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At Any Price: (Adam & Mia #1) (Gaming The System) by Brenna Aubrey (1)

Chapter One

I’d refreshed the web page at least twenty times during that last hour, endless minutes slipping in between each click of the button. The Manifesto was reality now, and it was about to affect my future in a very big way.

In the end, I sat back in disbelief, the wind knocked from me. It was final. A complete stranger had just pledged to pay three quarters of a million dollars in exchange for my virginity.

I blinked a few times, looking at the figure, with all the zeros following, barely able to breathe. My mouth was as parched as the Mojave but I doubted I had the strength in my legs to get up and grab a glass of ice water.

As I leaned back in my chair staring up at the ceiling, my phone rang. Without even looking at the caller ID, I knew who it was.

“Hey, Heath,” I breathed.

“Welp, your crackball auction is now closed and it looks like someone wants to pay a freaking fortune to get in your pants. Are you ready to give up this redonkulous scheme yet?”

I took a deep breath and expelled it slowly, wishing my heart wasn’t thumping like I’d just run a three-minute mile. “Of course not.”

He sighed. “Yeah, I figured. But I’m not going to stop trying, Mia, you know that.”

I grimaced. “And you almost never change my mind on anything, you know that.”

He cursed under his breath. “This has been the longest and most expensive game of chicken that I’ve ever played,” he said.

“I told you, I’m not backing out. My heels are dug in nice and deep.”

He laughed. “That’s not the only thing that’s going in deep.”

I gasped, sitting up. “Shut up. You promised you weren’t going to taunt me about this.”

“Fine. But we do this on my terms or we don’t do it at all, just like we agreed. I’m not shitting you—I’ll pull my support.”

I sighed. “Yeah, yeah. You don’t have to keep saying that. I get it.”

“Stop rolling your big brown eyes. I’m not thrilled about having to sift through all the bullshit and find out what lech has been ogling your pictures on your website.”

My stomach squeezed at his words and I didn’t say anything for a long moment. This really was lunacy and every time I talked myself down from the panic that hovered at the edge of my consciousness, something else would trigger it to summit levels once again.

“You’re not helping,” I said, fighting to keep the irritation from my voice.

“Who the hell set up the damn thing? I’m a conscientious objector to your crazy ‘new paradigm’—yes—but I’m still not going to leave you hanging.”

Relieved, I coughed, wanting desperately to change the subject before he lapsed into another lecture about the self-destructive potential of my actions. “Okay, so… Next steps?”

He cleared his throat. “I evaluate the top three bidders based on your all-important criteria. If they’re losers, I move down to the next batch and so on until I find someone who isn’t a dirty old creep, if indeed there is someone who isn’t a dirty old creep.”

“Okay, you have that list somewhere, right?” I grimaced, picturing the mountainous heap of papers and crap on his desk. He probably hadn’t seen it in weeks.

“Christ, Mia. I don’t need the damn list. I remember it all. He can’t be married. Needs to provide a complete lab workup to rule out STDs. Umm…”

“See? You can’t remember half of it.” I paused. “Find the list and clean your damn desk once in a while.”

He was riffling through paperwork on the other end. “It’s right here under the pile of—”


“I remember another one—criminal history?”

“Uh huh…And what else?”

“Ahh. Here it is—see, I told you I’d find it right under my stack of Minecraft notes. Let’s see—lab workups, marital status, yadda yadda, okay—proof of money set aside in an offshore holding account.”

“And last but not least…?”

“A really big one?”

My eyes shot to the ceiling. Typical for him to jump to something like size mattering. “We don’t all think like you do.”

“Well, yeah, that would be one of my criteria—what of it? The last one is that you both make an agreement that there will be no future contact between the two parties after the terms of the contract have been fulfilled.”

I sat back. “Great. I’m in good hands, then.”

“It’s my job to make sure you will be.”

That tight feeling in my gut wrenched again. “That’s the plan.”

“I’ve already got e-mails in to the top bidders.”

