It’s hard to be a ruthless mercenary when the man who owns your heart keeps risking his neck…
Gawain has earned his place in Arthur’s small gang of warriors with a bold agility that pays in their secret missions against the Saxons. Capturing the heart of a certain mercenary has been the hawk’s only failure.
“Try again in seven years,” Palahmed said. As if Gawain had nothing better to do than mark the hours. He has plenty of things to do, and waiting for any man—even one as tall, dark, and miserable as Palahmed—isn’t one of them.
Not that he’s above showing the sell-sword what he’s missing.
Six and a half years ago, Palahmed threw down the stupidest challenge of his life, and he’s regretted it every day since. He wasn’t wrong to do it; his history with younger men has been a disastrous journey, pierced through with guilt and shame.
And Gawain is young—and cocksure and beautiful and entirely infuriating. Every time the hawk slips into enemy territory, Palahmed must shore up his inner defenses or lose his mind to worry.
But every stronghold has a weak point.
When an unexpected mission threatens to set Gawain on a collision course with the brutal father he escaped, Palahmed can’t help but swear his sword to back him. Gawain must agree or appear a coward, even as Palahmed braces himself to get closer than ever to the one man who could bring his fortress crashing down.
Amid the cold, harsh beauty of Britain’s far north, the two will have to face the truth unspoken between them, or neither will survive to tell the tale.
Tropes: age gap, brooding older hero, forced proximity
Content Notes: violence (physical & verbal), animal cruelty (attempted drowning), an intimate situation involving an adolescent and an adult (witnessed by a main character), murder, attempted murder, and killing in self-defense
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Gawain shook his head in frustration and tried to focus on the problem at hand—the one raging at the base of this bank.
He’d woken to a rumble he hadn’t expected. And not a cozy rumble like Bedwyr’s voice when he told a tale over a campfire. This rumble had pushed into his bones from the earth itself, making his teeth vibrate until he shivered all over.
Cross the stream, his mind had said the night before. You’re but a quick hop from completing this mission, from delivering a simple ring that will allow Cymru to send counterfeit messages the Saxons will mistake for their own. Only a short distance from your small, secret camp and the other men who wait there.
But the prospect of those other men, or one in particular, had made him pull up short and burrow deep into the needles under the evergreens. They were soft and welcoming. They didn’t watch his every twitch with a dark, critical eye or tell him—in a quiet rasp that set his skin to blushing like an untested lad’s—all the ways he’d done something poorly. He hadn’t been a lad for ages, not that that was anyone’s concern.
Still, he’d stopped short of the water, like a coward, and for naught as far as sleep went, and what had been a wee burn was now a river, deep and roiling. Winter’s snowfall had been heavier than usual in the mountains this past winter, and he’d let the thaw catch up to him.
Good thing he’d grown up surrounded by water. He knew its power, had watched it swamp boats struggling to cross the wind-whipped strait to his father’s island domain. Lot had stood nearby, laughing as the waves swallowed men whole. Gawain had felt that water over his own head, once, and heard the warble of Lot’s voice above the surface.
The men on the boats hadn’t survived, but Gawain had. He would skip across this river like a stone, light and true, and spit his father’s name into the mud on the far bank.
Upriver, the run narrowed, rendering the water deeper. The nearest bridge in that direction was an hour’s hike and not all that reliable, last he’d seen it. Downstream, prospects weren’t much better. The river widened there but not enough to ease the turbulence. Besides, wider meant more time in the water.
He’d be better off picking his way across here, where a string of large rocks lay in the bed as if dropped there by a giant—plunk plunk plunk. Now and then the river swiped a thirsty tongue over one of them, so he needed to hurry. Checking the leather pouch at his belt, he felt the weight of this winter’s final mission. He touched it for luck and stepped to the water’s edge.
From here, the tops of the stones were more generous. Six in all, and beckoning. In no time, he’d be back and handing his prize to Arthur. That should quiet the grumbling about tasking him with this mission. Or not, but that would be the grumbler’s problem. He leapt to the first rock.
His boot grabbed the surface, and he landed with a grin. Light and true. Not waiting, he hopped to the next one. Here, just two stones in, the water was louder. It swirled around the rock, gray with silt, edging toward his toes. He jumped to the next stone.
And slipped…but caught himself. When he found his balance, he was crouched on one leg, the other sticking out over the water. It cavorted under his heel, leaping and snapping like dogs under a treed cat. Slowly, he pulled his leg in and set down his foot. Looked toward his next landing place—
—and his whole body gave a jerk.
Palahmed stood on the opposite bank.
Gawain cursed. With any luck, his cloak had hidden his reaction. He flung a cheeky wave. Palahmed’s dark brows slanted inward, hard, and Gawain could almost hear the man’s teeth grinding. His brother, Safir, stepped up beside him and gave Gawain a grinning salute. Why couldn’t Arthur have just sent Safir? He’d tease Gawain when this was over, but it’d be better than the lecture coming from the older man.
Bleeding eels, he’d like to throttle them all. But he had to get to solid ground to do it.
He jumped for the next stone and landed square. Safir whooped. Nothing from Palahmed, of course. Because this morning, Gawain was a sweet, flat stone skimming the surface, touching down only for the briefest kisses. He bent and jumped.
And realized, only as the world tilted sidewise, that he hadn’t planted his boots first. They skidded out from under him as though he’d tried to launch from ice, and then the river was rushing toward his face.