RYDER (Antagonist to Lovers)

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c h a p t e r | 15

J U L I E
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Ryder leaned into the chair as he almost seemed too heavy for it. He eyed her marshmallow and Julie said, “No judging.”

Relaxing his body into the chair, he clenched his jaw before saying, “One of the few things I enjoyed about my hiatus -- eating whatever the fuck I wanted,” he said.

The devil on her shoulder won, and she nearly blurted out questions about where he went, why did he leave, or anything related to his history. But she bit that back, not wanting to come on too strong. “Well, I didn’t bring a Dampfnudel or anything, but I brought a peach cobbler. Don’t know if you can eat that.”

His eyes moved to her, and she hated and loved the way every time their gazes connected, she nearly lost herself. “Maybe I’ll sneak a bite when Andrew isn’t looking.”

She pressed her lips together to prevent a stupid grin from reaching her face. Cody could think what he liked, but Ryder wasn’t all horrible.

Although, she’d be lying if to say that she denied that Cody’s words of warning didn’t root somewhere in her mind.

I hope that doesn’t bite me in the ass.

It was quiet between the two of them — although certainly not in the park — as she held her stick out, rotating it in the flames, warming the sugary fluff before letting it catch ablaze. She wracked her brain for things to ask, but had no idea what crossed the line with Ryder. He sort of drew a pretty hard one after the phone call, but the coffee blurred it.

“So you got any hobbies, or somethin’? Other than cooking for cookouts?” Ryder asked, and she laughed at how horrible that transition was, especially since he seemed completely aware of the lack of tact as he gave a cheeky grin in return.

She threw a look his way, his eyes already on her with a raised brow. “I do love my cooking and baking. Helps a lot with weight management. I also really like dogs, I guess. Might get one whenever I move out of my apartment. What about you?”

He sniffed, rubbing his clean chin. “I don’t do shit other than workout and watch Netflix. Never had time for hobbies.” He paused, as if he was about to say something more, and she forgot to watch her marshmallow as he said, “Your shit is on fire.”

“Dammit,” she said, double glancing at the fire, pulling it back. It was completely blackened, which was too much char for her. “Waste of a marshmallow.”

She put it down with the stick, not wanting to eat more. Not in front of Ryder, who couldn’t eat anything they had here, anyway. She grabbed her water and said, “Well, whenever you win Warlord, you can retire and gain a hobby. You’ll eventually run out of stuff to watch on Netflix.”

The corner of his lips slightly moved into what could almost be described as a smile, but it was the way his scowl completely vanished that got to her the most. “I do things, just privately.”

“Ah yes, the mystery of Joey Ryder,” she said with sarcasm.

He shrugged his shoulders, and once again, it was like he wanted to say more but refrained, although a smile became clear this time.

Julie said, “You do realize I have no interest in sharing anything with Andrew or the press, right? We’re on a team here, dude. You can shoot the shit with me or just chat. I don’t care.”

“Fine,” he said, looking her way. “One thing I did was a volunteer with troubled youth. Did it with my sister a lot. The media definitely can’t know that.”

Her face revealed more surprise than she wanted to show. “I... never would have guessed that.”

He turned his gaze back on the fire. “Had a shitty childhood. Kids deserve better than that, so I like to give help where I can.”

As grateful as she was for the break in his rigid character, she couldn’t stop wondering why the sudden shift. “So why be friends with me out of nowhere? This is a bit more than small talk.”

He looked her way, his tongue pushing on the inside of his cheek. “The coffee wasn’t enough, huh?”

She smiled back, peeling off the wrapper of her water bottle. “Nope.”

She got a tepid smile from him and he groaned as he said, “You’re not as bad as I expected. And fine, I accept you as a full-fledged member of this small team, alright? No point in being shitty when you have Andrew to deal with.”

She wadded up the paper she got from the bottle and mindlessly toyed with it in her hand. “Well, it’s neat to see a real professional up close and in person. I’m excited for Warlord, honestly. The sport is fun to watch, especially when competing.”

That seemed to catch his undivided attention. “What’s the best fighter you’ve ever done?”

“Rory Hart,” she said, facing him.

He raised his brows. “Not bad. Should have just fucking led with that when we first met.”

She grinned. “He was cool. Really liked his wife.”

“Did he train here or somethin’?”

“Yeah, he did for a year. But then dropped out to be with family. Jeremy was so close to scoring that deal.”

Ryder finally let down a majority of his mask, his expression greatly tempering as he looked at her seriously. “What was your brother’s goal with this gym? If it’s alright I ask.”

“To make a legendary gym. Get it high up. Compete at a professional level with it.”

He nodded and looked at the fire, stretching his shoulder as he leaned them forward. Even with the shirt on, she could see the valleys of his muscles move. “So how did Andrew get it?”

“Andrew has a past--don’t want to reveal too much, as it’s not my place--but Jer gave him a shot. Andrew performed well. When Jer died, he left me his shares. Pissed off Andrew, and cue the never ending dialogue of who gets the gym.” She looked at him, his gaze moving to her. “Will you tell me, one day, why you’re in Warlord?”

