The men carried canvas chairs to the beach, and everyone sat around the fire, relaxing after dinner.
“I’m stuffed,” Ted said. “There’s something about eating outdoors that makes your appetite bigger.”
A slight breeze rippled the water, and the sun cast shades of orange across its surface.
Currie sighed and dug her bare toes into the warm sand. Ward sat next to her. Price sat by Emeralda, Brent by Thora, and Avery by Brie. Brie seemed to glow. Saffron sat with Della and Russ.
“Don’t get me wrong, Red,” Russ said. “I love having a good looking woman on both sides of me.” He patted Della’s hand. “But you need to bring more young men to this island so that you get one too.”
“It’s depressing, isn’t it?” Saffron complained. “I’m odd girl out.”
“Odd’s the right word,” Thora teased.
Saffron grinned. She opened her mouth to give a sassy answer, but a wolf howled in the distance.
Mandy scraped a hand through her black, spiky hair. “That sounds so sad, so lonely.”
Saffron nodded toward the fading light. “Wait and listen. It’s getting late. They’re calling to each other.” A second later, another wolf howled a reply, then a third and a fourth. “The pack’s checking in.”
Mandy tilted her head and thought about that. “It’s strange, isn’t it? One reply, and you feel secure, like someone’s acknowledged you. And sometimes, you can be surrounded by people and still be lonely. I spend a lot of time by myself on this island, and I’m the happiest I’ve ever been.”
“Do you feel lonely at home?” Saffron asked.
“I used to. I always felt like the outsider, the single girl, the socially inept.”
Currie realized that she’d never felt that way. She’d always felt loved and accepted. “How did you handle that?” she asked Mandy.
“Not so well. I carried around a lot of anger. And then, when I got cancer, I wasn’t just angry with my family or myself. I was angry with God and the whole damn universe.”
Della chuckled. “Why wouldn’t you feel that way? You must have felt gypped. It sounds like you’re working through it.”
“Not all the way yet, but I’m learning that I like myself quite a bit, enough to enjoy my own company.”
The sun sank, and the moon began its climb in the sky. Stars sprinkled the heavens, and Brie reached for Avery’s hand. “This has been wonderful, but it’s getting late. We need to start clearing things up.”
Avery pushed himself to his feet, and everyone else followed his lead. When Della and Russ started to fold their chairs to carry back to the lodge, Ward said, “Don’t worry about it. Avery and I will stay and help.”
“You’re a good boy.” Della wrapped an arm through Russ’ to walk back to their cabins.
“I’ll go with you,” Mandy said.
Leann, Teri, and Trisha hesitated. “Can we help?”
“No need. We’ve got it covered.” Avery scooped up their chairs and folded them neatly.
“I’ll go check on my fawn then,” Trisha said. “Want to come to my cabin and play cards?” she asked the other two.
“I’m the queen of gin rummy,” Teri warned. “You two are going to go down in flames.”
Emeralda rose in one fluid motion. “I have to be up early tomorrow. You guys can handle this. Come on, Price. Let’s call it a night.”
Currie watched them head off toward the woods where Emeralda felt most at home, amongst her trees. At least she’d be safe there.
Brent rose awkwardly, trying to balance on his crutches in the sand. “Sorry, girls, but I’ve had too much to eat and three beers to drink, and I’m not worth much.”
Ted stood too. “Frank, what if we help him walk straight, so we don’t find him tipped over on one of the paths?”
“I won’t tuck him in, but I’ll help you get him back to his cabin.” Frank looked to Saffron for an answer. “Unless you need us here.”
“You work over and beyond every day at the hatcheries,” Saffron told him. “Enjoy a night off.”
Brent reached for another beer before they left, but Ted shook his head. “Leave it, son. Stop while you’re ahead.”
Brent frowned. “I just wanted one for the road.”
“There aren’t too many happy drunks in this world,” Ted said. “One too many, and most people get maudlin or stupid.”
“Or mean.” Frank shook his head. “My son gets mean.”
“Mean?” Currie couldn’t imagine Brent being mean. They always monitored how much a person drank on the island, though. No one ever got drunk. Guests were here to heal, not to hide from their problems.
“Alcohol doesn’t always bring out the best in a person. All those things that have been locked in dark places come out for some light,” Ted said.
