Two Weddings (And One Near Funeral)
In this short story set between books three & four of the Southern Arcana series, you get two weddings for the price of one. Find out how Mackenzie and Jackson ended up enjoying a honeymoon in Vegas--and how bad Alec and Carmen's wedding had to be to drive them there.
This story is provided as a free read for fans of the series, and may contain spoilers for books 1-3 of the Southern Arcana series, and confusion for anyone not familiar with the characters involved. Read with caution!
T-10 Days and Counting
Mackenzie traced her finger down the neat list of names, her dread rising with each one. Everyone she knew and loved, all of her nearest and dearest, doomed to tragedy with a slash of Carmen’s pen.
Oh well, it was too late to back out now. All that was left was to ask the most important question. “Ten bridesmaids and ten groomsmen? Are you getting married, or invading Canada?”
Carmen leaned over to peer at the list. “A surprising number of them do know how to handle heavy artillery.”
At least the woman was keeping her sense of humor. Mackenzie moved her finger back to the top of the list. “Franklin and Ollie were in the army with Alec, weren’t they?”
“And Karl. They still like to argue over who was the biggest badass.” Her smitten grin made it clear who had her vote.
Alec was a lucky bastard, indeed, to have found a woman who wanted to put up with his insufferable bullshit. Of course, Mackenzie had noticed a decided decline in said bullshit when Carmen was around, proof that even Alec could behave himself with proper incentive. “Yeah, this is pretty much a who’s who of local muscle and growly shapeshifters.”
“Don’t forget the psychics.” Carmen frowned at the stiff garment in her hands, then turned it around. “Is this the front or the back?”
Mackenzie studied the intricate bridal underwear for about two seconds before shaking her head. “Damned if I know. Where’d Sera get to?”
“Just a second…” Sera’s voice drifted in from the front of the boutique, probably too faint for Carmen to hear. But the young coyote would have heard Carmen, since her hearing was every bit as good as Mackenzie’s own. A moment later Sera appeared, a small stack of papers clutched in one hand. “The mess with your cousin’s bridesmaid dress is straightened out. I love being around people who actually find me intimidating.”
“They found Veronica’s dress?”
“No, but the replacement will be here tomorrow.” Sera thrust out the paperwork, and Mackenzie snatched it just in time to keep it from hitting the floor as Sera turned back to Carmen. “Here, you’ve got it backwards.”
“Bless you.” Carmen held up her arms as Sera wrapped the corset around her midsection. “I have no idea what I’m doing, and Geraldine will be back in here any minute. I’d rather she not see me naked and start helpfully doling out nutritional tips.”
Protective irritation stirred in Mackenzie before she could choke it down. “Alec said I could take his mother out back and beat her, if I thought it was necessary.” It was half the reason he’d begged her to accompany Carmen to begin with. Sera was too submissive to stand toe-to-toe with an alpha bitch like Geraldine. Mackenzie didn’t have any such problems. “I’ll do it, too. Don’t think I won’t.”
“I know you will, and I love you for it. But I’d rather just get through today and get the hell away from her.”
Well that wasn’t any fun. “Carmen? I kinda want to hit her.”
Sera made an amused noise as she fastened the last catch on Carmen’s bodice. “Of course you do. You’re both alphas with opposing goals. It’s ten days to the wedding, Mac. Rein it in and let me work my magic on her.”
“Ten days.” Carmen took a deep breath and tilted her head as she studied her reflection in the mirror. “I can put up with anything for ten more days.”
Committing to spend the rest of your life with someone shouldn’t be this damn miserable. Mackenzie ran the thumb of her right hand over the simple engagement ring Jackson had slipped on to her finger at the beginning of summer. An afterthought, really, since they’d known they were headed toward forever years ago. But Mackenzie had been dragging her feet, intimidated by the massive headache of planning a wedding—much less one that wouldn’t disappoint Jackson’s wealthy, well-bred mother.
If a wedding party of twenty and underwear someone had to help you into was what it took to please a rich mother-in-law, she’d live in sin for the rest of her life.
Watching Alec pace the office was starting to make Jackson seasick.
He rubbed his forehead and squinted up at the scowling man. “Is everything all right? You can take the day off, you know. I’ve got it covered.”
Alec shot him a vicious look. “The second I walk out that door, I’ll get dragged into wedding shit.”
From the way Mackenzie had talked about the events of the previous day, it might not be such a bad idea. “Doesn’t Carmen want you to help?”
This time, Alec winced. “Right now, she probably wants me to die.”
