RYDER (Antagonist to Lovers)

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C H A P T E R | 5

R Y D E R---& ---J U L I E ____________________________________________

The following morning, Ryder panted his way through his early morning run, his hood up and sweat soaking through his clothes.

Andrew drove behind Ryder as ‘motivation’, but fuck it, it was what he was looking for. He needed someone that pissed him off to fuel him. When they were done, it was only eight in the morning and the sun was still a soft, golden glow in the sky.

A good start for the day.

“Hope you like running. We’re going to be doing that three to four mornings out of the weeks for the next six months. We’ll mix it in with sprints and agility too,” Andrew said as Ryder got in, who smelled of outdoors and sweat, which prompted Andrew to roll down the windows.

“As long as it’s on the street I’m good. Running on a treadmill gets old.” Ryder felt his muscles tense, and he leaned into his seat and closed his eyes. He sighed, his muscles numb. “I’m gonna be so fuckin’ sore tomorrow.”

“You’re gonna see Julie later today for that. And start a sauna routine.”

“Be honest with me - is she any good? Not judgin’ her, or maybe I am a little. But she looks young.” And quite a fucking looker. She was his type, especially with her killer figure and warm eyes, her hair long and a rich brown. Not that Ryder thought attraction lessened someone’s capability, but he really didn’t want to deal with feeling the urge to fuck his sport’s therapist while trying to win. Wouldn’t be his first time, especially since he’d often get caught up in that drama during his younger years. He definitely didn’t need that right now.

Not when people were relying on him to win.

Andrew drove off, talking to Ryder while glancing around. “She was a gymnast for a long time and her brother was an MMA fighter before being a coach. She was on a strict regimen just like we were, in her youth. She broke some bones, which never healed quite right, and eventually lost her scholarship, which is why she is where she is now. She’s legit, even if she can be stubborn. She’s also almost thirty, so not that young.”

Ryder was surprised; he’d pegged her to be younger. He even felt sympathy for her losing her scholarship. A warm breeze blew through the vehicle as they took a turn down a street with a higher speed limit.

Andrew added, “Look, Julie grew up as an athlete and knows what it takes. She knows the way muscles work and feel. She knows UFC more than just a graduate randomly picking it as a field.”

“If you say so, man,” Ryder said.

He honestly pegged her for mid-twenties, which would mean fresh out of her master’s program, and he needed someone that knew how to take care of injuries. As long as she had some experience, that’s what mattered.

But if she was anything like Heather, he’d cut that shit out in a heartbeat.

Not that he hadn’t thoroughly enjoyed that, but after a certain age, it just felt annoying when all he wanted was an expert and not a happy ending.

It also didn’t help that he hadn’t fucked anything in six months and testosterone was one hell of a hormone, even when the body naturally produced it. He always tested high in it to begin with, and getting into the ring only made it rise. At this rate he would have to get on Tinder and find someone local. He needed that kind of release, as he had to make sure his mind was clear for training.

“Tomorrow we can sleep in until eight to let your body heal a bit, and we will do that every time you get a massage. We’ll take it light and focus on cardio for the rest of the day,” Andrew said, coming to a stop light.

“Sounds good, captain,” Ryder said with a groan as he stretched his shoulder. He needed her on it sooner rather than later.

This just better not prove as a distraction.

Julie finally felt like it was time to let her parents know about Rhino hosting Ryder, now that it was official and back by a contract.

She called her mother first, breaking the news to her about Ryder. They’ll be happy to know Jeremy’s dream won’t die just yet. “Yeah, mom. Thirty grand,” Julie said after going over what happened, leaning against her kitchen countertop as she held her phone in front of her to FaceTime her mom.

Her mom held the phone below her, looking down at the screen as if it were a book, her dark brown hair cut to her chin. Her mother’s red lips made her white teeth shine even brighter as she smiled, although her voice was shaking with emotion. “Julie, that’s wonderful. Oh, Jeremy would be so thrilled.”

