Lizzie and Dave waited as the woman tapped the microphone on the table. “Testing-one-two-three-testing.” She gave a thumbs-up to a man who stood at the back of the room and invited Lizzie and Dave to sit down. The room was packed with photographers who were ready with their cameras and reporters who were ready with their pens. Looking at them now, Lizzie wondered whether she really wanted what she thought she did. She had dreamed of playing professional tennis ever since she was six years old. But that would mean more of this. Tennis was only part of the game. So long as she was going to play professional tennis, she couldn’t remain anonymous. The more she moved up in the rankings, the more intense the exposure would be. And what if she was to win a Slam? No, she thought as she looked out at the sea of reporters waiting to grill her, this in itself is a game. And she would have to learn how to play it.
“Miss Bennington, what would you say was the deciding point of the match?” a reporter asked.
“The massage Mr. Archer received when he was down 6–3 in the third set tiebreak.”
The room full of reporters broke out in laughter.
“Do you think he was faking?” another reporter asked.
“Faking what? The cramps or the pleasure he received from the massage?” Someone toward the back of the room made a sizzling sound as though something or someone had just been burned. There’s too much testosterone in this room, thought Lizzie.
“Mzzzz Bennington, did you take pleasure in it?”
Lizzie turned and saw a platinum blonde with bright red lips like the Joker’s smile from the Batman cartoons looking at her. “Excuse me?”
Stepan and Jack sat on a sofa in the living room of Jack’s home in Boca Raton, watching a replay of the press conference on ESPN. Stepan thumped Jack’s thigh with the flat of his hand and raised his eyebrows significantly. “I think she’s hot for your thighs, Jack.”
Jack and Stepan were like brothers. They played together and trained together. Coach Zacharov had brought Stepan to America after discovering him in Russia. Stepan’s parents had died when he was only six. When he came to Zacharov’s tennis academy, Jack’s family took Stepan in as one of their own.
Jack pushed Stepan’s hand off and laughed. He remembered the look in Lizzie’s eyes when he had caught her staring at him. “She’s no different from the rest of the female population. She appreciates the legs of a thoroughbred when she sees one.”
“A thoroughbred, you say? She must be looking for that special ride—fast and smoooooooooooth. What do you think, does she ride English or Western?”
“Definitely English,” Jack said, nodding his head as he looked over at Stepan.
“She’s proper, then?”
“Extremely,” Jack said, smiling widely.
“You know, she’s good-looking. A real hottie.”
Jack looked over at Stepan. He recognized that gleam in his eye. The only one with a more notorious reputation than his when it came to women was Stepan—and Rodolfo Salazar, of course. Jack thought of Stepan’s current girlfriend, Ingrid the supermodel. She would qualify as a hottie. Jack and Christina would be having dinner with them tonight. But Jack didn’t think the expression suited Lizzie. “I don’t know if I’d call her a hottie.”
Stepan ran his hand through the dark, reckless waves that crowned his head. He narrowed his eyes, and his top lip curled, revealing one subtle dimple alongside it. “Well, she’s certainly sizzling right now.”
Ever the diplomat and the epitome of grace under pressure, Dave jumped in to rescue Lizzie. “It was a very tough match,” he said, avoiding the question that seemed to have momentarily silenced her. “The truth is, we couldn’t finish, and they did. You have to congratulate them, coming from behind like that.”
The reporter began nodding her head in response to Dave’s comment before he had even finished. She’s not even listening to him, Lizzie thought angrily.
“Yes yes yes—but I’m rather curious. Miss Bennington, you mentioned that massage in the final set tiebreak and seemed to focus your attention on it. So I’ll ask you again, did you take pleasure in it? Perhaps you’ll give us your impression of Mr. Archer’s celebrated thighs.”
Lizzie felt a sudden rush of heat as though someone had struck a match and was holding it next to her, beginning with her chest, moving up her neck and finally reaching her cheeks. Who was this woman? Was she a sportswriter or a writer for the National Enquirer? “If you’d been listening to what Dave was saying with regard to the match,” Lizzie said, “you wouldn’t ask such a foolish question. When you come back from a set down and bring the match to a final set tiebreak and are a point away from winning the match, only to have what looks like an extremely fit player call a time out because of a cramp and then watch that player sit back and casually converse and laugh while you do your best to keep your mental focus and your body moving so you don’t grow cold and cramp yourself, I hardly think you’d concern yourself with his burgeoning manhood,let alone his thighs!”
The reporter looked stunned. The room went quiet.
Stepan looked over at Jack with a sly expression. “So she noticed your manhood.”
“It would seem so.”
“The massage was that good, was it?”
“Well you know how it is. I always rise to the occasion when faced with a match.”
“So your manhood rose.”
“Well, with that filly in my line of vision blushing like a virgin, something in me was bound to stand at attention. And my walking legs were occupied.”
Stepan’s upper lip curled slowly until he was grinning like the Cheshire cat. “So your third one.” He turned back to the television and stroked the stubble on his chin with his fingers. “She’s a fiery one. She doesn’t give that partner of hers much of a chance to speak. Do you think she orders him about like that in bed?”
Jack frowned. “Do you think they’re a couple?”
Stepan ignored Jack’s question. “I bet she likes to ride on top. She’s probably used to having to do all the work. That’s why she was eyeing those strapping thighs of yours.”
The reporter with the Joker lips was not about to let up. “So your assessment, Mzzzzz Bennington, would seem to be that you find Mr. Archer extremely fit and, his burgeoning manhood aside, I’m supposing that would include his thighs?”
Lizzie was stunned but not for long. “It seems to me that you’re the one who is particularly interested in Mr. Archer’s thighs. I gather this from the fact that you keep insisting on talking about them. Having seen your mouth and having heard what comes from it, I should think you would be more than capable of arriving at an answer to your question yourself. You hardly need enlist my help. Why don’t you set your mouth to work and go straight to the source—Mr. Archer’s thighs? And see for yourself.”
