C H A P T E R | 10
J U L I E
Julie looked forward to getting this cookout over with, wanting to see Dolores more than anything.
Since her own mother was mostly absent, Julie basked in another motherly figure. God how I miss that. Of course, Julie brought another baked angel food cake to the cookout per a request from Andrew, although she cheated this time and bought it at a bakery.
When Julie parked on the street at Andrew’s house, she sat there for a moment with the car off, not feeling like putting on a happy face for everyone. There were at least twenty cars either parked in his driveway, his neighbor’s, or on the street. She eyed the fence that surrounded his half acre backyard, which was full of trees and trimmed grass. Smoke curled into the air, probably from a fire pit. Andrew loved his cookouts. No families or friends were attending today, which meant hanging around a bunch of men that she didn’t have a lot in common with.
Ryder would be there too, of course, and Julie felt a flurry of nerves about that, although that was also a mess inside of her. She curtly sighed and got out with her dessert in hand, breathing in the smoke from an active fire-pit. She wore jeans, sandals, and a nice, loose green shirt with her hair down, and sunglasses pulled back through her hair. She figured neutral enough.
That’s what Jeremy would recommend. Just be neutral, and don’t force anything.
Julie walked through the open gate in the back to see nearly twenty men all standing around drinking beer and laughing. Some were reenacting fight moves as they told their stories. She looked around the shaded yard from the large oak trees and spotted Ryder sitting by the fire pit wearing worn down jeans and a tight gray t-shirt, his form already filling out.
His partial tattoo sleeve crept down past his shirt sleeve and he looked around the cookout with a bored expression, like a teenager being brought to a family event when they would rather be anywhere else. That’s my mood right now.
Julie set down her cake on the food table, eyeing the chips, fruit, veggies, burger and brat buns ready to be filled with meat, all sitting next to a grill.
Someone gently slapped her on the back and she tensed, seeing Cody’s freshly shaved face grinning at her and she relaxed. Cody looked at the cake and said, “Oh hey, that was always Jeremy’s favorite.”
Her lips widened into a grin, which came from a genuine place in her heart. He remembers. “Yup, and apparently Andrew’s too. He asked for it.”
“How have you two been doing? With the gym name and stuff?”
It was hard to control the defeat that crept upwards and through to her expression, and Cody quickly added, “Shit, sorry, guess that’s not the best thing to lead with. I was just wonderin’...”
“Nah, it’s fine Cody. It’s nice that you care. I just don’t know what to do about it, and honestly, just kind of not thinking about it.”
He took a sip of his Yuengling beer and looked around. “Wanna go sit somewhere and catch up? I swear I can come up with better questions.”
She laughed and bit her lip, looking around. She wanted to immediately agree, but there was always a part of her that wanted to refrain. Was it fair to keep engaging with him when she knew how he felt? Or should she give him another chance after all he has done for her? Cody felt familiar, which was important to her. He felt like he cared. He was cute too, and a real gentleman.
Did one really need thrills to find a partner to settle with? What about cozy and comfortable?
One of Jeremy’s favorite lines was, ′You can wish in one hand and hold dirt in the other. In the end you’ll just have dirty hands.′
Julie was standing there with dirty hands, her wishes for finding a partner nothing more than empty air. And at least Jeremy approved of Cody .
“Yeah sure let’s go hang out,” she said, deciding she needed to give him a real chance. He did come over to her right away when she arrived, and she could use more of that in her life. But as they were about to head over to a quieter place, one of the coaches—Mark—called Cody over.
“Fucking hell man,” Cody muttered. He looked down at Julie, raising his brows as his honey brown eyes looked her over. “Rain check? Again?”
“You’re fine, Cody. We’ll have to grab coffee or something. So they can’t interrupt,” she said, nudging him with her elbow.
He grinned. “You and your coffee, woman.”
The smile was infectious and she even gave a chuckle. ”Hey, that’s Jeremy’s fault. I had no idea that there was more than Folgers until like a year ago.”
Cody laughed and gave her a small look, something deeper brewing in there. And for a moment, she felt a flicker of interest in her belly, which snowballed into a sensation of relief that she could forge a life with someone like him. She knew he wanted to settle down, and she hated coming home to an empty place. He turned to leave, and she did feel better about her life at the prospects of him.
She then considered asking Dolores for advice when she’d visit in a few hours, and thought of that made Julie almost feel giddy at having someone to finally talk to.
