Carrie reached out and silently squeezed Mackenzie’s hand.
The girl squeezed back. “I didn’t mention it last Saturday, but that was the first time I’ve ever baked homemade cookies. Dad helped me bake a cake once, but it came in a box.”
Carrie had suspected as much.
“I like the way we can sit down and talk. You seem to understand what’s in my heart,” Mackenzie murmured. “I’m probably the only girl in my school who knows how to crochet, even though all I can do is those snowflakes. You taught me that. The house is going to be finished soon, and Dad and I are going to move away. I’m afraid that if you don’t marry my dad, I’ll never see you again. Won’t you please, please marry my dad?”
“Oh, sweetheart,” Carrie whispered and wrapped her arm around the girl’s neck. She leaned forward, resting her forehead on Mackenzie’s head. “It isn’t as simple as that. Couldn’t I just be your friend?”
Mackenzie sniffled and nodded. “Will you come visit me when we move?”
“But Madame Frederick says my dad’s going to meet someone and—”
Carrie groaned inwardly. “Madame Frederick means well, and she’s a dear, dear person, but I’m going to tell you something that’s just between you and me.”
“Okay.” Mackenzie stared at her intently.
“Madame Frederick can’t really see anything in that crystal ball of hers.”
“I know. She says what she thinks should happen or what she hopes will happen, and in doing so puts the idea in people’s minds. If her predictions come true, it’s because those people have steered the course of their lives in the direction she pointed.”
“But she seems so sure of things.”
“Her confidence is all part of the act.”
“In other words,” Mackenzie said after a thoughtful moment, “I shouldn’t believe anything she tells me.”
If Carrie hadn’t seen it with her own eyes—and dozens of times at that—she wouldn’t have believed any two boys could be so much like their father. Doug and Dillon sat on the sofa next to Jason, watching the Seahawks football game. Three pairs of feet, each clothed in white socks, were braced on the coffee table, crossed at the ankles. Jason had the remote control at his side, a bowl of popcorn in his lap. Each one of his sons held a smaller bowl. So intent were they on the hotly contested play-off game that they gave Carrie little more than a hurried nod of acknowledgment.
The sight of Jason with his sons never ceased to amaze her. The boys were all Manning, too. Smaller versions of their father in both looks and temperament.
Carrie found her mother in the kitchen, whipping up a batch of fudge for the Manning family pre-Christmas get-together. “Carrie, this is a pleasant surprise.” Charlotte’s face relaxed into a smile when she saw her daughter.
“I came for some motherly advice,” Carrie admitted, seeing no need to tiptoe around the reason for her impromptu visit. She’d left Mackenzie less than an hour before and hadn’t been able to stop thinking about their conversation, or about Philip’s reaction to her being there. It was as though he couldn’t escape fast enough.
“What’s up?” Charlotte stirred the melted chocolate.
Carrie pulled a padded stool over to the countertop where her mother was working. “I’m afraid I’m falling in love.”
“Yes.” She’d purposely chosen that word. That was exactly the way she felt about it.
“This wouldn’t have anything to do with your friend Mackenzie, would it?”
Carrie nodded, surprised her mother even knew about the thirteen-year-old girl. But the boys must have said something. “Do you remember how it was when you first started dating Jason?” she asked.
Her mother paused and a hint of a smile lifted the edges of her mouth. “I’m not likely to forget. I wasn’t sure I wanted anything to do with the man, while you were busy inventing excuses to throw us together.”
“You really weren’t interested in him at first?”
Charlotte chuckled softly. “That’s putting it mildly, but gradually he won me over. He was endlessly patient…...”
Carrie realized there was a lot more that her mother wasn’t telling her. She’d long suspected that in the early days, her mother’s relationship with Jason had been anything but smooth.
Charlotte resumed stirring. “As I said, his patience won me over. His patience and his drop-dead kisses,” she amended. “If ever a man had a talent for kissing, it’s your stepfather.” She grinned shyly and looked away.
“Philip has the same gift,” Carrie whispered, feeling a bit shy about sharing this aspect of their relationship with her mother.
Charlotte didn’t say anything for a long moment. “So you’ve been seeing Mackenzie’s father.”
“Not as much as I’d like,” she said. “He’s been divorced for three years and according to Mackenzie he hasn’t gone out on a single date.” She assumed that well-meaning friends had tried to set him up. His own daughter had made the effort, too. With Carrie.
“So he comes with a load of emotional trauma. Has he ever talked about what went wrong in his marriage?”
“No.” Carrie hated to admit how little time they’d spent together. Feeding Maria’s homeless cats was as close as they’d come to an actual date. She wasn’t sure how to measure the time in the elevator. Although she’d managed to make him think his callous attitude afterward hadn’t fooled her, in truth she didn’t know what his reaction had been.
