The last attack wasn't the worst event of their long months on the run, but it was one of the hardest. The men had been waiting on them. If Elizabeth hadn't locked the basement door behind them and found the window so quickly, then they would have been dead. As it was, a bullet had grazed her thigh, and then she had sliced her waist on the jagged window. She was weak and hungry herself. But she was afraid if she spent more money on food tonight then there would be none to feed Cassie later. A movement from the man still standing by the door had her head lifting, a feeling of panic suddenly overwhelming her as his cool brown eyes met hers. His face was savagely honed. Perfectly angled for a warrior. Or maybe an assassin. Could Dane's enemies have gotten tired of trying to do the job themselves?
On the heels of that thought, he began moving toward them. He didn't just walk; he glided. Smooth powerful muscles rippled beneath the shirt and jeans, bringing him closer by the second. As he neared them, his arm moved, slowly reaching behind his back.
Elizabeth stiffened fearfully; ready to jump over the table to shield Cassie if a gun appeared. Dear God. What now? They were trapped. Unable to run. No place to hide. A grin tugged at the stranger's lips, as though he could sense her thoughts. It wasn't a gun he pulled out, though, but a wrinkled piece of paper. She watched, her heart in her chest, fear burning in her belly even as a strange, displaced desire warmed her thighs.
He stopped at the booth, staring down at her, then at Cassie. Elizabeth looked over at her daughter, seeing the rounded eyes, her pale cheeks.
"Cassie," he murmured as he handed her the paper. "I got your letter."
Elizabeth felt the world tilt as Cassie whispered his name. "Dash?"
It wasn't possible, she told herself. This couldn't be Dash Sinclair. He couldn't have really found them. Couldn't have even known they needed help. Yet, who else could he be?
He glanced at Elizabeth. "Have you eaten?"
She could only shake her head. Dear God. It couldn't be. It was a trick. She picked up the letter from the table and unfolded it.
I know you have lots of other little girls to love. Momma says you must be married with children and don't need us. But I need you Dash. Please help me and my Momma before the bad guys get us again. How had Cassie managed to post this letter without her knowing it? She stared at her daughter, barely able to process the fact that she was speaking to the stranger. A dangerous, cold-eyed stranger who claimed to be Cassie's military penpal.
Cassie's cheeks were flushed now. Hope radiated from her big blue eyes as shock was slowly displaced by happiness.
"You came, Dash." Cassie threw herself into his big arms, her tiny body looking frail and helpless against the man's chest, though his expression tightened with some undefined emotion as his arms contracted around her.
Dash Sinclair. She had loved that name herself, but had pushed it from her mind except for the few times Cassie had written the letters to the wounded soldier. That and when he had invaded her dreams. She hadn't shared Cassie's belief that one day Dash would come riding to their rescue, though.
That one day he would protect them both. She was an adult. She didn't believe in fairy tales, though she had fought to keep her daughter's belief alive as long as possible.
"Eat, Cassie." He sat Cassie back in her seat, pointing commandingly at the food. Surprisingly enough, a french fry disappeared into her mouth immediately. Then another. Despite Elizabeth's thankfulness that her daughter was eating, she couldn't halt a small streak of jealously. Cassie had refused to eat for her mother. Yet she was eating for a stranger.
"Mac," he called out the name of the aging, rotund man behind the diner's bar. "I need two cheeseburger platters, two milks."
Elizabeth shook her head. "No…" She knew one of those platters was for her.
"Thank you, Dash." Cassie laid her head against his arm as she chewed tiredly at the hamburger.
"Momma was hungry. She didn't eat yesterday, either. But I knew not to worry. I knew you would be here. I knew you would, Dash."
Dash barely stilled his rumbled growl as Cassie leaned against him. He lifted his arm, curving it around the frail shoulders, and stared back at her mother with a determination he prayed she was taking in. His possessiveness toward these two had grown only stronger, only deeper over the months he had been searching for them. With each miss, each added awareness of the danger they faced, his resolve had only hardened. As though the extra DNA he possessed inside his body was howling out for a claiming in a way that threw him off guard. He didn't like being thrown off guard. But he found himself accepting the responsibility of these two so naturally, that he often didn't think to question it. He could sense Elizabeth's strength. It was there in her squared shoulders, the glint of battle in her weary blue eyes. She didn't trust him and she sure as hell didn't believe he was who he said he was. But he had expected that. Expected her to give him a fight. He had known she wouldn't be easy to conquer. He didn't want her to be easy, though, Dash realized. She was a strong woman and his dominating instincts would run roughshod over any woman who wasn't. She would have to learn how to stand up to him, when to push back and when to allow him to shoulder her weight. She would have to learn how to share the burdens rather than carry them on her fragile shoulders as she was used to. Careful of the little head tucked against his chest now, Dash reached into his back pocket and pulled his wallet free. Opening it, he laid it between them. It had his driver's license in one clear pocket, his service ID in the other, both easy to see.
He watched her as she studied both and then lifted her eyes, a single brow arching mockingly. She had spunk; he'd give her that. She wasn't taking anything at face value. Not the letter, not his ID. Her gaze went to her daughter once again. Cassie had slumped against his side, her fragile body slowly relaxing as Dash felt her soaking in the heat of his body through her thin sweater. "Eat, Cassie, then you can sleep."
