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They were stuck on this remote island, all of them.
Trapped in this reality show.
No way to stop 
whatever came next.  No way at all.


Six people arrive on a remote island--contestants in the “reality show of the century,” Dream Prize. The winner will be the person who learns the most facts about the others and gains the most viewer votes. Sounds simple. But the three men and three women soon discover nothing is as expected. 

They are alone on the island. Cameras surround them, filming twenty-four hours a day. And their challenge? Discover which of the Seven Deadly Sins each contestant, including themselves, represents.

Turns out each person has a damning secret--one that could ruin his or her life. Those secrets are about to be revealed on live television.

And this is only the beginning of the twists in the game.

Multilayered in plot and rich with meaning, Vain Empires is a strong choice for book clubs. Discussion questions included.

"This is a book readers will not want to put down! It is a wonderfully plotted, fast-paced story, with twists and mysteries galore. --RT BookReviews

"A twisty, terrifying plot. An eerie and foreboding tone keeps readers glued to the story until the final page. Perfect for fans of Irene Hannon, Stephen King, and psychological suspense." --Library Journal

"Cleverly switches perspective as details of the contestants' lives are teased out. Perfect for fans of Agatha Christie." --Publishers Weekly



Prologue

Copyright 2016 by Brandilyn Collins



The stage stood ready. Waiting for victims.

Sickly light from a bare overhead bulb filtered through the underground room, revealing floor and walls of concrete blocks. Four gray metal folding chairs. A square table in the center, supporting a small computer screen. In one corner of the room sat a half-sized refrigerator, holding bottled water and food. It emitted a low hum. In the opposite corner was a narrow door leading to a tiny bathroom. The toilet flushed. The sink had running water.

A nice touch. The Dream Prize producer smiled.

Fresh air pumped into the room through a vent in the ceiling.

On the front wall was a thick wooden door. A certain button pushed would open and close its digital lock. Beyond the door rose eighteen stairs, also dimly lit. They led to a second heavy door, this at ground level. Its lock—controlled by a similar button.

In time, as one grew accustomed to the bunker’s low light, the round outline of an area cut high in the back wall would become visible. The hole was about three inches in diameter. What lay behind it was almost invisible yet deadly to the dreams of those trapped inside.

Sinners, they were, intent on hatching their vain empires. Sinners, all. 


 

Chapter 1


None of this mattered if she didn’t win.

Not the transparent azure water, the alluring remote island with a large white wood house now in view, the warm ocean breeze under sunny skies. Not the five other mysterious contestants on the boat. Not the hard-faced captain who’d refused to talk, motioning them on board with a jut of his chin. Or the months Gina had hoped and prayed she would be chosen for the reality show. The exhilaration of learning she had. The long flight to Australia, leaving her husband, Ben, behind. The jet lag and sleepless previous night. The anticipation and dread now churning within her.

This lush beauty, the tears, the good and the bad—all of it was for one thing only. Ben’s dream and hers.

Gina slid a hand across her lower belly.

Dream Prize. A fitting name for the reality show. Each contestant had been able to choose the prize he or she wanted. It could be money and/or gifts equaling up to ten million dollars. Or it could be something that money alone couldn’t buy.

Gina would win.

The boat swayed, and warm spray misted on her sunglasses. She grabbed the railing.

They’d approached the small island by rounding its south side onto its western shore. Gina studied the house as it grew closer. Two storied and long, with a porch and upper deck, both running the entire length. White railing on the deck. White pillars on both levels. Much of the house was glass, upstairs and down. She couldn’t wait to see the interior.

“That’s one gussied-up house.” Tori Hattinger, the attractive woman standing next to Gina at the boat railing, spoke the words almost to herself.

“Gussied up?”

Tori glanced at Gina, as if caught at something. “It’s a Southern saying for being all dressed up.”

“Oh.” Gina couldn’t detect an accent. “You from the South?”

“Maybe. Maybe not.”

 All right, be coy.

