Copyright © Angel Martinez 2018. All Rights Reserved, Totally Entwined Group Limited, T/A Pride Publishing.
“Thank you, Mr. Patterson, it’s a generous offer.” Diego fought against a weary sigh. “But the fae don’t have any interest in mass production. Even if such a thing were physically possible, the final result wouldn’t meet their standards.”
“But think of the revenue, Mr. Sandoval!” the voice on the phone enthused. “Even if we’re talking about a small quality dip, the merchandising alone—”
The cell phone rang from Diego’s desk drawer, the strains of Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream floating across Patterson’s oily business-speak.
“I’ll present the proposal to their majesties, Mr. Patterson, but I can almost guarantee the outcome of—”
“If I could present it myself,” Patterson broke in. “I’m certain we’d have a positive result.”
Diego Sandoval, the Human Consul for the Fae Collective, ran out of his legendary patience.
“Thank you, Mr. Patterson, but that won’t be possible. Now, I need to cut this short. I have other things to see to today. It’s been a pleasure talking to you.” It had not, of course. “Goodbye.”
Normally his admin, Carol, would have handled the likes of Mr. Patterson, but she had been away from her desk when the call came through. He could hear her scold him, Why didn’t you let it go to voicemail, Mr. S.?
“Why weren’t you where you’re supposed to be?” Diego muttered as he fished in his drawer. He stared at the display, which showed Carol’s desk phone. “And why are you calling my cell?” He put the phone to his ear. “Hello?”
“I did it!” Finn’s voice yelled over the line. “Hello, my handsome husband! I called you!”
Diego laughed. Finn in the office explained a lot, distraction-wise. “Yes, you did.” Then realization dawned. “You did? You dialed the numbers? Carol didn’t help you?”
A pooka’s brain could hold any number of complex magical structures. Shapeshifters and workers of water magic, they were capable of astounding things. Math was not one of them, and Finn had struggled simply to learn numeric symbols.
“No, I did it.” Finn’s smile lit up his voice. “Just me. I have it!”
“Mi vida, that’s wonderful. I’m so proud of you.”
“I think I’ll call Zack next.” Finn’s voice faded—apparently he’d turned away from the phone. “I can do that from here, can’t I, Car—”
A violent sneeze interrupted his question. Diego heard a clunk as if the phone had been dropped. In the background, Carol screamed.
Before his brain had time to register shock, Diego hurled himself from his chair and dashed down the hall to the front office.
The sneezes continued unabated and Diego turned the corner in time to see a rhinoceros knock the computer mouse off Carol’s desk as it turned, sneezed and vanished, replaced by a black tortoise. The tortoise sneezed and became a rooster. Sneeze. Ferret. Sneeze. Panther. Sneeze. Cricket.
The rapid succession of shifts finally ended with Finn sprawled naked and moaning on the hardwood floor, the three office staffers huddled behind the farthest desk.
“Everyone all right?”
“Yes, sir,” Carol answered for them all.
“The scream was because…?”
“He was a rat for a second. Sorry.”
“Deep breaths,” Diego told his startled office staff. “Just stay out of his way for the moment. Carol, run downstairs and see if any of the healers are in house. If not, see if someone’s willing to go through the doorway and find Eithne. Brad, grab a blanket for him, please.”
He crouched down to address Finn. “Caro, are you all right?”
“No,” Finn said on a whimper. His nose wrinkled. “Best move back, my heart. It’s—”
Diego only had time to scramble back three feet before the explosive sneezes returned. Feeling helpless and confounded, he could only watch as Finn sneezed through elk, goose, spider, blackbird, bull and salmon in rapid-fire shifts.
“Bloody hells,” Finn moaned as he returned to his own form, his long, black hair a tangled mass hiding half his face.
“You’re sick, aren’t you?” Diego risked a hand on Finn’s shoulder, his normally cool skin furnace-hot.
“No!” Finn snapped, then he sneezed again. Badger. Sneeze. Vole. “Perhaps.”
“I’d take you to bed, mi amor—”
“Best not, my hero. I might shift to dragon and crush you.” Another sneeze. Cormorant. Sneeze. Back to Finn who clutched his head in both hands, whimpering.
Heels clicked back down the hall toward them double-time, accompanied by Carol’s voice, “He’s in here, Princess Eithne.”
“Gracias a Dios,” Diego breathed in relief.
Eithne rushed in to kneel beside him, her black-furred ears swiveling atop her head. As a healer, she often spent her days at the Fae Embassy. Because she was the daughter of the Fomorian king, Diego relied on her advice and her good sense. She smoothed her short kilt over furred thighs, the only clothing concession she made for human sensibilities, and placed a hand on Finn’s forehead.
“Poor Fionnachd,” she murmured. “Are you cold?”
“Yes. Like a frozen lake.” Finn curled into a tight ball.
“And your head hurts?”
“It will split in two any moment.”
She turned to Diego. “You may move him now, if you wish. This will go in cycles.”
“So you know what this is?” Diego prompted as he slid his arms under Finn to lift him.
That was all she would say, though, and Diego assumed she didn’t wish to discuss it in front of the staff. He followed her upstairs to his living quarters. To the right, Zack’s bedroom door stood open, as it always did when he was away, everything neat and military polished, the bed made with precise hospital corners. Eithne shoved open the left-hand door that led to the suite Diego shared with Finn, the exuberant mess quite a contrast to Zack’s need for everything-in-its-place.
As gently as possible, Diego settled Finn on the king-sized four-poster bed and dragged the covers up over him. “Will he be all right?” he asked, fighting to keep the trembling from his voice.
