“Buongiorno bellissima! “
A soft touch on her shoulder, a kiss on her head along with this softly speaking endearment had Iris sitting rigid in her chair at the breakfast table.
She had been enjoying her morning with the children until now. Breakfast had begun a few minutes back, with Antonio and Ernesto vying for who could eat the most strawberry jam on their toast. Iris had requested for some toast and coffee when asked what she’d like for breakfast. Both children had already had milk under Mrs. Whittaker’s supervision. The old darling, bless her, had left children and Iris alone after this, knowing that children wanted some time with their to-be-mother.
Iris hadn’t expected Alessandro to join children and her at the breakfast table at all. Thus when she felt a hand on her shoulder, along with a kiss on her forehead and a greeting, she felt shaken to her core. She was not prepared yet, she thought, panicking. She couldn’t face him at this time, that was all she knew.
She nodded in his direction, not able to speak a word, as he sat down next to her and the children. He spread his napkin on his lap and said softly, “We must talk.”
Without looking in his direction, Iris spoke softly so as not to disturb the kids with the harshness of her voice.
“Not now Alessandro. I agree we must talk, but it has to be away from here. I wish to spend the day peacefully with the boys.”
Something cold spread through his stomach as Alessandro heard Iris speak softly yet firmly. Her voice was expressionless. He wasn’t sure why but he had this feeling in his gut that things were as wrong as they could be; his plan might be in jeopardy. His grey green eyes rested upon her bent head for a long moment, processing her body language. Deciding he didn’t wish to push his luck at the moment and thinking he’d find a way to work things out by evening, he picked up his espresso cup and drained it in one gulp, saying “As you wish tesorino. I must go to Sienna today for work. I shall be away all day and return in the evening. We will go out for dinner.”
At her nod, he turned away from her and began a teasing conversation with Antonio, who delighted in his father’s attention. Ernesto looked up from his plate and glanced at Iris first and then at his father. A boy too mature for his age, his eyes immediately picked up something of the atmosphere and he anxiously piped up, “Is Mamma angry with you, Papa? Are you going to fight? ”
It took all her wits for Iris to not burst out in anger at Alessandro for coming down to breakfast. Instead she smiled at Ernesto and caught his hand in hers, gently reassuring him, “I am not angry at all, poppet and there is no fighting. Do you see any boxing ring? “
Normally Ernesto would have smiled at her reference to boxing; one of his favourite sports (as Iris had found out), but he didn’t. Iris squeezed his hand and smiled into his eyes, trying to keep her own sadness at bay. “How could I be when I plan to spend the whole day doing fun things with you and Antonio?”
Ernesto didn’t look assured despite Iris’ words. She looked up finally and directly into Alessandro’s stormy grey eyes. Her heart beat fast as he caught her doe like eyes with his, and stared back. Then he dropped his gaze from her and looked at his son, who was looking at him anxiously, his voice holding the old stutter, “C-che cosa, Papa?”
Alessandro beckoned Ernesto to get down and come to him. Ernesto got down from his chair and came to stand beside his father. In a smooth move, Alessandro picked him up and sat him on his lap. Ernesto looked at his father, his expression serious. Antonio had quietened down too; his earlier exuberance disappeared, and now stood next to his father, sucking his thumb. Alessandro picked him up too and sat him on the other side of his lap. Three pairs of grey green eyes looked at each other, surveying each other.
Looking at all of them together, regarding each other so seriously, Iris knew she had made the right decision. How would she bear to see them hurt; she couldn’t – ever! Her decision to let Alessandro know that she wouldn’t marry him this evening was a step in the right direction. What’s more she would also let him know that she was going to quit and move away. It may anger him and make him hate her, she knew but it wouldn’t have a devastating effect, as it would on the twins. It was best she moved out and away before she did them any harm emotionally.
She closed her eyes at the pain of it all and then opened them up, to see Alessandro gazing at her, his eyes dark and gleaming as green pools of ice. She lowered her own and forced herself to eat a bite of toast from her plate.
“Papa?” Antonio’s voice wobbled and Alessandro turned his gaze back to his children.
“Si, mio figlio.”
“I am scared Papa.”
Alessandro’s mouth tightened when he heard this. He had had enough troubles with Ernesto and his anxiety. Now, Antonio also felt insecure, thanks to his big mouth and Iris’s reaction to his words. He kicked himself for spoiling it all. The cynical side of him wondered if Iris had planned this scene- her upset face, her cheerful attitude going silent as soon as he was around- as a revenge for how he had made her feel yesterday evening. Bitterness that he had kept at bay returned, making his eyes cold chips of ice. She could go on plotting but he would ensure his children never felt unsure and anxious due to a woman ever again. Even if it meant letting go of Iris. A woman who wanted revenge and used children for it was not for his household, no matter how much his body lusted after her.