They’d been told little information about the challenges in Dream Prize. Gina did know the show had nothing to do with surviving the wild or eating worms or crazy physical tasks, which she never could have done. In fact they would live in luxury. Now that was more her style. Further, this game was a contest not of the body, but the mind. It focused in some way on finding out things about each other. The six contestants would earn points through their own deductions and from a voting TV audience. “When you meet, tell each other nothing about yourself but your first and last names,” read the terse welcome note in Gina’s hotel room.

She had no problem with any of this. One thing Gina Corrales knew was how to read people. As a realtor, she had to. One look at a female client often told Gina how much the woman could afford to spend for a house. This one next to her—Tori—was probably mid-forties, five to six years older than she. Short, with chin-length bleached blonde hair and—were those brown eyes behind the sunglasses? She had a rich alto voice and looked fairly wealthy, given her blue designer shorts and silk top. Jimmy Choo sandals. No wedding ring, but a large blue sapphire on her right hand. Larger than usual diamond stud earrings. Her haircut and highlighting color job were well done. Nice skin and make-up and figure. Probably a size six—which made Gina’s size eighteen feel all the larger. All those fine things cost money. Plus the woman oozed poise and confidence. Was she a doctor? Attorney? Businesswoman?

Gina glanced over her shoulder at the other female in their group—Shari Steele. Younger—maybe early twenties. Strikingly pretty, with dark brown hair to her shoulders. An oval face and great body. She wore red shorts and a clingy white shirt, which looked great against her tan. Had to be a size two, maybe even zero. Could be a model but not tall enough. She’d had her nails done recently in a black gel. A competitive air hung about her—something narrow-focused that seemed to go beyond merely winning this competition. And a touch of hardness, although underneath it Gina sensed a far less assured person than she wanted to appear. Shari stood steady-legged on the boat without holding on to anything, hands on her hips. Trying to look sure of herself.

Of the three male contestants, two of them were also young, maybe late twenties. Craig Emberly was average height, with a buzzed haircut and a long face. Not handsome but friendly-looking. He seemed to be enjoying every moment of their boat ride, as if he’d set off on a great adventure. He wore colorful board shorts, sandals, and a yellow T-shirt from Maui.

The second young man, Aaron Wang, was a tall, lean Chinese who spoke with no accent at all. Second generation, maybe? He was polite but … removed. As if he held his emotions close to his chest. He spoke in terse sentences. Aaron wore blue shorts and a white knit shirt.

The third man, Lance Haslow, was perhaps around Tori’s age—mid-forties. He struck Gina as one of those larger than life people. Tall, maybe six-two, big-boned and stocky, with a wide face. Thinning sandy hair. His shorts were loose, and his large feet were in flip-flops. His green T-shirt would be a double or triple X. He had a deep, booming voice and talked a lot, using big words. Clearly in love with the sound of his own voice.

Quite an eclectic group.

Gina had quickly seen how intent everyone was on winning. From the moment they’d boarded the boat in Perth at seven o’clock that morning they’d watched each other, assessing, calculating. They were six contestants chosen from over fifty thousand applicants. The sheer uniqueness of their group should bond them from the start. But what little they knew of the contest rules had produced just the opposite effect.

Gina turned back to the railing, wondering for the hundredth time what it would feel like to have a camera following her every move. How did these reality shows depict “reality” when people knew they were being filmed? She’d never liked the thought of it. Had almost dismissed that first advertising email about the opening of auditions. Especially when she thought about how heavy she’d look on TV. Wasn’t the camera supposed to add ten pounds? As if her legs and thighs weren’t big enough already. And her round face with extra fat beneath her chin would only look worse.

But then she’d read about the prize.

Their boat was nearing the island. Rocks framed either side of a small beach, the land beyond rising into thick green bushes and trees. The house was up high on a hill. Absolutely breathtaking. Who owned the place? Had Sensation Network, the new cable channel running Dream Prize, rented it from someone local? Aside from the house there was no other sign of civilization. Must be a privately owned island.

Just before they reached shore the captain turned the boat around and cut the engine, allowing the waves to back them toward the beach. As the stern brushed sand he dropped an anchor off the bow. When he was sure it held he let down a rear ladder and motioned for them to exit the boat.

Shari hesitated. “We’re still in a foot of water.”

“You’ll dry.” Aaron spoke dismissively. So much for being polite.

