LOVE CONQUERS- CHAPTER 25

Chapter-25

love.falling

One should never have to wake up feeling sad and heartbroken, but that is exactly how Iris felt when she woke up the next morning.

Her tears from the previous night had dried on her cheeks, her neck felt like it had sprained, and she felt sick of life in general. But the softest of hearts must become strong and hardy, because life must go on despite broken hearts. She must pick up the pieces and move on. Or so she told herself, as she got out of the bed and went around doing her morning chores.

Dressed up early in slacks and a pale pink shirt, she went down and out into the garden. She had promised the children that she would break fast with them. Running away was not her style, however highly she was tempted to do it. Plus her heart broke, if it could break any further, at the thought of denying Ernesto and Antonio her love and affection. They were both such adorable boys!

As if thinking of them had conjured them up, both the boys came running out into the garden, with Mrs. Whittaker following them with a beaming smile.

“Good morning Ms. Florence. Congratulations, the boys told me the good news.”

Iris gathered herself to speak with a calm smile, “Thank you Mrs. Whittaker.” And then she turned to the boys who had wide smiles on their faces, while they clung to her legs. She bent down to their height and gave them each a smacking kiss, before saying, “And why are you both up so early? I thought I would come to wake you up.”

Ernesto gave her a shy smile, “We wanted to be with you Mamma.”

Her heart gave a little lurch at Ernesto’s words, and his calling her his mother. Iris knew he meant it from his heart. Iris wanted to claim the title and yet she knew she would be denying it. Before she could say anything to him though, Antonio also spoke up. “Papa came to us today morning and said you may have to leave today, because you have work to do. He said, until you become our Mamma, you are working and so we must respect this. “

Iris couldn’t help but hug both the boys, who spoke earnestly from their hearts.

“Oh my dears!” said she, “lets go for a small walk. Then we’ll come back and breakfast together- if that’s alright Mrs Whittaker?”

At her nod, she took each of their hand in hers and walked off towards her favourite area; that bit of wilderness that covered the distance between the villa she lived in and this one. On the way, both the boys kept on chattering about various things they could do when she next came to see them. They hoped it wouldn’t be too long before she really became their mother and came to stay with them forever. Ernesto voiced out his thoughts aloud shyly, while Antonio joyously and loudly echoed it. Iris, at a loss to understand how she would tell them that she wasn’t going to become their mother after all, felt depressed.

She had come to the conclusion while she had been dressing for the day that she wouldn’t marry Alessandro, after what she had heard him say the previous evening. She just couldn’t. Along with it, she had also reached to the conclusion that working for him would be impossible for her. She must quit her job and leave Italy. The question of where to go remained unsolved, but she didn’t care about it at this stage. She might have a holiday somewhere far away, where no one would remind her of Alessandro.

“Mamma! No Antonio! “

Startled at the high pitched command from Ernesto, Iris looked down to see Antonio picking up some soil from the ground to eat it.

Quickly Iris bent down and caught Antonio’s hand before he could put it in his mouth. It was a second too late however, since he ate it anyway. A wide grin broke on his face as she said, “It’s tasty!”

Iris laughed softly and cleaned the palm of his hand. Then she kissed it and said, “Oh well, we’ll just have to feed you with some seeds now. And then you’ll have small plants growing in your stomach.”

At the look of horror on Antonio’s face, she ruffled his hair teasingly, “How do you like the idea?”

Looking at her with the faith only a child could bestow upon an adult, Antonio grinned, “Then I will not have to eat vegetables to grow into a strong man. “ Looking at Ernesto, he said, “See? Mamma will always have nice solutions. I will have strawberry seeds Mamma.”

Iris laughed loudly this time and said, “There is no escaping vegetables little man. Carrots, Tomatoes, Cabbage, Peas, –” She stopped at the look on their faces and grinned, “Which reminds me, we need to get back to the house for break fast. “

“Can I also have Strawberry seeds Mamma?” Ernesto asked shyly.

Iris grabbed hold of him with her other hand and said, “Yes, you can poppet. In your strawberry jam.”

And so they went back to the house, smiling-hand in hand. This is how Alessandro saw them from his window, while he was taking a meeting on the phone meeting.

He had got up in the morning, recalling the incident from yesterday evening, and the look on Iris’ face before she had turned away from him. He didn’t like the thought of Iris being hurt in any way. His eyes turned stormy grey at the thought of anything hurting Iris. And then he grimaced. He had a feeling he had hurt her. He had no idea how he would make things right back between them again, but he knew he had to.

The sight of his children and Iris together made him stop mid-sentence over the phone.  Stormy grey turned glinting green in seconds as a fierce wave of possessiveness and pride grabbed him from the scruff of his neck. Iris looked enchanting in her pale pink shirt. And she was a natural mother, for she treated his sons as her own. He groaned, feeling blood draining south at the thought of giving her his seed- at the thought of fathering another daughter or son.  He muttered something and ended the call. Long strides made their way down. He was going to breakfast with his children and his future wife.

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.

LOVE CONQUERS- CHAPTER 16

Chapter-16

love.falling

The kiss was not just gentle but also a declaration of affection, if but she knew it, as she kissed him. Iris felt the answering warm and gentle pressure of Alessandro’s lips. She moved a little away and stretched herself further, with their bodies inches apart but mouths moving together, against each other.

