It was that time of year again. The snow was already thick on the ground, and Koll's village prepared to hole up for the brutal winter. Highlighted by the frosty glow of the moon and stars, the gently rolling land around him was bathed in bluish white from horizon to horizon. To the north, the mountains stretched skyward while the sparse trees stood like naked skeletons. It was easy to get lost in the endless haze, but Koll kept his sled hound, Greyfell, on a steady homeward course.
He also kept a careful lookout. There were many predators on the arctic planet of Jensen. The terrain was rife with giant wolverines, spear-toothed cats, and enormous frost bears that prowled the ice floes. Some said Jensen was the last true wilderness left in the universe, which was what had attracted the immigrants who'd settled on this planet generations ago. Untamed nature was both beautiful and deadly, and this time of year could be especially dangerous as food grew scarce. Winter was the season of endings. And beginnings.
Koll blew out a loud sigh and watched his breath fog and disappear in front of his face. Although he should have known better, he'd thought to make a new beginning for himself this year. This was the season when the single men of the allied villages went courting. More precisely, it was a time for those looking to settle down to hunt for a possible wife.
When a man found a female he wanted, he offered her a ribbon bearing his family color--in Koll's case, a damn unfortunate color. If the woman accepted, she wore it in her hair as a warning to other males and moved in with him for the winter. Come spring, if the pair decided they suited, they married and used the breeding season to start their family. If they were unhappy, then they simply parted ways, free to try with someone else next year.
Koll had seen this mating dance before. Seen it but had never experienced it. No female had ever accepted his ribbon, not from any of the villages nearby. He blamed his size.
From an early age, Koll had grown fast and hadn't stopped until he'd towered over his peers. His childhood awkwardness had been a source of amusement to the village kids, and they'd excluded him from most of their games. Puberty had only added bulk to his tall frame, turning him into a muscled giant.
He wasn't a gentle one, though. Koll knew how to be gentle and never looked for trouble, but he was not an easy man. Having learned to control his strength, he was now a seasoned warrior. Usually he did battle with the elements and the beasts that prowled these lands, but the men on the other side of the mountains had been known to raid his village during lean times.
As a mature male, his size and strength should have been an asset, proof that he could protect and provide for a female. Instead, he frightened most women with his large body, dark looks, and gruff manner. As for those females who weren't put off ... well, men didn't hold a monopoly on lechery. Unfortunately, the women who were attracted to his size, or at least the size of one body part in particular, never seemed interested in more than a night or two.
Koll wanted more. He wasn't the quitting kind--stubborn, his mother would have said--which was why he hadn't given up hope. That's how he found himself here in the dead of night, trekking endlessly through the snow on his way back from the distant village of Idona. Year after year, he ventured farther and farther abroad in the hope of finding a wife. He'd even lined his sled basket with furs to keep her warm and comfortable for the ride back to his home. But his sled was empty of occupants because he'd failed. Again.
"None of them would have suited me anyway," he groused, trying not to wince at the memory of his recent rejections.
His sled hound twitched an ear in response. Fully in travel mode, Greyfell focused dead ahead and kept his pace steady. Then he did something Koll knew better than to ignore. With an audible breath, Greyfell broke stride to smell the air. His head popped up, his lungs inflated, and his ears swiveled forward as he scanned the terrain.
Koll threw the brake before unsheathing the knife at his belt. He went as still as his hound, letting his gaze slide over his surroundings. The muffled crunch of snow caught his ear just before Greyfell released a soft whine.
Ready for an attack, Koll spun to face the threat and froze in shock. The source of the commotion was closer than he'd expected--close enough that he knew he'd be dead were this a hungry frost bear sneaking up on him. Fortunately, it wasn't a beast he faced. There, limned by moonlight, stood the most breathtaking woman he'd ever seen.
Her hair was so white it was nearly transparent as it drifted down to curl just beneath her cheekbones. Those cheeks were rosy from the cold--a pretty contrast to skin almost as pale as the snowflakes. His first impression was that she was an albino. Then he saw her eyes. They weren't colorless or gray or even the pale blue of a clear winter sky. Instead, they were rich brown, full of depth and life. They were also pleading.
"Please." Her full lips delivered the word before she swayed forward. She would have collapsed if his reflexes hadn't made him fast enough to catch her.
Mindful of the blade in his hand, Koll wrapped his arm around her waist to hold her up. He received the second shock of the evening when he realized she was tall enough he could tuck her head under his chin. Even through the fur coats they both wore, he felt her full breasts pressing on either side of his sternum instead of landing somewhere near his navel. His groin heated before he got his mind working.
"Please," she murmured again.
