I forgot I changed my title. I kept going back and forth. None of the names, like Lawler, worked that well. I wanted to use the original song title but it seemed too distinctive. I know titles don’t have copyright issues but I didn’t want to be that obvious. So I settled on ‘P’. Anyway, without further ado – some love, some tears, some magical realism and of course HEA.
Mrs P’s Lullaby
A Christmas Tale
Songs I Like Series
Text copyright © 2017 Mia Soto
All Rights Reserved
I am tired of myself tonight. I should like to be somebody else. – Oscar Wilde
Chapter 1: A Partridge in a Pear Tree
December; Italy, Present Day
Scratch it like you mean it baby. Yeah, that’s it right there. Blue eyes the color of island water on a summer day in a face like an angel narrowed to a bitter slit to watch the man on the ladder perform his show. He had stopped his man’s labor to ease an itch, an itch in an unbecoming place. The ladder was rickety and poorly anchored against the large pear tree. The man, not more than forty with dark blond hair dressed in long board shorts and a filthy t-shirt, resumed hacking away on a thick branch with an ancient handsaw.
His foggy breath was labored under the work and he was sweating despite the deep cold. It had been a long standing complaint. Get the branches off the roof already. That dammed pear tree was the bane of her existence not even giving fruit in conciliation. The storm at the beginning of the week had seen the thick branches breaking two upstairs windows resulting in a flooded inside. Only Serge could accomplish so much disaster through the sheer will of laziness.
“You’re gonna fall!” She called pumping water from the sixteenth century pump at the front of the long driveway that stretched from the dusty two-lane road.
“No, I’m not,” came the piqued response.
She knew he was pissed – pissed because his procrastination had laid at his feet a formidable amount of work not a week from Christmas. Pissed because the work was second to the bleak, black hole of a disaster this entire investment had become. Pissed because she’d been right again. Pissed, pissed, pissed. The one good thing about his mood was that it finally matched hers.
She shrugged and like a pack mule carried two heavy buckets of well water into the Italian villa that was her home. Their plumbed water had died about two hours after he carried her over the threshold some eight months ago. They laughed it off eight months ago. It was not funny anymore.
She poured the buckets into the deep farmer’s sink and began washing the dishes from breakfast and lunch in the icy cold water too tired to heat it up on the stove. The sounds of cars traveling by from the far away road mingled with the occasional farm animal noise and the laughter of her children playing in the yard.
These were the sounds of Italy and somehow those sounds were different than what might have been heard at home in Mississippi. They echoed in a unique way. They wisped and wound through the walls as if from another time.
A panicked cry, that of Lou her seven year old, jarred her out of her daydreams. “Mommy, Mommy, Daddy fell down!”
“For God’s sake,” she muttered grabbing a towel to dry her hands and starting her trudge toward the front.
“He’s bleeding!” The squeaky voiced call grew more dire.
Her steps took on urgency. He had indeed fallen from the very top rung of the ladder. In the fall he had somehow cut himself on the ancient, rusted handsaw. His right shoulder bled with enthusiasm as he tried to shush his daughter.
“I told you so,” she snapped. She ran back into the house and grabbed another towel. “Why don’t you listen to me when I’m telling you something?”
“Because you’re always telling me something, Natalie.” He muttered with the soft, Russian accent that had faded with time. His family had immigrated with him at the young age of six. That he had an accent at all was the result of growing up speaking Russian at home.
“What did you say?” Did he want a fight? Bring it! But he did not answer. “You’re really bleeding.”
“No shit Sherlock.” It was a euphemism used by their teenage son. From the mouth of a teenager it was infuriating on a brain exploding level. From Serge with his soft Russian accent it was, funny. She could not help her smile. His eyes narrowed. “Don’t laugh at me.”
“You’re funny.” She smiled but the words were not nice, no not nice at all, how she said them.
“Let me up!” He struggled to get away from her.
“Stop, let me clean it.” She pushed him down even though he struggled. Pretty soon it turned into a wrestling match until they were laughing at their angry angst. Dusty from the red clay, she wiped her face and brushed her hair aside.
