The Countess Conspiracy by Courtney Milan

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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.

Publisher and Release Date: Courtney Milan, 17 December 2013

RHL Classifications:
Time and Setting: London and Cambridge, 1860s
Genre: Historical Romance
Heat Level: 2
Reviewer Rating: 5 stars

Review by Caz

This is the third full-length book in Ms Milan’s current Brothers Sinister series, and I think it’s quite possibly her most angst-filled story yet.

We’ve met our two protagonists before, in both the previous novels in the series. Sebastian Malheur is cousin to both Robert, Duke of Clermont, and his half-brother, Oliver Marshall, and his name is notorious throughout society for two reasons. One – he’s a well-known rake and two, he’s a well-known and brilliant scientist whose research and lectures on the subject of the inheritance of traits (which propound Darwinian theories) have made him reviled by one half of the ton and adored by the other half.

Violet Waterfield, widowed Countess of Cambury more or less grew up with Robert and Sebastian. She is quiet, retiring and holds herself aloof from almost everyone; even those who know her best don’t really know her – apart from Sebastian with whom she shares scientific interests and a relationship based on deep-rooted trust and affection.

What she doesn’t know is that Sebastian has been in love with her for years. What he doesn’t know is that she is terrified about the fact that she might feel the same way about him – and what the world doesn’t know is that Sebastian’s vaunted scientific discoveries are not, in fact, his, but hers.

It’s clear from reading Ms Milan’s website and her author’s notes at the end, that this story is very close to her heart, and I can see why. Violet lives at a time when women weren’t supposed to actually do anything other than have children, look after their men and be decorative; and women who dared do anything else were ridiculed, reviled and dismissed. Yet there were many women who worked independently (or alongside men) who both made and facilitated important scientific discoveries who, by virtue of their sex, were never credited with them. The book is dedicated to “every woman whose name has disappeared without recognition” and I actually found myself tearing up before I got to the first page of the story!

Following the death of her husband and a serious bout of ill health, Violet worked tirelessly on a scientific paper which she hoped to have published. But after a number of rejections by the scientific establishment, Violet has to resort to subterfuge in order to have her work taken seriously, and she takes up Sebastian’s suggestion that he present the work as his. (He has no desire to take credit for her work; he simply wants to help her to get her work published). When their ruse is successful, they agree to continue it, and they work together for five years, Sebastian becoming more and more informed on the subject to the point where he has become almost as much as of an expert in the field as Violet. The deception has worked for them for the past five years, but at the beginning of the book, Sebastian, unable to bear the strain of living a lie any longer, tells Violet that he can’t be her mouthpiece any more.

Violet is stunned. She’s one of those people who gets so utterly engrossed in whatever she is working on that she fails to notice much of what is going on around her, and it takes Sebastian’s pronouncement to make her understand how badly the strain of what they’ve been doing has affected him.

The friendship between Violet and Sebastian is heart-rending and incredibly complex. These are two people who know each other as nobody else does, although there are still secrets between them that threaten to destroy their relationship. They’re best friends who care deeply for each other – but even Sebastian doesn’t know the true extent of Violet’s fears. He knows that her marriage had not been a happy one – especially towards the end of it – but doesn’t know how badly Violet has been affected by the emotional cruelty of her late husband. All he knows is that the Violet of today is a different woman to the young woman he grew up and fell in love with; fragile, brittle and sharp-tongued, she shrinks from the slightest physical contact and never wants to talk about herself. So he keeps his distance, never letting on how he really feels until a nasty argument causes things to change between them.

My heart broke for both of them. Violet is so tightly wound and has suffered so much that she feels worthless and regards herself as cold and empty with nothing to offer anyone. She doesn’t want to feel emotion because it terrifies her to think of losing herself to feeling, so she focuses on her work, believing that to be the only thing of value about her.

And Sebastian. Oh, what a wonderful character Sebastian Malheur is. Thinking rationally, I know he’s far, far too good to be true, even on the scale of romantic heroes, who are, by their very nature, all too good to be true! But his sensitivity to Violet and protectiveness towards her; the way he takes care of her in so many ways that she doesn’t even realise, was really quite beautiful to see and won me over completely.
He’s handsome, witty, charming and incredibly intelligent – yet it was so very endearing when he showed that he had no idea of how large a part he had played in Violet’s discoveries. But Sebastian doesn’t want the fame or adulation of the world at large. All he wants is the respect of his friends, and, most importantly, his older brother, Benedict. It seems that Sebastian has spent most of his life craving his brother’s approval – yet even though Benedict believes Sebastian to be a world-class scientist, he still accuses his younger brother of having accomplished nothing with his life. Sebastian sets out to prove him wrong – but even when he manages to make a small fortune in a matter of days, it’s not good enough. Nothing ever has been.

Part of the problem is that Sebastian been acting the charming scoundrel for so long that even his closest friends, Robert and Oliver, believe the lie and regard him as good for little other than having a laugh and a good time. Even though everyone spends most of the book still believing Sebastian to be responsible for Violet’s scientific discoveries, they still don’t really SEE him the way he wants to be seen. Only Violet truly sees him – just as he’s the only person who truly sees her – which is what makes them so perfect for each other. Even as they’re breaking inside, they can’t keep away from each other because they’re better together than apart.

If I have a criticism about the book – and it’s hard to say this because I really did enjoy it hugely – it’s that the romance felt somewhat rushed, especially towards the end. Ms Milan had so carefully set up the internal conflicts that were keeping Violet from admitting that she was desperately in love, and it seemed to me that perhaps her issues disappeared rather too quickly. Of course, that may just be me being greedy and wanting more of Sebastian and Violet together, and for the most part, I’m perfectly happy with the way things worked out.

I am, once again, in absolute and total awe of Ms Milan’s storytelling abilities, her amazing characterisations and her emotive and powerful writing. Sebastian and Violet are incredibly well-drawn characters who absolutely and completely belong together, and the level of sexual tension between them is off the charts. I was fascinated by the detail the author included about Violet’s and Sebastian’s work, and about the discoveries made by one of the secondary characters with whom Violet collaborates towards the end of the story.

The Countess Conspiracy had me riveted from start to finish. It’s so beautifully written that the emotions just leap off the page, and there was more than one time while reading I found myself with a tear in my eye or a lump in my throat. It might not be the book for you if you don’t like a large amount of angst in your romance, but I’m never one to shy away from a high angst content provided I know all will be well in the end and I loved it.

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