Marilyn Campbell

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Carnal Vengeance

CarnalVengeance.jpg


(Formerly released as Pretty Maids in a Row)

"A stunning tale of love, lust, lies, and lethal vengeance."...Bestselling author Judith Kelman

"One of the juiciest revenge plot novels to hit the stands." ...San Francisco Chronicle

 

Blurb:

Two decades ago, Holly Kaufman was one of a group of young coeds who were sexually violated by fraternity brothers playing a cruel game. With nowhere to turn, the girls formed a support group. They are still meeting, only now, revenge is the only item on their agenda. To see her abusers paid back for what they did, Holly needs to feed information to a reporter without implicating the group, and David Wells is recommended as the best man for the job.

David smells a prize-winning story and Holly Kaufman looks like his best bet for unearthing the truth. Although seduction is his preferred tool for getting information from a woman, he's unprepared for being the one seduced.

When the former frat boys start turning up dead and minus a significant organ, Holly wants out. Unfortunately she’s become a suspect and her only hope lies with the man who is reawakening her passion yet cannot be trusted. Somehow they must prove her innocence and discover the identity of the vigilante before Holly becomes the next victim.

 

Excerpt:
                                         Chapter One

"Mizz Wallace, did you, or did you not, willingly take Senator Ziegler's penis into your mouth on more than one occasion?"

Holly Kaufman gaped at the elderly man on her television screen. The camera zoomed in for a close-up of Cheryl Wallace, a somewhat attractive, big-boned brunette who could not quite conceal her outrage as she replied. "Senator Manson, I am not on trial here—"


"Perhaps not, but neither is Senator Ziegler. I'm sure you are aware that by coming forward at this hearing with your strong accusations against the good senator, you have placed your morals under public scrutiny as well." The camera left Cheryl Wallace to pan each face of the all-male committee.


"I might remind you," Senator Manson continued in a superior voice, "that we are judging the fitness of our distinguished colleague for a cabinet post and any aspersions cast on that fitness must be thoroughly examined. Now, please answer the question."


While Miss Wallace leaned toward her attorney, a bespectacled woman about the same age as she, the camera focused on a dark-haired man sitting with his lawyers, apart from the Senate committee. Holly's chest tightened with remembered panic as she recognized Tim Ziegler. His intent, concerned expression altered to one of relief the moment Cheryl Wallace began her response.


"Timothy Ziegler and I had been intimate... on more than one occasion... prior to the events detailed earlier. I already admitted that. I see no reason to get more explicit."


"Aah, but you found it necessary to be exceedingly explicit when you related your side of the story. Nevertheless, I believe your evasiveness speaks for itself. Mizz Wallace, there are many people in this great country of ours who consider oral sex a sin; it is, in fact, a crime in certain states. Your willing performance of such an act constituted lewd and lascivious behavior on your part. That, combined with your history of alcohol and drug use—"


"Objection!"


Holly paused the recorded program with her remote but her gaze remained on the screen for long seconds after it froze. She thought she had put the nightmare firmly behind her. Yet, in a matter of minutes, it had lurched back into her mind as if it had been last night rather than twenty-one years ago—one year prior to the incident Cheryl Wallace was testifying about.


When she had learned that the hearing was to begin that day while she was at work, she had set it to record so that she could at least scan some of the highlights when she had time. As an environmental lobbyist living in Washington, D. C., Holly had to stay informed of the gossip as well as the facts of current affairs, even when it was personally distasteful.


No one had expected any problems with the President's selection for the next Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. Pennsylvania State Senator Timothy Ziegler had already gained the support of some powerful liberals by vocally supporting several bills that would make more housing available to lower-income families. He was a devoted husband and father and his constituents praised him. He was practically perfect.


Except for that time in college that had been forgotten by everyone but the small group of those directly involved.


Because Cheryl Wallace could never forget what Tim Ziegler had done to her, she had decided to dredge up the past rather than see him rise one step higher on the political ladder.


And because Holly Kaufman was not quite ready to dwell on how Tim Ziegler had damaged her own life, she rewound the recording to listen to Cheryl Wallace's account once more.


