“Carrie’s been great,” Mackenzie continued. “She taught me everything.” She paused long enough to look up at him. “I like her so much, Dad.”
The hint was there and it wasn’t subtle. The problem was that Philip had discovered that his feelings for Carrie were similar to those of his daughter. Although he avoided contact with Carrie, there was no escaping her. Mackenzie brought her name into every conversation, marching her virtues past him, one by one.
Carrie had become a real friend to Mackenzie. It used to be that his daughter moped about the apartment, complaining about missing her friends—although she spent plenty of time on the phone and the Internet with them—and generally making his life miserable. These days, if she wasn’t with Carrie, she was helping Maria with her cats, having tea with Madame Frederick—and having the leaves read—or lifting weights with Arnold.
“I’m going to miss the Christmas party,” she said matter-of-factly. “It’s in the community room on Christmas Eve.” She glanced up to be certain he was listening. “Everyone in the building’s invited. Carrie’s going, so is Madame Frederick and just everyone. It’s going to be a blast.” She sighed with heartfelt regret. “But being with Mom is more important than a party. She’s really busy, you know,” Mackenzie said, not for the first time.
“I’m sure she is,” Philip muttered distractedly. He’d forgotten about the Christmas party. He’d received the notice a day or so earlier, and would’ve tossed it if Mackenzie hadn’t gone into ecstasies when she saw it. From her reaction, one would think it was an invitation to the Christmas ball to meet a bachelor prince. As for him, he had better things to do than spend the evening with a group of friendly oddballs—and Carrie.
Philip reached for his car keys and his gym bag. “I’ll only be gone an hour,” he promised.
“It’s okay. It’ll take me that long to finish this.” She looked up. “Oh, I almost forgot,” she said, putting everything aside and leaping out of the chair as if propelled upward by a loose spring. She ran into her bedroom and returned a moment later with a small white envelope. “It’s for you,” she said, watching him eagerly. “Open it now, okay?”
“Shouldn’t I wait until Christmas?”
“No.” She gestured for him to tear open the envelope.
Inside was a card in the shape of a silver bell.
“Go ahead and read it,” she urged, and would have done so herself if he hadn’t acted promptly. The card was an invitation to lunch at the corner deli. “I’m buying,” she insisted, “to thank you for being a great dad. We’ve had our differences this year and I want you to know that no matter what I say, I’ll always love you.”
“I feel the same way, and I don’t tell you that enough,” he murmured, touched by her words. “I’ll be happy to pay for lunch.”
“No way,” she said. “I’ve saved my allowance and did a few odd jobs for Madame Frederick and Arnold. I can afford it, as long as you don’t order the most expensive thing on the menu.”
“I’ll eat a big breakfast,” he said and kissed her on the cheek before he walked out the door. He pushed the button for the elevator and caught himself grinning. He’d been doing a lot more of that lately. In the beginning he thought moving into the apartment had been a mistake. No longer. The changes in Mackenzie since meeting Carrie had been dramatic.
The elevator arrived and he stepped inside, pushing the button for the lobby. It stopped on the next floor and Carrie entered, carrying a laundry basket. She hesitated when she saw he was the only other occupant.
“I don’t bite,” he assured her.
“That’s what they all say,” she teased back. She reached across him and pushed the button for the basement, then stepped back. The doors closed sluggishly. Finally the elevator started to move, its descent slow and methodical, then it lurched sharply, dropping several feet.
Carrie gasped and staggered against the wall.
Philip maintained his balance by bracing his shoulder against the side. Everything went dark.
“Philip?” Carrie inquired a moment later.
“I’m here.” It was more than dark, it was pitch-black inside. Even straining his eyes, he couldn’t see a thing. “Looks like there’s been a power outage.”
“Oh, dear.” Her voice sounded small.
“Are you afraid of the dark?”
“Of course not,” she returned indignantly. “Well, maybe just a little. Everyone is—I mean, it wouldn’t be unusual under these circumstances to experience some anxiety.”
“Of course,” he agreed politely, putting his gym bag down beside him.
“How long will it take for the power to come back on?”
“I don’t know.” He shrugged, although he realized she couldn’t see him. “Give me your hand.”
“Why?” she snapped.
“I thought it would comfort you.”
“Oh. Here,” she murmured, but of course he couldn’t see it. He thrust his arm out and their hands collided. She gripped his like a lifeline tossed over the side of a boat. Her fingers were cold as ice.
“Hey, there’s nothing to be afraid of.”
“I know that,” she responded defensively.
He wasn’t entirely sure who moved first, but before another moment passed, he had his arm around her and was holding her protectively against him. He’d been thinking about this since the day they’d attended the movie. He hadn’t allowed himself to dwell on the image, but it felt right to have her this close. More right than it should.
Neither spoke. He wasn’t sure why; then again, he knew. For his own part, he didn’t want reality interrupting his fantasy. Under the cover of the dark he could safely lower his guard. Carrie, he suspected, didn’t speak for fear she’d reveal how truly frightened she was. Philip felt her tremble and welcomed the opportunity to bring her closer into his embrace.
“It won’t be long.”
“I hope so,” she whispered back.