Chapter 16: The Gamble
I was trying to keep my distance. I really was.
But that proved to be hard when Florence stayed at the same hotel with her family, always threatening to bump right into me. I’d watched them a few times over the course of last week, while I was trying to sort my mind. They’d seemed like a happy family; pretty standard, almost. If it weren’t for the fact that half the family were race drivers, and that the other half was energetic enough to fill up a room with their aura, you would’ve thought they were just the typical family next door.
Florence, weirdly enough, fit right into that. Even though she was neither standard nor the girl next door. She was vibrant, exhilarating, and so damn present that it was hard not to notice her wherever she went.
Her not seeming to shy away from a challenge also didn’t help matters. Because that stubborn and fiery attitude, combined with her incessant need to be the best at whatever she did, surely amounted to an entire arsenal of skills I wasn’t yet aware of.
“Ugh…” Florence’s groan followed by a quiet yawn made me glance to my right, where she occupied the window seat she fought pretty hard for. She insisted,she wanted to watch the landscape during the ride. That I specifically chose the window seat when we booked the tickets didn’t matter, for whatever reason.
It all ended in an argument that entertained too many people for my liking, and so I gave in, knowing she’d probably enjoy it way more than I could, anyway.
Or at least I thought so, given her eyes fell shut the second the train left the station.
“Tired?” I asked, shifting in my seat to watch her properly.
“You have no idea.” She cuddled against the glass, squishing her scarf into a makeshift-pillow which then got wedged between her temple and the windowpane.
Seeing her like this was confusing, because as electric and stormy as she usually was, right now her entire being emanated calm and warmth. The way the evening sun kissed her skin, even beneath the hoodie she’d been wearing the whole ride, portrayed her in a gentle light that made it so much harder to breathe evenly.
“I think I do,” I whispered, keeping in mind that I lost a lot of sleep just thinking about this damn woman over the past days.
“Fine, smartass…” I could practically see how she rolled her eyes beneath her lids. “Just let me sleep, even if I snore.”
“You mean when you snore.”
Her eyes flew open and she glared at me, though I recognized the amusement glimmering in her irises. She regarded me for a moment, hidden suspicion now evolving into flat-out admission. “I think I liked you more when you said less.”
“Didn’t think you’d liked me, to begin with.”
Florence blinked a few times, her green-blue eyes dancing a whole waltz of emotions until she gave in, and a proper smirk curled onto her lips. “Damn.” She laughed. “No need to be smug about it, McCoy.”
Sitting up straight, I couldn’t help but grin at the faint hint of a blush on her cheeks. “Wouldn’t be too sure about that,” I responded. There was a lot to be smug about here, that much was clear.
“Of course.” She rolled her eyes again, though the smirk still played on her lips when she leaned back against the window, pulling the hood over her eyes. “Wake me when we’re there… Please.”
I almost snorted at how she forced that please out at the end, but simply nodded in response. “I will. Sleep well.”
And that she did. The next few hours she spent napping against that window, quietly snoring from time to time. I couldn’t say I minded, really — I just loved watching her exist, somehow. It gave me a break from the unsolvable labyrinth of thoughts in my head.
With every minute she spent next to me, I trotted through undiscovered paths of my mind, stumbled upon new directions and ideas.
But the longer I watched her, the more I wondered what exactly I was doing here, befriending a girl who would mean nothing but trouble for me. There was no way in hell that this, whatever it was, would end well. And yet I couldn’t find a bone in my body that’d help me out of this mess.
Not that I wanted to.
“Next stop: Torino Porta Susa.” The announcement echoed through the train.
Damn. That was one stop before the one we had to get off.
“Florence…” I nudged her shoulder. “Flo. We’ll be there soon.”
She groaned and rubbed her eyes before glancing out of the window right as we came to a halt. “What? Here?” Her eyes widened as she tried to get out of her seat, but I put a hand on her shoulder, pushing her back down.
“No, no. In ten minutes or so. It’s the next stop.”
“Oh…” She glanced around the train, slowly taking in her surroundings. “Damn. I really fell asleep there.”
I nodded. “You did.”
