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Some days you just weren't meant to get out of bed. For Sebastian Walker today was one of those days. His first day on call as a police negotiator in a new city, a new state, and he'd hit the ground running. He was supposed to be spending the day putting his riverside apartment to rights. But his pager hadn't co-operated.
Thank God it wasn't a full-time gig.
He navigated past the multitude of half-opened boxes that sat strewn all over his floors and seemed to be multiplying in every room. After a year in far-flung foreign hotspots he craved the familiarity of his things but today obviously wasn't going to be the day to get reacquainted.
He swallowed the last of his toast as he knotted his gun-metal grey tie. His pager bleeped again as he shut his front door on the mess.
I'm coming. I'm coming.
'What have we got?' Sebastian asked fifteen minutes later, after approaching the hive of police activity and flashing his credentials to the officer in charge.
'Jumper. With a gun. Her name's Noelene. She won't say anything else. Refuses to talk to us. Says she'll only talk to Callie Duncan.'
Sebastian heard the cluster of groans around him as he strapped on the bulletproof vest he was handed. 'Who's Callie Duncan?'
'A pain-in-the-butt community mental health worker.' Sebastian nodded. 'Okay. Let's get her in here while I have a little chat with Noelene.'
'Callie, call for you on line one.'
Geraldine Russell, head social worker and director of the Jambalyn Community Centre held out the receiver and placed it in the crook of Callie's shoulder as she watched her colleague juggle a stack of charts in one hand and her pager in the other.
Callie shrugged her shoulder high so the phone fitted snugly against her ear. 'Yo,' she said.
Gerri watched her friend nod a couple of times and then say, 'I'll be there in fifteen.'
Callie dropped her shoulder and Gerri hung up the phone. She raised an elegantly groomed eyebrow. 'Be where in fifteen?'
'Grey St Bridge. They think Noelene Sykes is going to jump. She's asking for me,' she said casually as she dumped the charts on her overflowing desk, knowing Gerri was going to go ballistic.
'Oh, no.' Gerri's impressive bosom shook with the vigorous shake of her head.
Callie grinned. Gerri was a large Aboriginal woman whose statuesque presence carried an undeniable authority. Not many people crossed her and only the exceedingly foolish couldn't see beyond the dramatic tribal-print flowing caftans she wore to the savvy, street-wise operator beneath.
'It's Noelene, Gerri. Noelene. As if Noelene's going to jump off a bridge. There's obviously been some miscom-munication. She's asking for me.'
'No. Not that bridge. Not today.' Callie smiled at her friend and colleague of ten years, knowing she was just trying to protect her. 'Yes.' 'I'll go. I'll do it.'
Callie shook her head. 'She wants me.'
Callie picked up her keys. 'I'll be fine.'
'Callie Duncan, you walk out of those doors and I'm firing you.'
Callie grinned over her shoulder. 'Ha! Promises, promises.' They both knew they were chronically understaffed and they needed all the good people they could get.
And Callie Duncan was very, very good at her job.
Callie snorted and placed her hands on her hips, staring down the insistent male whose name she'd already forgotten in her haste to get to Noelene. She didn't care if he was a cop or, for that matter, so damn sexy he could have been in the movies.
He was in her way— that was all that mattered.
'Noelene is not going to shoot me.'
Sebastian returned her blazing amber gaze with a much-practised calm, pale green one of his own, dropping his head to the side a little and stretching his neck. He repeated the process on the other side before straightening.
'You're not going out there until you put it on.'
Callie glared up at him, all brooding, broad immovable male. Way up. At six feet in her comfortable flats, craning her neck wasn't something she did much of but with this man it was a necessity.
The morning sun shone on his red hair, gilding the golden highlights. He wore it closely cropped at the back and sides but longer on top where it flopped across his forehead. His ginger brows rose above the palest peridot eyes.
He had a fashionable three-day growth of stubble stretched along his strong jaw and long-faded freckles gave his complexion a lived-in look, hinting at summer days on the beach and a penchant for surfing. Spare cheekbones sloped to interesting hollows near his mouth.
And his lips? Oh, man, don't get her started on those suckers.
Frankly he was sexy as hell.
The admission irritated her even more. She was working, for crying out loud!
'It's not necessary,' she insisted, desperate to claw back some control of normally sane thought processes. 'I've known her for ten years. She's not dangerous.'
