C H A P T E R | 36
R Y D E R ___________________________________________
Ryder pulled up to the suburban home just outside of Connellsville, nearly four hours after their flight landed back in Pennsylvania...which also meant leaving Julie for a few days.
They hadn’t gotten much time to themselves after that, not with the two Russian grandma’s that watched them like it was their job to report in on gossip. I suppose Tony’s job is that...
Ryder didn’t trust that man, which only added to the way he felt about their situation. Something needs to change, and soon.
He exhaled after taking in a deep breath, trying his best to compartmentalize and focus on being with his family.
Sarah Green -- always Sarah Ryder in his heart -- lived in a home that was built sometime in the seventies, one that her husband helped renovate with his bare hands, that crafty fucker. Sarah and Connor managed to finish off the home just before Mollie was born, and Ryder had to admit he loved how the yard and trees were so matured compared to modern construction.
This home was the reason Ryder was in this area, and not at a gym in Pittsburgh, or anywhere else. When Ryder began to seek out a new coach for Warlord, Lowers called to tell him that a gym coach in the area was looking for new
Cue Ryder meeting Andrew, and then Julie.
Ryder looked at the steering wheel, running his hand over it in a mindless manner as he ruminated on what to do with Andrew. The guy was fine, but shit, you throw Julie anywhere in there and the dude loses his fucking mind. Ryder was starting to think he needed to reach out to Lowers and explain that Andrew -- while serving what he needed, which was a coach similar to Lowers and local -- was too much fucking drama.
And stressing the shit out of Julie.
Ryder had to accept that he was developing deeper feelings for Julie. And if that were to occur, then that also meant that he wouldn’t tolerate Andrew much longer. Ryder could ignore most things, but if he and Julie became a thing? He wouldn’t allow that asshole to bring her that much stress.
He got out of the truck and saw a little girl press her hands on the glass window of the front door. He grabbed his duffle bag from the backseat, shut his car door and shuffled through fallen leaves as he neared the home, a minor smile on his face.
Mollie grinned at him, opening the door. “Uncle Joey!”
He’d never get tired of that greeting.
Mollie had changed him over the last few years. Well, it began when she was born and he saw that Mollie had gray eyes, while Sarah had blue and Connor had green. Whether or not it was because Mollie was related to Ryder, seeing the curly hair that Sarah used to have blending with those gray eyes made him feel incredibly humble in this world. That little turd was his flesh and blood, and he wanted to be someone that was a role model.
He never had that kind of pressure before, and when Sarah got her diagnosis for cancer over a year ago – and nearly lost her battle – it was too much for him. Especially when he realized he would be the only person that could tell Mollie what her mother was like as a kid, or what her favorite midnight snack was when they’d sneak it after the adults went to bed.
Fortunately, telling Mollie posthumous stories wasn’t in their future. Sarah was in remission, and Mollie had her mom back, just as it should be. Ryder walked into the home and breathed in what smelled like cookies, putting down his duffle bag to pick up Mollie, throwing her over his shoulder. “Where’s Mollie?” he playfully asked as Sarah came around the corner sporting a new pixie cut.
“Oh, hey, your hair looks good,” he said, caught off guard by it.
Sarah always loved her hair. He even once got mad at her for spending money on salon hair products when they were younger and he was supporting them, although now that he was older, he could see it was one of the few things she had control over in her life.
The day they had to cut it all off was an ugly one. He hoped it would become nothing but a memory they’d all forget.
Sarah smiled at him. “Yeah, it’s actually kind of cute...still getting used to it.”
Mollie giggled on his shoulder, smacking his back and rear. “I am right here, Uncle Joey!”
He turned around, pretending to look for Mollie and said, “I hear her, but I just don’t see her.”
She smacked him harder and giggled even more. “I’m right here!”
He put her down slowly and gave her head a quick kiss before roughing up her hair.
Mollie placed her hands on her head and said, “hey!” with a smile on her face.
Frankie waddled in on his chubby little legs. Ryder smiled at him. “Hey, lil’ man,” he said, the baby giving him a toothy grin, speaking in gibberish.
“Mollie has a whole itinerary planned for you,” Sarah said, placing a hand on Frank’s head.
“Oh, I’m sure she does. Kids mind runs a mile a minute.”
Ryder walked over to Sarah, who moved in for a hug as he pulled her close. She was a few inches shorter than him and still thin from chemo, but her skin was starting to gain a healthy pink that it had lost. He thought of Julie once again, and couldn’t fucking imagine losing someone like this. Poor girl was broken when I first came to the gym.
