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The Billionaire’s Wayward Virgin by Emily Tilton – Sample

Chapter One


The New Modesty would never have worked for me. I knew that, at the bottom of my heart, at the back of my mind, even in the pit of my stomach, from the very beginning.

What I didn’t expect was that they knew it too. The NMA. The New Modesty Authority, if you want to dignify them with the ‘official’ title they put on the signs they plaster onto the storefronts of the failing towns they buy, more or less.

Selecta, really: the megacorp that claims they don’t buy towns, and even that the NMA functions as an autonomous corporate-governmental partnership.

That’s what the lady across the desk from me at Harristown’s NMA office said. The Selecta bottled water with which they had stocked my fridge during my disastrous two weeks in the New Modesty told me a different story.

“We have a relationship,” Mrs. Covenant explained, “with certain programs run through Selecta’s lifestyle division.”

Yeah, right. It’s all a front for corporate shenanigans. And this is an excuse to take my subsidy away because I didn’t want to go out with any of the losers you matched me with.

“Like what, Mrs. Covenant?” I asked innocently. I even batted my eyes—not theatrically, because I had enough intelligence to know I shouldn’t antagonize her—but just twice, to suggest that my failure in the New Modesty could be attributed to my inexperience. Maybe she wouldn’t kick me out today.

I definitely didn’t think I’d get better suitors, but another two weeks of the subsidy, nestled away in my bank account, might well keep me going for a year in the city or even in a non-corporate town. True, things had gotten dangerous out there without corporate security to shore up the resources of the dwindling police, but despite the appearance I put up for Mrs. Covenant, I had street smarts. I felt confident I could at least avoid the labor camps, with the help of the New Modesty’s money.

The middle-aged woman with the iron-gray hair gave me a patient smile.

“The one I’m thinking of for you, Leah, is called Selecta Arrangements. I’ve sent a link to your email. Why don’t you go out to the lobby and take a look at the materials on your phone?”

I frowned at her, genuinely confused but trying to make my puzzlement as winsome as possible.

“Maybe I could take a look at home?”

Mrs. Covenant’s smile didn’t waver as she shook her head.

“You won’t be going back there, Leah. Your bags will be packed for you and brought here. You’ll be leaving Harristown on this afternoon’s bus to Los Angeles. The only question is where you’ll be getting off that bus: if you don’t sign a contract with Selecta Arrangements today, you’ll get off in East LA.”

My jaw dropped. I realized to my horror that it wouldn’t make any difference to argue: my New Modesty contract undoubtedly had words to that effect, in harmless-seeming legalese.

“And if… if I…”

“If you do sign a contract, you’ll go to Beverly Hills, where a small but luxurious apartment will be waiting for you. As a courtesy, girls coming out of the New Modesty have the opportunity to join Selecta Arrangements as associate members at the platinum level.”

Again my mouth opened in astonishment, and again I had nothing worth saying. I didn’t want to look like a complete idiot in front of Mrs. Covenant, so I didn’t say, Beverly Hills?, as if I had somehow both failed elementary school geography and never seen a TV show set in southern California.

“Why don’t you go out to the lobby and take a look?” the woman across from me said, an unexpected note of sympathy coming into her voice.

Out in the reception area I saw, with a hot blush, that my luggage had already arrived. Someone had packed it all up in my nice little New Modesty apartment—nice, but definitely not ‘luxurious.’ Someone had driven it the half mile or so from the housing complex to the office. Someone had put it here, in the corner of the lobby, for me to find—all of it as if to demonstrate to me how Selecta’s famous, seamless customer service could do everything behind the scenes to make our modern world run smoothly.

For those who can pay, I thought. They’re riding me out of Harristown on a rail, smoothly and seamlessly, because I wouldn’t date the men who would pay.

Frowning deeply, I sat down on the chair nearest to my luggage and took out my phone. I opened my email. Before I refreshed, the top mail in my inbox was still the one that had summoned me to the meeting with Mrs. Covenant. I opened it and read it again, in hope of steeling myself against whatever temptation Selecta would send my way next.

Dear Leah,

I hope this mail finds you well. I’m writing to ask you to come into the New Modesty Authority office today at 11 a.m. for a meeting with me. I’ve verified on your calendar that you’re free at that time, and I look forward to seeing you.

