Excerpt

More Than One Night

The sound of a champagne cork popping echoed around 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’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 over for filling. “We have a big night ahead.”

A night which 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 blonde cork-screw curls. 

Charlie raised her glass. “To good friends with spare rooms and big hearts.”

Gina lifted her glass 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 just 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 was - defined her, really - for good or bad.

She felt the now-familiar lurch of nervousness as she contemplated life without the familiar framework of the army. 

So many possibilities to re-invent herself and her life. So much change. So much opportunity. 

“How long do you think it’ll take for them to find your luggage?” Gina asked as she took a jar of olives from the fridge. When she'd sought 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? Stupid airline.”

As omens went, losing the bulk of her worldly goods on the first day of her 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 Charlie’s two suitcases as lost. 

“Damn it,” she said as a new thought occurred. “What am I going to wear tonight?” 

Gina had stopped by a mall on the way home to allow Charlie to collect 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 grey T-shirt and hiking boots. Not by any stretch of the imagination could they be considered suitable attire for the fancy-pants restaurant they’d booked for dinner. 

“Relax. You can borrow something of mine.”

Charlie surveyed her shorter, slighter friend doubtfully. “I’m not sure that’s really 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 like 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 eye 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 the top off the jar of olives. “Have an olive and stop stressing.”

They stood at the kitchen bench drinking champagne and picking at the olives for almost an hour. Then Gina caught sight of the time and put her glass down with a decisive clink. 

“Time to go make ourselves gorgeous for our big night out. You shower first while I’ll 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 out of the kitchen.

Charlie padded obediently up the hallway of Gina’s small Victorian-era cottage to her room. It had been three years since she and Gina had shared quarters near the Townsville barracks in Far North Queensland. When she’d first raised the notion of seeking a discharge, Gina hadn’t hesitated in offering Charlie her spare room. It had only taken Charlie a moment’s thought to say yes. For a woman with no ties to anyone or anything, a friendly face and a spare room had been as good a reason as any to pick Sydney as the place to start the next phase of her life.

She entered the bedroom, shutting the 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 few essentials she’d bought at the mall lay on the end of the bed, but instead of unpacking her meagre 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. 

Home. 

She tried the word out in her mind. It sounded...odd. Surreal, almost. For the past 14 years, home had been wherever the powers that be chose to send her. She’d moved six times during those years, 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 packing up and moving on to the next posting. 

Not any more, 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 great - in 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 plunge - but that didn’t stop her from feeling pretty damned intimidated by what lay ahead. 

Embarrassing when she considered some of the situations she’d dealt with during her time with her country’s defence 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 the years of her 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 just felt like it.

She turned away from the window, pulling a rueful face. 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 C.E.O. Rhys and his business partner, Greg, had been waiting for Hanson for nearly an hour past their appointed meeting time, kicking their heels in the hotel chain’s vast board room. The C.E.O’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. The woman had been adamant, however that Mr. Hanson wouldn’t be much longer. 

Now, Rhys eyed the man who had the power to change his life, irritation and adrenalin doing 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 now, and they’d finally been bumped all the way 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 other 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 smoothly. 

He glanced at Greg, who gave him the smallest of nods. It was enough for Rhys to know that Greg was handing the presentation over to him, no questions asked. 

Flynn refocussed 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.”

For the next five minutes, Rhys outlined his and Greg’s background in the I.T. and hospitality industries. He talked about the ethos behind Falcon, 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 to go out on a limb and guess 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 just to keep the doors open,” Rhys said. He 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. 

He could see the other man’s interest sharpen when he 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. He and Greg played tag team, 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 toward the other man. 

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 again and left the room together. Hanson peeled off toward the elevators, while Rhys set his sights on the door to the mens’ toilets at the end of the hall. He knew without checking that Greg was following 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 said. 

He 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 big hotel chain. All it took was one big player to give them credibility, and they had that now. In spades. 

Soon, they’d be the go-to guys for I.T. in the hospitality industry 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 mid-air. 

Rhys offered up his own shaking hands and they started laughing all over again. 

“Man, I’m wrecked,” Rhys said. “I feel like I just ran a marathon.”

