In the Clear (Winter Rescue #1)

 

Fletcher Owens is full of secrets.

Few people know he spends his nights volunteering for a Search and Rescue team, saving lives while risking his own. Even fewer know he’s in love with his best friend’s sister. And since he’s not willing to give up their friendship for a chance at something more, that’s exactly how things will stay.

Lexie Sinclair has nothing to hide.

The zany daughter, the wacky sister, the quirky fundraiser for a children’s charity—Lexie couldn’t hide her true self even if she wanted to. So when her brother’s best friend is revealed to be a local hero, she’s determined to stand up and prove she’s ready to be more than just friends.


 
 

Chapter One

For a full twenty seconds, Lexie thought the vibrator in her purse had somehow managed to turn itself on. Again.

She held a wineglass to her lips and feigned an interest in the oaken undertones or whatever it was people were always going on about. It was as good a cover as any as she wormed her stocking-clad foot across the restaurant carpet, searching for the traitorous purse. Her oversized rainbow handbag held lots of illicit things—at least three unpaid parking tickets, a tube of lipstick she’d accidentally stolen from the drugstore and meant to return, a tiny bottle of vodka for emergencies of a social nature.

Honestly, her silver bullet was the least offensive of the bunch. Or it would be, if she could get to the darn thing and stop it from shaking the whole table. Vibrators with faulty on-off switches had to be the worst manufacturing defect of all time. Anything sending unreliable electrical impulses should be banned from nearing a lady’s nether regions.

“Sorry, guys. That’s me.” Fletcher looked up from across the table, a sheepish grin quirking the corner of his mouth. “I need to take this.”

Lexie deflated on the spot, sinking into the chair and taking a healthy swallow of the Merlot. Oak, schmoak, whatever. It tasted like alcohol, and that was all that really mattered right now.

“Go and…do what it is you do.” She gave a magnanimous wave. “Pimp or illegally remove kidneys or whatever. Honestly—who even carries pagers anymore?” It was easy to joke now that it wasn’t her electronic device acting up.

“A doctor,” Sean provided. Her brother nodded as if that made perfect sense, even though they both knew Fletcher Owens was the last man on earth who would willingly wield a scalpel. The sight of blood made him queasy.

Lexie snickered. “More like someone is being reined in by his sugar mama.”

“It’s neither of those things,” Fletcher said.

And that was all he offered. As he always did when the Mysterious Pager of Mystery went off, he said nothing but enigmatically sauntered away to make a phone call in private.

Lexie got up to follow him, but was checked by her brother’s hand.

“What?” she asked with faux innocence. “I have to use the ladies’ room.”

“Then hold it. Let him attend to his business in peace. You know he doesn’t like us making a big deal out of his work.” Her brother’s pale blue eyes—so much like her own—narrowed, and he kicked her shin with his pointy dress shoe.

“Ouch.” She reached down and rubbed the offending body part. “You can’t tell me you aren’t the least bit curious what it is he does when the pager goes off. Superhero? Mob hit? It would be so cool if it was a mob hit.”

“There is something seriously wrong with you if you’d wish a life of crime on my best friend.”

There was no mistaking his tone or the annoyingly proprietary way the words came out. My best friend. As though Lexie hadn’t known Fletcher as long as he had. As if she had no place in the land of manliness they shared.

Well, she did have a place. Or, rather, she could have a place, if she finally carved a few inroads that direction. She was finding it surprisingly difficult to approach Fletcher with her request, and not just because Sean rarely allowed her a moment alone with him.

It was weird, asking a man out for a kind-of-but-not-really-a-date. Especially when that man was someone you’d known almost your whole life.

“I’m just saying it makes sense,” she said. “It’s always the quiet ones you have to be careful of. They say Jeffrey Dahmer was a perfectly normal guy to the outside world.”

“Lexie.” Sean’s voice was firm with the sound of the big brother coming out to play. Five extra minutes of freedom from the womb, and that somehow made him King of All the Wisdom. “Think about what you said.”

