Chapter 11: Decisions, Decisions…
Honestly, I would've been surprised if she'd acted any differently than before. I had a feeling she wouldn't allow anyone to tell her how to feel, not even herself. But now that she was sitting right next to me, eyes closed and a quiet yawn leaving her lips, it was damn hard not to keep looking at her.
There was no use denying she was stunning, even in her sleep. And even with her whole attitude. Maybe because of it, too.
Either way, I was moving in dangerous, hot territory, but life seemed to enjoy seeing me burn. Because no matter where I went, she was just there — either in my thoughts, or right in front of me.
"You're a creep." She tentatively opened one eye, glancing over at me.
"And you snore."
"I didn't!" Her eyes flew open instantly. I almost laughed at how hurriedly she sat up straight and turns around to face me. "I did not."
I couldn't help but grin, satisfied by how rattled she seemed. "I'm afraid you did." She did — and it was cute as hell. No need to disclose that information, though.
"Why is it that every time you're around I do something stupid?" she grumbled, the statement making me turn in my seat as well. We were both facing each other now, fully awake and ready to fight.
"I'm sorry, but was it me who made you drink that much last night?"
"No one made me drink that much."
"No one told you about what exactly you were drinking, either." I still wasn't convinced Violet didn't know more than she let on. She knew how these parties went, even though she was fairly new to the business. Lucien told me the odd story about her performance before they joined Formula 1, and I had a feeling she could've helped Florence out instead of juicing her up.
I might've not been able to get close to Florence, but I didn't want her to get intoxicated unwillingly, either. Especially not when someone was there to let her know better.
"Don't worry, that won't happen again." She rolled her eyes, though I didn't miss the faint hint of a blush on her cheeks. I knew she was still staring at me to prove a point, to show off her strength and confidence, but I also knew there was something else beneath all of that.
I wondered what it was.
"That's not what I'm worried about." I held her gaze, somehow challenging not just her but also myself. This was such a bad idea...
"Then what are you—"
"Ladies and Gentlemen, we've just been cleared to land at Bologna Airport. Please make sure your seatbelts are fastened for takedown."
Who knew the pilot would be the one to save me from myself?
For once, luck seemed to be on my side. Because soon the flight attendants started collecting cups and glasses, cleaning up the plane and creating a busy environment that let me hide from Florence's curiosity.
To my surprise, she didn't say much more. Instead, she just kept glancing over at me until we landed, and only when we were allowed to get up did she finally look away.
We made our way out of the aircraft, with Florence right on my heels as I pushed through the crowd. We got held back by Connor, who jumped into my way right as I reached the exit, a nosy glimmer in his eyes as he studied Florence and me. Not that there was anything to see.
"So why were you guys late?" he asked as we walked down the steps and finally reached solid ground.
"Security issues. We got it handled." No need to throw Florence under the bus, right?
"Ah, right." Connor nodded and slowed his walk so he was next to me. "Man, I can't wait to get a few days off. The past weeks have been exhausting."
"Yeah." I responded to be polite, but couldn't help but laugh at his admission. Not only was his attempt to make small-talk miserable, but he also just admitted he actually thought you'd get a day off if you wanted to drive for a team like this. I wasn't surprised, knowing he had a secure spot anyway, with his dad being part of the business.
The issue with those who got a nepotism spot was that they depended on the car. They needed the car more than the car needed them, and that's when things got complicated. Anyone could become a world champion in the fastest car on the grid. It wasn't that hard.
The real challenge was rising with a vehicle that wasn't meant to compete. Finding loop holes, seeing speed where others can't, knowing just how and when and where to take a corner, braking and pushing... It was a lot more complex than it looked on TV, and entailed an intense connection to the car.
It needed to become just another limb on your body, a link between you and the race.
Florence's dad, with all that I judged her for it, was one of those who knew how to bring the best out of a crappy car. He won the title back then with a car that was nowhere near as fast as the others. The strategy just worked beautifully, and he was one of the most skilled drivers on the track, if you asked me.
