LOVE CONQUERS-CHAPTER 8

It took her a few minutes to get back into her cool mode but Iris was ready; calm and composed by the time Lorenzo came to escort her down. She felt quite mollified when Lorenzo gushed at her appearance. She remembered belatedly that Alessandro had not even looked at her properly or said anything about her appearance.  She got angry with herself again and gave herself a lecture, “Stop it Iris! Don’t waste your time thinking about Alessandro Bertoni; the arrogant ass. Who cares what he thought of your appearance! You didn’t dress for him Iris, you dressed for Lorenzo. Go ahead and enjoy the party and if you see him, ignore him.”

And she almost followed her advice to the T. She complimented Lorenzo on his appearance and manners and stayed close to him all evening. She danced with him and other colleagues that she was friendly with but kept herself away from the part of the room where Alessandro kept his counsel. She had seen him when she had come down, with Vittoria draped all over him, glowered at his back and wished him to hell.

After that, she tried to ignore her senses that made her aware of his presence. She knew that he was on the other side of the room from where she was; talking to another blonde; a dumb head in her opinion from her staff. The blonde seemed to simper when he smiled and showed his predator like teeth.

Iris shivered as she imagined his teeth nipping her. To get rid of the feeling, she smiled brilliantly at the colleague she was dancing with so that the guy looked a bit dazed and offered her a glass of champagne. Iris accepted it with alacrity. Anything to keep her thoughts away from that odious Alessandro. She gulped down two glasses before she knew it and was still held in the arms of her colleague who’s name she’d forgotten. After that, it was easy to keep up the pretense of pleasure as she drank champagne and danced. She felt a little better now and smiled freely at the other guy who came up to ask her for a dance. She nodded enthusiastically and was about to put her hand in his when Alessandro’s drawl came from behind her, “I think she owes me this dance. If I may?”

He looked pointedly at the guy who held Iris’s hand and the guy immediately let go, looking at Alessandro’s mossy green eyes, sparkling with anger. Without much ado, he caught hold of Iris in his arms. He was unsurprised when she allowed him to hold her and felt instantly at peace.

Alessandro had danced with all the other ladies of the staff except- Iris. He had time and again this evening swiveled back to look at her and wondered at her impact on him. Perversely that was also one of the reasons why he had kept his distance. Iris snagged at not only his senses but also his feelings. He had noted the panic on her face and then also seen the panic subsiding when she started drinking without thinking. He had seen the worried look on Lorenzo’s face and her brilliant- over bright smile and still he had stayed away from her.

He had let Vittoria snuggle close to him; knowing he felt nothing for her. Vittoria knew the score and was no problem at all. Iris on the other hand, was not even ready to play. Maybe that was the challenge- the part of hunting the prey that lured him to her. He had told himself that until he had seen the leery look in the eyes of the last man who had asked her to dance and seen her oblivious to it.

Desire was one thing but to feel possessive about her was quite another. Desire he could handle, feelings he couldn’t. This was not a familiar response for the ruthless Alessandro, he acknowledged it reluctantly to himself. He had tried to tell himself that she was just another woman; an employee of his organization. He had his fun from time to time, sure he did- when women like Vittoria Terzo were willing and knew the score.

With Iris, he simply couldn’t control his want to have her all to himself. He cursed his cousins who had asked him to attend this weekend. According to them, it was a good time to mingle with the staff since the time for review and appraisals would soon begin. He had seen the logical side of the argument and come here.

The past few months after Iris had been hired by his organization, he had been so busy with his life and family matters that he had quite forgotten about her and the impact their meetings had had on him. It was only now that he remembered how it had kept him awake for many days before he had decided to recommend her to the human resource and hire her to come to Italy. He had kept tabs on her for some time– until the time he found his sons becoming a constant source of worry for the nannies and his mother. His mother had started telling him off recently and even gone as far as to say that he didn’t really care for his sons since he didn’t spend much time with them. These past few weeks had been hell what with constant arguments with his family who wanted him to choose a bride and get the boys a mother. He had quite forgotten all about Iris—until this weekend when he met her again.

This evening he had followed Iris with his eyes and realized that he had to come up with a plan to satiate his want. She had been ignoring him and avoiding the side of the room where he stood. He had felt fierce anger when she had let go of Lorenzo and started dancing with other men. He didn’t want her to dance with anyone else, didn’t like anyone else touching her.

Iris felt a jolt of awareness going through her, piercing the happy fog that a few drinks had spread on her. He looked up at him and into his eyes and her heart lurched. His hot glance was stuck to her mouth; plundering her. It so much felt as if he’s simply seized her lips with his own; possessing her by the sheer force of his magnetism. She looked away, aware of her shallow breaths and his deep ones.

“Look at me Iris.”

His soft command made her look up and Iris almost forgot to breathe. Time seemed to stand still as he took in his fill of her and she of him as they moved gracefully on the dance floor, oblivious to all others. He looked at her eyes that were brown pools of want; she was at this moment incapable of hiding it; the same golden brown reflected by her long, shiny hair, creating a stunning contrast to the creaminess of her skin. He could sit for hours and count the tiny freckles by the side of her nose that added freshness to her beauty instead of marring it. Her body was amazing, lushly curved where it should be; slender but full breasted with hips one would  want to hold on to. She had kept him at bay from the day they’d met and given him a taste of her sharp tongue; something he found refreshing. She was not just another attractive face; she was devastating and she was meant for him. This thought rang as clear as bell in Alessandro’s head as he moved her closer towards the exit from the party hall.

Iris had put her head on his chest and closed her eyes, listening to the beating of his heart. It was as if it was a call of drums; asking her to join him in a dance so ancient yet new.

“Are you alright?”

Iris opened her eyes and found herself out of the party hall, away from the crowd, with Alessandro standing disconcertingly close to her, still holding her in his arms. She gave him a light push and he let her go. She was flustered and breathless but she tried to bring her voice under control as she said, “Fine. I’m fine. I just want to go up to my room and sleep this madness off.” She moved away from him a bit. Alessandro frowned, irritated by her gesture of flight. He retained the distance in his voice too as he said, “You were becoming drunk and I had to move you away from the guys before you did any real harm to your—“

“I can take care of myself, thank you very much!!” Burst out Iris, her eyes blazing at him. “I don’t need your help, you –“

“Careful Iris. Be careful with what you say to me, my sweet or you may learn to regret it later.” Alessandro’s soft growl warned her.

Iris, still under the bravado of alcohol, looked at him airily, “Don’t bother with the threats Alessandro. I want to go up to my room and that is where I will go. Away from you. So there. Good night.”

She started to walk away from him, her steps faltering when she realized that she had indeed drunk more than she should have. Her legs were shaky. She closed her eyes and felt dizzy for a second. Instantly, she became aware of the warmth behind her and knew that Alessandro stood there, holding her steady by the waist. He cursed in Italian and said, “You’re in no fit state to walk by yourself. I wonder how you stood up between all those men and danced with them!”

“You keep away from me. I can take care of myself- always have. Okay?” Iris snapped at him, trying to move away but his hold on her waist was firm.

“I will take you up to your room. You can sleep it off and thank me tomorrow for saving you from disgracing yourself.” Alessandro picked her up as if she was light weight and dainty and started walking towards the stairs, away from the party hall and towards her room.

“I disgrace myself? Impossible. Don’t you know what they call me? I can’t be disgraced, you big man you!”

