C H A P T E R | 29
J U L I E
Julie hardly slept that night due to her tossing and turning, which led to glancing at her phone in a hopeless effort to see if Ryder, for some reason, would send her a message; her screen remained bare, save for the general notifications from other apps.
She didn’t quite remember when she fell asleep, but she awoke sometime around nine in the morning. After yawning and stretching, she stared at the ceiling, replaying the previous night in her mind.
It was quite surreal to accept what had happened. Ryder knew what she felt like in a place that was so intimate. And he wanted more. Of course, no matter how wonderful it was to relive his hands on her body, they had both crossed a very deep line.
Yet, at the same time, it didn’t seem to bother her as much as it should. All she knew for certain was that Ryder wanted her, and she still wanted him.
Which meant living at Andrew’s had to change. They could deal with whatever drama would arise from Andrew later.
Julie made coffee with the small keurig by her mini fridge and sat down next to the window, looking at Zillow for an apartment. Curiosity got the better of her as she explored house rentals, hoping for some kind of yard space. After sipping on mediocre coffee, she sent messages to a few agents.
Hopefully she could schedule some visits once they got back from New York.
She grinned while looking at her phone, already looking forward to that first night alone.
The gala opened it’s doors at six o’clock and by four, she had yet to hear from Ryder or anyone other than Andrew, who told her to meet down at the lobby by 5:50 P.M. So, Julie showered, styled her hair, and put on her outfit, all the while unable to keep Ryder out of her mind. He was like a weed, growing in crevices when she wasn’t looking.
Julie turned off the murder mystery podcast that she had played to distract herself with, glancing over her ensemble in silence.
She hoped that, at the very least, she’d make Ryder squirm tonight. It was hard not to indulge in thoughts of how he’d be unable to control himself the next chance they had at solitude.
And Julie felt daring, or maybe it just needy. Because she wanted to make him want her. She wanted to get him riled up so he’d have no option but to just take her the second he got the chance.
She wanted that fighter’s energy directed at her in all the right ways.
It felt good, too, to not have to feel like she had to take a cold shower. They were both adults, and if they wanted to indulge in this, why shouldn’t they? It was nice to just let go and give in to her desires for him.
With a belly full of anxious butterflies, Julie left her hotel room when the clock on her nightstand showed 5:47 P.M.
Once in the lobby, the anxious butterflies climaxed into a whirling tornado as she saw fans sitting by a TV in the lobby, watching the gala from afar. I’m probably going to be on that screen at some point. Especially being near Ryder.
The moment finally became real.
Andrew and Tony were at the hotel entrance, the front door opening and closing as people passed through. Julie spotted Ryder a few feet away, leaning against a wall with his arms crossed, his gaze focused ahead as he observed the passerbys.
Julie, of course, examined his outfit right away -- fitted black pants and a long-sleeved black shirt, a pair of elegant dress shoes that shined in the hotel light. His hair was lightly gelled, his sleeves up, his face shaven, and a dark watch on his left wrist tied it all together.
The butterflies slowly turned into a radiating warmth, not considering that his outfit would make her squirm.
Andrew and Tony both wore a suit, although they left their jackets unbuttoned. Overall, they all looked incredibly professional, yet slightly informal to maintain that they were here to fight, not mingle.
A beautiful woman dressed in a short skirt, heels and leather jacket walked past Ryder, slipping him something obscure. Julie paused to watch, brows furrowed. Ryder eyed the woman up and down, glowering as he took whatever she gave him -- it seemed like a piece of paper. The woman’s back was to Julie, so she couldn’t see whatever look the stranger gave him, but the way Ryder raised a brow told Julie that the stranger absolutely gave him a look.
Julie pressed her nude-matte lips together, trying not to smudge her lipstick. A part of her felt territorial. Her stiff expression quickly turned to fret as she watched Ryder put whatever the woman handed him into his pocket. Probably her phone number.
Wait...did I just watch him pocket someone’s phone number?
