Marco came into the room and took his hand. Nicky wanted to pull away, but was absolutely incapable of moving though Marco’s touch brought a measure of calm back.

“I was hoping you’d remember more once you were out of heat, but sometimes this happens. It can’t be helped, but you don’t have to be frightened, honey. I only broke away for a few minutes, because I have to make preparations for tonight, and you have to be…um…prepared for the ceremony. I promise I’ll explain everything properly later this afternoon, when I have time. For now, you just have to trust me.”

Marco took him by the arm, walked him to the side of the bed, sat him down, and sank down beside him. This close to him, Nicky couldn’t think straight. The almost irresistible attraction from the night before was still working. What the hell was that smell? Nicky leaned into him and sniffed at his throat.

Marco ruffled his hair. “Do you trust me, baby?”

Nicky nodded his head wordlessly. Putting his nose right up in the hollow of Marco’s throat, he kissed him softly, breathing in the wonderful, calming caramel smell.

“Good boy,” Marco said, smiling. He bent close and brushed his lips over Nicky’s cheek and what felt like an electric shock went straight to Nicky’s cock. “Okay, do whatever Rory tells you, and you’ll be fine.”

He rose from the bed and turned to the young man by the door. “Take very good care of him for me, Rory. He’s still pretty confused. They’re waiting for him downstairs. Try to keep him calm, though—he’s very…um…excitable.”

“You know I can hear you, right?” Nicky spoke up from the bed.

Marco turned around and smiled at him indulgently. “God, he’s adorable, isn’t he?” he said over his shoulder to the young man. The boy whose name, presumably, was Rory, looked down at him dubiously.

“We’ll talk later, beautiful, and I’ll try to explain everything. I’m sorry I can’t stay with you, but things are difficult right now.”

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With a smile he walked out the door, leaving Nicky alone with Rory, who stepped warily toward the bed holding a strap of some kind in his hand.

Nicky regarded him with suspicion. He was supposed to ‘take care of him’ for somebody who was waiting downstairs. “Stay back,” Nicky said as Rory approached with the strap. “What are you going to do with that? I won’t let you beat me with it.”

Rory looked shocked. “Beat you? Why would I do such a thing? We don’t believe in beating our pets, not ever.” His tone was indignant. “I was only going to attach it to your collar.”

“My collar?” Nicky’s hands flew to his neck and felt the thin, leather strap Marco put on him the night before. “Is that what this thing is? And that’s a leash? Are you fuckin’ crazy?”

“It won’t hurt.” Rory’s expression was very sincere. “Pets always walk on leashes. You’re can’t be allowed to run free. You could get hurt.”

“Yeah, well, I’ve been walking on my own for some time now, thanks, and doing just fine.”

“Except for the other night.”

“What?”

“I said, except for the other night when you got hurt by those two guys with the box cutter. You didn’t do too well on your own then.”

“Well, that was totally different. They were trying to take my money, and…hell, it was different.”

Rory walked up to the bed and stared down at him. “I have to take you downstairs, and Marco will be angry at both of us if you’re hurt in any way. I’m taking no chances, and neither are you. So please don’t fight me on this, Nicky. Let me put on your leash.”

Stubbornly, Nicky shook his head. “Not going to happen. I’ll walk with you downstairs if that’s what Marco wants me to do, but you can take your damn leash and stick it up your…”

“Nicky!” Marco’s strong, disappointed voice came from the doorway. Nicky turned to see his eyes flashing. “I forgot my notebook, and I come back to find my pet being unforgivably rude. You will apologize immediately to Rory and allow him to attach the leash. This is not the way I want my pet to behave.”

Nicky was surprised and hurt by Marco’s sharp tone. Up to this point, Marco had only used a loving, tender voice with him, and the idea of Marco being displeased made him squirm with embarrassment and unhappiness. Why was that? Why couldn’t he tell them both to go to hell? He dropped his head and stared down at the floor.

“Nicky!”

“Okay, I’m sorry, Rory. Put the damn leash on me.”

Rory clipped on the leash. Marco still stared at Nicky with displeasure. As the silence stretched out in the room, Nicky grew more and more uncomfortable, unable to meet his gaze.

Finally, Marco spoke, breaking the silence. “Nicky, I’m trying to be patient with you, but I won’t allow you to misbehave or use bad language. Your behavior reflects on me as your master. You’re wearing my collar now, and you belong to me. Rory, please let me know if Nicky gives you any more trouble. If he does, I’ll come and deal with him. And Nicky, if you cause me to have to leave my business because of your bad behavior, I’ll be very unhappy. Do I make myself clear?”