“Bullshit, man.” Jackson propped his elbows on his desk. “Okay, maybe she wants your family to die, but not you. You, she’ll keep.”
“Maybe.” Alec shoved a hand through his hair, which desperately needed to be trimmed. The strands stuck up haphazardly as he blew out a breath and dropped into his chair. “I tried running interference, but it makes things worse. My mother needs to know Carmen can stand up to her, or I really will have to kill the damn woman.”
“This is really bugging you, isn’t it?” Jackson snorted. “Look, man, every big wedding is like this. It’s just months of crap you have to wade through before you get to the honeymoon.”
Alec groaned. “Yeah. Months of stupid political maneuvering. None of this is about us. It’s about a Conclave member marrying a psychic halfbreed and every damn wolf in the country fighting for a front-row seat to see if any of us upstart New Orleans whackjobs do something crazy during the ceremony.”
“Like skip out on it altogether and elope?” Lord knew he’d be tempted.
“I suggested it. Twice.”
And if he thought his bride-to-be would take him up on it, he hadn’t been paying attention. “That lady of yours could kick both our asses without breaking a sweat. She’s tough, Alec, and she’s not going to punk out on a responsibility.”
For the first time, Alec’s lips twitched up in a smile. “Yeah. I know. It’s just harder to deal with when it’s my responsibility and she’s miserable because of it.”
“There is no yours and hers, not anymore,” Jackson reminded him.
Alec snarled. “I’m tired enough of taking this superior shit from Nicole. You don’t get to deliver sage married wisdom until you manage to get yourself hitched, buddy.”
Jackson suppressed a smile. “You want to fight it out? I’ll go right now, bring it.”
The wolf’s fingers clenched, like he really would take a swing, then relaxed as he let out a hoarse chuckle. “Nice of you to offer, but if you let me put so much as a scratch on you, your woman’s going to chew me up and spit me out. She’s not a fan of my entire family right now.”
Mackenzie pitied him more than anything else, but telling him so would probably only piss him off more. “Carmen would crawl over broken glass for you, just like you would for her. This is a poofy dress and a couple of stuffy parties.”
“Yeah, yeah. I know.” Alec slumped lower in his chair. “I might take broken glass over that godawful tuxedo.”
“Shut up, we’re gonna look good.”
Another hint of a smile, and Alec unbent enough to scoop up a rubber band and flick it across the office. “The girls will, at least.”
With an imminent meltdown averted, Jackson leaned back in his chair. “There you go. Focus on the positives. Nothing to it, Jacobson.”
Easy for him to say, of course. All eyes wouldn’t be on him, and he didn’t have to watch the woman he loved struggle to stand her ground against a hundred years of oppressive tradition.
Mackenzie slammed the front door hard enough to rattle every picture in the apartment. Then, just in case Jackson hadn’t gotten the hint, she opened the door and slammed it again.
He came to the kitchen doorway, a dish towel in his hands. “Am I going to need bail money?”
“Try a shovel.” But just the sight of him took the edge off her temper. She dumped her keys in the bowl next to the door and tossed her bag to the ground. “Alec’s father is a sleaze. If I catch him eyeballing Sera’s chest again, I’m going to break his nose.”
Jackson arched an eyebrow. “Do I need to do it?”
“No.” Sighing, she slipped into his arms and dropped her head to his shoulder. “Sera emasculated him pretty well on her own. Which I’m sure was nice for her independence and all, but I really want to hit someone.”
“Mmm, I know.” He kissed the top of her head. “But won’t it be something if we both make it through this next week without beating the crap out of anyone?”
His familiar touch soothed her longing, but not the irritation prickling just beneath her skin. It had been building for months, but Carmen’s suffering had kindled that itch into a nagging discomfort. “Do all shapeshifters get pissy as they get older, or am I going through some weird cat thing? Because I want to sharpen my claws on both of Alec’s parents, and that’s a little unreasonable.”
“I don’t think anyone finds it unreasonable, Kenzie.” He made a soft noise as he stroked her hair. “They sure are doing their level best to drive our friends nuts.”
“They are.” She drew in a deep breath, and smiled when the scent from the kitchen finally registered. Tomato, herbs, a hint of wine… “I get Italian food?”
Jackson grinned down at her. “I figure you deserve it after the last few days of not punching anyone.”
“Damn right I do.” She rocked up on her toes and brushed her lips over his. “I think I deserve a backrub too. And possibly some sex. The kind that requires wards to keep in the noise.”
