LUCA LEANED his back against the cold, wet stones, trying to catch his breath. That’s what you get when you run away—you seek refuge in an old castle tower and the damn thing decides that after 1300 years and withstanding three world wars, now would be the right time to collapse around you. He smashed a fist into part of the remaining wall beside him, cursing.
His breathing hitched when a low, grating noise resounded from above. Shaking, Luca curled up on the ground, covering his head. Not a second too late as another hail of rocks poured down on him. The sharp edges cut through his shirt, slicing it open and exposing his skin to the cold air and debris. When the tumbling of rocks stopped, he peered up. Above him was a blue sky, dotted with fast-moving white clouds. He wasn’t buried alive, after all.
Luca straightened up, wiping off dust and small stones as he willed his racing heart to slow down. Both his forearms would bruise, and from a few minor cuts oozed a trickle of blood. His father, Gregory Walker, would have a fit. Not that he wasn’t having one right now, since Luca had cleared off, but his parents hated seeing Luca hurt. Luca hated himself for worrying them, especially his dad, Nicholas Walker. Luca should be adult enough to accept his fate with good grace, what with being twenty-three years old, and most other breeders did accept their fate, so why couldn’t he?
Being married off to Colonel Liam Smith was a treat. Or, at least, that was what everyone told Luca. He just didn’t see it that way. While Smith was a good-looking man, and had been high on the waiting list for a potential partner who could carry his offspring, Luca wanted nothing to do with him.
He’d declined every potential partner since he turned eighteen and became part of the official Northern Confederacy Breeding Program, but after five years, the chief director of the program had put his foot down and ordered him to marry Smith and give him as many children as the colonel desired. That’s how things worked for breeders: the program searched for the best genetic match and then ordered them to marry someone they didn’t love. Not that breeders couldn’t be happy in their marriages, quite the contrary even since the Northern Confederacy prided itself on matching people not only genetically but also socially and emotionally. Plus, anyone who managed to receive a fertile partner knew they had to treat their partner right. Society needed children, and it needed them to grow up in a loving environment. Otherwise, they might end up like the Southern Union, which oppressed people—especially breeders—all the time. Not even the fact that Gregory was the Northern Confederacy’s vice president helped Luca. Even though their society couldn’t exist without breeders, they didn’t have many rights. At least his parents did their best to change the rules.
Luca’s gut clenched, and bile rose up sharply in his throat. With a hand to his mouth, he swallowed. Then his stomach lurched, and he threw up until he had nothing more to give. By the time he was done, he was panting and bracing his hands hard on his knees. His whole body quaked, and his eyes stung. Why the fuck did he have to be a breeder?
He didn’t want to carry a child and be tethered to another man for the rest of his life, or at least for as long as he was fertile, not without loving the guy. Why couldn’t he just fall in love and then decide if he wanted to bring a child into his life? He’d already managed the part about falling in love anyway.
He spat and straightened up again, wiping a hand over his parched lips. Even in his head, his voice sounded bitter as he answered his own question: Because it was his duty to carry and bear children. After all, only a small percentage of women and men could get pregnant and make sure the human species would continue to exist. Damn that Third World War with all its chemical and biological weapons, killing millions of people and causing whole countries to be uninhabitable for centuries. All those dead people just because two governments were stuck in a power play over territories at their borders.
Sometimes Luca wondered if it wouldn’t have been better if the scientists hadn’t been able to work their magic and keep a small percentage of women fertile and give men with the right genetic structure the chance to become pregnant. But that was a moot point. Luca was a breeder, and society expected him to deliver children. There was nothing he could do about it.
The chance of being loved for himself—as the person Luca, not the breeder Luca—was slim. Incredibly slim, even. As soon as someone knew he was a breeder, they either handled him with kid gloves or with disgust. Everyone did, except for Marcus Gray. Luca ran a trembling hand through his hair.
He wouldn’t think about Marcus now, or the fact he’d had the best sex of his life with the burly bodyguard a couple days ago. It had been the first time someone had held him in powerful arms without thinking twice about whether Luca would break. It had also been the first time strong emotions had been involved.
“Fuck this shit.” Luca aimed for a firm voice, but instead he sounded wheezy and… small.
