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…