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Vamps and the City (Love at Stake #2)
Author:Kerrelyn Sparks

Vamps and the City (Love at Stake #2) by Kerrelyn Sparks

 

 

Is she or isn't she?

 

She was perfection.

 

Her long hair was a mixture of golden brown, honey, and sun-kissed platinum. She held it back from her face with combs that sparkled in the dark and begged to be removed. She had to be tall because she was visible over the cars from her head to her sweetly curved breasts. Holy mammary glands, it was enough to turn a face man into a breast man.

 

She left the car, walking away on seemingly endless legs. Her tight skirt had a back vent that twitched open with each step to reveal a few inches of slender thigh. Good God, it was enough to turn a newly converted breast man into a leg man.

 

Her hair swayed from side to side in a way that could hypnotize a man and enslave him for life.

 

Vampire or mortal?

 

He had to know...

 

Chapter 1

 

"Eight-twenty P.M., male Caucasian, five-foot-ten, pounds, mid-twenties, leaving a white Honda Civic," Austin Erickson murmured into his mini-recorder. He adjusted the telescopic night lens on his binoculars and zoomed in on the subject across the parking lot. The guy didn't appear to be armed. More importantly, he was carrying a king-sized cup of gourmet coffee and a bag of doughnuts. Lucky bastard. Normally, that would be considered... well, normal. But this was the parking lot of the Digital Vampire Network. Nothing was normal here. Especially after sunset.

 

Austin exchanged his binoculars for a 35-mm camera and took another look at the guy. "Subject is human. He's going in."

 

The guy was taking breakfast inside DVN? Didn't he realize he could be breakfast? A shaft of light cut across the parking lot, then slowly disappeared as the door swung shut. It was dark once more. Austin had parked his black Acura in the shadowed corner of this lot in Brooklyn. The large warehouse that contained DVN was dark, all the windows blackened out. Only three letters, DVN, glowed in fluorescent red lights over the black-lacquered front door.

 

With a sigh, he dropped his camera on the passenger seat. He supposed the guy would be safe. Austin had been watching the vampire-owned television station for four nights now, and every night, several humans ventured inside. His conclusion - DVN actually employed a handful of mortals. Did the poor saps know they were working for demonic creatures? Were their minds being controlled? Maybe the vampires offered a great dental plan. Whatever their reasons for being there, as far as Austin could tell, all the humans left about five in the morning still alive and apparently in good health. It was strange, but then, there were a lot of strange things about the vampire world.

 

He had learned of their existence about six weeks ago when CIA operations officer Sean Whelan had transferred him to the Stake-Out team. Sean had explained what vicious killers these vampires were, so Austin was eager to protect the innocent. He had expected action, lots of action, ramming wooden stakes into nasty green creatures with rotting flesh and bumpy foreheads. Instead, he'd found himself staking out a television network where the vampires looked and acted too much like humans.

 

In fact, the only way Austin could tell a human from a vampire was to look through the 35-mm camera. Both the living and the undead showed up in a digital camera, but vampires could never appear in a 35-mm for the same reason they never showed up in a mirror. Their image could not be reflected.

 

He moved the 35-mm to the floor in front of the passenger seat. The rest of his equipment was there -  night-vision goggles, digital camera with night lens, Glock with silver bullets, laptop, and his new favorite, his CV-3 video viewer. God, he loved working for the CIA. He had the coolest stuff.

 

He'd also been issued a box of wooden stakes. Made in China by a company that specialized in chopsticks. The box was sitting on the back seat of his car, open and ready for emergencies.

 

He opened his laptop on the passenger seat and typed in the secret frequency for receiving transmissions from DVN. The screen came into focus. Good, the vampire news was still on. And free for the taking. They naturally assumed no one could figure out their secret transmissions, and they didn't post guards around their facility. It was all indicative of what Austin considered their most obvious weakness. Their arrogance. He supped in his ten-gigabyte thumb drive and began recording.

 

This was his mission - stake out DVN, acquire information, and most importantly, learn the whereabouts of Sean's daughter, who was being held prisoner. The last time they'd seen Shanna was eight days ago in Central Park. She'd been surrounded by an army of Scottish vampires. To Austin, she'd looked like a willing captive, but Sean insisted she was brainwashed. Terribly outnumbered, the Stake-Out team had been forced to retreat, leaving Shanna Whelan behind.

