| The Leopard Prince |
By Elizabeth Hoyt
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After the carriage wreck and a bit before the horses ran away, Lady Georgina Maitland noticed that her land steward was a man. Well, that is to say, naturally she knew Harry Pye was a man. She wasnt under the delusion that he was a lion or an elephant or a whale, or indeed any other member of the animal kingdomif one could call a whale an animal and not just a very big fish. What she meant was that his maleness had suddenly become very evident.
George knit her brow as she stood in the desolate high road leading to East Riding in Yorkshire. Around them, the gorse-covered hills rolled away into the gray horizon. Dark was rapidly falling, brought on early by the rainstorm. They couldve been standing at the ends of the earth.
Do you consider a whale to be an animal or a very big fish, Mr. Pye? she shouted into the wind.
Harry Pyes shoulders bunched. They were covered only by a wet lawn shirt that clung to him in an aesthetically pleasing way. Hed previously discarded his coat and waistcoat to help John Coachman unhitch the horses from the overturned carriage.
An animal, my lady. Mr. Pyes voice was, as always, even and deep with a sort of gravelly tone toward the bottom.
George had never heard him raise his voice or show passion in any way. Not when shed insisted on accompanying him to her Yorkshire estate; not when the rain had started, slowing their travel to a crawl; not when the carriage had overturned twenty minutes ago.
How very irritating. Do you think you will be able to right the carriage? She pulled her soaked cloak up over her chin as she contemplated the remains of her vehicle. The door hung from one hinge, banging in the wind, two wheels were smashed, and the back axle had settled at an odd angle. It was a thoroughly idiotic question.
Mr. Pye didnt indicate by action or word that he was aware of the silliness of her query. No, my lady.
Really, it was something of a miracle that they and the coachman hadnt been hurt or killed. The rain had made the roads slippery with mud, and as they had rounded the last curve, the carriage had started to slide. From inside, she and Mr. Pye had heard the coachman shouting as he tried to steady the vehicle. Harry Pye had leapt from his seat to hers, rather like a large cat. Hed braced himself against her before she could even utter a word. His warmth had surrounded her, and her nose, buried intimately in his shirt, had inhaled the scent of clean linen and male skin. By that time, the carriage had tilted, and it was obvious they were falling into the ditch.
Slowly, awfully, the contraption had tipped over with a grinding crash. The horses had whinnied from the front, and the carriage had moaned as if protesting its fate. Shed clutched Mr. Pyes coat as her world upended, and Mr. Pye grunted in pain. Then they were still again. The vehicle had rested on its side, and Mr. Pye rested on her like a great warm blanket. Except Harry Pye was much firmer than any blanket shed ever felt before.
Hed apologized most correctly, disentangled himself from her, and climbed up the seat to wrest open the door above them. Hed crawled through and then bodily pulled her out. George rubbed the wrist hed gripped. He was disconcertingly strongone would never know it to look at him. At one point, almost her entire weight had hung from his arm and she wasnt a petite woman.
The coachman gave a shout, which was snatched away by the wind, but it was enough to bring her back to the present. The mare hed been unhitching was free.
Ride her to the next town, Mr. Coachman, if you will, Harry Pye directed. See if there is another carriage to send back. Ill remain here with her ladyship.
The coachman mounted the horse and waved before disappearing into the downpour.
How far is the next town? George asked.
Ten or fifteen miles. He pulled a strap loose on one of the horses.
She studied him as he worked. Aside from the wet, Harry Pye didnt look any different than he had when theyd started out this morning from an inn in Lincoln. He was still a man of average height. Rather lean. His hair was brownneither chestnut nor auburn, merely brown. He tied it back in a simple queue, not bothering to dress it with pomades or powder. And he wore brown: breeches, waistcoat, and coat, as if to camouflage himself. Only his eyes, a dark emerald green that sometimes flickered with what might be emotion, gave him any color.
Its just that Im rather cold, George muttered.
Mr. Pye looked up swiftly. His gaze darted to her hands, trembling at her throat, and then shifted to the hills behind her.
Im sorry, my lady. I should have noticed your chill earlier. He turned back to the frightened gelding he was trying to liberate. His hands must have been as numb as her own, but he labored steadily. Theres a shepherds cottage not far from here. We can ride this horse and that one. He nodded at the horse next to the gelding. The other is lame.
