Thomasville, Georgia 1911
She experienced her first heartbreak at eight years old.
It was unbearably hot in southern Georgia. The air seemed heavy; filled with enough humidity to slow down any and all travelers along the long, dirt road. Her hair stuck to the back of her dress, curling in ringlets at her ears. She’d jumped in the creek to cool off even though her Mama would be furious.
But she could always count on Daddy to help her out.
She swung her bag lazily, whistling a tune she’d heard in class earlier that day. She’d been told by her teacher, Mrs. Wilson, that whistling was an unladylike habit ─ which made her want to do it even more. Her cheerful song faded as she spotted the familiar house nestled on the corner. What she didn’t recognize was the shiny black vehicle parked in the driveway. Since when did they have a car? Daddy always said they didn’t have enough money for that.
Her feet moved faster, breaking into a run as she watched her father exit the house, suitcase in hand. The driver’s side door opened and a woman stepped out. She turned towards her, smiling through a curtain of sleek, black hair.
She didn’t like her smile one bit.
“Daddy!” she screamed, dropping her bag. Her father looked at her and something in his expression made her heart skip a beat. The woman waiting for him smiled even wider. She murmured something to him and the sound of her voice shook the ground beneath the little girl’s feet. The trees around them began to whirl as a sudden wind kicked up.
“Don’t go!” Her small voice was lost in the howling air. She dropped to her knees as searing fire traveled through her shoulder. Even as she began screaming, the pain circling around her collarbone, her father took one last look at her. Clear edges and fine lines blurred from tears in her eyes.
The winds calmed enough for her to hear the rumbling of the engine. She stood up once more and took off after the vehicle. “Come back! Please!”
Arms encircled her, stopping the little girl from running any further. She looked into her mother’s eyes, which were red and swollen, and shattered. She sobbed until her voice gave out. The pain in her shoulder dimmed to a flicker.
“It’s okay, Joanna, I’m here. I’m here.” Joanna’s mother stroked her hair. Her voice was soft, soothing the jagged edges of sorrow in her heart. “I’m not going anywhere.”
That was the last time she saw her father.
But it was not the last time she saw the woman he left with.
Cairo, Egypt 1929
It was quite… too quiet.
Joanna glanced over her shoulder. Seeing that no one was dwelling in the long hallway, she began to turn the doorknob in front of her. She met resistance and stepped back. There were no signs of a spare key, which led her to pulling out two pins from her bun. Unfortunately for her, one of these was the lynch pin and her thick mass of blonde hair tumbled down past her shoulders.
“Well, that figures,” she muttered. She blew her bangs away from her eyes and began to tamper with the lock. It took longer than she anticipated, proving that she was rather out of practice when it came to such things. Three years of working for Evelyn O’Connell had robbed her of opportunities for breaking and entering.
Or, homes, rather… they still managed to use her skills for breaking into tombs instead.
Eventually the lock opened and she was able to enter the apartment. The curtains were closed, leaving little natural light to highlight the dark sitting room. Joanna tiptoed quietly, eyeing a pile of empty whiskey bottles on the kitchen counter to her right. She shook her head and ventured into the bedroom.
If the main area of the apartment was cluttered the bedroom was far worse. Joanna stumbled over a plate by the door, sending it clattering against the tile floor. The lump settled in the middle of the mattress, beneath a pile of blankets, did not stir at all. She weighed her options of approaching before decided on the strategy that hadn’t failed her thus far.
Slipping her shoes off, Joanna climbed onto the bed. She balanced herself before lifting her right foot and poking the lump with her big toe. A low noise emitted from said lump.
“Wake up… “ Joanna sang, once again poking what she thought was the spine of the person lurking beneath the covers. “Jonathan… “
The lump shifted, followed by a groan loud enough to rival an undead priest. Joanna continued poking.
“You know I’m not going to stop until you wake up… “ She prodded him fiercely, frustration settling in. “Damn it, Jonathan, wake up!”
The covers flew back, revealing a bleary-eyed Jonathan with half of his hair matted on one side. He turned to her and then clutched his head. “Oh… I did that too fast.” He buried his head back in the pillow. “Why are you here?”
