Undertow

Building Sanctuary, Novella Two


Digital

October, 2010
ISBN: 978-1-60928-216-5

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this story appears in a print anthology

Building Sanctuary
Undertow

Victor left behind a life of crime to focus on a new vision—helping his alpha build an island sanctuary for werewolves. Harsh experiences prepared him for the hardships involved, except when it comes to dealing with the young female refugees of the brutal Boston pack—especially Simone, who rouses his inner wolf like no other. A woman he must resist, or risk becoming just the latest man to make demands on her.

Born to wealth and privilege, Simone lost everything when she fell for the seductive whispers of the textile heir who turned her. Once adrift, now she is fired by a new sense of purpose—the chance to broker peace between werewolves and European wizards. Yet even as Europe beckons, her instincts—the same ones that led to trouble before—keep drawing her back to Victor.

During a sailing trip to the mainland for supplies, Victor finds it impossible to hold himself aloof from the warm, engaging Simone. And when a winter storm traps them together during a full moon, she breaks through his walls so easily and completely, the question is no longer how he’ll stay away, but how he’ll let her go.

Warning: This novella contains werewolves engaged in such improbable (but legal) activities as lobster fishing and sailing during nor’easters. The breaking and entering and instinct-driven sex on every surface in someone else’s summer cottage is a little more criminal.

Read an Excerpt


Chapter One
Victor hated lobsters.

A month ago he hadn’t given a damn about the things. They were decent enough eating when someone set one in front of him already cooked, but those days of leisure were long past.

Now he was on a boat. A boat that reeked of rotting fish, engine fuel and brine. Bad for a human nose but torment to his werewolf senses. Not even the cold could numb the unpleasant odor as Victor slammed the cover onto the bait container. “Does this have to smell so damn bad?”

“The lobsters like it,” Guy answered matter-of-factly. The smell didn’t seem to bother him, though Victor imagined no one would know if it did.

Victor bit back his instinctive response–Fuck the lobsters–and pounded his fist on the cover of the bait container once, just to make sure it was tight. At least the day’s haul was respectable. In the month the pack had been on the island, they’d been scrambling to get traps into the waters Guy’s family had fished for generations.

It wasn’t much, but it was food. By the end of winter, Victor imagined they’d all be tired of clams, lobster and venison, but with their tiny little island overrun with deer and surrounded by prime fishing water…

Well, these days you ate what you could get.

Victor shifted his attention to the crate of lobsters as Guy steered the boat toward the island’s only dock, a rickety old wooden walkway extending a good twenty feet into the ocean before ending in a floating platform. When spring rolled around, they’d have to rebuild it, and they’d certainly need to make it more permanent, but for now it served as an easy way to unload their catch.

They were still a hundred feet from the dock when two figures emerged from the path that led up into the twisting trees. Thick coats, scarves and hats obscured shape and features, but even at this distance Victor’s body tensed in recognition. He’d agreed to spend his days on Guy’s boat to get away from her, judging the rough work better than the uncomfortable way Simone scraped his control into tatters with only her presence.

“There’s an easier way.” He barely heard Guy’s voice over the rumble of the motor. “Ask her to leave you alone.”

The curse of spending too long with the same companions was their unappealing ability to understand those things left unspoken. Though if anyone had to pry into his business, he supposed it might as well be Guy. Of all the men he’d worked alongside for so many years, Guy was the one who understood him best. He was the only other man who’d been born a werewolf, who’d lived with the same twisting instincts every day of his life.

Victor jerked his gaze from the shoreline and studied the dock instead. “I can’t.”

“Can’t or won’t?”

“Can’t,” he replied, lowering his voice. Sound carried so easily on the water, and Simone had a werewolf’s hearing, after all. “Her instincts bring her back, even when I push her away. I don’t have it in me to push hard enough to crush that. It would hurt her.”

Guy snorted. “I think it’s better to have done with it. She’ll be fine.”

Yes, her wizard beau would comfort her. Victor’s fists tightened until his knuckles ached, but there was no fight to be had. His instinctive distrust of witches aside, he couldn’t attack the only healer on their island just because his pride stung. “Stay out of it, Guy. It’s not your business.”

“Maybe not, but still.” Guy lifted a hand in greeting, and the two women returned his wave. “Don’t know much, but I know any woman would be mortified to discover she’d been making a fool of herself over a man.”

Victor turned and leveled an unfriendly look at Guy. “That woman has a suitor. She’s not interested in me. And when things settle down and these girls know they’re safe from the corrupt packs, her wolf won’t be interested either. So let it lie.”

Guy met his glare with a mild look. “What if you’re wrong?”

Then maybe he’d find some relief from long lonely nights bedded down in the only privacy the island offered–the tiny cabin on his sailboat. “Make up your damn mind. Should I tell her to leave me alone or try to stake a claim on a taken woman?”

One dark eyebrow shot up. “I wasn’t aware you wanted to claim her. I was just saying a little blunt honesty is better than leading a lady on.”

Shit. “I said to let it lie.” They’d pulled close enough to the dock that further conversation was inadvisable, so Victor turned and raised his hand as well. The figures were more distinct now, clear enough that Victor recognized Simone’s companion–Rose, a quiet, serious young woman who seemed capable of passing endless hours in total silence.

The two women had piled buoys on the dock, the paint so fresh he could smell it at a distance. “We heard the boat and decided to come down!” Simone called as Guy killed the outboard engine.

Victor climbed up on the side of the boat and made the hop to the dock as soon as they were close enough. “Got through all the buoys today?” Inane small talk, but it served as something to say as he waited for Guy to throw him a rope.

“These are from yesterday,” she told him, nudging one with her boot. “The ones we painted today are hung up near the shed.”

Because the paint hadn’t dried yet, something he would have figured out if he’d bothered to think about it. Victor caught the rope Guy tossed toward the dock and waited for the other man to flip the bumpers over the railing before pulling the small skiff snug against the dock.

The now-familiar task left too much room to dwell on the way Simone’s presence prickled along his skin. She wasn’t a very powerful werewolf, but she had a gentle strength that soothed the wildest parts of him. Acrid paint covered most of her scent, but underneath he caught the hint of lilacs, a subtle smell that had begun to stir his body every time she approached.

Guy nodded to the women as he lifted the crate containing the day’s catch. “Have either of you ladies seen Seamus and Joan? I’ve got a few ideas to run by them before the meeting tonight.”

“They should be home. Joan said they’re going to spend the afternoon going over the supply lists they gathered.”

Which meant the alpha was planning to spend the afternoon making love to his new mate. Joan might still be the same prickly little alpha bitch who could shrivel a man’s balls with a look, but Seamus, at least, seemed to be benefiting from whatever sexual escapades went on behind locked doors. Victor hadn’t seen his old friend so content with life in decades, a fact that made his own suffering that much sharper.

