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.