RYDER (Antagonist to Lovers)

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C H A P T E R | 1

J U L I E ____________________________________________

Today was Freedom Friday, or at least that’s what Julie Stevens called it. As someone who’d spent most of her life as a gymnast and now worked at an MMA gym as a sports therapist, keeping her figure was a part of the job description.

That didn’t mean her stomach didn’t ache for more than salad, chicken, and fruit, though. So, on Fridays, she splurged with whatever her stomach craved - a cheat day, as some would call it. For lunch today, she ate a bag of regular Cheetos, not the baked kind. She also got a caramel macchiato with whole milk rather than skim. She went light on the caramel syrup, but that was just a preference.

It was a tradition her and her brother started years ago when they both ended their extensive stints in competition sports. After a Freedom Friday, they used to go running the next morning to make up for the difference.

It was one of the few things that still made her feel close to him.

Taking one last swig of her sugared coffee, she dumped her trash and washed her hands in the sink. One of the perks to working in the building that her brother owned--or used to own--was that she got to pick the soap. Julie liked the foamy kind, none of that slimy goop that took forever to get off of the skin.

She was about to go outside for a few minutes and enjoy the fresh air when Cody Jones walked by, panting. He looked her over, sweat glistening on his temples. He had clearly been deep in a workout routine.

If it was a year ago, a part of Julie would have burned with desire for him in a state like that, but that was in their past now. Or at least, for her it was. She knew he still had feelings for her.

When he stood at the doorway, his dark brown eyes were the opposite of how they usually greeted her, the gentle nature of them now reserved and tepid. It gave her cause for concern.

Julie said, “Hey, what’s up?”

“You got a fighter down,” he said, his voice grim.

“Who is it?” she asked, not sure how to read him. Was this an emergency, or a stubbed toe? His demeanor was serious, but he wasn’t hastened.

He pressed his lips together and sighed through his slightly crooked nose. “It’s Johnny’s ankle. It popped. It ain’t good, Jules.”

“Oh...oh, shit,” she muttered, a chill washing through her as she looked away. Johnny was the gym’s lead fighter for the Warlord competition. He wasn’t at the highest professional level, but he was a damned good contender for the amateur league.

She tucked her phone into the tiny pocket of her workout pants and followed him. The smell of sweat clung to Cody, although it was something she was used to by now. Julie had once tried wearing perfume to dull the stench that nearly soaked into the walls, but it just reminded her of a bathroom that someone had sprayed Febreze in--it was a mixture of smells that didn’t blend.

They rounded the corner of the darkly painted hall that bright, overhanging lights illuminated. Julie broke into a jog when she heard a painful groan.

The sound of gym music, men punching bags, and an endless wave of grunting filled her ears as she skimmed the area for Johnny. Others continued to train at the opposite end, probably unaware.

When she spotted one of the tallest men at the gym, Andrew Boyden--the co-owner--standing outside of a fighting ring, his grim expression told her everything she needed to know.

As she approached, Andrew slid his hand off the ring rope and said, “Well, there goes that.”

Julie eyed Johnny who sat up with one knee pulled to his chest. The other leg rested straight out. Eyes fixed on the mouthguard on the floor, he refused to look

“Let’s have a look at it,” Julie breathed as she approached the sweaty fighter, his lean, powerful body breathing heavily. “What happened?”

“Landed wrong and it rolled on me. Felt and heard a pop...just fucking fix it,” he said with a grimace, looking to the ankle that didn’t appear terribly injured, save for the immediate swelling. That was never a good sign.

A few of the fighters huddled around while Andrew slowly paced in the background, running a hand through his dark hair, a few strands falling in his face.

Julie got on her knees to look closer. No doubt his adrenaline was numbing the pain. Her mind first went to wondering if it was his posture, as she had been on him about not bending his knees enough, which would just make the rest of his body stiff and prone to injury. “I’m going to have to push around and see what resistance you have, Alright? You’re still going to want to go to urgent care for an x-ray to make sure it’s not broken. Could be a fracture. But if it’s a ligament issue...swelling this fast is not good news, man. You might need an MRI for that.”

He grunted in reply. She placed her finger on the medial malleolus, or the exterior part of the ankle, watching him for a reaction. His thin lips tucked in as he breathed through his teeth. Even though he was tense and ready for the pain, he didn’t seem to feel any there.

Damn. Let’s try the ligament.

