Mrs P’s Lullaby
A Christmas Tale
Songs I Like Series
Text copyright © 2017 Mia Soto
All Rights Reserved
Chapter 1 cont: A Partridge in a Pear Tree
Elizabetta was as expected. She had her beauty and serenity. She had her position and wealth. They were to be a grand pair and soon their families’ futures would be forever entwined as his brother had married her sister and now Paolo was to marry Elizabetta. Yet, for all the perfection of their match neither had the slightest inclination to the other. It was duty and nothing else. When the visit came to its end, with its peck to the cheek stolen behind her chaperone’s regard, he nearly sprinted out of her grand home.
None of that mattered. He swam in the anticipation of his visit to the tailor. The beloved shop with its mannequins and clutter of accessories beckoned him. He could feel it, the moment, the smell of her sweet perfume.
What task was she about? The image of a girl with flowing blond hair pulled back haplessly to cascade down her back floated in front of him. No doubt those brown eyes were reading.
What was she reading now? He smiled and patted his coat where the package sat heavy, awkward, reminding him something wonderful was on the horizon. The town bustled with happy people, festive, readying for the Advent. In the middle of the bustle, nestled between other shops was hers or rather her family’s shop. He could see it as he rounded the corner with a skip in his step. His heart started to beat a little faster a flush of energy washed over him.
He slowed as he approached afraid that the moment might not be as grand as the anticipation he’d place upon it. Would his love have faded? Would she not seem so very perfect as his memory held? He peeked into the cluttered window and his heart melted in a slow, happy drip laughing at his needless worry.
She sat bunched upon a stool behind a desk overflowing with clothes and threads and needles. She hugged her knees into her chest, a book open in front of her and she was everything his memory held and some things it had missed. She was his Maria.
She smiled at something or someone across the shop. With her easy manner, she peeled off spectacles and tossed them on top of the book. Spectacles? From when had she taken to wearing those?
He frowned. It bothered him that she wore spectacles and he was unaware of this change in her. As much as he cared not a whit about Elizabetta, Maria, his Maria, he could not know enough mundane and trivial details about this girl’s life. A few soft tendrils fell into her eyes and she swept them away like a nuisance. He wished it were his fingers tucking the silky locks behind her ear.
Once, on a lark, she had threatened to cut her glorious mane of hair. She threw the comment out as haphazardly as the hair she let fall around her. In a fit of possessiveness, with no subtlety at all, he threatened her not to do such a foolish thing.
What an embarrassing foray into the uncharted waters of the irrational and lovelorn it had been. His outburst came just before her realized his love for her. At the time, it was a mere idea bubbling in him every day, more and more. The need he felt for her now would succumb and drown that fledgling want. How little he knew what she would do to upend his life.
Every eye in the tiny shop that day looked on in astonishment at his outburst. Her sister, at the time his lover, attacked him in a jealous fit. As he tried to settle her sister’s ruffled feathers, he caught Maria casting furtive glances, regarding him in her quiet, knowing way from her stool, from behind her book.
It was as if something in that slow, gentle smile had unlocked a puzzle. Their goodbye lingered and curled starting a passion that would not, could not, be quelled. As he twisted one of her locks around his finger he realized how sublime her face was, like a doll’s, perfect.
“Please, don’t touch your hair.” He had begged after her sister disappeared into the back. Dark, almond eyes wide with some unnamed emotion shone up at him.
“I won’t.” She shook her head in agreement.
Her easy acquiescence was strange. She was not one to bow to his wishes or any wishes with ease. She was a prickle of wool, a tempest of defiance, all with the beguiling smile of an angel. She enjoyed poking him with her wit and he was certain she had gained the upper hand that day. That day he became the fool in love. Truth told such weakness lacked the poetic justice the poets liked to romanticize.
He no longer fought the shackles she had put on him that day. In fact, he embraced them. They fueled his urgency, his need to be with her and only her, forever, starting the day before last. As he watched her through the window the source of her amusement came into view.
Mario! What a pest! A genuine nuisance the boy was, always underfoot unable to keep his distance for more than a moment’s time. Always there, with his books, reading his trite poetry. As Paolo glared at his competition, her gaze drifted to the window where he stood.
Her face transformed. Her brown eyes glowed in recognition. Her body relaxed and that smile, that slow knowing smile, filled her full, downturn mouth with a charm that was easily overlooked when compared to obvious beauties like her sister and Elizabetta. She put so much effort into being unremarkable that it was stunning when it became obvious how remarkable she was.
