“You were willing to pay someone to date your mother?”

Carrie didn’t realize what she’d said until it was too late. “It was a long time ago,” she murmured, hoping to leave it at that. She should’ve known better. Mackenzie’s eyes grew huge.

“You actually paid someone to date your mother?” she said again.

“Yes, but don’t get any ideas. He refused.” Carrie could see the wheels turning in the girl’s head. “It was a bad idea, and like I said, my mother was really mad at me.”

“Did she ever remarry?”

Carrie nodded.

“Anyone you knew?”

Again she nodded, unwilling to tell her it was the very man she’d tried to bribe.

Mackenzie’s gaze met hers and Carrie looked away. “It was him, wasn’t it?”

“Yes, but I didn’t have anything to do with that.”

Mackenzie laughed. “You offered him money to date your mother. He refused, but dated her anyway. That’s great! How long before they got married?”

“Mackenzie, what happened with my mother and Jason is…..unusual.”

“How long?” she repeated stubbornly.

“A few months.”

She smiled knowingly. “They’re happy, aren’t they.” It was more of a comment than a question.

“Yes.”

Carrie only hoped she’d find a man who’d make her as truly contented as Jason Manning had made her mother. Despite ten years of marriage and two children, her mother and stepfather behaved like newlyweds. Carrie marveled at the strength of their love. It inspired her and yet in some ways hampered her. She wanted that kind of relationship for herself and wasn’t willing to settle for anything less. Her friends claimed she was too picky, too demanding when it came to men, and she suspected they were right.

“My point exactly,” Mackenzie declared triumphantly. “You knew your mom better than anyone. Who else was more qualified to choose a husband for her? It’s the same with me. I know my dad and he’s in a rut. Something’s got to be done, and Madame Frederick hit the nail on the head. He needs a love interest.”

Carrie’s smile was forced. “Madame Frederick is one of my favorite people, but I think it’s best to take what she says with a grain of salt.”

“Well, a little salt enhances the flavor, right?” Mackenzie added. Excited now, she got to her feet. “What about you?” she asked.

“Me?”

“Yeah, you. Would you be willing to date my dad?”

 

Two

“She’s pretty, isn’t she, Dad?”

Philip Lark glanced up. He sat at the kitchen table, filling out an expense report. His daughter sat across from him, smiling warmly. The way her eyes focused on him told him she was up to something.

“Who?” he asked, wondering if it was wise to inquire.

“Carrie Weston.” At his blank look, she elaborated. “The woman we met in the elevator. We talked this afternoon.” Mackenzie rested her chin in her hands and continued to gaze at him adoringly.

Philip’s eyes reverted to the row of figures on the single sheet. His daughter waited patiently until he was finished. Patience wasn’t a trait he was accustomed to seeing in Mackenzie. She usually complained when he brought work home, acting as though it was a personal affront. He cleared his mind, attempting to remember her question. Oh, yes, she wanted to know what he thought of Carrie Weston. For the life of him, he couldn’t remember what the woman looked like. His impression of her remained vague, but he hadn’t found anything to object to.

“You like her, do you?” he asked instead, although he wasn’t convinced that pandering to Mackenzie’s moods was a smart thing to do. She’d been impossible lately. Moody and unreasonable. Okay, okay, he realized the move had been hard on her; it hadn’t been all that easy on him, either. But they’d be here for only six to eight weeks. He’d assumed she was mature enough to handle the situation. Evidently, he’d been wrong.

Mackenzie’s moods weren’t all he’d miscalculated. Philip used to think they were close, but for the past few months she’d been a constant source of frustration.

Overnight his sane, sensible daughter had turned into Sarah Bernhardt—or, more appropriately, Sarah Heartburn! She hadn’t whined this much since she was three. Frankly, Philip didn’t understand it. Even her mother’s defection hadn’t caused this much drama.

“Carrie’s great, really great.”

Philip was pleased Mackenzie had made a new friend, although he would have been more pleased if it was someone closer to her own age. Still, as he kept reminding her, the situation was temporary. Gene Tarkington, a friend of his who owned this apartment building, had offered the furnished two-bedroom rental to him for as long as it’d take to complete construction on his Lake Washington house. The apartment wasn’t the Ritz, but he hadn’t been expecting any luxury digs. Nor, truth be told, had he expected the cavalcade of characters who populated the building, although the woman with the crystal ball looked fairly harmless. And the muscle-bound sixty-year-old who walked around shirtless, carrying hand weights, appeared innocuous, too. He wasn’t as certain about some of the others, but then he didn’t plan on sticking around long enough to form friendships with this group of oddballs.

“Dad,” Mackenzie began in a wistful voice, “have you ever thought of remarrying?”

