He shifted to human and walked into the clearing slowly and carefully, his head pivoting back and forth, looking for rogues. From his left, three rogues stepped out of the trees. A low growl came from his throat. “Where’s my mate?”

One of the rogue males stepped forward, surprising Marco by lowering his head respectfully. “He’s in the cave behind the clearing, Alpha. He’s waiting for you.”

He wanted to run behind the clearing, but he forced himself to go slowly, looking around for a trap. He saw nothing except the three rogues, though he sensed Shawna and others in the woods behind them. Moving carefully, forcing himself to be cautious, he found the mouth of the cave. He could see the flickering of a small fire inside, and he ducked his head in and approached softly.

The cave was dim and smelled of damp earth and wood smoke. His sharp eyes immediately picked out a small blond man sitting by the fire, with his back to him. He was dressed in jeans and a T-shirt, his curly hair tucked behind his ears.

“Nicky?” he said quietly.

When the man turned, Marco’s heart leaped into his throat. Nicky welcomed him with a smile and outstretched arms, his beautiful blue eyes sparkling.

Crossing the distance between them in three long steps, he swept Nicky up into his arms and breathed in his wonderful, addictive scent. His Nicky at last. He covered his face with kisses, not giving him a chance to catch his breath. Finally, he sat down with him in his lap in the middle of the floor of the cave, not caring about anything but touching him all over and making sure he was all right.

“Hey, it’s okay, darling. I’m fine. You don’t have to count all my fingers and toes,” Nicky said, laughing, trying to stop Marco’s questing hands from checking every inch of him.

Marco held his face in his hands. “Let me look at you. Are you all right, baby? Did they hurt you? God, I almost went crazy. Tara said she heard you calling my name. I thought I’d go out of my mind.”

Nicky looked ashamed and shook his head slowly. “No, sweetheart. No one hurt me at all. It was my idea to stay away so long.”

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“What? What are you saying, Nicky? You wanted to stay away from me?”

“No, I didn’t want to stay away from you, but Shawna said I wouldn’t become feral without your dominance, and I had to find out for myself.”

A long tense silence ensued as Marco stared at Nicky uncomprehendingly. “What are you saying?”

Marco placed Nicky on the floor of the cave beside him and stood up, looked down at him in disbelief. “Were you in on this all along? Did you run away from me deliberately?”

Nicky stood up beside him, shaking his head firmly. “No, of course not. I didn’t know them when they took me, but they were pretty decent to me—explained to me what’s going on with your pack and the rogues.”

“They explained to you. Are you kidding me, Nicky? I don’t understand. I was worried sick. I’ve never been so upset, and it was all a trick?”

“No, Marco, I’m trying to tell you something important if you’ll just shut the hell up.”

Marco’s eyebrows rose almost to his hairline. He spoke quietly, his voice almost a whisper. “Did you just tell me to shut the hell up? Me? Your master? Not to mention your Alpha?”

“Yes, you! My Alpha, but I hope you’re also my lover, and I’d like you to be my friend, my equal. My mate, too, if you remember. I’m not a slave, Marco, and I refuse to be treated like one any longer. The rogues told me I don’t have to be. I stayed away from you deliberately for two weeks to see if I went feral. I hated to be away from you, but I had to see if what they were telling me was true. If only you’ll listen to what they’re telling you and stop being so damned stubborn.”

“What the hell are you saying?” Marco’s voice had dropped low, rough, and cold.

“You told me that without constant domination I would become a monster. Well, here I am, Marco, two weeks with none of that, and I’m fine. No feral behavior. No wildness. Just me.”

“For how long, Nicky? I can see you think you’re fine, but it might not last. What if it doesn’t? What will you do then?”

“Well, I guess that’s my problem, isn’t it?”

Marco’s face became bright red. He looked like he might explode. “Oh, and you think it doesn’t affect me too, Nicky? Your mate? You don’t think I’m involved in this?”

“I’m doing this for you, Marco. For us. I can’t live the way you want me to. I just can’t. It’s not you—I love you. It’s the submission thing. I don’t think I can do it all the time, Marco. I don’t even mind it in bed so much—I kind of like it, but not all the time. In the real world, you told me submissives are people who willingly give their obedience to someone they love and trust to care for them and give them what they need. I never chose to do that. It isn’t me. Can’t you see that?”

