Paul Robinson was a man of power. He had been like that for a long time and he couldn't imagine himself in any other way.
Until he lost part of his right leg.
The unfairness of it all, the choice that hadn't been his, the fact that others deserved worse and still got all their limbs... All that contributed to the depressed mood he'd found himself in during the past few weeks.
And as if all that wasn't enough, he had his neighbours’ hatred to add to his now constant anxiety. Not because he cared about what a group of closed-minded sheep thought about him, but solely because getting blamed for everything was nothing but annoying. Plus, there was no way he would show the world how dead he felt inside.
A man of power who used to have everything had ended up being a cripple with nothing of value left.
Well, that last bit was a lie and deep down he knew it. He still had his pride, his children, Izzy and his hotel. (Pride which was hard to keep intact lately, children he didn't really know and rarely spoke with, Izzy who wasn't really his girlfriend and a hotel that had been failing without proper management.)
If he was anything like his neighbours, he would probably be wishing that his life was easier, better.
But Paul didn't believe in wishes. He believed in actions. In perseverance and hard work. So if he wanted to be successful again, to regain his power or at least a sense of it, he had to work for it.
Making Izzy his new Business Affairs Manager, as well as calling all tenants of the Lassiter’s complex to a pointless meeting, was just to show them he still had that power he so much desired.
He had to try hard though, if he wanted to see actual results.
The Hotelier Conference in Sydney seemed to be the perfect opportunity to start rebuilding the reputation of his business.
That was only until he realised he would have to spend a few long days wearing his prosthetic leg all the time, something still painful and uncomfortable. By the time he did though, it was too late. He had already made up his mind and he was determined to go through with it, even if he had to give up some more of his pride in order to get help at the airport and the conference venue.
It had been more difficult that he'd expected; more humiliating in fact.
If he hadn't been late because he kept miscalculating the time he now needed to walk a few hundred metres, if he hadn't tripped on his way to the registration desk, if he hadn’t banged his cane to the the chair in front of his when he had finally found his seat ten minutes after the current talk had started, maybe - maybe - things would have been different. But he had been late, he had tripped, he had caused a loud noise that interrupted the speaker and made several heads turn to stare at him in annoyance. And now, during the coffee break, he still felt all eyes on him. Whispering, wondering, criticising and worst of all, pitying.
The judging comments he could always take; he was used to them in several circumstances. But the pitying glances… They made his blood boil. Pitying himself was enough; he didn’t also need it from other people.
He had to get out of that overcrowded room. Socialising could wait until the next morning.
The air was fresh out on the balcony. He felt it touch his face and it helped him breathe more easily. The ring road was close enough to distinguish the cars passing by, but far enough to not hear the constant noise. The balcony door covered most of the buzz from inside.
Cool and quiet. Perfection.
Paul leaned back against the wall between the two balcony doors and tried to keep his weight off his right leg. Securely holding his cane with one hand, he steadied himself and rubbed his leg over his trousers, at the edge of the silicone socket that surrounded his residual limb. The tightness of the liner attached to his skin felt unbearable at times, despite the soft cushioning at the bottom, that was supposed to help with pain and pressure. He couldn’t wait to go to his room and wear his shrinker… He tried to push the socket of his prosthetic down a bit in order to alleviate the pressure. He knew it was the wrong thing to do, since the socket was fitted for his leg and moving it could prevent him from being able to walk at all, but the pain was starting to be overwhelming.
He cursed under his breath and that was the moment one of the doors opened and a woman hastily walked through it.
Terese Willis was a woman of power. Once upon a time, she couldn’t imagine actually having power over anything or anyone, actually having the guts to be a leader. But now, she couldn’t see herself in any other way.
She enjoyed her new role as assistant manager greatly and she planned on advancing her career even further.
She loved her family more than anything else in the world, but she also loved working in hospitality. So, if being at work for long hours to achieve another promotion in a few years meant spending less time with her family for the time being, she was going to take it. If it meant that they would keep living in comfort and have everything they needed, then a couple more hours per day wouldn’t cause any harm, would it?
