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"Dad, you don't understand."
Carrie Weston hurried through the lobby of her apartment complex. "Hold the elevator," she called, making a dash for the open doors. Her arms were loaded with mail, groceries and decorations for her Christmas tree. It probably wasn't a good idea to rush, since the two occupants appeared to be at odds—which could make for an awkward elevator ride—but her arms ached and she didn't want to wait. Lack of patience had always been one of her weaknesses; equally lacking were several other notable virtues.
The man kept the doors from closing. Carrie had noticed him earlier, and so had various other residents. There'd been plenty of speculation about the two latest additions to the apartment complex.
"Thanks," she said breathlessly. Her eyes met those of the teenager. The girl was around thirteen, Carrie guessed. They'd moved in a couple of weeks earlier, and from the scuttlebutt Carrie had heard, they'd only be staying until construction on their new home was complete.
The elevator doors glided shut, as slowly as ever, but then the people who lived in the brick three-story building off Seattle's Queen Anne Hill weren't the type to rush. Carrie was the exception.
"What floor?" the man asked.
Carrie shifted her burdens and managed to slip her mail inside her grocery bag. "Second. Thanks."
The thirtysomething man sent her a benign smile as he pushed the button. He stared pointedly away from her and the teenager.
"I'm Mackenzie Lark," the girl said, smiling broadly. The surly tone was gone. "This is my dad, Philip."
"I'm Carrie Weston." By balancing the groceries on one knee she was able to offer Mackenzie her hand. "Welcome."
Philip shook her hand next, his grip firm and solid, his clasp brief. He glared at his daughter as though to say this wasn't the time for social pleasantries.
"I've been wanting to meet you," Mackenzie continued, ignoring her father. "You look like the only normal person in the entire building."
Carrie smiled despite her effort not to. "I take it you met Madame Frederick."
"Is that a real crystal ball?"
"So she claims." Carrie remembered the first time she'd seen Madame Frederick, who'd stepped into the hallway carrying her crystal ball, predicting everything from the weather to a Nordstrom shoe sale. Carrie hadn't known what to think. She'd plastered herself against the wall and waited for Madame Frederick to pass. The crystal ball hadn't unnerved her as much as the green emeralds glued over each eyebrow. She wore a sort of caftan, with billowing yards of colorful material about her arms and hips; it hugged her legs from the knees down. Her long, silver-white hair was arranged in an updo like that of a prom queen straight out of the sixties.
"She's nice," Mackenzie remarked. "Even if she's weird."
"Have you met Arnold yet?" Carrie asked. He was another of the more eccentric occupants, and one of her favorites.
"Is he the one with all the cats?"
"Arnold's the weight lifter."
"The guy who used to work for the circus?"
Carrie nodded, and was about to say more when the elevator came to a bumpy halt and sighed loudly as the doors opened. "It was a pleasure to meet you both," she said on her way out the door.
"Same here," Philip muttered, and although he glanced in her direction, Carrie had the impression that he wasn't really seeing her. She had the distinct notion that if she'd been standing there nude he wouldn't have noticed or, for that matter, cared.
The doors started to shut when Mackenzie yelled, "Can I come over and talk to you sometime?"
"Sure." The elevator closed, but not before Carrie heard the girl's father voice his disapproval. She didn't know if the two of them were continuing their disagreement, or if this had to do with Mackenzie inviting herself over to visit.
Holding her bags, Carrie had some difficulty unlocking and opening her apartment door without dropping everything. She slammed it closed with one foot and dumped the Christmas ornaments on the sofa, then hauled everything else into her small kitchen.
"You'd been wanting to meet him," she said aloud. "Now you have." She hated to admit it, but Philip Lark had been a disappointment. He showed about as much interest in her as he would a loaf of bread in the bakery window. Well, what did she expect? The fact that she expected anything was because she'd listened to Madame Frederick one too many times. The older woman claimed to see Carrie's future and predicted that, before the end of the year, she'd meet the man of her dreams when he moved into this very building. Yeah, right. She refused to put any credence into that prophecy. Madame Frederick was a sweet, rather strange old lady with a romantic heart.