Julie sighed and looked down at the generic rug beneath her feet, understanding now why mixing her and Ryder was a horrendous idea. More than likely she was jumping to conclusions, but at the same time, her imagination was already getting the best of her. It was dangerous with how much it stung. What would happen if he actually took it with the intention to call her? What if he was a good guy, but still a playboy? Shit, I jumped into this too quickly.
While the adult thing to do would be to just confront Ryder, she knew they didn’t have time for that.
Fine. It’s fine. Just strut in and own the damned place. Jeremy trusted the gym to me for a reason - he knew I could handle this. Ignore Ryder for now if you got to. You can discuss that after the fights tomorrow.
Raising her head and walking in with falsified confidence, Julie put on the best face that she could.
Tony nodded towards Julie when he spotted her, and Andrew turned around. Julie tried to make herself smile, but only managed the slightest upturn of her lips. Based on how Tony and Andrew looked her over, she knew that she wouldn’t disappoint the critics.
Ryder looked over and Julie purposefully kept her gaze ahead, not out of pettiness but because she knew something would come to life in her eyes if she dared to look at Ryder. She couldn’t do that with Tony and Andrew watching.
“Alright, Uber is almost here. Let’s go wait outside,” Andrew said, heading towards the door.
She couldn’t begin to express how grateful she was that Andrew didn’t make a comment about her outfit. All the while, Ryder’s gaze burned into her from the side. Tony nodded as he looked her over. “You look lovely.”
“Yeah, everyone cleaned up well,” she said, finally glancing over at Ryder, who looked away almost as soon as she faced him. “Even grumpy pants over there.”
“I know how to clean up,” Ryder said, his voice gruff. He stood up from his lean against the wall.
Tony snickered and walked through the front doors, leaving Ryder and Julie trailing behind. Julie marched ahead, trying her best to keep her mind in the moment. Ryder was faster than her, especially since she wore heels. And honestly, she lingered when she caught that he wanted to say something.
As he strode by, he leaned into her ear like how one might when trying to mention something in private but wanting to avoid making a scene. Surprisingly, like a gentleman, he murmured, “You’re distractingly beautiful.”
He pulled away, concealing his thoughts and emotions as he coolly moved out of the hotel. She hated the storm of confusion that raged in her chest.
Because she badly wanted to melt at the thought of her being distractingly beautiful to him, despite the way her mind tried to remind her that she needed to be careful and not move so quickly. At least, not until she knew more of where he stood with the two of them.
They stepped through the automatic doors, the cold air of night gently embracing her as it mixed with the warmth of the lobby. Tony asked Ryder, “Who was that woman just now? She gave you a look, man. I saw her lingering around the lobby earlier.”
Julie’s face fell, purposefully looking around like she could care less, trying very hard to listen into every word that he spoke.
“Pick up fighting and gain twenty pounds of muscle, Tony. It’ll happen a lot to you too.”
Julie snickered, then her heart sank, just ever so. So probably a phone number, then.
Andrew chuckled, who waited near at the edge of the sidewalk of the parking lot. “Don’t mean to bust your balls, Ryder, but save her phone number for later. Once we get back, you go straight to bed. No drinking. No nothing.”
Ryder said, “Already planned on all of that, man.”
Julie fidgeted with her hand purse, compartmentalizing her emotions as she waited for the Uber to show up. Deal with it later. Andrew went to confirm that the white SUV was theirs when one showed up. Tony went to throw his water bottle away.
Ryder didn’t lean in, but quickly meandered closer to Julie. He very quietly said, “You know I only took that number just because they were there.” He nodded to Andrew.
“Oh,” was all she said as she sucked in cold air, trying to find a response. “I didn’t care,” she lied with a high pitched voice that completely gave her away.
In truth, the tension in her muscles loosened
Andrew waved them over and before they moved, Ryder shrewdly added, “S’alright. I don’t mind. I liked the feisty look that you gave her.”
She grinned wildly. “Oh, just get in the stupid car,” she said, blushing like mad. “But thank you.”
Ryder sat in the middle with Tony on one side, and Julie on the other. As she breathed in his cologne, she regretted not having her perfume, but then again that was still locked in her apartment.
