Chapter 4: Dinner
And yet, life continued to challenge me, to throw rocks in my way, to test just how persistent I could be.
"There you are!" Salim's voice echoed through the hotel gym. "You can't hide from me, you know."
Placing the dumbbells back on the ground, I turned around to find the rather pissed-looking Moroccan approaching me, a manila folder in his hands. I appreciated his warm welcome earlier, especially given I knew his opinion on how things transpired the past weeks, and yet I had to suppress a groan at his remark.
"I wasn't hiding," I explained while dabbing a towel over my face, "Not from you, at least."
He raised an eyebrow at me. "Who were you hiding from?"
"Connor," I spat out his name. "Did you know I'd have to share a room with him?"
I was still annoyed at the entire ordeal. Not only did I have to join this program, but then I had to share a room with the one guy I wanted to avoid?
"It's a two-bedroom-suite. You barely have to see each other."
"You know who he is to me, Salim. It would've been nice to get a warning."
"Yeah, well, next time don't punch the team's marketing expert in the face, and I don't have to suspend you from your Formula 2 duties on such short notice."
I scoffed at his words. "We both know Liam Drexler is a fucking idiot."
"You do. I do. Basically everyone does, but that doesn't mean you can go off on him like that. It's time you start acting like a grownup."
A laugh escaped my lips. "That's big coming from someone using the word grownup."
"Shut up." He nudged my shoulder with a chuckle. "But really, I'm glad you got over yourself and got into a room with him to begin with. I expected a whole scene, to be honest."
Thinking back to what happened an hour ago, I tried my best to keep a straight face. "Well, I didn't have much of a choice," I muttered. "Florence Nyx got all up in my business and said she'd share a room with him if I didn't."
"She did?" Salim laughed and looked at me for a long moment, as if he was expecting me to elaborate on the annoying stunt this girl pulled on her first day here, but I had no intention of sharing that encounter with him for the time being. "Damn..." His chuckle made me focus back on him. "I underestimated that girl."
"Oh, nothing." He waved me off, but I could tell there was something he wasn't telling me. I've known Salim for a few years now, given he was the one who brought me to the team when I was just sixteen. I trusted him explicitly and knew he did the same, but that didn't mean he wouldn't kick my ass for having to suspend me from my driving position at the Formula 2 team. I wouldn't be here without him, and he had a right to be angry at me. But that didn't change what had happened. "I'm surprised you didn't take her up on that offer," he finally added.
"You know why I couldn't do that."
"Right." He nodded and followed me into the changing room, where he threw the manila folder at me as soon as I sat down on one of the benches. "Here. Matt compiled a list of new sponsors, given most of yours jumped off the wagon the second they heard about your stunt. I know you pay him to be your agent, but you really don't need to make it this hard on him, do you?"
Taking the folder from him, I opened it with a frown. A couple familiar brand names stared back at me, some of them with a set of wishes, as they called it, when everyone knew they really were demands I'd have to meet if I wanted their support. The Formula sport was an expensive business, and that meant there were times you'd have to bend over backward for those who brought the money if you didn't have it yourself. I had no choice but to pick my poison. It was something I knew from the start, something I knew I had to do to achieve my goals.
The dreams I had from day one.
I skimmed over some of the demands and couldn't help but furrow my brows as I asked my friend, "Have you looked at these?"
"Yeah. Can't say I'd want to be in your position."
"Thanks." I couldn't help but roll my eyes at the way he looked at me, pitied but reproachful, knowing full-well I got myself into this mess. "They want Connor and me for an ad campaign..."
"I know." Salim sighed. "I saw that, too."
I glanced up at my friend, hoping to hear some encouraging words, but all I got was a pitiful glance. "Sal... Do they know?" I didn't dare ask the real question out loud.
"No. Not that I know." He shook his head. "But, dude... If you just told me what exactly happened with that idiot Drexler, I could help you out. You wouldn't need to—"
"Salim, just let it go. I won't talk about it."
He shot me a long glare, the conversation we've had a few times already starting to build again. I didn't talk about what happened or what exactly Liam said that made my blood boil. The guy was an asshole, and that was all he needed to know.
"Fine." Salim finally shrugged, but couldn't hide the sigh that was leaving his throat as he approached the exit. "Dinner is in one hour. Try not to be an asshole, would you?"
"You're late," Salim muttered as I slid onto the chair next to him, quickly scanning the table for any familiar faces. Azure Racing was a hybrid team, meaning they swapped their personnel within Formula 1 and Formula 2 whenever they needed to, obviously giving priority to the more exclusive league, so I wasn't surprised to see some of my former mechanics and engineers at the table.
"I'm here. That has to count for something," I said while greeting the familiar faces with a nod, until I spotted Florence Nyx and Connor Williams sitting opposite to Salim, seemingly deep in conversation. Of course these two would know what to talk about, celebrity child to celebrity child.
"If you stare any harder, you're gonna burn a hole in her head, Phoenix." Salim glanced over at me. "Behave."
The tone of his voice didn't sit right with me, and I couldn't help but glare at the man I called my friend on a daily basis. "Behave?" I scoffed, "Really?"
"How old are you again? Five?" he whispered, his tone stern and with a pinch of salt.
"I just can't stand them..."
"You know why you're here. If you don't want to be thrown out of the team ultimately, you better get your shit together." The urgency in his voice surprised me, and I couldn't help but narrow my eyes at him. I knew he was angry, and I knew this was a last-resort type of solution for me, but I didn't appreciate being told off like a child.
