The blood was roaring in Saskia’s ears, her heart crashing against her ribs as her feet pounded the cobblestones, her thighs burning.
Run. Run. Run!
It was like a mantra, repeated with every frantic beat of her shoes. The wind whipped her hair around her face and a stitch was forming in her side but she couldn’t let it happen, couldn’t let herself be caught.
Hurtling around a corner, she stifled a moan as she spotted the brick wall blocking any chance of escape. It was a dead end.
She flattened herself against the nearest building, clamping her fingers to her lips in a vain attempt to contain her ragged breathing.
A million thoughts spun through her mind as she waited, frozen, praying that the heavy Trappers’ footfalls would pass the entrance to the alleyway she was hiding in and keep going.
This was bound to happen sooner or later.
My parents are going to kill me.
How could I have been so stupid?
Please, please, if you let me get away with this, I’ll never go out again. I’ll be good. I’ll stay indoors, I’ll hide, I’ll—
Saskia’s heart dropped through to her stomach as a Trapper loomed over her, his olive green uniform pristine, his eyes glittering with triumph.
“Got her,” he called out just as the rest of his team erupted into the narrow alleyway.
“Good job. Knew she wouldn’t get far.” The gold stripes on the second Trapper’s epaulets marked him as some kind of captain and he took charge immediately, shoving Saskia up against the wall and leering down at her. His nostrils flared as he sniffed, drawing in a deep breath.
Checking her scent.
“Omega,” he confirmed. Then, to Saskia, “How did you get out of the Facility?”
Before she could reply, the first Trapper spoke up. “I’m not sure she’s from there, sir. I’ve certainly never seen her before.”
The captain gave a derisive snort. “Of course she’s escaped from there.” Reaching out, he twisted a strand of her hair around a single finger and grimaced. “She must have been on the run for a while, judging by the state of her, but where else could she be from? All Omegas are kept there. Well, until they’re claimed.” Another suggestive leer.
Saskia suppressed a shudder of revulsion.
“You’re lucky we got to you first, girlie,” the captain added. “You know full well what would have become of you if any Alphas had run across you.”
Saskia cocked her head, sizing him up. His eyes were too close together, and they gleamed in a way that suggested he was relishing the thought. A part of her wanted to bring her knee up to connect with the soft, useless flesh dangling between his legs, not to mention spit in his smug face, but she knew better. It would only make things worse for her. If he’d been alone, she might have risked it, but there were now seven other Trappers flanking him. And they were all armed.
She swallowed past the sandpapery feeling in her throat. “What happens now?”
The captain moved aside and gave a nod, at which two of his men seized her arms; one on either side. “We’re taking you home.”
“You mean the Facility,” she muttered as they began to drag her unceremoniously out into the main road.
“Sweetheart, you’re an Omega. A prized jewel. The Facility is your home, and the only place where you’ll be safe,” the captain said. “I’m sure you’ll be delighted to see all your little friends again.”
His patronizing tone was just as grating as the way his lackeys were manhandling her along the sidewalk, the others forming a tight circle around them, offering her no chance to escape.
Saskia blinked back the sudden tears that filled her eyes at the thought that she might never see her family again. Who would help rub Nat’s sore feet after a long day at the market? Who would help her mother prepare dinner? Who would read to her father now?
Stumbling as one of the goons yanked her quicker than the other, tugging her off-balance, she took a deep breath and lifted her chin. Pull yourself together. Falling apart now isn’t going to help anyone, so you need to keep calm and try to think clearly.
Moments later, she was in the back of the armored van and the doors slammed shut, blocking out the constantly muted gray light of day. The Trappers who had clambered in with her were quiet and, while they surrounded her, they made no move to touch her.
For that, at least, she was grateful.
The engine started and the vehicle began to move, crawling down the streets of Sandor, every minute taking her farther away from the only home she had ever known.
And her family.
Saskia closed her eyes in the gloom and pictured her mother’s face. Her kind blue eyes with faint lines around the corners. Her streaked chestnut and gray hair pulled back into a neat bun at the nape of her neck. The worry lines etched across her once smooth forehead. As though her mama were there beside her, Saskia could hear her voice, the catch in her tone as she’d given her the news a few days after Saskia’s twelfth birthday.
“You’re an Omega, my love. I’m so sorry.”
They had both known what that meant. Everyone knew what that meant.
Saskia’s life would never be the same again.
Sandorian society was comprised of three classes: Alphas, Betas and Omegas. People were born into their roles, nothing and nobody could change that.
Alphas were the lucky ones. They could go to the best schools, had the best jobs—they were essentially the top tier. They had all the power as the ruling class.
