WITH THE squeaky toy echoing in his ears for the millionth time, Marco tried to get the dog to look at him. He needed one last picture with Snickers looking straight at him.

Marco had to be careful—he wanted Snickers to only turn his head. The dog’s body was perfect. If he squeaked the toy too loud, the dog would move and everything would go to hell. And it would be another half an hour before he’d be able to get the damned shot.

Marco was tired. Snickers was tired. His owner, Baily, was slumped in a nearby chair, already having given up the ghost on this one.

“That’s it, boy. You’re almost perfect.” Marco pressed the shutter button, taking one picture and then another. As Snickers moved his head toward him, Marco held the button, rattling off multiple shots in quick succession. Then Snickers huffed and lay down, closing his eyes as if to say he’d had more than enough and was done for the day. Marco took a few more pictures because Snickers looked adorable and he never knew what was going to click with the client. Then he backed away from the camera, smiling.

“Is that it?” Baily asked hopefully.

“Yes. I think we’re all done for the day. Snickers did really good, and I appreciate your patience.” For the owner, this kind of session was hard. These pictures weren’t for her, but for an advertising agency in New York, and if they liked what they saw, there would be a decent payday for Marco, as well as Baily.

“Do you want to take a look?” Marco asked, turning the nearby computer screen to face them, then moving through the pictures one by one.

“Wow! Those look great.”

“Let me know which one you want and I’ll have it printed for you.” She had been so patient, and Marco wanted her to have a really good picture of Snickers.

“I love that one,” Baily said, smiling as Snickers doggy-laughed at the camera. It was a great image of the sand-colored corgi and one Marco was sure the agency would flip for.

“Me too.” He made note of the image. “He did a great job,” Marco reiterated, then stifled a yawn. This session was only supposed to have taken an hour, and almost three hours later, he was wiped out and had zero energy.

Baily scooped Snickers into her arms, and he settled right against her. Clearly he was just as wiped out.

“I’ll call you as soon as I hear. I’m hoping, if they like what they see, they’ll contact us for more pictures, and then, who knows?”

“Thank you, Marco.” Baily grinned. She was in her midtwenties and was a really sweet person. She’d first brought Snickers in for a personal portrait session, but when one of Marco’s clients came looking for dog images, Marco had shown them Snickers and they’d requested more for an ad campaign.

“No problem. I’ll be in touch.” Marco loosely hugged her and then led her to the front door. He let her out and locked up before returning to his studio. He cleaned up the toys, dusted down the backgrounds, and vacuumed the carpet he’d used as a base for the shoot. Then he turned out the lights and settled in for a few hours’ work with his camera and computer.

A knock on the door ten minutes later pulled him out of his task. Marco groaned. His calendar was booked for months and he never took walk-ins. His website even suggested potential clients try to schedule appointments at least three months in advance. So who was knocking at his door?

Marco got up, walked to the door, and pulled it open. “Can I help you?” he asked professionally.

The man there stood taller than Marco by a good six inches. He had to be nearly six four and was as broad as they came. He wore a sweatshirt, unzipped, over a tight navy-blue T-shirt that strained to cover the muscle underneath.

“I’m sorry to bother you,” he said gently but with a hint of agitation, or maybe it was nerves. Marco wasn’t sure, but he was definitely worried about something, judging by how his lower lip had been scraped, probably by the man’s own teeth. “Do you—”

A soft, weak-sounding voice cut through what the man was saying like a knife through butter. “Daddy.”

Marco was about to explain that he had no appointments and that the stunning man should call to make one, but the words died on his lips as he turned to the little boy. He was probably five years old, drawn-looking, bald-headed, and had a tube to his nose. Marco followed it to a small tank in a wheeled cart on the sidewalk. He motioned them in, stepping back to stay out of the way as the little boy pulled the tank cart inside, with the father following behind, looking more and more worried by the second.

This was one sick little boy. His eyes didn’t hold any of the joy or spark children had, and his skin was as pale as any Marco had ever seen. He was thin and small, and he shuffled his feet like he barely had the energy to walk.

“I’m Dean Harlow, and this is Sammy. He was at Hershey Med last week, and in the pediatric ward, they have pictures of children they’ve helped. One of them is a little girl hugging a huge stuffed Dalmatian. It’s all he’s talked about for days. I saw your studio mark, found your website, and I know you don’t take walk-ins, but Sammy would love to see the Dalmatian and maybe play with it for a few seconds.” Dean put his arm around Sammy’s shoulders, gently gathering him closer.

He didn’t fidget the way most kids did. Instead, Sammy leaned on his father like he was resting. It tugged at Marco’s heart.

