Chasing Lights

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Chapter 30: An Abundance of Storms

Florence

“Flor...” My mother’s voice seeped into my consciousness, but I groaned internally. “Lucia, por favor... You need to get some sleep.”

“I am sleeping...” I mumbled and pulled the blanket over my head, trying to get comfortable in the hospital’s lounge chair.

“No, you need to go home. Your father will be released later and I’m here to look after him until then,” she whispered, stroking Dad’s hair. The rising sun shone gently into the room, but even through the dim lights I recognized the worried expression on my mother’s face.

I slowly got up from my chair and shuffled over to her, wrapping one arm around her waist. “Mamma, you don’t have to do everything. I’m here.”

She’d been a rock through all of this, taking it all on the chin. I’d tried to help her the best I could; by allowing her to get rest whenever Dad didn’t need her, didn’t need us. My mother and I had one thing in common, though.

We were strong as hell and loyal to the bone.

As expected, Mom shook her head and glanced at me, her eyes tired but determined. “It is my responsibility to take care of you, hija, not the other way around. You need to prepare for your move.”

It’d been two weeks since Dad’s accident, and even though my entire family had spent their days and nights at the hospital, my mother insisted I still went to university, followed my dreams.

She didn’t know I’d already decided not to go. She’d have my head the second she heard about it, but I didn’t care.

My family needed me, and I’d be there. End of story.

“Let’s not talk about that now. Do we have everything ready for tomorrow?” I asked, hinting at the renovations that needed to be done to make the house wheelchair accessible.

The good news was, Dad was still alive and breathing, and he was slowly getting back to his usual self, making stupid comments and throwing inappropriate Dad jokes into the conversation.

The bad news was, he couldn’t walk. He injured his spinal cord during the accident, leaving him mostly paralyzed from the waist down. His arm was broken as well, but that seemed like a simple scratch compared to the changes we’d have to implement in our life now.

What mattered was that he was still there, and that Mom survived along with him.

I’d never been a fan of Jesus or any other higher power, but my mother had insisted I’d pray with her, and I did. Not for me or for Dad, but for her. It calmed her thinking someone would help her husband when it all seemed so hopeless in the beginning.

I envied her for finding strength in something so simple as a prayer, or the belief in God. My sarcastic and overly rational mind couldn’t accept that our lives were guided by some strange bearded guy in the clouds, but I was glad she had that salvation.

“Oh, now that you mention it...” Mom furrowed her brows as she dug into her purse and fished out a notebook, skimming through the pages. Just like me, she scribbled down everything she needed to know, had to do, or wanted to research. “We still have to install that ramp in the garage and the front door... Do you think you—”

“Consider it done, ma.” I pressed a kiss on her cheek, but she turned and wrapped me in a hug, not saying a word. She didn’t need to; I could feel it through her embrace.

She didn’t want me to be strong, but knew I had no other choice.

“Te quiero, hija,” she muttered, taking a deep breath.

“Al sol y de vuelta, mamma.”

To the sun and back.

It was our family motto, one Dad implemented when our first sunflowers started to bloom.

“The sun is 390 times further away from the earth than the moon, and still it travels all this way to nourish us every single day. If that’s not a token of love, then I don’t know what is.”

He was right. And I’d do everything in my power to keep our family together, to be the sun they needed me to be.

***

Rolling up to our house, I couldn’t help but groan at the entourage of paparazzi lining up the street to our driveway, none of them breaking the law because, technically, they weren’t on our property.

Yeah, of fucking course.

Flashing lights made me squint my eyes as I dialed myself into our driveway, letting the gate open and close right behind me. For once, I was glad about the tinted windows my brother insisted on all those years ago, even though I’d never seen the point in them.

Now I did.

I parked in the garage and waited until the door shut behind me before I took a deep breath, leaning my head against the steering wheel. My heart ached as I just sat there, letting this situation dawn on me.

The burden on my shoulders became almost unbearable, and I followed my breathing techniques, trying my hardest to find solace in my own abilities.

Moments like these were rare lately, and I wanted to keep it that way. Being alone or focusing on my thoughts only confused me, stirred up the tornado of pain in my chest.

It was unusual for me; I’d loved being alone, needed the time to actively process my thoughts. I’d actively asked for it as a kid, always hiding in the safe space of the swing set in our backyard. But right now, as a grown ass adult, all I wanted was for someone to numb my mind, to dull the aching heart in my chest.