“Come on. I still need to finish laundry. Let me fix you up.” She stood up whacking the dirt away from her jeans and holding out her hand. He looked up hesitant almost hopeful in the easy laughter they had just shared. “Come on, Serge.”
Her smile was gentle and he took her hand at the same time the stubborn branch finally let go, succumbing to Newton’s law of gravity, falling at a speed equaling the velocity necessary to knock him out cold. He flopped backward and she threw her hands over her head. Back to the doctor.
“Joe – come help me with Daddy!”
December; Italy, 1814
There was a scuttling in the hallway outside of his door. The face blinking away sleep was ruggedly handsome – chiseled and angular, a perfect Roman nose. Whispers back and forth between the voices floated into him as he lounged in his bed. His deep hazel brown eyes lit up mirroring the smile that was playing on his full lips. Long arms pulled into a lazy stretch flexing toned muscles as he folded them behind his head. A sense of calm passed over him as the idea of home built in his blood warming him against the cold draft of frigid winter air stealing through the window.
“Shhh, he’s sleeping.” Mara, his mama bear, hissed.
“But I want to see him!” That whine! How he had missed it. Why wasn’t she with her governess? Had she lost another to her mischievous ways?
“Not now, on you go, young lady. Signorina Lucia awaits you.” Sophia’s groan sounded from the other side and then her childish stomping echoed as she moved away in a fifteen year old pique.
His muted chuckle filled the silence of the room as he shifted his weight onto the cradle of his elbows while long fingers tickled an itch on his nose. It was good to be home. Intelligent eyes scanned the childhood room noting nothing had changed. The pile of trunks and personal belongings thrown around the room signaled its owner had returned. He had traveled all night to get home, excited for the season, excited for so many reasons.
“Let him sleep.” Mara still protected his door like a royal guard so he cleared his throat loud enough that they might hear. In his mind he could almost see her tilt her head to the side wondering if she had heard his stirring, so he coughed to assure her.
Not a moment later a small, heavyset woman walked in followed by a small, thin man. Both were dressed in domestic uniforms and somehow it was easy to tell that one was wife and one was husband and one was in charge and one was not. Mara’s face beamed in proud admiration at the young man beaming back at her from his bed.
“Mara, amore mio.” Paolo bounced to his impressive height, towering over the small couple. He pulled a shirt over broad shoulders and a back carved with muscles.
“Oh, look at my boy. Isn’t he a fine sight?” Mara asked her silent husband who was shuffling about his duties. “Well, isn’t he?”
The older man did not bother to look up as he agreed. The old man’s voice was heavy with pride. “He is indeed – a fine sight for my old eyes.”
“Ahh Giovanni, always the sentimental. It is good to be home.” Then Paolo swept the stout maid into a strong embrace lifting her a foot off the ground.
“Put me down, signore!” She cried with a flushed face. “Put me down and stop your foolishness.” She smothered a giggle when he did just what she asked but not before placing a loud kiss on her head.
“Mama mia.” Paolo used his favorite endearment for the motherly woman.
“I’ll get your bath. Your mother will be waiting for you. And your father as well.”
She looked away shuffling with linens and things ignoring the hard look that set on his face. If there were a way to avoid those meetings he would do so with joy. He felt her pet his hand in her sweet encouraging way. “Have faith my boy. It will all be well in the end.”
Mara and Giovanni toiled and tutted leaving soon to gather those things needed for his bath. In the quiet aftermath of their leaving, Paolo opened his leather saddle bag. It was filled with his personals but on top sat a remarkable package. It was rectangular and wrapped in a beautiful lacy cloth.
Unable to contain his excitement he opened it to take one more peek at the three leatherback books, the feel of the leather rich and supple. Inside on the top volume was inscribed: Godspeed to my fellow intellect – Jane. It was a gift for the most special thing in his life. The thought of giving it to her brought such a sense of joy to him that his chest threatened to burst. He had never been a man in touch with his softer side. That was his brother. Something about the person he intended this book for brought out this other side of him, this better side of him.
