Austin nodded, his own eyes tearing up.
Vanda floated toward him. "There is nothing more sacred than love. Don't let it slip away from you."
It felt like a tear had ripped through the darkness to reveal a light, and Austin could finally see. "You're not at all evil, are you?" None of these modern-day Vamps were truly evil.
"We all do the best we can with the lot given us."
Austin stood. "I wish you well, then." He strode back toward Darcy. She gave him a furious look, then turned her back.
"We need to talk," he said quietly, aware that the cameras were on them. He continued on to the greenhouse.
Maggie gave him a towel. "Please get dressed for the orchid ceremony in the foyer."
He trudged toward the stairwell. No wonder Darcy was mad. He had a sinking feeling he would not get eliminated tonight.
Darcy accompanied Vanda back to the servants' parlor to see what the other ladies thought about the night's competition. Unfortunately, they all agreed with Vanda, so it looked like her hope of eliminating both CIA agents was dashed. Vanda changed into dry clothes, gathered two black orchids from the fridge, and then, the ladies strolled to the foyer for the ceremony.
Princess Joanna stumbled when one of her stiletto heels snagged on the thick hallway carpet. "God's wounds, a lady could break her neck in these slippers."
"You'll get better with practice." Darcy reached out to steady her. "You all look wonderful."
"Thank you." The princess looked elegant in her expensive black dress adorned at the neck with a strand of pearls.
"At first, I felt completely naked without my corset," Cora Lee announced. "But now, I just love it. For the first time in over a hundred years, I can actually breathe."
Cora Lee and Lady Pamela had both opted for a youthful style - satin hip-hugger pants and cropped, sparkly halter tops.
Princess Joanna frowned at them. "You two should be ashamed. You are showing too much flesh."
"It is evil." Maria Consuela's dress reached her ankles.
Lady Pamela shrugged. "My old gowns displayed most of my bosom, and no one objected to that."
"But to reveal one's navel - it is ungodly." Maria Consuela twisted her rosary in her hands. "I have never seen my navel."
"What?" Darcy asked. "But when you take a bath - "
"I bathe in a shift as any proper lady should."
"Oh." Darcy realized she might have the ladies wearing modern clothes, but some of their ideas still remained archaic.
The ladies entered the foyer. The men had all changed into suits. Gregori strode forward to welcome the ladies, while the six contestants remained on the landing of the staircase.
Darcy glanced briefly at Austin. His broad shoulders looked so good in a suit. Unlike Reginald, he needed no padding in his clothes. Light from the chandelier picked up the golden highlights in his hair. It looked like he'd toweled it dry quickly, but the disheveled result only made him look sexier.
His eyes met hers, and she looked away. She was not going to forgive him so easily this time. He'd told her he would get eliminated tonight, but then, he'd climbed into the hot tub with Vanda. And since Vanda had thrown away her mike, Darcy had no idea what they'd talked about. She'd had to stop filming afterward to get Vanda a new mike.
"Good evening," Gregori began. "Tonight, two more men will be eliminated. But first, an important announcement. The winner will now receive four million dollars."
The cameramen caught everyone's reactions. Even Darcy was surprised. Sly had never mentioned he was willing to go over three million.
Vanda moved to the center of the foyer. "My first orchid goes to Pierre of Brussels."
Pierre trudged forward to accept the flower. Then, he went upstairs to retrieve his luggage.
"And the second orchid goes to Reginald of Manchester." Vanda handed him the orchid.
The remaining contestants congratulated each other and dispersed to their rooms. Gregori and the women strolled to the portrait room, the cameramen trailing.
"Tonight, you eliminated Pierre." Gregori shone the special flashlight on the Belgian's portrait. His fangs appeared.
"Oh, fiddlesticks," Cora Lee mumbled. "He was a Vamp."
"And you eliminated Reginald." Gregori moved in front of the Englishman's portrait.
"Surely he's a mortal," Lady Pamela insisted. "He has such bad teeth."
"And he's so scrawny," Cora Lee added. "I do declare I've seen more meat on a starvin' possum."
Gregori aimed his flashlight at the portrait. Reginald's crooked fangs glowed with a yellowish tint.
"Santa Maria, may the saints preserve us." Maria Consuela reached for her rosary.
Princess Joanna stood, wobbling slightly in her stiletto heels. "This is terrible! Two vampires cast out. Prithee, Darcy, you must assure us there are no mortals left to plague us."
Darcy winced. "I can't say. But remember, tomorrow night, we're testing the men on their strength."
The princess sat with a sigh of relief. "Good. No mortal man could ever be stronger than a Vamp."
"I will be the judge tomorrow night." Maria Consuela kissed the cross of her rosary. "And with the Lord's blessing, I shall discover the inferior beings and banish them from our presence."
Darcy doubted the Lord was into detecting inferior beings, but still, she hoped the ladies would eliminate Austin and Garrett. She'd be in big trouble if either of the mortal men made it to the last round. She had no doubt that Austin was the sexiest man on earth, but still, she couldn't allow him to win.
The more important question was could there be a future for her and Austin? She had no doubt she was in love with him. Even his rejection and lies hadn't managed to squelch her feelings for him. Vanda's words kept coming back to haunt her. There is nothing more sacred than love. How could she throw this love away without giving it a chance? Roman and Shanna were giving it a chance. Why couldn't she?
If only she could bridge the gap between their two worlds. But there was no middle ground for her. She could never share the sun with Austin, never live a normal life with him. She was trapped in her world, and he would have to be willing to join her there. Was it fair to expect so much from him?
Maybe she shouldn't ask for too much. Maybe she should take it one small step at a time. The way it was now, he could barely stand to touch her. He thought she was dead. She'd have to get him over that. She needed to prove how alive and touchable she was. She needed to show him how much she loved him.
It seemed suddenly clear. Austin was in the penthouse for one more night. Tonight would be perfect.
She just needed the courage to seduce him.
Garrett ripped open a bag of potato chips. "Four million dollars? I'm tempted to win the damned contest."
"No way are they giving that money to a mortal." Austin sat at the kitchen table and popped open his can of cola. "I think our time is almost up here. Did you collect much information?"
"A little. Just the names of the vampires."
Austin nodded, relieved that Garrett hadn't acquired much. "Emma and I killed a vampire the other night in Central Park."
"He was attacking a woman. We saved her life."
"Cool." Garrett crammed some chips into his mouth.
"None of the vampires here would attack someone."
Garrett snorted. "They would if they got hungry enough."
"I think Shanna Whelan was right about there being two kinds of vampires. She called them the law-abiding modern Vamps and the Malcontents."
"She was brainwashed," Garrett mumbled with his mouth full.
"Think about it. There are obviously two different groups, cause we saw them ready to fight each other in Central Park. And I heard them when we tapped their phones. They hate each other."
"It's a damned shame they don't kill each other off. It would make our job easier."
Austin took a sip from his cola. "I think we should learn more about these two different factions."
Garrett shook his head. "Getting into their politics would be a waste of time. We just need to kill them."
Austin finished his drink in silence. He needed to contact Shanna Whelan. Or Draganesti, as her name was now. She'd be able to tell him more about vampires. And what it was like to be married to one of them.