His heart broke for her, wanting to take care of her and make her feel like she was worth more than whatever the hell Andrew valued her at -- she was worth way more than that. She deserved a chance to truly move on and live her life.
He kissed Sarah’s head as they parted, appreciating her presence even more now.
“So, what all does she got planned?” he asked, looking down at Mollie.
The little kid ran to her room, yelling, “One second!”
Sarah punched his arm. “You look good back on the screen again, man!”
He put his hands in his coat pockets. “’Course I do. I’m Joey freaking Ryder.”
She rolled her eyes with a smile. “Good to know it’s not going to your head,” she sarcastically said, and he snickered.
“Mollie came running back as the comic relief that she was. “I got a new doll!” Mollie said.
His eyes widened as the doll, on the other hand, had the worst fucking haircut, like it got into a fist fight with Edward Scissorhands. “I cut her hair just like mommy’s. She also fights,” Mollie seriously said, moving it as if the doll could punch.
He laughed, his chuckle rolling into serious laughter. “You might want to take the doll to wherever your mom gets her hair done.”
Sarah snorted and as she walked away asked, “You want a water?”
“Yeah, that’d be great.”
Mollie frowned and looked at her doll. “You mean, maybe so it can match mommy’s better?”
“Oh, don’t worry about it, blondie. Clearly it looks just fine,” he said, watching as Frank tried to take the doll and Mollie pulled it back.
Frank started to fuss, and Ryder grabbed another toy and tried to distract the toddler. While he did that, Mollie asked, “Oh, Uncle Joey. Can you, um,” she said, wiping her hair out of her face. “Can you sleep over tonight?”
Sarah came back with a water for Ryder and two cookies, which caught Frank’s attention way more than any toy. Sarah said, “He’s staying for a few days, Mollie.”
She grinned and hopped up and down. “Yay! I want to show him Incredibles Two! And have pancakes for dinner. Oh, and bacon. I love bacon. So does daddy. We should have bacon, mommy.”
Ryder loved this family more than he could say; something about their energy just made him forget the rest of the world. Like a glimpse at what he and Sarah could have had.
Sarah said, “We can have pancakes and bacon.”
“This kid’s a genius,” Ryder said. “I also want pancakes and bacon for dinner.”
Sarah laughed, the smile reaching her eyes. “You’re on a diet.”
“The weight categories are much more forgiving in Warlord,” he pointed out.
She shook her head, her expression still humored. “Alright fine, if you get fat, it’s not my fault.”
He snorted, feeling something press against his leg – sure enough, it was Corndog, noting the pale orange fur and slightly brown tail flicking back and forth.
“Corndog! Uncle Joey is staying!” Mollie said, tucking her doll under her arm.
Once again, Ryder thought of Julie, remembering how she laughed at the cat being called Corndog.
Ryder went to drop off his bag while Sarah got the kids ready to play outdoors, and he headed to the guest bedroom. He would have said hello to Connor, but he was away at work. Before sliding his phone back into his pocket, Ryder scrolled through his phone, pausing when he saw Julie post a picture on Instagram about getting a new house, and the corner of lips curled into a gentle smile. He looked at the pictures and was glad she was had a place of her own.
Damn, I’m catching feels and shit, wondering how she is all the stupid time.
Despite the tone of this thoughts, the smile lingered, thinking of her putting little fake succulents everywhere.
He went outside and helped Mollie put on her shoes as Sarah got Frankie’s shoes on. They went outside and put Frankie in a playpin as Ryder and Sarah sat on their porch. Sarah, peppier than usual, asked, “So, you happy to be fighting again? I hope you at least enjoy it, rather than just doing it for us.”
“Yeah, I admit there’s a part of me that just belongs in that ring.”
He wanted to mention Julie, but didn’t want to come across as too eager. However, he was eager to get Sarah’s point of view on another issue. So, he mentioned, “Heather is up my ass, again.”
Sarah rolled her eyes, leaning back into her seat. “Why can’t she just leave you alone? Even Laura finally got off of you, and she was one step away from getting a tattoo of your name.”
He snickered, shaking his head as he remembered that poor girl after he broke up with her. “Yeah, well Laura was sane. Heather actually needs medication.”
“Oh, shit that’s right. She’s bipolar?”
