She blinked in the dimness of the bar. After the bright sunlit evening outside, it took a moment or two for her eyes to adjust. Apart from a couple at a corner table, the only other occupant was a man sitting reading The Independent. She went across to the barman and ordered an orange juice. She perched on a tall stool and sipped her drink. The man opposite lowered his paper and smiled at her. He was wearing a red tie; well more burgundy, but it would pass as red, in the dim light. He seemed to be smiling encouragingly at her. It must be him, she thought and slipped off the stool, crossing to his table.
'Hi! I'm Megan Belmore.'
'Well, hallo Megan Belmore. I'm pleased to meet you," he replied, the faintest flicker of a smile crossing his handsome face.
Megan stared. She could hardly believe her luck. He had half-risen from his seat as she approached, enough for her to see that he was extremely tall and slim. He had dark, well cut hair which curled slightly, giving the faintest hint of unruliness. The clear blue eyes held a steady gaze. Impenetrable flashed into her mind. This commission looked like being most enjoyable, and quite unexpectedly, in this case. When her boss had briefed her on the assignment, she had serious doubts.
'It sounds like a con to me,' she had protested, ' and an unkind one at that. Exploiting people's loneliness.'
'Lonely Hearts is always a hot topic. How many women's romance stories have you read? Every one has the handsome hero meeting the gorgeous heroine, usually in chapter one and after various conflicts they marry and live happily ever after. Now tell me, just how many people do you know that really have that sort of experience?'
'Well, I suppose ...'
'None is my guess. What most of us have to do,' James Bryant continued, 'is to rely on good luck or take some steps to make our own luck. Bingo! We have dating agencies, marriage bureaux, call them what you will. Newspaper ads; magazines. Telephone links. Every media form is cashing in. There are even adverts on T.V., especially late at night when people are sitting at home bored out of their brains. It serves a vital function in today's society. There's no stigma attached. You're the perfect researcher for the project. No ties and pretty as well. We just want to know how successful it all is. We're doing them all a favour. Read through this folder and follow it up. That's all for now.'
Feeling slightly mind-boggled, Megan had left the editor's office. What was a controversial assignment after all? She had moved heaven and earth to land this job, against all competition. It certainly wasn't the salary that appealed; her grandmother's legacy covered some of the most basic essentials. No, on this occasion, she wanted to prove herself to the family. She refused to settle for some chinless wonder, her parents hoped would keep her near home. She was not the type who could be content to spend most of her life deciding which dress to wear for whatever occasion. Against the wishes of her parents, she had taken a course in journalism and come out top of her year. If she was bothered by some of the things she was asked to do, so what? It was her job. At twenty-five, she was more than pleased to have reached her current position and tackled each new task with an enthusiasm and freshness her editor loved. She came back to the present, with a start.
'Can I get you a drink?' the stranger was asking. 'I could do with another.' He rose to something well-over six feet. His body was well proportioned, slim but not skinny. He probably worked out in some exclusive gym, she thought.
'Well, to drink or not to drink?' he asked again.
'Thanks. Orange juice would be lovely', she muttered. She had to admit, he was certainly far removed from what she had been expecting. She'd always believed that dating agencies produced spotty youths or old men. They would be the types who were so decidedly unattractive that they lacked the confidence to go anywhere they were likely to meet a partner. Mr Jenkins did not fit into her image at all. James, her editor had been right. Nowadays, agencies were for everyone, including people who worked too hard to have time to socialise.
The man returned to the table carrying a glass of orange juice and a bottle of wine with two glasses.
'Perhaps I can tempt you to share a glass of wine with me? I brought orange juice as well, in case you don't drink wine. Now, Megan Belmore, tell me all about yourself.' His voice was deep, a velvety, masculine deep, she thought romantically. It was the sort of voice one could listen to for a very long time without being bored. There was a twitch of amusement at the corners of his mouth.
