The Manning Grooms Page 2

Charlotte chose to ignore the pointed stare. Her stand on the dance issue was causing a strain in their relationship, but she refused to give in to her daughter’s pressure. Carrie wasn’t going on an actual date. She was interested in a boy named Brad, but as far as Charlotte was concerned, Carrie could attend the dance with her girlfriends and meet him there. Good grief, the girl was only fifteen!

“Mom, can we please talk about the dance?”

“Of course, but…”

“You’re not going to change your mind, right?” Carrie guessed, then sighed. “What can I say to prove how unreasonable you’re being? Every girl in my class is going to the dance with a boy. And Brad asked me.”

Charlotte reached for an apron, tied it about her waist and opened the refrigerator door. She took out a package of ground turkey for taco salad. She wasn’t up to another round of arguments over the dance.

“Did you buy a dance ticket?” Charlotte asked, forcing an artificial lightness into her voice.

“No. I won’t, either. I’d rather sit home for the rest of my life than have my mother drop me off and pick me up. Brad’s father said he’d drive us both…What am I supposed to tell Brad? That my mother doesn’t trust his father’s driving? You’re making way too big a deal out of this.”

Ah, the certainty of youth, Charlotte mused.

“Will you think about it?” Carrie implored. “Please?”

“All right,” Charlotte promised. She hated to be so hardheaded, but when it came to her daughter, she found little room for compromise. To her way of thinking, Carrie was too young for a real date, even if the boy in question wasn’t the one driving.

The meat was simmering in the cast-iron skillet as Charlotte started to wash the lettuce. The faucet came off in her hand, squirting icy water toward the ceiling, and she gasped.

“What’s wrong?” Carrie asked, leaping up from the kitchen table where she was doing her homework.

“The faucet broke!” Already Charlotte was down on her knees, her head under the sink, searching for the valve to cut off the water supply.

“There’s water everywhere,” Carrie shrieked.

“I know.” Most of it had landed on Charlotte.

“Are you going to be able to fix it?” Carrie asked anxiously.

Charlotte sat on the floor, her back against the lower cupboards, her knees under her chin. This was all she needed to make her day complete. “I don’t know,” she muttered, pushing damp hair away from her face with both hands. “But it shouldn’t be that hard.”

“You should call the apartment manager,” Carrie said. “You’ve had to work all day. If something breaks down, he should be the one to fix it, not you. We don’t know anything about faucets. We’re helpless.”

“Helpless?” Charlotte raised her eyebrows at that. The two of them had dealt with far more difficult problems over the years. By comparison, a broken faucet was nothing. “I think we can handle it.”

“Of course we can, but why should we?” Carrie demanded. “We pay our rent on time every month. The least the manager could do is see to minor repairs. He should fix them right away, too.” She marched over to the wall phone and yanked the receiver from the hook. “Here,” she said dramatically. “You call him.”

“I…I don’t know the number.” They’d lived in the apartment for well over a year and until now there hadn’t been any reason to contact the manager.

“It’s around here somewhere,” Carrie said, pulling open the top kitchen drawer and riffling through the phone book and some other papers. Within a very brief time, she’d located the phone number. “His name is Jason Manning. He’s a veterinarian.”

“He’s a vet? I didn’t realize that.” But then, Charlotte had only met the man once, and their entire conversation had been about the apartment. He seemed pleasant enough. She’d seen him in the parking lot a few times and he struck her as an overgrown kid. Frankly, she was surprised to learn he was a veterinarian, since she’d never seen him in anything other than a baseball cap, jeans and a T-shirt. Dressing up for him was a pair of jeans that weren’t torn or stained and a sweatshirt.

“Are you going to phone him?” Carrie asked, holding out the receiver.

“I suppose I will.” Charlotte rose awkwardly to her feet in her straight skirt. By the time she was upright, her daughter had dialed the number and handed her the receiver.

“Hello,” came Jason Manning’s voice after the first ring, catching her off guard.

“Oh…hello…This is Charlotte Weston in apartment 1-A. We have a broken faucet. I managed to turn off the valve, but we’d appreciate having it repaired as quickly as possible.”

“A broken faucet,” he repeated, and although she knew it made no sense, he sounded suspicious to Charlotte, as though he thought she’d purposely interrupted his evening. She resented his attitude.

“Yes, a broken faucet,” she returned stiffly. “It came off in my hand when I went to wash some lettuce. There’s water everywhere.” A slight exaggeration, but a necessary one. “If you’d prefer, I can contact a plumber. Naturally there’ll be an additional charge for repairs this late in the day.”

He muttered something Charlotte couldn’t decipher, then said, “I’ll be right over.” He didn’t seem too pleased, but that was his problem. He shouldn’t have agreed to manage the apartments if he wasn’t willing to deal with the hassles that went along with the job.

