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'All scheduled flights have been cancelled until after Christmas. Charter planes are no exception. I'm sorry, ma'am, but nobody's going anywhere.'
Meg replaced the phone as if it was about to shatter. The air around her felt sharp and dangerous. She was trying hard not to breathe.
The door to her boss's inner sanctum was open. W S McMaster was clearing his desk, filing vital documents into his lovely calfskin briefcase. Suave, sleek and almost impossibly good-looking, the man looked what he wasa billionaire businessman moving on to the next important thing.
But the next important thing was in New York, and W S McMaster's personal assistant was about to tell him there were no planes for at least three days.
'Oh, Meg, I'm so out of here.' Josie, Meg's assistant, was tugging off her office shoes and hauling on six-inch stilettos. 'Dan's meeting me in five minutes and I'm free. How cool to have Christmas fall on Monday. I have two solid days of partying until I need to sober up for the family Christmas Day.'
Meg didn't answer. She couldn't.
Josie and the rest of the office staff departed, calling Christmas greetings as they left. Yes, Christmas was on Monday. It was Friday afternoon. The corporate world closed down, right now.
Except for Meg, whose job it was to be at hand as Mr McMaster's personal assistant at any time he was in Australia.
Mr McMaster was only in Australia for maybe ten or twelve weeks of the year, and there was little administration she had to do outside those times. It was a fabulous job. She'd been so lucky to get it. If she'd messed this up…
Don't go there. Focus on now. Focus on getting her boss out of the country. She gave a weak little wave to the departing staff and tried one last phone call.
Her boss was too far away to hear, but there was little to hear anyway; just more of the same.
'Helicopters depend on air traffic controllers too?' she asked bleakly. 'No, thank you; I understand. And there's no way the strike can be resolved until after Christmas? Of course I know the whole country closes down from five tonight, but this is vital. Can we I don't know, take off from a paddock while no one's watching? Island hop to Indonesia and find a flight from there? I'm serious; I'll do anything.'
No and no and no.
She replaced her phone and stared at it as if it had personally betrayed herand Mr McMaster was standing in the doorway, ready to go.
He looked ready to take on the world.
He always did, she conceded. William McMaster was thirty- six years old; he'd been born into money and he'd inherited the gene for making it. He headed a huge family corporation and the McMaster empire was growing by the day. For the last three years he'd spent two or three months a year here, growing the part of the firm that was opening mines all over Australia. He flew from one business meeting to another. While he was in Australia Meg flew with him, and as she did she realised why he had a different PA in every country. He'd wear one out in weeks.
She was worn out now, and he was ready to leave. He was leaning against the door, waiting for her attention. He was wearing a dark Italian business suit that screamed money and taste, with a crisp white shirt, new on this morning because the hotel laundry had sent his shirts back slightly yellowed. She'd had a frantic scramble to get new ones. His hotel was supposed to be the best in Melbournehow could she top that? The hotel also had the best gym in Melbourne. He insisted on hotels with great gyms and his body proved it. Tall, dark, and far more good-looking than any man had a right to be, he was watching her now through dark, hooded eyes, as if he knew something was wrong.
Of course he knew something was wrong. You couldn't get to where he was without intelligence and intuition, and William McMaster had both in spades.
'My car to the airport?' he queried, but softly, as if he already suspected the answer.
'There's a problem,' she said, not looking at him. Her new three year contract was on her desk, waiting for her boss to sign on his way out. She shoved it under her fax, as if somehow hiding it could protect it.
She so wanted to keep this job. While Mr McMaster was overseas she wasn't needed, but when he was in the country she moved to total commitment. Seven days out of seven. Twelve hour days, or more.
He worked like this all the time, Meg knew. She was in touch with his three other PAs, one in London, one in New York and one in Hong Kong. Wherever he went, the work of a dozen people followed. The man was driven and he drove everyone around him.
He couldn't drive her now. She must go home.