An imperceptible doubt still popped in her mind when she thought of all that, but she pushed it away every time. She always spent her free time with her husband and their three children anyway. At the end of the day, she would always put them first.
She jumped when she felt her phone vibrate in her hand.
‘Everything alright at the conference?’
She rolled her eyes at Brad’s text. It hasn’t even started yet , she thought. And she knew her husband knew that, but he still had to check on her. ‘Protective’ he called it; suffocating, she would think..
Brad insisted that he didn’t like the way her new boss, Ezra Hanley, looked at her, talked to her. Terese insisted that she had worked with controlling men before and she could take care of herself.
Could she though?
She turned to look at her boss at her side, laughing at something some other hotel managers from around the country were saying.
His secretary had warned her about him. ‘Don’t let him get through to you. He’s overconfident and charming, and he looks at every female employee of his like they’re a piece of meat,’ she had said. And Terese had believed her.
He definitely was all of those things, but Terese wasn’t one to fall for such a trap. She had a loving husband at home, why would she need to look elsewhere?
Because you never get to enjoy Brad looking smart in a suit since he never wears suits and because he starts yawning a few minutes after you’ve begun telling him about your day at work , a little voice said at the back of her head. Terese ignored it; she and Brad might not have had many common interests, but they loved each other and that was all that mattered.
“Terese? Are you with us?” Ezra’s voice sounded from somewhere far far away, making her lose her train of thought.
She turned to look at him again and a loud noise saved her from trying to find something to say. A bang, accompanied by a surprised cry from the man who had just fallen on the floor, near the registration desk.
Two other men momentarily approached him and helped him up. Before they did so, Terese got a glimpse of a prosthetic leg peeking under his trousers. The first thing the man did when he was up on his… foot, was to hurriedly pull his trouser leg down. They handed him his cane and he thanked them, looking down in embarrassment. Several people around the room were staring at him, but he resumed walking towards the registration table with his head high like nothing had happened.
Terese didn’t know that man, but she had a fleeting thought that she admired his pride and courage.
She heard Ezra’s laughter again, along with some screeching sound that she assumed was laughter as well from a hotel owner she had met earlier. The two laughing idiots actually tried to hide their amusement, probably to not let their insensitivity affect their businesses, but Terese had already noticed it and she frowned. Was Ezra that kind of person?
His mocking laughter was all she could hear in her head as they were walking towards their seats for the first talk.
And then she heard it again out loud when the man from earlier accidentally hit his cane hard on one of the chairs.
And then again during the coffee break when a woman spilled her drink on her cream dress.
And again when a waiter almost knocked a tray down.
And she’d had enough.
The balcony seemed to be the perfect hideout for a little while. Nobody was there and at least she would have a break from her irritating boss.
She walked straight to the edge of the balcony, holding the rails and taking in the view of the city in front of her. She took a deep breath of fresh night air and exhaled calmly. Only then did she realise she was not alone.
His eyes were glued to the back of her head and his right hand was still holding onto his leg. He heard her deeply inhale and then exhale. Tired of his failed attempts to stop his pain, he let his hand fall to his side, brushing his trouser leg in the process.
That’s when she froze. She slowly turned towards him and, by the surprised look in her eyes, he assumed she didn’t think anyone was there.
He used her momentary surprise to observe her. She was young, probably in her early thirties, but with obvious professionalism that made her stand out in between the random secretaries and plain companions of the businessmen inside. She looked more like the middle-aged management ladies who could outsmart you with just one word.
Her tight black dress hugged her curves beautifully and reached just above her knees, leaving her calves to stretch very noticeably to the high heels she was so elegantly wearing. Any man would desire her red plump lips and Paul briefly wondered if there was something going on with her and the sleazy wanker he’d seen her with earlier, despite the wedding ring that styled her left hand.
Women like her were typically who Paul would go for, but he immediately dismissed that thought. He was in no shape to do anything with any woman and he didn’t know if he would ever be again. Besides, he had a perfectly lovely woman at home who depended on him and he didn’t even want her to see him or touch him - not the lesser man he’d become.
“Sorry,” she quietly said, “I thought I was alone out here.”