It was no use, though, and so I did what I did best.

I got to work.

After taking a shower and changing into my all too familiar blue overalls, I grabbed the first ramp from the garage and leaned it against the steps, making sure I angled it the right way before I grabbed the electric drill.

My phone vibrated in my pocket as I set up the screws, and I instantly fished it out with two fingers, sighing at the sight of the notification. I’d expected my mother to call, telling me when she’d be home with Dad.

Instead, my heart tumbled from the name on my screen.

Phoenix.

The pain in my chest was still too raw to not get emotional, the mere thought of this man still disarming me in the worst of ways. It’d only been two weeks, but he’d been blowing up my phone every fucking day of it.

I hadn’t bothered responding, and after the first few days, he’d stopped his continuous pleas. All that remained was one message every night.

Please hear me out. I miss you. xx Blueberry

Every single night, I fought myself. It was hard not to call him, not to let him hold me in his arms when I so desperately wanted him to.

But this was about more than just me or him. This was about my family, and so I stuck to my resolution as firmly as I could.

His message this morning was unusual, and so I read the text over and over, furrowing my brows the more I took in his words.

One chance, Flo. That’s all I’m asking. Don’t run from me... from us.

“I’m not running...” I muttered, shoving the phone back in my pocket. The mere audacity of his text made me want to reply to him, challenge him as we usually did... but I didn’t. I knew better than to fall for his taunt, to let myself be thrown into this cyclone of games and secrets.

Yes, I was aware we needed to talk. But right now, I had other things to take care of.

Like this fucking ramp.

It took me ages to get the damn thing set up, the drill always giving up on the concrete halfway through. I finally made it, though, and continued the flow, aiming straight for the front door.

Paparazzi were still piling up at the gate, and I shook my head from the distance, suddenly glad as hell to be living in a house with a driveway as long as this. I wondered if Dad had thought of that when he’d moved us here after his first title.

A raindrop fell on my cheek, and I glanced up at the sky, watching how dark clouds lingered on the horizon. The shivers running down my spine told me a storm was coming, and as much as I loved the sunlight, I couldn’t help but smile at the prospect of thunder and rain in the safety of our home.

With appreciation curling on my lips, I set everything up at the steps, carrying the heavy ramp toward the entrance. My attention refocused when I heard one of the assholes from the gate holler, “You need some help with that, baby girl?”

The entire crowd fell silent, wide eyes directed at the blond man now grinning at me through the bars.

Don’t fall for it, Flo. Don’t fall for it, Flo.

“Come on, I can teach you how to use heavy machinery better than your lowlife boyfriend can!” He wiggled his eyebrows at me.

For fuck’s sake.

I didn’t think much, the fire in my veins already burned as I marched down the driveway. The blond guy smirked broadly, knowing he was successful in his attempt to rile me up.

The rest of the paparazzi already had their cameras up, ready to film me doing what they wanted me to: lose control.

“Listen here you fucking—”

The deafening sound of a crash interrupted my outburst, and I widened my eyes before glancing out of the gate.

“Oh god!” One photographer gasped. “Is that?”

“It is!” The other one yelled, pointing at something down the street.

I fished out my phone, opening our security app and clicking at the camera aimed down the street. It revealed a sleek red Ferrari at the corner, its nose buried deep inside the front yard of a house.

I couldn’t recognize the driver, but the paparazzi could, apparently, because they rushed down there at light speed, completely forgetting about me.

Thank fucking God.

Part of me wanted to make sure the guy or girl was okay, and so I kept glancing at my phone, remembering that one damn rule once again.

What happened next was not what I expected, though. The driver got out, shaking his head at the front of his very expensive vehicle.

“What the fuck?” My eyes widened. “Connor?”

“Well, almost.” The voice behind me made me jump, and I almost dropped my phone on the ground while spinning on my heels.

His chocolate hair was disheveled as always, but the usually bright green in his eyes had dulled significantly, the dark rings beneath them hinting at a lack of sleep.

I just wanted to run into his arms. I really fucking did.

“I, uh...” Phoenix rubbed the back of his neck, his gaze never straying from mine. “I kind of needed a distraction to get in here without these assholes seeing me, so I—”

“So you asked Connor to trash his Ferrari?”

