Page 14 of The Singles Game

Todd didn’t stand when she reached the table. ‘Sit,’ he said, waving his hand at the remaining seats. ‘You don’t care if I call you Silver, right?’

‘Actually, I prefer Charlie,’ she said, claiming the chair that was farthest from Todd even though the view it afforded was directly of the wall. ‘You’re here early.’

‘Todd Feltner rule number one: if you’re not early, you’re late.’ His laugh was a cross between a guffaw and a scoff. Charlie couldn’t decide which she disliked more: his asinine ‘rule,’ or the fact that he was talking about himself in the third person.

At only five foot ten, his strength as a college player came exclusively from his muscular shoulders and immensely wide, powerful thighs, lending him the strange look of being nearly as wide as he was tall. Now that he was well into middle age, the muscled, tanklike physique had been refashioned into a pear shape: nearly atrophied shoulders and upper body ballooning out into an enormous ass and belly, all of it perched on pale, skinny legs.

‘What are you having?’ Todd asked, pushing a menu in her direction.

A woman wearing leather pants and high-heeled booties appeared at their table, and it took Charlie a moment to realize she was their waitress. She glanced at her phone and saw it would still be thirteen minutes until Jake arrived, maybe more.

‘Um, just a cup of coffee for now, please,’ she said. She intended to order lunch but wanted to wait for Jake.

‘Decaf,’ Todd barked. Both the waitress and Charlie turned to look at him. Did he want a decaf himself, or was he demanding one for Charlie?

‘For her,’ he clarified.

Charlie forced herself to smile. ‘Thank you, but no, I prefer regular.’ She turned to the waitress. ‘Full caffeine, please. Extra, if you have it.’

Todd laughed, the snake tongue darting at full speed. ‘Enjoy it now, sweetheart. You work with me and you can kiss it good-bye, right along with everything else that’s remotely enjoyable. But we’ll get to that.’

Charlie knew if Marcy were there instead of Todd, they would have already ordered club sandwiches and fries and would be cracking up over the latest celebrity gossip. Charlie was wracking her brain to come up with some benign small talk to fill the time when Jake appeared like a vision before them.

‘I hope I didn’t miss anything,’ he said, leaning over to kiss Charlie’s cheek. Todd didn’t stand for him either, but Jake walked around the table and clapped him on the back. ‘Todd, great to see you. Thanks for making time today.’

Charlie was always a little surprised to see her big brother looking so professional. His crisp white dress shirt highlighted his tan complexion, and his whole look – European-cut navy suit with no tie, expensive watch and shoes – screamed successful Hollywood talent agent. No one would have ever guessed he lived in a walk-up studio apartment in Harlem – or that his one and only client at the sports agency where he worked was his own sister.

They hadn’t even ordered food before Todd clapped the table and said, ‘None of us have a lot of time here, so let’s cut right to the chase. Silver – uh, Charlotte – you’re a damn good player with a lot of potential. But so far that’s all it is. You’ve been on the tour now for nearly five years and you have no Slams, only two major singles titles and a ranking that’s never gone above twenty-three. You also just had surgery. I’m sure plenty of people have recommended you retire.’

‘With all due respect, Mr Feltner, being the twenty-third- best female tennis player on earth isn’t too terrible,’ Jake offered. Charlie shot him a grateful smile, but the sound of Todd’s fist meeting the table again startled her so much she almost knocked her coffee over.

‘Wrong answer!’ he all but screamed, his tongue going a mile a minute. ‘Was that what you used to dream about as a thirteen-year-old who was winning all the tournaments you entered, who showed incredible perseverance and determination and who cleared her path of opponents like a fucking lawn mower? To be twenty-third-best? I don’t think so. I sure hope not, because that is not the attitude of a champion. You think Steffi Graf used to hope and pray she could be ranked in the twenties? Or Evert or Navratilova or Sharapova or either of those Williams sisters ever turned to their coaches or their daddies or the mirror and said, “Gee, I hope I can be the twenty-third-best girl someday?”’ This last part was said in a hideously high-pitched imitation of a female voice. ‘Please. Spare me.’

Charlie burned with shame – and something else. Todd Feltner was right. She did want more. She didn’t want to be a footnote in tennis history, not after all her hard work. ‘You’ve made your point,’ Charlie said quietly.

‘If I’m going to come out of retirement to coach a girl, I am only going to do it for one who has the killer drive. Are you the one, Charlotte Silver? Do you have the taste for blood? Or are you happy to flounce from court to court in your little white tennis skirt with your cutesy braids and smile so big and wide that everyone just adores you?’

Todd flipped open a magnetic screen cover on his fifteen-inch iPad, turned it to face Charlie, and began to swipe through images of Charlie through the years. Always the braid. Always the smile. Always the runner-up.

‘We are sitting here right now because I think that beneath the sweet-little-girl exterior you really, really want to make it to the big leagues. To the top ten. To the Slam title. And personally I’m here because I think you have the best fucking one-handed backhand I’ve ever seen on a chick – er, a girl. You have an instinctive understanding of your placement on the court – trust me, you can’t teach that – and, at least from what I can see on tape, the mental toughness to come back when you’re down. That, Charlotte Silver, is why we’re here.’

Charlie tried not to smile. Todd Feltner had homed in on her areas of strength, quite accurately in her mind. He’d done his homework. Still, the sequence of photos showing her as a friendly and happy dilettante had been devastating.

‘If we do this thing, first and foremost, you’re going to have to lose the sensitive-girl crap. Like, right now I can see your eyes watering. We all can’t be worrying about your feelings every second or no one’s ever going to get anything done. I’ll talk straight to you and you talk straight to me. No bullshit, okay? Secondly, we need an image overhaul. We’ll take steps to banish the sweet girl in braids and replace her with the fierce, ballbusting competitor that other players fear and respect. We’ll employ an image consultant, since that’s clearly not my area of expertise, but one I do think is important in this case. She can advise us all on hiring the right PR people, stylists, social media consultants, what have you, who will get you all straightened out. I don’t want this to concern you too much – I will be in charge of your practice and travel schedule, and I guarantee you that none of this bullshit edges out what’s really important: namely, your game. It’s important, but ultimately, no one is going to give a shit what you’re wearing if you’re not actually winning.’

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