Dr. Millicent Eidson, author of Firenze, is a public health veterinarian and epidemiologist, formerly with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and state health departments in New Mexico and New York.
The two-foot long fiery red dragon crept close to Janey on the bedspread after Óscar dropped it next to her. He stumbled when she screamed and leapt up behind him. Hysterics from a matter-of-fact scientist?
“What the fuck is that? And why in hell would you put it on the bed with me?”
“You love animals—I’ve cuddled your cats and dog.”
She shook her head in a rage. “We’ve been dating six months and you never mentioned this.”
“Lo siento.” He beamed a Poe Dameron grin. His fingers stroked her arms exposed by the yellow sundress she had worn to the August barbecue. Her leaning into his body—that was predictable. Until Firenze hissed.
The beardie pumped its body like a weightlifter. One clawed hand traced circles in the air and its throat pouch ballooned a haunting black. The jaw gaped, flashing dozens of small sharp teeth.
As Janey scooted toward the door, he steered her to the recliner where she perched, ready to escape.
When he reached over to stroke the lizard’s banded tail, its mouth closed. “Incredible, isn’t he?”
“You still haven’t said where it came from.”
“He’s a bearded dragon—originally from Australia. Firenze’s full-grown.”
“You still haven’t said where it came from.”
He was familiar with the no-nonsense epidemiologist look that came over her face. Brown eyes flashed under dark lashes. “Is he legal?”
He had no idea. “I stopped at a rest stop on the way to Deming, and this guy was haunting the picnic sites, freaking out the kids. I knew he wasn’t native, and needed a home.”
The dragon squirmed and he used both hands to stabilize it. “I could never have a dog or cat—with my restaurant, I’m never home. But when I am, it’s comforting to hear him shifting around in the enclosure when I fall asleep.”
Her skepticism clear, he lowered the animal into the glass container. “He’s not that aggressive most of the time.”
“When did you move this in? I was only in Phoenix for a week at the immunization conference. Do you think this is a romantic atmosphere?”
He flushed—she was right. He needed to make amends.
“I’m sorry to startle you. We’ll close the closet door when you sleep over. I couldn’t let Firenze starve—he wouldn’t know how to find food in the desert dirt.”
He dangled collard greens toward her. As her fingers accepted the veggies, he guided her arm toward the open tank top. “Feed him one leaf at a time. I promise he won’t bite.”
While she was distracted, he pulled out his insect containers and a white plastic bowl, sprinkling calcium powder along the bottom. Small gray crickets danced inside as he coated them with the bone-strengthening mineral. Next he dumped wriggling brown meal worms and yellowish wax worms into the mix, still stirring. He handed her the bowl.
“Will these little guys freak you?”
“I’m okay when they’re contained like this. But they look like bot fly larvae that crawl into our open wounds or bury under our skin, later breaking out.”
He twitched. “And you think Firenze is ferocious? You public health people have gross stories.”
After coating three-inch Madagascar hissing cockroaches with the powder, he handed one of the larger ones to Firenze with a pair of tongs. The long pink tongue flashed forward.
She flinched. “Roaches? As if Tucson apartments aren’t already plagued by them.”
He placed the glass lid on the aquarium and changed the subject. “Bet you’re wondering how he got his name.”
“Ezio Auditore da Firenze is a master assassin in Assassin’s Creed.”
She shook her head and headed to the bathroom. “I didn’t realize you were one of those video game nerds.”
Coming up behind, he pressed himself against the short skirt. “Between you and the business, I’ve no time for teen boy hobbies.”
After sliding out from his embrace, she stepped back and thrust his hands under the faucet. “No touching until you’re cleaned up.”
Her being forceful, and the finger massage, was a turn-on. Until she added, “And if you want me in your bed, the assassin needs to say adiós.”
