‘You see your boyfriend up there?’ Natalya asked, calibrating her voice perfectly so that only Charlie could hear her.
A glance to the player box revealed Marco sitting calmly and quietly, watching Charlie and Natalya.
‘Marco?’ she asked, more out of surprise that Natalya was speaking to her than a genuine interest in engaging. These were the very first words the women had exchanged since walking onto the court.
‘Yes. Our Marco. I just wanted to thank you for lending him to me last night,’ Natalya said, a smile spreading slowly on her face.
‘Ms Silver and Ms Ivanov, please take your sides. Play will commence now.’
Charlie was stunned. Natalya had the audacity to try to rattle her points away from the end of their epic match. Our Marco.
Before jogging to the baseline, Natalya quickly leaned toward Charlie once more, and in a husky whisper said, ‘I certainly don’t need to tell you this, but he was good in bed. Like, really good.’
‘Ms Ivanov? Ms Silver?’ the umpire inquired.
As Charlie walked to her own side, a visual of Natalya hovering naked over Marco flickered into her head. Only the feeling of her own fingernails digging into her palms brought her back to the present.
Focus! Charlie screamed at herself. This is the Final. Of. Wimbledon. You are going to break up with him anyway. She could be lying just to upset you. You don’t even like him, so don’t throw the Wimbledon Final for him! Focus. Focus. Focus!
She placed her toes directly against the baseline, bounced the ball three times, and tossed it into the air. Perfect toss, Charlie thought as she launched her entire body upward to attack the ball while it hovered at its highest point. It went smashing across the net and into the far corner of the service box, where Natalya got a racket on it but could only send it careening into the alley.
Charlie’s next serve was also perfect, landing straight and hard in the middle of the box. Natalya’s return was weaker than normal, and Charlie pounced on it for a blazing crosscourt winner.
Natalya bent over to adjust her socks and flashed Charlie – and the entire audience – a view of her perfect butt. Charlie couldn’t help herself: she looked over at Marco and, sure enough, caught him staring directly at it. When Natalya served for the next point, Charlie mis-hit the return with the frame instead of the strings.
I hate her, Charlie thought, feeling a surge of anger and adrenaline course from her stomach to her throat. I hate her, I hate her, I hate her.
Charlie lost the next point. She came in on a short ball by hitting an excellent approach shot but then flubbed an easy overhead and missed the line by at least a foot.
Something about missing that last shot shook Charlie in a way she hadn’t felt for the last three hours. If she continued like this, she would lose the match – the whole tournament – over an unethical opponent and a man she didn’t even like. And if that happened, she would have no one to blame but herself. It will not go down that way, Charlie told herself as she sliced a backhand short and watched as Natalya scrambled to reach it.
For the next four points, Charlie played the best tennis of her life. Her focus was laser-like, her strokes and footwork impeccable. She set aside Natalya and Marco and the cramping and the winded feeling and pushed herself to run for everything. No ball was too fast or far to reach, no shortcuts were acceptable: each point got 100 percent of her effort and strength. Natalya, too, played beautifully. Both women ran and slid and stretched in a show of incomparable fortitude and determination, and the crowd clapped their excited appreciation.
Despite it all, Natalya broke Charlie to win the game and make it 7–6. The rules called for the players to switch sides on odd-numbered games. Charlie was so focused on how much the next game mattered that she didn’t notice Natalya had sidled up next to her.
When they met in front of the umpire’s chair, Natalya deliberately led with her shoulder and bumped into Charlie – taking great care to make it look like an accident. Instantly a thought popped into Charlie’s head.
‘Natalya?’ Charlie asked quietly, making sure no one could hear, keeping her mouth still so no one watching on TV could read her lips.
‘There’s something you should know, too. About Benjy.’
Natalya met Charlie’s gaze. Charlie could see instantly her opponent had no idea what Charlie was about to say. ‘What’s that?’
Charlie opened her mouth and searched for the perfect way to deliver the sucker-punch news she so desperately wanted to share, but nothing came out.
‘Ladies? Please take your sides,’ the umpire said, his hand over the microphone.
The scene from the boat a couple of weeks earlier popped into her head: Benjy and Jake, both beautiful and shirtless, sleeping peacefully next to each other. Charlie could see Jake’s obvious joy and happiness as clearly as if he’d been standing in front of her.
Natalya leaned in so close Charlie could feel her breath. They were an identical height and their noses almost touched. ‘Did I mention that Marco said I have the best ass he’s ever seen? No? You would be surprised how often I hear that,’ Natalya said, shaking her ponytail with a laugh.
Natalya turned her back to Charlie, and in that moment Charlie remembered how it felt to win Charleston when she’d served before her opponent was ready. She imagined what her father would say if he knew the tactics she’d resorted to; she wondered what her mother would think of the woman she’d become. But most of all she thought of Jake and what it would do to his relationship to have it broadcast all over the world before he and Benjy were ready.
‘Good luck,’ Charlie said, because that’s all she could think to say. She would win or lose this point based on any number of factors, but betraying Jake’s confidence wasn’t going to be one of them.
Natalya rolled her eyes and returned to the baseline. She did side-to-side jumps that caused her ponytail and skirt to do the most adorable little flips.
Charlie watched as Natalya extended her racket out to the nearest ball boy and grinned at him when he placed two balls on the strings. Natalya tucked one neatly under her skirt, approached the baseline, and placed her feet. Charlie bounced on her toes, ready to receive service, but despite her readiness, Natalya’s first serve hit the corner of the box and Charlie couldn’t even get close to it. Charlie took the next point by hitting a perfect lob over Natalya’s head, where it hit the back of the line, but then Natalya won the next two. 40–15. Charlie could almost hear the television announcers tell their audiences in dozens of languages all over the world that this was match point for Natalya. Tournament point. Charlie already knew the predictable headline if she lost: ‘Another Silver for Silver.’