C H A P T E R | 33
J U L I E
“How you two doing tonight?” The Uber driver asked as they pulled up to a red light.
Julie adjusted her seat-belt and said, “Good.”
Ryder didn’t respond, rubbing his eye with his hand that was not on her thigh. Her heart maintained a level of excitement at the novelty of experiencing Ryder in such ways.
Their destination was ten minutes out, and he remained just like that, with his broad hand on her thigh. The spot even grew warm with time.
She wanted this; the affection. She didn’t want to be alone, to get a home and sleep by herself at night. She wanted a lover and a partner and a friend, and Ryder filled that spot more than she thought he would. She was aware that for obvious reasons, they couldn’t dive deep into those waters, not without wading in them first.
They pulled down a residential street, and their destination was clear once she spotted it -- cars and people surrounded a mansion, the faint sound of music coming from the home.
The Uber driver seemed interested as well. “One heck of a party,” they said, pulling over.
“Thanks, man,” Ryder said, opening the door, removing his hand from Julie’s thigh.
As she scooted out, Julie said, “Yeah. It’s a part of Warlord. UFC stuff.”
The driver nodded, although it was clear they weren’t familiar.
Julie shut the door when she got out, Ryder waiting for her and walking alongside her as they approached the magnificent home, outdoor lights creating long shadows against the exterior.
He said, “Gotta admit...missed the energy from all of this.”
“What’s it normally like?” she asked, crossing her arms as they walked over. In truth, she was incredibly nervous and out of place here.
“Fight, celebrate if you win, and then rinse and repeat. It’s an invigorating cycle,” he said, walking close but keeping his hands in his pockets.
“I mean, I can totally see that.” She looked up at the arhctiecute and knew this was real stone, not the stuff that they put in the newer neighborhoods. “This place is crazy expensive.”
“Welcome to the part of it that nearly all of ’em like.”
She stuck close to him. “So, like, is the guy that owns this house someone that follows UFC or something? Or is he a random guy celebrating tonight?”
“Huge UFC fan,” Ryder said they walked towards the front door, a bouncer nodding as soon as he saw Ryder. “Daddy’s money paid for the place, and McDaniels now runs his own stuff, but continues to love the fighting scene. There’s underground fighters probably here, too.”
“I don’t think I’ve been to anything like this,” she said, leaning even closer as they entered. People were everywhere and the lights were dim. Beautiful women walked throughout to flaunt their figure, or wore the scantest of clothes. Some of the fighters more obvious in who they were than others, carrying an air of ‘dominance’ that made her think street fight more than professional. The music wasn’t quite like a club, but it definitely had a faster beat. The multicolored lights reflected off the marble floors and glass of the paintings, bright lights shining from the backyard, which she could see through windows.
This was completely not her thing. Not that she didn’t enjoy her fair share of partying in college, but these weren’t her people. This is more for Jeremy.
“I’ll stick with you,” Ryder said, leaning in. “Fighters don’t mix well with alchohol and drugs.”
She laughed, eyeing a man who snorted coke off of someone’s breasts in a corner. “Not gonna to lie, this is different than my college days. But if you need to do something, go do it. I’ll figure it out. Maybe stand by a punch bowl.”
He chuckled. “Look, I don’t wanna be here for that long. It was fun when I was younger,” he said, carefully looking around. “But it’s just business now. I like the energy, don’t get me wrong, but once everyone’s high or drunk I don’t intend to linger.”
A few young women came over, all eyeing Ryder. They were dressed in short shorts, crop tops, and heels. One had on a fur jacket. “You’re Ryder!”
“Well spotted, ladies,” he said, hands still in his pockets, facing them.
“Come sit with us,” one said with a flirtatious smile, jutting her hip out and over exaggerating her movements. “We watched you on the screen today.”
“Go fish another,” he said, not engaging in it. Julie stood there uncomfortably, eyes wide.