He tossed the towel over his shoulder. “You’re going to make me burn dinner.”
Dinner was nice. So was the delicious heat licking over her skin. No magic, no instinct…just old-fashioned lust-coated love. She twisted her fingers and got a good grip on his shirt, then used all of the lovely shapeshifter strength she’d finally mastered to rip open the fabric.
“Dirty,” he murmured approvingly, then dropped his mouth to hers.
“No strippers, I promise.”
Julio groaned a little. “No strippers? Come on.”
“Beer,” Jackson told them resolutely. “Beer and dead cow. That’s what Alec wants.”
Miguel laughed. “That’s way kinkier than chicks in g-strings.”
Derek shot him a look—a pissy, I-know-you’re-sleeping-with-my-baby-cousin look that promised imminent violence almost as effectively as the words that followed. “You are far too invested in strippers. Do I need to beat some sense into you?”
Pointing out that Julio had been the most vocal proponent of burlesque entertainment would do no good. Jackson sighed and tried to pull their attention back to the subject at hand. “John said we could rent out his place for the night, and he’ll even man the grill himself.”
At least Derek was easily distracted. “John Gravois? Is he still running that bar down near the French Market?”
“He is. And since the ladies have Mahalia’s for the night, I think it’s our best bet.”
Julio grabbed another slice of pizza. “If it’s what Alec wants. But I bet Nick and Mackenzie are getting Carmen a stripper.”
“Doubt it,” Derek countered at once. “I know my wife, thanks. If there are strippers, there’ll be two. Minimum.”
“See?” Miguel pointed at Derek with his beer bottle. “Carmen’s going to be knee-deep in man titty, and Alec’ll just have to squint and drink until one of us starts to look good.”
“I’m nominating you,” Julio managed through a laugh.
“Seconded,” Derek agreed. “Man up and take one for the team, Miguel.”
“Hey, if anyone’s taking anything here—”
“So,” Jackson interjected. “With that taken care of—” His phone vibrated, and he checked the display to find a text message from Kat. Is Derek giving Miguel a hard time? Punch him. “Damn it.”
Guilt flashed across Derek’s face, like he knew who the message was from. “Trouble?”
“Sort of.” With an apologetic look, he punched Derek on the shoulder. “Your cousin’s orders.”
Grumbling, Derek pulled his phone out of his pocket and flipped it open. “He started it.”
“I fear for your future children.”
Julio crowed with triumphant laughter and waved his own phone in the air. “Carmen says she’s okay with Alec having strippers.”
“Oh my God.” Jackson dragged a hand through his hair. “Will you shut up about the fucking strippers?”
“Have pity on my boyfriend, Nick.” Mackenzie rescued the phone from Nicole’s grasp and settled it on the bar. “Pretend it’s going to be the most boring bachelorette party in the history of weddings, because the seventeen thousand groomsmen are grumbling that Alec just wants steak and beer.”
“Of course he does. If he wanted to stare at anyone but Carmen naked, he wouldn’t be getting hitched. The strippers are for the groomsmen.”
According to Jackson, the strippers were for Julio. And maybe Miguel, and wouldn’t that be fun, when Andrew decided that Miguel ogling half-naked women was a betrayal of Kat. For a man who claimed he’d walked away, Andrew had a hard time not punching people over Kat’s happiness. “This is going to be a nightmare, isn’t it?”
Nick played with the straw sticking out of her soda. “As far as Conclave social events go? It’s going to be cake.”
If this was cake for the wolves, Mackenzie was glad to be a cougar and free of their mess. “For us, or for Alec and Carmen?”
“For us, definitely. But for them too, comparatively speaking.” She shrugged. “Why do you think Derek and I ran away to Barbados?”
Mackenzie hopped the bar and pulled open the fridge to retrieve a beer. “Honestly? I thought you wanted to avoid your sister having to deal with a lot of people.”
“There was that,” she admitted. “But Derek knew I wanted to avoid this stuff just as much. It’s a freak show, and I’ve never been any good at dealing with it.”
“At least Sera and Kat humiliated Alec’s dad into hiding. Did you hear what Sera said to him?”
“She called him Grandpa Jacobson,” Carmen supplied as she slid onto the bar stool on the other side of Nick. “It was sheer perfection. The man is such a creeper.”
“Hey!” Nick patted her hand. “Did you get your—whoa.”
Carmen’s face had collided with a cosmetics counter—and her wry smile showed she knew it. “Geraldine says they have to lay on the makeup for the pictures. I’ll need a hammer and chisel to get it off my face.”
