Mackenzie's Magic by Linda Howard

  The two sides looked at each other, the men glaring at their turncoat wives, the women lined up protectively beside Mac. He was a little stunned to find himself surrounded by this perfumed wall of femininity.

  Caroline gave her husband glare for glare. "Every one of us was welcomed with open arms when we married into this family, and I expect you to extend the same courtesy to Maris’s husband—or else!"

  Joe considered the challenge, his pale blue eyes glittering as he cocked his head. "Or else, what?" he asked, his deep voice silky and full of something that might have been anticipation.

  Silence fell in the room, even the kids were quiet as they watched their parents. Mac looked at the six women ranged on either side of him, and his face softened into tender amusement. "It’s okay," he said. "I understand."

  "I’m glad you do, because I don’t," Maris growled.

  "It’s a—"

  "Don’t say it’s a man thing," Mary warned, interrupting, and he bit back the words.

  "No, ma’am," he said meekly.

  Wolf’s dark face lightened, and his lips twitched. Those two words were very familiar to him.

  Nick squirmed to get down, and Maris leaned over to deposit her on her feet. The little girl patted Mac on the knee and said, "Mac," with great satisfaction in her tone. She trotted across to her father, holding up her arms to be picked up. Zane leaned down and lifted her, settling her on one brawny arm. "Dat’s Mac," she said, pointing. "I wike him."

  Suddenly that hard, deadly face softened into a smile, and a big hand smoothed a silky tendril of hair away from her face. "I noticed," he said dryly. "He took one look at you and turned into your slave, just like the rest of us. That’s what you really like, isn’t it?"

  Her little head bobbed up and down, very definitely. Zane chuckled as he shot an amused glance across the room at her mother. "I thought you would."

  From somewhere down the hall came a baby’s wail. "Cam’s awake," Barrie said, and immediately abandoned Mac to go to her baby.

  "How does she do that?" Chance asked of the room in general. "They’re only two months old. How do you tell twins apart by their cries?"

  The females, Nick included, had won. The tension in the room dissipated, smiles breaking out as Chance followed his sister-in-law down the hall, intent on finding out if she’d been right. Before he walked out he winked at Mac, in a moment of male understanding. The crisis had come and gone, because when it came down to it, the Mackenzie men were unwilling to distress their women. The women had liked Mac on sight, and that was that.

  Barrie was back in only a moment, a squirming bundle in her arms. Chance followed her, expertly holding another one. "She was right," he announced, shaking his head in bewilderment.

  Mac looked at the two tiny faces, finding them as identical as if they were mirror images. It was impossible to tell them apart even by looking at them; how in hell did Chance know if she was right or not?

  "Cameron," Barrie said, indicating her burden and smiling at his skeptical look. "Chance is holding Zack." She also carried two small, milk-filled bottles.

  "How do you know?" He shook his head, still looking for any distinguishing difference in the babies.

  "Cameron’s the most impatient, but Zack is more determined."

  "You can tell that in their cries?"

  "Well, of course," she said, as if anyone should be able to do the same.

  Nick was climbing up on her father’s shoulder, gripping his hair for leverage. "Wook, Unca Dance," she exclaimed, standing upright and releasing her safety hold.

  Zane reached up and snagged his daughter off his shoulder. "Here, swap with me," he said, and he and Chance exchanged kids. Zane settled the baby in the crook of his arm and took one of the bottles from Barrie, expertly slipping the nipple into the rapacious little mouth.

  Chance balanced Nick on his hands, firmly holding her feet while she straightened and crowed with delight at her achievement. "Chance," he coaxed. "My name is Chance. Chance."

  Nick placed her little hands on each side of his face, leaning close to peer into his eyes and impress him with her seriousness. "No," she said with great finality. "Dance. Oo say it wong."

  The room exploded with laughter at Chance’s expression. He eyed the pint-size dictator in his hands, then shook his head and gave up. "Are you sure you want to marry into this family?" He directed the question at Mac.

  Mac looked at Maris and winked. "Yeah," he said.

