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Jayna grew serious and said, “It was successful because we were directly serving the people.”

This wasn’t the answer Sid was going for. “True, that is why it was successful. But why was the event even possible? It was because of you.”

Jayna smiled but shook her head. “No, it wasn’t because of me. It was your sponsorship that brought everybody in—and your willingness to throw yourself into the role.”

Sid shook his head. “Me throwing myself into the role like that might have done as much harm as good.”

Jayna looked like she wanted to protest, but Sid continued before she could. “It was The Kingdom of Tangaroa and the merschool and all the merformers that made the event a success. And the only reason they even considered the idea was because of you. You had connections and credibility with Kalani and the merformers, and because of you they were willing to volunteer their time and facilities. Without you, the event would never have taken place.”

Sid gazed deep into her bright green eyes. “More than anything else, I want to make a difference in this world. But to do that, I need the connections and credibility that comes from being part of the Cerulean Order.”

She seemed to understand, and she smiled and then gave him another kiss. “Let’s go make a positive impression, then.”

Their limo stopped, and the doors opened. Greeters in traditional Polynesian dress helped them out, and torches glowed along either side of the walkway. All the flowers and dancers lining the resort entrance made the event feel like something out of an old Elvis Presley film.

Jayna waved and blew a kiss to one of the dancers.

“Who’s that?” Sid asked. “Mermaid Buwen?”

Jayna nodded. “Her human name is Rani. I think a lot of these performers also work at Kingdom.”

Sid offered his hand to Jayna. She smiled and took it, and he steered her towards a meandering path that led to one of the side entrances.

She gave his hand a tug in the direction of the front of the resort. “I think we’re supposed to go this way.”

Sid bristled at the gaggle of streamers and photographers flanking the red carpet near the grand entrance. Although it was far from the largest crowd he’d ever seen, he was still determined to avoid them.

“What’s wrong?” she asked at his hesitation.

Sid understood why Jayna would want to walk the red carpet, and he felt guilty at keeping her from it. But he also understood the potential minefield the paparazzi represented. Hopefully Jayna would understand, too.

“Come over here for a second.” He led her to a spot just off the walkway and took her hands in his. “Remember when I said throwing myself into the merman role might have done as much harm as good?”

Jayna scowled but nodded.

“Well, that spectacle didn’t exactly make a positive impression with the Order.”

Jayna dropped his hand and pulled back, looking as if she had just been slapped. “How could anyone object to you singing and swimming with children?”

Sid shrugged sheepishly. “They felt it wasn’t dignified.”

Jayna’s face darkened and she glanced longingly towards the red carpet. “And you’re worried they won’t like you parading down the red carpet with a girl who might embarrass you because she doesn’t know how to act in front of the streamers. Is that it?”

When Jayna put it that way, it sounded condescending. “It’s not that. It’s just…” Sid shook his head. “Hazel has done an amazing job at building a heartwarming narrative around our relationship. She has completely drowned out Crystal’s smear campaign, and I don’t want to accidentally undo all her hard work.”

Jayna turned back towards him, and her jaw was set. “Fine. You don’t need to worry about me. I’ll be the most boring, un-embarrassing date you’ve ever had.”

Her words were like a punch in the gut. “I’m not worried about you embarrassing me. And I don’t want you to be boring. I don’t think you could be boring even if you wanted to.” Sid gave her a weak smile, which she didn’t return.

He was about to try again when one of the streamers called out, “Hey! Mermaid Princess—over here!”

A half-dozen paparazzi broke away from the crowd and began walking towards Sid and Jayna, with several hover-cams gliding through the air ahead of them.

Sid’s gut tightened even as his shoulders fell in defeat. As much as he didn’t want to deal with the streamers, they would make him pay dearly if he tried to take Jayna from them now that she had their attention.

He placed his hand on her back and gently nudged her in their direction. “Too late now.”

Jayna’s face lit up, and she smiled and waved at the streamers. She took his hand in hers and led him towards the red carpet. Sid braced himself, even though he wasn’t exactly sure what he thought would happen.