“Yeah, that at the very least. I think it’s pretty extreme too. Didn’t even know it until a month before all shit went downhill and she got off her meds. She’s night and day without it. Plus, I think she has shit for family, and that never mixes well. It’s like I wanna feel bad for her at times, but if she refuses her medication then her behavior just pissed me off. It’s not my circus to fix,” he said, furrowing his brows.
“So, why is she back?” Sarah asked, picking Frank up when he wanted to be held.
Ryder leaned in the back of his chair, watching Mollie ride her bike around on the concrete patio. “She works for Legends now. So she paid me a visit.”
“You need a girl, Joey. Show her you moved on.”
He was quiet, fidgeting with his hands in his pockets, staring at one of the old oak trees in the backyard, leaves dropping off of it.
“What, you have one?” Her tone was slightly serious, and slightly sarcastic.
He rolled his eyes, but it was done more out of apprehension than annoyance. For some reason, he just couldn’t not bring Julie up. “Sort of.”
"Who,” she asked, her eyes full of life and energy, her lips slightly curled into a smile.
He struggled to commit to the next comment as he glared at her, knowing this would be an interesting fucking conversation. “My sports therapist.”
She threw him a look that she threw her kids when they swore they didn’t eat the brownies, but were covered in chocolate. “What the hell, dude.”
He laughed, looking back out at the yard. “I don’t fucking plan these things out. It’s not like that’s all I’ve dated. I’ve got plenty of exes with a myriad of backgrounds,” he said, as if the complex vocabulary somehow made it look better.
She chuckled and shook her head. “Well, what about Warlord? I know you were staunch against any of that, wanting some man in his fifties, or something like that. And what’s her name? If she made you break that rule, she’s gotta be a special.”
He sighed and looked back at the oak trees, knowing that if this really did cross a line, he wasn’t going to sit quiet about it. The shit he had with Heather was a long-term, sometimes-serious-sometimes-not, fling.
But not Julie. And he didn’t know how mitigate the drama that would no doubt follow as they transitioned to being public. “Yeah, it’s all a little confusing right now. I really tried to push her away, but the chick somehow snuck her way through. Now she just lives in my head rent free.”
A sweet smile came over Sarah’s face, but it fell when she asked, "Your coach okay with that? I mean some might not care, but you don't want to mix new emotiond with something as intense as Warlord."
"We're dealing with him day by day. Haven't really come clean about it yet, although he's laid down hints that he'd be pissed. For all I know, he will consider that a conflict of interest. It technically is."
“Wouldn't that hurt her then?"
"I've got some options there," he said, not wanting to elaborate.
If anything, this coming weekend would say a lot about where he wanted to take things.
"Just as long as she doesn’t have a surprise crazy side like Heather. Maybe it’s a Sports Therapist thing.”
He laughed, looking at her. “No, that’s just a Heather thing. I don’t think Julie has that in her. She would have shown it by now...I think,” he said, chewing on his lip, before sighing loudly. “I mean, when Heather confronted her, Julie handled that pretty well, so you’d think if she was crazy it would have come out then.”
“Oh my god,” Sarah moaned, rolling her head to look at him. “What did Heather say to her?”
“Said she wanted to meet the competition,” he said, leaving out the whole party fiasco. “As if it was still a fucking—I mean, still a competition,” he corrected, once he realized Franks was closely watching them talk, his little curls moving in the slight wind.
“You have to show Heather there is no competition.”
He snickered. “She doesn’t take hints, signs, or neon letter billboards, Sare. Plus, Julie already handled that. Julie actually told Heather that I hadn’t mentioned her, so she’s clearly not competition.”
Sarah’s mouth turned into a surprised ‘O’, which widened as a laugh rolled out of her. “Oh, I like her.”
He moved in his seat, the corner of his lips moving up, just ever-so. Speaking through a sigh, he said, “Yeah, me too.”
An hour or two passed, and Mollie got the grand idea to set up a tea party with everyone having to be at least six or older, which she said while glaring at Frank. She wore a Mulan warrior outfit to the grand event and said, “This is a tea party for warriors. Like you, Uncle Joey.”
He had to sit on the floor, while she sat in a chair at a small table. “Good call, munchkin.”
“Yeah, that’s why Frankie isn’t invited. You have to be able to at least talk to be in here,” she said, her eyes very serious.
Sarah came over with some warm tea in mugs. “Thank you mommy,” Mollie said as Sarah put it down.
