The Hero

Read the Excerpt

The blades of the chopper cut through the air with a whomp, whomp noise that Owen Loughman had come to find soothing. He sat back with his eyes closed in the seat of the Blackhawk helicopter, trying to figure out why he’d been pulled from his mission with his SEAL team in Afghanistan.

Not surprisingly, he’d been told exactly nothing.

He cracked open an eye and glanced at the cockpit. The two men piloting wore solid black. No military designation. No adornment of any kind. Obviously CIA.

Owen had witnessed—and experienced—his fair share of craziness since becoming a SEAL. CIA agents thought they kept themselves under the radar. It was the biggest load of shit. Everyone recognized them immediately.

It wasn’t the fact that he hadn’t gotten details of why he and his team had their mission halted after a week in the desert. It wasn’t that he’d been shoved onto a plane in the Middle East without explanation. It wasn’t even that no one had so much as looked at him since he’d landed in the States and was promptly put on the Blackhawk.

He was a Navy SEAL. He was prepared for anything—any and all surprises. No, the unease had everything to do with the CIA. He didn’t trust the government bastards.

The disquiet feeling that saved his life countless times began to stir. He blew out a breath and opened his eyes as he turned his head to look out the open door of the chopper.

Texas.

He would recognize his beloved state anywhere. He hadn’t been back in . . . he had to stop and count . . . ten years. He couldn’t believe it had been that long. Where had the time gone?

The last time he’d seen Texas was the day he’d graduated from the University of Texas and joined the Navy. From the time he was in junior high, he’d known he would make his life in the military. It was who the Loughmans were, dating all the way back to the Revolutionary War.

He’d been the only one to follow in his father’s footsteps and choose the Navy, though. Wyatt, his older brother, chose the Marines, along with Cullen, his younger brother.

He couldn’t recall the last time he’d spoken to his brothers. Their family wasn’t close. He blamed it on their father, because it was easy. Though in truth, the fault lay with each of them.

The chopper began its descent. His gaze took in the rolling hills and the cattle scattering to get away from the noise. Then he spotted the two-story, white house with black trim that brought back a flood of memories.

Home.

He rested his hands on his thighs covered in desert-colored cammies, wishing his gun hadn’t been taken from him in Afghanistan. Just what the hell was he doing back home?

The Blackhawk landed a hundred yards from the house. The pilot turned in his seat and looked at Owen through the tinted screen of his helmet. “We’ve reached your destination, Lieutenant Commander.”

He unbuckled his seatbelt and grabbed his pack before jumping out of the open doors, his gaze perusing the area as memories flooded back. No sooner had his feet hit the ground than the Blackhawk was airborne again.

He glanced up, watching the chopper disappear. Then his gaze slid to the house. It looked . . . empty, desolate. Which couldn’t be right since his aunt and uncle lived there.

Owen took a deep breath of the fresh Texas air. And stilled. He smelled death.

He hurried to the side of the house and squatted, flattening his back against the porch railing. Quietly, he lowered his pack to the ground before he cautiously looked around the corner.

Aunt Charlotte’s numerous hanging plants that she lovingly cultivated still dotted the wrap-around porch, swinging in the breeze. An empty rocker teetered.

It was quiet. Too quiet.

He silently crept to the front steps. If anybody was there, they were inside the house. He glanced behind him. The open landscape allowed him to see anyone coming. The scattered trees were large enough to hide a foe, but even they were too far away for someone to surprise him.

Except for the oak out back. He would have to tread carefully there.

He hurried up the five steps to the porch and flattened himself against the house beside the front entryway. Slowly, he opened the screen door. Just in time, he recalled the squeak if opened all the way.

Keeping away from the glass inset into the wood, he rested the frame of the screen on his forearm as he put his hand on the knob. Then, with a deep breath, he twisted and gave a slight push.

The heavy door opened noiselessly. When no gunfire erupted, he peeked inside the house. When he saw nothing, he quickly entered, his hand catching the screen to close it without a sound behind him. He moved to the side of the foyer and listened for any noise.

The house remained as soundless and still as before. On silent feet, he walked to his left. He glanced up the stairs but chose to look around the ground floor first. The front room, the one his mother had used as a music room, had been turned into a formal living area by his aunt.

His gaze searched the space. As if pulled to them, he spotted two holes in the wall. Bullet holes. A sinking feeling filled him.