In early January, Janey’s impression when she first met Óscar Hernández wasn’t favorable. She offered a firm handshake as she entered Loroco, his Salvadoran restaurant named for an imported flowering vine used in pupusas, the most popular dish. After a New Year’s Eve party, more than two dozen patrons had developed projectile vomiting and unrelenting diarrhea.
“For the people at your party,” she said, “the state lab confirmed norovirus infection, like on cruise ships.”
“¡Púchica! So they spread it among themselves—not my fault.”
“Norovirus can be person-to-person when sharing ship cabins. But these people got sick all at the same time, early New Year’s Day, except for a few family members who didn’t attend the party and got sick a day later—secondary transmission.”
She took a deep breath to finish. “The initial outbreak was point source, same time and place, and the only thing in common is your party.”
He stood up and slammed a menu against his desk. “Just guesswork. My staff are the best—there’s no way they did this.”
So they didn’t meet cute. But she turned on her earnest charm. She was a researcher, not regulatory like one of the County inspectors—just wanted to solve the mystery and prevent it from happening again. She walked out with the full reservation list and phone numbers.
After working for the next few days on phone interviews, she reached most at the restaurant on New Year’s Eve. Her statistical analyses comparing those who got sick with those who stayed healthy revealed a strong association with baleada, a Honduran dish. Within a few hours of providing Óscar the results, he asked her to join him during staff interviews.
“Soy tan malo, doctora,” a twenty-something line cook said in tears.
“Not a doctor, only a master’s degree,” Janey answered. The noisy sobs of the young man were unnerving. “What happened?”
The cook darted quick glances to his boss, older by a decade. Perhaps it was a bad idea to allow the owner to stay during the interviews. But he insisted, and his charm was irresistible. His posture implied he was used to getting what he wanted. She twisted in her chair as the baleada-maker struggled for words.
Óscar touched her arm. “Señorita Johnson, could I translate? Guillermo is from my hometown of Ciudad Barrios, but he’s a recent immigrant. Unlike me, who escaped as a child, he doesn’t know English well.”
Janey recalled some Spanish from her Tucson High School and U of A classes, but couldn’t follow everything that Guillermo said. She picked up Archbishop Romero’s name, but looked into Óscar’s dark eyes for assistance.
“Guillermo says he wants to be honest and courageous like His Eminence, who was executed during a sermon asking the military to stop repression of the poor.”
Fidgeting again, she tapped the pen on her notebook. She appreciated the history lesson but didn’t understand its relevance.
“Guillermo’s job was stuffing flour tortillas with beans and cheese. He got a rip in his glove but was in a hurry and didn’t change it. And he was ill a few days earlier.”
Tears continued to leak down the cook’s cheeks.
“He feels terrible that he made all those people sick and wants to make penance.” Óscar added, “And I take personal responsibility—I shouldn’t have dismissed your initial inquiry.”
She was impressed that Óscar didn’t fire the cook, in light of the black mark on the restaurant’s reputation. Instead, he invited her to reinforce food safety protocols for all staff. Although he was intimidating when they first met, during the training she saw the easy camaraderie and professionalism between the boss and his employees.
For her twenty-ninth birthday, he phoned her to dine at Loroco as his guest.
“I don’t have a birthday this year,” she protested.
“Your colleague told me, but surely your family celebrates it on February 28 when it’s not a leap year.”
The skin on her forearms reddened. Thank goodness they weren’t on FaceTime where he could see it. “I’m not sure it’s appropriate for us to meet socially.”
“Okay, I understand you won’t accept a meal at my restaurant. But if you can’t be friends with people you meet through work, your world will be a lonely place. It’s too full of germs—you’ll eventually bust everyone in Tucson for their lack of hygiene.”
Although his voice was persuasive, she didn’t change her mind. Too much overlap with work. But another idea flashed and she made the offer before thinking. “I’m taking the day to explore the Desert Museum. Want to come along?”
An hour later, she waited under a palo verde, bark and branches still olive green even in winter with dropped leaves. As he roared up to the museum entrance on a Harley, she strolled over to greet him.