Alessandro looked down at her and grinned, “I know what they call you. You’d have ruined your reputation of ice maiden had you stayed any longer, mia bella. And yes, I am a big man but you’re no dainty flower either, are you? We make a good pair.”

“Over my dead body!” Iris flailed her hand in the air in defiance, “I’d rather fight you to death than be anywhere near you Al-saandro. I know men like you. Ruthless and heartless.”

“Indeed.” Alessandro murmured as he opened the tiny purse that hung around her waist and took out the key. He inserted the key in the lock and opened the door, holding her in his arms still. She now clutched at his shirt and said, “Put me down. I can walk.”

“No way am I putting you down to fall on your face, mia bella.”

Alessandro held her tighter and she involuntarily snuggled to get closer but said, “I’m not your beautiful. You didn’t say anything about my appearance this evening before. I don’t care either. I will close my eyes and open them and this dream will be over.”

Her voice was wistful when she said it. Alessandro gently laid her on the bed and looked at her, his voice gentle, “You are a beautiful creamy English rose among fiery Italians. Sleep it off princess. I’ll see you tomorrow- when you’re sane again and ready to listen.”

Iris barely could keep her eyes open but she couldn’t resist asking, “Listen to what?”

“On how I’d make you my bella, Iris. Good night.” Alessandro said to the softly snoring, already asleep Iris. He kissed her on her soft mouth slowly and smiled. His smile, if he had known it was full of tenderness as he covered her up and left her room. He had a plan.

LOVE CONQUERS-Chapter 7

Chapter-7

Iris had taken great pains with her appearance for this evening- mocked Vittoria Terzo, her room-mate for this weekend. Iris had looked at her coolly and taken her comments on face, without rising to it. She had simply shrugged her comments off and let her be. Lorenzo had already warned her that Vittoria; a former model, was bitchy. Iris knew she didn’t care for her opinion anyway and so nothing Vittoria said affected her. Vittoria was in the bathroom now, getting ready.

Outwardly looking composed, Iris was well aware that she was a  bundle of nerves. She had tried to fake a headache when Lorenzo had visited her earlier and asked if she could perhaps stay in the room this evening. Lorenzo had given her two pills and asked her to rest but also quietly suggested that it may be a bad idea to stay in. It may put others in mind that she was not just reserved but also snooty and not a team player. In the end, Iris had conceded that he was right and given herself up to the evening of razzle dazzle.

She sat by the bedside window and willed her heart to calm down. It had been galloping since afternoon, when she left Alessandro sitting by his table, sipping wine. She had paced around entire afternoon in her room, agitated by her own self and her own tumultuous feelings. She remembered how tempted she’d been when he’d asked her if she’d like to visit the private wing of Bertoni villa.  In an instant, her mind had conjured up an image of them in his bedroom, entwined together. It had rattled her; these thoughts that had come unbidden into her mind. She had blushed and then horrified at what she’d been thinking, she’d stiffened and refused. She closed her eyes in frustration. What was it about that man that brought her to the brink of madness?

A knock on the door put an end to self-reprimand. Lorenzo was supposed to escort her downstairs to the party. One quick look at the mirror and Iris felt muddled. She was not sure of her appearance. She wondered if she should simply invent a headache and stay put in the room. She looked at herself again and frowned.

Maybe it was all too black. Lorenzo had clucked his tongue and looked appalled as he’d seen the clothes she’d packed for this weekend and finally begged her to wear the last minute packed black tunic with lace on the hem and the sleeves. In Lorenzo’s opinion, it certainly helped in solving this evening party’s “what-to-wear” problem.  After almost twenty minutes of arguing, Iris had finally given in and agreed to wear the black tunic with black tights along with delicate silver heel sandals. Her long golden brown hair had been let loose for tonight instead of being tied in a chignon or worse a ponytail. Iris’s hands itched to put up her hair but aware that she would offend Lorenzo if she did that, she let it be. For accessories, she wore the multi strand pearl necklace; her great grandmother’s legacy.

Another round of knocking had her hastily moving towards the door to open it. She smiled softly as she partly opened the door, expecting Lorenzo and started to say, “Lorenzo, I don’t—“

She stopped abruptly as she gazed into deep pools of green-grey eyes. Her eyes dropped and traveled from downwards to upwards. Expensive tan loafers and cream trousers with cream collared Polo Shirt exposing tanned arms, with one arm accessorized with expensive make of the watch- Rolex if she wasn’t mistaken completed Alessandro’s look of the rich tycoon. A part of her mind registered that he really had a striking face along with those eyes that literally winded her up every time she met him.

She didn’t want to stare really but she just couldn’t stop herself from doing so. It wasn’t just his height that gave him an intimidating and powerful look, it was also his perfect features; well not really perfect since he had a chink on his nose as if he’d broken it in some fight; but the rest of him was actually perfect- his physique exquisitely sculpted with muscles at the right places. Alessandro definitely had an aura of power around him that made him arrogant and incredibly self-assured. A small voice at the back of her mind added, “don’t forget the dynamic sex appeal.” And Iris, annoyed with herself for thinking so much about him, gave herself a mental slap. She met his amused eyes and to her annoyance, blushed.

“You don’t –what?” Alessandro asked her in an amused tone.

“I’m waiting for Lorenzo to come escort me downstairs. I thought it was him.” Iris explained shortly and then a frown marred her features, “I thought you were in the private wing. What brings you here-a wrong turn?”

Alessandro was a little taken aback by pert question; not that it reflected on his face. He took in the delicate lines of her face, the minimal make-up, slightly glossed pink full lips and the mass of long golden brown hair that tumbled down almost to her waist. She was definitely striking, not more than any other woman he knew but still-she made his blood pump a little faster with desire. He decided to ignore her question and wondered what she was wearing. Something black, yes but what? She hadn’t opened the door fully to him yet and he wondered why.

His tone was quietly amused, “You sounded ready with an excuse to skip the party. Are you planning to invent an headache and hide this evening Signorina Florence?”

Iris paled but quickly caught her composure while her mind raged with thoughts. How in the world did he know what she had been thinking? What made him so self-assured that he was right. Time to cut him down to size. She smiled coolly and said, “Now I wonder why you would think that? I have a million acquaintances down there and two good friends. I would not wish to hide from them.  But you didn’t answer my question. What are you doing here?”

Alessandro watched the fleeting emotions on her face, fascinated by the paleness and then the tide of pink that coloured her cheeks. She was unlike women he knew; that was certain. Usually women responded positively, purring at his presence, with smiles and coy signals. Iris indicated no interest in him, except he had caught the darkening of those wood brown eyes when she had been checking him out.  All this pretense of non-interest amused him and yet intrigued him too.

His voice was deep, lazy and confident as he replied enigmatically, “Yes-your question. I know my hotel too well to take a wrong turn.” He looked at the pink disappearing from her face and paleness taking its place and wondered if she was scared of him. She looked at him as if he may leap on her and attack her. Not that he ever thought she’d be scared of him but the thought did make him uneasy. Maybe that was why his tone was abrupt when he said, “Is Vittoria ready? I’ve come to escort her down.”

Shock held her mouth open for two seconds before she stammered, “Vittoria? Sh-she is-“

“I’m here darling, all ready to party! How do I look?” Vittoria’s voice came from behind Iris and Iris turned around. Vittoria truly looked sensational. Iris felt like a pale flower in black in front of her. Vittoria was dressed in blood red short cocktail dress, with indecently low halter neck, that clung to her curves at the right places and ended a little below her hips. Iris felt an instant dislike for the girl in that moment.

