"But who—what are you all?"

"Shapeshifters, like I said. All the others here are just our pets or mates. All children are pets too, until they go through puberty, and it becomes clear what they are. They’re either wolves or pets—werekin. If they stay pets, then they become mates to the wolves. Unless, of course, the wolf’s blood match is human.” He shrugged. “It happens sometimes, like with you. Then the human has to become werekin with a bite. Now come. It’s time for your tattoo and your grooming. You have to look your best tonight for your mating ceremony.”

“My what ceremony?”

“Tonight you’ll officially mate with our leader, Marco. It’s a very high honor, and he’s waited a long time to find you. You have to look your best for him.”

Nicky allowed Rory to pull him to his feet and followed him slowly down the stairs. His mind raced with a million more questions, but he knew Rory wouldn’t take the time to tell him more. He still didn’t believe half of what he’d already heard. Werewolves alone was too fantastic to be real. Shapeshifters and werewolves! He had to be dreaming or on some kind of weird acid trip. He didn’t remember taking any drugs. Could someone have slipped something in his drink?

He followed along in a daze. Along the way they met others coming and going. The place seemed to be almost like a large hotel, with three floors connected by the stairs and rooms leading off the central lobby or hall. Not a hotel, though, or not a normal one anyway, because many of the people they met were half naked like Nicky, wearing a leash, following behind someone meekly, their eyes downcast. Sometimes it would be a female, following a man, but often it was a half-naked, leashed male following a woman.

“What is this place, Rory?”

Rory looked over his shoulder at him. “This is Mountainwood, our home in North Carolina. It’s a kind of compound, in a way. The whole pack lives together, but we have our separate bedrooms, of course, leading off the main common room and kitchen. It makes us feel more like a pack—like a family. It’s much safer too. You were brought here unconscious on the night you were changed. So you don’t remember arriving at the compound?”

Nicky shook his head, not sure what he remembered. “What does that mean, ‘changed’? You all keep saying that. What happened to me?”

Rory sighed with exasperation. “I’ve explained all that. You became werekin. Marco’s mate and a bitch in heat. His bite put you in a state of estrus or heat, to prepare you for the mating cycle. And then you’re mated. For life. So now you’re Marco’s bitch.” He gave the leash another tug. “Walk faster, Nicky. We’re already late.”

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Nicky followed him, actually feeling more docile as he walked slowly along. He suspected the leash made him feel calmer, more controlled. Apparently he was Marco’s bitch, for real. Something dramatic had certainly happened to him. Never, before a couple of nights ago, would he have allowed himself to be pulled along on a leash, be multi-fucked by a man, and crave more.

Was this part of the “change” they kept talking about? That and the insane craving to be with Marco every moment of the day? Shame and humiliation crawled over him, and he stumbled a little going down the steps. Immediately, Rory’s hand shot out to steady him carefully.

“Steady, now, Nicky. No one wants to hurt you. Don’t be scared. We’re only trying to help you get settled in.”

A few minutes later, he clung to Rory’s words as he watched the tattoo artist prepare his needles. He looked nervously to Rory for reassurance and Rory immediately pet his head, rubbing his hand through his scalp like Marco did so often.

“You’re okay, Nicky. The tattoo will sting a little, but it’s not too bad. I know how brave you are, so make Marco proud.”

The tattoo artist smiled at him kindly too. “Just turn over, dear, and I’ll be as gentle as I can. If the needle gets to be too painful, tell me, and we’ll stop for a while, okay?”

Both Rory and the tattoo artist were kind, but they treated him like a not-too-bright child or actually a pet dog. Of course, to their credit, he’d been sort of acting like one or the other since he’d arrived. His mind did feel more connected to his body than during what he’d thought was a dream, though, so that was a plus.

Nicky turned over onto his stomach on the table, and the artist began his work. They were right—the pinpricks stung a little, but it wasn’t anything he couldn’t stand. After his first flush of panic and embarrassment at someone giving him a tattoo of Marco’s name, like he was owned by him, he relaxed a little. Rory stood close, keeping his hand on Nicky’s head.

When it was over, Rory held up a mirror for him to see himself. The tattoo, probably about two inches in diameter, held Marco’s name and a number one in a lovely, flowing script, pretty, really. Nicky found he didn’t mind too badly. It was Marco’s name, after all. If that’s what he wanted, he guessed it wasn’t too bad.

