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MacKenzie's Magic (Chapter 10)

"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." "Poppy!"

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 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.

The little head lilted to one side. "Wike dis?" she asked, taking a handful of petals from the basket and flinging them upward.

At least it was a handful, and not just one. "Like that," Maris said in approval, hoping it would speed the procedure.

It did. Another handful followed the first one, and Nick's progress down the aisle picked up speed. At last she reached the end, and bestowed an absolutely radiant smile on Mac. "I fwowed dem all," she told him.

"You did it just right," he said, barely able to speak for laughing. Her mission accomplished, she strutted to the pew where Zane and Barrie sat, and held up her arms to be lifted to the seat.

Relieved, the pianist launched into the familiar strains of "Here Comes the Bride," and at last Wolf and Maris began their stately walk down the aisle. Everyone rose to their feet and turned to watch, smiling.

Because time had been so short, there were no Bridesmaids or groomsmen, no maid of honor or best man, so only Mac awaited Maris at the altar. He watched her approach, his hard face relaxed in a tender expression, his blue eyes still shining from his laughter. As soon as she stopped beside him, he gently took her hand in his, and behind them, they heard his mother give a teary, joyful little gasp.

Because Maris and Mac were already married, they had decided to skip the part about "who gives this woman." Wolf leaned down and kissed his daughter's cheek, hugged her tenderly, then shook hands with Mac and took a seat beside Mary.

"Dearly beloved," the minister began; then there was another gasp behind them. Recognizing Barrie's voice, Maris wasn't surprised when a little body slithered between her and Mac, taking a stance directly in front of them. "I do it, too," Nick chirped, her little voice audible in every corner of the church.

Glancing over her shoulder, Maris saw Zane start to rise to retrieve his errant offspring. She shook her head, smiling. He winked and sank back into his seat.

So Nick stood pressed against their legs while the minister performed the service. They could feel her quivering with excitement, and Mac subtly gathered her closer to him so he would have a better chance of grabbing her if she started to do something startling, such as peek under the minister's cassock. She was already eyeing the garment with some curiosity. But she was content for the moment, completely taken with the ceremony, the candles, the twinkling Christmas tree, the beautiful clothes. When the minister said, "You may now kiss the bride," and Mac did so, Nick merely tilted her head back to watch. "What's the best way to handle her when we leave?" Mac whispered against Maris's lips. "Pick her up and hand her to Zane as we pass," she whispered back. "He'll be expecting it."

The pianist launched into the familiar stirring strains. Mac swooped Nick up with one arm, put the other around Maris, and they hurried up the aisle to the accompaniment of music, laughter, tears and a round of applause. As they passed the second pew, a tiny girl in a long dress was deftly passed from one pair of strong arms to another.

The reception was a long, glorious party. Maris danced endlessly with her husband, her father, all her brothers, several of her nephews, her brothers in-law and an assortment of old friends. She danced with the sheriff, Clay Armstrong. She danced with Ambassador Lovejoy, Barrie's father. She danced with Shea's father and grandfather, with the ranchers and merchants and gas station attendants. Finally Mac claimed her again, holding her close and swaying to the music as he rested his cheek against hers. "What did Zane say to you?" she demanded suddenly. She felt him grin, though he didn't lift his head. "He said you'd know." "Never mind that. What did he say?" "You already know what he said." "Then what did you say?" "That I'm interested."

She growled. "I don't want you to spend months out of the country. I'm willing, barely, to let the FBI use you on investigations, but I don't like it. I want you with me every night, not thousands of miles away."

"That's exactly what I told Zane. Remember, I don't have to do what Chance does." He held her closer, dropping his voice to an intimate murmur. "Has your period started yet?"

"No." She was only two days late, but two days was two days, and she was normally very regular. It was possible her system had been disrupted by the concussion and the stress of everything that had happened, so she wasn't making any announcements yet. "Would you mind if I am pregnant so soon?"

"Mind?" He kissed her ear. "When we might get our own Nick?" His shoulders quivered under her embrace. "I didn't think she was ever going to get rid of those damn flower petals."

"She's one of a kind, I hope." But she leaned against him, feeling her breasts, her entire body, tighten with desire. If she wasn't already pregnant, she likely would be soon, given how often he made love to her. They danced in silence for a moment, then Mac said, "Pleasure should have arrived by now."