“No,” he answered emphatically, shocked by the question. He’d made one mistake; he wasn’t willing to risk another. Laura and the twelve years they were together had taught him everything he cared to know about marriage.

“You sound mad.”

“I’m not,” he said, thrusting the expense report back inside his briefcase, “just determined.”

“It’s because of Mom, isn’t it?”

“Why would I want to remarry?” he asked, hoping to put an end to this conversation.

“You might want a son someday.”

“Why would I want a son when I have you?”

She grinned broadly, obviously approving his response. “Madame Frederick looked into her crystal ball and said she sees another woman in your life.”

Philip laughed at the sheer ridiculousness of that. Remarry? Him? He’d rather dine on crushed glass. Wade through an alligator-infested swamp. Or jump off the Space Needle. No, he wasn’t interested in remarrying. Not him. Not in this lifetime.

“Carrie’s a lot like me.”

So this was what the conversation was all about. Carrie and him. Well, he’d put a stop to that right now. “Hey.” He raised his hand, palm out. “I guess I’m a little slow on the uptake here, but the fog is beginning to lift. You’re playing matchmaker with me and this—” person he couldn’t recall a single thing about “—neighbor.”

“Woman, Dad. Carrie’s young, attractive, smart and funny.”

“She is?” He hadn’t noticed that earlier, but then how could he? They’d met for about a minute in the elevator.

“She’s perfect for you.”

“Who says?” As soon as the words left his lips, Philip knew he’d made a strategic error. He’d all but invited an argument.

Mackenzie’s smile blossomed like a rose in the sun. “Madame Frederick, for one. Me for another. Just think about it, Dad. You’re in the prime of your life and all you do is work. You should be enjoying the fruit of your labors.”

“I’m building the house,” he said, wondering where she’d heard that expression.

“Sure, to impress Mom, just so she’ll know what a mistake she made leaving you.”

His daughter’s words brought him up short. Philip sincerely hoped that wasn’t true. He wanted a new home for plenty of reasons, none of which included his ex-wife. Or so he believed.

“Why would your mother care about a home I’m building?”

“Think about it, Dad.”

“I am.”

She shot him a knowing look, one tempered with gentle understanding, which only irritated him further. “Let’s leave Laura out of this, all right?” His feelings for Mackenzie’s mother were long dead. He’d tried to make the marriage work, as God was his witness. Even when he discovered she was having an affair—the first time—he’d been willing to do whatever was necessary to get them back on track. It’d worked for a few years, but for the most part he’d been deluding himself.

The divorce had come well after there was any marriage left to save. He’d berated himself for a long time before, and since. He had his daughter and his dignity, and was grateful for both. The last thing he intended to do at this point was risk that hard-won serenity.

“I want you to ask Carrie out.”

“What?” He couldn’t believe her nerve. “Mackenzie, for heaven’s sake, would you stop? I’m not dating Carrie Westchester or anyone else.”

“It’s Carrie Weston.”

“Her, either.” He stalked into the kitchen and poured himself a cup of coffee. He took one sip, cringed at the bitter taste and dumped the rest in the sink.

“Please? She’s in Apartment 204.”

“No! Case closed! I don’t want to hear another word about this, understand?” He must have added just enough authority to his voice because she didn’t pursue the subject again. Philip was grateful.

The next time he glanced at his daughter, he saw her sitting in the middle of the living room, her arms folded tightly around her. The sour look on her face could have curdled cream.

“Say, why don’t we go out and buy a Christmas tree?” he suggested. Despite what Mackenzie might think, he didn’t enjoy fighting with her.

She turned to stare at him disdainfully and consider his proposal. With what seemed to require an extraordinary amount of effort, she said, “No thanks.”

“Fine, if that’s the way you want to be.”

“I thought you said a Christmas tree would be too much trouble this year.”

It would be, but he was willing to overlook that if it’d take his daughter’s mind off her present topic of interest. “We could put up a small one.” He figured a compromise would go a long distance toward keeping the peace.

“She likes you,” Mackenzie said with a righteous nod.

Philip didn’t need to ask who she was talking about. He pressed his lips together to keep from saying something he’d later regret. Such as…..how did this Carrie person know enough about him to either like or dislike him?

“She told me what happened to her when she was about my age,” Mackenzie continued undaunted. “Her parents divorced when she was around five and her mother didn’t date again or anything. She closed herself off from new relationships, just the way you’re doing, so Carrie felt she had to take matters into her own hands. And who could blame her? Not me, that’s for sure.” She paused long enough to draw in a breath. “By the time Carrie was a teenager, her mother had shriveled into this miserable, unhappy shrew.” She stared pointedly at him before saying, “Sort of like what’s happening to you.”

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