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.
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…