"What are your plans for the next days, Florence?" Connor's question brought me back to reality.
Initially, I wanted to grab a cab to the hotel. I hated riding the team bus. It smelled, it was slow, and I couldn't really gather my thoughts with everyone chattering about.
But something about the way he looked at Florence made me follow him out of the airport, heading straight for the bus that already waited outside.
"I'm taking a nap and then it's back to the garage," she muttered, pulling the sunglasses down her face.
"Wait, what garage? We just landed. They won't have it set up yet."
"Yeah, exactly." I could basically feel how she rolled her eyes beneath the shades. "It'll be quicker when I help. Plus, I get to learn something."
Connor raised an eyebrow and shook his head, mumbling something under his breath as he got on the team bus. Florence was right behind me, and while Connor took a seat on one of the remaining seats to the right, I sat down to his left, leaving us both with a free spot on the aisle.
Florence stood between us, glancing left and right and then ahead, probably looking for a free spot. The frown on her lips told me she didn't find one, and so her gaze was redirected to the two of us.
"Fucks' sake..." she muttered while sliding into the seat next to me, fingers rubbing her temple. "This is a nightmare."
"Ouch." I couldn't help but laugh at her comment. "You know, you're pretty rude sometimes."
"Me?" She turned around to face me, brow raising beneath her sunglasses. "I think you forget who stormed into my interview, McCoy. And don't forget about when I ran into you afterward. And when you were late for literally your first day of work... I mean, I can go on all day."
Damn. When she put it like that...
Truth was, I knew I wasn't exactly open to her, or anyone, really. I didn't like people in general, and being around so many people judging me for something I did out of personal rage really didn't help matters either. I had no interest in making friends here. Mainly, I was here to salvage my career, my reputation, and basically my life.
I was only late that day because I spent half the night in the simulator and forgot the time. I couldn't tell her that, obviously, since knowing that piece of information would lead her to make assumptions she shouldn't be aware of. Her knowing about my plans was about the worst thing that could happen, and so I took the blame instead of explaining what's going on.
"You know, staying silent is a real boring way of avoiding conflict." She took off her sunglasses and threw them into her messenger bag, completely avoiding me now.
I couldn't help but smirk at her confrontation, watching how she pulled out a book and placed it in her lap before she looked at me. Her green-blue eyes were glassy, and her brows furrowed as she squinted against the light coming in from the window.
Her messy hair kept falling into her face, and I couldn't help but watch her lips as she blew it out of her forehead. Somehow, anything she did sparked this memory of last night, a memory I should get rid of soon. I couldn't go there, even though I definitely wanted to.
"I don't see the conflict here," I finally responded.
"Of course you don't." Her smile was a tad too sweet as she shook her head and turned around, facing the book in her hands now.
I didn't miss the curious glances thrown our way, not just from Connor. Florence was precious cargo, and it was obvious as ever people were interested in her existence, or who she hung out with. Wouldn't be surprised if her dad planted some spies here, too...
And so it seemed like it was for the better that Florence was occupied with her book, not once giving me the light of day as she flipped page after page. I was astounded by her speed, though also not surprised. I had a feeling she worked fast and accurate, at least from what I'd seen so far.
"You're being creepy again," she commented as she closed the book and let it disappear in her bag, only to pull out a notebook with dozens of post-its sticking out of it.
"The book not good enough?" I knew I was avoiding her statement. Truth was, I didn't even realize how long I'd been looking at her until now.
She didn't seem to mind, though. Instead, she heaved a sigh as she unhooked the pen from the spine of the notebook. "It's okay, I guess. I just need to do some work, too."
"What is it?"
"Intern stuff." She flipped open the notebook, revealing pages and pages of written words until she got to one with a piece of paper stuck in between.
I recognized the page she unfolded — it was one Salim gave to me when I got sent on this mission, as well. It held a list of tasks and demands, all of which you should follow up on during your internship. I hadn't even looked at them before I threw it straight out the window, but Florence already compiled a bunch of pages filled with notes.
