“If your name’s Mackenzie, then I’d say this present is for you.”

His daughter didn’t need a second invitation. She hurried over to Santa, as eager as Doug had been.

Philip’s questioning gaze sought out Carrie’s. “I’m sure my mother’s responsible for this,” she told him.

“I met her,” he said. “We talked briefly.”

Carrie’s eyes widened. “What did she have to say?”

“She was very pleasant. It was your stepfather who put the fear of God into me.”

“Jason? Oh, dear. Listen, whatever he said, disregard it. He means well and I love him to death, but half the time he’s thinking about sports statistics and he doesn’t know what he’s saying.”

Philip smiled. He’d never seen Carrie more unnerved. Even when they were trapped in the elevator, she’d displayed more composure than this.

“Carrie, good grief, what do you think he said?”

She clamped her mouth shut. “I—I’m not sure, but it would be just like him to suggest you take the plunge and marry me.”

“Oh, that, well…..”

“Are you telling me he actually—”

Philip had to make an effort not to laugh out loud. “He didn’t, so don’t worry about it.”

Mackenzie had claimed her gift and was walking back, clutching the package in both hands.

“You can open it,” Carrie assured her.

“Now?” She tore into the wrapping as though she couldn’t wait a second longer. Inside was an elegant vanity mirror with a brush and comb set. “It’s perfect,” she whispered, holding the brush and comb against her. “I’ve always wanted one of these sets. It’s so…..so feminine.”

“How’d your family know?” Philip asked. He’d never have thought to buy something like this for his daughter.

“I have one,” Carrie whispered. “She’s used it a number of times.”

“Oh.” More and more he felt inadequate when it came to understanding his daughter. She was in that awkward stage, and it was difficult to know exactly where her interests lay. Half the time she talked about wanting a horse and ballet lessons; the rest of the time she listened to music he’d never heard before and gossiped about celebrities who seemed completely irrelevant to him. Part girl, part woman, Mackenzie traveled uneasily from one desire to the next. It wasn’t just her interests that confused him, either. One minute she’d be her lighthearted self and the next she’d be in tears over something he considered trivial. He wished Laura had taken more interest in her. Often he felt at a loss in dealing with Mackenzie’s frequent mood swings.

Philip had enjoyed himself, but he was exhausted and felt relieved when the party ended. He thanked the elder Mannings for having him and Mackenzie.

“You’re welcome anytime,” Elizabeth Manning said, clasping his hand between both of her own. In what seemed an impulsive gesture, she leaned forward and kissed his cheek. “You’d be a welcome addition to our family,” she whispered in his ear. “Just promise me one thing?”

“What’s that?” he asked.

“I want a nice, big wedding,” she said, this time loudly enough for half the room to hear.

Philip heard a murmur of approval behind him. “Ah…..”

“Thanks again, Grandma,” Carrie said, saving him from having to come up with a response.

Carrie hugged the older couple and led the way outside. Jason, Charlotte, Doug and Dillon followed them to the driveway for a second round of hugs and farewells. This had to be one of the most outwardly affectionate families Philip had ever met, but it didn’t bother him. The opposite, in fact. He liked everything about them. These were good people, hardworking and family-oriented. He’d never seen himself in that light, although it was what he wanted to be. However, neither he nor Laura had been raised that way.

They sang Christmas carols on the drive home. Carrie’s voice blended smoothly with that of his daughter. His own was a bit rough from disuse and slightly off-key, but no one seemed to mind, least of all Mackenzie, whose happiness spilled over like fizz in a soda bottle. He parked in the garage and they walked across the street to the apartment building, still laughing and chattering excitedly.

“I had a wonderful time,” his daughter told Carrie, hugging her close as they waited for the elevator.

“I did, too.”

“I’m so glad your family get-together was tonight instead of tomorrow. I’ll be with my mother, you know.”

“I do,” Carrie said. “You’ll miss the party here, but I’ll tell you all about it.”

“Do you think Madame Frederick will made a prediction for me, even if I’m not there?”

“I’m sure she will,” Carrie answered.

“She’ll have to make one for me in absentia, as well,” Philip said.

You aren’t coming? This news appeared to catch Carrie by surprise. She’d asked him about the Christmas party earlier and he’d managed to avoid answering one way or the other.

“No,” he said, pushing the button to close the elevator door.

“But I thought…..I hoped…..” Her disappointment was evident.

Philip didn’t want to say anything negative, but as far as he was concerned, the majority of people living in the building complex were oddballs and eccentrics. He didn’t have anything against them, but he didn’t want to socialize with them, either.

“Talk him into it,” Mackenzie said when the elevator stopped on Carrie’s floor.

He wished now that he hadn’t said anything. “Would you like a cup of coffee?” Carrie asked.

