Jessica Hart

Barefoot Bride

Release Date: 2007. Also reprinted in Paradise Nights anthology

Alice Gunning thinks she has the perfect life. She loves her job and swanky city apartment, and she’s about to get engaged. Until one day her boyfriend leaves her, she’s fired – and her lottery numbers come up! Alice heads for a tropical paradise to work out her future. On a sun-drenched beach she encounters Will Paxman – her gorgeous old flame! When Alice is offered the job of a lifetime back in the city, it’s time to choose between her old life … or a future with Will!

A Little Bit Extra

This is really Alice’s story. Like her, I spent a lot of my childhood overseas, and my earliest memories are of African skies and strange gardens populated by weird creepy-crawlies and dusty roads that stretched out to the horizon. Some of Alice’s memories are my own, but whereas I was left with incurably itchy feet, Alice yearns for a settled, secure life. When her apparently perfect life falls apart, she encounters Will once more, and she’s forced to decide what she really wants and needs. The safe option is to stick with what she knows, but there is another option: to let go of the past and the mistakes she has made, and take a chance on loving and being loved completely. The risks are much greater … but so are the rewards. Now Alice has to choose what is right for her...


‘What about you?’ Will asked, breaking into her thoughts and making her start.


‘What are you doing on St Bonaventure?’

Alice wished she could say that she was here for some interesting or meaningful reason. ‘I’m on holiday,’ she confessed, immediately feeling guilty about it. She wasn’t even bringing in much money as she was staying with Roger and Beth.

‘So you’ll just be here a couple of weeks?’

She was sure she detected relief in his voice. He was probably delighted at the idea that she wouldn’t be around for long so that he could get on with his happy, successful, married life without her.

The thought stiffened Alice’s resolve not to let Will so much as guess that all her careful plans had come to nothing. It wasn’t that she begrudged him his happiness, but a girl had her pride. She needed to convince him that she had never had a moment’s regret. She wouldn’t lie – that would be pathetic, obviously – but there was no reason why she shouldn’t put a positive slant on things, was there?

‘Actually,’ she said, ‘I’m here for six weeks.’

He lifted one brow in a way that Alice had often longed to be able to do. ‘Long holiday,’ he commented.

‘I’m lucky, aren’t I?’ she agreed with a cool smile. ‘Roger and Beth have been telling me I should come and visit ever since they were posted here last year, but I just haven’t had the opportunity until now.’

Redundancy could be seen as an opportunity, couldn’t it?

‘You must have done well for yourself,’ said Will. ‘Not many people get the opportunity for a six week holiday.’

‘It’s not strictly a holiday,’ Alice conceded. ‘As it happens, I’m between jobs at the moment,’ she explained, tilting her chin slightly.

That wasn’t a lie either. She might not have another job lined up just yet, but when she went home she was determined that she was not only going to get her career back on track, but that she would be moving onto to bigger and better things. With her experience, there was no reason why shouldn’t aim for a more prestigious company, a promotion and a pay rise.

‘I see,’ said Will, his expression so non-committal that Alice was afraid that he saw only too well. He had no doubt interpreted being ‘between jobs’ as unemployed, which of course was another way of looking at it, but not one Alice was prepared to dwell on.

‘I was in a very pressurised work environment,’ she told him loftily, ‘and I thought it was time to take a break and reassess where my career was going.’

Strictly speaking, of course, it had been the company who had taken over PLMR who had decided that Alice could have all the time she wanted to think about things, but Will didn’t need to know that. It wasn’t as if it had been her fault. Almost all her colleagues had been made redundant at the same time, she reminded herself. It could happen to anyone these days.

‘Market research – it is market research, isn’t it? - obviously pays well if you can afford six weeks somewhere like this when you’re between jobs,’ said Will, with just a hint of snideness. ‘But then, you always wanted to make money, didn’t you?’

‘I wanted to be secure,’ said Alice, hating the faintly defensive note in her voice, ‘and I am.’ What was wrong with wanting security? ‘I wanted to be successful, and I am,’ she added for good measure.

Well, she had been until last year, but when your company was the subject of a hostile takeover, there wasn’t much you could do about it, no matter how good you were at your job. It hadn’t been a good year. Her only lucky break had been winning nearly two thousand pounds in the lottery, and that had been a fluke. Normally, Alice wouldn’t even think about buying a ticket, but she had been in a mood when she was prepared to try anything to change the dreary trend of her life.

It wasn’t as if she had won millions. Two thousand pounds wasn’t enough to change her life, but it was just enough for a ticket to an out of the way place like St Bonaventure, and Alice had taken it as a sign. At any other time, she would have been sensible. She would have bought herself a pair of shoes and put the rest of the money towards some much-needed repairs on her flat – the unexpected windfall would have covered the cost of a new boiler, for instance – but that wasn’t any other time. That was the day she heard that Tony and Sandi were getting married.