Really? How can you tell? She hadnt noticed the animal was hurt. All three of the remaining carriage horses shivered and rolled their eyes at the whistling of the wind. The horse he had indicated didnt look any more ragged than the rest.
Shes favoring her right foreleg. Mr. Pye grunted, and suddenly all three horses were free of the carriage, although they were still hitched together. Whoa, there, sweetheart. He caught the lead horse and stroked it, his tanned right hand moving tenderly over the animals neck. The two joints on his ring finger were missing.
She turned her head away to look at the hills. Servants and really a land steward was just a superior sort of servant should have no gender. Of course, one knew they were people with their own lives and all that, but it made things so much easier if one saw them as sexless. Like a chair. One wanted a chair to sit in when one was tired. No one ever thought about chairs much otherwise, and that was how it should be. How uncomfortable to go about wondering if the chair had noticed that ones nose was running, wishing to know what it was thinking, or seeing that the chair had rather beautiful eyes. Not that chairs had eyes, beautiful or otherwise, but men did.
And Harry Pye did.
George faced him again. What will we do with the third horse?
Well have to leave her here.
In the rain?
That cant be good for her.
No, my lady. Harry Pyes shoulders bunched again, a reaction that George found oddly fascinating. She wished she could make him do it more often.
Perhaps we should take her with us?
Impossible, my lady.
Are you sure?
The shoulders tensed and Mr. Pye slowly turned his head. In the flash of lightning that lit up the road in that instant, she saw his green eyes gleam and a thrill ran up her spine. Then the following thunder crashed like the heralding of the apocalypse.
Harry Pye straightened.
And the horses bolted.
OH, DEAR, SAID LADY GEORGINA, rain dripping from her narrow nose. We seem to be in something of a fix.
Something of a fix indeed. More like well and truly buggered. Harry squinted up the road where the horses had disappeared, running as if the Devil himself were chasing them. There was no sign of the daft beasts. At the rate theyd been galloping, they wouldnt stop for half a mile or more. No use going after them in this downpour. He switched his gaze to his employer of less than six months. Lady Georginas aristocratic lips were blue, and the fur trimming the hood of her cloak had turned into a sopping mess. She looked more like an urchin in tattered finery than the daughter of an earl.
What was she doing here?
If not for Lady Georgina, he wouldve ridden a horse from London to her estates in Yorkshire. He wouldve arrived a day ago at Woldsly Manor. Right now he would be enjoying a hot meal in front of the fire in his own cottage. Not freezing his baubles off, standing in the middle of the high road in the rain with the light fading fast. But on his last trip to London to report on her holdings, Lady Georgina had decided to travel with him back to Woldsly Manor. Which had meant taking the carriage, now lying in a heap of broken wood in the ditch.
Harry swallowed a sigh. Can you walk, my lady?
Lady Georgina widened eyes that were as blue as a thrushs egg. Oh, yes. Ive been doing it since I was eleven months old.
Good. Harry shrugged on his waistcoat and coat, not bothering to button either. They were soaked through like the rest of him. He scrambled down the bank to retrieve the rugs from inside the carriage. Thankfully they were still dry. He rolled them together and snagged the still-lit carriage lantern; then he gripped Lady Georginas elbow, just in case she was wrong and fell on her aristocratic little arse, and started trudging up the gorse-covered hill.
At first, hed thought her urge to travel to Yorkshire a childish fancy. The lark of a woman who never worried where the meat on her table or the jewels at her throat came from. To his mind, those who didnt labor to make their living often had flighty ideas. But the more time he spent in her company, the more he began to doubt that she was such a woman. She said gormless things, true, but hed seen almost at once that she did it for her own amusement. She was smarter than most society ladies. He had a feeling that Lady Georgina had a good reason for traveling with him to Yorkshire.
Is it much farther? The lady was panting, and her normally pale face sported two spots of red.
Harry scanned the sodden hills, looking for a landmark in the gloom. Was that twisted oak growing against an outcropping familiar? Not far.
At least he hoped not. It had been years since hed last ridden these hills, and he mightve mistaken where the cottage lay. Or it might have tumbled down since he last saw it.
I trust you are skilled at starting fires, Mr. P-pye. His name chattered on her lips.
She needed to get warm. If they didnt find the cottage soon, hed have to make a shelter from the carriage robes. Oh, yes. Ive been doing it since I was four, my lady.
That earned him a cheeky grin. Their eyes met, and he wishedA sudden bolt of lightning interrupted his half-formed thought, and he saw a stone wall in the flash.
