Pickpocket Countess
by Bronwyn Scott
(Harl. Hist. #889, $5.99, PG) ISBN 0373-29489-1
This is a refreshing look at the industrial age issues that took place in England in the 1830's when factories were starting to multiply and the child-labor laws were lax. Yes, it is refreshing because it presents the issues without really making anyone the villain and giving the credit to both forward-thinking aristocracy and rebellious workers. And it is all done with a very mild tone, which allows the reader to enjoy the romance while seeing the humanitarian side of the issue. Sadly, the tale also drags a little bit and resorts to the Big Misunderstanding, lessening overall enjoyment of the story.

The Pickpocket Countess regales us with the story of "the Cat," a rather bold and clever thief who breaks into the homes of the rich, most of whom are investors in the factories, and gives to the poor, primarily those whose lives have been affected by the working conditions in the factories. The Cat is stealthy and has eluded capture, despite the outrage of the rich and various attempts at trapping the thief.

The Cat is now hitting the Stockport on the Mead area, the seat of the Earl of Stockport, Brandon Wycroft. Brandon is trying to maintain his family fortune (and the many tenants on his lands) by supplementing the dwindling agricultural income with the income from a mill, which will process the wool that is raised on his lands, thus helping his tenants and his many dependents. Brandon is a member of the House of Lords and is busy working on the legislation that will protect the workers from exploitation of overzealous manufacturing moguls when he is called home because of the exploits of the Cat.†† His investors, both those already committed and those he is hoping to get money from, are nervous and dangerously close to pulling out of his investment.

Brandon discovers the Cat is actually a woman when she enters his home and he confronts her unexpectedly.† She brazens her way out by offering herself and kissing him passionately. While he is distracted, she slips away.† This begins their game of cat and mouse, (no pun intended) that presents them both with a chance to swap wits, challenges and sexual byplay. This game continues in some form throughout the tale.

The Cat is actually Nora, who was raised in a fairly well to do home and eloped when she was just eighteen to get away from a forced marriage. When she discovered that her husband, Reggie Portman, was not what she had envisioned, it was too late. Circumstances took her away from the abusive Reggie, and she hooked up with two con artists who helped her get into her current mode of living. Nora hated to see the widows and orphans of the factory workers and she resented that children were getting maimed working for inhumane wages. She stole to help the poor and her hope was that by stealing from the mill investors, the mills would end up closing from lack of money. She had succeeded in two other localities and now she is determined to keep Stockport from finishing his.

But Nora, alias Eleanor Habersham, a spinster who is free to roam the area during the day, didn't count on her attraction and lust for Stockport. And she knows he did not count on her.

I really enjoyed large parts of this story. The story dragged a bit at the middle as the two battled with their wits to try to solve their dilemma. Stockport wanted the mill and Nora didnít. Nora was a thief being hunted and there was no way that she could make any commitment to Brandon knowing that she would probably end up at the end of a rope. When Nora was acting as the Cat, it was a fun romp, especially as Brandon matched wits with her. When Nora was giving away the goods, the story felt a little preachy. But when the author needed to figure out how to solve their dilemma, there was a big misunderstanding that led to the climax. The climax was a bit contrived, but because I was rooting for the HEA, it was satisfactory.

The Pickpocket Countess is basically a fun little tale that involves two enjoyable and well matched characters.

--Shirley Lyons

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