He smiled back with an unsure wave. What was this insecurity, had he lost all his bravado? Show some strength, Paolo! Then she waved back with an equal measure of anticipation and insecurity and he was undone. He nodded to himself. Well done Paolo. Let her see your heart. They like that. She most certainly likes that.
He gave himself a mental pat on the back opening the door to the shop. The bell jingled as he walked into the warm store. She stood to greet him in one fluid swoop. Paulo and Mario scowled a greeting neither very excited for the other’s presence.
“Paolo. What a surprise! We had not expected you for another week.” Her voice was dolce, soft and sweet, something he could listen to the whole day through.
“I rushed to be home.” He was trapped in her gaze floating toward her in a current so strong he could never have broken free of it. He stopped in front of her much closer than necessary. Though she shifted away in her shy manner, her smile told him she like that he was so close that he had rushed to come home.
“You must have missed your family dearly.” Her voice was thick, strange.
“I missed much more than my family.” They reveled in their moment too close together, his fingers touching her hand, the anticipation thick with want.
“Paolo! Paolo you’ve returned!” Mario shouted out and the wishful lovers jumped from their reverie. Their bemused looks at Mario were answered by his smirk and then a screech of joy from deep in the back of the store. Paolo groaned.
“Paolo?” The cry boomed even behind the many layers of doors and space.
Paolo stepped away from the object of his affection with a heavy sigh. He reminded himself the only way he could be near his Maria was to suffer Eloisa. She burst through the door from the back not a moment later.
She was a flourish of fashionable cloth and dark, well coiffed hair. She rouged her cheeks and a dark tint of coal lined her blue eyes. She was a beauty though it ran skin deep.
“Paolo!” She cried again and he cringed. Goodness when had her voice become so intolerable? “You’re home!”
She rushed to him and threw herself into his surprised embrace. He knew that social decorum never stood in the way of Eloisa attaining her goal. He huffed against the force of her body striking his and he tried without success to put her away from him after. “Oh, you’re more handsome than I remembered.”
Her forward way was emasculating and off putting. In the beginning, had he kept the diversion to a modest level, he would have discovered quite fast he was chasing the wrong sister. Instead, he rushed in letting body parts other than his brain do the thinking.
“Eloisa, beautiful as ever.”
He set her away from him with an indifferent pat to her head. She frowned and stepped in closer while giving Maria a stink eye warning. He ignored it all. Eloisa was wise to the truth of his heart’s longing, and he was tired of suffering the Spanish Inquisition regarding her sister every time they were alone. Though being alone with Eloisa was something he actively tried to avoid.
“How goes the wedding plans, Paolo?” Mario smirked from the stool that he had pulled up next to Maria. She was seated again in her comfortable way, hugging her knees to her chest and leaning back into the wall behind the desk. Mario’s arm was resting on a shelf close to Maria’s bottom and their position was expressive if not intimate.
Paolo scowled. “As I’m sure you know. Mother and Elizabetta are hard at work.” He hated the flicker of hurt that crossed Maria’s eyes before she looked down and fiddled with her lacy sleeve.
“Your intended is a beauty. Here’s to the lucky couple.” Mario seemed to be enjoying himself.
Paolo laid contemptuous eyes on the meek boy. He wanted to silence him but there was little he could say. It was not hard to see the longing between Paolo and Maria and Mario took every opportunity to drive as many wedges as possible between them.
“But I’ll always be the most beautiful woman in your life. Right Paolo?” Eloise slipped into Paolo’s side wrapping her arms around him.
Paolo knew her goal was not love. Eloisa’s desires were lust and security. Her father’s shop had provided a mild wealth through hard work and mercantilism. Still it did not elevate her to a marriage more than a local farmer or such. No farmer, or such, could keep Eloisa in the fashion she wished to be kept.
No, she was not above being kept by a man of means. In fact, it was a perfectly acceptable occupation for her or her sister. She was happy to be offered so low an opportunity. She had told him as much many times. Paolo moved out of her embrace toward the heavy velvet curtains that separated the front from the back.
“Signore Rossi,” he called. “Signore!”
“Signore ! You’ve arrived!” A muffled call came through the curtains. A moment later a haphazard man with blond hair and brown eyes popped his head between the curtains. “Come then. Much to be done. Let’s begin. Your mother tells me you will present the ring at Christmas? So little time. Much to do!” He disappeared again like a rabbit before popping back out surprising them all. “Eloisa have you finish?”
The girl pouted. “Papa! Paolo is here.”
