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Vivian's Diamonds

Author's Note: This is a romantic suspense companion piece to my contemporary romance short story, "Madison's Doubts."

Jess couldn’t stop smiling. It wasn’t because of the restaurant’s famous garlic-roasted crab, the candles flickering in the intimate atmosphere, or the heady scent of the dark red old-fashioned rose in its crystal bud vase. It wasn’t deterred by the low conversations of other diners or the fog obscuring everything outside the window. She was certain stars shone in her eyes but was past the point of caring -- she was having dinner with Marcus for the first time.

After their work assignment had concluded that afternoon, he had turned to her and casually inquired, “Do you like crab? Since we’re in San Francisco, I know a great restaurant...” It had taken all her will-power to simply smile and keep her face its habitual calm as she accepted. But all the while, her heart had pounded against her chest as her inner voice screamed, I can’t believe he just asked me out to dinner!

He was smiling too. That was a good sign, wasn’t it? He had smiled all through dinner. Jess had followed his light conversational lead, avoiding all mention of work -- the rumored security breach they had been sent to investigate, the suspicion that international criminal Vancetti had been responsible. Work didn't exist in this magical atmosphere, infused with romance, made for lovers. All the while, she wondered frantically when he would suddenly wake up from this magic enchantment and realize he was sitting across from plain-faced Jess.

She had noticed other women’s eyes sliding to him. The candlelight silvered his ash-blonde hair and darkened his hazel eyes, drawing the planes of his aristocratic face in dramatic contrast, hiding the scar on his chin, and the lines at the corners of his eyes, of his mouth.

But he was having dinner with her. Making her heart tattoo erratically, her breath come in shallow gasps, her palms sweat. And her lips smile endlessly. Probably dreamily.

A part of her warned her, You’ll scare him away! He only asked you to dinner for something to do, someone to eat with. Tomorrow, the two of you will fly back to Washington and return to your old working relationship.

Her smile faltered. That made more sense. She played idly with her tiramisu. Suddenly she wasn’t hungry anymore.

Marcus paid the bill and stood. Collecting her purse, she rose, but paused in confusion. His eyes were riveted on her face, intense and serious. His smile was...different. Smokey.

Smokey? Get real.

No really--if he hadn’t been staring at her, she could almost believe it was...seductive. Her heart started to slam in her chest.

He took her arm, maintaining that strange eye contact, and guided her out of the restaurant. They paused after the glass double-doors whooshed! closed behind them while Jess fumbled in her purse for the rental car keys. They stood just close enough that their sleeves tentatively brushed each other.

She kept her eyes on her purse, afraid to look at him. He had always unnerved her, but because they worked so closely together, she always forced herself to focus and present an expressionless mask of efficiency. But tonight...that odd look, odd smile...She couldn’t trust herself to hide her attraction to him.

She stalled by glancing around. Directly on the pier with almost one foot in the water, The Crab Factory restaurant shed mellow lights on the few other tourists strolling on the wooden sidewalk. The fog-shrouded darkness beyond was studded with tiny electric stars from the distant streetlights and the city buildings. The mist cloaked all sound except for the slapping of water on the handful of private boats moored directly across the pier from the restaurant.

Jess carefully schooled her expression, then forced herself to look up at Marcus. His eyes glowed like burning coals in his shadowed face. A smile played on his lips, deepening the lines on the corners.

“Ready for coffee?” he suggested.

She laughed in surprise and giddy joy. “Haven’t had enough of me?”

Jess thought his eyes glowed even brighter as he opened his mouth to answer, but he was interrupted by a sultry, “Marcus! How marvelous to see you!”

Jess knew it was too good to be true.

She reluctantly turned. A svelte bombshell stood before them. Arching eyebrows framed heavy-lidded moss-colored eyes, made greener by her pale cream complexion and luscious strawberry lips. Gold gleamed from her ears, from a large ruby-studded pendant on her trendy Egyptian-style necklace. Rippling waves of shining ebony hair cascaded down her back, contrasting her skin-tight scarlet pantsuit and low-heeled black leather boots. Italian. Like her exotic perfume, which wafted into Jess as the woman wrapped around Marcus in an ardent embrace.

She looked familiar, strangely enough. Jess didn’t know any fabulously gorgeous women...

