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The sound of a champagne cork popping echoed in the small kitchen.
"Woohoo! We are going to have so much fun, former Warrant Officer Long. It's going to be just like old times."
Charlie Long smiled at her friend Gina's exuberant prediction.
"Save some of that perkiness for later. You don't want to peak too soon," Charlie warned as she passed a long-stemmed flute for filling. "We have a big night ahead."
A night that included lots of French champagne and some fine dining, if Charlie had any say in it.
"Don't worry, I'm pacing myself. I have lots of perkiness in reserve." Gina's grin was infectious, a perfect match for her cherubic face and blond corkscrew curls.
Charlie raised her glass. "To good friends with spare rooms and big hearts."
Gina lifted hers in turn. "To the rest of your life. To having a home that's all yours. To meeting a guy who doesn't know how to field strip a Steyr F88 rifle and who isn't going to ship out when things start getting good. And to never, ever having to wear khaki again."
Charlie laughed and clinked glasses with her friend. "Amen to that."
She felt a little disloyal as she threw back the first mouthful of champagne. The army had been good to her. It had been her family, of sorts, for almost half her life. Even though she was ready to move on, she didn't regret the years she'd given in service to her country. They'd made her who she wasdefined her, reallyfor good or bad.
She felt the now-familiar lurch of nervousness as she contemplated life without the framework of the army.
So many possibilities to reinvent herself and her life. So much change. So much opportunity.
"How long do you think it'll take the airline to find your luggage?" Gina asked as she took a jar of olives from the fridge. After her own discharge two years ago she'd taken a job as manager of a busy catering company and her fridge was full to the brim with gourmet goodies and leftovers.
Charlie shook her head. "Who knows?"
As omens went, losing the bulk of her worldly goods on the first day of civilian life wasn't a great one. When Gina had collected her from the airport this afternoon, they'd stood and watched the luggage carousel snake round and round for a good half hour before admitting defeat and reporting the two suitcases lost.
"Damn it," she said as a new thought occurred.
"What will I wear tonight?"
They had stopped by a mall to allow Charlie to pick up a few bare essentials to cover her for the "twenty-four hours" the airline had predicted she'd be without her baggage, but she hadn't even thought of buying something for tonight. She glanced down at her worn jeans, dark gray T-shirt and hiking boots. Not by any stretch of the imagination could they be considered suitable attire for the fancy-pants restaurant they had booked for dinner.
"Relax. You can borrow something of mine."
Charlie surveyed her shorter, slighter friend doubtfully. "I'm not sure that's going to work."
Size apart, there was also the small but important fact that she and Gina had very different taste in clothes. Charlie preferred tailored and neat and nondescript. Gina liked sparkly things that left the world in no doubt that she was a woman.
"We'll find something, C, don't worry," Gina said confidently.
The look in her friend's eyes made Charlie a little nervous. "Nothing crazy, okay?"
"Would I do that to you?"
Half a dozen incidents from their shared past flashed across Charlie's mind. "Yes."
Gina laughed and twisted open the jar. "Have an olive and stop stressing."
They stood at the counter drinking champagne and picking at the olives for almost an hour. Then Gina caught sight of the time and put down her glass with a decisive clink.
"Time to go make ourselves gorgeous. You shower first while I have a rummage and see what I can dig up for you to wear."
"At the risk of appearing ungrateful, could it not be a dress? I hate dresses."
"I have something in mind already, don't worry," Gina said mysteriously, shooing Charlie away.
Charlie padded obediently up the hallway of Gina's small Victorianera cottage to her room. It had been three years since they had shared quarters near the Townsville barracks in Far North Queensland. When Charlie had first raised the notion of seeking a discharge, Gina hadn't hesitated in offering her spare room. It had taken Charlie only a moment's thought to say yes. For a woman with no ties to anyone or anything, a friendly face and a temporary place to stay had been as good a reason as any to pick Sydney as the site to start the next phase of her life.
She shut the bedroom door behind her. The room was small but bright, with a vase of flowers on the bedside table, a snowy-white quilt and a colorful rag rug on the floor. Her overnight bag and the mall purchases lay on the end of the bed, but instead of unpacking her meager belongings, she closed her eyes and took a deep breath, absorbing the reality of the situation, allowing herself to catch up with everything that had happened.
She was in Sydney. For the next little while she would be living with Gina. And soon she would have a home of her own.
She tried the word out in her mind. It sounded odd. Surreal, almost. For the past fourteen years, home had been wherever the powers that be chose to send her. She'd moved six times while enlisted, but not once had she allowed herself to call anywhere home. It was pointless to get too attached to anything or anyone when you knew you'd soon be moving on to the next posting.
Not anymore, though. Now she was in charge of her own destiny.
There was a tight feeling in her chest as she crossed to the window to inspect the courtyard garden outside. She'd die before she admitted it to anyone, but rather than being excited by all the choices and possibilities that lay ahead of her, she was feeling more than a little overwhelmed.
Everything was so open. So unpredictable. So possible. Which was greatin theory. In practice, it was a bit like standing on the high diving board, staring down, down, down at a pool that seemed far too small. She knew she had to take the plungebut that didn't stop her from feeling pretty damn intimidated by what lay ahead.