He wrapped his arms around both his sons and met their eyes, “Ascolta me, mio figli. No matter what happens, you will always my love. “
“And mine.” Said Iris softly, making both the boys smile for a second, before they became serious again, when their father continued,” No person on this Earth can make you feel unsure when you have the love of your family, like I have of mine. Your mother didn’t wish to become a part of the family, and she is not our family, because she didn’t love you. Just because she didn’t love you doesn’t mean I don’t either. I will do everything in my power to give you no reason to be uncertain of my love, no matter what I have to do.” He said the last with a steely look at Iris, who had had her eyes fixed on the children.
With each word that came out of Alessandro’s mouth, her heart had sunk further and further, even the tiniest glimmer of hope dashed. His last statement though brought her head up, recognising his words for what they were- a father’s vow to go through any compromise in life, for the sake of his children and their happiness. They were not the words of a man who wanted to assure his children of their parents’ love; of the love of both a mother and father. They were the words of a man who didn’t trust her to love his children enough.
The children nodded solemnly at their father’s words. Antonio looked up with a bright smile at his father and said, “I love you Papa.”
Ernesto said equally fervently, “Me too Papa.”
Alessandro smiled at both his sons and kissed the top of their heads. Then he patted them lightly on their shoulders and said, “Enough with this now. Go on and get Mrs. Whittaker to take you to your room. Iris will join you in a bit.”
Both the boys looked at Iris, and at her nod, came up to her, hugged her, got hugged in return and left the room talking amongst themselves.
“Iris, look at me.”
Iris looked up and saw herself reflected into his eyes. The eyes that had first captured her when he had saved her from falling on the road mesmerised her with their intensity when they had met accidentally at the University; the eyes that always looked at her with fierce passion, the eyes that were a window to his soul and made her fall in love with him. Today those eyes reflected nothing of the kind. All she could see was his steely determination and no emotion.
“I want us to get married as soon as I get the license. I have already applied for a special license. Do you want anyone from your family to come to our wedding?”
At the shake of her head, he looked at her as if puzzled, then tried again.
“You don’t want anyone from your family to be present at our wedding?”
Iris shook her head again, not saying anything, controlling the dam of tears that could burst if she was not careful. She wanted to be as cold with him as he was with her. Taking a deep gulping breath as slowly and carefully as she could, she said, “No, I don’t want anybody.”
Alessandro looked at her intently. He knew how much she still cared for her family- the family that didn’t care for her. It would be tearing her apart from inside, he was sure, but his Iris was strong. If that was her wish, he would not ask her again and upset her anymore. So he shrugged and said,
“Okay, if that is what you wish. “ Then he paused and said, “I am not sure how you felt yesterday evening, when you came in and heard what you did, while I was talking to Mamma.”
She still didn’t look up, so he continued, “I apologise if I have hurt your feelings in any way. I wouldn’t wish to hurt you Iris. But it is the truth.” He gave her a look hot enough to melt her body as he said, “I still want you—badly. In fact if it were not for the respect I have for you, I would have already made you mine.”
Her eyes became hard chips of wood. She stood up and snapped, “I’m not that easy, and you know it Alessandro.”
Alessandro laughed softly as he got up to come towards her. With each step he took forward, Iris’s heart beat faster, her insides trembling with anger and perhaps excitement too, but she held her ground, her chin up.
He came close to her, his breath caressing her hair as he bent down to growl quietly in her ear, “Si, amore. You are not easy. I will wait until our wedding night, though it is bloody hard to keep my hands off you when you are so close.”
As she turned to move away from him, he caught hold of her arm, irritated. “Don’t walk away from me when I am talking to you. “
“You don’t order me around Alessandro Bertoni! Not unless we are at work, and you become my boss. And that perhaps is something that I wish to amend.” With a jerk, Iris got her arm free from his hand. She had a sneaky suspicion her words had surprised him enough to let her go so easily, but she was glad of it.
“Meaning?” Alessandro asked, his eyes narrowing.
“Meaning I wish to give my one month notice now. I don’t wish to work for Bertoni anymore.” Iris said quietly. “Also I would like to go to my parents’ place for two days. I don’t want them to come to the wedding, but I do wish to let them know in person.”