Ashton “Maverick” Hott lived for the challenge of turning the impossible into possible. As CEO of ThunderStrike, he understood that every mission came with risk, but this one had him on full tilt and high alert.

   Leading his team into enemy territory, locating the American hostages, and getting everyone out alive was an arduous undertaking. But Maverick ran toward danger. He lived to rescue and protect.

   His strong sense of responsibility extended to the employees working alongside him at his paramilitary security firm. Their lives were just as important as the prisoners they rescued. Every mission demanded the same outcome. They all went in together and they all got out together.

   There was never any other option.

   Zero three hundred meant black skies and quiet streets. Maverick and his elite team had studied the maps and completed the drills. He led them due north. They hugged the buildings, avoided lights. Every crewmember was committed, smarter than hell, and driven to succeed. They also entered each mission knowing it might be their last.

   The deserted warehouse was located on the outskirts of some shithole town in the middle of fucking nowhere, Middle East.

   Twelve American physicians had been working there, offering free medical care to the residents, when a terror cell raided the camp, killing most of the locals. The doctors were taken hostage. That’s when Maverick got the call.

   He located the door in the building’s southwest corner. Though Maverick had no expectation the heavy metal fire door would be unlocked, he tried it.

   Locked.

   He acknowledged his four-man team before aiming his Glock. “Breach,” he said into his comm.

   He fired his weapon, the silencer helping to mute the sound. The deadbolt snapped free. He shoved open the door and entered, weapon drawn, his teammates close on his heels.

   They’d be flying blind without their night-vision goggles. The five men entered a dark, windowless room, trash strewn throughout, several metal chairs tossed in the far corner. No hostages, no guards.

   Two hand signals, and they filed toward the far door. Despite their gear and weapons, they made no sound, like big cats on the prowl for their next meal. If his sources were accurate, that door would be unlocked. Maverick waited until everyone had moved into position, submachine guns at the ready.

   Through the door, they hoofed it down two flights of stairs and through a second door at the end of the dark corridor. As they charged forward, Maverick maintained control of his breathing. Slow inhale, hold two beats, and exhale. 

   Powered by adrenaline, he was keenly aware of his surroundings. The smallest sound magnified in his ears. Every odor, no matter how faint, penetrated his nostrils. His eyes were trained on his next target, yet his peripheral vision guarded against a surprise attack.

   A creak in the rickety floorboards. He raised his right hand and they halted.

   Footsteps. 

   Dreaded, fucking footsteps.

   A man dressed in military fatigues and pointing an Uzi appeared. ThunderStrike’s second-in-command, Marshall “Gunner” Young, fired a single shot and the man dropped.

   “Move.” Despite the surprise, Maverick kept his voice low and even-keeled. Gunner stayed as lookout while Maverick led the remaining three forward. According to the intel they’d received, the twelve American hostages were on the other side of this door.

   He turned the handle, eased it open.

   Seven men. Five women. All sitting or lying on a filthy cement floor. A small lamp in the corner lit the room in eerie shadows. Despite knowing the truth, he searched their faces for her. Always seeking. Never finding.

   “Target achieved.”

   He approached and flipped up his night goggles. “We’ve come to bring you home.”

   Another muted gunshot from the corridor. “We gotta go,” Gunner said through the comm.

   Maverick and his team hurried the group onto their feet. The hostages were in bad shape, but he had to move them out. One of the men couldn’t stand, so Maverick hoisted him over his shoulder. The injured doctor groaned.

   Per protocol, he led them in, but he was last man out. His team ushered the group down the hall toward a stairway.

   Gunner fired another shot.

   “Penelope, talk to me,” Maverick said. “We’re sixty seconds to rooftop.”

   Maverick waited, but his lead helicopter pilot didn’t respond. They hustled up three flights of stairs and exited through a doorway onto the rooftop. Breathing hard, Maverick propped the American against the cement wall.

   Between the weight of the man and the flak jacket, sweat soaked Maverick’s back. He searched the sky. The helos should be here.

   “Penelope, I need your location.”

   “Twenty seconds,” she replied. The edginess in her voice didn’t bode well.

   The heavy metal fire door burst open and four terrorists started spraying the rooftop with bullets. Maverick’s team released a torrent of gunfire and the enemy dropped.

   “We have to land on the north side of the building,” Penelope said into Maverick’s earpiece.

   Maverick shouldered his submachine gun and retrieved the injured hostage. “Follow me. Gunner, take the rear.”

   As they charged across the roof, the Black Hawks touched down. Maverick placed the injured man inside, then helped two women. Three ThunderStrike crew guided six of the hostages to the second craft, then jumped in behind them.

   After assisting the remaining three Americans, Maverick did a quick head count. They were one shy. The other chopper lifted off and he surveyed the area. Gunner lay writhing on the ground. He sprinted back, hoisted the two hundred and fifty pound man into his arms, and bolted back toward the helicopter. “Talk to me.”

   “Fuck.”

   “Where are you hit?”

   “Chest.”

   He laid Gunner into the belly of the craft.

   As he was about to hop in, a barrage of gunfire exploded behind him. Searing pain shot through him. He tried climbing in, but he collapsed on the ground.

   “I’m hit,” Maverick said. “Penelope, go.” 

   “Gunner.” Penelope’s smooth voice rolled through the comm. “Make it happen.”

   Gunner grunted. “I can’t move—”

   “Two seconds, Gunner.” Penelope’s voice sounded far, far away, like she’d already left him to die in enemy territory.

   An arm reached out…as everything faded to black.

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