At least the makeup looked expensive, if too liberally applied. Mackenzie pulled out another beer. “Need a drink? Or something stronger?”
“Thanks, but I’m good.” She looked almost mellow.
Nick stared at her. “You didn’t self-medicate, did you, Carmen?”
She laughed. “No, I’m fine. And sober.”
Mackenzie gripped her beer and studied Carmen. “She doesn’t look like she had a psychotic break. Does she?”
Carmen traced her fingertip over the bar in an absent circle. “I had…a realization. I’ve been getting through all of this by telling myself it’ll be over soon…”
“But it won’t,” Nick finished quietly.
“No,” Carmen agreed. “No, it’s just starting. So I had a good, long talk with myself about what I’ll do when every day is like this.”
Mackenzie leaned in. “Can you take it?”
“It won’t be fun.” She closed her hands into fists. “But I’ll have Alec. That’s all that really matters to me. Everything else is beside the point.”
“You’ll have Alec.” Mackenzie slid her hand over Carmen’s and fought to find some word of comfort. “It’ll get better. Maybe it won’t get great, but the new fascination’s got to wear off eventually.”
“Even if it doesn’t, I don’t care. We’re going to make it work.”
It made Mackenzie feel a little guilty, that Carmen was facing down a life of judgmental wolves and she was still running scared from one Southern mama. “You’re going to make it work. So tell us how to make this easier on you. Or, at the very least, tell Nick how many strippers she can rent for your party.”
Nick smiled wickedly, and Carmen burst out with a laugh. “Is that why my brother called and asked if it was okay for them to hire a few for Alec’s party?”
“Guilty,” Nick murmured. “What can I say? It’s tradition.”
“No firemen,” Mackenzie promised. “Considering Julio’s former occupation, that might be creepy. But hey, hot cops or cowboys?”
Nick made a face. “Assless chaps and a too-small fringed suede vest? Hell yes, that’s perfect.”
Carmen heaved an exaggerated sigh. “Fine. But there go all my best costume ideas for the honeymoon.”
“Jackson? You got a second?”
Kat was sitting at her desk. Only moments ago, she’d been concentrating on paperwork. Now, she fiddled absently with a sheaf of invoices as she waited for him to answer.
He set aside his pen. “Sure, what’s up?”
She didn’t look at him, which was the first sign of trouble. “You’re keeping an eye on Mac, right? Because this wedding stuff… It’s making her a little squirrelly.”
Plainly put, it was freaking her the fuck out. “I’ve been talking to her. Is there something specific you’re worried about?”
“All the strange wolves piling into town.” Kat winced. “Hell, it’s making Sera defensive and snarly, and she’s pretty laid-back. I talked to Zola about it during my last self-defense lesson, and she said it’s why she and the other non-wolves have been staying away. But Mackenzie’s right in the middle of it.”
“She hasn’t had it easy,” he admitted. More often than not, her encounters with Alec’s parents had ended with her wanting to smack them, though he’d chalked it up to the fact that they were both assholes. “She’s hanging in there, though.”
“Sure she is. Because she’s Mac.” Kat dug about in her desk and surfaced with a binder-clip. “Just… Well, sometimes I think the rest of them forget that she’s new to this. I’ve gotten the vicarious empathic experience of Miguel’s transformation to a full shapeshifter, and I’ve got a new appreciation for how fucked up the changes can be.”
“I’m paying attention,” he said gently. “Don’t worry so much.”
“I know.” Papers secured, Kat dropped them on the desk and turned to give Jackson a wide smile. “I always worry. But not about Mackenzie so much. Not when she’s got you.”
“That she does,” And he knew what was really worrying Kat. “How’s everyone else doing?”
He’d seen her play dumb with a dozen other people. Avoid the topic, change the subject. To him, she told the truth, her pain and confusion clear on her face. “I don’t know. Andrew will barely look at me, much less talk to me. Alec’s too busy to pay attention, and I don’t know if Andrew and Julio are that close. I’m afraid no one’s looking out for him.”
“What if I promise Kenzie and I will?”
Kat gave him a dubious look. “Will Mackenzie be nice to him?”
He had to laugh at that. “She likes him, Kat. Really.”
“Uh-huh.” Kat leaned back and bumped the drawer shut with her foot. “Five more days, and life can go back to normal. I can’t believe they pulled this wedding together this fast.”
“Funny what you can do with copious amounts of money, huh?”