Rose spoke up for the first time, her soft voice barely carrying over the lap of the waves and the creaking of the dock. “It might be best not to disturb them.”

Guy’s dark eyes twinkled, and he smiled at Rose. “I think you might be right.”

The girl’s cheeks were already pink from the biting wind, but Victor thought he saw a hint of a blush before Rose smiled shyly. “It’s my turn to manage dinner for the workers. I hoped I could collect some of the catch and get an early start?”

“Right here.” Guy jumped down to the dock with the crate. “I’ll walk with you.”

Simone waved at their retreating backs, a rueful expression on her face. “He’s left you to deal with me and the boat. Which is a more daunting prospect?”

He wasn’t entirely sure. “I think he’s just sweet on Rose.”

“You didn’t answer my question.” She winked at him. “But I’ll overlook it, just this once, if you’ll tell me when you plan to leave for Searsport.”

The trip was a week overdue, but the first blizzard of the season had made it smarter to stick close to the island. “Tomorrow or the day after, probably. You still determined to come?”

“Yes.” She flashed him a brilliant, already familiar smile.

Too damn charming–and not real. Oh, she was cheerful all right, the most aggressively optimistic person he’d ever laid eyes on, but she only laid it on thick when she thought someone needed encouragement–or to be worked around to her way of thinking.

Victor quirked one eyebrow. “Still trying your smiles on me?”

Her grin faded into a soft chuckle. “You’re the only one who doesn’t fall for it.”

So she thought. That damn smile tugged at him every time she leveled it. “I should think you could toss a few more of them at your wizard and he’d magic you a boat out of thin air.”

Simone looked away, out over the water. “James isn’t my wizard.”

His wolf agreed, more than he could allow. Victor squashed that feral curiosity and kept his voice quiet. Gentle. “He hasn’t done anything inappropriate, has he?”

Her gaze snapped back to his face, disbelief clear in her widened eyes. “What? No. He’s a very decent man.”

He’s a wizard. Not a bias he could speak aloud, not when they owed the man too much. “Of course.”

She studied his face, somehow seeing what he didn’t say, and frowned. “James has sacrificed a lot to help us this winter.”

“I know.” He curled the rope from the boat around his hand tight enough to bite into his skin and let the pain distract him. “We all have our pasts. And wizards go bad too.”

An unexpected sympathy colored her eyes, but she blinked and it was gone. “I’ll let you get back to your work. Will you be at the meeting tonight?”

“Of course.” Victor stepped up onto the side of the boat, mostly to get away from her before he gave in to temptation and moved closer. “You’d best go rescue Rose. Guy thinks he’s more charming than he is.”

“Don’t we all?” she asked breezily. She took a step back and then turned toward the shore, her hands shoved in her coat pockets, shoulders hunched against the chilly wind.

He’d hurt her. In protecting himself he’d hurt her instead, and his feet landed on the floating dock before he realized he’d moved. He looped the rope around one of the cleats and tied it off in a sloppy knot, then caught up with Simone and touched her shoulder. “I’m sorry.”

She barely paused. “You have nothing to apologize for, Victor. I’ll see you later.”

He wanted to stop her. Touch her. Hold her. She wanted to leave. Victor had never had it in him to cage a woman who so clearly wanted to escape. “Have a good afternoon, Simone.”

“You too.” She hurried up the path, practically running now, and disappeared into the thick trees at the top of the rise, leaving Victor alone with a boat and an aching emptiness in his chest.

Chapter Two

The fish stew was thick and savory–one of her better efforts, thanks to Rose’s tutelage–but Simone laid her spoon beside her bowl anyway. “I suppose I’m not very hungry tonight, after all.”

James put down his spoon as well, a hint of worry in his eyes. “Has it been a long day, then?”

“A little tiring.” She dropped her hands to her lap and curled them into fists. Her pale skin bore calluses now, rough and unattractive, but she figured they were better than the blisters she’d suffered the first few weeks.

They’d been on Breckenridge Island for a month, and they’d all worked hard to ensure everyone would make it through the coming winter, safe and healthy. In some ways, she’d been unprepared for the harshness of life on the tiny coastal island. In others, it had been a dream.

A dream marred only by the vague sense of disquiet she couldn’t seem to shake, the feeling that their idyllic retreat was an illusion, and there was a trap still waiting to spring shut on her.

She smiled anyway, more out of habit than anything else. “Don’t fret, James. I’m fine. Everything is fine.”

For once, he didn’t smile in return. “If that were true, you wouldn’t have to spend so much time telling me it’s so. You don’t need to be fine, Simone. Simply be honest.”

“I’m worried about the preparations we’ve made,” she admitted finally. “Or, more specifically, the ones for which we’ve had no time.”

“We’re not completely cut off,” James pointed out carefully. “Trips to the mainland won’t be fun. But we’ll get by.”

An uncharitable voice in her whispered that James couldn’t possibly know what it was like to feel so acutely responsible for the lives of those weaker than oneself. She immediately felt terrible, because of course he did. He was their healer, the closest thing they had to a doctor. Everyone’s lives potentially rested on his shoulders.

She reached across the small, rough-hewn table and covered his hand with hers. “You always know how to restore my optimism.”

He twisted his wrist and clasped her fingers, rubbing his thumb across her knuckles in a whisper-soft caress. The magic inside him was different than her own, but it still pulsed gently whenever their skin touched. “I’d rather give you a bit of time when you don’t need to be optimistic.”

She lifted the teapot with her free hand and refilled his cup. “And what would that accomplish?”

“Don’t you grow weary of it?”

Sometimes she did tire of the expectation that she would always be cheerful, always bolster everyone’s morale, but she never put on an act. “If I feel less than chipper, I don’t pretend otherwise, James. I don’t wear an impenetrable, smiling mask under which I shed sad tears.”

He slipped his hand from hers and sat back. “I can’t tell as easily as a wolf could.”

Simone couldn’t blame him for assuming his humanity to be the cause for the lingering distance between them. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to be flippant. Your only concern is for my happiness.”

“Be flippant if it pleases you. We’re friends, first and foremost. Always.” His hair spilled over his forehead, and he didn’t push it back. “You know that, don’t you?”

“Yes.” A smile curved her lips. “And I’m glad to have a friend like you.”

The smile he offered her in return was gentle and warm, but it evoked nothing more than easy companionship. Her heart didn’t pound, and her breath didn’t catch. “You know I hope to be more someday,” he said, “but we have time. I’m happy to be your friend for now.”

For now. She’d already begun to suspect that no amount of time would stir her heart beyond friendship–or her body to desire his. Not when a single look from Victor already did both.