She had to blink back tears, because Mac had given her the most wonderful gift for Christmas. With Sole Pleasure's worth hugely reduced now that the racing world had been rocked with news of his very low sperm count, the syndication offers had evaporated. It was possible Pleasure could sire a foal, but it was such a small possibility as to be negligible. He still had worth as a racehorse, and Ronald Stonicher might have gotten more for him than Mac had offered, but huge legal expenses had been staring him in the eye, and he'd jumped at the chance to sell the horse. Maris had worried so about Pleasure's future that Mac had made the offer for him without telling her, because he didn't want her to be disappointed in case the deal fell through. "Dad can hardly wait to ride him," she said. "He's said several times that he envied me because I got to work with Pleasure."

They fell silent, simply enjoying the feel of being in each other's arms. Their wedding hadn't been a stately, solemn affair, Nick had seen to that, but it had been perfect. People had laughed and enjoyed themselves, and everyone for years would smile whenever they thought of Maris Mackenzie's wedding. "It's time to throw the bouquet!"

The cry went up, and they swung around to see a crowd of giggling teenage girls gathering for the tradition, flipping back their hair, throwing sidelong glances at the older Mackenzie boys. There were more mature women there, too, giving Chance measuring looks. "I thought you were supposed to throw it when we're ready to leave?" Mac said, amused. "Evidently they can't wait." She didn't mind hurrying things up a little; after that dance, she was ready to be alone with her husband.

Nick had been having the time of her short life, stuffing herself with cake and mints, and being whirled around the dance floor in the arms of her father, her grandfather and all her uncles and cousins. When she saw Maris get the bouquet that had so fascinated her earlier, with all the "pwetty" flowers and lace and ribbons, she squirmed away from Sam's grip on her hand and moved to where she had a better view of the situation, her little head cocked to the side as she intently watched.

Maris climbed on the dais, turned her back and threw the bouquet high over her shoulder. Cries of "Catch it! Catch it!" filled the reception hall. Almost immediately there was a collective cry of alarm. Maris whirled. The crowd of girls and women was rushing forward, eyes lifted, intent on the bouquet sailing toward them. And directly in front of them, also concentrating on the bouquet as she darted forward, was a tiny figure in pale pink. There was a surge of black-clad bodies moving forward as seventeen males, one MacNeil and sixteen Mackenzies, from six-year-old Benjy up to Wolf, all leapt for the little girl. Maris caught a glimpse of Zane's face, utterly white as he tried to reach his baby before she was trampled, and somehow she, too, was running, leaping from the dais, heedless of her dress.

Two crowds of people were moving toward each other at breakneck speed, with Nick caught in the middle. One of the teenage girls looked down, saw Nick and emitted a shrill scream of panic as she tried to stop, only to be shoved forward by the girl behind her.

Chance had been standing back, avoiding any contact with that wedding bouquet business, but as a result, his movements were less impeded. He reached Nick two steps ahead of Zane, scooping her up, enfolding her in his arms and rolling with her out of harm's way. Zane veered, putting himself between Chance and anyone who might stumble over him, and in another second there was practically a wall of boys and men protecting the two on the floor. The bouquet hit Chance in the middle of the back.

Carefully he rolled over, and Nick's head popped out of the shield he'd made with his arms. "Wook!" she said, spying the bouquet. "Oo caught de fwowers, Unca Dance!"

Maris skidded to a stop beside them. Chance lay very still on the floor, with Nick on his chest. He glared up at Maris, his light, golden-hazel eyes narrow with suspicion. "You did that on purpose," he accused.

The MacNeils and the Mackenzies moved forward, smiles tugging at stern mouths. Maris crossed her arms. "There's no way I could have arranged this." She had to bite her lip to keep from laughing at his outraged expression. "Hah. You've been doing spooky stuff all your life."

Nick leaned over and grasped one of the ribbons of the bouquet, pulling it toward her. Triumphantly she deposited it on Chance's chest. "Dere," she said with satisfaction, and patted it.

Zane rubbed the side of his nose, but he was less successful than Maris at hiding his grin. "You caught the bouquet," he said.

"I did not," Chance growled. "She hit me in the back with it!" Mary walked up and stood beside Wolf, who automatically put his arm around her. Slowly a radiant smile spread across her face. "Why, Chance!" she exclaimed. "This means you're next."

"I, am, not, next." He ground the words out, sitting up with Nick in his arms. Carefully he put her on her feet, then climbed to his own. "Trickery doesn't count. I don't have time for a wife. I like what I do, and a wife would just get in the way." He was backing away as he talked. "I'm not good husband material, anyway. I" A little hand tugged on his pant leg. He stopped and looked down.

Nick stretched on tiptoe, holding the bouquet up to him with both hands. "Don't fordet oor fwowers," she said, beaming. ***** The End *****

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