LOVE CONQUERS- CHAPTER 9

Chapter – 9

“Buongiorno bella mia, Iris! Ready to take a tour of the wine cellar and the garden with me?”

Iris turned to face a chirpy Lorenzo standing by the door and smiled at him. Today she wore one of her short dresses with strappy sandals. A hat completed the attire since they will be out in the sun for long and she had no wish to get a sunstroke. She’d put on more make-up than usual today too, to hide mauve circles beneath her eyes. Vittoria had commented upon it; being bitchy wouldn’t cover it; before leaving the room, going away to lord knew where. Iris could only be thankful that she had been left alone.

True Iris drank more than her usual the previous night, but she had no hangover this morning. What was worse was, she woke up early and remembered with clarity her conversation with Alessandro after he had almost snatched her from the arms of another man. She had been embarrassed to acknowledge to herself that she didn’t remember any of the men she had danced with, apart from Alessandro.

Her resolve today was simple. She would give him no excuse to come to her; in fact she would stay close to other employees and not wander by herself. She would avoid him as much as possible. They would be leaving tomorrow morning anyway.

She looked at Lorenzo who was dressed stylishly in three fourths and a bright yellow shirt and giggled, “And who’re you out to impress here Lorenzo? You look dashing!”

“Why, can I not dazzle you?” Lorenzo pouted and Iris went to hug him affectionately.

“Of course you can but then, I’m just me-your amiga. You don’t need to dazzle me, do you?”

“Ne-si, that is true! I just felt like dressing up. You think people will realize it?” Lorenzo looked worried now, making Iris wish she hadn’t started this conversation.

“Oh no, you look very much the man you know. And even if they do know your status, what’s the harm? I don’t think it is anybody’s business which sex you prefer you know. Your parents know it and so do your friends. So why bother about anyone else?”

“To protect you from sharks bella mia, that’s why!” Lorenzo replied, startling Iris. He continued, “Do you know how many men you danced with and how many tried to flirt with you, without success yesterday evening?” At her blush, he continued, “I’m not criticizing you Iris but- Signore Bertoni kept an eye on you. I don’t know why though. You think he fancy you?”

The blush deepened as Iris remembered the kiss she had shared with Alessandro. She took a deep breath and said, “What utter nonsense you speak Lorenzo! Don’t you know I’m an ice maiden?”

“Pahh!! That is for people who don’t see the fire in you bella mia.”Lorenzo fluttered his hands in air and with a sly raise of his eyebrow said, “I think Signore Bertoni sees this fire.”

“Why are we even talking about him for Pete’s sake! Let’s move on to the tour please.” Iris said, irritated with the fact that she couldn’t control her cheeks turning pink and then red for this once.

Lorenzo tried to soothe her ruffled feathers by agreeing with her hastily and taking her downstairs towards the cellar where the tour was already in procession. The guide was explaining to the crowd about the wine cellar in Italian.

“The wine cellar has been carved from the same bedrock as Villa Bertoni is standing upon. Back in 11th century, it was a dungeon and the villa was a fortified mansion with a watch tower. The structure on which Villa Bertoni stood was the original structure of that time, with modifications done to the cellar and the rest of the place as per the time changes.

Today for lunch and then for dinner, you will be served wines from our special cellar. You see, many hard-to-find vintages and Tuscan wine icons such as Querciabella, Fontodi, La Massa and Poggio Scalette make it to the list of red wines, whereas amongst the whites, we strongly prefer to vote for the northern regions of Alto Adige and Friuli. You will taste it today and tell us how you like it. After all, customers come to you for opinion, si?”

Everyone nodded their heads in appreciation at the guide’s announcement. Iris tried to look enthusiastic. After all, she worked with an organization whose major business consisted of wines. Normally she would have loved to taste them one by one but today- after yesterday’s over drinking and her memory failing her on what happened with Alessandro, she had no enthusiasm for any sort of drinks.

