“When you were four or five, as I recall,” he said. He hated to admit it, but he enjoyed her uneasiness. Knowing Mackenzie, he was well aware of the finesse with which his daughter manipulated conversations. Poor Carrie hadn’t had a chance. “Mackenzie also said you paid a man to date your mother.”

“Oh, dear.” She closed her eyes. “No wonder you wanted to talk to me.” She glanced guiltily in his direction. “Jason was far too honorable to accept my offer.”

“But he did as you asked.”

“Not exactly…..Listen, I do apologize. I’d better have another talk with Mackenzie. I’ll try to set the record straight. I was afraid she might do something like this. Actually, I should’ve realized her intent and warned you. But I didn’t think she’d race right upstairs and repeat every word of our conversation.”

“My daughter has a mind of her own. And she’s taken quite a liking to you.” For that, Philip was grateful. Mackenzie needed a positive female role model. Heaven knew her mother had shown little enough interest in her only child. Philip could do nothing to ease the pain of that, and it hurt him to hear Mackenzie make excuses for Laura’s indifference.

As they chatted, Carrie led him into a nearby vacant lot. He learned quite a bit about her in those few minutes. She worked for Microsoft, had lots of family in the area and doted on her two half brothers.

The minute they stepped onto the lot, ten or so stray cats eased out of the shadows. They’d obviously been waiting for Carrie. Talking softly, issuing reassurances and comfort, she distributed the food in a series of aluminum pie plates situated about the area.

“I saw a lot of my teenage self in Mackenzie,” she said when she rejoined him. She looked at him, but didn’t hold his gaze long. “It wasn’t just the fact that my parents were divorced—broken homes were prevalent enough—but I’d been cheated out of more than the ideal family. In some ways I didn’t have a mother, either.”

“Are you trying to say I’m not a good father?” he asked tightly.

“No, no,” she said automatically. “I think I should keep my mouth shut. I do apologize for what happened with Mackenzie. Don’t worry, Mr. Lark, I have no intention of using your daughter to orchestrate a date with you.”

“Do you still want her to come over to bake cookies?” he asked. He’d be in trouble with Mackenzie if she didn’t.

“You don’t mind?”

“Not if you and I are straight about where we stand with each other. I’m not interested in a relationship with you. It’s nothing personal. You’re young and attractive and will make some man very happy one day—it just won’t be me.”

“I wouldn’t…..You’re not—” She stopped abruptly and glared up at him. “Rest assured, Mr. Lark, you have nothing to fear from me.”

“Good. As long as we understand each other.”


Carrie removed her gloves and viciously shoved them into her pockets. She hung her coat in the closet and sat down, crossing her arms and her legs. She uncrossed both just as quickly, stood and started pacing. She couldn’t keep still.

Philip Lark actually believed she’d tried to use his daughter to arrange a date with him! Talk about an egomaniac! This guy took the prize as the most conceited, egotistical, vain man she’d ever had the displeasure of meeting. She wouldn’t date him now if he were the last man on the face of the earth.

The phone rang and she frowned at it, then realized she was being ridiculous and picked up the receiver.

“Carrie?” Her name was whispered.

It was her stepfather, Jason Manning. “Yes?” she answered. “Is there a reason you’re whispering?”

“I don’t want your mother to hear me.”

“Oh?” Despite her agitation with Philip Lark she grinned.

“I ordered Charlotte a Christmas gift this afternoon,” he boasted. From years past, Carrie knew buying gifts didn’t come naturally to Jason, since he’d been a confirmed bachelor until he met her mother. The first Christmas after they were married he’d bought Charlotte a bowling ball, season tickets to the Seattle Seahawks and a vacuum cleaner. After that, Carrie had steered him toward more personal things.

“You know how your mother likes to go to garage sales?”

“I’m not likely to forget.” Jason had given her mother a lot of grief over her penchant to shop at yard sales. He liked to joke that Charlotte had found priceless pieces of Tupperware in her search for treasure.

“Well, a friend of mine started a limousine service and I hired him to escort your mother to yard sales on the Saturday of her choice. What do you think?” His voice rose in excitement. “She’ll love it, won’t she?”

“She will.” Carrie couldn’t keep from smiling. “She’ll have the time of her life.”

“I thought so,” he said proudly. “Jeff’s giving me a twenty-percent discount, too.”

“I also think it’s really sweet that you’re taking Mom Christmas shopping in downtown Seattle on Saturday.”

“Yeah, well, that’s the price a man pays to please his wife.” He didn’t sound very enthusiastic.

“Doug and Dillon are coming to stay with me. We’re baking cookies.”

“I can’t believe I’m voluntarily going Christmas shopping. There isn’t another person in the world who could drag me into the city during the busiest shopping season of the year. Your mother’s got to know I love her.”

