Chapter 24: The Princess and The Outcast
“I need to go,” I muttered, trying to catch my breath.
Phoenix grabbed my wrists and held them over my head, pinning me against the wall. “I don’t want you to.” His lips brushed over my neck, and I gasped when he gently grazed his teeth over my skin, sending a whole wave of shivers down my spine.
The roaring engines and whirring wheel guns around us reminded me of the fact that we were hiding behind the most secluded trailer at the paddock, when really we agreed to be careful.
This wasn’t careful. Not at all.
But damn, he felt so good...
We barely saw each other yesterday, with Salim banging on Phoenix’s door at six in the morning. He never told me what that was about, mostly because we didn’t have the time to speak for more than a minute since then.
Only when I’d been walking down the paddock early this morning, taking in the atmosphere on my own, did I realize I already missed him. It’d also been right then and there that a hand grabbed my wrist and pulled me into this corner, where I was now pressed against the hard metal of the Azure Racing container behind me.
I wrapped my fingers around his own, squeezing them hard before I pushed against them and swirled our arms which I then pushed against his back. A grin curled on his lips as our bodies collided with a quiet thud, but he quickly removed one hand to push himself off the wall next to my head.
My hands gripped into the back of his shirt as I glanced up at him, biting my lip to suppress my arousal. “Jin is probably waiting for me, Phoenix. I really need to go...”
From the corner of my eye, I saw shadows and figures pass us, or, well, pass the container we were hiding behind, but Phoenix’s index on my chin made me focus back on him, his stormy green gaze settling on my own.
“Two minutes,” he groaned, studying every inch of my face.
“One,” I bargained.
A smirk curled on his lips. “Fine.” He didn’t even hesitate before he slammed his lips against my own, pushing me harder against the metal behind me. His hand on my chin wandered to my neck, angling me perfectly to deepen the kiss, inviting me in.
My fingers almost cramped from how hard I was gripping into his shirt, holding on to him as he continued his attack on my senses. The thunder in my heart threatened to deafen me when he pulled back, leaning his forehead against my own. I moved one hand from his back to let it roam up his chest, where I felt the same storm that brewed inside me hammering against his ribcage.
Complacency filled my veins when I realized we had the same dangerously potent effect on each other. It was exhilarating as hell, and I felt every nerve ending in my body as he pressed a gentle kiss on my nose, and then on my cheek, and then on my neck...
“Phoenix,” I warned, earning myself another grin. I felt it curl against my skin and suppressed a deep sigh, knowing he’d look smug as hell if he knew just how hard it was for me to get away from him. “Stop.”
With another gentle kiss, he finally leaned back, letting his dark gaze meet my own. The storm in his irises was obvious as ever, but arousal clouded his usually so bright green eyes in a way that made me want to forget about this damn internship and just keep doing what we did. I was addicted, and I didn’t like it.
Well, not really.
Maybe just a little.
“I really need to go now,” I said, and he nodded.
Phoenix frowned a little, causing the smile on my lips to broaden. “Okay... I’ll see you after the race?”
“Yeah.” He studied me intently, though I didn’t know what he was looking for. Only when I squeezed his hand and moved to the side, trying to get away from him before I really changed my mind, did he voice his concerns. “Wait.” He pulled at my hand, letting me stumble back into his chest. “Quick. Kiss me... Please.”
I should be annoyed by the fact that he didn’t respect the one minute I gave him, but for someone as gloomy and mischievous as he was, his plea just warmed my heart.
And so I gave in and pressed a swift kiss on his lips, short and rough. I could tell he wanted to deepen it again, but I pressed his chest, pushing him away from me with a smirk. “Okay. That’s it. I’m going.”
I walked backward, unable to hide the grin on my face when I noticed his disheveled appearance. He looked too good. Fuck.
“You’re not playing fair,” he muttered, running a hand through his hair as I got out into the open.
“Never said I did, blueberry.”
Phoenix grimaced at the nickname I gave to him back in Monaco, but I still caught the way his lips turned into a thin smile right as I shot him a wink and waltzed out of his sight.
He’d really get me in trouble one day. I already knew that.
