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Sebastian Malheur is the most dangerous sort of rake: an educated one. When he’s not scandalizing ladies in the bedchamber, he’s outraging proper society with his scientific theories. He’s desired, reviled, acclaimed, and despised—and he laughs through it all.

Violet Waterfield, the widowed Countess of Cambury, on the other hand, is entirely respectable, and she’d like to stay that way. But Violet has a secret that is beyond ruinous, one that ties her irrevocably to England’s most infamous scoundrel: Sebastian’s theories aren’t his. They’re hers.

So when Sebastian threatens to dissolve their years-long conspiracy, she’ll do anything to save their partnership...even if it means opening her vulnerable heart to the rake who could destroy it for good.

Praise for The Countess Conspiracy

“[T]his book defines everything I love about romance novels. It is beautifully written, and I have not even the smallest of criticisms for this may be my favorite Milan novel of all time.”

Smexy Books

“From the dedication to the very last word, it’s so good.”

Radish Reviews

“A wonderful, wonderful story.”

Bodice Rippers, Femme Fatales, and Fantasy

“A new novel from Milan is always reason to celebrate: Her compelling, complex characters, combined with refreshingly original plotlines, are a breath of fresh air in a genre that often plays it too safe.”

RT Book Reviews

“Courtney Milan always brings more to her novels than just a good story.”

Booktalk with Eileen

“I am, once again, in absolute and total awe of Ms Milan’s storytelling abilities, her amazing characterisations and her emotive and powerful writing.”

Romantic Historical Reviews

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code name

This book has always had the code name of “Violet’s book,” which might surprise people who have read the first two and who think that this is a book about Sebastian. It is a book about Sebastian, of course— but since I first envisioned the Brothers Sinister series, I’ve known this would be Violet’s book.

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Chapter One

Note: If you haven’t read The Duchess War or The Heiress Effect yet, this excerpt may contain spoilers. You have been forewarned.

Cambridge, May, 1867.

VIOLET WATERFIELD, THE COUNTESS OF CAMBURY, was always most comfortable in a crowd.

Other women of her station might despise having to sit in a lecture hall, elbow-to-elbow with any person off the streets, no mark of distinction setting her apart from the old friend who sat on her left hand or the elderly man, no doubt living on a reduced pension, who was at her right. Other women might gather amongst themselves and turn up their noses at the smell of humanity, packed so close.

But in a crowd, Violet could disappear. The odor of sour pipe smoke and unwashed flesh only meant that nobody paid attention to her. Nobody glanced at her for approval or wanted her opinion on some fool thing she didn’t care about. In a crowd, Violet could dispose of all her pretences and indulge in her one forbidden passion: Mr. Sebastian Malheur.

Or—to be precise—his work.

Sebastian was one of her oldest friends, and today, he was the one who addressed the throng. He had a deep voice and a mischievous smile, one he used to great effect in making the most commonplace scientific observations sound interesting. Wicked even. The rest of him—his dark lustrous hair, that brilliant, mischievous smile that he always wore—she would leave to the blushing ladies of the ton who wished to make his intimate acquaintance.

Violet had no use for his handsome good looks, his idle flirtations. But his work, now…

“Thus far,” Sebastian was saying, “my research has focused on simple traits: the color of flowers, the shape of leaves. I’ve detailed several different mechanisms of inheritance. What I am going to present today is not further explanation, but a series of baffling questions.”

She’d heard those words before. More than once. They’d traded them back and forth just this morning, trying to get them absolutely perfect.

They’d succeeded.

His gaze swept over the gathering, and even though he didn’t look in her direction, Violet simply found herself smiling in response. He was just getting to the good part.

“Bafflement,” Sebastian said, “means there is something left to be discovered. So let me tell you what we don’t know.”

In the dim recesses of her awareness, Violet was aware that she was not the only one leaning forward in anticipation. Sebastian was a magnet. He drew people to him without even trying.

Some of those in attendance were adoring young scientists who hung on his every word and dreamed of following in his footsteps. Others were followers of Darwin, like Huxley in the corner, watching the proceedings beneath thick eyebrows. There were a great many ladies present, too—Sebastian had always drawn the ladies.

But there were also people like those seated directly behind Violet. She couldn’t see them, but—despite her best efforts to ignore them—she was aware of them. These were the worst sort: interrupters.

“Shameful,” muttered the man behind her, loudly enough to puncture even the resilient bubble of Violet’s enjoyment. “Utterly shameful.”

