RYDER (Antagonist to Lovers)

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C H A P T E R | 12

J U L I E
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The visit with Dolores had gone extremely well. Julie cried, laughed, and enjoyed herself in a way that she hadn’t felt since Jeremy was alive. The woman gave friendly advice, telling Julie that there was nothing wrong in wanting to fight for her brother’s name and that Andrew could find a new gym if he needed it that badly. But that also scared Julie. If Andrew left, what would she do? None of the other coaches were ready to take over, and she was just the sports therapist.

Dolores said that if it came to it, then giving Andrew the name wasn’t the end of the world, although Julie was far from being ready to concede.

Julie was in the gym the following day, arriving bright and early before she’d leave at noon to take the rest of the day off and seeing Dolores for dinner--this time, Julie was going to cook for her.

Julie wore her usual sports attire but left her freshly curled hair down and was rather reserved with her makeup choices for the photoshoot. Jeremy would have wanted her to look professional.

So of course when Julie went to the corner where Wes set everything up for the photoshoot-Andrew there as well-the head coach said, “You could have put red lipstick on.”

Julie gently pulled her hair to both sides of her shoulders, Wes keeping his lips tightly sealed. He knew of their feud and remained absolutely silent on it.

She said, “I never wear that.”

“It looks better.”

“I don’t have any,” she tersely replied, glancing at him.

“Fine. Come by my room after this.” Andrew walked away with crossed arms and she did her best to fake a natural smile for the camera. They were next to one of their windows to collect the natural light, and after looking at the images with Wes, Julie nodded and was happy with them.

“Cool, thanks. Those are great. You need me to cover for you at all today while you do this?”

Wes shook his head, running a hand through his short, blonde hair. “No you’re good. Unless an accident happens.”

“Can do. Also, didn’t know you did photography.” She grinned at him.

He smiled, his teeth slightly crooked. “Yeah, it’s a fun hobby. Hard to break into and be reliable. Figured it could be my contribution for Warlord.”

She entertained a little more of the small talk with Wes, but didn’t linger as she knew Andrew would only complain about it. She passed by the two other coaches who waited for their picture to be taken, all giving each other a standard, friendly greet. Julie pulled her hair back into a ponytail now that the photos were done, heading toward Andrew’s office, knocking on the open door. He had hardly used this room in the past few months, but was now in it nearly every day with Ryder being here.

“You can just stand here,” Andrew said. “Shouldn’t be long.”

“Alright,” she said flatly, crossing her arms. “What do you want to talk about.”

He leaned his elbows on his desk and laced his fingers. “Let’s just get right to it. You do realize, Stevens, that I am the one that is carrying us through to Warlord? Ryder is our ticket, but I am arranging it all. It’s only fair that my name gets on this gym. Your brother isn’t coming back, so who does it really help”--he spoke over her as she began to reply--“I am serious. Keeping the name is just emotional. You don’t like working here anymore, I can tell. Give the name to me and let me raise it up. I don’t mind keeping you here, either. You work hard and have a useful background. But it’s my gym now. We both know that.”

She fumed, but spoke coolly. “Fine, Andrew. You’re not wrong. But you know what else? You only have this gym because Jeremy gave you a chance. With a felony on your record, that was quite generous. You owe him, even in death. Because yeah, it is emotional to keep the name. My brother fucking died, and this is all I have left of him.”

He pursed his lips, eyeing her. To her surprise, he didn’t immediately quip back and seemed to be biting back his words.

So she added, “I’ve thought about it, and you can have the gym after, if you want it”--she even threw some praise on it, as she knew that’s what he wanted--“You have earned it. But my parents need to see his name on the screen. At least once. And a part of me does too.”

She meant that. She couldn’t stay here for forever, but she also couldn’t just hand Andrew the gym during Warlord, not when her parents were watching. What happened to Jeremy was tragic, and it meant the trauma, admittedly, made her irrational. She just wasn’t ready to completely bury him for good.

He considered that. “Can you at least understand why I want it changed before? I just don’t think you get it.”

She rubbed the left temple and said, “Yeah, Andrew, I can. I think you just don’t understand me.”

“No, I understand. I just don’t want to live in a dead man’s shadow when I am doing all the work. Especially because his sister can’t move on.”

She took a step in, lowering her voice. “Why do you hate me?”

Something that resembled an actual emotion flashed across his eyes. “I don’t hate you Julie, but I don’t like you either. You’re someone that rode off of your brother’s idea and now you’re holding up this gym like it’s a part of you. Move on and bury this part of your life and actually go do something for yourself. I am still here, and I keep this place running. I don’t have time competing with a ghost.”

