The Soloist: Part Three

Continued from Part Two, or you can start from the beginning

Hank’s was never empty unless it was closed, but Reilly rarely saw the afternoon crowd. His arrival was met with pleasant, but frank curiosity. For every nod, every hey Doc, every smile, there was a silent question. What’s he doing here at this time of day? They were—as was he—creatures of habit.

Creatures who sat quietly over coffee, pie, or sandwiches; quietly because they were listening to that voice. He paused to drink in the way she navigated We Three Kings of Orient Are, the kitchen noise her percussion. Surely whoever she was, she couldn’t be unaware of the effect her voice had on the patrons?

“Afternoon, Reilly.” Hank motioned to an empty corner table by the front windows. “I’ve got that table, but your spot’s taken.”

“I’m not here for biscuits. I’m here—“ The singer swooped into the chorus and Reilly’s skin tingled. “Has she been singing all day?

Hank’s smile was wistful, bordering on foolish. “She hummed for a while, but mostly, yeah.”

“Can I go back?”

Hank set down a plated meatloaf sandwich. “I’ll introduce you.”

Reilly followed Hank through the swinging door. She was washing dishes, humming over the steaming water in the vast sink. She was… a knockout.

Hank rapped lightly on the counter. “Talia?”

“Yeah, Hank?” She stopped humming, looked up, and blinked at Reilly. “Oh, hi.”

Her eyes were fiery blue. Reilly rocked back on his heels to take in all six magnificent feet of her. “Hi.”

Hank took over the introductions. “Talia Benson, the Reverend Doctor Reilly Hunt, pastor at the Grove Street Church. Reilly, Talia’s my new cook. Fresh off the bus from… Where’d you say you were from?”

“I didn’t.” Talia’a mouth tipped at the corners—Reilly wouldn’t have called it a smile—and she dried her hands. “Pleasure to meet you, Reverend.”

“I’ve gotta head back out front,” Hank said, returning to the register, where a short queue was forming. “Holler if you need me.”

An awkward silence threatened, so Reilly filled it. “Call me Reilly.”

“Reilly.” Talia took off a worn Boston Red Sox cap. She had carrot-red hair worn in a short, choppy cut that emphasized a long neck and strong cheekbones. . “Is this an official visit to save my soul?”

Reilly heard a wariness in her question, though her tone was light. “Official visit, yes. Your soul is your own. You have a beautiful voice, Ms. Benson.”

“Talia.” She corrected him with a blush. “Thank you. Sometimes I forget people can hear me.”

“Lucky us.”

She laughed at that. Her laugh was like a timpani roll. “You say that now.”

“I can’t imagine saying differently.” Reilly leaned against the door to the walk-in refrigerator.  “You’ve got a gift.”

Those blue eyes narrowed fast. “What can I do for you, Reilly?”

Reilly felt that gaze pierce his chest. Here was a woman who didn’t trust flattery. Best to come out with it then. “Sing with our choir. On Christmas Eve. We need a soloist.”

“No.” Her answer was so swift and decisive Reilly wasn’t sure he’d heard her correctly. She seemed to catch herself as well. “I’m sorry. But no. I’m sure you mean it as a compliment, but I can’t.”

“Ms. Benson. Talia.” He’d seen a flash of hurt in her eyes. He’d hurt her somehow. Or bought up an old hurt. The desire to make it right sucker-punched him. He reached out, as if to comfort her, but stopped just in time to save himself more embarrassment.

She snugged the cap back down over her hair and turned back to the sink. “I appreciate you coming by, Reverend, but I should get back to work.”

To be continued in Part Four

.

The Soloist: Part Two

Continued from Part One.

Reilly parked his truck in the old barn behind the church. At seventeen, the old Ford didn’t owe him anything, and Reilly knew it. He skipped his jacket; the heat in truck only had two settings: Off and Death Valley. Sure, the sweat might freeze in his hair, but the cold air was welcome after the ride in from his house outside town.

“Jojo?” He called out into the still, cool air of the empty hall.

He was answered by a deafening G-major chord from the organ. “Back here!”

