RYDER (Antagonist to Lovers)

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C H A P T E R | 2

R Y D E R

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Ryder stepped into the small conference room as a man named Andrew shut the door. The room smelled like old carpet and looked like it hadn’t been used in months. Dust floated through the sun’s rays, like someone dumped flour in there. I hope Lowers sent me to the right place.

Ryder cracked his knuckles as Andrew shuttered the interior blinds.

Andrew extended his hand after walking around to the desk, this man as excited as a kid meeting fucking Santa Claus with wide eyes and a fidget of his hands. “So, let’s meet, officially. I am Andrew Boyden, co-owner and head coach of Rhino MMA.”

Ryder looked at the extended hand; the next six months of his life flashed through his mind, consisting only of fighting, sweating, and breaking his body down until he built it back up again. If Ryder shook that hand, it would return his entire life back to the limelight.

For a slight moment, Ryder reconsidered out of instinct. He missed the fighting and the adrenaline, but he also knew the pressure that Warlord would be. He had been glad to rid his life of that for the last three years, even though his hiatus was unintentional.

Then again, what option did he have? He needed the money, and this was what he was good at.

Warlord could solve it all, if he had the right coaching behind him. It was a three-tiered, winner-take-all tournament that was hosted every five years. There was the novice category, semi-pro, and pro. Winners of the novice and semi-pro leagues got half a million in winnings. Winners of the pro leagues got a million each. And only three would win in the pro, separated by their weight category. It was around five million in cash prize that was handed out over the entirety of the event.

The goal for Ryder was to train at a decent gym over the next few months, and then go wherever they were holding the tournaments, which rotated often. The final championship, called Hell Week, was to take place just over six months from now in early February. I definitely am nowhere near ready for Hell Week.

Ryder shook the hand, knowing he needed this. “Joey Ryder. But I only go by Ryder.”

Stuffing his hands back into his pockets, standing squarely with his feet shoulder width apart, Ryder watched every move that Andrew made. The coach was a few inches taller with dark features all over, save for his skin. He had just as much lids to his eyes as his brows, reminding Ryder of Sylvester Stallone, except twenty years younger and only half the muscle mass.

Ryder didn’t have time for small talk and asked, “So I hear that you know Mike Lowers?”

“Sure do. Trained under him right after you left, and he was looking to rebrand himself. I spoke to him like two weeks ago when our main guy for Warlord got injured, but he never told me he was sending you.”

“I’ve been flirting with the idea of getting back in the ring for Warlord. He knows that, and I am tied to the area for now, so that’s why he sent me your way.”

Andrew didn’t hide his surprise, the joy not fitting his rigid face. The coach looked away and shook his head as he was almost giddy, lost in a haze of elation. “I’ll have to buy him a bottle of Pappy Van Winkle for this shit when I can afford that...” Andrew looked back at Ryder and pointed to the seat. “Go ahead, sit. We’ll talk about why you’re here.”

Ryder took his hands out of his pocket to sit in the orange, suede chair, leaning his elbows on his knees. Ryder pursed his lips, swiping them quickly with his tongue before gently nodding towards Andrew. “Yeah, about why I am here. I know you got the other guy, but do you have room for me?”

He knew the answer was yes. Nearly any coach in a gym like this--looking for their break--would take him. But he hated to gloat.

Andrew laughed, pulling on the skin around his mouth with his index finger and thumb. He stared at the wall adjacent to them that had the gym logo on it-a gray rhino with a bright orange horn. Andrew looked back at Ryder. “You’re shitting me. I mean I know you’re not...but this is a fucking dream come true” --he glanced at Ryder-- “I can always make room for you, Ryder, as long as you’re not seriously damaged or something.”

Ryder pivoted in his seat as he looked around. “No damning injury. ’Sept for my fucking shoulder. But I can fight. Just need extra attention on it.”

One of the fighters walked by the front of the building in the parking lot, waving through the window that still had the blinds opened. His voice was muffled but understandable. “Yo, Ryder! Big fan, man!”

