RYDER (Antagonist to Lovers)

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C H A P T E R | 35


A few minutes earlier...

Julie stood near the turnabout of the mansion and breathed in the cool air of night, already having done a slow walk down the exterior stairs. The beating of the music echoed behind her, a reminder of the life that revved behind her. She crossed her arms from the cold, even shivering from it but not actually caring in that moment. She was so damned confused and frustrated.

Ryder drove her wild, wanting that man in ways that made her act like a fool, and yet she didn’t know how to feel about him wandering off with Heather.

Julie understood it, to some degree. It was personal. And yet, that somehow made it sting all the more. Here Julie was, standing by herself after getting him off just so he could talk to Heather...who was also his ex-sports therapist. She mindlessly eyed a black sports car in the driveway, perhaps even experiencing a sense of embarrassment that she did all of that for him just for it to fall apart in the manner that it did.

It also felt like Heather had precedence. When Julie had recognized Heather’s voice, she kind of hoped that Ryder would tell Heather to leave rather than abandon Julie in the bathroom.

No matter what, even if he had a good reasoning for it, it was hard to control the way she felt slightly saddened by it all. Maybe even similar to getting a reality check that one didn’t anticipate.

She pulled out her phone to grab an Uber, thinking of ditching the place and drinking wine alone in her hotel room. When she unlocked her phone, the screen blinded her until it dimmed to match the darkness, and she saw that she had a message from Ryder.

Ryder: Just making sure you’re alright

A myriad of emotions flooded through her, from irrational irritation, to hurt, to anger, and all the way to appreciative. It didn’t help that she was just generally angry at this whole situation. Or perhaps it wasn’t anger, but impatience? Or anxiety? Everyone around seemed to warn her of Ryder being a playboy...but he made those girls go away...

Dating was too complicated. Why couldn’t people just be direct without it being ‘too fast’?

She decided to respond to him, because no matter what, she had to work with him as a professional. She started to type ”Grabbing Uber. Heading back--" but then erased it, not wanting to come off as cold. Not without knowing the whole story at least, or without being able to confront him about it. Especially since he texted her to make sure she was alright.

Perhaps, simply, it was that she didn’t like having to assume his motive. The ambiguous nature was perhaps was gnawed at her mind the most.

Julie 8:45: Yeah. Bout to head back. Waiting on an Uber. Ran into Andrew and told him I am going back to the hotel. Figured it was best with them heading back.

Ryder 8:45: Good call. Don’t think I’ve forgotten about you.

She grit her teeth and put her phone away, of course liking that he thought of her, but still disgruntled. Sometimes, honestly, one just needed a moment to clear their head. Julie got into the Uber after it rolled up to drop off other partygoers. She got in and went back alone, feeling gutted as she rested her head on the headrest. None of that went to plan.

Her phone vibrated. She looked at it, hoping it was Ryder. Instead, it was Andrew.

Andrew 8:49: Come to my room to treat his shoulder in about forty minutes. We’re all leaving here in a few ourselves.

Julie 8:49: got it

As the streetlights passed over and through the glass of the Uber, Julie just let her mind and heart rest with no real thought or emotion. She just wanted to get away from everyone, or to live her life without apology.

Julie’s mind was lost in a fog as she got out of the car, making the slow ascent up to her room in the elevator, staring alone at the numbers while they changed until they reached her floor. She decided to change into a hoodie, rather than the leather jacket. She wanted to be comfortable.

After changing, she went back down the elevator, her phone remaining completely still and silent; no contact from anyone. So, she went to the bar for a glass of wine. “Chardonnay,” she said with a forced smile to the bartender.

She didn’t feel as ridiculous as she thought she would to drink at the hotel bar, as there were quite a few people in the area, over half of the with drinks of their own. Not even three sips into her wine, a well-stocked man stood next to her. He moved like a man that used the muscles of his body, his eye a little swollen and his broad nose looked swollen too. “Gin and tonic,” he said to the bartender.

“Congrats on your win,” Julie said, feeling unusually gregarious. He glanced at her and she explained, “Sorry, I don’t remember your name, but I saw you earlier. You put up a good fight.”

He narrowed his green eyes on her but seemed curious at the same time. “Oh, you watched?”

She recognized him as the fighter from the round before Ryder fought. “I help run an MMA gym,” she said, feeling proud of herself as she said that.

“No shit. What is it called?” he asked, taking his drink as the bartender handed it to him.

“Rhino MMA,” she said with a smile. This is for you, Jer.

“I swear I’ve heard that before...” he said, furrowing his dark blonde eyebrows, the buzz cut on his head slightly darker.