Heat flushed to her face. “I’m not saying he eats people. I’m saying there’s no way to know everything about someone. We all have secrets.”

“People only have secrets from you because you’re incapable of keeping them.” Sean pulled the wine bottle across the table, well out of her reach. “And lay off the sauce. There’s probably some emergency at work they need him for.”

“Really? An emergency? And they called Fletcher?” Now it was her turn to drip disdain all over the pristine white tablecloth.

She wasn’t being mean—at least not intentionally. It wasn’t that Fletcher was a bad guy to rely on in a pinch, but the likelihood of disaster at the used car lot where he worked was pretty low. And even if someone had hijacked a decades-old minivan or plowed through the plate glass window with one of the mopeds, they’d probably call the owner or manager to handle things.

Fletcher was the guy they’d call afterwards. To clean up. Reorganize. File the police report and insurance claims. He was meticulous and quiet and always, always in the background—the man you could count on to hold the fire hose for you while you ran into a burning building. The man who’d drink coffee with you afterward and tell you it would all be okay.

“Stop being so nosy,” Sean warned. “Would it kill you for once to keep your mouth closed and your fingers out of the pie?”

“But I like pie.” She liked all kinds of desserts. And gossip. And having people open up to her about their lives. She also liked Fletcher a heck of a lot more than she cared for Sean right now, which was why she was trying to gather up the courage to ask if he’d be her plus one at her work function in two weeks.

She didn’t know why she hadn’t thought of it before. A whole day in Fletcher’s company without Sean and his smug proprietorship taking over. Then maybe she could start throwing my best friend around with such arrogance, too.

Of course, she said none of that. By the time she’d formed a suitable retort, Fletcher was returning to the table. She took him in at a glance, the sight of his slow, careful walk such an ingrained part of her life it barely registered anymore. He was tall—really tall, the kind of tall that came with taunts and jeers growing up—but he didn’t fall back on the unfortunate habit most gangly, shy men had of hunching his shoulders to make himself seem smaller. He was a solid oak in the middle of a forest. The maypole everyone else danced around.

Tonight, he looked much as he always did, what with the meticulous khaki pants he paired with some kind of T-shirt, a frown that seemed to linger a second too long—they were all just there, part of him, unquestionable and comforting. Why should Sean get to keep all of that for himself?

“Well? Has the pager made its demands?” Lexie kicked his chair out. Unfortunately, she hadn’t yet put her shoe on, and the toe of her favorite gray tights snagged on one of the splintery edges of the chair leg. As she pulled back, she felt the unmistakable tickle of a run forming from toe to thigh.

“Oh, monkey balls.” She reached down to unhook her toe. Turning her leg in order to examine the path of destruction, she had to hike up the back of her skirt all the way to the control top panel to find the end of the run. “This is the third pair I’ve ruined this week.”

She normally wouldn’t wear the darn things at all except her work had strict dress codes about things like naked legs and arms. As a fundraiser for Children’s Choice, a nonprofit foster care advocacy group, she could hardly blame them for requiring a little modesty in the workplace, so she complied as best she could. Tights were her alternative to pantsuits, which always made her feel like a politician.

“What are you doing?” Irritation tinged Sean’s voice. He was a man of little patience when it came to the demands of being a woman. “Nobody cares about your stupid socks.”

I care.” With a quick, furtive glance to make sure all the restaurant patrons were intent on their notes-of-oak wine and happy hour appetizers, she shimmied out of her tights. It wasn’t her most elegant moment, but then, no one had ever accused Lexie Sinclair of being classy. Sean was by far the more sophisticated twin. Better dressed, too.

Wiggling her toes as they gratefully escaped the confines of the stretchy nylon, she bent over and shoved the wadded tights into her purse, where they could nest with all her other flaws. It was only when she sat back up that she noticed Fletcher’s horrified expression.

“What?” Her eyes widened. “Is something wrong?”

He pointed an accusatory finger at her bag. “You…those…the restaurant.”

Sean released a snort of laughter. “You’re scarring Fletcher with your disgusting table manners.”