He pushed the offending item towards her. 'Maybe. But it's the only way you're going out on that bridge.'
His voice was deep and even with a slight gravelly quality. Very measured. Very calm. But there was an edge to it that brooked no argument.
Behind what's-his-name she could see that their little stand-off was drawing quite a crowd. Most of the cops she recognised. You didn't work for a decade in this business without having a close working relationship— sometimes love, sometimes hate— with the police. And she'd worked long and hard to gain their respect.
Sure, she knew they regarded her as a right royal pain in their posteriors. But she also knew there was grudging respect— she was the first one they rang when they had a situation or needed advice— and she was damned if she was going to cede it to this man.
Not without throwing down a gauntlet or two.
It was imperative, particularly that the three very interested, very rookie-looking officers standing behind knew she didn't wilt at the first sign of authority. She needed them to know she wasn't afraid of them and that her client's needs would always come first.
'Fine,' she said through gritted teeth, grasping her loose black T-shirt by the hem and hauling it off over her head. She glared right into his peridot eyes, ignoring the guffaws and wolf whistles, and held out her hand. 'Give me the damn vest.'
Callie gave him his due. While the jaws of the three fresh-faced newbies dropped to the ground, he didn't bat an eyelid. He didn't even lower his gaze for a quick onceover of her lace-clad assets, like every other male in the vicinity. He just passed her the offending item and waited with crossed arms over a chest broadened further by his own Kevlar padding for her to put it on.
'You know you could have just put it on over the top of your shirt, right?' he said after she'd rectified her clothing.
'Not likely,' she snapped. 'Do you think a bulletproof vest engenders trust?' Did the man get his negotiator skills in a cereal packet? 'Can I go now?'
He swept his hand in a flourish before her, indicating she should precede him. The action pulled his half rolled-up sleeves a little higher and she noticed thick reddish-blond hairs gracing strong, freckle-faded forearms.
'I'm right behind you.'
'Imagine my surprise,' she threw over her shoulder, tossing her head.
Sebastian watched her stalk off and smiled for the first time today, following at a more sedate pace. Callie Duncan was one angry female! It wasn't often in this field that he met someone who didn't seem to know or even care who he was, and he liked it. It was refreshing. She was refreshing.
He kept his eyes firmly glued to her back, distracted by the vigorous swish of her shoulder-length auburn hair as she strode towards her goal. The sun picked up the honey streaks and for a moment he felt like he was on the set of a shampoo commercial.
Her back was ramrod straight— Kevlar would do that to a person. And her long-legged stride pulled the denim of her jeans across a backside that was interesting.
In fact, Callie Duncan was just plain interesting all over.
And he liked that too.
And despite her stern glare he could tell she was used to laughing. Her mouth tilted up, as did her incredible amber eyes, and there were soft laughter lines emphasising their appeal.
He put her in her late thirties and was relieved that she wasn't some twenty-something, new grad all peppy and cute with stars in her eyes out to change the world. In fact, nothing about Callie Duncan said peppy and cute.
But, then, neither did she seem jaded, like so many people of her age working in a field where triumphs were small and thanks almost non-existent. Instead, striding towards her goal, she looked strong and fearless. Committed. Confident.
Her Amazonian frame moved with single-minded purpose.
As for what she had inside that lacy black bra he put that thought firmly to one side.
'Oh, thank God, Callie, it's you.'
'What's going on, Noelene?' Callie grouched as she tripped slightly over one of the barricades the police had used to cordon off the area. No doubt what's-his-name wouldn't approve of it as an opening statement but she knew Noelene well enough to know she could take it.
That didn't mean she wasn't hyper-aware of a certain sexy red-haired negotiator and the rest of what appeared to be the city's police force watching her intently.
'I was just out for a walk thinking,' the hollow-cheeked mother of four said, the breeze whipping wispy blonde strands of hair across her gaunt, prematurely aging face.
Noelene moved closer to the railing. Callie's gaze followed her movement, aware of the drop behind. She kept her gaze trained firmly on Noelene's anxious eyes as her heart thudded like thunder in her chest.
She would not look down.
She hated heights.
And she certainly wouldn't let any of the city's finest catch a glimpse of the screaming girly inside.
She hated this damn bridge. Any bridge, actually, but this one in particular.
'With a gun?'
Noelene looked down at the gun as if seeing it for the first time. 'What, this?' she asked, waving it in the air.
