The first person to respond to Charlotte's Match Made in Heaven ad was Claude, a 33-year-old businessman from Surrey. His profile listed an eclectic collection of hobbies ranging from poetry readings to Puccini. Claude was into sailing, Japanese cookery and French films.
Under What actor or celebrity do you most resemble? Claude had written: Young Harrison Ford. His profile photo showed a tanned man standing on a dock, wearing a navy polo and jeans. Han Solo posing as sea captain.
The thing that most impressed Charlotte was Claude's description of himself: I am an incurable romantic, a passionate humanitarian, a bon vivant who knows how to enjoy life.
They exchanged flirty emails for six days, before Claude suggested they have dinner.
The Rum Rum Drum was a French restaurant in the city, decorated in early bordello meets Dante's Inferno. It was packed with businessmen and platinum-haired girls wearing their lingerie to dinner. She played with her breadsticks and waited for her date to show up.
"Charlotte, right? So sorry. My cab driver couldn't find the place." Claude kissed her on both cheeks. "I recognised you immediately, even from across the room. Sometimes you don't know what you get on these dating sites, but you are Va Va Voom. Talk about gorgeous! Tres mignone. Much more so than your photographs."
Unfortunately, she couldn't say the same for him. Claude was stout, bald, and looked closer to 43 than 33. He wore pressed linen trousers and tan boat shoes with no socks. He looked nothing at all like Harrison Ford, young or old.
He laughed and patted his belly as if he could read her mind. "Yes, well you know what they say, the camera puts on ten pounds."
And subtracts height and hair, thought Charlotte.
"Would you like some champagne? It's the least I can do for making you wait."
On her profile she'd said that champagne was her favourite drink, even though she'd only had it twice in her life. Once at her wedding, and once at a department store event where they were promoting stemware.
Claude called the waitress over and ordered a bottle of Veuve Clicquot. When the bottle arrived, he filled her glass to the top and they toasted to wonderful new acquaintances.
"Salut," he said.
"A votre sante," said Charlotte.
"Oh, are you Catholic?"
"I was referring to the toast."
"I don't get it. Anyway, what do you think?"
"About the place I mean. Great find, huh? The service is flawless. And the food is unbelievable. C'est magnifique." Claude kissed his fingers. "You must try everything. Please tell me you are not one of those pecking at salad types."
She shook her head.
"Great. I didn't think so. I'm a bit of a foodie myself."
Prompted by Claude, she opted for a garlic and prawn dish, escargot in wine, and a lobster bisque. Seafood, her date informed her, was a well-known aphrodisiac. He ordered half a dozen oysters to start and another bottle of champagne.
"You're smiling now. That's better. You have to learn to be a little more impulsive, Charlie. Loosen up and live life to the full. Otherwise it just passes you by."
"You are right."
"Of course I am. Why would you want to behave all the time? Where is the fun is that?" He grinned like a naughty schoolboy and refilled their glasses.
Charlotte sat back in the booth letting the bubbles tickle her tongue.
"How long did you say you’d been with Match Made in Heaven?"
"Just a week before I met you."
"Is that so? So I'm your first?"
The way he said it made her catch her breath. "And you?"
"Six weeks. I'm so tied up with work that I find it hard to meet people. So far, the dates haven't really met my expectations. They're nice girls, don't get me wrong, they're just not my cup of tea. Although, I must say I lucked out tonight."
He looked her up and down appreciatively and she felt herself blush. It had been a while since a man had made her feel tingly inside. He pressed his thigh against hers, as he leaned in to give her an oyster. She didn't move away.
To think she'd almost said no to meeting him. Charlotte enjoyed reading his emails and the buzz of anticipation before opening each one, but she didn't want to take it any further. She wasn't interested in a relationship. Despite his disinterest in sex, Charlotte loved her husband. He was a decent, good man. She just fancied a bit of attention. And anyway, online dating wasn't the same as going out to a bar to pick up a man, was it?