Don’t you dare, Simone. It was unforgivable to think of another while she sat with James, especially a man like Victor, quiet and severe, who took pains to avoid her at every opportunity and couldn’t hide his discomfort at her attention.

A smart woman would have taken the hint already, but she couldn’t seem to stop herself from seeking him out. At first, she’d thought perhaps he only needed time to get to know her–but, if anything, time had served only to increase his dislike of her.

“Simone.” Worry laced James’s voice. “I didn’t mean I wouldn’t still be your friend if that’s all you want from me. It came out wrong.”

“I understood what you meant.” And, since there was nothing more to say, she changed the subject. “I’m going to Searsport. Tomorrow, or perhaps Thursday.”

This time there was no mistaking the tension in his eyes. “With Victor.”

“Yes, despite his best efforts.” She lifted her cup with a surprisingly steady hand. “Rest easy, James. He’s done everything but forbid me to accompany him.”

He blew out an exasperated breath. “And why should it make me rest easy to know that he’s treating you unkindly? If this is a wolf thing, it’s beyond my understanding.”

“He isn’t–” Simone bit her lip. Most of the time, Victor treated her with polite distance. Even when he lost his patience and snapped at her, he was careful to apologize. “He isn’t unkind.”

“If bringing you to the mainland is such a trial for Victor, why don’t you wait until Guy has a free day? He can’t haul lobsters every day.”

So far, that hadn’t been the case. Guy had been out on his boat every morning at dawn, hauling and resetting traps. “I can ask, see if he has some time.”

Awkward silence filled the space between them, until James picked up his spoon. “The soup is very good. One of Rose’s recipes?”

“Rose doesn’t use recipes, much to my chagrin. She just cooks.”

“She’s good at it.” He took another taste, then deftly steered the conversation toward safer ground. “How are the reading lessons going?”

James was one of the few people who knew exactly why she’d been spending so much time with Rose. “Very well. All she needed was for someone to acquaint her with the basics.”

“I’m sure. She seems like a smart girl.”

“She is.” Just another of Edwin’s later conquests, when he’d moved beyond concerning himself with the illusion of propriety. When he’d developed a taste for desperation.

Simone had seen dozens of them come through Edwin’s bedroom, poor girls with no prospects. Some had been dazzled by his wealth in the face of the Depression gripping the rest of the country, or even dazzled by him, by his smooth charm and pleasant looks. But others, like Rose, had known exactly what they’d get out of serving Edwin in bed. All things considered, she was one of the lucky ones. She hadn’t had her heart broken.

James slid his hand over hers, comforting this time, and proved he knew her well enough to guess the path of her thoughts. “He’s gone.”

His words startled her. “I’m not–I was never scared of Edwin. Not for myself.”

“Isn’t that almost worse? Being scared for others?”

Simone smiled over her teacup. “Perhaps you understand wolves better than you think.”

He laughed and shook his head. “Just you. As much as I can, in any case.”

“I’m not an enigma.” She shrugged. “I’m a simple woman, really.”

“Then perhaps I’m a dense man.”

“Never.” He was lovely, and another swell of guilt rose in Simone. Even if he claimed to have hopes for the future, not expectations, it would be cruel to let those hopes linger. “James…”

He changed the subject again, this time with a forced smile. “I received a message from England in the last batch of correspondence from the mainland. I’ve been waiting for a good time to tell you, but I suppose I had to think about it first. It’s shocking, really. Do you know the wizards and wolves in England have reached a tentative truce?”

She was glad she’d already lowered her cup, or she might have dropped it. “They’ve been at war for centuries.”

“I know.” A smile played about the corners of his lips. “A fondness for werewolves must run in my family. My uncle is heavily involved in the negotiations, and one of my cousins as well. They’ve been asking me to join them, as I have some understanding of the benefits of an alliance.”

Her chair fell back as she rose to round the table and throw her arms around his neck. “James, that’s wonderful!”

His arms came around her, steady and warm. “I’ve already told Joan and Seamus. I’m leaving in the spring. I hadn’t mentioned it before because…I want you to go with me.”

She’d suspected that, if their relationship deepened, he would want her with him when he left, but she’d never imagined it would be for such a reason. To accomplish such things.

Then Victor’s face flashed through her mind, his lips set in a firm frown. “I don’t know if I can. They might need me here.”

“They’ll need you this winter.” James’s hand settled at the small of her back. “You make them feel safe, make them believe that the hard times will pass. And the hard times will pass, here.”

“But not magically, once winter lifts. Spring will be harder, in some ways.”

“Perhaps,” he acknowledged quietly. “Though I asked you for reasons not entirely selfish.”

What could those possibly be? She bit back the question. “Why, then?”

He leaned back. “Things are dire in Europe. They’re building a sort of…refugee community. Wizards and wolves who can’t fight anymore. Who want to try to live together.”

Simone pulled her chair around the edge of the table and sat. “To set an example?”

“To prove it can be done.” James nodded to her. “You’re proof. We’re proof.”

“Breckenridge Island, you mean?”

“And what you were doing out at Adam’s,” he murmured. “Wolves, a vampire…and a witch.”

Realization dawned. “You’re talking about Astrid.”

“Yes.” He brushed her hair back from her face with gentle fingers. “Her father is the senior wizard involved. While he didn’t exactly approve of what she was doing here, they corresponded. She often wrote to him, telling him about her friends and her activities.”

Astrid had been a dear friend, a cheerful girl whose ready smile had hidden a core of strength on which they’d often relied. “She told him about me?”

“About your gift.”

“Astrid told him I had a gift?”

His hand grazed the side of her neck and withdrew. “The way you make people feel at ease. It’s not a trait Gunnar–Astrid’s father–had ever associated with wolves, and it intrigues him.”

“It’s not magic, James. Not like what you do. It’s just about…talking to people.”

“Sometimes that’s a magic all its own.”

Even if the wizard had only asked for her because of her connection to his dead daughter, her treasured friend, there was still much she could do. “I don’t know.”

“It isn’t important that you decide now. Think about it. And if your people still need you in the spring…” He shook his head. “I couldn’t have come to care for you so quickly if you were the sort of woman who would abandon those depending on her.”

The complimentary words were enough to make her squirm with conscience. He looked as if he knew her reasons went beyond those she was willing to share, but he didn’t push.

Perhaps he’s afraid of what you might say. It made sense–too much sense. After all, wasn’t that exactly why she had yet to press the issue with Victor?

Suspecting that you were unwanted was not quite the same as knowing for certain.

* * *
 

The only thing Victor hated more than lobsters were the meetings.

The alphas had instituted them as a way to bring everyone together in the one building large enough to hold them all, a sturdy but unadorned structure filled with rough tables and benches that managed to be less comfortable than sitting on the ground. Gathered together, their pack numbered nearly sixty, five times the number they’d planned for when Seamus had originally proposed laying low on the island. The weight of so many wolves crammed into such a small space was enough to make magic crackle through the air in damn near visible arcs.