“Downright balmy,” he said while unzipping the black leather jacket. “My friends in Oracle had snow yesterday.”
Not a date. But he was so exotic, like a panther hiding its spots. Too good to be true, especially when the ticket clerk recognized him and summoned the Museum Director.
“Thanks for your generous food donation during our last fundraiser, Señor Hernández.” The Director shook his hand. “Would you like a backstage tour?”
If Óscar said yes, she wouldn’t have to be alone with him. Why was that a worry when she initiated the invitation? But he shook his head. “We’ll stroll on our own. Pretty quiet today.”
“Yes, the bad weather scared everyone off. You might have a few areas to yourself.”
They started in Cat Canyon. Somewhere between the bobcats and the ocelot, he held her hand. Somewhere along the Desert Loop trail amid the towering green columns of saguaros, his leathered arm reached down to hug her shoulder.
Electric tingles, despite the clothing separation. She shook her arms to interrupt the confusing sensation. So many months since a date or flirtation—a woman who collected poop samples didn’t appeal to most guys.
Behind the wire fence, several javelina rooted in the dirt, while others stretched out, basking in the winter sun. Óscar gestured to the brown wild boars with coarse salt and pepper hair.
“Buddies and I almost got nailed by these guys when camping in the Chiricahuas.”
Cumulus clouds built up and the air cooled, threatening to rain. Like most natives, she loved the smell of the desert in a rainstorm, but shivered—he tightened his embrace.
“They can be aggressive,” she said. “I heard of a wildlife park volunteer who got nailed—he wasn’t sure which animal. Regulations require euthanasia and testing for rabies.”
As he tilted her face up, her heart skipped a few beats. His fingers were warm and roaming, brushing her lips. But the mood was interrupted by his response. “They didn’t kill and test them all because of one guy’s stupidity?”
“No, no,” She pulled away to start down the dirt trail, then turned back to smile and reassure him. “The guy volunteered for rabies treatment, so examining javelina brains wasn’t necessary.”
“That’s a relief,” he said. “Animals shouldn’t suffer when we’re the idiots.”
As they exited the grounds at closing time, he tugged her toward the motorcycle. “I have an extra helmet—join me on a ride up Gates Pass for sunset?”
Her practical mind went into calculation mode. “Doesn’t make sense. We’d have to backtrack here afterwards to retrieve my car.”
His fingers raked her hair—tiny flashes of lightning at the roots.
“Come on, live dangerously. Have you ever been on one of these?”
“Why not?” She grabbed the extra helmet. She’d never ridden a motorcycle. Too many injuries and death in the county health data, although she was capable of leaving those theoretical threats behind. The museum director’s respect and the restaurant staff’s adoration inspired trust.
After hopping up behind him on the hog, she glued her arms to his sides and slipped her fingers beneath the front of his jacket to press into his belly. With each tilt of the machine through the switchback mountain passes, her fingers slid between the shirt buttons and glued to his hard abdominals. Finally parked at the pass, he lifted her off the bike and kissed her fingers.
“Bit nervous? I might have bruises.” His tone chastised but his eyes were friendly. She ducked her own. The ride had been intoxicating, in more ways than one.
On the mid-week winter evening, there were few cars in the parking lot. Óscar led her up the steep dirt path higher on the mountain for a private rock perch overlooking the clouds darkening with bright colors.
First came his lips caressing the back of her neck, but she didn’t discourage him. Her eyes stayed focused on the western colors, and her skin burned. When he twisted her in his arms so their foreheads touched, she stopped him.
“What are we doing? I’m not anything special.”
Both of his hands held her face. “Not special? You must be kidding. Brilliant mind, forgiving heart.” He smiled. “And you didn’t close me down.”
Uncomfortable with the connection between work and personal, she bent away.