Villa Bertoni restaurant was the next place of visit; the route to the private wing of the villa. Iris tried not to look at the private wing and feel a flutter of nerves. She held on to Lorenzo’s hand as they were explained about the paintings that decked the walls of the restaurant. There was also a large portrait of a haughty man whom the guide introduced as the man who built Villa Bertoni long time back. Iris was startled to realize that Alessandro looked exactly like his long gone ancestor. She averted her eyes from the portrait and walked on.

They went out to the garden that was set as a backdrop for the restaurant, perfumed by a bouquet of roses; Florentine roses as she was informed that twined themselves along the stone walls of the garden. The guide further went on to inform them that most couples loved to come here for a honeymoon and spend their evenings feeling romantic, dining under the stars or during Summers, watch the sun go down behind mossy green and beautiful looking Chianti hills.

Iris absorbed this information absent mindedly while a part of her mind was busy trying to divert itself from thinking about Alessandro. It was lunch time and he hadn’t shown up yet. And why should you care if he wasn’t around? An inner imp asked her the question. Annoyed with herself for not being able to stop thinking of him, Iris excused herself from Lorenzo by saying she wanted to walk around the garden for a bit while everyone else went inside for lunch.

She walked around for a bit, taking in the heavenly perfume of roses in the garden and then sat down by one of the loungers set in the garden. It wasn’t that she was tired but she did feel out of sorts. Maybe should could close her eyes for a bit and rest before joining others for lunch. She laid back her head, stretched her legs and closed her eyes, her hat shielding her from the rays of the Sun.

Something tickled her nose and she tried to swipe it away. It came back again, this time accompanied by chuckles. She opened her eyes to see two cherubic faces with grey green eyes and dark hair giggling at her. Each of them held a blade of grass in hand.

Those eyes!! Iris could barely comprehend what was in front of her in her still sleepy state of mind. Only one man she knew of possessed such eyes around here.  She knew all about Alessandro’s broken marriage and twin sons who lived with their grandmother most of the days.

“You make funny faces when you’re sleeping.” One of those cherubic faces said, laughing as she wrinkled her nose and pulled a face again. The other boy laughed as well at her expression and added, “Why do you sleep here? Have you no bed?”

Iris had barely opened her mouth when the first kid spoke again, “Now that you’re awake, will you play with us? Papa says we can play football if there is a grown-up around.”

That tone of directness was uncommon children so small. Iris judged them to be not more than three or four years old.  But what were these kids doing out here alone? And whose kids were they?

“Are you sleeping with your eyes open?” Another question from them and Iris shrugged her thoughts aside to reply to them mischievously.

“Well, I thought I’d better absorb some energy from the Sun, just in case I was asked to play with two young men. I’d need the energy then, wouldn’t I?”

The children seemed to consider this. They looked at each other and then nodded at each other. Two pair of grey green eyes stared at her curiously, “You would play with us? Our nonna says we are still piccolo and only Nanny can plays with us. Zia Arabella says she would play with us if she had legs. Only il Papa always plays with us.”

Iris felt like an intruder as she asked, “What about your madre?” and immediately wished she hadn’t asked as their faces fell, the smile wiped off their face. “She doesn’t like to play with us. She says we waste her time.”

Iris had nothing to say to that as shock held her speechless. What mother could ignore such adorable children? Why would she want to say that? As her thoughts chased each other around in her head, a voice growled out, “Antonio! Ernesto! What do you think you’re doing out here ?  Mrs. Whittaker has been frantic looking around all over the Villa for you.”

Iris stiffened as she heard Alessandro’s angry voice. She felt him coming closer. She looked at the children to find an expression full of delight on their faces despite his growling.

“Papa!” They ran to him as Iris watched on. He enveloped them in his arms and picked both of them up, a smile softening his features. Iris was arrested by this smile; soft and tender, it held a lot of love for his children. The children were beaming as they both spoke simultaneously, “Papa, let us stay in the garden please! She says she will play with us. She even absorbed energy from the Sun to do so.”

