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…