My brows shot up. That was quick. It wasn’t really like him to be so Johnny-on-the-spot like this. Heath—my best friend since the eighth grade and a surrogate older brother even if only by six months—was always this protective. When I’d showed him the Virgin Manifesto post about to go up on my blog, he’d freaked.

Fortunately, he’d calmed down and demanded to have control over the result. It was the compromise I had to put up with in exchange for his help and I knew I could trust him. Heath was the only man on this planet whom I did trust, actually.

We said good-bye and I closed my browser with a decisive click. I was sure my blog readers would demand a recap of the auction results tomorrow. This whole thing had gone semi-viral within the online community of gamers, and even beyond—Huffington Post, Jezebel, even Twitter. I squeezed my eyes closed, dreading the thought of writing that post. The readers would want answers and I didn’t have any. Not yet, anyway.

Regardless, there’d been complaints for the past few weeks that the auction had interfered with my regular posts. After all, it was a gaming blog, for God’s sake!

During the auction hoopla, most of my male readers had apparently come to the consensus that I rated an eight or higher. My opinion was probably closer to a solid six. But gamer dudes weren’t usually too picky when it came to women in our community. The main requirements were that a woman was breathing and had reasonably sized breasts. As a girl gamer, if you stuck your name tag across your cleavage at Comic-Con, you were likely to never have them meet your gaze.

With shaky hands, I went about the next few hours in a haze. I made some tea from the small box of expensive orange pekoe—my favorite. I allowed myself the treat because it was a special occasion and I vowed to reuse the bag for breakfast in the morning. Nowadays, I had to enact cost-cutting measures like that. My scholarship money had dwindled and expenses were barely being covered by the ads on my blog and my part-time orderly job at the hospital.

The auction idea had spawned from that necessity, despite the “high ideals” of the Virginity Manifesto. I honestly had posted it to open the conversation on reclaiming the age-old tradition of profiting from a woman’s purity. And yes, I’d wanted to make a statement about the value of my virginity being used for my own gain. I firmly believed in those ideals but my number one motivation was money, security. After using most of my loan money to help Mom with her medical bills, I had nothing saved up for medical school.

My only option was to hock my future completely by weighing it down under the burden of impossibly huge student loans. Did I really want to graduate medical school saddled with a huge debt and go into three years of residency and throw in an oncology fellowship on top of that?

I slipped an ice cube into the piping hot cup of tea and sipped at it while I broke out my study guides for the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) with that same sinking feeling that accompanied my study sessions of late. I’d started out this year so hopeful that, with a retake, I could improve my abysmal score of the previous year. But as time had passed, it grew harder and harder to be optimistic.

The test was a little over three months away and there was still so much to review. With a deep breath I dug in and went over the topics for this week: hydrocarbons and oxygen-containing compounds. I checked the clock. I was due to meet Jon at the library for still more studying this evening. The group study would be the next day and, as always, I wanted to be ahead. If I didn’t walk into that session extra prepared, I always felt as if I was making a fool out of myself.

So I got to work.


That night, I met Jon at the university library at our usual study carrel. And truthfully, I was grateful for the distraction from my mind’s unswerving preoccupation with the auction.

“So?” Jon said as I settled into my usual chair.

I scrunched my brows at him. “What?”

“Can you come?” He looked at me with his pleading baby blues.

Jon and I had met during the previous year of premed at Chapman University. He’d transferred from one of the high-and-mighty Ivy Leagues. I never did get the full story on what had happened there. It wasn’t like he was saving money by going to Chapman, a private university with a steep price tag.

My undergraduate tuition had been covered by my academic scholarship and I had worked extra hard to finish the requirements for graduation in three and a half years instead of the usual four, so this last semester was dedicated to work and study. If I didn’t improve my MCAT score, this would all be for naught and I’d be looking for something else to do with my BS in biology.