Sixty werewolves, and over half of them were women. Girls, in some cases, wide-eyed and frightened and totally out of their depth in the uncivilized wilds of Maine. Some of them had been abused, some brutalized. Some were just city girls who’d never known life without electricity and the creature comforts it provided. Victor supposed that made the evening gatherings important. None of these refugees knew about pack and protection, and their new alpha had every intention of teaching them that safety came with submission–and responsibility with dominance.

The knowledge that it was important didn’t make the battering press of their terror any easier on Victor’s nerves.

Simone was the bright spot. As an alpha, Joan did all right, but Seamus’s mate was steely determination and reassuring strength, not warmth and comfort. Simone was the one who drifted through the crowd as the meeting broke up, knowing somehow when to hug and when to smile, knowing who needed an encouraging pep talk or a scolding or just a few friendly words. Joan and Seamus might be building a sanctuary, but Simone was the heart.

“Simone asked Guy to take her to Searsport.” Seamus spoke casually, and a quick glance at his alpha’s face told Victor he’d been caught staring.

He shouldn’t be jealous. The last thing he needed was to be trapped with her in close quarters for the long ride to the mainland, not while she was another man’s woman. “Good. Guy likes her just fine.”

“Guy can’t spare two or three days.” Seamus sighed. “If it’s such a problem, tell her she can’t go. Tell her I said to give you a list, and you’ll take care of it.”

That was cowardice. Defeated by a woman’s disregard, or admitting himself the sort of monster who couldn’t be trusted to keep his wants and needs to himself. Brooding about it had been more enjoyable before Seamus offered an out that made him feel like a boy. “I’ll get it done. We’re all doing what we have to, this winter, and I have to deal with my instincts.”

Seamus nodded. “Then I trust you’ll handle the situation as best you can.”

Victor watched as the last of the wolves filed toward the door, trailed by Simone, arm in arm with curly-haired little Rose. Only Joan remained, but she seemed fixated on the jumble of papers spread out on the table in front of her, more of her damnable lists. Victor considered lowering his voice, but it would be pointless–anything Joan wanted to know, Seamus would tell her. “Nothing will help but time. For both of us. Her instincts aren’t settled yet either, but for all I know she doesn’t know how.”

The alpha shook his head. “Simone’s been a wolf for long enough. Almost ten years.”

“Instinct can be warped. You know that as well as anyone. She may not be damaged, but she’s still…” Hurt. His wolf raged at the thought, but it didn’t make it less the truth.

Seamus turned away from Joan and pitched his voice low enough to keep his words from his mate’s ears. “Do you need to talk about it?”

“No. They’ll realize they’re safe here, and they’ll get better.”

“You’re right.” Seamus handed him an envelope. “You remember what time to meet Slim?”

“Don’t be insulting.” Victor tucked the envelope into his vest pocket and grinned. “Old bastard is making a fine living on keeping us off the radar.”

“With the number of times his brother hid us from the police over the years, he deserves it.”

“Can’t argue with that. I was planning on leaving tomorrow, just in case I needed an extra day. Don’t want to stay long after meeting up with Slim–I don’t like cutting the full moon too close.”

“Understood.” Seamus clapped a hand on his back. “If I don’t see you before you leave, have a safe trip.”

“I will.” Victor raised his voice. “You can stop pretending you’re not listening, Joan.”

Joan flipped over a page without looking up. “You’re not nearly as enthralling as you think, Mr. Bowen. Your manly posturing was amusing for a time, but the pouting is less interesting.”

Seamus choked on a laugh. “Not very subtle, love.”

“He’s not a subtle man.”

Victor couldn’t even muster up a reasonable level of outrage–Joan wasn’t a woman whose company he enjoyed, but her pointed comments occasionally struck home. “No, I’m not a subtle man. I’ve been a werewolf all of my fifty-three years. In five decades, you won’t be so damnably refined either.”

Joan actually laughed, and it made him dislike her a little less. “You may be right. I feel at least ten percent less refined already. Seamus? Are you almost ready to leave?”

“In a moment.” He shoved both hands in his pockets. “I’d like to tell Simone about the trip, Victor. If you don’t mind.”

Victor hadn’t been looking forward to the task, but long familiarity with Seamus made him suspicious. “Don’t fuck around in my affairs, Whelan. I don’t need a nursemaid.”

“And I don’t fancy myself one.”

“As long as we understand each other.”

“Clear as crystal.” Seamus beckoned to Joan. “Come on. We have a few more things to do.”

Joan shuffled her lists into order and rose, then destroyed any tender feelings she might have engendered in him with a slashing look. “Don’t play games with my friend and her heart. She deserves better than that.” She didn’t have to continue, because her unspoken words hung like ice between them. Better than you.

The barb struck its mark, as she must have known it would, but Victor refused to let her see just how much. “If you’re worried about the state of your friend’s heart, best check with the wizard she’s given it to.”

“Joan, stop.” Seamus closed his hand around her elbow and drew her toward the door. “Victor is more of a danger to his own heart than Simone’s.”

Friend or not, alpha or not, Victor was going to punch Seamus in the face for saying it out loud. Later. “You two tend to your own hearts and leave mine and everyone else’s alone. We have better things to do on this damn island than matchmake. Things like survive.”

Seamus ushered Joan through the door, then turned and faced Victor. “We will survive, but we also have to consider life beyond that. I don’t want everyone on this island alive but miserable. Especially not my friends.”

Victor would worry about life beyond survival when he knew survival was assured. “One miserable winter isn’t going to kill anyone. Not even your friends.”

“Suit yourself.” Seamus ducked his head with a nod. “I’ll see you in the morning. If not, when you return.”

“Have a good night, Seamus.”

His old friend followed Joan into the night, leaving Victor to make his way down the path toward the dock and the solitary row back to the privacy of his sailboat. The winter was cold already, even now when it had barely begun. A long, miserable winter indeed, and something told him the cold wouldn’t just come from the outside.

If he’d been a different sort of bastard, he might have been willing to take advantage of the bevy of young women whose instincts drove them toward the stronger wolves. Plenty looked at him with hungry eyes, and he flattered himself that not all of that hunger was for safety and protection. A selfish man might pick one of those sweet, pretty girls and while away the winter in a less lonely bed.

Too bad the sharp edge of responsibility cut both ways. Any safety he could offer would be a lie. Taking one of the girls before she’d found her footing would be abusing the instincts he’d been born with, instincts their corrupt Boston alpha had brutalized until none of them knew the power that came with the gift of their trust.

They’d learn. Even if it meant Victor had to beat every last man on the island to give them the space to do it.