Vivian Farraday. Jess started violently. She hadn’t seen Vivian since boarding school. Gawky, late-blooming Vivian. Like Jess, she had been thin, bony, plain and unpopular. They had so much in common, they should have been friends. But Vivian had despised Jess for trying to fade into the background, for retreating into her studies. Vivian had been socially aggressive with the popular girls, relentless in her desire for attention, constant in ridiculing bookish, awkward Jess.

But now...Vivian had become a vision. While she was still Colorless Jess.

How did Vivian know Marcus? It seemed like a horribly LONG embrace. Jess stepped back and pointedly turned away. She idly fiddled with a strand of her own long hair, contrasting the ash-brown with Vivian’s shimmering onyx. She stifled a whimper.

As they parted, Jess turned back reluctantly. Marcus’ cheeks flushed a dull red and his eyes flashed at the tall beauty; he didn’t seem particularly happy to see her. As Vivian released him, those alluring green eyes gave Jess a sidelong look for an infinitesimal moment before she circled her perfect oval face around with a surprised, friendly smile.

"Jess!" Air-kiss near her cheek. “I haven’t seen you in ages!” Her friendly tone made Jess feel like a sulking child. She felt a frown gathering on her forehead and damped down her frustration. Vivian always managed to make her feel gauche.

“How have you been?” she asked in a neutral tone.

“Oh, insanely busy,” Vivian confided with fervor. “I took over Daddy’s business. It was simply a mess.”

“I’d heard your father died. My condolences.”

Vivian’s smile grew slightly brittle. “Thank you. Papa was so well-liked. I didn’t know you knew Marcus,” she continued. “He and I are close friends."

Jess caught the emphasis on "close”.

Vivian tucked her hand in Marcus’ arm and flashed him a spectacular smile. “I haven't seen you since we graduated college! How have you been? How are your parents?”

She knows his parents?! Jess swallowed hard.

It took barely a second for Jess to absorb the lovely picture Vivian presented--her sinfully fabulous body, her confidence, her bright conversation and brilliant smile--and compare it to herself: average height, average weight, her makeup long gone. Plainly clothed in a black business suit, feeling rumpled because a dress shoe’s broken heel had forced her to hide leather boots under the hem of her pants. Uncomfortable, insecure and tongue-tied.

In a poof! the magic of the evening disappeared--the tolling stroke of midnight, her coach turned back into a pumpkin. She wasn’t much of a Cinderella next to Beauty, over there, anyway.

Suddenly she needed to run away. She wanted to hide. She couldn’t bear to stand here, torturing herself with the obvious differences between them, feeling like a brown mouse, a sullen child, noticed only because it was impolite to ignore her. She no longer noticed Marcus, or Vivian--she simply felt ashamed to be seen.

“Why don’t you two catch up.” Jess quickly turned away--she couldn’t look at her anymore, and see everything she wasn’t. She hoped she sounded agreeably cheerful. “Marcus, I’ll meet you at the car.”

She turned and walked away.


Bewildered and frustrated, Marcus watched Jess escape. He felt as if he were living in slow-motion, and things had happened too quickly for him to follow. First his livid desire to throttle Vivian for her effusive greeting--he practically had to peel her off of him, a distasteful thing when he didn’t want to lay so much as a hand on her body. Then seething in impatience while the women traded small talk. Then abruptly, Jess had abandoned him. What had happened to her? The radiant woman he’d had dinner with had seemed to shrink into herself, turning into a mouse, scurrying off before he could voice a protest--or escape with her!

It had taken him so long to muster the courage to ask her out. She was different from anyone else he had known--her calm sense complemented her ruthless efficiency, her gentle smile contrasted her stubborn integrity, her quick intelligence heightened her amazing job skills. After getting to know her better, he had been startled to realize the beauty in her face, especially when she smiled. He had also surprised himself with the strength of his attraction to her. He had felt as lucky as Ali Baba stumbling upon the thieves’ treasure.

But before his eyes, she had turned into someone he didn’t know. She and Vivian had apparently known each other. Did Vivian have some kind of a hold over her?

Vivian had been beautiful in college--she was flamboyant now. She had been poised and confident--now her stance was arrogant. Dressed as she was, everyone would remember seeing her on the pier this evening.