Her gaze met my own, and I got the feeling she was still half-asleep, her glassy eyes just slowly turning alive. With a clearing of her throat, she glanced back out of the window again, running both hands over her face and through her hair.
The motion let the hood she’d been wearing the entire ride fall off, and my eyes widened while I watched her shake her head. Short, dark strands fell into her face as she turned to face me, eyes now zealous as ever.
“You cut your hair,” I muttered, unable to sort my thoughts.
Her dark curls now descended on her shoulders and ended there, missing what must’ve been at least six inches of hair that usually descended right on her back.
I was speechless.
Somehow, this new look made her more mature, more alive. Her green blue-eyes intensified, almost as if something distracted from her potential beauty before, not that I’d thought it could even get any more irresistible than what I already knew.
“Yeah.” She ran a hand through her hair, combing it over to the other side. I had to swallow from how chaotic and wild she looked; like a tamed animal that was ready to defy the wilderness. “It’s not exactly perfect, but it works.”
“It does,” I mumbled, still having a hard time looking away from her. Only when she raised an eyebrow at me did I realize I must’ve been staring at her head for a minute too long, and I quickly averted my gaze to meet her own. “I mean, uh… You look… beautiful.”
Wow. When did I become a stammering idiot?
Her laugh distracted me from that indignity, but then I froze completely when she put her hand on mine and gave it a quick squeeze. “Thanks.”
I would never get used to how nonchalantly she touched me, as if she wasn’t erupting an entire downpour of emotions with the simplest of contacts.
“Next stop: Torino Porta Nuova.”
“Oh, that’s us!” Florence announced, pulling at my hand. “Come on, you ready?”
The smile on her lips was contagious, and I didn’t even try to stop her excitement from transferring right into me.
Maybe it was her infectious nature, or maybe just the fact that she’d uprooted my beliefs and principles every damn day with the things she said and did, but I realized I was in deep, irreversible trouble.
I was nowhere near ready for Florence Nyx. Probably never would be.
But that’s the thing about life, wasn’t it? It didn’t prepare you for the greatest challenges of your life. You just had to come to terms with what would be your new reality, and do all you could to make it work.
So that’s what I was going to do.
“Yeah. I’m ready.”
Let’s face reality.
The days we spent at the factory together had been turbulent. Luckily, I spent most of my time in the simulator, while Florence did her workshop for hours on end. I didn’t know how I would’ve coped if she’d been around me all the time, given that she usually distracted me from whatever I was doing by just being there.
In the end, we mostly saw each other for breakfast and dinner, where we talked a bit, but never really that much. I learned that Florence Nyx wasn’t a person who liked to hear herself or others talk. Instead, she observed and read context clues in social situations, while she asked her heart out at work.
She was as curious as they came, and so I was thoroughly surprised when she didn’t ask about what happened last week. I had no interest in sharing the events of that disastrous few days, but I’d expected her to be more persistent about knowing more, since that’s seemingly all she was focusing on during her internship.
The worst thing was that her curiosity was contagious, and soon I asked questions myself, trying to figure out who she was at the core of her being.
My ringtone sounding through the room made me focus back on reality, and I paused the simulator, which looked exactly like the inside of a Formula 1 car with a simulated racetrack right in front of me. I unbuckled from my seat to lean over, grabbing my phone from the side table.
God, I had no nerves for my manager now. But I also knew it was crucial I talked to him, given that Michael made it clear in our talk on Monday that I had to find sponsors if I wanted the spot next season. He didn’t tell me who’d give up their seat for me, but just made sure I knew I needed to bring money into the team if I wanted their car.
“Henry.” I picked up the phone and leaned back in the racing seat.
“Phoenix. Listen.” His demanding tone made me roll my eyes, but I stayed silent. That was better than calling him names he’d deserve, probably. “That watch company we talked about, the one that wants the photoshoot with Williams… They sent out the contracts. I just got ours, so I’m betting Connor somehow agreed to the damn thing without telling you.”
I sat up in my seat. “What? Why? When?”
“This morning. That means you got another sponsor behind you, Phoenix. That’s good news. Now it’s just up to you to get that tech firm behind you as well. It’s crucial to secure your spot.”
