"Oh, my." Lady Pamela touched the tip of her finger on his bulging muscle. "That is impressive."
"All de ladies like de bulges." He winked at her. "Just vait till I get you into de Otto Zone."
Darcy covered her mouth to muffle any gagging noises. Otto successfully maneuvered all his bulges through the rest of the obstacle course and returned Lady Pamela to the billiards room.
Contestants four and five were Ahmed from Cairo and Pierre from Brussels. They both made it successfully through the course. Number six was Nicholas from Chicago, one of the mortals. He picked up Lady Pamela's hanky on cue. Then they approached the mud puddle. Nicholas whipped off his jacket and laid it over the puddle.
"Oh, how chivalrous." Lady Pamela watched approvingly.
"May I?" He lifted her in his arms, stepped onto his jacket, and skidded forward in the mud. His arms flailed. Lady Pamela flew into the air, screeching, then landed in the mud puddle with a great splat.
"Aagh!" She scrambled to her feet. "Look at me!" Her face and arms were speckled with mud. Globs of mud drooled down her gown. "You clumsy oaf! This is horrid, simply horrid!"
Inwardly wincing, Darcy let Lady Pamela vent her rage for a good five minutes. After all, a little drama was good for the ratings. "Okay." She finally stepped in. "Pamela, why don't you go downstairs and change gowns so we can continue with the show?"
She sniffed. "That's Lady Pamela to you." She stalked off toward the stairwell.
"Nicholas, you might as well get changed, too." She handed him his muddy jacket.
His shoulders slumped. Mud dripped off his slacks and white dress shirt. "I'm not gonna win the million dollars, am I?"
"That will be decided by the judges." Darcy watched him trudge toward the stairs. As she waited for Lady Pamela to return, Darcy realized this would be the ideal time during the editing stage to insert Pamela's bio.
After thirty minutes, Lady Pamela returned to the billiards room, wearing a new gown. Contestant number seven was asked to step forward.
It was Adam.
Austin had a good idea what was expected of him. Whether or not he wanted to do it was another question. He was tempted to act like a complete ass and get booted off the show. That would certainly alleviate the agony of being near Darcy. He could see her standing next to the cameraman. He could hear her sweet voice. But he could never have her. She was dead.
He bowed his head to Lady Pamela. "Good evening."
She motioned toward the stairwell. "Will you take a turn with me?"
"Delighted," he grumbled. He lifted his arm so she could hook her cold, dead hand around his elbow.
They climbed the stairs. One cameraman stayed in front of them, while Darcy and the second cameraman trailed behind.
"Lovely weather we're having," Lady Pamela said in her snooty voice. "I simply adore a warm summer evening."
"Yes." Frustration swelled inside him. He was sick of this pretense. "But in the summer, the nights are too short."
"True. Winter nights do give us more time."
They had reached the landing on the stairs. Austin glanced back. Darcy was giving him a puzzled look. Too bad.
"Maybe you should travel to the southern hemisphere for the summer." He continued up the stairs. "They're having their winter season now."
"Really?" Lady Pamela looked intrigued as she followed him. "You mean they're having longer nights down there?"
"Sure. Or you could go to Antarctica. The nights there are six months long. They say the penguins are very well dressed."
Lady Pamela giggled. "You silly man! No one lives in Antarctica." She dropped her hankie on the top landing. "Oh, dear."
Austin handed it to her and opened the stairwell door.
"Why, thank you." She glided out onto the roof. "Have you ever been to the southern hemisphere?"
"No, I've spent most of my time in America and Eastern Europe." He escorted her into the greenhouse.
"Ah. Were you born in Europe?"
"No. I was working there."
"Indeed. In what capacity, may I ask?"
What the heck. He smiled at the lady vampire. "I was an international spy."
She burst into giggles and slapped his arm. "My word, you say the silliest things."
He glanced back. Darcy was giving him a skeptical look.
"Oh, dear." Lady Pamela stopped in front of a mud puddle. "Whatever will we do?"
"Allow me." Austin stepped onto the wooden bench between two potted plants. Lady Pamela remained where she was, looking helpless. He gritted his teeth. He'd had to touch her old dead carcass. "Excuse me." He grabbed her around the waist, lifted her over the puddle, and then set her down on dry cement.
"Why, thank you. That was very clever of you."
He stifled a groan. It sure wasn't rocket science. Obviously, the purpose of this test was to see which man could best take care of a bunch of ditzy, dead females.
The next problem arose when they arrived at a stone bench under a dwarf palm tree. Lady Pamela announced she wanted to sit for a spell. While she hesitated, Austin noticed the bench was covered with dead leaves. He scooped off the leaves and covered the bench with his jacket. Lady Pamela smiled at him as she sat.
Austin sat beside her. Darcy and her damned cameraman moved closer. The whole situation irked him. Here he was, forced to flirt with a lady vampire while his beautiful, dead Darcy eavesdropped. "I must confess, Lady Pamela, that your gowns are the most exquisite I have ever seen."
"Oh, my!" She beamed at him. "How wonderfully kind of you."
"My pleasure. I think it's so pathetic when women try to dress like men." Darcy stood there in her khaki slacks and T-shirt. She crossed her arms and glared at him.
"Oh, I couldn't agree more." Lady Pamela stood. "Shall we continue? The roses smell heavenly."
Austin grabbed his jacket off the bench. He shook it out as he followed the lady vampire to the rose garden.
"I would dearly love a rose," she murmured.
Of course she would. "Which color would you like?"
She smiled at him. "A pink one, if you would be so kind."
"No problem." He eased around the big clay pots until he located a budding pink rose. He snapped the stem and carried the rose back to Lady Pamela.
She sighed. "I do hope it doesn't have too many thorns."
He took the hint and started pinching off the thorns. The last one proved a tough one. He managed to rip it off but ended up with a tiny hole in his index finger.
"Oh, my." Lady Pamela's eyes grew wide. "Is that... blood?"
"It's nothing. Just a flesh wound," he said dryly as he handed her the rose.
She dropped the rose on the ground and moved closer to him. "Let me see your bleeding finger." She licked her lips.
Austin stepped back. "I'm okay. It was just a little nick."
Her eyes gleamed. "Let me kiss it and make it better." She reached for his hand.
He jumped back.
She bared her teeth. "Just a little taste."
"Cut!" Darcy leaped between them. "Pamela, go to the servants' parlor and have a... snack. You'll feel much better."
She glared at Darcy a moment, then sniffed. "That's Lady Pamela to you." She turned on her heel and marched off.
Darcy heaved a sigh of relief. "Adam, why don't you come with me? I have a first-aid kit in the pool house."
He glowered at her. "I don't need first aid."
She glanced at the cameramen. "Guys, go back to the billiard room. Lady Pamela will be ready to continue after her snack."
The cameramen strode toward the stairwell.
"Come on." Darcy reached for Austin's arm.
He stepped back.
She frowned at him. "Will you come with me, please?"
He looked away. The sight of her was so painful. How could he mourn her death when she kept appearing in front of him? "It's nothing. You're not liable for puncture wounds, remember?"
She snorted. "True, but I'd rather you didn't get hurt."
Too late. He was already nursing the worst heartache he'd ever had the misery of encountering.
"This way." She motioned toward the pool house.
Reluctantly, he followed her. They passed the swimming pool. He glanced at the hot tub. Dammit.