Laura Browning 

Teacher. Editor. Author.

Balancing Act

Excerpt

Tessa stared at the steel and glass monstrosity that housed the headquarters of Barrett Newspapers. It reminded
her of the blueblooded snobbery she had vowed to leave behind, but in the end, a job was a job. Right now she
was in need of a steady, well-paid position as opposed to part-time social work with juvenile offenders. Not only
did she need to be the picture of stability, but also the additional income working for Barrett Newspapers would
provide. She entered the building at barely seven AM, but a security guard already sat with his elbows propped on the
reception desk. Tessa hadn’t batted an eye when the personnel director told her how early she would be
expected to arrive. She had yet to work any job with truly traditional hours. If the bear of the Barrett family was
an early riser, well then, so was she. “Good morning. I’m Tessa Edwards, Seth Barlow-Barrett’s new executive assistant.” “Should I congratulate you or commiserate?” the guard asked. Tessa tilted her head. Another confirmation of what she’d already heard. The company’s chief operating officer had a reputation other employees were more than willing to share. Even the personnel director who hired her warned her in advance. Seth Barlow-Barrett was dictatorial and demanding. He was cruel and cantankerous. The bottom line of everyone’s description was he was impossible to work for, and he had a history of secretarial resignations to back that up, so much so they didn’t even bother to have him interview any of the candidates anymore. They never lasted long enough for it to matter. She would be different. She grinned at the security guard. “May I get back to you at the end of the day?” He snorted. “If you’re still here by the end of the day, you’ll have outlasted several of them. Elevators are just ahead. The express elevator’s the one on the far right in case you want to leave in a hurry.” Tessa glanced at the tightly sealed steel doors and shuddered. “No thanks. I like to take the stairs. Keeps me fit.” She dashed up the steps to the ninth floor. Used to the exertion, she was barely out of breath when she stepped from the stairwell into the carpeted luxury of Seth Barrett’s floor. Well, Seth and his brother Brandon’s. It appeared sole occupancy of a floor was reserved for the patriarch, their father. Tessa sniggered. The personnel director had told her where her desk would be and what her duties were. She’d also warned her Seth Barrett normally arrived around six in the morning, so he would be there already, and she should introduce herself when she arrived. It seemed odd that no one really wanted to face him. Only the favorite son in a family-owned empire could get away with such terrible behavior in this day and age, but surely no one was that bad-- even the lordling of the mighty Barlow-Barrett empire. After setting down her belongings, Tessa checked her appearance in the small mirror she kept in her purse. She’d pulled her hair back in a smooth chignon at the base of her neck. It made her look mature and conservative, the image she was trying hard to project. Young and inexperienced was not the impression she wanted to make. Taking a deep breath, she knocked on the partially open door. “What is it?” What not who, as though he were too busy to be bothered by ordinary mortals. Tessa raised her brows at the decided bark in that deep voice, but when she stepped into his office, she’d composed her expression. “Who are you?” The man standing near the windows eyed her with a mixture of irritation and impatience. The first thing that struck her was how big he was, not fat, just big. He had to be somewhere around six-foot-five, give or take a couple inches, and possessed incredibly broad shoulders that tapered down to lean hips and long, long legs. Not a bear in his den, as she’d been led to believe, but a different animal entirely. His appearance reminded her of a sleek and dangerous lion, ready to attack at any moment. “I’m your new secretary, Tessa Edwards.” Even the eyes were feline. The color of gold, they still managed to be cold as they assessed her. “Coffee, Teresa.” “Tessa,” she corrected with amused patience. No way was she going to bite on his deliberate baiting. “Coffee, Tessa.” The deep voice dripped sarcasm. She kept her expression controlled until she left his office, and then she smiled. He was as bad as everyone said. Maybe worse. He had the personality of the building in which he worked, she decided. All glitz and sharp edges, but no substance. Expensively cut hair, hand-tailored suits and the arrogant air that went hand-in-hand with his name. No wonder the man went through so many secretaries. But she--Tessa gave herself a pep talk--would not be one of them. She knew his type. She had grown up around a dozen or more people just like him, and she could handle his blue-blooded arrogance. She might avoid her father’s relatives, but that didn’t mean she hadn’t learned from them over the years. She needed this job too much to let some old-money ogre scare her away. If she had to pull out her own pedigree to do it, she would. In court next month, she had to represent the epitome of security and stability because if she didn’t, she could lose custody of Zach. Her smile slipped for a second. Public school last year had been a disaster for her little brother, but she’d found a school that could help him. Now she had to make sure they stayed together. The job with Barrett would provide enough money to pay his tuition, and help keep Aunt Kathleen and Uncle Edwin at bay. As long as she could prove she was providing the best home for her brother, they didn’t have a leg to stand on. She knew the only reason they wanted custody was because of the trust her parents had left behind. If they had guardianship, they could tap it for expenses. She could imagine how expensive Zach’s lifestyle would become. All Tessa had to do was wait it out. One more year, and she would be old enough to use the trust as her parents had intended—for her brother. The problem was, and always had been, that her aunt and uncle could access it right now, but only if they were Zach’s legal guardians. If she could show the court how secure her employment was, they would never dream of taking him…. “Is that coffee arriving by mule from Colombia, Tina?” Barrett barked over the intercom. Tessa grimaced at the speaker. Who on earth still had one of those squawk boxes, in this day and age? She hadn’t asked him how he liked his coffee. She looked at the supplies next to the coffee maker. The creamer was untouched. She checked the small fridge right next to it. Mountain Dew lined the shelves. The man must be a caffeine addict, though he hardly seemed to need anything that would make him testier. No sign of cream. He must take it black. The sugar had been opened and some had spilled. Shaking hands trying to get the ogre’s coffee ready? Tessa made a face and added one teaspoon of sugar. He would want it sweet, but not too sweet. Maybe that was to help make up for a very sour personality. She pushed down a button on the intercom and said, “Coming right up, Mr. Barrett.” He sat behind a very large, cherry desk with a gleaming finish. The papers on it were arranged with almost pinpoint precision. He looked up as she approached his desk, his scowl locked in place. Did the man never smile?