RYDER (Antagonist to Lovers)

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C H A P T E R | 9


Her dinner had been uneventful and she spent most of the time scrolling around on forums and social media, trying to reconnect with anyone from her high school or college. While it wasn’t a complete miss, it was hard to reconnect with being so far away.

At least she got to eat a nice steak, a salad, and some bread, along with a cocktail and glass of Cabernet. She even got some ice cream for dessert, telling herself she’d earned it with surviving a close encounter of the creepin’ kind.

It was hard to go back to her apartment that night, not having considered she’d be walking back in while it was dark. Her fears were unmet and she was able to return to her home, taking a bath with the door open, as the fan in there never quite got the steam out.

That Wednesday night had come and gone, and of course, in the dead of night as she stared at the ceiling, her mind wouldn’t let go of the look in Ryder’s eyes, hearing the words he spoke over and over to what must have been his niece.

What was Julie thinking, listening in? She ruined whatever professional relationship existed prior. It was only made worse that she knew he was an adorable uncle.

There’s no way in hell he’d give her a second chance, and to that she groaned and sank low into the luke warm bath water.

The next morning, Julie walked into the massage room with no music -- as requested -- to face Ryder on the table. She hadn’t seen him since she overheard his conversation, and she had every intention to apologize.

He sat there and glared at her in nothing but his boxers and was slightly hunched over, the dim lighting of the room giving him a slightly menacing appearance.

She immediately said, “Look, I want to apologize for yesterday. I was cleaning equipment, and, well, I admit I listened in when you actually sounded endearing. I didn’t expect that from you and it was a nice surprise. I know it’s not an excuse, and it doesn’t change the fact that I should have walked away, but it’s the truth and I want you to know I’ll own up to what I do.”

“Hmm,” he grunted and went to lie down.

She shook her head and pursed her lips. She was so tired of people in this gym being mean to her for no reason, for not trying to see her side of the story. “You don’t have to be mean to me. I get the persona, but this is a job for me too. I want to help you win, you know. You don’t have to forgive me, that’s fine, but you also don’t have to be mean.”

He glared at her, half leaning over in a slight turn before he fully lied down, his muscles flexed. “I have told you that I don’t talk about my life. You and Andrew are temporary. I want to win this Warlord and move on with my life. I don’t see a point in making friends, especially not now.”

She looked down and away, speechless as she pinched the bridge of her nose. She knew she should probably keep quiet, but it pissed her off that thought so low of her. “All I am saying is that I am sorry, and I own what I did. I don’t want to ruin anything like small talk between us, or this will only be difficult. We don’t have to become friends. I’d just like this to be amicable for the sake of the job.”

He snorted. “I sure as hell don’t do small talk.”

“Well at least that’s true.” She bit her lip, sucking it to her teeth when she failed to keep that bite back.

He shook his head and narrowed his eyes, his plump lips parting, his wide jaw slightly jutting to the side, like he couldn’t tell which direction he wanted to take this. She was so uncomfortable with how this continued to tumble down a cliff. She felt like she was trying to pull on pants when her legs were still wet. The more she tried, the worse it got.

So, she didn’t let him respond and said, “Just forget it. Let’s move on. We will both pretend like it didn’t happen and go back to talking about nothing but your body and health.”

He nodded, an irritation still there. He committed to his position of lying down and said, “Now you’re learning me.”

After massaging him down and finishing up her schedule, Julie finally got a message on Facebook that the gardening group accepted her, welcoming her to the next group session. They gave her a schedule and when she saw they were meeting at five in the afternoon that day, she decided to leave work a little early to attend.

They were called Juniper’s Cove, or the ‘JC’, and the amount of relief she felt among them was more than she could put into words. Dolores Newman was the woman who headed the gardening group, and the woman had to be in her early sixties but moved around like she was in her forties.

That’s how Julie wanted to be one day, and it felt good to think about a future so far removed from everything. She was still certain that she’d wake up in the middle of the night, forty years from now, reliving the dreaded embarrassment of over-listening Ryder’s private conversation, but if she could be nimble like Dolores, then that would count for something.

Maybe she just needed new friends to take her mind off of everything, to remind herself that the world didn’t revolve around MMA fighting. And even though Julie didn’t chat much to anyone that day, it was refreshing to meet new faces and learn a new skill.

Julie even went there every single evening that week, making it a point to be there that Saturday morning before the cookout. She stood up from a squat to let the blood flow back into her legs after she had helped weed some tomato plants after checking on the pumpkin. Everything here was organic and they used no pesticides, so their hands control these weeds.

It was only two days in, but Julie found this place as the escape she had been searching for for the past six months. It was twenty acres at a local park known for its hiking trails, and it reminded her of Upstate New York. She breathed in the crisp morning air, her shoes soaked from the morning dew.

Dolores came over, her graying black hair braided back, wearing tan shorts, a black top and jacket and sandals as a few other members tended to the ten acres. “I’ve seen you here at every session since you joined. I hope that means you enjoy it here.”

Dolores was here nearly every day, especially since it was harvest season.

