The Soloist: Part Eleven

Continued from Part Ten, or you can start from the beginning.

Christmas Eve dawned sunny and frosty. Talia woke to the smell of coffee and the jingle of Butter’s collar. Hank’s was closed for three days, and for a week, there had been no noise from Blaine. She wasn’t foolish enough to think he’d forgotten, but his family would go to great lengths to avoid revealing just how unstable their son was, including keeping him on a short leash. The whiff of scandal that followed her disappearance had been enough to allow her time and leverage to get away the first time.

She pulled her hoodie over the camisole and leggings she’d slept in and followed the wafting cloud toward the kitchen.

Eli was buttering toast. “Morning, Mom. Merry Christmas.”

The little tree Reilly had brought them sparkled from the living room. She sat in the same chair he’d sat in when he kissed her a few nights before, this time Butter watched his boy hoping for a bread-shaped Christmas miracle. “You made coffee?”

Eli pushed the hair from his face. “Mrs. Jay showed me how. I didn’t get you a present, but I made you breakfast.” He set slightly limp toast and watery coffee on the table in front of her.

It was the best breakfast she’d ever had.

She wrapped an arm around his skinny waist and pulled her son close. “I love you, kiddo. Thanks for this.”

“Mom?”

“Yeah?”

“I know it’s not your thing, but can we go to one of the services at the church? Haley says…”

Talia raised an eyebrow. “Haley says?”

Eli blushed. “She sings in the choir, and she says it’s not like regular church on Christmas Eve. Mostly music and stuff.”

“We can go. If you watch Christmas movies with me all day, and we get Chinese for dinner.”

The awkward eye-roll she got was worth it when he grinned.

The Grove Street Church was packed. The front doors were wreathed with balsam and bittersweet, rainbow flags welcomed congregants. Candles burned on the altar, and the choir was singing low in welcome, the Coventry Carol. Eli nudged her for humming along.

They took their places in a pew near the back of the hall. Talia’s breath caught when Reilly stepped up to address his congregation; she glanced around, half-wondering if lightning might actually strike. He preached no differently than he lived: patiently and without fuss. He’d forgone celebratory robes; the only mark of his leadership was a clerical collar instead of a tie, and a crimson stole over a conservative dark gray suit.

After a few brief words of welcome, the choir began The First Noel. She hadn’t meant to sing at all, but her resolve vanished before the first line finished. At the chorus, when her voice soared over the gathering, there was a moment of astonished quiet from the congregation as people’s voices faded to search for the source of hers, but just a moment. Reilly only smiled, Jojo turned with a wink from the choir, and every voice was lifted along with hers.

It was, as Haley told Eli, mostly music and stuff. Reilly told the Christmas story with humor and grace. He thanked the community for the toys and clothes gifted to the needy and called the younger members of the congregation up to sing with his guitar as accompaniment. Eli made no move to join them, until another boy from the youth group cuffed his shoulder on his way by. Talia couldn’t help noticing Haley Jay smiling from the choir when Eli trailed the others to the steps.

When Reilly wished them all peace and joy for the new year and hoped they would find light in the dark season, she felt his gaze fall on her, and the heat that kindled along her skin had little to do with the candlelight or the closeness of bodies.

To be continued in the Finale

The Soloist: Part Ten

Continued from Part Nine, or you can start from the beginning:

He took up more space in the kitchen than she’d expected. She’d made a compress for his jaw out of a package of frozen corn and a washcloth, and offered to make him dinner while they waited for Haley’s mom to drive Eli home.

That he had thought to arrange that with Mrs. Jay was something Talia didn’t like to dwell on. It was too easy to depend on that kind of thoughtfulness.

She set plates of scrambled eggs and sliced flank steak down and sat, hoping the food would prevent Reilly from asking the questions she was certain he must have. Butter padded out from her bedroom and laid his traitorous head down in Reilly’s lap.

“You are a woman of many talents,” he said, chewing his meat carefully. “Who taught you to cook?”

“My mom,” she said, salting her eggs. She inhaled deeply, deciding he’d earned some answers, and speared a mouthful of eggs. “She died while I was in Las Vegas for a symphony gig.”

“Natalia Benson.” Reilly shook his head. “My folks have a recording of Christmas songs you did.”

“That’s the one.” Recording that concert had been the highlight of her too-brief career. “The Las Vegas gig. Oh, Night Divine: Natalia Benson and the Las Vegas Philharmonic Live at Christmas. I found out my mother died after the concert, and got regrettably drunk at the hotel while my agent figured out a flight home. I met Blaine at the bar. He was handsome and charmingly concerned about me. I blacked out.”