He pulled his tie loose and shrugged out of his coat. Half moons of sweat radiated from beneath his armpits from all the nervous energy he’d expended. 

“Let’s go out, man,” Greg said. “Let’s grab this town by the scruff of the neck and not let go until it shakes us off.”

Rhys grinned hugely. “For sure. I’ll call the office and tell the guys to meet up with us.”

“And I’ll call Jess and tell her to hire a babysitter for the night.”

They were both grinning as they exited the washroom. They’d come in separate cars and they parted ways in the garage beneath the building. 

“Cafe Sydney, ASAP. Be there or be square,” Greg called over his shoulder as he walked away. 

“Bring your accessory liver, my friend. Because tonight is the night,” Rhys said. 

Greg’s laughter echoed back at him, bouncing off the concrete and the rows of parked cars. Rhys walked toward his ten year old BMW, aware that his cheeks were starting to ache, he was grinning so hard. 

So many people had raised their eyebrows when he’d quit his lucrative management role with a rival I.T. firm eight months ago. Friends, family members. They’d all thought he was nuts to walk away from a cushy job when the global economy was still so shaky. But Rhys had always planned to start his own consultancy from the moment he’d earned his computer engineering degree. He'd saved every spare cent he'd ever earned, denying himself the luxury car and fancy apartment his salary could have commanded because he was determined to be his own master, to guide his own destiny. To make his mark on the world. 

He pulled his phone out and dialed a number from heart rather than use his contact list, only registering that he was still underground when the phone beeped to let him know he had no signal. Shaking his head at his own wooly-headedness - apparently euphoria did that to a person, who knew? - he started his car and drove up three levels and out into the dying light of a warm Sydney day. He tried his parents again and listened to the phone ring and ring until finally the machine picked up. 

“Hey. It’s me,” he said. “Just wanted you guys to know I got Gainsborough. Like I said I would. I want to take you out for dinner to celebrate so let me know when you’re available and I’ll book someplace nice, okay?”

He ended the call just as he braked to a stop at a set of lights. He drummed his fingers on the steering wheel, trying to think who else he should call with the news. The gang back in the office, obviously, but he felt as though there was someone else he was missing. His thoughts ranged over his brothers and sisters, but he dismissed them after a moment’s consideration. They were all so absorbed in their own things that they wouldn’t really care. They’d be happy for him, sure, but they’d never really understood what he and Greg were trying to achieve with the business and at some point in the conversation he’d feel as though he was bragging, the younger brother trying to impress his siblings with his achievements. There was time enough for them to hear his news via their parents or at the next family function. 

He frowned. For the life of him couldn’t think of a single other person who would understand what today meant and share his excitement. The realisation left him feeling vaguely dissatisfied. Shrugging the sensation off, he called the office and passed on the good news, laughing as he heard the guys whooping and hollering in the background. 

“Go home, put on your party clothes and meet us at Cafe Sydney,” he instructed when they’d calmed down enough to be coherent. “It’s going to be a big one.”

He followed his own advice, cutting across town to his apartment in Pott’s Point. He spared a glance for the Finger Wharf as he drove through Woolloomooloo. The sun glinted off the white rooftops of the luxurious apartments that had been built on top of the ancient timber wharf. Home to Russell Crowe and a number of other high-profile Australians, the Wharf was considered one of the best places to live in Sydney.

Not long now, baby.

He’d been eyeing off an apartment in the Wharf development for years now. The smaller apartments with the lessor views started at around half a million, but Rhys didn’t want a small apartment. He wanted space, he wanted views. If things went smoothly with Gainsborough, there was no reason why he couldn’t start talking to real estate agents in earnest. 

No reason at all.

A second rush of euphoria hit him as he once again thought about what today meant. He wound down the window and let out a triumphant yahoo as he drove around Woolloomooloo Bay and into Pott’s Point. A few people turned to stare. He felt a little stupid, but what the hell. 

Today was the day his life had finally come together. All the planning. All the sacrifices. All the hours and hours of hard graft. 

Life didn’t hand out many moments like this, and he planned to enjoy every second of it. And then some.

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