“See you later,” Philip said.

“Later,” Gene returned. “Just promise me you won’t stay here long.”

“I won’t.”

Gene left, and the office had never seemed emptier. The place seemed to echo with loneliness, a constant reminder that Philip was by himself. His friend was right; it was almost Christmas, yet he was at the office hiding. While Gene was out fighting the Christmas crowds with his wife, Philip had crept in here, the way he always did whenever life threatened to offer him something he couldn’t handle. Even a gift.

Because that was what Gene had more or less told him Carrie was. A woman Mackenzie not only liked, but championed. Like Gene, lots of guys would advise him to count his blessings. But instead of thanking his daughter for lunch, he’d chastised her for using it as an opportunity to get him together with Carrie.


Every time he thought of her, a chill raced through his blood. No, that wasn’t it. His blood didn’t go cold, it heated up. Carrie was charming, generous, delightful, kind—and more of a mother to his daughter than her own had ever been.

Philip rolled his chair away from his desk, stood and walked over to the large picture window. The view of downtown Seattle and Puget Sound was spectacular from his twentieth-story viewpoint. Breathtaking. The waterfront, the ferry dock, Pike Place Market, all alive with activity. Philip couldn’t count the number of times he’d stood exactly where he was now and looked out and seen nothing, felt nothing.

He went back to his desk and turned off his computer, feeling more confused than when he’d arrived. It was a sad day, he thought wryly, when he was reduced to accepting his thirteen-year-old daughter’s advice, but in this case, Mackenzie was right. She’d told him to get a life. Instead, Philip had dug himself deeper into his rut, fearing that any life he got would include putting the past behind him. It wasn’t that the past held any allure for him. The reverse, in fact. He’d married too young, unwisely. He was terrified of repeating the same mistake. Terrified of what that would do to him—and Mackenzie.

Locking up, Philip went back to the apartment building. He parked in the garage across the street and was just walking toward the entrance when he saw Carrie. There was a natural buoyancy to her step, a joy that radiated from inside her. He sometimes wondered what she had to be so happy about. That no longer concerned him, because he wanted whatever it was.

“Carrie!” Unsure what he’d say when he caught up with her, Philip hurried across the street.

Carrie paused midway up the steps and turned around. Some of the happiness left her eyes when she saw him. She waited until he’d reached her before she spoke. “I had no idea Mackenzie had invited us both to lunch,” she told him.

“I know that,” he said, regretting his angry mood earlier.

“You do?”

Every time he saw her it was a shock to realize how beautiful she was. Her intense blue eyes cut straight through him. “I was wondering…..I know it’s last-minute and you’ve probably got other plans, but…..” He paused. “Would you go Christmas shopping with me?” He was afraid that if he invited her to dinner or a movie she’d turn him down and he wouldn’t blame her. “For Mackenzie,” he said, adding incentive. “I could do with a few suggestions.”

His invitation had apparently taken her by surprise because she frowned at him before asking, “When?”

“Is now convenient?” he asked hopefully. He was as crazy as his friend Gene to even consider going shopping today.

“Now,” she repeated, then smiled, that soft, sweet smile of hers. “Okay.”

Okay. It was crazy how one small word could produce such exhilaration. If this were the theater, he’d break into song about now. A Christmas carol maybe—something like “Joy to the World.”

She walked down the three or four steps to join him on the sidewalk. That little bounce of hers was back. The bounce that said she was glad to be alive and glad to be with him.

He was the one who should be grateful, Philip thought. He tucked her arm in his and led her back to the parking garage.

Life was good. It had been a long time since he’d believed that, but he did now.



A few hours earlier, Carrie had been telling her mother that she barely knew Philip Lark and now she doubted there was any man she knew better. They sat in an Italian restaurant, Christmas packages around their feet, and talked until it seemed there was nothing more to say. Their dinner dishes had long since been removed and Philip poured the last of the red wine into her goblet.

The room swayed gently from side to side, but her lightheadedness wasn’t due to the pinot noir. Philip was the reason. He’d told her things she’d felt it would take him months if not years to reveal. He’d spoken of his marriage and his feelings about fatherhood. She listened, a lump in her throat, as he heaped the blame for the failure of his marriage on his own shoulders. She doubted very much that he was entirely responsible, but she admired his gallantry.

“You’re friends with Laura?” she asked at one point.

“Yes. Beyond anything else, she’s Mackenzie’s mother. I made mistakes in this marriage, but my daughter wasn’t one of them. I’ll always be grateful to my ex-wife for Mackenzie.”

Tears formed in the corners of Carrie’s eyes at the sincerity with which he spoke. How easy it would be for him to blame his ex-wife for all their problems. Carrie was sympathetic to his side, and knew from things Mackenzie had told her that Laura wasn’t exactly a loving or attentive mother. Carrie suspected she hadn’t been much of a wife, either.