The church’s administrative assistant, who also played the organ, taught Sunday School, led the choir and the weekly Bible study, popped out from behind the organ. Reilly knew she was somewhere in her forties—she’d only been a few years ahead of him in school, but you’d never know it. Jojo’s face was young, as was her heart. She dressed in long skirts and combat boots or short skirts and jeans together, her inky black hair was pixie short , her skin was a vibrant living canvas, and no amount of tsk-ing from his older congregants could convince her that a nose ring was unseemly.

“I was looking to see if I’d left Jesus in the cubby last year.”

Reilly couldn’t help laughing. “You don’t carry Him always in your heart?”

Jojo set her hands on her hips and gave him the stink eye. “The baby. For the Nativity. I can’t find him with the others.”

“Did you look in the office supply closet? Millie helped us clean up last January…” Jojo’s nod was understanding. “How was practice?”

He’d deliberately waited until after choir practice to come by and set up the Fraser fir he’d bought for the annual gifting tree. No fewer than four members of the soprano section were actively pursuing him – for themselves or for their daughters.

“Bad news,” she said, nudging a box of lights and garland toward the tree stand. “Nancy Elder’s daughter in Seattle went into labor early. She and Sid leave in the morning and Nance says they’ll stay through the New Year. We just lost our soloist.”

Reilly considered. For twenty-five years, Nancy Elder had guided the good Congregationalists of town through two Christmas Eve services with a clear, light soprano and a natural instinct for performing. This was a set-back, but nothing beyond their mortal scope. Jojo was watching him, waiting for a call to action. He grinned at her.

“He will deliver.”

Jojo hoisted a coil of lights and began to untangle them. “I sincerely hope He delivers an opera singer pronto, Doc.”

Reilly considered again. This time, it was the excellent breakfast sandwich and coffee at Hank’s. And the hidden voice he’d delighted in while he ate. He had a homily to write, the baby Jesus to find, and a shift at the food pantry, but he could drop in at Hank’s before the diner closed and introduce himself to the mysterious singer.

He just might have delivered already.

Continued in Part Three

The Soloist: Part One

Hank, whose neon-illuminated name graced the roof of the dining car on Washington Street, lost track of the purchase order he was tallying when he heard an angel singing in the alley behind the diner.

O come all ye faithful,  the angel instructed, joyful and triumphant.

It was a fearless voice, deep and ringing, pure and low, with an ease about it. This angel loved to sing and her joy burst through the walls despite the pre-dawn hour. Hank abandoned the books and pushed through the swinging door to the kitchen to investigate just as the angel let herself right in through the delivery door.

She broke off just as Come and behold Him rose high in her register, the truncated note ringing around the tiny kitchen like a living thing. “I’m sorry.” She laughed like a big church bell. “I forgot to knock.”

The angel was near six feet tall, in a yellow quilted parka and a sky blue ski hat. She stuck out a broad hand with short, clean nails. “Talia Benson, your new cook.”

Hank recognized her speaking voice from their brief phone interview the day before. He’d been so desperate to get a decent cook into the kitchen, he’d hired her unseen. Handshake dispensed, she shrugged out of her jacket. Gayle would call her a handsome woman, he thought. The phrase brick shithouse also came to mind.  “Pleased to meet you, Talia Benson. We open in an hour. Menu’s taped over the griddle. Can you make coffee?”

“Like my Mama never could.” Talia smiled wide and Hank found the corners of his mouth rising too. “I’ll get settled in and get a pot on.”

She revealed a head full of spiky orange hair when she pulled the hat off and jammed it into the sleeve of the parka.

Hank left her to figure things out, and she wasted no time. The vent hood kicked on, and in short order the satisfying perfume of hot griddle and strong coffee wafted out from the kitchen. Hank forgot to turn on the FM radio he kept by the register; Talia was a one-woman Christmas songbook. That voice soared over the clanking and sizzling from the kitchen and Hank was hard pressed not to sing along when she got to Let It Snow.

The last hour before opening ticked away, and five AM meant two things at Hank’s Washington Street Diner: Hank would flip the sign and unlock the front door, and Pastor Hunt would be waiting outside for coffee and an egg-and-sausage biscuit.

“Mornin’, Hank.” Reilly Hunt kicked the door frame to knock gray slush from his boot treads before stepping inside. He chafed his hands together and unzipped his coat.

“Mornin’, Reilly.” Hank tossed a copy of the Gazette on the counter at the pastor’s usual seat, and called back to the kitchen. “Number six!”

