RYDER (Antagonist to Lovers)

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C H A P T E R | 7


Two weeks had passed, but to Julie they seemed to come and go with little notice. She tended to Ryder like any other athlete and things were pretty mellow between the two of them. The massages were neutral, with him only complaining about the spa music. Julie impressed herself with how well she was able to behave professionally, despite rubbing her hands and elbows on a body that she had desperately wanted to touch for years. The only thing that distracted her were his tattoos, but she always found those interesting, no matter the person.

She could tell that the man was in the competition to win it. He had no other focus, so it was easy to keep her distance for the most part. He was far from conversational and seemed to tense whenever asked about his life, interests, or even basic questions like his thoughts on the weather.

Julie began to think it wasn’t just a part of his campaign image; he was just actually a dick with emotional horse blinders on.

Either way, it was easier treating Ryder professionally with that mindset. Every time she saw Ryder train, she saw a machine that might actually win this damn tournament, reminding her of the fighter that used to win nearly every fight back in his day. When he sparred, his opponents hardly stood a chance. And while their gym was small, they had some decent talent in there.

All the guys agreed to keep Ryder on the down low, although of course rumors circulated on social media in the sports world.

At lunch, Julie sat in the break room by herself and stared at her chipped nail polish, mulling over the details of her life. With all of the confusion of everything that had happened, she pined for a friend now more than ever. She scrolled through Facebook, having sent a local gardening group a message the day before. They hadn’t responded yet.

She figured if she was to make new friends, it wouldn’t be here. Her next option would be to try out some yoga if the gardening group didn’t work for her. Options. I just need to give myself options for expanding my social circle. That’ll help to have new friends.

Cody entered the room, his black hair still buzzed. His cheeks were flushed and he sat down with a bottle of water that was slightly frosted. “How’s it going, Stevens? Haven’t seen you in a while.”

“Hey, it’s been good. Just been thinking about stuff,” Julie said, putting her phone down. “About Warlord, and what it would be like if we actually traveled for it. Trying out a gardening group too.”

Cody snickered, his eyes warm. “Shit I’d love to do Warlord, but fuck that. I’m not good enough to risk it. And a gardening group? I mean, you do like your fake succulents.”

Julie gave a genuine smile, and a part of her punched herself for not giving this man more of a shot, despite not feeling ‘it’ with him - he did pay attention to the smallest of things. “Yeah, you know, just trying to refocus on my life and stuff. I liked the pictures on their Facebook. The place reminds me of the home Jer and I grew up in.”

Cody leaned back in his chair. “Good. Yeah, I think that’s a great idea for you. Get a new routine in.”

She looked at Cody, feeling such a comfort in his presence. He was a handsome guy with a body to match. Why can’t I just look at him and feel something more? “So how are you doing? How’s your mom?”

Mrs. Jones used to stop by once a month with baked goods for the gym, mostly high in protein from powders. She hadn’t been around in three months after a fall she took during a storm, in which she slipped on her deck when her dog got out.

“Ma isn’t doing too bad. Finally starting to come around. She was happy to see you last month,” he said, a small glint in his eyes, like he liked that fact.

“Yeah I love your mom. She really hurt that hip. Those are awful to heal at her age-”

Andrew came in and nodded at them, merely glancing her way before he taped up a handmade flyer.

“You finally hosting a cookout?” Cody asked.

“Ayup.” Andrew turned back to them. “Enough chit chat, Jones. Pad up so Luck can throw some punches.”

Cody sighed and smiled at Julie, who returned the warmth and watched him walk out. And like a whirlpool, she was stuck going in circles with Cody, unable to pull herself out despite wondering if anyone else was out there.

When they both left, Julie neared the Flyer: Sorry for missing last month. Y’all know I have been busy. Saturday, August 29, we are grilling out! If you’re in Warlord training, then the following day we are doing nothing but cardio.”

Julie played with the hair tie on her wrist, not happy it wasn’t a family event. Some of the guys had girlfriends that she really liked, and without them, it was quite the sausage fest.

In that, she found that she didn’t really want to go, which was new for her.

Slowly, but surely, the gym was feeling less and less like home to her.

Julie went out into the gym after her break and wheeled her computer alongside her to watch all the guys perform and take down notes. Wes -- the other sports therapist -- was on his own rounds, preparing to take over for whenever Julie had to travel for the tournament.

She made her way over to Andrew and Ryder.