A low chuckle vibrated from his lips, and I hated myself for wanting to hear it again. “That was his idea, actually. I think it’s his dad’s...”

“Oh. That explains it.” Now I chuckled as well, glancing back at the gate for a second. When my eyes flicked back to him, he was staring at me with a look in his eyes that made my heart stop, simply because I knew it too well.

The longing in his irises was the same that ran through my veins, and his blatant imminent urge to touch me sparked in my fingertips as well.

As if he knew what I was thinking, he took a step forward, gaze still set on mine. “Flo, can I just—”

“No, you can’t.” I interrupted him before he got closer, raising my palm. It was hard enough keeping my distance from where I was standing, but I didn’t want to know how bad it would get the second he got close.

“You promised you’d listen to me,” he whispered. My heart ached at that reminder.

“I lied.”

“No, you didn’t.” Phoenix shook his head, his eyes practically begging me to listen. “You weren’t lying, except maybe to yourself.”

I loathed how right he was.

“It doesn’t matter, Phoenix, things have changed, I can’t just—”

“You can.” He stepped forward again, and this time I didn’t stop him. Still, I was glad when he came to a halt in front of me, just looking at me, not reaching out for my touch. A sigh fled his lips as a strand of hair fell into my face, and he didn’t even hesitate to tuck it away. “You can listen to me. You... Just... Fuck, Florence. I’m literally begging you to just give me a damn minute of your time.”

This behavior was so unlike him that I had a hard time suppressing a smirk, even with the fucked up situation we were in. My gaze fell on the ramp by the steps, a sigh fleeing my lips when I realized I lost the battle against myself.

“Fine,” I said, leaning down to move the platform, but Phoenix already appeared by my side. Raising my hand up to him, I stopped him before he could pick it up and release me from my duties. “I need to do this. You go inside. The cameras will come back eventually and I don’t need a story here.”

He raised an eyebrow at me. “What? I won’t watch you—”

“It wasn’t a question, Phoenix. You can do that, or leave.”

I really didn’t want the media to spot him here, considering that defeated the entire purpose of me staying away from him. Dad didn’t need this shit on top of everything.

“Stubborn ass woman...” he finally muttered, stepping inside the house. I watched how he took a seat on the bottom step of the stairwell to the left of the door, making him invisible to anyone outside of the gate.

A smirk played on my lips as I adjusted the ramp and reached into my overall pocket, grabbing the electric drill I stored there. Silence settled around us as I aligned the metal with the step, making sure Dad would have a smooth entrance when he got home.

I put a screw between my lips and bent down, finding the right angle to secure everything as I heard Phoenix speak.

“Is this for your dad?” he asked, and I rolled my eyes.

“No, I’ve just started skateboarding...” I grabbed the screw from my lips and drilled it into the step, fixing up one side of the ramp.

Phoenix chuckled, but when I glanced up at him while moving to the other side, I noticed that the smile on his lips didn’t quite reach his eyes. I didn’t like it.

“Sorry.” I sighed, grabbing another screw and putting it between my lips as I got down again, focusing on the hole in front of me. With another swift move, the screw was buried in the step, and I got back up to find Phoenix staring at me with an unreadable expression on his face. “It’s for dad,” I said and averted his gaze, now raising attention to the last screw in the middle of the ramp.

I had a hard time squeezing beneath it, trying to find the right angle without bumping my head. “Would’ve done that one first,” Phoenix commented, and again, I rolled my eyes. He was right — I would have a better angle for the other ones if I’d done the middle first.

“Yeah, I know. I would’ve, too, if you weren’t staring at me while I worked.”

“You told me to sit here,” he defended.

A sigh fled my lips as I reached down to grab the last screw from the ground, but a familiar hand brushed my own, releasing the screw into my palm. I flinched from the feeling of his skin on my own, and hated the way my cheeks burned from that mere sensation.

Fuck this...

“I know I did.” I cleared my throat, focusing on keeping the right angle while I drilled the screw into the step. “There. Got it done anyway, didn’t I?”

Crawling out from underneath the ramp, I glanced at my construction, a smile curling on my lips.

It looked good. Well, as good as a wheelchair ramp could look, but it’s done.