“Mm,” Ryder grunted.

Andrew smacked the window. “Go on, you can ask for an autograph later!” Andrew closed the blinds with a snap of the wrist, pulling on the string. “Sorry about that.”

Ryder leaned into the back of his seat, sniffing as he looked around the blank room. “S’alright.”

“So, I see you’re still sporting the brooding fighter image.”

“I’m not here to be anyone’s friend, if that’s what you’re implying.”

“You can still be polite to fans,” Andrew suggested.

“Never held me back so far. This is just business,” Ryder said.

“Alright. Not a big deal. Good for the image, I suppose,” Andrew said, waving his hand.

Ryder sighed. “I know how to toe it, if you’re concerned. I am not an asshole; I just behave like one because everyone annoys me. I can keep myself in check when it’s needed. I just want the money for now, man. I don’t want the extra press, interviews, any of it. I just want to get in and win. Can you do that?”

“Friends or no,” Andrew said, leaning forward on the dusty table. “You and I are going to have to get to know each other a bit, you do realize? I can’t train you if I don’t know you.”

Ryder nodded, pulling his cotton zip-up jacket together as he crossed his hands in his lap. The sound of fighting kicking back up in the gym invigorated Ryder, and there was a deep part of him that felt like he could never truly leave this atmosphere, and in that, he almost felt at home. “Fair deal. So, how’d you end up here in a town outside of Pittsburg? Lowers was from New York.”

“The guy that owned this gym needed a partner, and he had a group of guys out here that showed some promise. So, I landed here to help build it up.” Andrew smacked his hand on the table. “Alright, so let’s get this conversation going, shall we? You seem like a guy who likes to jump right into it.”

“Start askin’,” Ryder said, licking his lips and then chewing on the bottom one as he sighed through his nose.

“Where did you go for three years? Gonna need to know your story before writing up contracts, all that.”

“Let’s just say it wasn’t because of my injury,” Ryder said, refusing to elaborate further.

Andrew took down notes, popping the butt of the pen with his thumb before the sound of pen scratching on notepad filling in the silence between them. “Got it. So why come back? Why are you fighting again?”

“I need the money.”

“You know you can just get back in the ring and start throwing some punches. You’ll easily fetch for thirty grand a fight, probably more once your momentum is back and you still got your moves. Not saying you won’t win Warlord, but it’s a big risk and a lot of time for potentially no reward at all.”

Ryder shook his head, thumbing the wadded-up straw covering he still had in his pocket from when he’d ordered a smoothie earlier - one of his last treats before going back on strict diet. “Nah, that shit requires management, campaigns and patience. I just want to enter Warlord, get my money, and settle things that need to be settled.”

Andrew narrowed his dark brown eyes. “You in any trouble?”

“No.”

“I’m not going to invest my ass on you only to find out you’re on drugs or wanted for something.”

“I am not on any drugs or escaping any law. I drink when I want, but I can quit to train. It’s more for leisure.”

“You in shape?”

“Not fighting. That’s why I am here,” he said, holding a hand out as if it were obvious.

“Alright, man. It’s a start. Where you living?”

“Nowhere permanent.” Ryder wasn’t going to go into the details of his personal life to that degree.

Andrew raised his brows, but let it go. “Good. You’re living with me for the next six months then. Should be a seamless shift in living accommodations. If you’re serious, then we need to stick to the tightest schedule. Lowers trained that way, so I assume that’s why you’re here.”

That was great fucking news, especially because that was exactly what Ryder wanted. Ryder was a fighter that preferred to have a coach breathing down his neck, or else he was prone to slacking off. “That’s what I was hopin’ to hear.”

“Any injuries I need to know about, aside from the shoulder?”

“No.”

“We’ll take care of that, then. We got the staff for it.” Andrew stuck out his hand. “Welcome home, Ryder. Let’s get to work.”

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