* * *


"It was twenty years ago, and I had just turned eighteen," Cheryl Wallace began in a quiet, somewhat shaky voice. "I was a freshman at Dominion University in New York. Tim was a senior. We met at a party. We had been dating about a month before the, uh, incident."


"Pardon me for interrupting," Senator Manson said politely. "But there are certain facts I believe should be brought to light before you recount your entire story. Approximately how many times did you go out on dates before the alleged incident?"


"Five, maybe six."


"Would you say these were casual, friendly dates, or did you become... intimate?"


Cheryl paused for advice from her attorney. "Intimate."


The senator raised an eyebrow at her. "On which date did you and Senator Ziegler consummate your relationship?"


She glanced at her attorney then murmured, "I don't remember."


"Oh? Perhaps if you think a little harder you'll recall that it was the night of the party when the two of you first met. Of course, I understand there was a lot of drinking at that party and some drugs were available. Is it possible that you were too intoxicated to remember what happened that night?"


Taking a deep breath, she replied, "A lot of kids, away from home for the first time, get a little wild."


"I see. Were you a virgin the first time you and the senator had sexual intercourse?"


"I don't see—" Her attorney touched her hand and she started again. "No, but he was only the second one—"


"Of course, of course," Manson cut in, but his expression clearly indicated he didn't believe that for a minute. "Please continue."


It was obvious that his effort to unsettle Cheryl had worked and her attorney turned the table microphone toward herself. "In all fairness to Miss Wallace, what she is about to relate to this distinguished committee is extremely upsetting. We would appreciate the courtesy of your allowing her to finish her statement before any further questions are asked." Senator Manson nodded and the attorney turned the mike back over to her client.


What little composure Cheryl had begun with was completely gone. Her nervousness manifested itself in a quaking voice and trembling hands but she was determined to say her piece.


"One night, after we had been dating about a month, we went to a party. There wasn't much going on, so we had a few drinks then went back to his fraternity house. Most of the brothers were there, working their way through a keg of beer. We sat around with them for a while before Tim took me up to his room. I…I had too much to drink. I knew it. I had a hard time getting up the stairs and told Tim I just wanted to sleep it off. But he talked me into smoking a joint. Said he’d been saving it for a special occasion."


It took her a moment to continue. "Although I told him I didn’t feel good, he was determined to have sex. I remember him pulling my clothes off and entering my body without my consent or participation, but I was too intoxicated to put up any resistance. I'm not certain exactly when I passed out but something made me wake up again. At first I thought it was Tim on top of me but then I heard his voice beside me. I turned my head and saw him sitting there, holding my hand. The room was filled with his fraternity brothers. Besides the one… having intercourse with me, there were eight others, some with nothing on, some with just their pants open and their... privates exposed. They were... fondling themselves... getting ready."


Her voice cracked and she swallowed hard several times before she was able to go on. "I told them no. I didn't want that. It was as if they didn't hear me at all. I tried to push the one on top of me away but I couldn't seem to coordinate my mind with my body. I was crying and begging for Tim to stop them but he only squeezed my hand tighter and said..."


She paused, closed her eyes and took another steadying breath. When she reopened her eyes, they glistened with unshed tears but the expression in them was pure hate as she glared directly at Senator Ziegler. "He said, 'Just lie still, honey. It will be over in a minute.' I had no way of knowing how long they had been at me before I awoke but it actually went on for at least another hour that I was aware of. They finally gave up when three of them tried to take me at once, and I vomited on the one trying to use my mouth. Then they let me get up and dress and Tim drove me back to my dorm."


No one uttered a sound for several seconds then one of the junior senators said, "Miss Wallace, what you describe was such a hideous offense against you, I can't help but wonder why it took you twenty years to report it."


The camera switched back to her just in time to catch her rolling her eyes in disbelief at his naïveté. "Surely, sir, you must realize that it is extremely difficult for a young woman to cry rape when she'd been drinking and willingly went to the boy's bedroom.