It was a slow kiss, with no sense of urgency or passion that had gone out of control. And yet it was full of hidden fire and gentle affection, with her lips just moving at a lazy pace against his, as they explored the softness of hers. She kissed him slow and soft, touching her tongue to his lower lip and then kissing softly again, touching it to the upper lip, varying the pressure slightly from time to time as he did, but never the speed of the movement. In return, Alessandro gave as much as he got and at the same pace.

He had kissed many women but none like this. It was a “getting-to-know-you” kind of kiss; an exploration. It spoke of innocence, gentleness and yet contained hunger of romance. He felt almost like a teenager again, giving and receiving his first kiss that spoke of attraction and sweet promises, but mindful of touching and outreaching boundaries of that exploration too quickly. It was a kiss where they both tentatively gauged each other’s responses and answered it in kind, where they tried to see how their partnership could be worked out in the most intimate manner. Both could feel the tremors going through each other’s bodies but they still didn’t touch.

Alessandro didn’t gather her to him, but respectfully kept to her wishes. He didn’t even put his arms around her shoulders or her waist. She didn’t put her arms around his neck or caught on to his shoulders. Strangely they supported each other still… by their lips and felt a roar of desire go through them.

It felt as it had been an eternity but was only a few dreamy minutes, when Alessandro lifted his mouth from hers. He looked lost and bemused, as if not sure where he was. Iris licked her lips as he lifted his, eyes still closed. He looked at her and felt a wave of protective tenderness sweeping him. As if still not in possession of his complete senses, he muttered, “Your mouth is so surprisingly soft & sweet. It doesn’t at all give an indication of how flaying that razor sharp tongue of yours can be.”

Iris smiled and replied, eyes still closed, “What can I say? You bring out the shrew in me.”

Alessandro sounded amused as he chuckled loudly. He sounded so totally male then that Iris opened her eyes. Her belly quivered at the look on his face and her heart raced madly. He brought his hand up to cup her cheek, his thumb stroking her skin as he met her eyes, making love to her tenderly with them. “So innocent, so sweet.” He murmured.

Iris blushed hotly as she heard him. He had no idea how innocent she was. With Sunny, it had only ever been a few kisses and some touching around but she’d never been made love to by a man. She wondered if virginity was something that showed upon a person and then chided herself for her ridiculousness. She was a woman from twenty-first century, not some Victorian maiden who’d feel embarrassed about such matters.

Attempting to sound and look as normal as she could, as if she kissed men every day in such a manner, she put a hand on her hair and turned away to say, “Yes well, I must go back in. I’ve heaps of work to get through today if I’m to come to meet the boys on the weekend.”

Alessandro looked at her oddly and looked about to contradict her words, but then paused and nodded in acceptance. As Iris left, Alessandro hit his head lightly against the olive tree and sighed. He had no idea what was happening to him but he felt like jelly from inside, with his heart quivering. It was – an experience he could do without, he told himself. He had only planned on securing a caring mother for his children, not a wife who could make him fall on his knees. He feared Iris would do that, given a chance. He wanted her with an intensity, like he’d wanted nothing more before and he’d not need anything after her. He would have to be careful, he decided. Seduce her to fall in with his plan, but keep a distance when it came to emotions. Nodding at himself in agreement, he started his journey back to the farmhouse.

Iris didn’t see Alessandro alone for the rest of the afternoon. Granted, she knew he was around because she heard him at times, talking to one of the staff or the other. When she was in the vineyard, she heard him nearby, talking with the estate manager and gauging the next crop for better production levels. She moved away from his voice, trying to focus solely on her work. The incident in the morning had her shaken enough, she didn’t want her emotions to go out of control as long as he was around.

Late afternoon, Iris had retired to her room for a rest and it was almost time for coffee. She went downstairs, conscious that she had changed her clothes. She was now dressed in a pale blue skirt with small daisies embroidered on it and a cream white sleeveless top. Exactly why she wanted to change from her morning attire of jeans and checked shirt, she was not sure but she only knew she wanted to look better than she looked in the morning.

It was as she was on her second cup of coffee that Alessandro came into the room. He looked more tanned and tired, with his hair standing up like he’d been mussing it with his hands while working. There were some leaves stuck to his hair too although it didn’t look like he was bothered with his appearance. In truth, he still looked rakishly handsome-dashing- a sexy workman if you like. He looked at Iris, looking cool and collected, drinking her coffee and sat down beside her.

“Rested enough?” He asked, helping himself to coffee and sandwiches on the table.

“Yes, thank you. I shall get back to work after coffee though.” Replied Iris as she picked up the buttered toast on her plate and ate it.

“You would work in this?” Alessandro looked pointedly at her skirt and Iris blushed with annoyance.

“I’ve got to work in the office. This is pleasantly cool for sitting in the room and working.  Unless you want me to go back outside and work on something specific?” Iris replied, her calm almost deserting her.

“No, I don’t want you to go outside and work on anything specific. Do your work as you plan to do it.” And at her nod of agreement, he bent a little closer to her so that she sat back in her chair, eyes wide, “Don’t put thoughts in my head, Iris.” Alessandro muttered darkly, leaving her sitting there with her mouth open & staring after him.

Iris finished her work at about six-thirty and stretched her hands. She’d been working non-stop since about four, but she was happy that her report was ready. She emailed it to Felipe and Felice Bertoni and decided to call it a day.

