"The last contestant," Gregori announced. "Otto of Düsseldorf."
Thank God. Darcy sat up, hoping He-Man Otto would twirl the desk on his finger like a basketball. If anyone could beat Austin, it would be him.
"Ya, de Otto is here." He marched in and posed for one of the cameras. The material on his jacket strained over his back muscles. "Ah, de Otto must take off his coat before it is ripped into tiny pieces by his big bulges."
He made googly eyes at the camera while he removed his jacket. "Ya, all de ladies love de big bulges."
"Oh, my." Maria Consuela collapsed into the wing-back chair. "You're so strong."
"Ya, you vant to see how strong?" He circled to the back of her chair. "De Otto vill lift you high in de air."
"Santa Maria." Maria Consuela clutched the arms of the chair. "Are you sure?"
"Ya. Do not fear. You are light as de feather." Otto grasped the chair under its arms. He straightened suddenly, causing Maria Consuela to squeal as she rose in the air.
"You see. It is easy." Otto started to lower the chair when he yelped. "Aagh!" The chair tipped, spilling Maria Consuela onto the floor with a splat. Her scream was cut off when the chair landed on her head.
"Aagh!" Otto doubled over. "I broke a nail. De fingernail bent backvard."
Gregori rushed forward and pulled the chair off Maria Consuela. "Are you all right?"
"No!" She scrambled to her feet, glaring at Otto. "You clumsy fool! I haven't been so abused since the Spanish Inquisition!"
"But de Otto is hurt." Otto stuck his sore finger into his mouth and sucked.
Darcy's eye twitched. The unbelievable had happened.
Otto of Düsseldorf had failed the strength test.
Coward. She was avoiding him. Austin stood on the staircase landing, watching the ladies file into the foyer. Darcy was nowhere in sight.
Gregori strode toward the center of the foyer. "Welcome to another orchid ceremony on The Sexiest Man on Earth. Tonight, two men will leave, and two will remain. Those last two men will compete for the title and a whopping five million dollars."
The cameramen scurried to catch all the excited reactions. Maria Consuela joined Gregori under the chandelier with two black orchids in her hands.
"Are you ready?" Gregori asked. When she nodded, he continued, "Who will be eliminated? We'll know real soon, but first, a word from our sponsor - Romatech's Fusion Cuisine." He paused, then started again with a smile. "We're back. And Maria Consuela is ready to give out her orchids."
She nodded. "The first one goes to Garth from Colorado."
"That figures," Garrett mumbled. He descended the stairs to receive his orchid. Then, he climbed back to the landing to stand near Austin. "I guess you're next," he whispered.
Austin held his breath.
"The second orchid goes to Otto of Düsseldorf." Maria Consuela glared at the German vampire as he lumbered down the stairs.
Otto trudged back up the stairs. He examined Roberto and Austin, and his massive shoulders slumped. "Dis is terrible. De Otto has been crushed by two girly-men."
"Let's go." Austin walked back to the east wing with Garrett. While Garrett retrieved his bags, Austin went to his room to watch the surveillance camera in the portrait room.
The ladies sighed when the black light revealed Otto as a vampire. Then they cheered when they learned Garrett was mortal.
"We've done it!" one of the ladies exclaimed. "We've rid ourselves of the last mortal!"
Austin winced. Darcy was probably furious. He'd have to convince her that no harm was done. He could still lose to Roberto in the final round.
He accompanied Garrett downstairs and helped him load his luggage into the Hummer limo. Otto was already inside, grumbling to himself. The limo drove away, and Austin went straight to the roof and the pool house. He knocked. No answer. He tried the door. It wasn't locked, so he let himself in.
"Darcy? Are you here?" The main room was empty. Bedroom, too. He headed back to the kitchen and filled a glass with ice water. Then, he wandered to the sitting area and set his glass on the coffee table. There were three empty glasses there and an almost empty bottle. He lifted the bottle and sniffed. Whoa! He eyed the rocking chair knocked over on its back. So, Darcy had gotten soused after rejecting him. He slowly smiled.
The front door creaked open, and he turned.
Darcy's mouth fell open.
"Hi, sweetheart." He lifted the bottle in his hand. "Did you want to get drunk again?"
Her gaze flicked to the bottle. "I had enough last night."
"Strange " He clunked the bottle down. "I didn't."
She winced, then quietly shut the door.
He sat on the wicker love seat. "Did it work?"
She approached him warily. "Did what work?"
"Did getting soused make you forget that you love me?"
Her eyes reflected pain as she sat on the end of the wicker chaise lounge. "Nothing could make me forget that." Her expression hardened. "I also remember that you agreed to get yourself eliminated from the show."
"I couldn't leave. Not without talking to you."
"Then send me a telegram." Her eyes flashed with anger. "Are you trying to get me fired? That's what'll happen if you win."
"I won't win. I'll be obnoxious and rude tomorrow night."
"There's no taping for the next two days. The second show airs tomorrow night. You won't see me again 'til Friday. That's the final night of taping. And you had better lose."
"I will. Trust me."
"Trust? Don't make me laugh, Adam."
"I have never lied to you about how I feel."
Her eyes narrowed. "How did you do it? How did you lift a settee with one hand?"
He focused on the overturned rocker. Slowly it rose in the air, then landed in an upright position.
Darcy gaped at it, then at Austin, then back at the chair. "How?"
"Good God, how powerful are you?"
He shrugged. "I feel pretty damned helpless where you're concerned. I want to spend the rest of my life with you, and you're brushing me off like it's nothing."
"You think it's easy for me?" She rubbed her forehead. "I have a monster headache."
"Looks like you have two choices. You can either marry me or spend eternity in a drunken stupor."
She glared at him as she massaged her temples. "Oh, thanks. That's about the loveliest proposal a girl could hope for."
He perched on the end of the chaise beside her. "Allow me." He pressed his fingers into her scalp and rubbed small circles.
She closed her eyes. "I shouldn't let you touch me."
"Because my resistance melts away."
"Good." He moved his hands to her neck and massaged her there. "You hate being cold, sweetheart. Stop fighting this, and melt with me."
She moaned, her eyes still closed. "I want you to be happy, Austin. How can you be happy with me?"
"I love you. Of course, I'll be happy with you." He focused on his glass of water. It slid across the table to within his reach. He fished out an ice cube, then drew a line with it down Darcy's neck.
She stiffened, her eyes flying open. "That's so cold."
"Yes, but I'm here to heat you up." He nuzzled her neck, licking away the cold trail of water left behind by the ice.
She shuddered. "Do you realize what you're doing?"
"Seducing you?" He skimmed the ice cube along her collarbone, then down between her br**sts.
Her skin pebbled with goosebumps. "I can't leave the vampire world. I'm stuck here. You would be forced to share it with me."
"I know." With the ice, he drew two circles on her T-shirt, outlining her br**sts. "I just have one question for you."
She shivered. "What is it?"
He rubbed the ice over her ni**les, soaking her T-shirt and bra. "Will you still love me when I'm old and gray? Or bald?"
"Then it's settled." He tossed the ice cube onto the table.
"You make it sound so easy." She shuddered. "Shame on you. You know how I hate the cold."
"But you love it when I warm you up." He pulled her shirt over her head. Then, he reached behind her to unhook her bra.