Chapter 13: Confrontation
After spending every morning of the week in the simulator, Michael requested a meeting with me. A personal talk with the team principal could only mean two things: I was either getting fired, or he had other plans for me. And since I have given my best to be on exceptional behavior lately, I didn't see any reason they'd want to fire me.
Well, apart from the fact they technically already did, but that was Formula 2, and it wasn't Michael who kicked me off.
"So, Michael will see you on Monday, the day after the race." Salim slapped my shoulder as we stepped through the security check and into the paddock.
After a quick glance at the cloudy sky, I looked over to him. "Has he told you what it's about?"
"Nope. Just that he's interested in getting to know you better."
I nodded subconsciously, ignoring the hundreds of people rushing by as we aimed for our offices. "Do you think I need to get my lawyer involved?"
Salim shook his head. "Don't think so. Even if — and that's a very big if — he offers you some sort of promise for the spot next season... It'd take ages to set up a contract. Negotiations usually go on for a few weeks or months."
It's not that I didn't know that. Even my Formula 2 contract took ages to finalize, with details and arrangements needing to be set in place.
"Yeah, you're right." A sigh fled my lips as we finally reached the Azure Racing garage, the bright blue A indicating we're at our destination. The distinct smell of cotton candy made me scrunch my nose, the hairs on my neck standing up as we walked through the back offices and through the entryway into the garage.
The sugary scent only got worse, and before I knew it, Salim had his hand on my elbow and stopped in his tracks. "Phoenix..."
I wouldn't even have known what was going on if he hadn't said anything, but the anxious tone of his voice made me glance around the garage, looking for the cause of his panic.
It didn't take long to spot the culprit, his sleek blond hair almost reflecting the sunlight with the amount of gel it had in it.
"Phoenix, don't do anything stupid now. Breathe."
I didn't even hear Salim anymore, really. I could only look at the smug asshole at the other end of the garage, a vape pen in his hands as he was pointing at something on a computer screen.
The way he took another drag of his pen and then puffed out a cloud of smoke made me want to smack the damn thing off his hands, but something kept me cemented in place. It might've been Salim, or maybe the fact that Michael was just entering the room. The look on his face might as well have been a bright neon warning sign, daring me to stay the fuck away from any trouble today.
"Salim, what the fuck is he doing here?" I asked through gritted teeth, my hands balled into fists as I subconsciously took a step forward.
"I— I don't know, honestly." He dug into my elbow, probably not trusting my ability to keep it together now. Which, honestly, wasn't uncalled for at all. I was this close to losing just from seeing that damn idiot and his vape pen. "But you got to keep it together, Phoenix. You know why."
"Yeah, because I want to punch his ugly ass face," I muttered, opening and closing my hands into fists to try and somehow relieve the tension, to no avail.
Liam said something and then laughed out loud like the idiot he is, probably celebrating himself for some dumb joke he made. He'd always thought he was the funniest guy on earth, when in reality he was nothing but a weasel, trying to coerce others into liking him.
It obviously didn't work.
Salim cleared his throat and tugged at my arm, trying to pull me back into the offices as he whispered, "Come on, Phoenix, let's—"
"Oh, look who it is!" Liam's voice traveled through the garage, a grin on his lips as he waved me over, the smugness visible on every inch of his dumb face. "Phoenix McCoy! The fallen one."
My body acted on its own when I moved forward, instantly ready to finish the same damn conversation this fucker and I had a few weeks ago. "Liam Drexler, the child. Out of your diapers yet?"
He furrowed his brows and took a step back while I took another one forward, and I bathed in the fear that trembled in his eyes suddenly, his smug attitude toning down a notch now that I was closer to him.
I saw how Salim talked to Connor from the corner of my eye; not that I gave a shit about what he had to say about this. As much as I disliked Williams, he was nowhere near the level of hatred I felt for Liam.
"What are you doing?" He cleared his throat as I got closer, now just a couple of feet away from him. Some mechanics and engineers appeared by our side as I stared him down, trying to find a single reason not to throw my fist in his baby face.
Just looking at him threw me back to that moment, to the things he said, the shit he insinuated by opening his damn mouth. He deserved far more than what I gave to him. That much was clear.
"What do you think I'm doing, asshole?"
I was just a few inches away from him now, his wide eyes glistening with uncertainty as he swallowed deeply. "You... You think you can threaten me."
"Damn..." His response would've made me laugh if he wasn't such a dickhead. A dickhead who'd spread false information at the cost of other people's reputation. "You really haven't learned, have you?" I felt about half a dozen hands on my arms, trying to stop me from stepping further, not that there was much space left between this dick and me.
"And you haven't learned that I know a lot of people. People who want to listen to what I have to say..." he responded with a hint of a grin. Of course he thought he had the upper hand again, simply from opening his mouth.
