“I want to decorate, too.”

“Me, too,” Mackenzie chimed in.

An hour later, Carrie was exhausted. Doug and Dillon finished drying the last of the dishes and threw themselves in front of the television to watch their favorite DVD. Carrie sat on a bar stool, her energy gone, while Mackenzie painstakingly added tiny red cinnamon candies to the cookie faces.

“Dad’s late,” she said with a knowing sigh as she formed a pair of candy lips, “but then he’s always longer than he says he’s going to be. He has no life, you know.” She glanced up from her task to be sure Carrie was paying attention.

“We agreed,” Carrie reminded the girl, wagging her index finger.

“I remember.” Carrie had insisted Mackenzie keep Philip Lark out of the conversation. It seemed drastic, but was necessary, otherwise Mackenzie would use every opportunity to talk about her poor, lonely father, so desperate for female companionship that he was practically shriveling up before her eyes. Carrie could repeat the entire speech, verbatim.

It had taken the better part of two days to convince the girl that Carrie wasn’t romantically interested in Philip, no matter how perfectly matched they appeared to be in Mackenzie’s estimation.

Carrie suspected that Mackenzie was hearing much the same thing from her father. Philip wasn’t thrilled with the idea of his daughter playing matchmaker any more than she was. In the three days since their first meeting, they’d made an effort to avoid seeing or talking to each other. The last thing Mackenzie needed was evidence that her plan was working.

“It’s a real shame,” Mackenzie said, eyeing her carefully. “Madame Frederick agrees with me and so do Arnold and Maria.”

“Enough!” Carrie said, loudly enough to draw the boys’ attention away from the TV screen.

When Mackenzie had finished decorating the last of the cookies, Carrie set them on three plastic plates, covered each with clear wrap and stuck a bright, frilly bow to the top.

“I want to deliver Arnold’s,” Doug told her. The oldest of her brothers had developed an interest in the former weight lifter. Arnold fit the stereotype. From his shiny bald head to his handlebar mustache and bulging muscles, everything about him said circus performer. Sometimes, as a concession to holidays or other special occasions, he even wore red spandex shorts over his blue tights. Doug was entranced.

“Will Maria let me pet her cats?” Dillon wanted to know.

“Of course she will.”

“I guess that leaves me with Madame Frederick,” Mackenzie said, not sounding disappointed. She cast a look toward the kitchen and Carrie guessed she wanted to make sure there’d be enough cookies left to take home to her father. Carrie had already made up a plate for the Larks, and told her so.

“Thanks,” Mackenzie said, her eyes glowing.

All three disappeared, eager to deliver their gifts, and Carrie collapsed on the sofa. She rested her head against the cushion and closed her eyes, enjoying the peace and quiet. It didn’t last long.

Doug barreled back in moments later, followed by Mackenzie. Dillon trailed behind.

“She’s in here,” Carrie heard her brother explain as he entered her apartment. Philip walked with him.

Carrie was immediately aware of how she must look. Flour had dusted more than the kitchen counters. She hadn’t bothered with makeup that morning and had worn her grungiest jeans. She’d hardly ever felt more self-conscious in front of a man. She probably resembled a snowman—snow woman—only not so well dressed.

“Dad!” Mackenzie cried, delighted to see him.

Carrie stood and quickly removed the apron, certain the domestic look distracted from any slight air of sophistication she might still possess. Perhaps it was her imagination, but it seemed Philip’s gaze zeroed in on her.

“I should’ve knocked,” he said, and motioned to Dillon, “but your friend here insisted I come right in.”

“Oh, that’s fine.” Each word seemed to stick to the roof of her mouth like paste. She clasped her hands together, remembering how uneasy her mother had been around Jason those first few times. Carrie had never understood that. Jason was the easiest person in the world to talk to.

Now she understood.

“Mackenzie behaved herself?” Once again the question was directed to Carrie.

“Dad!” Mackenzie burst out. “Way to embarrass me.”

“She was a big help,” Carrie assured him.

“Mom didn’t call, did she?” Mackenzie advanced one step toward her father, her eyes hopeful.

Philip shook his head, and Carrie watched as disappointment settled over the girl. “She’s really busy this time of year,” Mackenzie explained to no one in particular. “I’m not surprised she didn’t call, not with so much else on her mind…..and everything.”

Carrie resisted the urge to place her arm around Mackenzie’s shoulders.

“How about a movie?” Philip suggested abruptly. “I can’t remember the last time we went together.”

“Really?” Mackenzie jerked her head up.

“Sure. Any one you want.”

She mentioned the current Disney picture. “Can Doug and Dillon come, too?”

“Sure.” Philip smiled affectionately at his daughter.

“And Carrie?”

“I…..couldn’t,” she interjected before Philip could respond.

“Why not?” Doug asked. “You said we’re all done with the cookies. A movie would be fun.”

