RYDER (Antagonist to Lovers)

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c h a p t e r | 16

J U L I E

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The ride back was full of music from the nineties as she guided him to her apartment. It was a twelve story building, constructed entirely out of pale brick; the windows needed updating ten years ago. He parked in the visitor section and got out, and now she felt slightly silly for having him do this. Or at least, she was embarrassed that she felt the need for it at all.

Ryder followed behind, wearing a black barn jacket, hands tucked into his pockets.

They weren’t in the cool air of night for long before they both walked through the two glass front doors, greeted by a lobby that smelled of carpet and cleaning supplies. The apartment manager did recently replace the tile of the walkway to the elevator, while the rest remained a beige carpet, matching the color of the walls. It looked like all the dated homes she’d look at on Zillow. The apartment complex could be renovated to create a unique modern aesthetic, and while they have re-done some areas, it always smelled like like rubber and plastic. Guess that’s what I paid for.

Even her apartment was starting to get to her more than usual.

Julie nearly gave a sigh of relief when she saw that the elevator was in working order, not feeling like climbing ten flights of stairs. While she went to press the elevator button, Ryder paused and went to the message board around the corner when something caught his eye. “Heh. They’re advertising for Warlord even in here. It’s gonna be one hell of a show once it gets started...”

“Yeah, it’s like American Idol, but for fighters,” she said with a chuckle, eyeing one of the fake plants in the corner.

When the elevator door beeped and the doors opened, something cold and disgusting slithered down her spine -- Creepy George. He wore his usual leather jacket, basic blue jeans and sneakers, his chin length hair pulled back. He grinned, deepening the lines around his mouth
The upper corner of Julie’s lip twitched in a snarl. Go ahead. Try me today, buddy. I ain’t alone.

She lost slight resolve when another man stepped out, hovering behind Creepy George like they knew each other. Crap. I don’t need two of you.

Creepy George looked Julie up and down and said, “Oh, look, it’s the lady that’s on fire. What you doing all alone? I can press your floor number for you -- It’s somewhere on the tenth floor, right?” he asked with a disturbing grin, flaunting what he knew of her.

Oh, that creeped her out. He took a step out towards her, and the other one had a look in his eye that didn’t seem any better. The elevator closed behind them.

“You need to stop,” she said, going for her mace. It didn’t help that Creepy George looked at her in a way that crossed a line, even for him. There was a wickedness that made it look like he might do something this time.

“Seriously, back the fuck off,” she said, pulling out her mace. There was more resolve in her this time, ready to hurt him if she needed.

Ryder rounded the corner, his face deadpanning with an utter callousness that he bore for fights, his shoulders hunched, his head leaned forward to flower, walking with a smooth stride. She took a few steps near Ryder.

“That him?” Ryder asked, not taking his eyes off of Creepy George. “Didn’t know there was two.”

“Yeah,” she said. “Me neither.” A part of her was ecstatic that she had a renown fighter on her side, but she also hated that Ryder just got mixed up in this.

With no warning, the man behind Creepy George pulled out a knife to attack Ryder, and Julie nearly screamed, Creepy George hollering at his companion. Ryder moved so quickly that he had the wrist of the stranger locked in a hold, the knife useless. Ryder held the pinned hand to the side, gripping it tight as the stranger seethed, dropping the knife.

Creepy George looked at Julie, who pulled out her pocket knife with her other hand and extended it, and holding both of them in the direction of Creepy George. This time she even lunged the knife slightly, her nostrils flared.

Creepy George looked back at his companion, then at Julie before letting out a small growl. He didn’t linger as he threw a hood up and headed towards the door, abandoning his pinned companion.

Ryder kept an eye on Creepy George until he clearly left the building. His current assailant moved like he was to attack again, but Ryder kneed him in the gut, the man doubling over. Julie wasn’t sure what to do. Did she drop everything to call the cops, or stay where she was in case she needed to act?

The stranger spat out, “Get the fuck off of me.”