Ryder was dressed in a hooded sweatshirt, baggy sweatpants, and what she knew were expensive shoes that Andrew must have pushed. All the guys in here had distinct shapes to their bodies, and Ryder’s was in his shoulders. He had unnaturally large traps, which were good for holding his head in place and absorbing knockout blows.

Ryder punched Andrew’s padded hand, and Ryder winced, so Julie walked in. “What is it?”

“Shoulder,” he growled, his face dripping with sweat as he panted.

“Can I?” she asked, motioning to his arm.

Ryder sniffed and gave a curt nod, his mouthguard making his upper lip protrude. She grabbed the muscled arm, used to touching him by now. She moved his arm around and the man reeked of sweat, and some monkey part of her brain actually got excited by that.

But she was a professional and pushed past it.

His gaze was detached from reality as he glowered at the wall ahead of him. When she extended his arm to the side, he grimaced.

“Yeah, your ligaments are just angry. Gain a bit more muscle here, here and here,” she said, pointing to spots on his body. “And that should help support your shoulder. The tear I saw in the MRIs didn’t look too severe, but for someone like you, you’ll notice it with how much you use your shoulder.”

He nodded and didn’t look at her, his face completely hardened. She had to admit, it was pretty gnarly. Which worked in her favor-he was her champion just as much as he was Andrew’s.

She backed away. “We’ll just focus on some more treatments for your shoulder over the next few weeks. Maybe some tens units or dry needling to ease the muscles around it.”

He gave a grunt of approval along with sharply darting his gaze in her direction with a curt nod. A warmth spread through her that was completely involuntary, as the glare was clearly of exhaustion and not directed at her, and she’d be a liar to say that a sweaty, panting Ryder with a concentrated face like that didn’t have an effect on her.

Why, out of all of the men here, did her body only react to this one?

The following morning was a day that she’d never forget, as not only did she get the notification approving of her joining the local gardening group, but that morning changed a lot between her and Ryder.

She was cleaning some of the equipment before the men rolled in, the hour early and the sun barely above the horizon. The door to the back was open, as Andrew believed in getting as much fresh air into the lungs for training as possible. She had a light, black cotton jacket on as the morning was cool, bringing in crisp, End-Of-August air.

Ryder didn’t know she was there, and for that, she did feel bad.

“How’s it goin’?” he asked, his tone surprisingly not rude, if anything, maybe even engaging.

She glanced around for a moment, thinking he was talking to her, only to see he was on the phone, sitting on a tire with his back to the open backdoor. She went to walk away and give him privacy.

But then she heard, “Don’t put the kids-- Hey lil’ Mollie. How’s your mom? Yeah, I’m good, just training. Punching things as usual...yeah you still owe me an arm-wrestling match. You won last time, but I think your dad rigged it...rigged it means, never mind...I’ll be in town in a week, but just for a few days. I’ll take you out for a day with Uncle Joey, how does that sound?”

Then he chuckled. “I don’t think your mom would like it if I took you dirt biking, you’re only six, kid...Yeah, I’ll ask her real nice, alright?...The boys said that? Well, boys are dumb, Mollie. I should know, I am one. You can totally kick their butt at dirt biking. In fact, now I might really ask your mom nice just so we can show them up. She used to like the one that we had as kids...oh hey, Connor....yeah, yeah, I know I’m terrible at giving kids advice.

“I’m just a fucking uncle, man, I don’t know shit about kids. Are the boys really treating Mollie like that? Little shits. Need to teach her to kick their ass. Never too early to start...look, all I am saying is any woman can learn a mean left hook and how to take a guy by surprise...well, obviously, dude. We wouldn’t teach Mollie a mean left hook until she’s older. Don’t need the kid punching me this early. If she got any of my genetics with fighting, those little fists could be weapons.”

Julie was so shocked to hear him speak like that, with so much joy and care, that she completely forgot to move. Someone entered the gym, the sound of the door opening and shutting pulling her from her thoughts to see Andrew enter the building. Her heart raced, and she quickly looked back outside, the morning rays peeking through the open door, and the sound seemed to catch Ryder’s attention as well.

He stood, phone still at his ear as he turned to face her, his gaze latching onto her, squaring his shoulders as he stared her down.

She was ready for a lot of reactions, but she didn’t expect him to just drill his gaze into her, perhaps with even a trace of disappointment.

“Yeah, Connor, probably...Gym is good, got some questionable people in regard to privacy, but what can you do?” he said, not blinking as they maintained eye contact.

She sighed and turned around with a grimace and flaming red cheeks, knowing there was nothing to say in that moment.

Well, fuck.

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