C H A P T E R | 40
J U L I E
After dressing, putting her hair into a new pontytail, and gathering herself, she went up the stairs to see Ryder and Kyle already sitting down to watch ESPN.
“How’s the view downstairs?” Kyle asked, looking over his shoulder from the couch.
“Oh, yeah, the view,” Julie said, already feeling a blush in her cheeks.
“Oh, leave her alone, babe,” Carla said from the kitchen.
Julie laughed, and with sass, she said, “The view was fantastic.”
Ryder snickered. “That’s my girl.”
That made Julie blush even more, and she looked at the kitchen to see Carla putting away stuff from the cooler.
“Oh, can I help with anything?” Julie asked, placing her phone on the concrete countertops, grateful for the distraction.
“No, I got it.”
“Okay, just let me know if I can do anything,” Julie said, looking around the clean kitchen with modern, wooden cabinets, a Keurig, a large window over the sink, and a desk off to the side.
“No, seriously, I got it girl. There’s nothing much in here, anyway. Just hot dogs and stuff. Don’t feel like cooking on these little getaways,” Carla said, bending over to pull out three packages of hot dogs.
“Hey, I could always see what I can come up with. I’m not used to not being of much help.”
“Ah, nah, Kyle loves to grill. Seriously, just relax. We’ll let the guys take care of the food.”
Julie chuckled, crossing her arms and leaning her hip against the counter. “I’d be dead curious to see what Joey would come up with if he chose to grill.”
“Are you the chef between you two?”
Once again, she loved being referred to as an item. “Well, I have cooked for him a bit. I do love to bake and cook. Hard to do with just one person...I mean, maybe now I can cook for Joey more,” she said, grimacing at how awkward she was. To busy herself, she leaned down to her cooler and put it on the counter.
Carla shut the door and looked at her. “Yeah, if you can cook, it’s an easy way to bait Joey. The man loves his food—” Carla looked over Julie’s shoulder and said “—yes, we are gossiping about you, before you make a snarky comment.”
Julie stifled a laugh, and Ryder got up from the couch, asking, “There a water in that fridge?”
He was like a candle, and she a moth, wanting only to get closer as she looked at him. He threw her a smooth, side-eye glance, and it felt so personal and just for her.
That was a dangerous look, as that would suck her in, and she didn’t know if she’d ever come out.
He looked back at Carla and raised his brows. “That’s a shit ton of hot dogs.”
“Don’t you judge our shopping habits,” Carla retorted.
Ryder came close to Julie, his body only a few inches from her as he moved his hand like it was talking, making a wordless, mocking gesture at Carla, who laughed and walked away from the countertop and said, “Joey is always so dramatic.”
Julie laughed even more, opening the cooler she brought once it was on the counter.
Ryder eyed the cooler. “So, what’d you bring me?”
Julie grinned, knowing he was joking, as he was totally unaware of what was actually inside. She pulled out a few containers. “I did make you something, actually. It’s nothing fancy, just more angel food cake and strawberries. I’ll eventually make more of a palette, but I knew this one worked for you. Still have to learn what the hell a damfnudle is before trying that one.”
She glanced at him, and then held her gaze as a ghost of a smile lingered on his face, his eyes rolling to look at her. It was clear that he was genuinely surprised, and then his grin widened in defeat. He shook his head, his blue eyes looking her over. He then leaned in for a quick kiss on the forehead. She was surprised he was so open, and it was intoxicating how much she wanted this in the open.
“I’m glad I brought you, Jules,” he mumbled against her skin.
Her heart warmed and she felt something deep swim in her stomach for Ryder, something that made her grow dizzy with emotion.
“Yeah, me too,” she said quietly.
He moved to the fridge to grab a water, pointing it at Carla who gave him a look with raised brows eyes, “You keep your sappy shit to yourself.”
“You’re a giant fluff ball, you know that?” Carla said, completely igorning him.