As you’re no doubt aware, your contract with the NMA requires you to meet the suitors we decide are a potential match for you, and to go on one fully subsidized date with any suitor who chooses to schedule a date with you. Two suitors did schedule dates with you after your meet-and-greet session, and they both reported that you did not answer the door when they called for you.

I look forward to discussing your next steps in the New Modesty program and beyond.

With warm regards,

Mrs. Robert Covenant

Harristown Municipal Liaison

New Modesty Authority

I had expected to have the chance to argue my case, such as it was. I hadn’t liked any of the men at the awful meet-and-greet speed-dating session, but the two who had decided to sign up for dates with me—without, I noted, any sort of heads-up to me—had been the worst of them: casually domineering, asking about me as if they had a right to know, clearly convinced by the New Modesty’s bullshit about male-led marriage as the answer to society’s woes.

Online, you could read tons of stories from New Modesty girls who claimed they had gamed the system. Some of them said that by not answering the door for the ones you didn’t like you could keep the subsidy going, even if you didn’t intend to date anyone, let alone get married. I didn’t know whether those girls had lied, or their NMA agents had given them more leeway, or what. Mrs. Robert Covenant—the antique patriarchal signature made my skin crawl—definitely didn’t give any leeway, my luggage seemed to confirm.

My email app had refreshed on its own, and the mail the woman had sent appeared at the top.

Selecta Arrangements: Information for Prospective Platinum-Level Associate Members

‘Platinum-level’? I despised myself for it, but the promise of luxury always seemed to make my heart beat faster.

Are you ready to find love in the way that suits your independent but still feminine lifestyle? the email asked. If you are, Selecta Arrangements is the dating service for you—and if you’re reading this mail, you may qualify for platinum-level attention from prospective sponsors who can make your dreams come true!

‘Sponsors’? I couldn’t help liking that word almost as much as I liked ‘platinum-level.’

Selecta Arrangements isn’t for everyone, the corporate ad-speak voice warned me next, but if you can agree to a few terms designed to keep you and your sponsor happy, it may be for you. And at platinum level, a little more personal investment on your part can result in sky-high rewards from the prequalified men who will see your profile.

I frowned. What did ‘a little more personal investment’ mean?

So if you’re intrigued, go ahead and click here to start making your profile. Taking that step will mean two weeks of comfortable living in a Selecta Arrangements subsidized apartment at one of our SA complexes.

Well, Selecta seemed consistent at least: that part I knew about from my experience in the New Modesty.

After those two weeks, satisfactory progress—just answering your messages and going on one date, if a sponsor takes an interest—will mean a one-month renewal.

That seemed a good deal more reasonable than Harristown, where girls had to let their ‘suitors’ schedule dates.

That’s it! So why not go ahead and make your profile right now?

My mouth twisted to the side as I thought about it. I couldn’t consider myself a fan of Selecta, and my natural distrust of anything a megacorp thought would help me made me reluctant even to take the apparently no-obligation step of making a profile. Dangling a luxury apartment in Beverly Hills in front of my needy eyes struck me as a cruel tactic, even for them—and it made me even more mistrustful.

For all its absurdity and all the disappointment I felt in not having been able to game the system as I had hoped, though, the New Modesty hadn’t hurt me in any way, had it? I mean, along with the stories of successfully conning Selecta out of months of subsidies without dating, there were the stories about suitors punishing New Modesty girls, but that hadn’t happened to me.

And even after having flunked out much more quickly than I had expected, the NMA had thrown me this lifeline. Call it a two-week California vacation.

I tapped the link to take me to the Selecta Arrangements app. I didn’t even need to download anything, it seemed: this app had installed itself as part of my installing the New Modesty app.

A terms-of-use screen came up. I grimaced, and agreed. It hardly seemed worth considering what all I had just consented to; Selecta already had me by the proverbial short and curlies, didn’t they?

Importing your data! an inexplicably cheerful pop-up text box informed me.

“I’ll bet you are,” I said sourly, as if my phone—as if Selecta itself, themself, whatever—could hear me.

Actually, I thought with a little chill down my spine, they probably can, right?

