LOVE CONQUERS- CHAPTER 22

Chapter-22

love.falling

“Iris, so glad you could make it this evening child. How are you?” Clara Bertoni welcomed her with open arms, kissing her in Italian tradition and then making her sit beside herself.

“I’m very well, thank you Signora—Clara.” Iris smiled a warm smile at Alessandro’s mother. She really was a darling. Looking around for the children, Iris found and met Alessandro’s broody eyes. Hurriedly moving away from them, she came back to Clara, who was observing both her son & herself, her eyes amused. Trying to get the attention back on the boys, she asked,

“Where are the children? I thought they’d be here with you.”

Clara gave Iris a smirk which reminded her very much of the man standing close by. “Indeed! If they had their way, they’d not have had their siesta or done anything much today, what with the prospect of seeing you in the evening. They spoke of you all morning, making plans among themselves. Even Ernesto took time to be persuaded for Siesta. Mrs Whittaker will be waking them up and bringing them down soon.” She put her hand on top of Iris’, saying warmly, “My grandchildren have really taken to you Iris.”

Blushing at such an open compliment, Iris could only smile and say, “You’re too kind Clara. They’re nice kids and all they need is—“

“Mother.” Said Alessandro absently, startling Iris. Clara looked up at her son, not surprised at the interruption at all. She nodded her head in agreement speaking before he could say anything further. “Ah yes, those children do need a mother who would love them like her own. I’m getting too old. ”
Iris turned to stone at her words. She kept her face away from Alessandro’s scrutiny and bent her head, focusing on her skirt, her mind not on anything else but his reply. Had Alessandro been thinking of getting re-married?, wondered a terribly jealous Iris. Her heart tore itself into shreds at the thought of Alessandro married to another woman. If that was the case, she’d—she’d not be able to bear to be close to him at all.

As if reading the thoughts swirling around in her head, Alessandro spoke, “Yes, I’m beginning to realise that Mamma, but—I apologise for rudely interrupting you Iris. What I wanted to say was that I shall be in my study if there’s anything you want.” Her head shot up at that, he noted with savage satisfaction, checking out her expression. He read jealousy clearly enough. Playing it cool, he nodded distantly at her and left the women alone.

Iris gulped down the bitter bile rising in her throat and smiled at Clara.

“Are you alright child? You look a little pale suddenly.” Observed Clara with concern.

“It is nothing. I’m fine, really.” With mammoth effort, Iris controlled her head banging emotions and gave Clara a smile, adding “Shall we take a stroll around the garden? It is quite pleasant today. ”

Signora Bertoni smiled as if indulging Iris, “Why not? I am not so old that I can’t take a leisurely stroll on this bright day.”

And so, both women walked together in the garden, sharing gardening tips and so forth. Tommaso had arranged chairs in the garden, close to the cherub fountain, along with a couple of loungers. It was when they sat on the loungers with hats that Clara insisted they wear, that Iris closed her eyes and fell asleep.

 

Clara Bertoni looked at sleeping Iris and sighed. It seemed as if things were coming to a head between Alessandro and Iris, and yet something was not right. She sighed, sipping her lemonade. She replayed what she had observed earlier and Sandro’s talk about realisation of the need of a mother for his children. He had looked at Iris’s down bent head as he had spoken.

 

Her son had been restless these last few weeks and had spent many evenings either working hard or visiting the villa where Iris lived on one pretext or the other.  Clara Bertoni had no problems with her son’s choice of bride,  if indeed Iris was his choice for himself and the boys, and not simply a conquest he was eager to acquire. She sighed inwardly. If only Alessandro could find the same happiness that she’d found with his father! There was hope, in the form of Iris sitting right next to her right now. If only the boy would be sensible enough to fall in love!

Senora Bertoni, not the one to laze around, decided to bring the matter ahead.

It was not more than ten minutes of napping, but Iris woke up refreshed, appalled that she had slept. She took off the hat and looked at Signora Bertoni, with a rueful smile, “I’m sorry for dropping off like that. It’s this blasted Sun. It makes me sleepy.”
Clara gave way to tinkling laughter and said, “No need to apologise, my dear. I myself do the same many times. The smell of sage and other fruits of the season is heady enough to make you sleepy. How about I order some tea while you freshen up? I’m sure the children would be here soon too.”

“That would be lovely, thank you.” Iris smiled and excused herself, saying that she must freshen up. By the time she came back, Antonio and Ernesto were sitting by Signora Bertoni, drinking milk and chatting. They ran towards Iris as she came into the view, chatting nineteen to a dozen.

