Tempted by Ruin
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.
TEMPTED BY RUIN is the 4th novel of the SONS OF BRITAIN series.
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, killing in self-defense
SONS OF BRITAIN series
They're a long way from legendary. Amid the volatility of 6th-century Britain, Arthur and Bedwyr are just two young men, born to fight and bound to their warlord by blood and oath. But when fierce hearts collide, loyalties can shift, creating bonds far stronger—and ideas far riskier—than their world may be ready for.
Release date: May 7, 2019
Print pages: 220
Content advisory: 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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Tempted by Ruin
Autumn, 516 CE
Palahmed watched the two across the table for a moment, then leaned over to his brother. “Hero worship?”
Safir snorted. “Obvious, isn’t it?” He considered Palahmed with an amused expression. “Envious?”
“No,” he scoffed.
“Certain about that?”
“I’m certain I need some sleep.” Not that he’d be able to.
Safir half rose. “I’m off to find a fuck. Care to join?”
“I said I need sleep.”
“Suit yourself, old man.”
His younger brother knocked his empty ale cup against Palahmed’s, then left the table. In his absence, the usual evening bustle of Rhys’s hall pressed up against Palahmed’s senses.
He wasn’t old, not objectively. But sometimes, when everyone around him was enjoying life and all its trappings…he felt weary. And irritable.
His eyes met the bright green gaze of the lad across the table.
Weary and irritable and unwillingly aroused.
The lad grinned at him, then turned back to Arthur. “How soon ’til winter camp?”
Arthur laughed. “We just got back from summer campaign. Celebrate. Aren’t you going to get some ink?”
Gwalchmai shrugged. “Maybe.”
“It hardly hurts,” Arthur said and winked at Palahmed.
Gwalchmai glanced at Palahmed as well, before saying, “I’m not afraid of pain. Palahmed doesn’t have ink—”
How did he know?
“—and he’s not afraid of pain. Are you, Palahmed?”
Afraid of it?
Sometimes he wondered if he craved it.
The lad turned back to Arthur as if his point had been made. “See? Besides, the ink man’s been busy with Bedwyr, hasn’t he? What’s he getting?”
“Wouldn’t tell me,” Arthur said, scanning the hall.
And then it happened, the transformation Palahmed had witnessed countless times over the summer as he’d fought with the young warriors from the mountains. He’d seen it on Bedwyr’s face too, but Arthur was less adept at masking it. It was probably only a subtle shift of muscle, but nothing so mundane could encompass the result: an expression that said a man had just spotted the one who made up his entire world.
It was rare.
It was beautiful.
It made him want to cut his own throat.
Bedwyr approached their table, his shirt draped over an arm. With his burly chest and dark hair, he was very much the picture of his father, Lord Uthyr, minus one hand and a cartload of arrogance.
Arthur rose from his seat, grinning. “Well?”
Bedwyr nodded to Palahmed, then to Gwalchmai, and then snagged the lad’s cup and sipped from it, as if he had all night.
Impatient, Arthur rounded him until he could see Bedwyr’s back…
…and his smile fell. Not all the way to a frown, more to a surprised blankness. He blinked, and then his dove-colored gaze—so strange on a fellow otherwise so vibrant—surveyed Bedwyr’s back.
“What is it?” Gwalchmai asked, and Palahmed had the odd urge to hush him, as if they’d stumbled on a private moment.
Bedwyr turned to show them, and the pieces fell into place.
Spanning the height and width of his muscular back was the figure of a bear, rampant and fierce.
Slowly, Arthur stepped back around until he faced Bedwyr. They looked at each other for a long moment, during which the hall rightly should have combusted around them, and then Arthur took hold of Bedwyr’s face and kissed him.
Palahmed couldn’t look away. He’d heard the rumors; Rhys’s hall was a marketplace for information as much as tangible goods. Elain had confirmed the whispers when she’d recounted her time in the mountains. But though the devotion between these two was apparent to anyone paying attention, they hadn’t yet shown it like this—with a searing kiss that went on for several breaths while hundreds watched. One such observer whistled, and another called out, and Palahmed wondered what Uthyr was thinking, until he recalled seeing the warlord leave the hall sometime before with the redheaded whore named Nan. The din grew raucous, and Arthur broke the embrace to murmur something in Bedwyr’s ear. Bedwyr turned and they walked calmly toward the doorway, one behind the other, slipping through the open entry and out into the night.
When Palahmed turned back to his cup, Gwalchmai was watching him.
This would be the perfect time to go to bed.
The lad picked up Arthur’s abandoned cup and drank, looking at Palahmed over the rim.
The perfect time to fail to sleep.