I knew I should’ve been jumping from happiness right now, but somehow, I didn’t. The pressure felt great enough to swallow me whole, and the last thing I wanted was to lose that one big chance because I couldn’t get my act together.
“What do the others want?” I asked, remembering that folder Salim had handed to me. The specifics of those demands were a faint memory, even though some have been etched in my brain.
“Well, you know the biggest one… It would be great if you could—”
“No.” I intervened immediately, knowing Henry’s thought process. “I won’t do that. Already said that to Salim.”
“Phoenix.” Henry sighed. “There’s no need to be a samaritan when a multi-million dollar company could save your ass.”
“I don’t care,” I retorted, suddenly growing impatient with the man at the other end of the line. “I won’t do that. Just give me something else. Think of something. That’s part of your job, isn’t it?”
He went silent for a moment. I knew I was playing with fire, or at least sailing toward it, but there was no way in hell I’d suck up to demands like the ones I’d seen earlier this season.
“Well, if you don’t want to go that route, then at least go for the light version. Just surround yourself with people… With her, preferably. Show you’re able to have friends. People think you’re the lone wolf — that’s less attractive than you think it is.”
I knew he was right, and yet it was so, so hard to follow the correct path.
Glancing at the steering wheel right in front of me, I let my fingers wander over the buttons, sensing every inch of this miraculous piece of plastic.
This was my dream, and it became harder and harder to actually pursue it.
A few weeks ago, I had no issues when Salim told me I’d have to use Florence’s presence to get to Connor, given I didn’t even know her back then. She seemed like the typical rich girl using daddy’s name to get whatever she wanted. By now, I came to realize that she did anything but that, and there was a lot more behind her famous facade than people would’ve thought.
“I’m not using her,” I stated. “Just to be clear. That won’t happen.”
Henry chuckled down the line, and I could almost see his smug-ass face when he chimed in, “Never said you’d have to. Salim said the two of you became friends, which is good. Just don’t shy away from a camera when you see one. Part of getting sponsor offers is being open for ads, which you don’t seem to be at the moment.”
“Yeah, because I don’t want to sell myself…”
“Do you have a million dollars up your sleeve?” Henry interrupted me, but I could only respond with silence. He knew I didn’t, which was the sole reason I hired him. “Yeah, I thought so. Which means if you really want this, then you have to stop acting like a broody kid and start working for your career. You knew this would be part of it.”
Again, he wasn’t wrong. I knew what I was getting into when I decided to follow the Formula 1 path at a rather young age. I knew it wouldn’t be easy, especially given my mom wasn’t exactly rich, unlike most other drivers’ parents were. They warned me early on that the industry is dirty, I just underestimated how much.
“I’ll figure something out.” I finally gave in with a sigh. “Just let me know if anything develops.”
And as we hung up, I couldn’t help but stare at my phone for another long moment. It became more and more clear to me that I had to change my approach if I wanted to get anywhere.
The question was, how far was I willing to go?
The week flew by like a blur, and soon I found myself in one of the most expensive hotels I’d probably ever stay at. Red and white ornaments graced the terrace, and the tables were set with luxurious silverware. We just finished the Thursday Practice session and I was trying hard to relax for a moment, enjoying a late lunch at one of the most famous racetracks in the world.
It wouldn’t take long to realize that Monaco, as prestigious and romanticized as it was, didn’t offer any relaxation.
“So, how was your holiday?” Connor asked, slipping into the chair opposite to me. His purple polo shirt stuck out against the crowd of blue uniforms, but somehow still seemed so accurately him, that I couldn’t even complain about it.
“Relaxing,” I replied with a smile, taking a bite of my croissant. It was hard not to be happy when you ate food as delicious as it was in Monte Carlo, and yet I longed for something else.
Something tall, dark, and broody.
Ugh. Shut up, Flo.
“Same.” He nodded and stirred the coffee in his hands. “I went to the Algarve coast, by the way.”
His admission made me laugh out loud, and I raised my hands in defeat. Definitely didn’t expect that. “Wow. And how was that?”
“Pretty… And I hate to say it, but it was as close to the Maldives as you can get.” A guilty smirk spread on his lips before he leaned back on his chair and munched on his sandwich.
