Chapter 6: Making Plans
This weekend was slowly turning out to be my worst nightmare.
At first I got stuck with Florence, then I had to do work I had no business or interest doing, and then Salim wanted me to play matchmaker for the drivers and the newbies?
Yeah, fuck no.
"Hi!" Florence's voice rang out as we reached the drivers' table. She took the lead in getting here, only stopping to grab a few snacks before she spotted the guys. "You must be Felipe and Lucien. I'm Florence. Good to meet you." She stuck out her hand to the two men, who reciprocated the notion with a wide grin.
No denying here they instantly knew who she was, and why she even got a chance in this business.
Felipe shot me a quick glance, his dark eyes holding a question I couldn't respond to. He really hadn't changed much from our karting days; He still carried the same dark hair, and his Spanish accent was still as thick as it was when I met him a few years ago. There was no doubt he got older, though, the five-o'clock shadow on his jaw reminding him of the years that passed.
"I'm Felipe. It's nice to meet you, Florence. This is Lucien." He nodded to the blonde French man next to him, nudging him in the shoulder in encouragement. "He's a bit shy."
"Oh, that's okay." Florence laughed and shook Lucien's hand. "I get that. Hope you're alright."
I suppressed a snort at the fact that the girl who kept sticking her nose into everyone's business just told someone she got what it was like to be shy.
Lucien nodded in response before he quickly removed his hand from Florence's, sticking it straight into his jeans pockets again. "Yes. Thank you."
We joined Felipe and Lucien at the round table, with me sitting next to Felipe while Florence got next to Lucien, leaving a seat between the two of us.
"So, Florence, you're here for..."
"... For the summer internship program." She finished Felipe's sentence. "The mechanical one, that is."
"Oh, that's cool." Lucien smiled. "Is it fun? It must be difficult, no?"
"Oh, I mean, it's awesome. Overwhelming already, but I mean I just started. So far the work has been... interesting." The glance she threw my way did not go by unnoticed, and I suppressed a groan at the memory of her arrogant attitude just hours before. "Phoenix and I took care of you guys' tires," she added with a laugh.
"Wait, Phoenix too?" It was Felipe's turn to shoot me a weird look, eyebrows raised as if he just heard the most absurd thing known to mankind.
I nodded in response, not seeing the need to elaborate any further. I liked Felipe, but this was no one's business but my own.
"Well, what the hell are you doing here? Getting some fresh Formula 1 air before you get back into your car?" Felipe dug deeper.
We raced each other a lot in our kart times, and I never wished any harm on the guy, but at this moment I just wanted him to shut up.
"Actually..." A voice to my right made me look up, and I frowned when I saw Connor Williams taking a seat next to me, a smug grin playing on his features as he said, "He's here because he punched someone."
Florence choked on the apple she just took a bite out of, slamming her chest to get it down as she squeezed out, "What?"
"Connor..." I warned him, feeling how my fingertips started itching again at the mere sight of the red headed idiot next to me.
"What? I was just answering the question." He shrugged.
Silence fell around us, and I could feel Florence's wide eyes on me as she muttered, "But... Like... What?"
I simply stared at her, trying my hardest to find a way out of this mess before the news got out. I didn't need people knowing about this when I hadn't even started, yet.
Felipe snorted, suppressing a grin on his lips as he chimed in, "Well, who was it?"
Yet again, I didn't interrupt the silence between us. I had no interest in sharing this information, especially not to these guys.
"I think it was their marketing guy or something," Connor muttered with a smirk, taking a bite of his pear.
Just looking at him made my veins burn, the smug expression on his face only worsening my mood. "Connor, I swear to God... Just shut the fuck up."
"Why? What do you want to do? Punch me?"
Florence coughed out a laugh at his response, but quickly suppressed the urge as she glanced over at me. "Sorry, but I mean... That was kinda funny."
"Wait," Felipe chimed in before I could even react to her, "So you punched Liam Drexler?"
I've never believed it when people said Formula 1 was worse than any high school drama, but the way these people fed off of others' tensions was absolutely ridiculous.
"Oh my fucking god! You did!" Felipe called out. "That's amazing. Wow. The idiot deserved that." He held out a fist to me, and even though I was still annoyed as hell by this entire situation, I gave in with a chuckle, bumping his fist with my own.
"You have no idea how much," I muttered.
"No, but I can imagine." He shook his head with a laugh, shooting me a look that told me we'd be talking about this more when we got the time to. "So, now the Nyx girl is working with you?"
"My name is Florence," she chimed in without missing a beat. "And really, it's him who's working with me. It's not like he's making much of an effort."
Why the fuck was everyone out to test me today?
"What the hell is that supposed to mean?" I snarled, curling my hands into fists beneath the table.
Florence scoffed before she took a sip of her coffee, leaning back in her chair as she said, "It means you can't even be there on time on your first day. You do know how to tell the time, right?"
"Oooh!" Felipe laughed. "Damn. She's ruthless."
"I just can't stand it when people get in my way," she replied with a shrug. "Unlike him, I'm taking this seriously."
I almost wanted to laugh at her sheer arrogance, but the way she stared at me made it hard to answer her in any way. Her green-blue eyes were filled with so much conviction, so much confidence and strength, that it got hard to look away, suddenly.
She seemed to falter under my gaze as well, the confusion on her face letting her otherwise hard facade crumble. It almost looked like she was about to give up, bringing this ridiculous staring battle to an end, but Lucien's words disrupted our interaction, anyway.
"Man, you two do not like each other, do you?"
"No," we both replied instantly, and even though I meant it, I couldn't help but smirk at our simultaneous answer.
