The nefarious Lt. Colonel Banastre Tarleton of Revolutionary War notoriety never gave full quarter until Kathryn MacLean Tarrington and her ‘family’ were in need.
“Your Lordship,” The hesitant voice of Lord Cornwallis’s young corporal interrupted once again as he poked his head cautiously into the tent. “I will not be interrupted again, Corporal,” Cornwallis growled with finality at the thoroughly abashed young man as he quickly backed out into the pouring rain.
But before the tent flap could drop back down into the oozing mud, a dripping hand flung it aside and Banastre Tarleton stepped inside, water puddling at his feet. Raindrops beaded the bright red wool of his jacket and his long hair, usually dressed to perfection, clung in sodden plaits. Swiping with disgust at the heavy droplets rolling to the dirt floor, he stood amidst a growing pool of muddy water—his typical arrogance momentarily dashed as he digested the sorrowful scene before him.
Despite the dim light, Lord Cornwallis’s pallor was obvious, emotional devastation having overpowered his customary stoic features. He seemed a broken man as he sat holding a bedraggled little girl. Can it possibly be Gabrielle? Tarleton looked more closely at the disheveled child. Yes, Gabrielle. My God she is still alive. Clearing his throat loudly, he continued to take in the dismal scene. Gabrielle sat quietly on the General’s lap, observing him in silence, her sad face taking on a hopeful look as she gazed up at the dragoon colonel.
Lord Cornwallis rose slowly and, setting the child on his cot, turned to face his dragoon officer. “Whatever it is that brought you here tonight can wait, Tarleton.” He gestured curtly towards the tent flap attempting to usher the irritating man out.
“I think not, your Lordship,” Banastre stood his ground with cool confidence. “I think, perhaps, it cannot wait. Time in this instance is valuable and of the essence.” Turning to face Lieutenant Jackson, he observed the man’s fraught countenance for a long moment before crouching to extend a hand towards Gabrielle. Large eyes watched him, recently shed tears still glistening on dark lashes, scrutinizing with a maturity far beyond her years, as she stifled a sob.
Lt. Jackson observed Tarleton warily as Gabrielle, somewhat unsure of herself, hesitated momentarily before gathering her courage and going to him. “So like your mother,” he breathed, extending his hand to touch a damp curl.
Suddenly the glint from a gold necklace at her throat caught his eye—the beautiful pearl centered within a delicate golden heart that he recognized so well. Fingering it gently, he peered into crisp, blue eyes that held his gaze without faltering. Abruptly her small hand moved to protect it as she continued to eye him—judging him—so very like her mother. So very like Kathryn. “Precious child,” he murmured, hugging her to him and brushing a kiss to her forehead. A muscle twitched along the edge of his jaw … and Jackson perceived the tiniest wince.
Allowing himself a moment of weakness, Banastre gently hugged Gabrielle to him, caressing her black curly hair, savoring the smell and feel of her … and surrendering to the memories of Kathryn. He felt no shame at this temporary departure from his customary icy control. Kathryn would have understood, and would not have ridiculed or betrayed him to his fellow officers. She had protected him once before, not so long ago, when he had grieved uncontrollably over his friend Ferguson’s death at King’s Mountain. Yes. Kathryn would understand.