“Just kidding.” After pulling her back against his chest, hands crept up her torso over the jacket. “Forgot to mention—I’m intrigued with your curves. But with these winter clothes, some of that is supposition.”
Had to take a leap sometime—she pulled down her zipper and guided his hand in. “Let’s make it more than a supposition.”
Dr. Fred Grinwold, New Mexico Department of Health State Epidemiologist, looked up to greet his young mentee.
“Those three siblings in Las Cruces,” Maya said, “the ones hospitalized with Salmonella and bloody diarrhea? They all had two different strains, Cotham and Kisarawe.”
While swiveling side-to-side on the old-fashioned rocking oak chair, he tried to remember the first Salmonella outbreak during his own two-year Centers for Disease Control and Prevention assignment to the state twenty-six years ago. Kids swallowed the bacteria when playing in the dirt downwind of a local petting zoo with infected animals.
After rubbing his forehead to organize his thoughts, he adjusted his glasses and studied Maya. He wanted a CDC Epidemic Intelligence Service officer who was a preventive medicine physician like himself. Everyone was more comfortable with a known quantity. But her broad skills as a veterinary epidemiologist had paid off with the anthrax and other outbreaks this past year.
“Friday before Labor Day weekend—why do notifications of outbreaks always come in on Fridays?” He smirked at his own rhetorical question, knowing the answer: concerned patients contacting the doctor’s office before closing, the lab finishing its backlog for a lighter load of emergency specimens on Saturday, and the upcoming three day holiday weekend that amplified everyone’s sense of urgency. Only public information officers liked Friday afternoons—a convenient time to release news and avoid subsequent hysteria, with reporters also preferring time off.
“Get down to Cruces and figure out what’s going on,” he ordered. “About ten percent of Salmonella cases are from animal contact, so you’re the right person to work with the local office. Soil is another potential exposure—bacteria can stay viable for weeks after contamination. Call me on my cell with updates.”
After she left, he lifted his shirt and pressed the receiver against the continuous glucose monitoring sensor embedded under the skin. Level fine—he didn’t want diabetes to interfere with his romantic weekend. He poked Bingham Nancy on his contact list and listened for the ring.
She didn’t pick up—just the sound of her intelligent, aging voice, which he still loved after all these years. Whenever they missed connections, he worried about her mild heart attack three years ago, probably related to the Chagas Disease she contracted from a triatomine bug bite during a 1993 night of passion in Sonora, Mexico. He still blamed himself—if he hadn’t slept so soundly, he might have noticed the bug before it exposed her.
“Nan, I’m headed out to Pinetop. I’ll meet you at the resort. Still not sure I want to lose money at the casino, but you could always persuade me to do anything.”
Nancy awoke to joyful bird song—in the cooler eastern Arizona high altitude, she and Fred had left the window ajar. She opened her eyes to delicate lace curtains filtering soft morning light through the thick forest of ponderosa pines. As she sat up, she clutched the fluffy pink robe around her shoulders.
Some things never changed, even after more than thirty years. Fred snored on the other side of the bed, blissfully unaware of the magical sunrise. She could wake him up, but last night had been rather vigorous. While she relaxed under the soothing warmth of the shower spray, the frosted door squeaked open and Fred joined her. The stall wasn’t large but Fred was, so she couldn’t avoid skin to skin contact, even if she wanted to, which she definitely didn’t. His thick fingers shoved the hair out of her eyes, then he kissed them. Maybe this never got old because she lived in a separate state and didn’t formalize their relationship—was that the secret to long-lasting love? Always wanting more.
After helping him soap up and rinse, she left him alone in the small bathroom to dry off. Dressed in navy pants with a pink sweater over her yellow blouse, she sat on the edge of the bed to yank sensible black tennis shoes onto swelling feet. As he rejoined her in the bedroom, he pulled on his own dark brown pants and shirt, and held her hand as they ambled down the corridor to the restaurant.