There was nothing shameful about the chart Sebastian was pointing to, not unless one harbored an irrational hatred for bar charts. This one detailed only numbers, numbers collected with an arduous attention to detail, if Violet could say such a thing herself without being accused of hubris.

She frowned, leaned forward an inch, and did her best to focus on Sebastian.

“A complete disgrace,” the woman behind her responded. “That’s what it is.” Her voice, even in that whisper, carried. It was like a high-pitched adze, drilling directly into Violet’s skull. “He’s flaunting his godless ways. He is the most dissolute reprobate. Talking in public about breeding and intercourse.”

“There, there,” her companion whispered back. “Put your hands over your ears and I’ll let you know when it’s safe to listen again.”

How was one to talk about the inheritance of without mentioning the act of propagation? Were people simply supposed to remain silent about basic biological facts for propriety’s sake? And knowing that Sebastian Malheur was going to discuss such odious topics, why had this pair come?

“Malheur must think of such things all the times!” the high-pitched voice continued. “The filth. The depravity of such a mind.”

Violet did her best to ignore them, refusing to let her expression falter by so much as a half-smile. But inside she seethed. It wasn’t just that Sebastian was Violet’s dearest friend. Their words felt like a direct attack. As if they were saying such things about her.

In a way, they were.

“There’s a reason,” her husband retorted, “that all of these so-called natural philosophers are men. The female sex is too good to engage in such disgusting thought.”

That was it. Violet turned. She caught a glimpse of a surprised woman in pink-sprigged muslin, situated next to a gentleman with gleaming mustachios. She gave them her grimmest stare.

“Hush,” she admonished them. The woman’s mouth rounded in surprise. Violet gave her a firm nod and then turned back.

It took her a moment to fall back into the rhythm of his talk. He’d gotten to the first puzzle.

Oh, yes. This was a good one—one of her favorites. Slowly she relaxed. She began to sink back into Sebastian’s talk, the ebb and flow of the argument. A well-constructed lecture was like a cat’s purr: hard to achieve, and yet so, so satisfying when it finally—

“I believe,” Madame High-Pitch continued, as if Violet had demanded a half-minute of silence instead of basic respect, “that he must have actually signed a contract with the Devil. How else could one man have such force of presence? If not to mislead.”

Her focus shattered again. Violet thought wistfully of the parasol she’d left in the cloak room—the lovely purple parasol with its demure ribbons and its pointed end. Useful for poking rude people, and fashionable, too. Her mother would have approved.

“I hear,” the woman continued, “that he ravishes a virtuous woman every night. Heavens, what will I do if his eye falls on me?”

Violet rolled her own eyes and leaned forward.

Up front, Sebastian gestured at the easel, and the young man who was with him changed the card to a painting of a cat. Violet knew the painting quite well.

She knew the cat even better.

“This pattern—” He gestured at the striped black-and-ginger cat “—is sometimes achieved when a ginger tabby mates with a dark cat.”

“Good God. He said mate. He actually said the word mate.”

Violet steepled her fingers and concentrated intently on Sebastian, willing all the rest of the world away.

“It’s a long-standing truth that all cats look black at night.” Violet didn’t need to be able to make out his expression to imagine a wickedly raised eyebrow. “Still, during the day we must ask the question: why are there so few tortoiseshell toms?”

Another horrified gasp arose behind her. “Was he referring to—good heavens. That’s…that’s indecent!”

Sebastian gestured. “The science of inheritance that I have outlined over the last years explains why traits might have a fifty percent chance of being inherited, or a quarter chance. But the chance for a male cat to show tortoiseshell coloring is so small we cannot calculate it—one in a thousand, perhaps. My theory leaves no room for such smallness.”

The woman’s voice was beginning to rise in pitch, something Violet would not have believed possible. “He just boasted of his size in public. William, you’re a constable. Do something.”

In her mind’s eye, Violet saw herself whirling around. That Violet—the one who hadn’t a care in the world—could confront the lady in question.

If you do not hold your tongue, she imagined herself saying, I will rip it out by the roots.

But a lady did not make a scene in public. And silence kept secrets. So Violet retreated into the heart of her silence, into a world where there were only puzzles of the mind, thoughts that could beguile her away from the harshness of reality. The rest of the world was swathed in cotton, its sharp edges dulled so it couldn’t cut her.

Some part of her mind was dimly aware that the couple’s conversation continued.

“There, there,” the man was saying, “I must follow the laws myself. I have no warrant, and I am not certain one would issue in any event. Have a little patience, my dear.”

It seemed like good advice.

Have patience, Violet told herself. In a few minutes, everything will be better.

scene dividing graphic

In a few minutes, everything grew worse.

