Chapter 34: Ice-Cold Water
“You really want to bring him with you?” Amara laughed, scratching Rimmy’s head.
“I can’t just leave him alone now. He’s just getting used to me!”
“He’s a dog, Flo. He’ll survive.” She rolled her eyes.
“Yeah, but he’s anxious, too. I already called ahead. The bartender on the phone said dogs are welcome there. Besides, it’s not like he can pee anywhere.”
Rimmy looked up at me as I shrugged on my dark leather jacket, and even though I’d been the one who put the diapers and miniature jeans on him, I still couldn’t help but laugh at the sight of his outfit. The pants were fixed with tiny suspenders, helping them stay in place.
“I still can’t believe he’s wearing jeans,” Amara quipped, turning up his right jeans’ leg, so it doesn’t trail over the ground.
“You saw how hard he tried to chew on the diapers. This way he can’t do that, and he looks cool.” I smirked, picking Rimmy up from the ground. “Now, are we going, or what?”
Amara glanced at her phone. “Yup, we’re going. Our Uber is here, anyway.”
We made our way downstairs, waving at the hotel concierge before we got into the black hybrid Hyundai waiting for us.
I tried my hardest to ignore the stares the driver shot in Rimmy’s direction.
I swear. I tried.
But when we stopped at a red light, and his furrowed brows met me in the rear mirror once more, I couldn’t stop myself.
“Never seen a dog on wheels before?”
The man shook his head, wide eyes now directing back at the street.
“You’re free to ask if you have questions, but staring is rude as hell. Even to a dog,” I muttered, glancing back at said canine in my lap.
Rimmy didn’t care about the exchange, his gaze directed at the street outside our window. He kept opening and closing his mouth, and I got under the impression he was trying to catch the street lights as we passed them. A snort fled my lips as I watched him snap at his surroundings, instantly forgetting the unpleasant conversation.
We came to a stop somewhere in downtown L.A., a bright green neon sign of our designated bar blazing from across the street. “There you go,” the driver said as he stopped the car, turning around to face me. His eyes fell on Rimmy in my lap, and he smiled while stretching out his hand, trying to pet him.
“Rrrroof!” Rimmy jumped up and glared at the man, a deep growl coming from his throat. My eyes widened as I stared at my dog, wondering when the hell he learned to make noises like that. This was the first time I’d heard him do it.
“Damn, dog. No need to bite.” The man chuckled and pulled away, shaking his head at us as Amara got out of the car. She shot me a look that told me not to make a scene, but I didn’t care.
My eyes fell back on the guy. “Well, maybe you should ask if it’s okay for you to pet an animal before you do it. Who knows what this poor boy has been through before he met me.”
He blinked a few times. “I uh… Didn’t think of that.”
“Figured,” I retorted, pushing open the door. “Let’s hope you will in the future.”
Amara was already waiting by the entrance of the bar, arms folded in front of her chest as I got out. Crossing the street with Rimmy on his leash, I couldn’t help but roll my eyes from the way she looked at me.
“You couldn’t not teach him a lesson, huh?” She laughed, opening the wooden door for me.
“Nope!” The faint tune of Irish folklore music drowned my response, and I let my eyes wander around the bar, studying the intricate wooden decor on the walls. Guinness and Kilkenny merchandise, most of which was graced by atmospheric patina, hung behind the bar and gave the whole interior a rustic vibe. “I like it here,” I voiced my thoughts, ignoring how Rimmy already pulled at the leash.
I was glad the place wasn’t as crowded as I’d expected it to be on a Friday night, considering I didn’t know how Rimmy felt around people, yet. For now, it seemed like he was enjoying himself, though, his snout planted to the floor as he sniffed the area.
“A Guinness and whatever bottled beer you have, unopened!” Amara called out to the bartender, who in return shot us a weird look before tapping the beer. A Budweiser was shoved in my direction, and I opened the bottle with the bottom of my lighter before I glanced over at Amara, who was already raising her glass at me.
