The Manning Grooms Page 1

Author: Debbie Macomber

Series: Those Manning Men #0

Genres: Romance

One

It was one of those days. Jason Manning scrubbed his hands in the stainless-steel sink, then applied ointment to several scratches. He’d just finished examining and prescribing antibiotics for a feisty Persian cat with a bladder infection. The usually ill-mannered feline had never been his most cooperative patient, but today she’d taken a particular dislike to Jason.

He left the examining room and was greeted by Stella, his receptionist, who steered him toward his office. She wore a suspiciously silly grin, as if to say “this should be interesting.”

“There’s a young lady who’d like a few minutes with you,” was all the information she’d give him. Her cryptic message didn’t please him any more than the Persian’s blatant distaste for him had.

Curious, Jason moved into his book-lined office. “Hello,” he said in the friendliest voice he could muster.

“Hi.” A teenage girl who seemed vaguely familiar stood as he entered the room. She glanced nervously in his direction as if he should recognize her. When it was obvious he didn’t, she introduced herself. “I’m Carrie Weston.” She paused, waiting expectantly.

“Hello, Carrie,” Jason said. He’d seen her around, but for the life of him, couldn’t recall where. “How can I help you?”

“You don’t remember me, do you?”

“Ah…no.” He couldn’t see any point in pretending. If a cat could outsmart him, he was fair game for a teenager.

“We’re neighbors. My mom and I live in the same apartment complex as you.”

He did his best to smile and nod as though he’d immediately placed her, but he hadn’t. He racked his brain trying to recall which apartment was hers. Although he owned and managed the building, Jason didn’t interact much with his tenants. He was careful to choose renters who cared about their privacy as much as he cared about his. He rarely saw any of them other than to collect the rent, and even then most just slipped their checks under his door around the first of the month.

Carrie sat back down, her hands clenched tightly in her lap. “I—I’m sorry to bother you, but I’ve been trying to talk to you for some time, and…and this seemed to be the only way I could do it without my mother finding out.”

“Your mother?”

“Charlotte Weston. We live in 1-A.”

Jason nodded. The Westons had been in the apartment for more than a year. Other than when they’d signed the rental agreement, Jason couldn’t recall speaking to either the mother or her daughter.

“Is there a problem?”

“Not a problem…exactly.” Carrie stood once again and opened her purse, taking out a thin wad of bills, which she leafed through and counted slowly. When she’d finished, she looked up at him. “It’s my mother,” she announced.

“Yes?” Jason prompted. He didn’t have a clue where this conversation was leading or how long it would take the girl to get there. Stella knew he had a terrier waiting, yet she’d purposely routed him into his office.

“She needs a man,” Carrie said, squaring her shoulders.

“I beg your pardon?” The girl had his attention now.

“My mother needs a man. I’m here to offer you one hundred dollars if you’ll take her out on a date. You are single, aren’t you?”

“Yes…but…” Jason was so surprised, he answered without thinking. Frankly, he didn’t know whether to ask which of his brothers had put her up to this, or simply to laugh outright. He couldn’t very well claim he’d never been propositioned before, but this was by far the most original instance he’d encountered in thirty-odd years.

“She’s not ugly or anything.”

“Ah…I’m not sure what to tell you.” The girl was staring at him so candidly, so forthrightly, Jason realized within seconds it was no joke.

“I don’t think my mother’s happy.”

Jason leaned against the side of his oak desk and crossed his arms. “Why would you assume my taking her out will make a difference?”

“I…don’t know. I’m just hoping. You see, my mom and dad got divorced when I was little. I don’t remember my dad, and apparently he doesn’t remember me, either, because I’ve never heard from him. Mom doesn’t say much about what went wrong, but it must’ve been bad because she never dates. I didn’t care about that before, only now…”

“Only now what?” Jason asked when she hesitated.

“I want to start dating myself, and my mother’s going totally weird on me. She says I’m too young. Boy, is she out of it! I’m not allowed to date until I’m sixteen. Can you imagine anything so ridiculous?”

“Uhh…” Jason wasn’t interested in getting involved in a mother-daughter squabble. “Not being a father myself, I can’t really say.”

“The ninth-grade dance is coming up in a few weeks and I want to go.”


“Your mother won’t allow you to attend the dance?” That sounded a bit harsh to Jason, but as he’d just stated, he wasn’t in a position to know.

“Oh, she’ll let me go, except she intends to drop me off and pick me up when the dance is over.”

“And that’s unacceptable?”

“Of course it is! It’s—it’s the most awful thing she could do to me. I’d be mortified to have my mother waiting in the school parking lot to take me home after the dance. I’d be humiliated in front of my friends. You’ve just got to help me.” A note of desperation raised her voice on the last few words.

