Her face shocked and white, Shawna ran over to him and helped him up. “I’m so sorry, Nicky. I can’t even imagine how you must be feeling.”

“I’ve been better.” Nicky tried to make a joke about it, but it hurt too much. A sob escaped his throat, and he dashed tears from his eyes. “What can I do now, Shawna? He wanted to k-kill me. He was about to tear my head off.”

“Oh, Nicky.” She patted his arm. “He didn’t know what he was doing. He shifted while he was still furious. He was totally out of control, and I know he’s feeling horrified right now at what almost happened. The fact that he was able to stop himself proves how much he loves you. Marco will come to his senses. He has to! Just give him a couple of days.”

“Did you see his face? I did. He wanted to rip my throat out.”

“No, Nicky, he loves you. You’re his blood match and his mate. He won’t be able to stay away from you. Wolves mate forever.”

Nicky shook his head and turned to follow the rogues back to their camp, his feet dragging. He supposed he was a rogue now too. His own mate had rejected him, had almost killed him. He had hoped to be going back home with Marco tonight, to sleep in their bed together again, but Marco took what he’d tried to do as betrayal and was so humiliated he had refused to try to understand Nicky’s reasons for helping the rogues.

Now it was over. He’d gambled and lost. Marco was right about his recklessness. It had almost taken his life once, and by taking this chance and losing Marco, he had truly destroyed himself.

* * * * Marco paced up and down in his bedroom, more distraught than he’d ever been in his life. Two days had passed since the terrible night on the trail. He kept thinking about what happened with Nicky. How could he have attacked his own mate? What if he hadn’t caught his scent at the last second and been able to stop himself? It didn’t bear thinking about. If he had injured Nicky or, God forbid, killed him…his throat closed up, and he was violently ill, only barely making it to the basin in time.

He was rinsing his mouth when a knock came on his door. “Go away!” he shouted miserably.

The loud knocking only increased. “Open the door, Marco. Please, it’s about the rogues.”

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Marco pulled the door open to find Rory standing in the hallway, looking pale and worried. “The rogues have come to talk to you. You won’t believe what they have to say.”

Marco frowned at Rory and then brushed past him and went downstairs to find Shawna and some of her pack members pacing nervously up and down in the common room. Nicky stood at the back of her assembled pack, keeping his head down and his gaze on the floor. Marco could pick up his thoughts, troubled and utterly sad. He wanted to rush to him and hold him, and he held himself back only with great effort.

He walked up to Shawna sternly, trying not to even glance again in Nicky’s direction. His hands shoved in his pockets, angry and upset, he to hide it behind a mask of indifference.

“What do you want, rogue?”

Shawna stepped up to him confidently. “We have a proposition for you, Alpha.”

“I’m listening.” Marco fairly growled his answer.

“We’re here again to ask you to allow the rogues to rejoin your pack. We hoped you’d had time to reconsider. We would swear allegiance to you and follow all your orders. The only concession we would ask is that you allow our resistant males and females to live with us as your natural born pets do, without restraints and with more freedom.”

Marco snorted. “Why would I do that? I owe you nothing.”

“It is our right. We share the same ancestry as you. This land was left to us as well as you. If you deny us, we’ll declare a challenge to your pack.”

The reaction from Marco’s pack was immediate and angry. They crowded around him, upset and whining. Ian, his beta, stood frowning by his side. Marco laughed mirthlessly.

“A challenge? You dare to come in my pack with such a stupid threat? We’d annihilate you.”

“Yes, you probably would. We would take a few of your wolves with us, though. Innocent lives would be lost. Even our pets would challenge you, and your wolves would be forced to take their lives.”

Marco and his wolves growled at such an unthinkable idea. Pets were treasured by the pack. No wolf would ever knowingly hurt a pet, no matter whose pack they belonged to.

“Even your own pet, Marco. You may not want him anymore, but would you want to see one of your wolves kill him?”

Marco leaped at her. Only the efforts of three of his strongest pack members succeeded in holding him back from ripping out her throat. The idea of another wolf attacking his pet made him ill and sickened him. Ian and some of the older pack members worked for several minutes to calm him enough to stand in front of her again, his fists clenched and his jaw set in anger. Her own pack mewled restlessly around her.

Shawna continued, a little shaken, but standing firm. “It is our right to ask for one thing before we resort to an all-out challenge, Alpha. Our ancestral fathers decreed long ago if a member of the werekin pack thought their Alpha was wrong, a single member could issue a challenge against the Alpha. Would you be willing to accept a single challenge to decide the issue?”

