Lady Georgina Maitland is a plain, on-the-shelf spinster, but also a land-owning, independent woman of means thanks to an inheritance from a forward-thinking aunt. When George travels to her country estate in the company of her land steward, Harry Pye, she has an unfortunate carriage accident which leaves the two stranded together overnight. During their experience, George begins to see Harry as a desirable man and not just a mere servant, and Harry is attracted to George too, but is very good at hiding his feelings. Once they are back at Woldsley Manor, George discovers that a number of sheep on the neighboring estate have been found poisoned, and Harry seems to be the prime suspect because of his sordid history with the owner. George can't believe that a kind man like Harry could possibly be guilty of such a crime, so she insists on accompanying him as he interviews local farmers in an attempt to find the real culprit. The more time George and Harry spend in each other's company, the stronger their attraction becomes, until they eventually begin a passionate affair. When a woman is found murdered in the same manner as the sheep with evidence leading to Harry nearby, the evil Lord Granville, owner of the estate where the killings took place and the local magistrate, is out for blood. It will take all the strength and cunning both Harry and George can muster to clear his name, but even if they succeed, how can a titled lady and a commoner ever realize their love for one another and have a future together as more than illicit lovers?
With The Leopard Prince, Elizabeth Hoyt has authored another solid story in the Princes Trilogy, and has once again, shown her talent for creating unusual characters in a unique situation, as well as an ability to write a good mystery. Ms. Hoyt continues her "beauty is in the eye of the beholder" theme with two rather ordinary characters. Georgina is described as a plain woman who is certainly no beauty. She is a bit too tall for a woman, has untamable curly red hair, and is a firmly on the shelf spinster, although she has the good fortune of being not only a titled lady but also a land-owning, independent woman of means thanks to an inheritance from a feminist-type aunt. Harry seems to be fairly unexceptional too. He has striking green eyes, but aside from that, he is never characterized as being gorgeous or fawned over by the ladies. He's missing a finger, and he's not even particularly tall. He's just plain Harry, and a common land steward to boot, so not someone that most people, especially an aristocrat, would even take notice of. Yet George does and thinks that he's quite handsome, and Harry can't seem to help but think she is beautiful as well. I loved the "opposite sides of the track" theme too, except in this case, it was a sort of reverse Cinderella story, a real rarity in romance, and one that I appreciated even more because the author never did anything to make Harry a more palatable match. Harry and George just were what they were, and had to work things out in spite of their class differences. The mystery of the sheep poisonings was very well done too, with lots of twists and turns. I went back and forth between several different potential culprits, and as the field narrowed, I finally did guess correctly, but not until very close to the reveal. Overall, The Leopard Prince was a very well-rounded story that sucked me in right from the first few pages, and kept me engrossed throughout, making it very difficult to put down at times.
Regardless of their differing social stations, I thought that Harry and George were perfect for each other. Harry is a very reserved man, but George has a pretty good knack for reading him in spite of his quietness and frequently guarded expressions. "Still waters run deep" is a phrase that seems to fit Harry well. He may be good at hiding his true feelings, but when he lets them be known, he is an incredibly passionate man. George is a woman with a fun sense of humor. She sometimes acts like a ninny, because it wasn't fashionable for a woman to be intelligent. When she's playing dumb though, she often says some funny and endearing things. George also talks a lot, which is in stark contrast to Harry's reticent nature, but she manages to draw him out enough for them to get to know each other on far more than just a superficial level. I thoroughly enjoyed the "dance" that Harry and George perform with him asking her what she wants and her at first, not quite knowing, and then when she figures it out, being a bit coy. These interactions as a whole built an absolutely exquisite sexual tension between them. George learned very quickly though that she needed to just be brave and tell Harry what she wanted, and once she did, the fireworks went off in a big way. Ms. Hoyt definitely knows how to write beautifully sensual love scenes in which the characters give of themselves in equal measure, creating some breathtaking love play. I was particularly impressed with the intimacy of one scene where Harry and George simply lie there after making love and share their thoughts and feelings. Sometimes it's the little things that really count. To sum it up, I just loved how George saw Harry as not merely a servant or a poor man, but a man worthy of her love, and I loved how Harry saw George as beautiful even though she's plain.