“It seems like a waste,” Kat retorted. “All that money to throw a party for a bunch of people they don’t like anyway. If I ever get married, it’s going to be in Vegas. Elvis or bust.”
“Hey, I’m with you,” he agreed. “But Carmen and Alec don’t exactly have the luxury of owning this day all by themselves.”
“Sucks to be Alec and Carmen.”
“Yes, it does.”
“I hate this.” Alec’s backyard was overflowing with important wolves from around the country, and instinct had just about decided that climbing to the roof was the best way to hide—or get into position to pounce. “God, Andrew. I really, really hate this.”
“You’re not the only one.” He finished his beer. “So do half of the rest of them. Oh yeah, and me.”
“I figured.” Mackenzie picked at the label on her own beer, uninterested in drinking it. “Kat’s worried about you. This is a lot to deal with, all at once.”
He didn’t seem particularly bothered, aside from a general lack of enjoyment. “This? It’s nothing.”
“Really?” It was hard to believe, when the assembled wolves made her skin crawl. Then again, he was a council member now. Dominant over the rest of them—and they knew it, if the way they seemed to skirt around him was any indication. “I guess it’s different because I’m not one of you.”
“Maybe.” He flashed an insouciant grin. “Or maybe because you’re not me.”
Mackenzie laughed and swung her elbow toward his side. “Great. You’re as pigheaded as Alec already.”
“I’m supposed to be, right?” He reached for another crawfish and cracked it in half. “That’s the party line, anyway.”
“Screw the party line, Andrew. Be you. I like you better than Alec.”
“Be me.” He shook his head. “That’s easier said than done, Mac. Who am I?”
A question she’d asked herself plenty of times as she’d learned how to be a woman and a shapeshifter. “You’re an architect. You’re a witty bastard. You’re a dork. You’re a badass. You lose some of the old stuff and pick up some new crap, but most of it’s all the same.”
He remained silent through three more crawfish, then grinned again. “You think I’m a witty bastard? Yeah, I guess I am.”
Mackenzie laughed loudly enough to draw the attention of several wolves on the opposite end of the folding table. Three empty chairs sat between them and her, as if they’d needed the buffer of space to avoid being too close to a cougar and a turned wolf. “Yeah, Andrew. You’re funny and you know it. Who cares what the rest of them think?”
“I don’t,” he said seriously. “Which probably makes me a poor choice for council member.”
“Or a perfect choice, especially if things need changing.”
Andrew took a long look around. “I’m not sure there’s anything we need more.”
No, there wasn’t. She couldn’t even see Alec and Carmen through the crowd, but they were probably still stuck at the front of the lawn, smiles fixed to their faces as wolves from all over the country paraded before them like supplicants in a medieval court. It was absurd. Outdated. Stifling.
It had to change. “You can do it, Andrew. And we’ll be here too. Me and Jackson and Zola and Walker and everyone else, we’ll help. It doesn’t have to be just wolves anymore.”
He tossed an empty shell on the table. “Yeah? Tell that to the rest of these guys.”
T-3 Days (11:00 PM)
Jackson ducked a flying g-string and snagged another beer from the huge tub on Dixie John’s bar. “This is a madhouse.”
Alec made a grumpy noise and glared until the psychic stripper who’d been headed in his direction veered away sharply. “At least Miguel’s going to singlehandedly put half of them through college. That’s something.”
“Too much money, not enough sense.”
“He’s young,” Alec allowed with another grumble. “Just hope Kat’s shoving twenties in some cowboy’s gun belt right now too. Fair’s fair.”
The groom was a little drunk, something Jackson had only seen a few times in all their years of acquaintance. “Twenties? You must trust Nicky to have hired better entertainment.”
Alec snorted. “She’s snobby about everything else. Plus, I’m gonna keep on thinking Kat doesn’t know stripper etiquette. I’ll sleep better at night.”
“Hey, so long as Carmen doesn’t know it, you’re set.”
His face screwed up in another scowl, one that brought Derek ambling over from the other side of the room. “What did you do to Alec to make his face look like that?”
“Nothing that should’ve worked.” Jackson slapped Derek on the back. “Remind the man how blissful married life is.”
“Like a dream, Alec.”
“I’m not worried about being married,” Alec snapped, reaching for another bottle of beer—his sixth. “I just want this fucking circus of a wedding over with.”
Was that what he was telling himself now? That the hoopla would end with their vows? “One thing I’ve learned over the last week or so is that I was wrong. Dead wrong. This is the pre-show, man. The real circus starts when you two move to New York.”
