c h a p t e r | 14
J U L I E
Julie didn’t hear Ryder approaching her office as she sat at her desk, holding her breath when she saw him in the doorway. He hardly ever comes to my office without scheduling.
To say it shocked her when she spotted the Twisted Coffee in his hands would be an understatement. She nearly fainted when he told her one of them was for her.
She couldn’t believe it.
Ryder bought her a coffee.
She half smiled as she took it, wondering if there was an ulterior motive. Not necessarily out of malice or distrust, but because she was so taken aback. “Uh, thanks, Ryder. You didn’t have to get this for me.”
“Sorry if you wanted something more fancy than a plain latte. I had no idea what to get when they told me there’s like twenty freaking options,” he said, nodding to the warm cup in her hand. He looked at her with those pale blue eyes that caught her attention every time, his regular glower tempered.
She laughed at the thought of Ryder ordering a latte for the first time, and her chuckle was from the gut, one of the better laughs she had had in months.
The corner of his mouth curled into a tepid, closed-lip smile, his jaw clenching. She looked down at her coffee to quit her staring, lest she embarrass herself further and he fidgeted in his stance as if thinking similarly.
He said, “Just wanted to make peace, alright?”
“Truce accepted,” she said, taking a sip, and sure enough, it was a plain latte.
She usually got caramel macchiatos.
“Thanks, Ryder. This is perfect,” she said. “I’m not picky with coffee, honestly.”
With a sigh of relief, he looked away. “Good. That makes it easier on me.”
He didn’t linger and left her after looking back at her. That saddened a part of her, even though she didn’t know what they would talk about. Perhaps they could have awkward conversations about Dampfnudels and coffee...she smiled at the thought. And a part of her stewed on him saying ‘it makes it easier’ as if there would be more moments like this to come. She took another slow sip of her coffee. What on Earth made him buy this for me? Was he actually just being nice?
Over the years, Julie had learned not to always jump into assuming flirtation. And yet, that lesson seemed impossible to recall as a major part of Julie, deep down, craved more of his delicate side.
“Ugh,” she groaned.
She struggled to tame her mind that strayed aimlessly down paths in which it shouldn’t, but she couldn’t help herself as now she was entirely curious. What was he like, really like, once he allowed someone past his walls? Did he like to cuddle? Watch scary movies at all? Did he have a favorite childhood dish or snack that he could never pass up on? What did he like in a woman, other than her physique?”
She put the latte down.
Stop jumping the gun, Julie.
She stared at her office wall, taking in a deep breath. The new excitement made Julie realize that it had been a long time since she lived for herself. She was always used to measuring her decisions against the gym, wanting to focus on Jeremy, the only guy in her life she figured wouldn’t break her heart.
Well, that clearly blew up in my face.
Her life wasn’t always about Jeremy, as there was a period where all she focused on was gymnastics and boyfriends. In the end, the men never panned out and she grew tired of the disappointment. They only ever provided her with the comfort of not being alone, although as she crept closer to thirty, that comfort was tempting once more.
She got back to work to move on from the encounter with Ryder and logged the examinations of the day before starting to clean equipment.
Andrew came over when she was putting rolled up towels on a shelf by a laundry bin. “Hey, Julie. We’re having a family grill out this weekend on Sunday at the park and some important guys are coming. Can you make it?”
She might have given him a usual glare, but she gave it a shot at being nice. With as little hostility in her eyes and voice as possible, she asked, “This Sunday?”
“Yeah. At Simmons Park, five o’clock.”
“Yeah, shouldn’t be a problem.”
“Alright, good. Same thing -- look good and bring a new dessert, yeah? Something to really ‘wow’ them.”
There was no way she’d just not make a comment about that, although there was more teasing than angst in her voice. She feigned being thoughtful as she tapped her chin. “It’s almost like there’s a TV show for inspiration, but someone once called it useless shit...”