“I’m your wake up call, courtesy of Evy!” she responded, hopping off the bed. She grabbed the curtains and flung them wide. Jonathan hissed as if he’d been burnt.
“For God’s sake, Joanna! Can’t you leave a man in peace?”
“What was that?” Joanna raised her voice. She heard him whimper. “I couldn’t hear you through all the whining.”
“You’re evil.” She rolled her eyes as she yanked the covers back even further. Jonathan finally sat up, having found enough energy to glare at her. “Why are we still friends?”
“Admit it, your life would be exceedingly dull without me.”
He flung his legs over the side of the bed, letting his feet smack against the ground. “I refuse to admit to anything until I’ve had some coffee.” He glanced at the clock on his bedside table. “8:30 on a Saturday? What did I do in a past life to deserve this?”
“You know, if you keep up this attitude I’ll go make pancakes somewhere else.” Jonathan’s face lit up like a child in a candy store.
“Have I mentioned you are the best friend a fellow can ask for?”
She grinned, leaving the room to brighten the rest of the apartment. “You say the sweetest things sometimes.”
Twenty minutes later, they were seated at Jonathan’s polished dining room table. The upscale décor was offset by the newspaper scattered across the surface. Joanna noticed a headline concerning the local museum of antiquities, never failing to take interest in a place that held such significance for her. She grabbed the front page and began reading.
“The museum is getting a new exhibit?” she asked. Jonathan took a large gulp of coffee, exhaling as the black liquid warmed his insides. It was far darker than her preference for the morning beverage, which was the definition of a little coffee with her cream. She continued reading, tipping the bottle of syrup over her pancakes and letting it pour unhindered.
“Yes, some group from London discovered a nicely sized treasure trove a few months back and is donating their findings to our dear museum.” He raised an eyebrow as she continued pouring. “Are you finished drowning your pancakes yet?”
Joanna handed the bottle to him, taking her remark about her syrup addiction in stride. So what if she had a sweet tooth? “I wonder if Evy knows about this yet. They’re unveiling something called the, ‘Eye of Bastet,’” A quick memory flitted across her mind, bringing with it a tiny flash of pain. “Dr. Bey would have been in hysterics over such an undertaking.”
“I wonder if the new Med-jai plant is ready for all the publicity.”
“We don’t know that the new curator is Med-jai,” Joanna met his dry look with a frown. “What?”
“Perhaps if you call your ex-lover of yours we would know for sure.”
“Congratulations, Jonathan, you went almost three months without teasing me about Ardeth! That is amazing progress for you.” She scraped syrup off of her plate with a spoon and swallowed it like soup. “Also, he wasn’t my lover; ex or otherwise.”
Every so often she looked back on the short time she’d spent around Ardeth with fondness. She hoped that he was well and never allowed herself to think beyond that point.
Jonathan grinned, spearing a slice of pancake with his fork. “It’s such a shame that you hardly even blush anymore. Even when I mention Trent you hardly blink.”
Joanna shook her head. For some reason, Jonathan never warmed up to her boyfriend of four months. She also used the term, ‘boyfriend,’ loosely, as her schedule had her traveling over Egypt so often that they hardly spent any time together. However, she was looking forward to seeing him that evening.
“And what was the name of the girl you left with the other night?”
“… Amber?” he responded weakly.
“It was Abigail.”
“Before you make any further comments, do you honestly believe she remembered my name?”
Joanna was quiet. “Fair enough,”
They continued with their breakfast in peace, neither of them ruffled by their bickering. Both knew that it was all meant in jest and camaraderie. The clock behind them chimed, startling them from their quiet reverie.
“Oh, I forgot to mention we’re having a family meeting at one today. That’s why Evy sent me.”
Jonathan smacked his palm to his forehead. “Great, that’s just what I wanted to hear. Do you think this means we’re going on another dig?”
“Here’s to hoping.” Joanna waved her coffee mug. Her friend sank down in his seat, bumping his long legs against her chair. “Don’t worry, Jonathan. What’s the worst thing she can say?”
As soon as the words were out of her mouth, Joanna regretted them.