In one swift move, Ryder twisted the stranger’s arm so he cried out in pain, Ryder turning the man around and slamming him against the wall. The man slumped to floor, holding his wrist out, the entire hand slightly crooked.

Ryder backed away and kicked the knife far into a corner. He looked at Julie and waved for her to come to him. “We should call the cops. These fuckers are crazy, and clearly dangerous,” he said, his eyes still alive with adrenaline. “There cameras here, right?”

She nodded, her heart pounding so hard she felt it in her ears. She pointed behind them. “Yeah, in that corner.”

Despite Ryder breathing heavily and his jaw clenched, there almost a calm about him, like a caged fighter finally getting to use his body for what it was designed to do.

Julie put her knife away but kept her mace out, pulling out her phone, dialing 911. She told the operator what happened, confirming the man was on the ground and waiting--

“Oh shit, he’s bolting,” Julie said into the phone.

Ryder took care of it and went for the gimp wrist, the man screaming out in agony as Ryder leaned over and put pressure on the man’s shoulder once he was on the ground. “Jesus fucking Christ,” Ryder mumbled. “I swear if you get me injured before Warlord...”

The operator said, “If you can safely detain him, please do so. But if it becomes a danger, please refrain and head to a safe location, but remain on the premises.”

Julie nodded and responded, tucking her hair behind her ear, her hand shaking as she held her phone. To her shock, the police arrived in five minutes. Usually they took an hour with a call related to Creepy George, but this was also the first time that she knew of a knife being involved.

She remained on the line, even when the police entered the building. Once the police confirmed the situation, they handcuffed the good wrist of the creeping stranger and carried him out of the building, his face inflamed with pain, his eyes bloodshot. Julie pointed the officers to the knife.

The officer that questioned her was handsome and refined with a clean cut hairstyle, tattoos on his right arm. He carried himself like someone that didn’t have the patience to deal with a messy story, shoulders squared and hands on his belt. He pulled out a notepad and pen. “I’m Officer Dalton. Mind telling me what happened?”

Julie’s heart still fluttered with nerves, needing to wipe her hands on her pants multiple times, still not fully grasping what nearly had happened. “He came at me, then my friend here came around the corner to check on us, and then Creep- I don’t know his real name, pulled a knife out on my friend. He defended himself, and then I called you guys, and then the man with the knife bolted, which my friend then pinned him down. It’s all on camera, right over here,” she said, pointing to it.

The cop narrowed his eyes. “Creep?”

“I call him Creepy George,” she said, nervously. The back of her neck burned periodically, a need to cry stuck in her throat.

The cop raised a sympathetic brow. “Yeah, I’ve heard a lot about him. Get a lot of calls but he is smart with how he does what he does. Makes it hard to lock him up, especially when they prove that he lives here. His name is Will Morraine, for future reference. This other one is new to us at this location, but he has a past we are well aware of.” Officer Dalton looked around until he spotted Ryder. “Can I get your side of the story--oh shit, you’re Joey Ryder.”

Ryder took a step near and raised his brows, nodding. “Yeah, man.”

“I didn’t realize you were in town here.”

He looked at Julie, his gray eyes quickly skimming her face as he hesitated before saying, “Yeah, I have family out here. Been staying with them for the last few years.”

Julie’s mind seemed like a Rubik’s cube with missing pieces, trying to recollect itself into uniform colors, but never quite getting it. A part of her mind wanted to focus on Ryder and learning of that history, while the other hoped the new creeping asshole went to jail, and another was terrified of Creepy George still wandering free.

Her mind felt completely scattered and shaken. She wanted to call Jeremy to help calm her down, but that just made her frown.

Offer Dalton looked down at his pen and paper and asked Ryder, “Mind giving my your side then, for my record?”

Ryder gave his side and the officer took both of their contact information before finishing with, “Thank you both, and sorry you had to go through that. We’ll be in contact if we need. For now, it’s a good thing you were here, Ryder. You showed real restraint for what you can do.” He looked at Julie. “And take care of yourself with all of this, alright? These apartments have turned into a shit show over the last few years.”