“Work done?” Alessandro called from the doorway, startling Iris. She smiled back and said, “Yes Signor—“ and at his look, hastily amended, “Alessandro. I am done for the day. Tomorrow there is more office work for half a day and then I have meetings on the phone and online with Luigi-Signor Matteo and both Signore Bertonis.”

“Ah yes-about that. Felipe is going to come visiting next week and he has proposed that we go to Cortona to attend the Sagra della Bisteca. It is the almost the end of summer and there is the last of wine tasting that must be done. It would be educational tour for you as well as a kind of holiday from daily paperwork.”

At her hesitation, he spoke with amusement in his voice, “Do not worry Tesoro. I will not be there. I have to go Luxembourg for another wine festival.”

Iris lowered her eyes to hide her disappointment that he would be away, but her voice was no indication of her feelings as she said casually, “Very well. It would be fun going out and getting to know my boss better.”

“I am your boss, not he.” Said Alessandro, invading her space and coming closer to her, a little irritated at her casualness. She could at least look a little disappointed for missing his company!

“Noted. You’re both my bosses and you are my employer.” Iris said, her voice devoid of hurt she felt. So he considered her only as an employee. Why then did he kiss her? Did he do it frequently? Did he kiss female employees that he was attracted to or that he had taken a fancy to, she wondered. The questions in her head didn’t help her feeling any better. She excused herself and said, “I must go back to my room. I am tired and need to freshen up.”

“What are your plans this evening?” Asked Alessandro, not giving up, still looming. When she still didn’t meet his eyes, he put his finger under her chin and made her look up. He could see the pulse beating fast at the base of her throat. She avoided looking straight into his eyes, he noted. She said, “I plan to eat a quiet dinner, early and retire to my room with a book. The library here is full of literary delights.”

“I see.” He said and let her go. Iris was quick to leave the room, breathing a little fast as she walked up to her bedroom. Once she freshened up, she sat down & laid her head on the work table instead of laying down on the bed, still thinking about Alessandro. Sighing deeply, she closed her eyes and let her mind go blank for some time.

It could not have been more than a few minutes when there was a knock on her door. Iris opened her eyes, wondering what anyone could want from her. Normally the housekeeping knew the hours she kept. Most of them would  have already left the farmhouse to go back to their own homes, with the exception of Beppe and Maria who stayed until she had retired for the night. She called out, “Come in.” and straightened up in her chair.

The door opened to let Alessandro enter. Iris got up so quickly from her chair that she nearly fell over it. “Alessandro! What are you doing here?”

He came quietly further into her room, his mind taking in her personal touches given to the room. There was a vase of flowers on the bedside table and the window sill, photo frames with– he assumed, the photo of her family standing together during some function or the other and another with a woman standing in her wedding finery with her groom. Alessandro recognised her from the photos of his private investigator. That was Estelle, Iris’s previous flatmate, who’d married an Indian guy. The rest of the room looked well-kept and neat.

He came to stand beside her as she looked at him warily. “Have dinner with me this evening. We can go out into the city.” Said he.

“No- No, thank you.” Replied Iris, moving a little away from him and standing by the window.

Alessandro felt annoyed by her move as well as her reply. He tried to keep cool, “So let me get this straight. You won’t have dinner with me, you won’t go out with me despite the fact that you’re not involved with anyone at this time, not waiting for anyone. Why keep yourself so distant? Why this reluctance to give in to the attraction that flared between us right from the first time we collided with each other?”

Iris was shocked at his bluntness. “I- um- I-“ She tried to form words but she couldn’t. He stood up and moved to where she was, determination oozing out of every pore of his body as he stated, “I want you Iris. You know this, just as well as you know that you want me. It is inevitable that we will make love. But that is something I can wait for. I’m a patient man. But why not dine with me? I promise I will not eat you –until you let me.” The last bit came out in deep and husky tones, notifying Iris of how much he wanted her. It made goose bumps stand on her body, but she resolutely refused her body’s cravings. She was not weak.

She spoke, giving an indication of her intent and her muddled thoughts, “I think it’s a bit rude of you to talk like that. You are my employer and I’m just another employee in your big organisation. I don’t dare presume that you are like this with all women in our company, but I am sure you wouldn’t take them out simply because they catch your fancy. You came to the farmhouse on an errand, not to wine and dine me. So asking me out to dinner is a bit odd, you must see that. “

“Should I come here simply to see you? Would that have made you happy?” Alessandro asked, interested in her reply.

“Yes-no. No, that is not-“Iris gave a jumbled reply and then turned to him, “Look, I don’t want to go, to take this any further. I don’t want to go out with you.”

Alessandro quirked his eyebrow, “You’re not flattered that you’ve er-caught my fancy in such a short period that we’ve known each other. We’ve had lunch together twice now.”

Iris let her hands fly in the air in frustration as she moved forward and he backward, “Business lunch, yes. But it’s not the same thing! We do NOT know each other, short time or otherwise. We are not friends. You are my boss, I’m just another woman in your employ. I don’t know you at all. Don’t you understand that?”

“Why not have dinner with me then? We can rectify this situation and get to know each other better.” He noticed that somehow while they’d been arguing, she had manoeuvred him closer to the closed door; almost as if she was kicking him out.