  Zane was watching him while the baby took the bottle, his calm eyes measuring. "Maris said you’re an FBI special agent," he said, and something in his tone must have alerted Maris.

  "No," she said firmly, pushing Mac toward the kitchen. "You can’t have him. Being in the FBI is enough. You absolutely can’t have him."

  Mac found himself borne along on the tide of women, because they all wanted to discuss the wedding, but before he left the room he looked back. His gaze met Zane’s…and Zane Mackenzie smiled.

  "Welcome to the family," he said.


  "You so pwetty," Nick sighed, her big blue eyes rapt as she propped her elbows on Maris’s knee and stared at her aunt. The entire process of preparing for a wedding had fascinated the little girl. She had intently scrutinized everything as the women of the household had painstakingly made hundreds of tiny net bags, filled them with bird seed and tied them with ribbons. She had stood on her tiptoes, clinging to the table’s edge, and watched as Shea, who made wonderful cakes, practiced making dozens of roses from icing before decorating Maris’s wedding cake. Before long the practice roses had all borne evidence of a tiny, investigative finger. Once Nick had determined they were edible, they’d gradually disappeared, and her little face wore telltale smears.

  Maris’s gown held her absolutely enthralled. The long skirt, the lace, the veil, everything about it entranced her. When Maris had tried it on for the final fitting, Nick had clasped her hands under her chin and with shining eyes had said, "Oo a pwincess!"

  "You’re pretty, too, darling," Maris said. Nick was her flower girl. Zane had muttered about inviting disaster, and since Nick wasn’t quite three years old, Maris was prepared for anything, including an outright refusal to perform her role. At the rehearsal the night before, however, Nick had strutted down the aisle with her little basket of rose petals and proudly strewn them, aware that every eye was on her. Whether she would do so when watched by a huge crowd was another question, but she was undeniably adorable in her long, blush pink dress, with ribbons and flowers in her silky black hair.

  "I know," Nick replied matter-of-factly, and left her post at Maris’s knee to return to the mirror to admire herself. It was something she had done every five minutes since Barrie had dressed her.

  Barrie and Caroline were the acknowledged fashion mavens of the Mackenzie family, and they had taken over the arrangement of Maris’s hair and the application of her makeup. They were astute enough to keep things simple, rather than overwhelming Maris’s dainty face and frame with big hair and layers of makeup. Barrie had finished her hair and retired to a rocking chair to nurse the twins before the ceremony started. She supplemented their feedings with a bottle, but breast milk kept them contented longer, and she didn’t want to have to feed them again in the middle of the reception.

  Mary had quickly realized that the Mackenzie house, as large as it was, simply couldn’t hold the crowd that was invited to the wedding. Because Christmas was on a Wednesday, the church in Ruth had held its Christmas service on Sunday, freeing it for the ceremony. The nine-foot-tall Christmas tree still stood in the corner, its multitude of white lights twinkling. Holly and evergreen needles still decorated the windowsills, filling the church with a wonderful aroma. White lights outlined the arched doorway, the windows, the sanctuary and the steps leading up to it. Rows of white candles lent their mellow glow to the church. None of the overhead lights would be on, but the tree, the Christmas lights and the candles combined to give the setting a magical aura.

p; This was Christmas Eve, a time when most of the occupants of Ruth would normally have been at home either having their private celebrations or preparing for them the next day. This year they were attending a wedding. From the private room off the vestibule Maris could hear the swell of noise as more and more people arrived.

  Mary stood quietly, a sheen of tears in her slate blue eyes as she watched her daughter prepare for her wedding. It didn’t matter that Maris and Mac were already married; this was the wedding that counted. This was her beloved daughter who looked so delicate and beautiful in her silvery white gown, a color that turned Maris’s pale, ash brown hair to a darker shade of silver. She remembered the first time she had seen her daughter, only seconds old, so tiny and lovely and already staring around with big, solemn black eyes, her father’s eyes. She remembered the tears that had sheened Wolf’s own black eyes as he’d taken Maris in his arms and hugged the little scrap to his chest as if she were the most precious thing he’d ever seen.

