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Authors: Roxanne St. Claire

Tags: #Romance, #Contemporary, #Fiction

Barefoot in the Sun

BOOK: Barefoot in the Sun
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In accordance with the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, the scanning, uploading, and electronic sharing of any part of this book without the permission of the publisher constitute unlawful piracy and theft of the author’s intellectual property. If you would like to use material from the book (other than for review purposes), prior written permission must be obtained by contacting the publisher at [email protected] Thank you for your support of the author’s rights.

For Barbie Furtado

My beta reader, my cyber-daughter, my #1 Zoe fan—this one is most certainly for you.

 

Three cheers for the names who are not on the cover of this book but must share the credit and the love for all they do to bring my stories to life!

First of all, thank you to the readers who inspire me to pour my heart onto every page. Because of our social-ne
tworked
world, I feel like I know so many of you! I love every letter, every Facebook comment, and every tweet. I’m eternally grateful to all of you who took a chance on visiting Barefoot Bay to fall in love—thank you!

On the research front, special thanks to Dr. Aris Sastre, who, at the time of writing, was chief resident of the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville and who is also my beloved nephew-in-law. (Is there such a thing?) Aris is a brilliant and talented physician and is very generous with his time for Aunt Rocki’s medical questions.

Additional research assistance came from Sgt. Adrian Youngblood of the Seminole County Sheriff’s Office and Captain Jeff A. Thompson of Thompson Aire Hot Air Balloon Rides, both of whom answered questions and offered great insights. (If you want to float over Orlando, go to Thompson!)

My publishing team at Grand Central is superb at every turn in the process, starting with tireless Executive Editor Amy Pierpont, who leaves an indelible mark on every page of my books. Detail-oriented and sweet-as-pie assistant Lauren Plude keeps me in line and on time, and extremely generous Managing Editor Bob Castillo doles out patience and pages whenever I need them. And huge thanks to the art department for giving this book the cover of my dreams!

Also heartfelt thanks to literary agent Robin Rue, who is never more than a click or a call away with guidance, humor, balance, and sanity. (Not necessarily in that order.)

My writer girls, Kresley Cole, Leigh Duncan, Louisa Edwards, Kristen Painter, Lara Santiago, and Gena Showalter, are the
best
best friends. The support and encouragement they showed during the writing of this book was unparalleled in our long history as friends.

My beloved husband, Rich, and our two superstar teenagers, Dante and Mia, who (try to) leave me alone when I need to write and show me the love even when all I do is talk about the book. Those three (and the dogs!) humble and delight me.

And, finally, to my good and loving Father, who came through with words and wisdom exactly when I needed them most. I can’t remember a book that had me asking for as much help as this one, and He answered every prayer.

Z
oe reached into the backseat and pulled a faded black bandanna from her purse, snapping it like a lion tamer’s whip inches from Oliver’s face.

“Blindfold time,” she announced, her eyes glistening like dew on fresh-cut grass.

He choked softly. “I won’t be able to see.”

“Ya think?” She gave his arm a playful punch, lingering on his muscle, which of course he flexed for her. “You know, Dr. Oliver Bradbury, for a Mensa-IQ summa-cum-laude chief resident of Mount Mercy Hospital who got himself into college at sixteen…” She nudged him. “You’re not the sharpest scalpel in the sterilization tray. Turn and tie, them’s my rules.”

“As if you ever met a rule you couldn’t chew up and spit out.”

That made her laugh. “We are not getting out of the car and going past those trees until I’m one-hundred-percent certain you are blinded.”

“I am.” He leaned closer to her mouth. “By you.”

“Sweet.” She obliged, but the kiss was quick. “Now let me tie this.”

“You think I’m kidding?” He tossed one final glance at her, then complied with her order. “You’ve wrecked my life, Zoe.”

“Aw, thank you.”

“Everything was all orderly and simple and straightforward and—”

“Boring.”

“As hell,” he agreed. “And now I’m letting you blindfold me and take me into the woods at the crack of dawn to do…God knows what, but I think I’m going to like it.”

She was dead silent while she knotted the bandanna.

“I am going to like it, aren’t I?”

More silence.

“Zoe?” He dragged out both syllables of her name, his voice lifting the long
e
in a playful question.

As she adjusted the material, her fingers caressed his cheeks, scratching the twenty-four-hour-shift shadow. “You’ll like it if you’re ready to face your fears.”

He turned to her, and even though he couldn’t see her, he could imagine the smile he’d been admiring and exploring for a month now, the smattering of freckles decorating a slightly upturned nose, and those honey-silk curls brushing her cheeks and begging to be tangled in his fingers. God, he loved her, even when he couldn’t see her. And that, he admitted to himself, was the only thing that scared him.

“I’m not afraid of anything,” he lied, mustering his macho. Not of anything in those woods, anyway.

“Not a thing?”

An image so old and dark that he could barely remember details flashed in his brain, but he instantly erased it. “My only fear is losing you,” he told her, which was the absolute truth.

“Oh, you are freaking Shakespeare today. And you’re lying. You’re scared of heights and I know it.”