“Get to the back and finish your duties. Maria will help me.”
Paolo smothered his smile hoping to hide his exuberance at this turn of events. Eloisa helping her father was how she and Paolo had crossed the barriers of decency so quickly. Maria would behave in no such manner but at least he would have her to himself for a little bit. He followed the tailor into the curtains ignoring the scowls on Eloisa’s and Mario’s faces.
“You leave him alone.” Paolo heard Eloisa hiss. Then he heard Maria yelp.
“You do that again and I will flail you with this book.” Maria’s soft voice was laced in anger.
He smothered his chuckle. Given his experience with both women, Eloisa had the high ground in a physical battle but she wasn’t bright enough to engage mentally with her sister. They were sisters ever at opposite ends.
While the tailor chattered away about this jacket and that pant, Paolo’s thoughts wandered. In the front the doorbell jingled again and a moment later Maria’s call for her father came through the curtains.
“A moment, signore.” The tailor begged and stole away to the front. “Maria, take the chalk and mark the lines. I’ll be there in a moment. Only above the torso.”
“Yes, papa.” There was a lilt to her voice that sent a flush across Paolo. There he was like a school boy excited for her to perform the mundane chore of chalking his jacket for tailoring. He was a lost sap stuck in the need of her.
She peeked through the curtains with uncertainty in her eyes, her teeth tugging at her full bottom lip. The sight was torturous. With more resolve than he ventured either of them felt, she grabbed the stool and walked over to him. “I’m going to chalk the lines for Papa.”
He held out his hand to help her up onto the stool and their fingers lingered together longer than necessary. She touched his shoulders and the silence of the room mingled with expectation in a heady way. In the mirror he faced, she gave him her impish smile. He liked all her smiles, every one that he had seen thus far and any more to come.
“What do you smile at?”
“You.” She never minced her words, a beloved trait.
“Do I amuse you?”
She shrugged concentrating on her task. “You have a nice back, signore.”
Her compliment was unexpected and grabbed a hold of his lungs squeezing every drop of air out. One of her hands was holding his shoulder while the other drew the lines.
“And that’s amusing?”
“A little. You’re quite handsome, you know? And there you are getting married, behaving shamelessly with my wanton sister. You’re also a cad.”
He frowned. That was not what he expected her to say. “I’m not a cad.”
“So you say.” The devil in her smile grew. He knew she was enjoying herself. “I might get married as well. I think. Mario has expressed his wishes to ask me.”
A rage like hot lava flowed through him. Somehow, he gritted out, “has he?”
She shrugged again. “He is waiting. His mother is ill.”
“Oh yes, don’t do anything without mama’s approval.”
“You’re a fine one to talk.” She raised her beautiful brown eyes to glare at him. He glared back wanting to refute her.
“My circumstances are different.” He said. “Obligation is not the same as spinelessness.”
“So you say.” The silence lingered between them again with a heavy perfumed scent. They stole glances at each other in the mirrors situated around them.
“Are you going to marry him?” The question burned in his throat like poison.
Her concentration was intense and she was quiet for so long he was surprised when she finally said, “perhaps.”
She raised woeful eyes into his and his heart caught in his throat. Her suffering was unbearable to him. With a quick turn, he rested his hands on her waist, his long fingers nearly touching around the circumference. They felt at home, where they should be.
So many things he wanted to say, how he needed her, how she haunted his dreams, the hope of what they could be. He could say none of it, choked as he was by duty. He slid his hands up the curve of her body and cupped her face. She twisted into his touch.
With closed eyes she whispered, “I missed you so.”
It was so close, the moment, the taste of his lips on hers, her tongue soft and sweet. Instead they hovered, their lips butterflies away from fulfilling the need. She was no Eloisa, and he knew to win her hand he must play a different game.
He caressed her hair away a happy calm written on her serene face. His lips brushed her cheeks, her temples, her nose before hovering again over her mouth.
“Maria,” he sighed against her lips before letting her go and stepping back.
Her eyes opened disappointed with the outcome. Locked together, still deep in their moment, her father burst through and began puttering about the room unaware of the chemistry exploding around the young lovers.
“Back to the front Maria,” he said pulling a spool of thread to match the jacket. “Please finish the accounting of lace yards. And send Mario home, for the love of St Peters. He’s been here all morning.”
She and Paolo smirked at each other. His fingers lingered in hers prolonging the moment as he helped her jump down before she disappeared through the curtains. He could feel her touch even hours later in his bed as he marveled at the sensation.