“He will tell you otherwise, no doubt,” Eithne said as she took Finn’s face between her hands. “But he will live. Fionnachd, look at me.”
Finn did as he was told, black eyes swimming with pain as he gazed into hers. His panting slowed, his trembling ceased abruptly, then his eyes slid shut.
“There. Let him sleep,” Eithne whispered.
“I will.” Diego took her arm. “But could you please tell me what this is?”
She twined clawed fingers carefully with his and led him out into the hall. “I have not seen this in over a hundred years, but it was once common. It is shifter’s fever.”
Diego swallowed hard. “Is it…bad?”
“By that do you mean is it deadly? Then no.” She patted his chest. “Do not look so distressed. Your mate will be well again. There will be these bouts of uncontrolled shifting, followed by blinding headaches and a period of exhaustion. The time between will become longer and longer as he recovers. I have no doubt that he will whine and complain and try your patience before long, but he will not die from it.”
“So it’s something like a shifter version of a human cold?”
“Something like, yes.”
“Wonderful,” Diego snorted. “The uncommon cold. What do I do for him?”
“Comfort him, coddle him, and when the pain is bad, you know how to put him to sleep as I did. Stand clear when the sneezing begins. And keep other shifters from him.”
“So it’s contagious? Are you taking it back with you? Shouldn’t you wash your hands or something?”
Eithne’s feline eyes crinkled in amusement. “I do not shift, my dear druid-bard. I cannot carry this illness.”
“Oh.” Diego scrubbed his hands back through his hair. “So I can’t carry it either?”
She laughed softly. “You do everything else that is not possible. But no, humans have never caught fae afflictions.”
Another thought occurred to Diego as she turned to go. “Eithne? You said you haven’t seen this in over a century. Why did Finn catch it now?”
“For attention, perhaps?” She smiled still but shook her head, obviously puzzled. “I have no answer for that.”
Later, with the workday over and Finn through his second bout of sneezing and headaches, Diego sat beside him on the bed, trying to coax him into swallowing some peppermint tea.
“My throat is lined with sand,” Finn moaned.
“I know, mi vida. The tea will help.” Diego slid an arm under Finn’s shoulders to lift him and help him drink.
True to Eithne’s predictions, Finn had no qualms about complaining. Some of it was for attention—Diego knew his spouse well enough for that—but it concerned him that Finn was so weak and his complaints so listless. Diego turned on the TV to distract him and let Finn snuggle close, his head resting on Diego’s stomach. Two pundits argued over some point of economic policy, deadly boring, but he hoped Finn might doze off. A wave of guilt washed over Diego as he stroked Finn’s back, his cock stirring at the simple feel of his husband’s naked skin.
“You need not feel so ashamed, my heart,” Finn murmured and slid his hand down to cup Diego’s burgeoning erection. “I’m flattered that I still please you in such a sorry state.”
“Stop that.” Diego pulled his hand back up. “I’m not going to take you while you’re sick.”
Finn huffed out an irritated sigh. “At least change the channel to something less dreadful.”
“You’d rather watch one of your entertainment news shows?”
Diego snorted but changed the channel. “You’re going to rot your brain with those.”
“I like knowing who is screwing whom and so on.” Finn nestled closer and kissed Diego’s stomach. “It’s rather fun.”
“If you say so.”
The normal parade of overrated pop stars and Barbie-cloned actresses flitted across the screen. Finn devoured it all, staying stubbornly awake, while Diego began to doze off. He jerked awake when one of the hosts uttered a name he knew.
“Fae Collective Ambassador Prince Lugh mac Ethnenn was in New York a few nights ago and, ladies, your hearts are going to break when you see the tape we received from outside a popular Manhattan nightclub. So stay tuned!”
“Damn it,” Diego growled, now very much awake.
He had cornered Lugh the last time he was on the island and had engaged in a long and frank discussion with the sidhe prince about cameras and paparazzi and being discreet in his affairs. The world’s human governments needed to take the fae’s ambassador seriously, not regard him as a playboy. Lugh had protested that his encounters with humans had been brief and had not progressed beyond a kiss or two, but he had promised to be more careful. Now this.
The show returned to the host with a flattering still of Lugh in the background. Handsome even for one of the fae, but larger and more powerful than most of his more slender sidhe cousins, Lugh rarely took a bad picture. He wore his thick, black hair loose these days instead of in his warrior braids, since he said humans liked it better that way. His blinding white smile in this picture was nothing short of devastating.
“Ever since the fae decided to go public,” the host began, “Prince Lugh has been in every girl’s someday-my-prince-will-come fantasies. There’s been a lot of speculation about possible royal matches all over the world. But, ladies, we hate to disappoint you. A picture says a thousand words.”
The screen switched to the promised clip, a grainy security camera shot at the back door of a club. Lugh had someone up against the wall, his broad back hiding the person he kissed so thoroughly for a moment, but then he turned…
“Ay, Dios, no,” Diego murmured.
“Yes, folks,” the TV host went on. “It’s obvious which way the prince swings now and where he’s given his heart. We’ve confirmed that the man in this clip is his bodyguard and personal aide Zachary Morrison, who retired from the U.S. Marine Corps to assist the fae in…”
Diego turned the sound down, his stomach sinking to his feet.
“What is it, my love?” Finn turned on his back to look up at him. “This is not a surprise. We knew they would someday.”
“I know.” Diego heaved a breath. “It’s not that. It’s that they plastered it all over the news, over the whole continent. This isn’t going to be good for Zack.”
Finn’s brow creased as he puzzled it through. “Ah. You mean Zack is still in the basement?”
“The closet, mi amor. Still in the closet. Yes. His family doesn’t know, and this is a hell of a way to find out.”