“THIS ISN’T a suicide watch. It’s not.” The bells of the nearby church chimed midnight. Joel had turned off the lights, drawn the blinds, and left only two wall sconces to illuminate the far end of his loft apartment.
The soft light didn’t reach far. It lit a path to the bathroom door and picked out the antique nail-studded chest that served as Joel’s bedside table. An alarm clock and Joel’s phone charger sat on the ancient wood, beside two heavy-bottomed old-fashioned crystal tumblers and the bottle of Jack Daniel’s Joel had bought earlier that day.
Joel had settled himself cross-legged on his bed. He leaned against a stack of pillows, the taste of peat and malt on his lips, and repeated the words like a prayer someone, somewhere, might hear. “This isn’t a suicide watch.”
Beside him Kieran had finally succumbed to sleep with the help of the whiskey. Joel counted it a small victory. He didn’t like to solve problems with alcohol, but they’d tried everything short of sleeping pills or a knockout punch. After a week of little rest, Kieran’s cheeks were drawn. The dull gray cast to his deep tan proclaimed exhaustion, and purple smudges ringed Kieran’s eyes, dark enough to make strangers think he’d lost a fight.
The tension hadn’t left him even as he slept. He lay curled on his side on top of the sunset-patterned quilt, his arms crossed tightly over his chest. Both hands were clenched in fists and a deep furrow creased the skin between his brows. He hadn’t drunk enough of the whiskey to wake with a hangover, but given the tense coil he’d settled in, he wouldn’t wake at all refreshed.
Joel watched over his partner as he slept and wished he could help. He racked his brain for something he could say or do even as he fought not to card his fingers through the ink-dark mess of choppy strands Kieran called a hairstyle.
The previous week had been harrowing for the whole team. It was never a laugh fest when they lost a client, and was worse when innocent bystanders were caught in the crossfire. The man they’d hunted had broken free mid arrest and had taken a hostage. Cornered on the roof of an apartment building and maybe hoping to slip away in the resulting chaos, he’d not hesitated to push the woman over the edge of the parapet. Kieran, who’d stood nearest when Lillian Carter died and had yet been unable to prevent her death, took it the hardest. He had barely slept since the incident, and his responses were so far outside his normal parameters that Joel’s father, FireWorks Security’s president, had ordered Joel to keep a close eye on his partner.
“This isn’t a suicide watch.”
Joel believed it with every breath and heartbeat, and yet he guarded Kieran’s sleeping form with an archangel’s determination.
Kieran Ross wasn’t a man who broke easily. He was a former college football star who’d earned a degree in computer forensics. He’d served with distinction in the DEA and had come to FireWorks Security after falling out with his bosses.
Joel had watched Kieran’s job interview on the big screen in his father’s office. There’d been no posturing or showing off, just straightforward answers to straightforward questions. Kieran disclosed as much as he was able to of the long undercover stint, which had ended with three dead hostages and one dead DEA agent. He was equally frank about the aftermath of the mission. How his partner’s death and the injuries Kieran sustained had sent him into a spell of drug abuse—prescription painkillers and sleeping pills—that hastened the end of his DEA career. How he had drifted north from Miami with a vague idea of maybe making Boston. And how he’d stopped two hours short of his goal in Lissand, Connecticut.
Joel had never asked what had drawn Kieran to the sleepy city filled with quirky artisan workshops and the faded remnants of grandiose architecture. Once one of the busiest trading hubs along the East Coast, Lissand now resembled the home of an eccentric maiden aunt—a little dusty and gone to seed but filled with unexpected quixotic treasures if one but took the time to look. Joel knew that Lissand appeared unassuming and out of the way. That it cleverly disguised the fact it was close to two airports, had a port, and a connection to the interstate highway. That it made a perfect base for FireWorks Security, whose operatives dealt with kidnappings, extortion, and hostage situations all over the country. And that it had enticed Kieran to rent a small row house a couple of blocks south of Joel’s spacious loft, because after growing up in apartments, Kieran found it charming that he had to trudge up a flight of stairs to reach his living room. Then climb another flight to go to bed.
