* * * * *
Elizabeth signed her name slowly to the papers. In them, she agreed that Dash Sinclair was the paternal parent of her daughter, Cassidy Paige Colder, and as such, she had agreed to legally accept the change of name for her daughter from her birth name to that of Cassandra Angelica Sinclair. The name was picked by Cassie, of course.
"Cassandra Angelica is what my fairy thinks." She had nodded firmly when Elizabeth informed her of what they were doing and why. "And I like having Dash for my daddy. I think I deserve chocolate. This matchmaking stuff is hard work."
She didn't get chocolate, but she did get a daddy. Dash signed his own name firmly beside Elizabeth's and handed the papers over to Kane to notarize.
The decision to change Cassie's name had come after Dawn had brought up the fear that any female child would be immediately suspect if Grange did indeed have contacts within that branch of the government. Cassie's age would be left off, but a slightly altered description would be included. Once at the Breed compound her dark locks would receive a temporary color and her change of identity would be established.
Elizabeth felt as though she were losing her daughter. The decisions she was being forced to make didn't set well with her. She had always cared for Cassie, had always made certain she was protected and safe and loved. Allowing others to do that, as well as changing her name and appearance, twisted her heart. They had her packed and dressed in her new coat all too soon. Elizabeth carried her to the waiting shadow of the helicopter, fighting her tears with every breath. She was letting her baby go. How was she supposed to let her baby go?
"The fairy says you'll come back for me, Momma," Cassie whispered in her ear as she clutched the chocolate bar Elizabeth had given her. Dash had slipped it to her minutes before they left the house.
"I'll definitely be back, Cassie." She prayed she would be.
"The fairy says Grange is bad, and that Dash will make sure he never hurts us again if I go with the Feline Breeds," the little girl said softly as she lay against Elizabeth's shoulder. "He'll be my daddy and everything will be okay."
"It will be, baby." Elizabeth paused at the dark opening of the helicopter. Everyone had already entered the large aircraft except Callan Lyons.
"I love you, Momma." Cassie was near tears again, and Elizabeth knew she wouldn't be able to contain her own much longer.
"I love you, baby." She kissed her forehead softly, lingeringly. "You be good for Momma, and I'll come get you soon."
She handed her baby to Callan. Cassie looked so small, so defenseless in the other man's arms as he lifted her up to Dawn.
He jumped into the helicopter as Dash wrapped his arms around Elizabeth and pulled her back. The door closed, blocking out the sight of Cassie's pale face. As she and Dash drew back the required distance, the motor was engaged, the huge blades whipping up the snow on the ground, then it slowly lifted away.
"Cassie," she whispered painfully, allowing her tears to fall now that her daughter was out of sight.
Hot, scalding streams of moisture poured from her eyes as her chest tightened violently. "Oh God, Cassie. Momma already misses you."
Dash's arms were around her, holding her tightly to his chest, his head lowered over hers as the helicopter sped swiftly away from them, carrying away her reason for living.
"It's okay, baby," Dash whispered at her ear, his voice husky, dark. "It's okay. We'll make him pay for it. I promise you, he will pay for it."
The Tolers returned to the ranch early that morning as Dash was packing the Hummer. Elizabeth was sleeping. Finally. She had cried herself into exhaustion as he held her. She was grieving, he knew, hating the separation from her daughter and the fear that filled her. But he knew it had been a cleansing thing, a preparation for what she was aware was coming. So he had let her cry, holding her, stroking her long hair back from her pale face and murmuring gently to her.
He had never been comfortable with a woman's tears before. Had never known exactly how to handle the feeling of manipulation he had always known during them. It was absent in this case. It was the first time he had seen Elizabeth cry, had seen the control she kept so firmly in place slip. Or had it? It was hard to tell with her. She was equal parts warrior and woman. As she cried in his arms he could almost feel her resolve strengthening, her rage and pain forming into the core of steel she would need to see her through the coming days.
He could have accomplished this much faster, much easier and with no threat to her if he had taken
Callan up on his offer. But Dash had known even before then that Elizabeth would have to see this through before she would have the courage to face the life ahead of them. He had chosen her as his mate, and she knew it, even if she never spoke of it. He was now, legally, Cassie's father. The little girl was unique in so many ways that protecting her would be a full-time job until she was old enough to protect herself.
She would need parents who knew how to defend her, knew how to fight together. Dash would make certain Elizabeth was in the least amount of actual danger possible. But to be assured she could face the dangers that could come in their lives, he had to allow her this. There was always the chance he could be killed. A chance that once again she would be alone, facing dangers she had never imagined from the Council. He had to make certain she was able to protect herself, Cassie, and any other children they might have along the way.
When she had slipped into sleep, curled in the bed Cassie had slept in, Dash had slipped away and began preparing for their departure. A plane would come for them later that night and fly them to a deserted airfield not far from the cabin he had rented for a month's stay. There, he would train her, see how tough she was and make plans to get to Grange.
Mike was insistent that Dash allow the bastard to live.
