Chapter 41: Victories and Promises
“You look too smug for my liking.”
I glanced over at Salim, who was looking up at the dark sky with furrowed brows. He didn’t like nighttime races.
I fucking loved them.
People were rushing past us, the nervous pre-race aura bustling around the starting grid.
“Don’t know what you’re talking about.” I leaned against the pit wall and stared at the garage at the other side of the track, watching how various Azure employees got things sorted for the race.
It wasn’t hard to spot who I was looking for; she was tall enough to make most other men in there look like gnomes, and her assertive spirit was so blatant that it was impossible to look past Florence Nyx.
She’d truly taken my breath away this morning; our conversation beneath the car popped back into my head. The mere memory of our agreement made me smirk, and I ran my hand over my arm, still feeling where her fingers brushed over my inked skin.
It was another thing that hadn’t changed between us; Her touch still burned straight into me, marking me for life.
“Yeah, bullshit,” Idir quipped, throwing a cooling pad over my sore shoulders. “You know you’re staring, right?”
I shrugged, silently welcoming the cooldown in this desert heat while I watched how Florence looked at her flip chart and shouted orders around. “I don’t give a damn.” My response was final, because really… I’d stopped giving a fuck about what people thought about me.
Flo looked up, her gaze almost instantly setting on my car. I enjoyed the way she scanned the crowd until her eyes met mine, the fierce intensity in them firing up my resolve to win this damn race.
“It’s creepy.” Idir shook his head.
“And I care because?” I asked, not leaving Flo’s stare. Her eyes widened slightly as they settled on something to my right, and I cocked my head to the side, wondering what she saw that I didn’t.
Following her gaze, I spotted Connor Williams just a few feet over, talking to a few members of his team. His sleek blonde hair looked exactly the way it did a few months ago when I’d last seen.
He’d graced me with his presence back at Christmas in Ireland, where his fuckface of a father had invited everyone over. Back then, he’d still been talking about his Indycar career. Who knew why the fuck he joined Formula 1 so suddenly.
All I knew was that I’d done my best avoiding him since he’d joined Pandora Racing. There was no need for us to expand this very unpleasant relationship outside of obligatory family dinners.
He nodded a greeting in my direction, his eyes hesitant but just as juvenile blue as they’d always been. Memories of that one fateful day flashed in my mind; the one favor he’d done for me and that would always make me feel like I owed him kept rushing through my brain. It was probably the only reason I’d tolerated him the way I did.
The way he’d shaken his head when he’d driven away from Florence’s street in his trashed Ferrari was still visible to me, his disapproval of my decision clear as day. He’d called me an idiot, a dumbass, a coward… All for not fighting more, for leaving the way I’d done it.
I’d cursed myself for how I’d let things transpire as well, but ultimately, I knew what I’d done was right.
Or at least, that’s what I’d thought…
“I mean, you don’t have to care.” Idir’s comment zapped me back to reality, to the conversation we were having right before I’d spotted Connor. “But people are noticing.”
“I don’t give a fuck who notices, Id. I’m old enough to live my damn life.”
He raised his hands in defense, handing me a bottle of the Azure Energy drink that tasted like piss. I couldn’t stand the stuff, which is why Idir had refilled it with plain old water, just so I’d uphold my brand obligations toward the team while also not killing my body with unnecessary amounts of sugar and caffeine.
“Not saying you aren’t. Just saying you might want to prioritize a little. With the way Williams is staring at you, I bet he has something to say…”
“And once again: why the hell should I care?” I ran a hand through my hair, watching how Connor got back to speaking to his trainer.
Of course he’d have something to say to me — he always did. I just didn’t want to hear it, especially not now that he was two places ahead of me.
“You really want me to say it?” Idir asked, making me turn to look at him. Amusement lingered in his irises, though I could tell he wasn’t playing around right now. He was just waiting to throw my secrets in my face.
Why did I tell him so much about my life again?
“No,” I said, my gaze wandering to the large Rolex clock at the start of the grid. “I need to get into my car.”
“You still have five minutes.”
I ignored him, pulling the fireproof balaclava over my head and setting myself up for the race. With my helmet and gloves on, I finally stepped into the racecar with the bright red seven on it, not even looking at Idir as he helped me get settled.
“Radio check, radio check, Phoenix.” Chris’s familiar voice rang through my ears, and I glanced over at the pit wall, where he poked his head out at the side, facing me.
I raised my thumb in response. “Loud and clear, Jojo.”