'There's a delay,' Meg managed, trying desperately to sound as if this was a mere hiccup to be sorted by six. Six, the time his plane took off and she could catch the train home and be free.
He didn't respond. He simply waited, his dark eyes barely flickering. He was a man of few words. He expected his people to anticipate his demands and sort them.
That was what she was paid to do, but this time she'd failed.
She couldn't hire a private jet. Helicopters needed airspace too. How long would it take a boat to get to New Zealand so he could fly from there? A week at least. No.
And hotels They'd been booked out for months for this holiday weekend. When she'd settled his account this morning the manager already sounded tired in anticipation.
'It's great he's booked out early. I have people queuing. There's not a room to be had in the whole city. I have people offering bribes '
'Are you intending to tell me?'
His eyes had narrowedhe knew by now that the problem was serious. To her surprise, though, there was a gleam of suppressed amusement in his dark eyes, as if he guessed the mess her thoughts were in.
'There's been a snap strike by air traffic controllers,' she said, feeling ill. 'The conciliation meeting ended twenty minutes ago, with no result. All airlines are grounded indefinitely.'
She could see the airport from this office. Meg snatched a fleeting glance outside. This was the penthouse suite of the most luxurious office block in Melbourne. The view was almost all the way to Tasmania, and normally there were planes between here and the sea.
Now the sky was empty, and her boss's gaze had followed hers.
'No planes,' he said slowly.
'Nothing that needs airspace until after Christmas. There's no guarantee even then. This is '
'Absurd,' he snapped. 'A private jet '
'Requires airspace.' She managed to meet his gaze full on. He liked direct answers; hated being messed around. She'd worked with him for three years now and she knew enough not to quail before that steely gaze. Sometimes this man demanded more than was humanly possible. When that happened she told him and he simply moved on.
He wasn't moving on yet.
'Organise me a car to Sydney. I'll fly from there.'
'The strike's Australia-wide.'
'That's impossible. I need to be in New York for Christmas.'
Why? There was enough space in her muddled thoughts to wonder whator whowas waiting for him at home.
The gossip magazines said this man was a loner. He'd been an only child, and his parents were wealthy to the point of obscenity, long divorced and enmeshed in society living. As far as Meg knew, he never saw them. There'd been an actress on his arm last time he'd been in London but the tabloids had reported her broken heart at least three months ago. And it hadn't been very broken, Meg thought wryly. She knew how much the woman had received during their short relationship 'Send this to Sarah Settle Sarah's hotel bill ' and now Sarah had already moved on to the next high-status partner.
So who was waiting in New York?
'I can't get you to New York,' she said, trying to stay calm. To tell it like it was.
'You've tried everything?'
He stared at her for a long moment and she could see his cool brain assessing the situation. He trusted herhe'd trusted her from the moment he'd hired herand she could tell by his expression that already he was in Melbourne for Christmas and making the best of it.
'I can work here,' he said, angry but seemingly resigned. Frequent flyers knew that sometimes factors moved out of their control, and she wouldn't be fired for this. 'I'll need to make some fast arrangements, though. We can use the time to sort the Berswood deal. That's urgent enough.'
Deep breath. Just say it.
'Mr McMaster, the Australian corporate world closes down at five this afternoon,' she said, meeting his gaze square on. 'This entire building will be shutting down. There'll be no air conditioning, no servicing; the place will be locked. The business district will be deserted. You pay me to be in charge of this office and I've already let the staff leave. And you can't sort the Berswood contract. There'll be no one at Berswood to sort it with.'
She was meeting her boss's gaze, tilting her chin, trying to sound calmly confident instead of defiant and scared.
She was definitely scared.
McMaster's gaze was almost blank, but she knew there was nothing blank about what he was thinking. This man sorted multi-million business deals in the time it took her to apply lipstick. Not that she had time to apply lipstick when he was around.
'Very well,' he conceded. 'You and I can work from my hotel suite.'
You and I can work from my hotel suite
Her face must have changed again. He got it. He always knew.
'There's a problem there, too?'