Ryder gave Carla a grin and threw another one of those glances at Julie before heading back to the couches as Kyle made a comment at the TV—completely in his own world—which now had coverage of the Warlord tournament on it.
As Ryder moved away, her gaze falling to his shoulders, she immediately missed his arms around her, and the way he smelled. She just wanted to become engrossed in that man.
“Did you find the wifi? It should always be over there,” Carla said as she looked her phone, pointing to a corner on a desk next to the kitchen. “Forgot to mention that before we ditched you go to the store. Then again, I don’t think you were looking for wifi while we were gone.”
Julie laughed. “Nah, I haven’t looked for it yet. Too busy enjoying my view earlier,” Julie said, Carla chuckling in the background as Julie nodded to the TV. “So, what do they do? Just watch TV?”
Carla leaned against the counter. “When they get together, they’re like childhood friends. They’ll chill for a moment, then get up and we’ll all go do something, then cook some food and retire for the night. Real chill and relaxed.”
“I am just here for the ride, honestly. It’s a great change of scenery for me.”
“Yeah, I feel the same. We all need it from time to time—”
Julie glanced back at the TV when Ryder’s face appeared, the analysts on ESPN debating on whether or not his departure had to do with Heather Collins, his old sports therapist. Julie’s heart raced. Then, a picture of Heather came on, this one an action shot of her standing next to the coach of one of fighters she helped support.
In the span of a few seconds, Julie took in a much deeper observation than probably necessary, but once it was in her mind, it was hard to shake – going back to Connellsville, after this, meant that she was deeply ingrained in Ryder’s life. The mundane gossip now meant something to her, versus just gibberish on TV.
Especially if those analysts caught wind that he was dating his current sports therapist.
Carla seemed to pick up on the way Julie awkwardly stared at the television and grabbed two bottles of tea from the fridge. “You want some tea and want to go sit outside?”
“Yeah, that’d be great,” Julie said with a smile, refusing to let that sour this.
Regardless, Warlord would come and go, and so would the gossip and drama, which meant she needed to focus on the long-term picture here, as that’s what she really wanted.
It didn’t make it easier to forget, however.
None the less, she could feel the seed taking root. If she wanted to be with him, she’d have to weather the media with him as well.
She followed Carla outside through the double door, catching that Ryder’s eyes were on her like he knew she heard the television.
Julie slipped him a small smile before stepping out into the air that smelled of leaves and wood.
As Julie shut the doors, Carla sighed and said, “I admit, with Kyle being a break with the MMA world, I really enjoy the silence of the media. He isn’t as famous as Joey is, but within the MMA community, drama can follow him if it pops up. There’s no denying that it’s a bitch to deal with.
“Does it pop up often?” Julie asked, sitting down in a plastic chair which overlooked the sloping valley.
“Eh, it depends,” Carla said, waving her hand as she handed a bottle of tea to Julie, “but it’s a sport that thrives on media coverage. So when drama pops up, people can take it too far. Joey is pretty good with it. He doesn’t give two shits about the media, so he doesn’t entertain them. It’s why he’s like a secret agent with his privacy. Makes it hard for them to snoop,” Carla said, chuckling.
Julie settled into her chair as Carla sat next to her. She opened the tea and took a sip, stuck between wanting to hyper focus on what she’d have to deal with back home, and also on just unplugging and enjoying the view. Deciding not to dwell on it for now, Julie asked, “Yeah, I don’t even know what’s going to happen when we go back home...anyway...how did you and Joey meet? Was it through Kyle? I love the little friend group you guys have.”
“Yeah, we met through Kyle, as Kyle and him are old friends. Went to the same shitty school, and both got big with MMA,” she said, crossing her legs. “They do this every year, sometimes a few times a year. I joined them once, and just always came with them ever since.”
“That’s awesome, especially that you were able to just join these excursions so easily.”
