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 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 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 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