 

Sean was furious. He was staking out Roman Draganesti's townhouse every night, but so far, there was no sign of his daughter. He'd ordered Garrett to watch the Russian coven in Brooklyn. Alyssa was watching Romatech Industries. The new girl, Emma, was manning the office in Midtown and scouring police reports for anything that indicated vampire involvement. And Austin was watching DVN - the facility and the transmissions.

 

He slipped on his CV-3 video viewer. The special eyeglasses gave him a heads-up display that freed him from having to watch his computer screen. He could continue to scan the parking lot while DVN played on a virtual screen in front of his eyes.

 

According to the DVN newscaster, the Russian coven was in turmoil. Some of the male coven members were refusing to accept two females as masters. A civil war could erupt. Austin smiled to himself. Let the slimy vampires kill each other off.

 

He poured a cup of coffee from his thermos. Holy caffeine fix, he wished this was gourmet. And a few snacks would be nice. He should have confiscated that guy's doughnuts for evidence. While he drank, a commercial started. A sexy female claimed her yummy drink was low in cholesterol and blood sugar. Blood Lite.

 

Austin choked, spraying coffee all over his steering wheel before he managed to swallow. Sheesh, demon diet food? He grabbed an old napkin to wipe up the mess. Next was the vampire celebrity talk show, starring Corky Courrant. He eyed the hostess's chest. Those had to be implants.

 

His attention was diverted when a photo flashed on the screen next to Corky's head. A photo of Draganesti.

 

"You'll never believe it!" Corky exclaimed with a grin. "The most eligible bachelor in America is getting married! Yes, Roman Draganesti, coven master of East Coast vampires, billionaire inventor of synthetic blood and Fusion Cuisine, and CEO of Romatech Industries has announced his engagement. And you'll never believe who the lucky bride is! Stay tuned!"

 

Another commercial started, this one for a special vampire toothpaste, guaranteed to whiten your fangs or your money back. Austin wondered if there were vampire ladies at home, bawling their evil eyes out because superbachelor Roman Draganesti was marrying someone else. The whole thing sounded too weird. Could vampires actually fall in love? And where would they make their marriage vows? Surely, demons didn't go to church. And how could they promise "til death do you part" if they were already dead?

 

One thing was for sure. The bride had better not be Shanna Whelan. Sean would go ballistic. Literally. He'd probably detonate a truckload of C4 on the Upper East Side, where Draganesti's townhouse was located.

 

Corky's show came back on. Another photo was displayed.

 

"Oh, crap." Austin grimaced. It was a picture of Draganesti and Shanna Whelan together.

 

"Can you believe it?" Corky screeched. "Roman Draganesti is marrying a mortal!"

 

Holy matrimony. Austin pulled the CV-3 video viewer off and dropped it beside his laptop. This was the worst possible news. With a groan, he leaned forward and bumped his forehead against the steering wheel. Sean would want to retaliate. And there were only five agents on the Stake-Out team. They were too outnumbered to do anything overt. And they still didn't know where Shanna was. That damned Draganesti was hiding her.

 

Austin was too tense to sit in the car. He had to do something. The thumb drive was still recording, so he didn't need to stay put. He looked around the parking lot. There were thirty-seven cars, and most of them belonged to the undead. If he ran their plates, he could get their names and start compiling a database of known vampires.

 

He grabbed his digital camera and climbed out of the car. He was almost finished taking pictures of license plates when the bright flash of headlights ripped through the darkness. Another car was entering the lot. A black Lexus four-door sedan.

 

Keeping low, Austin darted from the cover of one car to the next until he had a clear view of where the Lexus had parked. He zoomed the camera lens onto the New York license plate and silently snapped.

 

The driver's door opened, and a tall male dressed in an expensive suit emerged. Austin took his picture. Then, the passenger door opened, and a young woman stepped out. Young, my ass. Austin gritted his teeth while he snapped her picture. She might dress like a teenager with her plaid skirt and fishnet hose, but if she were a vampire, she could be older than dirt.

 

Unfortunately, there was no way he could tell if they were alive or undead with the digital camera. He needed the 35-mm. He dashed back to his car, hugging the shadow of a tall brick wall. Then, he heard it. A third car door shutting. He edged around a large SUV and caught a glimpse of blond hair. The last time he'd seen Shanna, she'd been a blonde. Could it be? He inched closer, staying low. His mouth fell open. She wasn't Shanna.

 

She was perfection.