“You’d be welcome,” Philip surprised her by adding. His eyes held hers and the offer appeared genuine. Apparently he felt that with three young chaperones, there wouldn’t be a problem.

“You’re positive?”

“Of course he is,” Mackenzie said. “My father doesn’t say things he doesn’t mean, isn’t that right, Dad?”

“Right.” He sounded less confident this time.

Carrie was half tempted to let him take the kids on his own but changed her mind. Doug had a point; a movie would be a great way to relax after the hectic activity of the morning.

The five of them would be at the show together—and what could be more innocent? But the moment they entered the theater and had purchased their popcorn, the three kids promptly found seats several rows away from Philip and Carrie.

“But I thought we’d all sit together,” Carrie said, loudly enough for Doug and Dillon to hear. Desperation echoed in her voice.

“That’s for little kids,” six-year-old Dillon turned around to inform her.

With the theater filling up fast, the option of sitting together soon disappeared. Carrie settled uneasily next to Philip. Neither spoke. He didn’t seem any happier about this than she was.

“Do you want some popcorn?” Philip offered, tilting the overflowing bucket in her direction.

“No, thanks,” she whispered, and glanced at her watch, wondering how much longer it would be before the movie started. “I certainly hope you don’t think I arranged this,” she whispered.

“Arranged what?”

“The two of us sitting together.” She’d hate to have him accuse her of anything underhanded, which, given his apparent penchant for casting blame, he was likely to do. On the other hand, she was the one who’d unwittingly put the matchmaking notion in Mackenzie’s head. What a fool she’d been not to realize the impressionable teenager would pick up on the ploy she’d used on her own mother.

“Why would I blame you?” he asked, sounding exasperated.

“Might I remind you of our last conversation?” she said stiffly. “You seemed to think there was some danger of me, uh, seducing you.”

Philip laughed out loud and didn’t look the least bit repentant. “It wasn’t myself I was worried about,” he explained. “I was afraid of Mackenzie making both our lives miserable. If I seemed rude earlier, I apologize, but I was protecting us from the wiles of my headstrong daughter.”

That wasn’t how Carrie remembered it…...

“I’m not going to let my daughter do my courting for me,” he said, as though that explained everything. “Now relax and enjoy the movie.” He tilted the popcorn her way again, and this time Carrie helped herself.

The theater lights dimmed as twenty minutes of previews began.

Somewhat to Carrie’s surprise, she loved the movie, which was an animated feature. She was soon completely immersed in the plot. Philip laughed in all the places she did and whatever tension existed between them melted away with their shared enjoyment.

When the movie ended, Carrie was sorry there wasn’t more. While it was true that she’d enjoyed the story, she also found pleasure sitting with Philip. In fact, she liked him. She’d almost prefer to find something objectionable about him—a nervous habit, a personality trait she disliked, his attitude. Something. Anything that would distract from noticing how attractive he was.

He’d made it as plain as possible that he wasn’t interested in a relationship with her. With anyone, if that was any comfort. It wasn’t. She wanted him to be cold and standoffish, brusque and businesslike. The side of him she’d seen at the movie was laid-back and fun-loving. But she knew Philip hadn’t developed a sudden desire to escort his daughter to the movies. He’d offered because of Mackenzie’s disappointment over her mother’s lack of sensitivity. He loved his daughter and wanted to protect her from the pain only a selfish parent could inflict on a child.

“This was a nice thing you did,” she said as they exited the theater. The kids raced on ahead of them toward the parking lot. “It helped take Mackenzie’s mind off not hearing from her mother.”

“I’m not so sure it was a good idea,” he muttered, dumping the empty popcorn container in the garbage can on their way out the door.

“Why not?”

He turned and stared at her. “Because I find myself liking you.”

Her reaction must have shone in her eyes, because his own narrowed fractionally. “You felt it, too, didn’t you?”

She wanted to lie. But she couldn’t. “Yes,” she whispered.

“I’m not right for you,” he said.

“In other words, I’m wrong for you.”

He didn’t answer her for a long time. “I don’t want to hurt you, Carrie.”

“Don’t worry,” she answered brightly, “I won’t let you.”

 

Five

“What do you think?” Mackenzie proudly held up a crochet hook with a lopsided snowflake dangling from it. “Carrie’s whole tree is decorated with snowflakes she crocheted,” she added. “Her grandma Manning taught her to crochet when she was about my age.” She wound the thread around her index finger and awkwardly manipulated the hook.

“It’s lovely, sweetheart.”

“Mom’ll be pleased, won’t she.” Mackenzie turned the question into a statement, so certain was she of his response.

“She’ll be thrilled.” Philip’s jaw tightened at the mention of Laura. His ex-wife had contacted Mackenzie and arranged a time for their daughter to visit her. Ever since she’d heard from her mother, Mackenzie had been walking five feet off the ground. Philip didn’t know what he’d do if Laura didn’t show. He wouldn’t put it past her, but he prayed she wouldn’t do anything so cruel.

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