"Are you hurt?" His voice came out even more like a growl than usual.
Trying not to jostle her, he pulled her to the side of the sled. Her head lolled back on the furs as he laid her in the basket and leaned back to look at her. He kept his knife out.
"Answer me, woman. Are you injured?"
"No." Her eyelashes fluttered as she fought to stay conscious. "Please help. They're stalking me. Can't run ... can't run any farther."
Koll was already studying the frozen landscape, searching for danger. At the front of the sled, Greyfell continued to whine and shift his feet, but he wasn't peering into the darkness anymore. The canine watched the woman closely. Greyfell hadn't been around many females, and her sudden appearance was obviously making the sled hound nervous.
"Hey, calm down." Koll used his command voice to snap Greyfell out of it. Then he returned his attention to the woman. "How many? What kind of beasts?"
Each predator on this world had different hunting techniques and vulnerabilities. He wanted to know what he was up against.
Her lashes drifted closed again but she answered. "Men. Traveling on two feet."
Anger flared in Koll's gut. Predators were chasing her all right, but these hunted for sport. An attractive female like her made for appealing prey. The bastards must have caught the poor woman outside the safety of her village. She was geared up in warm clothes and snowshoes, and he was relieved to see her garb was still intact and in place. So far, she'd escaped assault. She was worn out, though--obviously at the end of her strength.
"How many?" he repeated.
No answer. He could still see her breath, but she'd finally succumbed to exhaustion.
Koll didn't waste time. He had no doubt he could take out several attackers, but he didn't know how large a gang was after her. There was no sense taking chances. Every protective instinct he had demanded he get her to safety as quickly as possible.
After popping off her snowshoes, he got her tucked securely under the furs before climbing on behind her and pulling up the brake. With a low grunt of sound, he signaled Greyfell to run, and the hound immediately obeyed. They shot forward, heading homeward once more. Koll stayed alert for danger, only stealing occasional glances at the beautiful woman in his sled.
The extra weight slowed their travel. It was closer to dawn than dusk when they finally reached his house. Koll carried the woman inside and laid her on his bed before stripping his gear and seeing to Greyfell. The hound's head reached Koll's chest, giving him a clear view of the animal's large black tongue as he panted. He stripped off Greyfell's protective boots and rubbed him down with a towel before settling the hound in the kennel attached to the house.
Then Koll built a fire before returning his attention to his new guest. When he'd planned to bring a woman here, this wasn't quite what he'd had in mind. She was still sound asleep and probably would be for hours. He needed to get her out of those wet clothes, a thought that aroused him and made him feel awkward at the same time.
After what she'd been through, he wanted to tell her that he meant no harm. As much as she stirred his body, her vulnerability moved him and made him want to comfort her. He should have told her she was safe. He should have promised his help immediately when she'd asked. At the time, he'd been so focused on assessing the threat he hadn't thought to offer her reassurance. Hadn't he learned that females needed gentle words?
"Stupid lout," Koll grumbled to himself.
He wasn't good with words, but he could have said something. No need for poetry.
Lifting one of the extra fur blankets from the foot of the bed, he held it in front of him like a shield as he walked toward the woman. The firelight bathed her like sunrise and brought a rosier hue to her skin. Very carefully, he laid the blanket over her lap, though she was still covered by her leather pants. He propped her up with one arm while he used the other to peel off her wet coat and toss it aside.
One down. That was the easiest part.
Her sweater beneath was damp and clung to her skin. She was not a scrawny creature; she was heavy-boned and lushly curved. Not fat--she was built of surprisingly hard muscle for a woman--but she certainly wasn't dainty. Sturdy was the word that came to his mind.
Pulling the blanket higher, Koll covered her chest with it while he wrestled off her top. He groaned when he brushed his callused hand over the bare skin of her back. She was so damn soft. Soft and smooth and delectable.
His erection punched his fly so hard he winced. With a death grip on the blanket, he kept the covering in place, though what he really wanted was to let it drop. He ground his teeth in determination and protected her modesty as he lowered her torso back onto the bed. Stepping back from temptation, he moved to her feet.
Koll had never paid much attention to a woman's feet before, yet he found himself captivated when he bared hers. They were beautifully shaped, arched in the right place, and just as smooth and pale as the rest of her. And they were big. Although they weren't absurdly so, her feet were definitely very large for a female. He must be going mad because that turned him on even more.
Unable to stop himself, he slid the blanket up her long, endless legs. Of course they probably only seemed lengthy because she was so tall. He was pretty sure she was proportioned longer in the torso, but that didn't matter. There was just so much of her to explore, and every part had fresh heat racing to his cock.