He took his tea from Sarah, raising his brow as he wasn’t going to tell Mollie no to this, but he had to admit – this was his first fucking tea party and he had no idea what he was doing.
After Ryder wordlessly took it from his sister, Mollie corrected him and with a frown and said, “You have to say thank you.”
“Thank you, Sarah,” he said, over-dramatizing it as he looked at her.
“No, it’s thank you mommy,” Mollie corrected even quicker this time, as if Ryder was ruining everything.
“Thank you, mommy,” he said teasingly, facing Sarah once again. “What, she told me to,” he defended when Sarah looked like she’d smack him.
Sarah glared at him and held back a laugh before she looked at Mollie. “Honey, I am his sister. He doesn’t call me mommy.”
“He just did.”
“He’s teasing me.”
“Oh,” she said, smiling as if slightly embarrassed. “So what does he call you?”
"Sarah. He says it to me all the time,” she explained.
“Oh,” Mollie uttered, grinning with closed lips and looking back and forth between the two of them as if she remembered how obvious that was.
“What tea we got,” Ryder said, moving it on and sniffing the steamy air.
“I made fruit tea. She loves it,” Sarah said. “It’s a little fruity for me, though.”
He took a sip and made a face. ”Well...fruity for sure.”
He was more of a guy who liked coffee, and he liked that as black as the eye that he gave Young back in New York.
He’d just pretend to sip this for now.
Mollie sipped hers, using two hands. “Mmm.” She put it down hastily, nearing spilling it and picked up an empty, toy tea cup. “Okay, now help Sniffer drink.” She motioned towards the stuffed dog in a chair.
“Sniffer?” he asked with a raised brow.
“Cause he’s a dog and sniffs things.”
“Sniffer and Corndog,” he said and Sarah covered her mouth to laugh.
Mollie nodded, like he was pointing out that the sky was blue as Sarah dipped out to check on Frank, saying, “I also gotta take pictures of this. Let me get my phone.”
Mollie continued on, “Yeah, Corndog looks like a corndog. His tail is brown. Like the stick. Sniffer sniffs things, Uncle Joey.”
He had the strongest urge to take a picture of this too. He got out his phone and just took pictures of the cookies and tea, making sure Sniffer was in the background.
“What are you doing?” Mollie asked.
“Sending this to a friend,” he said.
He sent that picture to Julie with: ”Having a lovely tea party right now. Sniffer the Dog even graced us with his presence. How’s the house stuff going?”
He put his phone in his pocket, but it vibrated just as quickly.
Julie: Oh my gosh that is precious
Julie: It’s also going good. Dad is already here to help. He came and surprised me!
Julie: So are you the princess at this tea party?
He grinned, and Mollie asked, “What is it? Lemme see.”
“It’s just words in a text, kid.”
Ryder: No princesses here. It’s a tea party for warriors.
He put the phone on the table and pointed over Mollie’s shoulder. “Mollie, be quiet, but there is a giant monster over there trying to destroy the Warrior’s Tea Party.”
Her eyes widened and she dropped the toy teacup. That quickly devolved into a plan to tackle a giant stuffed toy, a lot of laughter and even a surprise visit of a tickling monster. Sarah joined in with the assistance of Frank, until the evil was decimated.
In all honesty, Ryder never would have seen him in his thirties, playing this much with stuffed toys and plastic tea cups. But damn it felt nice to give Mollie the childhood that he didn’t have, and it was such a simple thing to give.
He stood up with a groaning sigh. “Alright, Mollie, I gotta go get ready to run.”
With a deflated voice, she said, “Okay.” She was used to him taking time off to work out.
Sarah smiled and for a second, he saw her lip quiver as she looked over the scene. He furrowed his brows. “You good?”
“I am just happy. I almost lost all of this,” she said quietly. “Sorry. This is so annoying. I just get random bouts of crying for no reason,” she said, waving her hand.
He grabbed her head and brought it in to kiss it, letting her go just as quickly. In a serious, solemn voice that he rarely used, he said, “You’re happy, Sare. So are the kids. So am I. So is Connor. Crying because you’re happy is way better than the alternative.”
A flashback of Julie crying on the tire outside the gym struck him hard in the heart. She cried for the alternative. It was also the first time he wanted to find whoever the driver was that hit Jeremy and punch his fucking skull in.
