RYDER (Antagonist to Lovers)

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C H A P T E R | 19

J U L I E
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When she got to her Subaru, he was jogging lightly behind her asking, “You need me to drive?”

“Nope,” she said, unlocking the door, struggling on where to put her purse; she threw it in the backseat. Her hands shook as she put the car into drive.

At some point, along the way, her phone rang and it was Dolores. She answered it and put it on speaker. “I’m fine, Dolores. On my way to check on the damage.”

“I can be there as soon as I can.”

“I got Ryder with me”--she blushed and said--“he’s on speaker. I should go though.”

“Alright, as long as you’re alright.” They hung up, and Julie tried not to think about what she’d do if the damage reached her floor.

“That your mom?”

“Nope, just a woman I met at gardening,” she said, speaking more blunt than she’d like, but that was the panic threatening to take over. She didn't feel like talking about who Dolores was, not when she could only focus on one thing.

The smoke rolled high in the distance before she arrived, pulling into the parking lot to a scene of flashing lights, water spraying at the fifth floor, and a healthy pummel of smoke rolling on itself as it consumed the building.

“Holy shit,” Ryder said, getting out of the car.

Julie slowly got out, spotting her floor to see that smoke filled the windows. For a small moment, her mind connected that Ryder had stayed with her in that building.

But when she spotted one of the few familiar faces, she headed towards Terry, glad he looked alright. He double glanced at her and nodded.

“Oh hey, you’re the girl from the stairwell. Sorry I am shit with names. What floor were you on?”

“Tenth,” she said with a shaky voice. She still hasn’t comprehended that her belongings might be damaged beyond recovery.

He nodded. “Well that’s good. It’s mostly put out by now. Just a shit ton of smoke.”

She coughed, as if the mention of it allowed her mind to process that the air, indeed, aggregated her throat. “What happened?”

“Don’t know fully, but they took that creeping asshole away. Apparently got a call last night, police actually came. Something about a knife. Then another call came as someone said they saw him messing with electrical shit in the lobby around eight in the morning.” He shook his head. “I swear if that dumbass...”

“Did anyone get hurt?” Julie asked, her voice cracking as she looked around. She didn’t see anyone getting in the ambulance.

“A few were rushed to the hospital. Faulty system, so took ages for it to go off.”

She nodded. “I am glad most were able to get out...”

“It’s just a damned shame. This place was so nice just five years ago when I first moved in.” His phone rang, and she nodded at him as he took it.

She glanced back at Ryder who leaned against her Subaru, scanning the crowd that had gathered.

Julie hated that he was here wasting his time dealing with her life’s drama. She walked over, the reflection of the smoke moving in her tinted windows.

She asked, “Hey, is it alright if I go talk to management real quick?”

He shrugged his shoulders, his eyes serious. “Take your time.”

Her breathing was still heavy, and she sighed, shaking her head. “Look, I’m sorry you’re here. I should have came alone.”

“Well, as long as I can avoid being here when it’s actively on fire, then it’s all good.”

A myriad of reactions came to her, from embarrassment to appreciation at his patience, and even a light chuckle.

Julie didn’t want to wait and turned around and moved closer to the building, at least as close as she could get before found the manager, who told her to talk to the fire department. Apparently, the building was going to take around twenty four hours before they could clear it, and even then, they didn’t know if it would be safe until the structural integrity was ensured. As far as they could tell, the tenth floor seemed untouched save for heavy smoke. Still, if the fire had caused any damage to the foundation, the roof could come crashing down.

So, for now, she had absolutely nothing on her but the clothes on her back and her purse. She didn’t even know if her stuff survived the smoke or not.

Placing her hands on the back of her head, she stared at the ground as she went back to her car, standing next to Ryder. Then she started to gently laugh, holding her mouth open and shaking her head.

Ryder said, “How you doing, joker?”

Her laugh changed to a real one as she looked up at the sky. “My apartment complex nearly burned down. And you stayed in it the night before. Imagine if you were there and got hurt. I’d feel like such a jackass.”

He didn’t respond right away and said, “But it didn’t happen that way.”

She looked back around and crossed her arms. “No, but if I just settled for a nicer place then there never would have been an issue. Now all my stuff is in there, and I have no idea when I can get it. I don’t even know where to live.”

The tears fell, although she was tired of crying at this point. “I am just tired of dealing with all of this shit. Dad always says it means good things are coming, but I think that’s just to make us feel better about things we can’t control.”

Ryder took in a deep breath. “We can talk to Andrew, Julie. He’s got two spare beds, and he’s already got me there so he’s not in the most private place. You won’t be there long, and he lives ten minutes from the gym. It makes the most sense.”

She put her face in her hand. She couldn’t deny that he was right. She considered Dolores, but that was just because she was so motherly; Julie couldn’t do that to her. Andrew was the next, obvious option. But that also felt wrong. Cody was clearly out of the question.

Perhaps get a hotel until she found a new place? She didn’t want to have to pay for one, though. That would get expensive. She also had to figure out how to cancel her lease, and if she fell underneath a clause that meant she didn’t have to pay rent due to the fire. So paying for anything right now was just exhausting to think about.

All my stuff...with her head still in her hand, she shuddered with a small sob. Luckily it was such a small place that she didn’t have much, but there was still some sentimental shit there.

A hand touched her back and she stiffened, but when she realized it was Ryder, she relaxed again and didn’t fight it. She spoke into her hand, “Sorry, all you do is see me cry. I swear when my life isn’t a shit show I am usually happier.”

He gave a light chuckle. “Yeah, I admit you don’t have the best luck right now.”

