Barefoot in Pearls
Barefoot Bay Brides #3
The latest love story set in Barefoot Bay! New York Times bestselling author Roxanne St. Claire takes readers back to the beach with more heat, humor, heartache, and the hard-won happily ever after found in every romance novel in The Barefoot Series.
As her two best friends settle into their happily ever afters, destination wedding designer Arielle Chandler is beginning to wonder if the promise of “The One” — one true love, meant only for her — is merely folklore passed down from her Native American grandmother. But when a mysterious man nearly mows her down on a hill overlooking Barefoot Bay, the legend of destined love suddenly feels very real. That is, until Ari learns of Luke McBain’s plans to demolish a piece of land she believes is sacred.
Luke isn’t proud of the fact that he spent ten years as a mercenary warrior, fighting battles for another country. With those dark days behind him, he’s focused on creating a new life instead of destroying others, so he’s moved to Barefoot Bay to launch a contracting business and build a house for an old friend. But when an enigmatic dark-eyed beauty steals his attention and stops his progress with her announcement that he is about to flatten a native burial ground, Luke has a new battle to fight.
While their immediate and potent attraction grows complicated, Luke and Ari discover the hills of Barefoot Bay could be hiding something far different ? and even more valuable ? than ancient art or graves. They are determined to discover the truth, but that will come at a cost. Will they risk their chance at once-in-a-lifetime love to uncover secrets that could change the landscape of Barefoot Bay forever?
Arielle Chandler never prayed, not in the classic head-bowed, hands-folded, beg-for-help kind of way. Despite the fact that her father was a Bible-thumping Oklahoma man of God, Ari’s spirituality came from the other side of her family, the Native American side that her shaman grandmother had nurtured and tended during long summers they spent together, communing with nature. So when Ari needed help, she headed outside, under the sun, next to the trees, close to the earth, where “the universe” could provide assistance.
Or maybe she just needed fresh air, a practical, skeptical little voice whispered in her head. Maybe she just imagined that nature delivered answers. She’d never been one hundred percent certain that Grandma Good Bear had known what she was talking about all the time, but everything the dear woman said had felt right.
So today, when things didn’t feel right at all, Ari had escaped to one of her favorite places in Barefoot Bay—the only hill on a flat, tropical Gulf Coast island. The rise took her closer to the sky, and sometimes, when the universe smiled, she’d see an osprey with golden eyes and gray-tipped wings nesting in the tall palms.
She liked to imagine that regal bird was the spirit of her departed grandmother, soaring overhead to remind Ari to trust the universe and everything would work out as it should.
Even when it felt like nothing was working out as it should.
She checked the sky to gauge the time, certain she had a few hours, maybe more, before she needed to be in the Barefoot Brides dressing room. But this afternoon, the event wasn’t work, as it usually was for Ari and her two bridal consultant partners. Today, one of those partners was the bride and not the consultant, and Ari wasn’t just the event designer, but one of the two maids of honor.
And she needed every minute of that time to figure out why she felt so unsettled today. Was it the wedding? The love that seemed to permeate the lives of her closest friends—but not hers?
“I’m happy for them,” she said out loud, as though she needed to be sure the universe understood that she really was happy when best friend number one is about to say “I do” and best friend number two just fell hard for the man of her dreams.
Nearly at the top of the hill, Ari looked out to the horizon, the sun glittering bits of gold on the indigo Gulf of Mexico, a commanding view sitting on pricey—and abandoned—real estate. Still, someone must have lived here once or owned the land, because there was a dilapidated old bungalow at the bottom of the hill, missing most of its roof and all of its windows.
The old house looked as hollow and empty as Ari felt.
“I just want to know what it feels like to be complete,” she whispered, thinking of Willow’s ethereal joy and Gussie’s never-ending smiles since the two women had each found their true loves. Until then, Ari hadn’t realized just how much she wanted that kind of joy for herself. “Just how much I want to find…”
She closed her mouth, purposely silent. The universe would laugh at her. Like her friends tried not to do when she told them that Grandma Good Bear convinced her that there really is one and only one person meant for everyone on earth. They said they were laughing at her grandmother’s adorable Miwok name, but Ari knew they thought she was nuts for believing her grandmother and promising to wait for him—wait in every imaginable way.
Two years had gone by since Ari had made that vow to her dying grandmother, and sometimes it felt like she’d been celibate for so long that she was practically a virgin again. There had been a time when Ari thought the idea of “The One” was just folklore that Grandma made up to justify how Ari’s half-Native American mother had ended up happily married to a Presbyterian pastor. It did explain Ari’s parents’ bizarre, yet wildly successful, union.
But over time, during those spectacular summers spent alone with her Grandma in Northern California, Ari had realized that the old shaman truly believed in the concept of a single real love, meant only for you. And, no surprise, Ari became a believer, too.
