Saturday, September 29, 2012

Saturday's Chapter - Reluctant Date - Sheila Claydon

First Chapter of Reluctant Date by Sheila Claydon

(published by Books We Love July 2012)

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Claire pulled off her hat and shook out her hair as she glanced around the hotel foyer. There was no sign of anyone who looked like her date for the evening but she had gotten used to that. She was also resigned to the fact that a lot of the men who signed up to dating agencies seemed to have an inflated view of their own attraction. It hadn’t taken her long to realize tall and well built was a code for big and overweight and relaxed and informal was the wrong side of scruffy. She had also discovered that any reference to an unusual hobby almost always meant obsessive.

She found a comfortable chair and settled down to wait. Fifteen minutes she would give him. After that she was out of here, the crazy challenge she’d accepted at a tedious New Year’s party over and done with.

* * *

“Twelve dates unless we get lucky,” Jenny had said as they pushed their way out of the cramped restroom in the over-hyped nightclub where they were celebrating.

Claire’s partner for the evening had so little personal charisma she didn’t immediately recognize him again when she climbed the dark and treacherous stairs back up to the dance floor. Reluctantly accepting the fact that her personal life had hit an all time low, she had thrown caution to the wind and agreed to take up the challenge.

* * *

Jenny, who had organized their disastrous double date in a fog of depression brought on by her approaching birthday, had tried to pass some of the blame for the evening onto Claire as they washed their hands.

“Honestly, I don’t know what else you expect,” she had shouted above the heavy drumbeat that was threatening to bring down the ceiling. “You work in a library all week and then spend most of your free time taking photographs. You’re never going to find a man that way Claire, unless he’s a complete loser that is!”

“I know some very nice losers,” Claire replied with a grin. “Take my boss for instance.”

Jenny rolled her eyes in disgust. “It doesn’t make him marrying material though, does it? Why else is he still living with his mother? He must be at least fifty.”

Claire stopped thinking about John, her very nice but very eccentric boss, and stared at Jenny’s reflection in the dingy mirror. “Who says I’m looking for a husband?” she asked.

“I do! Face it Claire. We’re both pushing twenty-seven and here we are doing the same things we were doing at seventeen. It can’t go on much longer or we’ll begin to look like a couple of real saddos.”

“Speak for yourself,” Claire had repaired her lipstick with unnecessary energy. “I happen to like my life, and we’re not doing the same things we were doing ten years ago, well not as often anyway. I live a blameless existence most of the time. It’s only when you decide to act as my dating agency that I have any problems.”

And that was when Jenny had come up with her plan.

“That’s it!” she gasped. “We’ll join an Internet Dating Agency. We’ll find some real men; men who are looking for commitment just like us.”

“I told you, I’m not looking for commitment,” sighed Claire as, with a final glance at her reflection, she directed her friend towards the doorway. “All I want is to get this evening over with so I can go home. Alone. And go to bed.”

But Jenny wasn’t listening. “I can’t imagine why we haven’t thought of it before,” she said as they returned to their table. “After all, anything must be better than this!”

Claire, who had already spent a large part of the evening dancing as far away from her date as she could manage, could only agree. So, as the clock ticked on to midnight, and the noise levels in the nightclub climbed several more decibels, she accepted the challenge Jenny shouted into her ear. Signing up to an Internet Dating Agency would be her New Year’s resolution.

* * *

That, however, had been then. Now, almost ten months later, she had just about had it. To be fair not all of the men had been bad. A couple had been okay. She had even agreed to a second date with one of them because they read the same books, liked the same music and enjoyed the same films. Smiling agreeably, she had persuaded herself that compatibility was a good enough start. When he suggested they meet for a third time, however, she had turned him down, because by then she was bored enough to know she didn’t care if she never saw him again.

All of which had led her to the here and now, waiting for a stranger in a hotel foyer while she watched the world go by. The problem was it had worked for Jenny. On her sixth date she had met Mark and she was now four months into a blissful affair that showed every sign of long-term commitment. Unfortunately the fulfillment of her own dreams had not stopped her from worrying about Claire’s single state. If anything, it had made her worse.

“If it can happen to me, then it can happen to you,” she insisted when they met up for a drink after work. “You’re far more attractive than me, and more intelligent. The problem is you’re not taking it seriously; and you have to unless you want to end up an embittered old spinster.”

Claire spluttered into her wine. “Excuse me! The embittered old spinsters, as you so quaintly describe them, are today’s feisty, independent and adventurous singletons. We live in the twenty-first century now, in case you haven’t noticed.”

But Jenny was too wrapped up in her own version of romantic bliss to listen. Wanting each new date to turn out to be Claire’s ‘Mister Right,’ she spent a lot of time trying to persuade her friend she needed to adopt a better attitude.

Finally, thoroughly exasperated, Claire lost her temper. “I’m not what they’re expecting,” she snapped. “My profile says tall and slim which instantly translates into potential model material to most men, so when they meet a six foot Amazon with big feet they’re not impressed.”