Gwalchmai set down the cup, licking his lips. “Why didn’t you go with Safir?”
An excellent question, to which he had no good answer. “Wasn’t finished with my ale.”
Gwalchmai leaned across the table and peered into Palahmed’s cup. His dark hair, trimmed short in the style of Lot’s men, was a riot of curls after a summer’s growth. They looked as though they would whisper between Palahmed’s fingers.
Gwalchmai looked up at him with a crooked smile. “Cup’s empty.”
“Time for bed, then.”
But he didn’t move.
And the lad noticed. With those quick green eyes that seemed to see everything.
He rose and came ’round to sit on the bench next to Palahmed, leaning back against the table. He brought with him the scent of his sweat, which tweaked Palahmed’s throat, made his tongue ache.
“When you go with Safir, what do you look for?”
“A willing partner.”
“In a brothel?” Gwalchmai laughed softly. “Sounds easy. Is there a catch?” His gaze warmed the side of Palahmed’s face. “With you?”
There was, and handing it to this one would be a grave mistake.
“Come,” the lad said, knocking a knuckle to his shoulder. “We’ve fought together now. Do you like someone loud or quiet?”
“Round or slim?”
A game. Wonderful. “Slim.”
“Pale or dark?”
He turned to Gwalchmai. The summer had done little to bake his skin golden. He’d had a perpetual sunburn throughout the campaigns. Setting it off, always, had been those dark curls and mischievous eyebrows. “Both.”
The lad looked from one of Palahmed’s eyes to the other and swallowed. The lines of his throat were smooth, the sinew supple. “Beautiful…or handsome?” he asked softly.
No. This wasn’t going to happen.
So he let his gaze drop over Gwalchmai’s narrow chest and wiry arms, his hands that clutched each other, his strong thighs. Raising his eyes, he took in the delicate cleft chin, rosy lips, and freckled nose. The maddeningly long lashes. The eyes like moss in a forest glade.
“Pretty,” he said.
Gwalchmai blinked. He turned away swiftly to look out over the hall. His hands worked themselves in and out of fists. His chest rose and fell on quickening breaths. With a final, decisive inhale, he turned back to Palahmed. “Would you—”
Palahmed pressed a fingertip to the lad’s lips, silencing him.
He couldn’t do this again.
He couldn’t even pretend it had only happened once before.
Slowly, he lifted his finger. “How old are you?”
Gwalchmai frowned and straightened. “Twenty.”
Not a day past fifteen; Palahmed would have laid his meager savings on it. “Seven,” he said and rose from the bench.
The lad stood. “Seven what?”
“Years.” Palahmed looked down to him. “If you still want to ask me that question in seven years, you may.”
That sweet chin dropped. “Seven years?”
Palahmed could scarcely believe he’d managed to say it, but the young one’s outrage gave him the rare feeling he’d done something right. Relieved, he allowed himself a teasing smile. “Some things are worth the wait, Gwalchmai.”
“That’s a cradle name,” the lad said, glaring at him. “My true one is Gawain.”
Palahmed groaned inwardly. It was too much knowledge. He didn’t want to know this lad’s true name—the name that would follow him into manhood. Didn’t want it branded into his mind like this.
Because he wouldn’t be able to forget now. Not even with seven years to try.
He performed a desperately brief bow. “Good night.” Entirely against his will, his treacherous tongue added, “Gawain.”
The lad’s eyes flared, liquid in the torchlight.
Palahmed turned and made his escape, the shape of the name still in his mouth, soft, breathy, relentless, like a desert wind set to drive a man mad.
Northern Cymru, near the Saxon border
Early spring, 523 CE
(6 years, 5 moons, and 19 days later…)
…not that any fool was counting.
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.
It was deeper than he’d figured, and colder, and sobered him quickly. When he surfaced, he was already several lengths downstream. He tried to swim for the bank, but his arms caught in his cloak. Freeing them only let the cloak catch the current. It tugged hard at his throat, and damn the thing. It was a good cloak, oiled leather over fleece, and he’d paid a pretty coin for it, but it would strangle him. Clawing at its laces, he slipped the knot and then fought the current for any gain he could make toward the bank. When his knee finally hit the pebbly river bed, he dragged himself to shore and crawled out.
If he’d been alone, he might’ve collapsed there, enjoying the dawn-rosy sky and two lungs mostly clear of river sludge. But he had an audience, so he hauled himself to his feet. A hand gripped his elbow, helping him rise, and he hated his disappointment when it turned out to be Safir’s.
“Bit brisk for a swim, mate.”
“Love to, all the way back to Rhys’s, where I can truly get fucked.” Safir squinted downstream. “That your cloak?”
