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Dace Recker donned the Tac-Vest with its heavy ceramic plates and fastened it. Grabbing his bag of gear out of the car's trunk, he slammed the lid and jogged toward the police tape establishing the outer perimeter around the bank. Ducking beneath it, he flashed his shield at the cop stationed nearest him and began to shoulder his way through the sea of law enforcement officers toward the Negotiations Operation Center, a converted ambulance, parked nearby.
"Dace!" Turning, he recognized Jack Langley from Alpha Squad, the SWAT unit his Hostage Negotiation Team was assigned to. Jack's limp was noticeable in his hurry. The injury he'd sustained in the explosion at the Metrodome last month still had him on the disabled list. At that moment, however, HNT leader, Bradley Lewis, stepped out of the NOC mobile unit and spotted Dace, waving him over. Jack caught up with him as he headed toward Lewis and said urgently, "Your new partner's here."
"Yeah?" Dace craned his neck, but could see no one standing near the commander. "Who is it? Have you met him yet?"
"Her. And she's—"
"Recker, where the hell is your team responding from, Siberia?"
Lewis's familiar impatient tone succeeded in snapping Dace's attention from Langley.
"What's the situation?"
"Bank branch with twelve regular employees, ten of them confirmed inside. Undetermined number of customers, but witnesses suggest at least eight. Someone managed to press the crisis button, which alerted police at 9:21 a.m. Subject went barricade shortly after."
Dace checked his watch. 10:12.
"Shots fired upon entry, and again fifteen minutes later," Lewis continued. "No visual yet. The blinds were pulled shortly after the first shots were fired."
"Nothing confirmed. The situation's locked down with a full perimeter established. Your new partner's inside the mobile unit, trying to establish contact. You'll be primary, but she's got plenty of experience, too. The phone lines have been disconnected. The gunman did accept the throw phone, but hasn't answered it yet."
Dace nodded as Lewis turned and strode toward the command center, a sleek black specially equipped RV. The man would serve as their command center liaison, exchanging information with the SWAT commander. As Dace reached for the door to the NOC unit, his progress was halted by Jack's hand on his arm.
"Like I was saying…"
"A woman partner. Yeah, I heard you. Eat your heart out, buddy." Dace shot a grin at his friend. "When you get back on duty, all you have to look forward to is Bazuk." The eerily silent tobacco-chewing Cajun was Jack's personal nemesis, primarily, Dace figured, because both men had more than their share of ego.
But Langley didn't take the bait. "Yeah, yeah, but there's something you should know. I saw her when I was in human resources filling out insurance stuff."
"Who, the new partner?"
"Yeah, and it's—"
Dace hid a grin at the sound of SWAT commander Harv Mendel's familiar bellow from the command center parked a hundred yards away. As Langley turned in resignation, Dace opened the back door of the NOC unit and ducked inside. Mendel was going to want to know what the man was doing on-site when he hadn't yet gotten a medical release to return to duty. But Dace knew his friend well enough to figure the answer. With nothing to do but rehab exercises, Langley was going slowly crazy. A civilian might spend his medical leave at the beach. Jack spent his listening to the scanner.
The unit was nearly empty save for a slender blond woman, seated at the table. Most of the team must not have arrived yet. "Dace Recker," he said by way of introduction. "Have you made contact yet?"
Her back was to him, but he heard her say, "Hello. Whom am I speaking to?"
His heart stuttered in his chest. The voice was familiar. Too familiar. It still haunted his dreams. Prowled his subconscious. Summoned memories he'd done his damnedest to forget for the past year and a half.
Disbelieving, he raked her figure with his gaze, desperately seeking a sign that he was wrong. This woman was slimmer, wasn't she? Her hair a lighter shade than he remembered.
But a moment later she swung around to face him and recognition struck him square in the chest. No matter how impossible it seemed, how cruel, it was Jolie Conrad. The only woman he'd ever allowed close enough to get a grip on his heart.
The same woman who'd ripped that organ out of his chest when she'd walked out of his life eighteen months ago, after their world had shattered around them.
Her expression mirrored his shock. But she recovered first, holding out the cell. "Out of seven calls made, this is the first answered. Woman's voice. She's handing it over to the gunman."
He took the phone she extended as if it were a lifeline. Speaking with the psycho inside the bank who was holding at least eighteen hostages was infinitely preferable to dealing with the emotional punch of seeing Jolie again.