“You think I don’t know that?” Alec rubbed at his head and sighed. “Why is the woman still marrying me?”
“Because she adores you.” Julio leaned past Alec to retrieve another beer. “Would it make you feel better if I told you that you’re going to live happily ever after?”
“Maybe,” Alec muttered. Then he sighed. “This may only be the beginning, but it’s the last time I’m letting them shove me into a tuxedo in front of a few hundred people. And maybe the last time I’m letting my mother anywhere near me.”
“Kenzie could still punch her,” Jackson offered. “She dying to, you know.”
Derek laughed. “Nick could help. Let them at her, Alec. What’s the fun of having cranky alpha women around if you don’t let them start fistfights once in a while?”
Julio snorted. “That hit is Carmen’s to take, even if she won’t do it.”
“Too bad.” Alec drained his beer and raised both eyebrows. “What the hell are you all doing staring at me? Did you decide to leave all the strippers for Miguel?”
He wanted to be sitting there about as much as Carmen probably wanted to be staring at a buffed and waxed cowboy stripper. “Come on,” Jackson said, rising. “Let’s get you to Mahalia’s so you can rescue Carmen. I’ll drive, and you can sober up on the way.”
It was a sign of just how bad things were that Alec capitulated without so much as a murmur of protest.
T-2 Days (12:30 AM)
Mackenzie handed Carmen another martini and leaned against the table, trying to position herself to block the sight of Sera writing her phone number on the Tarzan-themed stripper’s arm in sparkly blue ink. “Drink that before I do.”
Carmen giggled and downed it in three gulps. “How long do I have to stay here?”
“Until Jackson gets here with Alec. They’re on their way.” Though Jackson’s text message had made it clear he’d be taking the long route—long enough to let Alec sober up, which was a good thing. Carmen was drunk enough for both of them. “I think Sera’s going home with one of your strippers. Should I be stopping that?”
“Nah.” She waved a hand. “It’s a free country, Mac, and love is a beautiful thing.”
“Uh-huh.” Mackenzie surveyed the room again. Aside from the outliers—Kat was reading a book on her phone and Sera had moved on to letting Tarzan write his number on the inside of her arm—everyone was enjoying the entertainment with a good-natured enthusiasm that, nonetheless, was a far cry from love. “I guess so.”
“It is. You know.” Carmen wiggled her fingers and laughed again. “You glow too, because Jackson makes everything okay.”
Mackenzie couldn’t help but smile. “Yes, he does. And we’re both glad you came along to make Alec smile, because he was an unhappy bastard for a long time.”
“Mmm, not anymore.” Carmen leaned her head back and closed her eyes. “When he forgets all these other things, the ones that don’t matter, everything inside him is still. Peaceful.”
Empaths. Thank God Kat was too busy reading about imaginary cowboys to get drunk and gawk at them. One inebriated empath was one too many. “That’s awful sweet, honey, but I bet Alec doesn’t want me knowing he’s peaceful. Ruins his brooding image.”
“Oh yes.” She opened her eyes and blinked. “He’s a very, very scary man with a very, very broody demeanor.”
The door pushed open behind her, and Mackenzie caught the familiar scent of Jackson’s aftershave. “Thank God,” she murmured. “Up we go, Carmen. We’re getting you home, okay? I think you’ve partied all you can for the night.”
“I can’t leave my own…” The words trailed off as a soft smile curved her lips. “All right. Maybe it’s time to go home.”
Jackson laid a hand on Mackenzie’s shoulder. “Is Carmen remotely sober?”
“Not even a little.” She leaned back against his chest and felt the heat of him, the solid warmth that shouldn’t stir her so readily when she curled up next to him every night. “Is Alec?”
“Not really,” he answered, though his words were almost drowned out by the way Carmen growled lustily as she crawled over the back of her chair and launched herself at Alec.
Alec was sober enough to catch her, but they careened backwards into the wall with a clatter that had Sera whooping her approval from across the room.
Kat seemed less amused. As Alec caught Carmen’s lips in a kiss that looked likely to last a good long while, Kat covered her eyes and groaned. “God, someone give them the keys to upstairs. She’s a drunk empath. This will not end well.”
Nick approached with a laugh, key ring in hand and her gaze averted. “They might not make it if we don’t, um, point them in the right direction.”
Kat hid behind her phone. Sera turned back to Tarzan.
Mackenzie sighed. “Fine. I’ll pry her off, but someone better keep Alec from punching me, or I’m kicking him in the balls.”