“Oh, come on.” They touched him, and he let them, but he didn’t give in to their touch. Julie felt very awkward and realized that engaging in anything romantic with Ryder would be full of this.
She looked away, not sure what to say or do. The honest truth was that for a fleeting moment, she felt lesser to these women. Julie wasn’t old, but those girls were probably in their early twenties. Julie had stretch marks from building muscle as a gymnast. Even Jeremy got stretch marks from weight lifting; they just were predisposed for them. It was hard not to compare herself.
“Seriously, no.” Ryder insisted, looking down at one that touched his chest.
That one frowned. “You sure?”
“I don’t repeat myself.”
“Alright, fine,” she said solemnly, backing off and traling her hand down his chest, lingering her gaze on him before she walked away, the girls moving together like a group of fish.
Julie raised her brows at him as he turned around and she said, ”Well.”
He faced her with a crooked smile, the lighting darkening his face. “Getting jealous on me, Stevens?”
Most of her frustration left her, grinning as he had a way of easing her stress. “You are my fake boyfriend. Who I have made out with,” she quipped.
He smiled, hands still in his pockets but he faced her, looking down at her. “Well, good news for my fake girlfriend -- those women don’t really do it for me, anymore. I mean, not that my dick is dead, but once you have it enough times, it grows old.”
She playfully rolled her eyes. “Alright, let’s go grab a beer or something, stud muffin. Get out of this crowd.”
They walked over to a clean row of coolers with a variety of canned beer inside, Julie meandering over to the local beers, never a fan of Budweiser or anything like that. Ryder was quick to decide for himself and said he’d grab them waters while she continued to look, picking a beer up to place it back in the ice.
A stranger came up to her, looking at the beers himself, hovering next to her. “You need help choosing a beer?”
“On no, I’m good” she said politely.
“You should come over to the bar. They’ve got stuff on tap.”
She chewed the inside of her lip. “No thank you,” she said, grabbing something without looking so she could end this conversation. Why couldn’t people just take hints?
“Who you with?”
“I represent a gym, thank you,” she said curtly, standing up from her lean, icy water dripping down her hand.
He raised his dark brows, running a hand through this short hair. “No shit. What gym is that?”
She didn’t know if he didn’t believe her or not. She said, “Rhino MMA. I need tobgo meet the people I came with. Have a good night.”
He smirked. “Hey, I just liked the girl next door vibe. You know, I’m actually going through the next round in Warlord.”
Before she walked away, she said, “Congrats, man. Good luck.”
Ryder was just behind them, watching from afar with a shrewd gaze. As she neared, Ryder said, “Not even a second alone and they’re already targeting you.”
“The girls flirted with you just as quick,” she retorted
“Yeah, but he eyed you before he talked to you,” he said, looking down at her. “I don’t like these dudes. Didn’t notice it much when I was younger, but none of them can be trusted. Lots of shady motherfuckers here.”
“Let’s just so somewhere less crowded.”
To her surprise, he put a hand on her back to guide them away from it. “Are you too cold to go outside? There’s a few fire pits. It’s a chilly fall night, but the fire should help.”
“Nah, let’s go to one,” she said, wanting to get out of the house.
There were many portable heat lamps to warm the attendees, a few portable fire pits strewn about and plenty in the hot tub. They picked one portable firepit that was dwindling and abandoned, sitting down on cold fold-out seats next to it, grabbing the fire poker and prodding at the coals. She laughed, looking around, eyeing girls jumping into the cold pool water in their underwear, having a flashback to the coke and tits. “This is probably the craziest party I have been to. I mean, I guess college has seen some interesting stuff, but this is totally different. And where does someone like Tony and Andrew wander off to here?”
“There’s private rooms inside for that shit. This is just the nature of sports. You spend all day training, limit everthing you do, and then go overboard for a few nights before getting right back into the game. There’s bouncers walking around, but honestly, if you’re not used to this scene, with a woman looking like you, it’s not a good mix.”