Iris heard them out, hugging them and giving them appropriate responses. After a while, under her supervision,  both the kids started on building a block castle that their father had bought for them. A present from Luxembourg, informed Signora Bertoni dryly.

The backyard garden that they had been strolling in held an organic garden, an orchard and a vast variety of flowers and trees. It was while they sat there, drinking tea that Senora Bertoni spoke out loud,

“Do you like my son Iris?”

Startled, Iris choked on her tea. Carefully so as not to break the porcelain cup that rattled alarmingly in the saucer, Iris put it down and looked at Clara Bertoni. The words of formality already on her tongue dried up in her mouth. With such an straight, intense gaze putting her on the spot, Iris could barely form a lie in her thought. She made do with a nod instead. Senora Bertoni sighed and said,

“If I dared, I would entertain the hope that you like him more than you admit, that you cared about him as much as I can see you care about the boys. “

Iris wrung her hands together in anxiety, “But I mustn’t. I can’t Clara. Surely you can see that!”

Clara sighed, “He is not yet ready I know. My son is very clever and a very successful businessman; but a little dim-witted when it comes to matters of the heart. And yet, I have hope for him.”

Iris closed her eyes, tears very close. What was the matter with her? She felt like crying day and night these days! Taking a deep breath, she opened her eyes again. Her voice was a whisper, “ I have none, not with me. He may like me, desire me even, but – I can’t give in to that. I’ll – I want a man who loves me.”

As if a decision had been made, Clara said stoutly, “And so you should, my dear. You’ll be selling yourself short if you accepted him for anything less than that. However, I do ask you to keep an open mind. He’s not very good with words when it comes to feelings, my son is not. He will need all the encouragement in the world. Will you at least consider that?”

“You really think—there’s –that he would-“ Iris couldn’t think coherently, hardly daring to let herself hope.

“Give it time child.” Clara said softly and then winked. Aloud she said, “Ah there you are my son!”

“Mamma.” Alessandro kissed his mother and sat down on the nearest lounger beside her.

Tomasso got him his coffee. He laid back, rubbing his hand over his neck.

“You look tired.” Observed his mother.

Iris, feeling restless now that he was here, got up and walked to where the kids were building blocks. She had seen the tired lines around his eyes and mouth. She wished she could ask him about it, but it was not her place to do so. Knowing she may give in to the impulse of asking if she could help, she had directed herself towards Antonio and Ernesto, who welcomed her with smiles. She gave in to their demands of help. It was best to ignore what Clara had said regarding Alessandro, at least for now.

 

Alessandro regarded Iris as she played with his children, her back to him. So- she was still mad at him probably or simply avoiding him. He had worked like a Trojan and cleared his schedule for the next two days to woo her. He was determined that he would wait no longer. He still had to work out how he’d woo her, but he felt certain none of his previous experiences with women would help him with Iris. He had paced about in his room for half an hour in vain. Finally he had accepted that he would think on his feet this evening and see how things go.  For now, he sat in silence next to his mother and drank his coffee.

 

“Sandro.’ His mother rarely called him that these days, unless there was something worrying her.

He looked at his mother and smiled, “Si Mamma?”

“What plans are you hatching my son? I know this look on your face. “

“Nothing that would make you worry. I am thinking on your suggestion.”

“About getting a wife, a mother for Ernesto and Antonio?”

“Si.”

Clara cleared her throat before taking the bull by its horns, “So you think that Iris could fill the position?”

Alessandro looked up at his mother, his expression blank. “What makes you think so Mamma?”

Clara shook her head, clucking, “I’m your mother Sandro. I know something about you surely. Do you care for her?”

“I –“Alessandro hesitated, then replied, “I like her of course. The best part is, she is good with Antonio and Ernesto. It is only with her that Ernesto is so open.”

“And yet, that is not the basis to marry. It is not only for children that you will marry. You will have a wife who will need your love and care. You must feel something for her too.” Clara said softly. She looked Iris and said, “She’s a girl who would dream of a husband who cares for her, loves her, gives her more children. She will be a good wife to a man who would be lucky enough to get her love. Can you offer her that?”

Alesssandro, irritated at his mother’s vision of Iris falling in love with a man and having his babies; someone other than himself, shook his head, “Mamma, I know what you are trying to do. Stay out of it. I want a mother for my children. She will get financial security and a family in return. I will look after her interests and protect her. Surely she can’t ask for more than that.”

Clara looked at her son with disapproval. She got up and laid a hand on his shoulder, “Then you have a lot to learn about women my son. A warning. Tread carefully. One poisonous woman’s deeds can’t be laid at the door of another innocent woman.”