“I’m Marco. Why don’t the two of you sit down right there, and I’ll get set up. Give me just a few minutes, okay?” Marco waited until they took seats before going into the back. He turned on the lights and took out the large stuffed animal. He’d gotten it years ago when FAO Schwartz went out of business. He put the Dalmatian in the studio area, then set up the camera and lighting before returning to the lobby.

Sammy sat on his dad’s lap, resting against his chest, his eyes closed, probably asleep.

“Dean, why don’t you come back?” Marco spoke softly, but Sammy woke and got down. Taking the handle of his oxygen tank, he walked toward the back. His eyes widened and a smile formed on his lips when he saw the Dalmatian. He padded over to it and hugged the stuffed toy. It was a good foot taller than Sammy, but he wrapped his arms around it anyway.

“Daddy! This is like Louie. Only lots bigger and not alive.” Sammy turned, grinning, and Marco pursed his lips and swallowed around the lump in his throat.

“Do you want to have your picture taken with him?” Marco asked.

“Can I?” Sammy bounced for a few seconds and then seemed to tire a little.

“Sure,” Dean said, smiling.

Marco got into position and told Sammy how to stand, standing him with the oxygen tank behind the dog’s front legs. It was nearly completely hidden, yet close enough that Sammy wouldn’t have any issues.

“Can you smile for me?” Marco asked, and Sammy grinned. Marco snapped the pictures, one after another. “Stay right there.” He hurried to the prop closet and returned with a fireman’s hat. He put it on Sammy and took more pictures.

“Daddy’s a fireman.” Excited, Sammy was barely able to stand still, even though his energy faded quickly.

Marco went through a number of poses and then asked Dean to step in as well. Dean knelt behind the dog, and Marco got some wonderful pictures of the two of them. They smiled, and Sammy laughed and giggled. Only Marco’s professionalism kept him behind the camera and separated from the scene in front of him. He took all the pictures with the dog he needed and then got some of just Dean and Sammy together. They were incredibly photogenic, their smiles leaping into the camera.

When Sammy grew too tired to continue, Marco wound it down and then snapped a picture of Sammy alone, looking straight at him.

“You did great,” Marco said as Sammy sat down next to his tank, leaning on it, closing his eyes. Marco waited a few seconds, then took one last picture of him before putting the camera aside. “I hope he isn’t too worn out.”

Dean smiled. “You made him very happy.” He walked to where Sammy sat and carefully lifted him into his arms. Sammy curled right against his chest and had to be asleep.

Marco led him out front and sat at the computer. “It will take me a few days to get the pictures ready for you. Can you give me an email address? I’ll send you a link to the finished images so you can have them printed.”

Dean gave him the information. “How much do I owe you?” He fidgeted, trying to get out his wallet.

Marco shook his head. “Nothing.”

Dean leaned closer. “I know you get a lot for a photo session and all, so….”

Marco shook his head again. “This session is free of charge.” He entered Dean’s name and email address into the computer and made sure everything was correct. “Please take good care of him, and I’ll send you the link in a few days.”

Marco waited as Dean got his things together, carrying Sammy in one arm and wheeling the tank with the other hand. Marco held the door as they passed through, then stood near the front, watching as Dean loaded Sammy and his tank into the back seat of a small SUV. They drove off, and Marco turned back to the studio.

He locked the door and cleaned up the props, putting everything away, and sent all of the images to his computer system, as well as to the cloud. He had plenty of deadlines to meet and was already hours behind on what he’d wanted to get done tonight, but Marco barely thought about that past the warm glow that radiated from a place in his heart that he hadn’t felt in a long time.

Once everything was cleaned up and put away, he turned out the lights, locked up the studio, and drove the few miles home. His three-bedroom Victorian row home wasn’t big by any means, just twenty feet wide or so, but it was beautiful, and he’d taken the time to restore it and bring the dame back to her glory.

Marco set his work bag on one of the living room chairs and went to the kitchen to make a sandwich. He settled in the living room with a glass of water and a diet soda and turned on the television. He changed the channel and just caught the beginning of the latest episode of Outlander.

Marco loved that show and sometimes wished he could go back to eighteenth-century Scotland—with his camera, of course—just to get pictures of the hunky men in kilts. He smiled at the notion and spent the next hour eating and relaxing before turning off the television and heading through the dining room and kitchen to the very back of the house. It had been a morning room originally, but Marco had turned it into his home office.