“Yeah, it’s never been awkward between the three of us. I came along once during fall, because I am a photographer, and I didn’t mind letting the guys just do their thing while I took pictures and read books. Now it’s a past time of ours. Been doing it for seven years now...I think they started when they were eighteen. It’s nice to have another tag along. You’re the first one.”
Julie swallowed her tea extra fast to ask, “Really?”
“Yup. That’s why we said to absolutely bring you, becuas he must really like you if he asked to bring someone,” Carla said, throwing Julie a small wink.
“Well that’s definitely good to know,” she said quietly, getting lost in her own thoughts, her heart allowing herself to entertain romantic notions of Ryder. “I still can’t believe we’re a thing now,” Julie said, happy to talk to someone her age about this.
“Don’t sweat it, girl. He is a catch, more than most know. Joey is a good guy. He’ll do anything for those he cares about. Was a huge shithead when he was younger,” she laughed, “but he’s grown up since then.”
“Oh, I can see where he would have been difficult,” Julie said, chuckling. “So do you an Kyle live around here?”
“We live in Pittsburg. Just the two of us...for now,” she said with a knowing grin.
“Oh, are you...” Julie motioned with a hand, not sure what to ask.
“We’re trying at the moment,” Carla said, rising her shoulders with a slightly bashful grin.
“That’s so exciting,” Julie said, genuinely happy for them.
She wanted that future, the one of settling with a man, having kids, and doing her own thing; whatever that was. Ryder naturally crossed her mind, as of course he was the one in her life. Even the mere thought of it tempted her close to the edge of romance, her heart beckoning her to jump off the ledge and allow herself to be consumed by it all. To fall head over heals for that man.
Carla sighed, a peaceful glaze glossing over her eyes as she stared at the scenery in front of them. “Yeah, we’re excited for it. You know, it’s funny, because I really did not like kids in my early twenties, and now that I am thirty-one, it’s like I can’t look at videos of babies without my ovaries begging for me to bake something in this oven.”
Julie laughed. “Oh, I totally hear you. I was always neutral on kids, and even though I’ve been single for the last year I keep daydreaming of kids and family. It makes it hard to plan a career, though, you know? Like I got this gym and stuff, but what do I do if I have a kid?”
“Well, you just do both,” Carla said, shrugging her shoulder. “By the way, how is the gym going? Kyle told me the coach for Joey is a bit of a dick – although, I am not surprised. They definitely exist in the MMA world.”
Julie sighed, rubbing her thumb on her glass of tea, staring at the railing of the deck. No matter how she tried to start the conversation in her mind, it always went to one place — “Honestly, the issue with Andrew is that it’s drama that doesn’t need to be there. I admit I might be holding onto ideas a little too much, just because it makes me mad that he can’t see my point of view. But I’m getting tired of it, and maybe I just need to commit or quit with what Andrew wants,” Julie said, more to herself than to Carla.
“So is the Andrew guy just an ass?”
“Yes. I mean, I give him credit – the guy is a bull. But it also means when he sees red, he just keeps going, and going, and going. The real flak is that my brother owned the gym outright, and when he died, I was surprised to see he left me sixty percent ownership of the gym, and forty to Andrew,” Julie said.
Once she began talking, it was hard to stop, as Carla listened very intently, her brows furrowed and her eyes sympathetic. “In his will, Jeremy told me to keep fighting for the dream – which was to make the name of the gym famous -- but he also wanted to give some ownership to Andrew, since he knew running gyms wasn’t my thing, but he wanted me to inherit it and the name, and he gave ownership of the building to me.”
Carla looked back at the forest. “Well, that’s fortunate that he had that all written up. I heard how he died. With the car accident, and all,” she said solemnly.
“Yeah, he made the will when we got the gym. He must have updated it when Andrew got in the picture. Jeremy was always on top of things like that,” Julie said with a ghost of a smile on her face, the sound of birds in the distance soothing her.
“And Andrew doesn’t get along you?” Carla asked, looking at Julie. “Why is he being an ass?”
