RYDER (Antagonist to Lovers)

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C H A P T E R | 24

J U L I E ---& ---R Y D E R

For lunch that day, Julie met with Tony to go over details of the gym. They went to a local sandwich shop and she got a chicken salad sandwich, sitting down at a table with Tony close behind her. She wasn’t necessarily interested in having lunch with him, mostly because her life was so out of whack that she didn’t want to entertain meeting a new person on top of everything else.

The conversation had been rather bland, thankfully, with him speaking more like a reporter rather than a member of the team. He seemed like he was going to be good at his job, and that’s what mattered.

Until, of course, he said, “So, my brother has been moody for the last day.”

She paused with her mouth slightly parted, almost ready to take a bite. “Oh, uh, yeah...that’s unfortunate.”

“I hear that you and him had a small falling out. Over Ryder.” Tony raised his brows as he looked at her.

Her heart froze, the blood in her veins chilling. Recover. Make it seem like it’s nothing. She feigned annoyance, despite the way her heart clawed at her chest in anxiety and said, “That’s what Cody was telling me, yeah. He’s seeing things that aren’t there.”

Technically, it’s the truth. Nothing has happened between us.

“He told me,” Tony said, dipping his fry into ketchup, “That you had a crush on Ryder.”

She groaned and lost her appetite. I swear if this gets back to Andrew... “Look, as a nineteen-year-old girl, Ryder was hot candy on the screen. Like, how is that not obvious? I only got a crush on him because Jeremy was obsessed and played his fights the most. For the record, I also liked Ben Oswald. If Oswald was here, Cody would be acting the same.”

Tony nodded, leaning back into his seat. “Alright, just checking. Don’t need any drama, and Cody was in a real bad mood, so I figured it was based on something. Glad to hear it’s not.”

Julie let out a sigh of relief, as Tony seemed to be satisfied with that response.

But what in the hell was she going to do if she actually had something to cover up?

At this rate, I’ll find out, one way or another.

After a long day at work, Julie came home to see Andrew and Ryder in the backyard doing strength exercises, Ryder lifting a tire and throwing it on its other side. She watched him from the window, looking over his form -- from a technical standpoint -- and mentally noted that tire lifts like that would require a regimen of extra core exercises and probably additional glutes. I’ll write it up for Andrew tomorrow.

She cooked dinner for them, as no matter what, it was the least she could do for Andrew after he had been so accommodating. Julie boiled chicken in chicken broth and added a dash of salt and onion powder. She steamed the broccoli and added cilantro to the rice.

They came back in, Ryder panting. She threw a water bottle at him, which he downed.

“More boiled chicken,” he said with no enthusiasm.

“It’s a diverse menu,” she said cheekily -- it was a dinner that her mother used to make for Jeremy, and one that Andrew requested. Fighters were known to stick to strict dinner plans, often repeating them night after night.

Ryder laughed in return.

“Thanks for cooking,” Andrew said, wiping his forehead.

It surprised her that he thanked her. “No problem,” she said with more cheer.

“So, if you need to get something for this weekend, Julie, just make sure you have something that isn’t sweats. You can give me the receipt if you need anything reimbursed. I know you need to buy a lot of new stuff.”

That coming weekend they were going to attend a gala in New York near the Barclay Center, where they would host the official presentation of the fighters. The dress code wasn’t official, but many would no doubt look their best.

“I know to buy more than sweats,” she said, she sat down to eat her own portion. “Thanks for the offer for reimbursement, too. I should be able to cover it, though.”

“Mhmm. There will probably be after-parties for the fights, and socializing events all over,” he added, grabbing a portion for himself, “So, get something that isn’t too formal, but again, isn’t sweats, for those. Something more comfortable than the gala, but still puts on a good face.”

“I don’t do that shit,” Ryder interjected, sitting down with his plate. “The after-party stuff, I mean. I’ll go to a bar, but the houses are too crowded for my liking.”