“To the most badass woman in town,” she hollered, gathering more attention than I liked to our presence. Her brows were raised in expectation, waiting for me to join in.
Sighing, I clinked my glass against hers and took a deep breath. “Hell yeah!” I yelled, unable to stifle the laugh bubbling in my throat. Amara always knew how to break my shell, and truth be told… I’d do anything for her, and she knew it.
“This woman’s a Formula One mechanic, people!” she called out, obviously hellbent on embarrassing the shit out of me. I didn’t mind, though. My best friend was just as responsible for my success as I was. “And not just any mechanic, the fucking head mechanic! Woooooh!”
People started hollering with her, the sound of clinking glasses and cheers in our direction now filling the bar. Amara raised her glass to me once more, and I clinked them with a grin, giving my best friend a side hug.
“Thank you,” I muttered, squeezing her hip.
Untangling from my grasp, Amara brought the glass to her lips, and I did the same with my bottle. But just as I took the first sip, my hand was pulled away with an unexpected force, knocking the bottle straight against my mouth. “Ow!” I whined, holding on to Rimmy’s leash as he sprinted — or, well, wheeled — to the other side of the bar.
The faint taste of blood lingered on my tongue as I pulled the leash, trying to get Rimmy back.
Damn dog busted my lip…
He didn’t care, though. His gaze was settling straight on something at the far end of the room. “Rrroof! Woof!”
He pushed again, and seeing how the collar squeezed against his neck, I was afraid of suffocating the poor boy. “Goddamnit, Rimmy!” I gave in.
The second he felt me going easy on him, he ran. I stumbled behind him, trying to catch up as he beelined through the crowd. His wheels knocked against tables and chairs, but he didn’t give a damn, his destination set clear in his mind.
“Man, he’s fast for a dog on wheels!” Amara laughed, joining my chase.
A snort fled my lips as we squeezed past people, apologizing as the dog ran through their legs. Most of them found it amusing, luckily; not me, though. I already felt the pain running through my wrist from holding onto the damn leash.
And then it happened.
Rimmy made a slight turn, causing me to lose my balance before I crashed right into a firm chest. The impact was hard enough for the bottle to drop from my hands, the loud clatter stopping everyone else around.
“Ugh, fuck…” I groaned, holding my neck. A sudden dizziness washed over me, and I ended up reaching out for the table to our right, trying to support my weight and make the world stop spinning. But instead of a table, my hand found an arm. It wasn’t mine. And given the leather fabric beneath my fingers, it wasn’t Amara’s, either.
I heard someone screaming in the background — it sounded like a man, but I couldn’t be sure — and so I opened my eyes to see what the fuss was all about.
My heart stopped the second I took in the scene in front of me.
Looking back at me were a painfully familiar pair of green eyes, their intensity brave enough to knock the air clean out of my lungs.
Though, maybe it was the impact which took my breath away. Yeah… Who knew?
All I knew was that I couldn’t stop staring at Phoenix McCoy. I couldn’t stop myself from scanning his face, wanting to find every single inch of him that had changed since I last saw him. I couldn’t stop sensing the way he tensed beneath my grip; the hand on his arm was the only thing keeping me steady right about now.
I had always thought I’d be ready for when I’d meet him again. I had always thought it would be quick and easy, like ripping off a band-aid that wouldn’t sting all that much.
But looking at him at this moment, I realized just how wrong I’d been. The wound he’d left couldn’t be repaired with first aid. I needed open-heart surgery, a whole damn team of professionals to stitch me back together.
The realization that I was nowhere near as over him as I expected to be was like a bucket of ice-cold water to my soul, my mind instantly bringing me back to reality.
“Phoenix,” I said, straightening up and releasing him from my grasp. His own hand was still wrapped around my arm to steady me, and it took me moving it a little for him to snap out of it.
