Barefoot in the Sun (Barefoot Bay)
Author:Roxanne St. Claire

Prologue

Zoe 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 inevit—

“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?”

She didn’t laugh. Instead, she bit her lower lip and cast her eyes down. “I was in the Texas foster care system as a child.”

“Really?” He tried to wrap his head around that. Why would she keep something so big from him? “You never told me.”

“Because I never tell anyone.”

On his belt loop the cell phone he was required to carry rang, jarring both of them.

“Whoops, I forgot to tell you that you’re supposed to turn that off up here,” she said. “FCC rules.”

He glanced at the phone. “It’s not a call, it’s one of those new SMS messages the hospital put us on instead of pagers.”

“Are you on call today?”

“No, but there’s one patient who started a new treatment yesterday and I asked the shift nurse to shoot me a message on his status.”

She nodded toward the phone when it rang again. “Then you’d better check it.”

“Hold your thought.” Pulling out the new hospital-issued flip-phone, he snapped up the cover.

Must talk. Very important!

He peered at the message, then the number, recognizing it instantly. Of course Adele would have access to every resident’s number. And use it to stalk him. She wasn’t going to let go of him that easily, was she? She’d been hounding him for four weeks, even though he’d broken up with her as civilly as he could and had stopped taking her calls.

He shook his head. “Not important.” He focused on Zoe and this conversation, since everything the woman he loved said was far more important than messages from the one he did not. “Why were you in foster care if you have your Aunt Pasha?”

“She’s not my aunt.”

“Great-aunt,” he corrected.

“Not that either. She was my next-door neighbor.”

Now he really scowled. “And she adopted you?”

“She…took me.” She gnawed at her lip and forced herself to meet his gaze, even though, he could tell, that wasn’t easy. “She saved me. I was in trouble when I was ten years old, I was in…” She searched for a word, then shook her head in frustration. “Trouble. And I had to get away from the trouble. So Pasha, the next-door neighbor, took me and—”

“Wait.” He didn’t understand. “The neighbor took you? How?”

“She ran away with me. I needed help and she…” Zoe reached for his arm. “Pasha saved my life, Oliver. She kept me and changed our names and we moved constantly from town to town, and she got fake IDs made so we could manage and we stayed off the grid and under the radar.” The words spilled out, each one a little harder to believe than the one before. “If you want to get technical about it, she kidnapped me.”

The basket buffeted by a gust of wind, the balloon suddenly dropping at least five feet while Oliver’s stomach felt like it plummeted another two hundred.

Zoe whipped around to adjust the valve.

“She kidnapped you?” How was that even possible? “And no one ever caught her?”

“Not yet.”

The phone, still in his hand, rang again. While Zoe worked the valves and the balloon bounced, Oliver read the next message.

I’m serious, Oliver! This is an EMERGENCY!

He stared at the words but didn’t really see them, his whole being waiting for Zoe to finish, his brain trying—and failing—to squeeze this new information into what he knew about her. She’d been kidnapped?

“That’s why we move so much,” she said, finally turning back to him, her cheeks pink from the wind. Or maybe that was shame. Which was crazy because she hadn’t done anything wrong.

Except go along with the insanity, bouncing through life with her crazy aunt-neighbor with as little stability as this balloon.

“Zoe, you have to fix this problem. It’s been, what? Fourteen years?”

“There’s no statute of limitations on kidnapping,” she said, her tone full of the authority of someone who’d done her research. “She could still go to jail.”

“What about you?”

“Me? I didn’t do anything, but I have to protect her.”

“What you have to do is—is fix this.” How could she not see that?

“Oliver, didn’t you hear me? She could go to jail. There’s nothing to fix.”

Of course there was. “How about your life and your future?” Didn’t she see that? He reached for her to make his point, the steps already clear to him even if the problem wasn’t. “Zoe, you get a good lawyer and you work out a deal, maybe pay a fine or—”

“No!”

Her vehemence shocked him. “What are you going to do, hide your whole life?”

For a long, silent moment, she stood uncharacteristically still. As each second ticked by, her eyes filled. “I don’t know, but I’m not going to do anything that’s a risk to her. I’m not going to do anything official.”

The phone rang again. “Damn it,” he muttered. “Let me turn this off.” He opened the cover to find the button, but the words on the screen assaulted him.

OLIVER I AM PREGNANT!

He snapped the phone closed with a crack, making Zoe startle.

“You’re angry,” she said.

“Not with you.”

Adele was pregnant? Seriously? He couldn’t even think straight enough to do the math, but he didn’t have to. They’d broken up four weeks ago. Adele could easily be pregnant.

Or she could be lying, just as easily.

Zoe backed away, her eyes already filled with tears. “I knew I shouldn’t have told you. I’ve never told anyone, and this is why.”

