RYDER (Antagonist to Lovers)

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C H A P T E R | 31

J U L I E
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Julie settled for a glass of wine and a bath that night, just as she intended. Although, it felt soured with the way Heather confronted her. Not that Julie was bothered by a gorgeous ex-girlfriend of Ryder – at, least maybe only a little – but what really nagged at her mind was that Heather was his ex-sports therapist.

She couldn’t decide if she thought it funny or not. It made sense now why he was so tense at the beginning of their encounters. But did that mean he still had feelings for her? Did he not want to ruin whatever he had with Heather? Why did Heather call Julie competition? Were they still in contact? While Julie was proud of herself for her quip about him not mentioning her, it also wasn’t a huge victory. Ryder was known to be elusive with his personal life, and of course he’d hide anything romantic.

The more Julie stewed on it, the more it made her feel bitter.

Enough. Focus. Don’t let Andrew win this one by letting your heart get in the way.

As she lied in bed, an uncomfortable swirl of uncertainty in her gut, Julie went through her messages and texted her dad for about twenty minutes, and even Dolores. She paused when she saw Cody’s name the text menu, which hadn’t received a text in weeks.

It was strange how fast things could change, and how quickly things felt permanent. One day, after years of chatting, she was no longer talking to Cody, and she imagined they would never really be friends again. He had fallen for her too hard, and she didn’t blame him if he wanted space.

It didn’t mean she didn’t miss him.

It felt too soon to put Ryder into that bucket of change, especially with Heather appearing. She imagined they’d have to talk about it at some point, but she also didn’t want to. She didn’t want to add any more pressure or stress to him, but she also couldn’t just not bring it up.

She only hoped that this wouldn’t bite her in the ass like Cody warned.

The next morning, she awoke with a jolt of energy after having a horrible dream. Like most for her, she couldn’t remember what it was about, only that it had clearly been very stressful. To add to the duress, she awoke thirty minutes before her alarm. Well, screw it, now I am awake.

She put on expensive, form fitting gym sweats, white tennis shoes, and a cotton zip up after giving herself dutch braids. Andrew and Ryder left on their own to Barclay’s, as Julie wasn’t necessarily needed quite yet, her presence more for the sake of being a team and getting into the swing of things. Or hell, if something did happen, then she’d be on the spot for it.

It wasn’t until they got closer to Hell Week that she’d become prominent, as it presented more opportunities for Ryder to injure himself. Then again, this was a sport of boxing, martial arts and wrestling; any injury could happen at any time.

Julie and Tony took an Uber together to Barclay, with Tony busy on his phone managing social media, reading articles, and tending to all of the business that she wasn’t overly fond of.

Looking out the window, Julie allowed herself to feel a moment for her brother. Warlord was officially here and Rhino MMA a competitor. Thoughts of him were like waves of grief lapping at her mind, although they grew less intense and more infrequent with time, and in a way, she missed the sorrow. To not feel it meant that everything was different now, and that it was officially a part of her past.

To be here without him meant that he was officially gone.

This is for you, Jer. Thank you for making this gym, as I wouldn’t have this opportunity if it weren’t for you. I’ll do what I can, okay? Andrew might even let me lead. I don’t know what I am doing with that, but I’ll figure it out. Her lips quivered between a frown and smile.

It wasn’t fair that he died. It wasn’t fair that he wasn’t here. It wasn’t fair her brother was gone --

Tony leaned in and said, “So, don’t mean to pry, but you don’t ask how Cody is doing at all.”

She frowned, biting her lip. “Um, what? Am I supposed to?”

He raised a brow and leaned back into his seat. “He asks about you, you know.”

She sighed and felt gutted. He was a great guy and she hated to see him like that, but she was also annoyed with how Tony just butted in. “I was just trying to give him space.” She looked at Tony, letting a slight attitude out, although spoke quietly. “You like bringing him up with me. Especially in moments like this, where it’s completely the wrong time.”

“He has it hard for you, Stevens,” he snappily replied, giving her a look of guilt. “I don’t get to chat with you often, so I use this opportunities when I can.”

