“Mackenzie wrote me a note that said she needed time alone.” He checked his watch, something Carrie knew he’d probably done every five minutes since discovering the note. “That was an hour ago. Where on earth would she go?”

“I don’t know,” Carrie whispered. Her heart constricted as she imagined the pain the girl must be suffering. These few days with Laura had meant so much to Mackenzie.

“I thought maybe she’d come to you.” He shook his head. “I’ve tried her cell, but it’s off. I’ve called her girlfriends, but none of them have heard from her. Now I don’t know where to look. Think, Carrie.”

“She probably doesn’t want to be around people just yet,” she murmured, trying to clear her head of worry and fear in order to be of help.

Philip nodded. “Do you think she went for a walk? Alone in the dark?” He cringed as he said the words.

“I’ll go out with you to look.”

His eyes told her he was grateful. Carrie grabbed her coat and purse, and they both rushed out of the building.

Soon after she’d graduated from high school, when Carrie was eighteen, she’d decided to seek out her father. It had been a mistake. He’d seemed to think she wanted something from him, and in retrospect, she knew she had. She’d wanted him to love her, wanted him to tell her how proud he was of the woman she’d become. It had taken her the better part of a year to realize that Tom Weston was selfish and immature and incapable of giving her anything. Even his approval.

In the five years she’d known Jason Manning, at that point, he’d been far more of a father than her biological one would ever know how to be. She hadn’t had any contact with Tom Weston since. It had hurt that the man responsible for her birth wanted nothing to do with her, but after a few months she’d accepted his decision. If anything, she appreciated his honesty, hurtful as it’d been at the time.

Not really knowing where they were going, they walked quickly from one spot to another, trying to guess where Mackenzie might have gone. Their fears mounted, but they both struggled to hide them. Instead, they offered each other reassurances neither believed.

“I hate to think of her out in the cold, alone and in pain,” Philip finally murmured, his hands in his coat pockets.

“Me, too.” The cold air stung her cheeks.

“I could hate Laura for doing this to her,” Philip said defiantly, “but I refuse to waste the energy. She can treat me any way she pleases, but not Mackenzie.”

Carrie knew it was pointless to remind him that he had no control over his ex-wife. Laura would behave as she chose.

“Perhaps I should’ve said something to Mackenzie,” Philip was saying, “warned her not to count on anything her mother promised. I didn’t because, well, because I didn’t want Mackenzie to think I’d try to influence how she thinks about her mother.”

“I find that admirable. And wise.”

“I don’t feel either of those things just now.” His voice revealed his anger and frustration.

“Mackenzie’s smart enough to figure out what her mother’s really like. She won’t need you or me to tell her,” Carrie said.

His eyes met hers under a streetlamp decorated with silver bells. “I hope you’re right.”

They searched everywhere they could think of, without success. By the time they returned home, it was almost midnight. The building was dark and silent, alarming them even more.

“You don’t think she’d do anything stupid, do you?” a worried Philip asked. “Like run away and find her mother on her own?”

“I…..don’t know.”

When they stepped into the lobby, Carrie noticed that the door leading to the basement party room was open. As she came closer, she could hear voices below.

“Let’s check it out,” Philip suggested.

Carrie followed him down the stairs. As they descended, the sound of voices became more distinct. She recognized Madame Frederick, chatting away with Arnold. Carrie guessed they were putting the finishing touches on the decorations for the Christmas party, which was to take place the following night.

They found Mackenzie busy pinning green and red streamers in the center of the ceiling, fanning them out to the corners. The girl didn’t so much as blink when she saw Carrie and Philip.

“Oh, hi, Dad. Hi, Carrie,” she said, climbing down from her chair.

“Just where have you been, young lady?” Philip demanded gruffly.

Carrie placed her hand on his arm, pleading with him to display less anger and more compassion. She felt some of the tension leave his muscles and knew it took a great deal of determination not to cross the room and hug the teenager fiercely.

“Sorry, Dad. I forgot to tell you where I was.”

“I’ve been searching for hours! Then Carrie helped me look. We walked through the whole neighborhood.”

“Sorry,” Mackenzie returned contritely. “I sat in here by myself for a while, then these guys came down to decorate and—” she shrugged “—I decided to pitch in.”

“Are you okay?” Carrie asked. “I mean, about not being able to spend the holiday with your mother?”

Mackenzie hesitated and her lower lip trembled slightly. “I’m disappointed, but then as Madame Frederick said, ‘Time wounds all heels.’” She laughed and wiped her forearm under her nose. “Mom’s got to make her own decisions about what role I’ll play in her life. All I can do is give her the freedom to choose. I’ve got my dad and my friends.” Her gaze moved about the room, pausing on each person.

