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by Meredith Fletcher

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Juicy stories are investigative reporter Winter Archer's bread and butter. So when her beloved mentor asks her to write the biography of Athena Academy's founder, Winter jumps at the chance. But someone out there will stop at nothing-not even murder-to ensure that long-buried secrets remain hidden.



Juicy stories are investigative reporter Winter Archer's bread and butter. So when her beloved mentor asks her to write the biography of Athena Academy's founder, Winter jumps at the chance. But someone out there will stop at nothing-not even murder-to ensure that long-buried secrets remain hidden. And Winter can't finish the job unless she joins forces with the one man who is most definitely off-limits. Only together can they uncover the deadly plot that spans decades and threatens to destroy a legacy....

Athena Force Will the women of Athena unravel Arachne's powerful web of blackmail and death...or succumb to their enemies' deadly secrets?

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Athena Academy Outside Phoenix, Arizona Now

"You don't trust me, do you?" Winter Archer curbed the indignation she felt as she locked eyes with the tall, handsome man standing at the office window.

"It's not my place to trust you, Miss Archer," he replied coolly. The reply was tactful. Exactly the way Winter would expect a United States Attorney General to say it.

His name was David Gracelyn. Winter remembered him from the time she'd spent at Athena Academy. She'd been a student then, barely into her teens. He was a few years older than her, but that gap wasn't so pronounced these days as it had been back then. Back then, four years had separated them into different worlds.

In those days David Gracelyn had been a senior at Phoenix, attending a public school at his insistence so he could play competitive baseball. His parents hadn't been fully supportive of his decision because being in the public eye had been risky.

Marion and Adam Gracelyn had been deeply enmeshed in politics. Their work hit society pages as well as front pages of papers, and they were regularly mentioned on the nightly news. Marion had also been the driving force behind Athena Academy.

After high school, David had gone on to play baseball at college as well. Winter had read about him in the newspapers and seen occasional snippets of games on the local television news. He'd been a good player. Just not a great one.

He was lean and athletic even now. Winter was willing to bet that he worked to keep himself in shape, though not out of vanity. He'd always had that competitive edge. Although David didn't compete against the girls who had attended Athena, he had competed with his sister, Allison. But only because Allison had unmercifully taunted him. She'd also beaten him on several occasions.

He wore his dark brown hair short and neat, well clear of the shirt collar. His brown eyes held a sadness in them that Winter couldn't remember being there even after his mother's death a few years ago. Winter had returned for Marion Gracelyn's funeral, of course. Most Athena grads had, but it had been easy to get lost in the ocean of mourners that had shown up.

Now, Winter sat in one of the comfortable chairs in front of Christine Evans's desk. The woman was the principal of Athena Academy and had been all those years ago as well. Newspaper stories about past graduates of the academy covered the walls. Christine Evans had been part of a lot of successes. Winter took quiet pleasure in seeing that at least one of those articles concerned her career.

"If you trusted me," Winter said to David, "you wouldn't be here."

A trace of irritation tightened his eyes. He turned to face her more squarely, silhouetted against the window filled with bright March sunshine. He crossed his arms over his chest and forced a smile.

"I'd hardly call my presence a declaration of distrust," David said.

"That," Winter told him, "is because you're not sitting where I am."

The look of irritation tightened into a grimace. David took in a deep breath and let it out through his nose. "It's better if we wait to discuss this matter until Christine arrives."

"The matter that Christine called me out here for?" Winter asked.

"Or the fact that you don't trust me to do whatever it is she's going to ask me to do?"

"All of it." David pushed back his shirtsleeve and compared the time on his watch with the wall clock. "She should have been here by now."

Winter surveyed David, reading him effortlessly. Years of experience with interviewing politicians, murderers, good cops and bad ones had honed her natural skills.

David Gracelyn was nervous, agitated and angry. He kept his jacket on, like a knight refusing to shed his armor in a room where he should have been totally comfortable.

