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 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 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

The Soloist: Part Six

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

A woman’s only day off in a week wasn’t meant to start hauling her son to church by his ear. Not literally by his ear, and not to church—in that sense, but to the church. The handsome, kind Reverend Doctor Reilly Hunt’s church.

If ever there was a man she shouldn’t have gone to bed dreaming about kissing, he was that one. And yet, she’d crawled into the bed in the bedroom she’d yet to really nest in imagining a version of the night that ended with his lips on hers, his hands—not as soft as you’d imagine a preacher’s hands to be—on her face, her neck. Her body.

It didn’t matter to her body that ultimately he was after her voice and her service to his congregation. His kindness in the dark of night seemed genuine enough. A perk of his career, she supposed.

And there was still the question of a wife. Didn’t small town reverends have wives? Children?

They approached the side door of the church, where a charming sign directed visitors to the office, and Talia shook off impure thoughts of the pastor. Eli trudged sullenly behind her carrying the baby doll in a paper grocery bag; his shame keeping time with his shadow in the late-morning sun.

The office stood empty, but a familiar melody swirled through from the hall. Someone, two someones, she realized, were playing Silent Night on piano and guitar. She held them both back in the doorway. Reilly and a fine-boned woman with vast and intricate tattoos visible up her arms were playing the duet, illuminated by a clear bar of light from the vaulted window over the front door. For a moment, the worry of their errand vied with hot jealousy in her belly.

Dust-motes danced around the pair while them while Reilly strummed and the woman’s fingers danced on the worn piano keys; as it always did, the music eased her heart.

Eli was always telling her she was singing when she hadn’t been aware of doing it, so when Reilly looked up, and the piano harmonies faded, Talia caught herself, flushing scarlet and snapping her mouth closed.

“You know the German?” A grin a mile wide spread on the woman’s face.

“Only the first verse,” Talia stammered.

The woman stood. She wore combat boots and thick wool socks, a huge fisherman’s sweater over patterned leggings, and a silver hoop though her nose. That’s the haircut I was trying for, Talia thought.

“Johanna Moretz.” The woman stuck out a hand. “But everyone calls me Jojo. Tell me you’re planning on auditioning for our choir? Please.”

Reilly must have seen the distress on her face. He interrupted, concern thickening his voice. “What brings you here, Talia?”

She pulled her son in front of her, planting him between the reverend and herself. “My son has something to say.”

“Son?” Reilly phrased it as a prompt, but Talia couldn’t help hearing it as a judgment.

“This belongs to you, sir.” She heard the squeak in Eli’s voice, a brutal reminder that he was on a cusp. That she had to stay vigilant.

Reilly rose, still holding the guitar, to take the bag Eli thrust out. He peered into the bag. “Where’d you come by this?”

Eli muttered something that sounded like it ended in, “Dare.” Talia squeezed his shoulder.

Her son lifted his chin and stared down the pastor. “Some kids from my homeroom were gonna take it on Christmas morning. I told them their plan was shitty… sorry, sir… Crappy, and they were gonna get caught. I was showing off, trying to get them to like me. Sucks being new all the time. So… one of them… told me where to find it, and I snuck in here and took it.” His defiance deflated visibly, then he stared at his feet. “I was going to bring it back.”

Silently, Reilly handed the bag to Jojo, who whisked it away into the back entryway. Reilly pocketed his hands and drew in a deep breath. “Eli, do you think it’s fair of me to ask that you help Jojo and me some around the church, by way of apology?”

Eli nodded assent without looking up, and the hard knot in Talia’s chest loosened.

Reilly looked over Eli’s head at Talia. “Maybe he takes the school bus out here next week after school, helps out until you can come pick him up?”

Talia nodded, blinking back the stinging threat of tears. “That sounds okay to me. Generous, even.”

“Maybe you both come to Sunday service? Eli can help Jojo get set up… and you’d get a chance to meet your neighbors.”

Talia shook her head.

Reilly smiled gently. “I don’t want to convert you, Talia. We don’t do much of that around here. Just think about it.”

To be continued in Part Seven