c h a p t er | 17
J U L I E---&---R Y D E R
Julie carried her extra blanket to the futon while Ryder put up his coat. She set it down, the blanket gently unrolling while she grabbed the Roku. The word ‘relief’ didn’t quite scrape the surface of what she felt at Ryder being there for her. “You can watch TV if you want. Do you want the futon out, or leave it like a couch? I know sometimes I like to just sleep on it folded up.”
He came back over, his deep voice a welcomed warmth in her apartment. “Leave it as is. I don’t need much.”
She turned on Netlfix and played the Great British Baking Show. It seemed like a proper inside joke, and if he actually watched it, then perhaps it would make the place seem even homier.
“I don’t know why, but I love this show,” he said, sitting down, spreading his legs out as he leaned into the futon. “I admit, I totally watch it alone. Don’t need my sister as an excuse for that.”
She could only smile at the image of this MMA fighter staring at a gentle baking show, all on his own volition. She sat down on the futon, but made sure there was ample space between them so as not to make anything too forward. She could only hear Andrew in the back of her mind, telling her not to dare touch Ryder.
And like that, Julie was sitting in her living room with Ryder, watching a show that she loved. It helped that it was such a relaxing show, calming her mind. It made her wonder if that’s why he liked it too. And with the both of them enjoying it together like this, there was something just as exhilarating in that similar to a stolen glance.
As the bakers entered their final round for the episode, Julie asked, “So, how’s it going with you and Andrew? I haven’t really asked, I don’t think.”
“Not bad, honestly. He takes his work very fucking seriously. Lowers is willing to help every now and then too, just to be friendly. I am happy with it.” She felt him look her way, but she kept her gaze on the TV. “So, how long did you mean to stay at the gym before I showed up? You and Andrew are like oil and water.”
“I don’t know. Don’t think I actually had a plan,” she said.
Sure, it was easy to think about next month. Or two months after that. But what about five years from now? Ten? The thought of working at a gym that was nothing but a memory felt empty. Plus, she had no idea, and frankly no interest, in managing a gym. I suppose I can hire someone, but the thought still doesn’t excite me.
She glanced his way, but kept her gaze out of his direct line of sight and added, “Honestly, I was on autopilot for the last six months. I am slowly starting to realize this goes on beyond another six months. Good ol’ Andrew might get what he wants, whether I like it or not.” Julie finally lifted her gaze to connect hers with Ryder, who chewed on his plump, bottom lip. Does he have to do that when he’s so close to me? “Anyway, you excited to be back? You punch like you are.”
With a languid blink, he looked back at the TV and gave a tepid expression of concession. “Yeah, in a way it itches a scratch I’ll probably always have. I just love the energy of a fight. But not beating some jackass up at a bar, or taking over that asshole downstairs. I like having a real competitor. Just two, very skilled dudes duking it out.”
She smiled and ran her gaze down him before looking back at the TV. “I wish more chicks were at the gym. I’d probably be more interested then.”
“Yeah, it’s a real sausage fest there.”
She laughed, crossing her arms as she got more comfortable on the couch and pulled her legs towards her. “You ever get nervous about being punched in the face? I know, real specific, but it’s what I always think about. Happened to me once when some girl in high school thought I stole her boyfriend, and she came out of left field. That shit hurts.”
He seemed to relax more into the couch. “Yeah, there’s nothing quite like being knocked out. Especially the way it lingers when you wake up. But I guess after a while you get used to that shit. It’s being choked out that I hate.”
“It’s just slow, whereas getting smacked in the face is instant.”
“God, you guys really abuse the crap out of your body.”
He smirked and looked her way. “Yeah, but it’s all for the fight and the money. If you’re good at fighting, you won’t get destroyed as much.”
Their eyes connected, and it was clear they were both rambling with no direction in conversation. She was attracted to the man, and Ryder had a different look in his eye that made her toss the mental cold bucket of water named Andrew out the window. Damn did she want whatever was burning between them. She wanted to go over to him, even lean against him. Maybe have him grab her and pull her closer.
It was clear they both just gave each other a look.
She looked away, wanting to say she was going to bed. But all that she did was wordlessly open her mouth. Out of her peripheral, he seemed to do the same thing. She glanced back over at him, and he rolled his gaze to her with a languid blink. “I should go to bed.”
“Oh yeah...me too,” was all she said, but she didn’t move. Then she realized he might want her to. “I mean, I'll go ahead and leave you alone if you want.”
He languidly blinked again, pulling on his face and sighing into his hand. With a voice growing gruff, he disappointedly said, “It's for the best.”
Everything in her burned with a new warmth that blinded her to the rest of the world. He was such a wonderful mixture of rugged and clean, and how she yearned for those hands to be on her...
It was only made worse that he responsible enough to know better, as that made her want him more, in some confusing arrangement of thoughts. “Yeah, yeah you’re right,” she said, wiping her hands on her thighs. “Sorry.”
She stood up.
He leaned back into the couch and with a husky voice said, “Nothing’ to apologize for.”
She sucked her lips to her teeth as she walked towards her room. “Good night, Ryder,” she said, unable to completely remove the disappointment in her voice....
R Y D E R ran a hand through his hair before smoothing it back out. He knew that look that she had; he had seen it plenty of times in women that wanted him. And of course, for a moment, it crossed his mind to maybe indulge in it. She was a stunning woman, and he definitely needed that kind of attention.
But he didn’t want to cross that line. Not that night, at least. He was trying to be a decent person, to do the right thing, and Julie was clearly dealing with a lot, especially with nearly being attacked just then. Fucking her wouldn’t help her. Well, if she wanted that kind of release, then it would help, but he actually didn’t want to. Well, not that he didn’t want to, it was just that she seemed vulnerable and he wanted to make sure she was okay--
The fuck was he doing? He shouldn’t be getting excited over Julie. He had a goal to focus on, and she was his sports therapist. Besides, when had he suddenly gotten interested in her? He was a fucking MMA fighter only getting leaner and more muscular. He had no problem finding someone if he needed it. He needed to re-orient himself.
He had to help Sarah. To help Connor. For Mollie and Frank. Ryder had to win. For his family. His sister droned on about not needing the help, but he knew they couldn’t pay those bills. Sarah was the only stable family he had ever known, and it wasn’t fair that out of the two of them, she had been the one to get sick.
He’d make sure she was taken care of. He’d get back into fighting as a full-time career if he had to, although that would take longer and be way more of a pain in the ass. But he would do it.
Which raised the question: should he even be here? Taking care of Julie? He didn’t need to care about anyone else, even in the most remote sense.
The argument fell flat in his head as soon as it entered.
He truly couldn’t figure out how this had happened. He was so careful to keep a distance from everyone, especially during Warlord, as it was a time that he was most vulnerable to this shit. With him being laser focused on his goals, it meant it was easier for him to let someone in once they were past his walls.
It’s why he kept them so damned high. So how in the hell did she sneak in?
For the past six months, when Ryder realized Warlord could get him the money he needed, it was the only thing he could think about. He’d spend hours watching videos of his opponents, running, training, thinking of what he’d do if he didn’t win. Even deciding to seek out a coach to get him through the remaining six months, and now he just had five left.
Until just a few minutes ago, being with Julie in her home.
He genuinely forgot about Warlord.