Talia’s voice rose up over butter hitting the hot grill in a rich run of Gloria, Hosanna in excelcis!

Reilly peered through the service window without luck. “You hiding an opera singer back there?”

Hank set a mug of coffee down in front of the town’s favorite spiritual leader. “About as likely as anything else she might be.”

❅❅❅

Welcome to 2016’s holiday mini-romance! I hope you enjoy Hank, Talia, Reilly, and the folks you’re about to meet. Posts should be up weekdays between now and December 23. If you missed last year’s story, Star of Wonder, you can find it as part of Bannerwing Books’ latest collection, Merry Little Christmas, featuring my dear friends Angela Amman and Mandy Dawson.

Read on for Part Two

Blood Magic Is Nothing to Trifle With

By now, you know I submit an original audio short to R.B. Wood’s Wordcount Podcast on the regular. I know podcasts are not everyone’s cup of tea, so here is my last offering, originally recorded for Episode 60 of The Wordcount Postcast. (You can listen here, if you’re so inclined — if I do say so myself, this was a decent take…)

Blood Magic is Nothing to Trifle With

“I grant you, Branna, he’s charming, but why such care?” Corbeau’s voice was a rasp from his perch. “What do you think will happen if he survives?”

Branna only squinted harder at the ornate skeleton key on her worktable, ignoring her brother’s skepticism. The table was littered with the treasures she and Corbeau had collected in their travels, old farm tools, keys, lost jewelry, blades, ribbons, shells and stones, but this key was their prize.

In a bookstand, an ancient leather-bound volume, its once lush pages ragged and thinned, offered up secrets masked in a language neither Branna nor Corbeau fully understood.

“Branna!”

Startled by her brother’s screech, Branna looked up from the key, which shivered against the sanded wood.

She pushed her silver blonde hair back from her face and fixed the sleek black raven opposite with her sharp, corvid eyes. “What, Raaf?”

“That’s not my name. It’s a man’s name.” He lifted up his wings, spread them to their full span, cocking his head to one side, then lowering it, a mockery of a courtly bow. “I have not ever been a man. Only a boy… And centuries ago.”

“I am sorry, Corbeau,it slipped out” Branna whispered. The key shivered again, this time of its own accord, and Branna turned her attention back to it. “The key wants its brother back, too.”

“Can you do it? After so long? Unravel blood magic four hundred years old?” They never had caught the knack of grudges, so Corbeau had resumed his perch. He kept his beady raven’s eyes on the key as if it might swallow his beloved sister whole.

“You mastered human speech with a raven’s beak. You’re stronger than you think.” Branna waved her hand over the key, which shivered a third time then lay still. When she spoke again, it was the voice of a sorceress, low and formal. “I have studied and honed my gifts over all these years. I have mother’s grimoire. Our power is deeper now than ever. I only have to decipher the spell which binds the key to the boy.”

“Man.” Corbeau croaked. “He is a man, Branna, which is why you like him.”

“Like is too milky a word,” Branna said, and her voice was a girl’s again. “He is like… strong spirits in my veins.”

“Ugh, enough.” Corbeau stepped from his perch into the air, circling their small cabin and making for the door, open to the mild forest air.

“Going to find Magda?” Branna teased, but if her brother heard her, he didn’t look back.

She was sure Corbeau had gone looking for the young female raven who’d befriended him in the village. Magda was named for their mother, which didn’t bother the beautiful black bird, but sent shivers down Branna’s arms. Magda was the one who’d shown Corbeau what they’d sought: the golden key whose twin lay on Branna’s table.

And so Branna had discovered Eochair and his studio.

Branna traced her mother’s hurried hand along the page, deeply slanted as though the witch had feared she would run out of time. The old magic was there; Branna could see it, but it shivered in and out of her mind from behind the long-dead words. The symbols traced along the margins were like the faces of long-forgotten friends, trying to swim up to the surface of recognition.

If she and her brother were night – silver and obsidian, Eochair was day, all golden and green, and he kept the key. It had taken Branna all summer to work out his lineage, hours in the archives and the library and on Eochair’s own computer tracing her family’s descendants. All to understand how to unbind the key from the young man and free Corbeau.

Just last week, Eochair had touched her pale, feathery hair before turning away with a flush on his neck. If she held her breath, Branna could still feel the way the strands fell from his fingers across the straps of her sundress and over her shoulder.