Cody went back to his small group, Lucky among them, who smiled and waved at Julie, a little friendlier after she mentioned the incident with his brother. She waved back at him.
Julie glanced around as she stood at the food table. Her gaze found Ryder right away, his eyes already on her with a calculating expression. She looked away, and then felt like an idiot for doing that. She should have just waved, or nodded at him. Ugh I’m still so embarrassed that he thinks I am a Gossiping Gabby. I don’t even know how to recover from that.
Andrew didn’t come greet her, so she went over to the guys to make an attempt to mingle, but these men were sucked into Warlord, and since she was focused primarily on Ryder as his sports therapist, she didn’t really fit into any of their conversations, especially since Ryder wasn’t mingling either.
She stood around for at least ten more minutes before she realized there was no point in her being here, intentionally avoiding looking anywhere near Ryder.
For the first time ever, she felt completely out of place. Usually she’d find someone to talk to, but there was no motivation anymore. She just wanted to go home and research gardening tips to impress Dolores with, maybe go over her conundrum with Cody in her head and mill through all the possibilities so she’d be better at presenting it to Dolores.
She did one last glance around the yard, noticing that Ryder disappeared at some point while she meandered about. She looked at her phone and saw it was 12:45 P.M. — close to scones and tea time.
Julie found one of he other coaches and let them know she was heading home and went inside the modern, suburban home to use the restroom before leaving, wiping her feet on the rug as she walked over dark wooden floors, the walls cream and the trim broad and white. After using the powder room by the backdoor, she decided to just leave through the front door so as to avoid awkwardly sneaking out.
The guys wouldn’t notice anyway. Not that they were rude, but she wanted to let them have their excitement with the tournament. Perhaps next month, when it was family month.
When she rounded to the living room where the front door was, she froze and nearly rolled her eyes at her horrible luck. Then she stared with surprise as she took in the scene before her.
Ryder was in there, leaning against the living room wall, all by himself and watching The Great British Baking Show.
Only his eyes moved to address her, raising a brow as she stared at him.
“Sorry, I was just leaving,” she said with a high pitch in her voice. She cleared it and re-positioned her purse on her shoulder.
His arms were crossed, which only accentuated the muscles in his forearms and biceps, his cheeks freshly shaven. He looked back at the TV. “Came in here to answer a phone call and Netflix was on the screen. Didn’t feel like going back out there. Gonna have to buy a damn phone booth at this rate to keep my calls private from you.”
She sighed and her expression faltered, as she felt that that was just being dramatic. She didn’t even know he was in here.
So, she treated him like the rest of the fighters. “Please, you’re the new shiny toy at the gym but I don’t need to follow you around for entertainment,” she said.
He scratched his chin and looked back at the TV, shrugging a shoulder.
In and out, she breathed brusquely and closed her eyes. With heavy sarcasm she said, “Well, as fun as you are to talk to, Ryder, I think I’m probably gonna head out. I’ve got places to be.”
She opened her eyes and she swore she saw a corner of his lips nearly twitch up at her snarky comment, but then the backdoor opened and they both looked to see who it was, and none other than Andrew walked in, dressed in gray shorts and a black polo. “I was wondering where you two went--the fuck is this? You two watching a baking show?”
“Oh no, I was just leaving. But it’s a good show, you know. Really relaxing,” Julie said as Ryder paused the TV.
Andrew snorted. “It’s just a bunch of people cooking shit. Can’t believe you two were watching this.”
“Whatever you say,” she said, taking a few steps towards the door. She really didn’t want to get into a fight with Andrew. Not in front of Ryder.
Andrew waved a hand in her direction. “Oh, and come to my office tomorrow, will you? And make sure to wear makeup? Gotta take some pictures, and Wes said he’s bringing his equipment tomorrow. Turns out he is a part-time photographer ”
She frowned, really hating the way ‘wear some makeup’ came out of Andrew’s mouth, not even wanting to remotely imagine him looking at her with any perception of attraction.
“Fine,” she said through tight lips, trying to get this over with, not looking at Ryder, although she felt his eyes on her. Even though he was an ass, there was something to his eyes being on her that made her unravel in the navel region, and that made her want to leave all the more.
Andrew’s dark eyes hardened, and in that she knew she failed to avoid him. “And also, since you’re in such a hurry to leave, block out a good fifteen minutes or more to discuss the future of the gym. We need to iron that out before Warlord goes live. You’re not being discreet about avoiding me, which just eggs it on.”
