Yes, Alden, I know I'm no longer on the tour, but--" Tess Hamilton bit her lip and, more firmly, her tongue as the Nike marketing rep continued talking over her. For Tess, not talking when she had something to say--and she had a whole lot of things to say at the moment--was like trying not to breathe.
She ripped her Boxster S convertible across three lanes of traffic on I-4, ignoring the honks and shouted commentary regarding her driving skills. She had to make her exit, right? Besides, at the moment, she had far bigger things to worry about than instigating inadvertent road rage. Lord knew she'd been responsible for far worse and lived to tell the tale.
The rep paused for an infinitesimal breath and Tess leaped in. "I appreciate what you're saying, really, I do, but this is shortsighted thinking." She raised her voice to be heard over the rush of road noise. God, she loved driving with the top down. Of course, shouting suited her rising temper at the moment, too.
"We're moving in new directions, Tess. So we're looking for a different kind of image. We need to stay fresh. I'm sure you understand."
No, she didn't understand. She refused to understand. She was no longer fresh? Well, shit, how mortifying was that? Not even thirty years old, and her shelf life had already expired?
She accelerated, going way too fast down the winding suburban road leading to her home in the elite, gated, Boca Raton community of Sea Spar. A home she loved. A home she'd bought and paid for with her own hard-earned income. Income which, since her career-ending injury the summer before last, had rapidly ceased to match her outgo. Mostly because of shortsighted morons like the marketing rep currently droning on in her headset about focus groups and future percentages.
She took a sharp turn without decelerating, leaving rubber behind as she fought to keep her temper in check. Unlike past run-ins with various sponsors and marketing reps, this wasn't about some stupid tabloid headline or missed promotional event. She could have talked her way out of that . . . and often had. Too often. No, this time her entire life was on the line. What was left of it, anyway.
And okay, sure, maybe that was partly due to the fact that she so often had spoken out when it would have been smarter to shut up. Financially smarter, at least. She was a firm believer that if more people spoke their mind instead of blowing smoke up people's asses and saying what they thought everyone wanted to hear, the world would be a much better place. But it wasn't like her sponsors hadn't known that when they signed on the dotted line with her. It hadn't mattered to them then.
However, as the condescending, very annoying man on the other end of the phone was making unavoidably and quite painfully clear, it mattered a whole hell of a lot right now.
She tapped her horn as she turned into the lavishly landscaped, stone-and-wrought-iron entrance, alerting Saul, the gate guard, of her impending arrival. She barely slowed as the bar began to rise, having to duck her head just slightly to keep it from catching on the brim of her tennis hat. She caught a glimpse of Saul, shaking his balding head as he always did when she zipped past, a blur of midnight blue and chrome. This time she didn't wave or blow an apologetic kiss they both knew was completely insincere. Not that she didn't have a soft spot for Saul, she just wasn't particularly remorseful about her no-prisoners style of driving. And she was pretty sure Saul secretly admired her for that.
She passed a string of long, winding driveways leading to this sprawling mansion or that, paying them no attention whatsoever, until she finally turned into her own drive. She slowed slightly, her attention snagging as it always did now, on the two pristine tennis courts laid out so perfectly behind her equally beautiful, perfect house. She'd spent countless hours on those courts.
Alden took another breath and Tess took advantage again, struggling mightily to keep her voice calm, her tone even. "Your company originally signed on with me, in part, because I was media bait!" Okay, so maybe she needed to work a little harder on the calm, even part. But honestly, had there ever really been a chance that she'd have kept her cool? The man was robbing her blind here.
And hell, she still hadn't recovered from the mauling she'd taken at the hands of good old Uncle Sam over that whole income tax fiasco last year. Then there was this past April's tab . . . yeesh. She might as well have been bending over when she saw the figure on the bottom line. She didn't even want to think about next year . . . and she wouldn't have to if Alden here would just get with the program.