“Did she now?” Alessandro grinned at his kids and looked speculatively at Iris who sat on the lounger, blushing pink. She stood up as he neared her, looking flustered. His glance took in her attire. He did not know how she managed to look sexy, cool and innocent at the same time. She portrayed sexiness with those long sexy legs that he would love to wrap around his waist. Her pouty lips and the sleepiness in her eyes stirred his libido and he had to close his eyes for a second before he looked at her again, to focus on the confusion in her eyes, making her look aloof and at the same time innocent.

“I’m sorry- I-“

“Hello Iris, still hung over?”

Iris looked at him, her voice straight from the freezer, “I’m perfectly fine, thank you.”

He raised an eyebrow in disbelief. “You missed your lunch. I wonder, what were you doing in the garden all by yourself and how did you find these two urchins?” Alessandro observed.

Iris looked at her watch, shock very visible on her face She had indeed missed lunch. She had been asleep for the best part of an hour. Before she could say anything however, one of the children piped up, speaking perfect English as good as Italian they’d spoken earlier.

“She didn’t find us Papa! We found her. She was sleeping. We tickled her nose and she made funny face.” Their faces were wreathed in smiles, “She didn’t sc-scald us-“

“Scold” said Iris immediately and then flushed under Alessandro’s gaze.

The kid who had been explaining looked at her, his eyes serious and repeated, “-scold. She did not scold us and she said she will play with us. Can we play with her Papa?”

He said softly, “I would also like to play with her but she says no to me.” When Iris shot daggers at him with her eyes, he laughed softly and then addressed his son, “Not now Antonio. She has to go and join other grown-ups from the company right now.”

Looking at their wilting smiles, Iris felt bad. Before she could, she said, “maybe later? I-“ Alessandro smoothly intervened, “She can join you later in the evening if you want.”

“And will she read us a bedtime story too?” Three pairs of grey green eyes turned to look at her, each gaze questioning with the addition of Alessandro’s eyes also looking amused.

Iris squirmed under it with discomfort and rage. Damn the man! He had not even asked her if she was willing to spend time with his sons, just taken it for granted. No doubt his mistresses fell over themselves to please him and his sons, Iris thought and then felt mean for it. She could hardly blame the children for their father’s deeds but spending time with them? Not that she had any problem with spending time with children but, why did he have to superimpose his will on her. She looked at him and then at the children who looked at her with an expectant look on their faces. She could not disappoint children, no matter how much she disliked their father.

She ignored Alessandro, gave a radiant smile to the children and said, “If you want me to, I will come and join you for some time in the evening and also read you bed time story.”

The children gave her a wide smile and their father declared, “There Ernesto, now that you know she will come to you in the evening, will you go to your room and put Mrs Whittaker out of her misery?”

The kids nodded enthusiastically. Alessandro put them down and they ran towards the private wing entrance where Iris saw them being received warmly by an elderly lady in yellow overalls. She watched them go away with her and turned around, excuse ready on her tongue to be away from Alessandro.

“Will you join me for lunch? I missed mine too.” Alessandro asked her, smoothly stopping her in her tracks.

“No, thank you. I’m not really hungry.” Iris replied calmly enough but blushed when her stomach strongly disagreed with her by rumbling loudly. Alessandro looked at her, his face devoid of any expression though his eyes were alight with laughter.

“Looks like your stomach disagrees with your opinion Signorina.” He held out his hand, laughter gone from his eyes and he added quietly, “please Iris? I could really do with some undemanding company right now.”

“Vittoria-“ Iris started but was ruthlessly cut off.

“is a pleasant diversion but not important when I want some peace and quiet. I also wish to talk to you about your career prospects. I’m sure Felipe and Felice will talk to you soon about we’ve had some plans for you that require your opinion.”