Because of the low score on the test, I was forced to work in a gap year I hadn’t planned on because no medical school would have looked at my application with a score of under 20—even though my GPA was 4.0. I would have to wait for a higher score in order to apply to medical school. So, I was using this time to look on the bright side of things. There was no denying that I needed the time to gather funds. My gaze flitted across the table to my study partner with more than a little envy. Jon had no financial concerns and was headed straight to medical school after he graduated next year.

Seeing my continued blank stare, he heaved a great sigh. “Did you forget to charge your phone again?”

I reached into my bag and pulled it out. Dead as a doornail. I sent him a crooked smile and a shrug. “I don’t do the texting thing much. I already told you.”

He ran a hand through his curly blond hair. “Mia, you need to enter the twenty-first century. First of all, only old people have phones like that,” he said with a disgusted wave of his hand.

I pulled my phone back, a protective wave of misplaced affection rising in my breast. What was wrong with a prepaid plan? And dare I tell him that the reason I hadn’t received the text was not because I had forgotten to charge the phone but because I was out of minutes and had no money to purchase more?

He knew I was a typical struggling student. He just didn’t know quite how much because I never ever invited him to my place. One look around my dive studio and he’d know my financial circumstances in an instant.

I’d never had guys at my place, aside from Heath, but even he usually sniffed down his nose at my converted studio. We had been roommates until the year before, when he and his steady boyfriend had decided to move in together. Due to my financial constraints, I’d had to trade down, way down, to my studio that rested above the detached garage on one of those cute vintage craftsman homes. Unfortunately, it was hotter than hell in the summer and a deep freeze—if that was possible in Southern California—in the winter.

“So what were you asking me?” My chest clenched in dreaded anticipation. Please don’t ask me out again. Please don’t ask me out again. I was getting tired of telling him no. He was more persistent than most guys. I tucked a strand of long dark hair behind my ear and looked at him expectantly.

“There’s this dinner…” He stopped when I took a deep breath and shot him a look. When I didn’t say anything, he continued. “It’s a charity event. My parents participate every year and asked me if I’d attend since they can’t make it down.”


“Next week.”



“I don’t do those types of events.” To say nothing of the fact that I didn’t have anything to wear that could even remotely be classified as “formal.”

“C’mon, Mia,” he breathed, with a groan. “It’s not like I’m asking you to marry me.”

My back straightened and a tense ball tightened between my shoulder blades. I tried to feel flattered by his obvious attraction, but I truly found it more of a hindrance to our quality study time. “I’m sorry. Please don’t take it personally. I just don’t date.”

He shook his head, blowing out a breath. “And you are never going to end up with anyone if the only guy you ever hang out with is gay.”

I breathed in through my nose and out through my mouth. I knew he didn’t mean any harm. He got along well with Heath, actually, had mentioned that Heath could take him easily (kind of a stupid comment because Heath could take out most guys—I was glad to have him on my side).

“What makes you think I’m interested in getting together with anyone?”

Jon sat back, frowning. He was a good study partner and a nice person or I really wouldn’t bother. But this was getting tiresome and I knew I needed to get him to drop his delusion or else start looking for a new study partner.

His face fell and I couldn’t suppress a twinge of regret. I’d never sought to hurt his feelings, so I figured I’d throw him a bone. “How about we go out for a celebratory drink after the test?”

His eyes lit up. He really was a good-looking guy. A guy I could see myself dating, if I dated. But I’d just about made it through all of undergrad without ever dating a single guy. We went out in groups and I’d been asked out here and there before word got out that I wasn’t here for social reasons.

Besides, spending almost all of my spare time playing online computer games and tinkering on my blog tended to kill a social life. And mine had died years ago.

“Okay.” He smiled and took up one of his computer-generated note cards. “Name all oxygen-containing compounds that are also acid derivatives.”

I took a deep breath, hoping that little concession to softness wouldn’t ultimately bite me in the ass. Then I answered the question.


The first ring of the phone was included in my dream. I was about to cut into a cadaver during my first year of Gross Anatomy in some nondescript medical school class. I’d placed my scalpel against the skin, ready to cut away the subcutaneous tissues, like I’d read in my books on cadaver dissection, and the corpse began to ring like a telephone.