 

Holy moley. He'd always considered himself a face man, or more importantly, a man who gazed first into the eyes of a woman for a glimpse of her soul. Not possible with this one, for he could only see her profile. Her nose was petite and girlish, but her mouth wide and womanly. A dynamite combination, and it definitely lit his fuse. He took a few pictures.

 

Her long hair was a mixture of golden brown, honey, and sun-kissed platinum. She held it back from her face with combs that sparkled in the dark and begged to be removed. Hair that pretty deserved a few pictures.

 

He guessed she was about five-foot-nine. She had to be tall because she was visible over the cars from her head to her sweetly curved breasts. Holy mammary glands, it was enough to turn a face man into a breast man. Thank God for the zoom lens.

 

She left the car, walking away from him on seemingly endless legs. Her tight skirt had a back vent that twitched open with each step to reveal a few inches of slender thigh. Sheesh, it was enough to turn a newly converted breast man into a leg man.

 

But then, he noticed how her tight skirt outlined her hips and derriere. Holy honey buns. That was worth a picture or two. And certainly enough to turn a leg man into a connoisseur of fine booty.

 

Wait a minute. That blue business suit didn't look like something a vampire would wear. They usually went for a more flashy look. Of course! She might not be a vampire. She looked too vibrant to be undead. What if she was innocent and the two with her were vampires? They could be delivering her into a den of demons. Dammit. Not on his watch.

 

He straightened, then paused with a silent groan. Idiot. He was letting his dick do the thinking. The gorgeous woman wasn't a prisoner. She was walking toward the entrance of DVN with determination in her long-legged stride.

 

He had to know. Vampire or mortal - which was she? The threesome had reached the entrance of DVN. Austin rushed to his car, yanked open the door, and grabbed the 35-mm. He peered through the viewfinder. Total darkness. With a muttered curse, he removed the lens cap and raised the camera once more.

 

Nothing. The door to DVN was open, but no one was there. He lowered the camera. Now he could see the male holding the door open and the shorter woman going inside. They were definitely vampires. But what about the gorgeous blonde?

 

Shit! He'd missed her. He climbed into the car, wincing when his jeans cut into his swollen groin. She had to be human. He couldn't be this fired up over a dead demon. Could he?

 

Darcy Newhart came to an abrupt stop inside the lobby of DVN. She could hardly see the black and red decor, the room was so crowded. There had to be over fifty Vamps here, all jabbering with excitement. Good God, were they all seeking employment?

 

Gregori bumped into her from behind. "Sorry," he murmured, his gaze wandering about the room.

 

"I didn't expect so many." Her hands trembled as she made sure the combs were still holding back her long hair. She checked her leather portfolio one more time. Her neatly typed résumé was still there, looking the same as it had five minutes ago. How could she compete with so many? Who was she kidding? She would never get this job. The familiar tentacles of panic curled around her, squeezing the air from her lungs. She would never be free. She could never escape.

 

"Darcy," Gregori's sharp voice cut through the rising panic. He waited 'til she met his eyes, then he gave her the Look.

 

In the first year of her forced confinement, Gregori had become a good friend and pillar of support, repeatedly telling her, This is the only world you have now. Deal with it. Now, he only had to look at her to remind her to be strong. She nodded and squared her shoulders. "I'll be all right."

 

His brown eyes softened. "Yes, you will."

 

Maggie adjusted the pleats on her short plaid skirt. "I'm so nervous. What if I see Don Orlando? What will I say?"

 

"Don who?" Gregori asked.

 

"Don Orlando de Corazon," Maggie repeated his name in a reverent whisper. "He's the star of As a Vampire Turns."

 

Gregori frowned. "That's why you came? To drool on the stars? I thought you wanted to give Darcy moral support."

 

"I do," Maggie insisted. "But then, I thought if Darcy can find a job, maybe I can, too. So I decided to audition for a soap opera."

 

"You want to be an actress?" Gregori asked.

 

"Oh, I don't know anything about acting. I just want to be with Don Orlando." Maggie clasped her hands to her chest and unleashed a long sigh. "He's the sexiest man on earth."

 

Gregori gave her a dubious look. "Okay. Good luck with that. Excuse me." He grabbed Darcy's arm and pulled her a few feet away. "You've got to help me. The harem ladies are driving me crazy."

 

"Welcome to the club. I was ready for a padded cell four years ago."

 

"I'm serious, Darcy."

