The letter came at a time in his life when the battle inside his soul could have tipped either way. The war against terrorism was still waging, years after it had begun, and in select areas of the Middle East it was hell. The Special Forces unit Dash Sinclair was assigned to had been there for a year now; working together, becoming a part of each other's lives, depending on each other. Until the day their transport was taken out by a well-aimed missile. It had killed the other seven men. Dash was left barely clinging to life when rescue had arrived.
At the time, he wasn't even certain what kept him alive. He was tired. Tired of fighting, tired of hiding, just plain tired of being alone. He had been closer to those seven soldiers than he had ever been to anyone, and now they were gone, leaving an awareness within him of the desolate wasteland his life had become.
Weeks later, his eyes bandaged, his wounds covered, he lay in a medicated stupor, barely clinging to life. A part of his soul howled out in fury; that restless, yearning part that never seemed to still grieved at the continued fight to survive. Why was he alive when the others had been lost?
It was then his commanding officer came to him.
"You have a fan, son." Something inside, a primal, instinctive part of his conscience stilled then. It pushed back the pain, the memories of blood and death, and became watchful. Waiting. He had no fans, no friends or family. And he had lost his unit. He was damned tired of hiding and fighting, and they wouldn't let him just sleep. And now, the part of himself he had always fought to deny was awake once again. Instinctively he knew his greatest battle was yet to come.
"A nice little girl named Cassie Colder. Let me read this to you real fast. I'll answer her until you're well enough to do it yourself. But I have a feeling this little girl would get right pissed if you didn't eventually answer…"
I liked your name best when the teacher gave us the list. Dash Sinclair. It has a very nice sound to it I think. Momma said it's a very brave, very handsome name, and she bets you like it lots. I thought it sounded like a daddy's name. I bet you have lots of little girls. And I bet they are very proud of your name. I don't have a daddy, but if I had one, then I would like a name like that for my Daddy.
He had created his own name. Long ago. Far away. Created a name he had prayed would hide his past. Then he had fought to change himself as well. But he didn't have lots of little girls and he wasn't a daddy. The words his commander read seeped into his brain and a sense of urgency began to fill him.
My Momma, her name is Lizbeth. And she has brown hair kind of like me. And pretty blue eyes. But my eyes are kind of blue too. I have a really pretty Momma, Dash. She makes me cookies, and even tells me it's okay to talk to the fairy that lives in my room with me. My Momma is really nice. My Momma says you are a very brave man. That you are fighting to keep us safe. I wish you were here with us Dash, cause sometimes my Momma gets very tired.
Even in pain, barely conscious, a sense of alarm surged through him.
He could feel fear in that simple sentence. A plea for protection. And he fought to live. He had to live. He had to save Cassie and her momma.
He saw Cassie, small and delicate, whimpering in fear. But in bright, vivid colors, he saw her mother, desperate, frightened, poised in front of her daughter like a protective she-wolf, snarling in fury. Why did he see that? Why did the image taunt him?
At other times, he was tormented by the sight of the mother watching him, her eyes half closed in drowsy passion, her body naked, slender and graceful beneath his larger frame. It was little Cassie Colder that wrote to him, but with each line about her mother, each description, each phrase concerning the Momma who looked after her, Dash's need grew. His sense of possessiveness, his hunger, his inborn knowledge that somehow, some way, Elizabeth and Cassie belonged to him, began to strengthen inside him.
Yes. The name Dash was a good name for a daddy. For Cassie's daddy. But it was also a good name for a mate. Elizabeth 's mate. And once again the inborn instinct of the animal raised its head. His senses became sharper as he fought against the fog of pain and medication then. Twisting shadows of violence and the dark bloody stains of death began to emerge and coalesce around Cassie and her momma. They were his, and they were in danger. He had to live.
My Momma says you must be a very kind man. Kind men don't hit little girls. Do they?
So innocently phrased, yet with a wealth of meaning. He strained within the dark agony that filled him, fought through the layers of pain to find consciousness, to heal. To live. Cassie and her Momma needed him.
My Momma says there might not really be fairies but it's okay if I think there are. Cause nothing don't exist if you don't believe in it. And if you believe in it, then it's real as sunshine. I believe in you, Dash…
Why did he keep hearing a cry? It was inside his head, a woman's tears and muffled sobs. But it was the child's words his Major read to him as he fought his way back. A battle he often feared he would lose.
My Momma says Leprechauns should be real. That gold at the end of the rainbow sounds really nice. I promise, Dash. I know a real fairy. I told Momma and she smiled and said I could ask her in for cookies and milk if I liked. I had to tell her that fairies don't eat cookies and milk. They really like candy bars…The fairy eventually got to share the candy bar with Cassie. But still, Dash heard a woman's muffled sobs.
* * * * *
The kid's letters became a lifeline through long, bitter months of recuperation. It gave him something to hold onto. He had no one. He was a man alone in the world and he had thought this was the way he wanted it, until one little girl's letters touched his soul. They were often peppered with amusing, cute little displays of affection toward a mother who apparently loved her daughter very much. And the daughter showered him with a sprinkling of the love her mother gave.