  There were thousands of other memories. Her first tooth, her first step, her first word—predictably, "horsie." Maris sitting on a pony for the first time, her eyes huge with delight while Wolf kept a protective arm around her. Maris, a little shadow dogging her father’s footsteps just as her older brothers had done. Maris in school, fiercely joining in any fight the boys had gotten into, her little fists flying as she rushed to their defense, utterly ignoring the fact that the boys were twice her size. Maris sobbing when her old pony had died, and her radiant joy when, the next Christmas, Wolf had given her her first "real" horse.

  There had been Maris’s first date, and Wolf’s scowling, prowling nervousness until his baby was safely back under his roof. One of Mary’s favorite memories was of Zane and Josh and Chance pacing along with their father; if Joe and Mike had been there, they would have been pacing, too. As it was, the poor boy who had been so brave as to take Maris out had been terrified when the four Mackenzie males met them on the front porch on their return and had never asked her out again. They had gotten better about it over the years, but Maris must have forgotten her first date or she wouldn’t have been so surprised at their reaction to Mac when she’d brought him home. Men. Mary loved her men, but really, they could be so overbearing. Why, they liked Mac, once they’d gotten over their bristly protectiveness. If Maris didn’t watch out, Zane would have Mac recruited into whatever it was he and Chance—

  Zane. Mary stopped short in her thoughts, looking around the room. All three of his children were here, with Barrie. Usually he was tending to at least one of the babies, or riding herd on Nick. That meant Zane was free and unencumbered, and she was sure it wasn’t by accident.

  "Zane’s free," she announced, because she thought Maris really ought to know.

  Her daughter’s head snapped up, and her lovely eyes caught fire. "I’ll skin him alive," she said wrathfully. "I will not have Mac gone for months on end the way Chance is. I just got him, and I’m not letting him go."

  Barrie looked startled; then she, too, realized the significance of having all three children with her. She shook her head in rueful acknowledgment of her husband’s canniness. "It’s too late to do anything about it now. He’s had plenty of time to have a private talk with Mac, and you know Zane—he planned it perfectly."

  Maris scowled, and Caroline drew back with the eye shadow brush in her hand. "I can’t do this with your eyebrows all scrunched up," she admonished. Maris smoothed her expression, and Caroline went back to work. "I don’t believe in letting hormone-driven men interfere in a woman’s wedding. You can skin him alive tomorrow. Ambush him when he least expects it."

  "Zane always expects everything," Barrie said, grinning. Then she looked at her daughter, who was twirling and dancing in front of the mirror, admiring herself. "Except Nick," she added. "He wasn’t prepared for her."

  "Was anyone?" Loren murmured, smiling fondly down at the little girl. Nick, hearing her name, stopped her pirouetting to favor them all with an angelic smile that didn’t fool them for one second.

  "Mac’s besotted with her," Maris said. "He didn’t turn a hair even when she polished his boots with the Magic Marker."

  "An indication of true love if I’ve ever seen it," Caroline said dryly. She touched the mascara wand to Maris’s already dark lashes, then stood back to admire her handiwork. "There! Mac would be crazy to leave you and go running around half-civilized countries where there’s no sanitation and no shopping." Caroline’s philosophy in life was to be comfortable, and she went to extraordinary lengths to accomplish it. She would gladly walk miles to find the perfect comfortable pair of shoes. It made perfect sense to her, since her work often required her to be on her feet for hours; how could she possibly concentrate if her toes were cramped?

  "I don’t think Mac would care about the shopping," Shea said. She picked Nick up and whirled around the room with the giggling little girl, humming a lively tune.

  There was a knock on the door, and John poked his head inside. "It’s time," he said. His pale blue gaze fell on Caroline. "Wow, Mom, you look great."

  "Smart guy," she said approvingly. "I’ll let you stay in my will."

  He grinned and ducked out again. Maris stood, sucking in a deep breath. It was time. Never mind that they’d been married for three weeks already; this was a production, and practically the entire town was on hand to witness it.

  Shea set Nick on her feet and got the basket of rose petals from the top of the closet, where they’d put it to keep Nick from scattering the flowers around the room. They’d already picked up the velvety petals once, and once was enough.