 

She snorted. So was she. It had stretched her sanity to the brink when she'd discovered the existence of vampires. But for a modern woman to be forced to live in a vampire harem and obey the dictates of a master? It was more than she could bear.

 

She'd tried to escape once, but Connor had tracked her down and teleported her back like a lost pet. Even now, the humiliation curdled her stomach. Her new master, Roman, had sat her down for a firm lecture. She knew too much. The mortal world believed she was dead. Because of her job on mortal television, her face was recognizable to millions. She had to remain hidden. But the good news was she would be safe and sheltered within the confines of his harem. Roman had explained it all calmly and gently, while she had silently fumed and wanted to scream.

 

Trapped. For four long years. At least Roman's recent engagement had put him in a good mood. He'd finally agreed to let her venture out into the world, as long as it was the vampire world.

 

"I can't take it." Gregori gave her a desperate look. Darcy knew he was already regretting his offer to house Roman's newly rejected harem. "It took me a week to move their luggage. Princess Joanna had fifty-two boxes. And Cora Lee had so many trunks - "

 

"Thirty-four," Darcy muttered. "It's all those hoop skirts she wears. They take up a lot of room."

 

"Room I don't have." Gregori dragged a hand through his thick chestnut hair. "When I offered to take them in, I didn't realize they would come with so much crap. And they're acting like they plan to stay forever."

 

"I understand. I'm stuck there, too." Ten women squashed into two bedrooms, sharing one bathroom. It was a nightmare. But unfortunately, dealing with horror was nothing new to Darcy. "I'm sorry, Gregori, but I don't know how I can help you."

 

"You can show them how to get a life," he whispered. "Encourage them to be independent."

 

"They won't listen to me. They consider me an outsider."

 

"You can do it. Already Maggie is following your example." He lay a hand on her shoulder. "I have faith in you."

 

If only she had some in herself. There had been a time when she'd glowed with confidence. She took a deep breath. She needed that old Darcy back. She needed this job.

 

Gregori glanced at his watch. "I have an appointment in thirty minutes, so I'll catch up with you later." He looked around the room and grinned. "I think I see some babes I know."

 

Darcy smiled as he sauntered off. Gregori was such a charmer. She never would have survived without his friendship.

 

Maggie sidled up close, a frown creasing her youthful face. "There are so many people here. And they look more... dramatic than me."

 

"Don't worry. You look adorable." At the beginning of her confinement, Darcy had been shocked by the way the harem ladies dressed. Each one was trapped in an individual time warp, still clinging to the fashions they had experienced as mortals. She'd encouraged them to modernize their tastes, but only Maggie and Vanda had been willing to invent new looks for themselves. Maggie's usual attire was a short plaid skirt, fishnet hose, and a tight black sweater to highlight her generous bosom.

 

Darcy turned to face the reception desk. It seemed a mile away. Clutching her portfolio to her chest, she weaved through the crowd with Maggie close behind. The Vamps had gathered into groups, chatting and gesturing wildly with their hands. Darcy passed one group, noting the heavy makeup and clothes that showed too much skin. Sheesh. Whatever happened to manly men? She turned to check out the females instead.

 

"What happened to Gregori?" Maggie looked over the crowd, her eyes wide with worry. Her short stature made it easy for her to lose people.

 

Darcy spotted him with a group of women, each with hair dyed an unnatural color. They arched around him like a rainbow. When he smiled and spoke to them, they tittered with laughter.

 

"He's fine." Maybe those women thought green, blue, and pink hair was wild and wicked, but Darcy thought they looked more like a cuddly clan of Care Bears. Hi! My name is TenderHeart Vamp. Do you need a hug? She suppressed the image with a shudder. Good God, she'd been cooped up for way too long.

 

The receptionist was painting her fingernails a glossy blood red to match the highlights in her hair. "If you're here for the auditions, sign in and wait your turn." She pointed a wet nail at a clipboard.

 

Maggie studied the clipboard, her eyes growing wider. "Sweet Mary, I'll be number sixty-two."

 

"Yeah, it's like this every night." The receptionist blew on her fingernails. "But you won't have to wait very long."

 

"Okay." Maggie added her name on the bottom of the list.

 

"What about you?" The receptionist wrinkled her nose at Darcy's conservative business suit.

 

"I have an appointment with Sylvester Bacchus."

 

"Yeah, right. If you're here for an acting job, you'll have to wait your turn." The receptionist pointed at the clipboard.

