“Where is your mate, Alpha?”

Marco whirled around to see Shawna standing in front of him. He glared down at her. “I thought you’d have enough sense to follow your wolves and get out.”

“I feel responsible for Nicky. He tried to help us, and he had no idea you would think of what he did as a betrayal. He’s a good person, Marco, and he truly loves you.”

“And why would you think I’d be interested in that information?”

Shawna’s eyes flashed furiously at him. “Don’t be a fool, Alpha!”

Marco’s pack members bristled at the insult to their Alpha and growled angrily, stepping closer behind Marco. Likewise, a few of Shawna’s pack members guarding her gathered closer, growling back, some baring their teeth.

Shawna put up a hand to stop all the posturing. “Even if you’re not interested in him as a mate anymore, you have a responsibility to him as a member of this pack. Your wolves brought him here. Against his will, I might add. You took his life away from him, and you at least owe him another one.”

“He’s not dead or hurt, Shawna. I could sense it if he was, and I still feel him close by. Besides, he doesn’t have any interest in being here with me or this pack. Let him leave here if that’s what he wants.” He tried to make his voice indifferent. His pride wanted no one to know he’d never let Nicky leave him.

“He can’t go home, Marco, and you know it.”

“Why not? You keep telling us you have proof that he won’t turn feral. If your theory is correct, there should be no reason he can’t go home.”

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Shawna shook her head stubbornly. “You’re not thinking straight. He’s been changed, Marco. He has to be in a pack. He still has to feed from one of us from time to time, and you know it. He’s refused all feedings I’ve offered him. I’ve even offered to find him another mate.”

The thought of Nicky with another mate, feeding from him, making love to him filled Marco with outrage and fury. Nicky was his. Only his. He would take great pleasure in killing anyone who came between them.

“If he’s on his own, I don’t know what could happen to him. He hasn’t fed in over two weeks. Our mates have never gone so long. I tried to talk him out of it, but he was insistent. He wanted to see if he was really changed. He’s very stubborn.”

“You don’t know the half of it,” Marco said, rolling his eyes.

“Even if you can still sense him alive, he may not stay that way long. There may be Hunters in the woods. And he has to feed soon and from you, Marco. He won’t accept anyone else. He was almost destroyed by what happened between you. If you ever cared for him at all, help me find him before it’s too late.”

Marco had become more and more uneasy as she spoke and panic washed over him. Turning to his beta, Ian, he gave him a significant look. “We have to find him, Ian. She’s right. He’s so… he does things without thinking. I could sense he was terribly upset during the challenge. Maybe I pushed him too far. We have to find him.”

Ian nodded with concern, and the entire pack moved, mobilizing for the search. Marco turned back to Shawna, his voice still gruff, but with a hint of apology. “Thank you for letting me know. We’ll find him.”

“If you don’t mind, Alpha, we’ll help too. He brought all this on himself trying to help us. We made it worse when we urged him to be our champion. We knew he didn’t know what it would mean, and we took advantage of him.”

Marco nodded curtly, her words cutting into him like a knife. He brought all this on himself. She meant Marco’s wrath, partly caused by his own failure with his mate. He knew that now. He’d let his temper get the best of him with Nicky, not just because he’d sided with the rogues, but because Marco had failed to satisfy him. He’d failed to make him feel a part of his life. He’d neglected his mate, and at the end, he’d almost killed him. A sudden image of his teeth sinking into Nicky’s sweet throat made him ill again, and he barely kept the bile from bursting from his mouth.

From nearby, an unearthly, feral howl split the air, making everyone freeze in panic and fear. Marco was stricken with horror, knowing it came from Nicky. He turned, shifting as he ran, desperate to get to him.

* * * * Nicky stood outside the circle, standing behind a grove of laurels, growing as twisted and crooked as his love for Marco had become. He listened to the words Marco said to Ian with disbelief and heartbreak. “Who cares? I’m tired of him.”

Each word hit him like a physical blow. Exactly as he’d feared, Marco hated him. Obvious now, and it had probably been obvious all along, but Nicky hadn’t wanted to see it. Marco made a mistake. There was no blood match with him. Nicky was a mistake, an error. He put a shaking hand to his face. A terrible pain pierced his chest. Could he actually be feeling his heart breaking? He stumbled down the path, running away from the pain.

