Chasing Lights

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Chapter 9: Mimosas

Phoenix

This following race weekend had basically slipped through my fingers. The amount of time I’d spent socializing, connecting, trying to get into good graces with those who mattered, exhausted the fuck out of me.

I felt like Formula 1′s very own hooker, hired to please those who only wanted me for their amusement or personal gain.

By the time the start had rolled around, I was more than happy to disappear into the driver’s room, watching the race in silence rather than staying out in the garage. I knew Salim wouldn’t like me being here, given he preferred me staying close to Florence where others would see it, but I honestly didn’t give a damn.

Somehow, I wasn’t even sure if the plan we came up with was going to work. I’d noticed a tension between Florence and Connor over the weekend, but Connor just shrugged me off when I asked what was going on. Asking Florence was not an option, given I’d avoided her since our run-in at the hotel. Something about our encounter triggered me, although I couldn’t tell what it was. Maybe it was the fact that she seemed almost infatuated by me, or maybe it was just that she was going out on a date on a work day when she always announced how professional she was.

Whatever it was, it caused me to keep my distance, and I didn’t mind. Something about that woman irked me anyway, and I had no interest in discovering what it was.

The vibration in my pocket distracted me from the race that was about to end — not looking good for our team, unfortunately —, and I felt my heart stop when I glanced at the screen.

My mom.

Just a few months ago, seeing her name would’ve made me smile harder than I could, but right now it was just a blaring reminder that she pushed me into a position I had no interest being in.

“Hey, Ma.” I picked up the phone with a whisper, not needing anyone to hear the conversation I was about to have.

“Hi, sweetheart.” Her familiar tone made me close my eyes for a moment. I could basically hear the strain in her voice — she always hated when we fought. “How are you feeling? I saw you running around in the background today.”

A laugh fled my lips at her remark. This was something completely Mom-like, closely watching the TV to spot her son somewhere in the middle of the chaos.

“Um, yeah. We had to rush to get everything set up in time. The jet lag had us all wiped out.”

Her laugh traveled down the line. “Well, you’re staying in Europe for now, so the jet lag won’t be as bad for the time being, huh?”

“Guess so,” I responded with a sigh, trying to find comfort in the following silence between us.

It was impossible to, though, because my mother and I were never silent around each other. If anything, we could be who we were around us, not having to worry about our weird dynamics. Guess that was what happened when your mother raised you on her own from day one.

“Phoenix…” My mother cleared her throat, and I could basically hear the way she ran a hand through her dark short hair, a motion too predictable to miss. “Are you doing okay? I miss you.”

My heart ached from her words. “I’m okay, Mom. I just have no interest in being part of that family. Especially not when it leaves you in Ireland…”

“Sweetheart, you said you didn’t want them to move to our place…”

“Yeah, because over my dead body will Sebastian Williams move into my house.” I had a hard time keeping my voice down by now, but luckily Lucien’s driver’s room seemed as deserted as could be on race day. “You know what I think of him. Under no circumstances will that guy, or his son for that matter, step foot into our home, do you hear me?”

The silence between us spoke volumes, and I brought my hand to a fist before I uncurled it again, living with the pain my nails left on my palm.

“You’d love it here, though. In Ireland, I mean. It’s just as I remember it as a kid…”

“I don’t care what Ireland is like, Ma. I know it’s your heritage, but all I got from it is my damn last name. And honestly, it doesn’t matter where we go, as long as they don’t go with us. I just wish you’d stay the fuck away from him.”

A sigh fled my mom’s lips. “Phoenix, sweetheart, please calm down. This is not—”

“I’m not calming down, Ma.” My heart was pounding in my chest, the rage in my veins from hearing her defend this man of all people suddenly too much to handle. “I don’t understand what you want with that fucking asshole. What does he get you? He doesn’t even make you happy! He’s destroying everything we worked so hard for.”