It wasn't like it was her fault she hadn't exactly been up on the latest tax codes, or knew anything about what payment was due when. That was her accountant's job. Yes, yes, she had fired the man before the extension due date last summer--well, he claimed he quit, but that was semantics, really. And she hadn't even known about the damn extension, much less the due date. Of course, it was true he'd been pestering her for some time about a number of things that needed her attention, but she'd been focused on rehabbing her shoulder, mentally grappling with not being on the tour, dealing with the dawning reality that she'd probably never be going back, with having to retire before she was ready . . .
Suffice it to say, it had been a really rough year. And the government had so not been understanding about that fact. A lot like certain members of her family.
And now May was almost over, a new year almost half done, and this one wasn't going much better. Her life was still upside down, emotionally and financially, and she couldn't seem to find a way to balance it again. Which, admittedly, was why she and her accountant had had the falling out in the first place. He'd actually had the nerve to lecture her on developing proper postretirement spending habits! She'd laughed.
Well, she wasn't laughing now. And restraining her natural spirit--okay, temper--wasn't what put those ten grand-slam trophies on her mantelpiece, now, was it? "Alden, you know as well as I do that it was my
temperament on court and off, and my winning record that lined your
company's pockets all those years." Gripping her cell phone so tightly it was a miracle it didn't snap in two, she slammed out of her car and stalked past the other three vehicles filling her four-car garage, before automatically punching in the security code and striding into her house. She stopped at the floor-to-ceiling picture window that made up the back wall on the main floor. "It's only been a little over a year."
"Almost two years," Alden mildly corrected.
"Twenty-one months since the injury," she shot back. "I only officially retired last September." That press conference had been exactly two days before the first lovely letter from the IRS had shown up. Talk about a bad week.
"You've been off the tour for two seasons, Tess. Two years in the tennis world is a long time when you're never coming back."
"I was number one for sixty-one straight weeks, and still top five when I went out, against girls a decade younger than me. People haven't exactly forgotten me."
"Martina Hingis," he said, adopting a slightly harder edge to his tone. "Monica Seles. Both former number ones, both multiple grand-slam winners, both retired before their time. How long afterward were you seeing their faces launching new ad campaigns?" He didn't wait for her to answer. "You didn't, because they weren't. It's a very competitive marketplace, Tess, you know that. We have to stay on the cutting edge of whatever sport we're associating with our product. And that means--"
"Snagging fresh meat," Tess snapped. "I get that. I know this is business, Alden. It's business for me, too. Something you seem to have overlooked here. I've held up my end all these years. Whatever happened to loyalty?"
Alden sighed deeply. "The fact that I'm speaking to you directly, and not your agent or manager, should tell you all you need to know."
"My management team didn't drop me, I dropped them!" Okay, so maybe that was stretching things a little. The official word was that they'd amicably agreed to part ways. What that really meant was that they'd found out about the heavy hit she'd taken as a result of last year's tax debacle--which she'd paid in full, thank you very much. Mostly to keep word of it out of the press, but still, it shouldn't have affected her viability as an asset to the agency. So what if she'd had to liquidate a few assets? Okay, more than a few. Okay, almost all of them. But honestly, some of them she hadn't even remembered she'd owned. An indication right there--outwardly, anyway--that things weren't that bad.
Maybe to some people's way of thinking, the tax debt had been kind of big . . . okay, so it had been close to eight figures. Her accountant hadn't been kidding about her neglect of certain business issues. Still, to her, that wasn't as big a deal as it might have been to some. Lesson learned. She'd just earn it back and be smarter next time. Offers poured in every day. Or they used to, but still, it would happen, she'd recover. And didn't she deserve some credit for paying it all off? Hell, it had been like having a giant international yard sale to come up with that kind of money. Did they have any idea how personally humiliating that had been? How hard to keep it out of the public eye? Like she needed more stress.
And yes, so her continued tangled financial picture hadn't been encouraging, what with April 15 rolling around almost right after she'd gotten done making the first payoff. With nothing new coming in, she'd had another little liquidation sale, and yes, it had zapped pretty much everything she had left. But all she needed was one or two little endorsement deals to get started, not too much to ask, to her way of thinking. She just wanted to keep a roof over her head. One roof! She'd sold all the others, hadn't she? Was it her fault the deals weren't being renewed? She'd placed that blame squarely on the agency. It was their job to get them to sign her, wasn't it? And they were mad at her
Unfortunately, they hadn't appreciated her logic.