Settled in his new abode, Kieran had straightened himself out. He’d explored the area and finally applied to FireWorks for a job. All without help from anyone.
No, Kieran wasn’t a man who broke easily. Nor did he take his responsibilities lightly. He didn’t brush off failure as if it were nothing and move on. It was a trait they shared, one of the things that made them the tight unit they’d become over the last four years.
Understanding why Kieran took Lillian Carter’s death so hard didn’t mean Joel knew how to help. He was uneasily aware of the old adage of straws and camels’ backs, and since he didn’t want to contemplate that particular scenario, Joel had ignored Kieran’s protests that he could look after himself.
He had dragged Kieran from his small house up to his own loft and shut the doors against the world. They’d shared pizza and listened to music, and Joel had nixed Kieran’s idea to sleep on the couch so he wouldn’t disturb Joel with his tossing and turning. He’d broken out the bottle of Jack instead and helped Kieran find a tiny bit of rest. Now Joel leaned against the headboard and guarded his friend’s sleep, hoping against hope it would be just as easy to guard Kieran’s dreams.
“FOR FUCK’S sake, Kieran, don’t do this!”
The loud, irate voice woke Kieran to skin-pricking cold and bright sunlight. When had it become morning? And why was he stretched out on a recliner on Joel’s balcony wearing only sweats and a T-shirt? No wonder he was freezing.
Joel stood by the sliding door that led from balcony to living room, arms folded over his chest. His pale hair was mussed, and anger and concern fought in the narrowed ocean-blue eyes.
“Didn’t wanna disturb you.” Kieran hoped what he said was true. He didn’t remember waking, didn’t remember stepping out onto the balcony.
It all pointed to him having lost track of time.
When it was quiet like this, without work or Joel close by to distract him, the screaming in his head was hard to ignore.
He’d been so close there on the roof, a mere arm’s length away. Close enough to see Reggit’s brows furrow over bloodshot eyes when he found himself trapped and his hostage in Kieran’s reach. Close enough for Lillian Carter’s jacket sleeve to brush his fingertips as he grabbed for her to pull her to safety. Only to have her yanked from his grasp before he got a good hold on her arm.
The scene on the roof had been chaotic.
The crack of gunshots.
The wet thuds of bullets hitting flesh.
Kieran’s mind didn’t replay those. It didn’t make him recall the stink of dust and tar and exhaust fumes or make him see the blue-gray haze that hung between the buildings like a filmy veil. No. His mind only replayed the terrified screams of a young woman falling ten floors to her death.
“Right, that’s enough.” Joel curled his fist into the neck of Kieran’s T-shirt and yanked him to his feet.
Kieran jerked upright a little too quickly and swayed on feet grown numb with cold. Joel, his partner and team leader—his friend—had been on the roof with him. He saw what Kieran had seen, heard what Kieran had heard. But he was coping a lot better. Kieran envied Joel’s ability to compartmentalize with such ease. However much he tried—and he really had tried—he just couldn’t shake off their failure and move on.
“I said… enough.” Joel’s tone allowed no argument. “Go shower and make yourself presentable. We’re meeting the team for lunch.”
SPENDING A few hours with friends and food had been a good idea. Kieran’s headache was almost gone and the tight knot between his shoulder blades had unraveled a few notches. Well-fed and a little mellower than he’d been all week, he huddled into his leather jacket as they meandered around Lissand’s harbor and enjoyed the thin, watery March sunshine.
It was colder this far north.
Much colder than Miami, where he’d grown up, or the South American cities where he’d worked. But after the warmth of the restaurant, the breeze blowing off the water was a welcome caress on Kieran’s skin.
A wave of chuckles made him turn his head. Cass Gallagher, their resident tech expert, was busy bombarding Joel with small missiles. They looked like the wrapped mints she lived on while she worked—and Joel picked each one out of the air as if he had eyes in the back of his head.
“I needed that,” Tom Hartnett admitted, and all Kieran could do was nod. The normalcy of the day did them all a world of good after the nightmare of the previous week.
“The food was good too.”
“I’m not sure about that weird-looking concoction Cass was having. Was that even food?”