Every man except the one he longed to test his strength against. Victor’s hands clenched, and he forced himself to relax them as he rose. He might like the idea of chasing the wizard around the island, but James wasn’t using anything against Simone but his too-damn-pretty smile.

Simone felt pulled to Victor because his wolf could meet hers. Protect hers. No instincts drew her toward James. In fact instinct very likely demanded the opposite, proof enough that she cared for the man in all the human ways that mattered. Human ways Victor would respect, even if it killed him, day by day.

Maybe it wasn’t too late. Maybe Victor could give her someone to connect to–show her a man instead of a wolf. Maybe he could try the radical fucking experiment of talking to her.

It was worth a try. If it didn’t work, there’d be plenty of time for a slow death by honorable retreat.

Chapter One
Victor hated lobsters.

A month ago he hadn’t given a damn about the things. They were decent enough eating when someone set one in front of him already cooked, but those days of leisure were long past.

Now he was on a boat. A boat that reeked of rotting fish, engine fuel and brine. Bad for a human nose but torment to his werewolf senses. Not even the cold could numb the unpleasant odor as Victor slammed the cover onto the bait container. “Does this have to smell so damn bad?”

“The lobsters like it,” Guy answered matter-of-factly. The smell didn’t seem to bother him, though Victor imagined no one would know if it did.

Victor bit back his instinctive response–Fuck the lobsters–and pounded his fist on the cover of the bait container once, just to make sure it was tight. At least the day’s haul was respectable. In the month the pack had been on the island, they’d been scrambling to get traps into the waters Guy’s family had fished for generations.

It wasn’t much, but it was food. By the end of winter, Victor imagined they’d all be tired of clams, lobster and venison, but with their tiny little island overrun with deer and surrounded by prime fishing water…

Well, these days you ate what you could get.

Victor shifted his attention to the crate of lobsters as Guy steered the boat toward the island’s only dock, a rickety old wooden walkway extending a good twenty feet into the ocean before ending in a floating platform. When spring rolled around, they’d have to rebuild it, and they’d certainly need to make it more permanent, but for now it served as an easy way to unload their catch.

They were still a hundred feet from the dock when two figures emerged from the path that led up into the twisting trees. Thick coats, scarves and hats obscured shape and features, but even at this distance Victor’s body tensed in recognition. He’d agreed to spend his days on Guy’s boat to get away from her, judging the rough work better than the uncomfortable way Simone scraped his control into tatters with only her presence.

“There’s an easier way.” He barely heard Guy’s voice over the rumble of the motor. “Ask her to leave you alone.”

The curse of spending too long with the same companions was their unappealing ability to understand those things left unspoken. Though if anyone had to pry into his business, he supposed it might as well be Guy. Of all the men he’d worked alongside for so many years, Guy was the one who understood him best. He was the only other man who’d been born a werewolf, who’d lived with the same twisting instincts every day of his life.

Victor jerked his gaze from the shoreline and studied the dock instead. “I can’t.”

“Can’t or won’t?”

“Can’t,” he replied, lowering his voice. Sound carried so easily on the water, and Simone had a werewolf’s hearing, after all. “Her instincts bring her back, even when I push her away. I don’t have it in me to push hard enough to crush that. It would hurt her.”

Guy snorted. “I think it’s better to have done with it. She’ll be fine.”

Yes, her wizard beau would comfort her. Victor’s fists tightened until his knuckles ached, but there was no fight to be had. His instinctive distrust of witches aside, he couldn’t attack the only healer on their island just because his pride stung. “Stay out of it, Guy. It’s not your business.”

“Maybe not, but still.” Guy lifted a hand in greeting, and the two women returned his wave. “Don’t know much, but I know any woman would be mortified to discover she’d been making a fool of herself over a man.”

Victor turned and leveled an unfriendly look at Guy. “That woman has a suitor. She’s not interested in me. And when things settle down and these girls know they’re safe from the corrupt packs, her wolf won’t be interested either. So let it lie.”

Guy met his glare with a mild look. “What if you’re wrong?”

Then maybe he’d find some relief from long lonely nights bedded down in the only privacy the island offered–the tiny cabin on his sailboat. “Make up your damn mind. Should I tell her to leave me alone or try to stake a claim on a taken woman?”

One dark eyebrow shot up. “I wasn’t aware you wanted to claim her. I was just saying a little blunt honesty is better than leading a lady on.”

Shit. “I said to let it lie.” They’d pulled close enough to the dock that further conversation was inadvisable, so Victor turned and raised his hand as well. The figures were more distinct now, clear enough that Victor recognized Simone’s companion–Rose, a quiet, serious young woman who seemed capable of passing endless hours in total silence.

The two women had piled buoys on the dock, the paint so fresh he could smell it at a distance. “We heard the boat and decided to come down!” Simone called as Guy killed the outboard engine.

Victor climbed up on the side of the boat and made the hop to the dock as soon as they were close enough. “Got through all the buoys today?” Inane small talk, but it served as something to say as he waited for Guy to throw him a rope.

“These are from yesterday,” she told him, nudging one with her boot. “The ones we painted today are hung up near the shed.”

Because the paint hadn’t dried yet, something he would have figured out if he’d bothered to think about it. Victor caught the rope Guy tossed toward the dock and waited for the other man to flip the bumpers over the railing before pulling the small skiff snug against the dock.

The now-familiar task left too much room to dwell on the way Simone’s presence prickled along his skin. She wasn’t a very powerful werewolf, but she had a gentle strength that soothed the wildest parts of him. Acrid paint covered most of her scent, but underneath he caught the hint of lilacs, a subtle smell that had begun to stir his body every time she approached.

Guy nodded to the women as he lifted the crate containing the day’s catch. “Have either of you ladies seen Seamus and Joan? I’ve got a few ideas to run by them before the meeting tonight.”

“They should be home. Joan said they’re going to spend the afternoon going over the supply lists they gathered.”

Which meant the alpha was planning to spend the afternoon making love to his new mate. Joan might still be the same prickly little alpha bitch who could shrivel a man’s balls with a look, but Seamus, at least, seemed to be benefiting from whatever sexual escapades went on behind locked doors. Victor hadn’t seen his old friend so content with life in decades, a fact that made his own suffering that much sharper.

Rose spoke up for the first time, her soft voice barely carrying over the lap of the waves and the creaking of the dock. “It might be best not to disturb them.”

Guy’s dark eyes twinkled, and he smiled at Rose. “I think you might be right.”

The girl’s cheeks were already pink from the biting wind, but Victor thought he saw a hint of a blush before Rose smiled shyly. “It’s my turn to manage dinner for the workers. I hoped I could collect some of the catch and get an early start?”

“Right here.” Guy jumped down to the dock with the crate. “I’ll walk with you.”

Simone waved at their retreating backs, a rueful expression on her face. “He’s left you to deal with me and the boat. Which is a more daunting prospect?”