“Rubbish!” snapped Jenny, equally exasperated. “You’re just afraid of commitment, afraid of settling down, and so you keep looking for excuses. The reason hardly any of your dates has asked to meet up again is because they can sense that you’re not serious. To you this is just a big joke.”

“Oh for goodness’ sake,” Claire swallowed the last of her wine and pushed back her chair in disgust. “Internet dating isn’t about men asking women out. It’s about mutual attraction; the freedom for women, as well as men, to choose. So far I haven’t met a single man I would waste a second date on, let alone give him house room!”

“Well maybe you’re just too picky!” Jenny drained her own glass, and then went all misty eyed as Mark pushed open the door. When he saw her, his face lit up. Thoroughly irritated by her conversation with Jenny, Claire gave them both a cool nod and left them to it.

* * *

Now, however, waiting for her twelfth and final date, she wondered if Jenny was right. Perhaps her past experiences had made her too picky. Maybe she was waiting for something that would never happen. Maybe it was time she gave up expecting Prince Charming and began to consider the frogs. That was assuming she wanted to consider anyone at all of course.

Irritated with thoughts that brought back uncomfortable memories, she glanced at her watch. Seven-thirty! It was already fifteen minutes beyond her self-imposed deadline so it was time she got out of here and got on with the rest of her life. As far as she was concerned a ‘no show’ counted just as much as a flesh and blood date. Now she could retire from the Internet dating scene with her honour intact. She bundled her thick black curls back into her woollen hat and bent to retrieve her bag. When she straightened up a very tall man was standing in front of her with a look of embarrassed apology on his face.

“Claire Harris?” he asked.

Bemused, she nodded. This wasn’t Daniel Marchant, her date. He was too old for one thing, and too tired, and too serious. And yet, as she searched his features, she saw there was a resemblance. It was as if he were a sepia image of the real thing. He had the same eyes, the same mouth, even the same hair although it was longer. He just didn’t have the colour and animation of the photo he had posted on the agency website.

“You’re going?” he said it as a question. He had an American accent.

“Yes, and I don’t usually wait this long,” she replied, her tone and her expression equally frosty.

“I don’t blame you but I would be glad if you would stay for a moment longer, so I can explain.”

“There’s nothing to explain. We arranged to meet at seven. I was on time. You were late. End of story.”

“Not quite I’m afraid. You see I didn’t arrange to meet you. My brother organized our date and then left a message on my voicemail, a message I have only just discovered.”

Claire’s face flushed a dull red. It was bad enough going through this charade because of a stupid New Year’s challenge without ending up with someone who couldn’t even be bothered to organize his own dates. She drew herself up to her full height.

“If you think that makes it better Mr Marchant then you know nothing about women. Doesn’t your brother mind acting as your, your…agent?” She bit back several of the more descriptive words that sprang to mind.

Daniel Marchant stood his ground. “Unfortunately not! He sees it as his life’s work. He has a nice wife who is recently pregnant and I think that must be what has triggered this…uh…fiasco!”

It was clear he considered he owed her a full explanation but, as he spoke, the expression on his face was one of weary resignation.

“Carl is younger than me, so my ongoing single state while he settles into impending fatherhood offends his romantic view of how the world works Miss Harris. And now I’ve rejected the last of his available female friends he has obviously decided to move things up a notch. Unfortunately he did it without informing me at any point along the way.”

His voice, as he explained the situation, was full of irritation. He also looked very tired. Claire knew she should feel sorry for him but for some unaccountable reason she suddenly wanted to laugh. Her lips twitched as she struggled to control herself.

He gave her a sharp look. “Unlike me, you seem to find the situation amusing Miss Harris.”

“Call me Claire, please,” she managed, before going into a paroxysm of giggles that rendered her entirely speechless for several seconds. By the time she finally calmed down Daniel Marchant had stopped glaring although he wasn’t quite ready to smile.

“Sorry,” she said, still gasping for breath. “I’m not laughing at you. Well…not just at you! It’s me too. We’ve both let other people call the shots which, given that we are mature adults, is totally ridiculous. I’m only here because my friend challenged me to join an Internet Dating Agency. She said I needed to find a husband.”

“And do you?”

“You know I really don’t,” she said. “This has made me realize I’m quite happy with my life as it is, even if I am in a bit of a rut. Perhaps I’ll just change my job instead, or book an exotic holiday or something.”

He smiled then. “A much safer bet Claire Harris.”

She grinned at him, hoisted her bag onto her shoulder, and held out her hand. “This has been my best date bar none. As well as making me laugh it has made me see sense. I don’t want a husband. I don’t even want a date. I should never have listened to my friend.”

His smile grew wider. “Now that we have established neither of us is remotely interested in marriage, or even dating, how about joining me for a meal? I can’t guarantee that I’ll be good company because jet lag is bound to kick in shortly. I would like to make up for my brother’s crass behaviour though, if you’ll let me.”

“Won’t that just encourage him?” Claire was still chuckling.

“Not if I don’t tell him, it won’t. Come on. Let’s see what the hotel bistro has to offer. I’m afraid I’m not up to anything more exciting than that this evening.”

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