My fingers twitched at his thinly veiled threat, and I didn't even notice how I inched closer to him, having me look down at this excuse of a man as he bumped into the wall behind him. "Do it." I dared him. My rage was greater than the fear of what would happen if he actually spread his false news further. "Do it, Liam. Do it if you think you can handle the repercussions of your actions." By now I was only seeing red, and all I wanted was to feel his face against my knuckles again.
"Phoenix." Florence's demanding voice rang out in the garage, but as much as I wanted to investigate what exactly she was doing here, I didn't turn around. This wasn't her business.
Liam thought it was, though, and his gaze soon fell on the girl I now felt walking up to me, her ebow gently meeting my side.
"Phoenix. Let's go. We got work to do," she spoke again, her tone more urgent now.
We didn't have work to do. I was very sure of that.
"Yeah, Phoenix, go." Liam cautiously grinned at me, his gaze flicking from Florence to me and back. Something about the look in his eyes made my veins burn with rage, and it became harder and harder to actually hold myself back. "Listen to her."
He was mocking me.
This guy was really asking for it...
Florence suddenly stepped in front of me, her tall frame now pressed between the two of us. I could only stare at her as she looked down at Liam, his eyes wide when he tilted his head back to meet her glance. "Go vape in the corner, Drexler. You're disturbing the workflow."
"You can't tell me what to—"
"Dude. Just shut up, will you? No one gives a shit," Florence snarled and turned around, her face now only inches from mine. "And you, come with me." She took my hand and pulled with a force I didn't expect from her, which ended with me getting dragged out of the garage before I could comprehend what was going on. Engines were revving around us, announcing the start of the Qualifying session I suddenly had no interest in.
Neither did Florence, apparently. She sped past the offices without saying a word, her hand tightly holding on to mine.
"Stop!" I groaned when she was still dragging me through the paddock and onto one of the hills behind it, not once looking back at me.
"I'll stop when you get your shit together," she quipped and let go of me, leaving the two of us at the other side of the hill, away from the curious glances of employees or the crowd itself.
Her green blue eyes sparkled with rage when she turned around, a furious red color creeping into her cheeks when she crossed her arms in front of her chest. "Mind telling me what that was about?"
"No, actually, I don't," I retorted, mirroring her stance.
"Of course not." She scoffed with a shake of her head. "Why would you? It's not like you almost lost the last chance you had in this business, right?"
My eyes widened. Where the hell was that coming from?
"What are you talking about?"
"God, Phoenix, I'm not stupid." She almost yelled at me, fury now seeping off of her in violent waves. "I know he's the guy who got you fired. I don't know what happened that day, but do you think they'd give you a shred of a chance if you hit him again now?"
Of course she was right. I knew that half an hour ago, too. I just couldn't keep my cool with this guy.
"Then what were you thinking?!" I could tell she had a hard time keeping her voice down, her wild gesticulations made up for the volume she didn't want to exert. "You're risking your fucking job! Do you even want it?"
"What?! Of course I do!" She was infuriating me again.
I couldn't understand why people were doubting me about that. I've worked hard all my life to get here, and yet it seemed like all that anyone else saw was the guy who lost his temper once. Well, or maybe almost twice.
Florence sighed as she ran a hand through her dark hair, combing it back to the messy bun on her head. "Then act like it. Right now you look like a delinquent throwing a tantrum."
Damn. She was not messing around.
We stared at each other for a minute, but the longer I looked at her, the more I realized she wasn't exactly wrong.
"Wow. You really are rude..." I couldn't stop the sudden laugh from my lips and was glad when she joined in, releasing some of the tension as she shook her head.
"And you're an idiot." She chuckled while lowering herself on the hill and patted the spot next to her, a thin smile on her lips. "Come on. Let's take a breath."
For some reason, I listened to her and sat down on the damp grass, leaning back on my elbows. It was perfect racing weather; cloudy but not too cold, sunny but not too hot, with maybe a little rain waiting on the horizon...
God, I missed it.
We sat in silence for a moment and I glanced over at Florence, who had her eyes closed and breathed in a rhythm that was almost meditative. She looked unreal in the dim sunlight, the clouds only allowing thin rays to break through the sky.
"You can breathe with me," she said, glancing over with one eye open.
"Breathe with you?"
"Yeah." She closed her eyes again and faced the sky. "Breathe in through the nose for four seconds, hold it for seven, and breathe out through the mouth for eight."
I watched how her chest rose and fell with each breath; The way her body relaxed after a few minutes astounded me.
"What's that supposed to do?" I couldn't deny I was curious about her now.
"It lowers your heart rate in stressful situations." A smile spread on her lips as she inhaled again. "I'd say it's perfect for when you find yourself in a situation where you want to punch a vaping idiot in the face."