She also wanted to kiss his stupid face for having the whereabouts to pay attention to Julie’s feelings, finding him even more endearing than before. She wanted him to rest his firm hand on her thigh, or to lean in and whisper sweet nothings of what he’d do to her when he finally had her alone.
The ride was only five minutes, so Julie pulled out her phone to check for any messages before arriving. A text from her mother read, ′If only Jeremy were there tonight!′ and then her father, ‘Good luck, bear. I’ll be looking for you on camera!’
Even Dolores messaged, ‘The baby bonsai tree has its first leaf! I bet that means good luck to you. Hope you’re well’.
Julie sent quick messages back to everyone, excited that everything leading up Warlord was finally taking off.
She glanced over to see that Ryder was on his phone while Tony and Andrew spoke with the Uber driver, telling him about Warlord.
She got an idea and opened up her messages.
5:56 P.M. Julie: You should dress like that more often
Ryder’s phone revealed a message, and when he read it he smirked. 5:56 P.M. Ryder: Ask me nicely
Her chuckle spilled out of her in waves, unable to dam it back. 5:57 P.M. Julie: You’re full of it
Julie hadn’t realized how much of a grin she had until Andrew looked over his seat at the two of them and said, “Focus. Who you two texting? Each other, or some shit?”
Ryder glared up at him and closed his screen. “I’m texting my sister, man.”
Julie stuck to the story. “And I’m texting my dad.”
Andrew looked back ahead. “Alright, well phones away tonight. Don’t look distracted. Look like you’re observing them all. We want a small seed of doubt in them, but we also want to be intimidating. We don’t want anyone too comfortable. Uncertainty is our goal.”
Ryder crossed his arms, which pressed his shoulder firmly against hers. She knew she wouldn’t see him later tonight - the fighters always had to focus the night before. But tomorrow night? If Ryder won, Andrew would be all over the place with sponsors or going to bars, and it would give the two of them a chance at some sort of privacy.
How she ached for that, in every sense.
They got out of the Uber when they rolled up to the Grand Prospect Hall. On the outside, it appeared as every other older building in Brooklyn, New York, but she knew that on the inside it was a sea of marble and glass chandeliers. They always like to go all out for the gala.
Signs with Warlord Gala 2018 welcomed the visitors. Reporters waited at the front, a few flashing lights sending adrenaline coursing through her veins. It fully hit her that she was tagging alongside an important fighter.
Surrounding fans cheered for someone walking ahead of them. When everyone turned to see Ryder, nearly all the reporters flocked over.
“Joey Ryder, you are officially back-”
“Ryder, can we please get a statement-”
“You’re his coach, Andrew Boyden. How does it feel to replace Mike Lowers-”
A fan in the background cheered, “Fuck yeah, my dude!”
Another cried out, “Fuck you, man! Legends and Arnold are top dog now!”
It was a frenzy of sounds, cameras, and swarming people. Julie followed Ryder’s lead as he moved forward, ignoring them all. To her surprise, Julie didn’t find the crowding cameras nearly as obnoxious as she thought she would, even when one bumped into her shoulder.
Pure extravagance greeted them as they entered, Julie giving a quick shake from the drastic changes in temperature. Even the staircase looked like some ancient relic of the twenties, with stone stairs and gilded railings. Dark red rugs lined the marble floor as golden lighting surrounded them. Mingling conversations echoed against the stone, sporadic laughter creating an air of excitement.
Where most people wouldn’t recognize Ryder on the street, nearly everyone knew him here.
As Julie stuck close, and with everyone reacting around, she saw him as Ryder; the fighter that this slice of the world either loved or loved to hate.
Andrew walked ahead with purpose, passing through the foyer where they had turned everything into a grand event with food and drinks all around. Thankfully, Ryder really didn’t like to engage with the press, so the pressure didn’t last long. I wonder if dad saw me at some point.
The point of the night was to celebrate past victors, support local charities, promote growing gyms, and for all of the fighters to make their formal presentation before the fighting began. It was also where each fighter would officially sign in, confirming they were ready to fight in Barclay’s tomorrow. Some arrived, signed in, and left, while others remained to meet the press, UFC representatives, and other sponsors.