Dressed, ready to bid his parents a fond hello, he set out. On most occasions his mother was the lesser of the evils and so he sought her out first. The familiar chatter of their home warmed him on his way to his mother’s morning room. It was a large villa filled in the Roman way and suited to their station in life. The opulent halls wandered with gold and gilt and lead him through the nostalgic route to her quiet space filled with a hazy morning sun.
He knocked and heard the soft call drift through the heavy wood paneled door. He stepped into a familiar scene. Like a little bird, she sat in the rococo of the room all soft and feminine.
“Madre.” He approached her with a wicked smile and wide arms intending a hearty embrace much like he had given Mara. As expected, she held up an elegant hand stopping his warm greeting and offering her cheek instead. Like the dutiful son he kissed it. “You look well.”
“As do you, figlio.” Her voice was as soft as the decor of the room, as soft as her gauzy morning attire. She was not one to raise her voice, not in ire, not in joy. Serene and composed she was everything a well-bred Italian princess should be.
Sophia sat across from his mother at their breakfast table. Sophia was the antithesis to any such restraint. Though her breeding was as impeccable as her mother’s she lacked the will to live with the cold, uninterested aplomb of their mother.
Her grin was wide and welcoming to her long gone brother. She was a pretty girl with a boisterous laugh. Without care she bounded to her feet flinging herself into his arms. “Paolo, my brother, has returned! What fun we will have again!”
“Sophia! Such outbursts!” Their mother admonished sipping her tea with sharp eyes. The exuberance of the youth withered under her mother’s dispassionate stare. The older woman sighed and then shifted her attention to her son.
“How were your travels, Paolo?” She sipped again as her blank gaze drifted to the open view of the wintry scene beyond window. The barren gardens of winter matched her cold disposition.
“Long and tiring,” Paolo assured his mother plopping down on the sofa next to Sophia who clasped his hand in an affectionate gesture.
“Hmm, so I would imagine.” Her words were bored, uninterested in the chit chat she had begun. “Figlio, Elizabetta expects you this morning.”
“Yes of course she does.” The sneer in his voice was unavoidable though he regretted it immediately.
The woman returned her attention to the room with new vigor. “She is your betrothed and is most ready to welcome your return.”
“Might I have my breakfast first,” he asked with disgust. “She can wait at least that long?”
“Certainly, Figlio. Let no haste pressure you. Given her treatment thus far why not a moment or two more?” She remarked on his scowl. “Yes, frown at your mother. No notes of love, trinkets, nothing, for a year! She is your intended. Your dismissal of her has been intolerable. In your absence, I have spent my weeks with her insufferable mother soothing her nerves, assuring her you are the most upright of gentlemen. You bring shame to your family name.”
He grabbed a warm biscuit draping it in honey and filling his mouth before giving his muffled reply. “Believe me I know.”
She was so aloof watching life through the prism of a looking glass. His mother was a beauty – tiny, blond hair, dark eyes. With a secret smile, he thought on the irony of how much that type of beauty appealed to him. In fact, he was certain no other type could ever impress upon him so much as those features.
“Be a good son. Go see Elizabetta in good faith. Pet her. She will make a beautiful, accomplished wife. What more could you want?” Paolo opened his mouth to speak but she waved his retort away with a long elegant hand. “Signore Rossi expects you as well. There is no time to spare in completing your wardrobe.”
The passing mention of that little shop brought a quick flash of joy to Paolo. His face brightened. “That will be my pleasure.”
Icy daggers shot from her beautiful eyes. “No mischief. The rumors swirl even still. Your father is most displeased. Find a way to contain yourself.”
“Oh with certainty, madre. I will be on my best behavior.”
“Figlio, please.” She sounded almost weary. “Play later. After your heir. With our blessings.”
“I’d rather play now.” He sat back with a cup of coffee steaming up around his face. “I can do both.”
She sighed and stood. “Be sure to carry my note to Elizabetta’s family and encourage my invitation of her family to dinner.”
“With pleasure, madre. Though Mara informed me they are set to attend dinner already. It seems an empty gesture to belabor the point.” He smirked.
