I woke to the first rays of sunlight coming through the French doors. I lay on the floor, a makeshift bed beneath me and a light blanket covering my naked body. I stretched my hand outward, finding myself alone.
I sat up on my elbow and looked around the room, trying to get my bearings. I thought back to the night before, remembering the way Darrell took me into his arms and made me feel like a woman again. He was so passionate, so sensual. I’d never had a man hold me the way he did. I’d never felt such a connection with another soul.
As my mind wandered, I heard the door downstairs shut, followed by the sound of footsteps bounding toward me. I pulled the blanket around me as Darrell peeked around the corner.
“Good morning,” he said with a spark in his eye. “I ran out to get us some coffee and a couple of beignets. I hope you don’t mind.”
I couldn’t hide my smile or the blush that ran across my cheek. “No, I don’t mind at all.”
I wrapped the blanket around myself as Darrell sat down on the floor beside me with our breakfast in hand. I sipped my coffee, taking in the aroma of the fresh brew.
“What say we go check out the archives?” Darrell said between bites. “There are a lot of things in that place that might offer up some answers to a few of your questions.”
“I know,” I replied nonchalantly, “but it’s kind of hard for me to breathe in that place. Too much chaos.”
“Well, fix it,” he said with a smile. “You’re probably the only person who has what it takes to put that place in order. Who better to find the things that need to be found than a Montgomery woman?”
Just the thought caused my pulse to race. “I wish you wouldn’t call me that. I’m a McKenzy, not a Montgomery. But it might at least give me a starting point as to where to look next. Yeah, I guess we could give it a shot. I suppose Blake will be there, too.”
Darrell shot me a curious look. “Wow, that didn’t sound good. You and Blake okay?”
I sighed as I finished the last bite of my breakfast. “Honestly, I’ve been avoiding him. I get tired of listening to him tell me how I should be living the life of a socialite, and I should be living in an upper-class neighborhood, and I’m better than this. That’s not me. I like the person I’ve come to be. Why can’t he understand that?”
“Because he’s never had to see life from your point of view,” Darrell replied. “He has no idea what it is to work for his next paycheck. He’s had money his whole life, thanks to his mother’s family, and he forgets that your family comes from humble beginnings.”
The words kind of took me by surprise. “What do you mean? I thought the Montgomerys were loaded.”
“Oh, they are,” he continued, “but they worked for it. Tell you what. I’m going to run home and get cleaned up. When I get back, we’ll run over to the archives and look into the family histories. I started working on them but didn’t get very far. I’m sure we’ll find something that will pique your interest.”
I drank back the rest of my coffee and smiled. “Alright. I’ll get my shit together and put on a happy face. Call my cousin and let him know. I’m sure I’ll end up regretting this, but what the hell, let’s do it.”
Darrell jumped up, kissing me on my forehead in the process. “I’ll be back in about an hour,” he cooed before heading down the stairs. I blushed, pulling the blanket a little closer to my chest.
Once I’d heard the door shut and lock, I jumped up and headed for the shower. It took me a bit to find my toiletries and some towels, but I managed and got myself cleaned up. I got dressed and ran back to the living room. I picked up the bedding and took it back into my room, throwing it on the bed in a heap.
I found a couple of notebooks and some pens in a box marked office and threw them in my bag. I had a feeling I’d be taking a lot of notes. As I ran around looking for things I thought I’d need to take with me, I heard the door downstairs open.
I peeked my head around the stairs to see Darrell’s handsome face. “Honey, I’m home,” he called up with a giggle. I just smiled, watching his eyes as he came toward me.
As he hit the top landing, he took my chin in his hand and gently kissed me. The electricity that ran through me at that moment could have lit the entire New Orleans skyline.
I grabbed my things, and we headed out. As I jumped into the passenger seat, Darrell got a call. “Hey Blake, what’s up?” he asked, pushing the speaker button on his phone.
“Darrell, my secretary said you left a message for me. Something about going to the archives.”
“Yea, Cherish and I are headed over there. She wants to look through some of the family histories. Maybe see if she can find out a few things about her grandmother and the rest of her relatives. Just wanted to let you know.”
“Marvelous,” Blake shouted. “I know I’m on speakerphone, so Cherish, you have full access to anything you need. I’ve got a couple of things I need to finish up here, and then I’ll head over. Is there anything you need? Can I have anything sent over before I get there?”