Rick and Evelyn’s estate was a far cry from the apartment the latter kept at Fort Brydon. It stood out amongst its neighbors and beckoned many to ponder the rewards of archaeology. Joanna knew the area by heart now, spending most of her time there or at Jonathan’s place. Part of her wondered why she had her own place at all.
She entered through the grand double doors and smiled at the sweet, young laugh that greeted her ears. She whistled once and the laughter paused. “Is that an Alex I hear?”
In seconds a blonde head peeked around the corner, revealing the face of the little boy she loved more than life itself. He ran towards her on pudgy legs. “Nenna!”
Joanna gathered him up in her arms, kissing his face amidst his squirming and giggling. “I missed you so much!”
“Lead the way, little man.” Alex pointed down the hall, to where Evelyn was waiting, looking deliriously happy. Rick appeared at her side, resting his arm around her waist.
“Long time no see,” he commented, smiling as Alex wriggled out of Joanna’s arms. “I’m amazed he lasted longer than twenty-four hours without you.”
“I think it’s the other way around.” She hugged the couple before following Alex inside. “So, are we going to be traveling again? Is that what this meeting is about?”
“Something like that,” Rick offered, earning a smack to the stomach from Evelyn.
“I told you we were waiting until everyone is here.”
Joanna raised an eyebrow. “Should I be worried?”
“No,” Evelyn answered, sending a fixed look to Rick. “It is always easier to discuss things when all parties involved are in the room.”
Alex tugged on Joanna’s pant leg, diverting her attention from the couple for a moment. He held up building blocks in both hands. She sat down beside him to begin playing his favorite game of building and then knocking it down.
They were working on a fascinating rendition of the Great Pyramid when Jonathan entered the room. He wiped his forehead with the back of his hand. “You think I’d be used to this bloody heat by now,”
“Language, Jonathan.” He winced in apology, having been reprimanded by his sister enough times to not tempt her wrath.
“Sorry… “ He sat behind Joanna, nudging her back in retaliation for that morning. “And how is my favorite nephew?”
Alex held up a block and grinned. Joanna never ceased to be amazed at how happy the child was. It made her long for children of her own, even though she’d never voice it aloud.
She could be content with being an aunt.
Movement in her peripheral vision caught her eye. She saw Cleo sunbathing in the light streaming through a window, her tail flicking lazily. Some things never changed.
“I know you are both wondering as to why we called a family meeting.” Evelyn began, taking a seat with Rick on the couch across from them.
“Let me guess,” Jonathan began. “You’ve discovered a link to one of the greatest Pharaohs that ever existed and we should be ready to pack forthwith?”
“Bembridge is demanding your expertise once again since they have come to the inescapable conclusion that they were hopeless without you?” Joanna added.
Rick and Evelyn’s expressions were unchanged, despite the lighthearted attempts at humor. Joanna’s smile began to dim. “Or… maybe not?”
The couple clasped hands, looking into each other’s eyes for support before Rick cleared his throat. Alex continued playing at her side, oblivious to the change in atmosphere around him.
“We have been considering moving to London.”
Joanna’s heart sank to her feet while Jonathan’s jaw dropped. He was the first to recover. “Hold on, you actually want to leave Egypt, Evy? The place you love more than anywhere else?”
“It hasn’t been an easy decision, Jonathan.” Evelyn’s voice was soft, but clear. She recognized the look of determination in her friend’s eyes. “But we both think it would be best for our family.”
A flurry of words lodged in Joanna’s throat. She’d developed more self-control over her mouth since she’d first moved to Cairo, but the temptation to fall back into old habits was staggering. She silently counted to five before responding. “How long before you make your final decision?”
“We are planning a trip to London in a week just to scope out the area. We wanted to tell you both that you are under no obligation to come with us if you want to stay in Cairo.” Evelyn’s mouth twitched, revealing the decision was more emotional for her than she wanted to let on. “However, if you decide you want to move as well, you will always be welcome to join us.”
Joanna’s head spun as Jonathan fired off rapid fire questions behind her. Their voices faded to nothing as she pondered the idea of the move. She was happy here… but was it because of the area itself or the fact her adoptive family was nearby? Her routine was familiar and comfortable, after having a lifetime of little stability. She thought about Alex and what it would be like to watch him grow up. Could she bear to miss a single moment of that?
