Stealing the Earl’s Heart – Aria Norton

Charlotte reached down to remove a wet leaf from her shoe, keeping an eye on the group of women weaving their way through the morning crowd. Brommich’s town square was bustling with shoppers of various professions and social status, each keeping a respectable distance between each other lest anyone forget themselves. Servants argued with stubborn produce suppliers, while gentle ladies swished about with their dresses, entering shops that boasted beautiful fabrics, accessories, and tea rooms for those looking for rest and a bite to eat. Straightening, she adjusted her spectacles, tracking the woman’s movement. That comb should fetch enough money to buy Julia and James a pair of shoes, and perhaps a new bonnet for Mother. Her siblings were growing at quite a speed, and constantly needed an update to their wardrobe. I am certain Lilith has a multitude of combs; she will not miss one. The young woman she had selected as her next target was a respected and decorated general’s daughter who lacked for nothing. I would have never seen the accessory if not for the sun catching the sheen of its pearls. Her eyes had been drawn to the hair accessory perched prettily in the woman’s yellow hair, torn between keeping her attention on the item and the need to compare her own dark hair to that of the younger woman. Her hand went to her left temple, fingering the stark white streak that contrasted with her ravencoloured tresses. She had been born with it, seemingly marking her as an oddity from the very beginning. Charlotte had grown up distinctly knowing that she was different, and not necessarily the good different. It wasn’t that she was deformed, or possessed an insane mind, but she could never align herself with her peers. She was a baron’s daughter, and therefore had an image to uphold, but somehow she had always fallen short of attaining the prestige that came with her father’s title.

Papa never seemed to mind my idiosyncrasies, but Mother would always sigh and bemoan her lot in life as the parent of such a strange child. Sometimes, when they would have parties at the house, she would sneak away to play with the servants’ children rather than remain with those of her social standing. Her mother would typically find her on the kitchen floor, warming herself by the fire while she read the younger ones a faerie tale. It was pointless scolding her as she always had a ready answer for every sort of question, baffling her mother. Her father would often smile and praise her intelligence, but warn her to keep it at a minimum in the company of men. “For the longest time, I assumed that men were stupid” she whispered to herself. But experience had taught her that men were like the potatoes she regularly picked from her vegetable garden. Some appeared good on one side until you turned it over and realised a worm had gotten a hold of it. Others were misshapen but still good for eating, others seemed perfect but could have a horrible texture on the inside, and others looked knobby and unattractive on the outside, but inside one would find the ideal cooking potato. Mother would shake her head if she knew I was using vegetable analogies again.

It was bad enough that the baroness had to put up with borderline poverty, but to have her gently-raised daughter take up the work of servants was almost too much to bear. “I often tell her that I enjoy it, but she cannot resign herself to accept it.” Her poor mother knew not what to do about their circumstances despite having lived this way for some years now. Who knew that her father would leave them penniless? He had always been an attentive husband, a loving father, and a respected member of the community. Everyone had loved Arthur Attenborough, the Baron of Dartington, or at the very least respected him. His sudden death had changed all that, even the town’s view of his surviving family. “Dying in the arms of your mistress has an alarming effect on one’s opinion of you.” The scandal had circled the town for months on end, leaving her mother to hang onto the last shred of dignity she had left. “I thought she would collapse when I brought James and Julia home to live with us.” Charlotte put the thought away when her target moved, changing her position to mimic the woman.

Thinking about the tension between her mother and half-siblings would not give her the focus she needed to attain the pearl comb. Adjusting her spectacles again, she began to formulate a plan that would allow her to acquire the comb with no witnesses. The market area was busy, which could be helpful if she managed to execute a well thought out plan. Of course, the ideal situation would be to never need to steal, but alas, that was not her lot in life. Charlotte detested the act of thievery, but what was she to do? There was only so much that living off the land could do for one. There were still many other aspects of life that had a significant financial bearing on them. I have to pick my family’s need over my own feelings of guilt, I have no other choice. She had become so good at stealing it worried her that one day she would come to enjoy taking that which did not belong to her. That can never happen. To ensure it, she had a journal that detailed every victim and item stolen with the amount procured for it.

Charlotte did not do it for penitence, but a need to remind herself that she was doing something against her principles. Her family and the few servants they had remaining knew nothing of her thieving, and that is how it would remain. They believed that the town’s people often took pity on them and either gave her some money, or she did a little work for them. That was already hard enough for her mother to accept. Imagine if she were to hear that her only daughter had been reduced to a thief to provide for her family? The mortification might take her to her grave. Her mother often said that another scandal would kill her instantly, so Charlotte was careful about hiding her thieving ways. I never take more than I need, only what is necessary for the household to survive. A guffaw caught her attention, startling her. I would know that sound anywhere. Which meant that it was time for her to take cover before Malcolm saw her.