On the second ring, I was ripped from my dream and so groggy I could hardly place where I was.

I checked the caller ID and fumbled for the receiver.

“Mom,” I breathed, reaching for the clock. Seven thirty a.m. Why did she always insist on calling so early?

“Were you sleeping?”

I cleared my throat. “No.”

“Liar,” she said. “You need to start training yourself to get up early. Doctors don’t keep late hours.”

“Aspiring doctors keep late hours when they have been up half the night studying.”

She sighed. “Well, that’s no good, either. If you end up exhausting yourself by the time that test rolls around, you won’t be worth a single question.”

I rolled my eyes as my head fell back onto the bed. Yeah, that made me feel so much better, Mom. Thanks. I settled my head against my warm pillow. “Why did you call me this fine morning?”

“I want to know if you need any money,” she said lightly.

I gritted my teeth, feeling my jaw bulge just under my cheeks. In my best light voice I said, “No. I’m just fine…”

“Last night when you weren’t home, I tried calling your cell phone.” Shit. She’d got the recording that said the phone was no longer in service.

“Oh, I must have forgotten to pay for more time.”

“Emilia Kimberly Strong.”

“I’m fine, Mom. I get paid this Friday.”

Irritation crawled up my spine like a swarm of ants in search of a picnic. Like she had the right to get upset with me for lying to her when she was lying to me in the first place! I’d seen the notice of mortgage default the last time I was at home. Second warning, third. Late fees.

She was barely afloat with the ranch. The entire time I was growing up she’d never had a mortgage. She’d bought the ranch outright when I was just a baby with the money that the Biological Sperm Donor—my not-so-affectionate term for the male who had fathered me—had paid her to go away and have her baby somewhere else.

“Mia, you’d tell me if you needed anything, wouldn’t you?” Mom, you’d tell me if you were about to be turned out by the bank, wouldn’t you? I longed to reply with those words but, as usual, lacked the courage to even bring it up.

The ranch—a sort of cross between a guest “dude” ranch and a western-themed B and B—was Mom’s livelihood. But she hadn’t been able to run it properly since the cancer diagnosis and treatment. So she’d had to take out a mortgage to help cover her medical bills.

I managed my fake-bright voice again. “Of course, of course. Love ya!”

“We haven’t even talked—what—”

And damned if the call waiting didn’t click through at that moment. I checked the ID. Thank you, Heath! If I could have reached through the phone wire and kissed him, I would. I loved that guy.

“Mom, Heath is calling through and I think it’s pretty important. Can I call you back?”

“I’ll call you. It’s long distance.”

“Okay. Maybe tomorrow?”

“Tell him I said ‘hi’ and I’m still waiting for him to come up with you next time so I can see him.”

“Sure, sure. Love you, Mom.” And I clicked off to take the waiting call, took a deep breath and sat up.



“What’s up?”

“I got it narrowed down to two guys. I’m going to meet with both of them within the next few days.”

“They’re in the area?”

“One of them doesn’t live too far away, actually. The other one is back east but he’s flying out on business this Thursday. I can meet him then.”

My heart kicked up to high-speed velocity. “Okay. What—what are they like?”

“The younger guy is only sixty-two—”

I tensed. “What?


I sat back in relief. Shoulda known. “Asshole.”

“The third guy was kinda up there. Almost fifty. He was a ‘no’ based on other criteria, too. The younger guy is only a few years older than me. The other one is in his thirties. Pretty yummy. I’d do him, but you know I like blonds.”

So the younger guy wasn’t blond. “What else can you tell me?”

“Rich as hell, of course. Both keenly interested, especially after I sent them the face shots.”

I rolled my eyes. Aside from his many other technical achievements—Heath designed and built websites for his day job—his beloved pastime was digital photography. And he was very gifted at it. He was the one who’d insisted, when I’d cooked up this crazy scheme in the first place, on dressing me up in a bikini (one I bought at Anthropologie and ended up returning because it was way beyond my price range). He took snapshots of me on the rocks of the jetty at Corona Del Mar beach.

