Chapter 23: Lost and Found
“Sunflower!” Dad wrapped his arm around my shoulders, a bright grin on his lips. “How are you feeling today?”
“I’m perfect. What about you?”
“Just brilliant. I love the Germans.” He laughed, pointing at Michael who peeked through the fence of the track, facing the crowd that gathered for the Friday Practice session.
The audience cheered upon his presence, and he threw his hands up and down, encouraging them to embrace the wave. Most of them went with it, and soon the cheers erupted around us as Michael threw his hands in the air, applauding the crowd he just animated.
A laugh fled my lips as Dad and I leaned against the wall next to my garage. “He’s such a dork.”
“I’d say he’s just German,” he quipped back.
“Jeremiah!” Michael grinned as he turned around, spotting the two of us just a few feet away. “And Miss Nyx. Good to see you! We haven’t talked in a while.”
It was hard to hear him through the cheers in the background, but his thick accent stood out through it all. He really was a walking, talking stereotype.
“True!” I called out over the noise. Connor and I did our work for that internship summary Salim asked for, and he seemed to have been content enough when we handed it to him yesterday. He said this was not something Michael would look at, but I still feared his judgment more than anything.
He was the boss, after all. No matter how dorky he was... He could make or break my career.
“Actually, do you have a minute?” he asked, and my eyes widened.
“Yes. Of course.” I glanced up at Dad, who shot me one of those ‘Don’t worry because you’ll ace it anyway!’ glances. “I’ll see after the session?”
We needed time to tell Mom about his retirement. Dad even prepared a helmet that said Goodbye on it to wear for his last race, which wasn’t for another six weeks. The others would only see it at the end of the season, but Mom would get a glimpse of it today.
Also, I’d have enough time before dinner with Phoenix, which was also something that had me on edge today. I didn’t like feeling that way.
Or did I?
“I’ll pick you up at four.” He nodded and pressed a kiss on my head, then disappeared into his garage.
Michael nodded toward the pit exit and I followed suit, hands in my overall where I scratched off the dirt on my nails. It was time to start wearing black nail polish with the amount of shit I got in them.
“Flo,” I interrupted him with a smile. My given name was reserved for those who weren’t close to me. Or Phoenix, who enjoyed calling me by my full name for whatever reason...
“Flo, of course. You know that means flea in German, right?” He laughed, and I shook my head. Did not know that. Did not want to know that, either. “Anyway, so, what do you think of the internship so far?”
So far was funny, considering it’d already been five and a half weeks. Time flew at the paddock, much like it did on track. No wonder Dad had never tired of it.
“I love it,” I replied truthfully. “I’ve never learned so much in my life. Jin is an outstanding teacher and the entire team is amazing, really.”
He nodded, his lips twitching up into a proud smile. “That’s good. I’m glad! You know, we always strive to make the team comfortable but focused. It’s a hard balance sometimes and requires some odd persons here and there to keep the guys grounded.”
Something told me he was referring to one particular odd person, probably with an e-cigarette in his hands, who was public enemy number one. At least he gave the team something to bond over...
“Yeah, I can only imagine. You’ve done a great job, though.”
His brown-silver hair glimmered in the sunlight as he faced me. “Thank you. That really means a lot.”
Not knowing what else to say, I nodded and refocused on the gate we walked through, heading for the background paddock area. It was located right behind the garage and only accessible for VIP visitors or the staff, since that was also where most teams parked their trailers. The larger teams had trailers as big as our house back home, which was where the engineers analyzed and worked on strategies for the weekend.
“And what about the other interns?” Michael glanced over as we walked through the less crowded area. “How are they holding up?”
I narrowed my eyes at him, trying to understand what was going through his mind. He didn’t budge, though, and instead held a firm smile on his lips.
“You mean Connor and Phoenix?”
“Yeah. Do you like them?”
Did he know?
No. He couldn’t have. Could he? Shit.
We’d been careful. Although, well, not too careful, in the end. Phoenix ended up knocking on my door most nights, and we spent the time talking instead of catching up on sleep, as we should’ve.
Damn. I wasn’t usually that irresponsible...
“I just mean,” Michael joins back in, “Do you think they’re fit to drive?”
Not what I’d expected.
I got a moment to think when he stopped at a coffee cart and bought both of us a cup, not bothering to ask which one I wanted. He just handed me a black coffee, like it was the most normal thing in the world.