She laughed, asking, “Like me? There’s plenty available options strutting about. I’m just in jeans and a leather jacket.”
He gave her a look, and then let his eyes trail her before saying, “You’re stacked, woman. And gorgeous. And the way you wave your hair like that does it for me, so I know it does for others. Plus, you look cleaner than the others, and like you might not know what to do here. Guys will take advantage of that.”
A grin stole her face, not caring about the rest and just happy he called her gorgeous, and that he liked her hair. “I’ll take the compliment.”
He snickered. “I’m sure...since it’s coming from your dream man.”
Her cheeks warmed with a blush and she threw him a side-eye grin as she took a sip of the IPA she grabbed. “You’ll never let that go.”
“How can I?” He asked, holding a hand out. “Adds pressure to me, really. Gotta live up to it.”
The air burned between them again, only made warmer from the way the fire heated her jeans and hands. Her smile fell as their gazes wouldn’t relinquish the other, wanting nothing more than to move closer to him.
She felt like it was the perfect time to bring up the the status of her living situation. “I also got a rental, I think. I still have to sign the lease. But I got a message from one house that I like, as a rental home, and they sent the documents over after Dolores sent to look at it for me.”
He drank his beer and rolled his gaze back to the fire. “Gonna miss the smell of the bathroom afrer you shower. I like whatever you use.”
A grin instantly spread over her face, which seemed to be a habit with him, and she wanted to kiss his stupid face. Her heart fluttered in ways that both excited and terrified her with Ryder. She could feel her emotions burrowing deep into her heart, something about him so intoxicating to her. “You’ll just have to come over more,” she gently said.
Only his gaze moved back to her, his beer hovering in front of his lip. “Of course I will,” he said just as gently and matter-of-factly.
She ran her teeth over her bottom lip before sipping her beer, her heart swelling with emotions that seemed so fast, and also was something she wanted so badly.
Either way, she moved the conversation forward, trying not to get too caught up in anything when they hadn’t even spent a night together. “So, when we doing your massage? You do need a real one.”
He looked away. “Maybe tomorrow, so I’m not tempted as much, knowing we got a flight to catch. We got Nancy Drew watching. Bet he’ll be like a hawk tonight, and honestly, I don’t want to rush being alone with you.”
She looked around, the butterflies as persistent as the Energizer bunny, although they faded slightly when shr spotted Andrew and Tony leaning on an outdoor bar, chatting, Tiny glancing over. She shivered from a slight, cold breeze, breathing in the smoke from the fire. “When did they get out here?”
“A few seconds ago.”
“You spotted that quick.”
“I pay attention. It’s a learned skill out of necessity.” He tipped the beer towards the fire. “And not from fighting.”
Julie wanted to pry and ask everything about his life, just to know him. There was an anxiousness associated with that, which made her reserved. Ryder was top shelf in the looks department, thick like an action figure, could throw a sultry look, and always made her laugh.
Frighteningly enough, it’s what she always wanted, and now that he was before her, she dreaded the thought of it failing; of being left in that metaphorical dark depth, alone.
She looked at him, doing her best to push those intrusive thoughts out. “Alright, so, let’s find something else to talk about so Nancy over just sees a normal conversation...” she said, the thought coming to her as soon as she looked at another fighter in the distance, one in a hot tub with a girl in each arm. “What do you want after all of this? Where does someone like you go when the fighting is done?”
He didn’t answer right away and took another drink of his beer. “Don’t fucking know. Maybe get back into fighting, properly, anyway. If I win, maybe get into coaching, or fight a bit longer then coach. Get a house. Want to settle down. Tired of always moving around. This shit” --he waved around-- “just isn’t my jam anymore. I mean I like being back, and always will, but I want more from it.”
She looked down at her beer. Solid answer.
“What about Jules?” he asked. “What does she want?”
“I want a dog,” she said, grinning and looking at him.
He gave a crooked smile. “A dug, huh? What kind?”
“A big one. Something to jog with. Not immediately, but down the road. I’m hoping with a yard I can eventually get one.”
