"You've got that look on your face again...come on, spill the beans!"
Annie laughed and blushed, her eyes twinkling as she poured out a glass of wine for her friend Elizabeth. "I don't know what you're talking about!"
"Oh, please, Annie! Yes you do! Every time you mention walking your smelly dog..." Elizabeth paused and looked down at Sam who was gently snoring at their feet, "You have this silly smile plastered all over your face!"
"I do not!"
The friends giggled and sipped their wine, the dusk outside making the cosy room seem even more snug and intimate than usual.
"What's his name, then?"
Annie smiled. "I really don't know. I've only smiled at him as we've passed. He doesn't have a dog with him but he doesn't look like a weirdo."
"Hmmm...I'd be a bit wary if I were you. I'd be suspicious of a man out walking without a dog."
"Why? Maybe he just loves to walk."
Elizabeth shrugged. "But most people around here have dogs. Weren't you worried when you saw him the first time?"
"Yes, a little, I have to admit. But Sam here would protect me, wouldn't you baby?" Annie bent to stroke the dog behind his ears and his tail thumped. "And anyway, around here, nothing's going to happen, is it?"
"I don't know. He doesn't sound familiar and I know most families from the village. Tell me what he looks like again?"
Annie smiled. "OK...he's tall with gorgeous brown hair and has beautiful blue eyes that sometimes look grey when he smiles, very broad shoulders and he's gorgeous. Oh, and in his mid thirties I would guess. But he has such an open friendly face, Liz...I can't believe he's a weirdo. Just shy, maybe."
"And he's never said a word?"
"Nope. He just smiles at me and that's it." Annie sighed. "He makes me feel so good even though we've never spoken. When Dave left I felt terrible. I thought that it was all my fault and even though I know deep down it wasn't, the shock made me feel as if he hated me." Annie paused and thought back to the day she'd returned home to find a note from her fiancé. It was a cowardly act, to abandon her two weeks before their wedding, because, as he'd written, he needed to "find" himself, which he had three days later, in the arms of Annie's best friend Georgia.
Elizabeth reached over and took Annie's hands. "Next time you see him, say hello, for heaven's sake! You've made the first moves, let him know you're interested!"
"But what if he's married or has a girlfriend? I'd feel such a fool!"
Elizabeth laughed. "You're not going to jump on him, are you? Just be friendly!" She rolled her eyes at Annie and tutted. "How on earth you manage on your own, I don't know!"
A few days later, Annie remembered her friend's words as she called Sam for his walk. It was a beautiful day in late March and Spring had definitely arrived. The winter had been long and hard and Annie was fed up with the cold weather that had seemed to go on forever. It was a delight to be out in the warm air and see Nature waking all around her and Sam seemed to feel the same as he made off across the fields after the scent of a rabbit.
Annie felt a sense of anticipation as she followed, her eyes scanning the horizon for the mystery man. She didn't see him every day, but she desperately wanted to see him today and follow Elizabeth's advice. He's bound to be married, though, she thought to herself. Anyone as good looking as him must have been snapped up ages ago. Thoughts of Dave surfaced and the pain she had tried to suppress felt like a stab in her heart. They should have been married now and settling into a comfortable life. Dave had been her childhood sweetheart and she'd known him for twenty years, ever since they were at Primary school together and he'd sat next to her on their first day. Maybe that was it, she thought. Maybe they'd been together too long...
As she walked, she thought back to all the things they'd done together, their travels, the ups and downs that were part of a long term relationship, and her dreams for the future. She'd wanted children and she'd wanted to grow old with him but now that was never going to be. He would have children with Georgia and the thought of seeing them with babies made the tears spring to Annie's eyes. The landscape blurred and melted into a tapestry of browns and greens and she groped in her pocket for a tissue. When she looked up again, the man was standing in front of her, a puzzled look on his face.
Annie jumped with surprise, all thoughts of saying hello gone from her mind. Today he seemed taller than ever and the sunlight caught his hair and turned it into the colour of Autumn conkers. His eyes were full of warmth and compassion but again, he never uttered a word. He was dressed in brown jeans and a green shirt that accentuated his broad physique and he seemed to tower over Annie, his presence making her feel strangely relaxed rather than intimidated.