He didn’t like them, but…scared? “What makes you think that?”

“Ahem, first date? Skydeck of Sears Tower? Your excuses for not going up there were pathetic.”

“Those weren’t excuses. I wanted to get you home and in bed.”

“Mmm.” She leaned so close he could feel the warmth of her lips before they touched his. “Guess that worked.”

He closed the space and took the kiss. “Could work again. Let’s get out of here if you want to face some fears. I’ll scare the clothes right off you.”

She laughed. “We can do that later, but first…” Her voice trailed off.

“But first what? Survive your latest bout of crazy?”

“Yeah, you could say that.”

He tried to imagine what in the rural area outside of Chicago could be life-threatening. “Are you going to make me climb a tree or something?”

“Umm…something.”

“What something?”

“I’m going to tell you something.”

A little jolt of joy kicked his chest, making him lift the edge of the bandanna for a one-eyed peek. “Hell, yeah.”

She tugged the blindfold back over his eyes. “You don’t know what I’m going to say.”

Oh, yes he did. Three little words he’d been declaring and she’d been refusing to reciprocate.

“I’m going to tell you…something very important, very secret, and very…” For a second she hesitated, and he could hear her inhale a shaky breath. “Very revealing about me.”

This time her vague answer made him grin. “ ’Bout damn time.”

“Hope you’re smiling like that after I tell you.”

Of course he would be.
She loved him
. He’d be the happiest guy in the world. He might propose then and there. Who cares if they’d only known each other for a month? For the first time in his life he wasn’t following the expected course, and nothing had ever felt better.

“Just say it, Zoe. Move your lips and say I…” He kissed her mouth. “Love.” He nibbled her lower lip. “You.” He sucked gently, making a squeak. “Your turn.”
Come on, Zoe.

“Or you could skip the preliminaries.” She sucked his lip right back, way noisier and with more gusto, then shoved him to the door. “Go.”

He let her lead him through the woods, along a trail he could see through the bottom of the blindfold, but he played her game and didn’t cheat. They spent a good ten minutes crossing a grassy field, holding hands. With each step, he inhaled the scent of pine and honeysuckle and thought about what he’d say after she finally admitted she loved him.

Zoe, will you marry me?
No, too straightforward
.

Zoe, make me the happiest man on earth and marry me.
She’d howl at the cliché.

Ever since the moment I saw you, I knew this was in
evi
t—

“Stop.” She froze them both in place. In the distance, he heard voices, a cry of something that sounded like a mix of terror and joy. Where were they?

She pressed against his chest, sliding up on her tiptoes to reach his lips with hers. “Will you do this for me?”

Do what? It didn’t matter. If this was her test, he’d pass. “Honey, I’d walk across fire for you and you know it.”

“Then this ought to be a piece of cake. Oliver Bradbury, you are about to conquer your fears.” She pulled off the blindfold. “And I’m about to face mine.”

Yellow. The only thing he could see was a giant, rubbery, blinding mass of yellow spilled over the ground like a sea of sunflowers; it took a full five seconds for it all to compute. “No fucking way.”

“Well, now, that’s the attitude.” She grabbed his hand and pulled him closer.

“A hot air balloon, Zoe? Are you nuts? I’m not getting on that thing.” Not in a million years.

Rounding the basket, she stood on her tiptoes and peered in. “Oh, the crew did everything just like I asked. We only need to blow her up and take her high.” She waved to a few people gathered near another balloon, this one partially inflated by a giant fan in front of it. “Climb in and meet the ground crew.”

“The ground crew? How about the pilot?” At her smug smile he closed his eyes. No. Oh, Christ, no.

“I’m taking you up,” she said, confirming his fear.

“You are.” He gave a dubious look to the deflated balloon and tiny basket barely big enough to hold two people, let alone enough extra tanks to make sure they didn’t run out of whatever it was that kept these things afloat.

“Want to see my license? I got it last week.”

Last week?

Her laughter floated off into the breeze, like they were about to. Except they
weren’t
.

“You want a lesson in how it works?” she asked. “Would that make you feel better? Those sandbags are—”

“I want a rain check.” He stepped back, glancing up to a morning sky that promised no rain as a handy excuse. A brightly striped balloon ascended, already nearly a thousand feet in the air. Aw, fuck it
all
. “It’s not happening, Zoe.”

She angled her head and looked up at him. “And thirty seconds ago you were going to walk across fire for me.”

“I still would.
On the ground
.”

For a long, quiet, seemingly endless moment, they looked at each other.

“How is it you can cut open a human chest and pluck out a heart and replace a stinking
artery
like a freaking car mechanic and you can’t go up in the air in a machine brilliantly designed to fly safely?”

He took a slow breath. “First of all, I only did that during my cardiology rotation, but in surgery, I’m in control.” He held up his two hands. “I operate these.”

“Well, I operate this.”

“No, Zoe, it’s powered by wind and—chance.”

She stepped closer, wrapping her arms around his waist, and gave him an irresistible smile. “Kind of like me, huh?”