For long seconds, he stared at the marred drywall, hoping it was his mind playing tricks on him. But there was no denying the truth that was before him. Had his father’s work once more followed him home? It infuriated him that Orrin hadn’t taken precautions to keep his family safe as he’d promised.

Moving to the wall, he touched the holes. The bullets had been removed, but by the size of the openings, he surmised they were 7.62mm. Military grade.

His eyes slid to the next room. He knew what he would find. His mind screamed for him to turn and walk away. The house had seen so much death, and as always, he was the one to find it.

He hadn’t run away when he was a boy. He wouldn’t do it now. Though his years with the SEALs had shown him unbelievable ways a person could kill—and be killed—nothing could compare to knowing it had struck your family.

Again.

Owen swallowed and walked through the doorway to the large living area with the eight-foot-wide stone fireplace. The first thing he saw was the blood. It coated the recliner, which was also riddled with bullet holes.

He clenched his jaw, anger kindling in his gut. His fears were confirmed. Uncle Virgil and Aunt Charlotte were dead. As he stood in the living room where he and his brothers had watched TV, opened Christmas gifts, fought, and played, the primal side of him—the beast the Navy had shaped and trained—demanded justice.

Justice his mother hadn’t gotten.

He slowly turned the haze of rage and anguish into cold fury that could be directed with reprisal so horrible the screams of the men who had killed his family would reverberate in Hell.

Pulling his eyes away from the recliner, he slowly moved around the living area. Debris from the gun battle littered the floor, making it so he had to carefully choose where to set his feet so as not to make noise.

He reached the arched double entry into the kitchen and felt his chest squeeze in fury. The shooters had found Aunt Charlotte there. By the dough still on the counter, she’d been making her famous bread. The blood pool on the floor was large, as was the pattern of splatter on the walls.

A floorboard creaked behind him. He whirled around, his arm jerking up and back to hit the intruder. At the last minute, he recognized the dark gold eyes and stopped his assault.

“Wyatt.”

His elder brother gave a firm nod in greeting. “Owen.”

He frowned as he looked at Wyatt’s face covered with a thick beard. His dark hair was unkempt and long. Wyatt stood still as stone, his gaze moving from one place to the next.

Having gone undercover enough times himself, Owen recognized the reason for Wyatt’s appearance. His brother had always been quiet. A loner. Only the Loughmans knew the cause.

And no one spoke of it.

Now, Wyatt appeared even more serious, if that were possible. He was leaner than Owen remembered, more lethal and vicious. Wyatt wore black camo with no insignia. So that’s where his brother had disappeared to. Delta Force.

Despite Wyatt’s icy demeanor, not even he could hide the anger that sizzled in his eyes or the way his hands clenched at his sides.

Men like he and Wyatt knew only one way to seek vengeance—blood. Whoever had done this to their family was about to see just what the Loughman brothers were capable of.

Wyatt stepped around him into the kitchen and stopped next to the pool of blood. His gaze remained on it for a moment before he met Owen’s gaze. “There’s nothing upstairs.”

He opened his mouth to speak when the sound of another chopper filled the air. Both brothers hurried to the front of the house. Sliding against the wall, they peeked out the windows to see another man in green fatigues appear in the doorway of the Blackhawk.

“I’ll be damned,” he murmured when Cullen jumped from the helicopter before it landed.

Cullen’s cap was pulled low over his face as he stood staring at the house. He didn’t move even as the chopper took off, the sound fading quickly.

Owen looked at Wyatt to find a frown on his brother’s face. Nothing ever changed. He pushed away from the wall and walked out the front of the house. The sight of his younger brother brought a smile. Too bad the reunion was tarnished with death. But that seemed to be the curse of the Loughmans.

Cullen dropped his pack from his shoulder and smiled when he caught sight of him. Owen jumped off the porch and met Cullen halfway, enfolding him in a hug.

They pounded each other on the back in greeting. His then held his younger brother at arm’s length and looked into hazel eyes so like their mother’s as Cullen removed his hat. If he thought Wyatt had changed, it was nothing compared to Cullen.

Cullen’s gaze held a cynical edge, showing suspicion that only someone who had been neck-deep in war would understand. His hair was kept in the typical style of the Marines—high and tight—with the sides shaved close to his head and only a quarter inch spiked on top.

