U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is thanked by Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Peter MacKay after a speech in Nova Scotia on Tuesday. ((Andrew Vaughan/CanadianPress))

The U.S. State Department has downplayed amused media speculation about a warm relationship between Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Peter MacKay, characterizing their relationship as "professional."

An article in the New York Times, including a photograph of the couple on a waterfront stroll during Rice's visit this week to Nova Scotia, sparked questions at the department's daily media briefing on Wednesday about a possible romance.

"She had a good laugh when she read it," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said in response to the cheeky coverage.

"Look, she has a good working relationship, professional relationship with Foreign Minister MacKay and a lot of her counterparts," he said.

Bloggers have been busy feeding the rumour mill after television images showed Rice, 51, and MacKay, 40, holding hands and smiling as they gazed into each other's eyes following a news conference Tuesday.

Rice also repeatedly called MacKay by his first name.

Talk of mixing politics and romance is not new to either of them.

Gossip columns have recently suggested matchups between Rice and Italian Foreign Minister Massimo D'Alema, as well as former British foreign secretary Jack Straw.

MacKay's well publicized relationship with former Conservative colleague Belinda Stronach ended in May 2005 when she crossed the floor of the Commons to become a cabinet minister in Paul Martin's Liberal government.