“Man, I thought I’d told you to stop calling me that…” I could hear the smirk on Chris’s voice, his face now hidden behind the screens of the pit wall. He’d been part of the team for a long while, and we’d worked together when I first started at Azure. Chris was an arrogant bastard, but damn… he knew what he was doing.
“Help me win this damn championship, and I will.”
Chris poked his head out again, brow raised. “That a deal?”
I nodded. “I’m a man of my word, Jojo, you know that.”
“Yeah ’cause you barely speak.”
“That’s your job, not mine.”
He shook his head, his deep chuckle vibrating through the radio as he disappeared behind the wall once more. “Yeah, true. Come on, let’s start by staying in the top six today.”
Rolling my eyes, I was just about to answer, when a sudden shadow cast upon me made me look up.
Florence stood there in her Azure Racing overalls, a dark blue cap on her head. The red seven on her brim did all kinds of things to my body — things that surely needed more space than the confinements of a Formula 1 car.
She was really wearing my fucking number.
“Hey.” Flo walked over to me, arms braced on the protective halo on the top of the cockpit, while she squatted to meet me at eye level.
There was something about the way she looked at me that made me swallow hard, the raging fire in her eyes burning any shred of control I had left.
“Hi,” I responded, voice hoarse. Good fucking god — we were back to stuttering teenage-Phoenix again. Couldn’t say I liked it.
I better win that fucking race…
“Just wanted to wish you good luck out there,” she said, but she must’ve seen my raised brow beneath the helmet. “Sorry.” Her melodic laugh stood out in the noisy sea that was a Formula 1 starting grid, and I couldn’t help but stare as her blue-green eyes glimmered with something celestially beautiful. “We both know this is not about luck, obviously…”
“It’s about dedication,” I muttered, not even hearing myself amongst all the noise.
The smile on her lips told me she understood, her hand now finding my shoulder before she gave it a gentle squeeze. “It is. But don’t let dedication blind you from what’s right in front of you.”
She got up with a wink, straightened her overalls, and walked away, heading to the back of the grid. My guess was she was looking for Felipe, who was waiting in sixth place.
I understood what she was trying to say, though. It was the same thing Chris had told me.
Don’t aim for the race win; aim for the points. The car had improved, but it still wasn’t perfect. Not perfect enough to fight against Connor or Rafael.
Our team needed the points, and I’d better bring home a safe position than none.
And as I watched her walk away through my mirror, hips swaying beneath the loose fabric of her overalls, I knew I needed much more than just numbers in a chart if I wanted to bag this damn championship.
I needed to win the damn race.
Unfortunately, that was easier said than done.
Because as soon as the rest of the drivers got into their cars and we started the formation lap, I knew I was in for one hell of a ride. Connor’s teammate, James Liko, was right on my heels. He had the better car, and he knew it. I could practically see his smug rich-kid grin through the mirror.
As we stopped in front of the lights, I promised to defend this position with everything that I had, even if it was just for a few rounds. But when the lights turned red one by one, I could feel it in my fingertips, in the roaring engine that vibrated through my entire body.
I could do this. I could bring this car to the podium.
The lights turned off, and I kicked the gas pedal, getting off with a fantastic start. James was right next to me by the time we got to the first corner, but I slammed the brakes a little later than him, forcing him to pull back to avoid a collision.
He was a rookie, a spoiled one at that, and I got the feeling he hesitated a little more than he risked. That was my one advantage today.
“Good job, Phoenix. Keep pushing.” I ignored Chris’s comment, my sole focus on the race ahead of me.
The next few turns would be crucial for the first half of the race. I took every corner as tightly as I could, making sure I stayed up front and was in the right position to have enough grip at the corner exit. James was right beside me, sometimes even ahead of me for a split second, but I kept my nose ahead every time for the first ten laps.
“Alright, great job, Phoenix. Looks like Liko has to conserve tires now, so he’s backing off.”
A glance in the mirror confirmed Chris’s statement; James’ golden Pandora was a few car-lengths behind me, getting smaller and smaller with every corner I took. Defending took a lot out of my tires, but attacking me the way he did would damage his wheels a lot more.
“What’s happening at the front?” I asked, looking ahead at the empty straight. Rafael and Connor must’ve taken advantage of our battle, their cars not even visible in the distance.
“Nyx is 9.3 seconds ahead, Williams 12.7 seconds.”
“Ten seconds? How the fuck did that happen?” I gritted my teeth, taking turn after turn. James got smaller and smaller in my mirror, and every few corners, I saw the leading cars in the distance. It ground my gears massively.
“They have the better cars at the moment, Phoenix. We need to focus on bringing this position home. Liko is already four seconds behind you; Look after your tires, and we’ll keep P3 with the right strategy.”
