It’s that time of year when teary-eyed parents cram into school halls to watch the annual nativity play, and the Ferranti family is no different.
The family-kitchen-living space at The Dower House smells of ginger chocolate chip cookies, freshly brewed coffee… and glue.
Bronte, Rosie, Janine and Emily’s mum, Grace are working hard with scissors, yards of thin rope and crisp white cotton sheets—donated for the cause by Nico’s housekeeping staff at Ludlow Hall.
Red curls pinned in a top knot on top of her head, dressed in black leggings and an old cotton shirt of her husband’s to protect her clothes, Grace focuses on the job at hand. “It’s really kind of the hotel to give us old sheets to make sheep and shepherd outfits,” she mutters as she pins two oblong pieces of cotton together to make a simple tunic, leaving space for a child’s head and arms. She turns to a Janine who’s doing the same thing with her fabric. “And thanks for this template. What a genius idea. How do you think up this stuff?”
Rosie, wearing thermal leggings and one of Alexander’s old short sleeved T-shirts over her sweater, lifts two big plastic bags filled with cotton wool balls onto a huge folding table erected next to closed bifolding doors showcasing the stunning winter garden. Another smaller table set at angle holds a large pot of glue with brushes. She sets out a stitched and hemmed tunic on the table, smoothes the fabric and places a pre-made template filled with accurately spaced circles on top, and marks a dot in the middle of each circle. Then she takes a cotton wool ball, dabs glue on it and presses it to the fabric and repeats the process on the front and the back of the tunic. Voila, the beginning of a sheep. “Because she’s a hugely talented creative. Have you seen Boo’s new bedroom? It is beyond amaze balls. The child sleeps and plays in her own magical world with fairies and twinkling stars watching over her. I love the way the white fluffy cat peeks out from behind the gingerbread house.”
Wearing painter’s white cotton coveralls over her jeans and T-shirt, Janine grins. “Boo makes Josh kiss the cat before bedtime. He’s besotted with her. How are you getting on with the glue and cotton balls?”
“Aw, I love Josh. I’m doing good.” Rosie eyes a Bronte who’s busy fingers fiddle with black and white shaped ears from thick felt as she machine stitches them together. Then she pins the ears to a thick black velvet headband, glues a flat piece felt to the top of the hair band and pops the headband over to Rosie’s table for her to glue more cotton balls to the white felt on the top. Voila—sheeple. “Wow, the ears looking amazing. Wait ’till the kids see these outfits. They’re gonna go nuts.”
Bronte smiles as she returned to her kitchen table to stitch together another set of ears. “All this is a far cry from our nativity play. Do you remember what our nativity was like when we were five?” she asks Rosie.
“Sure do. I was a cardboard tree with green arms and gloves as branches and on my head I wore a twig hat made by my mother. It itched like hell. My role certainly lacked glamour,” Rosie says, deadpan. When the girls laugh, she shakes her head. “My mother was gutted because she wanted me to be an angel—as if that was ever gonna happen. With Mrs. Mottershead as my teacher she’s lucky she didn’t make me one of the stars in the sky. Rosie sends Bronte a side-eye. “Of course, Ms Butter-wouldn’t-melt-over-there was an angel.”
Bronte sends her wide eyes and a big toothy smile. “I’ll have you know that, unlike you, I was a perfect angel.”
Rosie nods, takes care to place another cotton ball on the correct spot on the tunic. “It was the cardboard wings, the steel coat hanger wrapped in silver tinsel as the halo and all that long blonde hair. Then the awesome white cotton nightgown with the high frilly cuffs and collar your mother bought in the children’s department in Harrods. I remember being sick with jealousy over that nightie.”
Bronte just laughs. “Not for long, my mum had bought you one as part of your Christmas gift. You cried happy tears and Alexander gave you a cuddle.”
Rosie nods as she makes short work of another tunic. “Yep. I knew even then that I adored him. Then once I stopped crying, he ate half of my selection box of chocolates as payment. Even then he had a business brain. Bastard.”
Grace does a quick recce around the room to check for her daughter and her best friend. “Little eyes and ears, Rosemary, with big mouths.”
“More like little monsters,” Rosie says severely. “They’re upstairs watching Kung Fu Panda in Tonio’s room. That boy will keep them on the straight and narrow. I love Tonio.”
“Yup,” Janine says as she pins more templates to white and black thick felt and cuts out another dozen sheep ears. “He’s settled in well. You and Nico are doing a great job with him, Bronte. He’s so happy.”
Bronte nods as her foot presses down on the sewing machine pedal on the floor beneath the table. “He’s had his moments. I try to have one-on-one time with him a couple of times a week. He helps me with the grocery shopping. As a reward, we stop at the coffee shop to have a hot chocolate and a cookie. It’s the perfect time for me to listen to his day.”
“Is he in the nativity?” Janine asks.
“He’s the narrator.”
Grace rolls her eyes. “A narrator of the nativity with a wonderful Italian accent. All the girls will be swooning. My Emily is besotted with Tonio, and he’s so patient with her, poor boy.”
Rosie shakes her head while Janine laughs. “I don’t know about that. Emily’s not stupid, even if she is a sheep in the play.”
“She’s shy and perfectly content to be one of many,” Emily’s mum says. “She hates the spotlight.”
“Can’t say the same about Sophia,” Bronte mutters beneath her breath.
“What’s up with my favorite niece?” Rosie asks, picking up her friend’s dark tone.