Phoenix’s stare bore into my skull, and for a moment, I contemplated running out the gate and just avoiding this damn conversation. But not only did the paparazzi get a good glimpse of me again, I also couldn’t break my rules.

I wouldn’t run.

“Come on.” I sighed, stepping onto the ramp to make sure it’s secure. “Let’s talk.”

***

The smell of cinnamon black tea lingered around us as I sat down on the swing set in our garden, my favorite place in the house. Sunflowers were arranged to our left, building a natural barrier between the rest of the building and us. We didn’t live in a mansion, but the property itself was large enough to let Mom grow vegetables that would keep us fed throughout the year.

Behind us, our hedge rustled with the wind, and I glanced up at the sky, raising my brows at the dark clouds invading the horizon. The tea had warmed my fingers, and I used the newly found heat by rubbing my palms over my arm, soothing my cold skin.

“Are you cold?” Phoenix asked, glancing over at me from his own swing. He looked so out of place in this setting; the sunflowers in the background were too bright for his stormy being, and yet he fit right in. His hair danced with the wind, the same choreography the flowers followed behind him. It was fascinating to watch, and the more I looked at him, the more I wanted to reach over and run my hand through his dark strands.

“I’m good,” I replied, staring at the mug in my hands before my gaze found his own.

His eyes held a sadness that pierced into my heart, even more so when he looked at the sand beneath his dark sneakers, the tip of his shoes digging deeper and creating a hole right beneath him. I would’ve laughed at the metaphorical meaning behind Phoenix digging his own grave, but my body already fought shivers from the tension between us, from the thick air engulfing my being.

The sigh leaving his throat made me look up at him, but the second our gazes met, I wish I hadn’t. Because the longing in his eyes was palpable, almost painfully so, and it was so damn hard to not let him soothe my own pain, the one that’d grown with every second I hadn’t seen him.

“I...” he muttered and ran a hand through his hair; I caught myself wanting to be the one to do it, but shook my head to get my mind back to reality. “Listen, Flo, I—”

“You don’t have to explain. I already know—”

“No, you don’t know,” he interrupted me, and I raised a brow at his reaction. This behavior was not what I’d expected at all. “Don’t act like you’d let me finish a single sentence since I got here, Nyx. It’s my turn now.”

His voice was void of any humor, but I didn’t fail to notice the faint smirk on his lips. I’d always liked the way he spoke up for himself, even if he wasn’t that much of a talker. He didn’t take any bullshit — that was something we had in common.

I waved my hand around, gesturing for him to continue as I took a sip of my tea.

“Well, I guess I should apologize first.” He ran his hand over the back of his neck, making me glance up at him. Phoenix seemed nervous; more nervous than I’d ever seen him, and I didn’t like that look on him.

“You guess?” I laced my question with a smirk, trying to lighten the mood while letting him know I wouldn’t make this easy for him. It shouldn’t be.

A humorless chuckle fled from his lips before he shook his head. “No, I know.” He looked back up at me, turning in his swing so he was facing me fully. “I’m sorry, Florence. I really am. I don’t know how much you know and even want to hear, but I’ll just tell you everything, ’cause I mean... The fucking lies didn’t get us anywhere.”

Sincerity danced in his irises when he studied me intently, waiting for a reaction.

“I’d like that,” I admitted, nodding my head. Truth was, I had no idea what exactly he was even sorry for. There were too many things to choose from.

“Okay... Well, when I got kicked out of the Formula 2 team, Salim fought hard to keep me in the loop. He recruited me all those years ago, so my success was practically his own, which is why he put so much effort into it.”

Phoenix averted my gaze and ran a hand through his hair, and I couldn’t help but notice the sadness in his eyes. I’d never thought much about how the recent developments impacted him, especially with him and Salim being so close when I’d first met them.

“Well, when he got Michael to agree to my... internship, or whatever you want to call it, he had to promise to bring new sponsors into the team.” He furrowed his brows while looking over at me, obviously knowing where this was going. “It was a whole damn folder with demands and ridiculous shit I was supposed to do, but none of it interested me. I just wanted to be left alone.” Another sigh left his lips as he closed his eyes and rubbed his hand over his face.

A single drop fell on his fingers and he glanced up at the sky, watching the dark clouds cover the earth. Something about the sight made my heart stop; It was as if Phoenix was calling for the storm, as if he himself had the power to wreak havoc on our lives like that.

