Nancy had her arms linked in Bess and George's as the three of them broke through the double doors and spilled onto the manicured lawn at River Heights High, all in high spirits. Friday night, the entire weekend in front of them, a rare weekend without a paper due or a test scheduled for Monday. Nancy felt giddy.
"Movies? Saturday night?"
Bess shot her cousin a withering look. "Hello. Saturday is date night. I'm sure Nancy will want to be with Ned."
"He can come along," George said breezily.
"Hey, guys," Nancy protested, shifting her backpack on her shoulders. She caught herself in mid-laugh when she saw her father's car waiting in the line. "Oh."
"So are you going to the movies with him?" Bess demanded, her eyes sparkling.
Nancy pulled her gaze away with slight difficulty. Her father's car waiting for her instead of Hannah's; she wondered if he was going to be going out of town for a while, if he wanted to tell her in person before he left. "Uh, we have plans," she said, slowly. "But I can see if we can hang out tonight?"
"Ooh!" Bess clapped her hands while George rolled her eyes. "Whose house?"
"Ugh," George groaned. "No makeovers. No watching some stupid sappy romance movie, and absolutely no playing with Barbies."
"We haven't played with Barbies in years," Nancy retorted, while Bess glared at her cousin. "Oh, so what do you think we should do then, watch a Pilates video and then turn on ESPN for a while?" she chimed in.
"Don't tease me," George said. "Anyway. If we're going to hang out I need to know soon. You know how my parents get."
"Right." Nancy was already looking toward her father's car again, knowing how impatient he could be when he was preparing for a trip. "I'll give you both a call."
Her father was listening to music older than she was, tapping his fingers against the steering wheel with the beat, and Nancy rolled her eyes a little when she slid into his car. "Hey," she said happily, letting her backpack slide into the floorboard. She leaned over to kiss him on the cheek. "Didn't expect to see you."
"I know," Carson sighed, shifting the car into gear. "Do Bess and George need a ride too?"
"Oh, no," Nancy said, buckling in. "They get their own ride. So to what do I owe the pleasure?"
"Can't a dad pick his daughter up from school?"
"Not without telling her why," Nancy replied quickly.
Carson chuckled. "Is this my fault?"
"You did raise me," Nancy said. "Anyway, tell. Please."
"Do you have plans with Bess and George tonight?"
"Depends on whether you say yes," she replied. "And don't think I'm going to just let this go."
"It's nothing," Carson protested. "I just wanted to pick you up."
Nancy studied him for a moment, then sat back, her arms folded, her eyes gleaming.
When the two of them went into the house, Nancy went immediately to the kitchen, to find Hannah cutting up fruit for her snack. "Have a good day?"
"Oh..." Nancy glanced over at the backpack she had left on the table. All day she'd been happily awaiting telling Hannah; the thought of it had fled when she saw her father waiting for her instead. "I made an A on that paper I did for History."
"Congratulations!" Hannah wiped her wet hands before wrapping Nancy in a warm hug. She went to the refrigerator for the milk while Nancy munched thoughtfully on an apple slice.
"Is there a reason Dad picked me up today?"
"I don't know," Hannah said, then poured Nancy a glass. "Like what?"
"Like he's going out of town," Nancy said, a small frown creasing between her eyebrows.
When Carson came back in, sorting through the mail, Hannah called out, "So how many for dinner tonight?"
Nancy shrugged. "If Bess and George come over, it'll probably be after."
"Count me out."
"Count you out?" Nancy chimed in, pulling a face when her father didn't hand her any mail. He split the phone bill envelope open with his thumb, carefully avoiding looking at his daughter. "Are you doing something tonight? Playing cards with Uncle Jon?"
Carson chuckled at the thought. "No, not tonight. I'm having dinner with a friend."
"A friend I've met?"
Carson shook his head and ruffled Nancy's hair before she squirmed out from beneath. "No. A friend you haven't met. I thought parents' lives were deathly boring to most kids," he mock complained.
"Yeah, but you don't have a life," Nancy said, her blue eyes wide. At the look her father gave her, she rushed to explain. "All you do is have cases, and cases are fascinating."
"It's not a case. I'm sorry to disappoint you. Though I did have something come across my desk today that I thought you'd enjoy hearing about." He started looking over the phone bill.