The import took just long enough to make me wonder how much data I had just given away. Again, though: Selecta already had it, right? What could it hurt to shunt it off to another of the megacorp’s myriad divisions?

Import complete! my phone told me, and then the pop-up vanished to reveal my new life.

Welcome to Selecta Arrangements, Leah! the app said, accompanied by a collage of pictures of pretty young women, some of them on dates with handsome, well-dressed men. Let’s take a few moments to get you set up.

I tapped, a little impatiently, to get to the next screen.

This is your profile as your potential sponsors will see it, said a pop-up, as elsewhere on the screen I saw the picture—the really hot picture, I had to confess—the New Modesty Authority had taken of me. Red hair to my shoulders, caught in a fetching ponytail. Green eyes looking back frankly at the camera, a quirky, winsome smile on my slightly freckled face. Just enough of my upper body, clad in a pink fashion tee, to show my b-cup breasts.

No wonder the New Modesty suitors reported me when I didn’t answer my door, I couldn’t help thinking. Who wouldn’t want to date me?

Below the photo, the specs.

Name: Leah R.

Age: 19

Build: Athletic

Damn straight: I didn’t run three times a week to wind up in the Skinny category—the New Modesty Authority had actually made me submit the feed from my fitness app to earn a place in Athletic.

Who I am and what I’m looking for:

I saw that they’d taken the statement from my New Modesty profile, and I winced as I looked over it.

I’m just a small-town girl. You know, the kind who doesn’t mind dressing up but who’s more comfortable in her blue jeans. I did pretty well in high school, but I wanted to start living, and I grew up thinking that began with a stable home.

It could have been written by an AI. I’d actually copied it almost verbatim from the website where I’d found the stories of the girls who claimed to have gamed the system.

I clicked the edit button. The ever-helpful app gave me another pop-up, confirming what I already suspected: Girls like you in the Selecta Arrangements program tend to get the best results when they convey a readiness to please their potential sponsors.

“You don’t know me,” I told the app, sort of hoping someone at Selecta would actually hear my scornful tone.

I typed I’m.

To my surprise, the app responded with yet another pop-up.

You’re eligible for platinum-level sponsorship. I can write a profile for you to review and edit, if you’d like.

Frowning, I tapped yes.

Chapter Two


Hi! I’m Leah! the app wrote, each word appearing as if a real person were typing them on a keyboard. I know you’re busy, so I won’t waste your time.

Okay, I supposed that made sense. It seemed like Selecta Arrangements catered to successful men. I had no objections, especially if the successful men liked to buy presents for the girls they dated.

I like puppies and rainbows, obviously. I also read heady sci-fi and watch true crime shows. So, you know: a range of interests.

I tried hard not to be impressed by what the AI had come up with. I found it difficult, though, not to credit it with having managed to reduce my principal interests into three quick sentences.

I’m a small town girl, and I’m so excited to see what LA has to offer. I’m looking for a guy who can show me the best parts of the city, then take me back to my place for some more intimate moments.

“Whoa whoa whoa,” I told whoever might be lurking out in cyberspace, covertly listening to my phone’s mic. My face had gone red.

I had no illusions that the New Modesty didn’t have to do with sex. The websites I had consulted had made it clear that if you wanted to keep the subsidy past the six-month mark, you would almost certainly have to sleep with a guy. I had of course naively assumed that I would meet someone to whom I felt at least mildly attracted, a man with whom I could, you know, get it over with.

I didn’t think of myself as a virgin, because that seemed like a stupid way to talk about a young woman who didn’t care very much about sex and romantic love. At least not the way it looked in the movies. Technically, I guessed, I was indeed a virgin. Worse, I blushed at sex scenes, and fast-forwarded them when I watched TV alone.

Really, I just wanted not to have to worry about it; I supposed that represented an important reason I had signed up for the New Modesty. A program that seemed designed to help me get it over with without thinking about it, even one that told me flat out that I should end up married if everything went according to plan, didn’t seem too bad of a proposition. The problem had come in the form of the losers I had actually met in Harristown.

Everything about Selecta Arrangements seemed to want me to think that the guys I would have the chance to date in LA would make the men of Harristown look like precisely the immature schoolboys I had found at the meet-and-greet. The price of the upgrade, though, seemed to have just reared its head.

More intimate moments.