“I had a german shepherd growing up,” he said.
“Oh, my aunt did too. I like those dogs. His name was Gunner.”
“They’re my favorite breed. Lots of training, though, and you’ll need to brush them nearly everyday. They don’t call them german shedders for no reason.”
She chuckled. “When I was growing up, we had some kind of mutt that had a shedding breed in it. For the right dog, it’d be worth it.”
He nodded, raising his brows as he asked, “You a cat person?”
She shrugged her shoulders. “Eh. I love visiting cats but I don’t speak cat language.”
He grinned, scratching his nose. “Well that’s good. I don’t get those fuckers either. Funny as shit though. My sister has one, and Corndog always hangs around me. She’s a good girl. Stares me down a lot.”
She choked on her beer as she took a sip, her sudden laughter catching her off guard. With a scratchy throat, she asked, ”Corndog?”
His broad lips crookedly pulled to the side in a cheeky grin. “They let Mollie name her. Mollie likes corndogs.”
Julie laughed, and it echoed through her chest. “Oh my gosh, that’s adorable. That kid’s a genius.”
His gaze clung to her for a moment of consideration, before he nodded the beer can in her direction. “So what did yo want, aside from a dog?” Ryder asked, the fire casting dancing shadows on his face.
“I don’t know. If Andrew pulls this off, then I might stay with the gym. But even then, I am not someone who runs gyms. Might find someone to take it over, or maybe someone to share ownership with. There’s a few guys at the gym that I can think of. Otherwise, I’m just happy that Dolores has given me a good fall back plan. I feel really confident in that for once.”
“Ah, you’re old lady.”
“She’s not old. Well she is, but she is a wonderful human being with an incredibly young spirit. She’s like an adopted mom.”
“What about your mom?” He asked, narrowing his brows, before correcting himself. “If I can ask.”
She took in a deep breath of cold air, sighing as she looked at the cracking flames. “She’s still with us, but she loved Jeremy. She doesn’t hate me, but, she’s not the best mom material, to be blunt. So Dolores sort of filled that.”
“Well that’s shit...so where does Dolores work, then?” He asked, leaning back in his seat, his shrewd gaze on her.
A tepid smile escaped her, enjoying that he was so curious. “She owns a greenhouse and could use a manager. With winter coming she won’t need me right away. It’d be a good second option, if I needed it. I mean, I’m not done with this career or anything, but...it is tempting to just go do gardening stuff with Dolores for a bit. Just seems like a nice break, I guess.”
He nodded and shrugged a shoulder. “You just want to get away from the gym for a bit. I get it.”
“I don’t think I can move on until I step away from it for a while, you know?” she asked, finding that even serious conversation was nice with him.
“That’s why I took a break. I mean I had a lot of shit happen at once, but I just needed to remove myself from it all for a bit.”
She smiled at him, taking in how broad his shoulders were, wanting to lean in and lie against him, especially since he understood where she can’t from. She didn’t want to end it there, so added, “I’m glad your sister is doing well, now. I’m really happy you still have her, and you’re an amazing brother for doing what you can for her.”
Ryder was the master at stoic expressions, as he didn’t give much in response, although she noted how his gaze softened before he looked at the fire.
Ryder said, “Yeah, that changed me a bit. Slowed me down. Took an edge off. I took care of Mollie when Sarah was in the hospital, and my brother in law’s sister took care of Frank -- he’s about two now.”
Julie smiled, trying to imagine what it’d be like to have nieces or nephews, or to see Ryder play with his. “I’d love to see you as Uncle Joey.”
He threw her a look, but grinned. “Hey, I am still figuring out the uncle shit, but I love those turds. Mollie might be more like me than Sarah, which is crazy to watch as she gets older. She’s a sneaky shit. Her heart is gold” --he chuckled, running his fingers over his chin-- “but she loves to plot her little schemes. She’ll be smart.”
