“Carrie’s been great,” Mackenzie continued. “She taught me everything.” She paused long enough to look up at him. “I like her so much, Dad.”
The hint was there and it wasn’t subtle. The problem was that Philip had discovered that his feelings for Carrie were similar to those of his daughter. Although he avoided contact with Carrie, there was no escaping her. Mackenzie brought her name into every conversation, marching her virtues past him, one by one.
Carrie had become a real friend to Mackenzie. It used to be that his daughter moped about the apartment, complaining about missing her friends—although she spent plenty of time on the phone and the Internet with them—and generally making his life miserable. These days, if she wasn’t with Carrie, she was helping Maria with her cats, having tea with Madame Frederick—and having the leaves read—or lifting weights with Arnold.
“I’m going to miss the Christmas party,” she said matter-of-factly. “It’s in the community room on Christmas Eve.” She glanced up to be certain he was listening. “Everyone in the building’s invited. Carrie’s going, so is Madame Frederick and just everyone. It’s going to be a blast.” She sighed with heartfelt regret. “But being with Mom is more important than a party. She’s really busy, you know,” Mackenzie said, not for the first time.
“I’m sure she is,” Philip muttered distractedly. He’d forgotten about the Christmas party. He’d received the notice a day or so earlier, and would’ve tossed it if Mackenzie hadn’t gone into ecstasies when she saw it. From her reaction, one would think it was an invitation to the Christmas ball to meet a bachelor prince. As for him, he had better things to do than spend the evening with a group of friendly oddballs—and Carrie.
Philip reached for his car keys and his gym bag. “I’ll only be gone an hour,” he promised.
“It’s okay. It’ll take me that long to finish this.” She looked up. “Oh, I almost forgot,” she said, putting everything aside and leaping out of the chair as if propelled upward by a loose spring. She ran into her bedroom and returned a moment later with a small white envelope. “It’s for you,” she said, watching him eagerly. “Open it now, okay?”
“Shouldn’t I wait until Christmas?”
“No.” She gestured for him to tear open the envelope.
Inside was a card in the shape of a silver bell.
“Go ahead and read it,” she urged, and would have done so herself if he hadn’t acted promptly. The card was an invitation to lunch at the corner deli. “I’m buying,” she insisted, “to thank you for being a great dad. We’ve had our differences this year and I want you to know that no matter what I say, I’ll always love you.”
“I feel the same way, and I don’t tell you that enough,” he murmured, touched by her words. “I’ll be happy to pay for lunch.”
“No way,” she said. “I’ve saved my allowance and did a few odd jobs for Madame Frederick and Arnold. I can afford it, as long as you don’t order the most expensive thing on the menu.”
“I’ll eat a big breakfast,” he said and kissed her on the cheek before he walked out the door. He pushed the button for the elevator and caught himself grinning. He’d been doing a lot more of that lately. In the beginning he thought moving into the apartment had been a mistake. No longer. The changes in Mackenzie since meeting Carrie had been dramatic.
The elevator arrived and he stepped inside, pushing the button for the lobby. It stopped on the next floor and Carrie entered, carrying a laundry basket. She hesitated when she saw he was the only other occupant.
“I don’t bite,” he assured her.
“That’s what they all say,” she teased back. She reached across him and pushed the button for the basement, then stepped back. The doors closed sluggishly. Finally the elevator started to move, its descent slow and methodical, then it lurched sharply, dropping several feet.
Carrie gasped and staggered against the wall.
Philip maintained his balance by bracing his shoulder against the side. Everything went dark.
“Philip?” Carrie inquired a moment later.
“I’m here.” It was more than dark, it was pitch-black inside. Even straining his eyes, he couldn’t see a thing. “Looks like there’s been a power outage.”
“Oh, dear.” Her voice sounded small.
“Are you afraid of the dark?”
“Of course not,” she returned indignantly. “Well, maybe just a little. Everyone is—I mean, it wouldn’t be unusual under these circumstances to experience some anxiety.”
“Of course,” he agreed politely, putting his gym bag down beside him.
“How long will it take for the power to come back on?”
“I don’t know.” He shrugged, although he realized she couldn’t see him. “Give me your hand.”
“Why?” she snapped.
“I thought it would comfort you.”
“Oh. Here,” she murmured, but of course he couldn’t see it. He thrust his arm out and their hands collided. She gripped his like a lifeline tossed over the side of a boat. Her fingers were cold as ice.
“Hey, there’s nothing to be afraid of.”
“I know that,” she responded defensively.
He wasn’t entirely sure who moved first, but before another moment passed, he had his arm around her and was holding her protectively against him. He’d been thinking about this since the day they’d attended the movie. He hadn’t allowed himself to dwell on the image, but it felt right to have her this close. More right than it should.