And like the earth was listening to him, thunder boomed through the clouds, making me stare up at the darkness.

I hadn’t seen lightning yet, but with the looming skies above us, I was confident the storm wasn’t too far away.

“They told me to befriend you,” Phoenix addressed me again, his gaze now set on mine. I released the dark clouds from my vision to focus on him, watching how stray droplets hit his skin every few seconds. “So I did. I thought it would help my career, would somehow give me better connections... But as it turned out, it didn’t even do any of that. I mean, you flat-out rejected Connor.”

I remembered seeing Connor’s name in that folder, but the smirk playing on Phoenix’s lips now told me he was more content about this than his management probably wanted him to be.

“None of that mattered, though.” Phoenix sighed and ran a hand through his damp hair, glancing at the sky as it sent a few more drops down his face. Thunder roared around us again, but neither of us seemed startled by it. We’d always embraced the storm, lived for the chaos.

“Why?” I couldn’t help but ask, placing my now empty mug of tea on the ground. The lack of warmth made me run my hands over my jeans, trying to heat my veins.

Phoenix didn’t even hesitate before he slipped out of his leather jacket and handed it over to me, revealing a black long-sleeve sticking to his body. I could’ve just gone inside and gotten myself something warmer, but part of me didn’t want to miss the moment.

“Please,” he said, shooting me a kind smile.

It wasn’t his plea that made me take him up on his offer, it also wasn’t the fact that I was really freezing. It was the guilt in his eyes, the blaring reminder he was well aware of his mistakes, that he regretted all of them.

And so I nodded, trying to soothe my turmoil by making him feel better, by inhaling his intoxicating scent as I slid into his warm jacket. I took a second to bathe in the heat — I could practically feel him through the still warm fabric, reminding me he carried it right before me.

“None of that mattered,” he continued our conversation, making me glance up at him. “None of that mattered because I wanted to get close to you, despite all the schemes or games. You know I’m not a fan of those... Especially not with you. That’s why I told them to forget about all of it. I’ve had enough.”

The sincerity in his voice caught me off guard, the tremble in his voice seeping straight into my bones.

I wanted to be angry at him, hell; I was fucking furious from the words I’d read that day, each letter now etched into my brain.

Non-negotiable relationship with Florence.

Sexual relationship would be an advantage.

My blood ran cold.

“When?” The skies above us darkened, and soon more droplets fell onto my skin, making me cross my arms in front of my chest. Late summer had turned the air into a sultry fog, but something about hugging this jacket close to me gave me solace in a situation that seemed so futile. “When did you have enough?”

It was the question plowing through my brain the second I read those words. How far had he taken his task of manipulating me, my family, and the media?

Deep inside, I knew Phoenix wouldn’t have used me or my body in the way that I feared. He was an asshole for not telling me, for even beginning this whole charade, but he wasn’t a heartless monster. It was unlike him.

He didn’t respond, though. Instead, he just looked at me, more guilt now hazing his irises. “I...” His brows furrowed as he ran a hand over his wet forehead, obviously scrambling for words. “I— I don’t...”

His lack of words told me everything.

“Really?” I scoffed and jumped up from the swing. “You can’t even tell me?” It was hard to keep my emotions at bay, but part of me didn’t care. He’d hurt me more than I thought he could. “When, Phoenix? When did you tell them you wouldn’t use me for my name, just like everyone else did?”

“I never used you for your name!” Phoenix got up as well, his movement accompanied by thunder vibrating through the sky. Thick droplets fell onto his face, and he made no effort to wipe them away. The crown of my favorite cherry tree protected us, but rain still found its way between the branches.

“You did, Phoenix!” I yelled at him now, glad the isolation of this garden protected our exchange. “You got close to me because of who I was, that’s it. The least you could’ve done was tell me about the fucking folder the second you decided not to use it!” My voice cracked at the mere memory of those words written on paper, on the countless pages filled with my name. “Do you know what that feels like? Being betrayed like that? I trusted you, showed you how much I wanted to be my own person, and yet I found my name in that damn folder a hundred times!”

