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.

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.