Carrie pulled out the mail, scanned the envelopes and, except for two Christmas cards and a bill, threw the rest in the garbage. She'd just started to unpack her groceries when there was a knock at the door.
"Hello again," Mackenzie Lark said cheerfully when Carrie opened the door. The quickness of her return took Carrie by surprise.
"You said I could come see you," the teenager reminded her.
"Sure, come on in." Mackenzie walked into the apartment, glanced around admiringly and then collapsed onto the sofa.
"Are you still fighting with your dad?" Carrie asked. She'd had some real go-rounds with her mother before Charlotte married Jason Manning ten years earlier. At the time, Carrie and her mother had been constantly at odds. Carrie knew she was to blame, in part, but she was also aware that her mother had been lonely and unhappy.
Hindsight told her that the root of their problem had been her parents' divorce. Carrie didn't remember a lot about her father—her parents had separated when she was four or five. As she grew older, she came to resent that she didn't have a father, and for reasons that were never clear, she'd blamed her mother.
"Dad doesn't understand." Mackenzie lowered her eyes, her mouth turned down.
"About what?" Carrie asked gently.
The girl stood and walked over to the kitchen and watched Carrie put away groceries. She folded her arms on the counter and then rested her chin there. "Everything. We can't talk without fighting. It's tough being a teenager."
"You might find this difficult to believe, but it's just as difficult raising one," Carrie said.
Mackenzie sighed. "It didn't used to be like this with Dad and me. We got along really well. It wasn't easy when Mom left, but we managed."
"So your parents are divorced?" Although she didn't mean to pry, she was definitely curious.
Mackenzie wrinkled her nose. "It was awful when they split."
"It always is. My parents divorced when I was just a kid. I barely remember my dad."
"Did you see him very much afterward?"
Carrie shook her head. It had bothered her when she was younger, but she'd made her peace with it as an adult. She'd felt hurt that her father didn't want to be part of her life, but ultimately she'd decided that was his choice—and his loss.
"I'm spending Christmas with my mom and her new husband." Mackenzie's eyes brightened. "I haven't seen her in almost a year. She's been busy," she said. "Mom works for one of the big banks in downtown Seattle and she's got this really important position and has to travel and it's hard for her to have me over. Dad's a systems analyst."
Carrie heard the pain in Mackenzie's voice. "You're fifteen?" she asked, deliberately adding a couple of years to her estimate, remembering how important it was to look older when one was that age.
Mackenzie straightened. "Thirteen, actually."
Carrie opened a bag of fat-free, cheese-flavored rice cakes and dumped them onto a plate. Mackenzie helped herself to one and Carrie did, as well. They sat across from each other on opposite sides of the kitchen counter.
"You know what I think?" Mackenzie said, her dark eyes intense. "My dad needs a woman."
The rice cake stuck midway down Carrie's throat. "A…woman?"
"Yeah, a wife. All he does is work, work, work. It's like he can forget about my mother if he stays at the office long enough." She grabbed another rice cake. "Madame Frederick said so, too. And she says he's going to meet someone, but she couldn't be any more specific than that."
"She looked into her crystal ball for me and said she saw lots of changes in my future. I wasn't too happy—except for the part about my dad. There've been too many changes already with the move and all. I miss my friends and it's taking way longer to build the new house than it was supposed to. Originally we were going to be in for Christmas, but now I doubt it'll be ready before next Thanksgiving. Dad doesn't seem to mind, but it bugs me. I'm the one who's going to a strange school and everything." She frowned, shaking her head. "I want my life back."
Mackenzie seemed caught up in a fantasy world of her own. "You know, I think Madame Frederick might've stumbled on something here." Her voice rose with enthusiasm.
"Stumbled on something?" Carrie repeated cautiously.
"You know, about a relationship for my dad. I wonder how I could arrange that?"
"What do you mean?"