She muttered under her breath, “What’s the need to wear anything if that is what she’s going down in.”

Alessandro chuckled silently as he heard her comment. So the so-called ice maiden had cat like claws that unsheathed when she felt bitchy enough. He moved further in to the room, smiling like a predator, pushing the door open so that Iris had no choice but to let it go. Alessandro noted her black attire and approved of it without making it obvious. He brushed past her, rubbing against her arm as he came into the room and Iris was jolted by a powerful current of desire.

She was bewildered by the rush of emotions flowing in her body. She wanted to make mincemeat out of Alessandro and claw the eyes out of Vittoria’s face who looked at him as if she was a cat that had caught the canary. More unlike Canary kind of man was hard of find, thought Iris viciously and then aghast at such thoughts, scrambled away from them.

Alessandro smiled at Vittoria, bending to kiss her on the mouth and Iris’s entire body shook with murderous rage. She turned away from them and got out of the room, her breathing erratic. She didn’t want to witness anything they did. When he’d brushed against her, she’d felt this rush of desire she didn’t want to feel. Even now her skin tingled, her throat was drying up and her breasts felt heavy and hyper-sensitive; her nipples hard and aching.

Iris, quite angry at herself tried to calm herself down by standing by railings of the balcony, taking deep breaths. She was quite unprepared thus, for the onslaught of sensuous attack that came in the form of Alessandro’s husky voice, close to her ear-so close that it seemed he had kissed her ear as he said, “I feel the same in case you’re thinking you’re the only one feeling all this.”

Iris shuddered as he whispered again, “Enjoy the evening. I know I will enjoy watching you, even from afar and keeping my distance.”

She closed her eyes as she felt him move away from her and decided that it was just her imagination. None of this was real; and then opened her eyes again, furious with herself for being so foolish. She heard his chuckle and then heard Vittoria’s voice saying pettishly, “I’m ready now to go down. Let’s go Alessandro.”

She felt them leaving and released her pent up breath. This was going to be a long evening.

LOVE CONQUERS- CHAPTER 6

 

Iris knew there was a reason why she was such good friends with Lorenzo. Had it been anyone else, gossip would have spread like wild fire. Her mind was still digesting the fact that her stranger and her boss were the same hateful man. And the nerve!! Wanting a kiss- as if they were on kissing terms! Iris fumed and thumped the pillows of the bed she had been laying in, for her siesta.

Everyone had been informed during luncheon that evening celebrations would be elaborate and formal since their CEO had decided to join them on this weekend. Not only were they going to have a good time out here but they will also be learning more about the well-known vineyard, not very far from where they were located. It was informed to all staff that the vineyard they would be visiting could well be a definite collaborator with the organization in the near future.

Iris had watched Alessandro as he had roamed about among the staff, greeting everyone suavely and sedately, ignoring those women who were drooling over him and trying to catch his eye. Iris squirmed as she remembered the confrontation that had shaken her in the afternoon.

She had been talking to Luigi about the wine production this year. She had been so engrossed in talking about the figures that will be put on the balance sheet that she had been quite startled when Alessandro had spoken just from behind her, “ Still taking shop I see. I’m glad to see that my staff is so dedicated to its work but this is an off, a weekend holiday-Si, Luigi?”

Luigi Matteo looked startled for a miniscule of a second and then his features were calm as he smiled slightly and put his hand on Iris’s shoulder, “Signore is right Iris. You need to enjoy this weekend. You worked hard enough on the last project and I’m sure you will be brilliant again in the upcoming project but for now, enjoy.”

He smiled at her and hugged her, smiling as he left; leaving her in the company of Alessandro.

“So Signora Florence, how do you like the organization? I of course, have only heard good things about you but I’m sure there must something you wish to say to me about my organization. Have you been happy with us?”

Iris kept her eyes lowered to the glass of white wine she had been holding as she replied, “But of course, I am happy working with Bertoni. Had I not been, I’d have made it a point to talk to Luigi- Signor Matteo about it.”

“I hear my male staff admires you greatly. I trust you know how to keep your professional and personal lives compartmentalized or have you been exploring what makes Italian men tick?”

“Why don’t you ask them? I’m sure they’ll tell you all about it.” Iris replied through clenched teeth, the glass in her hand held tight. She so wished she could throw the wine on his face along with the glass but she knew good manners dictated that she behave properly with the boss of the organization. It wouldn’t do to show the chink in her armor that he seemed to have caused. She smiled coolly, her eyes wide open,” If you will excuse me Signore, I must go and talk to—“

“No.” His one word stopped her in her tracks as she looked up at him questioningly, “Excuse me?”

“I said, no. You must stand here with me and talk to me.”

“And why should I do that?” Iris asked, her temper barely in control now. Any moment now, if she didn’t get away from him, she would explode. As if he was aware of her boiling rage, he took her arm and said, “Not the right place to talk, this one. Let’s go to my table.”

“I –“ Iris started protesting but he was already moving towards his table, placed a little away from the crowd, in a secluded area. She tried to pull her hand away but he only kept on walking, his grip on her arm tightening. Iris was sure she would be looking at a red patch on her arm once he let go. She dug her heels in and stood still as soon as they were a little away from everyone. He stopped and looked at her with impatience.   Iris tried to get herself free by pushing his hand with her other one, her nails digging into his hand, “How dare you—!!! Just because you’re the boss doesn’t mean you can manhandle me like a Neanderthal. Be kind enough to leave my arm right now.”

As her nails dug into his hand, he hissed, “Behave yourself, you hell cat!”

Iris looked at him with cold eyes as he held her tight and dragged her with him.

“I have not even begun behaving like a Neanderthal, I am simply taking you to the place where I know we can talk peacefully. I will let you go once you listen to me. ” Alessandro growled quietly and continued, “I hate ugly scenes and I know you do too. Come quietly with me to my table so that we can talk. After I have said what I want to, you can go and do whatever you wish to do.”

Iris hated him for saying it yet knew to create a scene in front of all would look very bad indeed. She clenched her teeth and said, “Fine. Let go of my arm and I’ll follow you to your damned table.”

When they reached the table, he pulled a chair for her to sit in. Iris sat down, without saying thank you to him.

“Stop looking so grumpy. You’re not  being taken hostage. You will be free to go as soon as you’ve listened to what I have to say.”

Iris glowered at him as he ignored her and ordered red wine for both. When the wine came, she ignored the glass and looked straight at him, “Cut the bullshit Signor Bertoni. I don’t want to sit with you and drink wine. Come to the point.”

“You’re one hell of a woman you know that?” His comment coming with a side grin disarmed her. He looked positively edible when he grinned like that, his eyes more green than grey. Iris unconsciously concluded that when he was angry or icy in behaviour, his eyes were steely grey but when he was amused or happy, they turned more green. Then she lowered her gaze to his mouth, still holding the grin and remembered how it had felt like upon her lips.  Iris sat staring at his mouth until he lifted his eyebrow  in question and she blushed deep pink.

“Charming. It’s been a long time since I saw a woman blush.” He said and then continued, as if he had not made a heart stopping comment.  His grin disappeared and his gaze was undefinable, “I want to know how do you like the International Business Management team and also wish to know your point of view on how the team can be grown.”

“Why me?” Iris asked bluntly, thrown suddenly by the change in his manner and the topic and then cursed her wayward tongue! What way was that to talk to your employer when your career prospects could be affected? His question and her reply could well be the door to her promotion!

“I recommended you for the team because I knew you were capable of handling large projects by yourself as well as with the team.”