"In spite of that, however, I did attempt to report it to the local police the next day, after I recovered a little. But they insisted it was strictly a college matter and would have to be handled by the authorities there. Campus security took a report but I got the impression it went directly into the trash when I left the office. I overheard one of them snicker and say, boys will be boys. I did try to obtain a copy of that report before this hearing and was told they didn't keep the records that long.


"Instead of any of my attackers being punished, I was required to attend weekly sessions with the school counselor—another man by the way. After the first humiliating session, I didn't return, and no one cared, as long as I didn't do or say anything that could ultimately hurt the school's reputation or their precious football team. You see, they were having a winning season and, although Tim Ziegler was only second string, one of my rapists was Dominion's star quarterback and another went on to the pros." Offering up a piece of paper, she added, "I have the entire list of men's names—"


"Objection!" Ziegler's attorneys both shouted at once as Cheryl's attorney quickly covered her microphone with her hand and urgently whispered something to her client.


Holly let the recorded program continue but her mind had slipped off track the moment Cheryl stated that one of the rapists was the star quarterback. She knew, without seeing the list, what that man's name was, a name she thought she had purged from her memory. As Tim Ziegler had been Cheryl Wallace's guide into hell, Jerry Frampton had been Holly's. What he and Tim had done to her was a far cry from the brutal obscenity perpetrated on Cheryl a year later, but it had been no less devastating to her.


In one night, Holly had been transformed from an innocent young girl with romantic dreams to a bitter woman who would never again feel comfortable with a man.


Holly had to give Cheryl a lot of credit for being brave enough to report the crime back then—something Holly hadn't had the guts to do. Coming forward at this time, though, exposing herself on national television to denigrate a man who was admired by both his colleagues and the media—that went right past courage to self-destructive masochism.


Although she'd never met Cheryl, the newspapers had supplied some background on her. She was an award-winning poetess who had inherited the large sum of money that allowed her to concentrate on her writing. The money also granted her the freedom to be as reclusive as she wished to be.


But money wasn't going to spare her from the ordeal she had set herself up for. It was clear from this first day of the hearing that the committee had already judged Cheryl Wallace and was planning to drag her through the mud for attempting to sully the good senator's name.


There was no way in hell Holly would put herself in that position.


Yet, she couldn't simply dismiss what she'd heard either. Twenty-one years ago, when Cheryl would have been a senior in high school, Holly had left Dominion and never returned. She had never known for certain that other young women had suffered as she had, but she had received a letter once that hinted at it.


Some perverse quirk had made her keep that letter, though she never had any intention of doing anything about it. With Cheryl's tale still replaying in her head, Holly found herself in her condo’s spare bedroom that she used as an office. The letter had been sent to her, in care of her parents, about twelve years ago. It was from a psychiatrist named April MacLeash and contained only one sentence:


If the names below stir any memories, it may be to your advantage to contact me.
There were fifteen men's names below that sentence, some of which she may have recognized years ago. Now, however, only two jumped out at her—Jerry Frampton and Timothy Ziegler.


* * *


"Calm down, Billy," Tim Ziegler told his fraternity brother over the phone. "Everything's going to be all right."


"All right?" Billy O'Day repeated, raising his voice. "That bitch practically called me a rapist on national television. It won't be too hard for my wife's lawyer to figure out which Dominion football player turned pro back then. She's already trying to take me for more than I'll ever earn in my life and, with my contract up for renewal at the end of this season, the last thing I need is a fucking scandal."


"Listen, I'm not going to discuss this with you over the phone. The odds are probably a million to one against your airhead wife watching a political telecast in the middle of the afternoon. You'll see, a week from now it will all be yesterday's news."


"Yeah, but what about today's news?" Billy asked, though most of the concern had left his voice.


"Did you watch it? The hearing got thirty seconds of coverage. They'd be fools to play up her insinuations without proof. My attorneys have assured me she won't mention the other men involved again. Just relax, and we'll get together the next time you play the Redskins."


As soon as Billy hung up, Tim placed another call and was relieved when Jerry Frampton picked up his private line on the second ring.