“He’s not—”

“You know what, I won’t continue this over the phone.” I shot up from my bench, running a frustrated hand through my hair as I muttered, “You know I love you, Ma. It’s just harder when this dickhead is around.”

I knew what she was going to say. I knew she would try to convince me to give him a chance, but there was no way in hell I would do that after the way he treated her.

With all uncertainties in this life, there was one thing I was more than certain of.

Sebastian Williams was not a good man. And I wanted to stay far, far away from him.

“I’ll talk to you another time, Ma. Stay safe.”

I hung up the phone without waiting for her to interject. There wasn’t much she could’ve said that would’ve kept me on the line anyway, and I hated fighting with her like that.

This wasn’t us, but this also wasn’t my decision. It was hers.

And it wasn’t like Sebastian Williams ever tried to keep his distance, like I asked him to. No, instead he had to push himself into my team, integrating his son in my world when all I wanted was for them to stay far away from it.

“Where were you?” Salim called out after me as I rushed out of the paddock, waltzing straight to the hotel next door.

“I watched the race from Lucien’s room.” I didn’t even look at him as I dashed up the stairs to the hotel lobby.

“Why? I told you to get out there, show your face… This is not how it works!”

“Fucking hell, Salim!” I stopped at the top of the stairs, looking down at my friend, who seemed more than unimpressed by my outburst. “Just leave me the fuck alone for one damn night, alright?!”

“I’m afraid I can’t do that,” he retorted, matching my frustrated energy. “You have a party to go to.”

“I’m not going to the damn after party. We didn’t even score points today!”

Salim stormed up the stairs to meet me at eye-level, squaring himself up to full height, as if that made any difference right now. “That’s exactly why you need to go to that party. You know as much as anyone that team morale is the holy grail of this business. We need to brighten the mood a bit.”

“And you’re bringing me in to do that?” I almost laughed at his suggestion.

“It’s that, or spending the night with Connor in your room.” He shrugged. “I saw him leave earlier in the race because of a headache of some sorts. And even though our incentive is to get him on our side, there are other people who need to see your face, first.”

The fact that Connor and I still had to share rooms still irritated the hell out of me, especially now that Salim used it as a bargaining chip to get me to do stuff.

All I could do was stare at him, trying to figure out if this was actually some event I had to participate in, or if he was just trying to make me socialize again.

The longer I looked at him, the more I realized I’d stand in my own way if I denied his advice. I might not have liked the way things operated in Formula 1, but if I wanted to achieve my dream, I had to bring sacrifices. I just didn’t expect my sanity to be one of them…

“I won’t talk to people.”

“Never said you had to.” A wide grin spread on his lips. “Just saying you had to show your face. Go mope in a corner if that’s what you need, just show that you’re there.”

With a shake of my head, I followed him out of the front door. “Just for the record, I hate this.”

A thin smile appeared on his lips as he slapped my shoulder, pulling me in for a half-side-hug. “I know you do. And you know I understand why you did what you did, but that doesn’t change that in the eyes of the team, you fucked up.”

“How much longer do they want to hold that against me?”

“It’s only been a week, my friend. Be patient. Show your face, and try not to punch any assholes while you’re at it, alright?”

***

Turned out, his request was harder than expected. Because even though I stayed in the background, lingering by the bar as I watched interns, mechanics, engineers, and the few dozens of Azure employees get hammered, I couldn’t avoid the assholes.

It didn’t take long for Sebastian William to appear by my side, his strong aftershave instantly making me scrunch my nose. “Phoenix.”

“Sebastian.” I focused on something on the other side of the room as I greeted him, not even realizing what it was until a ball of blue hair danced left and right.

Viola was dancing with Florence, both of them sipping mimosas as they sang along to some nineties pop song running in the background. My gaze fell on Florence, who was still wearing her uniform as she tied her hair into a bun, almost spilling the drink all over herself in the process. The two of them just laughed at the few drops that landed on her shirt as they continued to dance, almost like they were on their own.