It's not me that he's concerned with, Winter decided. That meant it had to be Christine Evans. She had been one of the best friends David's mother had ever known. She'd practically been a second mother to Allison, and Winter was certain she'd been around David a lot as well.

"Look," Winter said, "if it helps, I don't know why Christine called me out here. I heard about the kidnappings that took place on the campus a few weeks ago, but I'd heard that had all been resolved." She was fishing, of course, and she figured that he probably knew it. But there was also a chance that he would offer some clue.

The kidnapping story had been covered by a number of news services, mostly because of Athena Academy's reputation and partly because kidnappings of teenage girls generally did hit the news.

"No. It's not about the kidnappings." David took a breath.

"Not exactly."

And what did that mean?

Winter waited, thinking maybe he would open up about whatever it was. But he didn't. Winter had been curious ever since she'd gotten Christine Evans's cryptic call yesterday. That was Winter's nature: always curious. That was part of the special skill set that made her an investigative journalist.

Christine's short conversation had drawn Winter back to Athena Academy. She couldn't help wondering if Christine had withheld information just to enhance Winter's curiosity. It was possible. During her stay at Athena, Christine had gotten to know Winter well.

After a moment, she reached down into her purse and took out her iPAQ Pocket PC. She turned on the PDA, then opened up a Microsoft Word document she'd been working on during the plane trip into Phoenix.

"What are you doing?" David asked. Suspicion dripped in his words.

"Working." Winter didn't look up. She wrote with the stylus, watching as her script was transformed to type a heartbeat later.

"You shouldn't be writing any of this down."

"I'm not writing this down. I'm working on another project. I figured since the conversation wasn't exactly pleasant that I could get something worthwhile done."

A frown turned down David's full lips. Winter couldn't help noticing that they were very attractive lips.

"And what would I be writing down?" She couldn't help needling him. Pompousness of any sort always drew out her claws.

He didn't answer for a moment. Then he said, "In some circles you're known to be quite creative with your writing. You…infer a lot."

Winter bridled at that. "I infer a lot because there's a lot people try to hide from me. Generally they're not good enough at it. That's why my publishers allow me to infer as much as I do. Because I get it right."

"The school has had enough problems lately," David said. "They don't need old ones stirred up."

"What old ones?"

Again, he didn't answer. She didn't expect that he would, but she wanted him to know that he couldn't talk to her like she was brainless. Talking made him vulnerable. Not her.

The Athena Academy had been in the news lately. Before the kidnappings, Lorraine Miller—another Athena graduate—had been murdered. Her death had at first been ruled an accident, but subsequent investigation had revealed that as a lie.

Then there were the rumors about genetic testing, political cover-ups, and international incidents that had persisted. Pieces of a much larger story had surfaced from time to time in the news.

Winter had seen the stories and guessed at the overall larger picture, but she'd stayed away. Mostly out of respect, but she'd also been busy working on other projects. Her writing career occupied most of her time these days, and there was always something she needed to do.

She'd practically had to move heaven and earth to be here today. Just so David Gracelyn could look down his nose at you and make you think that maybe you never did get over that crush you had on him.

Winter let out a long, slow breath. She so didn't need this. She'd only come because Christine Evans had asked her to.

"I'm here as a favor to Christine," Winter told him, deciding to let him off the hook, "not to cause problems."

David shot her a look of disapproval. "That's not exactly what Henry Carlson would say, is it?"

Anger quivered through Winter then. It was one thing to question her motives, but attacking her work was another matter entirely. She was good at what she did. She enjoyed her work. Her writing defined her.

"What happened to Henry Carlson and his family is regrettable," she said softly. "But it wasn't my fault."

"A lot of other people don't see it that way."

"People have skeletons in their closets. I didn't put them there."

"Maybe not, but you sure as hell don't seem hesitant about trotting them out when you find them."

