Marco cast a bitter, hopeless look at his beta. “They’ve convinced my own mate to betray me. But it’s my fault. I didn’t spend enough time with him. It’s time I took charge of my mate again. He’s had too much freedom, and I haven’t trained him properly. He thinks he’ll be allowed to defy me. Well, he’s got another think coming. I’ll teach him a lesson he’ll never forget.”

* * * * Nicky was jittery. No matter how many times Shawna reassured him Marco would never hurt him, he still remembered the hot breath of the wolf on his throat, the fangs dripping saliva on his neck. Nicky knew better. He’d seen the bitter, hate-filled look in Marco’s eyes when he left him in the cave. Hell, the very fact he’d left him behind argued for a complete break. Nicky knew enough about Marco to believe he would never leave his mate behind in what he considered an enemy camp. It must mean Marco no longer considered him to be his mate. The thought made him sick. He shuddered, wondering if Marco would tear him limb from limb or be content with just ripping out his throat.

Not that it mattered a great deal. If Marco was truly through with him, and no matter what Shawna said, Nicky believed he was, the truth was his life would be over anyway. Where would he go? What would he do? He supposed he could crawl back to Atlanta and get his old job back. That is, if his old boss, with whom he was never exactly a favorite, didn’t rip his head off for quitting without notice and disappearing. Even if he could get another job waiting tables, the need for an occasional pint of werewolf blood might tend to complicate things.

Shawna told him he could stay with the rogues and feed from their wolves. She’d been urging him to feed from her or someone else for some time now, but he’d refused. The idea of feeding from anyone but Marco disgusted him. Besides, he wanted to see how long he could go without it. If he could do without the blood indefinitely, he would increase his chances of being free from the pack again. If he had to leave, maybe he could somehow survive. He certainly couldn’t stay and watch Marco go on with his life without him.

Shawna even promised he wouldn’t have a problem finding a new mate if the bid for rejoining the Mountain pack failed. She would hook him up with someone else from her pack if Marco no longer wanted him. Trouble was he found the idea repellent. He had no interest now in any other mate, male or female. His blood sang only for Marco.

No, if this challenge didn’t work, he didn’t know what would happen. If they did join Marco’s pack, he wouldn’t be able to stand the sight of Marco with another mate. It would kill him for sure. He began to think about taking his own life. He should have died anyway, when those muggers cut his throat. He’d cheated death then, and maybe death was trying to collect its debt.

Two of the younger members of Shawna’s pack came to tell him it was time to go to the ancestral ring for the challenge, and Nicky stood up. He was ready. To live this way had become intolerable. He was ready to get it over with one way or another. He took a deep breath, squared his shoulders, and followed the wolves to meet the rest of the pack.

The ancestral ring, a ring of stones carefully laid in a circle with grass well trampled within, lay about a mile from their camp. Nicky walked quietly toward the arena, his mind full of what was to come. Shawna walked beside him and her mate flanked him. He wondered if they thought he might try to make a break for it. He might have considered it, to avoid having to see Marco again, but he had nowhere else to go.

As they drew closer to the ring, Nicky could see Marco, standing menacingly just outside the circle, his big form totally obscuring everyone else for him. Nicky could already smell his distinctive scent, and he yearned for it. He tried to take shallow breaths and keep his mind blank, knowing Marco could read his mind if he still wanted to. He’d decided to fight. He really had no choice. He fervently hoped Marco would kill him quickly.

* * * * Marco stepped inside the ring, stalking slowly and deliberately toward his mate. Nicky walked slowly out to the center to meet him. His beautifully sculpted body looked like a Greek statue, lean, muscular and perfect. His shining, golden hair lit up the center of the circle. Marco walked slowly around him, prowling in a tight circle, never stopping, to make it harder for Nicky to follow him without getting dizzy. Nicky stood, not moving, as Marco stalked him, getting closer and closer with every turn until he stood right in front of him. He towered over the smaller man. Leaning down, he whispered angrily in his ear, making Nicky shiver from the contact.

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“Well, Nicky, we both know who the Dominant one is here. Why don’t you fight me? Bite me. Kick me. Do something.” Putting out a hand he pushed Nicky provokingly on his chest. “C’mon. What are you going to do? Make a move, baby.”

Nicky raised his eyes, bright with tears, and looked directly at Marco. His chin quivered, and he hunched his shoulders. He put out one hand blindly to Marco, but Marco slapped it away in contempt. Marco felt Nicky’s pain at the gesture deep in his soul, and his pack, sensing it, made whimpering noises deep in their throats. He had to make Nicky think he hated him for making this challenge. He had to make him believe he was deeply disappointed in him, the only way to bring him around, to make him beg his forgiveness and submit.