Neither spoke. He wasn’t sure why; then again, he knew. For his own part, he didn’t want reality interrupting his fantasy. Under the cover of the dark he could safely lower his guard. Carrie, he suspected, didn’t speak for fear she’d reveal how truly frightened she was. Philip felt her tremble and welcomed the opportunity to bring her closer into his embrace.
“It won’t be long.”
“I hope so,” she whispered back.
Without conscious thought, he wove his fingers into her hair. He loved the softness of it, the fresh, clean scent. He tried to concentrate on other things and found that he couldn’t.
“Maybe we should talk,” she suggested. “You know, to help pass the time.”
“What do you want to talk about?” He could feel her breath against the side of his neck. Wistful and provocative. In that instant Philip knew he was going to kiss her. He was motivated by two equally strong impulses—need and curiosity. It’d been a long time since he’d held a woman. For longer than he wanted to remember, he’d kept any hint of desire tightly in check. He’d rather live a life of celibacy than risk another failed marriage.
He would’ve ended their embrace then and there if Carrie had offered any resistance. She didn’t. Her lips were moist and warm. Welcoming. He moaned softly and she did, too.
“I thought you wanted to talk,” she whispered.
“Later,” he promised and kissed her again.
At first their kisses were light, intriguing, seductive. This wouldn’t be happening if they weren’t trapped in a dark elevator, Philip assured himself. He felt he should explain that, but couldn’t stop kissing her long enough to form the words.
He responded by brushing his moist lips against hers. His gut wrenched with sheer excitement at what they were doing.
Carrie wrapped her arms around his neck, clinging tightly. He eased her against the wall, kissing her ravenously.
That was when the lights came back on.
They both froze. It was as if they stood on a stage behind a curtain that was about to be raised, revealing them to a waiting audience.
But the electricity flashed off as quickly as it had come on.
Philip plastered himself against the wall, his hands loose at his sides as he struggled to deal with what they’d been doing. He wasn’t a kid anymore, but he’d behaved like one—like a love-starved seventeen-year-old boy.
For the first time since his divorce, Philip felt the defenses around his heart begin to crack. The barriers had been fortified by his bitterness, by resentment, by fear. This—falling in love with Carrie—wasn’t what he wanted. After the divorce, he’d vowed not to get involved again. Carrie was young and sweet and deserved a man who came without emotional scars and a child in tow.
He was grateful that the electricity hadn’t returned; he needed these few additional minutes to compose himself.
“Are you all right?” he asked, when he could speak without betraying what he felt.
“I’m fine.” Her voice contradicted her words. She sounded anything but.
He thought of apologizing, but he couldn’t make himself say the words, afraid she’d guess the effect she’d had on him.
“You can’t blame a guy for taking advantage of the dark, can you?” he asked, callously and deliberately making light of the exchange.
The electricity returned at precisely that moment. He squinted against the bright light. Carrie stood with her back against the wall opposite him, her fingers fanned out against the panel, her eyes stricken. The laundry basket rested in the far corner where she’d dropped it, clothing tumbled all around.
“Is that all this was to you?” she asked in a hurt whisper.
“Sure,” he responded with a careless shrug. “Is it supposed to mean anything more?”
Before she could answer, the elevator stopped at the lobby floor and the doors opened. Philip was grateful for the chance to escape.
“Obviously not,” she answered, but her eyes went blank and she stared past him. Then she leaned over and stabbed the basement button again. She crouched down to collect her laundry as he stepped out, clutching his gym bag.
He felt guilty and sad. He hadn’t meant to hurt Carrie. She’d touched Mackenzie’s life and his with her generosity of spirit.
Philip cursed himself for the fool he was.
“Go after her,” a voice behind him advised.
Irritated, he turned to find Maria and Madame Frederick standing behind him.
“She’s a good woman,” Maria said, holding a fat calico cat on her arm, stroking its fur. “You won’t find another like her.”
“You could do worse.” Madame Frederick chuckled. “The fact is, you already have.”
“Would you two kindly stay out of my affairs?”
Both women looked taken aback by his gruff, cold response to their friendly advice.
“How rude!” the retired schoolteacher exclaimed.
“Never mind, dearie. Some men need more help than we can give them.” Madame Frederick’s words were pointed.
Disgusted with the two busybodies, and even more so with himself, Philip hurried out of the apartment building, determined that, from here on out, he was taking the stairs. Without exception.
“Did I ever tell you about Randolf?” Madame Frederick asked as she poured Carrie a cup of tea the next Saturday morning. “We met when I was a girl. All right, I was twenty, but a naive twenty. I knew the moment our eyes met that I should fear for my virtue.” She paused, her hand holding the lid of the teapot in place, her eyes caught in the loving memory of forty years past. Laughing softly, she continued. “We were married within a week of meeting. We both knew we were meant to be together. It was useless to fight fate.”