In the end it took a coordinated effort, but they managed to exchange Alec’s truck keys for the keys to the upstairs apartment and get them both shoved out the door. Mackenzie collapsed on a bar stool and groaned. “At least they’re having fun. I guess that’s the goal.”
Nick dropped beside her with a giggle. “We should’ve gone co-ed.”
“Oh Lord, no.” Mackenzie caught Nick’s gaze, then flicked her head toward Kat, who had returned to staring at her phone. “Can you imagine the mess?”
“Maybe, but you never know ’til you try,” Nick replied cryptically.
Mackenzie didn’t want to imagine the mess that could come out of Andrew, Kat, Miguel and the volatile introduction of strippers and alcohol. “Do you need some help cleaning up, or can we shove off? I need some sleep before all the rehearsal crap tomorrow.”
“Me?” Nick recoiled a little. “Hell, I hired a crew to come in first thing in the morning. I’m not cleaning this shit up.”
Jackson laughed and kissed the top of her head. “And Alec says you’re snobby.”
Mackenzie was too tired for this. She grabbed the back of Jackson’s shirt and hauled him toward the door. “Tomorrow, Nick. Tomorrow, and then the next day, and then this will all be over, and life can go back to normal.”
“Such as it is,” the tiny brunette called after her.
Jackson huffed out a laugh and stroked the back of Mackenzie’s neck. “Such as it is.”
She shivered, the heat from before blossoming into something a bit more urgent. Suddenly she needed to get Jackson home—or at least to his truck, which was old enough to have a bench seat with plenty of room to maneuver.
Pushing open the front door, she hauled him into the night. “Why don’t we…” Carmen’s car sat a dozen feet away, a silhouette inside clearly visible. They’d taken Alec’s keys, but not Carmen’s. “Shit, we can’t let them dri—oh, they’re not driving.”
“No, they are not.” Jackson wheeled her around. “Should we…do something?”
She wanted to run like hell. “Are they going to get arrested? Can you make sure no one sees them?”
“Yeah, I think so.” He whispered a low incantation, then gingerly touched the hood of the car. It immediately ceased its subtle rocking. “Best I can do, darlin’.”
It would have to do. “Let’s get the hell out of here. And not have sex in the truck.”
His eyebrows shot up. “Aw, damn it. Were we going to?”
“Were.” And maybe someday she could get rid of the mental image of the ways Carmen had to bend to screw Alec in the front seat of a Camry. “Take me home, Jackson. I’m really tired of wedding stuff.”
“Your wish is my command, Kenzie.”
He found Mackenzie in front of the mirror, smoothing the fabric of the deep red bridesmaid dress over her hip. “It’s not so bad,” she murmured, meeting his eyes in the mirror. “For a bridesmaid’s dress, I mean.”
“No,” he whispered, sliding an arm around her. “You’re beautiful.”
“You’re biased.” But she smiled and leaned back against him. “Are you going to put on your tux so I can admire you?”
His lips brushed the side of her neck. “Last minute alterations. Gotta pick it up tomorrow before we head out to Alec’s.”
“Too bad.” She shivered and tilted her head, a quiet invitation he recognized by now. “Suppose it’s good, though. I’ve been a little unsteady. Don’t want to accidentally rip it off of you.”
He clutched her tighter for a split second. “Aren’t you supposed to be making Carmen’s life easier instead of ripping up the groomsmen?”
“Sera took her to a spa to hide from Alec’s mother.” Mackenzie’s eyes drifted open, bright blue and full of mischief. “If Geraldine Jacobson gets irritated that she can’t find her future daughter-in-law, I get to have at her.”
“Maybe you should save her from herself. Help me get this dress off and distract me.”
Peeling the satin up her body would distract them both. Jackson eased the dress up her legs. “You gonna wear your hair up or down?”
“Up.” Every deep breath she dragged into her lungs pressed her breasts against the dress’s low-cut bodice. “Out of the way, in case a brawl starts. You know I’m hoping for one.”
“Better forgo the dangly earrings then.”
“Will you marry me?”
The words stopped him stock still, and he stared at her in the mirror. “What?”
“Tomorrow,” she whispered, meeting his gaze. “After Carmen and Alec survive their ceremony. Can’t we just…get on a plane and go to Vegas?”
His mother would flip her shit, but Mackenzie had faced down enough mother-in-law crap to last a lifetime. “Just us?”