“You’re afraid he’s coming to mean more to you than is sensible, after so short an acquaintance.”
“Exactly. But, Mom, he’s constantly on my mind. I go to bed at night, close my eyes and he’s there. I get up in the morning and take the bus to the office and all I can think about is him.”
“He’s attracted to you?”
“I think so…... I don’t know anymore. My guess is that he is, but he’s fighting it. He doesn’t want to care for me. He’d rather I lived across the city—or the country—than in the same building with him. We try to avoid each other—we probably wouldn’t see each other at all if it wasn’t for Mackenzie. The girl’s made it her mission in life to make sure we do.”
Charlotte dumped the warm fudge into a buttered cookie sheet. “This is beginning to sound familiar.”
“In what way?”
Charlotte giggled. “Oh, Carrie, how soon you forget. You’re the one who pushed, pulled and shoved me into a relationship with Jason. It would’ve been horrible if he was a different kind of man. But he was patient and nonthreatening. Like Philip, I came into the relationship with more than my share of emotional trauma. But he was exactly the man I needed. You’ve always been a sensitive, intuitive child. Out of all the men you might have picked for me, you chose the one man who possessed the qualities I needed most.” She reached over and stroked the side of Carrie’s face, her expression warm and tender. “In my heart of hearts, I’m confident you’ve done the same thing for yourself. Philip needs you just as much as I needed Jason. Be patient with him, Carrie. Your heart—and your ego—may take a few jabs before this is finished. Be prepared for that, but don’t be afraid to love him. Mackenzie, too. I promise you, it’ll be worth the wait.”
How wise her mother was, Carrie mused as she left the family home. How wise and wonderful. Not for the first time, Carrie was grateful for a mother she could talk to, a mother she could confide in, a mother who didn’t judge, but listened and advised.
“What are you doing here?” Gene Tarkington asked, stepping into Philip’s office. He leaned against the doorjamb, striking a relaxed pose. The entire floor was empty. Row upon row of desks stretched across the floor outside his office.
“I thought I’d come in and run these figures one last time,” Philip murmured, staring at the computer screen. Although he considered Gene one of his best friends, he’d prefer to be alone just then.
“Hey, buddy, it’s almost Christmas. Haven’t you got anything better to do than stop by the office?”
“What about you?” Philip challenged. He wasn’t the only workaholic in this company.
“I came to get some papers and saw the light on in your office. I thought you were having lunch with Mackenzie this afternoon. A little father-daughter tête-à-tête. That kid’s a real sweetheart.”
“We had our lunch,” Philip muttered, “but it turns out I wasn’t the only one Mackenzie invited.”
“You mean she brought along that neighbor friend of yours? The woman who works for Microsoft?”
“That’s her.” Philip frowned anew, remembering how upset he’d been when he discovered what Mackenzie had done. From the way she’d acted, he should’ve guessed she’d try something like this. What distressed him even more was the way his heart had responded when Carrie walked into the deli. The joy and excitement he’d felt…..
But he didn’t want to feel these things for her. It’d taken effort to steel himself against those very emotions. He’d been burned once, badly enough to know better than to play with fire. Carrie Weston wasn’t some little innocent, either. Every time he was with her, he felt as if he was holding a book of matches.
“Mackenzie’s pretty levelheaded. What have you got against this neighbor woman? She’s not ugly, is she?”
“No.” He recalled what a shock it was when he realized how lovely Carrie was.
“If you want my opinion, I’d say count your blessings. Generally, the divorced guys I know would welcome a woman their daughters like. Remember what happened to Cal? His daughter and second wife hate each other. Any time they’re out together, Cal has to keep them from coming to blows.”
“I’m not Cal.”
“It seems to me that if your daughter’s that keen on this neighbor, you should take the time to find out what she likes so much. I’m no expert on women or romance, but—”
“My thoughts exactly,” Philip said pointedly. He’d come to the office to escape Carrie, not to have her name thrown in his face. “I appreciate what you’re trying to do.”
Gene rubbed the side of his face. “I doubt that. But I hate to see you wasting time in this office when Christmas is only a few days away. If you want to hide, there are better places than here.”
Although Gene’s tone was friendly enough, the words made Philip’s jaw tighten. It was all he could do to keep from blaming his friend for his troubles. Gene owned the apartment complex, and it was because of him that Philip and Mackenzie were living there.
“Well, I’ve got to get back to the car. Marilyn’s waiting. You know how it is the last weekend before Christmas. The malls are a madhouse and naturally my wife thinks this is the perfect time to finish the shopping. She wouldn’t dream of going alone. I told her there should be a Husband of the Year award in this for me,” he said, and chuckled. “But she promised me another kind of reward.” From the contented, anticipatory look on his friend’s face, one would think Gene was headed for the final game of the World Series, not a shopping mall.