“What did he say?” her daughter asked, eyes curious, when Charlotte hung up the phone. “Is he coming?”

“He said he’d be right over.”

“Good.” Carrie studied her critically. “You might want to change clothes.”

“Change clothes? Whatever for?” Surprised at her daughter’s concern, Charlotte glanced down at her business suit. She didn’t see anything wrong with it other than a little water, and in any event, she couldn’t care less about impressing the apartment manager.

“Whatever.” Carrie rolled her eyes, returning to her homework. No sooner had she sat down than the doorbell chimed. Her daughter leapt suddenly to her feet as if she expected to find a rock star at the door. “I’ll get it!”

Jason considered the whole thing a nuisance call. It didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out what Carrie Weston was doing. The girl had arranged this broken faucet just so he’d have a chance to see Charlotte. The kid seemed to think that once Jason got a good look at her mother, he’d change his mind about wanting to date her. Well, there wasn’t much chance of that.

Apparently the girl thought he was something of a player. Jason might’ve gotten a kick out of that a few years ago, but not now. Not when he was nearing middle age. These days he was more concerned about his cholesterol level and his weight than with seducing a reluctant woman.

He probably would’ve ended up getting married if things had worked out between him and Julie, but they hadn’t. She’d been with Charlie nearly seven years now, and the last he’d heard, she had three kids. He wished her and her husband well, and suffered no regrets. Sure, it had hurt when they’d broken off their relationship, but in the end it just wasn’t meant to be. He was pragmatic enough to accept that and go on with his life.

Jason enjoyed the company of women as much as any man did, but he didn’t like the fact that they all wanted to reform him. He was disorganized, slovenly and a sports nut. Women didn’t appreciate those qualities in a man. They would smile sweetly, claim they loved him just the way he was and then try to change him. The problem was, Jason didn’t want to be refined, reformed or domesticated.

Charlotte Weston was a prime example of the type of woman he particularly avoided. Haughty. Dignified. Proper. She actually washed lettuce. Furthermore, she made a point of letting him know it.

“Hi.” Carrie opened the door for him, grinning from ear to ear.

“The faucet broke?” Jason didn’t bother to keep the sarcasm out of his voice.

She nodded, her smile as sly as a wink. “Kind of accidentally on purpose,” she explained under her breath.

Jason was surprised she’d admit as much. “I thought that might be the case.”

She pulled a screw from the small front pocket of her jeans and handed it to him. “It was the only way I could think of to get you here to see my mother up close—only don’t be obvious about it, all right?”

“Carrie, is it the apartment manager?” The subject of their discussion walked into the living room, drying her hands on a terry-cloth apron.

Not bad was Jason’s first reaction. She’d changed her hair since the last time he’d seen her; it was a cloud of disarrayed brown curls instead of the chignon she’d worn a year earlier. The curls gave her a softer, more feminine appeal. She was good-looking, too, not trying-to-make-an-impression gorgeous, but attractive in a modest sort of way. Her eyes were a deep shade of blue, as blue as his own. They were also intense and…sad, as though she’d withstood more than her share of problems over the years. But then, who hadn’t?

Her legs were attractive, too. Long and slender. She was tall—easily five-eight, maybe five-nine.

“She’s not bad-looking, is she?” Carrie asked in a whisper.

“Shh.” Jason slid back a warning.

“Mom, this is Dr. Jason Manning, remember? Our apartment manager,” Carrie said, her arm making a sweeping gesture toward her mother.

“Hello.” She stayed where she was, her fingers still clutching the apron.

“Hi. You called about the broken faucet?” He took a couple of steps into the room, carrying his tool kit. He’d have a talk with Carrie later. If this took more than a few minutes, he might be late for the Lakers play-off game. It was the fifth game in the series, and Jason had no intention of missing it.

“The broken faucet’s in the kitchen,” Charlotte said, leading the way.

“This shouldn’t take long.” Jason set his tools on the counter and reached for the disconnected faucet. “Looks like it might be missing a screw.” He turned pointedly to Carrie, then made a show of sorting through his tool kit. “My guess is that I have an identical one in here.” He pretended to find the screw Carrie had handed him, then held it up so they could all examine it. “Ah, here’s one now.”

“Don’t be so obvious about it,” Carrie warned in a heated whisper. “I don’t want Mom to know.”

Charlotte seemed oblivious to the undercurrents passing between him and Carrie, which was probably just as well. He’d let the kid get away with it this time, but he wasn’t coming back for any repeat performances of this handyman routine.

“I should have this fixed in a couple of minutes,” he said.

“Take your time,” Carrie told him. “No need to rush.” She walked up behind Jason and whispered, “Give her a chance, will you?”

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