 

Darcy pasted a smile on her face. "I'm a professional journalist, and Mr. Bacchus is expecting me. My name is Darcy Newhart."

 

The receptionist snorted to convey how underwhelmed she was, then checked a paper on her desk. Her mouth fell open. "No freakin' way."

 

"Excuse me?" Darcy asked.

 

"You're on the list, but..." The receptionist narrowed her eyes. "Are you sure you're Darcy Newhart?"

 

"Yes." Who else would she be? Darcy's smile withered away.

 

"Well, that's freakin' weird. I guess you might as well see him. Third door on the left."

 

"Thank you." Not a good start. Darcy squelched a feeling of doom. She rounded the desk and strode down the hall.

 

"You'd better knock first," the receptionist yelled in her nasal voice. "He may be in the middle of an audition."

 

Darcy glanced back. The receptionist was lolling back in her chair, wiggling fingers in the air while she admired her nail polish. Maggie gave Darcy an encouraging smile. She smiled weakly back, took a deep breath, and knocked on the door.

 

"Come in," a gruff voice hollered.

 

She entered the room and turned to close the door. Behind her, she heard a curious sound. A zipper?

 

She pivoted to face Sylvester Bacchus. He looked about fifty in mortal years, though there was no way she could estimate his age as a vampire. Mostly bald, he had embraced the condition by keeping the rest of his hair buzzed short. His moustache and beard were closely cropped and well-groomed, dark hair sprinkled with gray. His brown eyes immediately checked her out, focusing on her chest for far too long.

 

She lifted her leather portfolio to block his view. "How do you do? I'm - "

 

"You're new." His gaze drifted to her hips. "Not bad."

 

Her face heated up as she debated the long-range ramifications of starting a job interview by slapping the prospective employer in the face. Her dilemma was cut short when she noticed a blond head slowly rising from behind the desk.

 

"I'm sorry." Darcy retreated toward the door. "I didn't realize you were busy."

 

"No problem." Mr. Bacchus glanced at the blonde. "That'll be all, Tiffany. You can... polish my shoes another day."

 

She tilted her head. "You want me to do your shoes, too?"

 

"No," he grumbled. "Just come back in a week."

 

Darcy realized the zipper she'd heard was real. Good God, if this was how auditions were conducted, she needed to warn Maggie. She'd always been under the impression that vampires preferred vampire sex, a purely mental exercise that was considered superior to sloppy and sweaty mortal sex. Obviously, Mr. Bacchus possessed a more open mind. And a more open zipper.

 

Meanwhile, Tiffany had jumped to her feet and was pressing her hands to her plump breasts. "You mean I'm being recalled?"

 

"Sure." Mr. Bacchus patted her on the rump. "Off you go."

 

"Yes, Mr. Bacchus." Tiffany executed an amazing walk toward the door, managing to sway her hips and jiggle her breasts all at the same time. She leaned over to turn the door knob, jutting out her derriere and arching her back as if the act of opening a door could spiral her into fits of orgasmic ecstasy. She paused halfway out the door to toss a seductive smile back at Mr. Bacchus, then slithered down the hall.

 

Darcy kept her face carefully blank so her simmering anger wouldn't show. She should have known the Digital Vampire Network would adhere to archaic, chauvinistic rules of behavior. It was the same way throughout the vampire world. Most of the female Vamps were at least a hundred years old. Many were centuries old, so they didn't know about the advances mortal women had made. They didn't want to know. They were so sure their own world was vastly superior.

 

The end result was tragic. Female Vamps had no idea how poorly they were treated. They simply accepted their lot as normal. Darcy had told the harem ladies about the brave women who had suffered in order to obtain the vote. Her passionate tribute had been dismissed as ridiculous hogwash. No one voted for coven masters in the vampire world. How dreadfully plebian.

 

But this was the world she was stuck with. And since DVN was the only television network in the vampire world, it provided her only chance for the type of job she desperately wanted. And the independence she craved. So she had to be polite to Mr. Bacchus. Even if he was a sexist pig.

 

"Come on in. Don't be shy." Mr. Bacchus lounged back in his chair and propped his feet on the desk. "And shut the door, so we can have some privacy." He winked.

 

Darcy's eye twitched, and she prayed it hadn't looked like she was winking back. She shut the door and approached his desk. "I'm delighted to meet you, Mr. Bacchus. I'm Darcy Newhart, a professional television journalist." She removed the resume from her portfolio and placed it on his desk. "As you can see - "

 

"What?" He lowered his feet to the floor. "You're Darcy Newhart?"