Sometimes my momma is sad. She sits alone in our room and stares out the window and I peek through my eyes and I think I see tears. I think she needs a daddy too, don't you?
The soldiers who had accompanied the Major that day had ribbed him over that one.
But Major Thomas had shushed them quickly and continued to read. Dash was conscious now, but still weak and had a long road ahead of him. But he fought. Fought like the animal he was, because of the woman's tears and a little girl's fears.
I wanted to send you a sparkling present for Christmas. But Momma said we just didn't have the money this year. Maybe for your birthday, she said, if you will tell me when it is. So I emailed Santa instead. I told him exactly what he was to get you, but I bet your other little girls already thought of it too. I wanted a bicycle, but Momma said Santa might not make it this year. I told her he would. This year, Santa would know I'm big enough for a bike. I'm seven years old. Seven years old is a good bike age, I think.
She wrapped around his heart, with her youthful wit and humor and her belief in everything good in the world. He wanted her to have that damned bike. He wanted her to know Santa looked after good little girls who saved worthless hides like his. He wanted her to know he was coming for her. He sent her the bike. So she would be comfortable when he arrived. So she wouldn't be scared…
She was a matchmaker, though. Major Thomas finally started reading her letters without the presence of the other men who visited. And Dash finally got around to speaking, finally managed to give her a letter in return. It was short. He tired easily but he wanted the little girl to know what her letters meant to him.
I got my bike, Dash. Momma was really surprised. On Christmas day I was sure Santa didn't trust me yet. My bike wasn't under the tree. Then the doorbell rang, and when Momma answered the door, there was my shining red bike. It had my name on it. It was just for me alone and it was brand new. And it had a helmet. And I have little gloves. And I have elbow pads. And I have knee pads. And there was even a present for my Momma from Santa. Can you believe it, Dash? It was the best Christmas ever. Santa even remembered my Momma.
Of course Santa remembered. Dash had smiled and roughly thanked the Major for taking care of his request. The long robe would keep the mother warm until his arms could do the job. Cassie had said her momma was often cold…
* * * * *
Then the letters stopped. A month before he was released from the hospital, his eyesight back, his legs working once again, his strength back at top peak, they had stopped. Concerned, he had asked Commander Thomas to check into it. To find out what happened to the bright, cheerful little girl whose momma had raised her to give her love so freely.
Commander Thomas, I regret to inform you that little Cassidy Colder and her mother, Elizabeth, died in a fire that overtook their apartment building several weeks ago. The bodies were unrecoverable, but there is no doubt that they, along with several others, were caught in the blaze. There was some trouble associated with the child and mother, rumors I've heard of a contract on their lives. Please let me know if you would like me to obtain more information…
The fax had arrived from the private investigator he had hired. Commander Thomas had checked it out immediately. Neighbors had heard the screams, had seen the apartment building explode, flames overtaking it in a matter of minutes. Dash felt his world crumble. The little girl who had saved him, who had given him his will to live, was gone. For days he sat silent, staring broodingly at the ceiling. For so long he had been alone. He had awakened each day knowing he had no one. Had gone to sleep each night feeling the loss. Yet, while he lay near death, God had brought him angels. Only to take them away once again. It was a terrible blow to the soul he thought had withered away years ago. He knew only blood and death. Had never known innocence until Cassie and her Momma, Lizbeth. The immature, childish scrawl of the name had lingered in his mind. Elizabeth . His Elizabeth .
In thirty years of living, Dash had never claimed any one person as essential in his life. He had grown up knowing his survival depended on having no one, knowing he was different, knowing how imperative it was that he hide those differences. He had made his own way in life, had literally raised himself as best he could until he was old enough to join the Army.
He had made the service his home. The men he fought with, though not close to him, had given him a base to interact, to sharpen his intellect, to learn how to lead. For twelve years he had done just that. Led. He moved up the ranks, joining the Special Forces and proving his capabilities there. He had thought he hadn't needed anything more.
Dash realized now how wrong he had been.
Elizabeth and Cassie's deaths tore a wound in his soul he couldn't explain. He had never touched the woman, had never held the daughter. She wasn't his mate, wasn't his child, and yet his heart screamed something different. His soul howled at the loss and some instinct, some inborn knowledge, refused to allow him to deny the bond that existed between him, mother and child.
"Dash, you have to snap out of this." Commander Thomas sat beside his hospital bed, his green eyes somber, intent. "These things happen, son. You can't explain them or make sense of them. At least you have a part of her to remember."
Dash stilled the howl that wanted to rise to his lips. He had nothing. A pile of fragile letters wasn't enough. Not nearly enough.
His fingers curled into the sheet as he stared up at the dull white ceiling silently. They thought he had sunk into depression. Lost his will to fight. Nothing could be further from the truth. He had one last battle to fight before he could give into the soul-deep need to rest. Vengeance. It kept the blood pumping in his veins, kept his heart beating in his chest.
He gave his commander a long, brooding look.
"I want to know what happened."
Commander Thomas sighed wearily, shaking. "What does it matter, Dash? They're gone."
Dash felt fury engulf him. It mattered. It mattered because he intended to exact his own form of justice.
"I want to know. Contact the investigator. I want the information before my release."