Tess stopped walking and blew out a loud breath. She shoved tangles of flame-red hair from her brow and stared up at the sky. The clouds had shifted and reformed, their colour deepening to an ominous grey. It was only a matter of time before they broke.
She slanted a glance at her wristwatch; four-thirty already. Her stomach churned at the thought of the storm threat hanging over her and the good couple of hours hiking she still had left. The weather forecast had been for overnight rain. She'd expected to finish her outing before that became an issue.
A lock of hair escaped her ponytail and swirled across her cheek. Tess tucked it behind her ear and swept her gaze over the terrain. A narrow path broke through the endless plantation of eucalypts and the underbrush was so dense she could no longer see the Willow Falls township at the base of the mountain. She knew from studying her map earlier that a cliff was somewhere off in the distance.
Tess exhaled slowly and summoned her flailing energy. She couldn’t afford to spend too much time on rest breaks. She readjusted her backpack and continued on.
A short while later fat droplets of rain seeped through her white t-shirt and khaki shorts. Tess watched the clouds, grabbing a tree branch for balance as the path took a steep decline and narrowed even further. She rounded a corner and the cliff she’d been expecting suddenly appeared. A steel safety barrier lined the track and the view opened up to the tree-filled valley below.
Tess stopped, despite the rain, to take it all in. A steady breeze rolled across the valley floor, creeping upwards to caress the mountainside. Thunder boomed overhead and a kookaburra cackled somewhere in the distance. Under different circumstances, she would have stayed a while to appreciate the scenery.
The rain belted down now. Shivers stole across her skin and mud spattered her calves. Tess pondered the wisdom of continuing on in these conditions. Her hands came to rest on her hips and she scanned her surroundings. She had nowhere to go, nowhere to wait out the storm.
She pushed the sodden hair from her eyes and squinted. Toward the end of the track, just before it curved out of sight, she spotted a large boulder hugged by a wall of shrubs. Tess tried not to get her hopes up, but the dark centre gave the impression it might be a cave.
She forged ahead and let out a whoop of joy when she reached the opening. Water trickled from the mouth of the cave, landing at her feet to create a slush of mud and stones. Tess stepped inside, slipped her arms through her backpack and let it drop from her shoulders. She swiped the rain from her face and sank down onto her bag.
It was only when her breathing regulated and her eyes adjusted to the darkness that she questioned her situation. Something unexplainable caused the tiny hairs to rise on her forearms.
“Ah, some company.”
The voice, deep and distinctly male, vibrated in the surrounds. Tess’ heart raced. She sprang to her feet and backed against the wall, flattening her palms against the surface. “Oh, shit. I didn't see you there."
“I didn't mean to scare you.”
She stared into the darkness, forcing her eyes to focus. "What are you doing here?"
“Same thing you are, I’d guess.” His boots grated across the gravel as he moved to stand. He was in the lowest part of the cave and had to keep his head bent to avoid scraping the ceiling. “Got taken by surprise with the weather. I managed to get here just before the rain started, though.” He took a couple of steps toward her and straightened to his full height.
Tess gripped the edge of the cave’s entrance. Strands from her damp ponytail clung to her neck. “Would you mind staying where you are? I’d be more comfortable with that.”
“I was just going to introduce myself.” His voice was warm with amusement.
“There's nothing wrong with my hearing. You can do it from over there.” Tess realised she was probably being overly cautious, but she saw no reason yet to let her guard down.
His footsteps ceased and silence descended. A sigh crept into the quiet, but the friendly tone in his voice remained. “I’m Max. You look tired. Why don’t you sit down again?"
“I'm fine.” Tess loosened her grip on the wall. "I won’t be here long. As soon as the rain stops I'm out of here."
Max released a heavy breath of air that sounded suspiciously like laughter. “I hate to say it, but you’re going to have to spend the night. Even if the rain stops now, parts of the track will have been washed away. It’s too dangerous to keep going in fading light.”
A chill travelled through her as she stared at him. Tess didn’t like the idea of lying out there in the dark with a sprained ankle or worse, but she couldn't imagine spending all night in here with a complete stranger either. "I've got no intention of setting up house. I'll just have to chance it."
"Well, I can’t stop you, but I wouldn’t recommend it." Max crossed the floor and crouched beside his bag. He ran the zip around the edges and rifled through the contents. "Do you have any dry clothes with you?"
