Never Look Back

By: Linda Lael Miller

.My stomach betrayed me with an audible growl. "We're not going to your place."

"Yeah, we are."

I stiffened. "Why?" As if I didn't know.

"Because I'm driving. And because you need a little TLC right now."

"I can do without your particular brand of TLC."

He grinned. "Can you?"

"I'm not in the mood, Sonterra."

"Fine. You've just been shot at. So you might just have to unbend a little and let somebody take care of you."

I was pretty undone. God, I hated it when Sonterra was right.

Fortunately, it didn't happen all that often.

"I repeat, Counselor," he said, switching lanes for the Shea Boulevard exit, "are you hungry?" He knew I was, but he liked making me admit things.

I guess getting shot at would ruin most people's appetites, but mine was in overdrive. "I could eat," I allowed, but grudgingly.

He took the off-ramp and turned into the parking lot of a major shopping center.

Finding a parking space in front of Fry's, a supermarket, Sonterra got out, locking the doors automatically. Bernice and I waited forlornly in the passenger seat, and I got the jitters again, reliving the elemental terror of being a target. My purse was on the floor, and I pressed the side of one foot against it until I felt the hard shape of the .38 stuffed into the side flap. It was small comfort.

Mercifully, Sonterra returned, with a bag of groceries in the curve of one well-muscled arm, before I suffered a panic attack.

"Steaks," he explained, after tuck'ing the bag in the backseat. "I even got one for the ankle-biter." He nodded toward Bernice, who gave a little whimper-growl of acknowledgment. "Heard anything from Emma lately?"

I was grateful that he wasn't going to grill me about the gun-fight at my own personal OK Corral. "Postcard from Munich," I answered. " 'Having a great time. Send money.' " My niece was studying abroad; one of the perks of attending a private school, Scottsdale style, traveling with a group of twenty-two other girls, closely chaperoned by teachers and volunteer parents. Though I had had my reservations about letting her out of my sight for three months, Sonterra, Mrs. Kravinsky, whom I generally refer to as "Mrs. K," and my best friend, Loretta Matthews, had all lined up squarely behind Emma, working on me until I finally gave in.

Sonterra laughed. "She's a great kid." He glanced at me, and his eyes were soft and serious in the dim glow of the streetlights. "You did the right thing, Clare. I know it was hard, letting go, but think what a trip like that means to a thirteen-year-old."

"I can't even imagine," I answered. When I was thirteen, I was living with my grandmother and my sister, Tracy, in a trailer in Tucson. It was the happiest part of my classically difficult childhood, but visiting places like Munich wasn't even on the dream radar. Back then, we were into survival; we lived on various government handouts, along with my grandmother's Social Security checks and sporadic bingo winnings. "I miss Emma a lot, even with the puberty thing."

Sonterra didn't say anything, he simply reached over and patted me on the thigh. It was probably intended as a comforting gesture; instead, it melted my bones and sent fire shooting through my muscles. I knew it for sure, then: after the steaks, and maybe a little red wine, he was going to put the moves on me.

Because there were so many unresolved issues between us, I didn't want to wind up in Sonterra's bed. Trouble was, I didn't trust myself not to give in, thus stirring up already muddy emotional waters. He's not the most resistible guy on the planet.

Reaching his driveway, we waited while the garage door slid up. Sonterra pushed a button on his sun visor, and the inside lights came on. I can admit it: there was a certain solace in the familiarity of it all. Golf bag in the usual corner, cans of leftover paint neatly arranged on a shelf, the freezer whirring away against the opposite wall.

Sonterra carried in the groceries, leaving my computer, radio, and coffeemaker in the back of the SUV, and I followed with the dog and my purse.

"Take a shower," Sonterra said, setting the bag on the counter and rooting through it for provisions.

"Good idea," I agreed, looking down at the front of my T-shirt. I put Bernice on the floor, and she immediately trundled over to the dog bed under the windows and went to sleep. Like me, she felt safe at Sonterra's, and why not? It was her second home; the bed had been purchased especially for her, and Sonterra kept kibble on hand, and even a few toys. I could draw a few parallels here, but I won't.

When I came back downstairs, twenty minutes later, wearing the extra jeans and underwear I kept in the bottom drawer of Sonterra's bureau, along with one of his shirts, the steaks were sizzling on the stove-top grill and the wine was poured.

"What would you do without me?" Sonterra asked wickedly.

"Probably date Atienzo," I said.

He shook his head, still smug. "He couldn't do it for you," he replied, turning the steaks. Steam rose in the air, and it wasn't all from dinner.

I perched on a stool on the opposite side of the island and reached for one of the wineglasses. "What makes you think you're such a red-hot lover?"