The Countess Conspiracy
by Courtney Milan, historical (2013)
Courtney Milan, $12.99, ISBN 978-1937248305


Sebastian Malheur and Viola Waterfield, the Countess of Cambury, are recurring characters in Courtney Milan's previous two books in her The Brothers Sinister series, and if you have read those books, it won't be a surprise that these two are going to be stuck with one another for the long haul. If you haven't, this book fortunately can still stand alone, as the characters from previous books don't try to hog the spotlight from the main characters and the plot of this story is self-contained.

Sebastian, known to all as the happy-go-lucky younger son who never takes anything seriously, is currently scandalizing all of London with his research and talks on the subject that would be known today as Mendelian genetics. His talks of private parts of plants and animals, along with subjects such as mating and gender selection, are all the rage. But won't folks be more shocked if they know that Violet is the actual person who did all the research? Sebastian is just playing the Milli Vanilli to Violet because her first paper was dismissed outright because she is a woman. They didn't even bother to read her work. Sebastian submitted it on her behalf, and he was immediately hailed as a genius in the making.

Their partnership has London fooled all this while, but, when this story begins, Sebastian is tired of the charade, especially when it seems to have cost him the custody of his nephew when his dying brother passes on. He also loves Violet, and while he initially though he could wait for her to come to love him back, he is now unhappy and miserable as that poor fool who is the only one holding the torch in the room, so to speak. He is starting to resent her, and he doesn't want this to happen. So Sebastian wants out.

Violet has been raised to never show her true feelings as this is one way to get hurt, and her previous marriage only caused more emotional scars that she tries very hard to suppress under a perpetually calm exterior. She will never let anyone what she is really thinking and feeling. In fact, her pleasures in life are actually very few, and having her research acknowledged and validated, even by proxy through Sebastian, is one of those. If she is honest to herself, Sebastian's company is another.

Both agree to just walk away from one another, but, naturally, they are even more unhappy and melodramatic when they are apart. Can they ever reconcile their wants and banish their inner demons?

The Countess Conspiracy is a story with many layers, and seeing those layers peel away is a sublime experience. The main characters are all kinds of complicated. Sebastian may seem like a happy-go-lucky guy, but deep inside he craves validation and respect from an elder brother who refuses to see him as anything but useless. But he's nothing compared to Violet, who is a very tough nut to crack. Her past has inflicted so many scars that she can barely begin to figure out what she wants in life. In another author's hands, Violet may indeed turn into a broken record, but Ms Milan's treatment of this heroine allows Violet to instead become beautifully damaged the way interesting and memorable characters tend to be.

Fortunately, Sebastian isn't just very patient, he's... oh, he's fantastic. Just read pages 64 to 68. While a cynical part of me will tell you that this guy is just too good to be true, I'm such a weak person in that I just press my palm against my heart and sigh with every heartbreaking line of his. Wait, why are my eyes watering? I guess this is where I confess that I lost count of how many times I tear up while reading this book. It's a good kind of crying - the kind where I'm hurting with the characters or getting so swept away by the melancholic romanticism of these people's scenes that it's like every emotion welling up in my heart just explodes, you know? I don't just read this book, I feel this book.

Okay, the story does have issues. The issues standing between our main characters and the happy ending are considerable, and their pain and anguish hurt so good because every crack in the heart feels just too raw and real. They risk social ruination when their charade is exposed, and they also have enough emotional baggage to fill up the luggage compartment of every plane in the airport. However, the author handles these issues by giving Violet and Sebastian a happy ending that is pure sunshine. All that is missing is the clouds parting to allow a brilliant cone of light to fall on our hero and heroine as an angelic choir serenade them while they walk down the aisle. There is no impact of their actions on their social standings. Sebastian and his brother kiss and make up like they are under the influence of Oprah's magic cookies when I'd have personally said to hell with that asshole Benedict. A big chunk of Violet's issues is boiled down and simplified to mostly a matter of lack of communication between her and her mother.

While I really am happy to see Violet and Sebastian have a happy ending of all happy endings, the abundance of sunshine and lack of consequences for their actions cheapen their initial emotional turmoil and make it seem like much of their initial apprehensions seem like products of an overwrought emo constitution. A less grandiose happy ending may have been better for this story.

Still, things aren't so bad. Despite the less-than-stellar wrap-up of the story, I still close this book feeling like I've been put through the emotional blender dozens of times and come out feeling glorious. Naturally, this is one for my keeper shelf.

Rating: 93


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