RYDER (Antagonist to Lovers)

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c h a p t e r | 15.2


J U L I E

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The burger stand had a small dining area inside, but it focused primarily on the large pickup window that one would walk up to and take to any of the seats around. She ordered a plain cheeseburger with a fruit cup on the side, and he got one with bacon and a side of fries. She was about to pay but he pulled out his wallet, “No, I got it.”

“You got me coffee.”

“And now I got you this. It’s fine,” he said, handing a twenty to the cashier.

The need to jump into an ice-cold bath was strong, as minute by minute, she was growing more fond of him, which mixed dangerously with her crush from before. “Fine, but now I owe you.”

“Deal,” he said as the cashier rang them both up.

The day was warm, but a cool breeze hinted at the changing of seasons, the sun across the horizon sky and edging closer to the horizon to create a golden evening. They stood a few feet away as they waited for their food, and Ryder crossed his arms as she tried to think of things to ask him, but it was hard not to look at his biceps. Dammit. I am falling into a trap and I can feel it.

He looked at her as she was staring, and her eyes went wide. Ryder raised a brow as she pressed her lips together and returned the glare before glancing away. At least it was a sobering encounter. God I can’t be caught ogling him.

“Supposed to get to know each other as co-workers″ --he put an extra tease in his tone, as if to poke at her staring, but the grin on his face said otherwise-- “So, why you in sport’s therapy? ”

She crossed her arms after adjusting her purse, trying to glance at him casually, but her eyes always wanted to linger. I really need to be careful with whatever is brewing in my gut. “I really liked sports medicine and helping people. Just seemed like a good idea. Why did you get into fighting?”

“Just took to it. More goes into it, but it’s personal, and I don’t have the prettiest backstory.”

“Oh, right, sorry.” She tried to sound truthful, but it was hard to fully cover her slightly soured tone. It was like talking to a wall sometimes with him, especially when they made such progress.

He put his hands in his front jean pockets and peered around.“No, it’s fine. I just don’t want to darken the mood.”

Oh. She ran her eyes over him when he wasn’t looking, gauging his body language. He seemed as awkward as her, but not closed off. She could work with him if he wanted to keep the mood light. “So, let’s just talk about stuff related to super recent stuff then. Why did you seek Andrew out? Was it really for the old coach?”

His light gray eyes glanced her way and she found a more subconscious part of her brain nearly loved the way his eyes seemed to roll to glance at someone, rather than dart. She didn’t have a good reason for it, as it was quite random, but it was there. “Andrew trained under Mike Lowers, so yeah, just for that mostly. Mike knows the game better than any of them and how to get into a fighter’s head. Andrew is a weird motherfucker, but he’s good at the job. He’s ruthless with routine, and that’s what I need. I’m prone to slacking when no one is pushing me. It’s a lot of fucking work. And I’m tied to the area, so it was a no brainer--”

“Ryder!” shouted the restaurant worker from the window. There were about twenty other people waiting for food, and the two of them grabbed their burgers, waters, sides and condiments before heading over to a picnic table underneath a tree. They sat down across from each other as others moved about in their own bubble.

Julie said, “Mike Lowers was always a cool guy. Taught me how to do a roundhouse kick. Probably pretty useless since I’m short.”

After chewing his food--and thank god he chewed before talking as she hated when someone spoke with their mouth full--he said, “Why’d he teach you that? That’s a harder one.”

She shrugged a shoulder, finishing her bite as she closed her eyes to enjoy the burger. “I did gymnastics for a while. It wasn’t a hard move to learn for me, as I’m pretty limber.”

He laughed and raised a brow, and she swore she something else crossed his mind through the ways his eyes darkened slightly. He took another bite and after chewing, groaned. “This is fucking heaven.”

She nodded. “The worst thing about fighting is the dieting. Jeremy hated it too. Gymnastic is similar. Gain an extra pound and the world falls apart.”

“How long did you do it for?”

