"Hush," Vanda muttered.
"You don't need a master at all," Austin stated. "You just need a little financial assistance to help get you on your feet." He laid the check across the ladies' laps.
"Oh, my!" Cora Lee gasped. "All this money. Whatever will we do with it all?"
"I - I suppose we could go into trade?" Lady Pamela suggested.
Vanda grinned. "Let's open our own male dancer club. With vampire men."
The ladies jumped to their feet, all jabbering at the same time. Laughing, they scurried toward the door with their giant check.
"Wait!" Roberto called after them. "Come back with my money."
"Adios, Roberto." Vanda shut the door.
"Come back!" Roberto stomped a foot on the floor. "You must do as I say. I am your master!"
The ladies' laughter could be heard from the foyer. Maggie grabbed Austin and escorted him from the room. Darcy sighed with relief that he was safe.
Sly turned to her. "You crazy bitch."
She gulped. Her nightmare wasn't over.
"Hey." Gregori grasped Sly by the arm. "Don't talk to her like that."
Sly pulled his arm free. "Look at what she's done. We don't have a winner. The women have run off with the money. The whole thing is a freaking disaster."
"I disagree." Darcy lifted her chin. "It's more like a miraculous transformation. Those ladies once believed they couldn't survive without a master. They were trapped in the past and frozen with fear and self-doubt. But they blossomed before our eyes. Now, they're strong, independent, intelligent women who know the truth. They don't need a master."
Sly snorted. "And you think that's good? Every male vampire in the world is going to hate you."
"I don't hate her," Gregori said.
"You're an idiot," Sly snarled. "How can we have a Sexiest Man on Earth contest without a winner?"
"Adam was the winner," Darcy insisted.
"He's a mortal!" Sly hissed. "You've insulted the entire vampire world."
Darcy squared her shoulders. "That's a chance I'm willing to take. When the ladies wanted to follow their dream, Adam encouraged them. That makes him the Sexiest Man on Earth."
"You're an idiot, too. You're both fired."
"Then, let's get outta here." Gregori held out a hand to Darcy. She lifted her chin to make a dignified exit.
"You were great," Gregori whispered as they walked down the hallway.
"I'm doomed." She stopped as her whole body started to shake. "I've lost Austin. I've lost my career. And vampires all over the world will hate me."
"Not your friends." Gregori patted her on the back. "And I think you'd be surprised by how many friends you have."
She took a deep breath. "I hope you're right."
"Thank you for not... attacking me," Austin told the ladies in the foyer.
Cora Lee giggled. "Thank you for all this money."
"Are you really opening a male stripper club?" Austin asked. "For vampires?"
"Yes." Vanda laughed. "I think we should call it Horny Devils." She looked him over. "Do you need a job, cutie?"
"I'm not that desperate." But he might get there fast, especially if Sean Whelan blacklisted him. The front door burst open, and Corky Courrant entered with her crew. "Time for me to go." Austin nodded to the ladies. "Good luck to you."
He ran up the stairs to fetch his luggage from his room.
"Wait up." Maggie zoomed to catch up with him. "I'm not sure you should just leave. You know all about our world."
"I won't tell anyone."
"I could try erasing your memory," she suggested. "But I'm not sure you want to forget Darcy."
One vampire wouldn't have enough power to erase his memory. More the pity. It would be such a relief. No memory and no pain. But the memories were too priceless to give up, no matter the cost of the pain. "I want to remember her."
"I understand." Maggie frowned as she walked beside him. "I'm sorry it didn't work out for you."
"So am I." He opened the door to his room. "I'm sorry I made her lose her job. Would you tell her that for me? And tell her I wish her a long and happy... life."
Maggie nodded. "I'm sure she wishes the same for you."
A few minutes later, Austin took his bags down the back stairs. When he reached the first floor, he could see the foyer. It was bright with lights and cameras. Corky was busy interviewing the ladies.
He spotted Darcy standing to the side. She turned to look at him. He raised a hand in farewell. She did the same.
So that was it. No final kiss or embrace. With a sigh, he headed toward the service elevator in the kitchen. No final proclamations of undying love. No final rush into each other's arms. No tears spilled over a love that could never be. Just this savage pain in his chest as he slipped away into the dark night.
A day later, Austin realized he was going to live.
And still have bills to pay. He considered other jobs in law enforcement, but human criminals had somehow lost their appeal. He was only interested in the undead variety.
To keep his mind off Darcy, he took a temporary job in construction. The labor wore him out so he was able to sleep at night. He worked until the next Saturday, then took a day off.
He sat on the couch, drinking a beer and wondering what to do with his life. He'd reached some of his old contacts from his days in Eastern Europe. He was considering going back. He knew the languages. He knew there were bad vampires there. Still, he was reluctant to leave New York. Darcy was here. He wanted to be here in case she needed him.
Who was he kidding? She had plenty of friends. She didn't need him. He eyed the box that now held the videotapes of her old newscasts. He should return the tapes. He should let go.
He clunked the beer bottle down on the coffee table. First, he'd watch all the tapes one more time. One last tribute to Darcy. He stacked the tapes in chronological order, then inserted the first one into the VCR. For the first hour, he smiled. Into the second hour, he felt like crying. By that evening, he had reached the last tape. He was sprawled on the couch, thoroughly depressed, with the last slices of a take-out pizza congealing on the coffee table.
A news anchor described Darcy's disappearance, his face plastered with false concern. No one knew where she was.
"She's dying in an alley, you bastard," Austin growled. If only that damned experiment had worked. If Darcy could change back into a mortal, she'd stop rejecting him. What had gone wrong with the experiment? Something about mutated vampire DNA and the need for the person's original DNA.
The next newscast started. The reporter was standing in the alley behind the vampire club. Though Darcy's body had never been found, the police had recovered a knife stained with her blood. Poor Darcy. Knifed in the chest.
Austin sat up with a jerk. Holy crap! The bloody knife. Her original human DNA. He slapped a hand against his forehead. Was that what Roman needed to make the experiment work?
Austin threw on a suit so he would look like he was still with the CIA. He looked up Gregori's address and phone number on the computer and scribbled down the information. He made some calls and discovered the evidence on Darcy's case had been moved to a central lockup facility in Midtown.
He drove there. It was nine P.M. on a Saturday night, so the place was dead. Only one officer on duty.
Austin approached the officer and planted an image of a CIA ID card in the officer's head. "I'm with the CIA." He flashed an ID card from a video rental store.
The officer nodded. "How can I help you?"
"I need to check the evidence for the Darcy Newhart case. It's four years old."
The officer pushed a clipboard toward him. "I'll need you to sign in."
Austin wrote the name Adam Cartwright.
The officer thumbed through an index file, then removed a card. "Here it is. Bin number 3216."
"Thanks." Austin waited for the officer to buzz him in. He strode down the narrow aisles till he located the box labeled 3216/Newhart. He pulled it off the shelf. Inside, he found a broken video camera, Darcy's old purse, and in a plastic bag, the bloody knife. He stuffed the plastic bag inside his coat and returned the box to the shelf.
Back in his car, he examined the knife through the plastic covering. This could be it. Darcy's one chance to become human again. And their one chance to be together. He set the bag on the passenger seat. His hands shook as he dialed Gregori's number on his cell phone.