“What do you think, Joanna?” She was startled out of her reverie, blinking in Rick and Evelyn’s direction.
“I… I don’t know.” She swallowed the lump in her throat. “I need some time to think about it.” She stood to her feet quickly, forcing a grin on her face. “If you don’t mind, I’ll go and do just that.”
Evelyn’s face fell, though she nodded in acquiescence. “Of course… take the time you need. Don’t you have a date with Trent tonight?” Both women ignored the eye roll Rick and Jonathan shared.
“I do.” She shot a look at the men in the room. “I’ll make sure to give him your regards.”
Joanna gave her goodbyes, featuring another hug and kiss to Alex, before exiting the house. For the first time in a while, she was tempted to raid her bourbon stash and drown her problems until she went numb.
Spending time with Trent would distract her from thoughts about life changes and moves to different countries.
That evening, Joanna was sat at a table inside her favorite restaurant in Cairo. Trent was across from her, holding her hand and smiling in that sweet, easygoing manner of his. They’d met one day at the museum, after she’d returned from a two month exploratory excursion with Evelyn in Memphis. She’d been smitten by his dark features and gentlemanly manners towards her.
“I’m so glad you’re back home,” he said. Joanna stiffened at the word, ‘home.’ Considering that concept was now up in the air, she wasn’t sure how to broach the subject with him.
“It’s good to be back. How were things at the museum while we were away?”
Trent launched into a story about his continued goings-on with the museum, especially with the impending opening of the new exhibit. He’d been hired on as an architect to design upgrades to the interior almost a year prior; a project that seemed to grow each time they spoke about it.
“And then Dr. Kattan says… I’ve lost you, haven’t I?” Joanna shook her head, squeezing his hand lightly.
“Sorry, I’ve been a bit distracted today. I’m not much company.”
“Don’t apologize,” His expression turned warm, stirring butterflies in her stomach. “I think you’re great company no matter what.” His grip on her hand tightened. The thought crossed her mind that he seemed nervous. “I’ve been meaning to talk to you about something… “
“Is everything alright?” Joanna’s brow furrowed. Trent was very rarely upset or anxious. It was one of the things she liked most about him.
“I’m fine… it’s just that, we’ve known each other for almost a year now and dating for four months of that time.”
“Yes… ?” All of those butterflies in her stomach turned to lead. This conversation could only go two ways. “Are you unhappy?”
“No! Not at all,” He swallowed. “I wanted to tell you how much I enjoy being with you. You’ve given me something to look forward to every chance I’ve been near you.”
Joanna couldn’t help but smile. He was so sweet. “Thank you, Trent, I enjoy being with you too, you know.”
“Good, that’s great actually.” He leaned closer, placing his hand on her cheek. She leaned into the touch as she enjoyed the warmth. “I have accepted a few contracts that will keep me here in Egypt indefinitely. If they pan out, I can make a permanent move here… to be with you.”
Joanna’s eyes widened. “You want to move here, permanently, for me?” What was it with people around her wanting to make such huge decisions lately!? “Are you sure that’s what you want?”
“I’ve been thinking about this for some time now, Joanna. The longer I spend with you, the more I can picture what our life together would be like. I know we haven’t had a lot of conversations about the future, but I want you to know that mine features you quite heavily, if you’ll have me.”
Panic began to rise, causing her to lean back. Trent let his hand drop. She could read the emotions on his face like a book, starting with hurt. “Maybe I’ve said too much,”
“Trent,” she began, wringing the napkin resting on her lap. “Please don’t take my actions to mean you’ve done something wrong. I just have a lot on my plate right now.”
“Will you promise that you’ll think about it?”
Apparently that was all she was going to be doing in the foreseeable future. “Yes, I promise.”
The tension began to lift as their food was brought to them, though Joanna wasn’t able to eat much. Everything timing-wise seemed to be going sideways. On one hand, her family was potentially leaving to go to another country and she could stay or go with them. On the other, a good man who clearly cared about her deeply was willing to make a major life decision to be closer to her.