“Yeah,” she said, forcing a nervous laugh to be cordial. “Thank you so much, too, by the way. For coming out so quickly,” she said, hoping they’d remember that in case she had to call for them again.

The officers didn’t leave and rather called the apartment management, but her and Ryder were free to go. She hit the elevator button once more and they both got on, Julie’s nerves vibrating with waves of fear, disappointment, and embarrassment. She stood close to Ryder, even though the elevator was empty. He didn’t move away either, despite having an entire elevator to move around in.

He looked down with concern. “You’re not safe here, you know that? The other one got away. He might bring a knife next time, or worse.”

Once more than burning in the back of her throat threatened for her to cry, and she almost did. What the hell was she going to do? This was terrifying, and she could have been stabbed just now. She muttered the only coherent thought in her head. “My lease has five more months on it.”

He spoke with controlled exasperation like he wanted to give patience, but wouldn’t give her much room. ”Why do you live here?”

Still shaken and staring ahead, with a weak voice she muttered, “Cheap.”

He wasn’t buying it, and the gentle ding of the elevator was in rhythm to each floor that they climbed, almost at her floor. “You gotta make more money than this. Do you have an addiction to shoes or something?”

A weak chuckle escaped, and that turned into a grin that soothed the tears that threatened to form. She was safe. She was with Ryder. At least for the moment, she didn’t have to worry.

It opened her up. “No, just a lot of college debt. Lost my scholarship, all that. Trying to pay it all off before buying something. Jeremy was big about never carrying a lot of debt” --the elevator door opened-- “You don’t have to stay any longer, you know. I really feel horrible you had to do that. You could have gotten injured, and then I’d never feel right about that. I owe you, a ton. You can go home if you want.”

He stepped out of the elevator. “You’re fine, Jules. Which direction is your apartment?” he asked, looking down either hall. “I don’t feel comfortable just leaving you here with that other one still lurking wherever the hell he is.”

She could have hugged him then.

She pointed to the right, and they walked to her door. As she unlocked it, she could see him out of her peripheral, and his wide body blocked out all of her vision, which made her feel relieved.

The door opened with a squeak of the hinges. She walked in and took off her jacket, hanging it up. “Please help yourself to anything here. I really don’t want you to have to stay for too long, though. It’s already getting really dark outside.”

“I’ll be blunt, I don’t feel comfortable leaving with that creepin’ asshole wanderin’ around. Shoulda done more though, given him a broken wrist too.”

She went to lock the door behind him. “How’d you even know how to grab his wrist? I hardly saw it before you had your hand on him.”

He looked around her apartment. “You never watch someone’s face. Keep an eye on their hands and feet.”

Her smile faltered.“Thank god you were here.”

He looked at her, his eyes hardened again and it made her hold her breath. “Yeah no shit. That could have ended horribly.”

It was the coldness in his tone that spoke louder than anything. In that, she wanted to almost ignore the entire thing. Being that close to being stabbed was like staring death in the face, and it threatened to unravel her in ways similar to sitting outside of Jeremy’s ICU room, after being told there was no saving him.

Julie held her hands out in a display of her home, feeling like she should at least show him where things were. “This is the grand tour Kitchen and living area are one room. The door at the end of this small little hall is my room, and the one behind me is the bathroom. You can take whatever you can find in the fridge. ”

Ryder had already taken a few steps into the living area, shrugging one of his muscled shoulders. He said, “You made the place cozy for the building being a shitshow.” He touched her fairy lights that filled a few mason jars.

Her expression softened greatly at his words. “Thank you. I tried really hard. It’s not much, but I can decorate it at least.”

She turned on the lights in the kitchen, hoping she left nothing out to make her look too much like a slob. She was relieved to find it was mostly tidied, throwing away a left-out, bundled paper towel.“Well, you can leave whenever you want. I don’t mind you staying for a bit, though.”