He wasn’t entirely sure. “I think he’s just sweet on Rose.”

“You didn’t answer my question.” She winked at him. “But I’ll overlook it, just this once, if you’ll tell me when you plan to leave for Searsport.”

The trip was a week overdue, but the first blizzard of the season had made it smarter to stick close to the island. “Tomorrow or the day after, probably. You still determined to come?”

“Yes.” She flashed him a brilliant, already familiar smile.

Too damn charming–and not real. Oh, she was cheerful all right, the most aggressively optimistic person he’d ever laid eyes on, but she only laid it on thick when she thought someone needed encouragement–or to be worked around to her way of thinking.

Victor quirked one eyebrow. “Still trying your smiles on me?”

Her grin faded into a soft chuckle. “You’re the only one who doesn’t fall for it.”

So she thought. That damn smile tugged at him every time she leveled it. “I should think you could toss a few more of them at your wizard and he’d magic you a boat out of thin air.”

Simone looked away, out over the water. “James isn’t my wizard.”

His wolf agreed, more than he could allow. Victor squashed that feral curiosity and kept his voice quiet. Gentle. “He hasn’t done anything inappropriate, has he?”

Her gaze snapped back to his face, disbelief clear in her widened eyes. “What? No. He’s a very decent man.”

He’s a wizard. Not a bias he could speak aloud, not when they owed the man too much. “Of course.”

She studied his face, somehow seeing what he didn’t say, and frowned. “James has sacrificed a lot to help us this winter.”

“I know.” He curled the rope from the boat around his hand tight enough to bite into his skin and let the pain distract him. “We all have our pasts. And wizards go bad too.”

An unexpected sympathy colored her eyes, but she blinked and it was gone. “I’ll let you get back to your work. Will you be at the meeting tonight?”

“Of course.” Victor stepped up onto the side of the boat, mostly to get away from her before he gave in to temptation and moved closer. “You’d best go rescue Rose. Guy thinks he’s more charming than he is.”

“Don’t we all?” she asked breezily. She took a step back and then turned toward the shore, her hands shoved in her coat pockets, shoulders hunched against the chilly wind.

He’d hurt her. In protecting himself he’d hurt her instead, and his feet landed on the floating dock before he realized he’d moved. He looped the rope around one of the cleats and tied it off in a sloppy knot, then caught up with Simone and touched her shoulder. “I’m sorry.”

She barely paused. “You have nothing to apologize for, Victor. I’ll see you later.”

He wanted to stop her. Touch her. Hold her. She wanted to leave. Victor had never had it in him to cage a woman who so clearly wanted to escape. “Have a good afternoon, Simone.”

“You too.” She hurried up the path, practically running now, and disappeared into the thick trees at the top of the rise, leaving Victor alone with a boat and an aching emptiness in his chest.

Chapter Two
The fish stew was thick and savory–one of her better efforts, thanks to Rose’s tutelage–but Simone laid her spoon beside her bowl anyway. “I suppose I’m not very hungry tonight, after all.”

James put down his spoon as well, a hint of worry in his eyes. “Has it been a long day, then?”

“A little tiring.” She dropped her hands to her lap and curled them into fists. Her pale skin bore calluses now, rough and unattractive, but she figured they were better than the blisters she’d suffered the first few weeks.

They’d been on Breckenridge Island for a month, and they’d all worked hard to ensure everyone would make it through the coming winter, safe and healthy. In some ways, she’d been unprepared for the harshness of life on the tiny coastal island. In others, it had been a dream.

A dream marred only by the vague sense of disquiet she couldn’t seem to shake, the feeling that their idyllic retreat was an illusion, and there was a trap still waiting to spring shut on her.

She smiled anyway, more out of habit than anything else. “Don’t fret, James. I’m fine. Everything is fine.”

For once, he didn’t smile in return. “If that were true, you wouldn’t have to spend so much time telling me it’s so. You don’t need to be fine, Simone. Simply be honest.”

“I’m worried about the preparations we’ve made,” she admitted finally. “Or, more specifically, the ones for which we’ve had no time.”

“We’re not completely cut off,” James pointed out carefully. “Trips to the mainland won’t be fun. But we’ll get by.”

An uncharitable voice in her whispered that James couldn’t possibly know what it was like to feel so acutely responsible for the lives of those weaker than oneself. She immediately felt terrible, because of course he did. He was their healer, the closest thing they had to a doctor. Everyone’s lives potentially rested on his shoulders.

She reached across the small, rough-hewn table and covered his hand with hers. “You always know how to restore my optimism.”

He twisted his wrist and clasped her fingers, rubbing his thumb across her knuckles in a whisper-soft caress. The magic inside him was different than her own, but it still pulsed gently whenever their skin touched. “I’d rather give you a bit of time when you don’t need to be optimistic.”

She lifted the teapot with her free hand and refilled his cup. “And what would that accomplish?”

“Don’t you grow weary of it?”

Sometimes she did tire of the expectation that she would always be cheerful, always bolster everyone’s morale, but she never put on an act. “If I feel less than chipper, I don’t pretend otherwise, James. I don’t wear an impenetrable, smiling mask under which I shed sad tears.”

He slipped his hand from hers and sat back. “I can’t tell as easily as a wolf could.”

Simone couldn’t blame him for assuming his humanity to be the cause for the lingering distance between them. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to be flippant. Your only concern is for my happiness.”

“Be flippant if it pleases you. We’re friends, first and foremost. Always.” His hair spilled over his forehead, and he didn’t push it back. “You know that, don’t you?”

“Yes.” A smile curved her lips. “And I’m glad to have a friend like you.”

The smile he offered her in return was gentle and warm, but it evoked nothing more than easy companionship. Her heart didn’t pound, and her breath didn’t catch. “You know I hope to be more someday,” he said, “but we have time. I’m happy to be your friend for now.”

For now. She’d already begun to suspect that no amount of time would stir her heart beyond friendship–or her body to desire his. Not when a single look from Victor already did both.

Don’t you dare, Simone. It was unforgivable to think of another while she sat with James, especially a man like Victor, quiet and severe, who took pains to avoid her at every opportunity and couldn’t hide his discomfort at her attention.

A smart woman would have taken the hint already, but she couldn’t seem to stop herself from seeking him out. At first, she’d thought perhaps he only needed time to get to know her–but, if anything, time had served only to increase his dislike of her.

“Simone.” Worry laced James’s voice. “I didn’t mean I wouldn’t still be your friend if that’s all you want from me. It came out wrong.”

“I understood what you meant.” And, since there was nothing more to say, she changed the subject. “I’m going to Searsport. Tomorrow, or perhaps Thursday.”

This time there was no mistaking the tension in his eyes. “With Victor.”