"Speak to me," the infamous men's magazine publisher said, confident that his caller could only be one of a handful of people.


"Billy just called. He's worried."


"So? That asshole was born worried. How are you holding up?"


"Fine. It's going just like we figured, except for that bit about the list of names. But when I finish testifying about her, no one will care who the other men were."


Frampton sighed audibly. "You know what my theory's been for some time. As long as she stayed away from us, I didn't care what she did to anyone else, but I warned you, it could come around eventually. Some bitches just never let go. And you thought I was being paranoid."


"Maybe I'm ready to convert. The fact that Wallace would come out of hiding after all these years could be a sign that she's raising the stakes in the game."


"Agreed. And if my theory's right, Wallace isn't acting alone. Yet for some reason, she's not mentioning any other women. My guess is, whoever her friends are, they might have even more to lose than we do."


Tim snorted. "Whoever the hell they are!"


With a dry laugh, Jerry said, "It's a shame none of us kept our dance cards, but at least we're fairly sure of one name besides hers. Maybe it's enough. Got any ideas?"


"We could take a page from Wallace's book and have her investigated. An expose about how she's been systematically seeking revenge against innocent men for years would be a nice follow-up to the hearing."


"Leak it to the press? But what if more comes out than you want? It could backfire."


"Mark my words, Jer, if the information leaked is from a reliable source, a decent reporter will check into it, but if the tip is very vague and nobody's willing to talk, there's no story. It's obvious that no one on either side is anxious for the whole truth to come out. At the first hint of a reporter being on to what she's been up to, I'm betting Wallace will crawl back in her hole and take her friends with her. I'm going to come away from this looking like the victim with her as my attacker. Besides, anything uncovered after this will only be another nail in her coffin, and I'll have the appointment secured already. Unfortunately, Billy could be ruined."


"Hey, better him than me," Jerry said with another dry laugh, then turned serious. "Collateral damage for a greater good. Those broads have to be taught a lesson. Do you want me to take care of it?"


"No," Tim said quickly. There was no telling what the repercussions would be if Jerry took care of this matter his way. "I know just the man for the job."


* * *


After hours of self-analysis followed by nightmares of being chased by demons, Holly awoke with one conclusion. It was past time for her to face those demons.


Cheryl's method of dealing with her nemesis was too extreme, and too public, for Holly. All Holly really wanted was to find a way to live a more normal life than she had been doing—a life in which she felt comfortable in her own skin. A life in which her inability to recover from a debilitating event could no longer hurt the ones she loved.


She had put her parents through hell back then, and though she'd apologized and they'd forgiven her, she'd never explained the cause. That omission had left a small but permanent scar on an otherwise close relationship, but she couldn't seem to repair it.


As difficult as that was to bear, the guilt was even worse with Philip Sinkiewicz, the man who had pulled her out of the depths of depression by giving her a new career, friendship and unconditional love. A normal woman would have been able to give him the love he deserved in return. He was still her best friend and, technically, her employer, but she had failed at being his lover. She would change that if she could.


The cryptic letter from Dr. April MacLeash was the only clue she had to a solution. Determined to make a change in her life and without any better alternative in mind, she placed a call to the psychiatrist.


She was relieved that the office number in Wilmington, Delaware, was still correct, but when the receptionist informed her that the doctor was staying in Washington, D.C., for a few days, her relief turned to curiosity. Could Dr. MacLeash's visit to the capital have some connection with the hearing? Holly left her name and cell phone numbers with the message that it was in reference to Ziegler.


April MacLeash returned the call within fifteen minutes and got right to the point. "I don't think we should discuss anything specific over the phone. Suffice it to say, your name was given to me quite a long time ago as someone who may have suffered a trauma at the hands of one or more of the individuals listed in my letter. A number of us discovered we shared similar experiences and formed a very unique therapy group."


"Because we're scattered over the country now, we only have semiannual meetings, but due to the current situation, several of us are in Washington this week. There's no cost to join our group or attend sessions, and, if you'd like to meet with us while we're here, there wouldn't be any obligation on your part to become a regular member. I assure you, it won't hurt to talk with us, and it might do you a lot of good, whatever your personal history is."


