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 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 Four

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

Talia came home to a cold, dark house. There was grease in her pores, and her feet ached, but she had a day’s pay in her purse and hope in her pocket.

She deposited a to-go cup of coffee from Hank’s and a bag of pantry staples from the market next door on the chipped formica table that came with the rental. Her phone chimed—a text from Eli—and Butter, their rescue mutt, padded in from the back of the house. He yawned, stretched, and moved to sit by the door, his brindled backside sliding a little on the faded welcome mat.

“Your boy’s on his way home from somewhere. He’ll take you for a proper walk later.” Talia jingled his leash. “This is just to pee.”

Butter, so named because his first act as a member of the family had been to eat a full stick of the stuff right off the counter—wrapper and all, tugged in the direction of the sidewalk, but Talia pulled him back toward the door. The wind was up, and the cold had teeth.

Inside, she started the water in the shower, cranking the water temperature up to scald away the smell of diner food. She nearly screamed when she tripped over a baby doll on the floor in front of the toilet. How the hell had that thing gotten in the house? When her stomach returned to it’s usual spot, she bent to retrieve the toy from the floor. Butter had definitely loved on it some. There were distinct canine teeth-marks on the doll’s chubby elbows, and one foot was shiny with dog drool.

She opened the bathroom door to find Butter waiting for her, tongue lolling and tail wagging. “Where’d you find this treasure, hmm?”

Butter sat, watching the doll with adoring eyes while Talia inspected it. Other than the initials G.S.C. Sharpied on the bottom of one foot, it was a small, unremarkable doll. Another text from Eli pinged. Lost track of time. Home soon.

She closed the bathroom door in Butter’s face. “I’ll see you after my shower, tough guy.”

Under the hot water, it was easy to dwell on the preacher’s expression when she shot him down. He defied every image of a cleric she’d ever considered, with his outdoorsy clothes, kind eyes, and scruffy, handsome face. She wondered how the preacher’s wife felt about the sparkle she’d caught in his eye when he first saw her. That admiration had warmed her right through, until he’d revealed that he wanted something from her.

They always wanted something from her.

The dog was nowhere to be seen when Talia got out of the shower, so she wrapped herself in a towel and went to find some clean clothes. The kitchen door slammed, followed by pounding feet and the flush of the toilet. Talia smiled to herself. Eli mostly favored her, long boned and broad featured, but he had his father’s coloring. She pictured his dark hair falling over one eye while he–hopefully–washed his hands, and hoped that coloring was all he’d taken from his paternal gene pool.

She wasn’t prepared for the second door slam.

“Eli?”

When he didn’t answer, she swung though the bathroom to grab the doll, then knocked on his bedroom door. The house still felt like someone else’s, as though she were knocking on a stranger’s door, but they’d done this enough times that she knew they’d settle. A week wasn’t very long to make a house feel like home.

“Yeah.” She could hear the foul humor in his voice.

With a deep breath, she nudged open his door. Her thirteen your old son took one look at her, paused in his doorway in her yoga pants, oversized sweatshirt, and hair towel, holding the baby doll, and said quite succinctly, “Oh, shit.”

To be continued in Part Five.

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 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