My heart raced as the woman across the desk inspected me. Her lips twisted upward with what could have either been malice or amusement. It was impossible to tell which.
“You passed the background check. Now, there’s one last thing,” Prudence Mora said, tucking a strand of long black hair elegantly behind her ear. “I need you to strip.”
“S-s-strip?” My voice faltered, and I’d never felt quite so vulnerable. I’d known getting signed on at Millionaire Partner, Inc., would be difficult, but who could have guessed I’d be asked to do something like that? “Miss Mora, I’m not sure why I should get naked...”
I trailed off as the twist of her lips took on a definite sneer of impatience.
“I need pictures, Olivia.” Prudence stood and rounded the desk, sitting elegantly on the leather couch beside me. “You don’t expect someone to choose you as their wife without seeing the whole package, do you?”
My heart pounded like a lead ball in my chest, and bile roiled in my stomach. Could I really go through with this? Could I be sold into a marriage contract and end up trapped with a man I didn’t even know?
“I can see you’re uneasy.” Prudence gave a small shrug, even that motion speaking to her beauty and class. She was exquisite with porcelain skin, jet-black hair, and dark smoky eyes that immediately made one think of the bedroom. Her clothing and jewels were so elegant that my attempt at looking my best was impossibly outmatched.
Stifling a sigh and doing quick breathing exercises to stave off the fluttering of a panic attack, I forced myself to meet Prudence’s gaze. “I am uneasy,” I admitted. “I wouldn’t be here doing this if I had any other choice.”
Prudence gave a regal nod. “I’m completely aware of that, Olivia. Many women here are in your same position. Not many enter into a marriage of convenience because that’s what they desire.” She paused, looking at me appraisingly. “You’re the only person who can decide if this life is something you can handle.” Her eyes narrowed. “I’d thank you not to waste my time, however. I have a meet and greet for prospective husbands tomorrow. If you aren’t looking for a match, kindly leave my office and send the next girl in.”
As much as I wanted to gather my bargain store rain jacket around me and storm from the room, it wasn’t as though I had much choice. My family was gone. The accident that killed them had left me hospitalized for months. Once I finally got out, the newly-acquired panic attacks made holding a steady job impossible.
The insurance money ran out months ago. The phone company turned my cell off last week—a relief, really, considering the bill collectors could no longer harass me. A conversation with them never failed to remind me that I was a total piece of shit who couldn’t manage her own life. They acted as though it was my fault the accident stole so much of my soul, making it too difficult to rise from bed, let alone work and pay them the money owed.
Now, I had a mere twenty-four hours left on a three-day eviction notice. This month wasn’t the first that I had trouble paying rent, and the landlord’s patience and understanding had ended.
There was nowhere for me to go. No family, no friends, no prospects. It was either convince this woman I could be a good, obedient wife and make a stranger deliriously happy, or I could live in the park with the rest of the city’s homeless.
Standing slowly, I avoided Prudence’s gaze and kicked off my shoes. My jacket slid down my back as though it had a mind of its own. Robotically, I stripped to my unfashionable bra and panties, covering my nearly-exposed breasts with my hands.
Prudence crossed the room to her desk, picking up a camera. “We need lingerie shots but take those ridiculous underclothes off. No man wants to see them, not if you want to land a marriage contract. I’ll have to dress you in something more appropriate. Strip completely and move to the center of the room. We’ll do the natural nudes first.”
Oh, God. She was really taking pictures... I’d hoped it was some sort of test and not reality, but it seemed Ms. Mora didn’t possess a sense of humor.
The heat spreading across my body couldn’t be good. Part embarrassment, part panic, I could only imagine how many men might see my naked body before someone picked me as their wife. If someone picked me. Even going through all this humiliation wasn’t a guarantee anyone would want me.
“Do it right now, Olivia, or I’m finished with you.” Prudence flashed a smile that wasn’t completely devoid of kindness. “If you’re serious about this, get used to doing things you would rather not. Also, do them with a smile. The men who pay for this service expect that in a wife.”
There was no hope for it. I had no choice. Being married to a single man and selling my body to him was a better option than living in the streets, forced to sell myself to the masses just to survive. The deal could be a lot worse, after all. Marriage was a lot more respectable than being a whore. My parents, may they rest in peace, might raise an eyebrow at a contract marriage, but they’d be absolutely devastated if their precious daughter became a hooker.
It was true that many men might see the photos Ms. Mora took, but if someone picked me for a marriage contract that was where it would end. I’d only get naked for my husband after that for however long the contract lasted.
I could do this. I had to.
With a small nod, I slipped from my remaining clothing and headed to the center of the room where Prudence had indicated. A faux fur rug warmed my feet from the chill in the air conditioning, and I stood in the center of it, facing her and the camera while trying not to tremble. As she had instructed, I forced a smile. It couldn’t have looked natural, but at least I did it.
A whisper of cool air caressed my skin. My flesh broke into goosebumps and my nipples went erect.