When the food came it was just as delicious as Claude said. They alternated between feeding each other little morsels and cooing over how scrumptious everything was. When it was Claude's turn to feed her, he kept 'accidentally' brushing against her bare arms and shoulders, so that she was breathless by the time the food reached her mouth. She closed her eyes and tasted the rich seafood, the creaminess of the potatoes and truffle sauce, the haze of pink champagne and lobster. So this was what it was like to be seduced.
“Now, now, Charlie. You might want to slow down a little. I want you sober later on,”
She opened her eyes as their waitress set down two glasses of whisky.
"I thought we'd break up all the monotony with something a little edgier. Go on try it."
Charlotte picked up the glass and tasted an inch of the amber liquid before sputtering it out over the table.
"Careful now, that's not water. That's reserved scotch."
"Sorry. I'm sorry. I wasn't expecting it to burn."
The waitress gave Charlotte a little smile. "Can I get you anything else?"
"I could think of a few things,” Claude said. He craned his neck to watch her backside as she slinked away. "My, my. She reminds me of a burnished hunter Goddess. You know, that six-foot regal one? What's her name?" Claude snapped his fingers.
"Athena? Diana? Artemis?"
"Greek, Roman or Celtic?"
"On the telly. You know, from New Zealand? Big tits, dark hair."
"Xena, Warrior Princess?"
"That's the one." He let out a low wolf whistle. "Body like a brick shithouse." He held his hands in front of his chest. "What I wouldn't do for a piece of that."
Charlotte was so startled she dropped her napkin and had to crawl under the table to retrieve it. Whatever bad things could be said about the décor of the Rum Rum Drum, its carpets could not be faulted. Luxurious and plush, she could have spent the rest of the evening curled up on the floor. The effects of all the rich food and drink were starting to catch up to her. She hoped Claude was joking. He had to be. Who said things like that? It must be that impulsive sense of humour of his. Besides, the waitress didn't seem too upset. She'd smiled at him and brought him another drink.
"Charlie! Did you hear me? What on earth are you doing down there? You're not jealous are you?"
"What? Of course not. Don't be silly."
"Are you sure? I know how you women get. You act open-minded at first and then turn into possessive cows."
"Well, I'm not like that. You don't have to worry about me."
"Good. Because you have your own charms, you know. You have nothing to be embarrassed about. You have adequate sized tits and a good body for your age. You should feel proud." He reached out and squeezed her shoulder. "Come on drink up. We have another one coming."
Charlotte took a tentative sip and although she didn't spit it out this time, she still felt like gagging as it made its way down her throat.
"AH HA, HA," Claude laughed. "You make the funniest faces. Please tell me you don't do that in bed. HA HA. I didn't peg you as having a sense of humour. It's usually the ugly ones that have good personalities."
Claude finished his scotch and let out a belch. He leaned against the leather of the booth, undid his belt and slipped off his shoes. If Charlotte had dropped her napkin again she could have witnessed the release of her date's sweaty, hairy feet from their unjust imprisonment.
"So, Charlie, you're 35 and single. How's that possible? Why hasn't some bloke snapped you up already? Someone like you should have a man in your life. Going that long without sex isn't healthy."
"I do have a man. Did. I mean, I wanted to meet someone new."
"Well, today's your lucky day. He placed his hand on her knee. "Hey, come a little closer. I want to show you this." Claude slid a gold key in her direction. It was shaped in the form of a perverted bunny with an overbite.
"This place is an exclusive club. One of my clients is a member. He let's me use his key from time to time. I've reserved a room for us upstairs."
His eager, damp hand slid past her knee to her thigh.
Charlotte's looked around the Rum Rum Drum. It made sense now. The businessmen, the expensive red leather, the half dressed women. Her stomach lurched.
"Are you alright? I hope it's not the prawn," said Claude. "I was ill from food poisoning once. I spent days with it coming out from both ends. I make it a policy to never order the prawn. Did you get that? Charlie? Never order the prawn! Bloody common sense. If I were you, I'd go to the toilet and try to have a little, you know… dump. It will make you feel better.