They stared at each other and then he slowly and gently wiped away a tear that had made its way down Annie's cheek. His hands were large, but soft and warm, and Annie gasped as their eyes met. She didn't know what to say, felt her words stick in her throat and knew that she couldn't break the spell. Words now would seem flippant and silly and all she wanted was to live in this moment and prolong the pleasure of his touch.
But as swiftly as he had reached out to her, he had gone, his broad back disappearing down the wooded track that led to the lake. She watched him go, her spirits plummeting as he strode away and blended into the surrounding landscape.
"You have to talk to him!" Elizabeth exclaimed as she sat opposite Annie the same evening. "I can't believe you didn't even say hello!"
"It wasn't like that!" Annie protested. "I can't explain how it felt to have him touch me like that. I felt alive and exhilarated and then when he left me, I could have cried my eyes out. He's gorgeous, Liz...so beautiful, if I can call him that. His body...he's like a God or something. Like something out of one of those glossy magazines where the male models have been airbrushed so much they don't look real."
Elizabeth looked confused. "I've been asking around and there's nobody who matches your description, Annie. Do you think he's foreign? Polish or something?"
Annie shook her head. "I don't know. I just wish you could see him. You'd swoon."
"Well, if he's from abroad, that would explain why he doesn't say anything. He can't speak English!"
"It's not that. There's something about him I can't explain. Perhaps next time I go you can come with me."
So, two days later, the friends made their way along the path that skirted the fields and hedgerows and walked towards the lake which shimmered in the late afternoon sun. It was a perfect day again and the trees wore their new coats of green, the leaves shining and rustling in the gentle breeze that teased the hair of the women.
"It's so beautiful here," Annie sighed. "I feel so lucky to live in the country rather than the town, despite the lack of men!"
Elizabeth laughed. "Depends what sort of man you want! I think the average age is about ninety around here!"
The countryside was looking its best. The trees were no longer leafless and Annie breathed in the delicious scents as they walked. The fields, recently so bare and earthy were also showing signs of life, new green shoots pushing their way through the brown soil. Even the birds seemed to rejoice in the warmer days, their songs echoing through the silent forest that bordered the lake.
Annie shook her head. "No. I normally see him by now. Just as I go through the gap in the hedge next to the wood, he appears." She looked bitterly disappointed and stopped to scan the horizon. "There's nobody about today."
"Why don't we wait? He might appear at any minute."
"No, it'll look like I'm desperate, Liz."
"No, it won't. The man touched you, for heaven's sake! He caressed you! He's definitely interested!"
They carried on walking, the only sounds the distant drone of an aeroplane and the birdsong. Sam appeared in front of them, his tail wagging as they approached and Annie laughed. "Wish I was a dog. I'd be happy with just a comfortable bed, a walk and lots of food."
Beneath their feet, twigs cracked and as they entered the wood, the birds grew silent. Annie looked up at the trees, their silent presence comforting and beautiful. Sometimes she felt as if they were watching her but she never felt worried or scared out on her own. Sam was a big enough dog to deter anyone who threatened her, but the reason she loved the area so much was how safe she felt. Normally if she met another person out for a walk, she would say hello or even have a chat, but this mystery man was different altogether. The only rational explanation would be that he was foreign and couldn't speak the language.
"I feel like I want to whisper," whispered Elizabeth. "It's been ages since I came here, but I suppose it's just another walk to you."
"I feel like that too. The trees are so beautiful. They're just there, aren't they? Silently growing and some of them so old." They looked at the gnarled trunks of the oaks nearby and Annie reached out to touch the leaves. "So alive and just...magnificent."
Elizabeth laughed. "Ever thought of becoming a tree-hugger?"
"No! But I do love them. And in winter, the bare branches against the sky. I'm forever taking photographs."
Elizabeth stopped and listened. "I heard something. A twig cracked or something." Both girls waited, holding their breaths, but all around was silence and the distant cry of a bird, its haunting voice carrying on the breeze.
"He's not going to show, is he?" Annie murmured, looking at her watch. "Come on, let's go home."