“You didn’t choose? Then what did you think you were doing the last night we were together? Oh, I see all right. You want my protection and you want me to take care of you, but you’re such a brat, you want to do exactly as you see fit, even if it will put you in danger. Like walking to the bus stop late at night in a dangerous area. Like putting yourself in league with the rogues against the ones who love you the most. Like all the rest of your harebrained behavior. Smooth moves, Nicky. Very smooth. If you didn’t act like a mentally-challenged child sometimes, maybe I wouldn’t have to treat you like one.”

Nicky’s face blushed, but he took a deep breath and tried again. “Marco, I know you’re angry. The so-called rogues are trying to tell you we don’t have to all be submissives anymore. That’s all. I love that you feel protective of me and want to take care of me, but I’m not a child, no matter what you say or a pet, and I can’t be a trained dog. I can make my own decisions. Maybe they’re not the greatest at times, but I should be able to do it anyway. I should be able to do that and still be your mate, still be a part of your pack.”

“So you’re trying to tell me you’re not happy with me as your master? Do you want a new mate? Is that what this is about? Is it Rory? You two have spent a lot of time together—or maybe someone here? What did you do when I wasn’t around, Nicky?”

“My God, can you not understand what I’m saying? It’s because I love you so much that I’m trying to help the rogues. I’m trying to save our relationship. I’m like Shawna’s husband, honey. You told me I belonged to you, and I love that. I want that. But you also told me I’d have to ‘settle in’, and I can’t, Marco. Don’t you see? I’ll wind up resenting you for it eventually? Maybe even hating you.”

Marco turned on his heel and walked out. His wolf was too close to the surface for him to stay another moment. Nicky chased him to the entrance and spun him around. Marco growled and balled up his fist as he turned.

“What, you want to hit me? Go ahead, Marco. Beat me up. It’s what you wolves most like to do, isn’t it? Beat us up? Tie us? Drag us around on a leash?”

Marco glared at him, saying nothing. He turned on his heel and stalked out, hearing yet ignoring Nicky calling him as he left the cave and kept going. Angry and hurt, he couldn’t slow down, couldn’t stop. The three rogues stood at the edge of the clearing, watching him storm away. Some part of him knew he would live to regret what he was doing, knew he couldn’t live without Nicky, but he had to walk away, at least for now. He felt too betrayed, too hurt. As he stalked back to the compound, Shawna and her mate appeared before him on the trail. “Please stop, Alpha. We need to talk to you.”

“I have nothing to say to you, Shawna,” Marco growled. “You betrayed our pack and even managed to turn my mate against me. You must be very proud.”

“Alpha, please listen. All we want to do is live within the compound again. We want to come back and be a part of the pack. We would follow your rules and respect you as our Alpha. But we have to be allowed to live freely, without making our mates submit if they don’t want to. Our mates who don’t submit are not dangerous to the pack or to anyone else. We have proof of that. To keep denying it is not the sign of a good Alpha.”

“You dare speak to me that way.” Marco was aware of his face burning red with fury. Low growls emanated from his throat.

A quiet voice behind him made the blood race through his veins. “Stop being so stubborn! Listen to her, Marco. Please. You’re wrong about this.”

Marco whirled around to face Nicky on the trail behind him, looking miserable, yet incredibly lovely in the moonlight, his golden curls tipped with silver. Marco growled at him, his gaze shooting out his fury. How dare he—his own mate—say he was wrong about a pack decision? Before he could stop himself, he shifted and lunged, knocking Nicky to the ground, his teeth at his throat, ready to sink his fangs deep into the throbbing jugular. The sounds of the screaming rogues behind him swirled around him as a red haze covered his vision.

His snout was deep into Nicky’s neck, and Nicky lay very still, his eyes tightly closed, his face turned away and his throat bared. Marco could hear his heart thumping wildly. Nicky’s unique smell suddenly overcame Marco, and he faltered. “Mate,” his brain screamed at him. He pulled his head back, still snarling yet whining nervously. Nicky opened his eyes, his beautiful eyes blankly registering shock. Jumping back in horror, Marco brushed past Shawna and her mate, racing down the trail, so furious and tormented he couldn’t shift back to human shape.

Feeling horrified and shocked over almost killing his own mate, Marco tore down the trail and into the night, shame and heartbreak eating away at him like acid.

Chapter Six

Trembling, Nicky sat up and watched the huge silver wolf race away. He was devastated. He didn’t know for sure, but thought it must be pretty damn unusual for a wolf to attack his own mate. He’d made Marco so angry, he was afraid he’d never forgive him. He shuddered with reaction and fear.