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Laurel Swann touched the gleaming pebble, with the tip of her index finger. The stone was as smooth and cool as the ocean. She wished that all of life were half as pleasing to her senses.
But it wasn't. Even the agate reminded her of past unhappiness and present uncertainty; there was a single band of pale amber in the stone that was the exact color of her father's eyes, and her own. Seeing the color made her wonder where Jamie Swann was, if he was well or sick, thin or well fed, free or captive in some country whose name changed with every headline.
"Don't think about it," Laurel told herself, speaking aloud in the manner of someone who spends much of the time alone. "There's nothing you can do. He's old enough to know better. Hell, he's old enough to retire, get a cat, and write his memoirs."
The thought of it made Laurel smile. Like her dead mother, Laurel couldn't stop caring about the man whose cheerful grin and guarded eyes had shaped her life.Still smiling, Laurel picked up the agate and turned it slowly. Light from the north window of her weathered A-frame cottage spilled over her workbench, making the stone glow as if it held all the sunshine it had gathered during countless years of being tumbled by surf on a California beach.
As a professional jewelry designer, Laurel had much more valuable stonesdiamonds and opals, rubies and sapphires and citrinein the safe in her workshop. But she still took real pleasure in finding a clear agate on the beach in front of her house.
To Laurel, a good beach agate was a small gift from God, a memento of the forces that shaped the earth, the mingling ofenduring rock and restless ocean.
The stone on Laurel's palm was a good agate. Looking into its clear depths was like looking through a window into another world. The agate's radiant golden amber color gave way to a lightly marbled transparence at one end. The stone was flecked with dark inclusions, tiny bits of the agate's history preserved in a crystalline frame.
The flaws made the stone more interesting to Laurel than mere perfection would have been. Turning the pebble slowly in the light, she automatically began creating a design in her mind, a simple, flowing framework of gold that would show off the agate to its best advantage. Stones were as unique and individual as people; a setting could enhance the natural beauty of a stone or all but destroy it.
For Laurel, that was the endless fascination of making jewelry. Each design was her own answer to the silent challenge of the stones that she create a frame for them which was as unusual and enduring as their beauty.
The rattle of a truck turning into Laurel's steep driveway broke her concentration. Frowning, she set aside the agate and looked out the ground floor window of her small house. A delivery van was idling just outside. The driver had thoughtfully driven down to the garage, savingLaurel a trip upstairs to the street level. Even so, she wasn't happy to see the truck.
"Damn," Laurel muttered. "What's this? I'm not expecting any new orders. I'm not expecting any back, either, but that doesn't mean I won't get some."
Laurel headed from her workroom and opened the small door that connected to the garage. The living area of the house was overhead, on the same level as the street. It was an odd, cramped arrangement common to Cambria houses that had begun life as weekend cabins and been transformed into full-time residences when land prices soared.
Outside, the driver hopped down from the van and headed toward the open garage door. He had a clipboard gripped in his right hand. Under his left arm he carried a rectangular box. The box was big enough to be awkward, but it wasn't particularly heavy.
"Hi, Tom," Laurel said as he approached.
"Hello, Miss Swann."
Though Tom tried to be casual, he spent too long looking at Laurel. He started at her cap of shiny black hair, took in the loose man's shirt she wore knotted to one side, and lingered on the jeans, whose snug fit was the result of countless washings.
Though Laurel had spent no time trying to catch a man's eye, there was an essential sensual femininity to her that was more alluring than the overproduced blondes that California turned out with numbing regularity.
"Is it your birthday?" Tom asked.
"This week, maybe ?
Though Laurel smiled pleasantly enough, she didn't say anything more.
Tom sighed, accepting that this contact was going to be like all the rest. Business, plain and simple. He began flipping through papers, finding the one for Laurel Swann to sign.
Laurel waited with outward patience. She sensed that Tom, like other men whose lives crossed hers, wanted to progress from a professional contact to a personal one. She was so accustomed to keeping men well beyond arm's length that she hardly noticed any longer that she was doing it.
Watching her parents cope with love, anger, regret, rage, despair, and finally divorce had taught Laurel that diamonds might be forever, but a relationship wasn't.
And if it wasn't forever, it wasn't worth the pain.
"Well," Tom said, "this must be your lucky day. Some body's sending you a big present."
Laurel made a sound that could have meant anything. Like most jewelry makers, she shipped her work materials without fanfare. She hid gold and even parcels of precious stones in plain sight beneath plain brown wrapping paper and ordinary packing tape.
But she had just gotten a shipment of gold from her Armenian metals broker on Hill Street in Los Angeles. She was expecting nothing of interest at the moment.
"Here you go," Tom said.
Laurel took the box in both hands. Ten pounds. Perhaps more. Certainly not much less.
"Need any help?" Tom asked.
"No, thanks. I handle heavier stuff all the time."