By the time he had the blanket to her waist, his hands shook. He fumbled with the fastening of her pants and felt as if he were gasping for air as he dragged the leather down along with her underwear. At the last possible moment, the blanket hooked on her belt and slipped down to conceal her privates. It stopped at the top of her thighs while he slid the material the rest of the way down her legs and off her toes.
Koll was sweating with the effort it took not to reverse course and slide his palms over her naked calves and thighs. His gaze was fixed on the shadow between her legs--a glimpse of paradise denied him by the outcropping of blanket just barely blocking his view. One flick of his finger and he could take a peek. Just a peek to see if her hair there was as white as that on her head.
He hadn't realized he'd moved until he was already gripping the bottom hem of the blanket. With a surge of self-disgust, Koll broke from his lustful trance. What was he thinking? Instead of pushing the blanket higher, he yanked it down to cover her to her ankles.
He pulled too hard. The top edge jerked low, revealing the perfect swell of her breasts and half of one delicate pink nipple. A spurt of precum instantly moistened his fly.
Koll released a ripe curse and stumbled back until he hit the wall. He tried to regain control but couldn't tear his gaze away from her. It had been too long, and despite all logic, he'd convinced himself he might succeed in bringing a woman home with him tonight. Never mind that this woman hadn't come here to winter with him. Never mind that he didn't know anything about her. He would never lay a finger on her while she was helpless like this, but--
With a growl, he stood and tore open his fly. His dick sprang out and drooled in anticipation, ready to pounce on her. Already proportionate to the rest of his body, his cock was as long and hard as Koll had ever seen it. Experienced females enjoyed his girth, while others found it one more aspect of him to fear. He wondered fleetingly whether this woman could handle him before he wrangled control of his erection with one broad hand.
"Yes!" The word broke from him on a groan before he could bite it back.
Usually he wasn't a talkative lover, but tonight he was too tightly coiled. Mesmerized by the nipple that remained so coyly half-hidden, he stroked his cock with long, tight pulls. The veins along his shaft stood out, probably mirrored by those in his neck as his heart pounded so hard he felt his pulse in his temples. Jerking off had never felt so good.
His thighs quivered as his imagination took over. He could see himself pulling the blanket free of her, exposing those mouthwatering breasts and the unending banquet of her delicate skin. Koll quickened his pace as he pictured his hands stroking up the insides of her thighs, pushing her roughly open, and placing the head of his cock right there at the opening of her den. She'd be wet, crushingly tight, and oh-so hot as he shoved into her. Her tight ring of muscle would massage him as he thrust, taking him right up to the base of his cock. He'd glisten with her juices and hear the quiet suck and squelch as he worked into her. That beautiful nipple would pucker between his lips while he licked it. There'd be no holding back. He'd stroke and pound and claim her sweet body until--
Koll's balls drew up a split second before cum flooded over his abdomen and hand. His cock sent up surge after surge of wet pleasure, burning him more hotly than the nearby fire. Grunting through the contractions, he lifted his gaze from her milky breast to her lovely face. Another hard spurt of cum shot from his dick like a geyser.
By the time the tide receded, he shook all over and had to rely on the wall behind him for support. He was so sensitive that he moaned at the feel of his fingers releasing his spent cock. The sensation was enough to keep him from going completely limp, which wasn't unusual. He'd always been an extremely demanding lover, requiring more than one round to be completely satisfied.
Only when his cum cooled did shame hit him. Here he was, masturbating over an unconscious woman--one who was scared and alone and helpless. He was no untried boy unable to control himself. Where was his self-discipline? His self-respect?
Koll cleaned himself and tucked his cock back in his pants before approaching her. With a careful tug, he shifted the blanket to cover her all the way to her neck and then walked away. It looked as if he'd be sleeping on the floor for what was left of the night.
He already knew what he had to do. Tomorrow morning he'd go to the trading post to talk to the other villagers and see if anyone knew this woman and where she might have come from. A female with such lovely, unusual looks would certainly be missed and likely reclaimed in no time. If she'd been his, he never would have let her out of his sight.
The trading post, which was little more than an enclosed shack, was mostly used for gossip at this time of year. It served the same function during the day as the tavern did at night. Leaving his female guest still sleeping, Koll let Greyfell out before going to see what he could learn from his neighbors. This seemed like perfect timing since it was still early morning and the day promised to be overcast and windy.
There was a noticeable lull in the conversation the moment he ducked through the door and stomped his boots. Dozens of villagers were crammed inside, all standing since the trading post didn't have any chairs. A few of the men returned silent nods of greeting when he looked their way, but nobody called him over or walked up to meet him. The women--those without ribbons in their hair--avoided eye contact altogether. It was a stark reminder that he didn't quite fit in, even with people he'd known all his life.