I took a sip of the hot liquid, scrunching my nose from the lack of almond milk and cinnamon in it, before I looked back over at him. “Can I be honest with you?”
“Of course. That’s what I expect.” He shot me a smile, and even though I knew he kind of had to say that, I believed him. The work ethics in his team was based on trust and transparency.
Clearing my throat, I glanced up at him. “I think I’m the wrong person to ask. I haven’t seen either of them drive, and even if I did, I wouldn’t be the right person to judge their abilities. You should ask Jin about that. His knowledge is infinite, I think.”
Michael smirked at that revelation and took a sip of his coffee, waiting a moment before he addressed me again. “Yeah, you’re right. Jin has great potential, I know that... But this is not exactly about their driving abilities. I mean, Salim and the others already gave me their feedback about the boys, but I’m looking for some info from someone who’s close to them. Both of them seem to like you, and Salim said you three actually became something like friends.”
Huh. I must’ve missed that memo.
Maybe Sebastian Williams stole it before it got to me. Hah.
“What I’m saying is....” Michael chimed back in, “Do you think they’re mature enough to race?”
What the hell was I supposed to say?
“Phoenix!” Michael greeted me with a wide smile. He’d always been in a good mood, but the German definitely toned it up a notch the second he entered his home country. “Good to see you. Come on in.”
I took a seat in the free chair he was pointing at. A weird feeling settled in my gut when I heard the news that my team principal wanted to talk to me today, on Friday after the practice session, instead of on Sunday, as we agreed on. “Hi, Michael. How are you?”
“Great. Just great.” He closed the door of his office — no idea if that’s a good sign or what — and took a seat behind his desk, his hands folded together on top of it. “What about you? I know this is an unconventional way for you to explore the Formula 1 world, but you know... Drastic times call for drastic measures. That’s how that saying goes, right?”
I didn’t miss the insinuation behind his message; My behavior put me into this situation, and now it had to dig me out of it, too.
“It is.” I smiled in response, but didn’t say much more.
“Well?” He raised an eyebrow at me, waving his hands around. “Tell me. How is it?”
Something about the way he spoke to me told me he wasn’t addressing Flo and me, which was my initial thought when he invited me in. If he’d done that, I honestly wouldn’t know what I’d said. Probably would’ve denied it. I might’ve even gotten through with that, considering I’m a better liar than Florence.
Oh, god. I hope he didn’t talk to her.
“It’s good.” I finally got back to reality. “I mean, I learn a lot. The people are nice.” That’s what he wanted to hear, right? “And it’s honestly exciting to see what happens behind the scenes, outside of the cockpit...” This wasn’t even a lie. I thought I’d be bored by the stuff we had to do during these eight weeks, but I ended up enjoying myself much more than I thought I would.
Not sure if it was Florence’s influence, or just the fact that her part of the business was also interesting as hell, but I even ended up taking notes sometimes.
Should’ve seen the look on her face when she watched me doing it. Like a proud momma bear.
“That’s good to hear.” He nodded, his eyes boring straight into my skull. There was something about the look on his face that made me uneasy, though I couldn’t tell what it was. It was unusual for a man as kind as him, but also showed he must’ve had a lot on his mind.
“I don’t mean to be rude, Michael, but was there a reason for you calling me here?”
A smile played on his lips as he leaned back in his chair, finger intertwined on top of his lap.
“Yes. I think it’s time we start talking business, Phoenix.”
I was still in a trance by the time I got back to my hotel room.
Slipping out of my clothes, I stepped into the shower and let the cold water hit my skin while I took a deep breath.
“Fuck...” A sigh fled my lips as I braced my hands against the tiles, the stream now flowing down my back.
He offered me the seat.
Lucien’s seat, to be exact.
Apparently, Michael was in talks with another team principal who had a free spot for next season. That team was smaller than ours, and since Lucien’s work didn’t seem to have been enough for Azure Racing, he got downgraded.
At least he got a seat. That was what mattered.
Mine was tied to the success of that one damn sponsor. I’d have to talk to Henry this weekend to figure out his plans and what he needed me to do. Now that my success was so close to my reach, there was nothing that could stop me.
Nothing at all.