She looked up from her empty fork. Reilly’s silverware rested on his place. His steady expression waited for her to go on, so she did.

“When I woke up, I was in Blaine’s room with a ring around my finger. He produced a marriage certificate. He told me I’d begged him, promised me I’d said yes, then made me feel awful when I didn’t recall any of it. He offered to fly back with me, to meet my family. I was his wife now, after all. I was so numb that I let him sweep me around for months, and then I was pregnant. I let my career slip away. His family is…”

“Disgustingly, exploitively rich?” Reilly prompted.

“That’s kind of you,” Talia said. “I won’t bore you with the Lifetime movie details of his illness and manipulations. I had Eli, and I woke up. In the hospital, doing paperwork for his birth certificate, it occurred to me that never legally changed my name, only started using Slattery. I found out that our marriage was never real. It was essentially a year-long gaslighting by a very wealthy, very unwell man and his entire family.”

“Talia…”

“No, it’s … not okay, but it’s something I’ve learned to look at objectively. His family used money and influence to keep him out of treatment and the press. When his mother found out our marriage was a sham, she offered to buy Eli from me, so I left.”

“Buy him?” Reilly’s voice was growly with shock.

“Five million if I’d walk away without my baby. Or nothing for either of us ever.” Talia pushed her plate away. “So I checked us out of the hospital and disappeared. I was never very famous. It wasn’t hard to disappear; I even like who I am now, but when Blaine gets away from his handlers he hunts me down, and the whole circus starts again.”

Reilly stood, collected their uneaten suppers and took them to the counter, Butter watching his movements with canine optimism. Talia watched in a confused silence while he riffled through her cabinets and drawers until he’d found plastic wrap and put the plates in the fridge. He ran the hot water tap for a moment before digging into the remaining dishes, which he washed and set in the drying rack with surprising efficiency. When he was done, he pulled his chair up close to hers, and sat so they were eye to eye.

“You are incredible.”

She laughed, but the earnestness in his eyes loosened a knot she’d had so long she’d forgotten it, and tears pooled in her eyes. “I’m a disaster.”

He reached across the space between them to brush a stray tear from her cheek. Warmth spread from his fingertips, and she leaned into his palm.

“We’re all disasters,” he whispered, then touched his lips to hers.

She let her eyes drift closed, savoring the kiss.

When Reilly drew back, Talia opened her eyes to his dimpled smile. The dog wiggled between them.

“Please don’t run away this time.”

To be continued in Part Eleven

The Soloist: Part Nine

Continued from Part Eight, or you can start from the beginning.

My mom doesn’t like Christmas, the boy had said. Or staying put.

No one who sang Christmas songs like Talia Benson didn’t like Christmas, but Reilly filed that bit of teenage insight away to worry over later. The hungry look on Eli Slattery’s face when they’d trimmed the Church giving tree for Sunday’s service spoke volumes.

Reilly stopped at Snowflake Greens and Trees, the annual December pop-up tree lot in the market parking lot, and picked up a four-foot Fraser fir with a simple stand and a couple of strings of lights. There were boxes of red glass globes for sale, too, so he picked one of those up too. Eli was staying late at school to work on a project with Haley Jay and some of her friends, so Reilly didn’t expect him for a volunteer shift. He figured he’d drop the festive supplies off at Talia’s house with a note, before heading home to finish the Christmas Eve service in the comfort of his couch.

The slick Mercedes SUV in her driveway surprised him. Reilly pulled his beat up Ford in behind it and cut the engine. He was hoisting the tree out of the bed when the driver of the Mercedes pushed his way out of his ride. The dark, elegant suit could have paid Talia’s rent for a couple of months; Reilly noted tasteful cufflinks and an expensive timepiece before the stranger smashed a fist into his jaw.

His head snapped back and stars bloomed behind his eyes, but he held it together. There was blood in his mouth, he spat it out. “What the hell?”

The stranger’s eyes were flat and cold. “Stay the fuck away from my wife.”

“Talia Benson?”

Reilly knew he was provoking the flashy psychopath, but he figured they were already past pleasantries. When the suit pinned him the cab of his truck by the windpipe, black fog narrowed his vision.

“Natalia Slattery, asshole.”

In what remained of Reilly’s consciousness, he recalled splashy headlines. An heir to a global shipping and real estate empire, a concert soprano, allegations of abuse… Reilly tried to suck in a breath, but the starry blackness was creeping inward. A car door slammed somewhere far away.