Her jaw dropped as the penny fell. “You reco—recommended me? The phone call—“

“It was my secretary that had made the phone to the HR with the recommendation after the results were out. Mind you, I had already checked your credentials, spoken to people, checked out your coaching institution and so on.”

“You had me investigated?!” Iris was enraged.

“But naturally. I wanted to know if you were good for my company or not. I had to get you checked out.”

Iris couldn’t really fault the logic even though it was quite horrifying to know that he had had her checked. What else had he found out about her, she wondered. She didn’t have to wonder for long though.

“You speak excellent English; not like other Italians. You don’t have an accent either.” Iris observed. He bowed his head in agreement.

“Si, this is right. I am a child of two countries. My father is Italian but my mother is from Berkshire, England. I went to Cambridge to study International Business and Finance and of course you know where I qualified for my Masters.”

Iris absorbed this bit of information about him. No wonder he’d looked so much at home in her country.

“How is your family?” He asked quietly, his green grey gaze steady on her. Iris paled and then coloured as she realized what the question implied. Of course, he knew about her relations with her family. She cleared her throat and gave a composed reply, to her own astonishment, “Since you already know it, I don’t think there’s any point in me telling you, is there?”

Alessandro nodded and said, “So no contact what so ever?”

Iris shook her head, tears not far away. Her family had not spoken to her, despite the fact that she had told them she would be moving to Italy along with the job. They had wished her well and informed her that she need not come from so far to attend Marguerite’s wedding. She had been glad though when Marguerite had secretly called her and asked for her forgiveness. Iris had promised to visit her next year and that was that. Marguerite had changed to a loving, gentle creature or so it seemed. Love working its way through her heart, guessed Iris.

She took a deep breath and asked, “Is this what you wanted to talk to me about?”

Alessandro sighed and picked up his glass, “Partly. What are your plans for your future? May I call you Iris?”

Iris looked at him sharply but had to accede that it would be silly for him to call her Miss Florence when he addressed all others of her position with their first names. She nodded and he continued, “Thank you. Tell me about your plans for the future.”

Iris looked away from him and beyond where she could see the grandeur of the private wing’s entrance not far away. She wondered for a second what it would be like from inside and then shrugged the thought away. She needed to focus on her reply. She looked at him, her eyes serious as she said, “I have no immediate plans made for the future Signore. I- I am quite content with my job and I see a good career life ahead of me.”

Alessandro sipped from his glass and asked, “And marriage? Children?”

Somewhere in her mind, Iris remembered her cherished dream of a loving man, a happy family, white picket fence house and laughing children. That dream had fizzled away with her decision of not wanting anything to do with men for a long time. Her mind shied away from the fact that she had had dreams of a man like him being her loving husband and protecting her for all that was harsh in life. To compose herself before answering the question, Iris picked up her glass and sipped from it. Her eyebrows raised in appreciation of the wine.

“This is very good!”

Alessandro’s smile nearly floored her. He said, “I’m glad you like it. It shows good taste. This is Poggio Scalette, the best of red wine. It is collector’s item of course.  The yearly wines are aged for 10 months in aged cemented vats and sold after. This is a 20 year old wine. “

Iris sipped it again in appreciation. She knew the wine connoisseurs would love to taste this one. As if he had read her thoughts, he said, “You are right. Wine connoisseurs love it. The Ruffoli vineyard, not far from here, where it is made invites them along with wine collectors and vendors every year to taste and decide the rating of the wine quality.”

He then told her more about the surrounding area and Chianti classic region in particular. Bertoni had been a name to be reckoned with since very long, he said, when it came to wines, olives and cured meat. Similar name and fame was shared by some vineyards in Greve and Panzano, especially Fattoria di Calcinaia owned by the Capponi Counts.

Iris swirled her wine and sipped it at length. Then she pointed to the decanter. “Why has the wine been poured into the decanter?”

“To aerate it, I have to put it in decanter.” Explained Alessandro, continuing, “ You see, a young, intense, tannic red wine is like a young woman in youth; shy and reserved when you first meet them- young red wines need at least 2 hours to open up their flavor.  Like the woman in full flush of her youth, a mature red wine needs to aerate for an hour to get into its complex red, mature and full-bodied mode. A wine like this that is old must be poured into the decanter to contain the aroma and then drunk immediately thereafter…like joys of life that if you don’t enjoy at the right time, may forever disappear. ”

Alessandro was not sure what was happening but somewhere, explaining Iris about the wines had turned him on. As she sipped the wine, her tongue moved over her lips to savour the taste and he felt his groin tighten.  He wanted to pull her onto his lap and kiss her senseless. He wanted to take her to bed-pure and simple. How could a simple, unconscious action of hers inflame him so much?

He looked at the woman sitting opposite himself and wondered what exactly was it that pulled him to her again and again. He had been told by gossip mongers about her since the last few months; of how she kept men at bay, how cold and icy she could be if one attempted a conversation with her that bordered on personal or any kind of flirtation. The only person whom she spoke with freely, the only male was Lorenzo Fachinelli. Alessandro was well aware of Lorenzo’s preferences and he had no problems with Iris being friends with him.

He remembered how enraged he felt when Luigi had patted her shoulder and put his arms around her to hug her. He had wanted to snatch her away from him and beat Luigi to pulp. It had surprised him; his reaction. But then, he had concluded that he desired her and wanted her for himself; Alessandro Bertoni didn’t share his women. He was not sure how she came into the category of his woman but he knew he wanted her.

He wanted to understand what drove him to her. He normally kept his business and private life very different. With Iris, he wanted to break the barrier. Maybe she intrigued him? What other reason could be there ? From the first moment he had met her, he had felt the exploding chemistry between them. He wanted to explore this attraction that hovered everywhere between them.

It had been years since he had been so aroused by a woman. Of course he had lots of female friends-partners; he was hardly a monk. But his partners came to him with perfect understanding that the affair was just what he said it would be- temporary. Lately with the pressure from his family, he had started thinking of a wife who could handle his family and be a good hostess. For himself, he didn’t expect anything much than good sex from her. He didn’t want any more children; he already had two and they were hell on wheels. Romance and love would be kept aside when he married. He had taken that path before and been bitterly disappointed.

“Would you like to visit the private wing?” he asked suddenly and watched as Iris stiffened.

Damn it, he hadn’t meant to come out so bluntly. However, now that the shot had been fired, he waited to see the result. She looked down, blushing and closed her eyes as if controlling her instant response. Then she looked up again; her face composed.

Her eyes were cold and flat with dislike, her voice just as cold as she said, “No thank you. I wish to return to the others.” She got up gracefully and said, “Have a pleasant afternoon Signore.”

Alessandro looked at her for a second and his own eyes went cold grey that made Iris shiver. He nodded his acceptance of her reply and said, “Until later then, Iris.” As she walked away, he called out, “Iris?”

Iris turned towards him, her gaze puzzled. His voice gave nothing away as he nonchalantly sipped his wine and said, “You may run away but remember this- there is something between us that will not go away and you know it too. You will visit me in the private wing yourself. I will not ask you again- this I promise. With her back ramrod straight, Iris left without giving him any response while Alessandro sat at his table, sipping his wine, his thoughts and feelings hidden under the inscrutable mask of his bland face.

