Excerpt: Losing Better

The farther from Hooperstown, the less stifling the summer humidity became and the more effective the breeze. The nearer to the lake house on Golf Course Road, the sharper my memories.

The only surprising thing, really, was that most of them were pleasant.

I parked halfway down the Wynnes’ gravel drive, then circled the towering A-frame on foot in search of surveillance equipment. I found only a single camera mounted to the roof above the upstairs deck, focusing on the door and steps. Nothing I’d need to hit with an EMP burst and fry—at least not yet—though the sight of it made the electricity coiled deep inside me jump to my fingertips, ready.

In spite of this heightened state of awareness, I still considered certain familiar spots with a little smile. There was the tree Andrew and I had raced to climb, bereft of branches until nearly halfway up the trunk like all southeastern beasts. The boathouse where Amelia Wynne used to keep her stash of liquor, and where I’d first let Andrew kiss me. The dock, brownish water lapping at its algae-scabbed pylons, and the Wynnes’ little cove just beyond. We’d taken the boat out so many times to escape my father, Andrew’s mother, the awful pair of them.

I bypassed the lakefront sliding glass door and opted for the main entrance on the deck, affecting ignorance of the camera. Only the interior screen door kept out the massive southern insects. I knocked once.

Quick footsteps pounded up the drive. As I moved to take stock of the new arrival, the first step sounded on the wooden stairs.

I looked down at him.

He looked up at me.

We paused. Ten years had changed Andrew Wynne in ways the file photographs had been incapable of communicating. No doubt he was surprised to see me grown too.

His hair was of an absolutely medium shade—a reflection of both parents, his mother pale, his father dark. It hung long enough to cover his ears, even curled tightly with sweat and humidity, clinging to his cheeks and forehead. His medium-brown skin was extra sun-bronzed and pink with exertion, the contrasting hazel of his eyes at least as arresting as I recalled. He wore no shirt, exposing a less familiar feature: the long, lean, muscled body of an avid runner or swimmer. His shoulders, his arms, and his flat, defined stomach showed evidence of extreme training. He wore only expensive running shorts and shoes, apart from a uniform sheen of sweat.

Which was notable, since Andrew had the sort of awakened superpowers referred to within the community as cold-thermal. Not only could he freeze anything he liked simply by thinking hard enough, but he cast a vague aura of cold unless he actively attempted not to. Which meant he must’ve worked very hard to get so…warmed up.

I had thought him magnificent when we were boys, but in retrospect knew that his arms and legs had been long and skinny, not quite suited, and his face had been fuller, masking the gentle downward sweep of high cheekbones, the powerful rectangle formed by the chin and jaw. He had grown into himself, and the effect was remarkable.

Beyond that, so much care poured into maintaining such a physique generally indicated it was used for something that required intense training. Athletics, for example. Competitive kickboxing—which, according to his record, Andrew had done in college. Firefighting. Arduous construction or outdoor work.

Alternatively: vigilante jackassery.

“Holy shit,” he said, drawing me out of my analysis. “Gabe?”

“No one calls me that anymore.”

He laughed and bounded up the stairs like a puppy. “Gabriel.”

By this time, he’d reached the top. Even outdoors, I still caught his scent. It triggered an overwhelming memory of burying my face in his hair and breathing deeply. I used to imagine his sweat smelled like freshly cut grass.

It did.

I smiled and said, “Hello, Andrew. You’re looking well.”

“Yeah, look who’s talking.” He grinned and opened his arms but paused to look down at himself.

If I looked too, well, I’m a special agent, not a corpse.

“I’d hug you, but I’m nasty.” He shook my hand instead, already cooling off. He kept hold just long enough to tug me toward the house. “Jesus, man, come in. What are you doing here?”

And with that invitation, he spared me the need for any extra warrants. As I had perhaps not quite expected, but certainly hoped.

He held the door, and I stepped into the dining room, the memories returning faster and faster. I hadn’t known what to expect but had prepared myself for the worst; I was still pleasantly surprised. “Thought I’d spend a few weeks unwinding in some slow, southern locale. Didn’t actually think you would still be here, but someone in town told me. So…”

The dining room connected to an open living area just beyond, both of which were two stories high, mostly windows and sliding doors leading to the deck that looked out over his little piece of Lake Rutledge. Above was the loft—a large bedroom with the same view and a private bath—and below that the small kitchen just off the dining room. I recalled a few bedrooms with a connecting bathroom down the back hall, and then a maze of rooms down the stairs.

One of which I suspected would be of particular interest. But there would be time for that later, if our reunion continued in a successful vein. Given the way Andrew’s gaze practically seared my ass at the moment, I had no reason to think it wouldn’t.

“It’s just me, actually,” he said.

I feigned mild surprise. “Oh.”

“You thirsty?” He stepped around me and made for the kitchen.

I returned the favor by checking him out from the back. The effect was not unexpected but satisfying all the same. “Thanks.”

“Sweet tea?”

“Some things never change. I haven’t had it in ten years.”

He ducked into the fridge and jostled the glasses and poured. “What are you doing now?”

“Friendly neighborhood police officer. I made detective this year.” The lie stung my pride, though I’d practiced it all the way from Washington.

“Wow, nice. ‘Gratz.”

“And you?”

“Just hanging. I mean, I do things. Property management, boring stuff.”

“So it’s not all parties?”

He grinned and lifted a sweating tumbler of tea. Ice crystals crept from beneath his fingers, spreading a delicate web of frost across the glass. The humidity allowed little clouds to form, and they rolled off him like dry ice. He said, “Heard about that, huh?”

I’d forgotten how handy it was to have a cold-thermal around. I accepted the glass and sipped, grateful for the chill though the amount of pure sugar in it made my teeth ache.

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