I still remembered my dinner date with Florence, though. The timing wasn’t the greatest, considering I couldn’t tell her about this turn of events yet. She’d see it in two weeks anyway, since Lucien wouldn’t be there over the weekend. Michael had agreed to let me do the practice sessions, and if those went well, maybe, just maybe, I could drive the entire weekend. Race and all.
I was so damn excited.
Excited enough to call my mom, even. She didn’t respond, but I left her a message saying she should call me back tomorrow since I wanted the evening with Florence to be undisturbed.
Exhilaration cursed through my veins as I knocked on her door. With everything going on, I was absolutely overwhelmed; The fear of her questions today and also of what she’d have to say, as well as the good but secret news I got today, it all piled up to a mountain of emotions I had to sort through.
And I had no idea how to do it.
The door opened, and in my sight appeared a version of Florence that wasn’t much different from what I usually saw, and yet she was even more beautiful than I thought possible.
She wore her dark boots, grey ripped jeans, and a black long-sleeve that oh so perfectly hugged her figure. Her hair was open and wild, with natural, chaotic curls that framed her now smiling face. “Hey,” she said.
Fuck. I wanted to kiss her so badly. Yet another fuckload of emotions to add onto the pile.
We stared at each other for a moment. Did we really need to go out? I had a lot more on my mind than talking right now...
“I’ll just get my purse and then we can leave...” She turned around, reaching for a small black backpack, which she then strapped over her shoulders. “Alright, let’s go.”
She approached me, but I still didn’t move, somehow losing my focus when I spotted her black fingernails. “You painted your nails,” I stated.
Great. I was turning into the brainless idiot again.
“Yeah.” She shrugged and brushed past me, closing the door on her way out. “Now, let’s go. We can take the stairs, it’s less crowded and will lead us to the back entrance.”
Why did she always seem so put together? It was frustrating, considering every fucking time I laid my eyes on her, my common sense went out the window.
I followed her to the stairwell which was located at the end of the hallway, and the second the heavy steel door fell shut behind us, my hand found her own. She glanced up at me from the one step she took but didn’t stop walking, and so I took a large stride forward, placing my other hand on her lower back.
A quiet gasp left her lips as our bodies collided, but her dark eyes looking up at me told me she didn’t mind my interruption.
I studied her face for a long moment, bathing in the way her breathing picked up by now. “Do you have any idea how fucking stunning you are?” I almost groaned at the sight of her, especially when she bit her lip with a nod.
Of course she did.
It was infuriating.
She was infuriating.
“You’re beautiful, too,” she replied softly, walking back up the step to meet me at eye-level. I loved that she was tall enough to stand a chance next to me, with her mouth in the perfect position for me to kiss her senseless.
It was all I wanted to do.
How did she compose herself all the time? I had no idea. She must’ve been a witch or something. There was no other explanation to how she carried herself day in, day out.
“Thanks,” I muttered. How did you even respond to something like that? “But I think you missed the point here.”
“The point being?” She raised an eyebrow at me.
“The point being that you’re driving me fucking insane looking like that, Florence.”
I bathed in the silence that fell around us afterward, and especially in the way her cheeks filled with color as she opened her mouth but then closed it again.
“Stop smirking,” she finally whispered and cleared her throat.
My smirk broadened. “No.”
Our gaze locked for a long moment, and my lips twitched up even more when I felt her eyes on them. I wasn’t the only one who couldn’t stop thinking about it, then.
“You’re insufferable.” She rolled her eyes, but her heated gaze landed straight on mine again.
“So, you wanna leave?”
“Good.” I pressed a quick kiss on her cheek. “Let’s go, then.”
“And then I got to help them take out the engine. The engine, Phoenix!” Florence waved the fry in her hands around, trying to emphasize her point. “The fucking engine!” She threw the fry in her mouth, and I watched how she picked up another one, dipping it into the sour cream in front of her. “I mean, I feel bad for Lucien because he was the one with the power failure, but man... I’m glad I got to see that while I’m here.” She munched on the next fry.
I couldn’t help but laugh at her behavior; it was a little unlike her, and yet so very much her that I had a hard time focusing. Florence wasn’t bubbly, and she didn’t talk a whole lot, but the more time we spent together, the more she shared about the things she saw in the garage. Her obvious passion for the one thing I lived for made her even more alluring, and with every story she shared, I felt more and more drawn to her.