Awesome. Here she was, trying to prove to Fletcher—and herself—that she could hang with the boys, and she’d just undressed herself in public.

To cover her discomfiture, she smiled brightly and said, “It’s okay, Fletcher. I promise they weren’t touching any lady parts—at least not directly. I’m fairly sure I remembered to put on underwear today.”

Fletcher coughed heavily and turned away. It was a cue Lexie knew well—one that signaled his discomfort with the conversation and indicated immediate retreat.

Growing up, Fletcher had often been holed up at the Sinclair house, so much so that he’d had his own place setting at their table and a toothbrush in the bathroom. As Lexie bounded through adolescence, Fletcher had been there for each painful moment. And since neither of her parents shied away from making puberty dinner table talk, Fletcher knew the exact date she started her period (October 16, 1999), how far she was allowed to go with a boy (second base, but only over the bra), and how much exploratory touching was normal for a girl her age (she refused to revisit that conversation ever again).

Understandably, there had been a lot of coughing and turning away on Fletcher’s part. It was a wonder he’d been able to survive the whirlwind that was the Sinclair family. She was a much less reserved person than him, and she’d barely made it out alive.

“Now that you’ve ruined both of our appetites,” Sean said smoothly, “should we order another bottle of wine?”

Lexie nodded eagerly, grateful for the distraction, but Fletcher had other plans.

“Can’t,” he said. “I have to run.”

“Look—I’m sorry about the tights, okay?” What was it about this man that made her feel like a baboon waving her bright red butt in front of an uninterested male? “I promise to keep it buttoned up. I’ll even talk politics if you want. You can tell me all about the Republicans.”

“No, it’s not that.” This time, a genuine smile crossed Fletcher’s face. The Sinclair family was unquestionably liberal, right down to their free trade shoes. For all their powers of corruption, they’d never been able to turn Fletcher. He was a rock like that. In a lot of ways, actually. “It’s the pager. I’ve got a thing. Raincheck?”

“Sure, Fletch. We can do this again next week. I’m free Thursday and Lexie has no life any night of the week.” Sean rolled a quarter over his knuckles, not the least bit dismayed at his friend’s imminent departure. Lexie suspected he knew more about the clandestine pager meetings than he let on, but since the two men were ironclad bosom bows, she’d never been able to coerce a word out of him about it.

Typical. Silly Lexie, always tagging along, unwanted and usually in the way.

She stuck her tongue out at her brother. “I have a life. I just always make room in it for my two favorite boys.”

Fletcher mumbled something incoherent and ducked his head. He dropped a handful of bills on the table—way too much for his portion, considering he rarely drank. He preferred sitting back and watching as Lexie and Sean made themselves ridiculous and bickered into oblivion. Which they did. Constantly.

With a hand raised in casual farewell, he left.

“You know, I’m half tempted to follow him one of these days.” Lexie watched him go, disappointment pulling at the corners of her mouth. So much for making her inroads. It could be days before she saw him again. “Do you think I could effectively tail someone?”

Sean snorted. “No. You have as much finesse as a drunken elephant. And I don’t think you should go sticking your nose in Fletcher’s business without his permission. You know how he feels about you.”

She sat up straighter and tossed her longish blond hair over her shoulder. “No, I don’t, actually.” As far as she could tell, he bounced between indifferent acceptance and mortified horror. So…pretty much how most people felt. “Are you going to finish that drink?”

Sean sighed and pushed the glass across the table, where her greedy hands awaited. “I can’t believe you took your clothes off at the table.” Before she could open her mouth to defend herself, he laughed and shook his head. “Never mind. I can believe it. And that’s why Fletcher refuses to reveal his secrets to you.”

“Because I lack finesse?”

“No. Because you’re you.”

She let out an irritated noise and promptly drowned every last one of her sorrows in her glass. She couldn’t count how many things in her life had been denied her by virtue of being herself. Success. Respect. Dates.

But after twenty-six years of practice and still not getting it right, who the heck else was she supposed to be?