Iris shook her head at him, her pale hand tightening on the door handle that she had in her grasp now. To his disbelief, she turned the knob and opened the door. He was correct! He, Alessandro Bertoni was being shown the door! Had it not been happening to him, he was sure he could have found the humour in the situation. He had never before come across a woman who could not only resist him, but also ask him firmly to get lost. He was aware that he was blessed with good looks, athlete body, brains and wealth; a combination that was irresistible to women. He couldn’t credit the fact that the woman standing in front of him was a huge exception to this rule. He tried again, “Consider it cara. I’ve never yet have to plead a woman to come to dinner with me.”

Iris was firm, her hand holding the door knob in a death grasp, “I don’t think so, but thank you for the invitation Alessandro.”

Alessandro pushed himself away from the door, not taking his eyes off Iris’s face. Despite the incredulous situation, all he could see was her. Her marvellous skin, almost translucent and bare of make-up, developing a rosy blush at his stare, the sincerity in her eyes, her golden brown hair shining in the light from the room. She was so far off from the blondes and ebony haired women he usually preferred to go out with. And yet, she was the only one he wanted.

He took her hand, catching  her by surprise with his gesture. He turned it, palm upwards and brought it close to his mouth, pressing a gentle kiss against her soft skin. The gesture was pure wickedness, so wickedly Italian in flirtation.

Iris felt a thrill of excitement run through her body, despite her best efforts. She went red. She didn’t know why she was so adamant in her refusal of his invitation when she really craved his company, his touch. At the look in his eyes when he kissed her hand, she felt treacherous excitement curling inside of her, right from the tips of her toes to her dazed brown eyes, locked with his grey-green. She was nervous, yet fascinated with him.

“Come down at eight. I will be waiting.” He said softly and kissed her lightly on her mouth.

Before she could open her mouth however, he was gone, leaving her alone in the room with his touch on her hand and lips, and his scent in her nostrils.

LOVE CONQUERS-CHAPTER 13

Chapter-13

love.falling

It was when they were done with lunch and on to dessert of freshly made Ice-cream that Alessandro raised the topic.

“Antonio and Ernesto have been asking for you. They wish for you to visit them since you’re so close to us in Siena. I have told them I will bring you with me this weekend.”
Iris nearly spluttered the water she had been drinking. She looked up at him and without thinking said, “You’re crazy, you know that, don’t you?”

Alessandro looked at her with interest, his eyes betraying his amusement. “Why is that?”

Iris got up from her seat, her eyes flashing fire. “Excuse me while I go and get a gun to shoot your arrogance.”
Alessandro laughed softly, “So angry, eh?”

Iris shook her head and mocked him, “Anger is wasted on you Signore. I simply feel scorn for you, assuming things and making decisions you have no right to make.”

Alessandro got up too and looked at her, his emerald eyes hard, the smile gone. “What would you have me do Iris? Tell the children that you’re too full of yourself to come and visit them? That I may need to ask you first and you may actually think about it and reject their request?”

Iris visibly melted, “I never said I—it’s not that I don’t – look, why couldn’t you have asked me first before going ahead and accepting their request all by yourself?”

Alessandro bowed his head in acceptance, “I agree. I –er was hasty in acceptance. So I shall tell them now that you wish to visit them but may be not this weekend? “

Iris sat down again, a little calm now that he had accepted his mistake. “I didn’t say I wouldn’t like to meet them this weekend. But I have no idea where you live or how would I go to meet them?”

“If you wouldn’t jump with annoyance again, I may suggest that you can spend the weekend at my place with them. “ At her alarmed look, he continued smoothly, “No need to be alarmed. I’m going to be away for much of the time and you would have a chaperone- my mother.”

He chuckled at her visible relief at his statement and enquired, “So what is your decision?”

Iris smiled a little, “Yes, I’d like to visit them and spend the weekend with them, thank you.”

“Bene. I will make the arrangements and let you know.” Alessandro said and left it there. They talked about other things as they sipped their coffee. Iris was inwardly surprised to find that she found it easy to talk to him when he was not being arrogant or acting the boss. It was disturbing in a way since she’d never been so comfortable with any one. He asked questions cunningly and gently and before she knew it she had told him all about her problems with her family and the present situation.

“So Marguerite is the golden child of the family and you’re the odd one out.” Alessandro surmised quietly, his blood boiling with rage at the family’s treatment of Iris. He thought she was beautiful. He had dated many supermodels and actresses but he couldn’t remember a single face that had etched itself in his memory like Iris did. A little surprised to find himself thinking so deeply of her, he excused himself. After all, he was planning a future where she was included. Why should it be surprising that his body and his brain remembered her and ached for her? He would soon have to find a way of bringing her to his way of thinking. But not yet.

Iris looked at him and wondered what he was thinking about. Probably he was wondering why he was wasting time with the likes of her when he could have many women like Marguerite at his beck and call? Iris shook her head as if to disperse the thought of Alessandro with other women. It was no business of hers what he did.

Frantically, she searched what they had been talking about. Finally she caught the thread and said, “ Yes. She is quite beautiful you know. And now she is blissfully happy too, to be married to the man she loves.” She smiled as she said this although the smile held a hint of sadness. Alessandro wondered at that and he found a chance to put his question forth.

“And you Iris? Have you no plans ? No dreams to get married and have a horde of babies? No plans to fall in love? ”

He was astonished to see her face close quickly; before he could discern any expression on her face or recognize it. Her voice was cold and her manner stiff as she said, “I dream of forwarding in my career. I have no dreams of getting married Signore. Love is but an illusion and I can’t run after it.”