“I’m not a big party socializer, either,” Julie said, glancing up at Ryder.

Ryder looked down at his food as he sat down, although he smirked.

“You both need to go, to both events. Julie, you’re important because I need you to smile and look pretty. I’ll be blunt -- some of them might not take Ryder as seriously with a pretty woman on his team,” Andrew said, sitting down, “It’s dumb as shit, but it’s true. Use it. Ryder, you just need to stand there and be yourself. The more intimidating, the better. I like your ‘I don’t give a legit fuck’ attitude’. It will get into other’s heads. Especially since you’ve got a name for yourself.”

Ryder grunted in reply, and Julie nearly echoed it. She hated that she was just a pretty showpiece to the public, the competitive part in her wanting to prove that she was more than that. But for thirty thousand dollars, she could do it. That could be a down payment on a home for her.

And at the very least, the gym’s name would rise in reputation if Ryder didn’t win, and that meant more business, which was still an upside.

She’d dress up if she had to.

Andrew glanced at Ryder and said, “You won’t like this next one.”

Ryder almost rolled his eyes, taking a bite of his dinner. “Go ahead.”

“They’re going to want to talk about your hiatus. I know”--he began as Ryder gave him a death glare-- “You don’t have to talk about it. But just be ready for it. If anything, we can use that to our advantage, say you refuse to talk about it. Gain sympathy in the media.”

“I don’t give two shits about the media,” Ryder said, pointing his fork at Andrew.

“Sorry brother, you’re entering Warlord. You’re going to get it.”

“Well, all I’m gonna do is glare at them and move on.”

“That’s fine. That’s what Tony is for” --Julie jut her head out as she swallowed too quickly at the mention of Tony, a myriad of rumors flooding her mind, wondering if Andrew would bring them up-- “He’ll fill that in. Tony will have to dress up too, so it’s not just you two.” He looked at Julie. “For the gala, I want a dress, or a well-fitted pantsuit. Make it black, if you can. I want us to all dress in black.”

“Got it,” she retorted, not meeting his gaze.

Julie glanced at Ryder, and a few things flashed across his eyes. He languidly rolled his eyes towards Andrew. “This is MMA fighting Andrew, not a CIA sting.”

Julie chuckled.

“You know as well as I do that sports is all about appearances. Men’s brains turn off near a pretty woman, which is what I want when they think of you. I want them to doubt you,” Andrew said. “If they do, you’ll be able to deliver almost instant knock outs. That’ll really fuck with the competition at the higher levels.”

Julie said, “Look, I’ll make sure to wear more than sweat pants or a pair of jeans, okay, Andrew? I was a gymnast for years. I know how to put on a show, and I know that it means that I have to dress the part. We wore the tightest outfits that were glittery and colorful. I am not new to this.”

Andrew grunted in approval, and the three of them fell into the usual conversation about the gym, as it was the only thing the trio had in common.

And while Julie didn’t like getting orders on how to dress from Andrew, she absolutely wanted to where a knockout dress for the gala, just to see what Ryder would think.

R Y D E R sat on the curb outside of Rhino, enjoying the cooler air after sparring for the last hour. A week had passed since he started training with tires and his shoulders were already angry with him, although they would tone out within a week or two. As he trained, he pushed away his thoughts on Julie so he could get into the right headspace, especially since they were leaving for New York tomorrow. No matter the ease of a round, any fighter could be taken down if they weren’t on full alert.

Julie gave him one more massage earlier that day, adding a new routine and another evaluation. He appreciated how she was able to be a professional, despite the clear tension between them.

On that note, he didn’t know how to feel about what flirtation was there. He’d look at her and want to just get lost in whatever the hell brewed between them, but at the same time, he didn’t have the mental bandwidth to even think about it right now. He had to win.

He had to dominate.

His phone vibrated, and Sarah’s face was on the screen.

“Hey Sarah, how you been?” he asked, looking out at the parking lot. The nearly naked trees let in the full brightness of the sun.