An hour before the race, Jin made me check the pedal box on the car. The system spotted some disruptions, which ruined the data we collected after each stint. That information was crucial since it told us everything about the car the driver couldn’t know. Aerodynamics, grip, vibrations on the tire... They all played into the success of a team, alongside their driver. If the sensors didn’t work correctly, they couldn’t send the driver out, not without risking missing engine failures or other hazards.
It was crucial we found the culprit before the race.
We took off the front wing and opened up the box before Jin gestured into the now revealed opening. “Go ahead. I’ll go get some wire clippings but will be back in a minute to see what you found.”
I nodded in response, watching my boss — well not technically my boss, but he was the one I looked up to the most — walk away. Shining my flashlight into the hole, I narrowed my eyes to find any loose wires causing the disruptions. It was hard to spot a difference to what I’d seen before the race; they all looked like they did this morning, in my eyes.
“Maybe it’s the angle?” I muttered, glancing at the seat of the car. Some of the other mechanics shot me a weird look, but then shrugged when they realized what I wanted to do.
That was enough confirmation for me, and so I stepped into the car seat itself, giving me a better view of the insides of the box.
Now we’re talking...
“Michael! You can’t be serious.” I rolled my eyes at the sound of Liam’s voice echoing through the garage. He was the last person I needed today... “Him? Of all people? Are you trying to ruin yourself?”
“Drexler, this is none of your business.” Michael’s voice boomed through the area. It was unlike him to raise his voice at someone, but with Liam, I couldn’t even blame him...
“It IS my business!” Liam huffed. “This is my team, too! I’m the marketing head of—”
“Of the Formula 2 team, Drexler.”
I tried my hardest not to listen to them and focus on the task at hand, but even though I thought I found what I was looking for in the box, their conversation still sparked my interest.
“Which my father owns, in case you forgot.” His threat was obvious, and as I glanced up from the car, I realized I wasn’t the only one staring at the pair.
Some of the mechanics cracked their knuckles, others just stared at the idiot standing by the garage exit.
Michael wasn’t just the team principal. He was a fair and kind boss, someone who everyone looked up to and knew they could confide in. Liam Drexler of all people messing with him surely didn’t help his agenda, considering everyone hated him already.
“And I am the principal of this team, in case you forgot, Liam. Threaten me again and I’ll ruin your career faster than those cars speed around the corners here, do you hear me?”
My fingers wrapped around a wire that seemed a little crooked, making sure I got the culprit in my hands before I glanced back up at Michael. His outburst surprised me, but also satisfied my soul.
Liam had it coming for him, either way.
Like he knew I was thinking his name, Drexler’s head whipped around, and his eyes settled straight on me. Rage was rolling off of him, and with the way he held his fists next to his side, I knew he was pissed as hell.
Michael humiliated him in front of the whole team. Of course he wasn’t pleased.
There was something in his gaze that disturbed me, though. Usually, I didn’t care about his shenanigans and the idiotic words that left his mouth, but the way he kept staring at me made me uneasy.
“Can I help you, Drexler?” I couldn’t help but snarl.
His eyebrows raised, but he didn’t say a word as he continued to gape at me, watching how I shifted so I could face him as best as I could while still having my hand down the box. But the longer he looked at me, the more I noticed how something switched within him, and I felt his eyes travel up and down my whole body before he retorted with a sly smile on his lips, “Nope. I’m perfect.”
“Then stop fucking staring at me.”
Michael’s surprised glance stopped me from saying more, and so I bit my tongue as I watched him escort Liam Drexler out of the garage. The asshole turned around once more though, letting his devious stare linger on me for a moment too long.
I was so close to getting out of the damn car and slapping that condescending look off his face. Really. So close.
Jin’s presence brought me back to reality, his concerned features now appearing in my sight. “Flo, you okay?”
I cleared my throat, glancing at the wires still wedged between my fingers. “Yeah. Sorry. He just...”
“He’s Liam Drexler,” Jin finished my sentence.
A laugh fled my lips and I nodded, taking a deep breath.
Back to business.
“Well, anyway... I found this.” I pointed at the wires between my fingers that were still stuck in the box. “I think they were loose, or at least they looked a little weird. That’s what my instinct said, at least.”