Holly was not one for joining groups—she had never even joined a sorority in college—nor did she normally make spontaneous decisions, but after the miserable night she had had, she was willing to try anything, including the outside help she had always avoided. "I've never talked about it with anyone. I'm not sure I can now."


"That's okay. You wouldn't have to talk at all this time if it makes you too uncomfortable. Just listening to the others might benefit you. The important thing is for you to realize that you're not alone and whatever happened was not your fault. The extent of your participation in our group after that is solely up to you."


"All right. I'll try," Holly promised, before giving herself time to equivocate.


"Good. We're meeting in the executive suite of the Kessler Hotel at noon tomorrow. There will be a buffet lunch served in the room. I look forward to seeing you then."


"Yes. Same here." Holly’s voice belied the words. She had no idea if meeting these women would help or hurt her mental state but she felt certain once she took that step there would be no turning back.


* * *


David Wells sat in the luxurious lobby of the Kessler Hotel, pretending to read the newspaper he was holding up in front of him. It wasn't a very original ploy but it was one that usually worked. The phone call he'd received Monday night from Senator Ziegler had convinced him to drop everything else he was working on and focus on what he'd been told. Although he was not one of the throng of reporters assigned to cover the Senate hearing, he had been keeping abreast of the proceedings. Since he wasn't reporting it, he could afford a bit of bias.


He had met the senator while investigating the top-heavy administrative staff of the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Ziegler was one of the few people he had dealt with who had come out crystal clean. The exposé David wrote for The Washington Herald resulted in the resignation of the then secretary and the subsequent recommendation of Senator Ziegler for that post.


David liked Tim, as a politician and as a man, and on the basis of the latest polls, more than half the country believed he was being unjustly vilified by Cheryl Wallace.


It had been a long time, but David's own experience with being falsely accused was still a raw wound. When he was sixteen, he'd lost his job at a delicatessen when the owner's jealous son blamed him for a shortage in the cash register—right after the boy had loaned David the same amount of cash that was missing, as a favor. With the money in his pocket and the son's word against his, David hadn't stood a chance of being believed.


Firing David had meant nothing to the deli owner but it had devastated David, not only because he'd been framed, but the income had been helping to support his four brothers and sisters. Getting another job where he could work as many hours had been almost impossible, especially after the man spread word of the theft to other merchants in the neighborhood.


He couldn't change his own past, but perhaps he could help the senator with his present dilemma.


Altruistic motive aside, if what Tim Ziegler had implied was true, it would make one hell of a story!


When Ziegler had testified to the Senate committee the yesterday, he had spoken quietly, and with considerable embarrassment, about the wild fraternity parties he'd once participated in. He was obviously guilt-ridden over the youthful overindulgence, but he could look back with a clear conscience knowing that he had never hurt anyone and the girls at those parties were there willingly. Cheryl was one of the regular attendees who were game for anything in the name of fun.


Privately, Tim had related to David his belief that Cheryl had never been quite right mentally. He knew she'd spent some time in an institution, but didn't have details. He also claimed that he wasn't the first target of Cheryl's unfounded hostility.


Some years ago, one of his fraternity brothers had been spied on by a private investigator. Because of the evidence of sexual misconduct collected by the investigator, the man's wife sued him for divorce. He lost his family and most of his possessions and, through it all, he swore he'd been framed. Supposedly, the investigator had been hired by Cheryl Wallace. Tim didn't have the investigator's name or address, but he promised to look into it if David was interested.


Tim's story became truly intriguing, however, when he implied that a second woman might be helping Cheryl with her revenge schemes. At the last fraternity reunion, it was discovered that two of the brothers had lost control of their businesses to the Donner Corporation, and a third man had been abruptly terminated from a high-paying executive position immediately after that same corporation bought the company he was employed by. An article in Forbes magazine about Donner gave Tim a bit more fuel for his suspicions.


