpet make-out
MIAMI BEACH, MARCH 2016
‘Charlie! Over here, look here!’
‘Marco, turn this way! Smile!’
‘Charlie, who are you wearing? Charlie, over here!’
Charlie heard the screams before they even stepped out of the tournament Escalade in front of South Beach’s Zuma restaurant. Stepping onto the blue carpet that stretched from the street to the restaurant and was lined on both sides with paparazzi, Charlie was pleased to discover that she felt like a model walking the runway. Jake had been right: the black Thakoon dress, with its long sleeves, cold-shoulder cutouts, and sexily open back, was a winner. Paired with the three-inch snakeskin sandals she’d grudgingly agreed to, Charlie’s already long legs looked like half their regular width and double their natural length. She had agreed to forgo her usual time-saving ponytail for an in-room blowout, and even Todd had nodded his approval at the long, dark waves that tumbled down her back.
Marco grabbed her elbow and leaned in to whisper in her ear, ‘I was going to apologize for it being such a zoo, but I think they’re here for you.’
A hush fell over the jumble of photographers and onlookers as each person came to the obvious conclusion: his mouth was awfully close to her ear – was it on it? Was there something going on? Were Marco Vallejo and Charlotte Silver dating? A general titter spread among the crowd.
Suddenly, it occurred to Charlie that Meredith was right: the crowd would go nuts if they knew she and Marco were dating. Or hooking up. Or whatever they wanted to call it. He initiated their arrival together, so it certainly wasn’t like he was trying to keep the whole thing under wraps anymore … Maybe Meredith and Todd and Jake were right. Maybe it was time. And before she could talk herself out of it, Charlie turned to Marco, grabbed him around the neck, and pressed her lips to his. She felt a momentary stab of panic, and possible regret – had she seriously miscalculated? – but then Marco was kissing her right back.
The crowd went crazy.
‘They’re kissing! Do you see that?’
‘Oh my god, did you know they’re together? I didn’t know!’
‘When did that happen?’
‘They’re making out! It’s perfect – look at those two!’
And even: ‘Can you imagine what their babies will look like?’
‘Can you imagine how their babies will hit the ball? With genes like those?’
They pulled apart and smiled at each other. Charlie thought she could see a hint of respect in Marco’s expression – perhaps a glimpse of approval of her boldness? Charlie inhaled deeply. It was a perfect March evening in Miami. Balmy air that carried the scent of tropical flowers and the ocean. The sky was streaked with shades of pink and orange as the sun set behind a row of swaying palm trees. The warmth of Marco’s hand on her back felt wonderful. She looked all around, trying to savor the moment, but Isabel, a publicist from the Women’s Tennis Association, swooped over to rescue them. ‘Follow me, you two,’ she said. Was that a smile Charlie detected? Yes, it certainly was. Isabel was clearly delighted.
The onlookers continued to catcall and cheer as Charlie and Marco, now holding hands, made their way through the tall double doors. Not that the gawking stopped then: nearly everyone assembled inside had made their way to the front of the room to check out the commotion.
‘Hi,’ Jake said, walking up to them. The grin on his face was unmistakable.
‘Jake, you’ve met Marco Vallejo, right? Marco, this is my brother, Jake Silver.’
Marco’s eyebrows crinkled adorably. ‘Hello, Charlotte’s brother.’
‘Do you two know each other?’ Charlie turned to look questioningly at Jake, but he was grinning like a lovestruck teenager.
‘Good to see you, man,’ Marco said.
‘Charlie, you look gorgeous!’ Isabel said. Gushed. Bubbly was a good quality in a publicist, and Charlie had always liked her the most of the whole team, but the girl was sounding downright manic. ‘Who are you wearing? Dress and shoes and jewelry? I’ll be getting calls all night asking …’
A few of the men’s players had closed in on Marco and moved him toward the bar, where he was now standing in the middle of a circle of gigantic, beautiful men, already telling a funny story. When he caught Charlie looking at him, he rolled his eyes and flashed those ridiculous dimples. It was all she could do not to run to him.
‘Charlie? The dress?’
‘What? Oh, sorry. Yes, the dress is Thakoon, is that how you say it? And the shoes are Louboutin,’ she said, trying not to mangle the pronunciation.