The pride in Jin’s gaze made my heart soar, and I felt myself grinning when he glanced at the culprit in my hands. “Well, Florence, your instincts were right. Seems like you just saved a Formula 1 car.”
“Hey, Connor.” I plopped down on the bench opposite him, sipping on my cinnamon iced chocolate. The race was over, and even though we didn’t win, Felipe brought us ten valuable points by finishing fifth. Lucien went into the wall and crashed his car, but luckily didn’t hurt himself. He just apologized profusely, knowing that this wouldn’t help his career in any way. We were in the middle of the season, which meant drivers’ seats were switched around, contracts closed and opened in all teams.
Dad always said the driver negotiations were like a game of chess. You had to expect that the person you were talking to had ulterior motives, many more than you’d ever thought possible. The business was known for its ruthlessness, but I was sure there was so much more going on. So much more that none of all those innocent bystanders would even dream of, given that the sport worked hard to keep its shiny image.
“Hi,” Connor finally replied, his stare without focus. The beer in its hand seemed stale, which was something you rarely saw in the bars Azure Racing hosted their employees at.
“Are you okay?” I asked, noticing how tired he looked in the dim light hanging above our booth.
He shrugged, finally meeting my gaze. His eyes seemed lost, like he just snapped out of a very hard dissociation spell. “I guess.”
“That’s not a very good answer,” I quipped, trying to lighten the mood.
“Yeah, well, apparently I’m not a very good driver.”
My eyes widened. “What?” I swallowed hard, remembering Michael’s question the other day.
I gave my objective opinion — well, as objective as it could be —, and stated that I knew Phoenix had more experience than Connor. I made sure not to play favorites, though, given I really didn’t know much about either of their skills.
“The team won’t have me as a driver. They already made their choice,” he finally admitted.
Did that mean Phoenix got the seat?
Fuck. This was messy...
“Oh...” I focused back on the boy in front of me. “I’m sorry, Connor.” It wasn’t even a lie. He wasn’t my friend, really, but still. I could tell he changed over the course of the past weeks, trying to prove his worth. “Do you have other options?”
He nodded, shooting me a thin smile. “They said I could have their Formula 2 seat.”
That meant Phoenix’s seat was gone for real now. Unless it was his teammate who left...
“Well, congratulations!” I managed a grin, holding my glass of chocolate out to him. “That’s great news, right?”
We clinked glasses, and his smile broadened slightly. “Thank you. Yeah, I guess.” He took a long gulp of his beer. “Dad didn’t seem to think so, though...”
My brows furrowed in confusion, but Connor elaborated without needing me to ask him.
“You’re my son, you need to carry on my legacy. What use are you if you can’t even do that?” he mocked the sound of his father’s voice.
“He did not say that.” I gasped.
Connor chuckled humorlessly, taking another large sip of his beer. “Of course he did. You know him.” He shrugged, back to staring out into nothing.
“I’m sorry, Connor. You don’t deserve that.”
“That’s not what he said,” he scoffed. “I’m starting to understand why Mom left him all those years ago.”
Even through the rock music playing in the background, I felt the silence that lingered between the two of us, and suddenly I realized... I never really thought of Connor’s side of the story. Yeah, he was an idiot, and he wasn’t innocent with the stunts he pulled in the past.
But he was Sebastian Williams’ son. I knew how much carrying a name like that could pressure you, and I knew for a fact that his father wasn’t as supportive as my dad was.
Neither me nor my brother ever felt obliged to be part of the sport. Both Mom and Dad made sure we were free to live our lives the way we wanted, at least as well as we could. Of course, we’d get the odd stare or two, but living in a town as small as ours meant people had gotten used to Dad and his legacy. We were just the Nyx kids, mostly.
Of course, things went differently in school, but even then, Dad always tried to protect us. We even carried Mom’s maiden name a few times.
“I’m sorry, Connor.” Suddenly, I felt for the boy in front of me. He was just that: A boy looking for his dad’s approval. Any other guy his age would flip at the chance at a Formula 2 seat this early, but Connor had other expectations to meet.
He shook his head. “I really don’t want your pity, Florence.”
“I’m not pitying you,” I replied, leaning forward. His gaze found my own, and my heart ached at the disappointment written in his irises. I figured it was the disappointment his dad laid upon him. “But you should really put some distance between him and yourself. Protect your peace.”