“Uh… I…” He cleared his throat, stepping back while eyeing me up and down. “Are you okay?” The worry in his voice ripped open all those damn wounds, and I cursed myself for having this reaction to him, still.
“Yeah… You?” I did crash into him, after all.
Phoenix nodded, his gaze not leaving mine. I didn’t want him to look at me like that; with an intensity that had brought me to my knees and was explosive enough to turn my whole life upside down.
“I’m good,” he almost whispered the words, and I got the feeling he said them to himself more than me.
I didn’t know how long we stood like that, just staring at each other, but it was long enough for me to notice two things.
One: Phoenix had changed. His features matured, and he now carried a scar above his collarbone that shone through the inked skin peeking out of his dark shirt. He’d grown a manly stubble that looked like he hadn’t shaved for a while, and his sharp jaw seemed even more defined now. His twenty-year-old self had seemed like a man to me, back then. Looking at him now, ten years later, I could only laugh at how wrong I’d been.
Two, and this point was even more prominent than the first: I was fucked. With the way he was looking at me, causing an entire thunderstorm in my chest, I knew I was in for one hell of a ride.
“Uh, I don’t mean to ruin the mood or anything… But the dog is still trying to kill me.” The voice startled me out of my thoughts, and I glanced up to find a tall man standing on a chair, his light blue eyes seeming almost transparent compared to his dark skin.
Rimmy barked up at the guy, who, in return, scowled at my dog. “Come on, are you racist?” he asked, and even though I was currently feeling every nerve ending in my body trickling with electricity, I couldn’t help but laugh.
“Dude,” Amara chimed in with a chuckle, waving a hand over her Nigerian body. “I’m here. That won’t be it. Maybe he’s just a feminist.”
“Why doesn’t he maul Phoenix then?” The guy waved his hands around, trying to get Rimmy away from his chair.
Smirking, I distanced myself from Phoenix and stepped over to his friend. “Sorry. He’s got a temper,” I commented, bending over to pick up my dog. “He won’t kill you, though.” I felt the need to add, earning myself a snort from Amara.
“Doesn’t matter. He looks like he wants to — that’s enough.”
Rimmy barked in response, causing the guy to startle once again.
“Damn, you got it bad, huh?” Ames remarked, raising a brow at the guy.
“Nah,” he responded, gaining confidence from my best friend’s attention. I hear him mutter something under his breath, something along the lines of, but I know someone else who does, but decided to ignore it.
Rimmy scratched at my stomach, making me glance down at the poor thing. Had I known he’d literally push me into Phoenix’s arms, I… well… I honestly didn’t know what I’d done. But the way he hid his snout in my armpit, finding his own way to cuddle me, I couldn’t even be mad at the boy. He was just a dog, after all. It was my job to help him reframe his instincts.
“Well, I’ll go get Flo a new beer,” Amara killed the silence. “And you… what’s your name?”
“Idir,” the guy replied, a mischievous smirk on his lips.
“Amara,” she introduced herself, bowing down to both men before she faced Idir again. “You’ll come with me.”
I tried signalling her to not leave me alone with Phoenix, but Ames didn’t care; not that I’d expected her to. Unlike me, she loved to play matchmaker, always concocting the perfect plan in her head the second she found someone who she liked for me.
I both despised and loved her for it.
Watching how they disappeared in the crowd, I still felt Phoenix’s gaze on me, his eyes burning into the back of my head until I turned around.
We both started and stopped. I couldn’t help but laugh at the awkwardness of the situation, and even Phoenix’s lips curled into a smile as he regarded me intensely.
“You first,” I said, interrupting him before he could speak.
He nodded, raising a questioning brow at the table next to him. Understanding what he meant, I took a seat at the table, leaving a free chair to his left and my right.
I watched how he played with the bottle of ginger ale in his hands, twisting and turning it before he took a deep breath, looking up at me. “So, head mechanic?”
“Starting this season, yeah,” I retorted, swallowing. “Azure felt like the right choice.”
His eyes lit up at my team name, and my blood turned to ice.