The bottom line was that they'd amicably agreed to sign a confidentiality statement saying they'd keep her less-than-flattering financial picture under wraps . . . as long as she agreed to terminate her contract with them effective immediately. Almost a year before it was due to expire. Of course, she'd left their offices smugly certain she'd find new representation immediately. She always had before. So she'd lost a few contracts, so what? When the big boys came calling, renewing her major endorsement deals, every agency on both coasts would be begging to represent her again.
Which would have been supremely satisfying if it had happened that way. But here she was, still without representation. And Alden as her last hope. Yippee. And he was making it sound like, during the short time span from her injury to now, an entire era had passed her by.
So. Time to change tactics. She was all for histrionics if they were going to pay off, or if they simply made her feel better. But, just like on the court, when something wasn't working, you either changed your game, or you went home early. Perhaps now was the time to be a tad more conciliatory. Show that she understood the gravity of the situation. Lord knows it was pretty damn grave. "Alden," she said, forcing sweetness into her voice, "what if I fly to New York and we all sit down and discuss this, toss around a few ideas. Your company is known for being innovative. We just need to think outside the box a little. Shake things up."
"I don't think that's going to work for us, Tess. I'm sorry."
Staring down at her empty tennis courts, she finally ducked her chin and squeezed her eyes shut as she tried to come up with the right thing to say. She rubbed her fingers across her eyes, surprised to find they came away damp. Which pissed her off all over again. Panic wasn't a part of her makeup. She'd never been a handwringer and she didn't plan on starting now. She was a fighter, dammit.
"You're walking away from a good thing, Alden," she said firmly, hoping he mistook the slight hoarse edge in her voice for restrained temper. She tried to convince herself of that, too. "Now that I'm a free agent, someone else is going to step up and reap those rewards."
"I wish you all the best, Tess," was all he said. "I really do." Then the line went dead.
Tess clicked the phone off, and barely resisted the urge to fling it full force at the plate glass. It was quite probable that Alden knew damn well there wasn't anyone else waiting in the wings to snap her up for a new deal. For all its international stature, the tennis industry was a tight little community. One where everybody knew everybody else's business, not to mention their dirty laundry. Since announcing her retirement, she'd worked her ass off to make damn sure nobody knew hers.
Judging by the questions the media shouted her way when she attended this event or that, she'd been mostly successful. But that couldn't last much longer. It was all about appearances and public perception. As long as the public thought she was still a winner, still a success story, still a hot property, then she was one. It was as simple as that, and as complicated as that. But she'd always been a winner. That part had been easy for her.
Only now there was nothing for her to win. And the companies who'd signed her to represent their products for the past decade were naming new faces. Fresher faces. Her window of income opportunity was rapidly shrinking and public perception could shift on a dime. Maybe she'd been shortsighted in assuming her endorsement deals would continue to finance her cash flow, but it was too late to shift gears now. Besides, what else was there?
Two years ago, at the age of twenty-seven, retirement had been relatively imminent, but not immediate. She'd thought she'd have a few years to plan things out, to think ahead, make sure she was secure when she left the tour behind, future plans all laid out. Well, her shoulder had had other ideas. One flying lunge on the hard courts at the U.S. Open the summer before last had changed everything. She'd landed smack down on her right shoulder, her serving shoulder, decimating the previous three repair jobs and abruptly ending her career. Not that she'd initially accepted that assessment. Or that of the surgeon who had tried his best to repair the damage one more time. It had taken nine months of grueling, heartbreaking rehabilitation before she'd finally been forced to admit that her shoulder wasn't ever going to recover to the point where she could compete on a world-class level again. The damage was too extensive.
Excerpted from Not So Snow White by Donna Kauffman. Copyright © 2006 by Donna Kauffman. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.