LOVE CONQUERS- CHAPTER 5

Iris went into back into the ladies room once her good sense took hold of her. She was shaking; initially with horror and then with remorse self-disgust. How could she have behaved like a slut- kissing that stranger like that! She’d kissed and been kissed before but never like that. Never had she responded to anyone like that. Damn that man! While she refreshed her smeared lipstick after washing her face thoroughly and gargling with tap water a few times, self-disgust was joined by rage. How dare he kiss her like that- as if she was ripe and his for the taking? What right had he to manhandle her like that!

Conveniently forgetting that she had not objected to the kiss then, in fact participated enthusiastically, Iris concluded in her rage that she was right in her assessment of men- and she was right to want nothing to do with them. All of them, especially that one man were lusty pigs and nothing more!

She got out and went straight to the table where people had got up and gathered to say good bye to each other, until the next morning when they would meet at work. Iris bid a cool good bye to all and walked towards the door with Lorenzo.

“What’s got your feathers frazzled mia bella?” Lorenzo whispered, making Iris grin at him.

“Not frazzled, ruffled and no, my er-feathers are fine and in place. They’re not ruffled at all.”

“Excuse my English Tesoro but I don’t believe you. You looked upset when you came back from powdering your nose. What upset you?”

“Not what-who” muttered Iris inaudibly and then said aloud, “Nothing upset me Lorenzo. I wish to go home and rest now. Would you be kind enough to drop me home before you go back to Pieter’s place?”

“Ma certo! But of course darling.”

They nodded good night to the manager who stood on one side of the desk by the door, talking to the guard and were about to get out when their names were called aloud. They turned back to see a harried Luigi rushing up to them. He turned to Iris as he came to them.

“Iris, there’s something I forgot to tell you. The two directors Felice and Felipe Bertoni are going to come down tomorrow to the office. They wish to discuss the new project we are going to work on and take a look at the marketing presentation we have prepared for the promotion of Bertoni Olives.’

Iris was at once businesslike, “Which one Luigi? “Pieno di olio” or “piene di gusto”?

Luigi beamed at her, “Bravo, you pronounce this like a true Italian! I want the presentation of castavetrano olives “Pieno di Olio” tomorrow and maybe later if they ask for it, cerignolas olive presentation-“Piene de Gusto. Si?”

“Bene. I’ll be there in the office a little early to ensure all is as it should be.” Iris informed her immediate superior and with a smile, wished him good night.

Once Lorenzo had dropped her home, Iris worked until later in the night to ensure that the presentation was flawless. She still needed some improvement with her Italian but as long as they understood her and the presentation, it should be alright. She had been told that the twin brothers were very important for the department that she worked in, as the main owner never looked in much into their side of work. It was left to Felice and Felipe Bertoni to be the marketing face for the organization.

She laid out the clothes for herself in the morning that were brisk and businesslike. Checking herself in the mirror, she couldn’t fault the make-up that made her look mature and cool, her attire being soft pleat black trousers with a Nieman Marcus silk shirt in charcoal grey. Slipping on her soft suede made Gucci heeled pumps in black with thin heels, she felt herself getting into the brisk, businesslike mode. The heels gave her height and made her intimidating as she was already tall. Iris found that height became an added advantage in Florence not only in fashion sense but also when it came to looking businesslike and dynamic.

Felice and Felipe Bertoni were two good looking, young and sharp as a tack brothers, assessed Iris when she met them at the meeting. They were also quite incorrigible with their blunt comments on women in the office. They flirted with all women light heartedly yet they didn’t leave the impression of being heart breakers. Perhaps that was one of the reasons why the brothers were the marketing face of the organization.  They were both highly qualified and during the presentation they had asked questions that were directly related to the ad campaign that would follow with the approval of this presentation and its effects. Iris confidently replied to their questions, saw their admiring glances and hoped they approved her language ability and presentation skills along with her ideas. It seemed as if they did for when she had finished explaining the entire campaign, they sat back and Felipe said, “We’re satisfied. You’ve been a good asset to the company so far Miss Florence.  My brother and I agree that you will make a success of this campaign too like you did with the other two before.”

“Thank you Mr Bertoni, to the both of you. I can only say that I like working here and I find the work challenging, interesting and very much to my liking. The team is also very cooperative.”

“Yes, especially Lorenzo, eh?” Sniggered Felice Bertoni and received a quelling look from his brother.

“Forgive my brother Miss Florence. He is quite prone to being straight forward even when he should not be.” Felipe grinned at her as if he knew she would excuse his brother’s behaviour.

Iris smiled coldly and said coolly, “Of course. I realize he’s perhaps the face that keeps everyone grinning and smiling, eh?”

Felice winced and Felipe laughed, “Too true! Our brother and boss Alessandro says the same thing.”

Iris gasped inwardly as she heard the name and then got annoyed with herself. Just because the stranger had the same name, she had no cause to be so upset. She already knew that that was the name of the CEO so why did she have to think of that stranger? This was Italy and there must be thousands of Alessandro everyone out here, including that guy and this one. She smiled and excused herself as both the brothers looked on admirably. When the door closed, they looked at the closed door and smiled broadly.

Felipe said, “I understand why Alessandro thought she’d be good and why she was chosen. She’s intelligent and smart, she’s dedicated to the work and the team respects her but brother, I swear I could see an axe coming down your neck when you tried to be funny with her. I wonder how her and Alessandro met. He handles everything with the sensitivity of a water buffalo most days. Wonder what caught his fancy–”

Felice said, “Do you think—“

Both the brothers grinned at each other. Felice rubbed his hands together with the glee of a naughty child, ”Diamond cutting diamond would be a sight to watch!” They laughed together and immediately started making plans.

By late afternoon a circular was making rounds in the office informing everyone that it had been decided that the team would go to Chianti region the following weekend to attend the festival on Sunday. Everyone was excited. Iris smiled for it would give her a chance to relax after the rigorous weeks at work while finishing the last project. It was being said that a villa was being booked for the team that had a huge garden, swimming pool and was miles away from the hub-dub of the city.

The week went past quickly and Iris was kept busy at work, with very few thoughts to spare to her stranger. Night time was the one time that brought out his thoughts to the fore, when she was asleep. She had been restless and waking up quite early the last few mornings, with her sheets in a tangle and her body wet with sweat. She wished she’d never met the guy and more so that she’d never kissed him back. Trying to push the incident at the back of her mind only worked when she was busy so Iris exercised a lot more, went for long walks with Lorenzo when he had the time and went to the market to window shop.

It was on Thursday; two days before they were due to leave for Chianti, when she  saw a small boutique at the end of the street while walking away from Piazza della Repubblica. She stopped and went to look inside the window, squinting to catch the glimpse of the dress that had stopped her in her tracks And then she saw it- a fabulous creation in apple green. She went inside and enquired after the evening dress. The saleswoman was quite enthusiastic and encouraged Iris to try it on.

Iris felt the satin slide over her body and her legs as she put it on. It had a broad neck and the A-line sweetheart evening dress was supported by two wide straps; ruched and embellished with tiny diamonds, right under the sides of the under-breasts. The dress was slit from one side right up to mid-thigh. The dress curved Iris’s body at the right places and moulded to it like second skin. It complemented her hair and eyes, making her skin glow. Looking into the mirror, she could see a sexy, attractive woman standing, looking at herself with joy. It was tempting to forget that she wanted to look businesslike and not sultry.

She took off the dress and affirmed that she would buy the dress. Iris normally didn’t go for an evening dress, especially one that would make her look sexy but this one, she couldn’t resist. The saleswoman oohed and aahed over her appearance in the dress and Iris felt quite happy with the way she looked. She had no idea when she’d wear it- maybe never, but she just had to buy it. Maybe she’d wear it when she was alone in her flat, simply to give boost to her confidence.  She paid a small fortune for the dress and the satin silver slippers with pointed heels that accessorized well with the dress and came out of the boutique.