Winter thought about that. She'd had a choice about revealing everything she'd discovered in the Carlson matter, of course. Her publisher had even had a choice in deciding whether to go to press with the book. In the end, they both decided to go forward with what she'd found out. In their minds, revealing the truth served the greater good.

"What I relayed in my book had been whispered about in Hollywood for years,"Winter told him. "Victoria Chase, Carlson's maternal grandmother, had been suspected of being a Nazi sympathizer."

"Those documents you found seriously hurt Carlson's international corporate image. Wall Street bailed on him as soon as word about your book hit the streets."

Winter knew that. She still felt badly about how it had gone. But Henry Carlson and BriteFutures Pharmaceuticals were rich enough to afford a fickle stock market for a time. In the end, Carlson was a success because he was a good businessman. His grandmother's twin careers of Hollywood diva and German spy wouldn't change that.

"I'm not here to defend that book, Counselor." Winter returned her attention to the iPAQ. To her way of thinking, revealing the fact that Victoria Chase had been a Nazi spy had shown again how strange Hollywood could be, and how disillusioned and vulnerable. In the book, Winter had used the example to address some of the other bizarre behavior exhibited by stars and the Hollywood crowd.

"You need to realize that some things are better left alone," David said.

Ah-ha! Winter squelched the sense of triumph that surged through her. Although Christine had told Winter on the phone that she preferred not to get into the matter until they could talk face-to-face, she'd given Winter the impression that the matter was of grave importance.

The whole "some things are better left alone" riff told Winter that what they were talking about was history. But whose?

"What things," Winter asked quietly, "need to be left alone?" David's face reddened. Before he could respond, if he was going to, the door opened.

Christine Evans entered the room and closed the door behind her. For a moment Winter could hear the familiar noise of the outer office, computer keyboards clacking and students talking to office personnel. It took her back twenty years in a heartbeat, and she remembered how happy she'd been at Athena Academy.

And how incredibly young and naive. "Hello, Winter," Christine said, then cut her eyes over to David Gracelyn. "David."

David nodded curtly. "Hi," Winter said in greeting. "I hope I haven't kept you waiting too long." Christine walked behind the desk but didn't sit as she checked through the memos on her computer screen.

The years had been good to her, Winter decided.

Almost sixty, Christine Evans still maintained the erect military posture she'd learned while serving in the United States Army. Short-cut gray hair that almost matched the color of her eyes—even the left one, which was artificial, the result of a military encounter that she'd never shared with anyone—looked immaculate. She wore a dark blue business suit.

The last time Winter had seen Christine had been at Marion's funeral nearly twelve years ago. Winter had almost returned a couple of years ago after Lorraine Miller had been killed. But she hadn't been part of Rainy's group. Winter had also been working undercover on a book about the Asian Triads in Seattle that had won her a Pulitzer Prize.

"You haven't kept us waiting too long at all," Winter replied.

"David and I were just catching up on old times."

Christine raised an eyebrow at that, then returned her attention to the computer.

Behind Christine's back, David scowled. He didn't say anything. "I hadn't expected you here, David." Christine made a couple of notes.

"I told you I might drop by."

"I thought we'd agreed to follow this course of action."

"You didn't mention who you were bringing in to handle this."

"No." Christine faced him. "I didn't. I only told you that I was bringing in the best that I could."

"What you're talking about doing is incredibly sensitive," David said.

"It's also incredibly important that it be done well," Christine countered. "You know that."

Winter's curiosity shot up immediately. She also felt vaguely flattered that Christine would hold her in such high regard. However, at the same time, she couldn't help thinking that the whole production might be an act designed solely to get her to lower her defenses. She was no longer the naive young woman she'd been when she'd left the academy.

"Athena Academy and secrets have always gone hand in glove," David said.

Winter knew that. When the decision had been made to build an all-girls school that would specialize in preparing young women for successful lives that included career paths for intelligence agents, military officers, investigative and forensics law enforcement personnel, a lot of government interest had been sparked. Winter had heard stories of agreements for funding from different government branches that Marion Gracelyn had considered and maybe accepted.