I couldn’t help but feel a little giddy at the sound of Blake’s voice. He really was like a kid in a candy store. “No, Blake. I grabbed a couple of notebooks, and if I get hungry, I’ll have Darrell go grab us something. You do what you’ve got to do, and we’ll see you later.” I was happy he wasn’t going to be there right away.
We made small talk as we drove through the city. It was the first time I really took the time to watch my surroundings. I noticed the people and the sounds, and something in my soul began to stir. I felt at peace with my decision.
As we pulled up to the archives, I felt the familiar knot in my stomach. I was having a hard time breathing, and my hands began to shake. Darrell laid his hands on mine, and I felt myself relax.
“It’s okay, Cherish. I know this place messes with your mind, but you need to find a way to control it. Take a deep breath, in through your nose, out through your mouth. Slow your heartbeat. Ease your fire. You got this.”
I focused on the sound of his voice. The rhythm of his words melded with my pulse. I closed my eyes and followed his direction. I began to breathe easier, and my hands became still. When I opened my eyes, I was ready for the task ahead.
We entered through the front doors, finding a young woman sitting behind the desk. “Good morning, Mr. Portland,” she cooed in her southern drawl. “Mr. Montgomery called and said you’d be coming in today. And you must be the famous Miss McKenzy,” she said in my direction, grinning from ear to ear.
I blushed. “Well, I don’t know about famous, but yes, I’m Cherish McKenzy, Blake’s cousin.”
“I’m Lucy,” the young woman squealed. “Mr. Montgomery said to give you anything you needed. I have the boardroom set up for you. There’s fresh coffee and pastries on the cart. If you need anything else, just let me know.”
We both thanked her, then made our way to the boardroom. It was bigger than the room I’d been in last time. The walls were lined with portraits of those who had come before. I stopped in my tracks when I looked into the eyes of an older woman who looked like my grandmother. The tiny gold plaque at the bottom read Joan Montgomery, Founder. My great-grandmother.
“Are you okay?” Darrell asked.
“Um, yea,” I lied. “I guess this is just the first time I’ve really seen her face. I have a few pictures, but they’re old and faded and a lot, um, smaller.”
Darrell just chuckled. “Alright, get comfy, and I’ll be right back. I’ll go get some of the ledgers and texts from the library. There are a lot of handwritten documents I haven’t even gotten to yet. Maybe we can knock some of this stuff out together.”
I nodded and headed further into the room as he left, throwing my bag on the table and walking to the portrait. I stared into her eyes for a moment, then gently laid my hand on her painted chest. The heat instantly grew in the palm of my hand, not a burning heat, but more of a loving warmth.
I closed my eyes and let the heat envelop me. Her face came into view, a wide smile across her face. She didn’t say anything but looked into my eyes as a mother would her child. She blinked her eyes, then turned to her left, pointing to a wall of books. They were old and weathered, but still intact. One seemed to stand out from the rest, but I couldn’t read the words.
She’d turned back to me, as though about to speak, when I heard, “Miss McKenzy, are you okay?”
The sound of Lucy’s voice startled me. I pulled my hand away and tried to act as though I were fine. “Yes, I’ve just never seen a portrait of my great-grandmother before.”
“I didn’t mean to interrupt,” Lucy cringed, “but this was just delivered. Mr. Montgomery sent it with a note for you to call him when it arrived.” She sat a package on the table, then excused herself.
I opened the parcel to find a brand new laptop inside. I found it a little suspicious and called Blake immediately.
“Cherish,” he verbally beamed, “did you get my gift?”
“Yes, Blake,” I growled, “but I don’t need a new computer.”
Blake sighed. “I thought you could use it to help you with the family histories. Find a way to categorize them and maybe make some sense of them. It’s much more efficient than paper and pen. Just let me win this one argument, please.”
“Fine,” I said with a heavy sigh. “If it will make you happy, then thank you. I don’t know how to set it up, but I appreciate it.”
“Wonderful,” Blake shouted. “I’ll be done here in about an hour, and then I’ll head over. Cherish, you have no idea how much this means to me.” With that, Blake hung up.
When Darrell returned, he had a huge pile of books and papers in hand. He laid them on the table, and I explained the computer. He found it funny, then volunteered to set it up while I started going through some of the papers. I had a feeling that I was in for the long haul. What was supposed to be an afternoon of research was about to become a much longer project.