I decided to remain silent for the majority of dinner, paying more attention to my food than the conversations at the table. These gatherings always irked me; the way everyone acted like they got along and like they were a tight team made me cringe, but I knew it was all part of my job.
"So, Flo, did you get around to see your dad today?" Salim asked, and it took me a moment to realize it was Florence Nyx he was referring to, the shortened use of her name made me furrow my brows.
What surprised me as well was the disapproving glance Florence shot her boss. "Uh, yeah," she dismissed him without another look, her eyes trained on the now empty plate in front of her.
"I'm glad. He must've been thrilled to see his daughter here."
I couldn't help but snort at that statement. I bet the world champion only had to snap his fingers to secure his daughter a spot at the team.
"Anything you wanna say, Phoenix?" Florence raised a brow at me, the very intense mix of green and blue in her eyes about ready to pin me to my spot. Something in her gaze unsettled me, like she was mocking me with the way she crossed her arms in front of her chest and leaned back in the chair. Her dark, curly hair fell over her shoulder as she cocked her head at me, obviously waiting for my response.
"No," I spat out the word, not wanting to give her any reaction. Why was this damn girl so hellbent on making my life harder than it was already?
"Yes, I'm fucking sure, Miss Nyx." Dropping the fork on my plate, I had a hard time not exploding right into her face. Who did she think she was? Well, granted, she probably thought she had free reign with Daddy's last name.
"Kids..." Salim warned the two of us, and if I thought Florence knew how to shoot a glare in my direction, I definitely underestimated how pissed she could look upon being called a kid. "Don't make a scene, would you?"
Florence's features turned ice cold for a quick moment, but I could almost see how she composed herself with a clearing of her throat, glancing up at Salim with a wide smile plastered on her lips. "Of course. Wouldn't want to cause any trouble," she said with a honey-sweet tone in her voice before she turned to Connor, "So, what do you think of this hotel? The accommodation is great, huh?"
She threw a mischievous gaze my way, and even though I felt so disrespected by the way she behaved that moment, I had to suppress a laugh at her obvious disregard for anyone's peace. This girl didn't care, that much was clear.
"Uh, yeah, I guess?" Connor seemed startled by the sudden attention, his gaze falling on me. I hadn't spoken a word to him since the airport, and I wasn't about to change that, either.
Salim must have realized the energy this conversation was carrying, his hands now folding on top of the table as he addressed the group. "Alright, guys. How about I introduce you to the folks who will show you around tomorrow?"
Both Florence and Connor seemed pleased by the change of topic, their eyes solely on Salim as he waved his hand to the other side of the table. "Connor, you've met Erik, our team principal's right hand, right?" A blonde guy at the other end of the table waved excitedly in Connor's direction. I hadn't met him yet, which made me think he was rather new to the team. The way he behaved also spoke for that; One might've thought he was about to faint just from seeing Connor Williams in front of him.
"Yup. Hi." Connor couldn't care less about the guy waving at him.
"Alright, Erik will show you around tomorrow. You'll meet Chris then, too. He's the head of the team, as you should know, but he has loads of other responsibilities demanding his attention..." Salim's glance fell on me for a second too long. "Well. As for Flo, you'll go with this lovely gentleman over here," he nodded at a different guy that seemed fairly familiar.
"Oh, yeah, I've met Jin already." Florence smiled at the man, who reciprocated the motion with a polite nod, suddenly too shy to speak. "You're one of the race team mechanics, right?"
"Yes," Jin responded with a smile.
"Great. He'll show you around the garage tomorrow and introduce you to all the other people you still have to meet. There's a lot of them." Salim laughed, and for the first time since I'd sat down at this table, Florence shot Salim a genuine smile, too. I don't know what her deal was before, but she seemed to have composed herself somehow.
"Yup, I'm well aware of that," she quipped.
"Good." He chuckled in response, his glance quickly falling on me before he faced her again, "Because you'll get to know someone else a bit better too."
I watched how Florence cocked her head at Salim, but when he didn't respond for a second too long, the penny finally dropped. "Are you fucking kidding me?" I muttered through gritted teeth.
"Phoenix," he warned me, the urgency in his eyes forcing me to swallow my pride and any expletives I would've wanted to use. "The team thinks it would be beneficial for you to get a glimpse into the mechanical aspects. Might help to understand the depth of it all."
"I already did that two years ago with Michael in Formula 2," I hushed back.
Salim threw me a glare that only infuriated me more. I knew he had a right to be angry, but putting me on the spot like that, letting me, a usually successful Formula 2 driver, work with mechanics when what I really needed was more time on the tracks... it was uncalled for and disrespectful, in a way.
"You will join Florence for the first few days. We will reconvene by Friday next week to figure out where to go then. For now, this is your job." His voice was firm and final before he leaned in and whispered, "Don't be an idiot, Phoenix. Just do what they want you to do."
My gaze fell on Florence, who unsurprisingly seemed rather amused by this turn of events. I was sure she had a peaceful time walking around here with a last name like her own, never having to fear she'd lose her spot if she fucked something up. She was entitled and had no issues to show it, either.
"Fine," I muttered, not leaving eye-contact with the infuriating brunette in front of me. "Is that all?" I asked Salim with a quick glance.
"Great. See you tomorrow." I jumped out of my chair and dashed out of the restaurant, knowing full-well Salim would have a word or two to say about that tomorrow.
I didn't care, though.
Right now, I had to make sure I wouldn't blow up in their faces.
It was time to get my control back.
Show them who exactly was made to race, to be the first through the finish line.