Trick – Scarlett Dawn

The sea raged or calmed, terrifying or peaceful, no different than a single teenager’s many moods. Saltwater rained down on my body, stinging my eyes. My breath became a billowing vapor as it hit the cold air, the biting wind making me rub my gloved hands together. Shivers beat at my body as I stood in place while beady eyes stared out from the net above me. Mouths opened and closed, as the squirming sea life was unable to live outside its safe home—safe no longer. The fish were unaware they were going to die. Surprise still had their tiny gazes darting back forth. It wasn’t until my boss released the net, from the miniature crane attached to our boat, that the fish understood that life was no longer as it should be. Their slippery bodies flopped all along the wooden decking, spreading out like blood from a fatal wound. I whipped my right hand into the air at my coworkers for today, and barked, “Let’s round them up!” Jacob and Randy rushed forward. They were new. It was obvious by their stumbling steps, the harsh waves having left them hanging over the side of the boat, chucking up their morning meals. But they were quick, their hands purposeful, and their builds strong with youth. I used an oversized broom to push the wiggling beasts toward the hatch in the center of the deck. I peeked to my boss, stepping around the crane, and gifted a barely noticeable nod in his direction.

The two newbies would do if he ever wanted to try them again. They merely needed to earn their sea legs—and not eat so much for breakfast. Butch’s lips twitched. He nodded in return, trusting in my judgment. The burly man and I had been working together since I was fifteen, now almost twenty-five. After ten years of being side-byside every damn day of the year, we had faith in one another, the man the closest thing to a father I would ever know. Grabbing Randy’s shoulders with a firm grip, Butch yanked him back three steps and pointed with his free hand to open the hatch. He shook his head. “Boy, you don’t want to fall where the fishes go to die. ‘Cause I don’t give a shit if you break your leg down there.

I won’t be climbing down to help you. Got me?” Randy’s blond head bobbed under his yellow hat. He would need a new one from the employment office. That one was too large on him, flopping down into his eyes. With a throat hoarse from puking for the last three hours, he rumbled, “Yes, sir.” Butch slapped his shoulder once. “Good.” He kicked a stray fish down into the hole while we continued to work. “And bring some damn gum with you next time. If you puke tomorrow, I don’t want to smell it on your breath again.

” My shoulders shook under my thick, yellow rain jacket, humor bubbling up inside my gut, and I stared down at my work. My boss couldn’t smell a damn thing out here other than fish. Even when we were on dry land, he and I couldn’t smell anything other than ourselves. And we smelled like…fish. A hazard of the job. But it paid well enough. So much so, I wouldn’t give up my spot on Butch’s boat. I had a decent savings account now thanks to befriending the robust man many years ago. That and my living expenses paid for by the tax dollars of New City residents while I lived in the New City Orphanage. It was free to live there, so I stayed.

It wasn’t a bad place to lay my head. There was no reason to blow money when I didn’t have to, and I liked seeing my savings account flourish. It just kept rising and rising. Like the damn waves coming in from the west… I hollered, “Butch, it’s about that time.” I jerked my head to the incoming storm as I shoved the last of the fish down into the open hole. Butch peered off into the distance and whistled low. “Winter is brewing.” I snorted. “I know. I need to get a new damn jacket.

” I tossed the broom to Jacob, watching his long-legged form to make sure he put it in the correct compartment. “I gave my old one to one of the new girls. She was as tiny as a damn doe. And she’s close to my age!” “That was nice of you, Faith.” He whacked my back with his large hand, and a grin spread across his features when I didn’t move, my thin frame solid and strong from hard labor. “I’m going to miss you.” I narrowed my eyes. “I still have tomorrow with you. Don’t say good-bye yet.” Instead of listening to me, the big man pulled me into a rough hug.

Butch held me for a long moment, long enough that my eyes burned with unshed tears. I wrapped my arms around him and gripped tight. With my face plastered to his jacket, my voice muffled, I said, “I’m going to miss you too. More than you’ll ever know.” “Aw, kid.” He rubbed my back, comforting me. “It might not be that bad. You may end up liking the man you marry.” I sniffled. Once.

