Earth, 2486. Global warming, followed by thermonuclear winter, leaves Earth a far different planet from the one we know. New races rule the Northlands. Old races, too, have returned. In a land ruled by politics, Lady Ayailla’s word is law. When Thallin defies her law, she has the perfect weapon at her disposal. She holds a marker -- to the Mercenaries Guild.
Jarla. A woman with no clan, no past, no loyalties to anyone -- except the Mercenaries Guild. Edgy, restless, the life suits her well. She can be whoever the guild needs her to be. Warrior. Thief. Spy. Today, she’s a bounty hunter.
Thallin. A man haunted by his past and a grief he cannot outrun. Still, he cannot change who he is. He’ll sacrifice himself to save the lives of his men, even if it means placing his fate in the hands of a bounty hunter. But Jarla’s hands are interested in more than his fate. Will her touch heal his shattered soul?
Publisher’s Note: Too Hot To Handle has been previously published with another house. This version has undergone substantial revisions.
Too Hot To Handle: A Northlanders Tale
All rights reserved.
Copyright ©2005 Shelby Morgen
An Authorized Excerpt
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“Come back to bed, M’Lady.”
Damn. Just a little too slow. Jarla turned to look over her shoulder at the stranger lying beside her. The voice matched the body. Prime young beefcake. Naked, on display for her approval. Gods, what a body.
Who in the nine hells was he?
The man sought to draw her back into his arms, but a commotion beyond the window gave her another place to focus her attention. The noises that had awakened her were getting louder. Pandemonium had broken loose on the streets below. The pretty boy rose to follow her across the room, a dim figure in the shadows and light filtering through the curtains, his chest a washboard of carefully sculpted muscle that alternately glinted and darkened.
“Mmm.” Strong hands with fingertips as smooth as a child’s encircled her waist, brushing across her navel. He pulled her back against his outthrust cock, letting her feel its heat against her bare ass, then stroked his hands upward over her sensitive belly to capture her breasts. Her body responded involuntarily when he pinched her traitorous nipples, rolling them gently between soft, knowing fingers.
Damn. Her head ached from the after-effects of too much ale, and there was a man she didn’t remember pawing at her. She simply could not be trusted.
“You have the body of a Warrior goddess. So tight and firm.” He stroked her clit as he rubbed his cock in slow circles against her ass. For a moment she feared he would try to gain entrance there. “So difficult to tame. You have been very disobedient, slave. I fear I must punish you.”
Memories of last night came swirling back. He’d worked very hard trying to convince her of his mastery. Unfortunately she hadn’t been drunk enough to believe him capable of forcing her to do anything. Ever.
“Later. I’m not in the mood at the moment.” She hoped for his sake he would take the hint. Such a pity to have to kill him. He was so pretty…
“Feel how hard I am for you. You will come back to bed with me now, slave. My cock wants you. Time to show me what an obedient slave you can be. If you’re very good, I’ll fuck you ’til you scream.”
Right. Jarla fought back the urge to peel his hands off her breasts. If she screamed, it would be with frustration. She must not have paid the man, or he wouldn’t still be here. She really shouldn’t drink cheap ale. It did such bad things to her judgment.
The man bent to nuzzle her neck, letting his thick mass of dirty blond hair fall over her shoulder with a studied grace, obviously contrasting the blond of his hair with the dark burnt bronze of her skin. Suddenly he froze, his lips on her earlobe as his gaze strayed out the window.
Jarla shifted her focus to the scene playing out in the town below. Fires dotted the rooflines of thatched huts at the far end of town, racing to claim the marketplace, fanned by the cold north wind. Unable to damage the impenetrable stone walls of the city, the fire spread through the thatch-roofed wooden sheds in the slaves’ quarters with a destruction few invading enemies could have managed.
People were running from the market section in all directions, scattering like sheep before a pack of wild dogs.
“Do you think the fires will spread this far? Should we evacuate, M’Lady?”
The man -- it really was coarse of her not to remember his name -- sounded truly alarmed. Just short of panic. Jarla barely glanced at her consort as she pulled on her thin leather tunic, yanking her blackened ring mail over her head with a carelessness that ripped at her hair. “Evacuate?” The wind was blowing from the north -- away from them. Still, ’twas a good enough excuse to get rid of him. “Aye. A good plan. Round up the others and see they all make it out of this fine establishment.”
What had passed for strength and mastery last night now looked a shade too much like dumb as the stone the city was named for. “Much of this building is wood. If the fires spread it will go up like kindling. Go and knock on the doors of the other -- entertainers -- who work here. Make sure everyone is awake and knows they must flee.”
“But where will we go?” His deep voice rose close to a shriek as he pulled on his tunic.
“For now, take everyone to the river north of town. After the fires are under control I’m sure your master will see to finding you a new home. You are all too valuable to go homeless for long…” Damn it, he must have a name. Jarla tossed a pair of gold coins to him. “Go.”