Her face twitched as if a tremor of agony controlled her muscles. She spun around and hotly walked towards the back door of the gym that she had caught Ryder sitting outside of the other day, knowing that she wouldn’t be able to hold back this flood of emotion that pressed hard against her resolve.

Yeah, she knew she sounded just as self-centered as Andrew did, but what else was she supposed to do? She was already thinking about leaving the MMA scene after Warlord, and this felt like the last big ‘oo-rah’ with her brother.

She’d never get to feel this close to Jeremy again.

Sitting on the same tire, the tears freely flowed when she felt somewhat alone, placing her head in her hands. It’s not like she was twenty where she was just starting out. Thirty would be staring her in the eyes in a year and she was already committed to this field with her student loans.

I need to get them paid off. Just pay them off, and go from there. That will change everything.

She looked up as her hands hung freely between her legs, breathing through her mouth as her nose was too stuffy now. A hooded man jogged by, and based on the girth of his body and bounce in his step, she knew it was one of the guys at the gym. They all ran a certain way, like a human machine of pure energy and power. Once close enough, it was clear that it was Ryder, the tips of his pointed bangs as noticeable as his harsh, blue eyes looked her over.

When he saw her, he jogged over saying, “Hey, about that scheduled massage in an hour--”

He paused, panting with an open mouth as he pulled the hood back, his brows furrowed as he looked her over. There was probably mascara running down her cheek, her eyes probably bloodshot, but she didn’t feel like pretending she wasn’t crying or in a crappy mood. She sniffed and swallowed thickly. “Yeah?”

He frowned and shimmied his shoulders and exhaled, controlling his panting from the run, his hooded eyes furrowed and pronounced. “You good?”

“Yeah you don’t need to listen to my shit,” she said, looking away.

“Is it Andrew?”

She nodded. Might as well fill him in with her side of the story, especially since they all had to work together. “Andrew wants to change the name so the press can use his, not Jeremy’s. Obviously, I don’t want it changed until after Warlord, since all Jeremy wanted for years was for the gym to gain recognition. It would mean a lot to my mom and dad. And me. Andrew is digging into me about it, and I just don’t know what to do.”

He looked around, sniffing. “No pressure on me, then. S’pose if I fail, everyone loses.”

She hadn’t thought of it like that and cringed for how she didn’t even consider him. I can’t win with this guy. “Shit, I’m sorry Ryder. I know that doesn’t help anything. Look, it’s mostly a petty thing by now, and me just having no idea what I am doing with my life. So don’t worry about it, just focus on yourself.”

He looked down at her, placing his hands on his hips as his chest still rose and fell from the run, speaking with a serious tone she didn’t hear from him much. “It’s not petty, and I know that. It’s a hard decision. It’s good of you to look out for your brother’s name.”

She stood up and nodded, not wanting to sit out here in her self-pity with him. That’s not the image of her that she wanted to give him. She sniffed and wished she had a tissue. “Thanks. It’s nice to hear someone say something positive about it for once...why’d you stop, anyway? Something about the massage later?”

“Yeah. Andrew fucked up my schedule, so we’ll have to do it tomorrow. Got some new competition that’s flaunting their moves, so we need to watch videos of him fighting.”

“At least hit the sauna later. You were really tight last time and it’s been a week. We’ll definitely rub you down tomorrow, though.”

He took in a deep breath, and she swore some different gears were turning in there, like he wanted to make a joke out of that, but the only ones there would be inappropriate. She found it curious that he paused for consideration, like he was actually trying to be nice.

Julie didn’t like the silence and said, “Anyway, got work to do. Gotta make sure I earn the claim to the gym name.”

She walked back in with slightly burning cheeks, wiping desperately at them in case mascara was on them. She glanced around the space and spotted Cody, who was back but focusing on legs today, his back to her. Julie wanted to go over to him, but that just felt cruel. He’d want to comfort her, and she didn’t feeling guilty about that on top of everything else.

If she were to go to Cody, it would be with an open heart, not because she was desperate for comfort. That just wasn’t fair to him.

She wished she could go into Andrew’s office and spot her brother sitting behind the desk. Thinking of Jeremy made this place feel like his mausoleum, and as much as she hated Andrew, he was right. This wasn’t Jeremy’s anymore, and Andrew did work his ass off for this place.

But changing this place felt like burying Jeremy all over again, and she just wasn’t ready for that. Not yet.

She went to her office to gather her things so she could head to Dolores’ and forget about the gym for another evening.

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