‘She’s hideous,’ Charlie said, stepping through the door Jake held open for her. She rooted around her mouth with her tongue but didn’t feel anything between her teeth. Still, she pulled a mirror from her bag to check. ‘If our lovely dead mother hadn’t insisted a thousand times that I be kind and polite to everyone, I might have killed her already.’
‘Yep, Natalya’s pretty awful. But Benjy’s even cuter in person than he is on TV.’
From the relative safety of the bar, Charlie surveyed the room and noticed all the players clustered in tight little groups around the room. A handful sipped wine or beer – the men, mostly, and even then Charlie knew they’d only have a single glass – and they divided themselves up primarily by nationality: Italians with Italians, Spaniards with Spaniards, Eastern Europeans together despite the fact that they all spoke different languages. It was a universally gorgeous group. Although there were exceptions, the men tended to be well over six feet tall with small waists and broad shoulders, while the women had legs a mile long and not an inch of cellulite. Everyone had blindingly white teeth and thick hair and dressed like they were spending the night at the VMAs. Trainers and coaches and massage therapists and agents and managers and tournament officials all mingled about, looking decidedly less fabulous, but by comparison they only heightened the overall attractiveness quotient of the players. Charlie instinctively scanned the room for Marco, but he was nowhere to be found.
Jake handed her a glass of Pellegrino. Something or someone seemed to catch his eye. ‘Hey, you okay by yourself for a few minutes? There’s someone I have to say hello to.’
‘Take me with you. This isn’t exactly the friendliest pond for solo swimming.’
‘I’ll be fine,’ Jake laughed, walking away.
‘I meant me!’ But he had already vanished into the crowd.
She resisted the urge to pull out her phone and stand in the corner. She said a few hellos to players who passed by, but she couldn’t seem to get in the party mood. The player parties had been so much more fun when she was younger. At nearly every one, she’d find herself on the dance floor, flirting, chatting up some of the more outgoing players and their friends. It had been exciting to meet people from all over the world and hear their stories, one of the things she loved most about playing professionally. But lately Charlie felt awkward: perched on a barstool, making small talk with the usual crew, biding her time until she could get back to her hotel room to read and unwind. After five years on tour, the faces were mostly familiar now, and the dancing was best left to the teenagers. Plus now there was Marco. The men’s and women’s tours didn’t always overlap – they were only in the same place less than half the time – but when they did, Charlie couldn’t stop thinking about him, wondering if they would see each other, when, where, and how.
She could count their rendezvous on one hand: the first spectacular time in Palm Springs, followed immediately by an even better round two at the Miami Open; there had been a torturous few weeks until the men’s and women’s tours overlapped again in Madrid; a very fun night before the next tournament began in Rome; and then the night of the player party before the French Open, which, incidentally, Marco had gone on to win. The next time they were in the same place at the same time was a month later, the fateful Wimbledon where Charlie had crushed her Achilles’, only a day after she and Marco had hooked up at Richard Branson’s lavish pretournament party. At his estate. In a bathroom, to be precise. Their hookups almost always took place in the lead-up to a tournament or its very first days, since once competition ramped up, neither of them wanted the distraction. Charlie was starting to feel an almost Pavlovian response to mandatory player parties: in her mind, they were now associated with sex with Marco. At all the tournaments where only the women were playing, she found herself so much more relaxed. There had been no mention of Marco and any women either in the media or through the usual player gossip circuits, but that didn’t mean much: Marco could be at the tournament and quietly sleeping with anyone – a grown daughter visiting her coach father on tour; one of the PR women for the men’s tour; any of the trainers or nutritionists who worked with the players; or, likeliest of all, any one of the hundreds of female tennis groupies in each city who turned out to the player parties and tournaments in extension-swinging, stripper-smelling, stiletto-wearing droves. Charlie could vomit just thinking about it.
‘You look so happy,’ Karina Geiger said as she approached Charlie.
Charlie laughed. ‘Thrilled. You can tell?’
As usual, Karina had flouted the tour’s instructions to dress up for the party and was wearing a pair of sweatpants and a zip-up hoodie. ‘Hey, I think I owe you a welcome back, ja? Your first tournament since …’
‘Wimbledon. First round.’
‘Ja, right, I remember. All better now?’
Charlie nodded. ‘According to the experts, everything is fixed.’
‘I am glad you are back. How is your draw? I cannot remember which bracket you—’ She was interrupted by a petite brunette – attractive, if not actually pretty – who came and planted a kiss right on Karina’s mouth.
‘Hallo, süsse! I want you to meet Charlotte. She is not a bitch, a rare thing for the women players. Charlotte, this is my girlfriend, Annika.’
The two women shook hands. ‘Nice to meet you,’ Charlie said.
There was a commotion at the other end of the bar, and all three women turned in time to see Natalya and Benjy dirty dancing in the middle of a huge circle of admirers. She was bent over at the waist, her hands nearly touching the floor, and he was grinding into her from behind, one arm holding her around the middle and pressing her against his pelvis. ‘Single Ladies’ blared from the speakers and the whole room began to clap in unison.
‘She always is so … how do you say … classy?’ Karina said. ‘A true lady on and off the court.’
Charlie laughed. ‘The stories I could tell you …’
Annika said, ‘Those I would like to hear one day. Come, Kari, let’s get something to eat.’
They waved good-bye and Charlie watched as they walked toward the buffet of sushi and assorted noodle salads. Once again she scanned the room, instinctively searching for Marco before she even realized what she was doing. Irritated with herself, she pulled out her phone to stare at something – anything – and realized she had never gotten back to Piper.