C H A P T E R | 25
J U L I E
Julie packed everything that night, including a tight black dress that she planned to wear for the gala. It cut off at the shoulders and she bought a pair of nude pumps to go with it. The media wouldn’t care too much about her, but the guys at this level were simple. They were ready to tear their enemy apart, and seeing one’s adversary with a pretty girl on his team would rile up a few; and she’d play that part, for now.
Plus, she wanted to feel beautiful for a damned night. She didn’t go too far in the ensemble, as the dress was of a thicker fabric, so even though it was tight, it was in good taste.
The tension between Ryder and her only thickened, with stolen looks and awkward silences lingering more and more, but she could tell that his mind was elsewhere. And while she was grateful that it took some pressure off, she also didn’t like how they were held in a limbo.
Ryder trained hard the entire week leading up to their departure, fighting in the octagon and practicing all of his stances. He had only been back for a month, but he looked damn good, and whatever training he did before coming here clearly paid off.
Julie even started to get the same high from when Jeremy used to fight.
The next morning, they left the home at 6:00 a.m., arriving at 6:30 and waiting at the terminal by 7:15 for a nine o’clock flight.
Lingering gazes from passerbys affixed to Ryder, especially from women that eyed him in his sweats. He was muscled enough that the fabric managed to accentuate him, revealing where his muscles jutted out, something intimate and inviting about the informal wear.
As they sat and waited in the uncomfortable, plastic seats, Julie opened up her Kindle, which was precious to her now. It was one of the few things to survive the fire, as everything else was still inaccessible with the damage done to the elevator and flooring.
Ryder sat across from her with his hood up, eyes closed, and leaning back and legs spread.
Julie opened up The Martian, wanting to read it before watching the movie, and she wasn’t even three pages in before a man sat next to her. Ryder’s eyes opened, observing.
The stranger asked , “I hate to bother, but can I use that charger at all?”
“Yeah, sure,” she said looking to her phone that was plugged into the wall, although Julie swore she saw a charging station somewhere in the facility.
“Thanks. You’re a lifesaver,” he said, flashing a smile at her. She looked him over -- a typical, handsome guy in his thirties with styled brown hair, a five o’clock shadow, jeans and a zip-up.
He seemed nice enough. “It’s all good. Just killing time, anyway.” She motioned to her Kindle.
“Yeah, I know what you mean. I’m usually here for a while, but running late today,” he said, the smile remaining. Something about his demeanor felt like he was trying to flirt with her, especially with how he paid extra attention when their gazes connected.
“Anyway, just need that back by the time I board,” Julie said, nodding to the charger.
“Thanks again,” he said, moving his gaze between her and his phone.
Julie eyed Ryder who was already smirking. She sighed with a defeated smile and peered out the window to watch a plane pull up to the terminal, observing it for a moment before the stranger leaned over and said, “Name is Jake, by the way.”
“Julie,” she languidly replied, not giving him much of her attention, hoping it sent the right message. When Jake looked at his phone, she glared at Ryder, whose smirk turned into a slight grin as he shook his head and looked at his phone.
Julie’s gaze fell to Ryder’s phone, wondering what he did on there. Did he text people? If so, who? Did he have a little black book, or social media, or games? I’m getting pathetic.
Her phone buzzed.
7:46 A.M. Ryder: Can’t take you anywhere
She grinned, feeling like she was back in her first years at college again, adventure abound.
7:46 A.M. Me: At least your gawkers just leave you alone
Jake looked up from his phone and said, “Which flight are you on, by the way? I am heading to New York.”
She glared harder at Ryder, as if he could somehow fix this. “Yeah, that’s mine too,” she said.
Even if Jake wasn’t flirting, she was in no mood to small talk with a stranger.
Ryder was one step ahead of her.
7:47 A.M. Ryder: Let’s see how good you are on your feet.
Ryder said, “Hey babe, you got gum?”
Jake looked over to Ryder with wide eyes and Julie’s heart fluttered at being called babe. It took a second to realize what he was doing.
“I do, actually,” she said, giving a devilish grin.
She always carried gum but never chewed it. She got him a piece and leaned over to hand it to him, and Ryder gave her a look that told her he knew he’d won major brownie points just now.
Jake awkwardly said, “Actually, just got a text that my flight has been moved. I got to get going. Thanks, though.”
Julie was polite enough about Jake’s departure, just happy the awkwardness ended before it got worse. She had no problem handling the men at the gym, but struggled to be anything other than awkward when confronted outside of it, never sure if she read someone wrong or not.
The men at the gym were too blunt to misconstrue anything.
Once Jake left, Ryder moved to sit next to her. Julie’s heart raced as their elbows touched on the arm rests, a trace of his cologne making the corner of her lips curl up.
Ryder lowered his hood, raising a brow as he suggested, “Should we make out in public, to make it look real? Might help with any others coming over.”