Another week passed before Annie saw the man again. He was striding along in the distance and almost blended in with the landscape around him. He didn't see her, and she felt that agonising stab of disappointment when she realised that she would never catch up with him. Since her walk with Elizabeth she hadn't stopped thinking about him and all thoughts of Dave had gone from her mind, which was a relief. She'd been to the village pub in the hope that she would see him there but it had been full of local lads who'd eyed her up like she was a piece of meat. Every time she drove in and out of the village she'd scanned the streets for him but there'd been no sign.
Elizabeth had been asking around as well and nobody had taken on casual work, not even the farmers who sometimes took on men to help with the hedge-cutting and spring planting. It was a mystery.
Annie kept busy with her job as a local Primary school teacher. She loved to take her young children on nature walks and often hoped to see him as they roamed around the village pointing out the Spring flowers and wildlife. There'd been no new children enrolled at the school so at least if he was new he didn't have a family. At night she gazed out of her cottage windows towards the distant woods and fields and wondered what he was doing and where he was. She knew it was stupid, but she'd felt such a strong connection to him that she couldn't stop herself. If he was married, why wasn't his wife out walking with him?
Every now and again, Annie caught a glimpse of her reflection in the hall mirror and wondered if he found her attractive. She wasn't stunningly beautiful, more girl-next-door, but she'd never really thought about how appealing she was as she'd been with Dave for so long. Her brown eyes looked back at her reflectively and she turned her head this way and that to study her profile. Her best feature, she supposed, was her long chestnut coloured hair. Idly, she imagined what their children would look like and then told herself to snap out of it. He was quickly becoming an obsession.
Over the next few days, Annie tried not to think of her stranger any more. If he was interested he would have spoken to her and from now on she was going to walk and not try and cross his path. One evening, after being kept late at school with a meeting, she took Sam out just before sunset. It was far later than she'd have liked but the dog needed a quick run and Annie took her normal route across the fields and down to the wood. It was very quiet and the sky had turned into a flaming pink and orange that looked almost magical.
She stood and stared at the sky for a long time while Sam sniffed and snuffled in the thick undergrowth. A familiar feeling of loneliness came over her again as she realised she had nobody to share this moment with. As she turned to go back the way she came, she saw him. He was standing in the path, blocking her way, and she couldn't see the expression on his face. Annie was suddenly acutely away of how late it was and how alone she was. Sam had disappeared and the silence was profound. Fighting her feeling of fear she walked towards him but he stood his ground, his broad shoulders filling the narrow path and making it impossible for her to go past.
Up close she could see he was watching her, a curious expression on his face. He looked stern and Annie's alarm grew. Was he a madman, escaped from a nearby hospital? She could feel her heart hammering in her chest and swallowed nervously.
"Hi," she said, her mouth dry. "Isn't it a beautiful evening?"
He said nothing, just carried on staring at her and Annie braced herself for the worst. This had been what he'd been waiting for, she thought. An evening walk when she was all alone and nobody around to help. In her rush to get out she'd even left her mobile phone at home.
Annie stopped as she could go no further. He filled the path and she could smell his scent, a mixture of cold evening air and new green leaves. For someone who could be deranged, he smelt good. They stood facing each other for what seemed like ages and Annie relaxed. His face had softened but his eyes still held hers, dark in the evening light.
"Do you speak English?" she asked. "My name's Annie."
He said nothing but held out his hand and stroked her cheek. Again, his hand was warm and soft and Annie could feel shivers run down her spine. She reached up and covered his hand with hers, amazed at her own bravery.
It seemed to be all the encouragement he needed. He opened his arms and gathered her close, so her eyes were level with his chest. She could feel the warmth coming from his body and inhaled his scent which smelled delicious, a mixture of natural earthy scents, and fresh leaves. Did he live in the forest?
She looked up at him and smiled. "I guess you don't speak English. Do you understand me?"
In answer he bent and kissed her softly on the mouth, his lips warm and dry against hers. She leaned in closer and responded to his kiss, her arms wrapping around his body and drawing him closer. She could feel her arousal building as their lips met, his body hard and comforting against her. He felt so solid and she melted inside, wondering how he would feel if he made love to her, imagining him naked, their bodies entwined...