She grabbed his foot and began to rotate it, his skin soft and warm from inflammation. She pushed outward, and he made a small sound. Then she pushed it inward, and his body went rigid as he cried out, slapping the floor with a flat palm.

She pushed on the bone again, and he barely flinched. She sighed and looked at Andrew, who shook his head and refused to meet her gaze. With gentle eyes, she faced their broken fighter. “That’s not good, Johnny.”

“Fuck me,” he growled through a shaky voice, his brown eyes full of disappointment. “What’s wrong with it? Did it break? Please tell me it’s not more than a month off. I can do that. We’re still six months out.”

“Well, I handle recovery, not diagnosis. But the bone doesn’t hurt, and yet pushing it one direction does. It’s either a ligament or an annoying fracture. You might not be out of Warlord, but it’s going to be one hell of a climb from here. Either way, it’s out of my range.”

This is gonna be an enormous blow to these guys. Andrew had planned for a cookout that coming weekend to celebrate Warlord, which was potentially the largest competition for UFC fighters. Especially since Johnny had been doing so well.

“Let’s get him to urgent care,” Andrew concluded, placing a hand back on the ring rope. Andrew wasn’t the one that coached Johnny, but he was the head coach and despite his routinely antagonistic personality, he knew what he was doing.

She hurried to her office to get some crutches and a compression wrap for his ankle.

Once they fixed Johnny up and Andrew saw that someone was taking him to urgent care, Andrew looked at Julie. “Well?”

She placed her hands on her hips, watching as one of the guys aided Johnny through the front of the gym, another fighter holding the glass doors for him.

Julie said, “This is gonna be a huge dent on his schedule.”

Andrew rolled his dark eyes and shook his head. “Fucking great,” he turned away, heading towards his office, leaving her standing there.

The energy didn’t quite return to the gym, which was unusual for Rhino MMA, as it was a facility with nearly two dozen fighters; the place always full of energy. And yet it felt quiet, the spirit inarguably dampened.

Julie felt her own spirit sink to the floor like it was at the tail end of a match, her concern and sympathy for Johnny keeping it low. And on top of that, now we are back to the drawing board for Warlord. There was a handful of fighters at the gym that could qualify, such as Cody, but even he lacked a certain edge that Warlord would demand. Warlord combined some of the weight categories for competition’s sake, raising the already dangerous stakes -- men punching outside of their narrow weight class.

It was already a dangerous sport, which made Warlord all the more unsafe. Who in the hell can we get to replace Johnny Now how are we going to get sponsorships?

She eyed the men as they trained in quick movements, checking to see if their stances were correct, or if anyone favored one side, or anything else of the like. After that everyone better be cautious. She specialized in therapy for the injured and also gave massages, along with conditioning. When the gym looked well, and Cody on the ground with one of the guys wrapped between his thighs as he pinned him down, she decided to get back to her own routine.

Hopefully Andrew had more tricks up his sleeve, and connection he could use to find a fighter for them.

It’s why her brother chose him in the first place.


Two weeks had passed, and Johnny came back with a Grade Two tear in his left ankle, which wasn’t a killer blow, but it meant he would be two months behind on training. Despite that, Johnny was already back in the gym, focusing on everything else that he could. Next week, Julie would start him with physical therapy.

She was doing a quick round of light weight workouts herself when the front door to the gym opened. It was a hooded figure she didn’t recognize; she looked away when one of the other coaches handled the newcomer.

It was when the fighters adjacent to her started murmuring while staring at the front door that she placed her full attention on this stranger. There was a distinct lack of any sound in the gym, silence falling on them like a domino effect. It was so quiet that Julie could hear the lyrics from the music that played over the speakers, which she usually only heard in the early morning.

Who is that?

Her lips parted as she froze with a kettlebell in hand. Standing at the front door, near Andrew and another coach, was a face that Julie knew once the hood was down. A face that her brother Jeremy would have dropped everything to greet.

Cody jogged over to Julie, his demeanor mixed between awe and amazement before he frowned. Even he spoke with a hurried whisper, “That’s fucking Joey Ryder, Jules.”

Joey Ryder was the acclaimed fighter that had disappeared for the last three years, and now he stood by their front door, the natural lighting burning through the windows behind him to ensure there was no mistake in identifying him. He wore nothing but gym sweats and a zip-up hoodie that covered what looked to be a white wife beater underneath.