“All right, already, you’ve convinced me.” Brent balanced himself on his crutches. “I have a nice, happy buzz going, and I’m calling it quits. Take me home.”
Ted took one side and Frank took the other as they led him away.
Once they were out of earshot, Currie said, “Do you think someone on the island is drinking too much, and that’s why he loses control once in a while?”
“We know exactly how many drinks we serve,” Brie said. “We only serve them with supper, and then we put them away.”
“Unless someone packed liquor in his luggage,” Saffron said. “We don’t search guests when they get off the ferry.”
“You’re forgetting drugs,” Ward said. “They’re smaller and have a stronger kick.”
“When I read through each person’s files, nothing was mentioned about substance abuse. I went back through them when we found the possum,” Brie said.
“I wouldn’t admit to it, even if I was struggling with the problem.” Ward picked up an armload of folded chairs. “I’d try to cope and kick it on my own, but I think you’d have noticed if someone had a drinking or drug problem. Some people hide it really well, but we’re together so much, it would be hard here.”
Everyone grabbed something to carry and they headed back to the lodge. When they plopped everything in the kitchen, Thora sank onto a stool and yawned.
“I’ll help Currie with the washing up,” Ward volunteered. “Go home and get some sleep.”
“Thanks.” Thora pushed herself to her feet. “I’m too tired to argue. I’ll put baby and me to bed.”
“We’ll walk you to your cottage.” Brie took Avery’s hand.
“I’ll go with you.” Saffron hurried to join them. “Then we’ll drop Avery at his cabin, and you and I can walk back to the lodge together.”
Brie looked slightly annoyed.
“Or were you coming back to the lodge?” Saffron asked with a wicked smile.
Brie’s creamy complexion reddened with embarrassment. “Of course I was.”
“Just not right away?” Saffron persisted.
Brie yanked Avery toward the door. “Come on. Thora’s tired.”
When everyone was gone, Ward and Currie hurried through their chores. Once they were finished, Ward motioned toward the French doors. “I think Thumper needs some fresh air before you put him in his pen.”
Outside, in the gardens, the scent of mint and lavender hung in the air. The moon was high, and Venus and Jupiter winked at each other. Good omens.
Ward pulled Currie into his arms and kissed her, slow and deep. Currie could feel herself melt against him. Her bones dissolved. Her thoughts evaporated. Every particle of her being was filled with him.
The kiss grew more urgent until Ward pulled away. When he spoke, his voice was husky. “I’ve wanted to do that since I first saw you. The wait was worth it.” She reached for him, but he shook his head. “Not a good idea. Not right now. You’re not ready yet, and I’m not in control. I want too much.”
“Let me watch you go inside and lock the door, so I know you’re safe. And you’d better get away from me, or you won’t be.”
She didn’t want to be safe. She didn’t want to be smart. All she wanted was him. “Who’s going to keep you safe?” she asked.
“My friend.” Ward turned abruptly to leave the garden, and a wolf came out of the shadows to fall in step beside him.
The sight shocked Currie so much that she grabbed Thumper and stepped inside the lodge.
Ward dropped his hand and patted the wolf on its head.
“Think about what you want,” he called back to her. “If you want me.” She watched them walk to the lake together. Ward sat under the willow tree, and a branch stretched forward to wrap around his shoulders. The wolf laid its head on Ward’s lap. Why did the island love Ward so much? Or was it something else? Was there something wild deep inside Ward that Nature could sense? When he’d told her to leave so that she’d be safe, what was he warning her about?
Currie shook her head. She realized that she didn’t care. That she loved Ward and wanted him. And at that moment, she’d have risked everything to have him. She wanted to run to him, to be with him.
That thought brought her up short. How was she any different than Emeralda? When it came to passion, was anyone always smart? Once you reached a certain point, weren’t you waiting to tumble down the rabbit hole?
Hoping for it?
But this wasn’t the right time. Ward wanted more than passion. He wanted commitment, and he wanted her to think about it. When a nymph took a man, she stayed with him until he died. And how would Ward react when he learned what she really was?
She locked the French doors and climbed the stairs to her suite. She spent a sleepless night, tossing and turning until the sun fringed the edges of the horizon. Then she finally drifted into a restless dream with rabbits and wolves and a black panther that protected the island from a shadowy menace.