“Jesus, Blaine! Let him go!”

Oxygen flooded his lungs, and Reilly slumped back against the truck. Feeling returned to his face in form of a throbbing jaw. Talia was running across the frozen grass. She hit the stranger at a full run, pushing the man backwards towards the Mercedes. “He’s a pastor, you crazy bastard. What is wrong with you?”

The man—Blaine—put his suit and tie to rights and cleared his throat. He sneered at Reilly. “Does he know you’re hardly an angel, babe?”

Talia’s cheeks flushed scarlet, but she said nothing. Reilly pulled his phone from his pocket and tapped the emergency numbers.

Blaine looked at his watch. “Where’s Elijah? I’m taking him home for Christmas.”

“No, Blaine. You’re not. He was quite clear the last time you tried that. You terrify him.”

“Only because you poisoned his mind against me.”

“You did that on your own.” Talia squared her shoulders. “Leave us alone, Blaine. We don’t want you.”

Blaine’s arm whipped up. Reilly heaved himself up to defend Talia, but Blaine only grabbed her arm and hauled her close. “I don’t think you get it. I don’t care. I want my family where they belong.”

The officer that rolled up pulled his Interceptor onto the shoulder in front of Talia’s house and stepped out of the SUV. Reilly recognized him from Hank’s. “Is there a problem, ma’am? Are you okay? Reverend Hunt?”

Reilly watched Talia, who stared hard at Blaine.

Blaine released Talia and stepped back.

Her voice wavered slightly. “I think Mr. Slattery is leaving.”

Blaine climbed into and backed the SUV slowly out of Talia’s driveway. Reilly’s head swam; he’d never been a brawler. Talia, it seemed, was made of sterner stuff. She came to him, touched his tender jaw and bruised neck with steady fingers.

“He hurt you.”

Reilly felt that touch to his toes. “Has he hurt you?”

“Not my body, if that’s what you mean.” Her smile twisted at the corner. “It’s a long, terrible story, but Reilly?”

Reilly held her gaze. “Yeah?”

“I’m not his wife.”

His jaw ached like fury, but he was smiling some when he walked with her to speak with the officer who was watching Slattery’s tail lights in the distance.

To be continued in Part Ten

The Soloist: Part Eight

Continued from Part Seven, or you can start from the beginning.

The Grove Street Church occupied a plot of land in a residential area a few blocks from the center of town. Not such a long walk from Jojo’s apartment over the tea shop, but a cold one on a dark December night. The lights were on, glowing golden over the front doors, and Talia slipped into the vestibule. Reilly held court on the steps to the choir, a group of teens sprawled around him. There were a couple of guitars, a hand drum, and a harmonica, and in the middle of a motley crew of kids, her son. Talia’s heart flipped over. Somewhere between moves, he’d developed a man’s jawline and long limbs that spoke of more height to come.

He looked… content. In a way she hadn’t seen in too long.

If only his father could see past what he believed his son should become to the young man he was.

If only Blaine could see life beyond his family.

If only.

And yet, her heart was still warm from boxed pinot grigio and Christmas cookies with Jojo’s friends, who, after a few goggle-eyed moments, embraced her. Reilly chose that moment to look up from a spirited rendition of Jingle Bells that included some actual sleigh bells, and Talia grinned. Not only her heart, then. There was probably a commandment about not coveting thy neighborhood pastor, but the dimple in his left cheek was enough to bring a strong woman to her knees.

“Talia,” he called across the hall. “Come in. We’re just waiting for everyone’s rides. You can pick up the harmony line.”

And there it was, the wanting something from her.

“I’m sorry, Reverend.” She made her way down the aisle; Eli scowled at her tone, and Talia’s resolve faltered. “We have to get home. I’m sure Eli has homework.”

Eli closed himself off. “I did it after school.”

The ease she’d seen in Eli from across the room was gone, and an awkward silence fell over the youth group.

Reilly set down his instrument and addressed them. “Guys, can you head down to the basement and put the chairs away? And Haley?” Here he singled out one young woman. “Can you take the bells and drum downstairs and make sure the lights are turned out?”

When Eli didn’t get up, Reilly gave him a look. “You too.” Eli slouched off, leaving Talia standing there, keenly aware she’d ruined everything.

“I didn’t mean—“ she began, but Reilly cut her off.

“You are both welcome here. It has nothing to do with whether or not you sing in the choir, or what your faith is, or what’s dogging you.”

