The Countess Conspiracy by Courtney Milan Read Online (FREE)
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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.
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.”