That was something we agreed on, at least...
"Salim." I was seething by the time I got into his tiny office in the paddock, seeing him sitting by his desk with furrowed brows.
Lunch was a disaster, and I had no interest in continuing any work today until I knew exactly why I was here.
"Phoenix, what the hell are you doing here? Don't you have to be somewhere with Flo?"
"Fuck no." I slammed the door shut behind me, causing the makeshift office walls to rattle behind me. "You're gonna tell me what is really going on. Now. This is utter bullshit. I won't spend any more time sorting tires or doing anything with that woman. She annoys the fuck out of me."
Salim's trusting blue eyes stared straight into mine, and I could tell there was something else going on with the storm beneath his irises. There was something he wasn't telling me, and I was starting to get fed up with his behavior. I knew I needed him, but I also wouldn't just do as he said without knowing what he was planning.
"Sit down." He nodded at the chair opposite to him, but I stood still behind it, bracing my hands on the back.
"Just talk to me, Sal. What the fuck is going on?"
Frustration bubbled to the surface as he continued to look at me, as if that would somehow offer an answer to his weird behavior and the fact that I was thrown into this job without knowing what I was doing. This was ridiculous. And he knew it.
"Will you tell me what happened with Liam if I tell you about my plan?"
"No. No way will I—"
"Phoenix. I'll have to bring Henry into this if you don't trust me." Salim's threat was a valid one, one I knew he wouldn't make if it wasn't necessary.
Henry, my manager, was brilliant at his job, but I preferred him on the sidelines. He meddled a bit too much for my liking.
"Fine," I groaned. "I'll tell you. But only if you stop acting like I'm the villain here and talk to me about shit. Why the hell am I stuck with Nyx?"
Salim ran a hand through his hair and leaned back in his chair, his eyes now showing a sense of defeat as he took a deep breath. Something was definitely going on.
"You have to get her on your side, Phoenix."
"I'm sorry — what?" My eyes widened at his revelation. What kind of game was he playing?
"Look, I hate saying it, but Henry managed to wrap up some opportunities for you. He asked me to help you get there, and I will, but you need to play along."
"Well then stop beating around the bush and just tell me what's happening, for fuck's sake! I have no idea what you're talking about."
I was getting frustrated by this conversation. This was unlike Salim — the games, the secrets, the conversations behind closed doors. We've always had a very open relationship, and I never doubted that we were friends more than business partners.
Maybe I was wrong.
"Henry managed to get you a chance at the F1 team next season. Both drivers haven't renewed their contracts, yet." His words hung in the air, the loaded meaning behind them crashing into me with full force. I didn't come here thinking I'd have a chance at a driver's spot. I came here thinking I had to salvage my career.
Now I had the opportunity to make it, finally.
"What do we need?" There was no other question to be asked. Mom and I worked hard to get me here. I wouldn't let this chance slip through my fingers because of some minor complication.
A smile played on Salim's lips. He could probably tell I was starting to get my resolution back, the mere thought of being able to finally sit in that car fueling my spirit.
"Well, there's a few conditions, but the most important one is your prestige. Azure Racing will want to see you got companies on your tail; Sponsors who can make a brand out of you."
"Sponsors who want me to go to photoshoots with Connor Williams," I continued, remembering that damn folder I held a few days ago. "Fuck. I almost punched him in the face today. I don't think he'll be keen to help me out..."
"He isn't. Actually, he laughed right in my face when I asked him about it. The guy is a real dickhead..." Salim sighed. "But, there's a silver lining. I watched you guys during lunch earlier, and it seems like Flo is starting to get along with him well enough. I can imagine her words mean a bit in his eyes, so if you get her on your side, you have better chances at that sponsorship deal. You need it. Honestly, it's your only chance at getting out of the mess you got yourself in."
My grasp tightened around the chair I was holding on to, the sudden realization of what exactly transpired right in front of me making my head spin.
This was it. This was the one chance so many people were waiting for their whole life. I had it right in front of me.
All I needed to do was rein in my temper for a bit. That couldn't be that hard, right?
"Look," Salim's sigh ripped me out of my thoughts, "Take a day to think about it. Call your mom, talk it through, do whatever the hell you need to do to get your head straight. Henry wants an answer by next weekend, preferably before the practice session in Spain. We need to come up with a plan, contact sponsors, work our way through the hurdles... There's a lot to do. But we can do it. I just need you to—"
"I'll do it," I answered, shaking out my hands as if I just got zapped. Adrenaline coursed through me at the mere thought of sitting in that car, racing for one of the top teams out there. "I can be nice to her if that means I get the damn seat. It'll be hard, given that girl is a real pain in the ass, but yeah. I'll do it. She only needs to like me enough to encourage Connor to do the shoot with me, right?"
God, never in my life did I think I'd be hoping to get close to Connor Williams, of all people. If it went my way, I would've just never seen that idiot ever again.
Salim nodded in response. "Right. Just stop being an asshole. She's a good girl, Phoenix, no matter what you think."
I rolled my eyes at that remark. For some reason, he defended the girl quite a lot. "I'm starting to think you have a crush on her, man. That's weird."
Salim laughed, his dark hair shaking on his head as he retorted, "Nope. That would just... No. I don't... No. Just no." He laughed awkwardly, clearing his throat as he sat up straight in his chair. "Now, will you please take a seat and tell me about Liam Drexler?"
"Fine." I groaned, slumping into the chair in front of me. "But everything I say will stay in this room."
His features softened, but I could tell he was nervous about what was to come next. "Obviously."
"Alright then... Let's talk."