Once more, she gave the key her attention. She read from her mother’s spell, tracing the shapes with her finger around the key as she spoke.

Perhaps the air around it blushed, crimson like Eochair’s embarrassment. Perhaps the key rippled with ruddy color. She was getting closer, but it couldn’t be clumsily done. Blood magic was nothing to trifle with. Errors might mean Eochair’s life.

If he survives…

Corbeau asked why such care, but how to describe the falling of hair on bare skin to a boy with a raven’s heart?

***
There is a fully formed backstory here, and I’m tempted to distract myself with the writing of the fairy tale, but there are novels to finish…

What I Read on My Summer Vacation

Do you ever forget you’re a person? Work and chores and obligations and parenting tangles you up so fiercely you forget how to relax? It happened to me this spring. The company I work for diversified over the winter, and the brunt of the extra labor fell on me. I was struggling in the weeds, juggling flaming chainsaws, and I forgot to be myself. I can’t even entirely blame external pressures, because I’ve been keeping up with my writing and editing as much as possible in the stolen moments. I was so twisted up, so tense, I let my passion add to my stress, when it’s usually my outlet.

Ouch.

Thank goodness for a mile long stretch of pristine beach along a noisy, gaudy boardwalk on the New Hampshire coastline. I spent a week by the ocean with my husband’s family, and aside from some re-entry pangs, I felt like a person again.

It took me a day or two of literally lying in my beach chair with the sound of the tide in my ear and powdered sugar from Blink’s Fry Doe on my nose to remember that I had books waiting for me.

Books!

To read. For pleasure!

I know.

Firstly, the fourth installment in John Dolan’s Time, Blood & Karma series. I cannot accurately describe my crush on David Braddock. So it has been for four books. Running on Emptiness returns to the format of the first two books, and we are treated to Mr. Braddock’s signature wit and troubled, mischievous philosophy as he navigates a suspicious suicide, the spectre of a man who once wanted him dead, a Thai gang war, and the emotional maze of his family life. Running on Emptiness is dark, sharp, and tender, and the ending left me breathless, wondering how David Braddock will go forward.

From the exotic chaos of John Dolan’s Thailand, I headed east to Hawaii, and devoured the two most recent Lei Crime Series novellas from Eden Baylee. SEAL of a Monk and Charade at Sea each return to Hawaii and the adventures of Lainey Lee. Eden’s novellas keep a crisp pace, and with each one, we learn more about Lainey Lee, a recently single mother of adult sons, whose beginning her life again after a long, unhappy marriage. SEAL of a Monk introduces compelling former Navy SEAL and security consultant Max Scott, with whom Lainey shares an undeniable chemistry, even as they team up to rescue a lost young woman dear to Lainey’s heart. Charade at Sea reunites Lainey and Max on a luxury cruise around the islands, and once again they join forces to solve a mystery while exploring their newfound passion. Ripe with Eden’s command of the sensuous, these sexy mysteries were a perfect read with my toes in the hot sand.

The Coincidence of Coconut Cake ended up on my Kindle thanks to a promotion that I can’t recall, but I loved this delightful, light romance not only for the feisty, culinary heroine and the charming, awkward hero, but for the author’s unabashed devotion to all things Milwaukee. Having set a novel in a place I love, I understand that need to sing a love song to the sights, scents, and heart of a beloved locale. I devoured this one, all puns intended.

I finished a positively decadent week of pleasure reading with the first two novels in Laurie Breton’s Jackson Falls series. In Coming Home, Casey Bradley’s tumultuous love affair with rock and roll singer Danny Fiore whisks her away from home. Fifteen years and a lifetime of hard, fast living, joy and grief bend Casey’s road home to the life she was always meant to have in Jackson Falls. Sleeping with the Enemy picks up a family thread introduced in Coming Home and ties it neatly back into the tapestry of Jackson Falls. While I loved Casey’s journey in Coming Home, I thought Sleeping With the Enemy was a tighter, better paced story.

Guess what happened then? I drafted these paragraphs and forgot to post them, and fell right back into the nonsense and marvel of day-to-day. You cannot imagine the cobwebs in my WordPress dashboard this evening.

Have you read any of my belated summer reading picks? Id love to hear your thoughts.