There it is. Thank God.
The tiny cottage still stood at least. Four stone walls with a thatched roof black from age and the rain. He put his shoulder to the slick door, and after one or two shoves, it gave. Harry stumbled in and held the lantern high to illuminate the interior. Small shapes scurried into the shadows. He checked a shudder.
Gah! It does smell. Lady Georgina walked in and waved her hand in front of her pink nose as if to shoo the stink of mildew.
He banged the door closed behind her. Im sorry, my lady.
Why dont you just tell me to shut my mouth and be glad Im out of the rain? She smiled and pulled back her hood.
I think not. Harry walked to the fireplace and found some half-burned logs. They were covered with cobwebs.
Oh, come, Mr. Pye. You know you wish t-t-to. Her teeth still chattered.
Four rickety wooden chairs stood around a lopsided table. Harry placed the lantern on the table and picked up a chair. He swung it hard against the stone fireplace. It shattered, the back coming off and the seat splintering.
Behind him, Lady Georgina squeaked.
No, I dont, my lady, he said.
Yes. He knelt and began placing small splinters of the chair against the charred logs.
Very well. I suppose I must be nice, then. Harry heard her draw up a chair. That looks very efficient, what youre doing there.
He touched the lantern flame to the slivers of wood. They lit and he added larger pieces of the chair, careful not to smother the flame.
Mmm. It feels good. Her voice was throaty behind him.
For a moment Harry froze, thinking of what her words and tone might imply in a different context. Then he banished the thoughts and turned.
Lady Georgina held out her hands to the blaze. Her ginger hair was drying into fine curls around her forehead, and her white skin glowed in the firelight. She was still shivering.
Harry cleared his throat. I believe you should remove your wet gown and wrap the rugs about yourself. He strode over to the door where hed dumped the carriage robes.
From behind him, he heard a breathless laugh. I dont believe I have ever heard such an improper suggestion made so properly.
I didnt mean to be improper, my lady. He handed her the robes. Im sorry if I offended. Briefly his eyes met hers, so blue and laughing; then he turned his back.
Behind him was a rustling. He tried to discipline his thoughts. He would not imagine her pale, naked shoulders above
You arent improper, as well you know, Mr. Pye. Indeed, Im beginning to think it would be impossible for you to be so.
If she only knew. He cleared his throat but made no comment. He forced himself to gaze around the little cottage. There was no kitchen dresser, only the table and chairs. A pity. His belly was empty.
The rustling by the fire ceased. You may turn around now.
He braced himself before looking, but Lady Georgina was covered in furs. He was glad to see her lips were pinker.
She freed a naked arm from the bundle to point at a robe on the other side of the fireplace. Ive left one for you. Im too comfortable to move, but Ill close my eyes and promise not to peek if you wish to disrobe as well.
Harry dragged his gaze away from the arm and met her clever blue eyes. Thank you.
The arm disappeared. Lady Georgina smiled, and her eyelids fell.
For a moment Harry simply watched her. The reddish arcs of her eyelashes fluttered against her pale skin, and a smile hovered on her crooked mouth. Her nose was thin and overlong, the angles of her face a bit too sharp. When she stood, she almost equaled his own height. She wasnt a beautiful woman, but he found himself having to control his gaze when he was around her. Something about the twitching of her lips when she was about to taunt him. Or the way her eyebrows winged up her forehead when she smiled. His eyes were drawn to her face like iron filings near a lodestone.
He shucked his upper garments and drew the last robe around himself. You may open your eyes now, my lady.
Her eyes popped open. Good. And now we both look like Russians swathed for the Siberian winter. A pity we dont have a sleigh with bells as well. She smoothed the fur on her lap.
He nodded. The fire crackled in the silence as he tried to think of how else he could look after her. There was no food in the cottage; nothing to do but wait for dawn. How did the upper crust behave when they were in their palatial sitting rooms all alone?
Lady Georgina was plucking at her robe, but she suddenly clasped her hands together as if to still them. Do you know any stories, Mr. Pye?
Stories, my lady?
Mmm. Stories. Fairy tales, actually. I collect them.
Indeed. Harry was at a loss. The aristocracys way of thinking was truly amazing sometimes. How, may I ask, do you go about collecting them?
By inquiring. Was she having fun with him? Youd be amazed at the stories people remember from their youth. Of course, old nursemaids and the like are the best sources. I believe Ive asked every one of my acquaintances to introduce me to their old nurse. Is yours still alive?