The Leopard Prince has a pretty large cast of secondary characters. George has three brothers and one sister. At first it seemed that her sister, Violet, was going to be a troublemaker, but I figured out pretty quickly what her problem was. Other than Violet's one slip, George's siblings were surprisingly supportive of her and her relationship with Harry. Everything was out in the open and handled with honesty. Harry has some very complex family relationships which I can't say much about without giving things away, but suffice it to say that the ones who mattered the most were equally supportive of him. There was the evil Lord Granville who has a vendetta against Harry, and Granville's spineless son who would do almost anything to gain his father's approval but sadly receives nothing but loathing in return. A number of villagers, tenants, and servants also play a part as either confidants or purveyors of information on the sheep killings. Last but certainly not least, Edward (The Raven Prince) and Simon (The Serpent Prince) put in an appearance to assist their friend, Harry, in his hour of need. I'm still left wondering about their seemingly unlikely alliance and whether there might be more to it than a simple bonding over a shared passion for agriculture. Now that I'm starting to get a feel for Elizabeth Hoyt's writing style and how she has a tendency to reveal things later rather than sooner, I sense that there could be something else that she hasn't yet shared about these three men.
There were a couple of other things of note which I really enjoyed about The Leopard Prince. First, it seems that Elizabeth Hoyt has an affinity for fairy tales, as do I, so I loved her inclusion of another one, also titled The Leopard Prince, in this book. George relates it to Harry in snippets throughout the story. It was rather humorous how Harry was always so incredulous about things that happened in the tale. I thought that Ms. Hoyt writing it this way was rather ingenious, because on the one hand, it may have been Harry just being a typical man who doesn't believe in such nonsense. On the other hand, it was pretty far-fetched sometimes, making it seem like George was just making it up as she went along, although she swore she wasn't. The other thing that I thought Ms. Hoyt did a good job with was bringing out all the angst, uncertainly and difficulties that would have been inherent in a servant/employer romance. In such a situation in that era, it would be natural for others to think that Harry was either after her money or merely her paid stud, but I liked that George never once thought that he was a gold-digger and more importantly, she never wavered in her belief of his innocence when he was accused of terrible crimes. It was equally understandable that Harry might feel rather emasculated to be married to a woman who had full control of the purse-strings, but even though the gesture was initially misunderstood, George went to great lengths to show her trust in Harry which was quite romantic.
Overall, The Leopard Prince came very close to perfection for me, but there were two small things that kept it from a perfect 5-stars. One was how Harry and George kept running away from each other because of their differing social statuses. I had no problem with giving each of them a pass the first two times, because they were both filled with self-doubt and doubts about whether they could ever make their relationship work publicly. However, when George did it a third time, I got a little frustrated with her. I thought that she should have stayed and communicated with Harry about their troubles instead of leaving him, especially given the circumstances. I was also a little disappointed that there wasn't a more solid plan for dealing with their differences, merely an acquiescence on both their parts, but all's well that ends well I suppose. George's actions did give Harry the opportunity to show just how much he loved her, giving a satisfying HEA ending. The other bothersome thing was that I didn't feel the author gave a good enough explanation of why Harry ended up as the scapegoat in the poisonings, nor why Lord Granville hated him so much. The reasoning ended up being little more than vague, hazy notions that I thought could have been better clarified, but ultimately, neither of these things detracted too much from my enjoyment of the novel. All in all, The Leopard Prince was another engaging story from Elizabeth Hoyt that has earned a spot on my keeper shelf right next to its predecessor, The Raven Prince, and with two winners in a row, Ms. Hoyt now has a spot on my favorite authors list as well. I'm greatly looking forward to the final book in the Princes Trilogy, The Serpent Prince.
Note: The depictions of the love scenes in The Leopard Prince are on par with most hotter mainstream romances, but some readers may be offended by a few explicit words which I rarely see used outside the erotic sub-genre.
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