The Bandbox Hat
Previously: The charm ceremony was underway. Linda saved Cassie and a few other girls. Nathan saved Amanda and Shelly. Austin saved two girls. No one would look at SarahJane. Austin was about to announce his last girl.
I blinked to keep the tears from spilling as Austin walked to me. “May I walk you out?” he asked.
I nodded, but truthfully I didn’t care if I ever saw him again. How had I let myself be sucked into this thing? It was billed as a game but I’d never had my heart broken by Clue or Monopoly.
“I owe you an explanation,” Austin said.
The cameraman backed down the steps in front of us. Just the sight of Joe with his black beanie and New Balance sneakers told me this was real. I wasn’t dreaming and it wasn’t some weird twist of the producers. Austin and Linda didn’t want me around anymore.
“I really do like you, SarahJane.” Austin took my hand and tucked it over his elbow. He guided me toward the waiting limo. “It’s not personal.”
I stopped and pierced him with what I hoped was a soul-searing gaze. “What are you talking about? This is a dating game. Of course it’s personal.”
He sighed. “I was afraid you’d see it like that.”
“Is there another way?”
“Look, I told you my mom was an actress. This was as much to get her back into the viewers’ eyesight as it was for me to fall in love. More, if we’re being completely honest.”
“Oh, please, let’s be honest for once.”
He opened the rear door and pulled me close for a good-bye hug. I might have believed in his sincerity if he hadn’t angled his face toward Joe’s camera and me towards the now hovering full moon behind the limo.
“You’re too likeable and too sweet. Mom and Liam think it’s better if I let you go.”
I pushed him back and crawled into the back seat. “No worries, Austin. I had fun.” I’d have pulled it off too, except my voice cracked just then and Austin shot me a look that—if I didn’t know better—I might have thought was caring and concern.
He raised a hand, his eyes stricken. “SarahJane—”
“Let’s go, please, Mike,” I said to the driver.
He obligingly put the car into drive and we headed down the hill to the exit.