Nancy opened her mouth to say something, then walked over to the couch and sat with her arms folded, just gazing at him. She watched as he opened the rest of the mail, sorting it into shred and save piles, found the television remote and turned it on, and put his feet up on his ottoman. Then he glanced over at her, and she had that same calm speculative look on her face, and he sighed.
"You left your fruit in the kitchen," Hannah admonished, bringing in the plate and Nancy's glass. "Are you going to finish your snack?"
"Thanks," Nancy said, biting into a slice of apple. When she had bustled out again, Nancy turned expectantly back to her father, her teeth slicing sharply through the skin.
"Nancy," he said, and sighed. "I... I'm going to dinner with a date tonight."
She blinked at him. "What?"
The look on her face was rapidly darkening. "I've met someone, she's very intelligent and quite attractive, and we're having dinner."
"You met her where?"
Carson turned the television volume down a few clicks. "Through work."
"Is she your client? You know you're not supposed to date clients."
"I know I'm not supposed to date clients, because I'm the one who told you about that," he said, and his gaze wasn't unsympathetic. "She's not a client, she's a colleague. And it's just dinner."
Nancy looked down at the piece of apple still in her hand, and put it on her plate, slowly. "But you like her," she said, and the words came unwillingly, like drawing knotted scarves from her throat.
"Yes. I like her."
He knew the next question, but she couldn't bring herself to ask it. She had gone a little pale, and then she blinked and she wasn't calm, but she was at least pretending. "I need to call Bess and George and tell them they can come over tonight, if that's still okay," she said, and glanced over at him.
"That's fine, Nan."
She brushed by the coffee table so close the surface of the milk rippled, but she didn't look back, and Carson rubbed his temples. He had never gone so far as to lie to her, and when she had been young he had made her his priority, politely dissuading all offers from sympathetic women who saw him with Nancy and wanted to help, in whatever way they could. Hannah had been a part of buffering him from that world, giving Nancy all the love and support she could without clouding the issue of their relationship or her place as Nancy's mother. He had loved Catherine too much to fade Nancy's memory of her early, to usurp the place she had had in her daughter's life.
But he had been alone for nearly thirteen years, and Martine really was beautiful.
Nancy swept back in with her backpack hanging from one shoulder, picked up her plate and glass and headed for the stairs. "I'm going to fix up my room before they come over," she said, not looking at her father, and then she was gone.
By the time he had steeled himself enough to knock on her door, she had already put on some new album, rather loudly, the bass carrying through to the hallway. She took a moment to answer his knock, but at least she did, he told himself. She had her bouts of moodiness, her rages, but for the most part she was well-behaved and respectful. It made the stormy look on her face all the more disconcerting.
"Are you all right?"
The truth crossed her face before the lie left her mouth. "I'm fine," she said, stepping back. She was sorting clothes into laundry baskets, and her cosmetics, the ones Hannah had carefully schooled him on, were strewn across her vanity, but otherwise she didn't have much to do. He gingerly moved a stack of polo shirts and perched on the edge of her bed, as she turned the volume down slightly and knelt under the stereo, sweeping up another armful of shirts.
"I think we need to talk about... this."
"Oh?" Fire flashed in her blue eyes, but she always remembered who she was addressing, and the rage only shook her voice a little. "What is there to talk about?"
"You're upset about this."
She kept her eyes closed a second too long, and with a painful tug at his heart he recognized it, the echo of his wife. "It's a date," she said, steadily. "You didn't say you were going-- to marry her," she finished, but then she glanced up at him, and it was very obvious to him then that that was exactly what she was afraid of.
"That's true," he said.
"So there's nothing for me to be upset about."
For a moment he cursed himself for all of it, sharing cases with her, training her to think this way, training her to marshal her emotions and bury it in logic, facts and figures, the provable truth and the plausible lie. He had been mother and father to her almost her whole life, and Hannah practically so, but that single word said so much. Practically. There was a distance between Nancy and Hannah that could never be breached, no matter how they laughed together or how many times Nancy shared her fears and joys with her.
He couldn't imagine it. He couldn't imagine how it must feel to her. He knew her mind, had been training it to follow his own since she was old enough to understand him, but sometimes her heart still eluded him.