Alessandro looked in astonishment at his mother as she walked away. Of course he didn’t look upon Iris as a second Flavia. He only meant that falling in love with Iris, like his mother wanted him to, was not in his books. His eyes drifted to where she played with the children. Ernesto said something and she laughed, replying back to him and ruffling his hair. He saw how Ernesto and Antonio crept closer to her as she said something, with wide grins on their faces. He may not love her, but he definitely desired her more than anything else. And he was confident that she wanted him just as much. Hearing another bout of laughter, he got up, deciding to join them in their fun.

“Can anyone else join in the fun?” Alessandro’s lazy drawl brought shrieks of laughter from the boys. Iris kept her head firmly fixed on the blocks with which she was building a wall.

“Papa, you can join us in the fun. Right Iris?” Ernesto said smiling, as his father came to sit beside them.

Iris was forced to look up, right into those stormy grey green eyes. They were more of grey right now than green. She looked at the boys who were waiting for an answer and smiled, “Of course. More workers means the castle will build quickly.”

“You’re very good at putting up walls.” Said Alessandro softly as they worked together in symphony, talking to the kids who sat on either side of them.

“No more than you.” Muttered Iris, then made a window in the wall.

Soon the castle was built and ready, extracting awed exclamation at their own handiwork from children. Iris shooed them off to wash their hands and get ready for dinner. Too late she realized she should have gone with them when she found herself alone with Alessandro. Before she could think of an excuse, Alessandro caught her hand and said, “Sit with me Iris. I want to talk to you.”

Knowing it was useless to resist, Iris sat on the edge of one lounger he had guided her to, and looked at him warily. Instead of sitting on the lounger opposite, he sat beside her, not touching her.

“What is it?” Iris asked, not wanting to, yet not being able to resist.

“I understood from Felipe that you met my ex-wife on your trip.”

Iris stiffened. She had not thought it prudent to mention it to him before. Now she nodded soberly and said, “I can understand now why you didn’t want the boys to be influenced by her, or even be near her in any way.”

“Yes. She is a threat that has been almost eliminated from my sons’ lives and yet, sometimes I fear she may try to – get more from this debacle of a relation.”

“What do you mean?” Iris asked, puzzled.

Alessandro looked far off in the distance and said, “She will try to contact the kids sooner or later, playing the “I’m your poor mother” card. Since I’m not married and my children have no mother, it could be easy for her to confuse their feelings.”

“Surely not! She can’t do that! “Aghast at this information, she looked at Alessandro with horror and uncertainty. “Can she Alessandro? “

“I don’t know for the moment cara. But I think in future, it is possible.”

Iris closed her eyes in despair for him as well as children. Oh, to be cursed with a woman who would use you only for your riches, even stooping low to manipulating her own children.  She whispered, “You can’t let her Alessandro. Stop her.”

“There is a way she can be stopped.” Alessandro stated quietly, making her eyes fly open.

“How?” asked Iris.

“I get married.” Alessandro stated simply.

LOVE CONQUERS- CHAPTER 21

Chapter-21

love conquers1

Morning brought with itself a modicum of sense and rid her of  the dreams she’d been chasing all night in her sleep. Sternly lecturing herself for being a silly girl and reading more into the words of an experienced flirt like Alessandro, Iris focused on her work- or at least tried to, with one eye on the door. She would not be caught unawares by him and allow him to assault her senses again. She must keep her head.

As soon as he entered the villa, Alessandro saw Iris with her back to him. She was wearing a pale blue shirt with a white skirt that had little iris flowers all over it. She looked fresh, innocent and – more beautiful than anyone he’d ever known. He stood still, calming the hitch that her presence had generated in his heart. Never before had he so keenly felt someone’s presence in his mind.

The week away had been a testament to how strongly he was attracted to her. Last night when he’d called her, he’d felt such an urge to come rushing to the villa when he’d heard her voice, that he had to literally lock the door of his study for a while. He had instead sat down with a glass of cognac and satisfied himself with the knowledge that she thought of his house as home. He had wanted to beat his chest like a primal beast. He was home, back to his woman and his children and nothing else had sounded sweeter than those words.  He kept on telling himself that his heart was still in his control, but day by day he seem to be losing that control. Fixing his mind on seducing her pained him because he’d rather seduce her with – not love- he hastily told himself. That was impossible since he could never again risk falling in love. But he would definitely like to share her life as a desirable mate and friend.