“Told you so.”
“Yeah, yeah.” He rolled his eyes at me, though I could tell he was more amused than anything. “So you just stayed in Italy?”
“Who stayed in Italy?” Felipe asked as he slipped into the chair to my left, followed by his physiotherapist, who just shot us all a quick smile.
I always knew drivers and their trainers had a close relationship, but with Felipe, the connection was even more obvious than with others. The two seemed inseparable at times, and you barely saw either of them without the other.
“I did. My family and best friend came to visit. Imola is a beautiful city, so I can only recommend staying there a little longer next time.”
“Might just do that,” Felipe retorted with a wink. I wasn’t surprised he knew how to enjoy the good times in life, given his generally sunny behavior.
We spent lunch with playful chatter, and it didn’t take long until the table filled with all sorts of people. Mechanics, engineers, analysts… They all gathered around and shared their thoughts.
And even though I enjoyed my time with the team, getting to know them even better and having a glimpse into their brilliant minds, I couldn’t help but glance around the area a few times. I knew what — who — I was looking for, and that I just shouldn’t, but it was hard.
Phoenix and I spent every free minute together the past few days, and as much as I hated to say it… I was starting to look forward to seeing him.
Because as stubborn and dark as he was, I had the feeling he understood me, somehow.
“Pssst…” Felipe kicked me under the table and nodded to my right, but I didn’t even have time to turn around before a tall shadow cast upon me.
Phoenix squeezed himself between me and the person next to me, putting a plate on the spot to my right. He grabbed a chair from an empty table behind us and nudged it against my own, signaling me to move to make space for him.
You could’ve heard a pin drop with how quiet it got suddenly, not that I expected anything else. Phoenix rarely sat with anyone, much less Connor and a bunch of other people. This was revolutionary, in a way.
And so I moved to the side, giving Phoenix the room to squeeze in next to me and take a seat. We shared a long look, but he quickly averted his gaze to face the rest of the table. “You can stop staring now,” he said, focusing back on his food.
I wanted to laugh at his dismissive behavior, but decided to swallow my amusement with a smirk.
“Well, anyway,” Richard, one of the race engineers, jumpstarted the conversation. “What I wanted to say was that we should be hoping for rain. Our car has so much more traction this year, so we could…”
But I wasn’t even listening anymore. I knew I should’ve, just to soak up all the information I could get, but my gaze fell on something far more interesting. Phoenix studied the muesli in front of him, his brows furrowing when he stirred it cautiously.
“You can stop staring too, you know,” he muttered, glancing over at me. His gaze was amused but wary, and I felt the sudden urge to just be alone with him. I wanted to know what happened beneath his dark facade, to figure out what made him the way he was.
I’ve been holding myself back over the past days. If it went my way, he would’ve just straight up told me what his issue was and how I could fix it, but Phoenix was a bit more complicated than that. His entire being was a gamble; one I was becoming addicted to.
“Are you okay?” I whispered, inching closer to him.
He didn’t reply immediately, which answered enough for me to know he wasn’t. The fight with himself was struggling in his irises, and I just knew he had something on his mind.
“Yeah,” Phoenix said and averted his gaze.
It was a lie, obviously.
But this wasn’t the time or place to get into it.
And so I decided to let it go, at least for today. I still hadn’t figured out what happened last week, but I knew I would. Patience was key, and for now it was great to see him socializing.
Now I just had to find the right way to help him, if he let me.
I fought hard to stop myself from doing it, but lost the battle and ended up reaching beneath the table, where my fingers found his own. His head shot up and he stared at me for a moment, his gaze intense and questioning.
It was enough to let my heart thrum in my chest, but it started pounding when he finally interlaced our fingers and gave my hand a squeeze. Both of us inhaled deeply, but the smile that finally danced on his lips took my breath away in an instant.
I’d already known Phoenix would mean trouble, and that surviving this internship with him so close to me couldn’t end well.
But it didn’t feel like I had a choice. Fate brought us closer again and again, so maybe it was time to stop fighting, and to start facing the storm.
After all, that’s what I did best.