Oh fucking God.
No… Was he?
“You got their seat, then?” I asked, swallowing hard.
“Yeah.” Phoenix nodded. “Just signed.”
A laugh fled my lips and I shook my head, running a hand through my hair. “Funny. Me, too.”
My head shot up. “You what?”
“I know, uh… Idir and I just left the headquarters. He helped find your dog.”
The penny dropped. He was the guy who told me where Rimmy went. “Oh…” I glanced down at my lap, finding my pup fast asleep, his nose buried in my jacket. A smile played on my lips as I scratched his ears, wondering if the world gave me this dog to test my resolve.
Silence settled around us as I stared at the pup beneath my fingertips.
How in the actual fuck would I survive working alongside Phoenix? How long was his contract? Did he know I was working for them?
Fuck. This was a recipe for disaster — I already felt that.
“Nice rims,” Phoenix interrupted my thoughts, a smirk lingering on his lips as he nodded at my dog. “His name’s Rimmy?”
I smirked. “Yup.”
“Smart.” He chuckled; it was a deep and low chuckle that sounded so different from his juvenile amusement a decade ago, that I mentally opened a new file for his novel features.
Why would you need a new file, Flo? Stop it!
“Told you I am.” I ignored the voice in my head, thinking back to the old days.
There was a thrill in remembering those times. The adrenaline of my internship, the experiences shared with Phoenix, and the pain resulting from all of them… It was a breath of smoky air, reminding me of all the fires I’d started and then put out.
Phoenix stared at me, the remainder of his chuckle still lingering on his lips as he responded, “You did. I haven’t forgotten.”
I nodded. “Neither have I.”
It was hard to hide the ambiguity of our statement. I hadn’t forgotten. I’d tried to push away all those memories to save my soul, but never in my life could I’ve forgotten a single thing about the most exhilarating time of my life.
No matter what’d happened to us back then, it was all part of my path, made me who I was. I was my own person, had built my own life and career, despite — or because of — everything I’d been through. I cherished that fact with all that I had. The knowledge I could conquer it all.
On bad days, it was all that I had.
I’d expected to see her, but I didn’t think it’d happen this soon.
My body surely wasn’t ready for it, considering I could still feel the pulse thunder in my neck as I looked at her, studied her closely as she talked to Idir, who’d just returned from the bar.
Her curly dark hair was a tad shorter than I remembered, and the way these clothes hugged her body told me there wasn’t a girly bone in her body anymore. She was a full-grown woman, with shoulders broad enough to let everyone know who the fuck they’re dealing with, and a fire in her green-blue eyes that was scorching enough to burn the world down.
She’d always been breathtakingly beautiful, but tonight I was actively seeking the oxygen for my lungs.
“You’re staring,” her friend — Amara, I thought her name was — whispered. She’d taken a seat next to me, not even trying to hide her curiosity in my person with the way she stared.
Glancing over at Amara, I met her investigating gaze, a raised brow asking me to respond. “It’s hard not to,” I muttered, which made her lips twitch up even more.
“I know. Just saying, don’t overdo it. She’s perceptive as fuck.”
Well, that much I already knew.
As I looked back over at Florence, taking in all the ways in which she’d changed since we last saw each other, I wondered just how much of her character remained. Ten years was a long-ass time, even though looking at her right then, it felt like mere minutes that we said goodbye in her backyard.
God, what a fucking nightmare that’d been…
Maybe I should’ve fought harder for her.
Maybe I shouldn’t have let her break my heart.
Or maybe, just maybe, I should’ve just stayed the fuck away from her in the first place.
Just as the thought popped into my head, her gaze met mine, face unfaltering and proud as ever. She’d always had the ability to feel when I was thinking of her. I wondered if that was still the case?
I don’t love you, Phoenix. The memory was ice in my veins.
And as those words played on repeat in my mind, I couldn’t help but pray for one thing and one thing only:
Hopefully, she was still an awful liar.