On Friday evening, Iris packed clothes keeping in mind that this was an informal event. Summer was here and the weather had already turned warm. She picked up some short dresses to pack and chose two of them to take away. One was a cotton dress with colours like Maroon, purple, white, blue and pink  in block print and the other was geometrically pattered in greyish blue and black. Together, she packed shorts, two light T-shirts and a silk halter neck top in pink along with black silk trousers. In went her toiletries and make-up kit and the bag was packed and ready.

Saturday morning saw her dressed in jeans and a sunny yellow tank top with a wide brim hat to keep the sun away. She was to meet Lorenzo and a few other colleagues and together they will be driving towards Chianti wine region in the cars Luigi had arranged for them. The drive was not more than an hour or so but the way to their destination was amazingly picturesque. Iris had bought a small rough guide to acquaint herself with the Chianti wine region.

When they reached their destination, Iris could only look around awe struck at the beauty. Their destination was just a small distance away from Greve, in the Chianti Classico region of Tuscany.  The place gave the viewer an extraordinary vantage point. She saw green, red and brown vineyards, terraced olive groves and miles of forest around. The villa standing tall- 16th century building unless Iris was mistaken, was where they were to stay.  This country house that had been turned into a hotel since some years fit in like hand in glove. Looking at it, Iris felt as if the villa had been made centuries ago, keeping in mind the vineyards surrounding it and season’s changing colours.

They looked around inside, while Luigi was talking to the hotel manager and the rest of the staff was moving into their rooms. Iris would share the room with Vittoria Terzo, a colleague of hers. Lorenzo made a face when she told him that. At her puzzled expression, he said, “Darling, you’ll see soon what I mean. She’s a bitch, that one. She thinks she’s the only pretty woman around and the others are in no comparison to her beauty.”

“Does it look like I care Lorenzo? If she thinks that, I can happily let her live with that.” Iris shrugged her shoulders, moving towards a painting and examining it.

Lorenzo’s hands moved up and down as he said, his voice anxious, “Yes but Iris, she is bitchy because she always put all other women down. When you wear something, she comment bad on it and then you go –you know, mad.”

Iris laughed and caught his arm again, “I promise you I will not be upset if she says anything. She is hardly going to be interested in my clothes Lorenzo. Aren’t I called the icy one? Why would she bother?”

“For the fun of it?” Guessed Lorenzo.

Iris walked along to the main door and outside, replying, “Even if she does, I have no cause to rise up to the occasion. I dress simple and am happy with being the way I am. Screw anyone else’s opinions.”

Lorenzo grinned, “Si, that is true.”

“This is Bertoni property?” Iris asked Lorenzo who now had his hand entwined with hers and was looking at the hotel and declaring it to a wonderful structure.  At her question, he cocked one eyebrow up and opened his mouth to say something, but then put his hand over his mouth.

“Oh my! I didn’t think he’d be here!” Lorenzo whispered.

“What? Who?” Iris looked at him questioningly.

Lorenzo couldn’t seem to tear his gaze away from the view that had caught his attention as he answered, “Alessandro Bertoni, mia bella Iris. O mia madre, I am going to melt when I see him! Him in his limited edition car that is as sexy as he is- as sin.”

Iris looked at the car that had stopped and literally drooled over it. It was certainly one of the limited edition cars from Lamborghini. The LP 570-4 SUPER TROFEO STRADALE was a model in the lineup of Gallardo and the design was based on one of the most successful race car from Lamborghini; Blancpain Super Trofeo. There were only 150 cars that had come out of the factory in the colour called Rosso Mars.  The guy who must own it must be stinking rich, thought Iris.

The subject of her thoughts got out of the car; looking taller than ever, wearing a crisp suit in grey with a dotted tie in dark blue and a light blue shirt inside, Ray Ban Predator 8 sunglasses and walked towards the villa—towards them.

Iris nearly shouted a “NO” out aloud, such was her shock. Her mind refused to believe the image in front of her eyes. Her brain was not able to compute the fact that the stranger of her acquaintance was in actual fact, the head of her organization- Alessandro Bertoni. Maybe he was not? She turned to ask Lorenzo, “He is the company CEO?”

“Si-si! Oh look at the way he walks! Mamma mia!” Iris stood there dumbfounded, watching him stride towards them slowly. He was very close now and Iris could feel her heart booming with fear-anxiety-excitement?-she didn’t know. He took off his glasses and pointedly looked at Iris’s hand that was still holding Lorenzo’s hand and then looked up at her. She forced herself to not snatch her hand away from Lorenzo’s and stood tall. His eyes burned holes in her, as if he couldn’t bear her presence around.  He smiled but it held no warmth as he came forward and said, “Buon giorno Lorenzo. Come stai Signor Fachinelli?”

“Io sto bene, mille grazie Signor Bertoni. Benvenuti a Villa Bertoni.” Lorenzo beamed his welcome to Alessandro Bertoni. Alessandro nodded, acknowledging the welcome and his gaze caught Iris.

“Signorina Florence, I have heard all good things about you. Welcome to Villa Bertoni. how do you like it?”

Iris raged inwardly. He was actually behaving as if they’d never met before! Fine, if he wanted to act like a lofty employer, she would be the employee. She didn’t meet his eyes as she replied, “Thank you for the welcome Signor Bertoni. As for the villa, there is nothing to dislike in Villa Bertoni, Signore. I can only say I have liked very much what little I have seen of it.”

“Bene. You shall have a grand tour of the villa later on. There is a private wing and the rest is converted into the hotel for guests and turisti.”

At this, Iris looked up sharply into his eyes. Her breath hitched into her throat at the look he gave her and she looked away immediately. She felt goose bumps rising all over her body, her composure almost certainly in tatters. He surely couldn’t look at her like that- with so much unleashed hunger!

Her brain screamed at her to move away before she started gasping for breath and Iris immediately reacted upon it. She smiled at Lorenzo, put her hand on his shoulder and said,   “Uhh—Lorenzo, I will return to my room now and change. Meet me later. Si?”

“Ok, buono. I will meet you later.” He turned towards her and kissed her cheek.

“Nice meeting you Signore.” Iris mouthed the formal statement and turned away to go.

“Un secondo, Signorina Florence.” As she turned around to look at him, all suspicious and cautious, he bared his tiger teeth, “You are in Italy. We kiss and part.. like you did with Lorenzo. I must be given the same privilege at least.”

Iris looked at him, her eyes opaque blocks of wood and fire. A lesser mortal would have frozen on the spot and died. Alessandro did nothing of the sort. In fact he looked quite undaunted with her gaze. He looked back nonchalantly, waiting for her to come to him.

Short of making a scene, Iris knew there was nothing she could do. She took a deep breath and came towards him. He bent down; after all he was about six to eight inches taller than she was. She reached up on her toes and barely brushed her lips against his cheek, her heart racing. Unfortunately her feet were not steady and she lost her balance.

She heard Lorenzo gasp as Alessandro caught her by her tiny waist and pulled up to him while she struggled to gain her balance back. His body brushed against her and Iris closed her eyes in agonizing frustration, going red. Her brain had no control over her body where this man was concerned. Her body burned up in his arms, her breasts peaking up and brushing against his chest.  She had to move away from him before she made a fool of herself!

