Paige tucked a lock of almost black hair behind her ear as she surveyed the progress, excited to be running her own little city, even beyond the lockdown as the top Australian Rules Football team would continue training and playing out the remainder of their 2020 season.
She had always considered planning for the unexpected ‘her thing’. She had her mother’s analytical mind, subconsciously predicting potential problems before they arose. It was what attracted her to events management as a career, a role that treated her natural talent as a superpower.
But not even Paige could have predicted the fallout of the pandemic sweeping the globe and forcing almost every country into lockdown. Hotels, now empty, were closed throughout Brisbane city which was why The Stanton Hotel accepted a contract to house one of Australia’s top AFL teams along with their entourage of sports doctors, nutritionists, physical therapists, masseurs, and of course their wives, girlfriends, partners and children. The contract included a compulsory two-week lockdown complete with hotel staff, and as Paige stood behind the wide timber reception desk sorting through the final guest numbers, details, and room assignments she couldn’t help but smile.
Staff were moving through the foyer and halls preparing for the arrival of the Melbourne Taipans football team, as well as two weeks without being permitted to leave the hotel or use outdoor spaces.
Paige left Ethan and Alicia, the dynamic reception duo, to finish sorting through the room before slipping around the glass wall to the hotel manager’s office. Paul’s face was almost pressed against his monitor as Paige entered, but his attention quickly switched across to her as she spoke.
‘The buses will be here in 30 minutes. Front desk is ready, the kitchen is prepped for lunch service, and maintenance have completed the install of the hand sanitiser stations. So, we’re all set.’
Paige liked Paul. They had worked together for almost six years and while he was average in appearance, medium height, middle aged, medium brown hair, he consistently surprised her in the way he dealt with people problems, and guests. Her first impression of him had been that he would always toe the head office line, but over the years she had come to realise he was a rebel in his own quiet way.
Paige couldn’t help but noticed how tired he looked as he leaned back in his chair, running his hands across his face. ‘Right... and the modifications to the gyms?’
‘The Department of Health reps approved the modifications and cleaning process this morning. The players will be free to use them from tomorrow.’
Paul bobbed back and forth on his black leather chair, his gaze upward. ‘Good, good…’
‘How’s Michelle feeling about two weeks without you around?’ Paul and Michelle had been happify married for almost 20 years. Paige respected Paul’s loyalty and how openly he spoke of his wife to anyone who would listen.
His eyes softened as he answered, a faint smile to his lips. ‘She sees a number of positives but isn’t that happy about it.’
‘She’ll miss you,’ Paige offered, smiling back as Paul met her eyes.
‘And I her.’
Not for the first time Paige was struck by the thought that considering how long she and Paul had worked together, it was still slightly awkward when they talked about their personal lives. Well, Paul’s personal life as hers was a non-event, she thought wryly as she stood and smoothed her pale-yellow dress.
‘I’m going to take 20 minutes to finish unpacking in my room before everyone arrives. It’s been a long few days.’
Paul straightened in his chair and adjusted his cuffs. ‘Make the most of it. I can’t imagine you’ll have much time to stop over the next few days. I’ll join you to greet the managers when they arrive.’
Paige fell back on the bed in the room she would call home for the next two weeks. Her feet were already sore in the heels she was wearing but she wanted to make a good impression, not to the professional sportsmen, but to the management and coaching team she had been liaising with all week. She’d finished unpacking her bags and needed a chance to freshen her hair and makeup.
Long dark hair framed her face, and her mother’s light brown eyes looked back at her. They were a constant reminder of the woman she missed so much, guilt settling in her chest as she realised she hadn’t called her father for a few days. He never said anything but she knew he felt lonely since her mother had died. She let the guilt and worry about her father ebb away. Besides, she didn’t have time to call or dwell.
She decided to leave her hair out and opted for a navy linen blazer over her dress, slipping her ‘good impression’ heels back on before heading to reception to welcome the guests.
Players and management were already filing into the foyer as Paige walked up to reception. It wasn’t difficult to pick out the head coach Brian Turner, and it helped he was the only name Paige had googled beforehand. Giving her best customer service smile she stepped up to introduce herself.
‘Brian, I’m Paige. It’s lovely to meet you in person. Can I take you to Paul’s office so you can talk through the final details before we lockdown the hotel?’
A stern man in his mid-sixties, Brian was in good shape and dressed in a navy business suit. His eyes assessed her from head to toe, but not in the leering way Paige was used to men checking her appearance. ‘Paige. It’s nice to meet you. I have to say you’re not what I expected.’
‘I sound older on the phone,’ she joked, breathing out the mix of irritation and discomfort she felt when her appearance was questioned alongside her intelligence. She was used to it, but it still frustrated her.
Paige gestured for Brian to walk ahead of her but was slapped into stillness as she felt a large hand make contact with her ass. Paige spun around to face three young players all leering at her. She could tell who had slapped her by the self-satisfied grin on the shorter of the three.
‘This lockdown is looking mighty fine all of a sudden,’ the taller of the three said while scanning his eyes as slowly as he could up her legs.
‘Can I get a room by yours?’ The heavily tattooed one chimed in.
Paige opened her mouth to respond, surprised the players hadn’t even made it five minutes in the hotel before behaving as badly as the media packed outside expected them to.
‘Keep your hands to yourself and shut the fuck up.’ A dark voice wiped the smiles off their faces and Paige turned, her eyes settling on the most beautiful green eyes she had ever seen. ‘Sorry. We’re not all like that I promise.’
Paige’s breath caught in her chest as she took in the strong jaw and muscular arms of the man in front of her. He smiled and cocked his head to the side towards the younger players. She knew she needed to either respond or walk away, but she couldn’t find the words, anger still flaming her face.
He held her eyes, and a tension filled the space between them, the other three players still watching. Wearing light blue jeans and a grey t-shirt, he was every one of Paige’s weaknesses in one package.
He was over six feet tall, and his dark hair fell longer to one side. Her eyes quickly travelled across his broad chest, toned arms and back to his angular jaw.
Meeting his eyes again, her breath hitched at the knowing in his gaze. His mouth picked up on one side and Paige realised she was staring at his lips.
‘He wasn’t telling you to shut up,’ the tattooed player snickered. Embarrassment flared her brain back to life and Paige turned for Paul’s office, Brian having disappeared. She lifted her chin and walked purposely towards Paul’s office despite the snickering from the players behind her. She turned before disappearing behind the glass screen, only to see his green eyes still watching her with interest, a faint smile still on his lips.
She didn’t smile back. As tempting as those eyes were, there was no way she was letting herself get distracted.
Australia had completed its first round of restrictions and as Queensland began to embrace a mildly adjusted version of pre-pandemic lifestyle, Victorians were embarking on their second, and more intensely enforced, lockdown period. Australians were happy to go without many things, but alcohol and sport were not two of them. Most of the larger hotels in the city were now temporary homes to hundreds of people related to each club. Not an AFL fan, Paige didn’t quite understand the excitement around some of the players. The rules however were clear, staff and players were not to mix, no matter how gorgeous they were.