Gracie had been more than a little surprised when she had gotten a call from Russ Walker. She knew Eli had a younger brother, but she couldn’t imagine a reason why he would have thought he needed to get in contact with her directly. She had always assumed she would meet Russ whenever Eli was ready to introduce them. But Russ had made it sound urgent when he asked if they could meet for lunch sometime that week. She had considered telling Eli about this sudden meeting, but Russ begged her not to say anything to his older brother, so she had kept it to herself.
When she arrived at the café where Russ had asked her to meet him, it wasn’t hard to pick him out of the crowd. He looked almost exactly like Eli, only significantly younger. Eli had said that Russ was still a student at the university, and he looked very much like a typical university student, from his dress to his hairstyle to his overall demeanor.
Gracie took a seat at the table where Russ was waiting for her. He looked her up and down, his arms folded across his chest. “So you’re Gracie Parker,” he said. “You’re not exactly what I was expecting. Then again, I never know what to expect when it comes to Eli and women, but you are definitely not what I’m used to seeing him with.”
Already he was making her uncomfortable. “What was it you wanted to talk about?” she asked, trying to move the conversation away from this comparison of her to Eli’s ex-girlfriends.
Russ frowned. It was a worried frown, full of concern and uncertainty. “Did you know Eli has been under a lot of stress recently?” he asked.
“I know he has had a lot going on,” Gracie said. Eli had been in meetings for weeks regarding the copyright lawsuit his company was involved in, a lawsuit she had promised not to mention to anyone she knew at the magazine, but one that Eli knew would eventually hit the media anyway.
“I don’t know how much he has told you. It’s probably not a lot. Eli doesn’t like to burden others with his problems, but there are some things I think you should be aware of. And I think it would be better for you to hear them outright than to have them sneak up on you. See, our father is really strict. He had always hoped for Eli to inherit his business. When Eli went into business for himself, our father was furious. He was ready to disown Eli, and would have if our mother hadn’t stepped in. To get back at Eli, our father has decided that I should inherit the business instead, even though everyone knows I don’t want it. Father is trying to use me to get Eli to change his mind.”
“Is that really going to work?” Gracie asked. She knew Eli as someone who stood firm once he had made up his mind about something; it seemed unlikely he would fall for such a trick.
“It has gotten his attention, at least,” Russ admitted. “Eli has been working really hard to find a way short of giving into my father that will get me my life back. However, when my father saw that Eli was trying to find a way to work around him, he decided to take the game to the next level.”
“What do you mean?”
“I recently found out that my father has been working on an arranged marriage for Eli that will tie him to the family’s business permanently. “
Gracie narrowed her eyes, suspicious. “That sounds unlikely,” she said. “Nobody really does that kind of thing.”
“I know it sounds ridiculous, but it’s really not so uncommon in certain circles. It’s a way of securing business deals, making sure no one has the opportunity to back out. Anyway, I wouldn’t have been too concerned about it, but then I found out who the girl is that Father wants Eli to marry.”
“What about her?” Gracie asked.
“She’s fierce,” Russ told her. “We knew each other when we were younger, and from what I’ve been able to find on the internet, she had grown into a ruthless business woman.”
“Why are you telling me all of this?” Gracie asked him.
Russ hesitated before answering, as if he was trying to figure out how exactly to explain his reasoning. “Because my brother likes you,” he said after a while. “He seems happy with you. And after everything he has fought for, everything he has done to help me, I want to see him happy. He always tells me that no matter what I cannot back down to our father if I want to have my own life. I’m afraid that with everything he is struggling with recently, he will forget that advice if he doesn’t have someone to stand behind him and keep him focused on his own goals.”
Gracie sat silent for a moment. Was it really possible that she had to be worried about losing Eli to another woman—or about Eli losing his business in the process of trying to hold his act together—as his father pressured him from all angles, trying to shape his life? She stared hard at Russ, trying to decide if he was someone she could trust. He seemed to sincerely want to help his brother, and she couldn’t come up with a reason why he would have made this up to tell her.
“What do you want me to do for him?” she asked.
“Just make sure he knows you are not willing to give up on him, regardless of who tries to make you,” Russ told her. “Let him know you want to see him succeed. Do you think you can do that?”
Gracie nodded. “I will do my best,” she said.
“That’s all I ask,” Russ said with a smile. He pulled his phone from his pocket to check the time and frowned. “Unfortunately, it looks like I have to head out if I want to make my next class on time,” he said. “I’m glad I got to meet you, Gracie. Maybe one day soon Eli will think to have the two of us meet officially.”