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Saskia Bloom flicked her dark fringe out of her eyes and peered through her vintage glasses at her laptop screen before madly scribbling notes on the yellow legal pad under the mouse.
"I'll eat my shoes if you're even a day under forty," she mumbled at the photo of a guy grinning inanely back at her from the Dating By Numbers website.
Undeterred, StudMuffin33 kept on smiling, as if the dauntingly athletic profile was so appealing any woman would let the age-fib slip.
Favourite Movie: The Fast and the Furious Collects: surfboards
Who'd Play You in the Movie of Your Life? Jason Statham
Looking for: an open-minded lady with a twinkle in her eye
Mouse hover and click.
The photo of the next guy gave her such a fright she flinched. BirdLover28 had tufty hair, wore a grimace rather than a smile and had a chicken on his shoulder. A live one, she hoped.
Favourite TV Show: Dr Who (the original!)
Sundays are for: garage sales
Celebrity Crush: Tyra Banks
Looking for: fun in all the wrong places
Alas, Saskia would not be partaking of said fun. For, even though it had been several months since she'd been booted back into the dating pool, she wasn't online looking for The One. Or a "Saturday night special" as one possibility had so gallantly offered.
Her account with Dating By Numbers was research, pure and simple. She and her business partner, Lissytogether known as SassyStatshad been hired by the site to collate a fun statistical analysis of online dating. In order to do the best job possible, she'd jumped from an aeroplane for a piece on adrenalin junkies. Dived with sharks for a study on phobias. In comparison, creating a dating profile was cushy.
Saskia lifted her booted foot to the chair, wrapped an arm around her woolly-tights-clad knee, and, chewing on the end of a pen, shook her head at the dozen more possibilities in her inbox.
Research or not, it was actually pretty flattering.
With her wavy brown hair, her mother's olive skin, eyes that were kind of brown and a lean frame that puberty had pretty much ignored, under the right lighting, with humidity low, she could just about pull off cute. The idea that so many guys had considered her for a follow up email was a marvel.
If she'd known this was the response she'd get, she'd have signed up long ago! She'd met Stu in a pub, and look how that had turned out.
There he'd sat hunched in his old coat, looking so dark and mysterious, with pen smudges on his fingertips. He'd looked as if he'd needed a warm meal and a hug. Turned out he'd needed her mobile phone, her TV, her computers, her appliances and more. In recompense he'd left a nasty note, a huge debt and his dog.
Saskia glanced over at Ernest, the big wiry Airedale currently lying on his back, legs in the air, snoring on the dinky old armchair in the corner of her office.
With a sigh, she slid her feet back to the floor and shifted the legal pad an inch. She and Ernest might have discovered a bona fide fondness for one another, but she'd never get used to the angry red envelopes that fell through her mail-slot on a weekly basis. Never wanted to. The only way to make them go away was to work. And work some more. And then, when night fell and her bed was beckoning, get back to work.
Mouse hover and click.
Saskia lifted her hand off the mouse, ready to take notes on the next candidate, but at the sight of him her hand wobbled pointlessly in midair.
She might, in fact, have gasped at the sight, because Ernest suddenly snorted, his legs twitching like an upended spider, before settling back into a dream-filled sleep.
Gorgeous didn't even begin to describe the man. Drop-dead, movie star, take-your-breath-away gorgeous came a tiny bit closer. The shot was candid, with the man looking at something over the photographer's shoulder. Dark blond hair precision cut. Sleeves of a pale blue business shirt neatly rolled up to his upper arms, a vein or two roping from wrist to elbow. A solitary raised eyebrow, a barely there lift to one corner of a truly sensuous mouth. But who'd even notice, considering the guy had the bluest eyes Saskia ever seen.
How does a man who looks like that not have someone in his life? she wondered. Though, considering the fibs the other men had told, she couldn't count on it!
He did look resolute, as if he wouldn't be used to hearing the word no, so maybe he was plain mean. Or into cross-stitching. Or he had halitosis. Or really gnarly toenails. Or maybe he was looking for something even more outrageous than "fun in all the wrong places."
