The buzzing wouldn’t stop. I hid under the covers, clinging to sleep and wishing Alli would answer the goddamn door.

Oh shit. My eyes shot open and I sat up straight. I was back at my own apartment. I jumped up to answer the intercom by the door, seeing no signs of Sid other than the general mess he left in his wake.

“Hey, baby girl,” the voice sang through the speaker.

I smiled. “Come on up, Marie,” I said and buzzed her in. I opened the door and set to making coffee, glancing at the clock on the stove. I had missed lunch along with most of the afternoon. My stomach grumbled. Coffee first. Marie joined me a few minutes later, looking fresh in a floral maxi dress, the bright colors contrasting with her enviable skin tone.

“Wow, nice place.” She surveyed the main living area, which now looked a lot less empty since the furniture had arrived. Sid had assembled everything while I was away, which I hadn’t been able to thank him for yet. Soon though. We were probably on the same schedule for once.

“Thanks, I’m loving it,” I said. “Coffee?”

“Water’s fine.” She hopped up on a stool by the counter and dropped her purse and a shopping bag to the floor.

“You look like hell, Erica. Is everything all right?”

I sighed, feeling as haggard as I probably looked. “Long night and long story. I’ll spare you the details,” I said, willing the coffee to drip faster. I needed a few extra minutes to wake up and figure out my current reality before I could even think about talking about it. “What’s new? Any updates with Richard?”

“Oh, I don’t know.” She shrugged, taking the water glass from me. “He’s got his life, I’ve got mine. We’ll see how it goes, I suppose.”

“I’m not hearing wedding bells.” I leaned back against the counter to face her. Marie had spent years on the dating circuit, and I was used to hearing about every new beau’s husband potential. She was a kind heart, but couldn’t ever seem to find Mr. Right. Heaven knew she was a hopeless romantic and deserved a good relationship more than anyone.

“Doubtful. We’re both used to having our freedom. I guess when you get older, it’s harder to change your life for someone.” She sighed a little and twisted her glass on the countertop. “Sometimes I miss the days when I could lose myself in someone completely, and he’d do the same.”

“That doesn’t exactly sound healthy.”

“Maybe not always, but it’s intoxicating. There’s nothing quite like it. You should try it sometime.” She winked at me.

“Unfortunately, I think I’m knee deep in it at the moment.”

“Mystery man?”

I blew out a breath, realizing she didn’t know half of my recent history with Blake. “Yeah. Mystery man. Blake is his name. He lives upstairs, actually.”

She frowned at me. “Did I miss something?”

“It’s complicated. Anyway, he seems to want to be with me. I want that too, I think.” I trailed off, not knowing how to put into words how I truly felt about Blake.

“So what’s the problem?”

I grabbed a mug, filled my cup before the pot brewed completely, and took a cautious sip. She had a point. Even I questioned why I’d fought so hard to temper my feelings for Blake.

“It’s...frightening,” I said. “First of all, he’s very intense, and secondly, I’ve never needed anyone, but the more we’re together... It’s like I can’t think about anything else. It’s so distracting.”

I closed my eyes, trying to clear my thoughts of him, an impossible task. He was everywhere, even when we weren’t together. And when we weren’t together, I yearned to be with him. Obviously the sex was unmatched, but when we weren’t ravaging each other, being with him always felt right. I had nothing to compare it to other than my string of lackluster flings with guys who were killing time with me until their parents forced them to marry a senator’s daughter or something. There was no comparison.

“You’re in deep, baby girl,” Marie said.

“Fuck, I know it. But I don’t want to lose myself, Marie. I’ve come this far, and this is who I am. I like my life and my independence, just like you. Why would I want to change all that and lose myself for someone I barely know?”

“You lose yourself, Erica, because with the right person, who you become together is something so much greater, more than you could even realize right now.”

Her words rang through me, rattling me to the core. My lip trembled a little, and I blinked away the tears that stung my eyes.

“I think I love him,” I whispered. “And it’s scaring the hell out of me.”

Marie hopped off the stool and came around to hug me tight. I hugged her back, so thankful to have her in my life. How could I surrender my heart to someone like Blake though? He had so many secrets, not to mention serious control issues. I couldn’t imagine how we could make it in the long run with all these hurdles. If we didn’t make it, how could I survive it with everything else I’d been through?

“I have something for you.” Marie stepped away to retrieve her shopping bag from the floor.

She pulled out an old shoebox and handed it to me. I brought it over to the counter and opened it. Inside were stacks of photos of my mother from their college days, early on when Marie was just beginning to dabble with photography.

“I was going through some things and found them. You should have them, Erica.”

I sifted through the stacks and studied each photo. My mother’s face and her smile warmed me. At times like these, I missed her more than ever. I tried hard to remember what she sounded like, her voice and her laugh. So much time had gone by, but the memory of her love echoed through me, a wordless melody that held my heart through time and distance.

Marie leaned over my shoulder as if she were seeing the photos for the first time in a long time, making comments about where they were around campus in some of them. I stopped on one that showed a group of five friends with arms linked, dressed in light jackets for a cool fall day judging from the foliage behind them. Something about the photo gave me pause. My mother was laughing, her long blond hair whipping around her face. She was turned to the man next to her. Unlike the others, their expressions revealed more than the frivolity of the moment—a fleeting look of adoration that I only recently had come to know.

“Who is that?” I pointed to the man who had short sandy brown hair and blue eyes that I recognized.