With a strained voice, Andrew said, “Good talk, Stevens.”
“I was just joking,” she said after him.
“Whatever,” he said, walking away.
It didn’t sour her mood, however, and if anything, it made her grin all the more. She didn’t feel trapped underneath him with other aspects of her life going relatively well, and whenever she saw Ryder training, she’d straighten her back with the appreciation that he gave her a second chance. At times, their gazes would cross, and once, they even lingered.
The final time, she caught him staring at her, and after that she ignored him for the rest of the day. Not coldly, but just busied herself with other tasks.
She did not need to deal with figuring out what those looks meant.
Although she knew, in that moment, she wouldn’t be able to control her wandering mind for long, not if he would feel the same.
Julie made it a point to be scarce around the gym over the following days, reaching the weekend with only minimal interactions with Ryder. Their massages were still uniquely neutral, as if he became a different man when entering the room.
For the cookout that Sunday, she wore a red top that cropped off at her shoulders and some jeans, along with a pair of sandals. She styled her chestnut hair with gentle waves and left it down.
She thought about putting on red lipstick, which she did own, but she hated the thought of making Andrew happy in that way, so she went for a nude lip.
Per Andrew’s request, she made a peach cobbler, thinking of Ryder and wondering if he liked those. Probably can’t eat it, even if he likes it. Too many calories.
The only real negative in her life was Creepy George, who had worsened as of late. But with what felt like some kind of divine power looking out for her, Cody volunteered to take her to Simmons Park, insisting he do so after she told him about Creepy George when Cody and her had gone to get coffee the day before. No matter what, Julie felt like she owed Cody her time of day. There were a few stolen glances and lingering looks during their pseudo date, but it was innocent enough.
Although with how giddy Ryder made her with buying her coffee, she now felt guilty, knowing that Cody never roused the same excitement in her.
Cody knocked on her door and she opened it, taking in his clean-shaven face and freshly buzzed hair. He looked her over in a flash before sighing and looking at her in the eyes, his expression warming when she gave him a smile.
He said, “I didn’t see your creeping man.”
“Oh, good. Sorry you had to come out, then. I promise he seemed serious,” she said, grabbing her purse, keys, and cobbler.
“It’s fine, Jules. You don’t gotta apologize. Just wish the police did more for you.”
“Yeah, that part really blows,” she said, shutting her door and locking it. “Yesterday, after coffee with you, Creepy George just stood by the door to the stairs with another female tenant, so technically he didn’t harass or anything. Which is bullshit. It’s obvious he was being a dick. But the police go by their ‘technicalities’.”
“Thats fucked up,” he said as they walked the hall. “So then when you moving? I know you always said this wasn’t your forever home.”
“Hopefully in a few months. I’m paying triple on my loans,” she said as they walked down the stairs.
The elevator was supposed to get fixed later today.
“I can help you move. Come over and visit more often and stuff.”
“Yeah, might do that,” she said with half of a smile, wondering if he was meaning something more than just being friendly. While some part her, one that was eager to not be alone, begged to agree with enthusiasm, a stronger part pulled away just as much.
They engaged in small talk as they walked to his older, black BMW which smelled like car freshener, and she wondered who all would be at the cookout. Her stomach did a nervous flip at the thought of Ryder being there, and that worried her. She wasn’t one to take crushes lightly, always getting lost in thoughts and taking every encounter way too close to heart.
In that, she felt bad for letting Cody help her. Would he be doing all of this if he didn’t think he had a chance? She imagined he’d help a little, just to be friendly, but he was going above and beyond and she could feel that it would lead to nowhere. At least for her.
He’s not my Kenny. I just can’t force that.
When they were on the road, she felt the need to clear it up sooner rather than later; the guilt bubbled inside of Julie, as he did go out of his way to walk up to her room, even though he only lived ten minutes away. She hated moments like these, as she never quite knew how to put it delicately.