“I hope so.” But I was scared. God, I was so frightened. I’d never tell anyone that. But I was. CHAPTER TWO The ghastly Marriage Match sign shined down on me, daring me to walk through the doors that night. I would be twenty-five soon. By law, women had to be married by that age if they didn’t join the Corporate Army before then. While I was healthy enough for the CA, I had absolutely no fighting skills—other than street smarts. I would last a day in the Corporate Army’s trials.

So marriage it was. I swallowed down my nerves and walked into the building. The business was closed this late at night, except for one cubicle where the light shone inside. I walked straight toward the light and stuck out my hand. “Mr. Ethan Striker? Thank you so much for staying late for me.” The man with the kind, brown eyes stood from his desk. He was a decent foot taller than I was, so I had to peer up at his face. The worker took my hand, and bent, kissing the top of it delicately. As he straightened, he shrugged a shoulder.

“It’s not a problem, Ms. Peyton. But you are lucky you called when you did. I was getting ready to leave.” He gestured for me to sit down in the spare chair across from his desk. Luckily, it was a wellcushioned seat, my body aching after the long, rough day at sea. While he took his own seat with fluid grace, I explained—as an apology, “I’m a fisherman down at the docks. A storm came in, and it took longer than expected to get back to New City safely.” Mr. Striker was kind enough not to comment on my smell.

I was unable to take a shower before arriving. He simply swiveled his seat and began tapping on his computer board, a hologram appearing between us as he typed. The Marriage Match logo twirled in slow circles, the red heart with a cupid’s arrow through it annoying in its cuteness. His brown eyes lifted from his computer board, staring directly into my gaze through the hologram. “First, I need you to read through the contract. If you agree, place your hand on the hologram for scanning.” A contract flashed before my eyes. But I had already read it before. I flipped through it briefly, making sure there weren’t any changes, and then I placed my hand on the hologram. Red lines grew around my palm, pulsing on the screen.

Then the Marriage Match logo was there again, all alone and twirling. I sat back and waited patiently. Mr. Striker detailed clearly, “A few of these questions will be of a personal nature. If you’re ever uncomfortable, just say so, and we’ll skip to another question.” I nodded and clasped my hands in lap. The Marriage Match logo disappeared, and a data form appeared, like any other basic form about a person—like at a doctor’s office. “Full name?” Mr. Striker asked. “Faith Ann Peyton.

” He typed as he questioned, “Birthdate?” My lips pinched. “I don’t know the exact date.” His blink was slow and his hands stalled over the computer board. “Excuse me?” “I wasn’t born in New City. I was born outside of the city. Far, far outside. My parents died when I was seven. Or, at least, that’s what age I was told when the Corporate Army found me and brought me to New City. New City Orphanage had a doctor evaluate me. She claimed that was my age.

” He cleared his throat, squirming in his seat, not completely believing me. “Do you have paperwork backing this up?” I quickly pulled a piece of paper—an actual piece of paper—out of my pants pocket. It was a little fishy smelling from today’s endeavors, but it wasn’t ruined. “New City Hall gave this to me as certified proof of my age.” He took the paper from my hand. His brown eyes skimmed the contents. Mr. Striker’s head nodded slowly. “This will do. This is what all New City citizens have as a birth certificate.

Yours is just an approximation, but it will work.” Mr. Striker quickly scanned the paper and then handed it back to me. His fingers tapped over the keyboard adding my approximate birthdate. Busy with his work, he added absently, “I am sorry for your loss, Ms. Peyton.” I waved it off, as I always did. “I can’t remember them. And I’m sure they knew the dangers of living outside of a major city.” What I didn’t include was the fact…that I could remember what it was like after they died.