 

"Yes. You will notice on my resume' that I have - "

 

"But you're a woman."

 

Her eye twitched again. "Yes, I am, and as you can see" - she pointed to a section on her résumé - "I worked several years at a local news station here in the city - "

 

"Goddammit!" Mr. Bacchus pounded a fist onto his desk. "You were supposed to be a man."

 

"I assure you, I've been a female all my life."

 

"With a name like Darcy? Who the hell names a girl Darcy?"

 

"My mother did. She was very fond of Jane Austen - "

 

"Then why didn't she name you Jane! Shit." Mr. Bacchus leaned back in his chair to glower at the ceiling.

 

"If you could look at my résumé, you would see that I'm more than qualified for a position on the Nightly News."

 

"You're not qualified," he muttered. "You're a woman."

 

"I fail to see how my gender has anything to - "

 

He rocked forward suddenly, pinning her with a glare. "Have you ever seen a woman on the Nightly News?"

 

"No, but this would be an ideal opportunity for you to rectify that error." Oops. Poor choice of words.

 

"Error? Are you crazy? Women don't do the news."

 

"I did." She tapped a finger on her resume.

 

He glanced down. "That's the mortal world. What the hell do they know? Their world's a mess." He crumbled up her paper and tossed it aside.

 

Darcy's heart fell into her stomach. "You could hire me for a month on a probationary status, so I could prove my ability - "

 

"No way. Stone would tear this place apart if I tried to pair him up with a female co-anchor."

 

"I understand. He's an excellent news anchor." Dull as a rock was more like it. "But Stone does all the stories, droning - I mean, talking for the entire thirty minutes."

 

"So?"

 

"The Nightly News would be more exciting and faster paced if you included reports from correspondents in the field. That was my specialty, and I would be delighted to - "

 

"I was considering doing that. And I was thinking about hiring you, but you turned out to be a woman."

 

Her heart dropped a few inches lower. "I fail to see - "

 

"News is serious business. We can't have females doing it. People would miss something important, 'cause they were looking at your perky little breasts."

 

Her shoulders slumped, taking her perky little breasts with them. This was it - the impenetrable wall of male vampire chauvinism, and once more, she'd slammed right into it. If only she could take a sledgehammer to it. Or a baseball bat to Mr. Bacchus's egg-shaped head. "I could work behind the scenes. I used to write my own - "

 

"You can write?"

 

"Yes."

 

"Can you be entertaining?"

 

"Yes." Her reports had been considered humorous.

 

He studied her. "You strike me as somewhat intelligent."

 

Her eye twitched. "Thank you."

 

"We're flooded every night with the flashy ones who want to be in front of the camera. Finding someone with intelligence and experience to work behind the scenes is a major problem."

 

"I'm very good at solving problems."

 

"Are you? Then I'll tell you what I really need at DVN." He leaned forward. "I need a big hit."

 

With a baseball bat? "You mean a new show?"

 

"Yeah." Mr. Bacchus stood and wandered toward a dry-erase board on the wall. "Do you realize that since DVN has been on the air, our lineup of shows has never changed?"

 

"Everyone loves your shows. Especially the soap operas."

 

"It's boring! Look at this." He pointed at the board where DVN's schedule was displayed. "Every freaking night, it's the same thing. We start at eight o'clock with the Nightly News with Stone Cauffyn. Then, at eight-thirty, it's Live with the Undead, our celebrity gossip magazine."

 

"With Corky Courrant. I saw her a few weeks ago at the Gala Opening Ball."

 

Mr. Bacchus pivoted toward her, his eyes wide. "You were invited to the ball?"

 

"Yes. I... used to be associated with Roman Draganesti."

 

"How?"

 

"I worked part time at Romatech." She'd refused to take an allowance from Roman, so Gregori had arranged for her to work in a back room at Romatech a few nights a week. Roman had okayed it, as long as no mortal ever saw her.

 

"Draganesti is one of our top sponsors." Mr. Bacchus watched her, scratching his beard. "How well do you know him?"

 

A blush crept up to her cheeks. "I... lived in his house."

 

"Really? You were in his harem?"

 

"I - you could say that." But she never would.

 

"Hmm." Mr. Bacchus's heated gaze wandered over her body. Clearly, her non-writing abilities were being reassessed.