“What peace?” He laughed. “There’s no doing right with him. And it’s not like I had a choice; I’m nothing without him.”
“That’s not true, and you know that. We’re more than the names we hold.”
His eyes narrowed and he studied me for a moment, obviously trying to read me before he finished the rest of his beer. “That’s easy for you to say. You have so much control over your career. You know what you’re doing, you’re smart as hell, and people actually like you. Why do you think my dad made me ask you to go out with me?”
I swallowed. Oh.
Fuck. And I was so mean to him...
“Really?” My eyes widened.
“Really, Florence. No offense, but I wouldn’t have done that otherwise. You’re not exactly... Uh... My type.”
It took a moment for the information to sink in. “Oh...” I smiled. “And your dad didn’t care about that?”
His laugh almost startled me, and he shook his head as he sat up straight, bracing his elbows on the table. “You don’t think I’d tell him, right? He’d lose his shit. There’s no way I’d get his support if he found out.”
Damn. How didn’t I know about all of that?
I was starting to feel for Connor, more than I ever thought I could. He was a dickhead with some weird world views, but in the end he was also just misunderstood and underappreciated.
“You shouldn’t have to hide yourself.”
“Neither should you,” he said with a smirk. I was glad he was lightening up, though I had no idea what he was talking about.
“Oh, come on.” Connor laughed. “You don’t think you can hide what’s going on between Phoenix and you, right?”
My heart stopped.
Oh God. Please. No.
“Don’t worry.” He shot me a smile and squeezed my hand on the table. “I won’t tell anyone. Not that I needed to, considering a blind man with a stick can see the tension between the two of you.”
Heat rushed into my cheeks, and I buried my face in my hands, shaking my head. “Oh, please don’t tell me they know.”
“Wow. I didn’t think I’d ever see you blush,” Connor quipped. I removed my hands from my face, glaring at him until he continued, “But no. I don’t think they ′know’ know. They just suspect, probably, considering he’s always watching you like a hawk. And vice versa, by the way.”
“I’m not watching him!” I protest.
“Sure. Tell yourself that.”
I threw a napkin at his face, but Connor caught it with a laugh. It was weird being this playful with him, considering I usually wanted to roll my eyes at every word he said. At least I could brighten his mood a bit, even if it was at my own sanity’s expense...
God, what the hell should I do? Phoenix would probably lose his shit when he found out that Connor knew.
“Why do you even want to hide it? I know he’s not the poster boy of boyfriends, but I mean...”
“He’s not my boyfriend,” I chimed in. He wasn’t. Not really, at least. “And it’s not that. I don’t care what people think about me, or him. It’s just so I spare my dad the headlines. He doesn’t like being in the spotlight, so I just don’t want to raise attention when I’ll be gone in two weeks, anyway.”
And I wanted to give him a last season that focused on him, not me.
“Well... Just be careful, then.” Connor smiled. “You’re not exactly subtle. If you continue like this, it’s only a matter of time before it makes the tabloids.”
I sighed, but nodded. He was right. We needed to change our approach. No more messing around at the paddock — that was too dangerous, obviously.
Slipping my phone out of my pocket, I decided to text Phoenix, just so we could discuss this further. If we didn’t have the time to talk, then we had to find it.
But as I unlocked my phone, I realized I had about a dozen missed calls from Amara, my mother, and Rafael. My brows furrowed when I opened the messenger app and read Amara’s spam of messages.
FLO! PICK UP THE PHONE!
Have you watched the news recently????
Check your fucking phone you dimwit!
Oh my God are you with him right now? Hell yeah, go get it!
What the hell...
EARTH TO FLO!!!
Just look at this and call me as soon as you read it!
Beneath the last message she attached a link, which I clicked on with a pounding heart. The page opened, and my eyes widened when I saw the name of one of America’s biggest papers at the top, reading a headline in bold, big letters:
A race for love? The princess and the outcast are getting cozy at the paddock!
My heart stopped when I noticed the picture added. It showed Phoenix and me at the paddock this morning, with me holding onto him and looking up while he caged me against the trailer.
No. No. No.
This wasn’t happening...