And as I raced down the asphalt lap after lap, always making sure to not hit the kerbs as aggressively as I would’ve if I was actually racing for a win, I couldn’t help but curse this damn car.
I hadn’t become a race driver to bring home third places.
I was a race driver because I wanted to fucking win.
“Look at the bigger picture, Phoenix.” Chris must’ve read my mind, his voice cracking through my radio as we’re halfway through the race. “Fifteen points is a lot more than zero.”
“Didn’t know you could do basic maths,” I quipped, racing down the straight.
Chris’s chuckle rolled through the radio. “I can do enough to tell you we’re gonna bring this home if you can keep the tires going for another five laps. Everyone else is on a two-stop strategy. Liko already stopped and is twenty-five seconds behind you. If we can keep him there, we’re good. The pit stop should take about twenty-two seconds of our time.”
“Copy.” I glanced ahead, frowning at the black spots on my front tires. “I have blisters on both fronts. How bad are they?”
Blisters, meaning small chunks of the tire that broke off from overheating, were the last thing I needed. Until now, I’d been damn surprised by how smoothly I could drive this car; a car that was undrivable just a week ago.
I crossed the start-and-finish line while Chris looked at the data, hopefully telling me I won’t have to come in and get new tires yet.
Four more laps to go.
“Well,” Chris chimed back in, “Bad enough that I have a brunette mechanic breathing down my neck about bringing you in now.”
I couldn’t help but smirk at the mental image of Florence standing behind Chris, probably ordering him around. They really underestimated how much she knew, considering she wasn’t just a mechanic. She was an engineer as well, a smart one, at that. Smart enough to understand the numbers and graphs displayed on the pit wall like anyone else sitting there.
“Tell her to breathe,” I responded, taking another corner. The start-and-finish line now reappeared in front of me, and I smiled at the memory of Flo’s breathing exercise all those years ago. She’d really taught me a lot.
“She says — you know what? I won’t tell you what she said. Just focus on the damn race and stop flirting. Start pushing.”
Once again, I crossed the start-and-finish line, kicking the gas pedal.
Three more laps.
He was probably right — I had to fly now, otherwise the gaps would close.
“Times?” I asked, racing down the hairpin corner while glancing at my tires. “Also, the front right looks bad. I don’t know how much longer I can keep up this pace.”
“Liko is 24.8 seconds behind you, followed by Felipe. Williams and Nyx in front of you are 20.5 and 27.3 seconds ahead. Just stay off the kerbs to keep the tires alive.”
God, I hated that Connor was so much faster than everyone else. I’d lose my shit if he won the championship this year. Bet his dad would love that.
Being careful around the kerbs, I squeezed these tires for every second they had to spare, while also trying to be gentle. I was not losing this race to a puncture.
“Box, box, Phoenix. Box, box.” Chris’s voice made me furrow my brows as I sped past the last corner. I had two more laps to go.
“Now? Already?” I could do another round on these tires. I knew it.
“Confirm. Box, box.”
Shaking my head, I pulled into the pit lane. I wasn’t about to go above team orders on my second race back.
The pit stop went smoothly, and quickly enough they fit me with four new medium tires before I drove down the lane.
“Alright, looking good. Liko is coming down the straight now… Be careful at the exit.”
I rushed down the pit lane, accelerating the second I crossed the pit-exit line. James’s golden car appeared in my side mirror, though it was far enough for me to stay ahead of him. I gave it all I got, taking the first corner fluidly and thus keeping James behind me at arm’s length.
“Great job, Phoenix. Now bring it home.”
Through the second half of the race, James tried to attack me, but having the fresher set of tires, I could fend him off at every corner, until I finally got some distance between our cars. The next thirty laps felt like an eternity, always looking in the mirror and spotting that damn golden car right behind me.
“Last lap, Phoenix. Last lap.”
Fucking music to my ears.
I sped down the racetrack with James on my heels, his pace now suddenly similar to mine. He appeared right by my side a few times, but I kept fighting him off, keeping hit at arm’s length as we reached the last turn.
Fireworks erupted at the end of the straight, announcing the end of the Bahrain Grand Prix, but I focused on something else.
The golden car appearing right by my side.
I floored the gas pedal, now neck-and-neck with James to my left, who made the mistake of glancing over at me. I used his distracted momentum and almost unnoticeably nudged toward him, wanting to close the gap by taking the ideal line. James obviously didn’t think I’d be bold enough to move in on him like that, the sound of his brakes now erupting around me as he let me pass.