Goodness, but the man was persistent! She spied a barrel wide enough to hide her crouching form, quickly ducking behind it as the vicar’s son and his friends advanced. “How I sincerely hope he has not seen me.” But the man had an eagle’s eye for spotting his prey and swooping in for the kill. Or rather, he seems to have some sort of hidden antennae that alerts him to my presence. There were times when she would scrutinise his head, looking for any evidence that would prove her antennae theory. She had read somewhere in a biology book that ants possibly used their antennae to pick up information and convey messages. They must be folded in that thick head of hair he has. How else was he able to find her more often than not? Even when I have been hiding away from him, he finds me. He had, for some inexplicable reason, taken an absurd notion unto himself that she was meant to be his wife. She had tried to reason with him on several occasions, but evidently her reasoning had not worked.

Why must he always be surrounded by his friends? It made it harder to escape his attention and a challenge to walk away. She was painfully aware of the disapproving looks she received from the town’s people. Thus, she made it her goal to remain as inconspicuous as possible. “Charlotte?” she heard him say. “What are you doing behind that barrel?” Oh! For the love of roast potatoes! Why did she have such ill luck? I may lose my target if he intends to speak to me for longer than necessary. Well, come to think of it, every moment spent with him is longer than necessary. She came away from the wine barrel, fiddling with the pocket of her dress as though putting something away. She needed some excuse for being found behind the rotund object. “Good morning, Malcolm. I lost a hairpin, but I found it behind the barrel.

Would you please excuse me? I must get going.” Please, please, allow me to leave. She avoided the eyes of the five other young men with him as she stepped to the side, narrowly missing a puddle of muddy water. It had rained the night before, leaving everything damp but fresh and new looking. “One moment, if you will,” he asked, or rather insisted. Charlotte resisted the urge to purse her lips, pasting a smile on her face instead. I hope Lilith has not gone too far. “I’m afraid I simply must get going. I have errands to run, and much work to do once I return home.” “If you were to marry me, you would never need to work again,” he declared, puffing out his scrawny chest.

If she had a pound for every time he told her this, she would never need to worry about stealing to get by. What more can I say to deter him? He refuses to listen to me. His friends all wore broad smiles, their body language telling her that they were going to give her a difficult time today. Oh, for the love of peas! I do not have the will nor the strength for this bothersome lot. “I am flattered, truly I am, but I’m afraid that marriage is not on my topics of discussion for today. Kindly allow me to leave, gentlemen. ‘Tis not right to keep a lady from her work.” She grimaced the second she realised she had used the word lady. They are sure to say something about it. One of them, a ginger head, cocked his head to the side, his eyes alight with amusement.

“A lady, eh?” he said. Gerard never fails to point out precisely what he thinks about me, although he is kinder in Malcolm’s presence. Perhaps she would get away with just a few unsavoury words uttered about her, and then be on their way. May good fortune take pity on me this day and keep the lips of this carrot-top man quiet. “’Tis but an expression. I truly must go.” She looked between the men’s bodies, adjusting her glasses as she searched for Lilith. Do not tell me that she has left already? “Who are you looking for?” Malcolm asked. Charlotte’s gaze swung back to him, her brown eyes meeting his corn-blue ones. He was rather handsome in that boyish manner that attracted most women of their town, but he had never appealed to her.

She had always likened his hair to wheat, a mixture of brown and yellow wavy locks that covered his head with astonishing thickness. I would not be surprised if one found a bird’s nest in there. My hand would disappear under all that. Malcolm was proud of his hair and tooted it as his best feature after his thickly lashed eyes. It must be a mystery to all as to why I refuse his proposals. It was as though she were committing a crime when all she wished to do was look after her family. Marrying him would entail leaving them to fend for themselves as no one wished to take on the financial burden of caring for her family and remaining servants. The vicar’s son was not the only one to have asked for her hand, but he certainly was the most persistent. It was a marvel that men still wished to marry her despite the rumours about her lack of honour and dignity circulating Brommich. I have been called shameless more than I have heard my name spoken by the town’s folk, but I cannot do much about it.

Taking in her father’s illegitimate children had come with side effects that went beyond her mother’s disdain of the twin’s existence. Some people had assumed that the children were her dirty secret that she could no longer hide, and mistreated Charlotte for it. Not only am I poor, but I am considered a woman without morals as well. She was five and twenty, unmarried, and a thief. This was her reality. Any scintillating drama and scandal that people managed to cook up without evidence were not any of her concern. Although it certainly hurts one’s feelings. “Charlotte,” Malcolm called again. “Who are you looking for?” Why must he stick his nose where it does not belong? “I am wondering about which shop I should enter first.” “Indeed?”



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