“Hey Joey. I’m doing better. I wanted to call and wish you good luck this weekend.”

“That’s sweet of you,” he said, glancing down at his hand, then at the leaves adjacent to the sidewalk.

“You know you don’t have to do this,” Sarah said, her tone apologetic.

“We’re not debating it,” he sternly replied.

She sighed. “Well, when you coming home, at least?”

“After the fight, I think--”

“Yes, it’s uncle Joey,” Sarah said, her voice distant as he heard a tiny voice in the background.

He grinned ear to ear, especially when Sarah said, “Mollie wants to say hi.”

“Put the kid on.”

A few seconds passed -- along with the sound of his sister speaking to his niece -- until a small voice, belonging to a six-year-old, said, “Hey uncle Joey.”

“Hey blondie,” he said, picturing Mollie in his head.

“When you coming home?”

“I got work to do. How about I’ll try to make it out over the next few weekends?”

He could hear her breathing on the phone, and he mentally pictured her little face thinking about those words. “Okay,” she said. “Mommy’s hair is growing again!”

“Oh really? What color is it?” he asked, unable to stop the grin.

“She’s not happy because some of it is gray,” Mollie said, very seriously.

“Well, it’s better than nothing.”

“She said I can’t have her wigs. When she grows it back. I mean, when she gets hair, she doesn’t need her wigs. And I can’t have them.”

“Maybe I’ll take them. I always wanted a bob cut.”

She giggled into the phone, and it was the very giggle that would get him through his darker days. Mollie reminded him that life moved on after all the shit that happened when he left. It made him realize that he could move on with life, if he chose.

“No, hey!” Mollie yelled and he heard the shriek of a young child.

“Sorry. I told her not to talk about my hair,” Sarah said.

“That’s awesome you’re growing it back,” Ryder said, now smiling at the news of his sister’s health.

“Still owe a stupid amount in debt,” she mumbled.

“Don’t worry about it. I’m working on it.”

“I already told you that I’m not taking your Warlord money. I can’t let you get punched until you’re bloody, just to pay my bills.”

“Too bad. A bankruptcy would suck the life out of you and Connor. I won’t let you survive cancer only to be a slave to debt.”

A part of his subconscious, deep inside, immediately thought to Julie as he said that.

“We’ll talk about it later. Anyway, I hope you’re doing alright.”

His mind resurfaced the fleeting thoughts of Julie, hesitating for a moment as he thought to maybe get Sarah’s advice, or just bring up the fact that there was this new girl in his life that caught his interest. But he pushed past it, as he couldn’t admit it was his sports therapist. He also didn’t need to get Sarah’s hopes up that he might actually like a girl, especially when everything surrounding him and Julie were so volatile.

So, he settled on, “I’m alright.”

“Well, good luck, Joey. Go punch dudes in the face for me. I could use a punching bag.”

He laughed. “Maybe we’ll get you one.”

“Lord, the last thing I need is for Mollie to take up MMA fighting, because you know she’d be punching it the day we got it. She’s already wanting to watch you and practices her kicks when she can.”

“Hey, I told you to get her into martial arts. That shit is adorable with all those kids trying to kick each other...anyway, I gotta get back to it,” he said, seeing Andrew’s car pull into the parking lot. “Love you guys.”

“We love you too, Joey.”

He hoped his motivation for winning would allow him to triumph. He simply couldn’t afford to fail. His family needed him. He and Sarah had managed to survive their childhood, and Sarah was the one to make something out of her life, with a husband and kids.

Which meant Ryder would do everything in his power to make sure she kept it, especially when they came so close to losing her.

His family were the only people in his heart that mattered. Once they were taken care of, then he could focus on himself.

Only, he glanced over to see Julie pull into the parking lot in her Subaru, he faintly narrowed his gaze on her as she got out. No matter what he did, he couldn’t shake the damn woman from his mind.

In that, he knew he needed to be bold, sooner rather than later.

He hated to unnecessarily draw things out.

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