“The trick,” Aeneas said, toothpick sliding behind one canine, “Is saying something.”
I peered out from behind the corner, casting a wary look across the street. “It’s not that easy.”
“’Course it is.” He leapt down from his perch atop the old milk crates, pausing just long enough to sweep a few stray strands of hair away from his muzzle. He gestured dramatically across the street to where she stood, as if I needed his direction. She caught my attention a few days earlier, when we first came to Aristides Plaza in search of work, and she’d been in the same spot each day, right around the same time. About the same age as me, she stood at least half a foot shorter, with a large bushy tail half as tall. She cradled a basket against her hip, filled with red and white single stem roses. And as anyone drew near, she rewarded them with the most, vibrant smile I’d ever seen.
How anyone walked away without a rose when she unleashed that, I’d never understand.
“Step one, you walk over. Step two, you open your mouth, and then wouldn’t you know it? The words just come tumbling out.”
“But that’s the problem. I don’t want just any words to come out. They should be… you know, the right words.”
“And by right words you mean, what exactly?”
The silence probably made my actual response superfluous. “I don’t know. That’s why I haven’t gone over there yet.”
“Owen, Owen, Owen.” The maned wolf patted my shoulder and shook his head, doing the annoying clicking sound with his tongue that always accompanied any of his self-styled lectures. “This is a remarkably circular conversation we’re having right now. Not that it’s anything new from you, but still. If you don’t know the words you want or seem to think you need to say to this lovely young lady, then how do you expect me to?”
“These things always come so much easier for you.”
He reached over and flicked my ear, and even in jest it hurt enough to make me jump a little. I bent it down and rubbed it, and turned my attention back to the object of my affection. Did I mention her hair? A gorgeous shade of auburn, a few sunkissed locks a more vibrant red, down just past her shoulders and with a slight curl. Like everything else, it suited her perfectly.
I looked back to Aeneas. To my horror, he smirked at me. That never ends well.
“The problem,” he announced at last, “Is that you don’t have my predatory magnetism.
I didn’t even try to suppress my groan. “Oh, this ought to be good.”
“Look at our ancestors, Easter. You’d be content to flit around a field, hopping from hedge to grass patch and back again, nibbling on dandelions and stomping on the ground if a leaf rustled by. My ancestors, on the other hand–”
“Look like foxes on stilts.”
“Mine, on the other hand,” he repeated, this time with added force behind the words, “Were designed to hunt. They were dangerous. There’s a little bit of a holdover. Just like Count Dracula, when it comes to the ladies, that both repels and attracts.”
“Repels, huh? So you finally admit it?”
“And which one of us has had a date in recent memory?”
“Yes, you. That’s why I’m asked for your help.”
Aeneas sighed, then strode forward and grabbed hold of my forearm. I almost lost my footing, making it easier for him to drag me out of the alleyway. I fell in step behind him at first, until I realized he was making a beeline straight for the flower girl. I tried to dig in, but my claws slipped against the pavement. As with most things, Aeneas wouldn’t be denied. He presented himself with a slight bow, while I tried my best to disappear behind him.
“Good day, ma’am.”
The squirrel Emejre chuckled, and I imagine it goes without saying I found it a cute, utterly charming sound. “Lemme guess, y’all needs flowers for your dates?” The southern twang in her voice caught me by surprise, but it didn’t feel out of place. I reached into a pouch to pull out some money, anxious to buy a rose and get out of there, but Aeneas spoke before I could stop him.
“That’s half the problem. I myself do need a rose. My long eared friend, on the other hand—”
“Has another sort of problem entirely. You see–”
I kicked his shin. It must’ve hurt, but his dedication to embarrassing me won out.
“He doesn’t have a date at all.”
Really, I wanted nothing more than Aeneas to let go of my arm in that moment, so I could run back to the alley, or maybe all the way back to the abandoned building that provided our temporary home. No, better yet, all the way back to the training grotto SPIA raised us all in. There was an unpleasant flush of warmth in my face and at the tips of my ears, which had now splayed back against my head.
“And since he apparently can’t speak at the moment, I’ll ask for him. Do you have any plans this evening?”