He stared, wide eyed, at the coins in his hand for a moment. “Yes, M’Lady. I shall do as you instruct.” He leaned in to kiss her quickly before he fled, although at the door he turned to look back over his shoulder. “Thank you, M’Lady!”
She couldn’t get away from the tavern fast enough. What is wrong with me? she mused rather morosely as she took the outside stairs two at a time. The man was gorgeous. And he’d been talented enough. She simply wasn’t able to convince herself a man like that would ever master her. What was the point in playing sex games if you didn’t believe the man was capable of outwitting you? There was no danger. No excitement. If all she had wanted was sex, he would have been an admirable companion. But he had lacked the ability to make her believe for even an instant she could not break him with one blow, had he ever truly frightened her.
The sex hadn’t even been all that great. Not that the darling hadn’t been eager to please her. But she hadn’t wanted to be fawned over. She’d wanted strength. Passion. Mastery. She’d wanted, just for once, not to be the one in control -- the one making all the decisions. A little ingenuity, damn it. Was that asking too much?
He’d been the prettiest of Stone City Tavern’s offerings. Buff, sculpted young body, long, thick cock that looked eager to please. His stamina had proved noteworthy. But sometimes a woman wanted more, wanted…
“By the gods.” Jarla rounded the corner of the last set of stairs to run straight into the broadest chest she had ever had the pleasure of observing. She looked up, trying to see something beyond the massive chest. Up. And up. And up.
Strong hands shot out to steady her, lifting her easily off the ground. Lust hit her like a hard wave, knocking her breath from her lungs. She was no wisp of a woman. A man who could pick her up so easily could surely make her believe anything he wished. She kept looking up, wordlessly searching for his face.
The man’s countenance went dead as he glanced down at her. His gaze dropped respectfully as he set her back on the ground, though a muscle in his jaw went rock hard. “Forgive me, M’Lady.”
The torc on his neck branded him a slave. Another wave of lust shot through her. A huge bear of a man stood before her -- a man who could break her with just one blow of those mighty hands. What if instead he was forced to serve her, submitting to her every whim?
This wasn’t her usual fantasy, but surprisingly enough she found the idea even more arousing. Moisture flooded her pussy, quickly soaking the leather thong she wore beneath her leggings.
She reached out to touch, running her fingers over hard planes of muscle that dipped into a slight cleft halfway between his nipples. She let her palm glide across to stroke one of those inviting coral buds, pleased at his sharp intake of breath as it beaded up beneath her palm. “I would not have wasted my time with the pretty blond boy last night had I known there was a man about. Come upstairs with me, slave.”
His eyes widened in surprise. “I am flattered, M’Lady, but --”
“Are you not a slave? Is it not your duty to obey me?”
“No, M’Lady. That is, I am a slave, but I do not work here. I am a fighter in the arena.”
She struggled for her voice. She should have known. She had not even the effects of the ale to blame this time. She should have realized his torc was too realistic to be a bit of sculpted jewelry. It was the real thing. The raw scrape across his left shoulder suggested he had just escaped the fires. Jarla looked beyond him toward the slaves’ quarters. “The arena? It is not closed this time of the year? Are there others?”
Was he no brighter than the pretty blond boy? “Are there other men still trapped in the slaves’ quarters beneath the arena? Chained, so they cannot escape?”
“Aye, M’Lady.” He kept glancing over her shoulder, surveying the passageway beyond her as if he wanted to be on his way, to shove her aside, though he kept his hands hanging loosely at his sides.
A fire, panic in the streets, utter pandemonium. He wore a torc, yet he ran free while others stayed behind to suffer and die. Opportune timing? The twinges she’d felt in her loins moved higher, turning into the bile of disgust. “Don’t let me stand in the way of your escape.” Jarla sidestepped to allow him to pass as she headed for the burning buildings.
“I need a weapon, M’Lady.” His voice was low, yet powerful, desperately asking her to believe in him. “I broke down the gates, but I could no’ free them.”
Jarla turned to stare at the huge bear of a man once again. “You expected to find weapons to free the slaves in a whorehouse?”
“The tavern has kitchens, M’Lady. An axe for the firewood. A meat cleaver. Anything.”
The hint of a brogue and his size branded him a Northlander. A Northlander? Here? There could be only one reason for a Northlander to venture into these parts. Especially one wearing a slave’s torc. Or, perhaps, a prisoner’s collar. An iron torc, to prevent him from shifting.
After all these months…
But he was attempting to free the slaves. Without help they would all die, slowly suffocating from the smoke long before the flames began to crackle about their feet.
She was a professional, damn it. The job came first. Always.
She was a fool.
Jarla closed her eyes for the barest of moments, asking the gods’ forgiveness for her stupidity. Tossing her war axe to the man with the desperate eyes, she noted his fingers were raw and bloody, as if he’d tried to rip the chains apart with his bare hands. Still, he grinned as he caught her axe. “I thank ye, M’Lady.”
And with that he was gone.