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Mastered: Sapphire by Chantel Rhondeau, Emma Rose (1)

Isabella “Bella” Taylor

I sat in the office at Millionaire Partners, Inc. waiting as the woman across the desk decided my fate. Prudence Mora was as beautiful as they came, looking every bit the proper lady. I imagined she was what men looking for a contract bride wanted. Elegant, beautifully dressed, makeup perfectly in place.

Comparing her to my own somewhat bedraggled state, I had to wonder if there was any way I’d be approved to join the club. Whatever it took to become a potential bride, I had to figure it out. My roommate had married the man of her dreams last month, and they were both sick of me intruding on their happy life. Finding another roommate who could deal with my special brand of weirdness had become an impossible task.

Add to that the fact that my job wanted to switch me to the night shift, I was at a loss as to what to do. Perhaps it was weird for a twenty-five-year-old woman to be so afraid of the dark, but there was no way I could keep my job unless I found a roommate willing to pick me up at night. Facing the darkness alone was intolerable.

When my current roommate suggested jokingly that I join Millionaire Partners, Inc. and find a contracted husband, at first, we’d simply laughed about it. As the weeks slipped by with me no closer to finding a new living arrangement, combined with the terror I felt while waiting outside my job for my roommate to pick me up, I’d looked into the club a bit more seriously.

What I found had surprised me. There were a lot of marriage deals happening, enough that Millionaire Partners, Inc. had one to two parties a month. Men came from all over the country, needing a bride for various reasons. The women were well-compensated monetarily for whatever time they spent with their husband, and I might have a chance to work on the fear that trapped me in my home at night. A rich husband could put countless resources at my disposal.

Prudence finished looking over whatever she’d pulled up on her computer screen, flashing me an unhappy gaze. “What’s this I see about you having a police record?”

Heaving an internal sigh, I gave my best smile. “A while back, I was robbed. The man who wanted my money sliced my neck open when I didn’t give it to him.”

Prudence’s eyes widened. “Why would you get a complaint against you for that?”

“No, the complaint came later. I was out by myself at night a couple years ago and another man approached me. He grabbed my arm, and I sprayed him with mace to get away.” I gave her a wry grin and shook my head, feeling silly now about the situation. “Turns out, he was the cashier at the store I’d just left. I forgot my car keys, and he tried to return them to me.”

“Oops.”

“Yes, oops. I was so scared, I hadn’t heard what he said and reacted first. The cops decided I was at fault, and I was given a citation for assault. They downgraded it to a public nuisance ticket, so that’s what happened.”

“Not so scandalous, Isabelle. Many women alone at night would have reacted the same.” Prudence finally smiled. “I think this shouldn’t exclude you, but I’ll include the information about it on your menu.”

“My menu?” I raised my eyebrows, unsure what she meant.

“Welcome to the club,” Prudence replied. “By menu, I mean the information the men will have access to before meeting you. I need you to fill out the rest of the welcome packet, so I can include all your information for the prospective husbands. Also, I’ll get you all groomed and prettied up, then we’ll take pictures.”

I’d heard about this when I researched the company. There was a rumor that I’d have to take nude photos, even though it was all kept hush-hush. “Naked photos, right?”

Prudence nodded. “I see you’ve heard. You aren’t allowed to talk about this outside the club, of course. If you heard rumors, I’m sure you also learned what happens to girls who break the contract or hurt my business in any way.”

Even though she gave another smile, the malice in it caused me to shudder. Indeed, I’d heard rumors. Rumors of human trafficking and Prudence selling off any women who caused her problems. I wasn’t sure how true that was, but I’d heard from reliable sources that problem brides were never heard from again.

“I understand, Prudence,” I said. “I’m okay with photos, and I’ll never breathe a word of it to anyone.”

“Great.” She leaned forward, handing me a business card. “Go to the address on that card and get yourself beautified tonight. Come back tomorrow to get the photos taken. I expect the information packet to be ready then as well. The next party is in three weeks and I have a surplus of men. I need you to get everything done in time. Don’t disappoint me.”

Three weeks. My roommate would be thrilled to hear she and her husband only had to put up with me a short while longer. If I caught the eye of one of the men at the party, I could start a new life. Maybe it wasn’t the most respectable solution, but at least I’d never have to worry about walking home from work in the dark again. With a rich husband bound by a contract, I could make part of the agreement be that I was never left alone in the dark.

It was scary to wonder what sort of man might become my new ‘master,’ as Prudence referred to her clients, but at least I could move on to something different than the life I’d clung to for the past eight years after the attack I suffered.

It was time to move forward. Time to find a way to control my own life again.