Not that she hadn’t stolen my sanity already.
“I’m glad you had a good day.” I shot her a smile, grabbing a sweet potato fry from my plate.
I was looking for a traditional German tavern that was far enough away for us to have some privacy, but the one we found didn’t have potato salad. Florence was sad for a minute, but when she spotted the vegetarian schnitzel on the menu, she actually squealed. Another thing that I didn’t expect to come out of her mouth.
“Oh, I think I saw you with your dad this morning?” I remembered spotting them at the paddock when I made my way to Michael.
She got quiet for a moment, even stopped chewing before she took a sip of her ginger ale. Her not saying anything told me there was something she didn’t want to talk about, and I honestly didn’t know what to think of that.
Not that I had any right to say shit, given I held my fair share of secrets, too.
“Um, yeah. We just talked a bit.”
I raised an eyebrow at her. God, I was starting to think she’d need to take lying lessons if she wanted to make it an environment as hostile as Formula 1. She had everything else; the strength, the attitude, the confidence... She just needed to either learn how to avoid a lie, or how to tell it.
“Fine,” she mumbled, obviously noticing I didn’t believe her. “I want to tell you. But you need to promise not to say anything to anyone. And I mean, promise-promise.”
I nodded, surprised that she’d trust me so much. “Promise. Promise-promise, of course.”
“I mean it, Phoenix. If this comes out, I’ll lose my shit.”
Damn. She wasn’t kidding. “I promise, Florence Nyx, that I will keep your secret.” That was something I knew how to do, at least...
She looked at me for a long moment, eyes narrowed until she took a deep breath. “My dad is retiring.”
That explained a lot. With him being gone, there’d open up a spot. I wondered if that’s where Lucien was going to go...
“So, we called Mom today to let her know. That’s why we were together.”
I nodded, but couldn’t exactly read what she was thinking. “And how do you feel about his retirement?”
“Well, I don’t know. I’m sad,” she admitted. “But also super stoked because I saw Mom’s face and man, she was so, so happy.” Her brows furrowed when she threw another fry in her mouth. “But also I feel bad for feeling sad. There’s a lot to feel at the moment.” She laughed and glanced over at me, studying me intently. “What do you think of it?”
I blinked a few times. “What do I think of it?”
“Yeah.” She swallowed the fry and leaned back in her chair. “I mean. You must have an opinion about it too, right? Just, like, as a driver.”
“Does it matter what I think?” I questioned, thoroughly confused why she was asking me this.
“Well, yeah. Your opinion matters to me. That’s how communication works.” She chuckled. “You tell someone about something that matters to you and then listen to their opinion. It helps to get other perspectives.”
Huh. Who would’ve thought she’d end up teaching me shit.
I mean, I did, considering this isn’t the first time she taught me a thing or two. Florence was smart, and her social intelligence was way up there, especially compared to mine.
“He’s an amazing driver,” I finally responded. “I think the sport will miss him, as will the whole racing world. But if he thinks it’s time to leave, then that’s his decision, too. We all know what this career asks of a driver...” I swallowed hard, trying not to let the conversation steer into a topic I couldn’t discuss with her.
“Yeah, we do...” She cleared her throat. “Thank you for saying that, though. It means a lot to know Dad’s efforts weren’t in vain.”
Florence had once said she barely saw her dad in person when she was younger, and as someone whose dad left while my mom was still pregnant, I could only imagine what that was like. Mom was always there, every step of the way. She was all I had, and there was no one else I could miss since I never knew what it was like to have a father, in the end. It never occurred to me I needed one, either.
“He’s a world champion...” I reached for her hand that lay on the table and she instantly intertwined her fingers, looking up at me. The sincerity in her eyes would’ve knocked me off my feet if I hadn’t been seated already. “I’m pretty sure the world appreciates his sacrifices. There’s a reason his name has so much meaning to it.”
The smile on her lips was genuine, and she went quiet for a second before she said, “Did you know Nyx was the goddess of the night?”
“Wow.” I couldn’t control the laugh from my lips. “No, I didn’t. I’m not surprised, though...”
Of course her last name would portray her so beautifully. With her dark attitude and energetic aura, I wouldn’t have been surprised if she were the damn goddess herself, ruling the night.
