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 rooms 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 to her as she collapsed into the leather chair across from him.
‘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,’ she said resting her against the back of the chair with a satisfied sigh.
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 notice 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, gazing upward. ’Good, good...′
‘How’s Michelle feeling about two weeks without you around?’ Paul and Michelle had been happily married for almost 20 years. Paige respected Paul’s loyalty and how openly he spoke of how much he loved 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 to having some time to herself, but isn’t that happy about it.′
‘She’ll miss you,’ Paige offered, offering Paul a gentle smile.
Paul straightened up and leaned over his desk as he lowered his voice. ’There is one issue I haven’t covered with you yet,’ he said clearing his throat. ’Head office have asked me to implement a no warnings policy in regards to hotel staff and the guests. Scandal has a way of following football players around and they want to avoid any form of scandal during these two weeks and beyond. I need your help discussing it with the staff, as well as ensuring it is taken seriously.’
Paige’s stomach dropped. When she agreed to support Paul managing the team during the lockdown, she had thought the title Temporary Assistant Manager was more of a formality. Staff gossip was not something on Paige’s radar, and she was especially disinterested in other people sexual liaisons. Hook ups between guests and hotel staff weren’t common, but they happened now and again, and considering the number of young, fit and single players on arriving any moment, there was sure to be some sparks.
Not that Paige was at all tempted. She had met a number of professional sportsmen staying at The Stanton over the years and their arrogance never disappointed. She just couldn’t see the appeal. Her father on the other hand was beyond excited his favourite AFL team was staying at his daughter’s hotel - Paige was shocked he didn’t try and get a temporary job for the two-week lockdown.
Paige stood up and smoothed down her dress, the pale yellow fabric contrasting against her olive complexion. ’We can cover it with the different departments separately throughout the day as we check in.’ She wanted to delay that conversation as long as possible, or even defer it to the department managers to address. ’I’m going to take 20 minutes to finish unpacking in my room before everyone arrives. It’s been a long few days.′
Satisfied, 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 club managers when they arrive.′
Paige fell back on the bed in the room she would call home for the next 14 days and nights. Her feet were already sore in the heels she was wearing but she wanted to make a good impression, not to the football players, but to the management and coaching team she had been liaising with all week. She’d finished unpacking the last few items from her bags and was enjoying the quiet of her room when her phone buzzed with a text.
It was Alicia letting her know the bus was five minutes away. Jumping up, Paige decided to freshen her hair and makeup before heading back to reception. 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 heels back on before heading to reception to welcome the hoard.
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. Many of the larger hotels in the city were now temporary homes to hundreds of people related to each club, as well as quarantine hotels for residents returning home from overseas.
Players and management were already filing into the foyer as Paige arrived at reception. It wasn’t difficult to pick out the head coach Brian Turner, and it helped he was the only name Paige had searched online beforehand. Giving her best 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, allowing his assistant coaches to fall in line before following. The players and team staff had all piled inside the foyer from the buses outside and Paige had to weave through the crowd as she followed the coaching team. As she passed a small circle of players, she was slapped into stillness as by a large hand making contact with her ass.
Shock had Paige spinning around before she’d even registered what had happened, and came face to face with a heavily tattooed player. His hair was shaved either side of his head, and the rest was slicked back, giving him a wild yet manicured appearance, and he flashed her a satisfied grin as he moved even closer to Paige.
‘This lockdown is looking mighty fine all of a sudden,’ he said, moving his lips as close to her ear as he could while scanning his eyes down her neck to her chest. ’I hope my room is by yours?′
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. Before she could find the right words she was pushed almost flush against him by a group of young players behind her trying to make their way to the reception desk. She felt his chuckle vibrate through his chest as he used the opportunity to lean his chest flush against her.
A thread of panic flared as Paige place her hands forward to push away from him, feeling unsteady on her heels. She finally found her balance and stepped back, her right heel slipping again as another wave of players knocked into her back. Still holding a smile that made her skin crawl, the player reached out to catch her, leaving her to pull back and stumble again.
Just as Paige was about to grab hold of anyone near her except for the slapper, a strong hand encircled her upper arm steadying her and pulling her behind a muscular back. Grateful but also even more irritated at having been rescued, Paige resisted the urge to kick off her heels and use them as a weapon.
‘Keep your hands to yourself and shut the fuck up.’ The stranger’s dark voice wiped the smile off the tattooed player’s face, with one hand twisted in his shirt. Other people had noticed the confrontation and a quiet had settled over part of the crowd. Paige placed a hand on the chest of both men and hissed under her breath, ’Stop it. There are photographers everywhere.′
Both men dropped their hands from each other. Tattoos slicked his now ruffled hair back again, giving them both a smile that looked more like a grimace. ’Just a misunderstanding. No offence meant,′ he said as he disappeared into the crowd giving Paige a wink.
Paige realised she was being gently shepherded out of the crowd to the edge of the room by the other player. His muscular frame cleared a path, and his huge hand held hers as he guided her through behind him. Finally clear, he turned and Paige’s breath caught in her chest as she met the most beautiful green eyes she’d ever seen, balanced by a strong jaw and full lips which she realised were moving.
‘Are you okay? Striker can be a real asshole. Did he do anything?’ Adrenaline was pumping through Paige’s limbs, which currently felt both heavy and invisible, and she knew she needed to either respond but she couldn’t find the words.
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. He held her eyes, and a tension filled the space between them. Wearing light blue jeans and a grey t-shirt, he was every one of Paige’s weaknesses in one package - except he was a footballer.
‘I’m fine, just angry,’ she finally replied, frustrated at the softness of her voice. ’Thank you.’
The player let go of her arm, which she hadn’t realised he was still holding. Meeting his eyes again, her breath hitched at the intensity of his gaze. His mouth picked up on one side and Paige realised she was staring at his lips. Not the message she wanted to convey.
Lifting her chin and squaring her shoulders, she turned for Paul’s office behind her, Brian having long disappeared. ’I have to get back to work.’ He just kept watching her with those green eyes and a faint smile on his lips. She didn’t smile back. As tempting as those eyes were, there was no way she was letting herself get distracted by a football player - she was smarter than that.