“Oh, sorry, didn’t really explain that. He wants to change the gym name. Approached me like three months after Jeremy died with wanting to change the name, since he was doing so much of the work. And I admit, I sort of slacked off with dealing with my brother’s death. Obviously, this made me react strongly, since Jeremy always wanted the gym name to go far.
“Andrew didn’t like me before that. You know, I never really knew why. He’s just always been standoffish with me, but with Jeremy around, he always watched himself. Now that Jer is gone, Andrew has been letting all of his ugly sides out more and more. He’s good at what he does, but once he holds a grudge, it’s never repairing. And, well,” she laughed cynically, “he doesn’t really know about Joey and I. That’ll piss him off to the moon and back.”
Carla scoffed and said, “Look, I don’t know the whole situation and we just met, so I can’t really weigh in about the drama with the gym, but he can definitely suck a dick when it concerns you and Joey. There’s no way in hell Joey is going to compromise Warlord, so if he is engaging in you, then Andrew should just respect his choice, because it means that Joey is serious.”
Julie laughed, tucking away the comments about Ryder being serious with her. “It feels nice to hear someone else say it. And I know – it should be easy to just tell Andrew to screw off,” she said, nervous to talk to Carla about this, but also it felt necessary to bounce the idea off of someone that knew Ryder. “And while, in the beginning, it was just personal preference to keep Joey and I on the downlow...now that I know about Heather, I honestly don’t know what to do. There’s no way Andrew will be okay with it,” she said quietly. “I mean, two sports therapists? The media will eat it up. Our media guy is already watching us like he writes for a tabloid.”
Carla sighed. “Yeah, I’ll be honest, I don’t even know how to approach that,” she frowned and tucked her chin back into her neck, widening her eyes before releasing it all to look at Julie. “Heather was super nice and normal, and then she just wasn’t. And like, I don’t remember Joey being nearly as smitten with her as he is with you. But he also seemed really pissed off that they had a falling out. And he’s more emotional than he lets on. I think it’s more like Heather just pissed him off. She was really good at pushing buttons.
“His old coach, Lowers, made Heather leave the job because it was getting to Ryder too much. Then again, he was younger, and it got toxic towards the end. I think Heather just made him realize he wanted something serious, and that messed with him a bit. Before then, he was a serial dater who’d get serious with some girls, but that never lasted more than three months.”
Julie huffed, a part of her a bit uncertain about how to feel aobut that.
Carla quickly added, “And don’t get the wrong idea. Joey just...has had a lot to work through. Always been a good friend and brother, but I would not want to date him in his early twenties,” she laughed, “Man I am really not selling him here.”
Julie smiled. “People change, I get it. Except for Andrew. He’s just born that way.”
They both shared a laugh, although some part of her mind clung to the conversation, reminding her that she needed take all of this one step at a time, versus diving right in. She had a lot to learn about Ryder, about what he wanted in a relationship, and if the two of them got along as a couple and not just two horny adults with good chemistry.
While it felt nice to be open and a little vulnerable with another, Julie didn’t want to dwell too long on the topic, as she did want to make a good impression. “I appreciate the insight...Overall, I’m feeling better about it—with Andrew, I mean. More confident. Like I can tell Andrew to fuck off. And it’s nice to learn more about Joey. He likes to refer to himself as an enigma.”
Carla laughed hard. “Oh my god. An enigma.”
Julie grinned, and the two shared the humor again before Julie added, “Thanks again for having me. I really needed it. It’s been hard for us to have some time alone. Logistics of it has been hectic.”
She gave herself a sardonic chuckle when thinking about her apartment nearly burning down, still incredulous that that even happened.
“Oh, don’t worry, we’ll let you have your alone time later,” Carla said with a snicker, throwing Julie a daring look.
Julie’s cheeks warmed and she bit her lip, falling back into that temptation of just enveloping herself in the man named Joey Ryder.
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