She had been constantly on his mind the entire week. He had gotten annoyed with himself for losing focus many a times during the meetings he had attended. Victoria’s glamorous presence had not even made a dent in those thoughts, not that it ever had. He had enjoyed her company some months back, on a mutual agreement of a pleasurable evening.  Victoria had decided to take it further in her mind and pursued him. She had been coming on to him the entire week in Luxembourg and he had cursed his idea of taking her along as his assistant. On his last night out there, she had come into the room at night to seduce him. When he had icily shown her the door, she had threatened to go to the press with a sleazy story if he didn’t meet her demands.

His face took on a look of ugly distaste as he remembered it. He had put a stop to it by stating very plainly that if she didn’t control herself, and didn’t stop with her silly threats; he would ensure her true colours were seen by the society in general via a legal harassment case. She had gone down quietly after that.

Now looking at Iris standing there, ruffling through some file while biting her lips, her brows furrowed in concentration, brought in his heart a deep feeling of tenderness. He wanted to rush to her and crush her to his chest, kiss her until she agreed to be his. He ached for her, his heart whispering her name. Just the thought of her with any other man made him grind his teeth in anger. Something alerted Iris to his presence, he saw.

Iris stiffened in the middle of sorting a file. She thought she heard Alessandro calling her name. Slowly turning around, she almost stopped breathing. Alessandro stood there at the door, his grey green eyes devouring her, just as her eyes ate him up. She was seeing him after a week yet it felt as eons had passed after their last encounter together. She tried to speak, but it was only a squeak that came out.

She cleared her throat and tried again, “ Alessa—Signor Bertoni.” She flushed red as she realized she’d almost called him Alessandro. Calling him by his name brought him to her personal life. She kicked herself mentally for this mistake. And she’d promised herself she would be at her utmost professional when he showed up! Alessandro smiled as if he knew what she was up to, and that scared her witless. No, he must never find out how she felt about him. That would be grievous, since it would give him a tactical advantage.

His voice was husky when he spoke, advancing towards where she stood.

“Iris, bella mia. You look good enough to eat.”

Tingles shot up her spine as he said that. Quickly she moved away, to the other side of the table, keeping distance between them. His smirk was a killer when he saw her doing that.

“No kiss as per our Italian customs then?”

Iris glared at him, “Don’t you bring talks of Italian customs! You know why not.”

Alessandro laughed, making Iris quiver in her stomach, “Yes, I know Tesoro mio why you shy away from kissing me.” He reached the desk where she stood behind a chair on the other side. Sitting on the desk, with one leg dangling, he mused, “Is this desk in between going to help though?”

Alarmed at his question, Iris moved further away, “I sure hope so. I have no wish to follow any customs if they mean I must come close to you.”

His grey green eyes glinted with mockery, as he said softly, “Ah. But what would the children say if they saw you with me like this?”

Bewildered, Iris looked around. “Children? You mean you’ve brought Ernesto and Antonio with you?”

Alessandro chuckled, “They are very much like their father when it comes to you bella mia. They wanted to come along, but I promised them I will bring you to them in the evening. I hope you will come home with me, cara mia? ”

“Don’t call me that!” Iris muttered. Her heart fluttered at his words, every time he used an endearment. She knew it was typical of Italians to use it, but her heart took it personally and jumped with joy every time he did it.

Alessandro caught her hand as she bent to pick up the file from the desk, “Don’t call you my darling? What if I like to?”

Iris removed her hand from his with a jerk and said snappily, “Well don’t. I don’t like it.”

“Liar.” He said softly and then laughed, “But it is okay. I can wait for developments. Now tell me, how was the festival and what did you do there? New business prospects?” His brow furrowed with concern as he said, “Felipe seems to have disappeared for a while, but he did e-mail me to say you would present a report.”

Iris grimaced  and produced the file she had been sorting. “This is the report, with the details of the last day not filled in yet. I was going to finish it by afternoon and leave it for you to check. The last day- er- was not very profitable.”

She mentally replayed the memory of lecher hands of the client who had tried to flirt with her, and closed her eyes, barely repressing a repulsive shudder.

“What happened on the last day to make you look so – what happened ?” Alessandro tensed. Her expression had been one of intense revulsion. He felt anger wrapping its wings around his brain as Iris related the incident with the prospective client and concluded by saying, “I might have busted that account completely. I’m sorry.”

Controlling the urge to smash something, because he had not been there to protect her from such advances, Alessandro nodded distantly, his mind still busy on finding the whereabouts of the man in question. Thus it was that his voice was icily cold when he spoke, “It’s alright Iris. You did the right thing. We do not expect you to bring in the accounts by sleeping around.”