Vivian had taken advantage of the situation to amble down the pier, chatting, “It’s been too long since we’ve last talked. Do you remember when we confessed our five-year dreams in college? I’m certainly not an engineer!” Her rich laughter was muffled by the fog. “Instead, I took over Daddy's business. Did you ever join the CIA?”

He was surprised Vivian remembered that he had confided his dreams of becoming an agent. It also set off a small alarm. Dodging, he asked, “What brought you to San Francisco?”

“Oh, business,” she responded airly. “Diamonds...gone astray, you might say.”

“What do you mean?”

“An associate had a tiny...miscommunication and ran off with my diamonds. It took me months to track him here. We finally had a chance to talk...clear up the problem...” Her sudden smile seemed a bit feral, while satisfaction gleamed in her eyes. “A very successful trip.”

Then her smile changed--he couldn’t quite define how. Her eyes glittered and her body sidled up to his. “So...did you join the CIA?”

Major warning bells sounded. The question had been too persistent.

And her father’s business had never been in diamonds.

Marcus abruptly stopped walking. “What do you want, Vivian?”

Vivian stopped also, her face blank, eyes blinking. “What do you mean? To catch up--”

“The last time I saw you, you were spitting, screaming and cursing. I don’t exactly trust your smiles now.”

Her voice was tight but calm, unlike the Vivian he had known. “I was only an immature college student, and you had just broken up with me. Did you expect overwhelming joy? But it was a long time ago," she continued, "and things have changed...People change."

Her gaze was direct, but Marcus caught a secretive gleam of amusement in them. Her smile was brilliant, but somehow seemed odd.

In college, he had dated her because their parents had pushed it and because she had been a beautiful, bright, charismatic young woman. But obsessively driven to succeed. He had known her cold, disinterested parents--he understood her desire to carve a niche for herself, to be recognized, to be liked. She had been confident and popular, but self-centered.

Maturity might lend her self-control, but not kindness.

"Your friendly greeting, your insinuations to Jess--they don't exactly show me anything has changed."

Suddenly, her smile became fierce. "Oh, that hug was just for Jess. She had stars in her eyes and needed a reality check."

Marcus tightened his jaw, his emotions rolling over him in waves. This new Vivian had reached unclimbed heights of arrogance. He ruthlessly cast aside his caution. "Next to Jess, you're nothing more than a flashy fake diamond," he ground out. "You don't measure up to a genuine stone."

She was still obsessed with jewelry; the insult struck her like a blow, instantly paling her cheeks. In contrast, her lips glowed ruby-red in the moonlit mist.

"Jess?!" she erupted. "Little Colorless Jess? How dare you even compare her to me!"

"This conversation is ended."

“What’s wrong with you!” she demanded, reaching a hand to his sleeve. He violently shook her away, pinning her with a steely glare.

She returned his glare for a moment, before bringing herself under control with a sharp intake of breath. "I wanted to catch up...to see if maybe there was still something there. But I guess I have my answer."

"I would have told you if you'd bothered to ask. Instead, you've ruined my evening, upset Jess--"

In a strangled voice, she interrupted, “I haven’t done nearly enough what I’d like to do to little Colorless Jess.”

His instincts tensed his body, alarmed at something out of place. He had lost control when he should have been listening to the warning bells in his head. He eased away from her. She followed his slow movements with wide eyes, shadowed in the dim lights, her face as pale as marble. She started to tremble. Her hand came up to fiddle with her gold pendant...

A sudden mist fired in his face.

The pepper spray ate holes into his eyes. He gasped. His swinging arms caught only air. A blow to his head sent him reeling. Another to his ribs toppled him into a small nearby boat.

He heard her seethe, "Betrayer. First you, then my bankrupt parents." He groped for her legs, but a boot pounded his side.

"If not for Vancetti..." Marcus blindly kicked at her voice, but only grazed a limb. Vancetti--king of assassins and illegal international trade. Marcus would never have suspected socialite Vivian was his partner.

He opened his burning eyes, filled with acid tears. Seeing a flash of scarlet, he brought his leg up in a kick that sent her toppling. He saw a straight, dim shadow and reached up to grab the boat railing.

With a wordless cry of fury, she scrambled to a box on the deck, flipping the lid and reaching both hands inside. Marcus got to his feet and blinked to clear his streaming eyes, his stance tensed and ready.

