Page 58 of The Singles Game

He motioned for her to sit and he slid into the banquette next to her, closer than was strictly necessary, and she immediately caught a whiff of him. Oddly, it was an earthy, athletic scent that reminded her of male tennis players: that heady mixture of grass and sunshine and possibly clay that suggested he spent nearly all of his time outside. Again her mind went straight to Marco. What was she going to tell him? she wondered, before banishing the thought. If he’d uttered a single word of congratulation for the biggest win of her career, perhaps she would have declined dinner. Perhaps.

She looked around. Jake had disappeared.

‘You’re smiling. Share the joke with me?’ Zeke asked, his own smile causing the slightest dimple below his left eye. How had she never seen that before?

‘Oh, it’s nothing.’ She coughed. What were they supposed to do now? What was going on? She saw a light flash out of the corner of her eye.

‘Sorry,’ he said, not really sounding it. ‘I try to fly under the radar, but it’s not so easy with the big guy I have to drag around now.’

Charlie followed his gaze to the restaurant’s front picture window, where she saw a gaggle of passersby gathered with iPhones poised, video cameras filming, flashes all on. There were at least two dozen crowded together, looking in, and they were jockeying for position as an enormous bald man in a sport coat and chinos kept them corralled. ‘Aren’t they too far away to see anything?’

Zeke nodded. ‘Definitely. But that won’t stop them. I’m sorry to tell you that the paparazzi probably aren’t far behind them, and their flashes are way more disruptive. Hopefully the restaurant will handle it.’

‘How do you deal with that? It must get so oppressive.’

‘It’s the same for you, I’m sure,’ he said graciously.

Charlie laughed. ‘Not exactly.’

‘Well, for years I had a system down: in and out of back doors, baseball caps, the whole thing. But then there was all that stuff with the psycho woman, and now I have the bodyguard. Which, as you can see, does not exactly lend itself to discretion.’

Charlie vaguely remembered something about a stalker with a golf club breaking into Zeke’s pool house.

The waitress came over and tried not to stare at Zeke. ‘Hello, Ms Silver and Mr Leighton. We are so pleased to have you with us this evening. May I start you off with a drink?’

‘I’ll have a club soda and lime,’ Charlie said reflexively.

Zeke turned to her and raised an eyebrow. ‘Aren’t we celebrating tonight? Last I checked, someone won a huge tournament. Doesn’t that entitle you to something a little more festive?’

‘May I recommend the Seelbach?’ the waitress said. ‘The recipe was lost during Prohibition and only recently rediscovered. It’s made with whiskey, bitters, Cointreau, and a splash of champagne. It’s our most popular.’

‘Sure,’ Charlie said with a shrug.

Zeke held up a finger. ‘One for the lady please.’

There was a moment of awkward silence after the waitress left, and before she could even consider it, Charlie blurted out, ‘What are we doing here?’

‘Having a drink? And hopefully some dinner?’ When Charlie didn’t smile, he reached across the table and took her hand. ‘There’s no agenda, Charlotte. I’m shooting in Charleston tonight and I saw on TV that you were here, too. I’m a big fan of yours. I think you have a gorgeous game, and I admit I’ve read everything on you I can find. So I called to see if I could take you out tonight because, hell, it’s not every night I get to sit across from a beautiful woman who also happens to be very talented.’

Charlie gave him a disbelieving look. ‘Seriously?’ she asked. ‘You expect me to believe that? It’s your job to sit across from beautiful women.’

Zeke held both hands above his head in surrender. ‘You really want to make me say it?’

‘Say what?’

‘That it’s my grand master plan to get you into bed tonight? That I’m hoping you’ll overlook the douchey bodyguard and your handsome tennis player boyfriend and the fact that six hundred people are going to follow us back to my hotel, and you’re going to sleep with me regardless? Because I will. I’ll say it.’

Charlie felt a quickening in her belly. ‘I think you just said it.’

‘Did I?’ Zeke asked with a mischievous grin. Never had she met someone with so much confidence. Marco suddenly seemed like a boy-child compared with the man sitting across from her. She never imagined there could be a brasher, more openly confident category of men than professional athletes, but clearly she hadn’t met an A-list movie star.

The waitress brought their drinks and they toasted. Charlie drained hers in nearly a single sip, and Zeke took a sip of water. And then she remembered all the headlines from years earlier. A messy divorce from his second wife, who was also his publicist and the mother of his two children. The deliciously salacious claims she’d made in court while arguing for full custody. The fiery car crash involving a Maserati, two beautiful women, and the Pacific Coast Highway at four in the morning. The judge-ordered thirty- day inpatient stint at Promises in Malibu. The ensuing rumors of cocaine-fueled orgies at his Hollywood Hills manse. A CAA agent who had supposedly overdosed at one of the parties before a phalanx of A-team crisis managers quickly reworked the story to suggest previous heart troubles. The drinking, the drugs, the womanizing, all left behind in either a brilliant PR coup or a genuine effort to turn his life around and keep his kids, Zeke’s fame being well-enough established that he could not only survive but even flourish with a crushingly boring, squeaky-clean lifestyle. Tomes were written on whether the turnaround was sincere or merely for show, and every week it seemed like both camps had further proof. No one knew for sure, but it didn’t really matter. Zeke Leighton was worth talking about.

‘Has anyone ever said no to you before?’ Charlie asked, leaning toward him on both elbows. Flirtatiously, were she being honest.

‘Of course, more often than I care to admit. But I’m hoping you’re not going to be one of them.’

When the waitress reappeared, Zeke asked her for recommendations. He raised a questioning eyebrow to Charlie, who nodded her assent. He ordered for them. Gun to her head, she couldn’t have remembered a single dish he had requested. Nor would she be able to recall, when pressed by Piper, exactly what they’d discussed for the next two hours. There was a story that involved an overzealous fan and his mother that had her in tears, she was laughing so hard, and another about his crushing fear of flying (something she’d never read anywhere). He asked her questions about tennis, the tour, the rigorous travel schedule she maintained eleven months a year, and then asked even more in-depth follow-up questions when she answered. Surprisingly, his fan claim wasn’t mere flattery: he knew the game inside and out, knew all the players, followed her closely. Charlie remembered from some article she’d read in People or Entertainment Weekly that he had a court at his house in LA and played often, and she found it charming that he didn’t mention it. In fact, he didn’t name-drop a single celebrity with whom he socialized (despite a well-documented visit with George and Amal at Lake Como the previous month and a high-profile week aboard the Sultan of Brunei’s yacht, pictures Charlie had pored over when they were published) or try to impress her with all the homes she knew he owned. He was funny and self- deprecating and a good listener, and somehow – although she couldn’t really explain it, to herself or anyone else – by the time they shared a lemon sorbet, she actually forgot he was famous. Forgot she’d been at least partially obsessed with him since she was a tween. Forgot that a crowd a hundred-deep had gathered outside the restaurant to catch a glimpse of him. Forgot she was sitting next to arguably the most recognizable man alive.