"Finding a new wife for my dad."
"Mackenzie," Carrie said and laughed nervously. "A daughter can't arrange that sort of thing."
"Why not?" She seemed taken aback.
"Well, because marriage is serious. It's love and commitment between two people. It's… it's…"
"The perfect solution," Mackenzie finished for her. "Dad and I've always liked the same things. We've always agreed on everything… well, until recently. It makes sense that I should be the one to find him a wife."
"I know what you're thinking," she said, without a pause. "That my dad won't appreciate my efforts, and you're probably right. I'll have to be subtle."
Carrie laughed. "I can't believe this," she whispered. This girl was like a reincarnation of herself eleven years earlier.
"What?" Mackenzie demanded, apparently offended.
"Take my advice and stay out of your father's love life."
"Love life?" she echoed. "That's a joke. He hasn't got one."
"He doesn't want your help," Carrie said firmly.
"Of course he doesn't, but that's beside the point."
"Mackenzie, if you're not getting along with your dad now, I hate to think what'll happen when he discovers what you're up to. My mother was furious with me when I offered Jason money to take her out and—"
"You were willing to pay someone to date your mother?"
Carrie didn't realize what she'd said until it was too late. "It was a long time ago," she murmured, hoping to leave it at that. She should've known better. Mackenzie's eyes grew huge.
"You actually paid someone to date your mother?" she said again.
"Yes, but don't get any ideas. He refused." Carrie could see the wheels turning in the girl's head. "It was a bad idea, and like I said, my mother was really mad at me."
"Did she ever remarry?"
"Anyone you knew?"
Again she nodded, unwilling to tell her it was the very man she'd tried to bribe.
Mackenzie's gaze met hers and Carrie looked away. "It was him, wasn't it?"
"Yes, but I didn't have anything to do with that."
Mackenzie laughed. "You offered him money to date your mother. He refused, but dated her anyway. That's great! How long before they got married?"
"Mackenzie, what happened with my mother and Jason is… unusual."
"How long?" she repeated stubbornly.
"A few months."
She smiled knowingly. "They're happy, aren't they." It was more of a comment than a question.
Carrie only hoped she'd find a man who'd make her as truly contented as Jason Manning had made her mother. Despite ten years of marriage and two children, her mother and stepfather behaved like newlyweds. Carrie marveled at the strength of their love. It inspired her and yet in some ways hampered her. She wanted that kind of relationship for herself and wasn't willing to settle for anything less. Her friends claimed she was too picky, too demanding when it came to men, and she suspected they were right.
"My point exactly," Mackenzie declared triumphantly. "You knew your mom better than anyone. Who else was more qualified to choose a husband for her? It's the same with me. I know my dad and he's in a rut. Something's got to be done, and Madame Frederick hit the nail on the head. He needs a love interest."
Carrie's smile was forced. "Madame Frederick is one of my favorite people, but I think it's best to take what she says with a grain of salt."
"Well, a little salt enhances the flavor, right?" Mackenzie added. Excited now, she got to her feet. "What about you?" she asked.
"Yeah, you. Would you be willing to date my dad?"
"She's pretty, isn't she, Dad?"
Philip Lark glanced up. He sat at the kitchen table, filling out an expense report. His daughter sat across from him, smiling warmly. The way her eyes focused on him told him she was up to something.
"Who?" he asked, wondering if it was wise to inquire.
"Carrie Weston." At his blank look, she elaborated. "The woman we met in the elevator. We talked this afternoon." Mackenzie rested her chin in her hands and continued to gaze at him adoringly.
Philip's eyes reverted to the row of figures on the single sheet. His daughter waited patiently until he was finished. Patience wasn't a trait he was accustomed to seeing in Mackenzie. She usually complained when he brought work home, acting as though it was a personal affront. He cleared his mind, attempting to remember her question. Oh, yes, she wanted to know what he thought of Carrie Weston. For the life of him, he couldn't remember what the woman looked like. His impression of her remained vague, but he hadn't found anything to object to.