An Introduction

It’s been a chilly, gray spring in New England, but not this cold, at least.

Ewan Lovatt woke to the kind of rural quiet he knew would be perfect for his next project.

He stretched and swung his legs over the edge of the bed. He’d long ago perfected the art of sleeping diagonally in a queen-sized bed to accommodate his six-foot-three frame. His feet struck the cold hardwood and he shivered. Pulling on cotton flannel drawstring pants and an NYU tee-shirt before he padded over to the window seemed a wise choice.

Ewan was an urban creature, but the stark allure of the Vermont countryside in January wasn’t lost on him. The nearby hillsides rolled smooth, painted in slashes of snow, granite, and coniferous green. The skeletons of cornstalks marched in the neighboring fields. At the far western point of his view, the Adirondacks were just beginning their craggy swell over the horizon.

By the time he left Thornton, Vermont, he hoped early summer would show a version closer to the one he planned to write.

He grabbed his advance copy of Reed Sharpe’s newest novel and headed for the bathroom. He had promised the man — or their shared publicist, anyway — a jacket review, and he couldn’t think of a better place to read the damn thing.

After a shower, his appetite called to him more clearly. The small reproduction mantle clock in the room told him he had twenty minutes before the innkeeper closed the kitchen, so he put his feet into his boots, hauled the laces tight, tossed the book and some papers into his laptop case, and started downstairs to meet his hostess.

***

Back to Thornton. The manuscript is officially with my favorite editrix, with a planned release date in the fall. I can’t wait for you all to come back to Thornton and get to know Ewan Lovatt. In the meantime, I’m working on a third Thornton novel, as well as a few other things.  I’ll be sending out updates via newsletter (if you’re not already subscribed, you can do that here), and if you’re a central Massachusetts reader, I have a new event coming up this month!

 I hope the four lovely humans still reading forgive me my long absence. I’ve thought about this space a lot, but every word I’ve had to spare has gone into novel writing. I look forward to being here more often as I get ready to share Sweet Pease with you.

The Soloist: Finale

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

After the service, Eli melted into the crowd to seek out the youth group cohort. Talia loitered near the vestibule, watching folks catching up and wishing one another merry Christmas.

Hank and his wife Gayle stopped to say hello, and another of the diner regulars tipped his hat before joining some friends.

She was so absorbed in her people watching, she didn’t notice Jojo until she was sidling up next to her.

“Talia!” Jojo hugged her fiercely. Talia froze for a moment before the reality of Jojo’s easy affection hit her. “Merry Christmas! Please, please, please sing with us?” She gestured to two other choristers standing nearby who smiled and nodded, then whispered, “I won’t even tell them who you are.”

Reilly was making his way along the center aisle, shaking hands and embracing his people. She could see it in his entire body, how much he loved them.

Jojo caught the direction of her gaze. “I hope it’s okay that he told me what happened. It shook him up.”

The warmth flickered, and an icicle formed in the pit of her stomach. There was only so much of her circus anyone could take. Even her son would tire of it, of her, someday. She sought out Eli among the teens huddled in one corner of the hall, and forced the corners of her lips back up. “Of course. Don’t worry about it.”

Jojo’s brow wrinkled. “I’ll worry if I like. You’re ours, now, you know. We don’t take lightly to that kind of nonsense.” She waved at Reilly over the tops of nearby heads, then gave Talia a significant look. “He doesn’t, either.”

Reilly approached her, hands in his pockets. There was a sparkle in his eyes that was just for her, and the icicle melted away. “Merry Christmas, Talia. I’m glad to see you here.”

His closeness was intoxicating. “Merry Christmas, Reverend.”

She wanted to fold herself into the curve of his shoulder, to rest her cheek in the hollow there.

Jojo leaned over and hugged him. “Merry Christmas, Doc.”

A petite woman with long hair in a frazzled bun took Talia by the arm. “Talia? I’m Helena Jay, Haley’s mom. I just wanted to say, Eli is great. Haley’s taken him under her wing. I’m not sure whether to congratulate you or warn you. Honestly, she’s a force. Anyway, merry Christmas.”

Helena turned to Jojo and Reilly, but Talia sought out her son with his new friends. He was part of this place already. Whether she was ready or not.

“… I’m going to get her to sing with us, Laney. Next Christmas she and Nancy are going to bring the house down.”

Jojo was talking about her. Talia dropped back into the conversation before Reilly’s Girl Friday could get her in trouble. Jojo and Helena had their heads together, but Reilly’s expression was the one that stilled her. His smile was easy, but hope blazed in those kind eyes.

She was part of this place already. Just maybe, she was ready.

Talia cleared her throat. “Is there music for Easter?”

Jojo whooped a hallelujah, and Reilly took her hand in his as the church bells rang in Christmas Day.

~~~~~

Thanks for reading along, and like Reilly, I wish you light in the dark season, however you celebrate it.

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