“Why not? Do you hold a broken-heart?” Came Alessandro’s curt question.

Iris looked at him, her eyes wooden brown and blazing with anger, “None of your damn business!”

Alessandro swiftly got up and took hold of her arm as Iris got up and tried to walk away.

“Why so edgy? Are you in love with someone who will not love you back?”

Iris tried to free her hand but his grip was firm. She struggled and gritted her teeth, “Let me go, you-damn you to hell!”

“You and me both.” Muttered Alessandro before capturing her mouth with his.

Iris could fight with him, argue with him and curse him but she had no weapons to slay him when he kissed her like that. Her body melted in his arms and she kissed him back, her arms holding his shirt as the kiss deepened. They forgot the time and the place; nothing existed but each other and their lips. Alessandro held her tight and close to him, his mouth moving over hers, seducing her senses; his tongue playing along with hers in an age old dance of passion.

How long the kiss continued, Iris wasn’t sure but it was the discreet call of the mobile that roused them both from their passionate slumber. It was Alessandro’s mobile. Shocked at her own wild response to him, Iris pushed him and turned away from him, her eyes filled with tears.

Alessandro cursed softly as he picked up the phone from an unlisted number. “Si?” His voice was abrupt but it softened as he heard the voice at the other end. Iris heard his excited voice saying, “Bella mia! How are you? It’s been quite some time since you were gone.”

Two tears fell down her cheeks and Iris wiped them away angrily. She had been foolish by responding to him. It was then that the realization seeped in. She loved him!!

How it had happened she knew not, she only knew now that she loved him. And hadn’t she told him that love makes one disillusioned ? That was exactly how she felt right now. He had kissed her not a moment back and here he was- talking to someone over the phone, a woman no doubt,  that he was happy to hear from. Jealousy reared its head and she swatted it away. Even if she had been stupid enough to fall in love with a play boy, she would not be so foolish as to ever let him see how she felt. She could now only kick herself for kissing him so enthusiastically and letting him see her attraction for him visibly.

A part of her argued- his kisses didn’t feel alien; they felt not just passionate but – they felt as if there was passion mixed with affection and something stronger. She shook her head at her own foolishness. She swallowed her tears. How could she have thought—she walked away from him as he still talked enthusiastically over the phone, oblivious of her departure.

LOVE CONQUERS- CHAPTER 12

Chapter-12

love.falling

There are very few regions in the world today that are rich in natural and architectural beauties as well as filled with history. Tuscany is one of those regions that has it all and if one lived here long enough, one would never want to venture out in to the world again. Be it the art of living or hearty eating, Tuscany is well cultivated in it all. And Siena to Iris, seemed like the major concentration point of all that is good in the entire region.

Surprisingly, she had been accepted readily into the fold by the gentle and friendly people of Siena. The vineyard itself was placed a little farther away from the main centre of the town. It was a huge piece of land; about 24,000 Hectares of vineyard, with another 12,000 Hectares of arable land for future planting and 20,000 Hectares of Olive groves. There was also a wide expanse of wilderness on one side of the land. The workers told her it was more than 5,000 Hectares of wood land that belonged to the Bertoni family as well.  She often went for long walks along the path but had been asked to not go beyond the gravel road that led to a couple of private houses and villa.

Iris had also been taken into the cellar for a visit during the first days and informed that this was where new bottles were kept to age. The wines were sold not only in the domestic market but were quite popular in the International market as well.  Vernaccia di San Gimignano, Vin Santo, Chianti Colli Senesi  and Rosato were some of the few wines that were well known from this vineyard.

This particular farmland produced not just wine but also Olive oil. It had been awarded too for producing the best organic Italian white wine some years back. She was also shown the small bottling plant, the refrigeration plant and the tanks that were insulated for vinification of white and red wine. There was also a storage room where aged and ready to be sold wines were kept and a huge staff room where everyone met for lunch and coffee.

No wonder Alessandro Bertoni was so arrogant; what with him being so rich, and having the world fall at his feet, thought Iris. He was a hundred folds far removed from her class of people. Somehow that thought had annoyed her and also saddened her. She had diverted the focus thus, to the place where she was putting up during her stay here.

The house could hardly be called small. She had been informed that the housekeeping and the working staff stayed not far away from the main farmhouse, in their own little cottages. The farmhouse was basically a villa with three floors that held 5 bedrooms, a huge drawing room, a study, work room, a library, a nursery and some other rooms that were undefined yet. A huge swimming pool in the back side of the house was surrounded by just as big a garden, with some space reserved for vegetables. An orchard on the side held lovely tropical fruits that bore fruit some time of the year. It had taken Iris an entire day to tour around the house with the housekeeper, Bepe.

Iris mused about the whole experience as she ventured out with her note book. It was really more of a holiday than work, thought she, when she had to roam about in the vineyards like this; learning more about cultivation and growth of the grapes and enjoying the warm weather. Every day spent in the sun had given her a healthy tan and a lovely glow to her skin. She was back out again today, learning dedicatedly the art of grape cultivation from the people who worked in it and lived in it, day and night.  Keeping in mind the warnings from the workers at the vineyard about the harsh sun, Iris kept to herself when swimming or tanning, but was always suitably covered and dressed when working, to avoid unnecessary fuss. Today she wore lovely green harem pants and a brown tunic top while working with the rest of the team.