Now he’d moved closer, she had her first opportunity to really look at him. He wore a grey t-shirt and khaki cargo pants. It was obvious from a quick glance at his body that he was well accustomed to physical activity. His black hair stood in thick spikes over his head and dimples indented his cheeks. The curve of his jaw drew her attention and she found herself struggling to remember what he'd just asked. "Do I...?"
”I thought you said there was nothing wrong with your hearing?” He raised an eyebrow at her and pulled what looked to be a t-shirt from his bag.
The humour in his tone had some of the tension easing from her shoulders. “No, I haven’t got any dry clothes. I wasn't expecting to need a wardrobe change."
"What about a blanket?" he asked from his crouched position.
Tess planted her hands on her hips and huffed out a breath. "I’m on a day hike, not a week-long expedition. What's with the interrogation?"
"I’m just surprised how unprepared you are. Is this your first hike?" His eyes took a slow tour over her.
“Why does it matter?” She stood still and suppressed the urge to fidget since she’d just given him a thorough once over herself. His attention lingered on the t-shirt clinging to her breasts. Tess plucked the damp cotton from her skin and sent him a glare.
He smiled and lowered his gaze down the length of her bare legs. When he reached her feet his smile widened into a grin that Tess found all too appealing. "Never mind, I found the answer."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"Your boots.” He stood and nodded in their direction. “Did you break them in before you left home, or are your feet covered in blisters?"
"I broke them in," she said. "Which is a pity; I could've taken one off now and broken it in on you."
Max closed the distance between them. The broad plane of his chest almost crowded her. Tess caught a faint whiff of some kind of masculine soap or cologne; whatever it was made her uncomfortably aware of him.
He pressed his lips together and considered her thoughtfully. "You're an angry one, aren't you?"
Tess sighed. "Not normally. You just seem to bring out the worst in me."
"Cool." He handed her a long-sleeved t-shirt. "You're not likely to kill me in my sleep, are you?"
"Depends how the next few hours go. What’s this for?” She took the shirt from him.
"I thought you might want to get out of your wet clothes." He used his fingertip to flick a droplet of water from the end of her nose.
"Yeah…I'll just bet you did." Tess swatted Max’s hand away.
His eyes gleamed with amusement. "You've got nothing to worry about if that's what you're thinking. You’re safe here with me.” He reached out and tucked her hair behind her ear, then turned his back on her and crouched beside his bag again.
"Why should I believe you?" Tess ran her fingertips over the lock of hair he'd just rearranged, foolishly touched by the gesture. She tugged the shirt over her head and went about the awkward process of dragging her own top through the neckline.
"Well, for starters, I'm a grown man capable of controlling my urges.” Max pulled a small blue tarp from his pack and threw her a look over his shoulder. “And secondly, you're not really my type."
Tess saw the corner of his mouth twitch before he turned away. She pursed her lips and watched as he shook out the tarp and laid it on the floor, whistling while he smoothed out the creases. Cheeky bugger. She dropped her soaked t-shirt onto a nearby rock and shoved her arms through the sleeves of his dry one. "Is this where I'm supposed to throw myself at you to try and prove you wrong?"
He sent her a laughing look so appealing she experienced a tug of awareness in her belly. "Probably. I can’t think of a better way to pass the time."
At that very moment neither could she, but she’d never give him the pleasure of knowing that. Tess pressed her lips together to keep from reacting. She’d come here today as a way of introducing some adventure into the monotony that had become her life. It appeared as if she’d fulfilled that goal. She adjusted her damp bra strap and watched him in amazement. A half hour in his presence and she wanted him already. It usually took her so much longer to reach this point. "Are you going to tell me we need to use each other’s body heat to keep warm tonight, too?"
Max stood and untied a foam roll from the side of his backpack. He flashed a quick grin at her. "You're an intelligent woman. Maybe you are my type after all." He stretched the roll out over the tarp, creating a makeshift bed that looked far from comfortable. He pulled an inflatable pillow from his bag, blew a few quick breaths into it and tossed that down, too.
Tess approached him and nudged the bed with her toe. “Since it looks like I’m stuck here, are you planning on sharing this with me?”
“Depends how the next few hours go.” Max sent her a sideways glance and tugged a red blanket from the opening in his pack. He dropped it onto the mattress and stooped to pick up her discarded t-shirt.