At the end of the lecture, Violet maneuvered her way through the crowd, gently nudging other people aside. The crowds grew larger and more unruly at every passing lecture. The first few months of Sebastian’s career, he had been a curiosity—a man who wrote about inherited traits and occasionally defended Charles Darwin. There had been a few half-hearted complaints, but nothing extravagant.

Then he’d published that paper on the peppered moth, purporting to demonstrate the theory of evolution in action.

Violet sighed. He was respected by half the world and utterly despised by the rest. With every passing year, the ugly murmurs grew. They buzzed angrily around her now, as if she’d landed in a wasps’ nest of ignorance.

She found her way to the front. Oliver Marshall, the friend who had accompanied her, had made his way up already. Sebastian was surrounded.

Sebastian had always been surrounded by large groups, ever since he’d become an adult.

As usual, half the crowd around him was female—unusual at most scientific talks, but hardly out of the ordinary for him.

Violet sometimes wondered if people thought of her that way—as a female who had been trying to attract Sebastian’s attention for years. As if she were waiting for his eyes to fall on her, waiting for him to see her and only her. Her sister teased her on that score often enough.

If matters had been otherwise, perhaps she might have been. But she was what she was, and there was no point crying over milk that had long since gone rancid. Instead, she pushed her way into his inner circle.

In her seat near the middle of the hall, his features had been a comforting blur. Now she could make out his expression, and she felt subtly alarmed.

He didn’t look well. His cheeks were flushed; his eyes, usually dark and sparkling with humor, had gone flat. The expressive tilt of his mouth had pinched together. He looked like he had a fever.

“You’re wrong,” a big man was saying. He towered over Sebastian, his meaty fists curled at his sides like two hamhocks. “You’re a self-important bag of wind. Every natural philosopher since Newton has been damned. Damned, I tell you.”

A few years ago, Sebastian would have laughed off such an outrageous statement. Now, he simply looked at the fellow. “Thank you very much,” he said, as if by rote. As if he’d memorized the words, and he threw them out like a false lure, hoping to distract the man long enough to make his way out. “That means so much to me.”

“Why, you insolent cur!” The big man took a step forward.

Violet let out a great breath and slid in front of the fellow, taking hold of Sebastian’s sleeve. Look at me. Look at me. It will all be better if you just look at me.

He turned toward her, but as he did, the last trace of false humor slipped from his face.

Violet had been friends with Sebastian a long time. She’d thought she knew him. That he cheerily waved off the public strain of constant criticism, that he thought nothing of that stream of insults and threats. She had to think that, or she’d never have put him under such a strain.

In that instant, she realized how wrong she had been.

Violet swallowed. “Sebastian,” she said, fumbling for words.

“What?” he snarled.

“You were brilliant.” She looked into his eyes, wishing she could make everything better. “Utterly bril—”

Something flared in his eyes—something dark and furious.

It had been the wrong thing to say. She knew it instantly the moment the words came out of her moth. How must she have sounded to him? Awful. Self-congratulatory.

They were surrounded by a crowd. His knuckles grew white at his side, and he lifted his nose in the air.

“Fuck you, Violet.” His voice was a low, savage growl. “Fuck. You.”

They’d been in this conspiracy for so long that sometimes even Violet forgot the truth. She remembered it now. She felt it in every cell of her being.

That sense of invulnerable visibility vanished. Violet had sometimes thought that her position in society was something like a fallen log in the middle of a forest: she might not be picturesque, but at least she was accepted as part of the landscape. So long as she stayed very still, nobody would discover the truth.

Right now, Sebastian glared at her—utterly livid, as if he were about to take a hatchet to that log. To expose its rotten core to the world, to show them that inside, Violet was a dark, awful, filthy thing, infested by many-legged creatures. If he spoke one word more, everyone would know.

She never would have thought that Sebastian would betray her. But this stranger glaring at her through Sebastian’s eyes? She had no idea what he might do.

Her hands grew cold. She could almost see that nightmare scenario playing out before them. He would spill out the truth in front of everyone. Newspapers would trumpet it within the day; she’d be ruined by noon tomorrow, cast out completely.

The vast crowd seemed nothing but shadows around her. She could scarcely breathe. Filthy, she could hear people whispering. Reprobate. Her gorge rose. Violet would be ruined, and she would take her mother, her sister, her nieces and nephews with her.

Sebastian’s nostrils flared, and he turned away from her, leaving everything he could have said hidden safely behind silence.

