RYDER (Antagonist to Lovers)

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C H A P T E R | 21

J U L I E
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The next morning Ryder was gone after they agreed -- through text -- for him to leave early so as to deal with Andrew, mentioning to call him if that 'creepin' asshole' came after her again.

Julie went to make her coffee alone, the smell of the beans her pre-wakeup before drinking the coffee itself.

Julie sat down at her dining table, listening the steam and drip of the coffee maker as she recanted the previous night. She had no idea what to do about her clear attraction to the man. She looked around her apartment, still wishing she had a better home to show off to him. One that didn’t make someone feel obligated to stay here just for her safety.

She felt like she metaphorically woke up from a very deep sleep, her eyes closed to the last six months of her life. It was a kind of vigor that she felt after graduating college, ready to face the world and claim her identity. It helped her understand that her rut mostly lied in the fact that she felt so disconnected from everything, especially her own future.

The worst part was that when she thought about changing up her life, she didn’t see herself staying in this field. It was stained with reminders of Jeremy, and even if she found some joy as a physical therapist or masseuse, it still didn’t ‘click’ as something she truly wanted. And she didn’t know why that was, as that was recent.

So then what else would she do? Where could she go? She poured some of her coffee into a white mug and sat back down, holding her robe close as she breathed in the steaming aroma. Dolores did give me that offer...

Julie pulled out her phone, deciding it was past seven in the morning, so not too early to text an early bird like Dolores.

Julie 7:03 A.M. “Been thinking about your offer from the other day, about that manager position. Might have to start exploring that, when Warlord is over.”

She put her phone down. In their last conversation, Dolores offered Julie a manager position at her plant nursery, and Julie could use the change of scenery. Not that she was out of sports medicine for forever, but she did need a break.

Her phone vibrated.

Dolores 7:04 A.M : “U doing okay? It’s awful early to be thinking about job offers.”

Julie 7:05 A.M: “Just going through stuff.”

Dolores 7:06 A.M: “U want me to call? Been up for an hour so it’s no problem for me.”

Julie stared at the phone. She knew she should refuse to be polite, but dammit did she want someone like a mom to talk to.

Julie 7:06 A.M: “Yeh”

Dolores’ name popped up on the screen and Julie hit the little green telephone-button.

“Hey, sorry, this is silly.”

“Are you alright?”

“I am so sorry for burdening you with my stuff, but I just...am going through stuff. It’s like I’m finally coming out of the fog after Jeremy died l. Might really want to try working at your nursery when this is all said and done. And I mean that, too. I need to get away from the gym for a bit, really recenter myself.”

It wasn’t a step up in pay, but with her student loans almost paid off, it might be a nice break. If she gave Andrew the name--and that was a big if, but one she had to consider--she could probably negotiate some money from it, use that to pay off her loans and walk away from it all.

And in that, she felt herself tear up. Walking away from it all really made it seem like Jeremy was gone, like throwing the last shovel of dirt onto the grave.

She took a drink of her coffee and the bitterness refocused her.

“Go ahead, Jules. What’s really getting to you?”

She sighed, placing a hand on her cheek and leaned into it. “Ryder was here last night. Stayed all night. Nothing happened, but I definitely wanted something to happen. And I think he did too. And I am usually more professional than that. If I lose Jeremy’s gym, it needs to be on my terms, not because Andrew gets off on pinning me in a corner. He’d be pissed if something happened between Ryder and I.”

“Slow down, honey. Why was Ryder there? I mean you talk about him so much, that I’m not surprised. But you said nothing happened?”

“Creepy George,” Julie said with a monotone voice.

Dolores groaned, knowing the stories of him as well. “You need to mace that man. Or kick him so hard in the nuts he forgets what sex is.”

Julie chuckled, then frowned. “He’s getting worse. I’ve called the cops on him three times and on the third it took an hour for them to get here. They don’t take it seriously anymore, saying that as long as he is a tenant and just getting in our spaces, they can’t do anything. Ryder came to walk me to my apartment and Creepy George was there,” she said, pausing. “He had a friend or something with him, and that one had a knife. Ryder took care of it and we’re fine, but he didn’t feel right leaving. So he staid.”

“Well that was nice of him.”

Julie leaned harder into her hand. “I know, and that’s where I feel bad. He was helping me out and I just wanted to make out with him.”

She laughed. “You’re allowed to be attracted to people, Jules. And have crushes, which is what that sounds like. It’s just how you handle it that counts.”

“Yeah, but still...I am starting to wonder if I need to do more for myself. I don’t want to lose a clear head. All of this is just to say that I might end up working for you sooner rather than later. In case Andrew kicks me out or something.” She felt odd telling her all of this, and yet it also felt therapeutic.