Exasperation was dripping from his mother as she looked down at him. “Perhaps the invitation should also come from Elizabetta’s intended. At the very least a token of the mildest interest he might have in her.”
“The very mildest,” Paolo muttered into his cup.
She bristled losing her composure for a brief flash. “Love is for fools and for the poor, Paolo. You are neither.”
He pressed his lips and stared out of the frosted windows. “It is not love.”
“Hail Mary!” She signed the cross in genuine relief. “Have your fun, figlio, after. Your wife will appreciate it even.”
He sipped his coffee wishing the conversation might end. With a muted glare, she left him. Sophia slid closer and rested her head on his shoulder.
“It is never the same when you’re not here,” she sighed and he kissed her head of brown curls. “She’s very excited for you to come home. I saw her last Sabbath and told her you should return soon.” He smiled. Sophia was a trusted ally.
“How is she?” He asked. Sophia was a spring of details from the most exquisite to the most inane. The siblings chatted until a large man burst into the room in a wave of anger and fury.
Paolo settled a tolerant smile on his lips as he acknowledged the man. “Father.”
“I have awaited you for near an hour.” Alexandro blustered. “Sophia, go!” She scrambled away like a scared cat.
“I’m having breakfast.” Paolo was indifferent to his father’s brusque manner. “Patience, I believe you told me, is a virtue.”
“You, you, you!” Allesandro’s face flushed beet red.
“Well now you’re here.” Paolo leaned back with an apathetic smirk. “Say your peace.”
In a furious huff and with a violent kick, his father sent a small ornamental table flying across the room. “You head my words.” The man boomed. “Get to your betrothed. Kiss her hand. And speak of love. Whether real or imaginary. And make certain she has no doubt of your regard and devotion. Then return to me. There is much to resolve regarding your proposal and the estate. Your days of schooling and lazing about are over. Am I understood?” The echo of his booming voice hung in the air.
“Perfectly,” Paolo gritted.
The lack of aggression in the reply took the wind out of the older man’s sails. “And stay away from that whore.”
With that Paolo stood to his full height which was many inches above his father. He looked down with a sinister glare. “You have yours, padre. Why should you have all the fun?”
“Once married with an heir have all you want. Line them up down the road. But not now! She is a distraction.”
“With regard to her, your wishes are unimportant.”
They glared across the room at each other before his father spoke. “Your mother informs me you will see Signore Rossi this morn.”
“You spoke? To madre? How very sentimental.” He laughed at his father’s rising anger. It was a well-placed barb. His father and mother spoke through servants and by no other means at all. They must truly be in uproar to be conversing with each other directly.
“Attend your matters at her father’s shop. And leave her in your past or I shall make certain she can’t stir any more trouble.” There was panic in Allesandro’s voice that brought a cold smile to his son’s face.
“Threatening the fairer sex are we now padre?” The men glared at each other. It had been a tumultuous affair, tumultuous enough for his father to send him away for yet another year of schooling in order to end it.
“Paolo!” The man roared.
Paolo grunted a laugh. “She’s rarely there. A lazy thing. It’s her bookish sister who minds the shop while he works.” Paolo smirked when relief crossed his father’s face. “She’s not such a distraction anymore.”
“Here now!” A rickety voice came from the doorway. There stood an old, old man dressed in fancy finery and leaning on his ornate cane.
“Nonno!” Paolo threw open his arms bringing the man into a gentle embrace.
“What are you blustering about now Allessandro?” Appearances were deceptive. Though fragile, nonno was not to be trifled with.
“Nothing of your concern, padre,” Allessandro said.
“Hmm, I shall be the decider of that, son.” The old man sat taking a cup of coffee. He surveyed the scene of father and son with a knowing eye. Then he nodded and sipped his brew.
“Paolo, it is good to see your face. On you go,” he waved his grandson away. Paolo turned to leave as did his father but Nonno called out. “Stay a moment, Allessandro, with your dear old papa.”
Paolo could scarce contain his smile at the grimace and reluctant plod of his father’s steps back into the room.