“She wants to be Mary. But, Miss Brown has made her the innkeeper’s wife. In response, my daughter told her teacher she’s a feminist and isn’t ever gonna marry, so it will look bad for the innkeeper to live in sin with a woman. What would God think?” Bronte says. While her friends laugh out loud, she moves into the kitchen to prepare another pot of coffee and set a plate of her homemade ginger and dark chocolate cookies on a plate. “Miss Brown told her that since she’s the boss, she decides who will be Mary, end of.”
Swiping tears from her cheeks, Rosie takes a deep breath. “And what did my favorite niece have to say to that?”
Filling up their coffee mugs on the countertop, her friends gather around and grab a cookie, Bronte shakes her head. “She thought about it for a while, then nodded, and said, ‘Okay. But, since it is MY inn and my papa works in the hospitality industry, I’ll have a room cancellation so the baby Jesus in MY nativity won’t be born in a smelly old barn with sheep and cows and poop.”
Janine laughs so hard she chokes on her cookie. “Omigod. She’s re-writing the Christmas story? What did the wonderful Miss Brown say to that?”
“That maybe the world could learn a lesson from the innkeeper’s wife’s kindness to Mary and Joseph.”
Rosie nibbles on a cookie. “Wish we’d had a teacher like Miss Brown. I bet she’s thrilled about the way we’re all mucking in to make costumes. In our day it was headgear made of tea cloths.”
Bronte nods. “I think it helps to take a little of the pressure off Miss Brown at this time of year. The way she keeps on smiling through the kid’s fevered excitement about the visit from Santa, the woman deserves a medal. She’s organizing each child in her class to bring in a wrapped gift for kids who are in hospital over the holiday, and for children less fortunate.”
Rosie’s black brows wing into her hair. “Ah, that’s what Alexander and Nico were on about. I know the Ludlow Hall team organize food hampers for the elderly living alone in town. But, I heard them making plans to give kids who have nothing a box of goodies, too.”
Looking thoughtful, Janine bit into a cookie. “That’s what the spirit of Christmas is all about. Remember the time I dropped the baby Jesus and the entire audience gasped in shock? Good job he was a doll.”
Rosie grins. “I remember that. I also remember you ran off the stage hand-in-hand with the donkey.”
“The following year they had a real donkey and it peed all over the manger and fused the lights because there wasn’t enough straw to cover the wooden stage,” Bronte says, her emerald eyes all dreamy with happy memories. “Those were the days.”
Grace checks the watch on her wrist. “Better get back to it. I’ve counted eight black long sleeved roll neck T-shirts and eight pairs of black tights. The sheep will wear their black plimsolls. I think we need black woollen mittens, too.”
Bronte makes a note of the mittens, fires up her laptop and goes online. “Eight pairs? Maybe we’d better make it ten, just in case they lose a glove.”
By the time they were all done and dusted and cleaned and tidied the room, eight perfect sheep costumes were complete and boxed ready to be taken to school the next day.
By the time Nico strolls through the door, the kitchen smells of a Ferranti family favorite, home-baked Italian meatballs and pasta. All bathed and ready for bed in her onesie, Baby Eve sits in her high chair. When she sees her papa, she beams a toothy smile and bangs her plastic sip cup on her plastic tray. As he carefully rolls his silk tie, tucks it in a pocket before tossing the jacket over the back of the couch, Nico grabs his baby girl for a hug and a kiss on her hot cheek. By the time the baby nuzzles her face into his neck, Bronte grins and lifts her mouth for his kiss.
“Had a good day?” he asks the love of his life.
“Yep. We had a team effort on the sheep costumes. They look fabulous, Nico, I hope you’re able to make the play.”
He pops Eve into her high chair, offers her a squeaky toy which is accepted with a beaming smile. Then Nico heads to the fridge for a bottle of white pinot. He grabs a couple of glasses from a glass cabinet. “Si. Wouldn’t miss it. Alexander’s making time for it, too.”
When Bronte’s eyes go all shiny, he sets down his glass and moves in to hold her. “Hey, what is this?”
She sniffs and wraps her arms around his waist and inhales the scent of her man. “It’s nothing really. It’s just they’re all growing up so fast. I wish my parents had lived to see our family.”
“It’s Christmas. It always makes us sad to think of those we have lost. I know you find this time of year hard at times.”
Bronte shifts to look up into his amazing face. “He never speaks of her. Do you think Tonio misses his mother?”
He frowns. “From what the good father has told me, she sent the boy money and gifts, but she didn’t visit him.”
“I don’t know how a woman could do such a thing to her child, Nico,” Bronte whispers.
He rests his cheek on her hair. “She is dead, cara mia. Tonio is happy here, with us.”
“I’ve been thinking we should invite Gregorio Ancelotti to spend Christmas with us. Tonio is his only living relative. They need to bond.”
When the rumble of his laugh echoes against her cheek, she looks up. “What’s so funny?”
“I spoke to Gregorio today and invited him myself. However, he wants to stay at Ludlow Hall.”
Anxious emerald eyes stare into his. “But, we have plenty of room.”
“Si. However, we must respect his wishes. Perhaps the man needs his space. Let us take little steps, cara mia.”
“Okay.” She reaches up a hand to run her fingers through his hair, happy to mess up his sartorial perfection. “How come you can read my mind?”
Before Nico answers his mouth captures hers in a hungry kiss that makes her toes curl inside her thick socks. When he rests his forehead on hers, Nico’s marvelous mouth curves. “What do you expect, I am Italian!
Ooooh, a visit by Gregorio, sounds like a story to me.