Rory and Nicky both said, “Yes, sir,” at the same time and shot each other an irritated glance.

Marco turned on his heel and left without another word, and Rory tugged at Nicky’s leash. “C’mon, Nicky, they’re waiting for you downstairs.”

Nicky grabbed the leash and pulled back, bad temperedly, but stood up, looking down at himself. “Well, get me something to wear. I can’t go like this.”

Rory looked confused. “Oh,” he said, “there are some pants by the bed.”

A pair of skintight leather pants lay on a chair by the bed. He pulled them on. They fit, but barely, and showed every bulge, particularly the one in front. “No underwear? And where’s my shirt and shoes?”

“What? Pets never wear anything except pants inside the house. You really don’t know anything, do you?”

Nicky shot him another frustrated, eat-shit look and stood up. “No, Rory, I don’t. Mostly because nobody ever tells me any fuckin’ thing. You all talk about me endlessly, but nobody ever explains anything around here. You all just make cryptic little remarks and expect me to somehow know what the fuck you’re all talking about!”

Rory shifted his feet and blushed. “Shhh…don’t make me have to tell Marco you used bad language like that. He’d spank you.”

“Spank me? Spank me? What kind of place is this? Who are you people? Damn it, I demand that you let me go home!” He made a sudden jerk of his head, pulled his leash from Rory’s hand and made a break for the door. For all that Rory was young, his relaxes were quick as lightning. He snatched the leash up and pulled back on it sharply, jerking Nicky off his feet to fall back on his ass on the floor.

“Oww!” Nicky rubbed his neck and looked back at Rory indignantly.

Rory came over to help him to his feet and then pushed him down on the bed. “Okay, ask me.”

“What?”

“I said ask me what you want to know. But make it quick or they’ll come up here looking for us.”

“Okay, first of all, who in the hell will come up here? Who’s waiting for me downstairs?”

“The tattoo artist. Don’t you remember you have to get a tattoo? All pets wear their master’s names on their lower backs. They have to have his pack number on there too. It’s traditional, and you have to have one, so don’t even argue about it.” Rory stood over Nicky belligerently, his fists clenched as if ready for a fight.

“A tattoo and a number? What is this place, some kind of concentration camp?” He frowned at the determined look on Rory’s face. “I don’t suppose I have a choice, do I?”

Rory tugged at his leash again, but Nicky pulled back. “Wait! Who are you people? What are you? What did you do to me? Please, I have to know!”

Rory sighed. “Okay, but quick, and then we have to go downstairs. We’re the Dark Hollow Wolf pack, and we live in North Carolina. We didn’t do anything to you, exactly. I mean, we changed you to werekin, but we had to do that. We couldn’t just let you die, and besides you were fated to be with Marco, and you wouldn’t have been able to resist him without making yourself absolutely miserable, so you would have been changed eventually anyway.”

“Okay, you’re talking absolute nonsense to me again. Wolf pack? Werekin? What does that mean? What do you mean, pets? Why do you call me that?”

“‘Cause that’s what you are.” He shrugged. “Our adopted pets are always humans.”

The inside of Nicky’s head spun, but one thing Rory said chilled the blood in his veins. “Humans? Are you saying that you’re not human?”

“Well, we’re partly human—half of our parents are human, after all. We’re all werekin, both wolves and pets. But for some of us, the beast is strong. We’re called werewolves— shapeshifters. We are the true members of the wolf pack. Marco is our Alpha wolf, our leader. Many of the rest of us, both men and women are gamma wolves. You might think of it as sort of soldiers."

"Why would you need soldiers? Are you in some kind of war?"

“Not exactly, though we do have enemies. We've been on the edge of an all-out war with the Hunters for over a century."

"The what? The Hunters? What is that?"

Rory shrugged. "Monster Hunters. They think we’re monsters, you see. They hate the wolves and want us all dead. They come for us from time to time and attack with silver bullets. It's the only kind of bullet that will kill a werewolf."

"Like in the movies."

"Yeah, like in the movies."

"Who are these people—these Hunters?"

"They get their name from an old hunter named Abraham Van Helsing over a hundred years ago who hunted all the Fae. Fae are the special ones, the shapeshifters and vampires, werewolves, and the like. Fae are not human totally, or they may once have been, but aren’t anymore. Anyway, the Hunter’s descendants carry on the tradition, and they hire soldiers of their own to engage us in battle from time to time. The last battle was over two years ago, but they'll come again. Once they've replenished their army. They always come."