“She’s pretty,” Sebastian said. I didn’t have to see who he was looking at to know he was referring to Florence, who had the majority of eyes on her, anyway.

I wasn’t sure if it was because of her looks, or just her general attitude and appearance, but she surely raised attention wherever she went. Viola’s company didn’t help those matters, either.

“You know she was dumb enough to turn Connor down?” he asked with a laugh. That piece of information got my attention, and I turned around to find Sebastian staring at me with a smug grin. “I mean, my son is an idiot, but Florence really seems like the bigger idiot when she turns the kid down who could make her career.”

Something about the way he spoke about Florence, and hell, even about Connor, irked me. I didn’t know what it was, but Sebastian Williams had a way of getting under your skin that was unlike anything I had ever experienced. His eyes held nothing but venom, and the way he licked his teeth beneath his lips made me want to disappear into the pits of despair. Anything was better than being around this man. I really didn’t understand what Mom wanted with him…

“Well, I don’t have the time to stand here and watch you pout about whatever got you acting like a child,” he said with a high-pitched chuckle. “Just saying, watch who you surround yourself with, kid. Connections are everything in this business…”

And just like that, he shot me another disgusting wink and disappeared through the front door. I didn’t know how long I was staring at the exit as I let my mind work, trying to figure out what exactly he was trying to tell me.

Why was Connor asking Florence out? Why would she refuse? Why the hell does Sebastian of all people try to tell me who I surround myself with?

But most important of all… How would I get closer to Connor, now that Florence wasn’t in his good graces anymore?

“Hey, grumpy cat!” A familiar but strange giggle right next to me made me turn around, and my eyes widened when I saw Florence leaning against the bar just a foot away from me, a wide grin plastered on her lips. “You look sad! Are you sad?”

I blinked a few times, needing a moment to take in this alternative version of Florence Nyx. This wasn’t the dark and straight-forward girl I’ve seen until now. This was… I couldn’t even tell what, exactly.

“Are you drunk?” I asked, glancing at the empty glass in her hand.

“What?” She threw her head back in laughter, holding on to the bar to not fall over backward. “Noooo! It’s just orange juice!” Another giggle fled from her lips as she grabbed a glass from the waiter who passed us, his tray filled to the brim with mimosas. I couldn’t even react with how fast she downed the drink, slamming the champagne glass back on the bar. “Man, I’m so thirsty!”

The way she held onto the bar made me frown, but I also couldn’t help but laugh by the way she gesticulated wildly while she spoke.

“How many of those did you have?” I asked with a raised brow, inching closer to her when she started swaying left and right.

“Uhhh, I don’t know. Four? Maybe Five?” She held up her hand, trying to count her fingers with one eye closed. “Maybe it was six? I can’t remember… Am I dumb?”

“I don’t think so.” I couldn’t help but laugh now. “You’re just drunk. Be glad you’re in Europe, where this is actually legal…”

“Wait!” Florence’s eyes widened and her outstretched hand found my own, squeezing it tightly as she hushed, “Oh my god… Am I… drunk?”

“Yup, pretty sure you are.”

Florence just stood there, staring straight at me while not moving an inch — well, apart from the part where she was trying to hold her balance — until she asked almost inaudibly, “Really?”

I nodded, holding onto her hand as she suddenly stumbled forward, leaning in to whisper into my ear, “You cannot tell anyone! My dad would kill me! Oh no, the media! I don’t want them to ruin it for him! Does anyone see—”

“Florence,” I interrupted her ramblings, “Calm down. There’s no media at these parties. They’re for the team only. The only ones seeing this are, well… The rest of the team.” I glanced around the room, trying to catch a glimpse of Viola, to no avail.

What a nice friend she is.

“Okay…” She took a deep breath and pulled back, holding her eyes wide open. “Phoenix, I think I need to puke. I can’t puke during the team party. Oh my god, what if Michael sees me puking here… This is ruining my career.”