Violet couldn’t help herself. She gasped in relief. She was safe. For now, she was safe. So long as no one ever found out, she’d be safe.

scene dividing graphic

The morning sun beat down viciously, slicing into Sebastian’s eyes as he looked out over the garden. The rose arbor caught those early rays of sunlight, and the beds of dew-spangled flowers glistened. It was damnably pretty. He might even have enjoyed it, were it not for the persistent throb of his head.

If he hadn’t known better, he’d have imagined he was suffering from the ill effects of drink. Except he hadn’t had anything stronger than tea in the last forty-eight hours. No; something else plagued him, and unlike a few bottles of wine, it could not be cured by an efficacious potion.

No apothecary on earth could change reality.

He’d known where he was heading from the beginning. Violet was in her greenhouse; when he rounded the shrubbery, he saw her sitting on a stool, peering at an array of little pots of soil. She’d hooked her boots around the legs of the stool. Even from here, he could hear her whistling happily to herself.

Sebastian felt sick to his stomach.

That was no reason to flaunt proper procedure. The outer door to Violet’s greenhouse opened onto a glassed-in entryway. He took off his shoes and replaced his jacket with a gardening smock. He checked himself and the air thoroughly; no bees in sight.

She didn’t look up when he opened the second door, nor when he pushed through the layers of gauze that kept insects out. She didn’t look up when he crossed over to her. She was concentrating so fiercely on those little clay pots in front of her, a magnifying glass in one hand, that she hadn’t even heard him come in.

God. Even after what he’d said to her last night, the way he’d run off, leaving her in the lurch, she looked so cheerful sitting there. He was going to ruin it all.

He’d agreed to this charade years ago when he hadn’t understood what would happen. When it had just meant signing his name and listening to Violet talk, two things that had seemed like no effort at all.

“Violet,” he said softly.

No response.

“Violet,” he repeated, this time a little louder.

He could see her coming back into an awareness of herself—blinking rapidly, slowly setting down the glass she was holding before turning to him.

“Sebastian!” she said. There was a pleased note in her voice. She’d forgiven him for last night, then. But the smile she gave him slowly died as she saw the look on his face. “Sebastian? Is everything all right?”

“I should apologize,” he blurted out. “God knows I should apologize. I should never have spoken to you that way, and especially not in public.”

She waved this off. “I should have known better. I should have thought of the strain you’re under. Really, Sebastian, after everything we’ve done for each other, a few harsh words hardly signify. Now, there was something I needed to tell you.” She frowned and tapped her lips. “Let’s see…”

“Violet. Don’t get distracted. Listen to me.”

She turned back to him.

Nobody else thought Violet pretty. He had never understood that. Yes, her nose was too big. Her mouth was too wide. Her eyes were set a little too far apart for classical standards of beauty. He could see those things, but somehow they’d never mattered. Of all the people in the world, Violet was the closest to him, and that made her precious in ways he didn’t want to consider right now. She was his dearest friend, and he was about to rip her apart.

“Is something amiss?” she asked carefully. “Or—rather—” She cleared her throat. “I know something is amiss. How can we fix it?”

He held up his hands in surrender to the entire world. “Violet, I can’t do this anymore. I’m done living a fraud.”

Her face went utterly blank. Her hand reached out, falling on her magnifying glass, clutching it to her chest.

Sebastian felt heartsick. “Violet.”

There was nobody he knew better, nobody in the world he cared for more. Her skin had turned to ash. She sat looking at him, totally devoid of expression. He’d seen her like that once before. He’d never imagined he would be the one who made her look that way again.

“Violet, you know I would do anything for you.”

She made a curious sound in her throat, half sob, half choke. “Don’t do this. Sebastian, we can figure out—”

“I’ve tried,” he said sadly. “I’m sorry, Violet,” he whispered, “but this is the end.”

He was breaking her, but then, he’d come to the end of even his ability to perform. He smiled sadly and looked around her greenhouse. At the shelves and shelves, filled with tiny little pots, each one labeled. At the beds of plants in various stages from tiny clusters of leafs to brilliant green growth. At the bookshelf in the corner, holding twenty leather-bound volumes or notes. He looked over all the evidence that he kept waiting for everyone else to discover. Finally, he looked at Violet—at a woman he had known all his life, and loved for half of it.

“I will be your friend. Your confidante. I’ll be a helping hand when you need one. I will do anything for you, but there is one thing I will never do again.” He drew a deep breath. “I will never again present your work as my own.”

Her magnifying glass slipped from her fingers, and landed on the paving stones beneath her chair. But it was strong—like Violet—and it didn’t shatter.

He reached down and picked it up. “Here,” he said, handing it back to her. “You’ll need this.”

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