She grinned and laughed, smacking his arm. “Yeah, and then let Andrew’s head explode. Great plan, genius. We’ll just explain to him it’s all an act.”
He seemed hardly fazed by her remark and added, “How about you agree to be my fake girlfriend when I need it, and I’ll be your fake boyfriend? I seriously could use that at times.”
Her grin widened, biting her lip as she looked away. “Does it come with foot rubs?” she asked.
“I’m already getting those from you.”
She laughed harder, a bubble of content swelling in her chest at the way he made her feel; it was nice just to have him near her. “Fine. Deal. Gotta admit, that was nice just now.”
The two of them engaged in goofy talk about the strangers that passed by, guessing who was going where, and why, until it was their turn to stand in line, waiting and yawning until Julie was guided to her seat - F6, the window seat. Ryder had F5 and Andrew had GA. Andrew hated flying and demanded to have the aisle seat by the Exit door, leaving Julie and Ryder to themselves.
His cologne followed as they sat down, and she found it a cruel joke that she enjoyed it so much. The more she interacted with him in a non-professional setting, the more she accepted that she was developing a crush on this man.
The part that concerned her the most was the more that the crush was apparent to her, the less she cared about what the ramifications were with Andrew, especially since Ryder reciprocated the interest.
The plane filled up and a woman who looked to be in her fifties -- and deep into whatever her headphones were playing -- approached Ryder, eyeing the seat next to him.
She looked nervous, or perhaps even shy, to sit in the empty seat, only doing so very carefully. Another passenger passed by with a Warlord 2018 shirt on, jaw dropping as he glanced at Ryder.
Julie remarked, “I should get signed head shots of you to hand out to fans. I saw like three people look at you like you’re a star.”
Ryder rolled his head to glance at her, raising a brow. She shrugged a shoulder, losing whatever witty remark she had with the way he looked at her, and with how close he was. Even their shoulders lightly grazed, sharing their warmth.
The flight attendant flashed the lights once and began her spiel as another demonstrated what she said, giving Julie a reason to look away.
When it was over and the plane in the air, Julie opened up her kindle. It would only be a little over an hour, but it was easy to sink deep into The Martian, which served as a good distraction. She had made it all the way to page 56 before she was interrupted.
“Reading Fifty Shades?” Ryder asked after waking up from his nap.
She grinned, staring at her kindle. “Is that what you think all women read?”
He gave a coy look as she glanced at him, a slight curve to his lips, “You have to admit it is unnecessarily popular.”
“I’m reading The Martian,” she said with slight sass.
“You know it’s a movie.”
“Books are always ruined if you watch the movie first.”
He shrugged and nodded. “So, you like scifi?”
“It’s fun,” she said, looking into his gray eyes. “Why, what do you like? Do you even read?”
“Of course I read,” he said, feigning offense.
“What do you read, then?”
“I like fantasy, scifi and self-help.”
“What kind of self-help.”
“I ain’t tellin’. Gives too much away,” he said, although rather than antagonistic, he seemed to be more playful in tone.
“Ah, yes, ever the mystery.”
"Enigmatic,” he corrected.
She tried to suppress it, but she ended up laughing through her nose, looking out the window. “You’ve been punched in the head too many times.”
“Got a thick skull.”
“There are studies that show MMA fighting can lessen the hippocampus,” she said, looking back at him.
“Don’t need it.”
“Oh my god,” she said, trying to roll her eyes but once again, her lips curled into a smile. She leaned closer to the window as she saw the city come into view.
“You ever been to New York?” she asked, staring at the tall buildings.
He leaned over to look out the window, his body close to hers and she felt the dead air behind her fill with Ryder. He said, “To fight in Barclay Center. Visit a friend or two.”
She turned her head, as he was so close that she heard the slightest variations in his voice.
When she faced him, only a few inches seaparted them. Their gazes lingered, her breathing growing deeper as she wondered what would happen if everyone in the plane disappeared.
He pulled back when something changed in his eyes, like he realized he needed a cold shower.
God I need one too...she rolled her eyes and slumped her face into her hand, staring out the window, as of course she thought about him getting in there with her too...
They landed and Ryder got out of his seats, standing there so she could go in front of him. “Ladies first.”
“Well, look at this gentleman,” she said, noting that whatever enigmatic look in his eyes had returned, as if Ryder was in the middle to a heated fight between his thoughts.
“Oh, I can be; I’m not an uncultured. Just picky.”
She walked forward and he followed, Julie hyper aware of her surrounding, replaying ′just picky′ in her head, wondering what that meant, and if it applied to her.
It was hard to suppress the jittery butterflies in her gut once they reached the hotel and she got a room key -- all for herself.
Finally, she’d have some real alone time, and of course, her imagination ran wild with the possibilities.
Especially when she grabbed the plastic key and glanced Ryder’s way, who smirked and looked around as if he hadn’t been watching.