“She does know.” Carrie had never doubted it, not from the first moment she’d seen her mother and Jason together. Rarely had any two people been more right for each other. While Jason might not be the most romantic man alive—she smiled whenever she recalled the look on her mother’s face when she unwrapped that bowling ball—he was a devoted husband and father.

Jason Manning loved and nurtured Carrie as if she’d been his own child. A teenager couldn’t have asked for a better stepdad. After some of the horror stories she’d heard from other girls in her situation, she appreciated him even more.

She heard a persistent pounding. “There’s someone at my door,” she told Jason.

“I’ll let you go, then,” he said. “Promise me you won’t say anything to your mother.”

“My lips are sealed.” A limo to escort her to garage sales! Carrie smiled. She replaced the receiver and hurried across the living room to answer the door. It’d been a long day and a busy evening; she was hungry, tired and in no mood for company.

“Hi,” Mackenzie said, her eyes wide. “So how’d it go with my dad?”

Carrie frowned.

“That bad, huh?” The girl laughed lightly. “Don’t worry, it’ll get better once he gets used to the idea of dating again.”

“Mackenzie, listen, you and I need to talk about this. Your father’s—”

“Sorry, I can’t talk now. Dad doesn’t know I’m gone, but I just wanted to say don’t be discouraged. All he needs is time.” She beamed her another wide smile. “This is going to be so great! Wait until Jane hears about how I found my dad a wife. Jane’s my best friend. I’ll see you Saturday.” Having said that, she promptly disappeared.

Carrie closed the door and shut her eyes, feeling mildly guilty at what she’d started.

There was an abrupt knock at the door.

“Now what?” she demanded, her patience gone.

Madame Frederick smiled back at her. Arnold, muscles bulging in his upper arms, stood beside her. Both regarded her with open curiosity.

“Has she met him yet?” Arnold asked. “Has she met the man of her dreams—and do you know who it is?”

Madame Frederick’s face glowed. “You can see for yourself.” She lifted her crystal ball and ran her hand over the smooth glass surface. “One look should tell you.”

But Carrie couldn’t see anything at all.

 

Four

A thin layer of flour dusted her small kitchen. Carrie fanned her hand in front of her face in an effort to clear the air. The scent of baking gingerbread men drifted through the apartment, smelling of spices and fun.

Dillon stood on a chair, leaning over the electric mixer, watching intently as it stirred the cookie dough. Doug was at the counter, his sleeves up past his elbows, a rolling pin in his hand. Mackenzie used a spatula to scoop the freshly baked cookies from the baking sheet and placed them on the wire rack to cool.

“Do you think anyone will taste the eggshell?” she asked.

“The recipe said two eggs,” Dillon muttered defensively, “and Carrie said the whole egg. How was I supposed to know she didn’t mean the shell?”

“You just should,” his older brother informed him with more than a hint of righteousness.

“I already said we don’t need to worry about it,” Carrie inserted, hoping to soothe Dillon’s dented ego. She’d gotten most of the shell out and the remainder had been pulverized to the point that it was no longer distinguishable.

Mackenzie rolled her eyes expressively, but it was clear she was enjoying herself. More and more she reminded Carrie of herself eleven years earlier. She’d taken to Doug and Dillon immediately and they were equally enthralled with her. Within an hour they were the best of friends.

“I want to decorate the cookies, too,” Dillon cried, when he saw that Carrie had finished making the frosting.

“You can’t lick the knife,” his older brother remarked snidely. “Not when we’re giving the cookies to other people.”

“There’ll be plenty of frosting for everyone,” Carrie reassured them.

“Who’s going to taste the first gingerbread man?”

The three kids looked at one another. “Dillon should,” Doug said.

“Okay.” Her youngest brother squared his shoulders bravely. “I don’t mind. Besides, Carrie said no one would be able to taste the eggshell, anyway.” He climbed off the chair and reached for a cookie. “Maybe you should put a little frosting on, just in case,” he said to Carrie.

She slathered some across the cookie and handed it back to him. Dillon closed his eyes and opened his mouth while the others waited for the outcome. One bite quickly became another.

“Maybe I should eat two just to make sure,” the six-year-old told her.

Carrie winked and handed her youngest brother a second cookie, also slathered with frosting.

“I better try some, too,” Doug said and grabbed one. He gobbled it up, head first, then nodded. “Not bad,” he mumbled, his mouth full of cookie. “Even without the frosting.”

“We’re saving some for us, aren’t we?” Dillon asked, reaching across the counter for the frosting knife.

“Of course, but I promised a plate to Arnold, Maria and Madame Frederick.”

“Can I frost now?” Dillon asked, pulling the chair closer to the counter where Carrie stood.

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