Intrigue levels rising, Saskia wriggled the blood back into her fingers and scrolled to the mini-profile that had been sent out with the guy's initial contact.
Favourite Book: Catch-22 Drink of choice: double espresso Thing you say more than any other: Next Looking for: a wedding date, no strings
Pretty much bang-on to his picture, which was an anomaly unto itself. And Saskia did love an anomaly. That love had sent her from pure statistics into research in the first place. That moment reminded her why, as a seed of an idea sprang to life inside her.
Lifting her backside from her chair, she flicked through a pile of random papers till she found the press release Marlee at Dating By Numbers had sent over as part of the initial brief.
The number of people who had signed onand only to that one sitewas staggering. All of them had struggled using traditional avenues in their search for companionship, for sex, for love. Including her. And if a man who loved coffee as much as she did, had awesome taste in literature, and looked enough like a young Paul Newman to induce a drool epidemic had reached his thirties without finding someone, what would it take?
She'd been looking for an angle for her infographic, and she might just have found one.
When a massive Big Bang Theory mug appeared next to Saskia's elbow, she nearly jumped out of her skin. "God, you scared me half to death!"
"Not surprised. You have that weird scientist look in your eyes," said Lissy. The blue and purple tips of her long blonde locks bounced as she landed with a whump in the bouncy chair on her side of the paint-splattered old table they used as an office desk. "If it was legal I'd marry your espresso machine."
"Get in line." Saskia put her glasses on the desk, blinked to clear her eyes and, breathing in the rich scent of the cocoa enriched brew, let the huge mug warm her hands before closing her eyes and taking a sip. After Stu had taken off with everything she'd leased computers but bought a replacement espresso machine. Horse before the cart and all that.
"So, what are we working on?" asked Lissy. "The railway map thing? The business listing thing?"
"The online dating thing."
"Ooh, much more fun."
"I'll drink to that." They clinked mugs. "I think I've just had a bit of a breakthrough. I'm considering adding something extra to my analysisalong the lines of an equation for finding love."
Lissy stopped sipping at her coffee and blinked. "Like, chocolates plus flowers multiplied by heaps of hot sex equals never having to say you're sorry?"
Saskia laughed as she scrawled curlicues in the top corner of her legal pad, her mind whizzing now it had hit on something. "Not quite. Mathematics is natural. Love is natural. It only makes sense that it's mathematically quantifiable."
Lissy glanced pointedly at the pile of bills on Saskia's side of the desk which, for the first time ever included a late mortgage payment.
"I wouldn't be making work for myself, as I'm doing the research anyway," Saskia said. "And I think it would make a great anchor for the bottom of the infographic."
Then again, maybe Lissy was right. If Saskia wanted to wrestle back control of her mortgage payments, let alone get back to the renovations she'd been in the middle of doing when Stu absconded, she needed to focus.
Unfortunately, while Lissy was a crazy brilliant graphic artist, to her, focus was a foreign word. "It's never been done? This love formula thing?"
"Maybe," Saskia said, enthusiasm spiking again. "Or maybe nobody's ever tried. Perhaps somebody just needed inspiration."
"Like when Einstein was hit with that apple."
"Whatever. So, what hit you?"
"Nothing hit me." Saskia made the mistake of glancing at her laptop.
Lissy's eyes narrowed. Then, quick as a rattlesnake, she spun her chair round the desk and looked over Saskia's shoulder before she had the chance to snap the thing closed.
"Ha!" Lissy pointed. "Talk about inspiration. Who is that?"
Saskia's eyes skewed back to the monitor, to the bluest eyes and the hint of what would have amounted to an indecently sensuous smile if the photographer had only been kind enough to wait half a second more. "His handle is NJM."
"Handle? He's one of our online dating guys?" Lissy blew out a long, slow whistle. "Why did I let you be the guinea pig on this one?"
