Hank’s was never empty unless it was closed, but Reilly rarely saw the afternoon crowd. His arrival was met with pleasant, but frank curiosity. For every nod, every hey Doc, every smile, there was a silent question. What’s he doing here at this time of day? They were—as was he—creatures of habit.
Creatures who sat quietly over coffee, pie, or sandwiches; quietly because they were listening to that voice. He paused to drink in the way she navigated We Three Kings of Orient Are, the kitchen noise her percussion. Surely whoever she was, she couldn’t be unaware of the effect her voice had on the patrons?
“Afternoon, Reilly.” Hank motioned to an empty corner table by the front windows. “I’ve got that table, but your spot’s taken.”
“I’m not here for biscuits. I’m here—“ The singer swooped into the chorus and Reilly’s skin tingled. “Has she been singing all day?
Hank’s smile was wistful, bordering on foolish. “She hummed for a while, but mostly, yeah.”
“Can I go back?”
Hank set down a plated meatloaf sandwich. “I’ll introduce you.”
Reilly followed Hank through the swinging door. She was washing dishes, humming over the steaming water in the vast sink. She was… a knockout.
Hank rapped lightly on the counter. “Talia?”
“Yeah, Hank?” She stopped humming, looked up, and blinked at Reilly. “Oh, hi.”
Her eyes were fiery blue. Reilly rocked back on his heels to take in all six magnificent feet of her. “Hi.”
Hank took over the introductions. “Talia Benson, the Reverend Doctor Reilly Hunt, pastor at the Grove Street Church. Reilly, Talia’s my new cook. Fresh off the bus from… Where’d you say you were from?”
“I didn’t.” Talia’a mouth tipped at the corners—Reilly wouldn’t have called it a smile—and she dried her hands. “Pleasure to meet you, Reverend.”
“I’ve gotta head back out front,” Hank said, returning to the register, where a short queue was forming. “Holler if you need me.”
An awkward silence threatened, so Reilly filled it. “Call me Reilly.”
“Reilly.” Talia took off a worn Boston Red Sox cap. She had carrot-red hair worn in a short, choppy cut that emphasized a long neck and strong cheekbones. . “Is this an official visit to save my soul?”
Reilly heard a wariness in her question, though her tone was light. “Official visit, yes. Your soul is your own. You have a beautiful voice, Ms. Benson.”
“Talia.” She corrected him with a blush. “Thank you. Sometimes I forget people can hear me.”
She laughed at that. Her laugh was like a timpani roll. “You say that now.”
“I can’t imagine saying differently.” Reilly leaned against the door to the walk-in refrigerator. “You’ve got a gift.”
Those blue eyes narrowed fast. “What can I do for you, Reilly?”
Reilly felt that gaze pierce his chest. Here was a woman who didn’t trust flattery. Best to come out with it then. “Sing with our choir. On Christmas Eve. We need a soloist.”
“No.” Her answer was so swift and decisive Reilly wasn’t sure he’d heard her correctly. She seemed to catch herself as well. “I’m sorry. But no. I’m sure you mean it as a compliment, but I can’t.”
“Ms. Benson. Talia.” He’d seen a flash of hurt in her eyes. He’d hurt her somehow. Or bought up an old hurt. The desire to make it right sucker-punched him. He reached out, as if to comfort her, but stopped just in time to save himself more embarrassment.
She snugged the cap back down over her hair and turned back to the sink. “I appreciate you coming by, Reverend, but I should get back to work.”
To be continued in Part Four…