“Yes.”

“That would explain it. Since we took you last night, there’s been great unrest in the pack. Even this far away we can sense the vibrations. He must be very distraught.”

Nicky whimpered, uneasy at the idea of Marco being upset. Shawna looked at him strangely. “You feel it too, don’t you?”

Nicky nodded miserably.

“The raid was mainly for you, but we got another one of the females we’ve seen you talking to, and she’s very upset and crying a lot. Could you speak to her—calm her a bit?”

“Of course.”

Shawna nodded to someone behind her and a door opened. Nicky struggled to sit up as Tara, weeping softly with her arms tied in front of her ran over to the bed where he lay and snuggled up against him.

“Tara? Did they hurt you?”

“No,” Shawna spoke up behind her. “She’s just very timid. We’re wondering why you were not as frightened and fought us so hard. Surely Marco has been feeding you. Are you, like my mate, one of the resistant ones?”

“Your mate? The one in the basement cell?”

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She nodded, worry in her expression. “They haven’t let me see him for days. I had to take you to use as leverage to try to get him released. I was inside the compound, you see. That’s how I was able to let in my friends.” She looked down at Nicky. “Perhaps now Marco will be willing to negotiate. Trade my mate for the two of you. Her mate Tristan will be quite upset too.”

“If you don’t release us both, a terrible fight will occur. They’re probably out looking for us now. I’m surprised they haven’t already come for us. Surely you must know that.”

“They would have if we hadn’t set off some small explosions right after we took the two of you. They had to stop long enough to put out the resulting fires, and that gave us time to escape. By the time they’d got the fires in the compound under control, we were far enough away Marco and Tristan couldn’t sense the two of you. We’ve been rogues and outsiders for a long time. By now we know how to lay down enough false scent in the forest that they can’t easily track us. They’ll still find us soon, but we’re fortified and have sent messages threatening to harm you both if they try to break in.”

Nicky shivered and cast a nervous glance up at her. “You wouldn’t really kill us?” Nicky asked softly, tightening his grip on Tara as she whimpered.

She shook her head quickly. “Of course not. Please don’t worry. We can’t hurt pets—it goes against our natures. We’re bluffing, but as far as my mate goes, they won’t listen to reason. So far, the threats are holding them off. They still have my mate, you know. I think they’ll be willing to set up a swap. We’ve been trying to convince them they’re wrong about the pets. My mate is not feral and never has been. They simply won’t listen to reason. Now they’re giving him unnatural hormones. You understand how desperate I am, surely.”

“Marco said pets who aren’t dominated go feral.”

She shook her head firmly. “That’s just not true.”

Nicky’s interest sharpened. “What? But how can you be so sure?”

“When our mates proved resistant to submission, we had to run with them or they would have been put under restraints or in cells, or even chemically altered like they’re doing to my mate. We waited nervously for something terrible to happen after we left the compound, for our mates to turn savage. It never happened. They refused to be dominated, but they weren’t violent or wild. They wanted a normal relationship with their mates—or as close to normal as we can be. We achieved that with them, and nothing terrible happened.”

“How do you account for that?”

“We don’t have any idea. The notion that pets become feral if we don’t force them to submit is centuries old and never really challenged. Some of our people have a theory that so many adoptions of humans have taken place over the centuries that at least some of our blood has become watered down—infused with too much human DNA. When humans are changed, they’re different from normal humans, but not that much. At least not enough to turn feral anymore. As long as the changed humans live with us and feed from us occasionally, they’re fine. Again, it’s just a theory, but the Mountain Wolf pack refuses to listen to us. They adamantly refuse to negotiate and keep saying the same old things they’ve said for hundreds of years. Marco is…”

“Marco’s what?” Nicky’s tone was belligerent. No one could insult Marco in his presence.

“Well, forgive me, but he’s the most stubborn wolf I’ve ever met. He’s so dominant himself; he won’t even listen to any other ideas. He doesn’t want to allow for any other lifestyles. We didn’t want to have to resort to such means to get him to talk to us, but we felt we had no choice.”

Nicky tried to absorb what he’d just heard. Lord knows she was right about Marco being stubborn. Dominant too. Could she be right about the submission thing?

“You’re certain that non-submissive pets never go feral if not totally controlled?”