I didn’t have to have a college degree to understand a good deal more about Selecta Arrangements than I had before, just from those three words, as delicately as the AI had put them. These busy, successful men would expect to be well rewarded for showing a girl what LA has to offer, in the only coin a young woman in my position truly possessed.

Well, I supposed, that represented one way to get it over with.

Submit profile?

I tapped yes.

Great news, Leah! Your profile’s been approved, and potential platinum-level sponsors are already looking at it. You’ll be getting private messages soon, we promise—in the meantime, why not check out the official Selecta Arrangements forums to see what other girls are saying about the program, and what tips they have to offer for making that perfect arrangement?

I tapped that button, too. Official forum, scrubbed of anything negative, obviously, I thought as the message boards came up on my screen. There had to be unofficial forums, too—just like for the New Modesty. Despite myself, I started to feel the tug of curiosity.

Here was another system to game: I had gotten two weeks of free living out of Harristown. Surely LA would treat me at least as well.

“Leah Rundin?” a woman’s voice asked from the doorway. I looked up to see a bus driver who had just entered the lobby. She had already crossed half the distance to me, the only person there, her attention on the luggage that had probably already informed her of my being the passenger she sought.

“That’s me,” I said, putting my phone away and rising to grab my bags.

“I’ll get those for you,” the woman said. “Platinum-level thing. You can go ahead and get on the bus.”

I could get used to this, I thought as I walked out to the bus with the vivid red, whooshy Selecta Lines Deluxe logo on the side. A private jet would have suited me better, I decided, but a luxury bus would make a good start anyway.

As the smooth-riding vehicle made its way from the flatlands of the Midwest up and through the Rockies, I alternated my time between gawking at the scenery from my plush seat and scrolling through page after page of posts from girls in the program I quickly learned to abbreviate SA. I started with the official forums.

Keep it positive, girls!

That post, the top pinned one on the General Discussion forum, had thousands of replies from associate members. It took me a moment to remember that girls like me were only associate members of SA. The real members of the program were the sponsors: the men who paid Selecta for the privilege of messaging the young women whose profiles must, I saw, number similarly in the thousands.

If that thought hadn’t already made my heart sink a little despite the gorgeous mountain scenery, the posts in the Keep it positive, girls! thread would definitely have done the trick.

The original post didn’t do that; it was the replies that gave me pause as to whether I’d just made a terrible decision. The original post, if it were real, came from an associate member whose story alternately scared, fascinated, and encouraged me—and finally, I had to admit, moved me a little bit too.

I don’t want to gloat or anything, a girl called AZHotty had written a little more than a year ago, but I do want to help y’all stay positive even when this SA thing doesn’t seem to be working out. When I first got into the program, I had like four or five dates a week with economy and moderate guys.

Those terms puzzled me: I had to go to the FAQ section of the SA app to learn that sponsors came in ‘flavors’ as the app called them—economic rankings, more like, I quickly realized, depending on how much a guy said he intended to spend on his ‘Selecta Arrangements lifestyle.’ Economy, Moderate, Comfort, and Luxury.

I also learned that as an associate member, if I found a sponsor he would give me a monthly allowance, in line with the financial flavor he had chosen. That made me blush, but at the same time it helped me understand the appeal to both sides of the equation, struggling young woman and wealthy man.

True, according to the standards I had learned, growing up in a more-or-less traditional family, girls shouldn’t even think about taking money on such terms. But how did it differ, really, from the New Modesty—or even from traditional dating, where the guy paid for dinner and expected to get ‘intimacy’ to use the term all the associate members used on the forums?

AZHotty went on, I didn’t ever even get a PM from a comfort-level sponsor, let alone a luxury guy. But I kept it positive, you know? And I found a moderate sponsor, and even though I kind of thought I would just take a month’s allowance and jet, it didn’t turn out that way.

So the story’s a little weird, and a lot of you probably won’t believe me, but I feel, like, an obligation to share it anyway. There’s a lot of debate even here on the official forums—and a lot more in other places—about the submission thing. Some girls claim they’ve never met a potential sponsor who expects them to submit to his loving guidance. Some girls claim they’ve never met one who DOESN’T expect it.

My lips parted, as if I wanted to object to AZHotty’s words, despite her having written them long ago, and there being no one to hear me—unless of course my phone was in fact listening. I closed them and swallowed hard.