He raked his gaze over her, relaxing his shoulder and sat up straight. “If I win, I’ll tell you.”

“You better fucking win, then. That’s a long time to wait.”

He actually let out a chuckle, shaking his head, and glanced at the fire. “Already got enough pressure.”

Pressure from what? God she wanted to shake the damned man and make him spill everything out. But Andrew walked towards them, and Julie stood up when she saw he brought an unfamiliar face.

Andrew pointed to the man next to him, who was the tallest of the bunch with short, light brown hair and dark brown eyes, with a long nose and thin lips. He wore a black polo and light jeans. He gave a single wave at them, “The name is Tony.”

“Julie,” she said, holding her hand out to shake.

Tony shook her hand, smiling at her. His grip was firm, and she could already smell his cologne. It wasn’t bad, but it was not subtle. “I have heard about you. I am Cody’s brother.”

She pulled away with a slight warmth in her cheeks and Ryder still didn’t stand, chewing on his lip as he nodded at Tony.

Andrew said, “Julie, Tony is going to be our press manager. Tony, I’m sure you know who she is through Cody. She’s the sports therapist on our team.”

“Got it,” he said with a jovial smile that very much fit a press manager. Although his eyes were hard on her, like he knew too much.

Andrew said, “Yeah, I decided that since Ryder here doesn’t do shit with media” --Andrew glared at the fighter that sat in his chair, who took a languid drink of water-- “Wanted to make sure we send out the right image. We need to have someone monitoring that, or even put out fires if they arise. Ryder would probably tell everyone to ‘fuck off’ if we let him manage anything, so this seemed to make sense.”

That warranted a snicker from Ryder, who conceded with a nod.

The fact that Ryder had so many people working for him, knowing they’d only get paid if he won, reminded Julie how good he used to be in the height of his career. She had a feeling that even if he didn’t win, they’d pressure him to keep going and re-start his career.

He clearly wanted the money for something.

Ryder said, “Just don’t call me Joey, and we’re good, man.”

Tony crossed his arms. “Oh, you don’t like it?”

“Only family calls me that.”

Julie perked up at that little string of detail, always figuring that he simply hated the name. So people do call him that...he did mention a sister, and seemed to be talking to a niece the other day...She nearly grinned at the thought of him being a fun uncle at a dinner party, teaching a little kid how to throw a punch as they called him Joey.

“Got it, Ryder. It’s nice to meet you both,” Tony said.

Andrew smacked his hands together and everyone looked at him, “Alright, so I decided all three of you, at some point, should get some one-on-one. I want Tony here with me for now, with all these sponsors. So why don’t Julie and Ryder go and grab some food or something. You’re already chatting, so keep that going. This is the most I have seen you interact since that fucking baking show.”

“Oh wait, what?” Julie asked. Did he just tell me to go get food with Ryder?

He spoke a little louder, as if to pointedly show Julie that she needed to keep up with him. “We’re heading to New York soon for preliminary rounds, with the main championship five months out still. I want to make sure it’s a tight-knit group by then, and at least on the same footing with each other by New York. That’s like two weeks away. You two” --he pointed a finger and waved it between them-- “Just chat, or something. Get to know each other. Maybe talk about your sport histories or some shit. When Warlord rolls around, I don’t want any stiff relationships here. You don’t have to be best friends, but you need to know each other enough to not get into fights in public. I don’t like replacing people in the middle of a campaign.”

Julie was more nervous about this than anything else that happened recently, not sure if she was ready to be alone with Ryder in such a casual setting. We just repaired that bridge between us. I hope this doesn’t go wrong.

She also wasn’t going to deny the opportunity to know him more. Regardless if anything, she was curious about him. “Sounds good, Andrew.”

Andrew eyed her skeptically. “Anyway, go on. You two look bored here as it is. You showed up and showed your face. That’s all we need right now.”

Ryder held out a hand, as if to ask ′what about the obvious′ as he said, “I am on a strict diet here, man. I can’t just go and get food.”

Andrew said, “Just for tonight. The rest of the two weeks we’ll cut hard. You’ve gained enough muscle that the calories won’t kill you. If you’re too worried then go for a walk or something. Just thought sharing a meal would be the easiest.”

Ryder didn’t need a lot of persuading as he stood with a nod. “Ain’t gonna argue. It’s only been a few weeks but I miss my shitty food already.”

Andrew and Tony walked away, with Tony giving Julie one more smile, although once again, his the warmth lacked in his eyes.

“You got a history with the Jones’s”?” Ryder asked.

She sighed, shaking her head. “Yeah but it’s a long, boring story. So where are we going? I am game for whatever.”

“Well it doesn’t have to be crazy. I’d love to smash a burger.”

She smiled, not being able to imagine him somewhere delicate, anyway. “There is a great burger place down the street from the gym. It’s basically everything that’s bad for you.”

“Fucking perfect,” he said, walking forward.

She grinned and without thought, looked down in an almost bashful way, to which she looked back up and around as if it were nothing more than looking at her shoes. Ryder seemed to catch it, but didn’t say a word as he followed her. She didn’t think that, in her late twenties, she’d be having those awkward flips in her stomach rolling around once again. Although it was easy for them to come to a complete stop as they crashed into a giant wall called guilt. The last person to feel this way with was the star champion of her brother’s gym.