“We’ve got Joey Ryder. The name has floated in and out with him,” she said, surprised at how much she enjoyed flexing this part of her life. She couldn’t really do it at home, as everyone that would care about this...well, they were already at the gym. Meeting new strangers that cared was an anomaly, and perhaps was why Julie found such kinship with Dolores in the first place.

“Oh shit, you do,” he said, his heavy-lidded eyes brightening. ”Damn, can’t fraternize with the enemy.” He smiled, and then added, “Ryder is going to make it to Hell Week. That’s my goal too, is what I mean.”

She gave a smile in return, sipping on her chardonnay. “It’s alright. So why are you not at McDaniels?”

“It’s too much of a party scene for me,” he said, turning around so his back leaned against the bar.

She nodded and said, “Yeah that’s why I left.”

“So, what’s it like working with Ryder? And how did you get into owning an MMA gym.”

She grinned, liking how it felt to be appreciated by a peer in the community, versus sponsors. “It’s impressive to watch him train, honestly...and my brother owned the gym, but he passed away in a freak accident. So now I help run it with the new head coach.”

“Damn, sorry to hear that.”

“It’s alright, it’s life,” she said, not wanting to dwell on it, or go deeply into that topic with a stranger. “I focus in carrying it on in his name, now.”

“So, where you located?” he asked, a humor remaining in his eyes as if he still thought it was funny that Julie was an MMA gym owner. If anything, she took it as a compliment and liked to impress these beef cakes with how she knew the sport more than they thought.

“In Connellsville, Pennsylvania. A small town outside of Pittsburg.”

“No shit, I live in Pittsburg.”

“Really?” she asked. “Small world.”

“Well, if we weren’t in competition, I’d say I’d come check out your gym,” he said, taking a sip of his drink.

She decided to try and sell the gym, as Chris Harrington was a pretty good fighter, and it wasn’t everyday she’d find herself sipping drinks while standing next to him at a hotel bar. “Well, you can always come check it out. We are looking for more guys, down the road at least. I might even try to get more female fighters out there,” she said with a new confidence.

Why not do that? It was her gym too. She honestly had never looked at it from that angle before.

“Hey, anywhere that Ryder approves of, I’d be curious about. Should I take your number for that?” he asked, his eyes just suggestive enough that she questioned the motive...but only for a moment.

She was too tired, emotionally and physically, to deal with then undertones. It was business, right? She reached into her hand purse and pulled out one of the few business cards she carried for the gym. “Here is my business card.”

He put his drink down and looked over the card, smiling with a nod. “You really do run a gym.”

“Well, yeah,” she said with a cheeky grin. “What else would that have been?”

He put it in his wallet and shrugged a shoulder. “I’ll be honest, not too sure. Couldn’t tell if it was a creative pickup line or not.”

She laughed, trying not to blush. Those thoughts were far away from her mind, but having a handsome, muscled man suggest flirtation to someone like her – who was hungry for the attention herself – made her blush, none the less. “Fair point. Ryder gets women after him like twice a day,” she said, looking at the front doors of the hotel in the distance, watching for Andrew and them to appear.

“So, that’s why you’re here then? You here to represent Ryder?”

“Sort of,” she said, looking back at him. “I’m not the coach or anything. We have one for that. I am a sports therapist, though. I’ve been working closely with Ryder for last month or two.”

“So, this might come on strong,” he said, looking down at her. “But I could totally use that. The one that I liked quit our gym, and I need someone reliable. At least to deal with this lower back problem I am having. I only say that because you’re an hour away, and if Ryder uses you, I trust your work.”

The way her chest rose with pride in herself was so novel, in regards to her profession.

Maybe it was because of the rut that she was in and being appreciated by a stranger made her re-evaluate herself. “I’d usually be interested to help, but I don’t know if I should, given that I work with Ryder. I mean, we can arrange something after Warlord, but it does feel a little bit like conflict of interest.”

“We’d pay.”

She shrugged a shoulder, as it was kind of hard to turn down such an offer. “I honestly am not the one to make that call. I’m gonna say it’s probably a ‘no’, but I will let you know. I’d be fine with it, though. I could always use the extra money and clients.”

It wasn’t a bad idea, in truth. What if they pulled more people to the gym, or even relocated the gym to a location in Pittsburgh? They only went to Connellsville because the building was cheap when Jeremy first opened it.

“I’ll text the number on the card?” he asked. “You can message me then when you figure it out.”

“Yeah, that works. I know Andrew was looking to expand, so he might be open to new relationships.”

“Who is Andrew?”

“The head coach.”