I didnt have a nursemaid, my lady.
Oh. Her cheeks reddened. But someoneyour mother?mustve told you fairy tales growing up.
He shifted to put another piece of the broken chair on the fire. The only fairy tale I can remember is Jack and the Beanstalk.
Lady Georgina gave him a pitying look. Cant you do better than that?
Im afraid not. The other tales he knew werent exactly fit for a ladys ears.
Well, I heard a rather interesting one recently. From my cooks aunt when she came to visit Cook in London. Would you like me to tell it to you?
No. The last thing he needed was to become any more intimate with his employer than the situation had already forced him to be. Yes, my lady.
Once upon a time, there was a great king and he had an enchanted leopard to serve him. She wiggled her rump on the chair. I know what youre thinking, but thats not how it goes.
Harry blinked. My lady?
No. The king dies right away, so hes not the hero. She looked expectantly at him.
Ah. He couldnt think of anything else to say.
It seemed to do.
Lady Georgina nodded. The leopard wore a sort of gold chain around its neck. It was enslaved, you see, but I dont know how that came about. Cooks aunt didnt say. Anyway, when the king was dying, he made the leopard promise to serve the next king, his son. She frowned. Which doesnt seem very fair, somehow, does it? I mean, usually they free the faithful servant at that point. She shifted again on the wooden chair.
Harry cleared his throat. Perhaps you would be more comfortable on the floor. Your cloak is drier. I could make a pallet.
She smiled blindingly at him. What a good idea.
He spread out the cloak and rolled his own clothes to form a pillow.
Lady Georgina shuffled over in her robes and plopped down on the crude bed. Thats better. You might as well come lie down as well; well be here until morning, most likely.
Christ. I dont think it advisable.
She looked down her narrow nose at him. Mr. Pye, those chairs are hard. Please come lie on the rugs at least. I promise not to bite.
His jaw clenched, but he really had no choice. It was a veiled order. Thank you, my lady.
Harry gingerly sat beside herhed be damned if he would lie down next to this woman, order or noand left a space between their bodies. He wrapped his arms around his bent knees and tried not to notice her scent.
You are stubborn, arent you? she muttered.
He looked at her.
She yawned. Where was I? Oh, yes. So the first thing the young king does is to see a painting of a beautiful princess and fall in love with her. A courtier or a messenger or some such shows it to him, but that doesnt matter.
She yawned again, squeaking this time, and for some reason his prick responded to the sound. Or perhaps it was her scent, which reached his nose whether he wished it to or not. It reminded him of spices and exotic flowers.
The princess has skin as white as snow, lips as red as rubies, hair as black as, oh, pitch or the like, et cetera, et cetera. Lady Georgina paused and stared into the fire.
He wondered if she was done and his torment over.
Then she sighed. Have you ever noticed that these fairy-tale princes fall in love with beautiful princesses without knowing a thing about them? Ruby lips are all very well, but what if she laughs oddly or clicks her teeth when she eats? She shrugged. Of course, men in our times are just as apt to fall in love with glossy black curls, so I suppose I shouldnt quibble. Her eyes widened suddenly, and she turned her head to look at him. No offense meant.
None taken, Harry said gravely.
Hmm. She seemed doubtful. Anyway, he falls in love with this picture, and someone tells him that the princesss father is giving her to the man who can bring him the Golden Horse, which was presently in the possession of a terrible ogre. SoLady Georgina turned to face the fire and cradled her cheek in her handhe sends for the Leopard Prince and tells him to go out quick and fetch him the Golden Horse, and what do you think?
I dont know, my lady.
The leopard turned into a man. She closed her eyes and murmured, Imagine that. He was a man all along. . . .
Harry waited, but this time there was no more story. After a while he heard a soft snore.
He drew the robes up over her neck and tucked them around her face. His fingers brushed against her cheek, and he paused, studying the contrast of their skin tones. His hand was dark against her skin, his fingers rough where she was soft and smooth. Slowly he stroked his thumb across the corner of her mouth. So warm. He almost recognized her scent, as if hed inhaled it in another life or long ago. It made him ache.
If she were a different woman, if this were a different place, if he were a different man . . . Harry cut short the whisper in his mind and drew back his hand. He stretched out next to Lady Georgina, careful not to touch her. He stared at the ceiling and drove out all thought, all feeling. Then he closed his eyes, even though he knew it would be a long while before he slept.