Alice had gone straight out and bought a plane ticket. And some shoes.

Still, there was no harm in letting Will think that she had earned so much money that she didn’t know what to do with it all. Not that it would impress him. He was more likely to disapprove of what he thought of as her materialistic life style, but Alice was desperate for him to believe that she had made it.

‘We all make choices,’ she reminded him. ‘I made mine, and I don’t have any regrets,’ ‘I’m glad you got what you wanted then,’ said Will flatly.

‘You too,’ said Alice, and for a jarring moment their eyes met. It was as if the polite mask they both wore dropped for an instant, and they saw each other properly for the first time. The sense of recognition was like a blow to Alice’s stomach, pushing the air from her lungs and leaving her breathless and giddy and almost nauseous.

But then Will had jerked his head away, the guarded expression clanging back into place with such finality that Alice wondered if she had imagined that look.

‘You didn’t marry Clive then?’ he asked abruptly.

‘Clive?’ Alice was thrown by the sudden change of subject.

‘The Clive you were so in love with at Roger and Beth’s wedding,’ Will reminded her with an edge of savagery. ‘Don’t tell me you’ve forgotten him!’

‘I didn’t –’ Alice had opened her mouth to strenuously deny ever loving Clive and then shut it again. If she hadn’t loved Clive, why had she let Will believe that she did? Why hadn’t she been able to tell him the truth that day?

‘No, I didn’t marry Clive,’ she said quietly. ‘We split up soon after … after Roger’s wedding,’ she finished after a tiny moment of hesitation.

She had so nearly said ‘after you kissed me’, and she might as well have done. The memory of that dark night in the hotel gardens jangled in the air between them. Those desperate kisses, the spiralling excitement, the sense of utter rightness at being back in each other’s arms. The tightness around her heart as she watched him walk away.

Alice could feel them all as vividly as if they had kissed the night before.

Will had to be remembering those kisses too. She wanted to be able to talk about it, laugh about it even, pretend that it didn’t matter and it was all in the past, but she couldn’t. Not yet.

So she drew a steadying breath and summoned another of her bright smiles. ‘Then I met Tony, and we were together for four years. We talked about getting married but … well, we decided it wouldn’t have worked.’

Tony had decided that, anyway.

‘We stopped ourselves making a terrible mistake just in time,’ Alice finished.

OK, it might not be the whole story, but why should she tell Will all her sad secrets? Anyway, it might not be the whole truth, but it was the truth. It would have been a mistake if she and Tony had gone ahead with the wedding. Nothing but unhappiness would have come from their marriage when Tony was in love with someone else. Alice’s world might have fallen apart the day Tony sat her down to tell her about Sandi, but she could accept even then that he had done the right thing.

Today was Tony and Sandi’s wedding day, Alice was startled to remember. She had spent so long dreading this day, imagining how hard it would be for her to think about another woman taking what should have been her place, and now that it was here, she hadn’t even thought about it. Perhaps she ought to be grateful to Will for distracting her?

Will drained the last of his beer and turned aside to put the empty bottle on the decking rail. ‘Still avoiding commitment, I see,’ he commented with a sardonic glance over his shoulder at Alice, who flushed at the injustice of it.

She wasn’t the one who had called off the wedding. If it had been down to her, she would be happily married to Tony right now, but she bit back the words. She had just convinced him that ending her engagement to Tony had been a mutual decision, so she could hardly tell him the truth now.

Which was worse? That he thought she was afraid of commitment, or that he felt sorry for her? No question.

‘Still determined not to get married until I’m absolutely sure it’s perfect,’ she corrected Will. ‘So … I’m fancy free, and on the lookout for Mr Right. I’m not going to get married until I’ve found him, and until then, I’m just having fun!’

Will was unimpressed by her bravado. ‘You seem very tense for someone who’s having fun,’ he said.

Alice gritted her teeth. ‘I am not tense,’ she snapped. Tensely, in fact. ‘I’m a bit jet-lagged that’s all. I only got here a couple of days ago.’

‘Ah,’ said Will, not bothering to hide the fact that he was totally unconvinced by her explanation, which just made Alice even crosser, but she sucked in her breath and resisted the temptation to retort in kind. She didn’t want Will to think that he was getting to her, or that she cared in the slightest what he thought of her.

Friendly but unobtainable, wasn’t that how she wanted him to think of her? Pleasant but cool. His long-lost love who had turned into a mysterious stranger. Anything but sad and tense and a failure.

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