“Pretty sure. In the fifteen cases of resistant submissives in our pack, we’ve never had one become wild, so long as they stay close to their mates and feed from them regularly.”

Nicky was silent for a long moment. Then he spoke softly to Tara who still whimpered and moaned softly. “Honey, I need to talk with Shawna. No one will hurt you, I promise. Just wait in the other room for me for a little while.”

Shawna motioned to some other people in the room, and they led Tara outside.

Nicky leaned closer to Shawna. “I have an idea. Take these ropes off me, and I promise I won’t try to escape. We need to talk.”

* * * * Marco paced up and down the room. He’d have wrung his hands and pulled his hair out if he thought it would do any good. His mate had been gone for two weeks, with no sign of him. Marco was desperately afraid he might be gone from him forever.

A week ago, Tara had been brought back unharmed in exchange for the prisoner they held in the basement. A note had been thrown through Tristan’s window the day before, advising they would have Tara outside ready to hand her over if a swap could be made. At first Marco wanted to hold out for Nicky’s release too, but Tristan’s abject pleas had softened him, and as the Alpha, he finally agreed, putting Tristan’s needs ahead of his own.

When they recovered her, Tara was terribly frightened and distraught—so much so Tristan had to spend over an hour with her calming her just to get her to the point where she could be interrogated. Even then, she was a mess, and Tristan sat beside her growling and whimpering uneasily, upset that his mate had gone without his protection for over a week. They all watched her carefully for signs of feral behavior, but found none so far.

“They wouldn’t let me see Nicky much, but our beds were against the same wall in the little house they held us in. I could hear him at night. He called out for you in his sleep, Marco.” Marco’s wolf was very close to the surface. He growled and whined until the entire pack was terrified and upset.

When Marco calmed down, she tried to answer questions about where they were holding them, but she had no idea. They’d covered her head both going and coming back to the rogue camp. Marco had been trying desperately to get a fix on Nicky’s mind, but he couldn’t. He could only pick up whispers and echoes. He knew that was a bad sign, meaning either that Nicky was unconscious or able to block him deliberately. Why would he do that? Had he gone completely feral? If he were dead, Marco would know, and he would have taken his own life. Living without Nicky was not an option.

After two weeks, he knew Nicky might be lost to him, even if he were found alive. Nicky had been so resistant to domination, he was in danger of becoming feral even with Marco’s constant feedings and sexual matings. Without either of these things, he feared Nicky was lost to the wildness. If that was the case, and if he could find him, he’d still take care of him, even if he had to take him away deep in the woods to live out their lives somewhere. He’d never forsake him, no matter what his condition.

A knock on the door to his office roused him, and he went dispiritedly to answer. Rory was there, holding a note addressed to Marco.

“It’s from them! The rogues! They say they’re willing to negotiate, but we’re afraid it’s a trap. They say you have to come alone today to Turtle Rock. They’ll have Nicky with them.”

“When?”

“As soon as you can get there.” Marco sprinted past Rory through the door. “Wait, Marco! It could be a trap!”

Marco hurried past him and out the door. Several members of the pack wanted to accompany him, but he shook his head. “They said to come alone, and if there’s any chance to get Nicky back, I have to take it. If I don’t come back in an hour, come looking for us.”

He ran out the door and took the path to Turtle Rock. The idea of soon being with Nicky energized and excited him. He didn’t think he could have lasted much longer.

Turtle Rock was not far from the compound down a trail leading off the gardens, maybe a half mile through the deep woods. He shifted into his wolf to cover the distance faster. The wind in the trees sang to him as he raced along, the scents of the woods sharp in his nose. He felt the wildness and the freedom that only came with shifting. All his attention was focused on Nicky, and he tried his best to sense him in the forest ahead. He reached out with his mind, and finally he got just the slightest trace of his Nicky reaching back. Heartened by the idea he might actually see him in only minutes, he raced through the trees, slowing down as he came up to the clearing that held Turtle Rock.

He could sense the presence of strangers ahead, and one former member of his pack— Shawna, the shapeshifting female wolf whose mate had gone feral. They had determined Shawna had been the one who helped disguise the scent of the rogue wolves by dressing them in pack clothing and letting them in an unguarded side door. Furious with her, he hoped he didn’t run into her alone. He might not be able to restrain himself from tearing out her throat.