She frowned as fat tears swelled. She wanted to laugh, but also just felt so alone in that moment. And having shitty luck with no friends or family felt like she was chained to a boulder that pulled her under.

“You need anything?” Ryder asked.

“Some wine, maybe ice cream, and might go to Dolores’s for a bit. Could use a hug. She seems like a hugger,” she said. That sounded like the best option. She could entertain staying at Andrew’s but she’d need to go to Dolores first.

The next part shocked her as Ryder gave her a gentle tug towards him, but even though she could tell he was being gentle, there was still a strength in his grip. “Fine. You get one. You’re really pathetic right now.”

She leaned hard into him without even looking, needing the human contact. There was something about him that seemed like a man that knew pain, and in that she found some comfort.

Plus, he was a thick, strong fighter which gave her a false sense of feeling safe, like Ryder would just punch out whatever other shitty thing came in her life. Especially as she leaned against his chest, breathing him in.

At some point, she accepted just how close she was to him, an arm wrapped him as the warmth of his chest warmed her cheek. Then she caught the smell of his deodorant and it was one of those scented ones for men. She really liked it, and let out an annoyed laugh.

“What?” he asked, and his voice reverberated in his chest.

Screw it. Her luck was shit, so it’s not like Julie and Ryder were going anywhere anyway. “I like your deodorant, and that’s such a weird thing to think right now,” she said, but didn’t pull back.

It felt good to be against his chest. Not just sexually, either, although that was definitely a thing. It was also just comforting.

He actually laughed, and didn’t let go of her. “Gotta admit, people usually compliment my shoulders.”

She laughed harder and pulled away this time, looking back at her apartment but felt like she’d find a way through it. All of her pictures with Jeremy were backed up and put into a safe. It seemed overkill at the time, but as long as she had those, then she’d be happy.

She appreciated how Ryder made her smile though, and his hand fell away. It sent a deep shiver through her, and the frayed emotions wanted more, but she didn’t push it. “At least you’re funny.”

“Sarah always needed the laugh.”

“Sarah?” Her heart sank, thinking it was an ex he was hung up on.

“My sister,” he said, his demeanor nearly as warm as when she had overheard him on the phone call.

The way he said that touched her, and she wiped her eyes as she felt her tears nearing to an end. Breathing deeply, and then exhaling, her eyes were tired and she felt like a nap. At least she didn’t wear makeup today, so no streaks of black. God all my makeup is up in there.

She knew that even though the sting was gone, she’d be feeling this deeply for months.

“Come stay with Andrew. It smells like the gym there, no thanks to me, but he’s got an extra room. Don’t know why his house is so big.”

“He used to have his kids stay there, but they’re all at the end of high school and living with their mom.”

“Seriously, let me ask him, at least.”

At the thought of begging Andrew for a place to stay, she realized she’d be going there with nothing. She still wasn’t even sold on the idea. “I don’t even have anything. My charger, clothes, underwear, shoes, makeup, everything is in there.”

“If you need to go shopping, we can, but I am sitting in the car.”

A big smile took her face, and somehow even with her stuff ruined he made her smile. “No, I’d drop you off first, dork.”

He let out a competitive chuckle. “Oh, calling me names?”

She rolled her head at him, a tepid smile on her face. He seemed to be playful about it when a raise of his brow, and she said, “I think you can handle it.”

Julie focused on something less flirtatious, not able to process any of that right now. “Look, I’m glad you came, to be honest. Would have been a mess alone, by myself.”

As soon as she said that, she rolled her lips in and realized the innuendo there. He threw her a look. "Really? That one is too easy."

She chuckled again, wishing she had a better segue for the conversation, but given the circumstances, she found it harder than normal to do so. "You’ve been really nice to me the last twenty four hours,” she said, looking back at him.

He moved only his eyes to her, then back ahead, making an expression as if to say ’yeah, you got a point′ and then chewed on his lip. “I can be a nice guy," he said, feigning offense.

She sighed and said, “Well, let me call Andrew. Explain everything. I won’t ask to stay, but if he offers I might consider it. Either way, if you don’t mind I need to do some quick shopping.”

“It’s cool. I’ll just stay in the car. I’m tired as shit.”

“Good. You’re definitely not coming with me to buy my underwear.”

He glowered at her, his undereyes rising as he sucked his thick bottom lip to his teeth, letting it go in a swift motion. “Oh, don’t make this sexual on me, Stevens. I’m already dying over here.”

She half-smiled, unable to not engage in that and asked, “Why are you dying?”

He flared his nostrils as he took in a deep breath, pursing his lips and looking forward. Julie, ridiculously enough, found herself captivated in the small movements of him. Especially when he spoke with a slightly lower octave. “Yeah, I’ll just bring the ladies over to Andrew’s house. That’ll work real well,” he said, looking at her. “Plus, the thought of him being near while I’m with someone is a major turn off. So I’m in a fucking dry spell.”

Her body betrayed her, even through all of this chaos, an electric excitement sparked at the thought of him being backed up. It reignited her feelings from ten years ago. Her cheeks threatened to flood with a pinkish hue, so she snickered and looked away, doing her to best to fake a chummy laugh. “Just go find someone on Tinder.”

He groaned. “There’s something not exciting about about swiping right until some chick wants to bang. Removes all the chemistry.”

She looked up at her burned down apartment, dread and angst swirling with mixtures of hormones and attraction, much like the dwindling smoke. How would she handle being in the same house as him, especially now knowing the guy was about to burst with a sexual hunger, especially if they threw daring looks at each other like they had last night.

As if anything would happen in Andrew’s house.

Plus, she honestly didn’t want to cross that line without Ryder pushing her over it.

And yet, a daring, needy part of her welcomed it.

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