Loving guidance. What did it even mean?

Well, when ‘Steve’ (I’ll just call him that, not his real name obvi) told me on our first date that he expected to ‘take the lead’ and that he wanted to ‘help me grow,’ I really did think I would take him for a month’s allowance and, you know, rinse him away. Unlike the other guys who I’d gone out with, he actually said he’d pay my allowance before intimacy.

I swallowed hard again. If most potential sponsors expected to have those more intimate moments before they decided on giving you an allowance… The heat that had receded from my cheeks as I read the post came rushing back.

You’re thinking, did she even read the fine print?

The what? My eyes went wide. For a moment my heart quailed at the thought that I might have to read through all of those thousands of words I had so carelessly agreed to. AZHotty saved me the trouble, though very much to my distress, as the burning in my cheeks became a bonfire.

Yes, I did. I knew I could get my ass beat.

My brain immediately tried to dismiss the words as a figure of speech. AZHotty must mean that she knew she could lose, somehow, in that situation.

And, surprise, surprise, Steve spanked me on our first date after I had accepted his offer.

Nope. I shook my head, sitting there looking out at the mountains.

But I couldn’t stop reading.

I sassed him, and I ended up over his knee with my panties down. Corner time and everything. It sucked.

Another hard swallow. The whole surface of my body felt like flames of mortification had begun to lick across it, threatening to ignite my limbs.

Until, AZHotty wrote, it didn’t. I kept it positive: I looked on the bright side. I realized—Steve helped me think this through, BTW—that I wouldn’t have signed up for SA if part of me hadn’t known that I needed a man like him.

I shook my head slowly. My mouth, I realized, had opened again, and I had started to breathe in short, anxious pants.

Plus, and here’s the real reason to keep it positive, Steve only put moderate on his profile because he didn’t want gold diggers accepting him for the wrong reason. My sponsor and soon-to-be husband is a flippin’ billionaire.

My jaw went even slacker.

Like I said, I don’t want to make anyone feel bad. I just think it wouldn’t have worked out for me this way if I hadn’t kept it positive. Flame me, call bullshit, whatever. Just tryna help.

I frowned, pondering whether I could trust the story in the slightest. A quick glance down the replies indicated that the vast majority of other girls replying to AZHotty had indeed called bullshit on the story.

AZHotty herself had only made one subsequent post in the thread, which distressed me almost as much as it encouraged me. One of the associate members who had replied had called her out in a specific way, and AZHotty had declared herself innocent of the charge.

BadBitch8213 had written, This is such a load of crap. Any girl who thinks she can not put out, not do the nude pics, etc., and get a sponsor, even an economy one, should get her effin head examined.

AZHotty’s reply came in a single line: Did I say I didn’t do the nude pics?

Chapter Three


I went back to the FAQ. Two thirds of the way through them, I found it.

Do I have to post nude photos on my profile?

It seemed like a very reasonable question to me, and whoever wrote Selecta’s answer to it also seemed to approach the matter from a reasonable standpoint. At least at first.

No. Putting nude photos on your profile is permitted, but absolutely not required.

Things got murkier, and—to me, anyway—less reasonable, as the answer progressed.

Many associate members find that they get better results if they do use the opportunity, provided by Selecta Arrangements free of charge in the comfort of their Selecta housing, to have intimate photos taken. We hear from many SA members that they appreciate the opportunity to see and to evaluate potential connections in that way. Your privacy is guaranteed: SA members are held to the highest standard of conduct, and moreover are financially liable—to Selecta and to you—for any violations.

“What the fuck?” I whispered, as if I didn’t want even my phone—or Selecta, through my phone—to hear. It got worse, though.

Note that associate members at the platinum level are required to post intimate photos. See the Platinum page for details.

I put my phone away and stared out the window. The bus stopped somewhere in Utah. There were a dozen or so of us, four or five of them young women about my age who had the same air I supposed I did, of mild dislocation. We didn’t speak, but I assumed they, too, had gotten caught up in the Selecta system and were on their way to LA for the same reason.

