RYDER (Antagonist to Lovers)

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C H A P T E R | 4

J U L I E ____________________________________________
It had been three days since Ryder walked into the gym and Julie was about to head over to Andrew’s home to sign the contract.

Ryder was in her thoughts as she got ready. Ten years ago, her heart and body yearned for the man, and that sentiment echoed as she stared at the clothes in her closet.

But this wasn’t for her. This was for everything but her. She focused on natural makeup, leaving her chestnut hair mostly untouched but de-tangled. She put on a white tank shirt, jeans shorts and red chucks.

She eyed the kitchen table where her homemade angel food cake sat inside a cake carrier; light in calories and heavy with flavor. She even bought fresh strawberries from a farmer’s market for it. I hope Ryder likes angel food cake. Hope I can start this off on the right foot.

She looked herself over in her full-length mirror, taking a second glance. She was starting to hit her goals; she’d gained fifteen pounds after Jeremey died, which, for a former gymnast, felt like fifty.

Now that she wasn’t focused on her gymnast goals, her body wasn’t as bulky in the thighs or shoulders. Her breasts looked great, but she knew without the bra that gravity would reveal the work it had done over the years. She wasn’t quite saggy, but her breasts were large enough that they definitely didn’t look like they did ten years ago.

Thankfully, at twenty-nine, she was finally at an age where she didn’t care as much about what others thought of her body. She looked damn good for being nearly thirty, and if there was at least one thing that Julie had learned the hard way, was that life was short.

She grabbed her brown purse she bought at Target two years ago and desperately needed replacing, put her phone and keys inside and grabbed the carrier that the angel food cake and strawberries were in. She glanced out the window to see it was raining and threw on her coat.

It was nice to finally have someone to give the food that she made to. Cooking and baking were a hobby of hers, despite living alone. Making friends as an adult was as hard as pinning a tail on a squealing, squirming pig. Especially since Jeremy and her had moved to Philadelphia all the way from Upstate New York just to realize his dreams.

But that didn’t make coming home to a cheap apartment, all alone, any easier.

Julie exited her dingy apartment and locked the door, ignoring those thoughts for now. Her jingling keys mixed with the sound of her hallway--someone watching TV, another hacking up a lung, and a small fight that she was glad not to have to listen to.

Checking to see that the elevator was still out of order, she slipped her hand into the pocket of her jacket to grip the mace inside as the took the stairs. She knew these stairwells were prime groping grounds.

Underneath her mace was a pocketknife, just in case. She knew how to throw a pretty dangerous punch but she was small at five-foot-four and a hundred-and-thirty-five pounds. So, if she ever did it, she had to make sure it came as a surprise. At least that’s what Jeremy taught her.

Fortunately, she didn’t come across anyone to use it on and made it to the lobby with ease.

Hurrying to her Subaru, she splashed water with a light jog. At least it’s a warm rain.

Julie grabbed the wet handle of her car as it beeped to unlock and she dropped into the driver’s seat, carefully placing the angel food on the passenger side. Water sprayed onto her thighs from ricocheting through the open door before she shut it. The car now smelled like fresh rain, the heavy drops echoing against the glass.

Even the rain and her now damp hair couldn’t bring her down. She was too excited to sign this contract and start a new chapter of her life -- to start focusing on building her future.

A part of her was also undeniably excited, and nervous, to finally meet Joey Ryder.

The drive to Andrew’s place was full of slow traffic and people who had apparently forgotten how to drive in the rain. With the heated seat turned on, Julie changed the windshield wiper from flapping like the car was on crack, down to a slow, languid swipe as the heavy storm clouds rolled through, threatening to bring even more gloom.

She arrived at Andrew’s home, her body alive with electricity, an extra spark igniting with Ryder in mind. At least with the other guys at the gym she made it a point to never look at them sexually, if she could help it. But this was different. She had already thought of him that way, and her mind wanted to race with similar thoughts she’d had ten years ago...