Embarrassing when she considered some of the situations she'd dealt with during her time with her country's defense force. As a highly trained communications engineer with the Royal Australia Corps of Sigs, or R.A. Sigs, as it was more commonly known, she'd served as the vault custodian in Iraq, handling all the cryptographic material for the Australian forces, and she'd been deployed to East Timor as part of Operation Astute in 2006, helping to preserve peace and stability in the region. Over her years of service, she'd gained a reputation for being cool under pressure, a force to be reckoned with.
She wasn't sure where that coolness was right now. Maybe it was with her luggage, winging its way to an unknown destination. Or maybe she'd forgotten to pack it altogether. Maybe she'd left it behind, along with her khakis and a way of life that had constituted the entirety of her adulthood.
Stop freaking out. You can do this. How hard can it be? You find an apartment. You buy some furniture. You start a life. It's not rocket science.
It only felt like it.
Clearly, more champagne was called for. But first she would shower, in accordance with Gina's instructions. All part of being a good guest.
Her thoughts fixed firmly on the here and now, Charlie made her way to the bathroom.
"Okay, Mr. Walker. You've got twenty minutes and then I'm due on a plane. Make them count," Dieter Hanson said as he strode into the room.
Rhys Walker tried not to let the smile slip from his face as he shook hands with the tall, balding CEO. Rhys and his business partner, Greg, had been waiting for Hanson for nearly an hour past their appointed meeting time, cooling their heels in the hotel chain's vast boardroom. The CEO's assistant had popped her head in twice to assure them Mr. Hanson was "only five minutes away," and both times Rhys had suggested they reschedule. But the woman had been adamant that Mr. Hanson wouldn't be much longer.
Now Rhys eyed the man who had the power to change his life, irritation and adrenaline waging war in his bloodstream. He didn't like having his time wasted, but he and Greg had been wooing various executives at the Gainsborough Hotel Group for over two months, and they finally had been bumped to the top. Like it or not, Dieter Hanson had the power to say yay or nay to the contract Rhys had negotiated with the man's underlings. Which meant it was time to put his tap-dancing shoes on and sing for his supper.
"We'll keep this short and sweet, then," Rhys said. He glanced at Greg, who gave him the smallest of nods. It was enough to confirm that Greg was handing the presentation over to Rhys, no questions asked.
Rhys refocused his attention on the man at the head of the table. "I won't go over the details of what we're offering again. It's a pretty standard I.T. outsourcing contract. What I'd like to do is tell you a bit about myself and Greg and why we started Falcon, so you understand where we're coming from."
Rhys outlined their background in the I.T. and hospitality industries. He talked about the ethos behind Falcon and their goals, both short-term and long-term. Once he'd established their bona fides, he nailed the other man with a look.
"I'm going out on a limb and guessing that over the past twelve months, Gainsborough has experienced more than thirty software or hardware failures that have forced you to rely on manual systems to keep the doors open." Rhys listed ten of the most common issues with accommodation-booking software before hitting Hanson with an estimate of the amount of revenue his hotels had lost due to those same faults.
Hanson's interest sharpened when Rhys started to talk figures, and he knew he had him in the palm of his hand when Hanson began to ask questions about particulars in the contract. Rhys and Greg played tag team on the responses, and seventeen minutes after he'd entered the room, Hanson sat back in his chair and eyed first Rhys, then Greg.
"My team told me you guys were going to be hard to beat. I have to agree with them." Hanson pulled a pen from his breast pocket. "I assume you have the contract with you?"
Every muscle in Rhys's body tensed as he resisted the almost overwhelming urge to punch the air and whoop with triumph.
They'd done it. They'd freaking done it.
He extracted the contract from his briefcase and slid it forward. If Hanson noticed that Rhys's hands were trembling, he was pro enough not to comment on it. He signed the page with a flourish before returning the pen to his pocket and standing.
"Nice to meet you both. If you deliver on your promises, it will be even nicer."
"You can count on it," Rhys said.
They shook hands and left the room together. Hanson headed toward the elevators, while Rhys set his sights on the door to the men's washroom at the end of the hall. He knew without checking that Greg followed him, but neither of them said a word until they were on the other side of the polished wood door. Then they both dropped their briefcases to the floor and burst into relieved, triumphant laughter.
"Can you believe it? Can you freaking believe it?" Rhys said over and over.
Greg slapped him on the back so many times it started to hurt, but Rhys didn't give a damn.
"That's it. We're off and running. This is really going to happen," Greg said.
"Yeah, it is." Rhys felt dazed. They'd been working toward this moment for so long. And now they were here, it didn't feel quite real. With Gainsborough on board, it would only be a matter of time before they scored the next hotel chain. All it took was one big player to give them credibility, and they had that now. In spades.
Soon, they would be the go-to guys for hospitality I.T. in Australia. After that Well, after that they were reaching into territory far beyond even Rhys's current ambitions.
Greg held his hands out in front of him. "Check it out," he said as his fingers trembled in midair.
Rhys offered up his own shaking hands and they started laughing all over again.
"Man, I'm wrecked," Rhys said. "I feel like I ran a marathon."