The Bandbox Hat
Previously: SarahJane, Cassie, Austin, and Nathan met up before the charm ceremony. They bonded over making nachos together. The ceremony was about to begin.
Austin stuffed a last chip in his mouth as Liam entered the kitchen. “Time to go. Austin and Nathan with me. Cassie and SarahJane into the living room.”
We obediently shuffled off to our assigned spots. Austin caught my eye and winked as he swallowed and grinned. I had to smile back. He was so darn cute.
The girls in the living room ignored Cassie and me when we entered. Cassie cast me a puzzled look and I shrugged. Was it our fault they took forever to get dressed and missed out on some alone time with the guys? No. I didn’t think so.
“Gather around the couches. Everyone find a spot.” Liam stuck his head in from the hallway. The camera and sound people sorted themselves out while the rest of settled on the couch cushions and along the arms. We were down to half the number we’d started with so it wasn’t quite the crunch as it had been.
“Ouch!” Cassie glared at Amanda. “You stepped on me.”
“Oh, sugar, I’m so sorry,” Amanda cooed. I might have bought it except for the sly tilt of her lips.
Harrison Taylor strode into the room and gave us all a long look before clapping his hands once. “All right, let’s do this. As you know, Austin and Linda will be handing out charms to add your bracelets. It’s up to you to accept or decline the charm.”
“Like anyone here would say no.” Amanda spoke softly but a few girls burst into giggles.
“Whenever you’re ready, Harrison,” Liam said.
Harrison paused a beat then addressed the camera. After reminding viewers what was going on he brought Linda, Austin, and Nathan into the room. I couldn’t help it. My dang traitorous heart actually skipped a beat when Austin came in. How clichéd is that?
Linda made her choices. Cassie, of course. A couple of other girls. I might have imagined it, but it seemed like she was avoiding my gaze. She skipped right over me when she swept the pair of us on the arm of the couch. Oh well. That just meant I was on Austin’s list that night. Just because Linda had been the one to save me each night before now didn’t mean anything. She and Austin discussed their picks ahead of time.
After Linda, it was Nathan’s turn to save two girls.
He rubbed a charm between his thumb and forefinger. It sort of seemed that he was avoiding me too. He drew a deep breath before speaking. “Amanda.” She slithered out from between Cassie and Jessica and made her way to Nathan’s side.
“Yes, Nathan. I’d love to accept your charm.” She kissed him and I had to hold back my gag reflex.
Nathan then bestowed his second charm on Shelly, one of the sweeter girls there.
Harrison announced a commercial break. He immediately huddled with Linda and Austin. A shiver of tension shot up my back. It wasn’t my imagination. No one on the crew, not Harrison, Linda, Austin, or my own brother would look me in the eyes.
Oh no. The horror and the realization hit me at the same time as Harrison grinned into the camera and told us it was Austin’s turn to make the final three charm announcements.
He gave a charm to Mindy. Then one to Yvonne.
Cassie gave me a panicked look but I could only shake my head in response. I knew what was coming. Why oh why did I ever let myself think I could win anything against the kind of gameplay of Amanda and her friends?
Austin held the last charm in his hand. His eyes flicked from one end of our couch to the other. He never wavered or paused near me. I drew a deep breath. This was it. I was finished.
He finally said the last girl’s name.