With as much empathy as possible, she said, “Hey, sorry if this seems random or uncalled for, but I want to make it clear that right now, I am just focused on Warlord, getting the gym into shape, and getting my loans paid off. I know yesterday came off as a little flirty, but that’s because I do like you, but I’m not looking for anything right now. I feel bad with you coming to get me today.”
Her furrowed brows were turned upwards as she looked at him, worried that this wouldn’t go well. She felt rude for even bringing it up, but wasn’t it more rude to let it linger? Especially when she could feel her mind gravitating towards Ryder? Certainly that was a sign that whatever she had with Cody wasn’t quite ‘it’, as more than likely this Ryder fascination would pass, but it was a reminder to her that her and Cody were not meant to be. I hope I don’t regret this.
He didn’t look at her and sighed, speaking with disappointment. “Yeah, I figured.”
“I’m so sorry Cody,” she said with as much heart as she could. She meant it, too.
He readjusted his position, speaking with a poorly concealed tone of dejection. “I can’t force it from you, so don’t apologize. I just wish it was there, is all.”
Somehow, that hurt even more than his anger. She genuinely cared for the man, but he deserved someone that saw him as their Kenny. “I want to thank you for everything you do for me, though. I mean it. No matter what, you’re important to me. I’ll always be here for you, and I still want you around. But I don’t want to make you confused, or keep leading you on with my confused ass. That’s not fair, and I care too much about you for that.”
It didn’t seem to ease his mood, but he also didn’t seem resentful. He glanced at her, his dark eyes revealing a painfully acceptance, as if this conversation was closing a book for good. I hope I don’t regret this. “Just promise me you won’t fall for that Ryder shit, at the very least, alright? I see you glancing at him. That’s just gonna get your heart broken, Jules.”
She looked away, taken aback. “Sorry, what?”
“C’mon, Jules. You can find a guy that’s more caring than him. Someone that will actually look out for you,” he said, hitting the turn signal. “He’s nothing but a lone wolf wanting to make money. He’s no good for someone like you. He’s great to have at the gym, but I don’t get any good vibes from him as a person.”
She thought to the phonecall with Ryder and his niece, to him buying her coffee this morning. “I mean, he’s not that bad. He can be an ass, sure, but there seems to be a good guy in there.”
He sighed with more irritation than disappointment this time. “’Course.”
She frowned and turned her head towards him. “What does that mean?”
“Jeremy wouldn’t want you throwing your life at Ryder.”
“You don’t know that,” she said with tight lips, slightly taken aback that he would use Jeremy like that.
“Yeah, I do. He and I were thick as thieves for years. Ryder is going to break your heart and be a waste of your time. Anyone can see that. He was known for it in his early years, Jules. He doesn’t seem to have changed much to me.”
She gave a small huff, her jaw slightly jut out as she looked out the window, shaking her head. I knew I should have kept my mouth shut. He’s jealous. Of course he would be. I would be too, but that still pisses me off. He can’t bring Jeremy in like that. “Should I check in with you with my next suitor, then? If you know Jeremy so well, and what he’d want for me?”
He bitterly sighed, his tone darkening to bring out the fighter in him. “I don’t wanna do this right now. Or at all.”
She frowned, crossing her arms. Looking at her lap and speaking with a quiet voice, she said, “Neither do I.”
Fortunately, the park was just ahead, although the minutes it took to reach the parking lot were painfully long. She didn’t want to lose Cody, but she didn’t want to deal with thinking of him every time another man made the butterflies in her gut flap furiously.
He pulled into the parking lot as they both looked ahead at a happy event of gathering people. Cody said, “Look, I just...seriously. Don’t fall for him. Don’t be like the other girls, Jules.”
Her lips parted with incredulity, and she stared at him for a few moments. She honestly didn’t know what to say to that, as something about those words hit her hard right in the chest.
So, she just got out, not saying a word.
“Jules,” Cody pleaded, getting out hastily.