He slid his hand into her hair and held her steady. “You’re uplifting, not flighty. There’s a difference.”

She inched back, her eyes uncharacteristically serious, and maybe a little scared. Why would
she
be scared? “I want to tell you something, Oliver, and I want to be up there”—she pointed to the sky—“when I do.”

“You can tell me right here, right now. Not two thousand feet in the air.”

“Three.”

Shit.

“I need to be sure you aren’t going to leave.”

He almost choked. “Leave? I’d never leave you. I’m attached to you. I changed my life for you, or did you forget?”

She shrugged. “Yes, you broke up with your girlfriend the day after we met. But”—she pointed a finger in his face—“you said yourself you didn’t really love her.”

Was this a test of whether or not he loved Zoe? Because if it was, Oliver wouldn’t fail. But, damn it, he didn’t want to take that ride. “This is crazy.”


I’m
crazy,” she assured him with a ridiculous amount of pride. “I’m a lunatic who loves to get up in the air and be completely untethered. And that’s where I want to be with you when I tell you…something.”

That something he needed to hear.

He searched her face, hating that he could already feel himself giving in. How did she do this to him? He couldn’t say no to her. One kiss, one touch, one laugh, one time, and he was gone. “God, I love you.”

“Is that a yes?” She tightened her grip. “Please say yes.”

“I know what you’re doing.”

She tilted her head, that serious look darkening her eyes again. “Actually, I don’t think you do.”

“You’re testing me. And you know damn well I have never met a test I didn’t ace.”

“I’m not testing you, Oliver. I’m testing me.” She put her finger on his lips, holding his gaze. “And I want to do it on my turf.”

“Which happens to be three thousand feet off the ground.”

“Think of it as three thousand feet closer to the sun. Please?”

It was just enough to push him over an edge he knew he’d tumble over anyway.

He gave up the fight as a few guys—who looked as young and inexperienced as Zoe—came over to greet them. During the next half hour Zoe was in her element, and Oliver was in denial.

The fan blew the massive nylon balloon up to four stories high, until they were all dwarfed by its magnitude. When it was big enough, they attached what looked like really rickety burners, which blasted enough heat that the whole thing started to bounce a little—like Zoe in her strappy sandals and ruffled skirt that danced around her ankles.

“Let’s go!” She grabbed his hand and they got into the basket, high-fived a few of their crew, and then there was more choreography of burners and sandbags and a great deal of waving and cries of “Good luck,” which he hoped to hell they didn’t need.

And then they were off, the ground drifting farther away, the gondola, as she called the basket, swinging like a heart-stopping pendulum, and the air thinner with each passing second.

Or maybe that was just Oliver having a tough time breathing.

He gripped the wicker rim, refusing to look down. Instead he watched Zoe fine-tune the burners and dance with the wind, as he tried to pretend he was paying attention and not mentally writing his last will and testament.

“Listen,” she whispered as she twisted a valve. “Listen to that.”

Silence. Complete and total silence.

“Nice,” he admitted, relaxing a little as a slight breeze lifted them over a golf course and toward a lake, the residential developments of suburban Chicago fading into a quilt work of farms in rural Illinois about fifteen hundred feet below.

Wordlessly, Zoe and Oliver came together, folding into each other’s arms like it was as natural as breathing.

“You okay?” she asked.

He nodded, lowering his face for a kiss. “Is this the part when we get to drink that champagne?” he asked, nodding toward the bottle that one of the ground crew had tossed in at the very last minute.

“Oh, that’s not for us,” she told him. “That’s in case we land on someone’s property. It’s tradition for the balloon pilot to offer champagne to the people to thank them for letting them land there.”

“In other words you don’t have any idea where you’re going to land.”

“That, my darling, is the story of my life.” She took a deep, deep breath and closed her eyes. “You ready?”

“For anything. Except jumping.”

“Well, you might want to when I tell you this.”

He searched her face, taking time to appreciate the fine bones and soft skin, the deep bow in her upper lip, the bottle-green eyes that tipped up at the sides and sparkled when she smiled. But it wasn’t Zoe’s external beauty that had wrapped around his heart and squeezed the life out of him. It was her spirit, her laugh, her willingness to give everything to every situation.

“Nothing you could tell me would make me want to jump,” he said.

“All right.” Her chest rose and fell with each strained breath. She eased out of his arms and steadied herself by holding on to the wicker edge, the rising sun silhouetting her. “My name’s not really Zoe Tamarin.”

He gave it a nanosecond of consideration. “Okay, what is it?”

“Bridget.”

Bridget? “I like that name, but Zoe suits you so much better. So much more alive and wild than Bridget.”

“Zoe means new life,” she said softly, the words spoken almost as if she’d memorized them or she was quoting someone.

“Is that why you changed it?”

Her knuckles whitened on the basket rim. “I didn’t change it. Pasha did.”

Her aunt was even crazier than Zoe, that was for sure. “Don’t tell me: a butterfly landed on her teacup and flapped out a new name in Morse code?”

BOOK: Barefoot in the Sun
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