"Because you were dating Dropkick Dave and when he saw you smile at the greengrocer he snapped all your carrots in half."
Lissy winced at the memory. "I'll admit the guy was high strung"
Saskia coughed out a laugh at the understatement of the year.
"but Lordy the man knew how to kiss." With that Lissy disappeared into a daze. Saskia made a mental note to check Lissy's phone and make sure Dropkick Dave had been deleted.
With a shake of her head Lissy came to, tiptoed her chair back to her side of the table, and angling her mug at the back of Saskia's laptop, said, "Stats please."
Saskia shuffled the mouse and clicked on the link for NJM's full online profile. The sight of neat and tidy columns, of horizontal bars filled with information, of questions with answers, and she found her zen. "Six-two. Blue eyes. Dark blond hair. Financier. No interests listed."
Well, now, that just seemed a little sad.
"I put up my hand to give him some!" said Lissy.
Saskia laughed, then realised she was still rolling a finger over the mouse like a caress.
She lifted her hand and cricked her fingers. She was mid-knuckle-crack on her second hand when Lissy came out with, "Screw research. You should date him. For real."
Saskia's mouth twisted sideways. She noticed that her hand was on the mouse again, and it had somehow shifted till the little arrow hovered over the bright yellow button with the happy-fonted "Why not?" scripted inside of it.
Why not? "He's not my type."
"Honey, he's everybody's type. And don't even try to tell me you wouldn't be his. You've got that sexy geek girl thing that's so hot right now. And if he's on that site, he's looking for love."
"First, this is a job, not a cattle call. Second, he's not looking for lovehe's looking for a wedding date. Third, for all we know this is one of twenty dating sites he's listed on and he's completely indiscriminate."
"Wow. Strident, much?"
Saskia breathed out long and hard. "Lissy"
"I know, I know. You'll get there when you're ready. But, sweetheart, how long has it been since What's-his-name decamped?"
Saskia glanced at Ernest and in a stage whisper said, "Seven months."
Lissy whispered back. "The dog can't understand English."
"Oreos," Saskia said, this time at a normal decibel level.
Ernest woke with such a start he fell off the armchair. Three seconds later he was at Saskia's side, paws on her lap, claws stretching out the zigzags on her woollen tights in the hope of finding cookie crumbs.
"Later, baby," she said, ruffling his ears, and sending him back to the chair with a pat on the bum.
"Way I see it, this is your chance to try something new." Lissy reached out and turned Saskia's monitor so she could get a better look at the man thereupon. "Not some indigent fixer-upper, but a guy who's sexy and brilliant. A man who looks like he knows how to take care of himself for once. And take care of you, if you know what I mean?"
Lissy finished with a Groucho-style eyebrow-wiggle, then slurped at her coffee, shuffled in her chair and got to work.
Saskia tried to do the same, cracking the spine of a fresh yellow legal pad, writing "Dating By Numbers" at the top and "Love Formula" beneath. She crossed it out, tried to think of a more appropriate title and, no thanks to Lissy, couldn't.
Also thanks to Lissy, her mind kept curling back to the same conversation she and Lissy had had a million times over. Lissy postulating that Saskia's yen for needy guys came down to a childhood spent trying, without much success, to lighten the life of her clueless, maths professor, single dad. Saskia contending that she simply liked who she liked. And if that happened to be men who made her feel indispensable, then what was wrong with that?
Apart from the fact that it never lasted.
Her gaze swept back to the screen and she let it trail over every inch of yum.
NJM looked like the least needy man on the planet. But could he kiss a girl so well she'd forgive him for snapping her carrots? Yeah, she thought, tingles curling into existence inside her belly, I have a feeling he could.
But that wasn't why she clicked on the happy yellow "Why not?" button on NJM's email. She had a job to doa well-paying job. NJM was an anomaly in the heretofore predictability of the remainder of subjects in her study and therefore worth investigating further.
And while she had more work than she would ever have taken on at one time under normal circumstances, a girl had to eat.