Tess narrowed her eyes at him, confused by the conflicting emotions rolling inside her. She’d never wanted to laugh and scowl at the same time. Combined with the persistent hammering of her heart and the sweet, slow ache in her belly, it was almost too much to bear. She watched as he squeezed the excess water from her top and laid it out on a rock. When even the simple strength of his hands aroused her, Tess knew she was in trouble.
"Could you do that with this as well?" She reached behind her to release the clasp on her sports bra, modesty be damned. After a bit of twisting and turning, she managed to pull it out through her sleeve. Cool air rushed beneath cotton, spreading goose-bumps over her skin. "I hate wearing wet bras."
"Me too." Max’s fingertips brushed hers, rasping against her palm as he took the offering.
Tess bit her lip to hide a smile. His light-hearted banter would have put her completely at ease if his physical presence didn’t have just the opposite effect. She watched him wrap his hands around the pink bundle and wring it out, fascinated by the sight. As innocent as the moment was, it almost seemed too intimate.
Thunder rumbled above them, so loud it shook the cave. Max dropped her bra onto a rock and turned to face her. He watched her in silence, seemingly amused by whatever it was he saw in her expression.
Several tense seconds passed until she gave in and let her body sway toward him. The pull to touch him, taste him, almost overwhelmed her. “Max, I—“
His gaze dropped to her mouth. He slipped his fingers into the waistband of her shorts and drew her gently toward him. Their bodies collided and he smiled at her look of surprise. Max trailed his thumb over the inside of her elbow and waited until she raised her eyes to meet his. "Don’t look so worried,” he said. “You don’t need to analyse the situation, just…let it be."
Tess shook her head, bewildered. "We just met. You don't know me. God, you don't even like me."
“That’s not true.” He swept his fingertips along her jaw, stroked her chin with his thumb. “I like you plenty.”
“We’ve done nothing but argue.”
“I know. Your temper’s as fiery as your hair. I think you might try and hurt me if I push you too far.” He leaned in and nuzzled her ear. She could hear the smile in his voice as he spoke. “I think I’d like that.”
Tess swallowed her laughter, surprised by how quickly her mood could change around him. He leaned in and moved his warm lips over her throat, nibbling, tasting. Her nipples scraped her t-shirt, further adding to the chaos inside her. She gripped his biceps and lifted her chin. “Are you ever going to ask me my name?”
Max flattened his palms against her lower back, bringing her into close contact with him. “I was waiting for you to tell me.” He pressed his lips against the corner of her mouth.
She sighed as his hands slipped under her t-shirt, smoothing a path from hips to shoulder blades. “It’s Tess.”
Max brushed his mouth over hers, smiling as a shiver travelled through her. “Are you going to let me keep you warm tonight, Tess?”
“I think…” Her voice drifted off and her eyes closed. Tess clenched her jaw, quashing the urgent need to grip his shirt and yank him against her. “I can’t think when you touch me.”
"Good.” He caressed the undersides of her breasts with his thumbs, drawing a soft gasp from her. “Means I’m doing it right.”
A rush of pleasure swept through her. Tess opened her eyes and focused on his hardened features. The appealing mix of patience and amusement in his expression only deepened her need for him. “Can you just kiss me and we’ll see where this goes?”
Heat flared in his eyes. “If I kiss you, we both know where this is going.”
Tess drew a deep breath through her nose, releasing it from parted lips. Her fingers flexed at her sides as she weighed up her options. She’d wanted some excitement in her life. She’d reached the point lately where she craved it. “Kiss me, then.”
A corner of his mouth lifted. “Where?”
“Anywhere.” She tried to keep the pleading tone out of her voice. Tess snaked her hands under his shirt, stroked the muscles of his back. She tilted her chin upwards and met his gaze. “I just need your mouth on me.”
“Thank God for that.” Max slid his fingers into the hair at her temples. He leaned in close, nudged her nose with his and nipped at her lower lip. “You have a luscious mouth, Tess. It’s the first thing I noticed about you.”
She sighed at the tenderness in his voice. Daylight had all but faded around them now. Rain continued to hammer at the cave and the wind howled through the valley. Tess braced herself as his lips closed in on hers.
The first touch of his mouth came as a welcome relief. She revelled in the easy warmth of him. He held her close with one hand wrapped around her waist, his other hand cradling the back of her neck. His fingers flexed against her skin and the slow, lazy heat of his lips calmed her even as it aroused. She drew in the male scent of him, hooked her hands over his shoulders and sank into the kiss.