He couldn’t look.
“Hold tight, I’ll fetch it.”
But Safir was already off.
“Leave it, Safir!” That shout came from above, where Palahmed stood, glaring.
Gawain climbed the bank. When he’d gained the top, he followed Palahmed’s gaze to where Safir was fishing his cloak from the river with a tree branch. Why, why, why couldn’t he want that brother?
“Fool,” Palahmed muttered.
He couldn’t agree more. Slyly, he checked for his dagger and found it in its sheath. Then he reached for his pouch.
It felt empty.
“Do you have it, at least?”
Swallowing panic, he pinched the leather, feeling for it…and then relief, like a hot bath across his skin. The ring was lodged near the drawstrings. He turned to Palahmed and gripped the pouch. “Right here in my wee sac. Want to feel?”
The man’s long nose flared, the only movement in his body. “No.”
A mortifying heat rose on Gawain’s face, and his traitorous teeth started chattering. He bit down hard to quiet them.
Palahmed sighed and began jerking at the laces of his own cloak.
Gawain took one awkward pace toward Safir, but Palahmed’s arms and legs were too fucking long. His cloak came to rest on Gawain’s shoulders as gracefully as an eagle touching down. An eagle bearing the warmth and scent of a man Gawain would never have. “Leave off,” he said, pushing at it miserably.
But then it wasn’t just the cloak surrounding him but Palahmed too, pressing against his back, his hard fingers tying the laces at Gawain’s throat. Hot breath skated over the back of his neck. “If you ever do that again…”
Gawain shivered. He turned his head just enough to see Palahmed’s lips. They were pressed together, pale against his dark beard. “What’ll you do?”
Those lips parted, blood making them full again and smooth—
“Here you are, then.”
Safir had reached them, Gawain’s sopping cloak in one fist.
“Thing’s heavier than a drowned sheep,” Safir said. He eyed Palahmed’s cloak, then lifted an eyebrow at his brother. “Noble.”
Gawain snatched his cloak. “Thanks,” he said and headed for the track, proof of his bad decisions dragging the winter-dead grass beside him.
Palahmed watched him stalk away.
Proud hawk. Proud and reckless.
Safir leaned close. “You can breathe now,” he murmured.
Palahmed pushed him away. “Get fucked.”
“Everyone has the same good wish for me this morning.” Safir clapped a hand to his chest. “I have to say, it’s rather heartwarming.”
“Idiot.” He scowled at Safir’s breeches. “You’re soaked to the knees. Should have let it go—it’d serve him right.” He turned and strode after Gawain, who had already put a fair gap between them.
Safir fell in beside him. “For what? Completing his mission? Getting back to camp in a timely manner?”
“For attempting a high-water crossing aided by nothing but undue confidence,” he growled.
“He was doing fine until you showed yourself.”
“And a good thing I did.”
“Is that so?” Safir said. “I must’ve missed the moment when you lent him a hand.”
“Didn’t deserve a hand, taking a risk like that.” He ground his teeth. “Could’ve lost the ring.”
“Yes,” Safir drawled. “You dragged me from my warm bedroll before dawn to ensure the ring made it back to camp.”
Their bedrolls weren’t that warm; it was fucking freezing out here. He’d believe spring was coming when he felt it on his skin. Shouldn’t have given the lad his cloak. Didn’t deserve that either, by God.
“Know what I think?”
“Can’t imagine,” he muttered, then kicked himself for encouraging the man.
“I think you care.”
“Of course I care. Rhys is paying us to get that ring.”
“Not about the ring,” Safir said. “About our Gawain.”
Heat flooded his face. At least he could blame the cold. “You’re wasting your breath.”
“Don’t call me that.”
“Brother of my blood. Savior of my own young stupid arse.” Safir chuckled. “Do you think me blind?”
Would that he were. Mute, as well.
“Do you think I haven’t noticed? That in the time since you laid down that silly challenge—and credit me, brother, it was a challenge—you’ve only grown more attached? I have six years of evidence.”
Palahmed looked away, trying for an aloof scan of the trees lining the track. Up ahead, Gawain was stretching the capacity of his shorter legs, likely intent on putting as much distance between them as possible.
Which was fine. More than fine: it was reasonable, intelligent, and precisely what Palahmed had wished him to do.
Six years, five moons, and nineteen days ago.
Give or take a day. He wasn’t a fucking astronomer.
Safir snorted. “You just corrected my count in your head, didn’t you?”
“I did not.”
Safir’s arm came across Palahmed’s chest, and then the fool stepped in front of him.
“You’re in the way.”
“You’re in a way, too. A bad one.”
