THE EXILE’S CURSE
To save her new life, she needs the man who destroyed her old one…
Chloe de Montesse never thought she’d return from exile. Now she has a chance to reclaim the life she fled after her husband was executed for treason. But coming home again isn’t as simple as it sounds. Her magic is rusty, her family want her to wrap her in cotton wool, and Illvyan society views her as a scandal waiting to happen. Worse, her new life keeps throwing her into the path of the man who destroyed her old one.
Lucien de Roche’s magic bares the truth for all to see. He’s used it to serve the empire, but there’s one secret he’s always kept hidden. The fact that he fell in love with his best friend’s wife. And that he’s never quite fallen out again. Now Chloe is back and it’s no secret at all that she loathes him for his part in her husband’s death. A sensible man would forget her…but he’s tired of being sensible. And determined to keep her safe.
When a mission from the emperor takes them both into the wildest heart of the empire, to a country where power and loyalties collide, and old plots simmer back to life, Chloe finds herself dragged back into the past she wants to leave behind. And her only way out might be Lucien. The man she thinks she can never trust. The man she wants to hate. Or hates to want…
Chloe de Montesse pressed a hand to her stomach, trying to keep her face impassive as she watched the sailors maneuver the gangway into position. This close to the dock, the sway of the ship seemed worse than it had during the crossing from Anglion, and she wasn’t entirely sure she wasn’t about to disgrace herself. Though, if she was honest, the churning in her stomach was part excitement, part confusion, part terror. But easier to blame it on the swaying ship than try to untangle the swirl of her emotions.
She was home.
In Illvya. In Lumia. Where, until a few months ago, she had never expected to be again.
Her eyes stung and she swiped at them quickly. It was only the sea air, not emotion.
There could be no giving in to emotion here or she might drown in it. As surely as she would if she stepped off the side of the gangplank into the dark, cold harbor waters instead of proceeding down it in an orderly fashion when the command came to disembark.
To distract herself, she searched the faces of the people waiting on the docks.
Illvyan faces. There was nothing that should immediately identify them as such, but she felt the certainty of it in her bones as she drank them in. A sharpness to their features. Subtle differences to the tones of skin. Different fashions than the ones she’d been wearing in Anglion all this time. But she couldn’t focus on strange faces and the fact that she was finally about to set foot back in the empire after ten years in exile.
Not when she was frantically searching for faces she knew. She’d sent word that she was returning to her father, including details of the ship the emperor had provided her passage on. But there’d been no time for a reply, and even though Sophie—one day Chloe might get used to the fact that the young Lady Sophie Mackenzie was now Queen Sophia of Anglion—had assured her that her father missed her and loved her and very much wanted her home, Chloe couldn’t bring herself to entirely believe it.
Not when the last time Henri Matin saw her had been a few scant hours before Chloe fled the country in fear, tainted by her husband, Charl’s, disgrace and leaving her family to face what consequences may come.
What if she couldn’t find him in the crowd? Couldn’t recognize him? Ten years was a long time. A span of years that scarcely made sense now that it had ended. She’d yet to turn twenty-five when she’d left. Now she was ten years older and her father closing in on sixty-five. So much time gone by had wrought changes on her face. It would have changed him as well.
But just as she was starting to think she’d been right to fear that no one would come to meet her, that no one truly wanted her to return, she caught a glimpse of gray hair and long limbs moving through the crowd with a gait so familiar it almost stopped her heart.
“Papa,” she called, waving one arm wildly in the air, all concern with not disgracing herself gone. “Papa, I’m here.”
He must have heard her somehow because his head swung round and pale blue eyes caught hers and suddenly she was pushing through the other passengers and racing down the gangplank, heedless of the sailors shouting at her or the fact that it was barely fixed in place, and then her father’s arms came around her and she was finally and truly home.
* * *
Chloe didn’t let go of her father’s hand as they made their way through the crowd, and from the strength of his grip, she wasn’t sure he ever intended to let go of hers. The feel of it, so familiar yet strange, so steady yet overwhelming, made her eyes prickle all over again. She had already made a spectacle of herself, dissolving into tears as she’d hugged Henri. Perhaps she should just accept that the next few days and weeks were likely to be messy and emotional—things she had avoided for a very long time.
In Anglion, her carefully regulated and arranged life had been simple. She’d kept her head down and not let anyone get too close. No risk that way. It had taken two years before she’d even let herself take the slightest risk of breaching the Anglion laws when she’d created the portal beneath her store. Technically refugees weren’t supposed to have portals, but she’d wanted an escape route if she needed one in a hurry.
Perhaps the fact that she was concentrating so hard on not letting herself burst into tears was the reason she almost walked into a man who stepped unexpectedly into her path. As she half jumped backward, trying to avoid the collision, her eyes flew up to his face, a warning to be careful about where he was walking on the very tip of her tongue.
Where it dissolved into chaos and silence when she registered the face staring back down at her, storm-green eyes wide with shock.
Lucien de Roche. Dear Goddess, no. Where was that damn portal when she needed it?
The one man in all the empire she least wanted to see. The man whose continued existence had given her no little pause for thought when she’d been coming to her decision as to whether she would return home.
“Chloe,” he breathed.
The word felt like a slap despite its softness.
She stared back at him, unable to think or come up with any sort of response. Once upon a time, Lucien had been Charl’s best friend. Tall and quiet and blond in contrast to Charl’s dark and dazzling. One of her best friends as well. They’d been a trio of sorts, a small gang of their own. Bright and glittering and full of the certainty that their futures would be blessed.
Until it had gone so horribly wrong.
Thanks to Charl. Who had been charming and irresistible and, as it had turned out, entirely incapable of making good choices when they were most needed. Pity she’d only learned that—or perhaps only let herself see it—after she’d married him.
Lucien, on the other hand, had always done the right thing. Solid as the earth. And just as unyielding, as it had turned out.
Lucien de Roche. The reason why Charl was dead.
The man who’d stood up in court and prosecuted his best friend, knowing the penalty for the charges Charl faced was death.
The man who’d ruined her life.
The man who’d maybe saved it. Lucien had come to her after Charl’s execution, given her a warning that she was not entirely safe in the wake of Charl’s conviction. Suggested she might want to make herself hard to find.
Presumably he’d meant just for a short time.
But she’d been young. Broken by grief and betrayal, and wild with fear that what had befallen her would yet engulf the rest of her family. So she had run, leaving Charl’s body barely in the earth and all manner of trouble strewn behind her. Fled to Anglion, where no one from the empire could reach her. Where no one could hurt her again.
No one had come after her.
Least of all Lucien de Roche.
Who, no matter that he was apparently still one of the most handsome men the goddess ever foolishly allowed to walk the earth, could never be anyone but her enemy.
“I believe that is Madame de Montesse to you, Ser de Roche,” she said, channeling all the control she’d gained hard fought from her years in exile and all the disdain she felt for him to ice her voice into something smooth and glittering and deadly as a blade. She turned away from him. “Papa, we should go. I find myself quite fatigued from my journey.”
Widow, The Best Friend’s Ex, Enemies to lovers, forced marriage, Smitten hero. Pining, so much pining.
Forced marriage, political violence, death, abuse of power, misuse of religion, female oppression, death of a parent (historical), parental illness (historical), attempted assassination, tattooing, death of a spouse (historical)