"I'm twenty-five and I work in a ... a newsagents," she said, blushing slightly. She was not supposed to tell him she was a journalist, not at this stage. The idea was to go on dates, just as anyone else might who joined the agency. She was not telling anyone who she was and planned to sign on with several different companies and make comparisons about the services they provided. Brian Jenkins was her first date and she was feeling distinctly nervous about the whole business.
'A newsagents? I see,' the man was saying. 'You are a very attractive lady. I expect you bring in plenty of business to your newsagent.' He was smiling, or was it smirking at her? She felt uncomfortable and knew that she was blushing, far more than she should have done. What sort of undercover journalist was she? She certainly couldn't afford to have a conscience, not if she was to make a success of this assignment.
'What about you?' she countered, trying to remove the onus of sharing confidences about herself.
'Wrong side of thirty; work too hard; don't play nearly enough. That do for now? But I'm sure you are much more interesting than me. Now, about that glass of wine?' He held out the bottle of white Burgundy and filled a glass. 'I hope you like French wines.' She took the glass and thanked him. His pale blue eyes glittered.
'Do you live in London?' she asked.
'Certainly not. I have to come up for business two or three times a week. I live in Buckinghamshire. Couldn't stand the pace of living in Town. Besides, I am used to breathing decent air. Almost addicted to the stuff.'
'And your business? What do you do?'
'You are a very curious lady, for a ... newsagent,' he said, smiling a little.
'I'm sorry. Just interested. But then, I thought the whole point of our meeting this way, was to get to know about each other.' He stared at her, his mouth twitching at the corners once more. It was a very generous mouth, she noted. In fact, everything she saw about him was definitely, very pleasing. He carried an air of authority, as if he was used to respect. He was a man, she surmised, accustomed to getting his own way. He was extremely well-dressed too. Nothing too trendy but his dark suit sat on him perfectly, cut superbly. His broad shoulders and narrow waist seemed to meld with the fabric so the clothing became an integral part of him.
The next hour sped by. They talked about the joys of living in London or the country; holidays; horses; films and theatre. In fact, they covered almost everything, except relationships and why they had joined a dating agency. Suddenly, he looked at his watch, a Rolex, she noted with surprise.
'It's been wonderful talking to you,' he said softly, 'but I'm afraid I shall have to leave you. I have a train to catch.'
'Thank you for the drinks,' she murmured feebly. This gorgeous man was about to desert her and she had asked him nothing about his reasons for joining the dating agency, nothing about anyone he had met so far, or any of the other list of questions she had prepared in her mind.
'Thank you for sharing your company with me,' he smiled and rose from the seat, leaving her staring after him.
'But Mr Jenkins, Brian. Can we, I mean, would you like to meet again?' He stopped and turned.
'Jenkins? What on earth makes you think my name is Jenkins?'
'Reading the Independent? Red Tie? Meet you at six-thirty? Everything according to plan.' Her voice trembled slightly as the blush grew up from her toes to envelope her entire body. She couldn't have. No, not possibly. She couldn't have spent the past hour chatting to a complete stranger in a bar.
'You're not, are you? You've never even heard of Date Today, have you?' she realised, as the truth dawned on her sickeningly.
'Date Today? I'm afraid not. Sorry. Whoever your Mr Jenkins is, he's a lucky man. But now, I must dash. Goodbye and I'm sorry to disappoint you Megan Belmore.'
In horror, she watched him disappear out into the London evening. She wished for a huge hole she could crawl into and pull the edges in after her. Of all the stupid, idiotic mistakes. The crowds had dispersed a little now and she had the rest of the evening to herself. She walked along the street, looking in at shop windows, feeling a flood of embarrassment each time she remembered her awful mistake. What on earth could he have thought of her? Ah well, she was unlikely ever to see him again so she could push it out of her mind and get on with the rest of her research. She took the train home.
Megan let herself into her tiny flat. It was little more than an overgrown bedsit really but it was her own private space and she loved it. Best of all, it was hers, thanks to her grandmother's legacy. The answering machine was flashing a message and she played it back. An angry voice filled the room.
