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 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 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 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