"Does that mean you don't want to talk about it?"
"What is there to say?" she asked, and her eyes were gleaming.
"Oh... Nancy," he sighed, and when he picked her up and drew her into his arms, she buried her face against his chest immediately, like a child.
"I knew," she gasped through her sobs. "I knew one day you'd say it and I thought I was ready but... Dad."
He stroked her back. "Shh, shh, it's all right," he said, feeling powerless.
"Do you have to go tonight?" She pulled back, her eyes streaming, and the sight of her like that made him miserable. "Bess and George don't have to come over. We can watch a movie together. We can go out." She wiped at her face, glancing up at him, but when his expression didn't soften, she dropped her gaze.
"Even if I asked, you wouldn't stay," she said, her voice flat.
He tilted her chin up. "You're my daughter," he said, firmly. "You know I love you. So don't try to make me feel guilty like that. I'd give you the world if I could."
She wiped at her eyes again. "But you won't do this for me," she sighed.
"She's a wonderful woman. If you met her, you'd like her."
Nancy pushed away from him. "I don't want to meet her," she burst out, kicking at one of the baskets, and it slid a few inches. "I don't..." She glanced up at him again, almost daring him to stop what he knew she was going to say. "I don't want you to go tonight."
He folded his arms. "If I don't go tonight, it'll be next week," he said, keeping his voice neutral. "If it's not Martine, it'll be someone else. I will always love your mother, and I will always love you," he said, catching and holding her gaze. "But in a few years you're going to be gone to college and I'm going to be terribly lonely without the two of you."
"So wait," she said, pleading in her voice. "Wait until I'm not here. It's not so long. I just..."
"Do you think it'll be easier when you're not here to see it?"
"Yes," she said, nodding so firmly that he had to bite his tongue to keep from laughing. "I can... I don't know. It's just always been the two of us," she said, trailing off, shrugging a little, and he knew what she meant. It had always been the two of them.
"So why don't you just stop seeing Ned until you're in college?" he asked, and she glanced at him sharply, but there was no anger in his voice. "If it's so soon."
"That's not the same," she said, her eyes narrowing.
"It isn't? You go out with him on the weekends, he gets along with your friends, and as far as I can tell, he treats you well," Carson said. "We don't do movie night anymore, and he's there for you." He stepped toward her. "Nan, you're growing up. You don't need me anymore."
"Yes I do!" she cried out, hurt in her voice. "Ned isn't you! You..." She shook her head, incoherent with frustration, and sat down on her bed.
"It's all right," Carson said. "You know, it was a shock to me too, the day you brought Ned home." He sat down beside her. "You never looked at any of the rest of them like that. I wasn't afraid until then. Plus he has a car," Carson said darkly, and Nancy had to chuckle at him a little.
"But Ned... Ned doesn't take your place," she said. "And if you go tonight..."
"Martine's not going to take your place," he said, touching her shoulder. "She's not. And whether I continue dating her, or not, she won't take your mother's place. No one's going to do that." He sighed.
Nancy looked down at her hands, clenched in her lap. "I hear you say it," she said softly, "but I can't quite believe it."
"Do believe it," he told her quietly. "You'll see. And if it is too much for you to handle, which I sincerely doubt," he said, brushing her hair away from her wet face, "then I'll just be quieter about it."
"Don't," she said, shaking her head. "I'd rather you tell me the truth than lie to me about it."
He nodded, then rose to his feet. "All right. Now I have to go get ready, and you have to finish with your room."
"Yeah," she said softly. He made it to the door before her hesitant "Dad?" had him turning around again.
"I love you."
"I love you too." He smiled.
"But if she has two stepdaughters..."
"I'll make sure they're not evil," he teased her back.
"And if she smokes cigarettes in long ivory holders?"
"Then she's out," he said firmly.
She came over to him and wrapped him in a hug. "It'll be all right," she said, as much for her own benefit as his.
"Yeah, it will," he told her, stroking her back. "You're very intimidating. And I won't bring anyone home unless I'm very sure."
She nodded. "My screening process is very thorough," she said, primly. "I picked it up from a master."
Carson chuckled and dropped a kiss on the crown of her head. "I'll depend on it," he said.