One hand emerged with a gun and she immediately fired. He leaped sideways, slamming hard onto the rolling deck. As he fell, he saw her other hand with a second, bulkier gun pointed at him. She fired.

The taser’s electrode sank into his side and his muscles exploded in pain, stiffening until they felt as if they would rip apart. And then darkness...


Jess fingered the CIA standard-issue handgun in her purse, then recklessly hurled the bag onto the car seat.

She had been so full of excitement when she had joined the CIA right out of college. Unexpected athleticism, affinity for languages and quick intelligence had promoted her to field agent, rather than the desk job she had expected. Then she had met Marcus.

Head over heels in love with him during months of assignments, she had never dreamed Marcus would see colorless Jess as anything more than a respected fellow CIA agent. Then he had asked her to dinner.

Who was she kidding? He had probably been bored, and she was convenient and safe.

She clenched her hands as she leaned against the car frame, needing to feel the pain of her nails biting into her palms. She made herself remember all the women he was rumored to have dated--all beautiful, clever, confident. Her antithesis. Vivian reminded her of all those women. Made her feel clumsy and tongue-tied, made her want to bury herself in what she excelled at--her work. Seeing Vivian only reminded Jess that she was a good agent because she could blend into the walls.

Oh, cut the pity! You always just gave up! Vivian despised you for it. She wasn’t even beautiful then.

Look at her NOW! How can I possibly compete with THAT! She argued with herself.

You had so many chances, men who might have felt more for you. But, Oh! Your precious heart! Too intimidated by the competition of other women! Too fragile to risk being broken if he didn't choose you!

None of them would have given me a second look, she tried to reason, but it sounded like a whine to her own ears.

You’d rather run away and pretend you didn’t want him, rather than become vulnerable to anyone. You’ll always be just a frightened child.

The thought sobered her, woke her out of the painful memories clouding her reality. She was no longer an insecure intellectual oddity in boarding school, or a plain, shy college graduate. She wasn’t even the aloof, competent agent she had molded herself into. She was a scared young woman standing on a precipice, shaking and hurting, but willing to risk being hurt even more, if only to take a chance at something she had never had, with a man more important than any other she’d known.

She took a deep breath. Then slowly walked back.

Jess spied Marcus and Vivian down the pier. Was she mistaken? Had he wanted to be with Vivian? Her heart dropped to her stomach. Hands, jaw, eyes clenched shut. She exhaled a strained breath that burned her throat.

What's happened to you! Agent or crybaby?

She abruptly straightened. Stared at them. Grow a spine, sissy! She marched after them.

Still several yards away, she saw them facing each other, Vivian’s hand at her throat. Then suddenly, the restaurant's lights sparkled off a darting spray that shot from some device at her neck. Marcus doubled over, arms flailing.

Then elegant, cosseted Vivian surprised Jess with a professional kick whirled at Marcus' head. Another to his side, sending him sprawling into someone's deep-sea fishing boat. Vivian followed him on board.

Jess broke away to hug the shadows, hastening quietly down the length of the pier. She needed to remain undetected. She needed Vivian to keep her attention on Marcus. She needed Marcus to stay alive another few minutes.

A sudden gunshot stopped her for a moment before she broke into a frantic sprint.

As she neared the boat, she saw a hazy figure in scarlet, standing with her back to her. She leaped off the edge of the pier, aiming a flying kick that slammed into Vivian's back. The momentum propelled them both down.

Jess scrabbled at Vivian’s legs as the woman dove toward a black satchel. She sprang up with a gun in her hands as Jess flung herself onto her feet. She snagged Vivian’s wrists and forced her elbows to bend, holding the gun over her head.

Vivian snarled in Jess's face, squirmed against her iron grip, tried to kick in the boat's small confines.

"You're not the only one who's changed since boarding school," Jess mocked her.

"You're CIA," Vivian gaped in surprise.

Then another voice behind Vivian, from the pier. “Hello? Is everything all right?”

Switching momentum, Vivian twirled into Jess’ body, until they stood shoulder to shoulder, the gun between them and aimed at the curious man peering into the rocking boat. Vivian shot him.

