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England, 1814

“Umph!” Elizabeth Townsend landed on her backside in a patch of mud and melting snow that made the winding road through the forests of Northhamptonshire treacherous. She grimaced as her horse galloped off toward home without her. Her uncle, the Earl of Dewberry, wouldn’t be happy to see one of his prize Andalusians arrive at the stables frothed up and riderless. She probably shouldn’t have taken the mare out, but it was such a beautifully warm day with the hint of spring around the corner.

And it was also rutting season. The big, many-pronged buck had leapt out of the trees, startling the horse into rearing while Elizabeth wool-gathered. Now here she was, in a wet puddle with her brown velvet riding habit no doubt ruined.

She bit her lip. Uncle James and Aunt Catherine had been kind to take her in when her parents were killed in a carriage accident shortly before Yule. They’d been generous in supplying her wardrobe—the countess said the simple woolen dresses Elizabeth had worn as a vicar’s daughter simply wouldn’t do—still, the earl had two daughters who would need numerous gowns and day-dresses when they moved to Town for the Season. Elizabeth didn’t want to be a further burden.

Hoof beats of a cantering horse sounded from the direction she’d come. Elizabeth pushed to her feet, thinking to seek cover behind a tree and then cried out as she tried to put weight on her right foot.

The horse careened around the bend and skidded to an abrupt stop, splaying mud as the startled rider slid down from the saddle.

“Are you all right? What are you doing out here by yourself?”

“I’m— Ouch!” She winced as she gingerly tried to put her foot down again.

“What a cad I am!” With three long strides, he was at her side, a strong arm wrapped around her waist, leaning her weight against his thigh and relieving her foot of any pressure.

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