He was terrified, the pain emanating from his very soul, forcing its way out of him. He stumbled out into the forest, something inside him clawing to burst free. He fell on the ground, writhing in agony. A growl tore itself past his lips, a terrible sound that frightened him and filled him with unreasoning rage. He opened his mouth and a wolf-like howl issued forth, inhuman, feral, and brutish. He got up on his knees and threw back his head to let the bestial sound out freely, easing the pain a little. The howl reverberated through the trees, and startled yells came from the group still standing some fifty yards away by the ancestral ring. He jumped to his feet, aware they were coming toward him, excited yipping and growling issuing from the group as he howled out his challenge.

He tore off his clothing, which was suddenly too tight and choking him. His body was changing, morphing into something not quite human, something savage. The pack surrounded him, sniffing at him, stalking him, and in front paced a big silver wolf with beautiful, flashing eyes. Nicky wanted to kill him, to rip his heart out as he’d ripped out Nicky’s. Nicky stood with his feet planted wide apart, his chest heaving and his hands clenched into fists. The big wolf morphed into Marco again. Marco, the only man he’d ever loved, the only man he hated. He growled at him again, a low, guttural sound. Marco stared at him in horror.

“Nicky?” he whispered. “Nicky, is that you?”

“What the fuck do you care?” Nicky didn’t even recognize the sound issuing from his throat. His voice was deeper, fierce and harsh. “You said I’m impossible, remember? You’re through with me. So fuck you!”

The other wolves gathered close to their Alpha. Some had already shifted back to human form, and they all stared at Nicky in fascination and disbelief. He could see Rory at the back, his face blank with horror. Ian, Marco’s beta, stepped up beside Marco and grabbed his arm when he would have stepped forward. Marco shook him off impatiently. He kept his voice low and calm as he spoke to Nicky.

“Nicky, it’s Marco. Do you recognize me?”

“Oh, I recognize you. You’re the bastard who’s been torturing me for the last few weeks. Well, I’m through, do you understand? I never want to see you again. I don’t need anybody! I don’t need you!” Another howl escaped his lips as a terrible pain racked his body, and he fell back to his knees. His body shuddered, and the snarling tore at him. Still on his knees, the pain ripping him apart, he put back his head and another ferocious, inhuman howl tore from his chest.

Marco rushed him, putting him down on the ground with his knee in his back, pulling his arms behind him. He struggled fiercely, trying to dislodge him. Marco was much too strong. Another terrible pain racked Nicky’s body, settling in his spine. He howled again in agony. A blow struck the back of his head. His body sagged, no longer struggling, and he thought he might be dying. Sinking into oblivion, he was fleetingly sorry the last words he ever said to Marco were so harsh. He wished he might call them back, and then the darkness fell down on him like an avalanche.

* * * * Nicky ran through a forest, wind in his hair. He came to a lake and jumped in, the cool water closing over his head comfortingly. He could hear someone calling him, as if from the shore, and he struggled to the surface, wanting to answer, wanting to obey. He felt the familiar touch on his lips, and the back of his head. Someone urged him to feed from their wrist. He closed his eyes and let the bright sweetness pass over his lips, the sucking motion of his lips soothing him, quieting his need to struggle to the surface.

Nicky woke up slowly, trying to stretch his arms over his head. Something held them down. He had a horrible headache and winced at the light streaming in the window, keeping his eyes tightly shut.

“Nicky? Are you awake?” He opened his eyes to see Marco sitting beside him on a chair by the bed. It wasn’t his and Marco’s bed though, and for a moment he couldn’t understand what was happening. He was lying in some kind of hospital bed, his arms strapped down to the bed rails. He pulled at the straps, panicking and breathing hard.

Marco jumped and bent over him, putting his hands on his shoulders. “Stop, baby, you’ll hurt yourself.” “What? What’s happening? Why do you have me strapped down?” He looked around himself wildly. He was in a room he didn’t recognize, stark with plain white walls and one uncurtained window high up on one wall. “Where am I, Marco?”

“Baby, calm down. Nothing bad is happening to you. I’m here with you, and I won’t leave you.”

“But where am I?” Nicky pulled against the straps and thrashed his head on the pillows. “Let me up!”

“Nicky, you have to calm down. Listen to me. You’ve been ill, but I’m taking care of you. You’re going to be fine, I promise you.”

Somewhat soothed by his quiet voice, Nicky subsided a little, looking up at Marco. “But I don’t understand. Oh my God, is this the basement cell? Did you put me here because of the challenge? I’m sorry, Marco. I’m so sorry! Let me go, and I’ll leave. I promise. You know I can’t stand being locked away. Please. I’m begging!”