Shoving all thoughts about his upcoming marriage, his parents’ disappointment, and Marcus aside, he surveyed the walls around him. Or what was left of them. Next time he decided to run away, he’d make sure the small plane was fueled. Although breeders weren’t allowed to fly a plane or helicopter, just one more measure to keep them safe and reduce the risk of any breeder accidentally dying, Luca knew enough to use the autostart sequence and autopilot. Sometimes it paid to belong to a highly valued family. He probably should’ve learned more, though. He’d freaked when the alarm blared in the small plane, showing the empty fuel tanks. Somehow he’d managed to find the right buttons on his console, which was the sole reason why the emergency landing had been successful. If it had been left up to him, he’d be dead now.
Luca closed his eyes but quickly disabused himself of this notion when he swayed. He’d gotten incredibly lucky that the autopilot had managed to find a small clearing within the Palatine Forest of what had, two hundred years ago, been part of Germany, and brought him down in one piece. He didn’t mind the hike after he’d left the wreckage, as the area was beautiful, especially now in early autumn with brightly colored leaves scattered everywhere.
However, the damn tower really could’ve kept a little while longer. He’d only wanted to get a good look around to better decide which direction he should go. He might not want to go back to his parents right away, but he needed food and shelter, which meant he needed to find some sort of civilization. Only there could he get something to eat that wasn’t contaminated. He should’ve just stayed at home. Smith wasn’t due for another couple of days, so why had he freaked so badly?
Luca shoved his bangs out of his eyes with more force than necessary, and at the same time he bit down on his lower lip to prevent himself from talking aloud. He was trying to wean himself off this bad habit he fell into when he was stressed. Especially because he knew the reason for his freak-out only too well. Marcus Gray—the man he’d slowly fallen in love with over the last year and who seemed to reciprocate his feelings even though he claimed to be too old for Luca. Nine years wasn’t that much of a difference, though, at least not in Luca’s opinion. Everything had been going great. Right until they’d had sex.
“This is a mistake” had been Marcus’s words. New tears prickled Luca’s eyes. “Stupid. How could I’ve been so stupid?”
He slowly turned, inspecting the damage around him. He’d been on his way up the tower when the damn thing crumpled. The rest of the decayed castle seemed to hold up fine while he was stuck. The top part had come down around him, and he had no idea how to get farther down. The opening leading to the ladder he’d used to come up was blocked by piles of rock. What would happen if he pulled the rocks away?
He carefully picked his way to the edge of the tower walls, holding out his arms to keep his balance against the wind, which blew in heavy gusts, and stared down. “Okay, fine, climbing down the outside would be suicidal without rope.”
He walked back to the center, crouched down, and started lifting rocks aside, so he could find the opening. His stomach clenched painfully several times, and he rubbed soothing circles over the taut muscles, hoping to ease the tension there. Surely the tower wouldn’t collapse completely just because he shifted some rocks….
When he found the opening, he dug faster, excitement and relief bubbling to the surface. He tilted his head to the side, trying to make sense of what he saw. Where once had been an iron ladder bolted to the rock, there was just… a mess. Blinking, he fought a battle against a sudden quell of nausea. Rocks must’ve smashed the ladder’s bolts because the ladder hung askew to one side.
Luca lay on his stomach and reached out for the top rung. The lightest touch of his fingers caused the ladder to swing back and forth. “Oh, come on, please. Don’t do this to me.”
After grabbing the top rung and leaning it against the opening’s edge, Luca rolled to his knees. This was an iron ladder, it wouldn’t spontaneously combust. Only one question remained: would the ladder stay upright when he got on it or not? Given that there wasn’t much space for the ladder to tip aside, he’d have to risk it.
Sitting on the opening’s edge, his legs dangling in the air, Luca tried to summon up the courage to step onto the freaking ladder, when the rotor blades of a helicopter sliced through the air. He lifted his head to find the source of the noise, and his heart stumbled. The heli wore the dark blue triangles of the Northern Confederacy.
The heli hovered above him and the side door slid open, revealing Marcus in his charcoal fatigues. His dark brown hair fell onto his forehead, softening the impact of his granite expression. Luca was glad he couldn’t look into Marcus’s light gray eyes right now.
“Don’t move!” Marcus hollered.