“I love you,” he whispered.
His body undulated over mine, finding the deepest part of me one last time, drawing out the last ounce of pleasure from our union. I shuddered, feeling stripped, exhausted, and thoroughly loved.
Less than twenty-four hours later, Blake and I were in a rental car, letting the GPS guide us toward Elliot’s home, a place I’d yet to visit. I looked out the window, noticing all the little ways the outskirts of Chicago were different from Boston, the place I’d called home for years now. I had changed so dramatically since I left. That I’d spent most of my life here seemed suddenly impossible.
I looked over at Blake, who seemed intently focused on getting us to our destination. He took his gaze away from the road a second, catching my lingering stare. He caught my hand and held it in my lap, giving it a gentle squeeze.
“You nervous about seeing Elliot?”
I took a deep breath, hoping to quell the anxious feeling building in my chest.
As long as it had been, this place still held a lot of memories for me. Memories I wasn’t sure I was ready to dive into right now. I’d tried to think of the trip mostly as a getaway for us, but for some reason I couldn’t quite grasp, I was apprehensive about showing Blake my old world. Maybe because my life in Chicago, with my mother gone, was a shell of what it had been and a far cry from the boisterous and supportive network that he had with his own family.
I’d come a long way from that time. I was all grown up. Vulnerable at times, but able to navigate my way through the world with more confidence than I had been before. I’d graduated and built a business that was finally stable and prospering. Now Blake and I were getting married and starting our lives together. How could I think about the past when all those days paled in comparison to the days I shared with Blake now? Somehow, with everything we’d been through, he had become my home. I belonged to our life together, and the thought of stepping into my past shook the ground under my feet.
“I’m about to look my past in the face. I’m a little scared, I guess.” I looked up, hoping for reassurance. What I found in the depth of his dark eyes was a flash of recognition.
“You’ll be fine, baby,” he said quietly, squeezing my hand gently.
Suddenly we were the same, two people running from who we were, head first into a new life and a chance to be more together.
The GPS announced we’d found our destination as we pulled up to Elliot’s house. I wrapped my cardigan around me tighter, though Blake’s hand in mine gave me infinitely more comfort.
Elliot and Beth lived in a charming two-story home a short ride outside of the city. Blue shutters framed the front windows of the house. A few of the windows were lit up. The rooms were brightly colored, and I caught a glimpse of children running inside.
We walked up the wooden steps to the doorway and opened the screen door, which squeaked a little. I pressed the doorbell and stepped back.
Standing on the whitewashed wrap-around porch, I waited, twisting my fingers anxiously. Blake caught my hand again and pulled me against his side. The murmuring of voices inside grew louder, and the door flew open.
“Erica!” Elliot’s smile could not have been any wider as he stepped through the doorway and pulled me away from Blake and into a tight hug.
I held him back, and in an instant, I was a little girl all over again, so happy to see him. He looked the same. Aside from a few gray hairs in his dark brown sideburns, he was the same handsome man he’d always been. Of medium height, he stood a little shorter than Blake, but he was fit and lean in the same way. His dark blue eyes brightened. Beside us, Blake cleared his throat.
“Blake.” Elliot grinned and pulled back enough to slap Blake’s hand in a handshake, keeping his arm around my shoulder. “Great to finally meet you.”
“Good to meet you too.”
Blake’s smile was different. I couldn’t place it.
“Come on in,” Elliot said quickly.
He led us into the foyer where Beth appeared. She was dressed in casual clothes, and her eyes brightened when we entered. We’d met before a couple times, once at their wedding and for a brief summer visit. She’d always been sweet to me, and I had no reason to resent or dislike her. Elliot had loved my mother, but I wanted him to be happy. Seeing him smile again after my mother had passed away was all I needed to know that Beth was good for him.
Beth had light brown eyes and dark hair swept up into a messy bun. She brushed her hands off on her pants, leaving behind a white residue that only added to her disheveled look. “Sorry! You caught us in the middle of a major cooking project, so I’m a mess.” She leaned in to kiss me on the cheek, careful not to touch me otherwise. “It’s wonderful to see you, Erica. I’m so glad you could come out.” Her gaze went to Blake who stood beside me. “You must be Blake?”
I warmed. I tried to hide a small smile as I watched them make introductions with the man who would be my husband in a few short weeks. I wanted them to see how happy he made me. I wanted them to like him and see the amazing person he was to me.
As they chatted briefly, I wished even more that Blake could be meeting my mother. I pushed the thought away, shifting my focus to the two brown-haired little girls who were now huddled by their parents’ legs, surveying Blake and me with their big brown eyes.
I crouched down, comparing their cherubic little features with the memory I had formed of them through photos I’d seen over the years.
I made eye contact with the younger one. “You must be Clara. Is that right?”
She nodded shyly, and the toe of her bare foot tapped restlessly on the floor.
“How old are you? Oh, wait. Let me guess.” I pretended to be thinking. “You seem pretty big. Are you three?”
She smiled and nodded.
“And what is your name?” The girl, who was only a couple years older than her sister, stood still by Elliot, her eyes intent on me.
“Marissa,” she said quietly.
“That’s a beautiful name. I’m Erica. I’ve heard so much about you. It’s wonderful to finally meet you.”
She stepped away from Elliot after a moment and stood in front of me, her hands covered in flour and dangling at her sides. She cocked her head slightly. “Are you my sister?”
I opened my mouth to speak as I searched for the right answer.
“That’s right,” Beth chimed in. “You and Erica have the same daddy.”
Marissa’s brow wrinkled, as if she’d been trying to but couldn’t quite make sense of this. “Where is your mommy?”