“Take your shoes off.” Tori already carried her designer sandals.

Gina picked up her small purse. All their luggage had been collected early that morning. “So our suitcases are already here, right?”

The captain spread his arms. “This is all I know. Your bags are here, as promised. Follow the path up the hill to the house. Meet in the large ocean-view room. You’ll receive further instructions there. I will return on Tuesday around four-thirty in the afternoon to pick you up. Have your bags ready.”

Tuesday afternoon. It seemed so soon.

Gina searched the island. “Where’s the camera crew and whoever else is needed to do the show? You’d think they’d be taping our arrival.”

Aaron shrugged. “Must be inside.”

 Gina nodded. But uneasiness trickled through her veins. Everything about this had been so secretive. No one back home other than Ben knew she was on the show. And he didn’t know where she was. Gina hadn’t even known where she was flying to until she’d reached the airport. She’d been told only to “pack for a tropical climate.” As for their cellphones and computers, all had been collected at their mainland hotel by their bus driver before they left for the boat. Like the captain, the bus driver knew only what little he’d been told.

Craig was looking around with an amazed smile. “Only three days here? I could stay forever.”

“Ditto.” Lance chuckled. He turned to the captain. “Thanks for the ride.”

A shrug. “Okay, now go. You’re supposed to be up there by nine o’clock. That’s in ten minutes.”

They did as they were told, Tori taking the lead. Gina rolled up her flowing beach pants. She held on to her shoes and descended the ladder, her wet feet collecting sand as she crossed the beach. The uphill path through green vegetation was well trod, not too hard on her bare feet. But it left her breathless. After a few minutes they reached a clearing around the house—and faced a gate in a wooden fence about four feet high.

“What have we here, ladies and gentlemen?” Lance touched the fence. It apparently circled the house. “Didn’t see this from the beach.”

“Me either.” Tori glanced right and left. “Seems out of place. What’s to keep out? Besides, it’s not very high.”

“Maybe the owner has a small dog,” Shari said.

Aaron undid the latch and swung the gate open. It creaked. He ushered everyone through and closed it.

The cleared area around the house couldn’t be more than thirty feet—most of it again going uphill. Stone steps were cut into that hill. Gina mounted them up to where the house stood, then gazed back over the top of the vegetation toward the ocean. The boat was already fading into the horizon. It was a done deal now, no turning back.

Still, with the camera crew, they’d have help in case of any emergency.

The group stood near the left corner of the porch. This close, Gina could see the house needed a paint job. Nothing terrible. But certainly not the fresh look she’d expect, given it would be filmed for millions of viewers.

 She beat back another wave of unease and followed the rest across the porch, still carrying her sandals.

The downstairs glass turned out to be six sliding doors. Between each door were high wooden walls that jutted out about five feet onto the deck, affording a semi-private area just outside each door. At each room the curtains were closed. Gina tried the first door she came to. Locked. The second and third were also.

“Looks like a boutique hotel set-up,” she said. “Bedrooms all in a row, one for each of us.”

So—where was the film crew staying?

“The ocean view room must be upstairs.” Tori moved past Gina.

“The film crew’s not exactly waving us in, are they.” Craig headed for a circular staircase at the far end of the deck.

In a line, they mounted the narrow curving steps. The second floor deck was spectacular. It had a roof to keep out the beating sun, a wood floor, scattered tables and chairs, and a sweeping view of the ocean.

“What a glorious abode.” Lance spread his beefy arms.

Sure was. But Gina felt a pull to get inside the house and meet whoever was waiting for them. She hurried over to investigate a sliding door in the center of the deck. Unlocked. “Here!”

She stepped inside to a huge great room with more wooden flooring and various conversation areas of couches and chairs. Ceiling fans and lots of large windows. Décor in a soft teal and off white. A large round clock with gold spikes all around its face, like sun rays, hung on the back wall. All looked normal for a vacation home.

Except for the center of the room. There stood a round pedestal table. On the table, facing them, sat a monitor, its wires disappearing into a small hole cut in the floor. No computer. No keyboard. Just the screen, ringed by six identical leather-covered notebooks lying on the table. One black Sharpie sat by the monitor.

