The crowd laughed with her, and in that moment she actually did feel freer than she could remember. Light. Happy. The earnings, the ranking, the endorsements, it was all pretty damn terrific, but this had to be the best feeling of all.
Jake guided her into the restaurant, and the maître d’ ushered them to the best table in the back corner. An enormous metal candelabra glowed from the middle, casting dramatic light around the entire area, and a small tin bucket held a lush arrangement of wildflowers. This farm-to-table restaurant was supposed to be the best in Charleston, possibly the entire South: a Michelin star and rave reviews from every food critic this side of the Mississippi. And Jake said all he’d had to do was call an hour earlier and use her name. Not Todd’s. Not Marco’s. Charlie’s.
‘Why is it only set for two?’ she asked. ‘Where is everyone? I thought the whole crew was here tonight.’
‘That’s where the better news comes in.’
‘Marco’s here?’ she asked, before she could stop herself.
Jake looked confused. ‘Marco’s here? I thought he was playing Monte Carlo.’
‘No, he is. I just thought for a moment … wondered if he didn’t … Never mind.’ She felt foolish. Hadn’t she just spoken to him – seen him – sitting in a players’ lounge in Europe? There was a greater chance Obama would hop on Air Force One to surprise her in Charleston than Marco would leave midway through a tournament.
‘Charlie? Can you focus for a second?’ Jake’s foot was tapping fast against the floor.
She stared at him. He rarely got anxious about anything. ‘What’s going on? Why do I feel like you’re about to tell me someone died?’
‘No one died. It’s crazier than that. I got a phone call.’ He said this last part in a whisper, leaning in close to her ear.
‘People only whisper bad news,’ Charlie whispered back. ‘Like “It’s cancer,” or “I’m pregnant.”’
‘Zeke Leighton’s publicist called.’
Charlie raised her eyebrows. ‘What does Zeke Leighton’s publicist want? Tickets? Wait, probably my player credentials to a Slam? Which one? The Open? Or are they filming something in France? Let me guess … she’s going to pretend they’re really for Zeke, but then he’ll suddenly have some commitment he can’t cancel and she’ll be forced to bring her entire family. Isn’t this something your assistant can handle?’
‘Charlie!’ Jake growled, his lips nearly against her ear. ‘Zeke is on his way to have dinner with you. Right now. He should be here any minute.’
Charlie laughed, ignoring him. ‘Dad’s already told me in not so many words that he’s horrified by my unsportsmanlike conduct. God knows what Todd’s doing: maybe figuring out new torture methods to work me even harder. And I’m sure Dan is on some horse-drawn carriage tour through the Old City.’
Jake all but pushed her into the banquette seat. He stood directly over her and said, ‘I don’t have enough time to explain the whole thing. Apparently Zeke is here filming a scene for that biopic he’s doing with Steve Carell and Jennifer Lawrence. He’s in town for one night. And for some reason – one that was not made clear to me in any way – he had his people call to set up a dinner with you. He saw your match from his trailer today and insisted. I was planning to make sure it was all okay when you got here for drinks after the match, but then you got held up with the doping people. So he’s going to be here, probably any second.’
‘Wait. Zeke Leighton – the Zeke Leighton – is going to be here? To have dinner with us? Now?’
‘Not us. You.’ Jake’s cell phone rang. He held it to his ear and nodded a few times. ‘Okay. We’re ready. Thanks.’
‘Ready? We’re not ready!’ Charlie hissed. ‘What’s going on here? Is this a date? Isn’t he dating what’s-her-name? The Israeli model? What am I supposed to tell Marco? I know we haven’t completely defined our terms, but I don’t think publicly dating other people is acceptable at this point. This is going to be all over the tabloids! Jake, what the hell is happening here?’
Jake hissed, ‘It’s not dating, it’s dinner. Now, be quiet for one second.’ Suddenly, a hush fell over the restaurant. A small bustle of people had gathered inside the front door. All together, like a choreographed dance move that reminded her of the old ‘Thriller’ video, the crowd started moving toward her. Leading the pack in a pair of leather jeans and a black shawl-collar sweater was none other than Zeke Leighton, the most famous actor on planet earth. What Charlie noticed more than his world-renowned hair (dirty-blond waves that grazed his lashes) or that legendary squared-off jaw, or even the way he walked – exuding confidence, as though every step only confirmed to him that he was as spectacularly gorgeous as everyone claimed – was the way he held her gaze with his own, staring deep into her eyes as he traversed the distance between them, his unwavering eye contact equal parts comforting and unnerving.
‘Charlotte Silver,’ he said, his voice as familiar to her as her brother’s. He was nearing forty and his breakthrough hit had come when he was seventeen, so she’d spent hours upon hours of her life watching him, examining him, reading about him, studying his face and features and every detail she could find. Which made her exactly like every other heterosexual woman between the ages of twelve and eighty, and every gay man alive. It was both disconcerting and supremely comfortable seeing him in the flesh after knowing him from afar for so long, and she wasn’t surprised in the slightest when he said, ‘Please, don’t stand.’
But she wanted to. Why, she wasn’t sure exactly. ‘Zeke, it’s great to meet you. I’m so glad we could do this,’ she said smoothly, as though her knees weren’t shaking, as if her hands weren’t a sweaty mess.
As she stood, she noticed two things immediately. First, she was taller than he was. Which shouldn’t have been surprising – she was six feet tall without heels, and she knew from a zillion magazine articles that he was five ten on a good day. Then, as she moved in to kiss his cheek (where had she found the nerve to do that?!), Charlie could see the deep grooves around his eyes and beside his mouth. Onscreen he was bronzed, velvety, perfect, and looked like a cross between a young Leo and a clean-cut Brad, but up close he was huskier, rougher, more masculine. And about a thousand times sexier.