“I don’t understand what you want me to do,” Jason hedged. He couldn’t see any connection between Carrie’s attending the all-important ninth-grade dance and him wining and dining her mother.

“You need me to spell it out for you?” Carrie’s eyes were wide, her gaze scanning the room. “I’m offering you serious money to seduce my mother.”

For a wild instant, Jason thought he hadn’t heard her right. “Seduce her?”

“My mother’s practically a virgin all over again. She needs a man.”

“You’re sure about this?” Jason was having a hard time keeping a straight face. He could hardly wait to tell his brother Rich. The two of them would have a good laugh over it.

“Absolutely positive.” Carrie didn’t even flinch. Her expression grew more confident. “Mom’s forgotten what it’s like to be in love. All she thinks about is work. Don’t get me wrong…My mother’s an awesome person, but she’s so prim and proper…and stubborn. What she really needs is…well, you know.”

Jason felt sorry for the kid, but he didn’t see how he could help her. Now that he thought about it, he did recall what Charlotte Weston looked like. In fact, he could remember the day she’d moved in. She’d seemed feminine and attractive, more than a little intriguing. But he’d noticed a guardedness, too, that sent an unmistakable signal. He’d walked away with the impression that she was as straitlaced as a nun and about as warm and inviting as an Alaskan winter.

“Why me?” Jason was curious enough to wonder why Carrie had sought him out. Apparently his charisma was more alluring than he’d realized.

“Well, because…just because, that’s all,” Carrie answered with perfect teenage logic. “And I figured I wouldn’t have to pay you as much as I would one of those dating services. You seem nice.” She gnawed on her lower lip. “Being a veterinarian is good, too.”

“How’s that?”

“You’ve probably had lots of experience soothing injured animals, and I think my mother’s going to need some of that—comforting and reassuring, you know?” The girl’s voice became fervent. “She’s been hurt…. She doesn’t talk about it, but she loved my father and I think she must be afraid of falling in love again. I even think she might like another baby someday.” This last bit of information was clearly an afterthought. Carrie cast him a speculative glance to be sure she hadn’t said something she shouldn’t have. “Don’t worry about that—she’s probably too old anyway,” she added quickly.

“She wants a baby?” Jason could feel the hair on the back of his neck rising. This woman-child was leading him toward quicksand, and he was going to put a stop to it right now.

“No—no…I mean, she’s never said so, but I saw her the other day holding a friend’s newborn and she had that look in her eyes…I thought she was going to cry.” She paused. “I shouldn’t have said anything.”

For one brief, insane moment, Jason had actually considered the challenge of seducing Charlotte Weston, but the mention of a baby brought him solidly back to earth.

“Listen, Carrie,” Jason said, “I’m sorry, but this isn’t going to work.”

“It’s got to,” she pleaded urgently, “just for one date. Couldn’t you ask her out? Just once? If you don’t, I’ll be humiliated in front of my entire class. I’d rather not even go to the dance if my mother drives me.”

Jason hated to disappoint her, but he couldn’t see himself in the role of rescuing a fifteen-year-old damsel in distress from her mother’s heavy hand, even if Carrie did make a halfway decent case.

“Is it the money?” Carrie asked, her eyes imploring. “I might be able to scrounge up another twenty dollars…but I’m going to need some cash for the dance.”

“It isn’t the money,” Jason assured her.

Wearing a dejected look, Carrie stood. “You sure you don’t want to take a couple of days to think it over?”

“I’m sure.”

She released a long, frustrated sigh. “I was afraid you were going to say that.”

“Good luck.” Jason held open the door. He had no intention of asking Charlotte Weston out on a date, but he he did feel sorry for Carrie. Although he hadn’t been a teenager in years, he hadn’t forgotten how important these things could seem. Things like the ninth-grade dance.

Charlotte let herself into the apartment at six that evening. She slipped off her heels and rubbed the tense muscles at the back of her neck.

“Hi, Mom,” Carrie called cheerfully from the kitchen. “How was work?”

“Fine.” There was no need to burden her daughter with how terrible her day had been. Her job as an executive assistant at a large insurance agency might have sounded high-powered and influential, but in reality it was neither. Charlotte worked long hours with little appreciation or reward. For six months, ever since Harry Ward had taken over as managing director, she’d been telling herself it was time to change jobs. But she couldn’t give up the security of her position, no matter how much she disliked her boss.

“How was school?” she asked.

“Good. Tickets for the dance went on sale today.” Her daughter looked hopefully at Charlotte, as though expecting her to make some profound comment.

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