Barefoot in the Sun - Roxanne St. Claire Page 0,1

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.”



“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