He pressed his hands on her shoulders and kissed both her cheeks. ‘Don’t you have something better to do than meet your old man at the airport? It was nice enough you bought me a plane ticket. I was planning to take a taxi.’
His embarrassment at accepting the ticket was obvious, and Charlie did him the courtesy of ignoring it. ‘What, you don’t remember French taxi drivers from your player days? Because they haven’t changed at all. And I wouldn’t wish that on my worst enemy.’
Her father laughed and offered her his arm. Together they weaved through the crowds gathered at baggage claim. He didn’t have a suitcase so they headed outside, where a tournament car waited for them. They climbed into the backseat and her father shook his head.
‘I can’t believe your mother never got to see this,’ he said, his voice cracking just the smallest bit. ‘The car service, the awards and accolades. The French Open. You.’
‘I’ve been thinking about her, too,’ Charlie said quietly. In moments they’d exited Charles de Gaulle and were whizzing through the farms that surrounded the airport. It always surprised her how rural the land was around one of the busiest international airports in the world. ‘Today’s her birthday.’
Her father nodded. ‘She would have been forty-nine today. My god, I can’t even imagine it. Almost fifty. She’s frozen in time at thirty-five, a beautiful young mother. She’d already had both you and Jake at your age.’
Charlie stared out the window. He hadn’t said any of it, but he didn’t need to: her mother had dedicated her life to Charlie and Jake and their father. She had sacrificed her career to be home for all of them; she had cooked and driven carpool and helped with homework and thrown surprise birthday parties and cheered from the sidelines every chance she had. And what had Charlie done to honor her? Excelled at her sport, yes. But also fired her coach and mentor, who’d always stressed the importance of honesty and integrity. Gotten accused of winning tournaments by cheating. Become embroiled in a very public scandal involving two men she had slept with but didn’t love. ‘Agreed to disagree’ with her father, who was clearly struggling with something that she couldn’t even name. Charlie noticed her father had not said in ages how proud her mother would have been. It was something he used to say frequently, almost reflexively. Your mother would have been bursting with happiness to see the woman you’ve become. She would have been so proud of the person she helped raise. You remind me so much of her. He had said the words so often they’d almost lost their meaning, but now she would have done anything to hear them again.
Charlie coughed. ‘Thanks for coming all the way here, Dad. I know it can’t be easy to miss that much work.’
Her father looked at her, surprised. ‘What are you talking about, “come all the way here”? You think it’s every day your daughter is seeded fourth in a Grand Slam? Charlie, you won Charleston and Munich. You have a very real chance of winning the French Open. The French Open. How can you even suggest I wouldn’t be here to see it?’
Munich. Perhaps the strangest tournament of her entire life. Fresh off her win in Charleston, feeling alternately exhilarated and terrified by the Zeke Leighton media frenzy and the out-of-body strangeness of Marco and the hot au pair, Charlie was convinced she would be too distracted to do much of anything in Munich. She’d actually spent the entire flight to Germany berating herself. Forget about the sleeping with a stranger and having the whole world find out – that was bad enough. Not to mention embarrassing. But the all-nighter was too physically taxing on an elite athlete, even if she hadn’t been drinking. That sleepless night combined with jet lag would make her feel like she was slogging through mud on the court. She would be lethargic and slow and mentally distracted. Just when so many other things were coming together, she was doing her best to sabotage herself. By the time she had checked into the Mandarin Oriental in Munich, she was a mess: exhausted, achy, humiliated. Todd greeted her with an insane workout and the advice Steer clear of Marco. All tournament. No distraction. You hear me? And somehow she had managed it. They texted once – good luck at tomorrow’s match, so busy, see you soon – but nothing else. The awkwardness of the non-reckoning was even worse than the shame of actually putting it all out on the table and acknowledging that they’d both ‘cheated’ on each other.
Charlie had been certain she would lose in the first round to a wild-card player. And she had stumbled, no doubt. It took her three dicey sets of some of her worst tennis ever to win the first round, and the second round wasn’t any prettier. Charlie was better rested by the quarters but still feeling emotional and off balance, and she surprised herself when she stayed focused enough to win that in two clean sets. When it came time to face Natalya in the semis, Charlie was certain she would lose, but Natalya had gotten a horrible case of food poisoning the night before and had to withdraw from the tournament. And just like that, Charlie advanced to the finals. There she once again faced Karina Geiger, who’d been ranked number two under Natalya for the third-longest stretch in history, but, as Charlie had been earlier in the tournament, Karina was off her game. She couldn’t get a first serve in, and her net game quickly fell apart. She rallied briefly toward the end of the second set and forced a tiebreaker, but Charlie was still able to capitalize on Karina’s mental breakdown at that point to close it out 6–4, 7–5. She’d stood on the court, motionless, for nearly a full minute before the realization set in: she’d won not just one but two major tournaments. Back-to-back. That win would bump her worldwide ranking up to the top five and give her great seeding going into the French Open. It was happening, all of it, and happening fast. Still, she could barely believe it.
‘Charlie? Charlie? Tune in, Charlie …’
She turned back to her father. He was staring at her, brows furrowed.
‘What? Why are you looking at me like that?’ She knew it had everything to do with the fact that his daughter was involved in a very public love triangle, but she also knew he would never bring himself to say it.
He smiled. ‘Just your old man being concerned. That’s all.’
The car exited the highway into the city limits, hurtling alongside the Seine, the Parisian buildings growing taller and more condensed.
‘I just won Charleston and Munich! Are things really so grim?’ She tried to keep her voice lighthearted, but she knew exactly what he meant.