“It’s okay,” he replied, “I thought I would be alone out here.”
She hesitated for a moment before beginning to say, “If you want me to go, I-”
Paul let out a short sarcastic laugh. “And who am I to tell you where to go? But of course, you don’t want to be seen talking to a cripple.”
He noticed her staring at him but without pity. There was something else in her eyes instead. Slight annoyance along with something that he couldn’t register, but it didn’t feel disdainful and cold like so many other looks he had received today.
“I meant that you look like you need some space,” she simply said.
Paul’s abrupt anger dissipated with her response. For some reason, he believed her. Maybe because she hadn’t laughed at him earlier like her companion had. Maybe because she looked like she needed as much space as he did.
“And there’s enough space here for both of us,” he said, “away from those uptight business people.”
She raised her eyebrows. “Aren’t you one of those uptight business people?” she asked.
“Aren’t you?” he teased back. “Terese?” he added after glancing at the tag with her name and the hotel she represented written on it.
She smiled. And Paul thought that women like her should always be able to feel relaxed and comfortable like that, not have to endure dull conversations with lame people who only cared about money.
And he smiled back.
His smile disappeared, however, with her next words. “Well, Paul, all I can say is if you need space because of the way some of them,” she gestured inside, “behave, then just ignore them. You’re obviously here for a reason. If their reason is to mock other people, then it’s their problem.”
“It’s not that easy to ignore them when you have problems of your own,” he replied with a hint of deliberate sarcasm in his voice as an attempt to hide the sinking feeling in his chest. He tapped the knee of his amputated leg. “Not easy to forget this problem, you know.”
For the first time since they started talking, she looked at his right leg.
She turned her gaze back up, locking eyes with him again, and shrugged. “All it shows me is that, despite the ‘problem’, you’re determined to bring Lassiter’s Erinsborough back in the game. I’ve been following the latest news about all Lassiter’s branches; I know yours hasn’t been doing that well lately.”
“No, it hasn’t,” he reluctantly admitted. “Certainly not, compared to how well Lassiter’s Perth has been doing in the past couple of months.”
Something told him that she had something to do with that. And judging by her bright smile, he was right.
Ambitious and proud of her achievements , he thought. Oh, how he longed to have that rewarding feeling again.
Terese couldn’t hide her wide smile when he mentioned the progress the hotel had shown since she became assistant manager.
She hadn’t expected anyone to be at the balcony; that was the reason she had decided to go out. To get away from one of those ‘uptight business people’ like Paul had said.
As their conversation continued, she realised that Paul wasn’t like Ezra. They gave off the same vibe, for sure. Both dressed in expensive suits, both charming, both knowing how to talk to someone if they wanted to make them feel captivated by them. Besides, they all worked in hospitality and to a point, they all had to keep a like-minded perspective when it came to how they dealt with the success and failure of their businesses, and most importantly with their clients. But there was something else to Paul.
He squinted his eyes in suspicion. “What did you do to make everything run so smoothly?” he asked. “As far as I know there have always been some management issues in that hotel.”
“Wouldn’t you like to find out?” she said cheekily.
He shook his head with another smile on his face. She was glad she’d managed to change the tone of their conversation as she felt they both needed to lighten up.
“Like you said, I’m here for a reason,” he said. “So, I guess you’ll let me gather ideas from e a c h day of the conference to find out?”
They stood there, just looking at each other's eyes for a few seconds, unsure of what to say next.
“So why are you hiding from him?” he suddenly asked.
And there it was. What made him different from Ezra. In Paul, Terese could see a glimpse of humanity she didn’t think he showed very often. He could actually be a ruthless businessman like Ezra and like all those articles about Lassiter’s Erinsborough were describing him. He could be someone who, in other circumstances, insulted people for fun. He could be anything, but the concern in his eyes when he asked her that question, concern for someone he had just met, was subtle yet genuine. And it contradicted everything she’d heard about him from their common world.
Before she had the chance to say anything, the end of the coffee break was announced. Both heads automatically turned towards the venue and they could see all guests gradually returning to their seats.