  Barrie laid Zack beside Cameron. Both babies were sleeping peacefully, their little bellies full. Right on time, one of Shea’s teenaged nieces arrived to watch them while Barrie attended the wedding.

  The music began, their cue to begin entering the sanctuary.

  One by one they began filing out, escorted by the Mackenzie men to their reserved seats. Zane’s big form filled the doorway. Maris said, "No," and he grinned as he held his hand out to Barrie.

  "Just a minute." Barrie stooped in front of Nick, straightening the ribbons in her hair and at last placing the basket of flower petals in the eager, dimpled little hands. "Do the flowers just the way you did them last night, okay? Do you remember?"

  Nick nodded. "I fwow dem aroun’ on de fwoor."

  "That’s right, sweetheart." Having done all she could, Barrie stood and went to Zane, who slipped his arm around her waist and briefly hugged her close before they left to take their places.

  Wolf came to the door, severely elegant in a black tuxedo. "It’s time, honey," he said to Maris. His black eyes were tender as he wrapped his arms around her and rocked her back and forth, the way he had done all her life. Maris laid her head on her father’s chest, almost overwhelmed by the sudden rush of love for him. She’d been so lucky in her parents!

  "I was beginning to wonder if you’d ever forget about horses long enough to fall in love," he said, "but now that you have, I feel like we haven’t had you long enough."

  She chuckled against his chest. "That’s exactly how I knew." She lifted her head, her eyes shining with both tears and laughter. "I kept forgetting about Sole Pleasure and thinking only about Mac. It had to be love."

  He kissed her forehead. "In that case, I’ll forgive him."


  The imperious small voice came from the vicinity of his knee. They looked down. Nick was tugging on Wolf’s pant leg. "We dotta huwwy. I dotta fwow fwowers."

  As usual, her mangled English made him laugh. "All right, cupcake." He leaned down and took her free hand, to keep her from darting ahead of them and "fwowing fwowers" before they were ready.

  He and Maris and Nick made their way into the vestibule, and Maris leaned down to kiss Nick’s cheek. "Are you ready?" she asked.

  Nick nodded, her slanted blue eyes wide and shining with excitement, and she clutched the flower basket with both hands.

  "Here you go, then." Gently
Maris urged Nick forward, into the center aisle. The church glowed with candlelight, and hundreds of smiling faces were turned toward them, it seemed.

  Nick stepped out into the limelight like a Miss America taking her victory walk. She bestowed smiles to the left and the right, and she daintily reached into the basket for a rose petal. One. She held it out and let it drift downward. Then she reached for another. One by one she distributed the rose petals on the carpet with dainty precision, taking her time, even stooping once to adjust a petal that had fallen too close to another one.

  "Oh, God." Beside her, Maris could feel Wolf shaking with laughter. "She’s enjoying this too much. At this rate, you won’t get to walk down the aisle until midnight."

  People were turning and looking, and laughing at Nick’s concentration on the task. Barrie buried her head in Zane’s shoulder, lost in a helpless fit of giggling. Zane was grinning, and Chance was laughing out loud. Mac, standing at the altar, was beaming at the little imp who had so won his heart. The pianist, looking around, saw what was taking so long and gamely continued playing.

  Tickled to be the center of attention, Nick began improvising. The next rose petal was tossed backward, over her shoulder. The minister choked, and his face turned red as he tried to hold back his guffaws.

  She twirled on her tiptoes, flinging rose petals in a circle. Several flew out of the basket, and she frowned, stooping to pick them up and return them to the basket.

  I can’t laugh, Maris thought, feeling it bubbling inexorably upward. If I laugh, I’ll laugh until I cry, and it’ll ruin my makeup. She put her hand over her mouth to hold the mirth inside, but it didn’t work. Her chest constricted, her throat worked and suddenly laughter burst joyously out of control.

  Nick stopped and turned to look, beaming at them, waiting for them to tell her what a good job she was doing.

  "Fwow—I mean, throw them," Maris managed to say between whoops.

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