Julie grinned, crossing her legs. “I could see you as a sneaky kid.”
"Oh yeah,” he said, furrowing his brows. “I was a shit head too, but that’s just foster homes. Mollie will do better than that. Hope she doesn’t bring me homework though. I hate that shit. Especially if it’s math.”
“Were you the kid that would come to me asking for help on your homework?” she asked, throwing him shade.
“Nah, I’d just straight up turn that in undone” --she laughed and he paused to grin before he added-- “Sarah was a straight A student, though. She always wanted to become a pediatrician, after one of ours took really good care of her as a kid.”
“Did she get to do that?” She took another sip of beer, surprise as to how much she liked it. Got lucky there.
“Sort of. She became a nurse, since med school was so expensive. She still gets to help though, volunteering at a home for kids in need, and I go with her a lot.”
“She sounds incredibly strong,” she said, not able to imagine that kind of life.
He smiled fondly. “Yeah, she’s been through some shit. We entered foster care when I was eight and she was five. Lived there until I was eighteen, was able to get enough money with underground fighting and became her legal guardian when she was sixteen.”
She wanted to ask more, but also didn’t. How much was too much? Fortunately, he he quickly moved the conversation on for them, “So, enough of the sad shit, where’s your new house?”
Pulling out her phone with a smile, she showed him the home on Zillow. She handed him her phone, and he took it with a smirk. No matter what, this confirmed for her that she did want something like this with someone. The thought of having a home where another came to habitually stay, filled a profoundly empty part of her heart.
They looked at each other after talking more about it, a lingering knowledge that once she had the home, they’d have privacy. The distant music displayed how alone they were, removed from the crowd. And yet, it also reminded how many people were stil around, even if in the distance. Especially when his eyes fell to her lips, dropping even further, jutting his jaw out.
A mischievousness crossed his eyes with a smirk, his voice was low and rough as he languidly looked her back in the eyes. “Follow me for a second.”
“What?” she asked.
“I’ll show you,” he said, getting up, draining his beer and throwing it in the fire.
She did the same and followed close, her lips curling in a hovering smile, curious as to what he planned. Especially since she didn’t see Andrew or Tony anymore, which made following Ryder all the more exciting.
The smell of pizza and marijuana mixed in the air as they entered the home. He led Julie to a different wing of the mansion, heading towards a bouncer that guarded a hall.
“She’s with me,” Ryder said. “Anyone asks, I’m showing her to a bathroom.”
The abnormally tall and thick, bald man nodded to Ryder, eyeing Julie carefully as they passed him by.
“What are you planning?” she quietly asked, more excited than concerned.
“I used to be a showpiece for McDaniels, and know this place pretty well. I should probably see him before I leave, actually...”
They rounded a hall that had modern art hanging on the walls, approaching a dark brown door that he knocked on. Her heart raced, the area much quieter...and more private.
He opened the door...and it was indeed, a large, extravagant bathroom.
Ryder took a step in, motioning with his fingers for her to near him. “Come in.”
She moved without thought and followed him in, the floor a dark tile, the decorations sleek and modern. He shut the door and locked it. He said, “I’m not trusting of the bedrooms. I know he cleans these, and not many come in here, if at all,” he said. “But I definitely gotta at least do this, so figured ‘showing you the bathroom’ was the best cover story.”
She faced him and he was already nearing her, reaching behind her as their faces closed in so only an inch was left between them. He cupped her ass to pick her up and placed her on the deep window sill, kissing her hard and deep, pulling her legs around him in a move she could easily grow used to.
His embrace engulfed her, breathing him in and feeling the heat of his breath as his hungry tongue caressed hers. She placed her hands around his neck, and he pulled her towards him with a sharp scoot to erase the space between them. She now straddled him in a way where if they didn’t have their jeans on, she had no doubt that he’d be in her.
Despite everything, Julie released all hesitation in the heat of the moment and let her heart get lost in the way it felt to have someone like Joey Ryder hold her so close.