He believed it was an incredible coincidence that the present owner of the Donner Corporation, Erica Donner, had attended Dominion University the same year as Wallace, long before she had met and married the wealthy George Donner. Tim couldn't recall ever meeting her, however.


David had heard enough to agree to meet with Tim after the hearing was over to get names, dates and any other pertinent details. What he hadn't told Tim was that there was another coincidence right over his head.


Erica Donner had arrived in D.C. on Monday and was currently occupying the penthouse suite of the Kessler Hotel—just a few floors above where Tim was staying. Since her company owned the hotel, she could simply say she was on an inspection tour—as David easily learned the staff had been told— but the fact that the hearings had begun the day of her arrival, combined with Ziegler's input, made David feel certain that he was on to something more than coincidental circumstances.


David credited his successful journalistic career to a combination of good luck and personal charm. He knew part of that charm was that he was a boyishly handsome, just turned forty-year-old bachelor, whose curly brown hair always looked mussed and whose bright blue eyes revealed a lighthearted nature. He loved women and instinctively knew how to impress them. Though he often took advantage of that skill, he never lied and always made sure they had fun while they were with him, whether it was business or personal.


That skill had gotten him the information that put him in his present location. He occasionally dated Suzanne, one of the front-desk clerks at the Kessler. She was one of a dozen female hotel employees he had befriended around town. He never promised them anything more than a good time—he had been immunized as a child against ever getting seriously involved with the so-called gentler sex—and never did more than hint at the kind of information he could use if they were willing to pass it along.


They were always willing.


Suzanne had called Monday afternoon to let him know about some notable people who had checked in. Erica Donner was one of them. And David had thanked her with a romantic dinner in his apartment that night.


The first call David made Tuesday morning was to Valerie Glick, the best research assistant The Washington Herald had ever hired. She was not only bright and ambitious, she had a sixth sense about ferreting out the most trivial data. David's charm had never impressed Valerie; she was happily married and immune to his flirtations. What she liked about him was the way he respected her and admired her intelligence, never taking her efforts for granted. Thus, when he asked for "a little background" on Erica Donner, particularly what schools she had attended and when, an in-depth bio and folder of press clippings appeared on his desk a few hours later.


From the photos of Mrs. Donner, David was certain he could recognize her in a crowd. A woman of medium height and build, she wore her jet-black hair pulled back in a severe bun that accented her widow's peak. She had dark, slightly almond-shaped eyes and prominent cheekbones. Her Oriental looks were countered by a Memphis, Tennessee, accent that had coated many an unappetizing deal with molasses and expensive bourbon.


Erica Donner was regarded as a phenomenon in the world of mergers and acquisitions. Rather than scaling the corporate ladder to the top, she had taken a faster route—she married the boss first and proved herself afterward. George Donner had been called a wizard on Wall Street before he had her on his team. Together, they had regularly caused tremors through vulnerable companies.


After George Donner's death, she took control of the company in spite of the scandal that erupted. It was made public that George was Erica's third husband to die under questionable circumstances, and she was instantly dubbed the Black Widow. Because of her ruthless business practices in the years that followed, the nickname stuck.


But the information that most interested David was the confirmation that she had attended Dominion University as Tim Ziegler had claimed.


Considering how few facts he had, David figured his first step should be a direct surprise attack, via a routine interview. An unexpected accusation, carefully phrased as a question, usually caused a guilty party to react. Even a flinch would be sufficient for David to decide if there was a story worth investigating.


As Cheryl Wallace was refusing to speak to any reporters during the hearing, David aimed his curiosity at Donner.


That afternoon, he left his name and office number with her secretary in San Diego, California, then left several messages with the hotel operator. Though he'd explained he only needed a few minutes of Mrs. Donner's time regarding her company's most recent acquisition, she made no reply.


After talking to Suzanne last night, he decided to hang out in the hotel lobby in hopes that the elusive businesswoman would make an appearance. If she never left her room, he figured he could try bribing a waiter to let him borrow a uniform and go to her suite the next time she ordered room service. Whatever trick he had to pull, he was now determined to get an interview with Mrs. Donner.