Grandma had said that Ari would recognize her “one true love” by the way her heart would feel like it was literally expanding in her chest when she met him, because it was “making room for love that will last a lifetime.” She’d said Ari’s spine would tingle, sending sparks out to her fingertips that wouldn’t stop until she touched him. Grandma had talked of white lights that would go off in Ari’s head and a numbness that would spread over her whole body. She might not be able to breathe.
The whole thing sounded like what happened when a person got shit-faced drunk, which, come to think of it, might be the optimal way to get through tonight’s wedding.
The truth was, Ari had never met anyone who’d made her feel things like what her grandmother described. How do you explain that, Universe?
The flutter of bird’s wings pulled Ari’s attention. She hoped for the osprey, but instead, menacing black wings beat the air, and an evil red face and predatory eyes gazed down at her.
A vulture. Didn’t see a lot of vultures in Barefoot Bay. She ducked instinctively as the bird swooped low then ascended high and mighty, like a poor man’s eagle. But not before it dropped a dollop of poop.
“Eww!” Ari backed away in disgust. Is that what the universe thought of her dreams and longings? Bird doo all over…
What was that? The bird dropping had landed on something white, shiny, and long that looked like an ivory-colored snake curled under a pygmy palm tree. Ari stepped closer and leaned over to examine a string of tiny misshapen stones curled along a section of dirt.
Leaning over, she squinted at the row of at least a dozen stones, the droplets of bird doo still wet on the ridged surfaces. Reaching into the pocket of her shorts, she fished for a tissue or receipt or, much more likely, a candy wrapper, but came up with nothing that could wipe the stones clean.
So she’d have to man up and touch the stones, because they were absolutely stunning. Kneeling closer, she squinted at the bluish-purple color of the largest pearl. Wiping her hand on her shorts, she extended two fingers gingerly toward the end of the strand.
These were not your basic jewelry-store freshwater pearls. These had an ancient, handmade look, the string between each stone clumsily knotted and frayed with age. A memory slipped through the edges of her mind, barely more than a wisp of smoke, but Ari closed her eyes and drifted back to a Native American festival she’d attended with Grandma Good Bear.
Pearl necklaces had been among the artifacts found there—artifacts discovered in Indian burial mounds.
She gasped, blinking at the punch of realization. What if this hill—on an island that had no other hills—wasn’t a hill at all?
A rhythmic pounding broke the silence, but not a bird’s wings this time. The sound was steady, strong, a drumbeat of…feet.
Ari whipped around to see a man jogging—no, seriously running—full speed toward her, bare-chested and bronzed.
She blinked as if the sun were playing tricks on her, highlighting the glistening muscles of his torso and abs, the powerful thighs as he took each stride, the tanned, sweaty shoulders held straight and strong as he powered up the hill, directly at her.
He had earbuds in, short, dark hair, and a mouth set in a grim line. He wore sunglasses, so she couldn’t see his eyes, but he made no effort to change his path as he barreled forward.
It happened so fast. With no time to stand, she threw herself back with a shriek to get out of his way, but he stumbled over her foot and barked a black curse. The sunglasses went flying, and he hopped to get his balance.
“Whoa!” He fought to stop his own momentum. “Where the hell did you come from?”
Her? What about him? “What do you think you’re doing?”
“Running up a hill. What are you doing here?”
“How did you not see me?”
“My eyes were closed.” He practically spit the words at her, popping out his earbuds, his chest heaving with shallow breaths.
“I was in the zone,” he added, as if that explained why anyone would run with eyes closed and ears plugged. He reached for her hand to help her up. “You okay?”
“I’m fine.” She started to wave off the help, but he clasped her wrist, wrapping huge, masculine fingers around her, giving her an effortless tug that brought her to her feet. She still had to look up at him and still needed to squint, but not because of the sunlight.
He wasn’t handsome, at least not by male model-type standards. This man was rough and dark, with heavy whiskers over a jaw that looked like it might have met a few fists in its day. His nose was a little off-center and maybe broken once or twice. His chest and shoulders dwarfed her, no tattoos, no chest hair, but tanned, sweat-dampened skin covering rolling, ripped muscles.
“Really sorry,” he said. He scanned her face and made no effort to unlock his grip on her wrist.
She should yank free. She should step away. She should stop staring. She should…breathe.
But right that minute, bathed in sunlight and pinned by a green-gold gaze the color of oxidized copper, Ari Chandler couldn’t do any of those things. Because her whole body was kind of tingling and buzzing and sparking, like she’d stuck her entire arm in an electrical socket.
“You sure you’re okay?” he asked. “‘Cause you look like I rang your bell.”
He rang something. There was no other explanation for how lightheaded she suddenly felt.
