‘You’re so happy,’ she said quietly.
‘I’m so happy,’ he agreed. ‘This is it, Charlie. He’s the one.’
‘He is? You really think so?’ The familiar knot appeared in Charlie’s throat before she could help herself.
‘Don’t cry, C. This is a good thing. A really good thing, I swear.’
Charlie wiped her eyes. ‘No, I’m thrilled for you. For both of you. It’s just … It’s going to be really hard. You must know that.’
Jake nodded. ‘Yes. Really freaking hard. We agreed to keep it quiet and first see what happens, see if this is the real deal or not, before we did something stupid and blew up our lives unnecessarily. But we love each other. And we don’t want to hide anymore.’
Charlie ached for her brother. Why did everything have to be so complicated? The difficult part should be meeting someone terrific, not wondering how the whole rest of the world was going to feel about it. But Benjy and Jake were so much bigger than just the two of them, and the road ahead was going to be difficult.
‘So. Not just an NFL player, but a quarterback. And not just any NFL quarterback, but second only to Tom freaking Brady. How am I doing so far?’ Charlie asked.
‘Yeah. Keep going.’
‘And this very straight athlete is also thought to be one-half of a very straight couple. Does Natalya know anything? She must suspect something.’
Jake shrugged. ‘I’m not so sure. She’s pretty self-obsessed. So long as Ben shows up for photo ops, she doesn’t seem all that concerned with what else he does.’
‘Charlie, I need your promise that you won’t say anything. Not to Natalya, no matter how much she pisses you off. Not to Marco. Not to Piper.’
‘Please, Jake, you have my word. I promise.’
‘Ben and I just need a little time to figure it all out. See what the best way of handling it is.’
‘I promise.’ Charlie put her hand on her brother’s shoulder. ‘Jake? I know this whole situation isn’t … ideal, but I’m really happy for you.’
An enormous smile spread on his face. ‘Thanks, C. He’s amazing.’
Charlie wrapped her arms around him and inhaled his familiar smell. She couldn’t remember seeing him so happy. Giddy, almost.
Charlie’s phone buzzed. They both looked at the screen when she pulled it from her bag. Let’s meet later.
‘He loves you,’ Jake said, reading over her shoulder. ‘Who would believe it? We both scored gorgeous guys.’
Her heart had raced a little faster when she saw Marco’s text, but she quickly remembered the humiliation of pressing her ear against Marco’s door, wondering where he was and what he was doing.
‘Yep,’ she quickly agreed, setting down her coffee. ‘Come on, I can’t be late.’
WIMBLEDON VILLAGE, JUNE 2016
‘Move your ass!’ Todd screamed from the sidelines. Charlie managed to get her frame on the ball before it went flying off to the side. ‘Stop being so fucking hesitant! You’re not going to die if you move a little.’
I know I’m not going to die, Charlie screamed silently. I’m worried about ending up in surgery and rehab again for six more months. Grass is slippery, you jerk. Remember?
But she knew Todd was right: the moment you feared falling or injury was the moment you fell, hurt yourself, or lost the match. People loved talking about focus, staying mentally strong and present, and everyone assumed it only mattered when you were on the court and you were down a game or a set or a match point. But more often the mental focus was about consistency. The ability to squash the insistent, horrible thoughts in your mind: the slippery grass; the opponent’s faster-than-expected serve; the raucous crowd; the twinge in your elbow; the lame line umpire; the idiot in the stands in a neon shirt who won’t sit down; the sweat in your eyes … On and on the mind went, cycling through all the assaulting sights and smells and sounds that competed for a player’s attention. Only a select few of the players – through practice, experience, and sheer determination – ever developed the mental toughness to tune it all out. It was why hundreds of them had the strokes and the game to win, and so few were actual winners.
Dan slammed another ball down the line, which Charlie reached, but he finessed the next shot to fall right over the net, leaving her scrambling to reach it in time. ‘Move!’ Todd bellowed. Charlie didn’t even get close.
‘That was cheap,’ she muttered.
‘Nothing cheap about it!’ Todd yelled, beginning to pace up and down the sidelines. ‘You’re six feet tall and the fourth-best girl player in the whole fucking universe. YOU NEED TO GET THERE!’
This continued for another twenty brutal minutes until their court time was up. Dripping in sweat and exhausted from the practice, Charlie braced herself for Todd’s assessment.
After a few seconds of mopping her face with a towel, she glanced up toward Todd, who stood a few feet away, staring at her with what could only be described as naked hatred.
‘What?’ she couldn’t stop herself from asking.
More staring. Then a slow, disgusted shake of his head.
‘You’re afraid. You’re fucking afraid. I can’t even believe what I’m seeing. After all we’ve done – after everything I’ve done for you – you’re still dancing around out there like a goddamn amateur.’
‘Todd, I really think that I—’
‘You either figure out how to get over whatever fucked-up mental problem you have going on, or pack it in. Because there is no in-between.’
Thankfully, his phone rang before he could continue. He swiped the screen and barked, ‘What?’
‘Well, that was lovely,’ Charlie said as she collapsed onto the bench.
Dan handed her a cup of watered-down Gatorade. ‘Don’t beat yourself up. You were hitting well. It’s natural you’re a little hesitant back on the grass, given what happened last year.’
‘Yeah, but Todd’s right: I need to suck it up. Grass isn’t anyone’s favorite surface. I need to get over the fear. It just feels like playing on ice.’
He mopped his own neck with a towel. ‘You’re playing Gretchen tomorrow?’
Charlie nodded. At thirty-six, Gretchen Strasser was the oldest player on the women’s tour. She’d taken the prior year off to have a baby, and although she’d won three Slams and been ranked number one in her late twenties, it was generally agreed that her best days were long over. The announcers thought she should have retired instead of taken maternity leave, but Charlie understood why she couldn’t let go. How easy was it to walk away from your lifelong identity? Like most professional athletes, chances were you didn’t have the time or inclination to do anything else. Once you stopped playing, you had to reinvent your entire life. It was terrifying for most players, and Charlie wondered if some part of that fear didn’t push her to get up and play every day, even when she didn’t particularly feel like it.