That would be a story, wouldn't it? Winter told herself. Over the years of her career, she had been tempted to tell the story of Athena Academy and the iron-willed woman who had envisioned it. But there had been a code of silence about the school that no one, not even television news reporters Tory Patton or Shannon Connor— also Athena grads—had broken.

"I know that," Christine said. "I've helped with some of those secrets myself." She paused. "Now, with all due respect, David, let me get on with what I need to do. This is the best course of action at this juncture."

David's eyes swiveled to Winter. "Perhaps. But you're extending a lot of trust."

"I am," Christine agreed. "But I would rather trust one of our own than someone from outside." She turned to Winter. "You just got in from a long drive. Maybe you'd like to stretch your legs and have a look at the improvements that have been made since you were last here."

"Sure." Winter stood, ignoring David and falling into step with Christine as they left the office. She felt his eyes on her until the door closed behind her.

Uneasy and angry, David Gracelyn glared through the window of Christine Evans's office. It was situated so that it faced the front of the school.

One of the short school buses was letting out a group of girls that had gone off on a field day. The academy believed in putting the students into real-life circumstances on a regular basis.

A moment later, Winter Archer and Christine Evans stepped into David's field of view. His eyes were drawn immediately to the writer's slender body. He could remember what she'd looked like when she'd gone to school with Allison, his sister.

Winter Archer was the only daughter of wealthy, career-driven parents who had been too glad to find a private school for their daughter. As a young girl, David remembered that Winter had always been an observer, never one for saying much. She'd struck him as pretty then, and that beauty had blossomed during the intervening years.

She had thick black hair, perfectly arched eyebrows, and plump lips. Her skin was pale, not unhealthy, just untanned. Like cream. The color made her hair and her light purplish hazel eyes stand out even more.

Winter's eyes were what David remembered most about her.

She'd always been watchful. But she'd been so quiet she'd been hard to get to know.

It was strange that he remembered her after all these years. He knew who she was, of course, because he'd read some of her books.

As an investigative reporter specializing in reconstruction of events and happenings that had complicated timetables, Winter Archer had few peers. Her books came out slowly, but they sold strongly. She worked on projects that covered the history of countries to the personal lives of media figures.

She had a reputation for telling the truth. But sometimes she told too much of the truth. The Carlson book was a perfect example.

Meet the Author

Meredith Fletcher blames her wanderlust on her navy father. The one constant she had througout their moves was her books. The battered trunk followed her around the world when she was growing up. These days, the trunk is stored, but sometimes comes with Meredith to visit A-frame houses high in the Colorado mountains, cottages in Maine, and rental flats where she stays for months at a stretch. Interested readers can reach her at MFletcher1216@aol.

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Vendetta 3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
harstan More than 1 year ago
The leaders of the Athena Force know how to best use the talents of their academy graduates. So when someone arranged the murder of Marion Gracelyn and the kidnapping of two Athena students, they turn to investigative writer Winter Archer to learn who few people can obtain information better than she can.------------ Using the guise of writing the biography of the Athena Academy¿s late founder, Winter asks David if she can look at his mom¿s papers. However, David, the U.S. Attorney General, rejects allowing an author look at his late mom's papers. Winter persuades him that her interest lies in uncovering the real culprit behind the homicide. David grants her access, but soon finds himself working to keep her safe from a killer who wants to remain the anonymous star of a soon to be cold case.-------------------- More a suspense thriller than a romance as the latter takes a back seat to the former, the latest Athena Force tale continues the delightful saga with a past and present thriller. The story line is fast-paced in both periods so that readers are caught up with the non-stop action. The lead couple is fully developed although the romantic interest between them seems forced, as a requirement rather than a plot enhancer. Still fans will enjoy VENDETTA. -------- Harriet Klausner