Speed dating was just not Carole's thing. Not that she had tried it, but the thought horrified her.
How do you get to know someone in eight minutes? She wondered, but when her sister, Louise, suggested it after her eleventh failed date, she decided she had nothing to lose. Carole knew she was an attractive woman; her thick, brunette hair in its stylish bob suited her heart-shaped face. Her skin had a soft glow from the summer sun, and she used makeup sparingly to highlight her amber eyes and full, plump lips. The clothes she wore were chic, figure-hugging, but not tight. Perhaps her love of good food and wine was putting off prospective suitors.
Her most recent date, Jack, had seemed so promising, cultured, and intellectual. His blue eyes shone like the sun on the Mediterranean when he gazed at her. She felt she could happily bathe in their azure light.
The play Jack took her to see was remarkable; a modern, innovative production of a well-known classic. Who would have thought of casting Stanley Tucci as Madame Arcati?
Jack's after-show suggestion of a quick kebab had killed the mood, and she had sadly declined a further evening out.
"You need to pitch yourself in the right market," Louise had said, twiddling a pencil. "How many people would turn down one of the brightest young actors in the city just because he likes his lamb in a bun?"
Carole sighed. Louise was probably right.
"What do you think I should do, Lou? I don't like fast food. I hated going to nightclubs, and anyway, I'm too old for them now. You were lucky; you had a normal upbringing. Auntie Ruth insisted I should go to that Swiss Finishing School."
"I couldn't be your guardian, Carole. I wasn't old enough or earning enough. Auntie meant well. Although making you sit with a book on your head for three hours at a time seemed rather extreme." She hugged her sister.
"I would like to see you settled. Why not try something different? They set up this dating group for foodies just like you. Give it a go. It can't get any worse."
Carole rolled her eyes, but reserved her place, although she took a sharp intake of breath at the thirty-five-pound fee.
The venue was attractive, not at all what Carole had expected. A tapas bar, it hummed to the authentic tunes of southern Spain.
She glanced, surprised, at the menu in the window. There were small dishes of delicious calamari in harissa mayonnaise, garlic and chili prawns from Torremolinos, and salted anchovies with patatas brava. Her mouth watered, and she hurried in and ordered a large glass of white wine. Just enough to calm her nerves.
"Hello, I'm uncertain how this all works. I'm Carole." She introduced herself to the young woman with a clipboard, looking official but friendly, by the bar.
With her name ticked off the guest list, Carole followed her host to the cosy back room, all set out for their evening event. She settled herself at a table dressed with a pretty checked tablecloth and gleefully sampled the delightful appetisers, determined to get her money's worth. Several other people were gathering now, six men and six women, including herself, all busying themselves with drinks and tugging their clothing or tidying their hair. As nervous as me, Carole thought.
"Okay everyone, listen up."
The young woman from the bar attracted their attention.
"I numbered your tables. Girls, you remain seated; guys, you circulate the tables in the order I have given you on your cards. No note taking please, and move on when the bell rings. If any of you would like to meet up again, see me at the end of the evening, and I will hook you up. Do not give out personal information."
Carole cringed. It really didn't sound like her idea of romance, but she sighed to herself. Too late to drop out now, and the food does smell divine.
The bell clattered, sounding the start of the event. Carole took a large gulp of her wine.
Carole smiled appreciatively; he was ruggedly good-looking, with a strong jawline and a roman nose. He smirked broadly.
Good teeth, she thought, nothing worse than seeing the spinach someone had for lunch!
After asking her name, he spoke knowledgeably about the merits of Bitcoin; for the whole eight minutes, his fingers strayed to her tapas. Carole fought the urge to slap his hand and refused to divulge any aims for her investment portfolio, which she didn't have.
Chubby, but she was carrying a few too many pounds herself and should not judge. He had sorrowful, brown eyes, much like a seal or a hungry labrador eyeing the last biscuit on a plate. The rumble of Carole's stomach disturbed her, even as she listened to his dissertation about how wonderful life with Dave could be. She didn't even throw him a bone, stifled a yawn, nibbled chorizo, and was glad when the eight-minute bell rang.
Oh my goodness, have I died and gone to heaven?
Momentarily worried that she had spoken aloud, Carole was weak at the knees. He was gorgeous, with dark curly hair and twinkling blue eyes, and he was asking questions, not talking about himself. His deep voice, slightly accented, added to the attraction. Carole would have felt no surprise if he had wings.
“So Carole, tell me, what is your favourite entrée? How would our first sumptuous meal together begin?”
She thought for a moment, not so fast as to appear impetuous but quickly enough not to waste their precious time.
“Oeufs pochés en meurette,” she replied.
“Burgundian eggs poached in red wine! Superb, tell me where did you eat this?”
She smiled modestly.
“Oh, I made this myself. I love to cook, I'd love to cook for you.” Carole blushed, was she being too forward?
Alessandro's delectable face lit up.
"A chef, and a beautiful one. How my heart sings."
Carole's heart was singing too.
Thank goodness for the internet, she thought. It is so much easier to be a self-taught cook these days. And for once, finishing school was proving its worth. Carole's unique qualifications had secured her a job as a buyer for a high-end furnishing store: a job that took her all over the world.
"Our main course?" Alessandro leaned in expectantly. His crisp, white shirt outlined his broad shoulders, and Carole breathed heavily before replying.
"Easy, baked redfish en papillote."
Alessandro was licking his lips, salivating. Carole's heart beat faster.
"Ah, so you take me from Burgundy to Louisiana in one evening. I hope we are flying first class."
Playing along with his gentle flirting, she laughed softly.
"Private jet, of course," she replied.
"Tell me, Carole, where do we go for dessert?”
“Romania, to Brasov in the heart of Transylvannia. Alex's restaurant on the market square, beneath the black church...”
“Bellissima, I know it! Plăcintă cu mere, sweet apples and cinnamon and the creamiest sweet dough. Ah, Carole, you are a woman of discernment."
“So deliciously satisfying." She gazed directly into Alessandro’s deep blue eyes, imagining other deliciously satisfying moments.
“And if I steal you away for a romantic night in the world's most beautiful hotel? What would we have for breakfast?”
Carole leaned in close and whispered softly, the words dripping with hunger from her tongue.
Just at that moment, that oh-so-crucial moment, the bell sounded. Visibly shaken, Alessandro stood, made a beautiful little bow, and kissed her fingers. She couldn't wait for him to move around the room, back to their host. Surely he must want her number? He would wish to 'hook up.' Shouldn't be too long, she hoped, as there were only six men in the dating group.
Alessandro moved on to girl number four, thinking about Carole and the questions she had answered. He was distracted and brusque, and his date was glad when he went away. She rather liked the look of the man with labrador eyes.
Carole suffered through dates four, five, and six. Twenty-four minutes of her life that she would never get back. She barely tried to conceal her boredom at their various hobbies of taxidermy, worm charming, and comic cons. Never let me near a Battlestar Galactica convention, she thought. It sounded appalling. None of the three men rivalled the sheer seductive power of Alessandro or showed any interest in her answers. Across the room, he was looking at her. Again and again, Alessandro glanced her way. Her sister had advised her well. This was an excellent way to meet Mr. Right.
As he moved from table to table, Alessandro was also thinking about the future. In just a few minutes, he would return to their host. She had hung his coat for him, and he would have to walk through the room to collect it. Carole was a stunningly attractive woman, but how could he avoid her at the end of the evening? He could tell she was interested.
But really! He thought. It would be unbearable.
How could anyone breakfast on that awful British Marmite, on toast?