The rest of the passengers were men who looked like low-level management types or maybe veterans—or both. At the rest stop, I overheard snatches of a conversation between two of them: they had discovered that they were headed for the same Selecta water reclamation facility in Nevada, and they talked quietly about how good the pay would be, in comparison to what they could find in the Midwest.

“The megacorps, you know,” one of them said. “Say what you want, but they know how to run things.”

I watched a stupid action movie on my phone between Utah and Nevada. I had five rom-coms downloaded, but I refused to watch any of them because I knew they would make me think about Selecta Arrangements, and what would happen when we got to Beverly Hills. Could I still ask to be let off in East LA?

I couldn’t concentrate on the movie. I kept looking around at the other girls, all of them sleeping or watching videos like me. Were they going to Beverly Hills too?

The two water-reclamation guys got off in Nevada, soon after we crossed the border. My phone said we were thirty miles northeast of Las Vegas. Three of the young women got off there too, to my surprise. I thought I saw one of the water guys checking out the girls, and I wondered whether Selecta had programs within programs within programs—all designed to ensure the satisfaction of the affluent male consumer.

Most of all, it seemed, the platinum-level male consumer.

As the bus pulled away, headed for California, I stopped the movie on my phone and went back to the Selecta Arrangements FAQ. My heart raced as I tapped the Platinum page.

It appeared the app had anticipated the force of my curiosity.

Welcome to Platinum, Leah! it said cheerily. As a pre-selected platinum-level associate member, you’re going to have access to a range of potential sponsors who are looking for someone very special. These men at the comfort and luxury levels have paid extra to have the opportunity to meet you, and all you need to do is follow a few extra guidelines to make sure your profile reaches their inboxes in our daily SA Platinum email.

We know from our extensive market research that many of our wealthiest members read the SA Platinum email every day. You don’t want to miss this opportunity, Leah!

Tap here for the details and requirements.

My mouth had twisted firmly to the left side of my face as I read, trying to puzzle out the doubtless embarrassing meaning behind the sales-speak. When I tapped, though, and saw the details and requirements, I didn’t have to puzzle any further.

In order to attain, and to maintain, platinum-level associate membership, you must:

  1. Fulfill the maintenance standard for gold (standard) associate membership: go on at least one date per two-week period (if any are requested by one or more member(s)), and have no more than two unresolved complaints from members.

That sounded a little ominous, but since Selecta saw fit to provide a subsidy, I couldn’t see much reason to object. Things got dicier from there, however.

  1. Schedule an intimate photoshoot, in the comfort of your Selecta Housing apartment, with a Selecta-certified photographer (all photographers are female professionals), and post at least three photos from that shoot on your profile.

The app even put a helpful link there: Schedule My Photoshoot.

I thought about the post in the official forums, from AZHotty. How blasé her reply had seemed: Did I say I didn’t do the nude pics?

For a moderate sponsor—who then, if I believed it, turned out to be a billionaire. Whereas on the ‘platinum-level’ all the men seeing me in their daily email would be wealthy.

Keep it positive, girls!

I felt my frown get so deep I thought I might get wrinkles. I kept reading.

  1. Agree in advance to abide by your sponsor’s rules, if any, and to accept his chosen discipline, if any. (Platinum-level sponsors are invited to submit a schedule of rules and disciplinary measures. You will be able to see that schedule on their profiles, if they message you.)

I realized I had started to shake my head slowly back and forth. I almost felt like the worst part was knowing I had the choice—I could get off in East LA, or I could go to Beverly Hills but not do the weird, mortifying platinum thing.

I knew I would do it, though. I waited to tap ‘Schedule My Photoshoot’ until the only passengers on the bus were a middle-aged manager type and me. The rest of the young women, as well as the men, had gotten off in East LA. I had stayed in my seat, thinking I should get up and get off but somehow glued there.

The bus pulled out. I tapped the link.

Six timeslots available tomorrow in your apartment complex!

The photographer rang the doorbell of my gorgeous new apartment at exactly 10:00 the next morning. The screen built into my new nightstand flashed, and the apartment’s artificial feminine voice said, “Visitor at the door. Selecta-certified photographer Mary Smith.”

I still didn’t know my way around, and I bumped into the back of the couch as I stumbled from under the covers straight toward the front door. I had a small bedroom with a surprisingly big bed, and a slightly larger living room. The kitchen and dining area had a table for two, off to the left as I found my way in the darkness; the blackout curtains, I couldn’t help noticing, blocked out the light completely.