Her legs trembled as a flash of lightning illuminated the cave. He pulled her more firmly against him, so close she could feel the trip of his heart as his mouth explored hers. Tess touched her tongue to his. Max groaned and slid his hands down her back. He cupped her rear and rubbed her body sensually against his own. She felt her pulse pick up as his erection pressed against her belly.
The kiss changed, gained intensity; where once his lips had savoured, now they devoured. His tongue plunged into her mouth, demanding, stirring the fire inside her. His fingers slipped under her t-shirt and trailed over her ribs. Tess cried out when his hand closed over her breast, massaging her flesh while he continued working on her mouth. Her nipple, already hardened from the cold, ached for his touch. Max stroked his thumb back and forth over the tightened bud, rolling it between his fingers.
Tess pulled her mouth from his and let out a heavy breath. She tipped her head back, thrusting her breast into his palm. Max kept her steady with his arm at her waist. He nibbled her ear, licked her neck. His stubble grazed her sensitive skin. He worked his way back to her lips, pressing soft kisses along her chin, her cheeks.
“God, you feel good,” he whispered against her mouth.
Tess shoved her hands between their bodies and tugged the button open on his pants. She went to work on his zipper, yanking it down. Her hand delved inside his briefs and she found him, hot and hard. “So do you,” she said.
“Jesus, Tess.” Max bucked against her. A laughing groan tore from his throat. “I like a woman who knows what she wants.”
Tess closed her eyes and smiled. She’d never really thought of herself in that way before. His shaft pulsed in her palm; it made her feel powerful and alive. She smoothed her hand along the length of him, caressed the ridge under his head with the tip of her finger. An overwhelming urge came over her to take him in her mouth. “I don’t know what’s gotten into me.”
Max unsnapped her shorts and hooked his thumbs in the waistband of her panties. He shoved them both over her hips and pressed his mouth to her ear. “I want to get into you.”
Tess gasped and opened her eyes. “Don’t say things like that.” She stepped out of her loosened clothing. “It makes me want to attack you.” She strained against him, driven by a sense of urgency.
Max gripped her rear and clamped her to him. He used his teeth on her earlobe. “Don’t hold back.” His mouth claimed hers, their tongues tangling until she was writhing against him. He held her breast in his firm grip, flicking her nipple with his finger. She moaned as moisture gathered between her thighs. Tess massaged his erection, wanting, needing, to feel it swelling inside her.
A gust of wind blew into the cave, swirling dry leaves about her legs. Tess shivered.
“Let’s get comfortable.” Max pressed a kiss to her forehead and led her over to the rolled out bed. He pulled her down with him so he was lying on his back with her straddling his hips. He shook out the red blanket and draped it over her to catch the heat they’d generated together.
With her thighs stretched wide, Tess felt vulnerable and open. Max took advantage of her position. One hand slid down her waist, clasping her hip. He trailed his other hand across her belly, cupping her pussy in his palm. Tess inhaled sharply at the sudden sensation. She sank her fingers into his hair. Her mouth searched for his and she kissed him hard, her lips hungry and eager. She rocked slowly against his hand. He slid his thumb across her clit, once, twice, his touch so gentle it barely registered.
Tess squeezed her eyes shut and clenched her thighs around him. She whimpered and let out a shaky breath through her nose. Pleasure burst inside her. Her body trembled and jerked with a soft spasm.
Max broke the kiss and spoke against her mouth. “Did you just come?”
“Yeah.” Tess shivered a little.
“That’s fucking sexy. Come here.” Max clasped her face in his hands and planted a firm kiss on her mouth.
When he released her, Tess pulled back and rubbed her lips together, savouring the taste of him. “Mmm…your turn now,” she said. Giving in to the desire uncurling in her belly, her hands shoved at his t-shirt and pushed it high on his chest. She ran her palms over his hair-coarsened skin, feeling his muscles quake beneath her touch. She leaned down and flicked his nipple with her tongue. His quick gasp brought a smile to her face.
Tess dug her fingers into the open waistband of his pants. Max lifted his hips and she tugged his pants down to his knees. He spread his thighs a little and sighed. She wrapped her fingers around his warm cock, pumping gently as she suckled his nipple. A low growl rumbled in his chest, vibrating against her lips. She left a trail of kisses down the length of his body, poked her tongue in his belly button. His stomach clenched as her mouth passed over it.
