This is a pair of the scenes that got left on the cutting room floor, mostly because Just Business was starting to have too many endings, if that makes any sense.While you get to see a glimpse of Justin’s family, it didn’t add quite enough to the plot of the book to justify keeping it.
But I know readers would probably enjoy seeing this rather…awkward…moment.
So my gift to you.
[These scenes would have come right before the scene where Justin graduates with his MBA, for mental placement in the flow of the book. And I’m the only one who edited this. Fair warning.]
“Are you ready?” Justin said.
Eli stood across from the Sheraton at Station Square, the entrance looming like a gaping mouth of doom. No, not at all. “Of course.”
Justin chuckled. “Liar.”
“What could possibly go wrong?” He was meeting Justin’s family for the first time—as Justin’s boyfriend—and taking them to dinner. Tomorrow, Justin would graduate and the family would celebrate. No pressure at all.
They made their way across the street and into the hotel and there Justin’s family waited, sitting in the hotel lobby, facing the door. Delight shone on Justin’s sister’s face. Relief was palpable from his parents.
Then they all looked at Eli. At his cane. His leg.
Tension twisted the muscles in his shoulders and he must have made a sound, because Justin took his hand. “Relax.”
“Isn’t that usually my line?” But this wasn’t a boardroom or a dungeon or even the office. This was Justin’s family and he was…well. They knew exactly what he was, because Justin had told them. Lover, yes. And Dominant.
Hello, I’m the man who beats your son.
That wasn’t the best way to start a conversation.
Justin’s smile was cocky and joyful, despite the situation. “You look about ready to bolt.”
He wouldn’t, but the desire was there, all the same. They’d hate him. They’d think he was a freak. “My track record with families is—” They got within earshot. “Well, you know.”
Justin’s parents rose.
“You worry too much.” Justin squeezed his hand before he let it go. “And yes, that is usually your line.”
As if his face couldn’t get hotter. He stood as still as possible and didn’t edge toward the door while Justin and his family exchanged greetings and hugs.
Mercy eyed Eli and maneuvered her wheelchair closer. “Justin said you were tall, but he didn’t say you were drop dead gorgeous.” She smiled at her brother with a grin eerily similar to his. “Nice going, bro!”
Yes, in fact, his face could gain more heat. Perfect. He opened his mouth, but there wasn’t any retort to that.
“You must be Eli.” Justin’s mother stepped forward. “I’m Amanda.”
A handshake. “Pleased to meet you.” He kept his voice soft, mostly because he needed to keep breathing. Next up was Joe, Justin’s dad, then Mercy.
“Does it bother you?” She glanced at his leg.
“More often than not.” He leaned on the cane. “But I’m used to it.”
She snorted and that too was similar to Justin. “You’re lucky.”
Bitterness there. He didn’t fault her one bit, not when he could still stand on both his legs. “I know,” he said.
“Do you?” She stared up.
“Mercy…” Justin’s mother said.
“Maybe we should—” That was Justin.
Eli didn’t move, didn’t look away. “Yes, I do. Because I’m the only one still breathing.”
Silence from everyone else.
She frowned, but it was more thoughtful than angry. “Then you do understand.”
He nodded and took stock of the others. He and Mercy were the only ones who didn’t look as if they’d been hit by a two-by-four. “It’s fine.” He glanced at his watch. Six-forty. “I made reservations for seven, but the Grand Concourse is clear on the other side of Station Square, and it’s a nice night. Why not go by the river?”
He wasn’t about to use the word walk.
“That sounds—” His mom nodded. “All right.” She cleared her throat.
They filed out of the hotel and headed down to the river. Justin walked ahead with his parents, while Mercy rolled next to Eli. He smiled. “I wasn’t offended.”
“Didn’t think you were.” She paused for a moment. “I see why Justin likes you. I mean, besides the whole fucking hot thing.”
Eli swallowed and tried not to burst into laughter. “I am not that hot, really.”
“Dude. Have you looked in a mirror lately?”
He did laugh at that. “You two certainly are related.” And Mercy? He liked her, which wasn’t much of a shock. She was Justin’s sister—and in a very odd way, she and Eli shared a bond.
They were both still breathing.
The knots in his shoulders loosened. Maybe this dinner wouldn’t be so bad after all.
Justin sat between Eli and his mother at a beautifully appointed round table that overlooked the Monongahela River and silently thanked Mercy for being her outgoing self. Over dinner she had engaged Eli on a variety of topics ranging from music to finance to ancient warfare to theater and Eli had slipped from reserved to expressive to downright animated. Unrestrained and relaxed, Eli was full of toothy grins and laughter, which was perfect.
Both his parents eyed Eli with confusion, but not hostility.
They’d never met Francis, thank God, but they’d seen the end result of that relationship. Trying to explain that this one, that Eli was different, hadn’t been easy. Hell, believing it had been nearly impossible.
But showing them? He could do that, just as Eli showed him.
Justin slid a hand onto Eli’s thigh. Almost immediately, Eli covered and plucked Justin’s hand up and kissed the knuckles, as he did at home. An intimate act, so out of place for Eli in public. It was coupled with that smile and those crinkles around his eyes that spoke of joy and love. “Hey.”
Justin chuckled. “Hey, yourself.”
Eli started, probably realizing where they were, and happiness slid toward embarrassment. “Oh. I—” He swallowed and glanced beyond Justin to his parents, then back. “Sorry.”