“Yes, despite his best efforts.” She lifted her cup with a surprisingly steady hand. “Rest easy, James. He’s done everything but forbid me to accompany him.”

He blew out an exasperated breath. “And why should it make me rest easy to know that he’s treating you unkindly? If this is a wolf thing, it’s beyond my understanding.”

“He isn’t–” Simone bit her lip. Most of the time, Victor treated her with polite distance. Even when he lost his patience and snapped at her, he was careful to apologize. “He isn’t unkind.”

“If bringing you to the mainland is such a trial for Victor, why don’t you wait until Guy has a free day? He can’t haul lobsters every day.”

So far, that hadn’t been the case. Guy had been out on his boat every morning at dawn, hauling and resetting traps. “I can ask, see if he has some time.”

Awkward silence filled the space between them, until James picked up his spoon. “The soup is very good. One of Rose’s recipes?”

“Rose doesn’t use recipes, much to my chagrin. She just cooks.”

“She’s good at it.” He took another taste, then deftly steered the conversation toward safer ground. “How are the reading lessons going?”

James was one of the few people who knew exactly why she’d been spending so much time with Rose. “Very well. All she needed was for someone to acquaint her with the basics.”

“I’m sure. She seems like a smart girl.”

“She is.” Just another of Edwin’s later conquests, when he’d moved beyond concerning himself with the illusion of propriety. When he’d developed a taste for desperation.

Simone had seen dozens of them come through Edwin’s bedroom, poor girls with no prospects. Some had been dazzled by his wealth in the face of the Depression gripping the rest of the country, or even dazzled by him, by his smooth charm and pleasant looks. But others, like Rose, had known exactly what they’d get out of serving Edwin in bed. All things considered, she was one of the lucky ones. She hadn’t had her heart broken.

James slid his hand over hers, comforting this time, and proved he knew her well enough to guess the path of her thoughts. “He’s gone.”

His words startled her. “I’m not–I was never scared of Edwin. Not for myself.”

“Isn’t that almost worse? Being scared for others?”

Simone smiled over her teacup. “Perhaps you understand wolves better than you think.”

He laughed and shook his head. “Just you. As much as I can, in any case.”

“I’m not an enigma.” She shrugged. “I’m a simple woman, really.”

“Then perhaps I’m a dense man.”

“Never.” He was lovely, and another swell of guilt rose in Simone. Even if he claimed to have hopes for the future, not expectations, it would be cruel to let those hopes linger. “James…”

He changed the subject again, this time with a forced smile. “I received a message from England in the last batch of correspondence from the mainland. I’ve been waiting for a good time to tell you, but I suppose I had to think about it first. It’s shocking, really. Do you know the wizards and wolves in England have reached a tentative truce?”

She was glad she’d already lowered her cup, or she might have dropped it. “They’ve been at war for centuries.”

“I know.” A smile played about the corners of his lips. “A fondness for werewolves must run in my family. My uncle is heavily involved in the negotiations, and one of my cousins as well. They’ve been asking me to join them, as I have some understanding of the benefits of an alliance.”

Her chair fell back as she rose to round the table and throw her arms around his neck. “James, that’s wonderful!”

His arms came around her, steady and warm. “I’ve already told Joan and Seamus. I’m leaving in the spring. I hadn’t mentioned it before because…I want you to go with me.”

She’d suspected that, if their relationship deepened, he would want her with him when he left, but she’d never imagined it would be for such a reason. To accomplish such things.

Then Victor’s face flashed through her mind, his lips set in a firm frown. “I don’t know if I can. They might need me here.”

“They’ll need you this winter.” James’s hand settled at the small of her back. “You make them feel safe, make them believe that the hard times will pass. And the hard times will pass, here.”

“But not magically, once winter lifts. Spring will be harder, in some ways.”

“Perhaps,” he acknowledged quietly. “Though I asked you for reasons not entirely selfish.”

What could those possibly be? She bit back the question. “Why, then?”

He leaned back. “Things are dire in Europe. They’re building a sort of…refugee community. Wizards and wolves who can’t fight anymore. Who want to try to live together.”

Simone pulled her chair around the edge of the table and sat. “To set an example?”

“To prove it can be done.” James nodded to her. “You’re proof. We’re proof.”

“Breckenridge Island, you mean?”

“And what you were doing out at Adam’s,” he murmured. “Wolves, a vampire…and a witch.”

Realization dawned. “You’re talking about Astrid.”

“Yes.” He brushed her hair back from her face with gentle fingers. “Her father is the senior wizard involved. While he didn’t exactly approve of what she was doing here, they corresponded. She often wrote to him, telling him about her friends and her activities.”

Astrid had been a dear friend, a cheerful girl whose ready smile had hidden a core of strength on which they’d often relied. “She told him about me?”

“About your gift.”

“Astrid told him I had a gift?”

His hand grazed the side of her neck and withdrew. “The way you make people feel at ease. It’s not a trait Gunnar–Astrid’s father–had ever associated with wolves, and it intrigues him.”

“It’s not magic, James. Not like what you do. It’s just about…talking to people.”

“Sometimes that’s a magic all its own.”

Even if the wizard had only asked for her because of her connection to his dead daughter, her treasured friend, there was still much she could do. “I don’t know.”

“It isn’t important that you decide now. Think about it. And if your people still need you in the spring…” He shook his head. “I couldn’t have come to care for you so quickly if you were the sort of woman who would abandon those depending on her.”

The complimentary words were enough to make her squirm with conscience. He looked as if he knew her reasons went beyond those she was willing to share, but he didn’t push.

Perhaps he’s afraid of what you might say. It made sense–too much sense. After all, wasn’t that exactly why she had yet to press the issue with Victor?

Suspecting that you were unwanted was not quite the same as knowing for certain.

* * *
The only thing Victor hated more than lobsters were the meetings.

The alphas had instituted them as a way to bring everyone together in the one building large enough to hold them all, a sturdy but unadorned structure filled with rough tables and benches that managed to be less comfortable than sitting on the ground. Gathered together, their pack numbered nearly sixty, five times the number they’d planned for when Seamus had originally proposed laying low on the island. The weight of so many wolves crammed into such a small space was enough to make magic crackle through the air in damn near visible arcs.

Sixty werewolves, and over half of them were women. Girls, in some cases, wide-eyed and frightened and totally out of their depth in the uncivilized wilds of Maine. Some of them had been abused, some brutalized. Some were just city girls who’d never known life without electricity and the creature comforts it provided. Victor supposed that made the evening gatherings important. None of these refugees knew about pack and protection, and their new alpha had every intention of teaching them that safety came with submission–and responsibility with dominance.

The knowledge that it was important didn’t make the battering press of their terror any easier on Victor’s nerves.