Arnold was there with his spandex shorts and twinkling eyes. Madame Frederick with her crystal ball and her sometimes corny wisdom. Maria with her tenderhearted care for the neighborhood’s cats. And, Carrie realized, she was there, too. They were Mackenzie’s friends.

The girl wrapped her arms around her father’s waist and hid her face in his chest. “I’ll be here for the party,” she said. “But you don’t have to come, Dad. I’ll understand.”

“I want to come,” he said, his eyes on Carrie. He held out his hand to her and their fingers locked together. “It takes moments like this for a man to recognize how fortunate he is to be blessed with good friends.”

Mackenzie smiled and glanced over her shoulder at Madame Frederick.

“What did I tell you?” the older woman said, smiling just as broadly. “The crystal ball sees all.”

“It didn’t help me decide which mutual fund to invest in,” Arnold reminded her. “And it didn’t help me pick the winning lottery numbers, either. You can take that crystal ball of yours and store it in a pile of cow manure.”

“I told you it wouldn’t help you for personal gain,” Madame Frederick said with more than a hint of defensiveness.

“What good is that silly thing if it doesn’t make your friends rich?”

“It serves its purpose,” Philip surprised everyone by responding. He slid his arm around his daughter’s shoulders. “Now, I’d say we’ve had enough excitement for one evening, wouldn’t you?”

Mackenzie nodded. “Night, everyone.”

“Good night,” Arnold called.

“Sleep well,” Madame Frederick sang out.

“Good night, sweetie. You stop by and visit me tomorrow, you hear?” Maria said.

“I will,” Mackenzie promised.

Carrie left with Philip and his daughter. “I’m baking cookies for the party in the morning,” she said when the elevator reached her floor.

“Do you need any help?” Mackenzie asked eagerly. “You won’t have to worry about eggshells getting in the dough this time.”

“I’d love it if you came by.”

Content that all was well, Carrie entered her apartment and got ready for bed. As she slipped on her nightgown, the phone rang. It was Philip.

“I know I was with you less than ten minutes ago, but I wanted to thank you.”

“For what? I didn’t do anything.” She’d shared his helplessness in searching for Mackenzie, his frustration and anger.

“You helped me find my daughter—in more ways than one.”

“No, your love for her did that.”

“I was wrong about your friends.”

She’d wondered how long it would take him to admit that.

“They’re as terrific as you are.” He paused. “Not spending time with her mother was a big blow to Mackenzie. She was devastated when Laura put her off once again. I don’t know what Madame Frederick really said, but it was obviously what Mackenzie needed to hear. For all her strangeness, Madame has good instincts about people.”

“You’re a fast learner.”

Philip’s amusement echoed over the phone line. “Don’t kid yourself. I was with the slow reading group in first grade. I’m not exactly a speed demon when it comes to relationships, either. My marriage is a prime example.”

“You’ll come to the Christmas party?”

“With bells on.” He chuckled. “The thing is, I’ll probably fit right in.”



Six months later

“This is the most exciting day of my life!” Mackenzie declared, waltzing around the small dressing room in her slender full-length pale green dress. A wreath of spring flowers adorned her head. “You’re actually going to be my stepmother, just like Madame Frederick said.”

Only Carrie and Mackenzie were still in the room, as Carrie made her final preparations.

“It’s an exciting day for me, too.” Carrie pressed her hands against her stomach to calm her jittery nerves. The church was full of family and friends, waiting for her to make her appearance. Jason, dressed in a tuxedo, would soon escort her down the aisle. Her step-aunts, Christy and Taylor, were also in her wedding party, and so were her two closest friends from college. Gene was Philip’s best man.

“Dad was so cute this morning,” Mackenzie said, laughing. “I thought he was going to throw up his breakfast. He’s so much in love he can hardly eat.”

Carrie closed her eyes. She hadn’t even attempted breakfast, and applauded Philip for making the effort. As for being in love, she was crazy about him and Mackenzie. This day was a dream come true, worthy of the finest fairy tale.

“Madame Frederick, Maria and Arnold are here, and lots of people from the office,” Mackenzie said, peering out at the church. “I didn’t think that many people knew my dad.” Gracefully she waltzed her way around Carrie. “You’re going to be the most beautiful bride ever. That’s what Dad said, and he’s right.”

“Thank you, sweetie.”

“It’s extra-special that you’re letting me be in the wedding party. Not everyone would do that. My first wedding,” she said, and her eyes held a dreamy, faraway look.

“You’re a good friend, Mackenzie.”

“You probably wouldn’t be marrying my dad if it wasn’t for me,” Mackenzie reminded her in a low voice. “But then, Madame Frederick’s the one who gave me the idea, so I guess I should give her the credit.”