“No, no, Zoe. That’s not—” His logical brain felt like it was short-circuiting. “First things first,” he said, as much to himself as to her. “We get a lawyer and get her cleared.”

Her jaw opened. “It isn’t that easy, Oliver.”

“You can’t live your life like this, Zoe. You have to go to the authorities and—”

“Are you nuts?”

“Are you?” he fired back.

For a second she froze, staring at him. Then she turned back to the valves. “I’ll take us down.”

“Good,” he said, taking out the phone to make sure he’d read Adele’s message right. What would he do if she really was pregnant? He wouldn’t abandon her, but he sure as hell wouldn’t mar—

“Shit,” she muttered, twisting a knob with a grunt.

“What? A problem?”

She whipped around to him, the balloon falling a little too fast. “Yes, Oliver. There is a problem.”

“We’re going to crash?”

“We just did,” she said.

“Zoe, come on. Be smart about this. If Pasha—”

“No,” she said sharply. “You be smart about it. Do you have any idea what it took to tell you that? Any idea at all how I guard that secret? I’ve never told my closest friends, my college roommates. I’ve never told anyone but you.”

“I appreciate that, but—”

“No buts!” Tears splashed now, each one a little kick in his gut.

“Zoe, what did you think I’d say?”

“I thought you’d understand. I thought you’d step forward and tell me you love me anyway, despite my past. I really thought you’d be the one person I could trust.”

“Did you think I’d say ‘Oh, that’s cool, no big deal—we’ll live on the run the rest of our lives and that’s fine?” He hated himself for taking his anger at Adele out on Zoe, but how could he walk away from a baby? He wouldn’t, of course, he’d—

“I don’t know what I was thinking. It was crazy to think I could ever…stay.”

He reached for her, but she snapped out of his touch.

“Zoe, you can stay. You can do whatever you want. You have to clear up this problem.” And so did he.

“Sure.” She nodded, swiping her eyes. “I’m sorry.”

“For what your aunt did when you were a kid? How can you be sorry about that?”

“I’m not sorry about that. She saved me, Oliver. I wasn’t going to survive that situation and she knew it. She swooped in and risked everything for me. She gave up her life for me.”

He didn’t understand how making Zoe disappear and live the life of a tumbleweed made everything all right, but this wasn’t the time to argue about that. His own life was falling apart faster than this balloon was heading for the ground. “Then what are you sorry for?”

Zoe manipulated the balloon, her hair flipping over her face. “For telling you. For being honest. For falling in—bed with you.”

“You were going to say love, weren’t you?” The phone rang again and he didn’t even bother to look at this message. “Weren’t you, Zoe?”

She flicked her hair off her face, doing something with the valves that made the basket drop and swing a little.

“Whoops!” She laughed playfully, that wind-chime giggle that he loved so much. Except there was something missing in the musical sound this time.

And just like that, her walls went up. He’d spent four weeks taking them down brick by brick, but now she was back to fun-loving, joke-making, carefree Zoe who kept everyone at a distance. Fuck. Could he be handling this any worse?

“We better get you home so you can take care of whoever is so desperate to reach you, Doctor.”

This was the wrong time, the wrong place. He’d fix this later. First he’d handle Adele, then he’d handle Zoe. “In a few weeks I’ll have this all fixed.”

She shot him a look. “ ’Cause that’s what you do, right?”

Right. “I better get…to the hospital.” Or to Adele’s house. “And then we’ll talk, Zoe.”

“Not much to talk about now.”

Like hell there wasn’t. “Zoe, you have to attack the problem logically. You have to do the right thing, even though…” He glanced at the phone in his hand, his chest suddenly hollow and cold. “The right thing isn’t easy.”

She nodded, saying nothing as she worked to get them down. “I’ll call the ground crew when we land and they’ll pick us up,” she said, all the joy and life that had taken them into the skies gone from her flat voice.

He pushed away the guilt. One problem at a time.

“We'll talk later?” he asked again.

“Oh, of course. We’ll talk. I’ll chat with my aunt and tell her what you think we should do. Then we can talk all you want.”

Her voice had a strange note, almost like she was teasing. But he couldn’t dig deeper into that now. Not with his phone exploding with bad news. “You promise?” he asked again.

But she didn’t answer; she was too busy with the balloon instruments.

“Hold on, now,” she finally said. “We’re about to touch down. Prepare to crash.” She winked at him. “Kidding.” They hit with a solid thud, enough to knock him off balance and both of them into each other, and he held her as tightly as he could.

“Do you promise we’ll talk later?” he pressed.

She made an X over her heart. “I promise.”

Less than twelve hours later he stood in an abandoned house on the south side of Chicago, every sign that Zoe and Pasha Tamarin had ever rented it wiped away. Her promise had been broken, along with his heart. And he had no idea how to fix that.