If you're only going to be attracted to one man in a hundred, then move the other ninety-nine through as fast as possible, said 'Finding Your Soulmate', Maisie's latest bible, and she'd taken the advice to heart. Hence her current anxious state of mind as she waited in a coffee bar amid the hubbub at St Pancras Station on her forty-eighth blind date.
Perched on a stool like a bird on a thin branch about to snap, Maisie gazed disconsolately at her reflection in the window. Squeezing water out of what remained of her expensive salon-styles curls, she decided taking the afternoon off work and paying a fortune to go from iron-straight blonde highlights to auburn ringlets had been an expensive mistake. Not listening to the weather forecast, and so minus her new see-through umbrella, resulted in a hair style resembling her granny's perm. Some days, she didn't know why she bothered.
But the truth? She knew why she was making the effort; she wanted a man. One of her own. Maisie enjoyed working in her chosen career of marketing, and was doing well as her recent promotion testified; with good friends and an active social circle, there was no reason to complain. But she wanted someone to travel by her side on the path of life: someone to share the ups and downs with; someone to have children with; someone to laugh and grow old with; a best friend, a companion, a lover.
Maisie had tackled the problem methodically: read every book available on the topic; followed advice given by friends, family and work colleagues; joined a gym, lost weight and firmed muscles; been colour assessed and had numerous make-overs; drunk endless lattes at popular cafés, been out and about and generally available.
This year she'd attempted six new hobbies at various evening classes, drawing the line at macramé, dropping them one by one when time revealed Mr. Right didn't have any interest in these particular subjects. She'd joined several online dating websites, and, in spite of the constant scrolling involved, dated no one she desired to spend more than five minutes with, let alone the rest of her life. She'd placed ads in the 'Personal' section in every local and national newspaper and gone on an endless succession of blind dates with every eligible man anyone within her circle had even vaguely heard of. Was she too fussy? Were her standards too high? Was compromise, like those tv estate agents said, the name of the game?
Start with friendship someone said. You need something to hold the pair of you together when the lust clears from your brain. Malcolm, Jon and Dave had qualified for this category, but, sadly, in their cases the lusty phase hadn't been present. All in all, Maisie had given the whole affair top priority and attempted to conduct her search in a business-like manner. She had met, and genuinely liked, some of her dates, but so far had come nowhere near finding 'The One'.
Maybe she should give this guy a miss? She contemplated the idea for a minute, but determination wasn't her middle name for nothing. And what were her options? Nope, the search must continue. Today she was meeting her friend Beth's second cousin, Bill. Or was Bill the second cousin's best friend?
Aware of a sudden desire to use the bathroom, and figuring she'd enough time to dash across the station and back, she placed the book she'd said would identify her prominently next to her coffee. But what if this Bill arrived early and didn't wait? She'd done that once, when for no reason an attack of nerves struck and she'd fled, leaving a probably very nice young man standing alone and vulnerable outside a theatre.
The man behind the counter barely glanced at her.
'I'm popping to the Ladies and leaving my book by my coffee so my friend knows I've arrived. Is that okay?' She took the grunt she heard as acknowledgement, racing off and navigating her way through commuters with and without luggage at top speed. Checking herself in the mirror before leaving the loo, she decided a quick flick of lipstick would have to do as there wasn't time or money for plastic surgery. A few minutes later, Maisie re-entered the coffee bar completely out of breath, collapsing onto her stool, grateful her date had not yet appeared. Recovering her poise, Maisie's adrenaline based buoyancy dissipated as the designated meeting time ticked passed. A dark cloud of rejection hovered on the horizon. Despondently she picked up her book.
Maisie gazed up into a pair of eyes so full of humour, she beamed right back at their owner.
'Sorry ... Bill couldn't come. He's been unavoidably delayed. He ... er ... asked me to come in his place. I'm Tom.' He reached out, grasped her hand, shaking it enthusiastically.
From that moment on the afternoon just got better and better.
Tom first took her to an exhibition at the South Bank, and in his company, despite the grey damp day, she felt as if she was basking in warm sunshine. She didn't remember ever having an interest in 1930's poetry, but somehow that day it was the most fascinating topic on the planet. And they talked about every subject under the sun. Maisie had never experienced feeling so comfortable with someone so soon after meeting them. It was as if she'd known him her entire life.
Afterwards she couldn't recall what or where they ate, although she was aware the meal was delicious and the surroundings elegant. When they finished eating, they took a leisurely stroll along the Embankment, captivated by the illuminated London Eye as it turned in the night, its reflection flickering in the Thames.
'I've got a confession to make,' Tom murmured softly in her ear.
Fear and suspicion sprang fully formed into her mind. Was he married? A single father with ten children? A bigamist? A serial killer?
'I told a lie when we met.'
Maisie's brain froze, a mist formed in front of her eyes, a fog paralysed her brain, her heart pounded loudly in her ears, and a sense of impending doom descended. She didn't deserve this. She was young and her whole life lay ahead of her.
'I'm not a friend of Tom's, and he didn't ask me to come in his place,' Bill continued.
Maisie couldn't even nod, but stared, barely blinking, at the buttons on Bill's jacket.
'The truth is Tom turned up at the station. He arrived a moment after you dashed out. I informed him you were unable to stay, but you left the book so I'd know who to give the message to.' He put a hand under her chin, raising her face so she had to look at him. 'You see, from the first moment I saw you, I knew I had to meet you.'
Maisie let out the breath she'd been holding. Her vision cleared, and the hum of traffic impinged on her consciousness again.
'You must think me crazy. Can you forgive me?'
Maisie looked over the dark river watching each wavelet catch the light for a brief second as she considered the import of his words.
Without warning, she turned back to him, and flung her arms around his neck. 'Kiss me,' she said.
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