“Well, my doors are always open. I lost my daughter, you know, and that’s a void that never gets filled. But helping you out gives me a new kind of joy that I can’t quite explain. And I’ve still got a lot of motherin’ left in me. So don’t worry about it, alright? You remind a lot of Sharon.”

In that, Julie felt like her problems were so insignificant. This woman lost a daughter, and Julie was wallowing in her own misery when Dolores was making the best out of a bad scenario. Julie sat up straighter, feeling like she could handle this.

Jeremy would want that for her. He’d want her to be happy.

“Thanks Dolores...I mean it. Oh, and one more question...I got a small hint that Ryder might be interested too...what if something does happen? I mean what if I do have a crush on this guy, and he has it back? I am on his team. I can’t just give him a massage and then give him a happy ending. That’s like...that’s so unprofessional.”

“Well, you’re pretty enough to find a man for a night if that’s what you really need, Julie. So don’t go to Ryder for that. But if you want more from him? Hmm...that is a pickle. Maybe let this Ryder take the lead...well, is he smart? Or one of those airhead fighters? Can you trust the head on his shoulders, and not the other one?”

Julie grinned. “I thought he was an airhead, but he seems to be smart, actually.”

“Maybe let the man lead, then. Just make sure when Andrew is around to act like everything is casual. That one sounds like an asshole.”

She placed her hand on her forehead and closed her eyes. “Ugh, he’d be so pissed if something happened.”

“You’ve got a good head on your shoulders, Jules. Just remember that. And if this Ryder is worth anything, he’ll value that. Screw Andrew. If you two kids have a thing going for you, then why ignore it? Life is short, honey. We both have experienced that first hand. So live it.”

A wave of chills ran down her back as she nodded, those words waking up her more than any coffee she could drink.

“I owe you, Dolores. You’re like sunshine when it’s been raining for two weeks.”

She chuckled. “Well, good, plants wilt when it rains too much. Get you some sun and soak it in. Just don’t beat yourself up too much while you’re trying to bloom, alright? We all make mistakes. Just own them and have accountability. And have fun. Smart fun. If this Ryder wants to be with you for more than just a night, then it’s worth seeing what that is. If he is a professional, he will know to carefully tread that line too.”

“Can I come over soon to cook for you, or something? I’d invite you here, but I don’t want you anywhere near George.”

And in that, Julie really heard for the first time how dangerous that man was. It sunk in when it was targeted at someone she cared for--someone who couldn’t fight him back.

“I’d love that. Have you canned before? I need to get some canning done and can show it to you too.”

“Oh I’d like that,” she said.

“Alright, someday soon then. Have a good day, Jules.”

“I will now, thanks to you.”

Julie nearly jogged to work that morning but decided to show up looking refreshed. She could do this. She could take control of her life.

She didn’t feel nearly as guilty for when she walked into work and a small part of her hoped that Ryder was interested in her.

Her desire was increased when she watched Ryder punching and then he’d look her way--the eye contact lingered. Whatever was there was real, and they both felt it. She didn’t know if that made it better or worse.

To keep her mind occupied, she focused on going over her weekly itinerary back in her office. It was sometime after lunch when her phone vibrated.

She looked at the screen, her heart pounding and her nostrils flared, reading the message:

777-777-6398:

This is The Landings Apartment informing you of an emergency at the complex. A fire has erupted on the fourth floor and evacuations are now mandatory. If you are in the building, you are being asked to leave. Please do not call 911 unless it is a new emergency, as police, fire and EMTs are on their way

“Holy fuck,” she said, standing up.

First thing she did was type it into Google, and sure enough there was a local report of a fire. It was even on Facebook. She watched a quick live video of someone showing that the top six floors were smoking, a few areas burning profusely.

“Holy shit, I gotta go,” she said to herself, panicking. Her mind moved faster than her body, reminding herself to grab her purse and by the time she located it, her mind was already reminding her to tell Andrew.

It was like a lagging video game, and all a blur at the same time. She darted into Andrew’s office and Ryder was in there. There was a flash of embarrassment that everything was falling apart in front of him once again, but she had no time.

“Apartment complex apparently on fire. It’s bad. It’s all on fire. Gotta run,” she said, already turning to leave.

“Holy shit, wait, Julie!”

She faced Andrew again breathing heavily. Ryder stood up, his eyes wide with concern, his broad jaw dropped as he looked ready to speak.

Andrew looked at Ryder, his eyes full of alert. “Go, go with her.”

“No, it’s fine. I gotta go—"

“No, he hurt his knuckle so he’s done for today anyway. Go! Don’t go by yourself like that!”

Julie looked at Ryder, really not needing this, and shook her head as she turned back around. “Fine!”

She ran to the front of the building, not caring if he was following or not. She didn’t even know if anyone was watching, but didn’t have time to care.

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