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“No,” he shouted at her, his arm tightening on Jake.

“That’s fine. You realize I have to at least ask, right?” Ava asked. “You can keep the gun. How about the knife? Why do you need the knife if you have the gun?”

“Shut up.” Kent didn’t yell this time. Not like he had about the gun.

She took it as a good sign. Perhaps he wasn’t as attached to the knife as the gun.

“Okay. But I’m not going to let Mason close to you as long as you have a knife. He’s going to stay back here by us. I’ll make sure he hears everything you have to say to him.”

“Hurry up.”

She glanced at Corello, who nodded. Mason wouldn’t hesitate. He’d been ready to rush the store the minute they’d arrived. “He’s coming,” she said to Kent. “You’ll get your chance to talk to him.” She repeated the fact, wanting Kent to realize that he was only talking to Mason because she’d allowed it.

She heard the swishing sound of the doors and turned to see Mason stride in, a determined look on his face as he came to save his son.

The energetic sounds of Mannheim Steamroller’s “Carol of the Bells” filled the store, and Mason knew he’d hate the song for the rest of his life. He’d avoided this grocery story for two decades. He never drove by this particular store, taking time to detour around it. He couldn’t stand to see that damned sign. He even avoided shopping in other Safeways.

Ava stood at a center check stand with Corello. She seemed small in the huge store, and he mentally repeated that she was perfectly capable of taking care of herself. Probably more than he was.

He’d been listening through Corello’s open cell-phone line. Ava was going by the book, and she was getting Kent to listen. He held her gaze as he strode toward her. Thank God, Kent hadn’t shot at her. Mason had wanted to hurt the man every time he’d yelled at Ava. She looked calm and in control; she was in work mode with her emotions tucked away. Something he understood very well. The flutter of the pulse in her neck told him she was on high alert. Just like him.

“I’m Corello.” The other negotiator held out his hand to Mason. He looked like he should be teaching college-level economics instead of negotiating with kidnappers. Mason shook his hand and looked past the check stand and down the aisle.

Jake’s calm gaze met him. His lips moved: “Dad.”

Thank God, Jake is okay. Jake’s hands were tied behind him, and he stood with his feet wide and firmly planted for balance. The only sign of a problem was the arm of a killer around Jake’s neck, a knife gripped in one hand, a gun in his other hand pointed at Mason’s head.

Hate flowed through Mason, and his hands started to sweat. His palms itched to draw his weapon to punish the man.

You killed his son. No doubt the feeling is mutual.

Mason looked into Kent Jopek’s eyes and felt the hatred. It blew over him like a suffocating mass. The man had been fostering his hate for two decades, and right now Mason was the recipient of every ounce of it.

“Kent, would you not aim the gun our way?” Ava asked. “Let’s not give SERT a reason to get trigger happy.”

Kent Jopek slowly lowered the gun, holding Mason’s gaze.

He’d seen Kent a few times after his son’s death. There’d been an official inquiry into the shooting, and an attempt at a civil case, which had gone nowhere. Going on his lawyer’s advice, Mason had never reached out to the Jopek family. He’d known the family had tried to inflate the incident in the media, but there’d been too many eyewitnesses who’d come down firmly in Mason’s favor. The consensus both public and official had been that Mason acted correctly.

That didn’t help a family mourn their son.

Nor did it take away Mason’s own nightmares, in which he shot an innocent boy in the head.

Kent Jopek had changed little. He was still a big man with a firm gaze, but now his hair was gray. Deep lines framed his mouth—the look of a man in constant emotional pain.

Holiday music rang in Mason’s ears.

“What’s your side of the story?” Corello asked Mason.

“Twenty years ago, I was called to a scene right here where a homeless guy had Kent’s son with a knife at his neck. He started to slice open the boy’s throat and I shot, hitting both of them. The boy didn’t make it. Jopek blames me. Now he’s got my son.” Mason didn’t look away from Jake.

“Jesus Christ,” murmured Corello.

“Mr. Jopek,” Ava said over the intercom. “Mason is here to listen to what you have to say. What do you want to tell him?”

Mason braced himself for the avalanche of vitriol. Instead, Kent Jopek stared at him.

He waited. Jake turned his head the slightest bit, trying to look back at his captor as if to see if there was a reason the man wasn’t speaking. Kent jerked his arm, and Jake froze.

Mason took the intercom out of Ava’s hand. Her eyes cautioned him, and he gave her a faint smile. He held the handset to his mouth and lost all train of thought.

What did he want to say to the man?

Every night I relive the day your son died.

I can’t imagine your pain.

I’d do the exact same thing again.

Every sentence was wrong. They were shallow next to this man’s experience. How could he ask Kent to let his son go?

“Please let Jake go.” Mason’s plea echoed through the speakers. There was nothing he could say to fix the past or ease this man’s pain. He had to say what was in his heart.