Florence seemed actually panicked, her wide eyes flying around the room as she mumbled every person’s name she saw. Her grasp on my hand tightened with every name she said, and soon I felt my blood circulation get cut off completely, her nails digging into my skin.

“Alright, alright… Stop, Florence,” I muttered, pulling her hand and making her look up at me. Her glassy eyes had trouble focusing on me, and so I put my palm beneath her chin, letting her stand still as she finally found my glance. She swallowed visibly as our gazes locked, the dark green in her irises seeming anxious, suddenly. “Come on, I’ll get you to your room. But you need to listen to me, okay?”

She vigorously nodded her head, and again I put my palm beneath her chin to make her stop moving so much.

“Okay. Just stop looking at me like that and start telling me what I need to do so I…. So I don’t puke.”

I couldn’t help but smirk at her bossy nature, even when she was trying to hold herself together. “Just keep squeezing my hand and take deep breaths, alright? And I’m sorry, but you’ll have to keep looking at me. Don’t mind what’s around you.”

With a squeeze of my hand, she nodded again; her gaze still set on mine. This vulnerable part of her startled me, but I couldn’t tell if I liked it, really. There was something new about the tame version of Florence Nyx, but sometimes new wasn’t right. Sometimes the familiar, as annoying it could be, was exactly what we were looking for.

“Phoenix…” Her hushed voice made me focus back on her. “I’m doing what you said. I’m focusing on you. Now go!”

“Oh, right…” I cleared my throat as I pulled us out of the bar, taking the back door into the hallway.

“Not so fast!” Florence stumbled behind, closing her eyes as the motion sensors kicked in and illuminated the space in bright fluorescent light. “Ew. This is making it worse…” She fisted my leather jacket, resting her forehead against my back as she took another deep breath. “I don’t know how I’m going to make it up the stairs.”

“I’m not carrying you,” I retorted instantly, glancing over my shoulder.

“Fuck you.” She laughed, still hiding in my jacket. “I don’t want you to carry me. You’re not my knight in shining armor.”

“True. The only armor I wear is a racing suit,” I responded with a chuckle, suddenly enjoying myself. With the day I’ve had, genuine laughter felt like a bandaid for my soul. “For real, though… We need to get you up there.”

Florence groaned, but nodded her head as she wrapped one arm around my stomach. The sudden movement made my heart stop for a moment, and I ended up staring at the brunette who now hugged me from behind as she muttered, “I know. Can we walk like this? It feels better when I’m not looking.”

I took a moment to get used to her close contact, clearing my throat as I focused on what was in front of me again. “Well… We can try.”

And we actually succeeded, too. It took much longer than expected, but we made it up to our floor without any incidents apart from the breaks Florence had to take every now and then.

“It’s in my back pocket,” she murmured, her voice more slurred than before now.

“What is?”

“My key. For the door. It’s in my jeans pocket. You need to grab it.”

“I’m not grabbing a key from your jeans pocket, Florence.” I groaned as we reached her door.

“Why?”

“Because you’re drunk and I just… I won’t. Just get it yourself. If you can hold on to me, then you can also get your damn keycard.”

She muttered something in response, but finally let go of me for a moment until her hand appeared right in front of my face again, holding up her hotel room key. “Here.”

Swiping the card over the reader, Florence basically pushed me into the room. The room wasn’t pitch black, but still too dark for my eyes to adjust quickly enough to not stumble into her bed. “Fuck…” I muttered, but Florence didn’t help matters as she fell over and practically pulled me onto the bed, her eyes still closed as she lay down on her back.

“Oh my god…” she groaned as the mattress moved while I gave her space, propping myself up on my elbow now. “This is worse, somehow…” she grumbled, turning around while opening her eyes.

There was a wisdom in her irises that made me shiver; an entire sea of complex emotions, skillful knowledge, and impeccable wit that made her more than extraordinary.

A gust of wind let the curtains fly open for a moment, and that’s all it took to paralyze me completely. The way the setting sun bled through the curtains stunned me, and I had a hard time looking away from Florence Nyx, the girl who somehow always found a way to challenge me, even when she was drunk as all hell.