The pictures he’d posted on the auction website were from the neck down. I guess I had a nice figure even if my breasts were pretty small. But I was on the taller side, which gave me the side effect of long legs. Nevertheless, I’d been pretty sure that my lack of surgical enhancement or fake bake tan would affect the results of the auction. But apparently that wasn’t the case.

Despite how much I knew it was time to get it over with and just lose it, it wasn’t just a matter of surrendering my virginity to the guy willing to pay the most. I had a carefully laid-out plan in place. First he’d have to submit to a thorough screening by my “bouncer.”

“Yes, I’m going to have to find a way to appropriate the one who doesn’t win you.”

I laughed. “Let me know how that works out for you. Then again, maybe not. I’d rather not know.”

“I’m meeting the Californian guy tomorrow for lunch in Irvine. After I meet the New Yorker, I’ll be in touch. I asked them both for medical records and I’m having some background checks run.”

“It all sounds good.”

“Mia, I need to tell you this again—it’s not too late to back out of this. Once money is exchanged and plans are made, it’s a done deal. But you still have that freedom to walk away and be completely anonymous. I mean, this is not an easy thing to ask of yourself. You’ve never had sex before and planning to do it with a complete stranger—”


“I mean, I did make sure to put into the language of the auction that you might require a ‘get to know you’ period. Maybe a few dates first so it’s not just so—sudden?”

I shook my head, trying to suppress a rising mound of frustration. We’d been over this before—several times. “I already told you I’d rather not know him. I just want to get it over with as quickly as possible. It’s not a romantic act for me—just a bit of skin. I have no emotional attachment to it. It’s high time I lost it. This way, I can move on with my life with a nice fat bank account.”

There was a long silence on the other end of the line. I sat up and squeezed my eyes shut and thought of my mom. She’d need another melanoma therapy vaccination soon and those came dear, especially with no medical insurance. She’d probably refuse to get it and choose to pay the mortgage instead. Anger at our helplessness burned at the edge of my awareness. “I told you I’m not backing out.”

“Okay. I just felt obligated to say it again.”

“And again. And again.”

“Right. Now I’m going to ask you another question that will annoy you.”

I braced myself but didn’t say anything.

“What do you think your shrink would say about this?”

I arched an eyebrow. “I haven’t seen Dr. Marbrow for years.” I couldn’t afford her anymore, either. “She released me to my own recognizance. Declared me all healed.”


“You think I’m crazy?”

He sighed. “I think that the shit you were dealing with takes a long time to get over.”

I swallowed. Six years wasn’t long enough? If not, then how much time would it take? A decade? Fifteen years?

“I’m a tough woman,” I breathed.

“Hell yeah, you are. I’m just saying—”

“Okay, that’s all the preach you get today. No more. Talk to you at the end of the week. I gotta start getting ready for work.”

“Are you logging in tonight?” he asked.

“It’s our regular game night. You know I’m always there.”

“Any word from Fallen?” Heath referred to a regular member of our group by his game name—FallenOne—as we all did, since he’d never given us his real name. We’d all been gaming together for over a year, along with another good friend from Canada, and Fallen hadn’t been making our regular group nights for nearly two months.

“I’m not sure what’s going on in his personal life right now.”
“He hasn’t told you? You two talk about everything.”

“Not anymore,” I said with a twinge of regret. I knew that Fallen read my blog. He’d vehemently opposed the Manifesto. We’d been up half the night chatting in game text chat and arguing about it. Was he upset with me because of the auction? The thought of losing friends over this thing didn’t please me, so I hoped this wasn’t the case.

After we ended our call, I hopped out of bed and into the shower, then pulled on my scrubs and headed to the hospital. And I tried to keep my mind on what I was doing and not the issues that Heath had dug up—nor the end results of the auction. With any luck, things would be all taken care of before I had to retake the MCAT. I could only hope, anyway.



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