Scavenging the streets for any scraps of food—mainly dead animals. And sleeping under the stars during a snowstorm with only dead tree branches as blankets, their bark scraping my frozen skin with each breath I took. Or the relief I had felt when the CA had finally noticed a bloody little girl wandering a deserted and broken town… I swallowed hard and focused on the man across from me. His eyes were scanning my features in an all-consuming way. It wasn’t creepy or unsettling. Mr. Striker was looking for something. Finally, he asked, “I can take a guess at your race, but do you happen to know what it is?” My chin trembled with barely contained laughter. “Thank you for asking, but I only knew my name when I got to New City.” His attention went back to the computer board.

“I’m marking you down with Hispanic and Asian ancestry.” He paused and glanced up at me. “You’re really quite beautiful, Ms. Peyton.” I did snicker then, my dark brows lifting. “Are you single, Mr. Striker?” He wasn’t a bad looking man. In fact, he was actually handsome in a refined way I hardly ever saw on the docks. His head tipped back as his laughter filled the quiet space around us. He shook his head of tawny hair and rumbled with hilarity, “Ms.

Peyton, I think we can find a better match for you than me.” I shrugged one shoulder, not disappointed. “What’s the next question?” Mr. Striker got back to business. “Height?” “Five feet, six inches.” “Weight?” “One hundred twenty pounds.” I cleared my throat pointedly. “I assure you it’s mainly muscle.” He snickered, but his eyes turned to the hologram between us. The screen flicked to a different page.

“Okay, here are the personal questions. Do you like tall or short men?” My brows pinched together. “Well, it doesn’t really matter to me. I just want to get along with him.” He nodded, typing. “Muscular or thin?” “It doesn’t matter.” “Rich or poor?” I faltered, and then stated truthfully, “Rich.” His lips twitched, but he continued, “Do you want to be a housewife or do you want to work?” “I think…I’d like to work.” But just not as a fisherman for the rest of my life. That was backbreaking work.

My body would wear down by the age of forty if I stayed in the sea profession. “Do you have any hobbies?” “I like to read?” “Is that a question or an answer?” “An answer,” I nodded firmly. There wasn’t a whole lot to do when you were in the New City Orphanage. It was either get caught up in the drama that came with so many children, teens, and early adult women…or spend time by yourself. I’d rather spend time by myself than dunk my head into a silly “tragedy” that occurred every day somehow with the women I knew. “What attribute do you notice first on men?” “Um…their hands.” Weird, I knew that. He cleared his throat, and then stated, “Have you had sex before?” “Yes.” A slight blush painted my cheeks. “Do you prefer one man or two men?” My eyes rounded in shock.

I gasped, “One.” The questions didn’t stop. “Have you ever been with a woman sexually before?” “No.” Red. My cheeks were flaming red on my tan skin. “Have you ever been pregnant before?” My heart rate slowed down. I relaxed again. I answered easily, “No.” “Would you like to have children?” “One day, maybe.” “Are you on birth control?” “Yes.

” I tapped on my silver bracelet, showing him the proof I was good for a few more months. He nodded his head. “Do you have any special requirements for a husband?” I was silent for a long moment, staring off to the side. When I answered, it was with complete honesty. “I would like a man who is kind. A man who is funny. A man I don’t mind sleeping next to every night.” His fingers tapped furiously on the computer board, and then he stated, “Do you have any specific religious beliefs?” I shook my head. “No.” Mr.

Striker’s brown eyes met my own brown eyes. He smiled and sat back in his chair. “The only thing left is your medical release.” I tapped on my silver bracelet again. “Do you just want me to transfer it to Marriage Match’s system?” He nodded an affirmative. “Once that’s in, we’ll start the bidding.” I brushed my fingers over my bracelet, watching the data of my medical release hover through the air…and then sink into the hologram before me. Mr. Striker eyed the release, noting the approved notes at the top. Then he tapped a key.

One single key on his computer board—a single peck of his finger to change my life forever. The bidding began. “It’s already happening?” I asked in shock.

.

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