"Yes, Momma." Cassie was plain worn down and it infuriated him.
Mother and daughter looked like they had spent too many days without sleep or proper food. Their faces were pale, their eyes overly bright from nerves and fear.
"I came to help, Elizabeth," he promised her as he replaced his wallet, aware of the burly waiter as he moved from the bar with the plates of food. "Eat and then we'll discuss it."
He tried to sound reassuring. Tried to appear non-threatening, but he knew it was like trying to hide an elephant with a blanket. He was dangerous when crossed in the wrong way. Dangerous period if the situation warranted it, as this one did.
Mac, as his name tag proclaimed, set the platters heaping with food on the faded top of the booth's table. As he did, the sleeve of his white T-shirt slipped up, revealing a Special Forces tattoo. Dash filed the information away for the moment. He would need someone to cover for them when they left. With any luck, he could gain help there.
"You're very bossy," Elizabeth murmured as she stared down at the food. Dash could damned near see her mouth watering. Just as he could see her pride warring with her need.
"Realistic." He shrugged. "You don't eat, you can't fight, darlin'. What's more important? Your pride or your health?" Or your daughter. He left those words unsaid, though. He knew exactly how important her child was to her. She had prevailed against odds that many men would have faltered beneath to save her little girl. He wouldn't begrudge her the pride he saw glittering in her eyes, but she would eat.
And she did. He ate his own food, watching carefully as she ate more than half the huge sandwich and managed to put a dent in the fries. The milk was consumed with pleasure, a flutter of her eyelashes that betrayed her joy in the drink. As though it had been a while since she had tasted it. He wondered if she would find as much pleasure in being touched, stroked, as he had fantasized about in the past months. The closer he had come to finding her, the more explicit his dreams had become, and the more savage his desire for her had grown. He wanted her with a hunger he had never known before.
But first, he had to get them settled down, get them to a place of safety. He couldn't relax his guard until he had managed that. To do it, he would have to drive through one of the worst blizzards of the century. Dash kept a careful eye on the parking lot through the mirror behind her, making certain no other vehicles pulled in. There was a line of eighteen-wheelers extending for miles down the interstate due to the blizzard conditions, and the fluffy white stuff didn't seem to have a mind to ease for a while. News reports were promising a full-fledged white-out, which meant he didn't have much longer to get them to a place of safety.
Thankfully, one of the men he had fought with in the Middle East owned a place just a few hours from where they were. He had contacted him on the cell phone before leaving town and knew he and his family were waiting on them.
For years Dash had fought alongside his fellow soldiers, maintaining a careful distance, keeping a rein on his need to draw close to others. He had feared he would be turned down when he saw he would have to ask for help along the way. Surprisingly enough, he had been welcomed. They had quite a drive ahead of them and he still wasn't certain their final destination would provide the sanctuary he hoped to give Elizabeth and Cassie. But at least he knew the way there would be easier. First, he had to get her out of the diner. And she didn't look so predisposed to trust him. As he ate, one-handed to allow little Cassie her resting spot against his side, he watched her mother. Her delicate face was elegant; a sharp, determined little nose that rounded ever so slightly at the tip, hinting at a playfulness she had been forced to bury within her, wide blue eyes, high cheekbones and delicate rosy lips he could fully imagine kissing.
"Thank you for the food." She finally pushed her plate away, her gaze settling on Cassie. She had fallen asleep against his side, her slight little body completely relaxed against him. He glanced at her plate. Like her mother, she had been unable to complete her meal, but she had eaten enough to satisfy him. Enough to help her sleep through the long drive ahead.
"She's so tired." Elizabeth sighed as she raked her fingers wearily through her long, tangled, dark brown hair. It was colored. He knew the silken strands should hold the deep burnished color of dark chestnut, soft and shimmering with auburn highlights. It looked dull, not dirty, but as tired as he knew she was physically.
"You're both exhausted." He tried to keep his voice soft, to still the rough growl that kept building in his throat, roughening his voice, making him sound hard, but he was unable to. Unfortunately, Dash thought, he was who he was, what he had been made into. He was hard, demanding, and made little allowances for any foolishness. Elizabeth would have to see that her only safety lay in him. He wouldn't accept anything less.
"You're coming with me, Elizabeth. You and Cassie." He stared back at her firmly, watching her eyes widen. "I know you're wounded and you're too exhausted to keep up like this. I came to help you."
She eased back, pressing against the back of the booth as she watched him warily. He could see the battle going on within her. The need to trust. The fear. She had been betrayed too many times to just calmly accept his offer. He wasn't going to give her a choice, though. At the moment she, like Cassie, was more shell-shocked than anything. The earlier escape had been a close one and he knew the terror of it still pulsed through her veins. Fine tremors shook her body occasionally, though he could tell she fought to still them, to maintain her appearance of strength.
"I appreciate the gesture…"
Dash grunted as he frowned at her heavily. "Don't say anything you're going to have to swallow later, Elizabeth," he warned her, keeping his voice commanding. "While I've been chasing you down the past six months, I learned exactly what you're up against." He hated the way her face whitened further and the hunted look that strengthened the shadows in her eyes. "You can't fight this alone. You know that."