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The Leopard Prince
By Elizabeth Hoyt
Warner Forever Copyright © 2007 Nancy M. Finney
All right reserved.
Chapter One YORKSHIRE, ENGLAND SEPTEMBER 1760
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 wasn't under the delusion that he was a lion or an elephant or a whale, or indeed any other member of the animal kingdom-if 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 could've 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 Pye's shoulders bunched. They were covered only by a wet lawn shirt that clung to him in an aesthetically pleasing way. He'd previously discarded his coat and waistcoat to help John Coachman unhitch the horses from the overturned carriage.
"An animal, my lady." Mr. Pye's 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 she'd 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 didn't 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 hadn't 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. He'd 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. She'd clutched Mr. Pye's 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 she'd ever felt before.
He'd apologized most correctly, disentangled himself from her, and climbed up the seat to wrest open the door above them. He'd crawled through and then bodily pulled her out. George rubbed the wrist he'd gripped. He was disconcertingly strong-one would never know it to look at him. At one point, almost her entire weight had hung from his arm and she wasn't 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 he'd 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. I'll 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 didn't look any different than he had when they'd started out this morning from an inn in Lincoln. He was still a man of average height. Rather lean. His hair was brown-neither 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.
"It's just that I'm 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.
"I'm 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. "There's a shepherd's 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 hadn't 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 didn't look any more ragged than the rest.
"She's 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 animal's 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 one's 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?"
"We'll have to leave her here."
"In the rain?"
"That can't be good for her."
"No, my lady." Harry Pye's 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 they'd been galloping, they wouldn't 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 Georgina's 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 would've ridden a horse from London to her estates in Yorkshire. He would've 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 thrush's egg. "Oh, yes. I've 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 Georgina's elbow, just in case she was wrong and fell on her aristocratic little arse, and started trudging up the gorse-covered hill.
At first, he'd 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 didn't 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 he'd 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 he'd last ridden these hills, and he might've 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 didn't find the cottage soon, he'd have to make a shelter from the carriage robes. "Oh, yes. I've been doing it since I was four, my lady."
That earned him a cheeky grin. Their eyes met, and he wished-A 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. "I'm sorry, my lady."
"Why don't you just tell me to shut my mouth and be glad I'm 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 don't, 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 you're 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 he'd dumped the carriage robes.
From behind him, he heard a breathless laugh. "I don't believe I have ever heard such an improper suggestion made so properly."
"I didn't mean to be improper, my lady." He handed her the robes. "I'm 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 aren't improper, as well you know, Mr. Pye. Indeed, I'm 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. "I've left one for you. I'm too comfortable to move, but I'll 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 wasn't 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 don't 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 aristocracy's 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? "You'd be amazed at the stories people remember from their youth. Of course, old nursemaids and the like are the best sources. I believe I've asked every one of my acquaintances to introduce me to their old nurse. Is yours still alive?"
"I didn't have a nursemaid, my lady."
"Oh." Her cheeks reddened. "But someone-your mother?-must've 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. "Can't you do better than that?"
"I'm afraid not." The other tales he knew weren't exactly fit for a lady's ears.
"Well, I heard a rather interesting one recently. From my cook's 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 you're thinking, but that's not how it goes."
Harry blinked. "My lady?"
"No. The king dies right away, so he's not the hero." She looked expectantly at him.
"Ah." He couldn't 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 don't know how that came about. Cook's aunt didn't say. Anyway, when the king was dying, he made the leopard promise to serve the next king, his son." She frowned. "Which doesn't 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.
Excerpted from The Leopard Prince by Elizabeth Hoyt Copyright © 2007 by Nancy M. Finney. Excerpted by permission.
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