'Sir, there's no rooms.'
'If I have to change hotels I will,' he snapped, but she shook her head. This was why she'd be fired. It was something she should have foreseen. At the first rumour she should have booked, but she'd missed the rumours.
She'd been frantic in the Christmas lead up, and she'd done her shopping in one crazy rush last night. The shops had been open all night. McMaster had let her go at eleven and she'd shopped until three. Then she'd fallen into an exhausted sleepand been woken to a demand for clean shirts. She'd sorted it and been back in the office at seven, but her normally incisive scheduling had let her down. She'd missed listening to the morning news.
Fallback position What was that?
There wasn't one.
'There really are no rooms,' she said, as calmly as she could. 'The country's full of trapped people. You left your hotel before seven this morning. Most people book out later. By eight the rumours had started and people simply refused to leave. If I'd figured this out this morning I didn't and I'm sorry. There's a major Hollywood blockbuster being filmed on location just out of Melbourne. All the cast were due to fly out tonight. They've block-booked every luxury hotel in Melbourne and they're prepared to pay whatever it takes. The cheap places are overwhelmed by groups who can't get home. People are camping at the airport. There really is nothing.'
She hesitated, hating to throw it back to him, knowing she had no choice. 'Sir Do you have friends? Your parents There must be people you know?'
There was a moment's loaded silence. Then, 'You're telling me to contact my parents' friends?' The anger in his voice frightened her.
'No, I '
'There is no way I will contact any friend of my parents or anyone else. You're suggesting I ask for charity?'
'Of course not, but '
'To impose myself on someone else's Christmas I will not.'
'So, taking away the personal option, where,' he said in a voice that dripped ice, 'do you suggest I stay?'
'I don't know,' she whispered.
'You're paid to know,' he snapped, his face dark with fury. He glanced at his watch. 'You have fifteen minutes. I'll get documents faxed from Berswood to give me work to do over the weekend. Meanwhile, find me something. Somewhere I can work in peace. Now.'
He turned and slammed back into his office and, for the first time in her entire life, Meg felt like having hysterics. Serious hysterics.
Hysterics wouldn't help. Where? Where?
Somewhere he could work in peace?
She could organise a mattress and a sleeping bag here, she thought, feeling more and more out of control. But even this office without air conditioning
No. Her job was so ended.
And more In a little more than an hour, the train to Tandaroit would leave without her. Christmas was waiting. As well as that, there was hay waiting, ready to spoil if it wasn't harvested. She must go home.
She made one more miserable phone call, to a dealer in hotel rooms. Unless she'd take the absolute dregs there was nothing, nothing, nothing.
She sat and stared at her hands until exactly fifteen minutes later, when the door slammed open again.
'Well?' he demanded. His anger was back under control. He was icy calm, waiting for her solution. And there was only one solution to give.
'There are no hotels.'
So say it. Just say it.
'So you can come home with me,' she said, trying desperately to make her voice bright and confident. 'It's the only solution, and it's a good one. We have a comfortable private spare room with its own bathroom, and we have the Internet. I'll be on call for your secretarial needs. We can't have you trapped in the city over Christmas. My family and I would be pleased if you could spend Christmas with us.'
If her boss's face had been thunderous before, it was worse now. It was as if there were a live hand-grenade ticking between them. The pin had been pulled. Who knew how long these things took to explode?
'You're offering me charity,' he said at last, slowly, carefully, as if saying the word itself was like taking poison.
'It's not charity at all,' she managed, feeling a faint stirring of anger. 'We'd love to have you.' Oooh, what a lie.
But what was the choice? Sleeping bags here was a real possibility, awful as it seemed. She could spend Christmas trying to make this office liveable, working around a situation which was appalling. Or she could try and resurrect Christmas.
If he accepted, then he'd spend the whole time in his room with his computer, she thought. Thank the stars she'd set up Internet access on the farm. It cost more than she could afford, but it had made Scotty jubilant and maybe just maybe it would be the decider.