HER NOSE TICKLED. GEORGE SWIPED at it and felt fur. Beside her, something rustled and then was still. She turned her head. Green eyes met her own, irritatingly alert for so early in the day.
Good morning. Her words came out a frogs croak. She cleared her throat.
Good morning, my lady. Mr. Pyes voice was smooth and dark, like hot chocolate. If youll excuse me.
He rose. The robe he clutched slid off one shoulder, revealing tanned skin before he righted it. Walking silently, he slipped out the door.
George scrunched her nose. Did nothing faze the man?
It suddenly occurred to her what he must be doing outside. Her bladder sent up an alarm. Hastily she struggled upright and pulled on her rumpled, still-damp dress, catching as many of the fastenings as she could. She couldnt reach all the hooks, and it must be gaping around her waist, but at least the garment wouldnt fall off. George put on her cloak to hide her back and then followed Mr. Pye outside. Black clouds hovered in the sky, threatening rain. Harry Pye was nowhere in sight. Looking around, she chose a dilapidated shed behind which to relieve herself and tramped around it.
When she came back from the shed, Mr. Pye was standing in front of the cottage buttoning his coat. He had retied his queue, but his clothes were wrinkled and his hair not as neat as usual. Thinking about what she must look like herself, George felt an uncharitable smirk of amusement. Even Harry Pye couldnt spend the night on the floor of a hut and not show the effects the next morning.
When you are ready, my lady, he said, I suggest we return to the highway. The coachman may be waiting for us there.
Oh, I hope so.
They retraced their steps of the night before. In light and downhill, George was surprised to find it not such a great distance. Soon they topped the last hill and could see the road. It was empty, save for the carriage wreckage, even more pitiful in the light of day.
She heaved a sigh. Well. I guess well just have to start walking, Mr. Pye.
Yes, my lady.
They trudged up the road in silence. A nasty, damp mist hovered off the ground, smelling faintly of rot. It seeped beneath her gown and crept up her legs. George shuddered. She dearly wished for a cup of hot tea and perhaps a scone with honey and butter dripping off the sides. She almost moaned at the thought and then realized there was a rumbling coming from behind them.
Mr. Pye raised his arm to hail a farmers wagon rounding the curve. Hi! Stop! You there, we need a ride.
The farmer pulled his horse to a standstill. He tipped the brim of his hat back and stared. Mr. Harry Pye, isnt it?
Mr. Pye stiffened. Yes, thats right. From the Woldsly estate.
The farmer spat into the road, narrowly missing Mr. Pyes boots.
Lady Georgina Maitland needs a ride to Woldsly. Harry Pyes face did not change, but his voice had grown as chill as death. It was her carriage you saw back there.
The farmer switched his gaze to George as if noticing her for the first time. Aye, maam, I hope you werent hurt in the wreck?
No. She smiled winningly. But we do need a ride, if you dont mind.
Glad to help. There be room in the back. The farmer aimed a dirty thumb over his shoulder at the wagon bed.
She thanked him and walked around the wagon. She hesitated as she eyed the height of the boards. They came to her collarbone.
Mr. Pye halted beside her. With your permission. He hardly waited for her nod before grasping her about the waist and lifting her in.
Thank you, George said breathlessly.
She watched as he placed his palms flat on the bed and vaulted in with catlike ease. The wagon jolted forward just as he cleared the boards, and he was thrown against the side.
Are you all right? She held out a hand.
Mr. Pye disregarded it and sat up. Fine. He glanced at her. My lady.
He said no more. George settled back and watched the countryside roll by. Gray-green fields with low stone walls emerged and then were hidden again by the eerie mist. After last night, she shouldve been glad for the ride, bumpy though it might be. But something about the farmers hostility to Mr. Pye bothered her. It seemed personal.
They cleared a rise, and George idly watched a flock of sheep grazing on a nearby hillside. They stood like little statues, perhaps frozen by the mist. Only their heads moved as they cropped the gorse. A few were lying down. She frowned. The ones on the ground were very still. She leaned forward to see better and heard Harry Pye curse softly beside her.
The wagon jerked to a halt.
Whats the matter with those sheep? George asked Mr. Pye.
But it was the farmer who answered, his voice grim. Theyre dead.
Excerpted from The Leopard Prince , by Elizabeth Hoyt . Copyright (c) 2007 by Nancy M. Finney. Reprinted by permission of Little, Brown and Company, New York, NY. All rights reserved.Back to top