Iris was happy to go into the town in her free time and explore the streets. She had been given a car; a Fiat and she loved to drive it across the town. Mostly she parked the car in one place and walked. It was fun. She loved going back to the central piazza “Il Campo” and gaze at the surroundings. The first time she had seen it, she remembered where she’d seen it before- she’s seen this very same place in the James Bond movie, “Quantum of Solace”.

Despite the initial hiccups, she thought she had settled well into the routine since the last two weeks. It is true that the first two days, she had been jumpy and wondered if Alessandro would show up unexpectedly to keep an eye on her. But when days turned into a week, she relaxed. She felt her fears with regard to her career and Alessandro’s attention had been baseless and she even scorned herself for it. Why would a man of such wealth and arrogance be interested in her anyway? She was after all, not into his class or society of people. She was just an employee and she had been asked to learn the ropes of wine industry so that she could move forward in her career. It had been silly to see things into it. She shook her head at her own stupidity and walked on towards the patch of land she was supposed to pay attention to.

The matter of fact was, she had not been silly at all to think that Alessandro would come to see her, for he did- the very next day. Had she but known it, she might have also wondered about his intentions. As such, she had no idea what was in store for her. She also did not know that Alessandro had in fact been living very close to where she had been put up. The gravel path, from where she had been deterred from, was the route to the villa where Alessandro lived with his two sons, his mother and his staff.

Alessandro meant to kept Iris in the dark about his plans for her—at least for some time. He had gone to meet his godfather and had been sternly advised to scrap his plan. According to his god father, even if his plan succeeded, he would regret the whole of it the day his intentions behind it and the deviousness with which he set it about would get revealed. Secretly Alessandro feared the same thing but he’d never admit to it of course. Somewhere he wanted Iris to keep on holding him in high regard. However, he had no intention of letting his plan slide, despite his godfather’s advice. He was going to ensure the truth would never out. And for that, it was essential that he kept his plans to himself, not making any one a partner to it.

He had obviously kept up with news of her. It was amazing news about her kept on trickling in; about how much the staff at the vineyard liked her.  He got good reports not just from his housekeeping staff about how neat and helping she was, but also from the working and the administration staff on how meticulously she was learning grape growing and wine production. He decided to pay a little visit knowing by now, she’d have relaxed and wouldn’t be expecting it. He grinned, quite resembling his young sons when they were up to something naughty.

And so it happened that he actually made Iris jump when he appeared. It was dark in the corner where Iris had been standing, inspecting the small vines that would one day produce luscious grape. She had been completely unprepared for his,

“So this is where I find you- in the mysterious dark.”

“Dear Lord!” Exclaimed Iris once she had shrieked and turned around. She hated him, absolutely! “You had no right to come up sneaking behind me and scaring me like that! What a silly thing to do!”

Iris sounded cross and Alessandro loved to rile her. He grinned now as he looked her up from head to toe. Her hair was disheveled, which of course is no surprise since he knew she’d been roaming about the place since morning, taking notes and working out things.  She had tied it on top of her head and now it looked untidy though not at all bad. The look suited her, he decided. She was wearing harem pants in brown with a half sleeve sky blue top and a hat lay on the ground. Her feet were sensibly encased in boots. In reply to her annoyed statement, he thought, “Not yet, I have no right but will- soon.”

Aloud he said, “I’m sorry to have startled you. I am very happy to see that you’re taking deep interest in vines and production side of the business. Have you been treated well here?”

Iris instantly became professional like. Her heart was thundering loudly but she ignored it. Though she wouldn’t admit it even to herself, she was happy to see him. His scrutiny had seared her insides but she’d rather not let him know that, considering he sounded polite and businesslike. She smiled gently and said, “Oh yes, thank you Signore. The staff here is the best and has helped me a lot in learning most things regarding production, planting, refrigeration and so on. The housekeeping is most attentive.”

“I’m glad to hear of it. I have asked Maria to lay the table outside on the patio. Would you care to join me for lunch?”

Though it had been posed as a question, Iris knew it was a demand of her boss. Probably he wanted to know what she’d learned and how far she’d progressed in her training. She nodded and said, “I’d like to, thank you.”

As they approached the patio, they saw Bepe and Maria hovering by the table. Bepe gave Alessandro a big smile and spoke in Italian, “It has been long since you came here to stay.”

Alessandro replied, sitting down, “Soon I will come to stay and bring Antonio and Ernesto with me. Mamma has been asking me to take a break and give her one too.”

Bepe chuckled, “More likely she wants you to take a wife to bring here. When do you marry Signore? Have you chosen a bride yet?”

Iris listened to the conversation, astonished that Bepe could talk to Alessandro in such an informal manner. Alessandro looked at her as if understanding her surprise and said, “Bepe was my mother’s special maid before she came here. She has known me since I was a boy.”

He looked at Bepe, smiling and said, “I have chosen the bride Bepe but it remains to be seen if she chooses me.”

Bepe flapped her hands in the air as if dismissing the question, “Nonsense, there is no woman who will reject you Signor Alessandro and you know it.”

Iris looked down at the plate in front of her as she tried to understand her feelings. All this talk of Alessandro getting married was getting to her. She had no idea why she should feel so sad all of a sudden but she couldn’t dismiss the feeling of desolation that swept over her as she heard Alessandro saying that he had chosen a woman for his bride.