“Yeah. She was also the daughter of Chaos.” A grin spread on her lips as she let her fingers dance on my palm. “Mom never liked that. That’s how the name Florence Lucia found its way onto my passport. The blooming light was supposed to even out the darkness.”
Latin wasn’t my forte, and yet I couldn’t help but appreciate the explanation. She really was the best of both worlds: Strong, fierce, and loyal, but energetic and bright enough to take all of us on.
Fuck. I had to talk to her.
“Thank you,” she suddenly said, squeezing my hand. “For taking me out here, I mean. I enjoy it. Makes me feel a little more... normal.” Her eyes glimmered in content, and my heart broke a little.
Shit. How could I ruin her night like that now?
Tomorrow. I’d tell her tomorrow. She needed to know, but she also deserved some time off. I’d seen how much she’d worked and how exhausted she was by the end of the night, even though she acted like she had no issue talking until dawn.
“Thank you for joining me,” I responded, swallowing hard. “I’m glad you’re here.”
The smile on her lips was contagious, even though my heart still felt heavy from the mountain of secrets it carried.
A small part of me just wanted to take her hand and take her away from this toxic environment, from the secrets I already knew would come back to haunt me.
The other part, and that part was much, much greater, wanted her by my side while I raced my heart out, while I continued to chase my dreams. I wanted her in the stands, or hell, even in that damn garage, and have her cheer me on like she was winning it all with me.
I just wanted her, through and through.
Resistance was futile...
“Look!” Florence nudged my side as we left the restaurant and walked down the dimly lit street. With her finger pointed at the other side of the road, she exclaimed, “Let’s go!”
I barely had the time to register what she was aiming for before I spotted the playground she was pulling me toward, a large nest-like swing right at the entrance.
She jumped into the swing and pulled me with her, never letting go of my hand. I didn’t even want to go in it, but the damn thing kicked me in the knees and so I buckled over, falling straight onto the large, round surface.
“Rude,” I muttered.
“Shut up,” she said, pointing at the sky. “Look. Even the stars say I’m not rude at all.”
“The stars talk to you?”
“Hell yeah. Goddess of the night, remember?” A proud grin curled onto her perfect lips as she glanced over. The moon must’ve been drawn to her, too, its energy putting her in the most celestial spotlight I’d ever seen.
She was so beautiful, my heart ached.
“I’m also the daughter of Chaos,” she whispered, her hand still holding onto my own between our bodies as she moved to her side. “That must be why I’m here right now.”
“Must be,” I agreed, otherwise speechless. No more words were left in my brain.
All I could do was stare at her in the moonlight, and she did the same. We hadn’t kissed each other tonight yet, and I was starting to regret that.
I wanted her lips on mine; I wanted my hands in her hair, but more than anything I just wanted to feel her warmth again. Her mother was right when she gave her that middle name — she really illuminated my world.
“Do you want to tell me about your mother?” she whispered, her palm resting on my cheek.
I didn’t particularly want to, but I promised. And with all the secrets I’d been keeping, it couldn’t hurt to let some of them out, at least.
“What do you want to know?”
“Did you talk to her?”
“Have you guys made up?”
A smile spread across her lips. “That’s good...” Then her eyes narrowed, and she ran her thumb between my brows as she asked, “... right?”
“Then why do I get the feeling you’re not thrilled about it?”
I moved her hand from my face and gave her knuckles a kiss. “It’s unfair when you read me like that, you know.”
“And I had the feeling you were the only one I couldn’t read...” She sighed with a crooked smirk.
Was that an accomplishment? I didn’t think so.
“You’re doing pretty well, don’t worry.” I chuckled lowly. “It’s just... She’s still with him, you know. He still lives at our house.”
The sympathy in her eyes seeped straight into mine when she squeezed my hand, nodding. “I understand. You love her, but don’t support her decisions.”
It wasn’t just that. I was thoroughly convinced Sebastian Williams had an agenda. Why would a multi millionaire move into the house of a kindergarten teacher?
He must’ve had enough money to buy himself and his son a dozen villas, and yet he chose my very own house. The one we bought from my first Formula 2 payment. It wasn’t much, but enough to set her up so she wouldn’t have to pay rent for the rets of her life, and I loved every fucking inch of that damn thing.
“Yeah. I’m just glad I can talk to her again.”
“And that’s coming from someone who barely talks,” she lightened up the mood.
