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 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 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

The Soloist: Part Five

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

Reilly finished printing requests and recipient numbers on the Gifting Tree tags somewhere between two and three in the morning. He yawned, set his desk back in order and left the pile of tags on Jojo’s desk for the morning. The need in the community broke his heart every year, but it was always mended when the congregation provided. On the way out to the barn to warm up the truck, he went through his mental checklist. There was one last Advent Sunday sermon to write, the baby for the Nativity to locate, a soloist to find…

He sat in the cab of the truck, watching the stars and thinking of Talia Benson. She wasn’t what anyone would call his type—if he had one—but there she was, occupying valuable real estate in his head. A beautiful voice, joy in the singing, engaging and vulnerable all at once. A mystery. And then there was his physical reaction to her. She was… striking. Reilly believed wholly that there were forces greater than himself at work in the world; he sensed that Talia was going to teach him something, but life, and God, had a way of throwing curveballs.

He swung the truck out onto the rural route where his parents’ place—he’d never been able to call it his, though it had been his since they left for Arizona—huddled near the State Forest tree line. The sky was infinite, the stars dizzying and brilliant, as he rumbled along past a small clutch of cottages that passed for a neighborhood that far from town.

It seemed his lessons didn’t observe daylight hours, for there she was, Talia Benson sitting on the stoop of Jerry Griffin’s rental under the yellow light of a bare exterior bulb. He couldn’t read her expression in the deep shadows, but he knew the bend of world-weary shoulders. He glanced at the dashboard clock with a sigh and eased the truck onto the shoulder.

Rolling down the window, he called softly. “Ms. Benson? Talia? You okay?”

She looked up and Reilly noticed a mug between her clasped hands. “Depends on who’s asking. And why.”

“A concerned neighbor,” he offered, letting the truck idle and making no move to leave the cab. He held still while she contemplated him.

“I wouldn’t mind some company.” The admission sounded defeated. “Do you do this a lot?”

Drop in on an intriguing, frustrating stranger in the small hours of the morning? “I can’t say that I do.”

He turned the key and left it in the ignition, grabbed a hat and mittens, lovingly if not tidily knitted by Jojo, and suited up for the cold. Talia was wearing shapeless shearling boots, and a parka over a sweatshirt, the hood pulled up to cover her bright hair. His lungs pinched, not from the cold, but from the sense of rightness about crossing the small yard in the starlight to offer her comfort.

He sat two steps below her, keeping as much of his rear end off the cold stoop as possible. “It’s late. And cold.”

She snorted. It was unladylike and delightful. “Did you master the obvious in divinity school, or do you come by it naturally?”

“Strictly a product of my upbringing,” he countered. “And it’s been a long day.”

Talia toasted him with her mug. “It really has. I’m tired of my problems. Tell me about yours.”

“Well.” He leaned his head against the cold railing and closed his eyes, “I spent the morning in the city. There’s an at-risk youth program I volunteer with. Holidays can be hard. The afternoon was mostly what passes for hard labor in my profession. This coming Sunday’s the last one before Christmas Eve, which means folks expect some garlands and wreaths, and I hate ladders.”

Her voice was soft. “Me, too.”

Reilly could feel sleepiness spreading out from his chest; the hour was finally catching up with him, but so too was a promising weight in the air between them. “And Jojo’s in a panic over Jesus—”

Talia cut him off. “Who’s Jojo?”

“The church’s Girl Friday, for lack of an official title.” Reilly shrugged. “So we spent some time looking for Him.”

“Like actually looking? As opposed to… searching?”

Reilly opened his eyes to find her looking hard at him, a touch of laughter in her eyes. He laughed too, opening up to her humor. “Millie Silver put it away last year, and we can’t find it. Jojo’s in a tizzy—“

“Did you just say, ‘tizzy?’” Talia’s laugh let fly. Timpani, he thought again. Steady, booming.

“Anyway, the baby doll is missing…”

Talia’s laughter stopped like she’d turned the tap off. The wariness was back. He didn’t know what wrong things he’d said, but he couldn’t help the happy thrill of connection they’d shared before he’d said them.

“I should go in,” she said, rising with a deep sigh. “You’re not too far from home?”

“Nope.” Reilly took the hint. “Goodnight, Talia.”

To be continued in Part Six