Title: Off Balance
Author: L.E. Royal
Publisher: NineStar Press
Release Date: August 10, 2020
Heat Level: 3 – Some Sex
Genre: Contemporary, NineStar Press, LGBTQIA+, Romance, contemporary, family-drama, lesbian, nonbinary, older/younger, disability, cerebral palsy, single mother, custody battle
When she lands her dream job, Maya Scott thinks her luck may finally be about to change. Eager to prove herself a successful adult and win back custody of her young daughter, Maya is determined to excel at the Mars Fund. Her new boss, New York’s notorious ice queen, Elena Mars, could prove difficult to please. Their relationship gets off to a rocky start and Maya learns from her coworkers, some who love her while others loathe her, that Elena has Cerebral palsy.
Embarrassed by her assumptions, Maya avoids Elena until the appearance of her Elena’s young daughter at the office opens a line of communication and provides some common ground. A tentative connection blossoms between them and Maya realizes there is much more to Elena than the outward appearance. Between the complexities of learning about disability and navigating the distance between them in age and wealth, they find that what matters in the end is the family we choose.
L.E Royal© 2020
All Rights Reserved
Hot coffee soaked the sleeve of her shirt. The elevator was packed tight as they ascended the staggering height of the office building. The shining chrome of The Mars Fund sign greeted Maya. She stumbled into the lobby, finally catching her breath and then losing it again when she looked at the opulent marble clock on the wall. She was late.
Blonde hair billowing out behind her, she burst into the office space, cheeks beginning to flame as all the eyes in the room turned to her and her urgent entrance.
“Maya, you made it!” Margaret, the overly friendly lady with the pixie cut and cardigan who had interviewed her for the position, called to her.
“I am so sorry. The bus was late and there was a huge line for the elevator.”
Margaret was already waving off her explanation as she led her over to the desk she had inhabited the previous day, today being her second as a project coordinator at the Mars Fund.
“We’re all still working on the preliminaries for the winter benefit,” Margaret explained.
Maya nodded as she hurriedly stripped out of her leather jacket, grateful as ever for the relaxed dress code. She plopped down into her swivel chair, tight jeans and a thin black T-shirt clinging to her body. She rushed to turn on her computer.
“Miss Mars is back at work today.”
Maya looked up. She studied Margaret as she offered her a noticeably tentative smile with the words.
“It’s probably best if you just stay out of her way while you’re getting the hang of things. I imagine she’ll be busy in her office all day, anyway, catching up from yesterday.”
With a pat on her shoulder Margaret was gone before she could reply, and finally, she was free to take a breath and let some of the stress from her hectic journey to work leave her. She needed this job; she could not afford to mess up.
Once she’d logged into her computer, she went back to the list of attendees she’d received and continued to work on emailing each of them to inform them of the benefit event the Mars Fund was planning for late in the year.
“Glad to see you made it, love.” A male voice interrupted her, and she threw a quick smile to Kevin, her neighbor to the left, who seemed to be reclining in his chair doing very minimal work as he had done most of the day before. “Better watch yourself now, Scott. The evil old boss lady is back, and she’ll eat a pretty little thing like you all up, given half a chance.”
At first, she had been glad for Kevin, a seemingly instant friend, but as yesterday had worn on, and he leaned over toward her again, he was starting to irk her.
“Looks like you’re going to be on her hit list, too, if you don’t get back to work,” she told him.
Seeming to take the hint, he tipped his head in silent concurrence and turned back to his own screen.
Getting lost in a blur of names and emails, she tried not to think too much about her boss. The woman was a bitch—that was the impression she’d received from the moment she stepped foot in the building. In her interview Margaret had been sweet, a little nosy but warm and welcoming, yet even she had clammed up when talking about the elusive Miss Mars.
The mood yesterday was jovial. Kathryn had perched on the edge of her desk for a good half an hour, and Maya was surprised to find she liked her as well as Dave and Graham, who had both welcomed her to TMF too. Today, the atmosphere was positively somber in comparison. The office was silent save for Kathryn talking softly into her phone and the click of keyboards. The presence of their boss hovering ominously over them all was palpable.
Another hour bled away, and she was pleased with the progress she was making on her list. Clicking out of her email program and back to her spreadsheet, she scanned down until she reached the next name. Robert Holt. Her blood turned to ice in her veins, and without thinking, she closed the window and shot up out of her seat. Heading for the restroom, she tried unsuccessfully to steady her ragged breathing.
She burst through the door, let it swing closed behind her, and leaned back against the cool wood, shutting her eyes. Her heart was hammering, a frantic staccato she fought to get under control. I can’t let him ruin this for me, again.
The shock of seeing that name, of having it touch even this, taint it so soon, sent panic spilling through her, choking her and making it hard to breathe.
She opened her eyes at the sound of a toilet flushing and watched a woman step out of the stall. Jarred completely from her panic by the surprise of not being alone, her mood dissolved into a shy sort of embarrassment because this woman was gorgeous.
The stranger’s dark eyes nailed her to the door, and even glaring daggers in her direction, Maya couldn’t help but think she was beautiful and probably ten years older than herself. Thick mahogany hair hung down to her shoulders; she had smooth caramel skin and dark expressive eyes. A beat passed between them, too fast and too slow, and Maya pushed off the door, meaning to introduce herself. When the woman moved forward, her shoulders rocked back and forth, her hands clenched and jumped by her sides, and oddly enough she looked like she was dancing.
“I—um, having a good day?”
Not her greatest entrance, she could admit.
The woman’s stoic expression was completely at odds with the jovial movement of her body, and Maya smiled tentatively at her, wondering if perhaps she was drunk or high.