Most people were Betas. Forced to wear drab brown uniforms, they lived by an extremely strict code. Everything they did was regimented and controlled by the Alphas, from how much food they had to what they did for a living. Free will was essentially non-existent. They even had a curfew: from eight p.m. to six a.m. they had to remain in their homes.
But despite the strict laws, and the harsh punishments if they broke the rules, Betas did have one blessing: they were free to love and marry whom they chose.
Unlike the rarest of them all: the Omegas.
While Beta couples usually produced Beta children, in some rare cases, an Omega was born. Which was why all children had to be tested when they reached the age of twelve and their hormones had begun to change. Beta kids were free to continue as usual. Omegas were immediately taken out of school, as they would not be working as adults and further education was considered unnecessary.
Omegas had just one purpose.
Saskia fingered the threadbare brown sleeve covering her left arm, wondering what would happen when she was found out.
She was supposed to have gone to the Facility when she turned eighteen. It was the law. Omegas said goodbye to their families forever and went to the enormous, squat government building near the marketplace, where they were given a tattoo to brand them for the rest of their lives, and essentially held prisoner until an Alpha chose them for mating.
Saskia hadn’t gone. In fact, she had received her test results and ignored them. No longer able to go to school with her sister, she had begged her parents to continue her education at home. They had done so willingly, appreciating that she had a thirst for knowledge and a propensity for boredom.
And when she had turned eighteen, she had simply refused to go to the Facility. She had waited, full of apprehension, for the authorities to come and get her, but days passed into weeks and even months and nothing had happened.
Eventually, she had stopped being so afraid. She had stayed at home as much as possible, but even her parents had been unable to stop her from donning Beta clothing and going out once in a while. She hated feeling trapped.
It was incredibly risky. Omegas gave off a distinctive scent which grew stronger the more they reached sexual maturity, and which was particularly potent when they were nearing their heat cycle. No amount of soap or perfume could disguise it fully.
And Alphas could smell an Omega in heat a mile away.
But Saskia was surrounded by Betas—the Alphas mostly kept to themselves, up on the Hill—and so long as she kept her distance and wore the typical brown Beta uniform, she had felt fairly safe.
The van lurched to a halt and Saskia blinked as the doors were opened, allowing the gloomy light of dusk to cut into the darkness.
“Come on then, sweetheart, out you get,” the Trapper closest to her said, taking her upper arm and hauling her out of the vehicle.
A wave of panic threatened to overwhelm her at the sight of the red brick facility building looming in front of her. Bars crossed all the windows. It looked like a prison.
It was a prison.
Shaking herself free of the Trapper’s grip, Saskia involuntarily clasped her left forearm with her right hand, tightly gripping the sleeve. They would take her inside, undress her, and see she had no tattoo. She was twenty-three years old, which meant she had been on the run for five years.
Five additional years of relative freedom. Five years essentially stolen from the authorities. Five years of being a lawbreaker. The penalty would be severe.
Being an Omega would probably save her life. They were so rare, and the only ones Alphas wanted to breed with. Alpha-Omega offspring were considered the ideal. While Alphas could absolutely impregnate Betas, no Alpha wanted a second-class child.
So while she was under no illusion that she would be treated gently once her deception was discovered, Saskia knew she wouldn’t pay for it with her life.
Unfortunately, her parents and sister wouldn’t be so lucky. Betas were disposable. And Saskia’s family had helped hide her for five long years.
The huge gate opened with an eldritch squeal and the Trappers pushed her none-too-gently inside the facility grounds. Trying to keep her breathing steady, she ignored her pounding heart and trembling legs, her mind focused on just one single thing.
Arius took a deep swallow of his favorite bitter red wine and stared down at the sprawling city below. Nestled in a green valley, Sandor looked almost picturesque from this distance. The first lights were beginning to twinkle in the dusk; the Betas would be scurrying home before their nightly curfew set in.
One day, it would all be his.
Immense responsibility, yes, but he would do a damn sight better than his uncle, Deimos. Arius’s lip curled. A complete moron would make a better ruler than Deimos, who was essentially a sociopath.
Thank the gods he was never able to produce an heir. Arius ignored the inevitable twinge of fear that always followed that thought. At thirty-five, he still hadn’t found his mate, either. You’re out there somewhere, little Omega, he thought, finishing his wine and narrowing his eyes as he gazed out over the city. I will find you and get heirs on you and then my legacy will be secured. Maybe I’ll even overthrow Deimos instead of waiting for the mad bastard to die.
