Excerpt Rad, open your eyes!” She patted his face. She was about to look for water when he moaned. She smoothed his brow. He blinked several times, as if dazed.
“Are you all right?”
“I'll live.” He sat up. “Untie me, will you?”
She worked at the ropes, loosening, tugging and forcing ends through tight loops.
“Ohhhhh. Shoulder cramp. Could you hurry it up, please?”
“What do you think I’m doing? Knitting?” She figured his short temper was directed at himself for getting them into this mess. Nevertheless, she gave a hard yank and caught some of the fine hairs on the back of his hand in the withdrawing knot.
“Ouch! Was that necessary?”
“Very.” And satisfying, she thought, tugging harder. Finally, the ropes fell away.
He rubbed his wrists. She had an urge to go to him and massage the feeling back into his hands, but wiser defensive instincts told her touching him would be a mistake, one she dare not make again. She traced trembling fingers over her lips, still swollen from his earlier kisses. He was her client, albeit a very sexy one, but a client nonetheless. That meant he was off limits. In a reckless, vulnerable moment, she'd allowed herself to taste the forbidden. And now she was paying with an impossible craving.
Rad stood and helped her up as he rose. Fighting a wild vulnerability to his touch, she followed him to the boulder. He pushed on it in vain. “Tinihanga did this?”
“He confined us in here to keep from killing us.” She brushed back tendrils of auburn hair that had loosened from her ponytail. The tendrils, damp from the earlier swim chilled her. She shivered. “It's your buddy’s way of showing a fondness for you.”
Rad knocked against the cave wall. Solid rock. He shook his head. “I trusted him like family.”
Toni bit the corner of her lip to avoid saying if he'd listened to her they wouldn't be in this predicament. She flashed the light around.
Rad’s gaze followed the beam, scanning the walls with searching eyes. “Mutunga-iho Cave!” he said.
Her heart beat faster. Endless sounded ominous. “There must be many caves around. How do you know this one?”
“I've been here before with Tukaha.” He grasped her hand and pointed the flashlight at the Maori drawing on the side wall. The beaked, birdlike image had an almost oriental look. Its slanted eyes and clawed hand with a spur thumb gave it a paranormal appearance.
She shivered and looked ahead into the darkness. “Are you sure there isn't another way out of here?”
“Tukaha told me ‘those who dare to go beyond the waterfall in the ceiling crevice are never seen again.’”
“You didn't check it out? Were you afraid?”
“I'm seldom afraid, even when I know there's danger.”
She aimed the spherical flashlight beam at him.
With a cool penetrating look, she appraised his wide chest and broad shoulders. “That's right. I forgot. You're one of those macho men.”
“Why don't we just get this over with?” His umber eyes flashed with quick temper. “This is my fault. If I'd listened to you we wouldn't be trapped in here. Right?”
“You said it; I didn't.”
She spun away from him and lifted the lid of the cardboard box next to the wall. She aimed the light inside. It had a rolled sleeping bag, a water jug with a spout, cans of food, and even a bottle of wine. “At least we won't starve. Not for a week or so, anyway.”
“Think we can trust the food and drink provided by a man who drugged everyone on my station?” He held her gaze. When she didn’t respond, he said “Is there another flashlight in there?”
“Just a lantern, candles and matches.”
“I'll take the lantern. You keep the flashlight here with you.” He reached into the box and pulled out the lantern.
Toni grabbed his arm. Her fingers sank into the soft wool of his sweater until she felt the hard muscle underneath. “You're not going anywhere without me!”
“I told you that no one has ever come back from the bowels of this cave.” He stared at her hand gripping his arm, then into her face. In the subdued lighting, his piercing eyes looked black.
She returned his intimidating look with all the defiance she could muster. “It might take both of us to find a way out of here. I'm going with you, and that's final.”
“If I said no, you'd follow anyway, wouldn't you?”
“You've got the picture.”
He took her hand off his arm and lifted the box of provisions to his shoulder. “Let's go then.”
The deeper into the cave they walked, the colder and darker it got. Toni flashed the light ahead.
Rad grabbed her arm. “Watch out. Don't trip on that plank of wood.”
As she stepped over it, Toni felt a drop of water on her head, then another. She flashed the light upward to see its source. Water dripped from the lacy threads of crystalline, icicle-shaped, stalactites that hung from the cave’s ceiling.
“What are all those tiny lights up there?”
“You're kidding, right?” It was hard to talk with her teeth chattering from the cold. She almost bumped into the spear-like stalagmite formed from the floor to meet the stalactite above.
“No joke. If I remember correctly the crevice waterfall is just ahead. We can rest there.”
She flashed the light on her watch. Three in the morning.
By the time she heard the roar of the falls, her feet felt like lead. Strange, the air suddenly became warmer, and her skin turned dewy from the humid spray that misted the atmosphere. Still no sight of any falls. Then ahead, there it was. It blocked their way and dropped from above at least forty-feet with silvery waters crashing into a swirling pool of foam and mist.
Rad placed the box of provisions on the stone floor. He lit the lantern and placed it on a ledge. The flame threw images onto the wall. Shadows of Toni and Rad danced there like lovers. Next to them, icicle stalactites reaching toward lacy spears of stalagmites, reflected like prehistoric demons.
Toni stooped and dipped her finger into the pool at the base of the falls.
“This is warm!” The echo of her raised voice bounced off the walls of the cavern.
“Tukaha told me that in years past, Maori women came to swim here.
They liked seeing themselves in the mirrored pool. It was said that the water embodied magic and that those who swam here became more beautiful.”
“Guess I'd better take a swim.”
He looked into her eyes. “You don't need it.”
Embarrassed, she glanced away. She had shamelessly hinted for that pitiful compliment. Instantly, she was sorry.
“The brightness here from the glow worms is extraordinary,” she whispered in awe, “as if the ceiling blazes with ten-thousand tiny, clear, Christmas bulbs.”
“Turn off the flashlight, and save the batteries. Besides, with the lantern lit, you don't need it.”
The last of the romantics, she thought. Toni rubbed her sweater-covered thawing arms, glad to get feeling back into them.
“Are you cold?” He stepped toward her.
She had an urge to walk into his arms. She remembered their heat, their strength. She retreated a step. “Not anymore. The air is warmer here.”
“The thermal underground stream feeds into the pool and heats the air, primitive steam heat.”
“With enough power to run a thermal generator?”
“Hmmm. The puzzle pieces are falling into place.” She felt her excitement rising. “I'm going in. Maybe there's a way out behind the falls.” She sat down on a rock and started taking off her boots.
“Stay here. I'll check it out.” Rad quickly removed his sweater and shirt. It seemed he was always getting naked around her. Her breath caught. In the dim light, the shadow of his upper body magnified on the cave's wall, like a giant warrior. The man himself looked no less impressive. Toni fought the urge to reach out and touch him. Imagining if she did, his powerful, work-hardened arms would close around her.
A piercing cry echoed through the cave.