“Yes, but it’s personal.”

“Julie, I run social media. Gossip is my thing, and so is being a relay man. Just wanted to let you know that even though he’s been silent, you still run through his mind all the time.” Tony hesitated before adding, “I mostly say it because to him, he sees you chasing after this dream man of yours. I kind of see it now too.”

She glared at him, slowly articulating her words as she said, “Why don’t you be more direct. What do you want to tell me?”

The Uber driver didn’t pay any mind, but still, she hated having these conversations in front of strangers.

He hovered his hand in the air and looked down, then quietly huffed before lowering his hand, speaking while looking at the middle seat between them. “I am his brother” --Tony looked back up at Julie-- “Cody said that before this Warlord stuff took off, he thought you two would start things back up. And then he appeared, and now Cody means nothing to you.”

She shook her head and furrowed her brows, using a tone she’d use to scold a child. “That’s between him and I. I don’t care what perception you have of me, but that’s not your business.”

He raised a brow and slowly said, “It kind of is, when we are all working towards the same goal. I don’t want to see our champion“—he emphasized the word, as if not to publicly state who he was speaking about—“get all confused. Nor you. We can’t have that shit. I’ve seen it happen before, in more than this field. Two people get ahead of themselves—”

She interrupted him, tired of this. “You are good at gossip, I’ll give you that much, Tony.” She looked out her window. “I don’t want to talk about it. I am an adult, and I can act professionally no matter what I do. Using your brother as an excuse to ask me about that,” she glanced back at him, her stern tone remaining, “is definitely a journalist move. But you’re right, we’re on a team, so just speak to me bluntly next time you got something to say. Don’t dance around it and use Cody as an excuse to bring it up.”

He raised both brows and gave that frown that people gave when they didn’t want to admit they were wrong, but also didn’t know what else to say. He raised a hand and said, “Alright, fine. Fair. I’ll be honest, that response makes me more confident.”

She didn’t reply, because no matter what, her heart raced inside of her chest like she had been caught stealing from her mother’s purse. She hated the conundrum where Andrew and Tony weren’t wrong for being worried—

It dawned on her. Did he know about Heather? That could explain their immediate suspicion of her.

As she saw Barclay Stadium appearing in the background, she quickly asked, “What’s your take on Heather?”

Tony didn’t respond right away and when she looked at him, he seemed surprised that she brought it up. “It’s a piece of gossip I only know about through Andrew. The uh, concerned parties, were very good at keeping their relationship hidden,” he said, raising a brow as if to insinuate her and Ryder were the same.

“So that’s what this is? You’re going off of his past to judge me?”

He shrugged a shoulder. “I mean, it doesn’t look promising, that’s for sure. You two think you hide it, but I know those looks from anywhere.”

She rolled her eyes to look back out the window, frowning. When they got out of the Uber, she shivered from the cold morning. The temperatures had dropped over the past week, and the fall trees around her invigorated, then saddened her. It would be the holidays soon, and it was the first ones without Jeremy. With all this shit going on, now I have to deal with that, too. God I just want to get away and forget about everything.

She looked around Barclay’s and even the streets were packed like it was a football game, pictures of the fighters on a large screen outside. She glared at the back of Tony, a fire rising in her. She just wanted to live her damned life and have a moment of peace and enjoyment, not worrying about what Tony or Andrew thought. Or to worry about whatever was up with Heather.

No, This is my day. It’s time to own this. Ryder represents my gym too – as soon as she thought of him, his stupidly handsome, glowering face appeared on the screen outside the stadium, scowling in the press pictures they had taken of him.

It felt so odd to see that face and be intimately familiar with how it felt to be kissed by it, or to feel his breath on her neck. She looked down, reminded that she didn’t know him yet. Or his past, and her conscience reminded her to be cautious. Why is everything always so complicated?

Shaking her head and stepping onto the sidewalk as the Uber drove away, she focused on getting her head back into the game, trying to minimize those thoughts as much as possible.