A sudden sense of danger flooded me, and suddenly, I just knew. I would be in deep trouble if I stayed here much longer.

And yet, I couldn’t leave her.

Because I was awestruck by the way she looked at me, her green-blue eyes staring straight into my soul as she inched her hand closer to my face. Her fingertips felt like lightning on my skin when they carefully traced the outline of the scar beneath my brow, her lips turning into a slight frown now.

“What happened here?” she whispered, still focusing on the broken skin on my face.

Her gaze found my own again when I didn’t respond for a while, and she placed her palm on my cheek, all while not saying a word. I felt like she was trying to tell me something, like she was working hard on showing me to trust her by just letting me look at her like that.

“That’s a long story,” I replied softly.

“I want to hear it.”

I couldn’t help but smile at her admission, but still forced myself to not tuck away the strand of hair that fell into her face as she moved. “You’re drunk.”

“Heh.” She blew the dark lock out of her forehead, a thin smile on her lips as she opened her eyes again. “Maybe. So what?”

“So you probably won’t even remember this tomorrow.”

“All the more reason for you to just tell me, right?” Her fingers found my face again, tracing the contours lazily as she muttered, “You can just go back to hating me, then, either way.”

Her eyes met my own again as she said this, and I felt the strong urge to just shake her, to let her know that this was about so much more than attraction, hatred, or any emotion she thought I had.

“I don’t hate you,” was all I managed to get out.

A bright smile played on her lips as she nodded her head, her thumb and index now catching my chin. “I don’t hate you, either. I just don’t particularly like you.”

I couldn’t help but laugh at her admission and she joined right in, her drunk giggle that was so un-Florence-like now echoing through the room. “No, really, though…” She suddenly sat up straight, and I couldn’t even watch how fast she had me pinned underneath her.

“Is this okay?” she asked with a whisper, and even though I knew I needed to say no, to tell her this was absolutely not what we should’ve been doing right now… I didn’t

“Florence…” I merely uttered a warning when she locked my hips between her thighs, looking down at me like she just caught her most precious prey.

“Phoenix.” Amusement lingered in her voice, but the fire in her eyes said something different when she leaned over, leaving merely a few inches between us. “You know, I may not particularly like you, but still…”

My heart hammered in my chest as I watched her lips move, the lingering smirk on them almost mocking me now. “Still what?” I asked, suddenly finding interest in her endeavors. It didn’t matter anymore that this was inappropriate as hell. This entire situation would be forgotten tomorrow.

“I still can’t… I don’t know how to describe it. I just can’t not be around you.”

I could only stare at her, her flushed cheeks and glassy eyes making her more dangerous than she ever was. Because the truth was, I knew exactly what she meant. No matter how annoying she was, or how much her mere attitude ground my gears, we always ended up together, somehow. And I minded way less than I pretended I did.

And so the only thing I could do was nod in response, unable to find any words to describe what the hell was going on in this room right now.

“So, you know?” she asked, and again, I nodded. “Interesting… Guess that means I’ll… Oh… Fuck.”

“What?”

But I didn’t get a response. Instead, Florence jumped up from the bed and dashed into the open bathroom at the other end of the room, kicking the door shut behind her. It only took a few seconds to hear her empty her stomach contents into the porcelain bowl, and even though I knew this was probably my sign to leave… I couldn’t.

“Are you okay?” I called out, sitting up on her bed.

“Yeah… Just…” She flushed the toilet, and I heard her run the sink as she mumbled, “I’m dizzy, I think.”

All it took was one glance at her pale appearance as she stepped out the door to dash over to her, catching her just in time as she collapsed into my arms. “So much about not letting me carry you, huh?”

I picked her up and helped her into her bed, seeing her eyes slowly flutter open again. “Oooh…” she giggled in a whisper, “my knight in a shining race suit.”

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