Silence. Even Jack and Stepan sat with their mouths open. Dead air was never good for television, and another reporter quickly stood up. “Are you saying that you double-faulted because Jack got a massage?”
Lizzie lowered her eyes. She had had enough.
Bastards, thought Jack.
“Brutal,” Stepan said.
Lizzie looked up. “Certainly not. It was a close match. We were in it up until the very end, but we couldn’t finish, and they did. I congratulate them on their win.”
Stepan shook his head. “You’re a bad boy, Jack. You made the girl cry.”
Jack was sitting forward, leaning off the edge of the sofa. He turned toward Stepan. “She’s not crying. Look at her. Does she look like she’s crying?”
“No. But you’ve got her awful fired up.”
“What’s wrong with her partner? Why doesn’t he speak up and put a stop to that idiot reporter?”
“You know Dave. I never once saw him lose his temper on the court.”
Jack leaned back and tried to settle into the soft cushions, but he couldn’t seem to get comfortable. Stepan was watching him. “What’s up with you?”
“What do you mean?”
Stepan turned back toward the television and looked at Lizzie. “Do you like that girl?”
Jack recognized that twinkle in Stepan’s eye. He threw back his head and laughed, looking much like the Jack Lizzie had seen on court. “I’m with Christina. Remember?”
“Yea. You were with Christina when we were in South Beach and in Monte Carlo. Remember that? And in Vegas—and even I remember that! So what has that got to do with it?”
“She’s too short,” Jack said dismissively.
Stepan looked at the television, as though he were considering Jack’s statement, when his cell phone rang. He took it out of his pocket. “It’s Ingrid,” he said, getting up from the sofa.
Jack leaned forward and turned up the volume on the television when Stepan left the room. Dave tried to get the discussion to move in the direction of tennis, but the reporters wouldn’t let up. Finally, Lizzie held up her hand to silence them.
“I don’t know what it is you want me to say. Clearly Christina and Jack are the doubles team to beat. To rally like they did takes great perseverance. But at the same time, you should understand that it was a tough loss for us. I don’t think my being frank about that is unsportsmanlike or anything less than honest. If you don’t care for the answers you receive, then perhaps you should consider asking different questions. And if it’s scripted answers you want, then you’ll have to look for them elsewhere. You won’t find them here.” Lizzie stood up and thanked the press before she walked out.
Jack’s eyes remained fixed. She wore an off-white warm-up suit with long lines that accentuated the graceful curve of her hips, the breadth of her shoulders, and the fullness of her breasts. He couldn’t help feeling that she was unaware of all of this. He recalled how Christina had carefully chosen her outfit and reapplied her makeup before meeting with the press. It looked as though Lizzie didn’t wear any. Lizzie swept a few strands of her hair out of her eyes. That’s when he saw how carelessly her hair had been pulled back. Her ponytail was loose. It looked as though it would come undone. He aimed the remote at the television and shut it off. He had seen her hands—the fingers long and elegant. He threw the remote down on the sofa. He still hadn’t been able to tell the color of her eyes.
* * *
Rodolfo Salazar had no difficulty deciphering the color of Lizzie’s eyes. He sat in the plush, handmade leather sofa in the living room of his Provence-style villa overlooking the luxury yachts rocking gently in the calm waters of the Mediterranean off Cap d’Antibes.
I am agree with her, he thought, as he ran his hands through his hair, well gelled with mousse and shockingly black. Why her partner doesn’t speak up? This Dave, he’s good tennis player, but he’s being too careful. He’s being boring. But at least he’s acting like man. Jack is acting like little girl. Leg cramps, my ass!
Jack had yet to win a Slam. And he had yet to win a match against Rodolfo. Jack struggled at times to stay within the top ten. And yet he still managed to get under Rodolfo’s skin.
Rodolfo knew the fans were waiting for Jack finally to beat him. He read the tennis blogs and Twitter feeds. Sam Peppers and Mattie Frank thought that Jack might be the most talented player never to win a Major. Sam said Jack was a natural. And Mattie said that if Jack would only get serious, he had it in him to win as many as ten Slams, maybe more. She said he could be better than good. He could be great. What Jack lacked, according to Sam and Mattie, was focus. That is, up until this past year. Ever since he’d begun playing doubles with Christina, his singles game had improved. He’d gone up in the rankings and was playing some of his best tennis. He was starting to look like the Jack who had first burst onto the tennis world at the age of nineteen. Jack was three years younger than Rodolfo. In the game of professional tennis, three years was a lot.
Rodolfo watched Lizzie. He knew what it was like to be an outsider, to be surrounded by people who’d grown up in the life. Tennis went back three generations in Jack’s family. Jack was a real tennis blueblood, while Rodolfo had grown up middle-class. If Rodolfo had followed his father’s dreams for him, he would have become an international soccer star. But even when he was a young boy the coach had told him he had the wrong body type. If he was going to play football, the coach told his father, it ought to be American football. He was simply too big for the European variety.
Rodolfo leaned back, settling against the cushions of the sofa with satisfaction. Jack is never daring to pull this stunt with me, he thought. He admired Lizzie’s curves as she stood up. Finally I’m seeing a woman who’s not towering like a giraffe, he thought. She’s not having the body of an adolescent.
The phone rang. Rodolfo got up from the sofa. “Ciao, Sophia,” he said when he heard her voice on the other end of the line. Rodolfo smiled, imagining how Sophia would look in the dress he had just bought her. And all thoughts of Lizzie vanished as he began to imagine how Sophia would look when he pulled that dress off, and she was lying naked in his bed.