“A bit too shy, but the men love that.” Prudence gave an amused smile. “Put your hands out by your sides, slightly away from your body, and turn around slowly. I promise this is the worst part. Your life’s about to get a whole lot better.”
Saying the pictures were the worst of it was a lie. Ms. Mora never mentioned the Brazilian wax before the next round of naked photos. Nor did she say how much having every scrap of hair down below ripped out would hurt. She apparently got a kick out of torturing potential brides. What a bitch!
After the wax job of my lady bits, the one for my face and legs had hardly registered on the pain scale. Hair and makeup had followed, but I was unable to enjoy the process with my level of anxiety at that point.
Once I was groomed to Prudence’s standards, there were more rounds of pictures: nudes, lingerie, and evening wear. I had to guess the ‘natural’ nudes were only to ensure I’d take the pictures before she spent money sending me to her private spa. Once all was said and done, my capacity for embarrassment or even a panic attack had dulled. Perhaps I should have come here right after my release from the hospital. If I could have stopped the panic attacks sooner, I wouldn’t be trapped into selling myself to survive.
Now, a mere twenty-four hours after being approved as a prospective bride at Millionaire Partner, Inc., I was gowned in an exquisite, if daring, dress. The cut was alarming, open-backed with the fabric draping well below the crack of my ass. The way it tied around my neck in a tight choker collar could hardly be considered appropriate. The narrow strip of cloth covering my front showed entirely too much side boob. From the waist up, nothing much was left to the imagination.
Staring at the women around me showed that the style was similar for everyone’s dress. I shouldn’t be embarrassed or let myself feel awkward. This was something I had to do to survive. The world had not ended, and I could get through this. Telling myself that didn’t stop the nerves.
My hair and makeup had once again been professionally done before I donned the dress. Something fruity wafted from my hair, and my mahogany-red tresses were smoother and shinier than I could have believed possible. I had to admit that I looked beautiful. When I’d checked the mirror, I’d hardly recognized the woman staring back at me.
It still didn’t guarantee that I’d land a husband. All the women were gorgeous, and many seemed outgoing and happy to be in the room. All I could do was hope for the best and pray someone nice chose me. I waited silently with the others for any final instructions before the clients arrived.
Prudence Mora stepped into the room with a few of her assistants, looking us over as though she appraised livestock. Probably not too far off the mark. She only got paid if one of the men picked a wife. She needed to make sure her ‘cattle’ looked the perfect image of beauty, desire, and sexuality.
“Ladies, you’re exquisite,” she proclaimed, smiling widely. “We have twenty gentlemen searching for their other half, so many of you may find a match tonight. They’ve all perused the catalogue over the past few days and have their favorites in mind. It’s your job to convince them you can give them what they want. After all, that’s how you get what you need.”
Everyone shifted slightly in place while Prudence talked. A few, like me, looked scared shitless. Several of the others acted excited. I guess it took all sorts to make the world go ’round but being sold into a marriage contract was the furthest thing from exciting that I could imagine.
“You will only go by the name of the jewels you’ve been given tonight,” Prudence continued. “Do not give any personal information until a contract is struck.”
I didn’t know if Prudence had this rule to protect us, or if she simply didn’t want the men finding us outside the agency and striking their own deal. Probably the latter. She couldn’t make money if she didn’t arrange the contracts.
Looking down at the teardrop necklace laid against my shimmering dress, I reminded myself again—Opal. That was my identity, at least until I found a ‘master.’ I supposed when that happened, the man would call me whatever he wished.
I shuddered a bit involuntarily, reminding myself I didn’t have a choice in the matter. Things could always be worse. There was still prostitution on the streets and living beneath the bridge. While selling myself at Millionaire Partner, Inc. was hard to stomach, the alternative scared me even more.
As though she could read my worries, Ms. Mora’s gaze fell on me. “Opal, I need a word before the doors open.”
Surprised, I rushed to her side, trying to make graceful, lady-like movements as the assistants had instructed us earlier in the day. “Did I do something wrong?” My voice faltered, nearly trapped in my throat.
I was always half a breath away from a panic attack, no matter what I did. Prudence’s intense stare didn’t help matters. Clenching my hands into fists, I dug my fingernails into the palms, focusing on the prickling pain to keep myself in the here and now. Steadying my breathing, I forced a smile and waited for Prudence to respond.
She shook her head softly. “Follow me.”
We retreated to her office, and she shut the door. “Olivia, your application was incomplete.” She didn’t look happy.
My hand fluttered to the opal necklace, half wondering if I had to take it off. Perhaps it was to the streets for me after all. “What did I forget?”
Ms. Mora rolled her eyes, an undignified look that surprised me with the way it contrasted her normal grace. “The sex page. All the men out there are looking over my menu, and you have nothing on the sex page. Don’t you want a match?”
Menu? Sex page? I gulped loudly, imagining all the pictures they’d taken of my nakedness being in the menu.