"You actually do that?" I raised an eyebrow at her, glancing at the notes. It seemed less like an assignment, but more like a diary where she recorded her progress every single day.
"Of course." She shrugged in response, shaking her head as she flipped through page after page until she found an empty one. "I know you can't wrap your head around the fact that I'm here because I worked hard, and not because I carry the last name I have. But for someone hating to be judged, you could really start believing me when I say I take this seriously."
For once, she wasn't angry when she addressed me. She seemed tired, almost like she'd given up on anyone believing her.
"I know you take this seriously." Somehow, I felt for her.
Truth was, I'd never seen anyone take it as seriously as she did. At least not between those who had easier ways into the sport. I didn't miss that she was the first to come and the last to leave, usually. I also didn't miss how she stood up for other mechanics and even tried to work with Connor when she had to, although she seemed to be reluctant to have anything to do with him.
But I also knew she probably took someone else's spot by being who she is. The remaining question was: did she deserve to be here?
Even though my days had a completely different schedule than Florence's, we still ended up running into each other at least twice a day. I didn't know why, but it became harder and harder to keep my distance when I kept seeing her in the garage.
There was just something about watching her work, the blue overalls somehow hugging her figure as she fiddled with the car. I'd never seen that happen before; interns weren't supposed to even touch it, but somehow, Florence ended up right underneath Felipe's car just a few weeks into her internship.
I walked past her, heading for the hotel gym, when I glanced down. She was focusing on something, her eyes narrowed as she bit her lip deep in thought. It almost made me smile, seeing her trying to figure out the puzzle in front of her.
Maybe that's why I almost didn't notice how I slowed my walk, suddenly wanting to see more of her once again. She looked so out of place, almost too beautiful for a place as hectic and dirty and this one. At the same time, it looked like she was right where she belonged; she definitely wasn't afraid to get dirty.
Running an oily hand over her face, she now had yet another dark streak covering her skin as she frustratingly huffed a strand of hair out of her sight.
Fuck. It was sexy as hell.
I had to get out of here...
Deciding there was no use in drooling all over her, I rushed through the garage and straight to the gym, where I spent the rest of the morning.
I tried to let off some steam, to screw my head back on after all the tension. But no matter how much I ran, no matter how many weights I lifted, I had a damn hard time getting her face out of my head.
It was painful to admit, but I misjudged her greatly when I first learned of her name. Yeah, she was still arrogant and stubborn and generally a pain in the ass. But I wasn't quite sure anymore if she was as opportunistic as I made her out to be.
"McCoy!" Salim's voice echoed through the changing room.
Usually, I'd be happy to see him. But today, I couldn't help but roll my eyes at the mere thought of talking to him. The scheming had become exhausting, and I wasn't a fan of talking behind anyone's back. Unfortunately, it was part of this life. Part of my career.
"What's up?" I ran a towel through my hair and threw it around my neck, turning to see Salim standing in the doorway.
"Why do I always have to run after you?" He laughed. "It's been a while since you came to see me."
He wasn't wrong — I stopped checking in with him after he told me about the prospect of a Formula 1 seat. I was still hyped about it, but I also still knew to keep it on a down-low until things progressed.
For now, I had to focus on networking, connecting, training, working in the simulator... I had to up my game to get in there, and I tried my hardest to avoid that damn photoshoot with Connor. Just because I stopped hating his guts, didn't mean I liked him. I mostly pitied him for being his father's son, even if that brought him some advantages in the industry.
"Yeah. Sorry. Been busy."
"Busy with the other interns, I hope." He raised an eyebrow as I ran the towel over my face and then threw it in my duffel bag, getting ready to head out.
"Busy working on my career, yeah."
"Good." He nodded and followed me out into the hallway. "How are things going with Flo and Connor?"
"Fine," I muttered, aiming straight for the elevator.
Salim didn't seem to like my evasive responses, though, because he stepped right in front of my view, putting himself between me and the elevator before I could call it.