“I can do a small heart too, if you’d like? Beneath the name?”

Nicky looked up at Rory who shrugged. “Up to you.”

Nicky blushed and stammered. “N-No, nothing else.”

Rory smiled at the tattoo artist. “I think he really wants a heart, but is too embarrassed to say it.”

“Certainly.” The tattoo artist bent himself to the task and in only a few minutes, he’d finished.

“Keep petroleum jelly on it until it heals, and tell your master immediately if any kind of infection develops.”

Rory helped him off the table and led him from the room. “Now to the groomers,” he said, and tugged again at Nicky’s leash.

“Yeah, and don’t forget my shots. Maybe a heartworm pill?”

Rory turned a concerned, puzzled face toward him. “Do you think you need shots and pills? Are you ill?”

“Forget it,” Nicky said. “Take me to the ‘groomers’ and let’s get this shit over with.”

“Okay, but you really need to watch your language. Marco will punish you for those cuss words. Pets are not allowed to use them.”

“Yeah, yeah, whatever,” Nicky mumbled, following him down another long hallway off the common room.

Rory opened the door to what looked like a beauty shop, except it would have to be one in some kind of nudist colony, because almost everyone in the room except for Rory was half naked and wearing collars. A pretty little brunette came over to them and took Nicky’s hand.

“Hello, Nicky. It’s so good to meet you. I’ve never seen a man as pretty as you before. You’re so beautiful. Everyone’s talking about it.”

A couple of puzzling things were happening or rather not happening. First of all, a rather beautiful young girl stood in front of him, totally naked from the waist up, her breasts almost touching his chest, and his body wasn’t reacting at all. He looked down at his cock, and it was peaceful in his pants and perfectly uninterested. What the fuck?

Secondly, he felt almost no embarrassment at standing in front of these people while halfnaked himself, wearing only a pair of skin tight leather pants. Was he just becoming accustomed to it? Or was he still in the middle of the weirdest dream he’d ever had?

“My name is Tara, and I’ll be your groomer today. Come in and sit down, dear.”

Rory unclipped the leash, and the minute it came off, uneasiness stirred in Nicky. He allowed Tara to take his hand and lead him to a chair. Rory stood nearby shifting his feet until Tara took pity on him and said with a laugh, “Sir, you can wait outside if you wish. I promise we’ll take very good care of him.”

Rory retreated gratefully, and Tara turned back to Nicky, running her fingers through his hair. “Your hair is so lovely. So curly and shiny. A true blond, right?

Nicky nodded, a little embarrassed by all this talk of his beauty. He’d always been uncomfortable with the idea.

“Your hair’s so blond, and your skin’s so creamy. Have you noticed that most of us have dark hair and brown eyes? It’s rare that a master will choose a blond with those pretty blue eyes. They really prefer brunettes. Of course, if it’s a blood match, like yours, Marco would have had no choice.”

“All these terms you people keep tossing around are confusing to me. Please explain to me what you’re talking about. What does ‘blood match’ mean exactly?”

“Oh, I’m so sorry. I was a new pet myself, not too long ago, and I remember how confusing it all was at first. Listen, let me get you shampooed, and then I’ll explain everything while I style your hair.”

“I just washed my hair in the shower this morning.”

“Oh, good. Then let me spray it with some water to make it easier to style.”

“It’s pretty long. Go ahead and cut it as short as you want.”

“Oh, no. Marco said specifically it was not to be cut. He loves your pretty long curls. Don’t worry. I’ll take good care of you.”

“Yeah, that’s what everyone keeps telling me. So far I’ve been bitten, stripped naked, and tattooed, along with some other things I can’t talk about in front of you. You can understand if I don’t quite believe that statement anymore.”

“Sorry, dear,” Tara said as she sprayed water on his hair and ran a comb through it. “Let me tell you what I know about the werekin.”

“Please.”

“Okay, now keep in mind I’ve only been here a few months myself. My master is Tristan. He’s very handsome and wonderful.”

Her eyes took on a dreamy quality. Nicky wondered if his did the same when he talked about Marco.

“He first saw me working in a beauty shop in a small town not too far from here. We were a blood match too. That means, when a master sees a certain person, they just know instinctively that the person is for them. They can’t help themselves, really. They have to have us and are miserable without us. We feel the same way about them too, once we see them and accept the idea. Do you remember when you first saw our Alpha?”