Iris got stung by such coldness. Here she was, expecting some sympathy from him at having dealt with a tricky situation. She might have expected him to be angry on her for losing the account, but such coldness was absolutely not what she’d expected. Losing her cool would not do it, so she opted for sarcasm instead. “Well, I’m glad I don’t have to sleep my way around for promotions, Signore. Excuse me. I need a cup of coffee and time to work alone. ”

And before Alessandro could stop her, to correct her mistaken meaning, she left the room.

Alessandro could have kicked himself for sounding so cold and distant. When she had wanted his caring, his sympathy, he had been thinking of squeezing the man’s throat and become cold with her instead. He certainly didn’t blame her for losing that account, if indeed it was lost. Cursing himself for not being clear, he thought of going after her. Second thoughts stopped him however. She did need time to get back her cool. He got back to the vineyard instead and started on his share of work.

The day continued. Alessandro went ahead with his meetings and phone calls, even left the villa to go Siena for a meeting. It was late afternoon when he returned. By then Iris was done with the report. It was waiting for him at his desk. He flicked a glance at it, his expression grim and determined, and then left his office, leaving instructions with his secretary that he was out for the day and the next.

Iris had cooled down a bit since morning, but a part of her still fumed. Another part of her remained glued to sadness. Alessandro had spoken like he was only the boss, and nothing more. She had to get it into her head and firmly fix it in her heart that she was only an employee. Despite the fact that they flew sparks off each other, there was nothing more than could come out of such an attraction. Maybe she should change jobs?

“Iris.” Startled out of her thoughts by Alessandro’s voice close by, Iris looked up from her computer. Her thoughts clamed shut from her face and a serene expression she had practiced for hours took over, “Si Signore?”

Alessandro gritted his teeth silently. Iris spitting fire was more preferable than this calm statue sitting and working. He was determined, today he would get his own way. This evening, he wouldn’t let he go; in fact- he decided, he would talk about his proposition to her today after dinner.

“It is time Iris.” He said, as if to himself.

Bewildered, Iris looked at her watch and then at him. “Time for what?”

Alessandro came to her with his silent tread. Iris kept sitting, knowing how his presence affected her. Her heart beat a little faster with each step advancing towards her. Still confused as he picked up her hand and made her stand up, she said, “Signore—“

“Alessandro.” His single word statement was husked out as she tried to move away from him. Alas, there was only a wall behind her. She was cornered with his hands on both sides of her. Licking her dry lips out of nervousness, she tried again, “Alessandro, what-“

She never got to complete her question, as he leaned down and took her mouth with his. The kiss was unlike the ones he had given her before. This kiss demanded her cooperation. This kiss was a definition of hunger that refused to be satisfied. Desperately, she clutched at his shoulders, opening her mouth into his kiss. Sighing she gave in completely. It felt good to give in, to surrender her will to him, she thought as she leaned deeper into the kiss, touching his jaw and moulding her body to his. At the back of her mind, a voice screamed at her, reminding her why this was a bad idea. None of the kisses would be able to change the basic fact that there was only desire between them and nothing permanent would come out of it.

Taking shaky breaths, she wrenched her mouth from his and pushed him away. Tears were close by. She shivered and wrapped her arms around herself to console herself as she asked him softly, “Why do you keep on persisting Alessandro? It’s not helping me.”

“Why?” Alessandro caught her from behind by the waist and held her there, with her back to him. He rained kisses on her hair and rubbed her arms. He could feel her goose bumps.

“Why would you not let this happen? Why not let it take its natural course and see where it goes?”

Iris closed her eyes and prayed she wouldn’t start bawling, as she said, “Because I want a lot more than what is on offer.”

“Why don’t you give what is already on offer a try and then decide if you can take more?”  He asked her, turning her around and holding her chin to make her look up. The look in her eyes made him yearn to give her all she wanted. But he knew there were some things that would never be on offer; no matter how much she looked at him with those doe eyes.

Moving away from her, he ran his hands through his hair and said, “The boys wish for you to spend some time at the casa. I told them you’ll be with them before their play time. I’ve already informed everyone that you may be staying back at the casa. The decision of course, is up to you.”

Iris took a deep breath. Yes, focusing on the boys would be a better idea. She said, “Thank you. I’d like to stay back with them. I’ll- go and pack an overnight bag.”

Alessandro nodded as she rushed out of the room. Quickly she stuffed her night dress; a silk nightie in pale green and a dressing gown, a pair of short and jeans and two T-shirts, along with some undies. In about five minutes she was ready to go. All the while she kept telling herself, she wanted to go to the Casa only because of the boys, but she knew their father was also one of the reasons. Whether she wanted it or not, she couldn’t help herself with a little close time with him.