“So, not your boyfriend or husband that’s into MMA?” he asked. “Not that you can’t be into it on your own. All I mean is most women that I meet that are as pretty as you are fighters themselves. It’s not often I meet one that runs a gym.”

She grinned, not sure why she was engaging in this. Then again, Chris was a lot more like Cody, in that their flirtation was gentle enough that it was fun and she was wounded enough to be comforted by it. “Eh, it’s alright. I get it a lot with the guys at the gym. And no, I don’t have a husband or a boyfriend,” she said, a weight in her chest growing heavy at those words.

And even if Ryder and I were a thing, I’d still have to deny it. It was annoying how much that bothered her.

It made her wonder if that’s what bothered her the most – Ryder only ditched her to hide what they had, and she knew that going public with this would be an uphill battle, no matter which angle they took.

Julie was tired of uphill battles.

“Well, whoever catches your eye is clearly a lucky man.”

An awkward air hung between them, and she wasn’t quite sure what to do with it. She honestly didn’t want to flirt with him, and it felt like it was going on for too long now. But she didn’t want to be too crass--


She looked over to See Andrew, Tony and Ryder entering the front doors. Andrew neared her, eyeing Chris curiously, but he looked pleased. “You just run into all the fighters,” Andrew said with a smile.

Ryder and Tony meandered in the background, Ryder watching on with a gaze that made her sit up straighter.

Chris eyed Ryder. “Good fighting, man. Finished your fight sooner than me.”

Ryder didn’t return any of the warmth, languidly blinking and looking at Julie before back at Chris. Her heart raced a little, positive that this entire scene didn’t look the best; Chris was then ‘enemy’, in that he could be assigned to fight Ryder at any point.

Andrew cut in and said, “You’re in Pittsburgh, right?”

“Yes sir.”

“Ah, good. We’re actually like an hour south of there. I run a gym called Rhino MMA,” Andrew said, smiling at Julie. She knew him enough to know that it wasn’t a genuine smile, but rather one of the fake ones that reminded her of a smile on a doll.

“Yeah, I know. She told me all about it. I suppose you’re the guy that I have to talk to to get a massage?”

Julie glanced at Ryder, feeling incredibly awkward. Especially since Ryder cocked his head in the slightest way to show he paying very close attention to those words, his eyes shrewder than normal.

No, don’t be worried. You’re a trained therapist. This is your job. She looked at Andrew, wanting to clear it up right away. “I mentioned it in passing that I was a sports therapist and he said his at his gym quit.”

Andrew seemed unable to decide on how he felt about that. “You know, I mean, I don’t see why not. But, at the same time, as this competition goes higher, this could be an awkward thing to manage,” he said, facing Chris. “I planned to lend out help during Hell Week for the lightweight and Amateur categories, but you and Ryder could see each other in that ring at some point.”

Chris raised a hand. “Just a suggestion, man. We can always chat after the competition. I like my gym, but I am looking for a new one.”

Andrew nodded towards the elevators while looking at Julie. “Go ahead and get to it with Ryder. I’ll chat with him a minute longer.”

Tony stepped forward and said, “I should get back, too. See you guys tomorrow?”

“Sounds good, Tony,” Andrew said.

Ryder didn’t acknowledge him and kept his eyes on Chris until Julie walked by Ryder. He didn’t turn around until Julie was already ahead of him, so Ryder was behind her.

“So...” he began, hitting the up arrow. “Networking?”

She had to admit that she liked his jealousy a bit, although the feeling was fleeting. She didn’t want to cause any more drama between them, but it was nice to know he was affected by that. “He came over while I was at the bar. Didn’t know he lived so close by. Although not sure it will go anywhere. Don’t think I can be his sports therapist as well as yours.”

“That’s Andrew’s call,” he said flatly.

She wasn’t sure what to say, as his posture was stiff, like he too understood that as long as they were a secret -- and not even a secret couple -- Julie didn’t have much ground to deny business. So, she didn’t say anything in return, not sure what to do to fix this. I didn’t do anything, though...I sucked the man off, for goodness sake!

As the elevator door opened, he glanced at her and gently said, “Look, I am sorry for bailing that way.”

“I’ll be honest, it’s a little confusing,” she said stepping into the elevator.

He looked like he was going to say more, but others piled into the elevator, and so they remained silent until it reached their floor. Once down the hall and entering the shared room of Ryder and Andrew, Ryder sighed through his nose and shook his head. “I really didn’t mean to leave things that way. You gotta know that.”

