LOVE CONQUERS-Chapter 7

Chapter-7

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

LOVE CONQUERS- CHAPTER 4

A FEW MONTHS LATER

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

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

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

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

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

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

*flashback*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 *Flashback ends*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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