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“That’d be me.” Mason lifted a hand at the helmeted officer. “Got two extra vests?” He looked at Ava. “I guess we’re going in together on this one.”

“No, we’re not,” Ava stated. She looked at Duncan. “If he’s waiting for Mason to show up so he can shoot Jake in front of him, then we’re not going to march Mason in there first thing. We need to get an assurance from him that he won’t immediately shoot when he sees Mason.”

“Wait a—,” Mason started.

“She’s right,” Duncan said. “One of the primary negotiation rules. He’s got to do something for us before we give him what he wants. You’re here. We can start with that.” He looked at Hale. “Tell your negotiator we’re sending in one of ours to help.”

Hale eyed Ava. “We’ll send an escort in with you.”

She shook her head. “No. He knows you guys are here. A visible show of force outside is good, but we don’t need to intimidate him any further. Me walking in alone is a lot less threatening, and this will buy you some time to streamline your plan.” She took the vest Hale handed to her.

Mason felt the ground tilt under his feet. “No. This isn’t right. You can’t go in there. He’s crazy. He wants to see me. That’s what we should be doing.”

Ava didn’t look up from strapping on her vest.

“She’s following the book,” Duncan said. “We know how to do this.”

Mason didn’t care. He’d attended the FBI’s hostage-negotiation seminars and knew their book was a damn good one. But that didn’t change that Ava was walking into the lion’s den. Alone. Every caveman instinct he had wanted to order her back into Duncan’s vehicle and tell her to stay put.

She looked up and held his gaze, her expression all business. Special Agent Ava McLane was a highly trained professional. And he needed to get over it and let her do her job.

“Fuck me.” Mason glared at every member in the group.

Ava raised a brow at him. “Can you handle this?”


“When I call for you to come in, you will follow my lead. I’ll tell you what to say and what to do. No cowboy stuff.”

“Yes ma’am,” he drawled.

Her eyes softened. “We’ll get him out. Have faith.”

Mason nodded. He’d never felt more helpless in his life.


Sweat trickled down Ava’s back, and the glass doors whooshed open as she approached. Her borrowed vest felt heavier than the one she kept in the trunk of her vehicle. She hadn’t worked a negotiation in years. The Portland FBI office’s head negotiator was lecturing at Quantico, and the CARD team negotiator had hopped on a plane to an active incident in Texas the moment they’d found Henley. Right this minute, Ava was the agent with the most experience. The negotiation rules spun in her head.

Calm him down. Find out his goals, motivation, and emotional needs.

Be sincere.

She sucked in a deep breath as she moved toward the SERT police negotiator standing at a center check stand. She’d warned the Portland Police outside that she was going to play up the FBI’s role to Jopek and make it seem like they’d swept in to take over the incident and now were keeping the Portland Police SERT team at bay. Let Jopek feel he was important enough to warrant the FBI taking an active role.

“Kent, an agent from the FBI is joining me. She’s going to stay behind the check stand with me,” Corello spoke over the speaker as she moved closer.

Don’t startle him.

She nodded at Corello and held out her hand. “Ava McLane.”

“Ready for this?” Corello was a compact man in his fifties with kind eyes, but she could see the absolute focus behind the calm.

“As I’ll ever be. What do you have so far?”

“Not much. He won’t talk until Mason Callahan gets here. He arrived with you?”

“Yes, but I’m not letting him in until Jopek agrees to not hurt the boy the minute he sees Mason.”

“Of course,” agreed Corello.

Ava finally looked down the aisle and met Jake’s gaze. His eyes were wide, and she nodded at him with reassurance. Kent Jopek stared at her, and she calmly looked back. Kent did not look like a killer. He looked like the nice older guy who lived next door and let you borrow his Weedwacker. Smeared blood on the floor told her where the woman had been shot. And reminded her that Kent was perfectly capable of shooting someone. Corello handed her the handset from the phone-like intercom system.

“Mr. Jopek,” she spoke into the handset. “I’m Special Agent Ava McLane. I know you’re waiting for Mason Callahan, and I want you to know that he is outside with the Portland Police Department.” Her voice echoed through the empty store, sounding smooth and peaceful even to her critical ears.

“Get him in here!” Kent yelled back at her. He leaned against one of the freezer doors, his gun pointed her way and his other arm keeping Jake tight to his chest, his blade in hand.

“Mr. Jopek,” Ava started. “I have one concern that I need your word on first. Detective Callahan is here for you to talk to, but the FBI needs to know that you’re not going to hurt Jake the moment you see him.”

Kent didn’t say anything.

“I’m here to help you get out of this situation without injuring anyone else. That’s my main goal. If speaking with Mason Callahan is going to help you do that, we’ll bring him in. But if all it’s going to do is make you shoot him or Jake, then I have a problem.