Her mother frowned and looked away, holding a tissue to her nose. Then she sobbed. Julie averted her gaze, having expected this. Not that she blamed her mother for being emotional, but her mom always preferred Jeremy, and since his death, her mother had been mostly absent in Julie’s life.

Her dad told Julie it was because she looked a lot like Jeremy and reminded her mother too much of the child she lost. It was an excuse that gutted Julie and she still couldn’t quite forgive it. That didn’t make her seek her mother’s approval or love any less, though.

“Anyway, I’m gonna call dad. I love you. I’ll do what I can for Jer. You can count on me, alright?”

Her mom nodded dramatically, wiping her eyes. “Yeah, that’s a good idea. I’ll call you later when I have collected myself.”

Julie knew, by now, not to expect that phone call. While she tried not to become jaded with her own mother, it still hurt that Julie nearly lost a parent when Jeremy died, in the sense that her mother was hardly around anymore. “Alright, well love you,” Julie reiterated and her mother hung up.

She sighed and called her dad, who was better at balancing his love for both of his children. Ever since their divorce five years ago, Julie always called him second, so as to end on a good note. Jeremy always called their mother first.

After her dad picked up and she broke the news to him, he laughed and even had to take a moment to hold back his tears before leaning back into the camera frame, pushing his reading glasses up and fixing his short, chestnut brown hair. “Jeremy used to watch the crap out of Ryder. My god. That’s amazing, bear.”

Julie nodded, loving that he still called her that. “Yeah, I know. I am still stuck in shock.”

They talked some more about how the gym was and how Julie’s apartment was. They even talked about her mom and he told Julie not to blame herself for how her mother was. “I’ll try to make it out to you soon. It’s been a while. We can go and get hot dogs and maybe go see a movie.”

She sighed, nearly wanting to cry with how good it felt to talk to him. “That sounds good, dad.”

“Love you, bear.”

“Love you too.”

The falter of his smile and pain in his eyes, just before hanging up told her that he was about to join his ex-wife in crying over their lost son, even if they lived in separate homes. Julie was grateful that her father at least put on a parenting face for her, but she hated that she couldn’t give him a hug.

She didn’t even remember the last hug that she got. Maybe Cody, but that was like three months ago.

Julie turned off her screen and laid her phone on the countertop, leaning over on her elbows and placing her face in her hands and remained like that for what must have been nearly ten minutes. Finally, she dropped her hands and opened her locked screen, staring at a picture of Jeremy on her phone. “Well, bro, I hate that you’re not here.”

With a slow, shaky inhale, she placed her palms on the counter. In that moment, she felt like she was actually talking to him as he stagnantly smiled on her screen. “You did it, man. I really don’t like Andrew, but I give it to you”-she laughed through the tears and minor hiccup”--you nailed it when you saw him. He attracted Joey-freaking-Ryder, and now he’s going to fight for Rhino. I know Andrew is going to ask to change the name of the gym again, but screw him, I won’t let him. Not with Warlord coming up. He can do it after, but not before. I am going to make damn sure that your name gets out there, you hear? I’ll do this for you, Jer.”

She wanted to say ‘I love you’, but at the thought of the words, and knowing how he would never hear any of this, all that came out was an ugly cry. A part of her still mourned him, not completely accepting that he was gone. It was the past three days of Ryder showing up that made Jeremy feel truly gone, reminding her of how alone she was without him here to celebrate.

God she hated that he wasn’t here. Julie wanted her brother back so badly that she felt her bones ache, having grown up incredibly close. The worst part about it was how he was never coming back. He would never see her married, even after all those years of helping her out with dating. She’d get no nieces or nephews. If she ever did get married and have kids, they’d have no uncle. At least no Uncle Jer.

She wiped her nose and hiccuped.

Nodding her head and talking to herself, she said, “I can do this. I can fight through all of this. Mom and dad need me to. And most of all, I owe it to you Jer. And I’ll damn sure make it happen.”

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