No matter what, Dolores was still in her corner. The woman was new in Julie’s life, and yet she felt like a dear old friend that Julie just hadn’t met until now. If anything, Julie could have a Thanksgiving and Christmas with her, on their own special day.

For some reason, grounding herself with Dolores worked better than any other thought. I wonder if that’s what having a good mom is like.

Either way, it did the trick and she put all of her focus on being a professional, refusing to let Tony or anyone else get to her.

Julie and Tony got in with their passes, but remained to the side of the weigh-ins, which took place in the grand foyer and entry, with press and fans held back with mobile fence barriers. They waited for forty minutes before the crowd around cheered when Joey Ryder was called up to weigh in.

He wore nothing but those tight, small fighting shorts, his body and tattoos on full display. She had to admit that for a moment, she stopped caring about whoever the hell Heather was. Clearly if the woman confronted Julie, and wasn’t trying to claim Ryder, then they weren’t an active item; she definitely acted like an ex-girlfriend, more than a current one.

Which meant, in that span of time, Julie enjoyed eyeing him from afar. She hoped to whoever granted luck in this world that fortune was on her side, and Ryder’s intent was pure with her, and that whatever they had would only grow with time.

Because my goodness, that man is stacked and thick with muscle. And that stupid handsome face of his...the way he somehow says the right things to me...

She got her head back into the game when Ryder came in at 187 pounds. He officially ranked in the middleweight, with the max cutting men off at 200 pounds, and starting the weight at 170. Anything over 200 was placed into heavyweight, and anything until 170 was lightweight. Very few men of the traditional featherweight categories competed in Warlord, or if they did, they bulked up for the role. Customarily, there were nearly ten categories of weights, so only having three was a stark difference, with many complaining about safety and inequality, but there was no way to have a winner-take-all without some kind of large stakes.

Ryder left the small stage and she watched him walk away, that glower full of energy for a fight. She genuinely hoped that he succeeded, for his own interests alone. Romance or not, his intent to help his sister was something she greatly admired. If anything, it was something that made her want to give him the benefit of the doubt in all of this.

Her and Tony moved through the crowds to the stadium, the room so large that concerts were often performed here. In the middle, where the ground floor was for concerts, lights shined down on a fighting ring. Nearly every seat of the indoor stadium had been filled by the time the first fight commenced at 9:00 A.M.

Another aspect that made Warlord so demanding was that no one knew who they’d pair with until their names were called, all the fighters waiting somewhere in the back, only increasing the mental pressure of the fight.

The first to go were in the lightweight category, one clearly the victor, moving with precision that his opponent didn’t have.

The second round was a long fight in the heavy weight category, full of the crowd screaming, the men grunting and sweating, even smearing the ring with blood from a broken nose. A crew quickly cleaned that up to make way for the next fighters, and Julie shifted in her seat with anticipation.

The screen revealed the next opponents, starting with a medium skinned, fierce looking man going by the name of Trevor Young, coming in at 194 pounds for the mediumweight.

After his image came the picture of Joey Ryder.

The crowd cheered, which only grew once Young walked down a long aisle towards the ring, the crowd standing for when Ryder followed. Ryder wore his sweats but no shirt, his hoodie revealing his chest and tattoos underneath. Of course, he had his hood up only the tip of his nose and lips visible.

She smiled as she watched him, her heart pounding. He moved with confidence, Andrew following close behind. She looked at Young, who was heavier than Ryder, and she hoped it wouldn’t cause too much of a disparity.

The announcer’s voice cut through the crowd over the speakers. “Here we have Joey Ryder, a professional UFC fighter who, at the height of his career, tore his shoulder and left with hardly a word. Now, he’s back! Fighting his way to the money, no doubt. It attracts everyone, in the end.”

“I would be back for that paycheck,” the other announcer said. “His leaving is still a mystery to us, though. Won’t talk to the press about it.”

“He’s never been a warm fighter,” the other announcer said. “Sort of fits, don’t you think, Mike?”