No, stop. Do this for Jeremy. For yourself. For mom and dad.

Andrew lived in an expensive, suburban home with a small, covered front porch that she was grateful for in this downpour. When she felt she had everything gathered, she hurried out of her car and didn’t bother to lock it. She rang the doorbell, breathing in the wet pavement of the nearby road. Music blared from somewhere in the house.

The door opened to reveal a sweating and panting Andrew. It was clear the music came from the basement, along with the clicking of a jump rope.

Ryder.

Andrew looked at her hands. “What’s that?”

“Angel food cake.”

He nodded for her to come in, to which she entered and wiped her shoes, not seeing a shoe rack at the door.

“Why angel food cake?” he asked.

“Jeremy used to love it. Thought it would be a good celebratory cake. Something not too heavy. Also, kind of makes it like he’s here, in a way.”

“Well, at least it’s low in calories. Ryder’s got a way to go before being in fighting shape, but the fucker is already pushing me,” Andrew said, smacking the granite countertop of his renovated kitchen. “Put it right here.”

It was hard not to let a semblance of jealousy grip her mind when she stepped into the bright, expensive cooking space. Especially since Andrew didn’t even cook. What I’d give to live in a kitchen like this.

She placed the cake on the counter, eyeing the subway backsplash that she loved. “Well, that’s good for us that he came in decent shape.”

The clicking stopped, and her breathing hitched as he’d probably be coming up those stairs. She would finally meet him. Game face on Stevens. Jeremy is watching on somewhere. Do good for him.

When Ryder appeared in the basement doorway, the music still beat with enthusiasm behind him. His shirtless chest shined with sweat and he looked at her with those distant eyes of his, his broad lips parted in a pant as he went to the stainless-steel fridge to grab some water. He looked her up and down, raising a brow and said, “Who are you?”

“Ryder, this is Julie,” Andrew said from behind. “Jeremy’s sister and your sports therapist. She’s here to sign some papers. She’s joining our team.”

Ryder nodded and leaned against the countertop, every bit of muscle in his stomach moving to keep up with his breathing. His traps seemed to explode from his shoulders as he slumped against the counter. He used a paper towel to wipe his forehead that beaded with sweat. “Shouldn’t we get someone with more experience?”

She frowned. “Oh, I am highly qualified.”

He looked her up and down once more after a swig of water, his pale blue eyes standing out against his blood-filled cheeks. “I was expecting some old man in his fifties.”

She raised a brow, taken aback by the comment. “What’s wrong with me? You rather I ask my granddad to take over?”

He raised his brows in return. “I want someone treating this shoulder that has seen it a hundred times. I can’t afford to lose. No offense.”

His tone did nothing to insinuate that he actually did care if she took offense or not. Julie was used to cocky, blunt men, but they needed to be on this one’s good side. So, she just stood there, in silence, while trying to find a professional response.

He threw a hand up and waved at her as if to point out her physique, like it was the real point he didn’t want to say out loud. “I’m just sayin’. Plus, how long you been doin’ this?”

Her lips parted, her eyes widening as she tried to keep her bite back. Her heart raced with a fight, adrenaline seeping in her blood. She nodded and decided to be the real professional here if he didn’t want to be. “Listen, I don’t want to have a lot of debates on my qualifications, but just so we are clear, I have my masters in Sports Therapy and a Sports Conditioning Specialist certificate. I’m not in my fifties, but I’ve got a deep history with of sports and my brother was an amateur MMA fighter. I’m not new to the ring.”

Andrew added, “Also, you really think I’d just put some random chick on you that only knows how to rub your feet? She’s a trained professional.”

Julie raised her brow at Ryder and pursed her lips, waiting for a response. I can’t believe I am on the same side as Andrew for once.

“Alright, alright, whatever you say.” Ryder’s gaze hit the cake container. “Is that angel food cake?”

“It is,” she finally spoke, a very clear bite in her voice.

“I love the shit out of angel food cake.”

Of course you do.