The room was stuffy and hot, as if it had been closed up for some time. It was also empty of people.

“Hello?” Craig called.

Silence.

The six contestants looked at each other.

Aaron headed toward the central table, his face expressionless. Gina followed, shoving her sunglasses up on her head.

“We need to open the windows.” Tori fanned her face. “Get some air in here.” She began her task, a breeze quickly easing the heat in the room.

Gina picked up a notebook. Nothing inside but blank paper and an attached pen held by a loop of fabric. Aaron examined a second notebook. Same thing. He put it down and focused on the monitor. Frowning, he leaned over and pushed the on button. The screen filled with the words Dream Prize in large letters against an ocean background.

“Ah, progress.” Lance’s resonant voice filled the room.

“Yeah.” Craig came over and took hold of a notebook. “Just not what I was expecting. I figured we’d finally see someone face-to face. A host. A camera crew.”

“Me too.” That was an understatement. Gina shifted on her feet. The show’s long audition process had all been done through email, video, and a final phone call with George Fry, the friendly and helpful producer. Of course she’d checked everything out along the way—the Sensation Network website, the show. Even had a lawyer look over the contract. But this just seemed … off.

Aaron ran a finger along his jaw. “I don’t think there’s anyone else here.”

The back of Gina’s neck tingled. “There’d better be a  phone or some way to communicate with the outside world. We’ve been left here alone for three days.”

Shari shot her a look. “What you mean? We’re gonna be filmed. Millions of people back home will be watching, starting tonight.”

“I know but … where’s the crew? And the cameras? Where’s someone to help immediately if we need it?”

Aaron was gazing at the far corner of the ceiling. “There.” He pointed.

Everyone’s head tipped that direction.

“And there.” He indicated the other end of the room, then turned around. “Every corner’s got a camera. Indicator lights are on. See the green? We’re being recorded.”

Gina sucked in a breath.

“Oh!” Shari took off her sunglasses and smiled at a camera like it was her oldest friend. Her eyes were a stunning deep green. “Hey, everyone. Didn’t know you were there.”

Well, now, nothing subtle about her playing to the audience. And may it cost you points, Little Missy.

Aaron glanced out the windows. “Probably cameras outside, too.”

Craig tapped the notebook in his hand. “It’s all beginning to make sense. The way we weren’t told many details.” He paused. “At least I wasn’t.”

“Me either.” Lance shrugged. “But we were warned things would be secretive right up to the day of the show. All part of the purposeful media launch, right?”

Craig nodded. “That’s what they told me. And I guess … maybe the audience gets to watch us figure out what’s going on from the beginning?”

“Or maybe they know more than we do.” Shari stuck her sunglasses on her head. “The media blast for the show started after we left home. George Fry told me it would be everywhere—on Facebook and Twitter and Instagram. Plus, Sensation Network people will be on all the morning talk shows.” She pointed a black nail at a camera, then posed her hand on her hip. “I’m thinking your plan, George Fry, was to get us out of the country first, so we couldn’t hear what you’re telling the audience.” Shari’s voice lilted.

Was this girl for real?

But she was probably right, Gina thought. Imagine the surprise of Gina’s family and friends when they learned she was on this show in Australia. She’d told everyone she was leaving today for a vacation in Mexico with Ben.

Shari looked toward a doorway on the right, leading to a hallway. “Well then, I’m gonna go check the bedrooms and make sure my suitcases got here. And look for other cameras.” She winked up toward the corner and headed for the door.

And good riddance. But not a good plan. Whatever happened next, Gina figured, would likely happen here.

“Remember what the captain said?” Lance raised his eyebrows. “That we were supposed to be up here in ten min—”

“Hey.” Aaron pointed at the monitor.

The ocean scene and Dream Prize letters were fading. When it was gone a man appeared, sitting in a chair against a solid white background, his legs spread and hands interlaced. He had dark, thick hair and eyebrows, with a hard cut to his jaw.

The man gave a slight smile. “Welcome to Dream Prize.”

Gina’s breath stalled. Here we go. Anxiety and hope whirled through her. Forget the surprises, the secretive nature of the game to this point. What mattered now was winning.

For us, Ben. For the baby we long for with all our hearts.