Alessandro looked at Iris’s down bent head and then at Bepe. She, a woman of wisdom watched Alessandro in return, nodded her head when he looked at her and softly said, “Yes, perhaps there is someone who can put you in your place if she says no and then yes? It will all work out in the end.”

Alessandro smiled at Bepe as she left them to go into the kitchen. He hoped so too that it will all turn out to be well in the end.

LOVE CONQUERS-CHAPTER 10

Chapter 10

As the clock moved closer to five o’clock, Iris felt the edgy nervousness taking hold of her. She had avoided everyone after lunch and on a plea of headache had excused herself. Lorenzo was the only one she had confided in about meeting Alessandro’s sons and then their request to her to come and see them in the evening. Lorenzo had made sympathetic noises and insisted that she should definitely keep up her appointment with those two little cherubs.

“I think it is most awful that their mother doesn’t care for them at all. Bless Alessandro for taking care of them completely by himself. His mother help him of course but I listen to gossip that she now insists he get married soon and bring a mother for the kids. It is so difficult! Of course no woman can say no to Alessandro and his wealth. Maybe that’s why he takes his time to choose his bride.”

Iris had little sympathy for Alessandro in this case. She didn’t want to think too deeply about why the little information about him being chased by many women irked her so much but she told herself it was because she didn’t like his womanizing ways in the first place. All her sympathy was for his sons. And they were the reason why at about five to five, Iris found herself walking towards the private wing of the Villa Bertoni.

As she crossed the reception area of the private wing, where she had been asked to go up to the nursery, Iris looked around. This part of the villa was just as large, built in stone with peaked roofs. She looked at the living rooms as she passed it. passed—a huge fireplace dominated the far end of the wall with windows flanking it. The furnishings looked oversize and comfortable. The sofas looked so plush that Iris felt as if one would probably be sucked into them if one sat on them. With that imagination to the fore of her mind, she grinned as she reached the nursery.

 

She found herself in a charming room on the second floor. The room-if one could call this huge space a room, was divided into two parts. One side of it looked like a playroom and dining room combined together for the children. Iris could see her favourite cars, superhero models and other lots of stuff that she had no idea about displayed in the shelves. The other side of the room overlooked the garden below and was charmingly furnished, with a narrow canopied beds, a dressing table under its window and two small easy chairs flanking a small round table. The colour scheme was a mixture of pastel colours and the furniture was of some pale wood she didn’t recognise.

 

There was a large cupboard and a little door led to a bathroom. Overall, Iris felt, it was homely; furnished as well as designed to be child-friendly and yet with the comfortable chairs at the side of the bedroom and dining room, it was also adult friendly.

 

She wondered where the children were, looking around. And instantly caught her breath. Alessandro stood in one corner watching her looking for boys. Next to him, sitting down were two boys playing some sort of board game. She looked at them with a tender smile that froze on her face when she met Alessandro’s eyes. She almost forgot to breathe.

 

If she had off handedly thought of him as dashing in his business suit, looking sophisticated and dynamic, he was absolutely delicious looking in the casual attire.

Iris’s heart beat faster as she took in his appearance, absently noting that he was also returning the favour. He was dressed in navy crewneck sweater with dark cords and black boots; in short he looked unbearably sexy. His hair was a little disheveled, probably from playing with the kids but it only served to give him a breath taking look. His eyes were green emeralds and so intriguing! For a second, Iris wished she had come to him for a different reason and not for his children.

 

The thought fired her body up. What would it be like to be taken into his arms tenderly and be kissed ? No doubt his wife would have known the bliss of being loved in his arms. The thought was like ice cold bucket of water over the fire of her desire. She immediately chastised herself for her silly thoughts and assumed a calm face with a polite smile on it.

 

“Good evening. I hope I’m not too late.” Her voice sounded rusty and she cleared her throat.

“Not at all.” He replied. “You’re right on time. They’ve just finished with the board game; they’re playing junior scrabble.”

“Ah.” For the life of her, Iris couldn’t compose any other reply as he stood there, still staring at her. Anticipating the fact that children may like to play something energetic like football, Iris had put on plain lilac top over pale green tights. Iris could feel the air vibrating with sexual tension and she tried to break it. Before she could, however a voice exclaimed with joy and within a few seconds two mini tornadoes came rushing towards her, almost making her fall.

“You are here!”

Iris grinned at both of them and said, “Yes, here I am! What have you two been doing with yourselves?”

“We play scrabble. I win.” Said the boy who stood next to her, holding a side of her leg. Iris picked him up and smiled at him, “You must be really smart!” She grimaced and then made a sad face, “But I’m not so smart. I don’t know which one of you is Antonio and which one is Ernesto. Help me out per favore?”

 

The boy in his arms smiled and looked at his Papa. Alessandro had, in the meanwhile picked up the other one. At a nod from him the child spoke, “Papa holds Ernesto and I am Antonio. I am younger than Ernesto by 3 minutes.”

 

Alessandro added quietly, “If you look at him, Antonio has a small scar at the side of his forehead. He fell down from the chair when he was about two. This is how we can easily distinguish them.”

 

“How clever of you!” Iris exclaimed, beaming at Alessandro and then at Ernesto who smiled shyly back.
Iris put Antonio down as he started wriggling and said, “Now that you’ve got me here, what do you want us to do?”