“It’s fine Cody,” she said tersely. I can’t deal with this drama right now. “Let’s just drop it. I don’t need this right now. I don’t want to fight with you. Like, at all, so please, just drop it. We’ll move on for real this time.”
He walked over to her, the laugh lines in his cheeks deepened with his frown, his eyes pained. “I get that, Jules. I do. But you’re getting upset about me mentioning him,” he said, motioning to the park. “So you want him, don’t you” —his expression hardened at the way she struggled to deny it in the heat of the moment— “I can’t just stay quiet about that...I mean seriously, Jules...Ryder? Out of all the men?” He looked around, all of his pent up anger coming out. “Does Andrew know?”
Every fiber in her being solidified from the chill that slithered through her, panicking at the thought of Andrew learning of a even potential crush that she had. “No. And no! Look, I take this seriously, okay? Don’t do this to me. Don’t bring Andrew into this. You know that will only make me miserable.”
He looked around, shaking his head. “I just can’t believe that out of all the men I’d lose you to, it’s him,” Cody said, staring at Ryder who leaned against a post of a covered patio, about a fifty yards away. “It just sucks seeing you turn into Jell-O around him. Especially when I know he’s gonna hurt you, and you just can’t see it, because he’s this tough guy that every woman loses her shit for,” he said with a bite that was drenched in discontent. “But whatever. I can’t make you see it. Guess you’ll learn the hard way, and I don’t want to pick up this pieces.”
He headed to the cookout, leaving her standing there with her cobbler in hand, looking around the lush park with astonishment, defeat, and resentment. She felt like an idiot while standing there, her emotions amok.
She was pissed at Cody, and yet a part of her way relieved. They were done, and as terrifying as that was, Julie felt empowered with Dolores behind her.
In that, Julie wanted to call Dolores nearly immediately, but as soon she considered it she knew that that was too much. You’re a grown woman, Julie. Act like one. At least it’s a perfect day outside, so go and enjoy yourself. It was a high seventies with a gentle breeze and smelled like leaves and campfire. It should have been a perfect day, and yet all she wanted to do was throw her cobbler at a wall.
Forcing herself to the see the positive, even if she had to lie to herself about it, she pressed forward to the cookout. No, I am not going to get negative. Things are looking up. I found Dolores, and Ryder bought me coffee. I am tired of being unhappy. I won’t let this get to me. Cody is the one acting that way.
She waded through the crowd, nodding and catching up with people she hadn’t seen in two months before dropping off her cobbler at the food table while someone blared 80s music over a Bose speaker. She caught the sight of the fixings for s’mores, and after her fight with Cody, she grabbed two marshmallows, some graham crackers and chocolate, taking it over to the campfire.
The flames roared while Andrew tended to the grilling across the way, a few guys playing corn hole next to them while everyone else chatted, drank and ate appetizers.
Julie was always one to favor sweets over salty and decided to splurge with s’mores rather than a hot dog. She figured this should help her calm down, and then she would mingle better. She just needed a moment to herself to let the steam roll off. I’m tired of crying. Maybe I can just call Dolores later, or head to the garden after this.
The park was a quaint area with a few rental spots and full of trees and rolling hills. It was close enough to Pittsburgh to attract talent from all over, and her and Jeremy chose this place for the nature around.
She breathed deeper and with more ease on her heart.
Julie nearly dropped her stick that she had just attached a marshmallow to when Ryder walked her way, his shirt tight against his body once more. She found that somehow, she was more distracted when he was fully clothed versus nearly naked and on the massage table. He wore a black t-shirt and jeans, his face freshly shaven.
Ryder sat in a fold up chair a few feet away from Julie. Her heart raced as she felt like there was an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other. The one with the halo imitated Cody by giving a warning to disengage, while the other coaxed her to release her worries.
The devil on her shoulder barely had to try, as Julie lost herself when their gazes connected, an involuntary warmth radiating through her.