None of this went how she thought it would, and she felt like she had to prove herself to him. To rub it in his face that she was, indeed, good at what she did. She struggled to find the right response and felt like an idiot.

Thankfully, Andrew had little patience for small talk. Looking at Ryder, he said, “Go and burn three hundred more calories, then you can have some.”

Ryder threw the empty water bottle into recycling. “Will do, man.” He looked at Julie, their gaze connecting for a moment. “Thanks for the cake.”

And just like that, he walked right past her. She wanted to grab him and tell him a thing or two, but she kept reminding herself that she couldn’t afford to lose him, no matter how rude he was to her. The sound of jump rope hitting the floor once again was quick to follow his descent.

She spun around to Andrew and took out her frustration on him instead. Quietly, but sternly, speaking through tight lips, holding her hand up and pointing with her thumb at the basement, she said, “Fair warning, Andrew. I don’t care who he is, I will treat him like the rest of the dudes at the gym. My job is to keep these guys’ bodies flexible and strong, not deal with their behavioral issues. I want to keep it professional with him, but if he’s like that, I will bite back.”

Andrew, of course, was hardly concerned about her offense. “He’s not that terrible once you get to know him. He’s just got a high wall to climb before you get to meet the real guy behind it. Although it does take a lot of fucking hits to crack him. I’m still working on it myself.”

“I didn’t realize you were writing poetry about him,” she said, straightening her jacket and pacing to get the adrenaline out.

“If he makes a name out of me, I’ll write poetry and paint pictures of him.”

That actually made her chuckle. A part of her agreed to that, even if it meant painting an asshole to give an accurate representation of Ryder.

Perhaps she was reacting too strongly. Perhaps it was because she felt like there was so much pressure and Ryder had written her off as anything but useful. There was an undertone of him judging her for looks as well, and while she was used to that, it annoyed her that their star champion already seemed to have such a low opinion of her. Prove him wrong and revel in it.

“Come on, let’s sign these documents. Maybe that’ll give you motivation to work with him. Your name, ‘Julie Stevens’ is right next to ‘thirty-thousand dollars’, just so you know,” Andrew said.

She shook her head and followed him to his dining table, which was in a room off of the kitchen. “God that’s so much money.”

“That dude punches harder than he did three years ago. Whatever is driving him for that cash is strong. So, you can deal with his attitude. You’re getting paid for it.”

Sure enough, there was a document on his dining table with a pen next to it. She leaned over it, skimming it through.

“You can sit and read the whole thing, if you want.”

“Nah, Louise called me and went over it on the phone,” Julie said, referring to their lawyer that already talked it all over with her.

She found her name with the money guarantee next to it and gave it another skim. The contract mostly stated that as long as she performed the listed tasks of a sports therapist, didn’t do anything that conflicted interests-which their lawyer Louise explained was akin to moving or taking a new job-then she couldn’t be terminated for the job.

And if Ryder won, she’d get the money.

She saw no problem with that and dated her signature, placing the pen down. She looked at the signature section, noting Ryder’s poor handwriting, and Andrew’s wasn’t much better. They both had signed it.

This was real.

Her cheek twitched as she held back tears, staring at the piece of parchment. She imagined a fourth line there. One more signature, and it should have had Jeremy’s name on it. But she wouldn’t let Andrew see another tear from her. Definitely not Ryder.

She stood up and laughed, Andrew grinning at her.

“Well, can’t believe I am saying this, but I am glad you’re at the gym, Andrew. This is going to be one hell of a ride. I’m gonna need wine though, if I have to deal with princess downstairs.”

Andrew laughed, something she rarely heard. “I think we can be professional with this, Stevens. I know you want it, so show it. Let’s fucking win this thing, and let the princess have his moments of drama, alright?”

He even stuck out his hand, which she took and shook, not looking him in the eye as they hardly ever got along like this.

When she pulled away from the handshake, she busted out a grin as she faced his kitchen, and just like that, she knew her entire life was about to change.

And oh, how she looked forward to that.

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