Jake looked at her.
‘What? I’m obviously kidding.’ She kicked his ribs from underneath the covers.
‘Dad told me about Marco. He was literally waiting for me by the front door. Is it true?’
‘Yes. I tried to be super-cool and okay with being casual and not having any titles and just rolling with everything. Clearly he’s gorgeous. He’s great in bed. He’s the guy everyone wants, including me for a really long time. But he’s also kind of a douchebag, as Dad so eloquently put it. And while of course parts of it – of him – are fun, I always end up feeling like I’m impersonating someone who is legitimately cool and casual. Which I’m actually not.’
‘And you feel like this is a big news flash? That you’re not excited to be someone’s booty call?’
‘Oh, well, I hope you don’t mind me saying so, but that’s just plain idiotic.’
‘When did you get so judgey?’
‘I’m not judging you, Charlie.’
‘Of course you are! You’re my brother, that’s what you do.’
‘Okay, fine, I’m judging you. But for being stupid, not slutty. I thought your little fling with Zeke Leighton was pretty much the greatest thing ever, remember? That’s good fun. No expectations, everyone on the same page, a sexy one-off romp. Well played. But this whole Marco thing hasn’t sat well with me from the beginning. You’re just not that girl.’
‘Is this where I point out that you and Todd practically pimped me out to Marco for the sake of “optics”? I mean, let’s call a spade a spade.’
‘No way! Todd pimped you out. I just agreed it was a good strategy when you seemed to be happy and having fun with it. But I can see now why this whole non- relationship relationship isn’t terrific, and I entirely support your ditching him.’
Charlie stretched her arms over her head, relieved she was starting to feel tired. ‘What about you? How’s Benjy? I mean Ben?’
Jake’s face was lost in the dark, but Charlie could hear the smile in his words. ‘He’s great, C. Really, really great. We’re … We’re talking about moving in together.’
Any other night Charlie would have bolted up in bed, run to turn on the lights, and demanded more information. Never before had he declared anything close to that level of commitment. But, for whatever reason, that night it felt like the most natural thing in the world to hear Jake talk about his future with the man he loved. She said, ‘Really? That’s great, Jake. How will it work? You’ll have to go to Miami, obviously.’
‘Yeah. Nothing definite, but once he’s officially out and the madness has settled down, I’ll probably move into his place on Palm Island. I can work out of Elite’s Miami office and I travel so much with you anyway that there’s really no reason I have to be based in New York. So that’s tentatively the plan.’
‘It sounds great, Jake. It really does. I’ve never seen you like this before.’
‘Me neither. He’s just … I don’t know how to describe it.’
‘You love him. Plain and simple. Nothing else really matters.’
They were quiet for a moment.
‘I’ll let you get some sleep,’ Jake said, hauling himself up.
Charlie could only make out his shadow in the darkness, but she smiled anyway. ‘I don’t even resent you for getting the husband, the kids, and the white picket fence before me,’ she said.
‘Yes you do,’ Jake said, leaning over to kiss her cheek. ‘But I can live with that.’
‘Yeah, you’re right. I do. But I’m so happy for you, too. Just don’t make me wear a bridesmaid dress to the wedding, okay? That’ll put me over the edge.’
He opened the door and light flooded in from the hallway. ‘Hey, C? Just one more thing. Kick that bitch’s ass tomorrow.’
Instead of feeling agitation and anxiety like she always did when someone mentioned Natalya, Charlie laughed. Then she luxuriated in the cool sheets and the thought of Jake’s happiness and she drifted off into a deep, dreamless sleep.
THE FINALS, CENTRE COURT, JUNE 2016
The day of the finals, Charlie had her ritualistic grilled salmon and vegetables for lunch. One by one her family and team offered advice at the table in their rented Wimbledon Village flat.
Todd: ‘You set the pace. Drive to the net. No fear. Own this match. This is your chance to prove to the entire world that you’ve got what it takes, so don’t fuck it up!’
Jake: ‘Play your own game. Don’t let Natalya get inside your head. You’ve got this, Charlie.’
Dan: ‘You’ve made it to the very top and this is the final hurdle. You can do this!’
Dad: ‘This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and you alone have made it happen. Your mother would be so proud of you, and so am I.’
After eating, Todd moved everyone into the living room to view the tapes he had assembled from Wimbledon finals past. Together they watched colossal blowouts while Todd warned, ‘Don’t let this be you,’ and triumphant upsets where he kept repeating ‘This is the goal’ while waving his arms with urgency.
Now, a few hours later, Charlie wiped a rivulet of perspiration from her eyebrow with a white wristband that featured a single delicate amethyst crystal – her mother’s birthstone. She was careful not to rub the stone near her face, but each time after she wiped away the sweat, she’d press the stone to her lips. It was a new ritual, something of an oxymoron in the tennis world, but it was helping Charlie keep calm and focused. Steady.
She had felt nearly out-of-body during the walk to Centre Court and the ensuing introductions, but by the time warm-ups began and she and Natalya could actually start hitting the ball, the decades of muscle memory kicked in. Charlie settled instantly into her smooth and steady strokes. After the warm-up, when the women had three minutes to sit and prepare for start of play, Charlie could feel Natalya glaring at her from the opposite side of the net. The media, the WTA, and tennis fans everywhere had gone crazy with this final, which was a true marketing and publicity bonanza. The two women shared millions in endorsements between them, had graced the covers of fashion and sporting magazines, were both dating famous male athletes at the very top of their games, and each was, at least according to the press, ‘gorgeous in her own way.’ One breathless headline had called the final ‘The Battle of the Beauties’; another had read ‘Cold War Heating Up on Centre Court.’ There was Charlie, the underdog all-American with the wavy dark hair and muscular legs and the easy smile, pitted against Natalya, the angular, sexy, blond ice queen with a confident jaunt to every step and an attitude that made people love to hate her. If Charlie could eke out the win, it would be her first Grand Slam title. Natalya had won four Grand Slams – two US Opens and two Australian Opens – but this would be her first-ever Wimbledon. Who wanted it more? the announcers kept asking each other. It was agreed the women were closely matched – Natalya clearly trumped Charlie in serving and overall fitness, but with the exception of Roland-Garros, Charlie’s net game had been flawless lately and her backhand was the best in the business. The Wimbledon trophy and nearly $2.7 million were at stake, and the tension and excitement inside Centre Court were palpable.