She leaned to the side, looking past Aeneas and her eyes met mine. They were a dark, deep shade of pink, like a pair of exotic gem. I remember that rhodonite crossed my mind as a possibility, identifying the exact stone easier to deal with than dealing with the reality of being face to face with a beautiful woman. Her ears perked forward as she looked at me, with the intense scrutiny of a scientist observing his experiment. I wasn’t sure if I passed inspection or not, but she jutted a thumb at me and looked back to Aeneas.
“So, he talk?”
“Hi.” I was about as surprised to hear my voice as anyone.
She turned back to and unleashed one of those amazing smiles. “Oh, so you do. Nifty.” She reached into her basket, withdrew a single rose, then stood up on her tiptoes to place a rose behind one of Aeneas’s ears. “There’s yer flower.”
“Thank you very much, Miss. And the cost?”
“That depends.” Back to me again. “So Mr. Silent Friend, you gonna take me out or what?”
My heart rose up into my throat at the speed of light. “Y-you will?”
“Ain’t the real question at this point, will you?” She lifted another flower from the basket and held it inches from my face.
“So no one else has asked you yet?”
“Phffft. Plenty of ’em have asked.” She rolled her eyes. “I ain’t heard nothing but cheesy pick up lines for the past two days. ‘Forget the flowers, how much for me to get my heart back?’ and that kinda crap. Now, y’all on the other hand.” She chuckled. “If this is some kinda elaborate act, it’s the best one I seen in a spell, and given how you still ain’t strung more than a single sentence together, I reckon it’s legit.” She gently bopped my nose with flower. “And even if it is a work, I like the originality.”
I could do nothing more than stare. Was she serious? I actually felt a little lightheaded, and one each twitched a little as I couldn’t even stammer out a response.
“Uh, buddy?” Aeneas said, adding a sharp elbow to my ribs. “I’m no expert, but I think you’re supposed to say yes now.”
“Huh?” I blinked, then added a force laugh, probably an octave higher than I would have liked. “Oh, yes. Yes. Of course!”
I finally took the offered rose from her hand, with my fingers brushing against hers and taking a little longer about it than either one of us might have expected. I wouldn’t have called it lightning, but definitely a bit of a charge. She took a step back, with that massive tail swaying behind her and bowed. “Now then, lemme tell you who you’re dating. Telara Ansara, at your service.”
“Owen.” I sputtered. “Owen Matthias.”
“Well then, Owen Owen Matthias, when can I expect you to pick me up for dinner?”
“Oh, um. Tonight.”
“I think we established that, hon. Got anything more specific?”
“What works for you?”
“I ain’t too particular. Your friend here have a time for his date?”
“Aeneas.” He extended a hand and she shook it, and I felt rather pleased it didn’t linger like our hands did. “How does 6:30 sound?”
She shrugged. “It sounds like a time. Wanna meet here?”
“S-sure,” I said.
“Well Miss Ansara, it’s been a pleasure. Now, if you’ll excuse me? I need to give my friend a refresher in the English language before we meet again.”
I could only manage a weak wave, which she responded to with a giggle and a smile, and Aeneas dragged me back down the street once more. I kept glancing back over my shoulder as she turned her attention to more customers, and selling more flowers.
Aeneas slapped a hand against his forehead. “Only you.”
“You scored a date by being a complete idiot. That girl must be into charity cases.”
“Maybe,” I replied, barely aware of what he’s said. Then a thought crossed my mind. “Hey, do you even have a date?”
He stopped in his tracks. “By the powers, you’re right.” He glanced either way, then walked down the street, where a cute, petite jaguar girl sat on a bench. He sat down next to her and stretched his arms out.
“Hi,” she replied.
“Doing anything tonight?”
“I suspect I am now.”
“Aeneas van Barkarne, your escort for the evening.”
“How does 6:30 sound?”
“Excellent. See you then.”
He hopped up off the bench and walked away, making it only a few steps before he offered an obnoxious grin.
“Predatory magnetism, my friend. Predatory magnetism.”
I’d find out a month later than he and Cinnia were already an item, and even talked about a few different plans to conspire for me to meet the flower girl. Even that fact failed to tarnish his reputation. Aeneas, as he so often did, managed the impossible. After all, he’d just scored me a date with the most beautiful woman I’d ever laid eyes on.
If only any of us had known how it would turn out.