Annie forgot everything as they carried on kissing, his tongue gently probing inside her mouth and meeting hers. He moved closer and held her tightly in his arms and she could feel how aroused he was through the fabric of his jeans. She wondered what would happen...should she invite him back to her cottage or was that being too forward? Did he live nearby and was someone expecting him home at any minute?
She pulled away and looked into his eyes. "Who are you?" she asked. "Do you live near here?"
Again, he didn't answer, just pulled her gently over to a nearby tree. She leaned against it and he pressed closer and closer, his body moulding into hers. Their kisses were now hot and passionate and there was no doubt in Annie's mind as to what was going to happen. She was wearing a long skirt and boots and could feel her knickers grow wet with her arousal. As if sensing what she wanted, he lifted her legs and wrapped them around his waist, pressing into her rhythmically as they kissed. Annie had never felt so turned on in her life as he thrust against her. No clothes had been removed but she could feel her orgasm building as he pressed deeply into her, his tongue inside her mouth doing what she so desperately wanted his cock to be doing.
Suddenly he stopped and looked down at her, his breath coming in short gasps. He seemed to be listening and Annie tried to still her own heavy breathing. He softly set her down and turned in the direction of the open fields where Annie could see, in the murky distance, a couple walking their dog.
Her disappointment was acute as he smiled, kissed her gently on the lips and then strode away, deeper into the wood. She stared after him, her body screaming with frustration. She'd been so close to having an orgasm, had given herself up to the most delicious sensations she'd ever had and she wanted so much more. When would she see him again? And she still knew nothing about him... The tears rolled freely down her cheeks as she called for Sam and sadly made her way home.
The next day Annie called Elizabeth and told her what had happened. She didn't tell her how, in bed the previous night, she'd brought herself to orgasm with her fingers, her mind full of the mystery man and the feelings he'd awoken in her. When she came, she'd cried, the tears streaming down her face in frustration and need.
Elizabeth couldn't believe what Annie told her. "You mean, you sort of made love with him yet you know nothing about him? He didn't say anything?"
"No," Annie groaned. "Oh, he made me feel so good, Liz! No man has ever done that before and almost got me off without even removing my clothes!"
"He's got to be foreign, Annie...surely? Perhaps he's illegal, living in the woods and not daring to say anything."
"You could be right, but he just didn't seem to be living rough. He smelt so wonderful and his clothes were clean. He looked like a forest ranger or something. He blended so well into the forest, Liz. You can tell he...oh, I don't know...has an affinity with the countryside, if that makes sense. He was gentle and kind and he made me feel great."
"I'll ask around again. Perhaps he's working for the Forestry Commission, on loan from another country, I don't know. Just be careful, OK? You nothing about this man, he could be anyone."
"I know," Annie sighed. "But he's so lovely, so good-looking and just..." she sighed again. "I want him so badly, Liz. I can't think about anything else. It's driving me mad."
That evening, after she finished at school, Annie took a long shower and dressed carefully. She wore a long skirt again but this time she went without knickers which made her feel delightfully naughty. She chose a loose blouse that buttoned up at the front and brushed her hair until it shone. Then calling for Sam she set out for a long walk, determined she was going to solve this mystery once and for all.
The woods were quiet and there wasn't a single person around. Even the birds seemed subdued. Annie wandered around the forest, listening intently for a noise but there was just silence. She walked to where she'd met the man last night and leant against the same tree, her heart hammering in her chest as she imagined him meeting her there and making love to her.
Where was he? The evening shadows had lengthened and the sky had turned a beautiful shade of peachy pink. Sam kept bringing her sticks, a puzzled look on his face when she just smiled at him and pushed him away. Looking at her watch, she sank down onto the ground beneath the tree, its solid trunk making her feel safe. Again, she listened but could hear nothing except the distant call of a bird and the gentle breeze through the branches.
She thought back to last night, how wonderful it had felt when he'd kissed her, how she wanted to feel his hands on her breasts, his lips kissing the rosy nipples, how he would feel deep inside her...