“Come on now!”
“So,” she went on, ignoring his outburst, “Carrie felt she had to do something. She offered to pay this guy to date her mother. Out of her own meager savings from babysitting jobs and walking the neighbor’s dog. She took everything she’d managed to scrape together to pay this man. She told me she would’ve done anything to give her love-starved mother a second chance at happiness.”
Philip restrained himself from rolling his eyes at her melodramatic rendition. All she needed was a violin playing softly in the background. “How noble of her.”
“That’s not the end of the story,” Mackenzie informed him.
“You mean there’s more?”
She paid no attention to his sarcasm. “When her mother found out what she’d done, she was furious with Carrie.”
“I can well imagine.” Philip crossed his arms and leaned against the doorjamb. He glanced at his watch, indicating that there was only so much of this he was willing to listen to and he was already close to his limit.
“But she withstood her mother’s outrage. Knowing she was right, Carrie gladly accepted the two-week restriction her mother placed on her.”
The strains of the violin grew distinctly louder.
“Carrie didn’t pick just any Tom, Dick or Harry for her mother, though. She carefully, thoughtfully surveyed the eligible men around her and chose this really cool guy named James…..or something like that. His name isn’t important—what is important is that Carrie knew her mother well enough to choose the perfect man for her. She chose the very best.”
Now his daughter was beginning to sound like a greeting-card commercial. “This story does have a point, doesn’t it?”
“Oh, yes.” Her eyes gleamed with triumph. “Not more than three months later, four at the most, Carrie’s mother married Jason.”
“I thought you said his name was James.”
“I also said his name doesn’t matter. The point is that he married her and they’re both happy.”
“That must have cost her a pretty penny, since Carrie had already paid him everything she’d saved just for that first date.”
“He married her for free.”
“Oh, I see, she was on sale.”
Mackenzie frowned at him. “You’re not funny. Carrie told me that meeting Jason was the best thing that ever happened to her mother. Once a year, on the anniversary of their first date, her mom sends her flowers out of gratitude that her daughter, the very one she’d restricted for two whole weeks, had cared enough to find the man of her dreams.”
As her voice rose victoriously, the violin faded and was replaced with a full choral arrangement of God Bless America. Philip could just about hear it. His daughter was Sarah Heartburn during her finest hour.
“Now,” she said, “will you ask Carrie out? She’s perfect for you, Dad. I know what you like and what you don’t, and you’re gonna like her. She’s really nice and fun.”
“No.” He yawned loudly, covering his mouth.
“I’ve never said anything, but I’d really love to be a big sister, the way Carrie is to her two half brothers.”
“Thanks, but no thanks.” The kid was actually beginning to frighten him. Not only was she telling him he should date a woman he’d barely met, now she was talking about them having children together.
“Don’t do it because I asked it of you. Do it for yourself. Do it before your heart turns into a hardened shell and you shrivel up into an old man.”
“Hey, I’m not dead yet. I’ve got a good forty or fifty years left in me.”
“Maybe,” Mackenzie challenged. “If you’re lucky.” With her nose pointed at the ceiling she exited the room with all the flair and drama of an actress walking offstage after the final curtain call.
Grinning to himself, Philip opened his briefcase. He removed a file, then hesitated, frowning. It was one thing to have his daughter carry on like a Shakespearean actress and another for an adult woman to be feeding her this nonsense. While he couldn’t remember much about Ms. Carrie Weston, he did recall that she’d appeared interested in him, judging by the intent way she’d studied him. Perhaps he’d better set the record straight with her. If she intended to use his daughter to get to him, then she was about to learn a thing or two.
He slammed his briefcase shut and marched toward the door.
“Where are you going?” Mackenzie asked, returning—of course—at that very instant.
“To talk to your friend,” he snapped.
“You mean Carrie?” she asked excitedly. “You won’t be sorry, Dad, I promise you. She’s really nice and I know you’ll like her. If you haven’t decided where to take her to dinner, I’d suggest Henry’s, off Broadway. You took me there for my birthday, remember?”
Philip didn’t bother to inform his daughter that inviting Carrie to dinner wasn’t exactly what he had in mind. He walked out the door and nearly collided with the old biddy clutching the crystal ball.
“Good evening, Mr. Lark,” Madame Frederick greeted him with a tranquil smile. She glanced at him and then at the crystal ball and her smile grew wider.
“Keep that thing away from me,” he told her in clear tones. “I don’t want you doing any of that hocus-pocus around my daughter. Understand?”
“As you wish,” she said with great dignity and moved past him. Philip glared at her, then sighed, exasperated. He headed for the stairs, running down to the second floor.
When he reached Carrie Weston’s apartment, he was winded and short-tempered. She answered his knock almost immediately.