“I…I’m…I think…” Words failed her. No chance of a coherent sentence.
His brows pulled into a frown as he turned her arm and placed a thumb over her pulse, which hit warp speed.
“Whoa. Your heart’s racing faster than mine and I’ve been running.” He started to lower her back to the ground. “Sit down. I have some water in my truck. Let me get it.”
“No, no, I’m fine.” But Ari let him guide her down, sitting on the grass as he crouched in front of her. She searched his face, trying to decide if she’d ever seen him before. No. In fact, she’d never seen anyone quite like him.
“Who?” Are you… She swallowed the rude-sounding question since he seemed to be considerate, at least. “Who runs with their eyes closed?” she finished.
“I was trained that way.”
“For what? Suicide missions?”
“Something like that.” His voice, low and charged with mystery, sent another cascade of chills down her spine, a shocking feeling that had no place dancing over her in the heat and humidity of the end of August in Florida.
“Really, what are you doing here?” she asked. “Not very many people on Mimosa Key even know about this place.” Only dirt roads led to this acreage, which was marked at the perimeter as Private Property.
He glanced around. “I’m checking it out.”
“With your eyes closed?”
He almost smiled, just enough to hint at dimples and straight white teeth. Just enough to take the edge off his face and turn it into something arresting. She needed to look away, but all she could do was blink at the white lights flashing behind her eyes. Had she hit her head or…or…oh, no. No. This wasn’t possible.
“No,” she murmured.
“No…what?” he asked, leaning in closer. “It’s okay, I can check the place out. I have the owner’s permission.” He narrowed his eyes, scrutinizing her. “Do you?”
“No, this isn’t… you can’t be…” But he could be. This could be the universe answering her plea—or the handiwork of a wild imagination. Which was it?
For one long, suspended second, the world around her crystallized, making her hyperaware of every color, scent, and sound. Everything was magnified. Like the slow roll of a bead of sweat trickling over a scar on his temple. And the flecks of color that somehow mixed to make his eyes a haunting blend of emerald and topaz. Even the timbre of his voice, baritone and sweet, and the rhythmic huffs of his breaths as the run caught up with him all sounded like music to her ears. He smelled like sunshine and the sea, and his hand, still wrapped around her wrist, was like a hot brand of man against her skin.
Everything about him was—right.
She tried to nod at him, letting the very real possibility of what was happening sink in.
“Hey.” He snapped his fingers in front of her face, making her jump. “Do you know your name?” he asked sharply.
“Place of birth?”
“I don’t have one.”
His eyes flickered. “Phone number?”
She didn’t answer, but not because she couldn’t remember the number. But because his smile went from almost to full force, and the impact actually hurt.
She could practically hear Grandma Good Bear describing exactly these feelings.
“No way!” She shook her head, still not believing it.
“Hey, it was worth a try.” Still smiling, he leaned back on his haunches. “Since you’re coherent enough to turn me down, you must be okay, Arielle Chandler from Sacramento, California.” Then he let his gaze drop over her. “Yeah, you’re fine.”
And all those dancing cells in her body tripped and flatlined.
After a few seconds, he scooped up his sunglasses and stood. “And, by the way, if you don’t have the owner’s permission, you won’t be able to come here when construction starts.”
She looked up at him, digging deep for some semblance of sanity and cool, when all she wanted to do was grab his jaw and stare into his eyes and figure out if he was her future…
Wait a second. “Did you say construction?”
“That old hovel that got messed up in Hurricane Damien— It’s history, along with this hill, which the owner said would block his water view when he builds his house. Well, when I build it for him.”
Another, different kind of buzz hummed through her head. “It’s history?” Her gaze shifted to the right, to the string of pearls not an inch away. Yes, it was history. Ancient, hallowed history. “How can you get rid of a hill?” Especially when it might not be a “hill” at all…
He lifted one mighty shoulder. “With a backhoe.” He wiped some sweat from his brow and shifted his gaze to the water. “I wish we could put the house up here for the best view, but there are crazy-strict rules about how close you can build to the shoreline.”
And rules about protected land, rules she’d heard about a hundred times from her grandmother. “You can’t just backhoe this hill.”
“One of my subs will, and soon.” He angled his head and looked closely at her, his stare so intent her heart ached like it was…expanding.
Expanding to make room for the man who wanted to destroy what might be sacred ground— What would Grandma Good Bear have to say about that?
“You positive you’re okay?” he asked.
No, no, she was not okay. Not at all. “Yes,” she lied glibly.
“Maybe I’ll, uh, run into you again.” He winked and slid on his sunglasses. “Next time I’ll have my eyes open.”
As he took off, she stared at his physique, the back every bit as mouthwatering as the front. Her fingers brushed the pearls next to her, and a different, visceral tug tightened her chest.