Bourbon was looking more and more likely as the night went on.
They exited the restaurant an hour later, taking a walk towards the museum to enjoy the night air. She was nestled against his side, hands linked as he spoke of the improvements to the building that were completed. Her smile faded when she spotted a person in dark robes walking down the front steps of the building. The man froze, locking surprised eyes with her. Trent paused, looking between the two of them in confusion.
Once again, Joanna wondered why the universe hated her.
It took Joanna an uncomfortably long time to overcome her shock. Ardeth looked the same, the familiar proud bearing he carried himself with reminding her of times past. A brief flash of clinging to that broad chest was squashed by the reminder her current boyfriend was right there.
“You two know each other?” Trent asked.
“Yes,” She’d finally regained her voice, small as it was. “We… um,” She struggled for the right wording. “We worked together three years ago.”
Ardeth inclined his head. He seemed to have recovered just fine; the jerk. “It is good to see you, friend.”
Joanna’s face burned hot as Trent extended his hand towards Ardeth by way of greeting. Friend, indeed. “Well, a friend of Joanna’s is a friend of mine. I’m Trent Harrison.”
“Ardeth Bay,” Joanna watched as they shook hands, wondering if she was in some sort of warped dream. “You look well, Joanna.”
“Thank you, so do you.” A part of her knew that he did not come to this area without a reason, and the potential reason worried her. “Are you here for work?”
A handful of Med-jai poured through the museum’s entrance, giving credibility to Jonathan’s theory about the newest curator. Joanna was surprised once again when one of the men waved to her, a grin on his face. She hesitantly waved back.
Ardeth glanced over his shoulder and she watched his expression flatten. The Med-jai ceased waving, though the grin remained. “Yes, you could say that work has necessitated a return to Cairo.”
“What sort of work do you do?” Trent asked, genuinely interested. Joanna was one moment away from face-palming.
“They’re a historical society,” she blurted out, earning an amused look from Ardeth, judging by the way his mouth twitched. “They are particularly concerned with the safe and ethical treatment of ancient objects.”
“Fascinating,” Trent breathed. “Have you seen the upgrades to the museum? We’ve been working very hard for the past year on improvements.”
The last thing Joanna needed was for Trent to go off on a rabbit trail of architectural merit.
“We have.” Ardeth supplied. “It is excellent work.” His amusement faded when he noticed how Joanna’s hand was laced with his.
“I’m assuming your work is part-time?” She could think of no other way to phrase it. Ardeth seemed to catch her meaning, thankfully.
“It is not as imperative as the first time we worked together.” She breathed a sigh of relief. No world-ending curses to worry about. That was something, at least.
“Ah, that is good to know. Well, I’m sure you are quite busy with the work ahead of you and we won’t keep you any longer.”
Ardeth inclined his head once more, the picture of calm. “It was nice to meet you, Trent.” He locked eyes with her and she felt as if her breath had been stolen from her. Good grief. “It was also good seeing you, Joanna.”
She had forgotten the musical tone of his voice, the way his lips formed her name. She nodded in response, squeezing Trent’s hand as Ardeth and his men walked towards a vehicle parked at the entrance. They turned down the main road, fading in the distance.
Trent looked down at her, noticing her stunned expression. “Are you alright, Joanna?”
“Never better… “
Joanna found herself back at Rick and Evy’s home in the early morning, clutching a bottle of bourbon from the former’s collection. She took a large gulp of it and relaxed against the back of the couch. She couldn’t stay at home for very long in the mental state she was currently in.
Cleo jumped into her lap, watching her as she stared at the ceiling. “Cleo… right now, my life is a mess. I’m twenty-six, shouldn’t I have this all together by now? My family wants to move away, my boyfriend is far more attached than I thought and wants to move here and I almost forgot about him the moment I saw Ardeth. How the hell is that reasonable?”
Cleo continued to watch her with what Joanna assumed could only be tolerance.
“Yet, here I am, drowning my woes in bourbon and discussing said woes with a cat… how low I have come.” She tipped the bottle back once more for a healthy swig.
“You have far more things to be concerned with, human.”