Sarah took in a shaky breath and nodded, sitting down to spend time with Frank and Mollie. He hated being emotional, as that had been completely quashed out of him with their upbringing, but watching his sister nearly die made him face that side of himself. His chest burned as he considered that rather than Sarah being here and in remission, it could have been her ghost haunting her children, watching on like the loving mother that she was.
He looked at his phone as he went to the guest room as he felt it vibrate earlier, a frown weighing down his expression, pausing when he saw he had a text.
Julie: Lol, I’d pay to have Warlord host a ‘tea party for warriors’. Then she sent a picture of her kitchen, and it was leagues better than her apartment. It even looked like it had stone countertops.
He sat on the bed, the frown losing its strength. He felt a mixture of feelings in his chest, wanting to make that woman happy, while also wanting to focus on Warlord and his family. Ryder: I better be invited for dinner one night there. That’s a nice setup.
Julie: I’ll make your favorite – boiled chicken
He grinned, this damned woman always teasing him. And he fucking enjoyed it.
Ryder: You take the time to cook it, I’ll eat it.
Julie: You cook at all?
Ryder: Nope. I mean, I can survive, but you make even boiled chicken taste good.
Julie: Well, I love to cook. As long as you know how to order pizza when I am feeling lazy, I am game
He liked the undertone of this potentially becoming a habit of theirs. He looked around the room and compared his present life to what it was just six months ago. He spent so many nights sitting in here, comforted by a whiskey bottle as he was terrified of losing his sister. Especially when her liver started failing. Mollie even slept with him when Connor was at the hospital, and Ryder was always trying to come up with creative ways to distract her. He even let her paint his nails in neon pink once, when a freaking six-year-old seemed to realize that her mom was not coming home anytime soon, and Mollie bore the sorrowful eyes of an adult.
It reminded him too much of him and Sarah as kids, when moving around in foster care.
He never wanted to see those little gray eyes look that way again.
He thanked whatever god was out there that Sarah was home and even rocking an adorable pixie cut, and he was texting a woman that made him think differently about his future.
Warlord was still paramount, as of course his family would always take precedence, but he knew that meant one day, someone else would come into his life and become his family too.
Next thing I know I’ll be writing fucking poetry at this rate. I just need to punch something again.
He looked down at his phone, grinning to himself as no matter what, he unable to push away the way she made him feel.
Ryder: Speaking of pizza...pineapple on pizza. Yes or no.
Julie: I love me some Hawaiian pizza
Ryder: You disgust me
Julie: Oh, that’s a shame.
Julie: I have a huge shower now, but I guess I’ll just be using it all by myself then...
His grin tempered as something more carnal took over, picturing her in the shower, naked and wet, her hair pulled back. He slowly sighed, a slight groan escaping as well.
Ryder: Enjoy it for the next few days
Ryder: This weekend you’re gonna be mine
Julie: Nervous about new people, but not gonna lie...I’m looking forward to that ;)
Ryder: You’ll be fine with Kyle and Kelly, babe. You’ll like them.
He sent the message and added ‘babe’ before even thinking twice about it, but fuck it, he liked calling her that. She didn’t seem to mind, either.
His twitter was exploding in the background as he was trying to text her, and he finally went to look at it. He didn’t manage his page, as Tony did that, but Ryder still had the app just to keep an eye on what Tony was doing.
He opened it and saw screenshots of him fighting Young, people tweeting in the MMA community about the fights. It really is real again. He snickered. I look mean as fuck, too.
A knock came to his door. “Come out and play, Uncle Joey. Are you done running?”
He smiled, putting his phone in his pocket. There was a reason he kept Joey and Ryder separate. If the internet got a picture of him with a tea party, it’d be cute as hell, but that was personal.
Which meant Julie would be too, and he wouldn’t let Andrew fuck with that. Not if she was his. He’d take care of his piss poor attitude in a heartbeat, and probably sock the dude square in the face the next time he made her flustered.
“I’ll be a bit, blondie. I need to call someone...and still go runnin’. I’ve only been in here for a few minutes,” he said with a chuckle.
“Okay. Just checking.”
He took his phone back out, looking at Mike Lowers’ number. Mike didn’t want to deal with the limelight and was focusing on being a grandpa, but Ryder knew the old man would come back to coach if he asked.
Ryder just didn’t ask Lowers at first because he didn’t want to drag him into six more months of this.
At this point, though, if Andrew was going to be an asshole about everything, then Ryder would find a solution.
So, he gave Mike a call to discuss their options.