“What are you doing tomorrow?” Philip asked unexpectedly.

“Sunday.” Carrie propped her elbows on the white linen tablecloth. “The Mannings are getting together. Mom and I married into this large, wonderful family. Jason has four brothers and sisters. There are so many grandchildren these days it’s difficult to keep track of who belongs to whom. Why don’t you and Mackenzie come along and meet everyone?” Carrie couldn’t believe she’d impulsively tossed out the invitation. While she did want him to attend, there’d certainly be speculation…...

“You’re sure?”

“Positive. Just…..Never mind,” she said, stopping herself. Her gaze held his. “It would mean a great deal to me if you’d come.”

“Then we will.” He reached for her hand with both of his.

Philip had given up the effort of remembering everyone’s names. He’d cataloged the first ten or so relatives Carrie had introduced him to, but the others became lost in the maze.

Mackenzie had disappeared almost the minute they arrived. Doug and Dillon had greeted him cheerfully and then quickly vanished with his daughter. Holding a cup of eggnog, Philip found himself a quiet corner.

From this vantage point, he watched Carrie interact with her family. His eyes followed her as she moved across the room, apparently to find her mother so she could introduce her parents to Philip. He couldn’t take his eyes off Carrie. Her face was flushed with happiness, her eyes glowing with excitement. She’d married into this family, but it was clear they thought of her as one of their own.

“Do you mind if I join you?” a woman unexpectedly asked him.

“Please do.” He stood to offer her his seat.

“No, no. Sit down, please. I can only stay a moment. You’re Philip, aren’t you?”

“Yes. Philip Lark.” The dark-haired beauty had to be Carrie’s mother. “You’re Charlotte Manning?”

“How perceptive of you. Yes.” She held out her hand, which he shook.

He was astonished that he hadn’t recognized the resemblance sooner. Charlotte and Carrie had the same intense blue eyes, the same joyous energy and a gentleness of spirit that was unmistakable.

They spoke for a few minutes about unimportant matters. Small talk. Although Philip had the impression he was being checked out, he also had the feeling that he’d passed muster. He liked Charlotte, which made sense, since he definitely liked Carrie.

“So this is Carrie’s young man.” Charlotte’s husband, Jason Manning, joined his wife and slipped his arm around her waist. “Welcome. Where’s Carrie? She’s left you to fend for yourself?”

“I gather she went in search of you two.”

The three of them spoke for a while before Jason glanced over his shoulder and called out, “Paul, come and meet Carrie’s friend.”

Soon a large group had gathered around Philip, more faces than he could ever remember. He stood and shook hands with Carrie’s two uncles. Once again he felt their scrutiny.

Soon a loud, “Ho, ho, ho,” could be heard in the background. Jason’s father had donned a Santa suit and now paraded into the room, a bag of gifts swung over his shoulder. The children let out cries of glee and crowded around Santa.

Philip was grateful that everyone had begun to watch the scene taking place with Santa Claus. He sat down in his chair again and relaxed, grateful not to be the center of attention. Soon Carrie was with him. She sat on the arm and cast him an apologetic look.

“Sorry, I got sidetracked.”

“So I saw.” He patted her hand. “I met your stepfather and two uncles.”

“Aren’t they great?” Her eyes gleamed with pride.

“I need a degree in math to keep track of who’s married to whom.”

“Don’t worry, it’ll come. Be thankful not everyone’s here.”

“You mean there are even more?”

Carrie grinned and nodded. “Taylor and Christy both live in Montana. Between them they have six children.”

“My goodness.” Adding ten more names to his list would have overwhelmed him. “Mackenzie certainly seems to fit right in.”

“Doug and Dillon think she’s the best thing since cookie-dough ice cream. Knowing her gives them the edge over their cousins.”

While the youngsters gathered around their grandfather in his red suit, Mackenzie made her way toward him and Carrie. Philip understood. At thirteen she was too old to mingle with the kids who believed in Santa Claus, and too young not to be caught up in the excitement, even though Santa wouldn’t have a gift for her.

“Are you having fun?” Philip whispered when she sat down on the chair’s other arm, across from Carrie.

“This is so great,” she whispered. “I didn’t know families could get this big. Everyone’s so friendly.”

Santa dug deep into his bag, produced a package and called out the name. Doug leaped to his feet and raced forward as if he had only a limited amount of time to collect his prize.

Santa reached inside his bag again and removed another gift. “What’s this?” he asked, lowering his glasses to read the tag. “This is for someone named Mackenzie Lark. I do hope Mrs. Claus didn’t mix up the gifts with those of another family.”

“Mackenzie’s here!” Dillon shouted. He stood and pointed toward Philip and Carrie.

“Me?” Mackenzie slid off the chair. “There’s a gift in there for me?”