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No more distractions or other people getting in the way. It was time to get back to just Noah and her against the world.

Chapter Nine

One Week Later

DANI PULLED INTO the parking lot of the park, smiling as Noah squealed excitedly from the backseat. Dani had been working her butt off all month to pay off the repairs she’d needed on her car, and it felt like she’d hardly seen her baby at all. But today was the first day of her two weeks of paid vacation from the clinic, and although she only worked at the shelter twice a week, she’d gone ahead and taken the time off from them as well. She planned to spend as much time as she could with her son.

Climbing out of her door, she went to the back of the car first and grabbed the dogs’ leashes. Both of them nearly bolted away from her in their excitement to see the green grass, but she quickly got control of them and went to pull Noah out of the car. First, she struggled to get him into his warm, puffy jacket and mittens; then she placed his little knit cap with bear ears on top of his head. Finally, balancing him on her hip, she grabbed the diaper bag, and now that she was officially loaded up like a pack mule, she kissed Noah’s cheek.

“You ready to play?”

“Yay! Play!”

Once they were safely on the grass, Dani let Noah down to walk beside her and the dogs. They were the only ones in the park right now, probably because of the definite nip in the air, or maybe it was just too early for most people. Whatever the reason, the cooler temperature didn’t seem to bother Noah as he rushed toward the playground.

“Hang on, Noah, wait for Mama.” Dani found a good spot and drilled her two anchors into the ground. Hooking Shasta’s and Bella’s long leashes onto them, she spread out the quilt from her diaper bag and left the bag on the blanket to catch up to her toddling son, who had ignored her directive and was making his way toward the stairs.

“Hey!” she said in her loud mom voice. Noah stopped in his tracks and turned around, his thumb in his mouth. Dani knelt in front of him and spoke a little softer. “When Mama tells you to wait, you wait. Got it?”

Noah nodded, and Dani smiled. “Okay, climb.”

Popping his thumb out of his mouth with a grin, he started climbing. Dani followed along beside him all the way to the top of the smaller slide. Dani’s heart still climbed up and lodged itself in her throat every time, but she knew it was good to let him explore, to test his limits and gain confidence.

She didn’t need to transfer any of her fears onto Noah. She wanted him to be braver, stronger . . .

Better than she could ever be.

Suddenly, Shasta let out a guttural snarl and started barking. Dani caught Noah as he came down the slide and carried him over to the blanket to see what was bothering the dog.

In the parking lot was a tall man in a dark poofy jacket and beanie. In his hand was the leash of a large gray dog walking with a definite limp.

No way. It couldn’t be.

But as the pair moved closer to where Dani stood, she recognized Tyler’s handsome face and nearly groaned with frustration. As the only people in the park, it wasn’t as if she could ignore him.

What are you obsessing about? Because you got defensive? Or that you almost lost your mind and kissed him?

She knew by the expression on his face that he recognized her and held up her hand. “Hey there.”

“Hi.” He stopped a few feet from her, Duke at his side. In the weeks since she’d seen the dog, he’d put on weight, and although he was still dragging a cast along on his back leg, he looked good.

“Duke looks healthy.”

“So does Noah.”

Dani looked over at Noah, who was climbing back up to the top of the smaller slide. He slid down with a squeal, and before Dani could run over and catch him, he hit the ground on his butt.

His big eyes shot to hers in surprise, and she almost giggled at his expression. Except she could feel Tyler’s gaze on her and wondered if he was judging her.

“Whoa, buddy, was that fast!” Tyler’s tone was excited and jovial, and the toddler instantly responded by laughing.

“Yeah!” Climbing to his sneakered feet, he came over to stand next to Dani, never taking his eyes off Tyler. “Puppy?”

Dani couldn’t believe Noah remembered the puppy from the hospital.

Tyler knelt down, and she admired his attempts to avoid Duke’s tongue. “Hey, Noah. I’m Tyler. I don’t think we were ever properly introduced.”

Shasta and Bella whined and whimpered, straining at the end of their leashes, and Shasta growled as Tyler leaned toward Noah with his hand out.