“Mr. Lark.” Her eyes widened with the appropriate amount of surprise, as though she’d spent the past five minutes standing in front of a mirror practicing.
“It seems you and I need to talk.”
“Now?” she asked.
Carrie Weston was lovely, Philip realized. For reasons he didn’t want to analyze, he hadn’t noticed how strikingly attractive she was when they’d met in the elevator. Her eyes were clear blue, almost aquamarine. Intense. Her expression warm and open.
It took him a moment to recall why he’d rushed down here to talk to her. Maybe, just maybe, what Mackenzie had been saying—that he was shriveling up emotionally—contained a grain of truth. The thought sobered him.
“I need to talk to you about Mackenzie,” he stammered out.
“She’s a delightful young lady. I hope I didn’t keep her too long.” Carrie’s words were apologetic as she reached into the hallway closet for her coat.
“It’s about your discussion with her this afternoon.”
“I’m sorry I can’t chat just now. I feed Maria’s cats on Wednesdays and I’m already late.”
It could be a convenient excuse to escape him, but he was determined to see this through. “Do you mind if I tag along?”
She looked mildly surprised, but agreed. “Sure, if you want.” She picked up a ten-pound bag of cat food. Ten pounds? Philip knew the older woman kept a ridiculous number of animals. Gene had complained to him more than once, but the retired schoolteacher had lived in the building for fifteen years and paid her rent on time. Gene tolerated her tendency to adopt cats, but he didn’t like it.
“You might want to get your coat,” she suggested as she locked her apartment.
“My coat?” She seemed to imply that the old lady kept her apartment at subzero temperatures. “All right,” he muttered.
She waited as he hurried up the stairs. Mackenzie leaped to her feet the second he walked in the door. “What’d you say to her?” she demanded.
“Nothing yet.” He yanked his coat off the hanger. “I’m helping her feed some cats.”
The worry left his daughter’s eyes. “Really? That’s almost a date, don’t you think?”
“No, I don’t think.” He jerked his arms into the jacket sleeves.
“She asked me if I wanted to bake Christmas cookies with her and her two brothers on Saturday. I can, can’t I?”
“We’ll talk about that later.” Carrie Weston was wheedling her way into his daughter’s life. He didn’t like it.
Mackenzie didn’t look pleased but gave a quick nod. Her worried expression returned as he walked out the door.
Philip wasn’t sure why he’d decided to join Carrie. He needed to clarify the situation, but it wasn’t necessary to follow her around with a bag of cat food to do so.
“Maria has a special love for cats,” Carrie explained as they entered the elevator and rode to the ground floor. “I just don’t feel it’s a good idea for her to be going out alone at night to feed the strays.”
So that was what this was all about—feeding stray cats.
“Maria calls them her homeless babies.”
Philip sure hoped no one at the office heard about this. They stepped outside and his breath formed a small cloud. “How often does she do this?” he asked, walking beside Carrie.
“Every day,” she answered. Half a block later she turned into an almost-dark alley. Carrie had said she didn’t think it was safe for Maria to venture out alone at night. Philip wasn’t convinced it was any less risky for her. He glanced about and saw nothing but a row of green Dumpsters.
They were halfway down the dimly lit alley when he heard the welcoming meow of cats. Carrie removed a cardboard container from a Dumpster and left a large portion of food there. The cats eagerly raced toward it. One tabby wove his way around her feet, his tail slithering about Carrie’s slender calf. Squatting down, she ran her gloved hand down the back side of a large male. “This is Brutus,” she said, “Jim Dandy, Button Nose, Falcon and Queen Bee.”
“You named them?”
“Not me, Maria. They’re her friends. Most have been on their own so long that they’re unable to adapt to any other way of life. Maria’s paid to have them neutered, and she nursed Brutus back to health after he lost an eye in a fight. He was nearly dead when she found him. He let her look after him, but domesticated living wasn’t for Brutus. Actually, I think he’s the one that got Maria started on the care and feeding of the strays. I help out once a week. Arnold and a couple of the others do, too. And we all contribute what we can to the costs of cat food and vet care.”
All this talk about cats was fine, but Philip had other things on his mind. “As I explained earlier, I wanted to talk to you about Mackenzie.”
“Sure.” Carrie gave each of the cats a gentle touch, straightened and started out of the alley.
“She came back from her visit with you spouting some ridiculous idea about the two of us dating,” Philip continued.
Carrie had the good grace to blush, he noted.
“I’m afraid I’m the one who inadvertently put that idea in her head. Mr. Lark, I can’t tell you how embarrassed I am about this. It all started with an innocent conversation about parents. My parents got divorced, as well—”