'My name is Jenkins. Remember me? I don't appreciate being stood up. You made me look a right idiot, sitting by myself in the Flask and Bottle. I shall complain about you to Date Today. They take their work very seriously and won't be at all pleased with you. You were the one who arranged to contact me, remember. If you didn't want to come, you could have at least given me a call. Now goodbye. I hope someone does the same thing to you one day.' The phone had obviously been slammed down, if the abrupt ending of the message was anything to go by. Not only had she chatted up the wrong bloke, she had made someone else feel thoroughly rejected and disappointed. She bit her lip feeling wretched. The Jug and Bottle? That explained it. She had been waiting in The Lamb and Flag. How could she have made such a stupid mistake? It was so unlike her. Or was it? She had totally blown this assignment, almost before it had started. She should have known that blokes like her mystery hunk, simply did not remain unattached for long. Nor did they join dating agencies. How could she ever have thought a fantastic bloke like that could possibly have been her date for the evening? She pulled out the envelope from her bag and looked at the details. The client's telephone number was included in case of problems. This agency arranged the dates for their clients and even suggested the place to meet. She had never spoken to Brian Jenkins, so she did not know his voice. That was something she would always remember, Mystery Man's lovely voice. It was so soft and rich. Now she getting stupid she told herself crossly and frowned
'Damn,' she breathed. 'I really blew that one.' She gave a sigh and took out the folder. She would have to call Date Today in the morning and explain her muddle somehow. Hopefully, they would give her another chance.
Megan turned her attention to the bulging folder containing her editor's guidelines and the notes she had assembled so far. She glanced at her watch. It was only nine o'clock. Maybe she ought to try and contact one of the other men on her list.
'What am I doing?' she muttered aloud. Surely, someone of her age ought not to be looking for a partner this way? It had never occurred to her that anyone had a problem meeting other people. It would be interesting to ask some of the other women why they had sought help. In fact, she would start in the office tomorrow. There were several single girls on the staff, though as far as she knew, no-one else had even been considered for this assignment. She sighed. Perhaps this might even be her own chance to meet Mr Right. She hadn't had much luck so far, with her love life. In fact, during the past six months, she had hit an all time low. Since she had finished her brief fling with Roger, there had been no-one she had remotely fancied. Well-meaning friends had invited her out with them, but the stream of unattached males they had also towed along, had made her give up this type of socialising. She was the obvious female in the office to be given the assignment. And now she'd blown it. She dreaded going into the office tomorrow and facing the inevitable round of questions. It seemed that everyone in the whole place, knew about the date and would be waiting for the full lurid details. How could she tell anyone what a fool she had been? It would be the joke of the week and she would be teased unmercifully.
Megan ferreted round the fridge for something to eat. She made some toast, the only item of food in the entire flat. The bread was too dry for a sandwich and as there was nothing to make into a sandwich, toasting it seemed like the only option.
'Megan Belmore, it's time you got yourself sorted out,' she said firmly to her reflection. 'You're twenty-five, independent, got a good job and a flat near London. So why do you let yourself get into the situation where you chat up heavenly strangers in a bar and don't even collect a phone number?' She brushed the mass of coppery curls out of her face and peered at herself critically. It was time she did something about her appearance for a start. She was getting too old for this semi-wild tomboy look. She needed to tackle her hair, develop some new, more sophisticated image. In fact, she could do with a complete make-over. If she did manage to chat up some gorgeous hunk of man, he certainly wouldn't abandon her, in favour of a train. She would speak to the fashion editor the next day.
Megan's alarm failed to go off the next morning. She frantically showered and threw her yesterday's dress on. She bundled her curls into a sort of pony-tail and gave her mouth a quick dab of lipstick. There was no time even for a cup of coffee, if she was to catch the train to the office. As it was, she would be at least half an hour late. So much for her new image and a more organised life.
She walked into the main office of the Benstead Post, trying to look calm and casual.
'So, how did it go?' called Don, one of the reporters. 'Must have been a good night. You look as if you had to hurry this morning. Was it your place or his?'