What he’d like was time alone with Carrie.

“Sure he would,” Mackenzie answered for him, and shoved him out of the elevator. The doors closed before he could respond.

“I guess I would,” he said, chuckling.

Carrie’s eyes shyly met his. “I was hoping you would.”

She unlocked her door and walked inside, but he stopped her from turning on the light. With his hand at her shoulder, he guided her into his arms. “I’ve been waiting for this all night,” he whispered and claimed her lips.

He meant it to be a soft, gentle kiss. One that would tell her he’d enjoyed her company, enjoyed their evening together. But the minute his mouth settled over hers he experienced a desire so strong it was all he could do to keep it in check. No woman had ever affected him like this. He wove his fingers into her hair and tilted her head to one side in order to deepen their kisses.

She groaned softly. Then again, it could be the sound of his own pleasure that rang in his ears. The hot, breathless kisses went on. And on…..

“Why won’t you come to the party tomorrow night?” she asked minutes later.

The building’s Christmas party was the last thing on Philip’s mind. He led her through the darkened living room, sat down and drew her into his lap. “Let’s talk about that later, all right?” He didn’t give her time to say anything, but directed her lips back to his.

“Why later?” She nibbled the side of his neck, sending delicious shivers down his back.

“I’m not sure I trust Madame Frederick.”

She laughed and he felt her breath against his skin. “She’s completely harmless.”

“So they say.” He placed his hands on either side of her face and brought her lips down to meet his again. The kiss was long and deep, and it left him breathless.

“The people in this building are a bunch of oddballs. Half of them are candidates for the loony bin,” he said when he’d recovered sufficiently to speak.

Carrie stiffened in his arms. “You’re talking about my friends.”

“No offense,” he said. But surely she recognized the truth when she heard it.

Carrie squirmed out of his lap and stood in front of him. “I live in this apartment complex. Is that how you think about me?”

“No.” He sighed. “If it means so much to you, I’ll attend this ridiculous party.”

“No, thanks,” she muttered. “I wouldn’t want you to do me any favors.”

From her tone of voice, Philip realized he’d managed to offend her, which he regretted. Yesterday’s conversation with Gene had made him understand that she was a blessing in his life. A gift.

A gift he wanted to accept…..

“Carrie, I’m sorry. I spoke out of turn.”

“Is that what you really think of us, Philip?” she asked, her voice uncertain.

He didn’t respond right away, afraid anything more he said would only make things worse.

“That’s answer enough. I’m tired…... I’d like you to leave now.”

“Carrie, for heaven’s sake, be reasonable.”

She stalked over to the door and opened it, sending a harsh shaft of light across his face. Philip squinted and did as she asked. “We’ll talk about this later, all right?”

“Sure,” she said in a sarcastic murmur.

Rather than wait for the elevator, Philip took the stairs to his apartment a floor above Carrie’s. He’d discuss this with Mackenzie, get her advice on how to handle it. Ironic that he was turning to his thirteen-year-old daughter for help with the very situation she’d engineered…...

The apartment was dark and silent when he entered. He switched on the light and walked down the hall to Mackenzie’s bedroom. Her bed was slightly mussed as if she’d sat on it.

“Mackenzie!” he called.

No response.

He checked the other rooms and found a note from her on the kitchen table.Dad,Mom left me a message. She said she wouldn’t be coming for me, after all, and that I couldn’t spend the holidays with her. I guess I should’ve known she’d be too busy for me. She has time for everything else but me. I need some time alone to think.Mackenzie

 

Nine

Carrie didn’t understand why Philip’s comment about Madame Frederick and the others had distressed her so much. While it was true they were her friends, she couldn’t deny that they were all a bit weird. But they were also affectionate, warmhearted people and it hurt to have Philip dismiss them with such carelessness. She was still figuring out her feelings when there was a knock at the door. Whoever it was seemed impatient, because there was another knock immediately afterward.

“Just a moment,” she called out.

To her surprise it was Philip. “Have you seen Mackenzie?” he demanded.

“Not since we returned from the party.”

He exhaled and rubbed his hand along the back of his neck. “Her mother left a message for her saying she won’t be bringing Mackenzie to her place for Christmas after all,” he explained.

Carrie saw a muscle beside his jaw jerk with the effort it took to control his anger.

“She was looking forward to spending Christmas with Laura,” he continued. “It was all Mackenzie could talk about.”

Carrie knew that. She’d spent time with the girl, discussing her hairstyle and wardrobe for the impending visit. Mackenzie had wanted everything to be perfect for her mother. She’d wanted to impress Laura with how grown-up she was, how stylish. She’d wanted to make herself as attractive as possible, hoping her mother would notice and approve.

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