Never Look Back

By: Linda Lael Miller


"Past history," he answered smugly. His gaze slid, smoldering, from my lips to my throat to my breasts.

My nipples hardened. "How do you know I wasn't faking it?"

He didn't miss a beat. "Maybe it was the begging."

I blushed.

"Or the sweating."

"Shut up, Sonterra."

"Or the scratches on my back. I get a lot of heat for that in the locker room at the gym."

I took a gulp of wine. If I'd tried to pretend I was sipping, Sonterra would have known. "You love it," I said.

He laughed. "Yeah," he replied. "I do." He studied me for a long time, and his expression turned somber. "Did I tell you Eddie and his wife are separated? She's in love with some dweeb she met at work. An insurance agent."

Eddie Columbia was Sonterra's partner. I knew him fairly well, though his wife was essentially a stranger. I'd met her at a couple of picnics and softball games, and she'd seemed nice enough. "No," I said moderately, and refrained from pointing out that he and I hadn't been speaking lately, let alone catching each other up on the joys and^sorrows of our friends. "I'm really sorry to hear that. Don't they have a couple of kids?"

Sonterra gazed off into the distance, and I couldn't help wondering if he was thinking about his own divorce. It hadn't been particularly acrimonious, as far as I knew, but giving up his step-son, Ryan, had done some major damage. He still missed the boy, and there was the usual guilt.

"Two little girls," he muttered. "They're caught in the middle. That really sucks."

I resisted an urge to go to. him, slip my arms around his waist, offer what comfort I could. I knew what would happen if I opened myself up to that kind of intimacy, so I stayed put. No sense in adding to the confusion.

"Yeah," I said. "It does."

"I would have said they were the perfect couple." He let out a huff of breath, full of self-deprecation. "Just goes to show what I know," he said.

I took another sip of my wine. Not the time to offer amateur analysis.

Sonterra's parting from his ex-wife might have seemed easy, on the surface, but in his close-knit, Irish-Hispanic family, wedding vows were a lifetime commitment. For better or for worse, you made it work, no sniveling allowed.

Down deep, he probably felt like a failure, and even though I knew he'd worked through most of that, it seemed that the end of Eddie's marriage had set him back, maybe to square one.

"I don't get it," he said, still distracted. "My dad was happy with my mother. She died, and he grieved for a long time, and now he's happy with my stepmother. How hard is that?"

I figured it was safe to voice an opinion. "It can be very hard."

He sighed. "They're even fighting over who gets custody of the dog," he said, meaning, I supposed, Eddie and his soon-to-be-former wife.

"And you think it's got to be that way with everybody?" I asked carefully. I was on perilous ground. "You just told me that your dad is happy. Your brother and his wife seem to be getting along. And look at Loretta and Kip—they're so in love, it's a little disgusting."

He grinned at the mention of my best friend and her husband, but then the lights went out in his eyes, and he neatly dispensed with my theory. "Dad's from another generation. My brother would lose the family landscaping business if he stepped out of line, and he knows it. And Loretta and Kip are freaks of nature."

I shook my head. "It's sad, Sonterra. You're starting to sound just like me."

He didn't answer.

Together, we cleaned up the kitchen.

Then we went upstairs and collapsed into his bed.

He didn't touch me that night, and I was very careful to keep to my own side of the mattress.



* * *





Three





When I awakened the next, morning, I was alone in Sonterra's bed and somebody was licking my ear. I was disappointed to realize it was Bernice. I sat up, trying to gather the sleep-scattered parts of my busy brain, and noticed a cup on the bedside table. An oversize yellow sticky note was attached.

Gone to work, Sonterra had scrawled. Another day, another murder. Eddie picked up your car—it's downstairs, in the garage. All your stuff in back. Recommend you stay put, but you probably won't. "You got it," I murmured. If Sonterra had his way, I'd still be lying in bed, ready for a little belated love, when he finished his shift. Me, macho homicide cop, you woman.

I crumpled the note and curved a hand around the coffee cup. Cold, of course. I wondered briefly how long Sonterra had been gone, decided it didn't matter, in the vast scheme of things, and gave Bernice a cursory cuddle before tossing aside the covers and getting out of bed.

My knees were weak. Go figure. I hoped I wasn't coming down with the flu.

After taking a shower, I raided my stash in Sonterra's bureau drawer again and came up with the necessary garb. While the caffeine was brewing, Bernice and I paid a visit to the backyard.

The phone was ringing when we got back inside, and I snatched up the receiver automatically as I poured myself a mug of coffee.

"Sonterra residence."

There was a short silence on the other end of the line, followed by a woman's slightly petulant, "Who is this?"