She flung her hair back from her face. It had inevitably escaped from the ribbon she had used to tie it back. She looked round at the sea of faces, waiting expectantly for her report.
'He was pretty dire,' she lied. Oh dear, she thought. Poor Mr Jenkins. She felt dreadful about her lie but she simply couldn't face the taunting that would surely follow her all day if she told the truth.
'Come on. Spill the beans,' her friend Lisa begged. 'I'll get us a coffee and you can tell me all about it.'
Megan took a deep breath. Somehow, she had to survive her friend's questions. Should she come clean and tell her what really happened or should she continue the path of fibs she started? If it didn't hurt so much, she might have made a joke of the whole thing but she felt foolish and incredibly, rather disappointed. Mr Right, as she had begun to think of her mystery man, was everything she could have dreamt about in a man. All she had done was to make an idiot of herself, especially in his eyes..
'Why don't I meet men like him in the normal way?' she had asked herself a hundred times since he had left her sitting alone in the wine bar last night.
'Right,' Lisa said cheerfully, plonking down two mug of coffee. 'What was our Mr Jenkins really like? Good-looking? Fun? Or just plain and dreary?'
She took a deep breath.
'It didn't work out, OK? Just be satisfied with that for now. I'll tell you the rest later. Look, I have some calls to make and a stack of work a mile high.' Megan needed time to think and her curious friend would have to wait a little while longer to hear the full story. Lisa left her desk, staring back after she left, wondering what could possibly have put her usually bubbly friend into so bad a mood.
Megan quickly dialled the number of Date Today.
'Miss Belmore. We were about to phone you. It is not our policy to let people down, you know. If you were unable to keep the date and make the contact, you are always asked to telephone the other party. That is why we provide you with the relevant information.'
Megan sighed and launched into her explanation. It had been a genuine mistake, after all. She asked the company to apologise to the unfortunate Mr Jenkins. Over lunch, she told the whole story to her friend Lisa, swearing her to secrecy as far as the rest of the office was concerned. Lisa burst out laughing and at last, Megan too could see the funny side and she grinned.
'So how do you suggest I go about finding the man of my dreams?' she asked. 'I mean to say, six foot two and just about the most dishy bloke on two legs. I don't even know his name. I just assumed he was Brian Jenkins.'
'You could always put a small ad in the paper. Would the handsome devil who plied me with wine last night please get in touch with Miss Whatnot of Wheresit? ... or words to that effect.'
'I don't think he's quite the type to read the Benstead Post.'
'Oh Megan. What are we going to do with you? You're quite hopeless.' Lisa touched her arm fondly. 'Someone needs to take you in hand.'
'I have already decided that much, all by myself,' Megan confessed. 'In fact I spent half the night planning a total make-over. Thought Marnie might like to do a feature on me. Ugly Duckling into swan.'
'Hardly an ugly duckling. You have got beautiful hair. I'd kill for a coppery gold that colour. No bottled product could produce that. You just need to smarten up a bit. And you're getting positively skinny. Are you eating properly?'
'Honestly Lisa. You sound like a mother hen. You're worse than Mummy. We'd better get back. Late twice in one day and my life won't be worth living.'
The two girls left the sandwich bar and went back to their office. Several messages had been dumped on Megan's desk, enough to keep her occupied until it was time to leave. She was packing her brief-case as Lisa stopped by her desk.
'I was thinking. If you really wanted to meet your hunk again, you could always go back to the wine-bar. He might be a regular customer,' she said.
'I couldn't do that. What on earth would he think? Anyhow, it was just a one off. He was waiting for a train. No, it simply isn't on. Besides, he might have Mrs Right waiting back home and probably a whole clutch of small Rights of assorted sizes.' Lisa stared back, smiling.
'I could always come with you. I'd be most interested to see what sort of man has this effect on the usually self-assured Miss Belmore.'
'I'll give it some thought,' Megan said cheerfully, never intending to mention the subject again. Lisa's suggestion was more than a little tempting though, she had to admit.