Chapter 20 - La Sirène

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Eliminations happened after breakfast. Genevieve, Olivia, and Rebecca were the ones to go. I didn't expect my name to be called, but I hoped for it nonetheless.

After the eliminated girls left, Melanie explained that our next challenge would be a personalized outing with His Majesty. Alone. At a location of his choosing. Several girls started cooing with excitement.

"We'll be going out in public?" Lydia asked. "Isn't he still in danger?"

"I'm sure he'd appreciate your concern," Melanie replied. "But don't worry, the two of you will have a full security detail escorting you at all times. At a discreet distance, of course."

This seemed to quell Lydia's fear. I noticed she was more or less back to her usual self after the ball. It seemed to have happened after she danced with Duke Hale. I couldn't have imagined why though — my meeting with Duke Hale put me even more on edge than I was before. Though her family did serve him. Maybe she was comforted by the sight of a familiar face.

Melanie went on to explain that because the challenge will run the course of five days, we were free to entertain ourselves in whichever way we liked. Within the existing restrictions, of course. She then announced the order of the dates — Faith, Katrina, Lydia, myself, and Sabine.

I wondered if Sabine's placement was a case of saving the best for last, or his way of procrastinating on an unpleasant task; the same way I would put off a difficult homework assignment. I hoped it was the latter.

I was both pleased and thrilled with my position. On one hand, I hated the waiting period in between challenges. I wanted to get them over with, to rip them off as quickly as possible like a particularly nasty bandage.

On the other hand, I did not want to see the king anytime soon. I couldn't stand the way he made me feel around him, the way he tried to solve me like a puzzle. And there was a part of me, deep within, that enjoyed it.

Three excruciating days had gone by before it was finally my turn. I was led to the dressing room yet again, where a small styling team doted over me. I was finally starting to get used to the process.

Surprisingly, this time around I wasn't consulted on how I wanted to look. My hair was pinned into an elegant bun; my makeup light and simple. I wore a knee-length chiffon dress in a light blue floral pattern, as well as a pristine pair of white pumps. A string of pearls hung around my neck, completing the ensemble.

"His Majesty wanted you to look like an Old Hollywood icon," said Michael as I was examining myself in a full length mirror.

His Majesty has pretty good taste. It was hard to tear my eyes away from my reflection. I twirled around in the dress, the loose skirt bouncing against my legs.

A guard appeared in the doorway, and I stopped admiring myself. He escorted me up to the entrance hall and through the massive double doors leading to the front steps. My heart hammered with anticipation, seeming louder than the clicking of my heels against the marble floor.

My breath hitched as I stepped through the doors and saw the king. He was leaning against the side of a white vintage convertible that had the roof rolled down. I recognized the car from the fateful day this all started — the day I tried to jump to my death and he stopped me. Had it only been weeks ago? It felt like a century now. A bittersweet melancholy swept over me as I recalled the memory.

The king's lips quirked up as he took in the sight of me. "Miss Crawford," he addressed me, bowing his head slightly.

I struggled to keep my eyes off him. He wore a gray vest with matching slacks; his white dress shirt rolled up at the sleeves, exuding casual elegance. His brown hair was slicked back in an artful swoop. I could imagine that together, the two of us looked like we stepped out of the pages of an old glamour magazine.

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