Simone was the bright spot. As an alpha, Joan did all right, but Seamus’s mate was steely determination and reassuring strength, not warmth and comfort. Simone was the one who drifted through the crowd as the meeting broke up, knowing somehow when to hug and when to smile, knowing who needed an encouraging pep talk or a scolding or just a few friendly words. Joan and Seamus might be building a sanctuary, but Simone was the heart.

“Simone asked Guy to take her to Searsport.” Seamus spoke casually, and a quick glance at his alpha’s face told Victor he’d been caught staring.

He shouldn’t be jealous. The last thing he needed was to be trapped with her in close quarters for the long ride to the mainland, not while she was another man’s woman. “Good. Guy likes her just fine.”

“Guy can’t spare two or three days.” Seamus sighed. “If it’s such a problem, tell her she can’t go. Tell her I said to give you a list, and you’ll take care of it.”

That was cowardice. Defeated by a woman’s disregard, or admitting himself the sort of monster who couldn’t be trusted to keep his wants and needs to himself. Brooding about it had been more enjoyable before Seamus offered an out that made him feel like a boy. “I’ll get it done. We’re all doing what we have to, this winter, and I have to deal with my instincts.”

Seamus nodded. “Then I trust you’ll handle the situation as best you can.”

Victor watched as the last of the wolves filed toward the door, trailed by Simone, arm in arm with curly-haired little Rose. Only Joan remained, but she seemed fixated on the jumble of papers spread out on the table in front of her, more of her damnable lists. Victor considered lowering his voice, but it would be pointless–anything Joan wanted to know, Seamus would tell her. “Nothing will help but time. For both of us. Her instincts aren’t settled yet either, but for all I know she doesn’t know how.”

The alpha shook his head. “Simone’s been a wolf for long enough. Almost ten years.”

“Instinct can be warped. You know that as well as anyone. She may not be damaged, but she’s still…” Hurt. His wolf raged at the thought, but it didn’t make it less the truth.

Seamus turned away from Joan and pitched his voice low enough to keep his words from his mate’s ears. “Do you need to talk about it?”

“No. They’ll realize they’re safe here, and they’ll get better.”

“You’re right.” Seamus handed him an envelope. “You remember what time to meet Slim?”

“Don’t be insulting.” Victor tucked the envelope into his vest pocket and grinned. “Old bastard is making a fine living on keeping us off the radar.”

“With the number of times his brother hid us from the police over the years, he deserves it.”

“Can’t argue with that. I was planning on leaving tomorrow, just in case I needed an extra day. Don’t want to stay long after meeting up with Slim–I don’t like cutting the full moon too close.”

“Understood.” Seamus clapped a hand on his back. “If I don’t see you before you leave, have a safe trip.”

“I will.” Victor raised his voice. “You can stop pretending you’re not listening, Joan.”

Joan flipped over a page without looking up. “You’re not nearly as enthralling as you think, Mr. Bowen. Your manly posturing was amusing for a time, but the pouting is less interesting.”

Seamus choked on a laugh. “Not very subtle, love.”

“He’s not a subtle man.”

Victor couldn’t even muster up a reasonable level of outrage–Joan wasn’t a woman whose company he enjoyed, but her pointed comments occasionally struck home. “No, I’m not a subtle man. I’ve been a werewolf all of my fifty-three years. In five decades, you won’t be so damnably refined either.”

Joan actually laughed, and it made him dislike her a little less. “You may be right. I feel at least ten percent less refined already. Seamus? Are you almost ready to leave?”

“In a moment.” He shoved both hands in his pockets. “I’d like to tell Simone about the trip, Victor. If you don’t mind.”

Victor hadn’t been looking forward to the task, but long familiarity with Seamus made him suspicious. “Don’t fuck around in my affairs, Whelan. I don’t need a nursemaid.”

“And I don’t fancy myself one.”

“As long as we understand each other.”

“Clear as crystal.” Seamus beckoned to Joan. “Come on. We have a few more things to do.”

Joan shuffled her lists into order and rose, then destroyed any tender feelings she might have engendered in him with a slashing look. “Don’t play games with my friend and her heart. She deserves better than that.” She didn’t have to continue, because her unspoken words hung like ice between them. Better than you.

The barb struck its mark, as she must have known it would, but Victor refused to let her see just how much. “If you’re worried about the state of your friend’s heart, best check with the wizard she’s given it to.”

“Joan, stop.” Seamus closed his hand around her elbow and drew her toward the door. “Victor is more of a danger to his own heart than Simone’s.”

Friend or not, alpha or not, Victor was going to punch Seamus in the face for saying it out loud. Later. “You two tend to your own hearts and leave mine and everyone else’s alone. We have better things to do on this damn island than matchmake. Things like survive.”

Seamus ushered Joan through the door, then turned and faced Victor. “We will survive, but we also have to consider life beyond that. I don’t want everyone on this island alive but miserable. Especially not my friends.”

Victor would worry about life beyond survival when he knew survival was assured. “One miserable winter isn’t going to kill anyone. Not even your friends.”

“Suit yourself.” Seamus ducked his head with a nod. “I’ll see you in the morning. If not, when you return.”

“Have a good night, Seamus.”

His old friend followed Joan into the night, leaving Victor to make his way down the path toward the dock and the solitary row back to the privacy of his sailboat. The winter was cold already, even now when it had barely begun. A long, miserable winter indeed, and something told him the cold wouldn’t just come from the outside.

If he’d been a different sort of bastard, he might have been willing to take advantage of the bevy of young women whose instincts drove them toward the stronger wolves. Plenty looked at him with hungry eyes, and he flattered himself that not all of that hunger was for safety and protection. A selfish man might pick one of those sweet, pretty girls and while away the winter in a less lonely bed.

Too bad the sharp edge of responsibility cut both ways. Any safety he could offer would be a lie. Taking one of the girls before she’d found her footing would be abusing the instincts he’d been born with, instincts their corrupt Boston alpha had brutalized until none of them knew the power that came with the gift of their trust.

They’d learn. Even if it meant Victor had to beat every last man on the island to give them the space to do it.

Every man except the one he longed to test his strength against. Victor’s hands clenched, and he forced himself to relax them as he rose. He might like the idea of chasing the wizard around the island, but James wasn’t using anything against Simone but his too-damn-pretty smile.

Simone felt pulled to Victor because his wolf could meet hers. Protect hers. No instincts drew her toward James. In fact instinct very likely demanded the opposite, proof enough that she cared for the man in all the human ways that mattered. Human ways Victor would respect, even if it killed him, day by day.

Maybe it wasn’t too late. Maybe Victor could give her someone to connect to–show her a man instead of a wolf. Maybe he could try the radical fucking experiment of talking to her.

It was worth a try. If it didn’t work, there’d be plenty of time for a slow death by honorable retreat.