“Damn, it’s been a while,” Cullen said with a bright smile.

He playfully slapped Cullen on the cheek, but he couldn’t hold his smile. Not when he knew what had brought them together. “You’ve grown up, little brother.”

Cullen’s laughter died as his gaze moved over Owen’s shoulder. The grin was gone, the hardness back in place. “Wyatt.”

Owen turned around to find Wyatt on the porch, watching them. Life as a Loughman hadn’t been easy for any of them, but particularly Wyatt. Owen still remembered being a young boy, how people used to be envious of their ranch. For a few years, the siblings had lived a life of wonder and joy.

But it all shattered one stormy day.

None of the boys had been the same since. Owen looked between his two brothers, hating that the tension was already back.

“What’s going on?” Cullen asked as his sharp gaze looked around. “Where are Uncle Virgil and Aunt Charlotte?”

Wyatt leaned against the post. “Dead.”

Cullen’s eyes become intense. “How?”

“I’d say at least five men,” Owen said.

Wyatt added, “Six.” He walked down the steps and pointed to the ground. “Two came in the front. Another two from the back, and I spotted two more sets of footprints around the barns.”

Owen scrubbed a hand down his face. This was a hit. Pure and simple. But against his aunt and uncle, who were some of the best human beings he’d ever known? This wasn’t about Charlotte and Virgil. This was about something else. He immediately thought of his father. But it could be because of one of them, as well. He and his brothers had enemies of their own.

That soured his stomach. Hadn’t he sworn he wouldn’t allow such things to touch his family again?

He walked back into the house and to the living area, followed by Cullen and Wyatt. He looked at the recliner where their uncle had been killed to the fireplace where one of the shotguns hung.

“It’s untouched,” Cullen stated.

Owen glanced around the room. “Virgil never got to it.”

“He didn’t stand a chance against such firepower,” Wyatt stated.

Cullen strode to the kitchen and stood quietly for several minutes. When he spoke, his voice was low and filled with raw fury. “I’ll not stop until I find out who did this.”

“We feel the same,” Owen said, fully understanding how Cullen felt.

Cullen released a breath and faced his brothers. “I was in the middle of a mission when my team was pulled. No way was I picked up and immediately brought here just because they were murdered.”

“You weren’t the only one, kid,” Wyatt said. “I was on a mission, too.”

Owen crossed his arms over his chest. “Make that all three of us. I can’t think of any of my enemies who would know to track me here.”

“Me either,” Cullen replied.

Wyatt gave a single shake of his head.

Owen’s anger burned brightly. “This involves Dad. It has to.”

A muscle ticked in Wyatt’s jaw. Owen ignored the telltale sign that Wyatt was furious and frowned when he heard the sound of an automobile approaching. The three instantly fanned out. Cullen took the back door while Owen positioned himself at the front. Wyatt squatted behind the sofa in the formal living room.

The motor shut off, and a moment later, a vehicle door closed. Owen glanced out the window and caught sight of the front of a dark gray BMW 6 Series.

Seconds ticked by without the sound of anyone approaching. Wyatt turned his head toward the back of the house when the front door was thrown open, and someone stepped inside. Owen stilled a second before he grabbed the slim form.

He had the intruder flipped onto their back immediately. In the next moment, Owen found himself on the floor, staring at the ceiling. He jumped to his feet and tried to look beneath the baseball cap of the person, but he couldn’t make out anything.

Owen didn’t waste any time getting the advantage and slamming the person against the wall. There was a gasp that sounded distinctly feminine as the air in the intruder’s lungs was forced out.

That caught his attention. With a shove, he knocked the hat off. A wealth of light brown hair tumbled free.

All the breath left him as he stared into green eyes he feared he’d never see again.

“Natalie?”

“Hi, boys,” she said off-handedly.

He frowned, suddenly furious to find her there. “What the hell are you doing here?”

“She’s looking for me,” came a voice behind them.

“Callie?” Wyatt asked in a strangled voice full of surprise and annoyance as he stood.

Callie Reed glared at each of them as she walked around Owen and nodded to Natalie. He released Natalie, and she moved to stand beside Callie. He exchanged a look with his brothers, though Wyatt couldn’t stop staring at Callie.

“Someone please tell us what’s going on?” Owen demanded.

Callie shrugged. “I work here.”

Green eyes met his. “I came to help.”