No sooner had they ordered blueberry pancakes and drinks—green tea for her, black coffee for him—than her cell phone rang. It was Janey Johnson, the epidemiologist with Pima County.
“Dr. Bingham, sorry to call so early on the holiday weekend. I hope I didn’t wake you?” The young woman’s voice was courteous, but she sounded stressed.
“I’ve always been an early riser,” Dr. Bingham said. “What’s up?”
“My boyfriend is hospitalized at Tucson Medical Center with Salmonella—two unusual serotypes.”
Nancy nodded her thanks to the server who topped off the hot water, and caught Fred’s frown. With both being the epidemiologic leaders for their states, they knew it was a 24/7 kind of job. But they got so little time together, with her in Phoenix and him in Santa Fe, that he was jealous of any distractions. She mouthed, I’m sorry, and returned to the call.
“How’s he doing, Janey?”
“Dehydrated—they’re giving fluids. Bloody diarrhea, weak. He’s the owner of a popular restaurant and works long hours. He doesn’t cook, just manages everything.”
Nancy stood up from the table and stepped through to the outside deck as the server delivered their breakfast and Fred’s cell also rang. She settled down on the wooden picnic table after verifying no one else nearby.
“If he was working during his illness,” Nancy said with an authoritative tone, “make sure you or the restaurant inspector are reviewing their procedures and doing surveillance for more cases.”
She heard exasperation in the young county staffer’s voice.
“You don’t need to remind me—I’ll take care of it as soon as we hang up.”
Normally, Janey was the picture of cheerful politeness, but her boyfriend’s illness clearly had her rattled.
Fred came into view, holding his cell to his ear while directing the server with hand gestures to move their breakfast outside. Then he sat at the opposite corner of the table, his voice quiet enough to avoid distraction.
“What were those serotypes?” Nancy directed the question into her own iPhone.
“Kisarawe and Cotham,” Janey said. “Hope I’m pronouncing the first one right.”
“Not triggering my brain cells either. I’ll call our lab director and see if someone can check for other cases. Can’t promise how quickly they’ll get that done on the weekend. Earlier non-computerized records will have to wait until Tuesday.”
“Thanks, Dr. Bingham.”
“No problem. Let me know if anything changes. I’ll be in touch if I hear about more cases from anywhere in the state.”
Her index finger detected medium warm pancakes and she took a bite. The call to the state lab could be postponed until after breakfast. Fred continued his conversation while she emptied her plate. The soft piquant berries burst in her mouth—must be something urgent if he was ignoring his favorite treat. She dipped a spoon into the whipped cream on top of his stack. She never ordered any, watching her weight, which slowly crept up over time. But stealing some of his frothy topping—not a major dietary sin.
Then she remembered her promise to Janey—phone the state lab. Her mind was slipping lately—shouldn’t be feeling old at fifty-six. Recuperation was challenging after the heart attack from Chagas infection, and the doctor had warned her about neuro impacts, too. But mental slowing with age was normal—nothing but low oxygen from high altitude at their ridgetop retreat. Fred’s red blood cells were adapted from life in the Sangre de Cristo mountains of Santa Fe, but hers from living in Phoenix weren’t.
By the time she verified no additional cases and no prior record of those serotypes, Fred wolfed down his own breakfast. “They could reheat those for you if you asked,” she said.
“Not worth the wait,” he answered, but he waved down the server for more hot coffee.
“You were on a long time,” she observed.
He nodded while bringing the fork to his mouth. After swallowing, he answered. “Yes, talking to Maya. She’s in Cruces for a Salmonella outbreak. A one-year-old died of bacteremia, and two siblings are hospitalized. Despite antibiotics increasing adverse effects and prolonged shedding, they decided to add them to the treatment protocol for the other kids. They’re not recovering and have been hospitalized a week.”
“Interesting,” Nancy said while wiping her syrup-sticky fingers on the cloth napkin. “My call was from Janey Johnson at the Pima County Health Department. Her boyfriend’s also very ill with Salmonella. What’s the chance cases almost three hundred miles apart are related?”