"I think I'm going to go home."
Claude squeezed his small eyes together. "But we haven't had dessert or the cheese plate."
"Maybe another time."
"But I've already paid for the room."
"I paid for the room," he said through clenched teeth. "Charlotte, I thought we had an understanding. I thought we both wanted the same thing. Look, I'm quite fatigued and you look like you could use some freshening up. Let's go upstairs and play it by ear. See what happens."
The thought of running out of the restaurant, going back to her quiet flat and having a nice cup of tea was wrangling with her image of a strong, independent woman out on an adventure. Charlotte was always choosing the safe option and now here she was again, wanting to go home before anything happened. She'd gone through all the trouble. Claude wanted her. Why not throw caution to the wind?
"Why not?" she said. "Why not?"
Claude cheered up considerably.
They made their way up the stairs in silence, her date chortling behind her the entire time.
The room was furnished in much the same way as the restaurant red walls and throw pillows. The bed was enormous, almost as wide as the room itself. Claude dove headlong into it.
"Join me," he said to Charlotte.
"I have to freshen up first. Why don't you order up some champagne?"
"Great idea," he said, and reached for the phone.
In the bathroom she washed her face and wished she didn't feel so queasy. Maybe it was the prawn or maybe it was because she wasn't used to being wined and dined. Even after she married Tom there had never been that kind of interaction between them. Once a month, her husband would shut-off his computer and make his way into the bedroom, where he would lie on the bed in his boxers and black socks. She would come up wearing her cotton nightgown, close the curtains until there was no sliver of light visible and turn off the light. They'd embrace for approximately one and a half minutes. Then Tom would remove his underpants, mount his wife and perform his marital duties for a period of three to five minutes before rolling off and going to sleep.
Claude was nowhere near her physical or romantic ideal. He'd had too much to drink and he reeked of whisky. But it was better than being with a husband who didn't want her.
Charlotte had told only one person that she was registered on Match Made in Heaven. She thought her sister would laugh and get the joke, but she sounded upset.
"If you are unhappy that's one thing, but meeting men online when you're still married is a little much, Charlie."
"I thought you couldn't stand Tom."
"I can't. But it's not right to go behind his back like that."
"It's not cheating if I don't plan on having sex. It's just a little fun. A little flirting. You don't get it. You have a love life. You have a boyfriend who adores you. Tom has dinner at 7:00, news at 8:00. Bed by 9:00. You know what he's like."
"But paying to meet men? You are perfectly capable of finding a man who can treat you right without resorting to creeps who don't know how to behave around women."
"It's not like that. They're not all antisocial geeks. Some of the men are very nice."
"Jesus, Charlie, I know better than anyone how hard it is to meet decent people, online or off, but those kinds of places tend to attract bottom feeders. It's not even dating. It's paid sex. You think you're getting romance? Most guys will say anything to get laid - they lurk in shadows, waiting to pounce on gullible women."
"Yeah well, at least it will be exciting," Charlotte said, putting the phone down on her sister.
She rinsed her mouth with fresh water, applied a little perfume behind her ears, combed her hair and burst into tears. She couldn't go through with it. She'd have to go out there and tell him she was flattered but she had someone at home. Except she couldn’t say that. It wasn't Claude's fault she didn't want him. She got herself into this mess and now she had to get herself out.
She thought edating would work for her, inspired by an article about empowering your love life by an author who was an expert on online dating.
She tried to imagine what the author would do given the same situation. Well that was easy. She would waltz right in and take matters into her hands instead of waiting for romance to drop into her lap.
Charlotte closed her eyes and dabbed her face with a cool towel. This was her chance to get some control - to stop blaming other people for her unhappiness. She was tired. Tired of settling for whatever life threw her way. If there were regrets, she'd worry about them later.
She carefully stepped out of her Paris outfit, removed her lace slip and panties and walked out of the bathroom.