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 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 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 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

Fall in Love with Thornton: NECI, The School I Didn’t Attend

Courtesy of Wikipedia Commons under a CC Attribution Share-Alike 3.0 license.
Courtesy of Wikipedia Commons under a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike 3.0 license.

Dreams are crazy. That’s the point of them, right?

In 2001, I’d been living on my own for a few years, was making okay money, sharing an apartment outside of Boston with a girlfriend, exploring all kinds of silly twenty-something things, and cooking.

Like, cooking. I was falling in love with flavor and texture, with technique and adventure, with ethnic cuisine and rediscovered comfort food.

When I took the job as J’s nanny, I’d envisioned it as a relatively short-term gig. A way to stash some cash for a graduate degree. What I learned in those couple of years was that I didn’t want to do a graduate degree. So then, what?

Culinary school. Personal cheffing? Managing a B&B in Vermont? Maybe even someday running one… My head was full of ideas. Ah, youth. I researched programs and settled on two: the New England Culinary Institute and the Cambridge School of Culinary Arts. One program was conveniently located near my apartment and offered night classes. One was in another state, and would be a lot like going back to college, including dorms. One was under $20,000. One was not. In the end, I chose the one that would allow me to work my way through and keep my cat. I stayed in Cambridge, but a part of me always wonders what would have gone differently had I enrolled in NECI and moved back to Vermont.

As fate would have it, just after enrolling in the local program, I met the man I’d marry three years later.

In the end, what culinary school taught me, more than anything, was how to make a killer Italian meringue buttercream frosting. That, and one other truth: I loathe the kitchen politics and preposterous egotism that rules the restaurant world. Working in a professional kitchen exhausted me on every level.

I still love to cook. I still love flavor and texture, technique and adventure, ethnic cuisine and comfort food. I just prefer to feed my family, and occasionally make really awesome cakes.

Nan and the Damselfly were born from those dreams and experiences, and her NECI education is, in part, an homage to the path I didn’t take, the school I didn’t attend.

Check out Open Studio to read Foolish Things, a short story that introduces you to some of the side-characters from Damselfly Inn when they were in high school, and fall in love with Thornton a month before it’s available to the public.