“I’m sorry.” Iris said loud enough and pushed herself away. He let her go instantly, becoming cool and distant as he said, “It is nothing. Not really your fault.”

She didn’t look up but turned around and walked away from the scene as fast as her legs could carry her inside.

“Close your mouth Fachinelli or you’ll catch flies.” Alessandro murmured into Lorenzo’s ears; his lips twitching, his tone amused. Lorenzo went beet red and nodded furiously at him. Alessandro gave a nod and left him there by the door, moving towards the private wing of the villa himself.

 

LOVE CONQUERS- CHAPTER 4

A FEW MONTHS LATER

Iris tapped her foot in annoyance as she looked at her watch. This was the heights. Lorenzo was late as usual. “Italians!” muttered Iris as she locked up her car and decided she’d wait for five more minutes for him and then join the rest of the party in the restaurant.

Her team of co-workers was waiting for her in the “Ristorante Accademia”; they were celebrating the completion of a critical project and Iris was waiting for her close friend and colleague, Lorenzo.

That one phone call on a fateful afternoon had been a door to escape for Iris. She had been invited for an interview at one of the most prestigious and globally recognized Italian companies. Bertoni Ltda was famous for their wines, olive oil, plastic manufacturing, apparel and cured meat companies. The word in the international market was that whoever was fortunate to be offered employment in Bertoni was sure to be never lacking of money and position – if they worked hard and were good at what they did.

Iris had thought it was very good luck when she had applied for the job interview.  They had been looking for a candidate for their European International Business management team with her exact qualifications; M.B.A. with International Business and knowledge of at least two European languages apart from English. Iris had learnt Italian, Spanish and German when she had been in college.

She remembered Estelle’s reaction when Iris had hung up the phone and looked at her with a big smile. Estelle had definitely been a little taken aback. Not that Iris had been mooning about or going around with a long face. She was nothing if not cheerful and her philosophy of “Everything happens for the best.” was something she followed to the T.

It had only been the day before when Estelle had remarked on some changes she had seen in Iris. She had complained that Iris had been wearing no shorts and skirts; they all seemed to have been put away in hiding.  Estelle had seen her in nothing but formal clothes. When she rested, she wore jeans and the old faded T-shirts. Her glorious golden brown hair was never left open anymore but could be seen in a braid or tied into a bun. Iris always smiled at everyone; even strangers. Lately that had changed as well. She avoided looking at the strangers altogether and was always highly acidic if a man approached her. She had been asking the reason for these changes. Iris had simply evaded her questions by throwing the red herring of her own fast approaching wedding.

*flashback*

Estelle had exclaimed, “Whoa there, Sunshine! What has got you so pepped up?” It was late evening and she had just come back from work, to be handed a glass of wine and Iris’s cheerful face.

Iris told her about the phone call and they both whooped with joy. The interview was scheduled for the day after and if selected Iris would be moved to one of their Italian offices.

“That’s lovely. Italy and this job both sound amazing and I know you would love it there.” Estelle declared while hugging Iris and said, “And if you go to Italy.. the men there..ooohh!!”

“You’re going to be married soon and to no less than a traditional Indian guy. How do you think he’s going to take your enthusiasm towards drooling on other men?” Iris grinned at her housemate and friend.

 Estelle waved a hand in the air, “Bah! It doesn’t matter since I am not the one going there. You would be and I’m sure Rajiv wouldn’t begrudge me a little bit of drool on my chin for drool worthy men.”

Iris laughed and then sobered, “Yeah but I’ve decided I wish to go off. Be it men from any part of the world, I wish to steer clear of them. No headaches, no messes.”

Estelle looked at Iris with her mouth open. She stuttered, “B-b-but-but-but”

Iris looked at her with one eyebrow raised mockingly, “-but what? I didn’t say I shall stop being straight. But, if I have to stay a spinster all my life to be happy, I’d rather stay that way than be a miserable married woman looking for extra marital affairs by the way of excitement in life.  I’d rather focus on my career than any male worth nothing more than the balls on his body. Staying clear of emotional entanglements is my mantra.”

Estelle’s brow cleared and she coughed, “Uh—any particular reason or just because what happened with Sunny—“

Iris laughed and sat down, “Sunny has not been a part of my thoughts for a long time now. I was serious and meant it when I said I’m glad we never went ahead and planned the future. It would have been a disaster. Besides, I realized I never even loved him. Nah- I think I wish him well with Rose and that’s that.”

“So what—why-“ Estelle was cut off with the wave of her hand as Iris looked irritated to be reminded of something. “Never mind why I’ve decided upon it, I think it’s the best idea I’ve had recently. No more meeting men, especially strange men and no more talks on them.”

Soon after she had given the interview and heard back from the company to know that she had been offered the job and had been selected to be one of the candidates to go to Florence. Iris had attended Estelle’s wedding and left soon after.

 *Flashback ends*

“Ah there you are mia bella Iris!” Lorenzo came strolling in. He elaborately kissed Iris on both cheeks and the mouth and said, “Mi dispiace darling, I’ m  late I know. But what is an Italian without a grand entry, eh?”

Iris ignored the appalling English Lorenzo spoke and said, “ This is the fifth time you’re late since we’ve been to this side of Florence Lorenzo. Not good. And you were going to show me L’Academia today; instead you disappeared!”

Lorenzo bit his tongue between his teeth and put his hand over his head, “ Sono orrible! I am so sorry Iris that I forget to take you to L’Academia today. I went to Mercato Nuovo to buy some gifts for friends back home. Pieter took me to this delightful café out there after we were done shopping.” Lorenzo smiled as if he had achieved the impossible. “He comes to Cortona soon to meet my family.”

Iris forgot her annoyance and smiled at him, “Lovely! You forget everything when you’re with him, eh?”

“But of course! Now let us go join others. They must be waiting, eh?” Lorenzo declared delicately wrinkling up his nose. He put his arm around her waist and they walked into the restaurant to join the waiting party.

Iris smiled as she looked around, talking to her colleagues while a part of her wondered what should she gift Lorenzo. He was quitting the job soon and planning to go join his family business in Cortona. She sipped her wine and thought of her first days in Florence.

Florence; the city of fashion where art and culture breathe together, the city where greatest architectural treasures of the world are located. Iris had been delighted to be in Florence even though initially it tickled her silly that her family name belonged to the city. Slowly she had decided it was fait accompli that she landed here. She loved living here. She had already been many times to the Cathedral, the Baptistery, the Uffizi, the Bargello, and the Accademia.

Not really religious by nature but fascinated by the art that the churches of Santa Maria Novella and Santa Croce stored, Iris had been there many times too; to gaze at their  veritable art galleries. She frequented the library of San Lorenzo ; where magnificent exhibition of Michelangelo’s architectural genius could be seen. She may have been off men but she was certainly not dead!

When Iris had joined the company, she had been very reserved towards her team of co-workers that mainly consisted of men. Italian men are quite verbal in their appreciation of beauty and Iris had found it becoming a headache; the constant offers to go out and some very forward ones too. Not that she had been downright cruel with anyone but slowly men around her got the idea that she was unavailable in the dating market and the offers had gradually stopped. Now she was respected for her work, enjoyed team outings with her colleagues and was generally considered “friendly until you start hitting on her” sort of person.

Lorenzo had made friends with her the day he had saved her from the amorous advances of a colleague. Lorenzo being the way he was, he had made way into Iris’s affections and accompanied her most days to her explorations. He would wander with her into the streets of the city. They would walk right up to Arno river or go to Boboli Gardens and even climb the hill up to the church of San Miniato al Monte and share their work and life experiences while gazing at the delightful city.

