Sarah Golding threw her briefcase into the back of her red Mercedes and slid elegantly into the driving seat. She had no qualms about the coming interview. Why should she? Her whole life had been a series of hard decisions. This was just one more decision.
She had chosen the candidate with care. The details supplied by the computer dating agency had been precise. Mentally she reviewed the description. Five foot nine inches tall, topping her by three inches, brown hair and eyes. The photograph supplied portrayed a dark, serious face. Not handsome but not repulsive either.
One would not suppose him to have had any difficulty in finding a woman but then, she herself was not unattractive. In the course of her work she met plenty of men but she had neither the time nor the inclination to sort out the footloose from the married. She dated when she required an escort or when mother nature insisted she needed a man to release her pent up tensions.
The meeting had been planned with meticulous care. Assignations under clocks, or in restaurants, wearing carnations or carrying a magazine were the ploy of cheap romances. In real life one or both could lose the identifying article. Or if one of the party got cold feet the other was left in an invidious position. There was no embarrassment in seeing a play alone and no mistaken identity possible in adjoining seats.
He stood up as she made her way towards him. Inwardly she groaned as he helped her off with her coat. A real smoothie.
The play was tedious, an indifferent comedy poorly acted but she had chosen the theatre for its convenience not its content.
"A drink?" He suggested at the first interval.
The theatre bar buzzed under a pall of smoke. "Shall we go somewhere quieter?" Sarah asked.
He nodded and put his hand under her arm to guide her. "I know a little bistro near here, it will be quiet at this time of day and we can talk."
She allowed him to lead her down a dark back street. There was nothing to fear she had, after all, had him thoroughly investigated.
The streets were deserted, the lighting poor. Sarah gave him a side long glance. His face was dark, shadowed. Her spine began to tingle, what after all did she know about him?
He put his arm around her, "Down here."
She stiffened, as he turned her into an alley way.
"Be careful, there are three steps down."
Unfamiliar panic griped her, she tried to pull herself free. His arm tightened about her. "You are surely not afraid of the dark?"
It was modest place. Red gingham cloths and candles. He led her to a table in an alcove well away from the bar. The proprietor greeted him, "Evening Peter." He waited as if expecting an introduction.
"A bottle of Chablis to be going on with Francoise. By the way the outside light is defunct again."
Francoise winked at her making her feel like a tart. "Do you bring all your lady friends here?" Her voice was frosty.
A muscle twitched at the side of his mouth. "Only the better class ones, do you like mussels in garlic sauce, or would that put you off?"
This was ridiculous. "Why?" She demanded
"It's my preferred starter."
Was there ever such an exasperating creature?
"You know full well what I mean."
"The pot au feu is quite exceptional."
She changed direction. Hobbies? He was supposed to be a physically active man. "When did you last ride a horse?"
"Last summer in Hyde Park."
"A girl I know, her parents run a riding school."
"Last spring. A friend asked me to accompany her. My turn," he said. "Where do you swim?"
She drew lines on the cloth with her fork. She hadn't been swimming since she had borrowed Adrian's villa in Corfu. "I thought, from your curriculum vitae, you were well placed."
The smile began at the corner of his mouth and developed into a rich fruity laugh. "At the moment I am reasonably flush. You may have a brandy with your coffee, six months ago I couldn't have offered you beans on toast."
Sarah frowned, "Surely computer programmers are well paid."
"Depends, but in any event I started up my own business at a bad time. It is only in these last few months it has taken off. In fact," his eyes were laughing at her, "b for my lady friends, I might have starved."
"Well at least you are honest."
They were silent, watching each other warily. "You may as well enjoy the food, if not the company."
It was her turn to laugh. She had never met a man like him before. "Are you always so direct?"
"Usually. Anything else is a waste of time. Suppose I put on an act, how long would it be before the mask slipped? I lived with a girl for ten years."
A fleeting sadness shadowed his face. "We were both pretending. She played the part of a liberated woman and I - ", he broke off. "Anyway by the time we had penetrated the masks we found we hadn't anything in common."
And since then you've played the field, she thought.
He leaned forward and took her hand. "Shall we stop playing games? You are very beautiful and I am willing to go ahead. To be honest, I would prefer a six month trial but at your age I can understand your hurry."
She flinched as his words struck her. "At my age! How dare you? You are hardly in the first flush of youth."
"I am forty but a man can beget children at any age, whereas for a woman time runs out. Unfair, but there it is."
She hated his candour but she was thirty-six and he was right. There was no other way she could find a husband who would agree to her terms. He was presentable and in any other circumstances she would have considered him a pleasant companion. Her plans were well laid. They would part here and meet up later. The marriage ceremony would be performed in Islington and they would live together in a two roomed flat until she was sure she was pregnant and then she would pay him and leave.
Friends and relatives had been informed of her impending marriage abroad, and when she returned as a grieving widow she would receive heartfelt sympathy. Her father's will had been quite specific, she must be married and pregnant before the money was hers.
She hummed softly to herself as she walked towards her car. She knew he was following her but that was all right. No one she knew would see them together. They could talk some more in the car. The engine purred softly, she pressed her foot on the accelerator.
"Take it nice and steady." he said as he slipped in beside her. "We don't want to be stopped for speeding."
"Where are we going?" She tried to keep the panic from her voice.
"There has been a slight alteration of plan. I'd like to see your apartment."
She stopped the car. "Please be reasonable. We've made our plans. Surely you aren't going to upset things now."
"It's not much to ask."
"You stink of garlic."
"That is something you'll need to get used to. Look, I'm not going to jump on you. We'll have a coffee together and then I'll go."
She hadn't planned for this. She calculated the risk. There was unlikely to be anyone about. If she called a taxi to pick him up at the nearby Swan hotel as soon as they arrived, she should be able to get rid of him without anyone being the wiser.
"There was a time," he said seriously, 'when women hung garlic around their necks to ward off vampires. But you," his voice was low and harsh, "are more of a preying mantis."
She felt her heart thumping in her chest.
"That is the plan, isn't it."
Her voice shook. "I don't understand."
"The female destroys her mate as soon as he has fulfilled her needs."
"Don't we all?" she said with an unconvincing laugh.
By the time they reached her apartment she was jelly. She scraped the wall as she turned into the garage. As they walked towards the house he supported her with his arm and her cheeks were wet.
She offered no resistance as he took the key from her. She thought of making a run for it but knew even if she could wrench herself free, her legs would not obey her.
They entered the lounge in darkness and his lips found hers before the room was flooded in light. Colleagues, friends and the family lawyer were all there.
"I thought your friends should celebrate our wedding darling. Open the champagne some one." He pulled her close and hissed savagely into her ear, "Computers are only as good as their operators."
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