Tess bypassed his cock and pressed her lips to his inner thigh, running her tongue upwards until she’d reached just beneath his balls. She nuzzled his flesh and lapped at the sensitive globes. His musky scent intoxicated her; so warm, so male. The sound of his harsh breaths sent a thrill running through her. She wanted to push him over the edge, make him lose control.
“Tess.” Max thrust into her palm and weaved his fingers in her hair.
“What?” She kissed the tender spot just behind his balls, taking pleasure in the shudder that ran through him.
“You’re a tease.”
She let out a breathy laugh and dragged her tongue firmly from the base of his cock to the tip. A tortured groan slipped from him. Tess pressed her lips to the head of his cock and with a dart of her tongue, licked at the droplets of pre-cum.
Thunder rolled above the cave. Lightning flashed and rain thrummed against the roof. Amidst the chaos of sound and light, Tess wrapped her lips around his hard shaft and slid him into her hungry mouth. His fingers tightened in her hair. She moaned and cupped him in her palm. She imprisoned him firmly with the suction of her lips, pulling back up the length of him. He held his breath as her tongue swirled around his head. When her lips glided back down to the base of his cock, he let the breath out in a rush of air.
Tess repeated the movements, loving the sounds he made as she pleasured him. He held her gently with his palms at her temples and began a shallow pumping of his hips, leisurely fucking her mouth. She straddled his calves and gripped his thighs, her fingers digging into his flesh. Saliva pooled in her mouth, leaking from the corner of her lips. The fervour built inside her until she wanted to devour him.
“Christ, Tess, come up here.” Max pulled her off him and dragged her over his body. He gripped his cock in one hand and thrust inside her.
Tess let out a guttural moan as he filled her. She expanded around his throbbing cock, her back bowing at the shift in power. He took over, his fingers clamping her hips. He bent his knees, cradling her arse against his thighs as he hammered inside her. Her breasts bounced with the force of his thrusts. She bit her lip and steadied herself with her palms flattened against his chest. She almost sobbed with the pleasure of it all.
Max curved his hand around the back of her neck and urged her closer. He wrapped his other arm around her back, holding her tight. All the while he continued pumping inside her. His lips searched for hers and he kissed her long and hard. Their hot breaths intermingled as he whispered against her mouth, “You’re gorgeous, Tess. I love fucking you.”
She sighed breathlessly, her sigh slipping into a moan when he shoved a hand between their bodies and cupped her breast. He rubbed her nipple with his thumb. She slid her fingers into his hair and pressed her mouth to his, tugging on his lower lip with her teeth.
Max gripped the back of her neck and built the intensity of his thrusts. Pressure surged inside her, taking her by surprise as it started deep in her belly, spreading outwards in a warm rush. It tingled in her fingertips, tightened every muscle in her body until she was jerking above him.
Tess broke the connection of their mouths and tucked her face in against his neck. She bit his shoulder gently and cried out as an orgasm tore through her.
“Fuck, Tess.” Max held her tightly against him, hips pumping, breaths wrenching from him. He strained against her, his cum filling her as he erupted with a long groan. His body jolted with the release and he shuddered beneath her.
Tess collapsed on his chest, sucking in air. For a moment only the sounds of their laboured breathing competed with the raging storm outside. She sighed as Max stroked her hair, his other hand roaming absently over her back. She pressed her mouth to his throat, feeling his pulse race against her lips. “That was…unbelievable,” Tess said. She closed her eyes and leaned her cheek on his pounding heart.
“We didn’t even get our shoes off.”
She lifted her chin and nibbled on his stubble covered jaw. “Next time.”
Max hummed his agreement as he slipped her hair free from its ponytail. He massaged her scalp slowly, firmly, until she moaned with contentment. "There's a small waterfall not far from here, Tess." His voice was husky and thick with rekindling desire. "It's beautiful - peaceful...secluded." He ran his fingers through the damp strands and swept his hands down the length of her back. "Let me take you there tomorrow. I want to feel your legs wrapped around me while I slip inside you again. I want to see the water spray all over this red hair of yours while I make you lose control."
With his body warm and relaxed beneath her, with the image of him all slick and wet in her mind, Tess writhed against him and closed her eyes. “I like the sound of that.”