It was rumoured in the office that they had a thing going but Iris knew better. Lorenzo was a sensitive, male loving guy who had kept his preferences secret and was yet to find a good partner in life. Him and Iris spent many a evenings together because Iris couldn’t really say no when Lorenzo asked her to keep up the pretence.

It was a party of 15 that sat at the table; drinking and talking. Italians were quite noisy- Iris had thought initially with annoyance. Gradually though she had learned to accept it.

The food when it arrived was tasteful and delicious. It began with Bruschetta al pomodoro fresco e basilica for starters and moved to salad with rucola, mozzarella, avocado, zucchini in citron salsa dressing. Lasagnette di grano saraceno al ragù d’agnello e mandorle tostate was ordered for their first course, which in plain English meant Lasagna with buckwheat lamb ragout and roasted almonds. Everybody decided to choose their own main course. Iris decided upon meatloaf with zucchini and for dessert of course, nothing but Tiramisu would do for her.

Discussions were going on about what to do on the weekend since the last Sunday of May was coming up. Iris was unaware of the connection until Luigi Matteo, Iris’s immediate head proposed an outing to Chianti, the wine region of Italy. He explained to her that the last Sunday of May was “Cantine Aperte” day; an “Open Wineries” day in English. It took place everywhere in Italy, even in Florence but it was especially the Chianti region people visit on this day. One could taste local wines and have fun. Also business wise it was a good day since you could meet a potential buyer or a seller.

It looked as if the proposal was gaining more nods by the second. Iris shrugged her shoulders, looked at Lorenzo for approval and at his nod said yes. She smiled warmly at Lorenzo as a way of thanks. The smile froze on her face as her eyes met a pair of grey-green eyes. The shock of meeting the stranger she had long ago bumped into and had words with wore off within seconds though when she realized that he was amused at her reaction. He lifted his glass in salute that was accompanied by that much hated mocking smile of his. Her brown eyes caught fire at the gesture as she met that gaze and gave him a chilling stare. He raised his eyebrow in the manner that was hatefully familiar to Iris.

Taking a deep breath, Iris decided to look away first and then ignore him. Her nerves tingled and she felt hot..hot with anger, concluded Iris. Though she tried to calm herself down, the anger that had been brought to the boil by the stranger was still on a high, so much so, that when she turned to the colleague sitting next to her, he choked on his wine and asked her if she was alright.  Iris assured him she was; only she had to go to the ladies. She excused herself and went away from the table to the far end of the room where the ladies room was situated.

“Swine.. mocking me. Why me God!! Why did I have to see him of all people!! Wonder what is he doing here of all places? And that hateful smile of his–always looks at me as if he’s my superior and I’m his slave. Arrogant bugger.”Iris carried on a monologue and then upset with herself for thinking about him, exclaimed, “Stop it Iris! That’s quite enough of thinking about the vile stranger, damn the man! Forget him and ignore him if he’s still sitting outside. Yes, that’s the best way. “ Convincing herself, she patted her cheeks with cool tissue, refreshed her lipstick and was out of the room. She was still trying to mentally convinced herself as she walked to the table one moment when the next she found herself walking into someone’s waistcoat. She immediately pushed the man away and said,

“Mi dispiace, per favoure Scusi Signore. Iris automatically apologized and excused herself to begin to walk away.

“Abbastanza bene! Buona sera Signorina. I see you have learnt my language- and you’ve again bumped into me. Quite the bad habit we have, eh?” Iris would recognize the scent of the man and his hateful drawl anywhere. Of all the bad luck- and that’s when she was trying so hard to get over her already frayed nerves, the shock of seeing him here and the anger at his earlier behaviour!!

She looked up at him now; she had look quite far up. Iris was by no means petite but this guy was just so tall! With an icy glance, Iris mocked him back, “Yes, seems you’re quite the bumper yourself. Do you do this with all women you meet or do you especially do it to annoy me everytime?”

He laughed softly, his eyes more green than grey. Iris shivered; they were by no means warm. He evaded her question and asked, “So what brings you to Florence?”

Iris smiled sweetly though her eyes were blazing as she said, “Excuse me if I don’t stand here and let you chat me up. I’m not in the habit of talking to strangers who annoy me.”

As she began to walk away, he said, “We are destined to meet I think until we start talking to each other properly. I’m ready to talk to you. Are you?”

Iris looked back at him, her eyes colder than ever as she replied, “Not in this lifetime Signore. Capisce?”

He laughed again and then while she was still standing there, he came closer to her and murmured in her ear, causing every hair of her body to rise up, “You can’t run from fate for long Signorina. If we’re to –er be bumped into each other again, we will meet. Enjoy your evening. “

Iris stood there, as still as a statue for a few seconds until rage took hold of her. How dare he!!!! She wanted to march up to him and slap him senseless. So immense was her rage that she decided it would not be safe to go join others lest she lost control. She decided to go back into the ladies room to calm herself down.  She turned around to go back and had almost reached the dark corner when she was caught and swung around swiftly.

Before she could even squeak, her chin was caught hold of and she was made to look up- straight into the eyes of the “becoming-familiar” stranger. She opened her mouth to give him her piece of mind for manhandling her but did not get far. He took advantage of her open mouth, swooping down on her and closed his mouth on hers before she could speak. The contact caught her senses unawares. His tongue traced the seam of her lips, and she closed her eyes, fire of desire licking her senses. Their bodies were not touching each other anymore, it was just the lips. Her focus was centred on the silky slide of his lips over hers, the stroke of his tongue and his breath mingling with hers. Basically it was a leisurely entry that was meant to entice her senses.

The pulse in her throat skittered and her thoughts and focus became blurred when the kiss turned from exploring to passionate. Iris responded to him in kind, bringing out a groan from his lips as he kissed her deeper, his body moulding her to his. His hands rested on her hips as he drew her closer still, her breasts touching his chest now.  He devoured her while she kissed him back with the same passion and hunger, as the taste of him exploded through her. She pressed against him, trying to get out of his grasp so that she could touch him too.

He slapped the palm of his hand on the wall behind her and leaned further into her, pressing his body down on hers as they continued kissing. His free hand went into her hair, freeing it from the tight knot it had been tied in. Pins fell down with a clink and her hair was bare on her shoulders now, creating a golden brown curtain in which he pressed his face into for a bit, smelling her hair while she breathed deep, her head on his shoulder. He caught a fistful of her hair and gently pulled it to make her look up as he nuzzled her throat.

‘Scusi.” A smothered cough and Iris felt reality return with a crash. Iris pushed him away from her with a jerk, horror mounting every second as she realized what she had been doing with this-this stranger.

“Look at me Iris Florence.” He spoke as he none to gently lifted her chin this time to meet his green-grey flare. “It is better to take your anger out this way- with passion rather than with words or keep it bottling up inside. This was destined to happen the first time we bumped into each other. So no harm done.”

She wrenched her gaze away from him and moved away to create some physical distance as she spoke, her voice shaking but cool, “Speak for yourself Signore! For my part- I just hope we never meet again.”

She looked up to meet his gaze with her defiance and wished she hadn’t done so. He smirked and said, “Since  I already know your name, it is fair that you should know mine. Alessandro is the name, in case we meet the next time. And we are bound to- soon actually. Arrivederci..for now.” On that enigmatic note, he left to join others at his table while Iris stood there, still as a statue, digesting what had just happened. She would reflect on what he said later.