“Mmm.” She twisted in his arms and rocked up on her toes, lips sliding along his jaw. “I made friendly with Alec’s pilot buddy. I bet he’d fly us out there. He’s a spell caster too.”
“I know.” Jackson turned her and met her gaze evenly. “Do you really want to do this, or do you just not want what Carmen and Alec are getting? Because I swear, Kenzie, I wouldn’t let anyone make you.”
She swallowed hard. “I don’t know. I just…I want to already be married to you. I need to be already married to you.”
The emotion that welled at the thought threatened to choke him. “I know the feeling. If you really want to do it… Fuck it. Let’s go.”
Her brilliant smile was reward enough, but a second later she had both hands in his hair and her mouth crashed into his, kissing him like she couldn’t help herself, like she needed him more than life.
Like she needed him as much as he needed her.
“We’re crazy,” he murmured against her mouth.
“Always have been.” She bit his lip. “Get me out of this dress before we rip it.”
He tugged at the zipper and groaned when it held fast. “One problem. Zipper’s stuck.”
Mackenzie dropped her head to rest against his shoulder and whimpered. “I hate weddings.”
The Big Day
Carmen and Alec were married, and Mackenzie was going to be drunk before she accomplished the same thing.
She dropped her champagne glass on a passing tray and snagged Nick’s arm before the brunette could move past her again. “Nick, hold up a second.”
“Sure, what’s up?”
Mackenzie wet her lips, suddenly nervous. “I can’t find Carmen and Alec. Would you say goodbye to them, for me? Jackson and I are sneaking out early.”
“Can’t find the bride and groom, huh?” Nick rolled her eyes. “You haven’t stumbled into the master bath, obviously.”
A laugh bubbled up, and Mackenzie slapped her hand over her mouth. “Already?”
Nick giggled too. “Like a couple of goddamn teenagers.”
“Well, tell them congratulations for us.” Mackenzie hesitated, torn between a quick lie and the truth. But it was Nick—Jackson’s best friend, and the first friend she’d made in New Orleans. It felt wrong to drag him off to Las Vegas without telling any of the people in their lives.
She couldn’t remember deciding, but the words tumbled out anyway. “Alec’s friend is flying us to Las Vegas. Now.”
“What?” A frown crinkled her brow. “What’s going on?”
So much for a clean getaway. “We’re eloping, Nick. Tonight.”
“To Vegas?” She squealed and grabbed Mackenzie’s hands. “Forget Nelson’s tiny-ass little plane. Let’s steal my dad’s jet.”
She’d known better. She’d known better. “We can’t all disappear. Someone has to stay here to protect Carmen and Alec from the cream of shapeshifter society.”
“Screw that, we’ll staple their pants on and bring them with us.”
Mackenzie gazed among the crowd of well-dressed shapeshifters, all of them pressing in on her with an angry menace that made her long for claws and teeth. There were so many, it would take hours for Alec’s mother to notice they were even gone.
Served her right. “Fine, but hurry. I need to get out of here.”
Nick squealed again, this time with a little hop that made her look like a kid. “Don’t move. I’ll round everyone up.”
Jackson was going to kill her.
You couldn’t go through a Vegas drive-thru wedding chapel in a jet. As it turned out, a stretch Hummer wouldn’t fit either, so they filed into the chapel itself. Damn near everyone he knew in New Orleans, along with a couple of plus-ones.
Carmen shoved her bouquet into Mackenzie’s hands and pointed her toward Jackson—and the officiant, who was doing a pretty damn good job of impersonating Elvis, the early years.
Mackenzie just stared at him, wide-eyed and clearly shocked at how fast it had all gone down, even after a year’s association with Nicky Peyton in a determined mood. She kept staring until Kat let out a whoop of triumph and held up her phone. A few seconds later, a wedding march spilled out of its tiny speakers.
Mackenzie laughed and held out a hand to him. “So much for just us.”
“It wouldn’t have felt right,” he whispered, taking her hand. “You know it’s true.”
“Uh-huh.” She turned toward Elvis with a goofy smile. “Your mother’s going to kill me.”
She had no idea. “We’ll have to throw a proper party at my parents’ house.”
“Anything. Just…marry me, Jackson. Right now.”
He’d been waiting for it for what seemed like forever. He would have waited even longer, but he was damn glad he didn’t have to. “Got to do something first.”
Her fingers tightened around his hand in a nervous enough grip that he knew she’d forgotten to check her strength. “What?”
He grabbed her and did what he’d wanted to do pretty much from the moment he’d met her.
He kissed her.