Ryder took off his jacket as he neared the ring and got in, his muscles rippling and on full display, his opponent already in and bouncing on his toes. Both wore their mouth guard, pushing out their lips, cameras on them to display their faces in high definition on the screens around.

Julie struggled with her attraction, as that look of pure aggression in his eyes just made her want him more. Why in the hell does that have to make me excited? It probably helped that she didn’t think he was an aggressive person, but damn did she want to see him have his way with her.

Tony leaned in. “Young is a pretty good fighter. Participates in UFC. This could really go either way.”

“Ryder is better,” she said, crossing her arms.

Tony smirked, and she grit her teeth.

“Hey, it’s alright,” Tony said. “I hope the jerk wins just as much as Andrew. This would be huge for my career.”

The two men in the ring stared each other down, Ryder’s traps pronounced in his stance, his broad shoulders making him look more like a heavyweight than middle.

However, Young wasn’t to be underestimated. They both moved like a machine made of the finest parts, all working together to combat the other.

Without much transition, the fighting began as the ref through his arm down.

Hands up, and muscles tensed, the men moved around the ring until Young lunged and threw a punch, but Ryder dodged it. Young threw a kick swiftly after, and Ryder absorbed it with his left arm, grabbing Young’s leg and holding it as he punched Young square in the face, the fighter stumbling backward.

Ryder walked the ring, breathing heavily, no doubt high on adrenaline. God he is good.

The round ended, and Ryder went back to his corner where Andrew spoke to him, but only for a moment before he patted Ryder on the shoulder and left him to it. In the second round, Young was angry and growled at Ryder, flexing his shoulders as he cried out his warrior’s cry.

Ryder barely changed his expression, only waiting for the next round to begin.

When the ref threw his arm down, Ryder charged forward this time, met with Young’s aggression in a series of punches and kicks, both men hitting each other in waves of power, their bodies flexing from head to toe in order to counter such extremes.

Then, Ryder dodged a punch with such speed that Julie swore Young’s arm go through Ryder, who countered by slamming Young onto the mat, holding him and twisting his arm behind him.

Young cried out, straining as his face turned beet red, Ryder putting all of his weight over Young to hold him down. Young slapped the ring’s floor.

Julie stood and clapped as the ref called it a victory for Ryder, Andrew cheering in his corner as the ref raised Ryder’s hand, his body slightly sheening with sweat, the light from around illuminating every valley and hill of his body, as it had done for all the other fighters before him.

The fights really became official today.

The announcer said, “There we have it folks. Joey Ryder is officially back to MMA fighting. Not much to see here with these rounds, but he’ll give us one hell of a performance when competitors like Legends or Marshall fight our man Ryder.”

Andrew escorted him out once Ryder made his way back to his corner, Ryder not remaining to gloat or put on a show; that was never his style.

With excitement, Tony said, “Alright, let’s go. This will be fun to talk about.”

She nodded and they shimmied past others, Julie replaying the fight in her head. Nothing seemed to be of concern, other than she noticed he threw a hard punch with his bad shoulder. He didn’t seem in pain though, so that was good. In some way, she felt a little useless there, but had to remind herself that if she felt useless, then that was good – they didn’t want to have to use her, as that meant injury.

They walked up the stairs of the stadium and through one of the many doors that the crowd entered from, the announcers broadcasting another fight as they left, the crowd cheering. They moved through the UFC and MMA fans, heading backstage by showing their badges.

Backstage was a little different for Warlord. The first room was near the walkway that the fighters would use to enter the stadium, or the ground level of the arena. Julie glanced out, intimidated immediately. The stadium was ginormous from the ground floor, and with so many people watching. It was similar to a gym meet, in terms of pressure, but this was blew that pressure out of the water.

She couldn’t imagine going out there to fight for so many people, let alone be on television for that.

Since this arena was often used for UFC fighting, there were locker rooms inside that they made their way to, all the other fighters waiting wherever they and their coach pleased; just as long as they were present for when their name was called.