He brought up the images from the day and worked to remove any imperfections and clean up the framing. He quickly got through the images of Snickers and had the preliminary images ready to send to the client. After that, he moved on to Sammy, smiling as the images of the small boy flashed on the screen. He was grinning and laughing, happy, but the pain and hurt he’d already been through was there in his young eyes. Marco stopped on one of Sammy with his arms around the dog, grinning at the camera. Sammy was seconds from laughing, joy radiating off him. It was one of the first pictures he’d taken of him, and his favorite.

Marco cropped it and made it perfect, along with a dozen or so of the best of the images. Then he viewed all of them in succession. Pleased, he saved them.

He sat back, wondering what was wrong with Sammy, hoping the little boy would get better. He seemed so very sick. Marco wiped tears from his eyes to work away the hurt he’d thought he’d been able to put aside a long time ago.

His phone vibrated on the sleek desktop next to him. Marco snatched it up to check the message. He answered the text and closed his files. It was late, but that had never stopped Nathan before, and by the time the office space was set to rights and he had a couple of beers out of the refrigerator, his best friend breezed through the front door.

“God. It was awful,” Nathan said as soon as he closed the door. “I had patients until five, and then I was just leaving the clinic when Mrs. Welch brought in her poodle, Bangles, who will eat anything. He got into some chicken, so I had to pull bits of splintered bone out of his throat.” He grabbed the beer and flopped into one of the wingback chairs. “Thankfully I got them out and he’s doing fine. So I was ready to leave when Mrs. Davis raced up with Fluffy. He had been in a fight, and I cleaned his wounds and bandaged him up.” Nathan drank his beer and finally settled down. “I love animals, but their owners….” He shook his head, rolling his eyes. “I was stupid enough to think being a vet would mean I’d get to work with animals.” He drank another swig from the bottle. “How was your day?”

“Pretty good, actually.” Marco smiled and sighed, sinking into the other comfy chair. He’d gotten the old wingbacks at a secondhand store and had them re-covered. They were amazing to sit in, and he loved their high backs. He told Nathan about Snickers and then Sammy.

“You took a walk-in?” Nathan pretended to faint, his hand on his head. “You have to be kidding me.”

Marco pulled out his phone and brought up a few of the pictures. “Look at him. How could anyone say no?” He flipped through to one of the father and son pictures.

“Holy cow. That’s one hot daddy!” Nathan snatched the phone, practically drooling over Dean.

Marco couldn’t argue. Dean had been very attractive, but he was also a parent and most likely straight. Not that they would ever have talked about that sort of thing. “He took such good care of Sammy. You should have seen it.” He brought up the final picture he’d taken. “Sammy fell asleep, and he lifted him so gently.” Marco’s throat constricted again.

Nathan set his bottle on the coffee table and leaned forward to take Marco’s hand. “I know what you went through, but that was a long time ago and you have your own life now. You’re an adult, so you get to make the decisions.”

“But I know what that little boy is going through. I couldn’t tell him no.”

Nathan chuckled. “Of course you couldn’t. I wouldn’t have told him no either. I would have done the exact same thing you did.” He scrolled through the pictures again. “He is a real cutie.” Nathan handed Marco back his phone. “It’s Friday night, and I know you don’t usually have appointments on Saturday and Sunday unless you can help it, so what are we doing tomorrow?”

“We?” Marco asked.

“Yeah. What kind of friend would I be if I let you spend the entire weekend home alone with your computer and your pictures? I thought we could go out tomorrow night. Maybe get you laid.”

Leave it to Nathan to act as though Marco was the one going through a dry spell, when Nathan had been alone and dateless for nearly as long as he had.

“Why don’t we go to dinner and have a quiet evening? I’m not up for loud music blaring in my ears until I can’t see straight. I have to leave for New York in the middle of next week and that is going to be hectic as hell. Okay?”

“All right,” Nathan agreed. “But I’ll pick the place. The last time you did, I swear I got food poisoning.”

He was exaggerating for sure. Marco had eaten the same tacos and he’d been fine.

“Don’t be a drama queen. You got a stomachache because you ate six of the tacos and stuffed yourself. You hardly got food poisoning.” Marco rolled his eyes. “But fine. You pick the restaurant and we’ll go to dinner.” He pulled himself out of the chair. “I want to get a few more things done before I go to bed.”

Nathan huffed as he stood. “You have to be one of the most boring people on earth. But I love you anyway, you know that.”

“Smartass,” Marco countered. “I’m not boring. I have a lot of work to do, and I need to get it done.” If he didn’t work and meet deadlines, he didn’t get jobs, and then he’d be out on the street, in the cold. That wasn’t going to happen.

Marco hugged Nathan tightly before leading him to the door. “I’ll see you tomorrow.” He said good night, and Nathan left. Marco locked the door, returned to his office, and worked until he nearly fell asleep at his desk.