Lighting strikes miles away from us, but what catches my attention even more is the realization rushing over Phoenix’s features. “You—”

“Yes, I saw the fucking folder. I saw every single condition, every stunt you were supposed to pull on the world champion’s daughter to get the media attention and that fucking tech company to sponsor you.” Fire ran through my veins, only the soothing droplets of rain on my skin dimming the flames. “I just need to know when, Phoenix. At what point was I more important than what was written there? When did you stop playing games with me?”

“Stop saying that!” Phoenix pulled at his wet hair, sending drops of water down his face as he approached me. “I didn’t play a game with you!”

“Why didn’t you just tell me, then?” I fired back, stepping toward him too. There was no way I was running from this, from him, from us. I was ready to face the storm, now matter how turbulent it got.

He was surprised by my forwardness, his wide eyes now studying me as his chest rose and fell with heavy breaths. I got the impression he wanted to say something, but didn’t know how to, and so I continued.

“The second you realized you didn’t want to play games is when you should’ve told me! Why the fuck was it so hard for you to just fill me in?” I approached him further, ignoring the longing in my veins with every reduced inch between us. His gaze was as furious as the surrounding storm when it landed on my lips, but I tried my hardest to ignore the warm feeling erupting in my stomach. Rage was still simmering beneath my skin, and I felt every syllable leaving my mouth when I yelled at him. “It would’ve been so easy! We could’ve talked about it! Why didn’t you just tell me—”

“Because I fell in love with you, Florence!” Roaring thunder carried his confession into the universe, and my heart stopped as I processed his words.

He closed the distance between us, his wet hands now finding my cheeks. “I couldn’t tell you because I was so fucking afraid of losing you.” The contact of our drenched bodies zapped straight through my veins, and I practically felt the jumpstart of my heart when he pressed a gentle kiss on my lips. “You made me fall in love with you, with your stubbornness and hard-working attitude, and especially with the thing you did where you just took my hand and I... I fucking felt you. I felt every damn inch of your soul when you did that, and I still do.”

His hand reached for my own as if to prove a point, and as much as I despised admitting it... I felt the same. Every single time our fingers intertwined, I could sense a part of him, the hidden truths behind his stoic facade.

I hated that he had that effect on me, that he could make my heart stop just like that.

But even more, I hated that he loved me so damn much.

Because I knew it made me love him even more.

“I’ve never felt that, Flo, and I couldn’t just...” He swallowed deeply, resting his forehead against my own. “I couldn’t risk you leaving me for something I didn’t even do.”

Our fingers interlaced, and he moved them up to his cheeks, making me cup his face and look up at him. Water trickled down his skin, the rain intensifying with every second that passed, and I felt a shiver run down my spine from the mere sight of him. I’d seen him like this before, but today the intensity in his gaze knocked me off my feet — he looked like he belonged here, right in the middle of the storm that was my life.

Maybe that was why my mind went blank. Instead of keeping my distance as I promised to myself, I closed the distance between us. Thunder roared as I pressed my lips against his own, creating a storm within my soul that took my breath away. He deepened the kiss, and with every stroke of his tongue, the world shattered around us even more. His hands came around my back, minimizing the space between our bodies as he chased me with an urgency that broke my soul.

I allowed myself to get lost in him, to taste the black coffee on his tongue and inhale his earthy scent once more. Every inch of me hoped he wouldn’t taste the tears that fell between the rain, hiding beneath the curtain of this violent storm raging around us.

“Phoenix...” My attempt to break the kiss got silenced by yet more thunder. It felt like mother nature told me to not stop just yet, and so I didn’t. I let him consume me, let him take over my senses as he usually did, vices and virtues be damned.

Time became merely an imaginary construct as we tasted the rain on each other’s lips, as we gasped for the foggy air in the atmosphere. It became too much to handle, and as the downpour slowed to a drizzle, I knew this was it.

I had to stop hiding, and had to face the truth.

Phoenix frowned when I pulled back from him, both of us taking deep breaths while I pressed my palms against his soaked chest. “We can’t...” I whispered, trying to convince myself more than him. “We can’t do this. I can’t do this.”

My gaze dropped to the ground, the wet sand now engulfing my sneakers just like the sorrow swallowing my heart.

“Don’t say that.” He tipped up my chin, making me redirect my focus on him. “You don’t run, Florence. You don’t shy away from a challenge. You don’t take the easy way out...”

