Home > The Countess Conspiracy (Brothers Sinister #3)

The Countess Conspiracy (Brothers Sinister #3)
Author: Courtney Milan

Chapter One

Cambridge, May 1867

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

Other women of her station might despise sitting 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 or the elderly man, no doubt living on a meager pension, who sat at her right. Other women might whisper amongst themselves about the smell of humanity, packed so close.

But in a crowd, Violet could disappear. The odor of sour pipe smoke and unwashed flesh 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 pretenses and indulge in her one forbidden passion: Mr. Sebastian Malheur.

Or—to be more accurate—his work.

Sebastian was her oldest friend, 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, impish 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 colors of flowers, the shapes 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 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 realized 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 ladies to him.

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 figure 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 trepanning drill, boring 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 traits without mentioning the act of propagation? Were people supposed to remain silent about basic biological facts for propriety’s sake? And knowing that Sebastian Malheur was going to discuss topics that were odious to them, why had this pair come?

“Malheur must think of such things all the time!” 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. Those words felt like a direct attack. As if they were saying such things about her.

In a way, they were.

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

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.

Sebastian had begun to speak about the first puzzle.

Oh, yes. This was 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 cloakroom—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.

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