Julie shrugged her shoulders, looking around the rows of crops, raised beds, and trees surrounding them. “I apparently like gardening.”

Dolores nodded for Julie to follow, which she gladly did. Julie didn’t realize how starved for human interaction she was until she came here, eager just to spend time with anyone not punching something or full of rage. Cody was someone she’d be forever grateful for, especially after Jeremy’s death, but there was a certain ‘calm’ about Dolores that was appealing in a maternal way. I definitely lack any of that in my life.

They sat down on a bench that overlooked the green expanse and the wood was cold. It made Julie consider getting a house soon with a nice, green backyard. Maybe she’d be happier if she had a yard like this attached to it, the soft golden sun like a salve on her soul.

“So, how have you been doing, Julie Stevens?” Dolores asked. “That’s your name, right?”

“Yes ma’am. And lots of stress at work, but I’m otherwise fine. This place reminds me of my parent’s home in New York. I forgot how much I enjoyed being outside like this.”

“What did you say you do for a living?”

“Sports therapy.”

Dolores’s green eyes lit up, the gentle breeze tugging on the aged woman’s wavy hair, the morning sun just starting to permeate with strength. Her smile reached the crinkle around her eyes. “Oh and where at?”

For some reason, Julie wasn’t filled with her usual pride when talking about it. “It’s an MMA gym. I know it sounds violent, but it’s my brother’s gym. He was big into the sport.”

“Oh now there’s a sport I don’t mind watching.”

Julie laughed, facing Dolores, looking the woman up and down as if it were the first time she actually meeting her. “Wait, are you serious?”

Dolores’s eyes twinkled and she grinned, the line around her eyes and mouth deepening. “I had a lot of spunk in my youth. My parents were hippies, but I had an adrenaline junkie side of me and so did my girlfriends. That was back when Muhammed Ali was going strong. I was, let’s see, around fifteen then. Ah...yes days were somethin’ else. None of this internet or cell phones. Just your friends and some flyers... Anyways, the men were always fun to watch.” She leaned in with a wink.

Julie couldn’t seem to alter her grin in any way, so it remained plastered on her face. She couldn’t believe it. Now she wanted to sit and talk to this woman for hours. “Well, I gotta say, I am really glad that I found you and this gardening center on Facebook. I never would have guessed the head of I would appreciate MMA. That’s awesome.”

It makes me feel like I belong. That’s all I want. To belong somewhere.

Dolores laughed and sighed. “Anyway, I just wanted to check in on you. I like to help those in the group, like tending to a different part of the garden. Usually when someone’s here frequently, at your age, I like to make sure things are alright.”

“Well that is very kind of you,” Julie said, the words of Dolores like warm rain water — gentle and soothing.

Dolores threw her hand up flippantly. “Oh, it’s just how I am. My parents were like that, too. No one talks to anyone these days, which I think is just sad”—she looked out at the garden ahead and sighed, then perked up—“Well, best get back to it. Oh, and, when winter hits, the JC goes indoors to a gardening nursery that I run, just up the road. You are more than welcome to join us there in the winter.”

“That might be nice,” Julie said.

“I’ve just seen your type a lot, and it’s important to keep people engaged with nature, even in the winter. I always want to foster it. Lots of studies show that nature is good for the soul.”

Well, what could it hurt to indulge and open up a little? It was nice because Dolores was still a stranger, in a sense. I guess that’s the point of therapy. “Yeah, you know, I’ve actually been really lonely lately. Long story, but I got no family out here. Moved here with my brother, but he died six months ago. He’s the one that ran the gym. Now it’s just me and I don’t really get along with the other co-owner. I really appreciate you letting me come here.”

A couple walked their dog through the trail just ahead of the garden, and Julie pined for that life. She frowned, happy for them, but honestly, she was sad for herself. That was the first time she had thought of it like that. I am sad for my life. For my loss. For my stagnation.

Dolores said, “Oh, I am so sorry to hear that. You know what, why don’t you come over for tea tomorrow, hmm? Perhaps for a late brunch.”

Julie smiled and lightly furrowed her brows at the same time. It was such a nice gesture, but she also didn’t want to impose. “Oh, you don’t have to.”

“You are not a tea person?”

“Well I’ve tried the fruity kind, but I just don’t want you to have to deal with my problems, or make you host or anything.”

Dolores laughed and shook her head. “Your generation. I’ll make you some real tea and some scones, how about that? Trust me, I like doing this. It makes the home a little more lively. When I grew up it was very common to do this.”

Julie’s apprehension mostly faded as she sucked her lips to her teeth and nodded, feeling rather adventurous with her life. She was still nervous about it being a stranger, but Dolores felt familiar, in a peculiar way. “Yeah, you know what, that sounds great. I have a cookout I have to go to around noon, but I don’t have to stay long. Does some time around one or two work? And should I bring anything?”

“I’ll be ready by one, then, but come by whenever. And just bring your company, honey. Us old people love having bright, new faces around. Keeps our days lively.” She beamed.

Julie might not have made a traditional friend by joining Juniper’s Cove, but she found company in Dolores Newman.

In that, she felt like things might finally look up for her.

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