Several Mountain Chickadees swooped in to battle over the pancake crumbs on the rough-hewn deck, alternating clear trills with more threatening screeches. Bird watching was one of her favorite, if infrequent, outdoor activities with Fred. But she needed to stay focused on work, sometimes a challenge since the heart attack.
“Cotham and Kisarawe serotypes with matching PFGE patterns for all six of our cases,” she dimly heard him say as she pulled her gaze away from the black and white capped birds.
“Could you repeat that?” She shifted closer across the table.
“Not going deaf, are you?” he teased. “I hope you’re following up for your Chagas. You remember the doc said you could have effects decades later.”
“Fred, you’re sweet to worry, but I’m fine. The Tucson case is unusual, two serotypes in the same patient. Arizona hasn’t diagnosed them before—Kisarawe and Cotham.”
His face flushed—his emotions were always obvious to her. “Same with us. But those strains have been isolated by the National Veterinary Services lab in other states in recent years, from bearded dragons.”
“What the heck is that?”
He answered with a quick search on his cell phone, and held up a photo. “They’re a trending reptile pet. Maya said there’s more than fifty million reptiles imported each year, and all are at risk for shedding Salmonella.”
She shook her head in disgust. “Learn something new every day in public health, often bad. I wonder if it’s a Game of Thrones effect—you know, the dragons?”
He nudged his plate aside and unwrapped his bulk from the bench. She stepped around the end of the table.
“I guess we both have work to do.” She smiled to soften the blow. “Our morning mountain horseback ride will have to wait.”
“The family with the three infected toddlers has a dragon, and Maya is checking for the other cases. I need to review her draft Epi-X notification to other states.” He returned her smile and reached out to ruffle her short gray-salted brown hair. “At least Arizona is already in the loop.”
Óscar’s brain slowly reawakened, and unfamiliar words filtered in through a long tunnel.
“This is incredibly rare. Most cases of Salmonella brain and spinal cord infection—meningitis—are in children under age two. Unfortunately, the mortality rate can be high.”
Sounded like one of those imperious physicians. With a healthy diet, lots of pumping iron and running, he never needed one before.
Then a familiar voice, higher pitched than he remembered—Janey. “Those muscle twitches in his arm, are they like seizures?”
“Yes,” the invisible doctor answered. “But we’ve switched Óscar’s antibiotic to a fluoroquinolone. That should be more effective.”
As he forced his eyelids open, the room spun in a gauzy haze. He felt hands on his arm tighten and swiveled his head to glimpse her.
“Change in treatment seems to be working. Miss Johnson, can you step back? I need to do a neuro exam.”
The next week in the hospital was long and tedious. He couldn’t remember ever being flat on his back and mentally sluggish for such a period before. His executive chef stopped by to update him on Loroco. Everything was humming, and no staffer, patron, or friend caught the bacteria from him. They completed a deep cleaning, and Janey assisted with environmental sampling, including the dirt around the picnic tables out front and the dumpster. Everything was handled without him—he could set aside micromanaging for once. Janey assured him she took care of his apartment.
On Saturday, she introduced him to the doc in Phoenix she reported to, Dr. Nancy Bingham. But Janey worked for the county, not the state, so he didn’t understand their relationship. The lady was stocky, with graying hair and lively brown eyes behind the thick glasses. Janey and Dr. Bingham huddled in the corner with the neurologist, then Janey floated back to his side. Those lips that he loved to kiss were spread wide as she giggled. What would make her so light hearted?
“Sweetheart, lab says you’re no longer shedding Salmonella. We can go home.” Janey never used terms of endearment—clearly the hospitalization had changed a lot of things.
“Mr. Hernández, or can I call you Óscar?” He nodded, noting the maternal arm around Janey’s shoulder.
