The judge was the one they called Princess Joanna. She was certainly dressed like a medieval princess, though Austin figured her domain had disappeared hundreds of years ago.
She was going to judge them on their presence - how well they were dressed and how well they carried themselves. She called them one by one with her regal voice. As instructed, each man descended the stairs and walked halfway across the foyer. There, they were supposed to pose for a moment under the chandelier. Then, they were to pivot and walk to the library.
"I feel like I'm in a fashion show," Austin growled.
"Or a beauty pageant," Garrett grumbled.
"God, no." Austin grimaced. "Please don't tell me there's going to be a swimsuit competition."
"Garth from Denver," Princess Joanna called.
Garrett responded to his false name by straightening his shoulders and pasting a small smile on his face. He began his descent of the stairs. Austin debated whether or not he should slide down the banister. But when his name was called, he behaved himself. He didn't want to upset Darcy. He marched down the stairs, then strode across the foyer to the mid-point.
Darcy was by the front door, watching him. Her eyes glistened in the light from the chandelier. Were those tears in her eyes? She looked both sad and happy. A sad resignation in her eyes, but a sweet loving curve to her smile. Oh, he knew it was love. He'd read it in her mind the night before. And now, her expression seemed to be telling him she would still love him no matter how sad it made her.
He smiled slightly, then turned toward the library.
When all the men were in the library, Gregori explained mat the next phase, the dancing competition, would take place on the roof. They went up the west end stairwell and found all the ladies waiting on the roof. A quartet of musicians were setting up by the greenhouse. They tuned up their string instruments. No electric guitars. It was definitely going to be an old-fashioned dance. All the patio furniture had been moved aside to leave a wide terrace between the pool and the outer wall.
Gregori wandered around the terrace, lighting tiki torches. When he was done, he turned to the men. "Gentlemen, you may ask any of the judges to dance. However, all of you must dance at least once with Cora Lee." He motioned to the Scarlett O'Hara knockoff. "She will be judging this part of the competition."
Cora Lee smiled at the men. "I do declare, this will be such a delightful evening."
The quartet began the strains of a waltz. Pierre asked Cora Lee to dance. She accepted and off they went, swirling around the terrace. Roberto asked Lady Pamela to dance. Maria Consuela and Princess Joanna declined to dance with anyone.
"I never do the waltz," the princess declared. "It is much too vulgar."
"It is evil." Maria Consuela stood next to a tiki torch and fiddled with her rosary.
Vanda laughed and took off dancing with Ahmed. When the first waltz was over, Garrett made his move. He asked Cora Lee to dance, then spun her expertly around the terrace. Afterward, he returned to where Austin was standing.
Austin shut his mouth, which had been hanging open. "Where the hell did you learn to do that?"
Garrett smiled. "I took a course in ballroom dancing. I figured in our line of work, you gotta be able to function at a fancy party."
"Oh." Austin grimaced. He should have thought of that.
Cora Lee squealed, drawing their attention. Otto was dancing with her, or rather, he was swinging her around like a rag doll.
"Ya, you are light like de feather," Otto declared in his booming voice.
Cora Lee giggled. Her feet touched ground and she skipped along, keeping up with Otto's large strides. "Oh, Otto, you are so big, I can hardly keep up with you."
"Ya, de Otto is big and strong." He lifted Cora Lee once again and whirled about. Lady Pamela and her partner jumped out of the way of Cora Lee's swooping hoop skirt.
Cora Lee burst into laughter. Otto whooshed her into the air again as he spun about. Her foot knocked against a tiki torch. Austin watched as suddenly everything seemed to happen in slow motion. With a shout, he ran toward the torch as it tipped over. Maria Consuela screamed. The torch landed against the hem of her medieval gown and the flames spread. All the women started screaming. The music screeched to a halt. Austin kicked the torch aside, but the flames were already shooting up Maria Consuela's dress. He grabbed her from behind and tossed her into the deep end of the pool.
She landed with a great splash and a hiss as the fire extinguished. She sank to the bottom while steam rose off the surface of the water.
Austin stopped by the side of the pool. The others gathered around him. The cameramen pushed their way into good recording positions. Maria Consuela looked like a black lump at the bottom of the pool. Could a vampire drown? Austin didn't know. He glanced at the other vampires. Maybe not. They sure didn't look very concerned. But then again, maybe they were just a bunch of cold, heartless bastards.
"Can she swim?" he asked.
Vanda peered into the water. "Apparently not."
Austin exchanged a look with Garrett. He shrugged his shoulders with a look that said let her drown. After all, she was a vampire.
Austin looked at Darcy. She gave him a beseeching, frantic look. The Spanish vampire was probably her friend. "Sheesh." He kicked off his shoes and glared at the male vampires. "Don't any of you swim?"
They shook their heads.
Austin took off his jacket, handed it to Garrett, and dove into the cold water. He pulled Maria Consuela off the bottom of the pool. She immediately started kicking and flailing her arms. Dammit. He was supposed to be killing vampires, not saving their ass. He grabbed her arms and crossed them in front of her to subdue her. Then, he held her against his chest and pushed off the bottom of the pool. They broke the surface.
Maria Consuela wheezed and sputtered. She gulped down air, then started screaming in Spanish. As far as Austin could tell, she was cursing Otto with some kind of plague. He gripped her tightly and stroked toward the ladder. Her dress was too tangled around her legs for her to negotiate the ladder, so he heaved her over his shoulder and carried her out of the pool. He set her down on a chaise lounge.
"Madre de Dios!" Maria Consuela collapsed dramatically. "You have saved my life."
"Indeed. You are a hero!" Lady Pamela exclaimed.
"I do declare." Cora Lee pressed a hand against her bosom. "I have never seen a man act so bravely."
"If you'll excuse me." Austin retrieved his jacket from Garrett. "I need to change into dry clothes. I won't be able to dance, so I understand if you need to reject me - "
"Fiddlesticks," Cora Lee interrupted him. "I'll just wait until you get back. It's the least I can do."
Austin retrieved his shoes. "You don't understand. I can't dance with you because I don't know how."
Cora Lee gasped. She exchanged a desperate look with the other women.
"He should be forgiven for his ignorance." Maria Consuela fumbled for her rosary and kissed it. "We have all fallen short in the eyes of the Lord."
A religious vampire? Austin shook his head. The more he learned about the vampire world, the more it confused him.
"He's a hero," Lady Pamela declared. "I would be honored to teach him how to waltz."
Vanda grinned. "I'd like to teach him a few moves myself."
"We mustn't punish him," Cora Lee insisted. "He's a hero."
"Indeed." Princess Joanna studied Austin. "He is a man who knows how to protect his own."
Austin groaned inwardly. He had a terrible feeling he wasn't going home tonight after all.
Darcy declared a thirty-minute break to give those in wet clothes time to change.
"Thank you," she murmured to Adam as she passed by him on the way to Maria Consuela. He gave her a frustrated look, then tramped off in his soggy clothes.
With Maggie on one side and Darcy on the other, they helped support Maria Consuela on the trek back to the servants' floor. The other ladies trailed along, gossiping about Adam.
"He must be a vampire to be so wonderfully brave," Lady Pamela declared.
Maggie shot Darcy a look of alarm. Darcy realized her friend was worried that a mortal might actually win the contest. Not only would the show end up insulting the entire vampire world, but the ladies would end up with a mortal master. A disaster, to be sure, but luckily, Darcy knew it could never happen.