When Paul looked at her again, it was with polite expectation and curiosity in his eyes.
Terese decided that he had enough worries of her own; he didn’t need to be burdened with more concerns. They were strangers to each other anyway.
Plus, she already had someone to talk to if she wanted to open up. Brad. Who will either get bored or overprotective again , that little voice in her head whispered.
“It’s nothing important. I just needed some time away from my boss,” she said. “Which you wouldn’t understand since you ’re your own boss, right?” she added in a lighter tone as she began heading back inside.
The moment she opened the balcony door, the comfortable bubble they’d created for themselves - their coffee-less coffee break - was broken. They were back in a world where you had to be strong and make sacrifices if you wanted to succeed.
Terese made sure to walk a little slower than usual to give him time to catch up with her.
“I still have to report to the headquarters in LA,” she heard him reply from behind her.
“I’m sure you’ll figure it out,” she said with a wink as she looked back for a moment, before they separated to take their respective seats.
It was amazing how distracted you could get even from the most intense agony when you found something - or someone - that piqued your interest.
The coffee break of that eventful first day of the conference was proof of that. Because for Paul, those fifteen minutes that he got to talk with someone who seemed to be on the same wavelength as him, made him almost - almost - forget that he’d been trying desperately to reduce the pain on his leg.
In the next two days of the conference they didn’t speak again. Their eyes locked across the room a handful of times and Paul was constantly aware of her whereabouts, secretly making sure she could handle that pompous boss of hers.
During the last dinner buffet of the event he accidentally overheard her talking on the phone to someone who he assumed was her husband.
“I miss you, too, all of you. Say goodnight to the kids and I’ll see you all tomorrow, okay?”
Willis , he suddenly thought. Her last name was Willis, he’d seen it on her nametag, but didn’t think anything of it at that point. Could she have any relation to someone he used to know from Ramsay Street?
He quickly dismissed the thought. It wasn’t his business.
At least she had someone to turn to if things got messy at work. That notion oddly eased his mind and he silently ordered himself to forget the shooting pain he was getting on his right leg again.
He had more important things to focus on, like the conversation he was having with a potential new Public Relations Executive for his hotel.
Terese had been right; he was already figuring it out.
Oddly enough, she had found herself enjoying Ezra’s company several times during the conference after that first stressful day. With work as their common ground, there was always something to talk about.
In no way was it as comfortable as her brief conversation with the charming stranger from the other Lassiter’s branch, but that was to be expected. With Ezra she had obligations to consider and he had high expectations of her. She had to focus on her job and that’s what she did.
She ignored most of Brad’s texts and, even though she felt bad about it, she knew she couldn’t be torn between work and home the whole time. So, she chose work for that particular weekend. She was aware that when she entered ‘work mode’ without external distractions, she was quite good and efficient.
Josh, Imogen and Piper would be fine with just their father for a couple of days, like they would have to be from now on if she started having more frequent business trips.
And Brad had been really supportive of her career so far, so she could see no problems for them in the horizon.
Talking with each and every conference guest interested in profit strategies or dealing with clientele decrease or simply new ideas, revealed an outstanding world of opportunities. A world that had opened to her when she began her first job as a main and the deeper she went into it, the more she realised she felt passionate about it.
“I miss you, too, all of you. Say goodnight to the kids and I’ll see you all tomorrow, okay?” she sweetly told Brad in their daily phone conversation during the last buffet dinner of the conference. Just a couple brief texts and a normal conversation in the evening and they were alright.
They would be alright , she reassured herself once again.
And now she couldn’t wait to get back to her conversation from before, one about a possible rebrand. How good it felt when some of the best ideas around seemed to be hers! And how good it was to be surrounded by people with similar interests.
With that thought, her gaze automatically fell to Paul at the other side of the room. She thought she had felt his gaze on her a few times, but neither of them had done anything about it, both busy with achieving their own personal goals.
She’d found his attention comforting in a way - a kind interest but not overwhelming.
Terese noticed a fire that burnt more and more in his eyes with every conference guest he discussed with.
And she was certain that in a few years, nobody would remember that Lassiter’s Erinsborough was once failing.