“I don’t want to intrude on your home-coming, but Janey’s one of our best county staff. This week’s been rough for her, so I came down to touch base and give her support.”
At the hospital entrance, Dr. Bingham pushed his wheelchair forward as Janey pulled her Honda up to the curb. Janey swung her shoulder under his and helped him into her passenger seat.
“I’ll meet you two at the apartment,” the lady doc said. Which one, his or Janey’s? But when he spotted the tan stuccoed building, he knew the answer. As Janey jumped out to open his door, the doc met them at the curbside with the lightweight wheelchair. “This fit better in my Odyssey than Janey’s Civic.”
Janey was chipper as she maneuvered him past the beckoning blue pool. She must have noted his yearning gaze. “Neurologist said swimming will be great therapy—get your muscles in shape again after the bedrest. Tomorrow morning before the temp breaks a hundred?”
He was glad he’d chosen a ground-level place—made it easier for Janey to maneuver inside his front door. The drapes on the sliding glass door to his back patio were wide open. Waving a weak arm in that direction, he asked her, “Could we sit outside for a bit? I miss the sun and fresh air.”
After snagging his cowboy hat from the end table, Janey guided him through the door that Dr. Bingham held open and then slid closed.
“Over there in the corner near the rose bush,” he instructed. “I want to feel the full force baking my body, and Peace blossom scent for aromatherapy.”
“You don’t mind if I corner your girl here under the awning?” Dr. Bingham asked. “Direct sun can get too much for me.”
He shook his head and rested his eyes, letting his mind and body fully relax. It was wonderful to be home, not a single worry. Life-threatening illnesses had one benefit—a reminder of those he valued most.
Janey’s voice drifted in and out.
“Real wakeup call”—good, she was also appreciating the relationship more.
“But he’s not so sympathetic to undocumented immigrants”—hell yeah, the Hernández family followed the rules, and others should too.
“He sneers when he talks about Bernie Sanders and socialism”—growing up in an unstable region with fanatics as leaders will do that to you.
“And he’s pro-life”—what else would you expect from a good Catholic?
Getting picked on, he wanted to defend himself, but the sun seeping through blue jeans was too enervating. His head dropped to his shoulder— not dozing, but blissful.
Dr. Bingham’s voice was more forceful. “Do you want to dismiss half the population who have more conservative views than yours?”
Janey didn’t answer.
“Is he generous and kind to his staff and friends? Does he respect you as a career woman?”
Janey’s lovely lilt answered that one. “I think so. He’s a pain in the butt sometimes, but yes. His parents named him after Archbishop Romero, from his home town, who’s now a saint. Not a bad role model. ”
“Respect is paramount—more important than any different beliefs. Sometimes differences enrich a relationship. I never married, but have some experience with that.” The older woman’s voice halted—was Janey going to respond? He was curious about her answer. But Dr. Bingham continued, “Did you resolve the dragon?”
Firenze—his pet had slipped his muddled mind. One of them had set ice tea next to his chair, and he reached for the cool glass. A hit of caffeine should get him back in the ball game.
“My baby,” he said, and their heads both snapped toward him. “Janey, did you take care of him?”
She stood and dragged her lawn chair over. “Of course, Óscar. I gave him all the healthiest foods, like you showed me. But a vet took him for sampling, to send to the national lab and find out if he had the same Salmonella strains as you. I’m sorry, we have a big outbreak, with many people sick across multiple states. One little girl even died.”
His face contorted in horror. They TOOK him?
“Firenze’s Salmonella genetic patterns matched the human cases, including yours. According to my samples, bacteria even spread to your backyard. I cleaned up as much as possible.”
Dr. Bingham interrupted. “There’s no way to clear up Salmonella from a reptile. Some tried experimental antibiotics with small turtles, but they weren’t effective enough to declare them safe. These particular strains are very nasty, leading to invasive disease and a disseminated blood infection in the child, neurologic infection for you, and a dozen other serious gastrointestinal cases, including secondary spread within families.”