Ryder looked around the facility with the expression that he had built a brand on--a rigid, enduring glare. It was something about his hooded lids, along with the permanent angry shape of his eyebrows that just gave him a look.

Little had changed about him since the last time Julie saw him fighting on the TV screen, except maybe his eyes seemed a little older, but she was still a good fifteen yards away, so it was hard to fully judge. His dark brown hair was still short, with gel combed through it to clean up the front. The blunt end of his bangs hung over the line at his forehead

Despite being an MMA fighter, his long, slightly wide nose was relatively straight with only a slight bump in it. His broad lips were pressed tightly together.

She put her kettle bell down when her shoulder started to burn.

Her brother Jeremy would be fanboying over Ryder inside of Rhino MMA. It was akin to a Kardashian walking into someone’s hair salon. Especially since they were about an hour outside of Pittsburgh, which meant someone had to really go out of their way to find them.

Cody sighed next to her, his powerful chest rising and falling as he stood up straight, crossing his arms, speaking lowly. “I bet he’s here for Warlord. Has to be. Would be a godsend, really, after poor Johnny.”

Julie leaned in but kept her eyes on Ryder. “Why did he come here, of all places, though? He hasn’t been seen in years.”

“I bet it’s Andrew. He trained under Mike Lowers, which is Ryder’s old coach. Lowers is in retirement and also dealing with family. Was a big deal when he tapped out,” Cody said, not nearly as excited as the others at the gym.

Julie could guess why; in her early twenties, she used to have a raging crush on Ryder, when Jeremy would watch nothing else except ESPN and UFC fighting. Julie scratched her nose, remembering those days. She knew she wasn’t the only one in the sport’s world to fawn over Ryder. It didn’t help that he had a brooding look that was more appealing than odious, and that man could fight. He had a complete knack for judging his opponent, his determination and vigor nearly unmatched. The men loved him for how Ryder riled them up, and the ladies fawned over him for obvious reasons.

She placed her hands on her hips, watching as Andrew guided Ryder into his office, shuttering the blinds. Andrew acted as if a member of the royal family entered the gym, nearly stumbling as he walked. She had never seen him like that before.

“It’s a shame Jeremy ain’t here for this--”

The coach that greeted Ryder initially yelled out to the gym, “Alright, men, you can quit your gawking at Ryder. Get back to hitting each other and make this place look like a real gym.”

When the gym picked back up with its usual atmosphere, Cody patted Julie on the back and left. With a sigh, Julie went to her office, mentally chewing on the possibility of Ryder being at the gym. Could he seriously be here for Warlord? That would launch the gym into sponsorships and recognition. It’s exactly what they needed.

It’s what Jeremy always wanted...

Julie breathed deeply as she sank into her black IKEA chair and rolled herself up to her desk. Lost in thought, her hands rearranged the fake succulents that sat at the corner. One of the narrow walls had a bookshelf where all her books from school found a home, her degree hanging on the wall behind her desk.

She sat down and plugged in her phone, glancing next to her desktop where a picture of her and Jeremy stood, capturing the day that the gym opened. Julie missed spotting her brother in the gym, who was essentially the male version of herself: pale skin, chestnut hair, and stockier more than tall. Although his haircut was always short and simple, whereas Julie’s was often in two braids that dangled past her shoulders.

The only other difference was Jeremy had dark brown eyes and Julie had light hazel.

She sighed and for a long while, just staring at it. “If he gets signed, Jer, I’ll do what I can to help him win. I’ll get this place into the spotlight. Don’t you worry.”

Giving herself a shake as her emotions crept upwards, she focused back on her work and got to reviewing the files of the guys training here.

Now, in a way, the gym was a part of her legacy after inheriting it from Jeremy. Julie glanced at her phone, picking it up to trigger the lock screen, which was of the mountains in upper state New York where she was from and where her family still lived. She unlocked it to see the mess of apps and clicked on Google.

The temptation to google Ryder was strong, to see if she saw anything on him that might suggest why he disappeared or why he was here at all.

Despite the enticing idea, she doubted much would appear, anyway. He was MMA famous, not celebrity level. She set the phone down when googling him reminded her of ten years ago when she had a raging crush on Ryder, back when Jeremy was deep into the sport himself. Julie could not let those thoughts haunt her now.

Ryder, if he signed on, was the golden ticket to immortalizing the name of Rhino MMA.

For Jeremy, she needed to be nothing but a professional.

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