Crossing the finish line, I bathed in the adrenaline coursing through my veins, the cheers of my team now echoing through the radio. It was also the first time since I’d sat in this car that I noticed the audience cheering me on, some of them wearing the red seven on their blue flags. I’d never been a big fan of the media hype around Formula 1, but I couldn’t deny it felt fucking good seeing all of them here.
Even though I hadn’t won the fucking race.
“Fantastic job, Phoenix. That was clinical. Absolutely insane,” Chris said, his voice laced with laughter and pride.
“Agreed, Phoenix,” Michael chimed in now. “Great job. Am very proud of you. We will win next time.”
Finishing my slow lap, I pulled into park fermé, stopping right next to Connor’s golden Pandora. Unexpectedly, he was in first place, right next to Rafael’s white car in second place.
“Yeah,” I sighed, looking at the two cars to my left. What a fucking nightmare. “I fucking hope so, Michael. I really fucking hope so.”
He really did it.
I was still in disbelief by the time I reached park fermé, watching how Phoenix parked his car. I kept my distance, standing behind the wall of mechanics that gathered around the parked race cars.
Connor was already outside, and I watched how Rafi got out of his vehicle, a fist thrown into the air before he searched the crowd. His gaze met mine, and I shot him a bright smile from the distance, wanting him to know I was really damn proud of him, even if he wasn’t driving for my team.
He shot me an awkward wink through the opened visor of his helmet, bumped fists with Connor, and then jumped into his team’s arms, letting them celebrate him as best as they could.
All the while, Phoenix got out as well, carefully removing the steering wheel and shoulder pad before he placed them back inside. He looked at the car for a moment, holding on to the halo as he closed his eyes. A vulnerability lay beneath his movements, beneath the display of tenderness toward his car, that made my heart stop for a moment. It was a stark contrast to the Phoenix who kicked this vehicle just a week ago.
With a last pat to the front right tire, which looked like an absolute mess, he made his way over to the rest of the team. My mechanics, Chris, and Michael all greeted him with cheers and pats on the top of his helmet, though I could tell from the distance that Phoenix didn’t feel this moment as much as the rest of us did.
While Connor and Rafi went to the scale, Phoenix stepped back and scanned the area, his sparkling green eyes soon finding mine. The disappointment was visible in his features, in the way his smile didn’t quite reach his eyes when he nodded to the side, gesturing for me to join them.
I shook my head, mouthing, “Congratulations. Go celebrate!” but Phoenix frowned in response, his eyes narrowed. Truth was, I would’ve loved to jump into his arms and celebrate his victory with him, but I knew I was being watched, and there was no way in hell I’d repeat my past mistakes. If we went down that route again, we’d do it differently this time.
I had taken control over my life, and I wasn’t going to give it up like that again.
“Number seven, Phoenix McCoy!” It was Thomas Stewart, today’s post-race interview host, who broke our contact. His gray hair shook on his head as he waved Phoenix over. “Come over here, big boy. Tell us about that race!”
Throughout the after-race celebrations, the podium ceremony, and champagne showers, I watched Phoenix closely. For someone who just scored fifteen points for the driver’s championship and important points for our team, he really didn’t look all that happy.
And yet I couldn’t help the massive grin on my lips when he aimed the bottle at our mechanics, spraying all of them with the champagne that also drowned his racing suit. He was putting on an act, and I was damn glad he did. These people deserved recognition.
They all cheered him on as he waved and followed Connor and Rafi back inside, the trophy raised above his head to acknowledge our efforts.
“You guys go celebrate.” I spotted Jin and squeezed his shoulder, nodding to the rest of the team. “I’ll join you at the bar.”
“You sure?” he asked, brow raised.
“Yeah, I’m sure. I just need to process for a second.”
I was damn glad when Jin didn’t fight me, but sent me my way with a smile, as always understanding when and how I enforced my boundaries. This was a wild weekend, and I really had to take a breath.
My heart rate slowed the second I entered the empty garage, the eerie silence only disturbed by faint celebrations and cheers. Opening the supply closet, I then leaned against the wall in the darkness. I focused on my breathing with closed eyes, trying to calm my racing mind.
Mentally, I was already in Miami, preparing for the next race. There was so much work to do if we wanted to win this championship, and it was my responsibility to make sure it got done.
Sometimes, just sometimes, I wondered if I’d be able to do it all.
But then I took a deep breath and remembered who I was.
I was Florence fucking Nyx, and I would achieve whatever the hell I’d set my mind on.