 

She lifted her chin. "You were describing the schedule?"

 

"Oh, yeah." He turned back to the board. "In the nine o'clock slot, we have As the Vampire Turns, starring Don Orlando de Corazon. Then at ten, we have All My Vampires, and at eleven, General Morgue. But what happens at midnight?" He jabbed a finger at the dry-erase board.

 

Darcy frowned. There was nothing there. What did

 

come on at midnight? By then, she was usually at Romatech, immersed to her ears in boring paperwork.

 

"Nothing!" Mr. Bacchus yelled. "We start over again and repeat the whole damned schedule. It's pathetic! The midnight hour should be our greatest show ever, the piece de resistance. But we have... nothing." He trudged back to his desk.

 

Darcy took a deep breath. This was her chance to show her true worth. "You need a new show, but not another soap opera."

 

"That's right." Mr. Bacchus paced behind his desk. "Maybe a cop show. A vampire cop. We could call it Blood and Disorder. That would be different. What do you think we should do?"

 

Gulp. She racked her brain. What had been the rage before her world had fallen apart? "How about a reality show?"

 

He whirled around to face her. "I like it! What could be more real than vampires? But what would be the premise?"

 

Her mind went completely blank. Damn. She sat in a chair and arranged her portfolio across her lap to buy herself some time. A reality show. What was real? The harem's new dilemma? "How about an expelled harem in need of a new master?"

 

"Not bad." Mr. Bacchus nodded. "Damned good, actually. Hey, wasn't Draganesti's harem just kicked out?"

 

"Yes. Corky did a feature about it on Live with the Undead." But none of the ladies had participated. It was too humiliating.

 

"You know, some of those harem ladies are famous. Could you get them to do the show?"

 

"I - I believe so."

 

"You know Draganesti really well, right?" Mr. Bacchus's mouth twisted with a knowing smirk. "Could you get him to rent us a big, fancy penthouse for the show? You know, one of those glitzy ones with a swimming pool on the roof."

 

"I - I suppose." Maybe Gregori could figure something out.

 

"It's gotta have a hot tub. Can't have a reality show without a hot tub."

 

"I understand."

 

"And you have experience in television?"

 

"Yes." Darcy glanced at the trash can that now held her neatly typed resume. "I graduated in television journalism at the University of Southern California and worked in that region for several years before moving to New York and a position at Local Four News - "

 

"Fine, fine." Mr. Bacchus waved a hand to shut her up. "Look, I want this reality show. If you can get us a fancy location and guarantee that Draganesti's old harem will participate, then you've got a job. Director."

 

Her heart lurched. Director of a reality show? Okay. She could handle this. She had to. It was this or nothing.

 

"So can you do it? Deliver the penthouse and the harem?"

 

"Yes." She clenched her portfolio with a white-knuckled grip. "I'd be delighted." God help her.

 

"And don't forget the hot tub."

 

"I wouldn't dream of it."

 

"Great! I'll have an office ready for you tomorrow night. What do you want to call the show?"

 

Her mind raced, searching for a pithy title. How to Dig Your Own Grave in Less than Five Minutes?

 

"Well, the women will be selecting the perfect man to be their new master."

 

Mr. Bacchus perched on the corner of his desk and scratched at his beard. "The Perfect Man? Or The Perfect Master?"

 

Not exciting enough. Darcy closed her eyes briefly to concentrate. Maggie would think Don Orlando was the perfect man. What had she called him? "How about The Sexiest Man on Earth?"

 

"Excellent!" Mr. Bacchus grinned. "And call me Sly. It's short for Sylvester."

 

"Thank you... Sly."

 

"This has gotta be a hit. Not just an ordinary show, but one with twists and surprises."

 

"Yes, of course."

 

"Auditions will be easy. As you can see in the lobby, there'll be lots of male Vamps trying out for the show."

 

Darcy winced. Somehow her idea of the world's sexiest man didn't include makeup. "Do they all have to be Vamps?"

 

Sly snorted. "We're talking about the sexiest men on earth. Of course they'll be Vamps." He strode toward the door.

 

Of course. Darcy stood, gritting her teeth. Everyone knew vampires were superior in every way. A sudden idea sparked in her head. Why not put Sly's claim to the test?

 

She smiled as she walked toward the door. So her boss wanted the show to include some surprising twists? No problem.

 

She would deliver a doozy.