They made it to the parking lot when she forgot she didn’t have her car. “Well, Cody actually brought me. I can get an Uber for us or something. I didn’t think this through, honestly.”

Need to get home before sunset though, or else that creepy effer will be out. And I’m by myself now without Cody.

“I got a truck.”

“Really? I always see you with Andrew.”

“It’s easier that way. Means I can’t leave until he does, which makes me work harder.”

They walked around to the front, and one of the big, black trucks was his. She got it in, curious what the inside of his vehicle was like. It was relatively clean, honestly. Perhaps even dusted. It smelled like a normal car too, no clear scent. It made her want to clean hers out as soon as possible.

She had to climb in and when seated, she said, “It’s by the PNC bank by the Chinese restaurant, like a few blocks down from there. Called Joe’s Shack. It’s by Summer Park.”

“Sure. I know where that is.”

She was nervous about the car ride, but driving said a lot about people. With an enigma like Ryder, she’d take all that she could get when learning about him. When they buckled their seatbelts, she said, “I am not picky with music, but if you want something, just play whatever.”

“I don’t have shit on my phone right now. Got a new one and haven’t put the apps on. Haven’t even used the radio in like five years.”

“You can look through mine, if you want,” she said. She honestly didn’t want to ride in silence, stuck somewhere between giddy nerves and not wanting to ruin what little relationship they had established. She held him her phone, unlocked. She hated picking music in the car, always taking too long in case someone didn’t like this or that.

He raised his brows. “A lady’s phone. They keep that shit locked down like a military base.”

She grinned and raised a brow. “You often go around looking for access?”

He snickered and started the truck.“It says a lot about what she’s doin’ if she’s hidin’ her shit all the time.”

He took the phone, and she didn’t have a problem with it. There was hardly a thing to hide, and if he went through her apps, then she agreed--it would say a lot about him. “Well, I am pretty tame and boring at this point in my life, so if something exciting pops up, do let me know. I could use it.”

She actually got a laugh out of him, and she couldn’t look away -- his smile was crooked, revealing mostly straight teeth. When it reached his eyes, his entire face changed with a slight crinkle along his eyes, the grin warm and inviting, and she found she liked that. “Gotta say, Jules, I really read you wrong in the beginning.”

It was made all the worse that he called her Jules, and she liked that as well. She exited her professional mindset and fell deep into enjoying this encounter at a personal level. It had been a long time since someone new called her that. She even forgot what he said, and when she recalled, it made her think back to what she thought of him.

Julie snorted. “And I thought you were a huge asshole.”

He smirked. “Yeah, that was just me being guarded and wasn’t a poor judgement of me. Probably was too mean, but that’s just ’cause I’ve been a hermit for the last three years. I’m used to being a certain way when entering the gym.” He played Foo Fighters, and she smiled internally at that choice. Cool, middle ground with music. That’s huge. He drove off after she put her seatbelt on.

Even with Foo Fighters playing, she felt like she had to say something and asked, “Do you know when we leave for New York for the preliminaries? Wonder if I need to buy tickets. And the hotel.”

He placed one hand on the wheel and leaned back, the other resting at his side. “Nah. Haven’t checked the calendar. Dates don’t mean much to me right now. Should ask Andrew, though. But I don’t think he’d let you get left behind-- “he looked in the rearview as they came to a red light-- “He likes your work.”

“It’s not really that hard. What I do,” she said, eyeing the world as the grass was greener today with all the rain, although the leaves were hinting at turning yellow soon.

“There’s a certain attunement to the body that I have noticed a lot of people miss. You definitely got it.”

She grinned. “Sounds like a poorly written pickup line.”

He laughed again, and she really enjoyed it. “They ain’t gettin’ any better. I don’t do pickup lines.”

She wanted to say that he didn’t need them with the way he looked, but she also didn’t want to cross that line. The pause in her reply was louder than the music. She was almost grateful that some guy cut him off, as Ryder put all of his attention on him. On the back, the car had a stick people family and a ‘baby on board’ sticker.

Ryder said, “Those fucking stick families. I just want to buy like fifty of them and put them on the back of my car. Have like ten wives, forty kids.”

Julie rolled her eyes with a grin. “God, you leading a harem...that would be chaos.”

He snorted. “Yeah fuck that shit. I couldn’t break down my commitment like that to more than one person. Plus that Sister Wives show makes it look so complicated.”

She flattened her palms on her legs and studied at him with a mixture of deadpan and incredulity. “Alright, you watch Great British Baking Show, and now Sister Wives?”

“Gotta keep in touch with my sensitive side somehow. I punch people for a living.” He glanced her way, then pressed his broad lips together as the corner of them rose up. “Fine. My sister watches it. Although that baking show is all me.”

“Hey, I don’t judge. I watched that first season in like two days.”

With perfect timing to segue the conversation, they arrived at the burger joint which was more like a walk-up stand, like an old A&W, that had a small outdoor area next to a park. Her and Jeremy liked to come here and sit under the trees to look out at the rolling hills in the distance.

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