Grateful for the change of atmosphere, I spun around to climb on top, keeping my weight off of her with my hands next to her head. “I do talk.”
Who was I kidding? I hated talking, but it was easy with her.
“You do.” She grinned and ran a hand through my hair. I closed my eyes, enjoying that moment probably a second too long. Something about the motion warmed my heart, though. Just like she did.
“Thank you,” I blurted out.
With her hands still raking through my hair, I had a hard time keeping my eyes open when she asked, “For what?”
“I don’t know.” I really didn’t.
“You don’t know?”
Shaking my head, I could only stare back at the woman beneath me. My back was blocking the moonlight, and so it was just the intensity in her eyes that pulled me into her spell. It was enough to let me lose myself in it, either way.
“I didn’t mind listening to you, if that’s what was on your mind,” she said. “After all, that’s what you do when you like someone.”
I let that information sink in.
“So you like me.”
Rolling her eyes, she pulled her hand out of my hair and placed it on her chest. “You already knew that... Dickhead.”
“Rude. But yeah, I guess.” I searched her gaze, and through all the playful chatter, I still recognized a hint of vulnerability. She was strong, but she wasn’t invincible. No one was in the end.
“You know what’d be rude? Having a girl lying beneath you who tells you she likes you, and then not saying it back if you mean it. That’d be really rude.”
My eyes widened, even though I should’ve known she wouldn’t beat around the bush. It was time I stopped underestimating her.
“I don’t like you.”
“Ah, that explains it.” She rolled her eyes again.
“No, Florence. I don’t like you.” My thumb and index moved to her chin, tipping it so she looked at me properly. “I like friends, not that I have that many... But we’re not friends.”
Our gazes met again, and I had a hard time figuring out what to do with the fire in her eyes when she asked, “Then what are we?”
Well, that was the million dollar question, wasn’t it?
It was hard to find the right answer to that; her wild existence messed with my brain more than I liked. She had too much influence, too much power for me to handle, but that was exactly what drew me to her. There was no reason for her to mince her words around me, and she surely didn’t hold back when her passion came up.
But all of that didn’t tell me what my goal was with her. I wanted her, yes. But was a relationship between us realistic?
“I don’t know,” I finally conceded with a sigh.
Her gaze was so intense, I could tell she was thinking hard herself. She bit the corner of her bottom lip and furrowed her brows, just as she always did when she faced an unsolvable puzzle in the garage. It made me want to run my thumb over her lip and pull it back out, just so I could plant my own right onto them.
“Do we need to know what we are?”
She surprised the hell out of me with that question. If there was one thing I knew about Florence, it’s that she was prepared as all hell, and she didn’t do half-assed things. Maybe I was wrong?
“I mean, look...” She wiggled beneath me, but I placed my hand on her neck, keeping her in place. I didn’t like it when she moved away from me. “It’s two and a half more weeks of internship. We both know you’ll end up in a racecar by the beginning of next season, whichever one it’ll be. I’ll go to Yale next semester. We really don’t have that many choices — but we can take the next two weeks to figure out what we want? There’s a lot to consider, after all, with this going as fast as it is, too.”
My mind takes its time to process that proposition. What I wanted most was to just spend time with her, no matter how, where, and when. Labels would only complicate things anyway, especially since I didn’t like them to begin with.
“Do you like being with me?” she asked, regaining my attention.
“Much more than I should,” I admitted in a whisper.
Her hand slipped back into my hair, and she used her grip to pull me closer to her, barely letting our lips touch. “Good. Then let’s keep doing what we’re doing.”
“And what exactly are we doing?”
“Well...” She batted her eyelashes at me, a sly grin curling on her lips when she breathed, “I believe a few minutes ago you wanted to kiss me. That’s one thing I do know how to tell with you, you know?”
A chuckle rumbled through my throat as I closed the distance between us, kissing the corner of her mouth. “That’s not that hard to figure out, really...” My lips traced along her lips, letting her feel my words, “It’s all I want to do the second I lay eyes on you, after all.”
And as our lips touched that second, I knew I’d just signed my death sentence. Because I could feel her pulse thunder against my fingertips on her neck, and with every beat her heart sent through her veins, I felt my soul merge with her own.
I was lost — or maybe I’d found myself; I wasn’t sure. All I knew was there was only one place I wanted to be: Right by her side.