“You didn’t celebrate.” The voice made me jump, and I squinted my eyes when the lights flickered on, revealing a drenched Phoenix in the doorway. The dangerous mix of champagne and gasoline entered the room as I studied the wet and dark hair on his head, fitting right with the damp racing suit that clung to his body.
“You didn’t either,” I retorted, clearing my throat. I hated how he always caught me off guard, how he brought down my defenses with a simple look.
“I did.” He waved his hands around, pointing at his drenched being.
The smile on my lips was involuntary, but it must’ve been bright enough to elicit a similar reaction from him, the corners of his mouth now twitching up.
“You didn’t feel it, though,” I couldn’t help but comment. “The win, I mean.”
“’Cause I didn’t win.” He narrowed his eyes at me, the ambiguity of his statement blatant as ever.
“But you did. You did the impossible today. That was one hell of a drive.”
It was the truth — watching how Phoenix controlled the car over such a long distance, how he fought off Liko without endangering him or others. That was pure skill. Not many drivers on the grid would’ve been able to pull that off while also conserving their tires.
“Still, I didn’t win.” He stepped closer to me, invading my personal space enough to make me feel every damn nerve ending of my body, but still leaving me room to breathe.
Fuck. His scent was intoxicating as hell.
Get your head straight, Flo.
“You will, though. Soon. Give it time.”
“Don’t know if you can tell; but I’m a very impatient man.”
A laugh fled my lips at this understatement of the century. “Hadn’t noticed.”
He studied me for a moment, the smirk on his lips turning brighter with every second that passed.
“The car was great today,” he said, his voice light and the forest in his eyes honest as ever. “You’ve done an incredible job, Florence. Thank you for that.”
My heart soared from the compliment, from the appreciation of the hard work I’d put in over the past weeks. It meant a lot coming from the one person who could actually feel the difference when he raced his heart out.
The twinkle on my lips turned into a full-on beam that became hard to contain, my cheeks already hurting. This was the nicest thing anyone had said to me in a while.
“Well, fuck me…” Phoenix muttered, almost inaudibly so, “I really have to tell you that more often.”
With a clearing of my throat, I tried to stop the heat creeping into my face, gaze still directed at the now sparkling green eyes of this way-too-handsome man in front of me.
“You were remarkable, too. I mean, like… Really. That race was breathtaking to watch.”
And it might sound ridiculous, but I was convinced I saw a blush beneath that champagne-covered skin on his face, his lips twitching up into a genuine smile now.
“Thanks.” He glanced at the floor for a quick second, a second that was apparently long enough to redirect his thoughts to something else, his curious gaze instantly meeting mine again. “What did you tell Chris?”
“On the radio. I told him to tell you to breathe. He didn’t want to tell me what you said. What was it?”
Well, if my cheeks hadn’t been crimson already, they surely would’ve been now.
Truth was, as much as I preached that we had to celebrate every victory we could, I knew Phoenix and I had one thing in common.
We were hard workers, and neither of us would settle for anything but the best of the best. It was what’d made us so dangerous in the past, and would still do so right now. Because when two people reached for the stars, they were destined to collide somewhere along the way.
All we could do was hope the collision wouldn’t destroy our very own solar system.
“I told him to tell you…” Straightening myself up, I met him at eye-level. His gaze flicked to my mouth as it moved, and I couldn’t help but mirror the action, watching how his tongue darted over his dark bottom lip. It did something indescribable to me, and so I focused back on his eyes, who were trained on mine once more.
“I told him to tell you… to win the damn race.”
The confident smirk on his lips brought my defenses down, and I steadied myself with my palms flat against the wall behind me when he stepped closer yet again. “You did, huh?”
I nodded, squaring myself up to full height. The glimmer in his eyes told me he noticed my challenging stance, but he didn’t make any move to meet my attitude. “I did.”
“Well...” His breath tickled my skin as he leaned in, the champagne on his hair brushing against my cheek when he whispered, “Guess I’ll just have to win soon, then.”
Phoenix leaned back, the challenge in his irises now as potent as my own. “Guess you do, McCoy.”
Thank you for being so patient with me. I have a shit ton to do at the moment and with all the chaos, a short span of writer’s block hit me hard. I was inspired by watching a few Formula 1 races while I did my teaching homework lol so here you go!
I hope you enjoyed this race chapter, it was the first one that was a little more detailed and I hope y’all understood what I was talking about! It was certainly fun to write.
Oh, also, to top my stress, I woke up with a cold today so that’s why I had the time to finish and edit this chapter. Gotta find the good in bad situations, huh?
I hope you all stay safe and healthy!
Lots of love.