It was a cozy pub that welcomed them with a blithe sign:

Never mind the dog—beware of the owner.

Everything else blended in with the earthen interior except Anna Williams. Her suit was a brazen-blue blazer and a matching skirt with sinuous, spiked-heel boots. Anna Williams was not bland, and she was never wallpaper.

A hat with a flashy feather drew the finishing touch to her looks, and Marduk had trouble keeping his eyes on the menu. He couldn't keep from paying Anna a glance here and there. Anna seemed to notice it, too, because her lips curved and she shone even more brightly. She was all coiffed and powdered and manicured and whatever voodoo women did to appear so attractive. It's working, Marduk thought and gulped.

"Is something wrong?" Anna noticed that the admiration had changed into reflection.

Marduk cleared his throat. "Not a thing," he said, surprising even himself when the usual rasp transformed into almost sexy huskiness. It still wasn't a pretty voice, but it was his.

Anna gave a surprised look, but then tilted her head at him and pursed her lips; that perfectly red Cupid's bow flirted with Marduk's head and distracted him from the pleased twitch that Anna's lower lip betrayed for just a moment. It is working, Anna decided, but a sudden bout of shyness overtook her. Afraid she would get a natural tint of rouge, she fumbled with her gloves; straightened the fingers again, set the cuffs symmetrically, and caressed the cornflower blue suede.

She had gloves, too? Marduk had missed that. Having gloves was so vintage and incredibly attractive. It was working for him.

"How is it?"

"It's great."

"Mine's fine," Anna said thoughtfully as she dabbed at her meal. The Waldorf salad had a touch of refinement to it.

"I wasn't talking about the food."

Anna's head tilt was reproachful, though it didn't carry significant displeasure. She was giving Marduk a long look under her eyelashes, but Marduk kicked back and lifted the glass to his mouth with a smirk. He watched in amusement as the feather swung back and forth while Anna decided whether to demand his show of cards. In the end, she settled for a reproaching look. "Funny man."

"A real comedian," Marduk said, and took hearty delight when Anna sputtered in her drink.

More space cleared as the plates were taken away. Once the bills vanished just as swiftly, Marduk had the entire table to himself and was finally able to act out story number dozen and counting. The crowd around them had changed as the evening had spanned, and to converse properly, Anna was leaning across the table. Come to think of it, she had been thusly inclined even before the commotion had begun. Marduk couldn't have been more pleased with the way the evening was going, and Anna seemed more relaxed by each date, too; she didn't fumble with her purse the entire time like she had done the first time.

"What's a pretty little thing like you doing with an ape like that?"

The peace had been savaged. The clientele profile had come to include a party of undesirables, belligerent and brash.

"Move along," Marduk said. The trouble had already brewed, and he cursed vilely for having stayed on long enough to become a trouble magnet. Like he cared for himself; he had gone to jail for slugging a man. He cared about Anna, who was going to leave in a huff if he dealt corporal punishment on this lot. She wouldn't speak to him again. He sat still and tried not to get mad.

As the slurs persisted and got more personal, Marduk's patience wore thin. The group of juniors was what he had for breakfast, and he didn't have to listen to this. His date didn't deserve to hear their rot. Then, a surprise came.

"Let me handle this, Craig," Anna said and patted Marduk lightly on the hand. The peacebreakers faded to inexistence, and Marduk's heart leapt. She stood up and, on her high heels, stood a head short from her company. Yet, her shapely figure didn't save her.

The leader of the men leered openly: partly pleased to acknowledge that the treat looked as good standing as she did seated, and partly annoyed because the treat was trying to wear shoes too big for her size. After the ineffectual battle, flirting made way for arrogance. "What's the matter? Don't tell me you got offended."

Anna cocked her head. At the same time, gracefully, she raised her spiked-heel boot and buried it below the belt. The pain caught the other patrons in a shockwave. The initial trauma still milled around as Anna placed her foot down and sent her hand into a sharp sweep that caught the second man and sent him staggering between the tables, fighting a losing match against gravity.

The third man didn't think twice about breaking the rules of gallantry: his fists balled dangerously. Rather than step away, Anna caught his fist before the momentum built too much to handle, and did an elaborate dive that surprised the man as much as it did the audience. It looked like she was about to cartwheel, but the momentum become a budding kick and then a strike before the audience could differentiate between the two.

The mayhem was increasing by the second. Looking around, too much was in shambles, but not broken. Not broken? The floor was littered with men over whom Anna stood triumphant, but there had been remarkably little damage. Reorganizing the furniture and taking out the trash would do it; the damage hadn't been on property. Marduk wanted to capture that woman against his chest and kiss her senseless. She was marvelous.

"Out, before I call the cops."

"She didn't start this," Marduk remarked. He was still sitting at the table.

"I saw that, and I said out. Be glad you didn't do more damage."

"Come, Craig. We aren't wanted here," Anna announced and flicked her head. Barely holding back a smirk, "Craig" followed.

Outside, Anna halted and waited for Marduk to catch up with him. She paid a thoughtful glance at the door and donned her gloves.

"Never mind the man—beware of the woman," Anna said as she linked her arm with Marduk's.

The way home went in the same cheerful disposition: between Anna's determined striding on heels that defied physics and Marduk's barely stifled grinning, as the spicy lady forgot her arm in his care, the walk back was a sporty performance. The going didn't slow down until Anna's building came into sight, and all too soon, the front door loomed in front of them.

Anna had been pondering about a subject in her head, and now found that she had to make a decision. They had gone out a few times already, it had been fun, and Marduk had certainly been patient. She supposed she must invite him in.

"Do you want to come up?"

A couple of seconds elapsed... and there was no drooling on her side. Anna looked back and found Craig Marduk waiting a respectful distance away. At her attention, he approached. "I'd love to come up more than anything, Anna," he said, and Anna was so befuddled she didn't object when he picked her hand in his, "but only when you really want me to."

Marduk looked her in the eye and bowed down, lifting her hand, and kissed her hand. He released her hand, and it fell to her side with a wisp of air.

"I'll pick you up tomorrow," he said and placed a kiss on Anna's cheek. Then he was gone, before Anna had gotten a word out. His back had receded far when she finally recovered.

Had he just said no to her?

Many thanks to all who have been reading and commenting!

Cordial thanks to Gypsie for the proofreading!

Published December 5, 2010.