Ronan Murphy ran, picking up his pace when he reached the waterfront. He glanced down at Chief out of habit, wanting to make sure the dog was keeping pace, but he didn’t need to. She was a warrior, albeit a scarred one like him, her wound hidden under the thick fur on her right side.
They’d been retired at the same time, both injured during a firefight in Afghanistan. It should never have happened, but Ronan hadn’t been entirely surprised. It had been a shit show, so many countries and military units involved that no one knew who was coming or going. It seemed like someone got shot or blown up every other day, and while his unit’s missions had always been covert, they weren’t immune to injury or death.
He’d been shipped to Germany for treatment against his will, his demands that he be treated in one of the field hospitals so he could go back to work falling on deaf ears when the doctors realized one of the bullets had wedged itself into Ronan’s breastbone, dangerously close to his heart.
After that, his fate had been sealed: four-hour surgery in which they’d discovered the bullet couldn’t be removed without extraordinary risk to his life, honorable discharge, a flight back to Boston where he’d stepped off the plane, blinking in the stark light shining off the February snow. Chief had been returned to him two months later.
He looked at his watch, his breath coming fast and shallow, and realized he’d been running for almost two hours.
“Come on, Chief.” He picked up speed, sprinting alongside the last hundred yards of railing at the water’s edge. Chief kept up, then slowed to a walk when he did, both of them catching their breath.
When his breathing had returned to normal, he dropped to a squat and scratched the dog’s neck. “Good girl.” She licked his face. “Good girl.”
Strangers almost always mistook her for a German Shepherd, but she was actually a Belgian Malinois, slightly smaller than a shepherd, her fur shorter. Other than his brothers, Chief had been his best friend since the day they’d led her out into the yard during a visit to the Navy’s canine training facility in Texas.
Ronan hadn’t been interested in becoming a handler at the time. He wouldn’t have gone at all if David Chen, one of his Navy brothers, hadn’t urged Ronan to come along, promising him control of the music and a six-pack when they got back to base.
But the minute the handlers trotted Chief into the yard, Ronan had felt an unfamiliar tug of affection in his stomach. The dog showed him no preferential treatment during the demonstration — she was trained to focus on the task at hand when working — but as soon as she’d been released from work duty by her handler, she’d bounded not for Chen, but for Ronan.
He’d requested canine training — and Chief — the next day, and after months of training, they’d been deployed together. Her name had been given to her by someone at the training facility, but Ronan had never argued its appropriateness. When he and Chief worked, she was the boss, and like all military dogs, always one rank above him.
“Let’s go home, girl,” he said, rising to his feet.
The city was just waking up around them and Ronan needed to hit the shower and get ready for a new client meeting at the office. The house would be waking up, his brothers probably engaged in their usual banter, something that alternated rapidly between fun and games and the rivalrous bite that was part and parcel of working with family.
He looked dispassionately at the neighborhood’s brownstones, lined up like toy soldiers, all of them selling for well over a million dollars. Other than his six years in the Navy, he’d lived in Boston his whole life, but it had never felt like more than a place to sleep, to train, to build the business.
Nick, two years his junior, would say the problem wasn’t Boston, it was Ronan. As far as Nick was concerned, there was no better place in the world, and Ronan wouldn’t have been surprised to find the briny water of the bay seep from Nick’s veins when he bled.
Ronan’s arguments to the contrary had always been half-hearted. Deep down he knew Nick was right. As the oldest son of one of Boston PD’s finest, Ronan had spent his childhood and adolescence focused on making his father proud. He excelled in school, was quarterback of the football team. He went to college and looked after his younger brothers and sisters right up until their youngest sister, Erin, died of a drug overdose, proving him wrong.
He hadn’t been looking after her at all.
He’d gotten leave for the funeral and had gone straight back to Afghanistan, grateful for the distraction, for Chief and her simple affection and loyalty, for the ability to leave Boston and Erin and his increasingly broken family behind.
He’d felt no more attachment to the city when he’d come home than he’d felt for any of the towns in the desert they’d holed up in, than any of the rural villages they’d jumped out of planes to reach under cover of night.
Chief stayed next to him as they approached the house he shared with his brothers, but he felt her coiled energy as if it were his own, knew she was eager to get inside for a drink and a pet from Nick, who would be up and dressed for the office.
Ronan looked up at the house’s brick facade as they stepped through the arch that led to the courtyard at the center of the compound. It was a rarity in Back Bay where brownstones ruled: a single-family house large enough to be split into four wings.
Purchasing the house with the first of their big-contract earnings had been strictly a business decision. Given the discreet nature of their organization, it made sense for all of them to be under the same roof. As co-owners in Murphy Intelligence and Security, they often had to discuss confidential matters — and illegal ones. The house was routinely swept for surveillance devices, allowing them to speak as freely there as they did at the office.
The place had been a mess when they’d bought it, a warren of tiny rooms that had been rented as apartments since the 1950s. Ronan had gutted the whole thing, hiring the best engineers and designers he could find to turn the house into a modern marvel of tasteful decor and high-end finishes split into four equal suites surrounding the central living area and kitchen.