“I don’t mind.” He twined his fingers between Eli’s.
A tinge of color marred Eli’s cheeks. “You never do.”
Kisses from Eli in public? Holding his hand? No, that would never grow old. Maybe it was from the years of wearing makeup and nail polish and his dyed hair, but he didn’t give a damn about the stares. Hell, he welcomed them, even from his parents.
His father coughed. “Justin says you went to CMU as well?”
“I did.” Eli relaxed against his chair, but gave Justin’s hand a squeeze. “For both undergrad and grad.”
“He had Don as an advisor too,” Justin added. There was something in his mother’s pinched look that he didn’t like.
Thankfully, the waiter brought their dinners and the table fell silent for a while. Eli eyed Justin’s steak. “Now that it’s warmer, I’ll have to get the grill working again.”
“You can’t ply me with steak, you know.”
Eli chuckled and caught a scallop on his fork. “I wouldn’t dream of it. But I do owe Sam and Michael.”
“He’s lying you know,” Mercy said. “You can totally ply him with food.”
“Thanks a lot, sis.”
Mercy lifted her water glass and smiled.
“Oh, I know,” Eli said. “And I enjoy cooking, so it works out well.”
“You really care for my son,” his mother said.
Shit. Here it was. “Mom…” Please don’t, he wanted to beg.
“I do, yes.” Eli twirled a few strands of pasta around his fork.
“Yet you hit him.”
Eli froze. They all did. A second later, he gave a small shrug. “Yes, I do.” He lifted his gaze away from his food. “But only when he asks me to.”
“How could—how can you?”
“Mom.” Justin tried to put force behind his voice. Failed. Mercy was there, back him up. “Mom, you shouldn’t—”
“It’s all right.” Eli set down his fork and folded his hands into his lap. “Would you like the long explanation or the short one? Because I’ve spent years pondering that very question.”
“Amanda, maybe we shouldn’t…”
“No,” Eli said. “It’s okay. Look—” He gestured at his dinner. “I’m Jewish. I was raised strictly religious. I’ve spent quite a lot of time wondering why I order and eat the things I do. Is it rebellion? A way to give my past the mental middle finger with each bite? Is it because I’m not sure I believe in God?”
Color crept up his mother’s neck.
“I finally figured out that I like shrimp, scallops, and bacon. Even more so when served in a cream sauce.”
“I don’t quite follow.”
Eli sighed and rubbed his temple. “I’m a sadist.” He spoke quietly. “Don would tell you that I’m ruthlessly efficient. Sam will tell you that I take pleasure in making others understand exactly where they’ve fucked up their business.” He paused. “Both are true. Neither are that horrible quirk to have in the business I’m in.”
His father nodded. “Corporate power games.”
Justin ’s heart was in his throat.
Eli’s grin was the one he often used in the office. “Exactly. Business is business.” Eli touched the lip of his water glass, the smile falling away. “Justin is anything but business.” A hint of fear there, but also pride. And something that shook Justin to the core.
Finality. Commitment. He took Eli’s hand.
“I do love him.” Eli’s voice was soft. “Very much so.” Eli shifted his attention to Justin’s parents. “Yes, I get a kick out of his pain, but only because he does too. Anything else would be—” He shook his head. “It’s like sex or love or friendship. It has to work both ways, or it doesn’t work at all.”
His mother looked from Eli to him and then back. “I’m not sure I understand. But if you’re happy, Justin, really happy this time…”
“I am, mom. I know it’s odd, but I am.” There were so many things he wanted to blurt out in the middle of the restaurant. But the ring he’d bought—with a bit of an advance from Sam—was hidden in his backpack on the third floor of their house. This wasn’t the right place or time.
“That’s all that matters.” Both his mother and Eli spoke at the same time.
Mercy laughed. “You are so doomed, Just.”
Yeah, he was. The only thing he could do was take a sip of wine, then cut off another chunk of steak.
“We both are.” Eli’s smile was faint, but only because he was trying very hard not to laugh.
The rest of diner passed uneventfully, and conversation over dessert was normal. Friendly, even, as if his mother blurting out that question and receiving Eli’s answer had bridged a huge gap or battered down a wall.
Something. His parents peppered Eli with questions about work and Don. Then they discovered he’d traveled and Justin’s father was off to the races, comparing every place the Army had sent him with the places Eli had visited.
He looked over at Mercy and raised his glass. She gave him a thumbs up.
The argument over the bill was short and sweet and Eli won. “You’re visiting. It’s my treat.” The tone was the same as when he spoke to customers about pricing. Friendly, even kind, but utterly final.
They strolled back to the hotel, but this time, his mother took Eli’s arm and walked with him, out of earshot. His dad pat him on the back. “Don’t worry about your mother. I think your gentleman has won her over.”
That was somewhat of a frightening thought. Good, but frightening. “And you?”
His father grunted. “He’s respectful and seems like he’s got a good head on his shoulders.”
Which was about as much praise as any man would get, Justin knew.
“Probably a Steelers fan, though.” A grumble there.
“He was born here, dad. I think they put black and gold in the drinking water.”
Another grunt, from his father, but also a smile.
“He’s good for you,” Mercy said. “And I think you’re good for him, too.”
“He is. And I hope so.”
Something his mother said made Eli laugh, and Justin’s heart skipped a beat. He really hoped so.