“Oh, right,” Brandon said, finally tearing himself away from the sight of Nina. But he continued to steal glances at her as his makeup was fixed and he was put back in front of the camera. The photographer started flashing and Brandon was still looking over there. Did he know her from somewhere?
“She’s the girl in the poster,” the photographer said, catching him staring. “Nina Riva.”
Brandon was unsure.
“Mick Riva’s daughter,” the photographer added.
“That’s Mick Riva’s daughter?” Brandon said.
“Yeah, she’s a surfer.”
Brandon looked at her again, this time long enough to get her attention. Nina turned and glanced at him. He figured his chances were good. After all, he had eight Slam titles under his belt and was expected to grab a ninth.
“You said her name is Nina?” Brandon asked the photographer. Before the photographer could stop shooting and confirm it, Brandon called to her.
Nina turned toward him. Kit looked to see, too. That’s when, in full view of the cameras flashing at him, with his racket now down by his side, Brandon shouted, “Can I get your number?”
Nina laughed. And it seemed genuine, the way her head fell back ever so slightly. Brandon thought then that her smile looked effortless, that joy must come to her with ease.
“I’m serious!” he called to her. Nina shook her head, as if to say, “You’re crazy.”
Brandon felt a little crazy. He felt like he’d discovered a hidden treasure and he had to make it his. He had to hold it in his hands.
“Would you excuse me?” he said to the photographer. “For just one brief moment?” And then, without waiting for an answer, he ran to her table.
Up close, Brandon felt that much more intoxicated. There was something casual about her, the way her bikini top was tied up around her neck under her T-shirt, the way her flip-flops were worn down. But there was grace there, too: the elegant shape of her feet, the smoothness of her skin, the warmth of her brown eyes.
Brandon hung there, on the rail that separated the beach from the patio.
“I’m Brandon Randall,” he said, extending his hand.
“Nina Riva.” Nina accepted his hand and then gestured to her sister. “This is Kit.”
“Kit,” Brandon said, bowing his head ever so slightly. “Nice to meet you.”
“Charmed, I’m sure,” Kit said, amusing herself.
Brandon smiled, fully aware that Kit was making fun of him. He turned to Nina. “Marry me,” he said, with a smile.
Nina laughed. “I don’t know about that …”
Brandon leaned toward Kit. “What you do you think, Kit? Do I have a shot here?”
Kit looked Nina in the eye, trying to gauge what her sister might want her to say. “I don’t know …” Kit said, as if she was sorry to disappoint him but still entirely entertained. “I don’t think it’s looking good.”
“Oh, no!” Brandon said. He put his hand on his chest, as if to protect his broken heart.
“I mean, do you know how many men come up to her on a daily basis and do exactly what you’re doing?” Kit asked.
Brandon looked to Nina, raising his eyebrows to ask if this was true. Nina, mildly embarrassed, shrugged. Since the poster started selling in record shops and pharmacies, Nina had been getting hit on every time she left the house. It was a new reality she didn’t much care for.
“She gets about four marriage proposals from strangers a week lately,” Kit said.
“That’s a lot,” Brandon conceded. “Maybe I’m out of my depth here.”
“Maybe you are,” Kit said. “Although, you’re at least one of the less annoying ones.”
“Oh, good,” Brandon said. “What a lovely distinction.”
Nina laughed. “Kit is not an easy audience,” she said.
Brandon looked at her. “I’m starting to get that.”
“I’m actually a very easy audience,” Kit said. “I just think you should probably ask my sister out to dinner and let her get to know you first before you ask her to spend the rest of her life with you.”
Brandon looked at Nina and smiled. “I’m sorry if I came on too strong.” Nina kept his gaze, found herself smiling back. “I really can be a pretty good dinner companion. Would you consider doing me the honor?” he said.
Kit nodded. “There you go.”
Nina laughed. Even just three minutes ago, she had been ready to turn Brandon down. But now here she was, changing her mind. “OK,” she said. “Sure.”
• • •
Brandon had picked up a tennis racket for the first time at the age of six and had a perfect serve by his seventh birthday. And so his father, Dick, put him on the court every hour he wasn’t in school or sleeping.
His father taught him two things: You always win and you always act like a gentleman. And at the age of twelve, Brandon started training with renowned tennis coach Thomas O’Connell.
Tommy was punishing in his exactitude. There was no almost, there was no good try. There was only perfection or failure. Brandon rose to the challenge, bought into the premise, hook, line, and sinker. Either you win or you are a loser. Brandon became relentless in his pursuit of precision.
He would triumph, always. And he would act like a gentleman, without fail.
Brandon hit the global stage when he made it to the finals of the Australian Open at the age of nineteen, courtesy of his signature slingshot serve, which ESPN was calling “the Snap.”
He went on to win the title. And the very second he won the last point, Brandon did not drop to his knees and raise his racket to the sky. He did not pump his fists in glory. He did not rejoice in any way. He held back a smile, walked to the net, and shook the hand of his opponent, Henri Mullin. The camera, close up, could see him mouth the words “You played beautifully.”
And the media called him “The Sweetheart.”
By the time Brandon turned twenty-five, he had won the U.S. Open, Wimbledon, and the Australian Open, some multiple times. And the sportscasters no longer called him “The Sweetheart.” They called him “BranRan” and they called him a phenom.
But they always kept the camera on him. And people tuned in to see him crush his opponents, as humbly and graciously as any athlete in the history of sports television.
Nina liked that about him. She liked it about him a lot.
“My father always said …” Brandon told her on their first date, sitting at a hole-in-the-wall Mexican restaurant in Santa Monica. “It’s easy to be gracious when you’re winning. So you have no excuse not to be.”
His father had passed away just the year before and Nina admired how eloquently Brandon could talk about him. She found it hard to share anything about her mother without her voice catching.
“And if you lose?” Nina asked.
Brandon shook his head. “You just work harder to make sure you win on the next one. And then you haven’t lost anything at all.”
“And you can stay gracious then, too?” Nina asked.
Brandon laughed. “The cameras zoom right in on me when I lose,” he said. “They’re just waiting for me to slip up. So yes, I stay gracious then, too. But it’s harder, I’ll give you that. But we are talking about me too much. So, the first time you were on a surfboard. Tell me everything.”