By 6:15 P.M., they made it to main area which was a large, tall room lined with booths. Tony motioned for Julie to follow him while Andrew and Ryder went off to mingle with sponsors.
Many eyes remained on Julie, and other women were dressed like her, although half of them were as beefy as Ryder - female fighters coming to show themselves off. Warlord spoke of having a female competition after this one, and Julie wondered if she could get the gym to sponsor one or not; she always liked the idea of having a female fighter around.
Tony and Julie chatted about the booths nearby and the technicals of Warlord when a clean shaven man in his forties approached the two of them.
“My name is Rob. I’m a sponsor for Flight Athletics. Spoke with Boyden and Ryder a few minutes ago, and thought I’d come meet you since you’re the other half of the gym,” he said, smiling.
She blinked a few times, not expecting someone to approach her as the other half of the gym. Managing sponsors wasn’t something she liked to do, and Andrew was honestly better suited for it.
I guess I really am half of the gym. It was just always Jeremy’s... I never thought about it like this. “Yes, it’s nice to meet you, Rob. I’m Julie Stevens. My brother was a fighter and started Rhino MMA a few years ago. He is unfortunately no longer with us, but clearly what he built attracted someone like Ryder. I’m also tagging along as his sports therapist for the fights, especially in preparation for Hell Week.”
Rob nodded deeply. “Ah, that’s unfortunate about your brother” --then he smiled-- “I like the confidence though, about Ryder making it all the way to Hell Week. I’m looking forward to seeing that man fight again.”
“Yes I think we all are,” she said, donning her most professional appearance.
He looked down and gave a curt nod, as if to suggest he wanted to say what he really came over to say. “So, you and Boyden both represent the gym, for the sake of negotiations? I’m just not quite sure if we should all sit down to chat, or if it’s mostly Boyden that handles that.”
She clenched her jaw, able to see Andrew’s conundrum - it was hard to lead the conversation on the gym if it was a dual ownership, especially with the fact that Andrew really did lead most of the sponsorship deals and negotiations. “Well, right now Andrew Boyden is the head coach and partial owner. I own the other half, and help oversee the sports therapy side of a lot of our long-standing fighters. He deals with the sponsorships, and I help when it’s needed.”
Rob gave another smile. “Sounds great. I’ll have Boyden reach out to you when we need you for the final details. It was nice to meet you, and good luck with Ryder.”
She was grateful when he left, and even more grateful that most of the attention for the night went to Ryder. Everyone expected him to sail through this round. The other lesser known fighters mingled throughout the crowd, drinking and chatting with each other, a few lighting up whenever the media would want to speak with them.
Eventually, the gala turned it’s attention to a stage inside of a banquet hall, where a UFC head began to give a small speech going over prior winners. Many sat down at tables, and Julie sat with the small group belonging to Rhino MMA as they watched the presentation. Candles and refreshments filled the surface of the table, the air of competition never leaving the room.
Every now and again, she’d glance over at Ryder. Half of the time his gaze would be elsewhere, and then the other half she’d catch him already staring. It sent pleasant shivers down her back.
The presentation came to it’s conclusion, and the room cheered as a picture of the last winner appeared on the screen - Devon Sheymour. It was an action shot of him screaming once he knew of his victory, his left eye black and swollen, his mouth bloodied. His left arm hung awkwardly from a dislocation, a sheen of sweat reflecting in the arena’s lights.
And that was Warlord. Hell Week gave the fighters little chance to recover, narrowing down the candidates over the course of six months until they had a lineup of fifty men, who would all fight nearly two matches in a single day for a week. That was truly why a sports therapist was needed, as many would need their injuries nursed before the next fight.
She glanced at Ryder as they stood up as he leaned in to speak with Andrew. Julie looked down at her hand purse, imagining Ryder fighting in Hell Week. She’d have to see him injured and bloodied, and Hell Week was known for its lasting injuries.
Julie realized that if, over the next coming months, they grew closer, then she’d probably struggle to see him bloodied like that.
One step at a time, Stevens.