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Are you sure you can handle him?

b from pulling if he saw a squirrel.


“I can handle him. I walk dogs for a dog walking service when I’m off in the summers. Sometimes, I walk three or four dogs at once. Don’t worry.” She was silent for a few seconds observing the way Everett played with him.


“I’m sorry they can’t be together while you’re gone. Looks like it would be easier on both of them.”


I didn’t want to tell her anything—especially not something so personal but something about her concern made me want to explain. “Everett is staying with his grandparents while I’m gone. They don’t like dogs.”


I sensed her studying my face, but I kept it carefully blank and my eyes on Everett. I didn’t want to see sympathy on her face or think about what it would be like to be away from my son for six months.


“Oh.”


That one word was soft and gentle, telling me everything she was thinking. It sucked. I was glad she hadn’t asked about Everett’s mother, Rebecca. It was usually the first thing people asked. Where’s his mother? Why can’t she watch him?


She chewed her bottom lip. “How does Everett do when you’re deployed?”


Normally, I would have shut this conversation down but something about her uncertainty made me want to answer her questions—ease her mind. “He stayed with his mother before, so his routine didn’t change much.”


Her face flushed as if she was embarrassed to have asked a personal question. “I’m sorry. It must be hard to be away from your son and your dog for so long.”


I braced my hands on the deck railing. “It’s my job.”


“I know, but still—”


She’d touched on something I didn’t want to think too hard about the day before my deployment. This time was different. I’d always been the provider, seeing Everett for visitation when I was home. Rebecca was there for the day-to-day stuff. I felt confident leaving him with her.


“Being a Navy pilot, your family must be so proud of you.” Her words hung in the air until she shifted on her feet.


I didn’t want to hear her backtrack when she hadn’t said anything wrong. She couldn’t know that my parents weren’t like other parents. It was time to go. “Thank you for taking Stark.”


She smiled, her brow raised. “I’ll take good care of him.”


My eyes tracked her hand as it lowered to my forearm and the warmth of her fingers seeped through my skin. When she lightly squeezed, my breath caught. When was the last time I’d been touched? Overwhelmed with the thought, I pulled my arm from her grasp. “I know you will.” Raising my voice, I said, “Everett, say goodbye. It’s time to go.”


“The organization suggested I send you pictures and updates once a month.”


“I don’t see that it would be necessary—” But Mia turned her attention to Everett as he clambered up the steps, Stark on his heels. “School starts in a few weeks. Does Everett go to the middle school in town?”


“He will.”


“Oh, did you just move here?” Mia asked.


“I was stationed in Norfolk, but my parents live here.”


“I’m the counselor at the middle school. What grade are you going into?” Mia asked Everett.


“I’m in sixth grade.”


“That’s great. I’ll meet with you either the first or second week. The first few days are so hectic.” She chewed her bottom lip. I couldn’t look away from her shiny lips. “Maybe I could set up times to bring Stark to Everett?”


That jarred me from my fixation on her lips. I didn’t like that she’d asked in front of Everett, but she flushed almost immediately probably realizing her mistake.


Everett smiled at me. “Can we?”


Mia was right, separating Everett and Stark was not a good idea but there was no way my parents would agree to this. They didn’t see any value in having a pet. “I’m not sure they’ll have time to meet up.” I knew they wouldn’t. Anything that took time away from their business was a waste as far as they were concerned. They certainly didn’t understand our bond with Stark—how he’d saved Everett after his mother left.

The light in Everett’s eyes dimmed.


I hated disappointing him. He’d already had so much of it in his life. “I’ll ask, okay?”

Everett dropped to his knees to give Stark a hug. I hated that he’d be separated from him and not for the first time, rage soared through my body that my parents didn’t want what was best for Everett, but what was easiest for them.


Everett kept his head down after patting Stark one more time. He was at the age where he felt the need to mask his feelings, but I knew he was upset. Following Mia to the front door, she opened it, and Everett stepped out, but before I could as well, she stopped me with a hand on my arm. “Can I contact you? Ease your mind while you’re over there?”


I cleared my throat. I didn’t want to maintain contact with anyone other than Everett while I was deployed. It made everything harder. “I trust you. Stark will be fine.”


“Please, I know it’s hard to be away from your child. I’m happy to send you updates about Everett as well as Stark.”


I chuckled humorlessly. “Oh, you’re never alone on the carrier.” I bunked with other men. We were below deck unless we were flying. Sleep was difficult since our beds were located beneath the flight deck.


Her hand remained on my arm and the other went to her chest. “I’d just feel better if I could send you messages to let you know that Stark and Everett are fine.”


Why did the idea of this woman—this stranger—worried about me send tingles through my body? Instead of feeling uncomfortable like I usually would, it felt nice, and that, freaked me out. “I communicate with Everett through Messenger. That’s the easiest way, but I should warn you—”


Her warm brown eyes were steady on mine as she took in every word I said.


“Sometimes there are blackouts and there’s no communication. You won’t get a warning. You just won’t hear from me. It doesn’t mean I’m unsafe.” As good as it felt, I didn’t want her worrying about my safety. It made me uncomfortable.


“Okay, thanks for the heads-up.”


I wasn’t sure my parents would update me like Rebecca had during my prior deployments. “Everett doesn’t always tell me if there’s an issue. Maybe having someone else looking out for him, letting me know how he was doing would be okay. I’ll email you my profile.”


She grabbed her phone from a side table in the hallway. “I can pull it up now.” I watched her tap to open the app and without looking at me, she asked, “What’s your name on here?”


“Mason Arrington.”


She shook her head and smiled. “I don’t know why I thought you’d have something different—or secretive.” It wasn’t my imagination, but her cheeks turned red.

“I only set it up to communicate with Everett. I don’t have any friends on there except for him.”


She looked up at me and smiled. “Well, now you have two. Let me send you a message so you have mine, just in case.”


She probably didn’t trust I’d respond to her message. She wasn’t wrong. I wasn’t sure I would or if it was a good idea even though I’d want to know how Stark was doing.

While she typed, my attention drifted to the framed family photographs on her walls. There were dozens of framed photographs, some in color, some in black and white, but in all of them—she was smiling, differently than when she’d smiled at me, almost resigned. She stood apart from what looked like her parents and possibly a brother, who looked about eight to ten years younger than her, at graduations, holidays, and dinners. Was it intentional? Mia had dark hair and eyes, but her family was blond.


“Be safe, okay?” She tucked her phone into her back pocket, her words softly spoken and filled with so much concern for me.


Another tingle shot through my chest and I resisted rubbing my hand against it. “I will.” Then I turned away from her, her hand dropping from my arm. I missed her soft touch and warmth immediately. Why did she affect me when no one else ever had? I purposely kept women at arm’s length. I wasn’t capable of anything more. Not when there was always a possibility of deployment. Not when I was the single parent of a child. Not when I felt nothing.


She followed me down the sidewalk to my truck.


“Thanks for keeping Stark for me.”

“No problem. I’m glad I could help out.”


I turned to find her smiling, but her eyes were sad, and I had to look away. I needed to go. How was it possible a woman I’d just met showed me more care and concern than I’d received from my family my whole life?


With one last nod at her, I opened the truck door and stepped inside. I didn’t look back at her or wave, but I knew she stood on the sidewalk watching us.

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