“Are you ready to go? It’s market night.” Evander wandered in wearing one of his best suits. “Gods, but I love market night.”
Arius grunted in response.
His best friend chuckled. “I know you don’t see the point of it but it’s always fun.”
“There is no point to it!” Arius rounded on his friend. “We go every month. Every month! And I still haven’t found her!”
Evander shrugged. “It’s the only place to look. The Facility is where all the Omegas are kept precisely so we can find our mates easily.”
“I know that,” Arius growled. “But it’s not like they have a slew of new girls every time we visit. In fact, it’s been months since I saw a new face there.”
“Then the chances are good that there’ll be one this evening. Girls are turning eighteen all the time.” Evander sauntered over to the drinks trolley and poured himself some wine.
“Betas.” Arius practically spat the word.
“Omegas too. Just… fewer of them.”
“Aren’t you worried?” Arius held out his hand and Evander dutifully refilled his glass. “You haven’t found your mate yet either.”
“To be honest, I don’t mind waiting for the bond. Once that happens, my carefree days will be over. As will yours.” Evander clinked his glass against the one Arius was holding. “It’s not like you’re doomed to a life of celibacy until you find your mate. Plenty of others to warm your bed.”
“It’s not about that,” Arius said, draining his glass in two long gulps. “This,” he indicated Sandor in the distance with a sweep of his arm, “will be my responsibility. And I welcome it. But look at Deimos. He’s nearly fifty, and he still hasn’t found his Omega.”
“Which is a good thing.” Evander gave an exaggerated shudder. “Imagine what his offspring would be like. Mad as a coconut, and ugly to boot.”
“That’s not the point. I’m only his heir because he has no other kin. Because he has no children. If I share his fate, my family’s bloodline dies with me. There will be a war, with all the Alpha families fighting for supremacy.”
“Which you won’t be around to suffer through,” Evander said reasonably.
Arius barked out a bitter laugh. “I don’t expect you to understand.”
“I do understand. But I also believe that you will find your mate. Standing around here drinking and feeling bitter isn’t going to help. Nor is worrying.”
Arius sighed. He and Evander had grown up together but even though their childhoods had been very similar, Evander could never comprehend the pressure Arius was under to maintain his family’s position as rulers of Sandor. Pressure that only grew over time. He set his glass down and ran a hand through his hair. “Come on then. Let’s go to market.”
A short while later, they reached the Facility. Other Alphas were already there, conspicuous in their finery against the muted brown tones of the Betas’ uniforms and the gloomy overall ambience.
Arius took the drink someone handed to him and sighed inwardly as a pretty blonde in a lilac dress caught his eye. It was such a shame Alpha-Alpha pairings could never result in a successful pregnancy.
“How much longer?” he muttered to Evander, who was standing beside him.
“Should be any minute now.”
“I fucking hate these things.”
“I know. I don’t.”
“That’s because you’re simple.” Arius drained his glass—he really shouldn’t drink so much—and took another from a passing servant.
It was always the same. Every month the unpaired Alphas went to the Facility and were given cheap, sweet liquor as the resident Omegas were paraded out in front of them like cattle.
The new ones were always easy to spot; they cowered with huge, terrified eyes as the Alphas looked them over, inhaling deeply, their instinct telling them which one, if any, would make the best breeding partner.
And while some of the women on offer were undoubtedly attractive, not one of them had yet smelled right to Arius.
“Here they come!” Evander whispered, the excitement evident in his tone as a side door opened and the Omegas were led in.
Arius leaned back against the wall with narrowed eyes, scanning the faces for any who were new to him.
Several young women and a few men lined up, all clad in the virginal white tunics that marked them as Omegas. There they stood, their eyes demurely downcast, their hands clasped together, waiting to be examined by the Alphas, who had already begun milling around them, fingering locks of hair, running assessing hands down trembling flanks.
“And one more, just came back today,” someone called, and a young woman was shoved unceremoniously into the room. She was wearing an oversized Beta coat so her figure was barely discernible, but Arius’s attention was immediately drawn to her. Her hair was long and dark, and she was trembling, staring mutinously at the floor.
Pushing himself off the wall, he walked toward her, his nostrils flaring involuntarily as each Omega’s scent reached him in turn.
The girl was standing right at the end of the line, and when he reached her, Arius stopped dead in his tracks. Something he’d never felt before began to build deep in his gut, an unmistakable prickling sensation spreading through his entire body like red hot magma as he inhaled deeply.
It was raw. It was primal. It was overwhelming.
“Look at me,” he commanded.
She raised two enormous, blue-green eyes to meet his and it was then that Arius knew.
He had found his Omega.