“To fight you? It would be slaughter, Shawna, and you know it.”

Shawna shook her head firmly. “No, not me. We do have another challenger. Another male. If you’re not afraid of the challenge?”

Marco growled menacingly, his eyes and face burning with a rage to tear someone’s throat out. Bring it on, he screamed in his mind.

“Afraid?” He laughed bitterly and flexed his muscles. “Present your challenger, Shawna. I’ll fight him in the ancestral ring.”

“We will. Our challenger is here. If you lose the fight, or if you submit before the fight is over, you must accept our bid to join the pack.”

Marco laughed shortly. “I won’t lose, and I sure as hell won’t submit. Will he not show himself now? Is he afraid? I’ll not show mercy in the ring, Shawna. No matter what. When a challenge is made to my authority, I won’t back down.”

Shawna nodded. “He’s here. He’ll show himself.” She took a step backward. The wolves behind her also stepped to the side, making a kind of aisle. Standing at the end of the improvised aisle, looking very small next to the towering hulks of the wolves, was Nicky. His chin was raised high, though it trembled a little, and his eyes were feverishly bright. He stepped forward and came up closer to Marco, standing within an arm’s reach.

His scent hit Marco like a heavy blow. Keeping himself from throwing Nicky down to the floor in front of everyone and fucking him until he begged for mercy was all Marco could do. He tore his gaze from Nicky and looked up at Shawna incredulously. “What the hell is he doing here? What’s the meaning of this?”

“Nicky is your challenger. He is werekin. It’s our right.”

A loud and violent outcry from the assembled wolves reverberated throughout the hall. A challenge from a mate and a pet was unheard of. Marco had eyes for no one but Nicky, and he watched as Nicky squared his shoulders against the chaos around him. He actually took a step closer to Marco, though, as if for protection. Marco’s arms itched to reach out and hold him close to his body. When Marco spoke, his voice was soft and only intended for Nicky’s ears.

“You want to fight me, Nicky? Are you issuing a challenge?”

A hush fell over those closest by, as they strained to hear what Nicky might say. He was silent for a long moment before raising his eyes to Marco and taking a deep breath.

“I don’t want to fight you, Marco. I want—I want the ones you call the rogues to be allowed back into your pack. They have a right to be here, and they—we—have a right to live our lives the way we want to live them.”

“No matter what your Alpha thinks?” Marco’s voice was soft, yet hard as stone.

“A-a good Alpha wants what’s best for his pack. You’re a good Alpha, Marco, but, I’m sorry, you’re stubborn and set in your ways. Someone has to make you see what your people really need.”

He laughed shortly. “And you think that’s you? You know what my kind wants?”

Nicky bit his bottom lip. It took every ounce of self control Marco had not to take charge of that sweet lip and suck it into his mouth. He clenched his fists by his side to keep from dragging Nicky into his arms.

“I’m trying,” Nicky said. “My hope is that in the long run, this might give us our chance to be together again.”

Marco laughed shortly. “By fighting me in the ancestral ring? And if I hurt you or kill you? You don’t stand a chance, and you know it. It would be a bloodbath.”

Nicky bowed his head and remained quiet.

A new idea dawned on Marco’s face. “You don’t believe I’d hurt you, do you? You think the fact that you’re my mate would stop a fight from ever taking place, and then the rogues would win by default. So this is just a trick—a clever ploy?” He looked down at Nicky with disgust twisting his features. “So you’re betraying me, Nicky, again?”

Shawna broke in. “Do you accept the challenge or not? If you do, meet us tomorrow in the forest at the ancestral ring, and we’ll bring our champion before the final battle.”

Marco gave Nicky an angry look. “I accept.” The wolves from his pack yipped loudly, pulling Marco away while Shawna and her rogues withdrew, leaving the compound, taking Nicky firmly by the arm and leading him away.

Marco stood in the common room surrounded by his pack, feeling stunned. Ian came close to him. “What are you going to do? You can’t fight your own mate, Marco. It would destroy you. Let me fight him.”

Marco leaped at his beta and was restrained again by the other wolves. “You touch him— touch one hair of his head, any of you—and I’ll kill you!” he snarled in fury.

Ian shook his head. “You talk like this, and yet you intend to face him in the ring?”

“I’ll handle this. Stay out of it. Don’t you think I know I can’t hurt him?” he growled. “At the same time I can’t allow anyone else to come near him. Shawna knows it too. Maybe this is her plan all along—to use my own mate against me to humiliate me and make me back down. Then she and her rogues can come in and take over.”