“You think this is the easy way?” My voice was thick with emotion, emotion that became clearer now that the sky was opening again. The rain had stopped, and the sun peeking through the clouds landed straight on us, casting us in our very own celestial spotlight. “You think it’s easy for me to install wheelchair ramps left and right, to fight those fucking paparazzi off every damn time I leave the house? Do you think it’s easy for me to watch my father go through physical therapy for the rest of his life? You think it was easy to leave you?”

Phoenix’s wet skin glistened in the dim sunlight, almost reflecting the rainbow cast across the sky behind him. “I didn’t mean it that way,” he admitted, reaching out for me. I took a step back, gathering the rest of my confidence to not give in when pain crossed his features. “It’s just... I don’t want you to end us because of... this. Not because of some fucked up thing I agreed to, but didn’t even mean.”

“It’s not just that.” I wiped my cheeks, hoping he’d blame it on the last droplets of drizzle and not on my emotional outburst. “I have to be here for my family, Phoenix. My mom needs me, my dad needs rest and privacy. I can’t offer him that with the media haunting us.”

He shook his head, running both of his hands over his face and then through his hair. “They won’t. They’re not even interested in us, Flo. I’m nothing to them.”

I couldn’t help but laugh at his remark. “Nothing? Phoenix, they won’t stop asking me about you, about us, about everything. They won’t stop coming here if they think something’s going on. I can’t have that, not with Dad living at home.”

“So what?” He stepped closer to me again, forcing me to walk backward once more. The shadow casting upon Phoenix told me I was close to reaching the protection of our cherry tree. “That’s it? We’re done, just like that?”

I nodded. “We have to be. I can’t risk it.”

“That’s bullshit, and you know it.”

“It’s not. My name is already all over the papers since that one fucking article.” I knew it wasn’t his fault, but he needed to understand that it wasn’t mine, either. I wasn’t the one orchestrating this whole farce. His management was.

My feet worked on their own when Phoenix took another step toward, guilt still lingering in his irises as my back hit the trunk of the tree. “That can’t be the reason. We can be discreet, we can be careful, we can—”

“Phoenix, you live a life in the spotlight. At least you have to if you want to achieve your dreams.”

“I don’t care about the fucking dreams right now.”

“You do,” I retorted, hoping he’d listen to me. My resolve weakened the longer he looked at me, the more he tried to find a way for us.

Instead of responding, Phoenix took another step closer, leaving him mere inches from me, his palms planted against the wood behind my head. I felt my soul falter under his stare, under the intensity of his gaze alone.

“Please,” I whispered, hoping he’d understand my urgency. I wanted him more than I could express, but our lives didn’t allow me his presence. “Don’t let me be the reason you don’t follow your dreams, Phoenix. I couldn’t handle that.” Tears pooled in my eyes, but Phoenix’s stare still held the storm that already passed us, ready to wreak havoc on my life. “You deserve all the success waiting for you.”

My voice became hoarse the more we spoke, but no clearing of my throat could help matters. I was overemotional, and the mere thought of him sacrificing his career for us broke my heart.

“Tell me,” he demanded, his gaze diving deep into my soul. “Tell me you don’t love me. That’s the only way I’m leaving here today — if I believe you don’t feel what I do.”

When I first met Phoenix McCoy, I knew I’d end up with a broken heart.

I just didn’t think it’d be me who shattered it into a million pieces.

My soul begged me to stop, pleading with me to tell him the truth.

But I couldn’t.

“I don’t love you,” I choked out the words.

He shook his head, his calloused hands finding my cheeks. “You’re lying.”

The hope in his eyes pierced straight into my heart, and I bit my bottom lip, trying to keep it from trembling. “I’m not.”

“You are. I don’t believe you.”

“Phoenix...” A tear fled my eyes, and he caught it with his thumb, running the salt across my skin. “I can’t. Your career. My family. It’s just... I just can’t. I’m sorry, but I can’t.”

His gaze softened as he studied me intently, watching another tear trail down my cheek. “You want me to leave?”

‘No,’ my soul said.

‘He has to,’ the conscience responded.

I’d fought this battle for a while now. I’d made my choice.

“Yes.” I nodded.

He watched me again, his eyes reading my every muscle as I tried to keep it together. “I won’t come back if I leave, Flo. It’s yes or no.”