“She seemed to enjoy it.”
“It was squid-ink risotto. Honestly, you guys have no idea what you were missing,” Cass called from behind them. She sounded a little breathless as she now played a friendly game of tag with Joel and used Aaron Rigby’s broad frame as a shield.
Joel, with his Army training, and Cass, who hadn’t yet met a surveillance system she couldn’t manipulate or a computer she couldn’t make sit up and beg, had bounced back fastest from the difficult week and its harrowing ending. Or maybe they just faked it better than Hartnett, Rigby, and Kieran, who’d all come to FireWorks from one law enforcement agency or another.
Cass and Joel did their best to keep the other three from thinking too much. They dragged them along the pier to shoot hoops, bet on duck races, and—in Joel’s case—overdose on ice cream and cotton candy. It felt so totally incongruous that even Kieran started to relax and unwind in the end.
“You were right,” Kieran said when he and Joel waved good-bye to the others and headed toward the parking lot beside the mall where Joel had left his car.
“I’m always right,” Joel quipped as expected, but then his voice softened. “About what, precisely?”
“Just being there doesn’t make it any better. Or easier. Or less tragic.”
It was an old discussion they’d had one night when Kieran had shared a few details of the case that had claimed his former partner’s life.
Joel walked closer until he almost nudged Kieran’s shoulder with his own. “And then again,” he said, letting his own scars show for a heartbeat or two, “sometimes it does.”
“BACK! EVERYONE stand back or I’ll shoot him right here!”
They were passing the entrance to the marina when a hoarse cry ripped through the air. It made Kieran’s hackles rise, and the heartrending scream that followed almost stopped his breath. Then his training kicked in and he raced toward the sounds, dodging people and lampposts on autopilot.
The marina had almost doubled in size during the four years Kieran had been in Lissand. It now attracted all manner of working and leisure boats, and on this sunny afternoon, was just as busy as the pier. And the screams pulled a crowd.
A woman stood by a slipway, arms out toward a small boy who struggled in the hold of an older man.
“Shane! Let him go, Luke, please! Let him go!”
“Stay back or I’ll kill him!”
Kieran skidded to a stop as soon as he had the gunman in sight, Smith & Wesson already in his hand.
Footsteps thudded behind him. Joel.
“No clear shot. Boy’s in the way.”
The man dragged the boy up a gangway toward a moored yacht. He had the boy’s back pressed to his legs, the gun aimed at the boy’s temple.
“Call the police and look after the mother,” Joel told him. “I’ll get on the boat.”
Kieran didn’t like the arrangement. He hated it when he wasn’t close enough to watch Joel’s back, but now wasn’t the time to argue. As long as the man used the boy as a shield, guns were not an option.
Then again, Joel had never needed a gun to be lethal.
Like a ghost he slipped away, blended into the crowd until he reached the stern of the moored yacht. Kieran had a glimpse of his partner reaching for a mooring line.
Then Joel was gone.
Time blurred as Kieran did his half of the job. He called for backup. Called the authorities and identified himself as a member of FireWorks Security. He even kept the crowd at bay, though he gladly relinquished that job the moment Rigby and Hartnett came sweeping in on the heels of the police.
“Can’t leave you two the fuck alone.”
“You said it.” Only a tiny percentage of Kieran’s attention was on the conversation. The majority was focused on the yacht the man had boarded with the boy. “Looks like a domestic that’s gotten out of hand. Attempted kidnapping by the father.” He indicated the scared, teary woman in jeans and an unseasonably short crop top who was being comforted by one of the uniforms. “The boy’s Shane Bicknall, aged six. That’s his mother. And the guy who threatened to kill him is his father, Luke Bicknall.”
“On the boat.”
Kieran listened out for sounds of a fight, for shouts, maybe gunshots. He wasn’t expecting an explosion. One moment the yacht was there. Then the whole side of the marina was on fire.
Before he knew he’d moved, Kieran was in the water. He didn’t much care about the man toting the gun, but Joel and the little boy were somewhere in this inferno of burning oil and unrecognizable debris that had been a boat only minutes earlier.
Kieran had to find them.