“Come on, girl,” Ms. Mora said, a bite of impatience in her voice. “It’s all digital tablets and can be updated in a snap, but I need you to tell me what you do. These men expect their brides to perform wifely duties, the more adventuresome, the better.”
“You want to know what I do?” I felt stupid, but I honestly had no idea what she was asking of me. I didn’t do anything!
“Come on, Olivia. What do you like? I’m talking about sex! What positions? Anal? Bondage? Pony play? What?” She shook her head in exasperation, snatching a tablet from the desk. “I need to update this immediately if you want any chance of getting chosen. You only have a month here if you don’t find a match tonight, so let’s not waste your first party.”
Sex... I remembered that page in the application package now that she mentioned it. An entire page filled with things I didn’t understand. Images of words like ‘rape play’ and ‘anal sex’ were still burned into my mind. Is that what all these men searched for? I had hoped it wasn’t a problem that I didn’t check any of the boxes, considering Ms. Mora hadn’t mentioned it before. Apparently, it was an oversight, and I was expected to be kinky in the sack.
“Don’t be shy. Just tell me what turns you on. The marriage contract will include whatever you say you like. Whatever man picks you is prohibited from forcing you into any sex play that you haven’t explicitly agreed to.” Ms. Mora leaned against the edge of her desk. “The more you’re willing to do, the more you might appeal to a client. So, tell me what you like, and let’s update the menu. You’re a beautiful woman. I’m sure someone will want you with the right encouragement.”
I shook my head and stared down at my hands, wondering if I was about to be kicked out of Millionaire Partner, Inc. “I don’t know what I like, Ms. Mora. I’m a virgin.”
“Oh, please.” She scoffed. “No woman your age is still a virgin.”
Tears came unbidden to my eyes, remembering why I was still a virgin. “I wouldn’t have been, if that day had gone as planned. We were on the way to the hotel where the wedding was to be held when the accident happened. My fiancé and parents died instantly.” My hands shook, and my heart clenched painfully. I couldn’t tell if the feeling was simply grief or the start of panic. “I had made a vow of chastity and kept it, Ms. Mora. My fiancé respected that after meeting me and agreed to wait until the wedding night. That night should have been the night, but it never came.”
“You... you’re serious?”
I found the courage to look her in the eyes and nodded. “Seems stupid that I saved myself, considering the situation now. I should have given in to Jake back then before the wedding.”
“No way! Hot damn. This is great.” Her face broke into a smile. “You’re a unicorn, Olivia. A goddamn unicorn!”
“What?” I shook my head, confused. However, she seemed pleased.
“A virgin past the age of fifteen is a freaking myth this day and age. Some man is going to pay top dollar to be your one and only.” Her smile wasn’t unkind. “You can ask for so much more money than I thought you could. Only high-end clients will be able to afford you.” She furiously tapped away on her tablet as she spoke.
High-end clients. That must mean extraordinarily rich instead of regular rich? If I had to waste my virginity, at least it made me more valuable. I was now a commodity, nothing more. However, I desperately needed to be chosen, so I wouldn’t complain if my chastity gave me an edge.
Prudence continued tapping. “I need to enter sex positions still. Even though you’re a virgin, your menu needs options or they might not bite. What will you be willing to try once you’re married?”
After my fiancé died, I hadn’t given much thought to sex. All my desires had died on the side of the road that day. Jake and I had done a little bit, and I remembered what it was like to get turned on and wish for something more. There was some sort of release that I knew was waiting, but whenever Jake tried something, I always made him stop before going too far. Now I was supposed to know what turned me on, what I’d enjoy with a complete stranger?
I shrugged, bewildered. “I really have no idea.”
“What about role playing? That can be fun. Oh, or a lot of our clients are into bondage. Do you like being spanked?”
My ears burned with embarrassment. Wasn’t this a conversation I should have with my husband? “I don’t know what to say.”
“Voyeurism is a big thing. Will you masturbate for your husband?”
“What? How is that even...?” I trailed off, clenching my fists more tightly.
Ms. Mora sighed. “I’ll take you off the menu for tonight while you think it over.”
“No! Please, don’t do that!” No matter how awkward and embarrassed I felt, the facts were that I needed to find a husband tonight.
“Then tell me what you want. What do you wish a man would do to you?” She stared at me with an even gaze. “I know you haven’t done this stuff before, but what do you fantasize about? Nothing is taboo here, so don’t worry about that.”
I blinked back tears, unable to tell her what she wanted to know. My body had been dead inside. Even if I felt slight stirrings at the mention of kinky sex, mostly because it was supposed to be prohibited and therefore seemed exciting, I didn’t think I could say that was what I wanted. What if I hated it and was forced into it for the next five to ten years?
Miserable, I stared at her. “Put whatever you think is best. I need a contract tonight. I have no home to go back to. I’m desperate. I’ll do whatever you tell me to.”