He and Chief crossed the courtyard, damp with April rain, and headed for the glass doors leading to the kitchen. If the glass hadn’t been bulletproof, Ronan would have considered the doors a security risk, but theirs was a business that guaranteed enemies, and all the glass in the house was engineered to stop several rounds from a semiautomatic weapon, one of many security enhancements Ronan had insisted on when they’d redesigned the place.
Nick was standing at the custom granite counter, a cup of coffee in front of him, when Ronan stepped into the kitchen. He looked up, his dark hair still damp from the shower.
“Hey,” Nick said. His eyes were the same shade as Erin’s — green instead of blue like the rest of the Murphy men. Sometimes Ronan still had to resist the urge to flinch when Nick looked at him, their dead sister shining from his eyes like a lingering impression.
It should have helped that Nora, their other sister, had green eyes too, that she was alive and well and living in California with a man who ran an organization not dissimilar to Murphy Intelligence and Security.
But it was Erin he thought of when he looked into Nick’s eyes. Erin and their mother, also dead, although their mother had been taken by illness, not addiction.
Chief trotted over to Nick, her tongue hanging out, and Nick bent to scratch behind her ears.
“Hey,” Ronan said, walking to the alcove where Chief’s bowls were kept. He filled one with water and the other with a scoop of food. “You headed in?”
“Thought I’d get there early, go over the background on John Taylor again,” Nick said.
“Not much there,” Ronan said. John Taylor was squeaky clean.
Nick downed his coffee and set the cup in the sink for the housekeeper. “Doesn’t hurt to be thorough.”
Ronan ignored the dig as he filled Chief’s bowls with food and water. Nick knew damn well that no one was more thorough than Ronan. He just couldn’t help himself.
They all had areas of expertise, although Ronan’s overlapped in a lot of areas thanks to his Masters in Economics and his time in the military. But he and Nick had been engaged in battle since they were kids, Nick trying to assert his importance over Ronan as a matter of principle while Ronan held him off with the ease of someone who knew nothing would ever change the fact that he’d been born first.
Ronan saw no point engaging in competition with his brother and ally, but Nick took pride in trying to best Ronan in every area. Ronan hardly noticed it most of the time. He didn’t care that Nick left the house early, showing up at the office first like it was a badge of honor. He didn’t care when Nick nitpicked the financials or when he double-checked Ronan’s work like it might be the one time he would catch Ronan in a mistake. He only cared when Nick tried to second-guess his strategic decisions, an area in which Ronan was undisputedly the expert.
Then they would lock horns, Ronan reminding Nick about his experience in the military, Nick accusing him of being patronizing, of downplaying Nick’s four years with Boston PD. They would have it out, things would be tense in the house and the office until something reminded them they were on the same side, and all would be forgotten until the next time.
“Declan up?” Ronan asked as Chief slurped up her water.
Nick snorted. “Your guess is as good as mine.”
Ronan nodded and downed a glass of water. Sandwiched between Erin and Nick in the family lineup, Declan had made the most of his invisibility since they were kids, slacking off in school and putting in minimal effort in pretty much every endeavor, a characteristic that hadn’t prevented him from being good at everything he tried and charming the pants off every woman in Boston between the ages of 19 and 60.
“I’ll check on him on my way to the shower,” Ronan said. “He should be at the meeting.”
The decision to take on a new client was not one Ronan took lightly. In their business, every client represented exposure, a future crime committed by the firm and everyone involved, potential prison time, asset forfeiture. It was a business built on illegality, the very reason for its existence to exact justice outside the confines of the law.
They could fill Declan in on the specifics of the John Taylor job later, but Ronan always preferred for all the partners to hear the details firsthand before they weighed in, except for Finn, who was always god-knew-where.
“Sounds good.” Nick grabbed his suit jacket off the back of one of the stools lined up at the kitchen island. “See you at the office.”
Chief settled into her bed in the kitchen, one of many scattered throughout the house, and Ronan bent to scratch her head. “Good girl.”
He crossed the adjoining living room, a massive room with vaulted ceilings and oversized furniture, and followed the long front hall past the central living area to the back of the square-shaped house positioned around the courtyard.
Weariness flooded his body as he approached the door to Declan’s area of the house. He might have been replaying any morning of the past five years: the run with Chief, the loaded conversations with Nick, the babysitting of Declan, the client meetings.
He knew he was fortunate. He’d made it back from war alive. His work was meaningful, illegal though it was, and while theirs wasn’t a family without tragedy, they still had their father. They still had each other.
But he couldn’t help feeling like there must be more. His father would say he needed a wife, but Ronan knew better than to buy into such an antiquated idea of purpose. Look what had happened to his dad: he’d met the love of his life when he was nineteen and had lost her not even twenty-five years later.
No, love wasn’t what Ronan needed, although a solid fuck might do him some good.
The possibility buoyed his spirits. He was already paging through the women in his phone when he opened the door to Declan’s suite.