Rolling his shoulders, Koll winced when he felt a twinge in his back. The floor had made for a miserable bed, but he hadn't dared lie any closer to temptation. It had been difficult enough finding sleep with a naked woman so close at hand.
Just as an image of her nude body formed in his mind, a familiar figure separated from a group of young women and approached him. Koll returned his focus to the present.
"Back so soon?" Gilby asked. "I figured you'd give it at least another couple of days. I thought you were determined not to fail this year."
Koll grunted. That was Gilby for you. Whereas Koll could be too curt and sparse with his words, Gilby never shut up and lacked anything resembling a verbal filter. Short where Koll was tall, carefree where he was solemn, Gilby was his opposite in every way. They'd been friends for as long as he could remember.
That didn't mean the man didn't irritate him.
"You're assuming I didn't succeed," Koll pointed out. "Maybe I came back because I found a woman."
A woman with white hair and succulent breasts.
"Uh-huh." Gilby returned a look that managed to convey disbelief and pity at once.
The latter especially rankled, even more so when Koll noticed the rest of his neighbors shared similar expressions. They'd expected him to fail, he realized. Just as he had last year and the year before that. They expected him to live alone for the rest of his life, as if he were some kind of freak no woman would want. That hit a sore spot.
"I have plenty to offer," he growled, wishing he didn't sound so defensive.
Gilby had to aim high to slap his shoulder. "I know. Someday you'll find yourself a wife. Maybe you just have to lower your standards."
No filter. None.
Koll felt his scowl reach all the way to his eyebrows. What was that supposed to mean? Was he supposed to settle for a drunkard or a dolt or some hideous creature missing half her teeth? Was that all he was worth? Although he knew better than to let it get to him, his friend's words pricked his pride and sent his temper roiling.
"I don't have to lower my standards," Koll snapped. "I have the perfect woman waiting in my bed right now."
"What?" Gilby froze.
So did the rest of the occupants inside the post. Damn, maybe his friend wasn't the only one lacking a filter.
"I brought her home with me last night," Koll grumbled.
He was about to explain when he caught everyone's reaction. The awe and curiosity on his fellow villagers' faces would have been comical if their expressions hadn't incited a tingle of pleasure. There was no sign of pity now. No, now they were interested.
He held his head a little higher.
For once, Gilby wasn't overflowing with words, but spoke slowly. "You found a woman?"
"Who is in your bed? Right now?"
"And you didn't bring her here so we could see her?" Gilby sounded torn between surprise and suspicion.
"No." Koll shifted his weight uncomfortably. "She was exhausted, so I let her sleep."
A couple of his neighbors snickered.
Gilby didn't let it drop. "This is a real woman we're talking about, right?"
"Of course!" Did his friend think he was talking about some kind of doll?
"Yes!" The word escaped Koll with a snarl, and he was surprised by the surge of possessiveness that accompanied it.
He'd found the woman. He'd protected her and had taken her home. That made her his more than anyone else's in this village. He certainly wasn't going to allow the other males to sniff around her.
"And she's wearing your ribbon?"
"Yes!" Koll tensed the second his brain caught up. "I mean--"
Hell. He hadn't meant to say that. Now the lie was out there in the open and couldn't be taken back. He couldn't tell them it was a sham, not when they were looking at him with newfound warmth and respect. His neighbors actually appeared happy for him--surprised but genuinely happy. Their reaction healed some of the bruises his ego had taken.
"You mean...?" Gilby waited to hear the rest.
Koll answered more quietly. "She's not wearing anything at the moment."
"But she accepted my ribbon," he lied again.
There was a moment of silence before a broad grin broke across his friend's face. "Well, let's see her," Gilby announced with renewed excitement. "This is cause for a celebration. Congratulations, Koll. I told you you'd find a wife one day, didn't I? I know I did. I can't wait to meet her."
"It'll be a while," Koll said.
A hint of suspicion returned to Gilby's gaze, but Elli, one of the elder women, spoke first.
"She's not his wife yet." Elli made the pronouncement in a scratchy voice that nevertheless commanded attention. "He's got until spring to win her over."
She turned her slightly filmy gaze on Koll. "Bring her round when you're ready, boy, but don't wait too long. Women don't like to feel caged."
Koll suppressed his usual grunt and returned a respectful nod instead. His heart nearly stuttered as the reality of his predicament sank in. Thanks to his thoughtless lie, he now had to do what he'd never managed before.
Koll had to convince the woman to accept his ribbon.