The bank of elevators across from David had been in constant use all morning, but he was only concentrating on the one that served as an express to the top floor. No one had come down from the penthouse but he had watched three late thirtyish women in business attire go up between ten and eleven. One was a petite blonde with a confident, athletic stride—a lawyer or other professional type, David guessed. Another was her direct opposite, with mousy brown coloring, beige clothes and wire-rimmed glasses—a research assistant or computer geek if he ever saw one.


The last had to be law enforcement of some kind from the way she scanned the lobby when she first entered and kept her back to the wall while she waited for the elevator. Of course, the bulge of a shoulder holster under her poorly fitted navy-blue jacket helped David's guess considerably. She might have been decent-looking but her auburn hair was cut too mannishly short for such a tall, broad-shouldered woman, and her lack of makeup and masculine way of moving detracted from whatever female attributes she had.


David's imagination was already busy trying to put these three visitors into a scene with Erica Donner, when another woman entered the hotel lobby. She was vaguely familiar, though he couldn't place her. Then again, it could just be that she embodied everything he lusted after in a woman.


Her light-blonde, chin-length hair was softly waved and framed a flawless face. He couldn't see her eye color, but her full, rose-tinted lips were almost the exact shade of her simple, tailored dress.


Expert that he was, he noted that the cut and length of the dress were meant to hide a lush figure and long, shapely legs—two female characteristics he found irresistible. If he weren't working...


Before he completed the thought, she had approached the express elevator and pressed the "up" button.


She was nervous. Though he'd been focusing on her spectacular looks, he had also seen the way she slowed down as she neared her destination and, once there, shook her head and straightened her shoulders, as if she had to talk herself into going on.


* * *


Holly almost turned back. She could no longer remember why she had agreed to come here. She had managed up ‘til now without discussing her personal problems with anyone. Why should she begin now, with a group of strangers?


Yet, when the elevator doors opened, her feet took her inside. Her finger touched the only thing that resembled a button, a little red square on the wall with a credit card-sized slot beneath it.


"Hello?" asked a detached female voice a few seconds later.


Holly looked around the mahogany-paneled enclosure with its polished brass rails and saw a duplicate set of doors behind her, but no visible speaker. "Um, I have an appointment in the penthouse suite with Doctor MacLeash. I'm Holly Kaufman.''


"I'll bring you right up."


The doors closed and the elevator began a rapid ascent the next instant. When it stopped, the rear doors opened and Holly stepped into a foyer that expanded into large living room, beautifully appointed with Italian and French antiques and rich brocades. A grand piano adorned one side of the room, where floor-to-ceiling windows offered a magnificent view of the capital.


An attractive woman a few inches shorter than Holly, with blonde-on-blonde frosted hair cut in a pixie style, greeted her with a warm smile. "Holly Kaufman? Welcome. I'm April MacLeash." She held out her hand.


Holly surreptitiously wiped her damp palm on the side of her skirt and forced a return smile as she briefly shook hands. "How do you do, Doctor."


"No formality here. I'm just April. Come on in and meet my friends."


Three other women were seated in a conversation area on the opposite side of the room from the piano. As Holly and April approached, they stopped talking and turned toward the new arrival.


"This is Holly Kaufman," April said with her pleasant smile firmly in place. The women remained seated as they were identified. "This is Erica Donner, today's hostess. Erica's company owns the majority of the stock in this hotel, so they usually give us special treatment."


Erica's mouth softened into a semi smile, but her dark, slightly slanted eyes glittered with a permanent hardness that couldn't be disguised by a professional makeup artist.


"And this is Bobbi Renquist. The Internal Revenue Service is her employer."


Holly had an easier time smiling at Bobbi, whose timidity seemed to equal her own. If she hadn't been told Bobbi's profession, she might have guessed the extremely plain woman with the bifocal glasses was a librarian.


As Holly's gaze moved to the last woman, it caught on the weapon strapped to her shoulder.


"Our armed member is Rachel, also known as Special Agent Greenley of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. We've convinced her to remove her jacket, but she swears she feels naked without the gun, so I hope it doesn't make you nervous."