Marco picked up on Nicky’s thoughts—pure desperation and misery. He knew he was close to the breaking point. He only needed to keep up the pressure. He had no intention of hurting Nicky, but he had to make him give in. Unless he did, they had no chance. Marco couldn’t and wouldn’t hurt him, yet if he had to submit to Nicky, it would not only destroy the pack’s confidence in him as a leader, but it would make him resent Nicky. Maybe even hate him at the same time he loved him. The split in his psyche would tear him apart. Even now, just by having his mate in the ring with him, he was terribly torn and upset, not thinking straight.

He pushed him again, and Nicky fell down. He scrambled back to his feet, though, and tried to follow Marco with his eyes. Marco circled him so quickly, Nicky spun, apparently only succeeding in making himself dizzy. He stumbled a little and shook his head as if to clear it.

Nicky took a deep breath, and Marco heard his thoughts as plain as if he’d spoken . It’s now or never. I hope it’s over quickly.

He lunged at Marco as he came around and fell sprawling as Marco neatly stepped out of the way. Nicky got to his feet again and dove toward Marco. Marco caught him and put him on the ground, careful not to hurt him much, though he still heard Nicky’s cry of pain in his head, and it rattled him. Marco put a hand on his throat, holding him down.

“Give up! You’re going to hurt yourself, damn it!”

Doggedly, Nicky shook his head, panting from exertion. “Never.”

Marco snarled at him. “Do you really think so little of me, Nicky? Did you ever love me, or was it all pretense?”

Nicky shook his head frantically. “What do you mean? You know that’s not true.”

“Then why do you defy me? Why do you try to humiliate me in front of my pack?”

“No, I’m not!”

“Shawna is using you. She thinks I won’t be able to hurt you, and I’ll have to give in. Then my pack will think me weak and want a new Alpha.”

“No! I don’t want to hurt your reputation, Marco. I would never do that.”

“Then submit. Now. Clearly and without leaving any doubt.” He released his hold on Nicky’s throat and stood up, looked down at him and waited. This was the moment that would shape the rest of their lives together. If Nicky refused to submit, Marco would have to fall to his knees in front of him. If that happened, it would destroy something deep in Marco’s soul.

Nicky rose to his feet, his legs shaky. He looked from Shawna and her pack back to Marco. Sighing in defeat, he sank down on his knees in front of Marco, presenting his neck. It was an instinctive sign of abject submission and humility. Nicky’s back was straight, his hands were behind his back, and he trembled. By sinking to his knees and giving up, Marco won the challenge by default. He could now rip out his opponent’s throat if he wished to.

A gasp came from the crowd when Nicky fell to his knees, but now it seemed the entire pack held its breath to see what would happen next.

Marco leaned over, putting his hands on Nicky’s shoulders, holding him in place. He brought his mouth down close to his throat to let him feel his hot breath on his neck. He could feel Nicky’s whole body jerking with fear. Marco slowly straightened and turned his back on Nicky, speaking to the wolves assembled in the ring.

“The challenge is over. The rogues’ challenger has shown his submission. Your challenge failed. Take your pack, Shawna, and get out.”

Dead silence filled the area around the ring for a long moment, and then Marco’s pack burst into excited yips and howls. The rogues watched them moodily and filed slowly out of the clearing. The wolves of Marco’s pack surrounded him, thumping him on the back, the younger wolves punching and shoving each other good naturedly.

Ian slapped his Alpha on the back. “You handled that perfectly, Marco. What did you say to make him submit to you? Where is Nicky anyway? Did he leave?”

Puzzled, Marco turned, his eyes searching the clearing. Nicky was nowhere to be seen. He had vanished, apparently leaving when the rogues left. Fear clenched at Marco. He took an involuntary step forward. Had Nicky left him again? Didn’t he want to be with him? He must have submitted only because he felt some loyalty still and hadn’t wanted to take away Marco’s rank as Alpha. Marco’s heart clenched and turned icy. Nicky had no interest in staying as Marco’s submissive mate. He’d made that abundantly clear. How many times did he have to say it before Marco’s stubborn heart understood?

Turning to Ian, he shrugged with bravado. “Who knows? Who cares? Let him go with the other rogues. I tried to make it work with him, but he’s impossible. I’m tired of him and his antics.”

Still Marco reached out with his mind to find Nicky. He could catch the faintest echo of him close by, and his heart slowed a little. Despite his words, he worried. If Nicky didn’t want him, he wasn’t sure what he would do.