She gripped the porcelain of the sink with tan fingers and seemed to steady herself some. As she turned to fully face Maya her head bobbed slightly, sending her hair dancing around her face. She was undeniably beautiful and odd.
“Do I look like I’m having a wonderful day?”
The words were pure venom, dripping disdain, a dark fire blazing in her eyes, and all the levity left the room. Maya’s brain grappled to put together the pieces: the slight tremor in her frame, the occasional rock of her hips, and the way her fingers bounced lightly on the edge of the sink.
“Are you drunk?” And apparently today her brain to mouth filter was completely broken. Crap.
The woman advanced on her at an alarming pace, stiletto heels ringing out her steps, one, two, three, until Maya was back against the door and staring down one hundred and twenty pounds of furious Latina in a business suit.
“Do you need help?” She tried again weakly, still not grasping what was happening, still reeling from the name on the list and the turbulence of this rapidly spiraling encounter.
“What I need is for you to tell me who the hell you are?”
Maya swallowed thickly. The woman was close enough that her breath was soft on her cheek, and she definitely didn’t smell like she just came from the bar. Her perfume was light, pleasant, and smelled expensive.
“My name is Maya Scott. I’m a project coordinator for the Mars Fund… I—um, who are you?”
The woman sneered, and God, anything that terrifying should not also be that sexy. Her head still rocked every so often, her shoulders jumping occasionally, something slightly off in the way she spoke. Her eyes darkened as if irritated by her own movements.
“Elena Mars. I do believe I’m your boss, Miss Scott.”
Her stomach dropped into her shoes, and Maya wondered momentarily if she was about to pitch forward and puke all over Elena Mars’s expensive black patent Louboutins. She could not lose this job, and things were off to a less than wonderful start if this woman was her boss.
“I’m sorry, ma’am. I just—”
“Enough,” Elena snapped, silencing her.
Maya had never felt more underdressed, her messy blonde curls hanging over her shoulders and her plain black shirt wilting next to Elena’s perfectly tailored, crisp dress-and-blazer ensemble.
“I do not care who put you up to this.” The final word was slurred slightly as Elena’s mouth seemed to jerk sideways against her will. Even beneath her tan complexion, her cheeks colored slightly in response, and her eyes turned steely. “While you’re in my employ, you will respect me. Is that clear?”
The words had something oddly toneless to them, and she rocked on the spot as she spoke. Maya nodded frantically, desperate to apologize, to somehow find a way to explain.
“Return to your desk and have Margaret show you the employee bathroom. This one is mine, exclusively.”
“I’m so sorry. I just—”
“Leave.” Elena took one shaky step back, teetering on her heels so badly that Maya almost reached out to steady her. Thinking better of it, she turned and quickly yanked open the door. She rushed back out into the hallway and headed for the office, her cheeks burning, dread clawing at her throat.
She needed this job.
“So, you met the evil bitch then?” Kevin’s eyes were back on her before she had even sat down at her desk. “We did try to warn you, but you ran out of here so fast I suppose you didn’t hear. Too much coffee?”
She offered him a weak smile and then scrubbed her eyes with the heels of her hands, attempting to shake off the mortification shrouding her. Her heartbeat was loud in her ears, and she was busy trying to breathe, to breathe around and through and over Robert Holt and Elena Mars and all the ways she might have ruined this for herself before it could really even start.
“Don’t worry about it, love. She gets her kicks making us feel like shit. She’s probably in her office downing half a bottle of whiskey and watching those Spanish sitcoms while we’re all out here running the gig. Everyone knows she only has the job because Mommy owns the foundation.”
Maya opened her mouth, trying to assimilate the information into her already clamoring brain while formulating a way to politely ask what the hell the nationality of the sitcom had to do with anything when Margaret appeared.
“Kevin, that’s not true and you know it. Elena can be…difficult, but she works really hard for the foundation.”
“When she’s wasted.” He muttered the words under his breath, causing Margaret to tut and perch on Maya’s desk, blocking him from her view.
“Maya, Elena has a…medical problem, cerebral palsy. That’s why she sometimes makes strange gestures and odd movements and can’t seem to sit still. She’s not drunk, so please don’t listen to Kevin.”
Maya’s heart plummeted into her stomach, and she felt like such a fool.
“She is strict, and she can be difficult to work for, but I’ve worked with her for four years and known her much longer, and some of the events she’s pulled off and all the money she has raised, it’s amazing,” Margaret continued. “She’s helped an awful lot of kids.”
Pieces fell into place with a horrible click. No wonder Elena had been so defensive and seemed embarrassed, though Maya had no way of knowing she had a disability. She wished silently that Elena would simply have explained it, rather than reacting like she had, though her own ignorance and lack of thought before she spoke bothered her the most.
“I had no idea…”
Margaret patted her shoulder kindly.
“She’s very abrupt and can come off a little stern.” A scoff from Kevin punctuated the statement, and Margaret paused to glare over her shoulder at him before she turned back and offered Maya a reassuring smile. “Elena values people who work hard and add something to the foundation. Just continue to do your best and I’m sure you’ll have nothing to worry about.”
Even as her supervisor walked away, Maya struggled to find comfort in the words.
She reached behind her into her jacket pocket to pull out her phone. She hit the home button and lit up her lock screen. A little girl with long blonde curls and emerald-green eyes like her own smiled back at her.
She could do this. She needed this job, and she was not going to let Elena Mars take it from her.
Meet the Author
L.E. Royal is a British born fiction writer, living in Texas. She enjoys dark but redeemable characters, and twisted themes. Though she is a fan of happy endings, she would describe most of her work as fractured romance. When she is not writing, she is pursuing her dreams with her multi-champion Arabian show horses, or hanging out with her wife at their small ranch/accidental cat sanctuary.
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