"Oh, no," Holly said quickly. "It just surprised me." Rachel toasted her with a Manhattan glass, half full of an amber-colored liquid, then drained it before setting it down again on the coffee table. As April directed her to a seat, Holly was somewhat relieved to notice that the others had all been drinking coffee or tea.


Rachel's voice sounded perfectly sober though as she said, "Actually, I'm not the only armed member. Agent Renquist carries a cute little toy in her purse, the way a real lady who's licensed should." When Bobbi didn't rise to the obvious bait, Rachel changed topics. "We were discussing the Ziegler hearing, Holly. I say we should just cut the bastard's balls off and be done with it. What do you think?"


April frowned, Bobbi blushed and Erica rolled her eyes. Holly wondered if this was some sort of test and opted for the truth. "I think what I've seen on television the last two days was the most disgusting display of male power I have ever witnessed."


"Bravo!" Rachel said and toasted her with her empty glass. "I especially liked the part where Ziegler made it sound like Cheryl regularly consented to gang-bangs when she was intoxicated."


Shaking her head, Holly admitted, "The worst part of it is, although I have no doubt it happened exactly like Cheryl said, he came off much more believably than she did."


"The fact that he performs in front of the public for a living and she's practically a hermit should have been taken into account in advance," Rachel said. "Slight miscalculation there, wouldn't you agree, Doctor?"


Holly noted the way April's cheeks flushed at Rachel's snide words, but she made no retort.


As though she were unaware that her glass was empty, Rachel tipped it to her mouth then stared at it suspiciously when no liquid poured forth. "You don't mind if I help myself, do you, Erica?"


As Rachel headed for the bar, April said gently. "Rachel, why don't you have a cup of coffee instead? Lunch will be served in a few minutes."


Rachel laughed as she splashed whiskey into her glass. "You know better than to try mothering me, April. I need alcohol, not caffeine."


"But you were doing so well," April continued in a nonpressuring voice. "It's been months—"


"Eight months and two weeks to be exact. Since the last bastard got—" She glanced at Holly and changed whatever she had been about to say. "Since the last time I got shitfaced. The only thing between me and Tim Ziegler's balls right now is this." She held up the refilled glass. "And as long as you panty-waists are still voting against violence, I'm going to stay drunk."


With eyes closed, Rachel savored a long swallow then turned her attention to Holly. "You're our special guest today. Would you care to tell us what brings you here?"


Holly's uncertainty made her pause and Rachel spoke again before she could reply.


"I've got a better idea. I'll go first. The good doctor always tells us talking about our problems with others who can empathize is the best medicine for what ails us." She came out from behind the bar, but rather than sitting back down, she paced as she prepared to relate her personal nightmare.


"You heard Cheryl's accusation against Ziegler and his buddies. Well, there's a little more to the bedtime story that she didn't tell to spare the rest of us. Like Cheryl, the four of us were freshman at Dominion, but only Bobbi and I knew each other at first. I'm sure you remember the fraternity Ziegler belonged to was mainly for jocks, but their competitive spirit took on a new dimension that year."


"They made up a game in which each brother had a 'dance card' with one hundred lines on it. Every time they could prove they danced with a different girl they wrote her name on the card. Freshmen were the easiest prey, so we received the most aggressive attention. Once her name was on three cards, a girl was said to be a member of the Little Sister Society, and the boys made such a membership sound very elite. Understand, there were some girls who joined the Society knowingly, but too often that wasn't the case. What happened to Cheryl was no isolated incident."


Holly turned in her seat to follow Rachel's progress around the room. Part of her was hanging on every word; the other part wanted to run before she heard more than she had bargained for.


"Each of the fifteen brothers competing in the dance contest put one dollar in a glass jar in the fraternity game room for every line he filled in. The one who filled up his dance card first won the jar. Rumor had it that the King Stud walked off with over a thousand dollars."


"Dear god," Holly whispered, and before she thought better of it, she asked, "What was the winner's name?"


Rachel took another swallow of her drink then said, "Jerry Frampton."