I laughed out loud at her explanation, earning myself a grin from her as she opened her eyes again. "What? It's true!" she exclaimed.
"I believe you," I quipped, "For some reason."
"The reason is that I'm smart."
"And full of yourself."
"Oh, absolutely full of myself," she retorted with a chuckle. "But also pretty damn smart."
I didn't doubt that for a second. We might not have been the best of friends, but I could tell she knew what she was talking about. That was an advantage to many others in this business, one she had no issue showing off to those around her.
"If you say so."
She rolled her eyes at my response and then closed them again, directing her blind gaze at the clouds. I couldn't help but watch how she just sat there, dark hair slowly loosening from the tie she'd wrapped around it. It only took a few more movements before it slipped down onto the grass, letting her long hair fall over her shoulders. She leaned back a bit, craning her neck and moving left and right to let her hair dance behind her, catching different colors with different angles.
It's always been hard to look away from her, but today it proved to be extraordinarily difficult. Even her subtlest move hypnotized me, calmed my raging heart. Maybe, in the end, it wasn't the breathing techniques I needed to get my shit together...
Maybe it was her.
"Will you tell me what he did?" she asked softly, startling me out of my thoughts.
Her eyes fluttered open before she turned around, and my heart picked up a beat or two when she looked at me with an intensity that seeped straight into my bones. Every inch of her was calm, but I could see that familiar fire raging in her green-blue eyes when she continued to stare at me, challenging me in the softest of ways.
"He spread lies." I didn't know why I was telling her that. I really didn't.
I was walking on thin ice here, and I knew I had to be careful about what I shared with her... But at the same time, I just wanted her to stop looking at me like I was some rogue asshole who couldn't get his act together.
I wanted her to see me.
"A few months ago..." Damn. Was I really telling her all of this? "A few months ago my mother got into a relationship with Sebastian Williams."
Well, guess I was.
Her eyes widened for a split second, but she stayed surprisingly calm as she nodded her head, silently urging me to continue.
"Well, as you might have noticed, I'm not a big fan of the family." The smirk on her lips told me she understood what I was saying. "That wasn't the issue, though. The issue was that Liam Drexler likes to stick his nose into things that don't concern him. As soon as he found out about my mom's relationship, he started running his mouth to get rid of me. It started with the occasional jab about how I'd be Williams's second son, and that I arranged this to get me into Formula 1..."
I sighed at the reminder of that time. Being accused of working with the one man you hate the most was enraging.
"That sounds stupid as hell," she said with a raised brow.
"Yeah. You've met him, though. So..."
"So I shouldn't be surprised he talks dumb shit."
"Exactly." I shot her a quick smile. "Well, unfortunately, Liam Drexler doesn't know when to stop. So, that one fateful day I arrived at the team meeting, and the second I walked in there I knew he had spread some stupid lies again. People were looking at me like someone died, only that I didn't know it yet. It didn't take long to figure out what he'd told people, though."
Taking a deep breath, I remembered exactly how smug he'd looked when he spread the lies he fabricated so foolishly. He really was proud of himself...
"Liam said Sebastian paid my mom to be with him, and that she..." I didn't even want to say the words out loud. "That she wouldn't look past sexual favors to secure my career."
Florence's jaw dropped. "Oh my... Wow. That's... Fuck. That's low." Her eyes widened with every second that passed, and I could see her jaw clench as she seemed to mull it over. "That's disgusting. I'm so sorry."
"It's not your fault. I just... I lost my shit."
I could feel her eyes on me, a sympathetic gaze lingering beneath them that made me swallow deeply. "Understandably so."
The way she looked at me made me stop for a moment, and I didn't even realize what I was saying as I continued, "My mom raised me on her own, you know. It's just unfair to everything she's done."
Why was I telling her all of that again?
"It's unfair because people believed it," Florence added.
Ah. That's why.
"They wouldn't have done that if she'd been a man..." She continued. "People like to assume a lot about a woman. Especially one associated with a famous male figure."
I never thought of it that way. I saw how people reacted to Florence and her work, and even though I knew many already realized she had a hell of a lot of talent, I was also aware of those who were sure she was just here because her father secured her job. Why else would a woman be here?
"I'm sorry." It was the only thing I knew to say.
"I am too." She smiled and squeezed my hand. "He deserves worse than what he got, you know. Karma will get him sooner or later."
"His dad owns part of Azure Racing's Formula 2 team, so I'm not too sure about that..."
Florence laughed and shook her head. "Of course he does..." Her gaze met mine again, and she intertwined our fingers on the wet grass, making a silent promise I knew I could trust. "Still. He'll get what he deserves. Trust me."
And even though I had no idea why, there was only one thing I could say to her.
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