Many of the fighters looked Julie over with a darker look in their eyes, but she wasn’t bothered. They always did that when their adrenaline pumped. As long as they didn’t touch her, she’d ignore them or throw them a look to leave her alone. One of the benefits of having so many men fighting was if one acted out, there were ten other to defend her. At least, in settings like this, of course. She didn’t necessarily trust underground fighting rings as much.

In the back, she recognized the backside of Ryder as he sat on a bench, and the face of Andrew as he talked to his champion. Tony called out, “My man, way to dominate!”

Ryder turned around, his gaze darting to Julie immediately, then back to Tony, nodding towards him.

Tony neared and asked, “How you feeling?”

Ryder faced the wall ahead of him, still seated and ran a towel over his face. “Fine. Fucker punched me in the ribs, so that’ll hurt, but nothing serious.”

“As long as they’re not broken,” Tony said, moving to Andrew to greet him with one of those high fives where they pull in towards each other.

Julie continued to near them, standing off to the side. “Well, congrats on the first round of many,” she said.

Ryder’s gaze moved right away back to Julie through a sideways glance, looking at her with an intensity that matched the ring, but a sexual undertone was laced in there. She hated that a part of her was nervous about that now, and hated that they’d have to have a ‘talk’. But she couldn’t indulge in that like before, knowing a past was fresh enough to have the woman herself confront Julie.

But she wasn’t going to give him the cold shoulder, as over the years she had learned to give people the benefit of the doubt, and if they messed up once the air was cleared, then that was all on them. She smiled at him when Andrew and Tony were lost in talking about the media.

Ryder stood up and rolled his shoulders forward, giving her one last, long side glance before going to grab a water bottle He seemed like he wanted to say something, but chose silence instead.

Ryder chugged the water, his entire muscled gut moving just to drink. He glanced back at her again, those hooded gray eyes, broad lips and sharp jaw pulling her in, but Andrew interrupted with a pat on Ryder’s back, “Fucking hell that was great. Just what we want.”

Tony asked, “So next month, he fights twice?”

Andrew nodded. “Yeah, once on a Saturday, and then Sunday. It’s like that all the way up until Hell Week, where it’ll change to fighting every day, maybe even twice in a day.”

Tony shook his head. “Jesus. That’s going to be rough.”

Andrew, hardly phased, said, “Yup, but that’s why Stevens is here.” Andrew looked at her with unnatural approval, but she took it, glad he was excited and not a dick. Andrew faced everyone else. “We’ll all go out for beers tonight. How about that? Go back and shower, relax a little, then go celebrate...and Julie, I’d focus on a massage tomorrow morning for him, maybe even tonight. Let his body cool down for a few hours, first. I want it taken care of before we leave, though. Nothing rough. Just enough to ease the muscles after his first fight. Don’t want anything seizing up in ways that will make it harder to train.”

They all agreed to meeting up later, and Julie nodded at Andrew’s request, then he said, “Alright, then let’s meet at Marlin’s Pub at six. It’s only two blocks from the hotel. You all can figure out how to get there. I’m probably going to just walk.”

Ryder put his sweats back on, and Julie had to look away. Even though he wasn’t undressed, there was something to watching him get dressed while sweaty that toyed with a part of her imagination. After Tony’s interrogation, she couldn’t let her desires show too much.

They all began to head out, Tony talking to both Andrew and Ryder as Julie followed, chiming in periodically. They exited out of the backstage doors with bouncers on the other side, although this exit was much quieter than the others as it was still in a restricted area. Julie noticed a bathroom and realized how badly she needed to go. “Go ahead. I need to use the restroom. Way too much coffee today.”

Andrew looked over his shoulder and nodded to her. “Sure thing, we’ll wait out in the lobby.” He then faced Ryder. “Meanwhile, we got some stuff to go over Ryder, before I turn us all loose later. Flight Athletics will want to chat a bit later.”

Julie turned around to use the restroom, figuring that at the very least, she’d get to talk to Ryder later. Either way, the tension was still there, and so were so many waves of uncertainty, in terms of their past and how in the hell they’d pull all of this off.

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