To help me sleep? I wondered. More likely for complete privacy. One thing I’d learned on the forums was that sponsors generally preferred to take SA girls back to their subsidized apartments for those more intimate moments. It felt a bit invasive, but it undoubtedly represented the reason I had such a nice apartment.

For the convenience of my sponsor, I thought a little sourly as I made my way almost blindly toward the front door.

Indeed, ‘for the convenience of your sponsor’ seemed to be a phrase that popped up a lot in the SA app’s instructions and advice concerning my new life.

For the convenience of your sponsor, it’s a good idea to keep your calendar free in the evenings.

For the convenience of your sponsor, when you accept his allowance offer, the controls of your apartment will be put at his disposal.

Neither of those sent the anxiety crawling in my belly, though, the way the one I saw in the ‘Dating Do’s and Don’ts’ section did.

For the convenience of your sponsor, we suggest wearing skirts and dresses on your dates, rather than pants.

I put my hands out to steady myself on the couch and turn toward where I remembered the front door being. The feeling of the high-end upholstery under my fingers reminded me of my new home’s opulence, despite its size: the way the door had opened automatically to my touch as it sensed the information from the SA app on my phone; the stunningly high-end design that had greeted my eyes when I had walked in late the previous night; the fridge fully stocked with prepared food.

“Lights,” I said, after fumbling at the wall for a switch and remembering that it didn’t exist. The recessed lighting around me blazed to life.

The artificial voice said, “The lights command will turn the lights in your immediate vicinity on or off. You may also turn specific rooms’ lights on or off by name. Would you like to try that now?”

“No,” I croaked, realizing for the first time that I had on only my sleeping t-shirt and a pair of gray cotton panties. I had reached the door: the small screen right next to it had a video feed from the hallway, where I saw a middle-aged woman in khaki shorts and a white polo shirt. She had a camera bag slung over her shoulder.

I frowned, my heart suddenly racing as my mind woke up enough to remember the details of this appointment. I reached my finger out toward the Talk button under the screen, then hesitated, trying to figure out what sort of attitude to take. The photographer, Selecta had made very clear, worked for them. Remembering Mrs. Covenant in Harristown and how badly she had fucked up my life simply for not answering the door, I resolved to show as much eagerness as I could—to become a good SA associate member, to take advantage of the privilege of platinum level, to do whatever it took to make this work.

Did I actually feel that way? Of course not. If I meant to game the system, though, and get as much subsidy as I could, I would have to start here, with the Selecta photographer, despite the embarrassment involved.

I pushed the Talk button.

“Hi!” I said. “I’m really sorry… I just woke up. Can you—”

The photographer interrupted me, her voice gruff.

“Leah Rundin?” she asked.

“Yes?” I replied in the most pleasant voice I could muster. I tried hard to keep down my reflexive rudeness, to match this Mary Smith’s own lack of manners.

“Leah, sweetie,” the photographer said, looking straight into the camera, “I have a busy day. Go ahead and let me in, please.”

The please sounded like an afterthought.

“But—” I started.

Mary interrupted again.

“I don’t care what you’re wearing, sweetie. Do you remember what kind of pictures we’re taking this morning?”

I felt the heat flash into my cheeks. The woman’s brusque tone of voice and the frank way she looked at me through the screen, as if she could see me as well as I could see her, made my heart quail.

“I… I guess I’ll just cancel… I mean…”

“Leah,” the photographer said, “you don’t want to do that. You’ll be out on your butt in a few days if you don’t fulfill the qualifications for this place. Go ahead and let me in.”

I swallowed hard. Then I reached for the door handle and opened it.

Mary looked me up and down with such assessing eyes that I wanted to put my hands up to cover myself: my t-shirt’s fabric, I knew, was thin enough that she could see my nipples, which had to my dismay gotten inexplicably stiff. It simply didn’t help that I had agreed to this ‘intimate’ photoshoot: something about the photographer’s gaze and what it said about Selecta Arrangements’ platinum level made me feel I had gotten myself in over my head.

“We’ll start in the living room,” Mary told me. “Go ahead in there and take your clothes off.”

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