Not just seeing her. Being partnered with her.
God help him.
"This is Dace Recker, with the Metro City Police Department." It took more effort than it should have to keep his focus on the hostage taker at the other end of the line. "Am I speaking to the person in charge?"
"You are. And I have to say, Recker, that you and your people are screwing up my day."
The voice was male. Authoritative. Native English speaker. No trace of regional accents. Dace's assessments were instinctive, made in quick succession.
He glanced at his partner. Jolie. His gut tightened. She'd donned earphones and was listening intently to the conversation. "I'mhere to give you a hand with that…" Deliberately he let his voice trail off. "Help me out, here. What's your name?"
"Names aren't important."
He kept his voice easy. "Well, they sort of are. I have to call you something, don't I?"
There was a moment's hesitation. "Just call me John."
"All right, John, talk to me. Are you all right?"
The question seemed to catch the other man off guard. "I'm fine."
"That's good. I'm very glad to hear that. I want to keep it that way, okay, John? How about the rest of the folks in there? Are there any injuries?"
"You don't seem to understand how things are going to work, so let me explain. I want a black SUV with tinted windows delivered to the back doors. Pull your perimeter back another six hundred yards. Too many cops around here. I'm feeling a little claustrophobic."
"I'll work on it. No one's coming in there, John, but we're not going anywhere either. Now this is a two-way effort. You want something, you have to give something in return. I really need the status on the people inside with you. How many are there? Are there any in need of medical assistance?"
"There's one past need of medical assistance," came the chilling reply. "And there will be more if you don't follow my directions exactly." The line abruptly disconnected.
Releasing a breath, he set the phone down. Only then did he transfer his attention to Lewis, who had entered the unit and slipped on headphones during the conversation. "Did you get that?"
Lewis took off his headphones and headed for the door. "I'll run the delivery-exchange angle by command center. If he reestablishes contact before I return, you know the drill."
Dace did know it. Stall him. Establish a rapport by using active listening skills. Once command center okayed it, the team would work an exchange while getting concessions for the people inside. Releasing the injured. Sending in food. But this was the trickiest part of negotiation. He didn't know the gunman well enough yet to predict how he was going to react when Dace followed the usual procedures.
He slanted a glance to the woman at his side, who even now was looking at him, her blue eyes guarded. And he knew this case had been complicated beyond all measure the moment he'd heard her voice and come face-to-face with the past that still plagued him.
The open back door framed Dr. Ryder, their psychological profiler, who'd stopped to talk to Lewis for a moment. With an effort at keeping their privacy, Jolie spoke in a whisper. "I'm sorry about this."
His loins tightened, as if in conditioned response to that familiar smoky tone. He gave her a grim smile and lowered his voice, too. "For what? Sucker punching me with this partnership? For not returning my phone calls? Or for taking off without a word a year and a half ago and leaving me to wonder what the hell had happened to you?" He could hear the bitterness lacing his words, but was helpless to temper it. "Take your pick, Jolie. What are you apologizing for? For walking out of my life? Or for walking back into it?"
Jolie's palms were damp, but she refused to show weakness in front of this man by wiping them on her pants. Meeting Dace's condemning green gaze took a strength of will that sapped her system. She'd been as dismayed as he when she'd looked up to see him in the doorway. Perhaps she shouldn't have been surprised. There were only two SWAT/HNT squads in Metro City. And if she'd learned nothing else in her life, it was that fate was filled with the cruelest of ironies.
"When I was placed back on HNT, I never dreamed I'd be partnered with you. I'd heard you quit the squad after…" Her voice faltered as his gaze sharpened. She didn't want him to think she'd been checking up on him. But occasionally touching base with old friends on the force had invariably included department gossip.
"After you left? Yeah, I quit the squad for a while. Rejoined last January." He studied her a moment, an impassive expression on his face. "When did you come back? And why?"
His words were sharp as a blade. He was equally adept at wielding them like a weapon, she recalled. Slicing through subterfuge and carving at defenses until emotion, raw and unvarnished, leaked out. Until she said things she wished she could retract. Did things she still regretted.
"A month ago." Answering the second half of his question would take more time than they had. And far more openness on her part than she'd ever granted before. Since he didn't even know her mother existed, it'd be a little difficult to explain...
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