“Until I was nineteen. I competed in college and got a full ride. But then I jumped off a cliff at a lake with friends. Was just normal fun shit, only twenty feet high. I hit a rock just right and broke my left femur and injured my left knee. I never really recovered from it. By the time the bones healed, I was such a nervous wreck that I did a twist wrong, held on for too long, and tore my shoulder. My coach dropped me after that.”

For the first time since meeting him, she saw pure sympathy in his eyes. It was a small, but important moment for her--it humanized him completely. “God those tears are the worst pain. Although I bet breaking your femur was no better. I hear that’s a bitch.”

She gave a tepid smile, shrugging a shoulder to show it’s all fine now. “Well, it’s alright--”

His phone rang and he put down his burger, glancing at it before saying, “I need to take it.”

“Yeah, sure,” she said with the politest tone she could muster.

He got up and walked away. She eyed him and his back, but looked away when it felt wrong. Julie’s second favorite feature on a man was his back, and his was shaped and thick. Him being in casual clothing --and not remotely in a fighting mode-- seemed to hit a switch in her mind, or more like turn one off that usually kept her professionalism in check. What’s going on with me? It was like every time she looked at him, she wanted to idle her gaze a little longer. To see him smile more. Get him to joke more. She only wanted to be friendlier with him, but something in her always pined to go the extra mile, and it was starting to get annoying.

She ate her fruit while he paced around, one hand in his pocket as he stared at the ground. Then he put the phone back and headed over, mindlessly swiping at his chin.

“Sorry. Family,” he said, sitting back down, the picnic table moving with his added weight.

Julie couldn’t help but ask, “I take it you don’t talk about family?”

Without even giving it a second thought, he grabbed his half eaten burger and said, “Nope.”

“So, just to help me understand, so I get a good feel when I cross a line with you, is your family like, completely off limits? I can deal with that, just need to know.”

He shifted uncomfortably, glancing up at her with a glare more familiar to her. “For now, it is. I don’t like sharing my personal life with anyone. Family knows me as a different kind of guy. I don’t like to mix Joey up with Ryder.”

Dammit. There’s a whole different version of this guy in there, and that doesn’t make it any easier on my wandering mind.

“I can see that,” she said, ignoring her thoughts. A cloud passed over the sun that accentuated the colors of a setting sun. She said, “I don’t want to be rude, but I need to get back. Creepy Geroge will be out soon, and I’d like to be home before dark. I can grab an Uber too, so don’t worry about that.”

He ate a fry and deeply furrowed his brows. “The fuck is that? A Creepy George?”

“A disgusting human rat at the apartment-complex that I call Creepy George,” she said, wrapping her stuff up in the aluminum foil that the burger came in.

He swiped his bottom lip with his tongue. “You’re going to have to elaborate.”

“I live somewhere cheap, and there’s this guy that lingers and likes to make women uncomfortable. Management said to get over it, since he hasn’t touched anyone. Yet. Shitty deal all around.”

He glowered, and a hint of the fight inside of that warrior came out with a terse tone. “That’s fucked up.”

“Yup. He’s worse at night. Like a freaking vampire or something. So, I better get back. He’s been really bad lately and it makes me really nervous, honestly. Like a bomb that’s close to going off.”

He ate his last fry, a few still left before wrapping up his food as well. Casually, he suggested, “Let me walk in with you, then. It’ll get dark quick.”

Her cheeks warmed as she almost blushed, but the cool air calmed her nerves. “No, no need. Seriously.”

“It’s cool. I ain’t got a problem with it,” he said, standing up.

“I can’t let you do that.” She felt almost embarrassed by it. I wish I had a nice house that I could show off. Instead, it’s Creepy George.

“And I am supposed to just let you walk into your apartment with a stalker that you just said is getting worse? And you’re nervous about it? You don’t strike me as someone that gets that nervous easily,” he said as they threw their trash away.

“I got mace. And a knife,” she said, following him close as they walked back to his black truck.

“Just give me the directions.”

She didn’t want to tell him no, honestly. Less so for whatever crush brewed, and more because she felt comfort at knowing he’d be there.

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