“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.