She paused and huffed, staring at the front door that she wanted so badly to walk through. The sooner she left, the sooner she could be on the road, heading to where tea, scones, and Dolores would be waiting. But Julie couldn’t hold back all of her frustration.
She looked back at Andrew. “Really, Andrew?”
He slowly shrugged a shoulder, a marginal, almost vicious, gleam in his eyes. He was such a vindictive man. “Yeah, really, Stevens. Here I am, hosting a gym gathering at my house, and I am giving up my private space to prepare for Warlord, which if we go far, will launch the gym into recognition. And if you’re going to leave early and not even trying to socialize, then yeah, we’re going to talk about changing the name to something that I want.”
She flared her nostrils, breathing heavily and very lightly shaking her head in frustration. Ryder, ever silent, watched on. The only thing stopping Julie from yelling back was the fact that Andrew, in a way, had a point. But there was no way Julie was ready to concede. Not yet. It wasn’t fair that she wasn’t ready to move on, or that the gym wasn’t her dream. Why couldn’t Andrew honor Jeremy in death, the man who gave him the damned job in the first place, even with a felony on his record?
But if she said that, Andrew would just become even more insufferable. “We can have the conversation tomorrow,” she said through near grit teeth. Doesn’t mean I’ll agree to anything.
Andrew’s eyes glinted with glory, something that made him a horrible coworker but a good fighter in his days. “Good. And next cookout, actually mingle, if you insist on keeping the gym’s name, instead of watching this useless shit on TV.”
She hated the way he talked to her. She glanced down in defeat, not knowing what to do. Asshole doesn’t chide Ryder for watching it. She tried to keep her cool as she knew Andrew was looking for a fight. He always was; anything to make her look like she wasn’t fit to co-run this gym. But it’s not like she could go out there and mingle with a bunch of guys talking about Warlord and hoping to score with women while touring. That was Jeremy’s thing, not hers.
To her surprise, Ryder spoke, and she glanced at him with dread, worrying that he might only add more fuel to that fire, especially since she was on his bad side too.
But instead, Ryder looked at the TV and pointed to it. “The show isn’t useless shit, Andrew. That right there? That thing we’re paused on? That is a Dampfnudel. Nanna used to make those.”
Andrew and Julie had a mirrored expression of what could only be classified as flabbergast. Andrew even hesitated in his reply. “The hell you talking about?”
With a deadpan face and flexing muscles from tension rising inside of him, Ryder glared at Andrew. “That’s a motherfucking Dampfnudel if I’ve ever seen one. And I really like Dampfnudels, so don’t call it useless.”
Somehow, that had been entirely threatening, even if it was about Dampfnudels. Maybe Ryder was just good at being threatening when he wanted to be.
Andrew looked at Ryder with the most bizarre expression, and as quickly as Julie submitted to Andrew, Mister Boyden caved to Ryder, tempering his gloat and anger. Andrew didn’t even respond, but rather awkwardly cleared his throat and nodded to Julie. “Anyway, tomorrow, my office at nine. Pictures. And a chat.”
She nodded, as honestly, that’s all she wanted—to be talked to like she was a person with value.
Andrew glanced back at Ryder one more time like his fighter had grown three heads before leaving the room.
As soon as the backdoor shut, she said, “I don’t even know what a Dampfnudel is.”
Ryder shrugged a shoulder, making eye contact with her. “I don’t fucking know what it is either.”
“You said your Nanna...”
He snickered, his smile crooked. “Nanna enjoyed using her wooden spoon on us more than making food with it. I just made that shit up to shut him up.”
She blinked rapidly, not sure how to respond. Then she laughed. “Well, thanks, I guess.”
He didn’t take his eyes off of her, and her cheeks warmed the longer he stared.
Ryder finally seemed to settle on what to say, looking back at the TV and turned the show back on. “He’s sort of a douche. Nothing like Lowers in personality, but Andrew is really sharp and passionate with the sport, and I need to stay in this area while training, so I’m short on options. He can be as much of an asshat as he wants if he gets me to Warlord. But he didn’t need to get on you like that.”
She couldn’t suppress a smile, gratitude swelling inside of her. “Well, thanks for shutting him up” --she didn’t want to let the moment die on anything that might ruin it, so she added-- “Anyway I’ll leave you alone, then. See you tomorrow for your session.”
“See ya,” he said and Julie hesitated before leaving, not sure what she wanted to say, but also not wanting to leave just yet.
She finally turned around to open the door, fascinated with what just happened.