“I mean, if you’re fine with it, I can stay for the night.”

She looked Ryder over, the surrealness of having him—after all those times watching him on the screen—in her apartment, caught her just as offgaurd as his suggestion. “What?”

He turned to face her, swiping his lower lip with his tongue before saying, “That other one will be back, Jules. Maybe not tonight, but it’s not worth risking. He knew you were on the tenth floor. My sister will kill me if she finds out I left you here after that. Especially when it’s not even that late. That man could always come back.”

She looked around, genuinely stuck on what to say. Of course she wanted to tell him to stay, just on the sheer fact that it would ease her frayed nerves. “I just feel bad if you do. This is really going out of your way, Ryder. And honestly, I am still low key embarrassed you had to get into a fight just taking me home.”

His hands were still inside the pockets of his barn jacket, and he held them out through his pockets. “Look, my sister and I grew up in poor areas, and she had quite the number of men that targeted her. So I learned to fight to keep her safe, which is how I got into MMA in the first place. I am used to this.” He shrugged, dropping his hands so his jacket hung naturally. “I ain’t got anything else to do, anyway. We work at the same place, and you’re close to the gym. It’s really only cutting into evening routine of listening to Andrew watch ESPN, but I think I can skip that for a night.”

She sucked both of her lips in, smiling as she looked at her laminate countertops. Then she realized that he would have nowhere to sleep, save for the futon that she had from college and never replaced with a proper couch...

“Well, shoot. All I got is a futon for you to sleep on,” she said.

He chuckled. “Futon is fine. I’ll need to call Andrew. Let him know I’ll be there in the morning.”

She rubbed the inner corner of her so as not to smear her makeup. With a slight groan, she said, “He’ll be so mad. He hates when I make anything complicated.”

Dropping her hands and glancing over at him, Ryder leaned against the wall, looking at his phone. She stared longer than she should, her emotions a small typhoon inside of her. She was stressed from the recent event, dreaded facing Andrew, eternally grateful for Ryder, and also wanting to be physically close to someone for comfort.

Her mind, of course, begged for her to get closer to him.

He put his free hand in his pocket as he put his phone to his ear, waiting. “Hey Andrew. Listen, odd thing to mention, but I am staying with Julie tonight...no it won’t become a common theme. Look, there was an incident. Police were involved and shit. There was a dangerous dude with a knife running around here, and another one is still on the loose. Just for tonight...I don’t know, but she’s only a ten minute drive to you, fifteen to the gym. Yeah that’s fine...I’d prefer if it weren’t avoidable...yeah it’s basically run by slum lords...Sounds good.”

He looked at her, raising his brows to slightly crinkle his forehead. “He definitely thinks we’re fucking.”

She blushed and if she had had water in her mouth, she would have spit it out, as a laugh tumbled out of her. “Oh my god,” she said with a chuckle.

Ryder returned the humor with a smirk.“He can screw off, though. I mean, valid concern since I am randomly at your place, but he’s too hard on you.”

"Thank you,” she said. She didn’t know what was going on with her now, but she definitely felt a heat for Joey Ryder that burned with more intensity the longer they interacted. The best part was it went more than just wanting to have him take her in whichever way he wanted — she was starting to grow fond of him. “Let me get the futon ready,” she said, deciding that was a good segue.

But no matter what, she needed to be careful with feelings like this. Especially in their predicament.

As she went to her closet, she yelled out, “So what can I do to make up for this? I owe you. Like seriously. First a coffee, then a burger, and now saving my ass.”

“Yeah, what the hell, Stevens.”

A wide, stupid grin took over her face as she put a hand on the closet door handle, unable to deny how nice it felt to have him here. “Well, I don’t even know what to do for you in return!”

“Buy the next lunch and we’re even.”

“You think Andrew will make us have lunch again?” she asked, grabbing a blanket and shutting the door.

“We can always just go on our own.”

She rounded the corner, really liking the sound of that.

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