Palahmed tried to slip past, but Safir blocked him again.
“What’s stopping you?”
“With him,” Safir said, his voice barely more than steam in the air. “Why won’t you give in?”
“If you imagine Gawain would welcome such a thing, you’re a dreamer.”
“I don’t have to imagine it, Palahmed. It’s as plain as the mud on your cheek.”
Palahmed moved to wipe it away, a breath before he saw the twinkle in Safir’s eyes. He jerked his hand back to his side.
Safir gave him half a smile. “Six and a half years is a long time, brother—to observe you…and him.”
He glanced over Safir’s shoulder, hating that he couldn’t stop himself. Gawain was nearly out of sight now.
“Why won’t you let yourself have him?”
“You know why not.” His body was betraying him at all turns this morning. First the blush, then his eyes, and now his tongue. He didn’t want to meet his brother’s gaze, but after a long silent moment he couldn’t help but do so.
Safir’s brown eyes looked as dark and soft as a doe’s, and all he could see in those deep pools was the boy. Not the one he’d given the challenge, but the one he’d pulled from the clutches of a wealthy man and dragged half a world away, to this chillier place. The boy he’d tried to make a home for since.
“He’s a man, Palahmed. Has been for some time now.”
He swallowed. “I know that.”
“Do you? You treat him as if he’s got no more beard than a peach.”
Safir’s lips quirked. “Fair enough. But he’s a man grown. A brave one, even if you won’t admit it. He has, by all accounts at Rhys’s, stamina beyond imagining. And he wants you.”
“Nonsense. I’m practically a graybeard. One with stamina well within the bounds of imagining.”
Safir grinned. “You aren’t wise enough to be gray yet, so don’t flatter yourself. What have you, thirty-five years?”
“And if he’s looking for a new father?”
“Would that be so terrible?”
Palahmed glared daggers.
Safir ignored them. “Think of it. He would look to you for everything. And you’d be there to provide it.”
The warmth that flashed through him at the prospect was dismaying. The thought of giving that to someone—Gawain, only for the sake of argument…
It felt like gazing upon paradise.
“A sweet picture, isn’t it? Save your denial, I can see the truth on your face. Right next to the mud.” Safir reached up and swiped a thumb across Palahmed’s cheekbone.
“I truly had mud on my face?”
“Since you woke me.”
So it had been there the entire time he’d been arguing with Gawain.
“You need someone to take care of you,” Safir said.
“That’s what you’re for. To care for me in my old age.”
“As tempting as that sounds,” Safir said, chuckling, “I won’t always be here.”
Now something altogether more alarming gripped him. “What do you mean?”
“One of these days I’m going to go off on my own.”
Palahmed stared at him. Safir left all the time, sometimes for weeks, but he always came back. Always.
“I’ll have to make my own way at some point,” Safir said. “As nice as it is to bask in the suffocation of your loving care.”
Palahmed scoffed, but his heart pounded. He hadn’t smuggled his brother from Arabia to Cymru to lose him. “You’ve never taken care of yourself. You live from coin to coin and bed to bed. You aren’t about to change now.”
He regretted the words immediately, but Safir, being Safir, only said easily, “Perhaps.”
The rest of the walk was silent, which set him further on a blade’s edge. Safir never stopped talking. That he did so now felt like a punishment, or some wayward point he was laboring to make. Palahmed could think of nothing to fill the void, with the effect that he heard Gawain’s voice long before they reached camp. It didn’t carry the irritated bite it often did when he spoke to Palahmed. Instead, it floated on laughter.
Then they stepped into camp and it ceased, as if Palahmed had shot it from the sky with a stone from his sling. Gawain squared his shoulders to him, causing Arthur and Bedwyr to turn toward him as well.
“That’s that, then,” Arthur said. “The sooner we deliver this to Rhys, the sooner we get a hot meal.”
“And a warm bed,” Gawain added.
Safir clapped the lad on the shoulder. “Won’t have any trouble finding that, will you?” His gaze flicked over to meet Palahmed’s.
Gawain lifted his chin. “I won’t. So I won’t be needing this.” He unlaced Palahmed’s cloak.
“Don’t…” But the hawk was quick, resettling it on Palahmed’s shoulders. He could only hold himself still as Gawain retied it.
For a brief, wild moment, he wanted to apologize for his snapping, to congratulate Gawain on a mission well done, near-drowning notwithstanding. He even took a breath of humility to do so.
Then those pale, chapped fingers rose and patted him on the jaw. “You need it more than I do, old man.”
Palahmed closed his mouth.
Then he walked carefully to his bedroll and bent aching knees to prepare it for the trek back.
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