Iris could hardly say no to him since he wished to speak to her as her boss and not as a man. A part of her was disappointed by this development but she turned that voice in her head off and nodded, “Alright. I’d be glad to join you in that case Signore.”

“You can call me Alessandro.” He said gruffly as they walked towards the side of the restaurant that was adjoined to the private wing of the villa.

“I’d rather not if it’s okay by you Signore.” Iris replied, her voice husky. Just the thought of calling him by his name evoked images in her head that had nothing to do only with his name. Speaking his name would mean intimacy of knowing him and Iris was not ready for such intimacy at all.

“You make me feel old every time you call me Signore. My father was called Signore. I’m known mostly as Alessandro by my management staff.”

Iris had no reply to that so she decided to keep quiet. Alessandro grunted in response to her silence and they reached the table that had been prepared for him. He pulled a chair for her and she sat down. Well, Iris concluded, at least she couldn’t fault his table manners.

They concluded their lunch talking companionably. Iris to her surprise found that they had a lot of interests in common including their taste in music and books. Soon dessert was served in the form of cheese and biscuits and then coffee. Iris had started to wonder if this was all just a pretext or if he really wanted to talk to her about her career. She was a little anxious and a little worried. She had been working like a Trojan on her last project but maybe she had erred somewhere. Why else would the CEO of the company specially pick her to talk to her about her career, when appraisal time was still a month away.

“Your worries are needless as far as your last project performance is concerned Iris. No one could have done it better than you.”

Iris was surprised at how good she felt hearing Alessandro praising her work and yet she was puzzled. She looked at him questioningly and he continued,

“You have gained complete knowledge of Olive side of our business but you’re still a novice when it comes to wines. To handle our international clientele, it is important that you understand and are knowledgeable about all aspects of our business. You agree to that surely?”

At her nod, he said “This is why we have been thinking of moving you out of Florence for some time and bringing you the main center of our wine business in Siena.”

Iris looked at him, panicking inside yet outwardly calm, “And when am I to do that? And the other arrangements?”

Alessandro sipped his coffee and looked at her, “In about three months’  time appraisals will be over and promotions will be declared as you know. Felipe is of the opinion that you should learn something about wine business before this so that you have fair prospects of promotion in your team. Without you knowing or understanding our business completely like the rest of your team does your career cannot grow.

You go back tomorrow and in about a week’s time arrangements will be made for you to travel and stay in Siena for the next three months.  You will stay in our vineyards there and tour around our other vineyards to learn everything there is to know about wines. Capisce?  If you have any objections now would be the time to raise them. If you agree, then I will ask Felipe to speak with you tomorrow.”

Iris sat there in silence, digesting it all. Of course she would have to agree to the proposal that the bosses were keeping in front of her, if she wanted her career to grow. She didn’t really care much where she stayed; as it is she was staying in a foreign country with hardly any friends. She must look at this as an opportunity to learn something more not just for the sake of her career but also country wise. She took a deep breath and said, “Yes, I understand Signore.”

“Alessandro.” He said, the determined glint in his eyes strong now, “Say it Iris.”

“Alessandro.” Iris repeated huskily, not able to look away from his eyes that held her captive. He took a sharp breath as if it hurt and then looked down into his coffee cup, “May be it is best we stick to formality if that is how you plan to call me every time.”

Iris gulped and nodded. She had to get away NOW! She said, “If that is all, I’d like to go up to my room please.”

Alessandro seemed distant and cool as he said, “Yes, of course. Have a pleasant riposino.”

He stood up with Iris and bowed a bit in farewell, “Come to the private wing at five o’ clock. The children have their dinner by about six and go to sleep by six thirty. You can return to sane adult company after that. I will see you with the children.”  At her startled glance, his eyes turned green with fire “I will be there with the kids Iris- to play with you.”

Barely able to give a coherent reply, Iris mumbled a good bye and walked away as fast as her legs could take her, her heart beating a tattoo in her chest.

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