All they needed were the files Grange possessed, detailing the experiment done in-vitro on Elizabeth. That alone would secure Cassie's safety, as much as anything else would. Once she was under Pride protection the news of her existence would be revealed and would pull the teeth from the threat Grange posed. But Dash knew men like that. Knew that Grange would never be satisfied, never be content, until he destroyed Cassie. He wouldn't allow that threat to continue. Grange was a drug runner, a slaver, a child molester. A man whose soul was so dark and diseased that he caused misery wherever he went. Dash knew he would likely have to kill him. He wouldn't feel guilty over that fact, or remorse. Such monsters didn't deserve to draw breath. He loaded all the equipment necessary into the Hummer before packing the back seat area with weapons and ammunition. Getting to Grange wouldn't be that hard, but he wanted Elizabeth familiar with the weapons he would be carrying in.
"This is too risky, Dash," Mike warned him again. "If you won't accept the offer Callan made, let me send a few of my men in with you. Make short work of the mission and get out. You're placing Elizabeth in too much danger."
"I did that when I came for her." Dash ran a mental checklist as he stared at the store of weapons.
"What she'll face later will be even more dangerous. She needs this to continue, Mike. Life may not be easy from here on out."
"She's not a soldier, Dash. She's a woman. Cassie's safe now, her concentration will be fractured. I don't think she's strong enough for this."
Dash braced his arm on the top of the vehicle's frame as he leaned in to check the store of ammo stacked in the floorboards.
"She's strong enough." He had no doubt about that. It was the strength and experience to work under this new stress that bothered him. "I'll protect her. I know what I'm doing, Mike."
He had pulled too many civilians out of situations more exacting than what he was leading Elizabeth into. Grange was a pimple on society's ass.
Burning him off wouldn't be the problem. Knowing that Elizabeth would survive with her honor and strength intact was the problem. He didn't want to break her. Didn't want to ask more of her than she could give. But he had to know she could follow him. Follow him, fight beside him and protect herself if she had to.
"I know you think you know what you're doing," Mike finally sighed. "For your own good, I hope you do. Just in case, I'm sending Matt and Joey out there. They'll be in town if you need them. Don't hesitate to use them."
"Why?" Dash turned back to him, confused now.
Mike was watching him with a frown. "Because you might need help," he snapped. "You might think you're superman, Dash, but you're not. I don't want to have to bury you, if it's all the same to you."
Dash shook his head. "If I die, then I reckon they'll dispose of the body somehow, Mike. What does that have to do with anything?"
Mike was silent for long moments. "If someone massacred me and my family, Dash, what would you do?" he finally asked curiously.
Dash shrugged. "Go hunting. They wouldn't live long."
A grin tugged at Mike's mouth. "Why would you do that? I'm sure mine and Serena's parents would bury us."
Dash was suddenly uncomfortable. "It would piss me off," he growled. "I might need your ass one of these days to help put out a fire."
Mike shook his head. "Why not admit we're friends, Dash? I've noticed you do that a lot. Forget you have friends. Steady, dependable friends. Why is that?"
Dash sighed wearily. "I'm a Breed, Mike. You let your friends know you. Knowing who and what I am puts you at risk."
Mike shook his head again. "We were already friends, buddy. You need to loosen up some and accept that. Friends share the burden. If my wife or daughter were in danger, you would have been the first person I contacted because I know you would be the one most likely to never flinch in protecting them. Our friendship would assure you would never betray them. Not just because you're the best damned warrior I know, but because you're a friend, one I know and respect. It's that simple."
Dash pushed his fingers through his hair, sighing roughly. "I don't know how to be a friend, Mike."
"Like hell." Mike frowned. "You've never been anything but the best friend I ever had. You think I don't know who was looking after Serena and Mica on that last mission I took? You requested leave, flew over here, and spent a damned month in the hills watching the house to protect my family. What was that if it wasn't friendship?"
Dash was more than surprised. "How did you know?"
Mike shot him a sardonic look. "Come on, Dash. You were damned good, I admit. But there's no way those two 'hunters' that turned up dead on the other side of the mountain were anything but Gorley's men. And you forget, that nice clean little swipe across the throat is one of your trademarks. I knew the minute I got the information what was going on."
Dash cleared his throat uncomfortably. "The knife doesn't make as much noise as a gun." He shrugged.
"Besides, I liked Serena. She's too good for your sorry ass, though. I told you that already."
But Dash was realizing something more. He was realizing that, despite the fact that he had fought to keep himself distant, a loner, the people he depended on were more than military contacts. He had told himself that was all they were, and yet, at the same time, he had formed bonds he now realized were stronger than he could have imagined.
"Everything packed then?" Mike asked as he closed the door to the Hummer. Dash nodded. "I'm going to head up and get some sleep before leaving tonight. I appreciate you returning the Hummer for me."
The supplies would be transferred to the plane when it arrived, then to the truck Dash had arranged to be waiting at the airfield. The plans he had worked out with Mike after receiving confirmation that Cassie would be accepted into the Breed compound were coming together quickly.