Talia felt all the fear and hurt—and bone deep weariness—rise. “Who said anything about my past?”

“No one but you. Just now,” he said softly, and she knew he was right.

“You tricked me.” Even as the words escaped her mouth she knew how foolish she sounded.

“Talia.” He said her name with a tenderness that shocked her. “Maybe it’s what I do for a living, but I can see the hurt, the walls around you, from miles away.”

Her reply came out as a whisper. “I didn’t ask you to fix me.”

When he closed the distance between them, coming to within arm’s length, she wondered crazily if he was going to kiss her. “I don’t want to fix what isn’t broken. I just want to…”

He didn’t finish the sentence. She couldn’t look away.

Eli and Haley burst up from the church basement, laughing, his surly mood dissolved. The rest of the youth group thundered up behind them.

Reilly blinked at the pair of teens. “Lights out?”

The girl Haley laughed. “Yes, Pastor Hunt.”

Talia watched the way her son looked at the girl. They very way she’d been looking at Reilly a moment ago.

“Eli, we should go.”

Eli shrugged, but the girl only smiled. “See you at school, Eli.”

To be continued in Part Nine

The Soloist: Part Seven

Continued from Part Six, or you can start from the beginning.

When applause broke out at the end of Bill, Talia nearly dropped the chipped mug of chicken soup she’d been nursing in the back lot. She didn’t, but the soup sloshed over the rim and her spoon went clattering to the dirty asphalt. She turned to find Jojo Moretz standing in the kitchen door.

Jojo clapped enthusiastically again. “Oh, Talia. I’m sorry about your lunch! Though I’d be lying if I said I was sorry for lurking while you finished. I could listen to you all day, and nobody sings songs from Showboat around here.”

Talia flushed. “My mother had all those Broadway shows on records. I knew them all by heart before I even knew they were plays.”

Memories of her mother were like cigar burns on her heart.

Jojo sat herself down next to Talia. “My first job when I left here for New York was as a rehearsal pianist for an off-broadway production company. I’d hear a great old song in an audition and end up scouring this little record shop on Thompson Street for the cast recording. And leaving with five more the old guy who ran it recommended.” She fished a butterscotch from her pocket. “You want one?”

When Talia refused Jojo went on, the candy in her cheek. “I’m hosting book club this week. Tonight at my place. You should come.”

Talia started to refuse, but Jojo was faster.

“Nobody actually reads the books. We just have snacks and wine and gossip. And there’s a youth group social tonight at the church. My girlfriend runs it with Reilly. Eli will be welcome, and he’s over there already.”

If Talia’s laugh was touched with bitterness, Jojo was kind enough to overlook it. “You’ve sewn me up, haven’t you?”

Jojo inclined her head. Regally. “It’s my gift. I am a ninja-level meddler.”

“Please don’t take this the wrong way,” Talia said, bracing for Jojo to do exactly that, “but I’m not a joiner, and I’m not—we’re not—religious.”

Jojo leaned in close. “Half the folks who show up every Sunday would say the same. It’s pretty laid back, the way we do things. Lots of people come for company and free coffee, or a chance to sit with their thoughts. Reilly’s got enough faith for the whole town, but even he’s… well… Still waters, I guess. His God had room for Jasmine and I long before most people. He’s got more love in that crusty heart than he knows what to do with, but he’s never settled down.” She cackled. “Lord, I sound like such a yenta.”

Hank’s voice boomed from somewhere inside the diner. “Talia!”

Jojo stood. “Six tonight. 1280 Washington. Two blocks down on the left, above the storefront that sells all the teas and oils.”

Talia couldn’t think of a single argument. “Okay. Thanks.”

Jojo waggled her fingers and vanished into the kitchen, her voice cutting through the diner noise as Talia followed. “Hank, you work that girl too hard. Is there coffee?”

Inside, there were two orders for mid-afternoon breakfast sandwiches and a to-go mac and cheese. Talia split two English muffins and broke a couple of eggs on the griddle, and tried to ignore the bubble of nerves and curiosity in her belly.

Reilly was single.

Jojo wanted to be friends.

Eli hadn’t complained at all about his time at the Grove Street Church, not since before the first day, and now he was being invited to youth group socials.

Reilly was single.

Talia flipped one pair of eggs to break the yolks and shimmied the second to keep them from sticking while the sunny yolks set. She caught herself humming We Need A Little Christmas, and smiled. Jojo would like that one, too.

Book club. She didn’t go to book clubs.

Reilly was single.

To be continued in Part Eight