I swallowed deeply from his words, the mere thought of never seeing him again suddenly scaring the hell out of me. This all sounded so plausible and rational when I talked it through in my head, but now that he’s so close to me, I felt my resolution turn into ashes from his heated stare.

It’s Dad, Flo.

That reminder was all it took.

This was my family, and I’d do anything to protect it. “I know,” I finally responded, ignoring my shattering heart.

Phoenix sighed, resting his forehead against my own. I didn’t fight him when he inched closer, letting our lips touch once more. The kiss was gentle but electrifying, soft but intense. “Tell me like you mean it, and I’ll leave.” His lips traced my jaw before he added, “Forever.”

My heart broke into smithereens, but that didn’t change what I already knew.

We were two souls made for each other. It just wasn’t our time yet.

I squared myself up to full height, swallowing all the sorrow and guilt as I faced him properly. His eyes scanned my face, tracing every move I made when I prepared my words.

“I don’t love you, Phoenix.”

His green irises darkened as they ran across my skin, reading me like he always did. I used to love the way he just knew what I was thinking, but now his instinct might’ve been my downfall.

I didn’t know how long we stood like that, my hands balled into fists by my side, trying to contain my screaming soul. It always hated when I didn’t tell the truth, and today I could literally feel it slip through my fingers from uttering the biggest lie I’d ever told.

Phoenix lifted my chin, almost like he was trying to find the right angle to stare into my eyes. I could read the question in his own, could feel how he didn’t believe me. I just hoped he’d listen to me, anyway.

“Okay.” He finally sighed. His lips found my own for another chaste kiss, one that wasn’t nearly intense enough to be the last one we share. “I’ll go.”

He looked at me for another long moment, giving me the chance to stop him.

But I didn’t.

Instead, I watched how he shook his head gently and stepped away from me, his gaze directed to the ground. He glanced up at the blue and now cloudless sky and took a deep breath before moving forward, walking away from me.

“Wait.” The word left my lips involuntarily, and I almost slammed my palm on my mouth to take it back.

I didn’t want to, though.

What I wanted was a proper goodbye, one I could reminisce about for the rest of my life. And so I took two large steps toward him, throwing my arms around his neck just when he turned to face me.

Our lips collided in an instant, and I didn’t swallow the tears this time. I let them flow, let myself feel this moment as much as my heart could take it, considering it was already in pieces on the ground.

Phoenix’s wet body pressed against mine as he deepened the kiss, begging me to change my mind with every daring stroke of his tongue. My mind went hazy within seconds, but my heart didn’t want to stop. It needed him to glue itself back together.

He pulled back, and we just breathed each other in for a moment, both of us seemingly trying to remember this moment as well as we could. When he leaned back to look at me, I saw it in his eyes; he wanted to say something, but forced himself not to.

Instead, he pressed a kiss on my forehead. “Goodbye, Florence.”

I watched how we walked away without turning around this time, his tall frame becoming smaller in the distance.

My fists wrapped around the fabric of his jacket collar, my last remnant of what might’ve been the love of my life.

He stopped at the back entrance for a moment, and even though I knew he wouldn’t hear me, I spoke my last words to him.

“Goodbye, Phoenix... I love you.”

And as the clouds dissipated, revealing a clear blue sky, I realized that this was it. As I watched him walk away and disappear in the distance, I knew I’d lost him.

The storm has faded, left my life within the fraction of a second. I glanced up at the sun, closing my eyes as realization dawned on me.

I’d always loved the sun, but right now... I desperately longed for the storm.

Author’s Note

Hey, folks...

Well... I mean... I’m sorry?

You can guess why it took so long to write this chapter (apart from the fact that it’s triple size length lol). It was a hard one to write and it took a few tries to get the right atmosphere. I hope this one works for these two.

I’ve had a hell of a week (well, two weeks, actually), with work and teaching and uni and therapy and not paying attention while driving and ending up in a few minor inconveniences from that. It’s been a lot to take on, so I’m thankful for your patience.

Now, that being said: Let’s continue the story, shall we?

I know you all have been waiting for Jas and Kill, so buckle up for the next chapter, as we will dive into the present now! Yay! I’m excited and hope to get a chapter ready soon. Bear with me though, it might take a few days with everything going on.

Lots of love, and please stay safe.

xx Jane

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