Gregori motioned toward the greenhouse. The next contestant was standing in the doorway. "It's showtime again." He stood and strode back to his chair on the north side of the pool.
Darcy strolled toward her chair. Her steps slowed when she realized Pierre from Brussels wasn't looking at her. She cast a warning glance at Gregori. He was lounging in his patio chair, gazing at the stars, completely oblivious to the fact that he'd acquired a new admirer.
Pierre crossed the terrace, then headed north around the pool. Gregori sat up with a jerk and gave Darcy a murderous look.
She winced and mouthed the word, "Sorry."
Pierre stopped next to Gregori and murmured something. Even across the pool, Darcy could see how red Gregori's face was. Pierre completed his walk toward the hot tub and stepped in. Vanda talked to him for a while. Then, she shook hands with him. He headed back to the greenhouse, circling the pool to the north.
Gregori saw him coming and dove into the pool. His teeth were chattering by the time he joined Darcy and Vanda in the hot tub. "That pool is freezing." He sank into the hot water up to his chin and closed his eyes.
"Looks like I'll have to eliminate Pierre," Vanda said. "What a shame. He was so cute."
Darcy cursed silently. Only two men could be eliminated tonight, and she had hoped it would be both the CIA men. "What did he say to you, Gregori?"
Gregori opened one eye to glare at her. "The incident will never be spoken of again."
"Poor Gregori." Vanda grinned. "I told you you looked sexy."
Austin waited in the greenhouse, growing increasingly annoyed. It looked like the reality show was having a swimsuit competition after all. The other men were wearing skimpy little briefs, but he refused to play the role of male sex object. His tropical print swim trunks were long enough to reach mid-thigh.
Reginald from Manchester was the third contestant to depart for the pool. When he returned to the greenhouse, dripping wet, Maggie handed him a towel and asked him to go downstairs and put on dry clothes for the orchid ceremony. Austin noticed the British vampire was surprisingly scrawny. The guy must have been wearing a lot of padding under his clothes.
"Number four?" Maggie asked.
"That's me." Austin joined her at the French doors.
"You'll go around the pool to the hot tub," Maggie instructed. "After you talk to Vanda for a while, you'll come back here. Understand?"
"Yes." And I get myself eliminated, too.
"Okay, they're ready." Maggie opened the door.
As Austin walked across the terrace, he took in the scene. The host was headed toward a chair on one side of the pool, and Darcy was on the other side. His mouth dropped open. Holy hot mama. Her little red bikini was wet and molded to her body. Her ni**les had puckered from the cool night air. The bikini bottom was tied on each hip, the strings dangling and begging to be unraveled. Her skin was pale under the moonlight. She looked too fragile to touch, yet so alluring, he knew he'd never keep his hands off her.
Her eyes met his. There was such a sad longing in her eyes, it tore at his heart. Her gaze dipped over his body, then returned to his face. The longing in her eyes turned more intense, more desperate. She wanted him, too. If he didn't get off this show soon, he'd lose all resistance. Even now, his body was succumbing. His groin was swelling. His heart was pulling him toward her.
He had to stop this. Now. He dove into the pool and let the icy water douse his desire. He crossed the pool and climbed out. He shivered, his skin pebbling with goose flesh.
Vanda watched him from the spa. "Come in. You look cold."
He rubbed his hands over his arms. He ought to refuse. Wouldn't that get him eliminated? "No thanks."
"Don't you want to warm up?" Vanda floated across the tub and paused next to his feet. She plucked her tiny microphone off her bikini top and tossed it into the swimming pool. "Oops. How clumsy of me. Now, no one will hear me talking about the night you and Darcy heated up the hot tub."
Austin tensed. "I don't know what you're talking about."
Vanda smiled. "It was recorded on camera. They played it the other night on DVN."
Austin's mouth fell open. His make-out session with Darcy had been aired on vampire television? He glanced back at Darcy. She was standing by the pool, her expression wary.
"Don't worry," Vanda continued. "No one knows it was Darcy. Besides you and me, that is. Most people think it was Lady Pamela or Cora Lee since they both have long blond hair. But I recognized Darcy's dress when you tossed it into the pool."
"Did you tell anyone?"
"No." She scooted back across the tub. "At least, not yet. Why don't you sit down for a while?"
Was she threatening to expose Darcy? Austin wasn't sure, but he didn't want to take any chances. So, he stepped into the hot tub and settled on the seat across from Vanda.
She smiled. "Isn't that better?" She glanced past him and winced. "Oh, dear. Darcy's glaring at you now." Vanda swooshed across the water to sit next to him. "Shall we make her jealous?"
"I'd rather not."
"Right. No need to, actually. She was lost the minute she saw you at auditions. She called you Apollo, the sun god." Vanda ran a finger along his jaw.
Austin slid down the seat. "I don't want to upset her."
Vanda glanced over her shoulder. "Too late. She looks really pissed."
Austin crossed his arms over his chest. "What do you want from me?"
Vanda rested an elbow on the edge of the spa and studied him. "I want to know if you really care about her."
After a pause, he decided there was no harm in confessing the truth. "I'm in love with her."
"Ah." Vanda propped her chin on her hand. "On the recording, it looked more like lust. Are you sure you're feeling love?"
"I'm sure." Unfortunately. He'd tried to bury his feelings, but they continued to grow and deepen in spite of everything.
"Darcy has suffered too much. She deserves to be happy."
Austin arched a brow. "Are you claiming to care about her?"
"Yes. Does that surprise you?"
He took a deep breath. A week ago, he wouldn't have believed vampires could feel compassion or loyalty for each other, but they clearly did. They seemed to feel everything just as deeply as when they were alive. I am human - Darcy's words came back to him. "I've been having to readjust my thinking."
"She deserves the best. She has the soul of an angel." A corner of Vanda's mouth lifted. "Unlike me."
"Are you admitting that you're evil?"
Her smile widened. "Some would say I am."
"What have you done? Committed murder?" He said it nonchalantly, but he was dead serious.
Her smile faded. "I prefer to call it administering justice."
He narrowed his eyes. "Would you ever harm an innocent?"
"No," she replied easily. "Would you?"
She moved closer. "Then don't ever hurt Darcy."
Austin caught the implied threat in her voice. "I don't want to, but it's not that simple."
"You claim to love her. She loves you. Sounds simple to me."
"No, it's... complicated. My job is important - "
"More important than Darcy?"
"No. But I shouldn't allow myself to be in a position where I have to choose." Sheesh, and he shouldn't be in a position where he was discussing matters of the heart with a vampire.
"If you love her, there's only one choice."
"It's not that easy. I would have to give up everything. My life - my beliefs would all change."
"And you're not ready to do that?"
Could he do it? Turn his back on the Stake-Out team and the CIA? Join Darcy and live among the vampires? He'd be considered a traitor by his country. He'd have a tough time even getting a decent job.
"I've had a difficult life." Vanda gazed at the stars. "I've seen terrible things. Concentration camps, torture, death. Unbelievable human cruelty. There were times when I begged God for the courage to end it all. I couldn't bear to see more horror."
"I'm sorry." And he wasn't just saying it. He was actually feeling compassion for these vampires.
Vanda sat up and looked at him. "I would endure it all again a thousand times over if it would bring my little sister back to life." Tears glimmered in her eyes. "She was so clever and full of life. She would have been like Darcy if she'd survived."