He opened his mouth to argue, but Dr. Bingham held up a hand and continued. “You know the importance of food safety. One New Mexico foodhandler is ill. My counterpart, Dr. Grinwold, and his staff are tracking down restaurant patrons.”
With the two women finally in a pause, he straightened his spine and knocked aside Janey’s comforting hand. “You KILLED him?”
Janey’s hand went back to his shoulder and he let it stay. “Oh, gosh no, Óscar. I’m sorry I couldn’t consult with you, but you were unconscious. After Firenze tested positive, he couldn’t come back here. Well, they might have allowed it, but I love you and couldn’t chance another infection, of you or me.”
That expression of love was a new one. Over the past six months, they’d become close, spending as much time together as their busy work schedules allowed. Until Firenze, she practically lived at his place on the weekends. But they both did things related to Firenze without telling the other. That dragon really cast a spell.
“So if he’s not dead, where the hell is he?” After her passionate reveal, he regretted the question sounding harsh.
The softness of fingers stroking his brow was soothing, almost enough to settle him down.
“A new reptile museum in Wilcox was eager to give him a home, despite the Salmonella. He’s a wonderful specimen, and they know how to be careful. Maybe they can do some antibiotic therapy research. So he’s not far away. Depending on how your recovery goes, we could visit him next week.”
With her eager expression, how could he say no? He wanted to be royally pissed, but her warm eyes were too inviting. Taking both of her hands, he growled in frustration. “Better be thinking of ways to make this up to me.”
She was a serious person, and he didn’t see her grin often. But this time, it was miraculous when she leaned in for a deep kiss, tongue stroking his. Nothing stood in their way.
“Ahem, I should head to Phoenix.” The comment from the sidelines reminded him of their audience.
“Excuse me, amante, I’ll be right back.” So she could use Spanish to get on his good side.
By Thursday, he recovered enough for the eighty-mile trip as a passenger. He never before let anyone drive his gleaming black Lincoln Navigator. But she took time off work and spent every minute of the past few days making him feel heavenly. Bubbly cuddles in the bathtub before he felt strong enough to stand in the shower. Lots of whispers of amor, and physical demonstrations of it. A guy should almost croak more often.
His heart rate increased as they hopped out in front of the small adobe walls lining a graveled patio. “Miniature Desert Museum,” he said. “Like our first date on your birthday.”
He couldn’t wait to see his beloved pet again, the only one he ever had. His parents had been strict—money was too tight to waste on animals. As he crawled his way up through the restaurant industry, he’d been too busy to make the commitment to any companion.
Firenze lived with him only a couple of weeks after the rescue from the rest area but the dragon had seemed to enjoy the close contact. Perhaps it was in response to the hand that provided food. The hostile encounter with Janey on the bed had been a surprise—she was shorter and presented less of a threatening appearance.
By Thursday, he recovered enough for the eighty-mile trip as a passenger. He never before let anyone drive his gleaming black Lincoln Navigator.
Inside the small museum’s carved pine doors, he spotted Firenze, front and center in a huge enclosure, uncovered and filled with native plants. His hand snaked out to toss a pelleted treat. There was a double barrier, so he couldn’t reach him, but he hoped Firenze would remember the gesture. Until his buddy rose up on all four legs and hissed, tail slashing, and baring those fifty-odd teeth. Traitor. Oh well, time to move onto something softer in bed.
After tugging Janey to a small chortling waterfall in a fake rainforest to the side, he feathered loose brown hair away from her face and pulled her close for a kiss. “How about we formalize this new family, you and me, no bearded lizards?”
He wrested out of his front pocket the family heirloom, a deep sea blue ring, surrounded with sparkling diamonds. Larimar, one of the rarest gems in the world, found only in one square kilometer of the Dominican Republic. Called the Atlantis stone, with healing properties—just what they needed to stitch together their souls despite all their differences.
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