"Phoenix." He crossed his arms in front of his chest, looking me straight in the eyes. "What's going on?"
I stared at him for a moment, trying to get a read out of him, figuring out if this was my friend I was talking to, or just someone from Azure Racing trying to make my career.
"Dude, please. You don't do that. You don't just stop talking to me when we're about to score you a driver's spot in the league."
He was right. I couldn't do that. I either wanted this or I didn't.
And fuck, did I want it...
"I know. It's just that I don't like the games and all." I finally leaned over to push the button, letting the number 7 appear on the display right above me. It'd be a while until it got here, then.
"I know you don't." He sighed. "I don't like it either, you know that. Henry is up for that more than any of us..."
"That's why I don't want him involved."
I avoided his gaze, watching the number climb down and down and down.
"You can't avoid him forever. He's your manager, and if you want this, then you need to listen to him. Or us, for that matter."
"I listen to you," I retorted, "and I know I need him. I just despise that I do."
When Salim first referred me to Henry, I was thankful as hell. He was brilliant at what he did, but unfortunately he also worked with gloves off. I got to where I was without having the background simply because he had his ways, because he found loopholes and opportunities for me to use so I could show how hard I worked.
I never cared much about who or what stood in the way as long as he got me in. And so far, he always did.
Difference now was, I was starting to question his methods. No matter how efficient they were.
"I know," Salim answered right as the door behind him slid open.
We stepped inside, and I pressed the button for my floor. Yet another hotel room I had to share with Connor Williams... I wondered when I got lucky enough to find a hotel with a damn spare room when I needed it.
"I know you hate it, Phoenix, but it's necessary. At least if you really want this."
"Of course I want it." I sighed. I didn't work that hard all my life to let this opportunity get away from me now.
"Then show me."
"I already am!" Frustration bubbled to the surface. "Fuck, Salim. You told me to be nice to them - I was. Connor even tries to make smalltalk with me now. Do you know how weird that is?"
He chuckled. "I can only imagine. And how are things with Flo?"
"Good?" I raised an eyebrow at him. "But I don't know how much that will influence Connor, given he asked her out and she flat out rejected him, apparently."
"He didn't!" Salim gasped and threw a hand on his lips, but the grin was still twitching at the corners of his mouth. "Oh, wow. That's... Interesting."
"Yup." I smirked at the reminder. I wished I could've seen his face at that moment. Damn.
"You don't seem to mind, either." Salim grinned, nudging my shoulder.
I rolled my eyes in response, watching the number on the display climb right up to my floor. "Shut up."
The doors opened back up with a ding and I wasted to time getting out of there, heading straight for my room. "You up for drinks later?" Salim called out, holding one hand on the door to keep it open. "Maybe talk some more?"
I opened the room with my keycard, glancing back at Salim for a moment. It'd been a while since I'd been out, but that's because I didn't like it very much. And I didn't know, but something told me to keep my distance, for now. Maybe it was better to do this on my own, follow my own path as much as I could.
Salim shrugged as he let go of the door. "You're boring!" he called out as it closed in front of him.
"And you're confusing the hell out of me..." I muttered as I got into my room, sighing in relief when I realized Connor was nowhere in sight.
At least I got some peace for once.
I got out of my sweaty gym clothes and headed straight for the bathroom, desperately needing a shower. I relaxed the second I stepped inside, the warm water soothing my muscles and nerves as I let it run down my back.
With my palms on the tiles, I let my mind wander, let my thoughts sort through whatever the hell was going on in my brain. But it didn't matter how much I tried to avoid that one particular itch, the spiral sent me right back to it every damn time.
I knew I had to keep my distance if I wanted to stay focused enough to follow my goals, to pursue that one spot that could make my career. Then again, staying close to her meant getting intel on Connor, and on what I needed to know and hear to get financial backup.
Everything within me wanted to either chase right after her or completely erase her out of my life.
One thing was clear: I had to decide, and I had to follow through.
Because the longer I looked at her, the more I wanted her. And it was only a matter of time before I gave in.