Jess released Vivian’s wrist and smashed an elbow into her face. The gun dropped, skittered, splashed into the water. Twisting, Vivian flung out her hands as she fell against the the railing.

Her leg shot out backwards into Jess's stomach. She then pivoted around, using her torque to arc a kick at Jess's head.

Jess brought her forearms up to block it, staggering sideways. She whirled a roundhouse kick, catching Vivian's temple.

Vivian stumbled into strong arms, a biting grip. Startled eyes met Marcus’ baleful stare. A vengeful blow tumbled Vivian over the railing.

Jess rushed to the railing and peered into the dark. Marcus stood beside her.

One minute. Two.

No ripples in the surface. Where was she?

Marcus glanced around the boat...then suddenly yanked at her. "Out! Now!" He propelled her off the boat.

Safe on the pier, she stood dazed for a moment. “Why--?”

Then the boat exploded, hurling them onto their knees.

She hit the solid wood of the pier with a bone-jarring thud. Debris landed around her as Jess squeezed her eyes shut. She didn’t realize she’d stopped breathing until her lungs heaved, then her heart started beating again. Feeling pricks of pain, she quickly sat up and brushed burning ash from her clothes. She gasped, "How--?"

"I saw wiring in the boat--she must have laid it sometime before. Then she swam away to detonate."

They heard voices, pounding feet. Jess and Marcus scurried into a shadowed alcove at the end of the pier as people rushed out of the restaurant, gasping in horror at the burning boat. Jess heard startled cries of dismay as they discovered the man lying nearby, bleeding from a bullet wound. Cell phones beeped as the police and fire department were called.

Her heart back to normal, Jess molded into the darkness, listening to the bustle near the boats. A stray shaft of weak light caught the edge of Marcus's grim profile.

“She planned this ahead of time,” he suddenly said in a low growl.

“What do you mean?”

Marcus peeked at the milling people, then ducked back. “Wiring the boat. ‘Running’ into us.”

“She followed us to San Francisco?”

“No, she probably accidentally saw us at the restaurant. Then set up the boat, the meeting.”

“Who does she work for?”


She swallowed her gasp in a sharp inhaled breath. “What was she doing here?”

“She mentioned tracking a man who had taken her diamonds.”

Jess wondered what she’d done to him. Dead, probably.

“Are you ready?” Marcus grabbed her hand. “We have to sneak out now, before the police arrive. We shouldn’t have a problem blending into that crowd.”

They didn’t. They schooled their appearances into expressions of shock to mirror the faces around them, and managed to ease their way to the edge of the rubberneckers. They slipped away back to the parking lot, empty except for a few couples exclaiming over the explosion.

They walked in silence. Jess’ hand burned where he still held it, and her face burned as they passed the restaurant doors. Her heart physically ached, worrying about what he thought of her cowardice, outside those doors.

“I’m sorry,” she blurted. Then shut her mouth as she remembered the people only a short distance away.

He stopped, turned to her. The darkness blanketed them as they stood outside the circles of light from the parking lot lamps, and his face was an oval of muted greys. He took a step nearer to her and bent his head.

“For what?” His voice resounated low and soft in her ear. The vibration made her shiver.

“For abandoning you to Vivian. I was...afraid.”

“Of her?”

“Of what I looked like next to her.” Her confession was barely a sigh.

Marcus was silent for a long moment. Then his lips brushed her ear as he reminded her, “I asked you out to dinner tonight.” Another pause. “And I intend to do it again.”

Her heart stopped; her breath caught; she saw stars before she suddenly remembered to inhale. Did he really say that? What was she supposed to say in response to something like that? Her first reaction was to ignore it, pretend she hadn’t heard it.

You’ll always be a frightened child.

A germ of an idea formed. Her heart started to slam against her chest. Now or never.

She reached her hands up and curled them around his neck, her fingers snaking through his short hair. Then she tugged his mouth down to hers, her lips soft and tentative.

At first, he started in surprise. Then he wrapped his arms around her and deepened the kiss. Crushed against him, Jess could feel his heartbeat, as erratic as hers. He was drinking her in like a man dying of thirst.

"I've wanted to kiss you for so long," he murmured.

She stammered, "I'm not beautiful like Vivian. But I certainly won't hit you with pepper spray. Or try to knock you out."

He smiled. "Another one of those might..."