The princess frowned. "But we need money to survive. We must have a master in order to have money."
Cora Lee tilted her head. "Can someone remind me what was wrong with Adam?"
"No." Vanda stood. "We all agreed. Adam is out."
"He wasn't well dressed," Lady Pamela answered.
"Fiddlesticks." Cora Lee huffed. "We'll just teach the man how to dress."
Maria Consuela stood to face them. "He was discourteous. He refused to help us resolve our dispute."
"True." Princess Joanna rose slowly. "But he refused because he believed we could resolve it ourselves. He said we were intelligent."
Cora Lee jumped to her feet. "You mean he wouldn't try to tell us what to think? Or say?"
The princess nodded. "I fear we have misjudged Adam."
Darcy's jaw dropped. She shot Vanda a look of desperation.
"Listen!" Vanda raised her hands. "We don't need either of them. We're doing fine on our own."
"I vote for Adam," Princess Joanna announced.
"Me too," Cora Lee and Lady Pamela piped in.
"I will also," Maria Consuela said. "We must have Adam."
Darcy groaned inwardly. She could kiss her career goodbye.
"I vote no to both of them," Vanda insisted. "Look how far we've come. Don't throw it all away now."
"The vote has been cast, and the majority wins." Gregori motioned for the ladies to sit. He retrieved the special flashlight from the wall safe. Maggie opened the door and invited both men to return. Austin looked nervous, but Roberto's smile oozed with confidence.
Sly stepped forward. "It will be my honor to announce the winner who will bear the title of Sexiest Man on Earth."
"If for any reason," Gregori interrupted, "the winner is unable to fulfill his duties as the Sexiest Man on Earth, the runner-up will be given the title and reward in his stead."
Sly held the four-foot-long check in front of his chest. His eyes twinkled with excitement. "Roberto of Buenos Aires?"
"Yes?" Roberto stepped forward. His eyes gleamed as he reached for the check.
"You lose." Sly chuckled at his cruel joke.
Roberto's smile froze. "What?"
Austin's face paled. He stepped back.
"The Sexiest Man on Earth is Adam from Wisconsin!" Sly announced.
Gregori pushed a stunned Austin forward.
"Congratulations!" Sly grabbed Austin's hand and pumped it. "Here's your check for five million dollars." He shoved the giant posterboard into Austin's arms.
The ladies, except for Vanda, clapped politely.
Sly motioned to the women. "And here is your brand-new harem!"
Austin's gulp was audible. "I - I don't deserve this." He tried to hand the check back to Sly.
Sly laughed. "Now, don't be shy. The ladies picked you."
"Then they are fools!" Roberto shouted. "How could they choose this... this ruffian over me?"
"Hush," Maggie told him.
"Look," Austin said. "I don't want a harem."
The ladies gasped.
"You don't want us?" Cora Lee whimpered.
"I'm sure you're very nice ladies, and I've actually grown fond of you all, but you don't want me. I - I'm not your type."
Princess Joanna frowned. "You prefer men?"
Bart's eyes lit up. Literally.
"No!" Austin gritted his teeth. "I only want one woman. The one I love. Darcy." He shot her a beseeching look for help.
Everyone stared at Darcy. Bart stuck his camera in her face. She winced at the bright lights in her eyes.
"Well, isn't that sweet," Cora Lee murmured.
"Yes," Lady Pamela agreed. "We'll just keep Darcy in the harem, too. Then, we can all be happy."
"Wait a minute," Austin interrupted. "That's not gonna happen." He gave Darcy an apologetic look. "I know this will cause trouble, but everyone should know that I'm mortal."
A series of gasps crossed the room. Vanda and Maggie exchanged worried looks with Darcy.
She sighed. Now it would really get ugly. "It's true." She walked forward and took the flashlight from Gregori.
"It cannot be true," Princess Joanna insisted. "We saw him lift the settee with one hand."
Darcy pointed the flashlight at Roberto's portrait, and his fangs appeared. She lit up Austin's picture. Nothing.
"He's a mortal?" Sly demanded. "I just gave five million dollars to a damned mortal?"
"I didn't intend to win." Austin held out the check. "You can have it back."
"No." Darcy shoved the check back at Austin. "You earned it. You're the Sexiest Man on Earth."
His eyes flashed. "I don't want a harem! Why didn't you tell me about that?"
"You weren't supposed to get this far," Darcy shot back.
"This is your fault!" Sly pointed a finger at Darcy. "You let a mortal win. I warned you what would happen."
Darcy's eye twitched. "He won fair and square."
"No!" Sly shouted. "No mortal could defeat a vampire. You've betrayed us all." He leaned forward and hissed, "You're fired."
Darcy flinched. She tried to turn away, but Bart had the camera in her face. Great. Fired on international television and labeled a traitor in front of the vampire world. She'd never find employment again.
"You can't fire her." Austin glared at Sly. "It was my fault. She begged me over and over to get myself eliminated."
"But that would have been fixing the contest," Gregori observed. "By attempting to stay in, you kept it fair."
"Who gives a shit about being fair?" Sly yelled. His eyes narrowed on Gregori. "You're fired."
Gregori shrugged. "You should have that phrase patented. You do it so well."
Lady Pamela raised a hand to attract everyone's attention. "We still have a problem here. We cannot have a mortal master. How would he protect us?"
"Aye," Princess Joanna agreed. "Our master must be a vampire."
"Well, he's not," Sly growled. His eyes widened suddenly as if an idea had just popped into his head. He cast a sly look in Austin's direction. "Though his condition could be changed."
Darcy gasped. "No."
Austin dropped the check on the floor. His face paled.
The ladies exchanged looks.
"Are you suggesting we transform him?" Princess Joanna asked.
Sly shrugged. "If you want him, take him."
"Whoa!" Austin raised his hands. "I'm not agreeing to this."
"You can't transform someone against their will," Darcy insisted.
"Why not?" Sly sneered. "Did anyone ask you for your permission?"
Her eye twitched.
"Come on, ladies." Sly gave them an encouraging smile. "You'll get the man you wanted and five million dollars. Which one of you has the guts to do the deed?"
Austin grabbed the check off the floor. "Look, ladies. I'll give you the check if you leave me alone."
Their eyes widened.
"You'd give us the money?" Vanda asked.
"No!" Roberto cried. "He is disqualified. That money is mine!"
"Hush," Gregori muttered. "Look, Sly. Darcy's right. You can't transform this guy against his will."
Sly glared at him. "Who's listening to you? You're fired, too." He turned to the camera. "Ladies and gentlemen, this will be the most exciting moment in vampire history! A live transformation performed right before your very eyes."
"You can't do it." Darcy clenched her fists. "You can't transform someone without killing him first."
She gave an exasperated huff. "It's murder. Don't you think that's a bit... unethical, even for television?"
Sly shrugged. "But imagine the ratings."
Austin stepped in front of a camera. "I'd like to state for the record that I'm thoroughly opposed to murder. Especially my own."
Princess Joanna waved a hand in dismissal. "Relax, young man. We're not going to kill you."
"No." Maria Consuela clutched her rosary. "It is evil."
Lady Pamela shook her head. "We don't need a master that badly."
"Yes, you do!" Roberto jumped forward. "You need me."