“Of course,” she said without thinking, which only made her more confused. “Look, I’m sorry for being...I don’t know, weird, right now. I just...I don’t know, I kind of felt embarrassed, or something.”


She tried to think of a reason, and every one of them sounded irrational. ′Because it seems like you give her precedence’ – wrong. He clearly didn’t. ′Because I sucked you off and then you just bailed’ – as if that didn’t mean he wouldn’t not want to return the favor. She knew enough to know he wanted that badly.

She knew the real reason once it crosses her mind. “I don’t know, I think it’s because I don’t do flings. And for a split second, it felt like one. I know that’s unfair to judge, I just...maybe it’s the ambiguity here.”

He sighed, but the stiffness in posture seemed to relax. “Heather is not stable, Julie. Well, she is, but when she believes she’s been crossed, she’s not good for anyone. I don’t want her near you, you understand? She’s been up my ass about ‘talkin’,” he said, accentuating that with air quotes. “And I knew walkin’ away with her would do the trick. I know I didn’t have time to explain then and there, but you gotta know I am not just dicking around with you. I—” he hesitated, looking around like he wasn’t quite sure how to say the next words, putting his hands in his pocket. “I clearly care about you, Julie. It’s more than just physical for me.”

She had to admit that that got to her, and she gave him a sympathetic look. She wanted to use the right words, but all she could see was this intense, brooding man admitting he cared about her and her mind and heart melted. “Joey...” she got out. “I’m sorry...I’m stressed, I guess and I just wanted some time with you. I hate sneaking around.”

He walked over to her, his eyes gentle. “This is going to be random, but come with me this coming weekend.”

“What?” she asked, furrowing her brows and slightly smiling, completely unsure as to what that meant.

“I’m gonna be gone all week at Sarah’s, and then I am leaving Friday to go to a cabin with an old friend and his wife. They’re good people. Come with me while I hang out with them. It’ll be a good chance to stop sneakin’ around like we’re in high school, when we are two adults. We can just play Ken and Barbie and feel us out before bringing everyone else in. And you’ll get to get away from everyone.”

She couldn’t suppress a smile, which spread over her face as if someone pulled her smile back like curtains. God did she like this man. Feelings much deeper than any crush filled in her chest, like a warm liquid that numbed her to the rest of the world. “Where you going?” she quietly asked, knowing she have him a look full of endearment.

The corner of his lips gently turned upwards at her interest. “Cabin near Deep Creek Lake. It’s a renovated log cabin. Hot tub and all.”

Her grin steadied on her face, unable to lowe it. “They’d be okay with that?”

He looked away with a slight roll of the eyes, but the smile on his face only revealed how he wasn’t used to being so forward with emotions. “I am sure once I ham you up to Kyle and explain how I want a weekend alone with you, he won’t mind. Plus, it won’t be a problem. They were taking the upstairs bedroom and I was taking one in the downstairs. We’ll have it to ourselves. You’ll get to be away from everyone and just sit and fucking stare at the trees, for all I care. Just as long as you’re happy to be away from it all. It’s why I like going out there.”

Saying it like that tempted her. It didn’t take much for her to realize that this wouldn’t hurt anything, and if anything, he was right -– they needed sometime playing as a couple before any real decisions were made. And she was completely sold on the thought of being removed from it all.

“I’ll come. I have Friday off anyway, along with the weekend,” she said, the rush of butterflies flapping aggressively in her gut once more.

“Good,” he said, leaning in and kissing her with the heat from earlier, his nose pressing against her cheek as his soft lips moved with hers, his strong hand moving to the nape of her neck to hold her close to him.

They heard someone nearing the door and they parted, quick to assume their promised position, with Julie grabbing a chair and Ryder taking off his shirt and lying down. He was on the edge so she could sit and push into his traps as Andrew came in.

“Gotta say, nice work Julie. Chris is a pretty big deal,” Andrew said as he entered.

“It’s Ryder,” she said, pressing into his shoulder as he tensed. “He makes all the others want to know what we are offering.”

Andrew sat down on the bed, eating a granola bar. “I mentioned maybe accommodating him in some way. Once Warlord is over, it would be nice to have that talent alongside Ryder, at the gym.”

She tried to imagine the future when Warlord was over. That was over five months out, and yet seemed like an entirely different reality. Where would her and Ryder be? Would they be a couple by then? She looked at the tattoos on his right shoulder, which was intricate black line art. She wanted to know everything about him, and to be his. For him to be hers. Not just because of a crush she had on him all those years ago, but there was something familiar about him; something incredibly inviting.

I guess this weekend will tell a lot about where we go from here.

It was going to be a long week, waiting for that Friday to arrive.

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