The ladies sat on the couches that faced the two remaining portraits on the wall. Austin and Roberto.
Loud voices reverberated in the foyer. The door swung open.
"I'm here!" Sly announced. He strode inside, carrying a four-foot-long posterboard check. He propped it against the wall, then turned to greet the ladies. "Wowza, you look hot!"
Princess Joanna and Maria Consuela blushed and lowered their gazes to their hands in their lap. Lady Pamela and Cora Lee giggled. Vanda raised an eyebrow and glared back at Sly. Maggie slipped behind Darcy, her face pale.
Darcy realized how uncomfortable Maggie was in Sly's presence. "Could you see if the men are ready?"
"Sure." She rushed from the room.
Sly watched her leave. "She looks familiar." He turned back to the ladies and focused on the two blondes. "So, I hear one of you is fond of the hot tub."
Darcy cleared her throat. "Has Corky Courrant arrived yet?"
"No, she's finishing up her show at DVN," Sly answered. "She'll be here soon."
The door opened. The cameramen swooshed in. Maggie and Gregori walked in, followed by the last two contestants. Darcy eased over to a dark corner of the room. It was going to be miserably hard to be in the same room with Austin, but tonight would be the last time. Maggie joined her in the corner with a sheepish smile. They were both hiding out and knew it.
The cameramen turned on their lights and began doing closeups. Darcy blinked when she noticed how Austin was dressed. Roberto looked slick as usual in an expensive suit, but Austin was wearing faded jeans and a wrinkled T-shirt. His shaggy hair stood up in spikes. Whiskers lined his jaw.
Darcy realized he was trying to look messy and disrespectful, but his strategy was backfiring. He looked sexier than ever. With a sinking heart, she also realized there was no need for her to hide in the corner. Austin wasn't looking at her. He was glowering at his scruffy brown boots. Meanwhile, Roberto was casting languorous looks toward the female judges.
"Welcome to the final episode of The Sexiest Man on Earth," Gregori began. "Tonight, the ladies will make their final choice. Either Roberto of Buenos Aires or Adam of Wisconsin will win the title and become the Sexiest Man on Earth."
Bart zeroed in on the two men. Roberto flashed a dazzling smile. Austin ignored the camera and scowled at his boots.
"Tonight, all five ladies will be judging." Gregori introduced them while Bernie focused his camera on them.
"We also have a special guest," Gregori continued. "Sylvester Bacchus, the producer of this show, will present the winner with a check for five million dollars."
Sly smiled for the camera. "This is the night we've all been waiting for. Since the show's debut, we've received over five thousand phone calls and emails. I'm sure you're as eager as I to see who will win."
"Indeed," Gregori agreed. "Tonight's winner not only receives the title of the Sexiest Man on Earth, but a check worth five million dollars."
"And that's not all!" Sly raised his hands dramatically. "The winner will be receiving even more!"
"But first," Gregori interrupted, "a word from our sponsor. How do you celebrate those special vampire occasions? With Bubbly Blood, of course. Romatech's fusion of synthetic blood and champagne." Gregori's smile froze until the cameraman stopped recording.
Darcy's eye twitched. Obviously, everyone assumed both the male contestants were vampires.
Gregori cued the cameraman to start again. "And we're back, just in time for Sylvester Bacchus's important announcement."
"Yes." Sly smiled when the camera switched to him. "As you know our five beautiful judges were once part of Roman Draganesti's harem. It would be a crime to leave these women without a master to take care of them. So, tonight's winner not only wins the title and the money, but he also becomes a master with all these lovely women in his brand-new harem!"
Austin's head snapped up. His mouth fell open.
Roberto's eyes gleamed. Licking his lips, he looked the ladies over.
Darcy glanced at the women. A few weeks ago, this was what they wanted more than anything. A new, wealthy master who would take care of their every need. But somehow, they didn't seem very excited or relieved. Instead, they looked uncomfortable, even embarrassed. Darcy suspected they'd developed enough pride that they didn't enjoy being labeled as a contest prize.
She glanced at Austin. He was looking at her now. No, glaring. No doubt, he was a bit peeved at the thought of winning a harem. But it served him right. She'd warned him over and over to get himself eliminated.
"Tonight's winner will be judged on how well he answers one question." Gregori turned to the two male contestants. "Who would like to go first?"
"Me," Austin grumbled. "I want to get this over with."
Gregori's brows lifted at Austin's surly tone. "Very well." He turned to Roberto. "If you would excuse us a moment?"
Maggie rushed forward to escort Roberto outside. Austin stood in front of the judges, waiting.
Gregori nodded at the ladies. "You may ask your question."
Lady Pamela read the question out loud. "If you were our master, and we were your harem, and we were embroiled in a terrible disagreement, how would you resolve our conflict?"
Darcy inched forward, curious how Austin would answer. So far, he was simply glowering at his boots.
He lifted his chin and gave the judges an irritated look. "I would do nothing." He turned to leave.
Shock and dismay flitted across the women's faces.
"Prithee," Princess Joanna said. "Could you explain your refusal to be of assistance?"
Austin hesitated. "Look, you're intelligent women. You can solve your own problems." He strode toward the door and left.
Vanda cast a furtive glance toward Darcy. "He's a jerk."
Darcy held her breath. With Vanda's help and Austin's abrupt behavior, this prickly situation might work out all right.
Princess Joanna sniffed. "He has no sense of chivalry."
"And that sour expression." Maria Consuela frowned. "I knew torturers from the Inquisition with friendlier faces than that."
Cora Lee crossed her arms, pouting. "He practically snarled at us like a rabid dog."
"And his manner of dress was most disrespectful," Lady Pamela added. "We cannot have such a man for a master."
Vanda smiled. "Then it's all settled. Adam is out."
Darcy heaved a huge sigh of relief. She mouthed the words thank you to Vanda. Now, Austin wouldn't find himself stuck with a harem. And she could keep her job.
Maggie came in with Roberto. He strode toward the ladies and bowed. Lady Pamela repeated the question.
Roberto's smile was as oily as his slicked back hair. "Allow me to say it would be a great honor to be your master."
"We thank you, good sir," Princess Joanna answered. "But how would you resolve a disagreement amongst us?"
Roberto shrugged. "The question is moot. There would be no disagreement."
"I beg your pardon?" Lady Pamela asked.
"As the master, only my opinion will matter. Therefore, you will always agree with me, and we will live in peace and harmony."
There was a moment of silence. Roberto smiled, apparently believing the era of peace and harmony had begun.
Vanda's eyes narrowed. "What if we don't agree with you?"
"I am the master. You will do as I say, and believe as I tell you to believe."
More silence. The women exchanged looks.
"If you will step out for a moment?" Gregori motioned to the door. "The ladies must make their final decision."
Roberto bowed, then strode from the room.
"Well." Cora Lee sighed. "At least he was well dressed."
"He's handsome," Lady Pamela murmured. "And he... bows well."
"And yet," Princess Joanna said, "there is something about him that makes me want to rip his head off."
Maria Consuela nodded. "He is evil."
"He's an arrogant bastard," Vanda muttered.
"Aren't those good qualities for a master?" Cora Lee asked.
Vanda snorted. "If that's true, I don't want a master."
"But we must have one!" Lady Pamela insisted. "We cannot fend for ourselves."
"We've been doing fine," Vanda replied. "We don't need a man to take care of us."