Callie heard the unlocking of safeties and sensed the closing in of every policeman behind as they drew a little nearer, tensed a little further, poised for action.
'Noelene,' she said, raising her hands in a stop motion. 'You're making the cops really nervous. Is it even loaded?'
Noelene frowned at her. 'Of course not.' Just as she'd suspected. 'Can I have the gun?' Callie held out her hand for it.
Noelene looked at the weapon. 'It was Dad's.'
After a quick review of her client's chart, Callie knew it was a year to the day that Noelene's father had passed away. She nodded. 'I know.'
Noelene handed it to her meekly and Callie heard the loud snicker as who knew how many safeties were restored to their off positions and guns were holstered. She passed it back to what's-his-name.
She quirked an eyebrow at him. 'Unloaded. Fancy that,' she muttered. 'Think you can call your boys off now?'
Sebastian smiled at her defiant expression. Her bluster was very, very sexy and it reminded him that it had been a very long time since he'd been with a woman.
Since before the Gulf.
His gaze dropped to her mouth for a second, wanting to kiss that smug look away before returning to her face. 'Oh, I know you know that's not how this works.'
Callie swallowed. The gravel in his voice slid into all her empty places. Her lips felt as if he'd actually stroked his tongue along them and she curtailed the urge to taste them.
How was it possible to be exceedingly irritated and exceedingly turned on at the same time?
Sucking in a steadying breath, she gave him a grudging nod. 'Yeah, yeah, I know.'
'Bring her in,' he murmured.
Callie nodded and turned, walking the few paces back to Noelene, who was now leaning on the rail, looking down at the river sparkling in the morning sunshine.
'Dad loved this bridge,' she said absently. 'He helped build it, you know? He used to always bring us kids here.'
Callie nodded. 'Do you think we can talk away from here, Noelene? I really don't like heights.'
Noelene nodded, moving slowly towards her. 'I just thought it would be fitting, you know, to mark his anniversary. His service weapon was his most treasured possession. I thought it'd be right to throw it off the bridge. He was in Korea, you know?'
Callie nodded, holding out her arm and putting it around Noelene's shoulders. 'I know,' she murmured. 'You can tell me about it on the way to the police station.'
Noelene looked at her. 'I was just looking down at the water, minding my own business.' She frowned. 'And this cop car pulled up, telling me not to jump I had no intention of jumping. But they were yelling and coming towards me and I got scared.'
'I know. Don't worry, we'll get it sorted. I'll be with you.'
'I need to be there to pick the kids up from school.' 'Yep. Don't worry, I'll be with you, expediting the process.'
They reached the barricade. What's-his-name held out his hand for Noelene and helped her through the maze of barricades. Callie was grudgingly impressed by his gentle smile and his unhurried demeanour as he made sure Noelene didn't trip.
Then he turned back to her. 'Thank you,' he murmured, holding out his hand.
Callie's gaze locked with his and she felt a giddy shift— not something she welcomed, standing on a bridge.
But, damn, the man was sexy. His frank gaze, his lips curled into a slight smile, his height and breadth surrounding her, his voice oozing over her like warm honey.
The background noises faded, their surroundings dimmed, as time and motion coalesced in this one electric moment. If they'd been in a bar she would have taken his hand and led him to the nearest dark corner.
But they weren't. They were on a bridge— a damn bridge, for crying out loud— surrounded by what seemed like a hundred policemen. She ignored the hand. 'All in a days work.'
'Hey, Zack, how's it going?' Callie asked, the phone pressed to one ear as she blindly hooked a hoop earring into her other ear.
'Good thanks, Aunty Cal.'
Callie smiled at her ten-year-old nephew's chirpy greeting. It was good to hear her little man's voice. Since he'd gone back to live with his mother a couple of months ago she hadn't known what to do with herself. Some of the anxiety that had knotted her stomach over the heart-wrenching decision had dissipated, but after eight years in her care, it was hard to let go entirely.
And he would always be her brother's son.
'How'd you do in the cross-country today?'
'I came second! You should have seen me, Aunty Cal.'
Callie's heart strings twanged painfully. She hadn't missed a school event since he'd started pre-school six years ago. But she was trying to step back, give Aleisha a chance to bond with her son.
'Mummy said I ran like the wind.'
Callie gripped the receiver hard. Her brother, Zack's father, had been an athletics champion at school. He'd had such promise.
Until everything had gone wrong.