Antonio grabbed her hand and took her to the play area with Alessandro and Ernesto following. As they stopped by the play area, Iris saw exactly what they wanted to do. There was a small area that was made into a football practice area for the children and beside it was a miniature football field.

Iris exclaimed with the right amount of delight in her voice at the small football field made with miniature footballers. There were various miniature footballers standing on one side as well, neatly lined with their country flag. She turned to give a smiling look to both Antonio and Ernesto, “You mean, I can join you two smart boys in playing with these amazing footballers?”

 

“Si!” Ernesto spoke up this time, sounding happy. A small shadow of doubt passed his face, “Will you really join us to play football in this?”

Iris looked at Ernesto with all seriousness and just a glimpse of a smile, her heart going out to the little boy plagued with doubts. She said firmly but softly, “If you have no objections, yes- I would very much like to play in this field. Of course you shall choose the country we play for, ne?”

 

Ernesto looked at her with a broad smile on his face for the first time, “Yes, we play. Papa?”

 

Alessandro nodded, very happy to see Ernesto responding positively to a gesture of friendship. He had never imagined his plan working well and with a bonus too! He looked at his eldest son, now busy in explaining to Iris the workings of the football field. She was listening to it with interest and seemed to be asking the right questions. A smile curved around Alessandro’s mouth looking at Ernesto so sincere and in such a talkative mood for once.

 

Ernesto was in essence not very different from his younger brother but about a year ago, he had suddenly become quiet and an introvert. Iris was the first woman of his acquaintance outside his family that Ernesto had spoken to or smiled at.

 

It was only when Alessandro had gently pursued in knowing the truth that it had come exploding out. His wife had threatened Ernesto, scared him so badly that he could never trust  anyone around him. For months after, Ernesto had had nightmares and cried out for his Papa in his sleep. He wouldn’t let anyone else, not even the nanny touch him or feed him until bless their grandmother, they had found a gem of a nanny in Mrs. Whittaker. Ernesto spoke to her apart from his Nonna and his aunts but that was the extent of his contact with women.

 

Alessandro had seen to it that his ex-wife would never be able to come near his children again. She had after a certain point of negotiation, signed off all rights to them in return for a few million Euros. She had no motherly bone in her body. He grimaced inwardly and then shook his head. Now was not the time to think about that. It was time to see Ernesto respond to a stranger, a woman. He sat by the window chair, watching Iris getting acquainted with both his boys. He’d wondered today morning after the kids met Iris if he was doing the right thing. He wasn’t so impulsive as a rule, especially where his sons were concerned. But now he felt as if he was on the right track. He marveled at the fact that both his sons seem happy in the company of a stranger for the first time and then shrugged. The women of his acquaintance were mostly interested in him and gave a side glance to the children so the children stayed reserved towards them. Iris being not really interested in him, showed genuine emotion and reactions to them, so it was no wonder that they were responding beautifully to her; laughing and generally having fun.

 

It irked him that she could talk freely and laugh with them but not him. He gave a start at that thought. Where had that come from? Sure he wanted her and if the plan worked well, his sons will have her company for a long time but feelings-his feelings surely didn’t enter into it! Suddenly she looked up and their eyes met each other. Alessandro felt his whole body tense with desire. He decided to join in the fun.

 

Iris was enjoying herself with Ernesto and Antonio. Both the kids were quite smart and sportive. Every time they laughed, her heart near melted. The boys possessed cleft chin like their father and when they smiled a dimple appeared in their left cheek. The boys had hair a shade darker than Alessandro. She wondered if their mother was dark haired. She glanced at Alessandro and instantly felt her heart race at the way he was looking at her. Still holding her eyes, he got up and came towards them. His voice was husky and curled her toes when he said, “I think I will also join in the fun. Would you allow me to play with you Iris?”

 

Iris felt her heart flutter. Obviously he didn’t mean playing together with the boys as was apparent from the meaning and huskiness in his voice. She decided it would be the best to not answer.

 

As it was about to be six, it would also be the right time to call the nanny and dinner served to the boys. As Alessandro joined his boys by kneeling down beside them, Iris got up. Three pair of green grey eyes looked at her questioningly.

Iris stuttered an explanation, “I-I-will c-call Mrs. Whittaker. It’s about to be six.”

Antonio sat close to where Iris stood. He said, “Just a few more minutes please! Play with us.”

Before Iris could say anything, he pulled her hand “Let’s all play together just this once.”

Iris gave a small squeak as she felt herself falling. When Antonio had pulled her hand, she had been caught unawares and her legs folded beneath her. She closed her eyes, expecting to meet the floor. Instead she found herself in Alessandro’s lap when she opened his eyes.

 

Her face turned bright red at the look in his eyes. He caught her closer and she gasped as their faces came very close to each other. He murmured, “ I’m glad I’ve been proven right. I told you one day you will come to the private wing yourself-not when called by me.”

She stiffened as she remembered what he’d said yesterday afternoon. Underneath the sexy timbre of Alessandro’s voice, Iris detected triumph. She instinctively felt the ruthlessness with which he normally operated; a man who was habituated to getting exactly what he wanted. She decided to take him down a notch.

 

“I-“ Iris came to a stop. She took a deep breath to control the tremble in her voice, “I came by myself yes-but not for you. I only came here for the boys.”

 

“Doesn’t matter why you came. The fact is, you did.” Alessandro’s lazy drawl annoyed Iris. She tried to get out of his grasp but he refused to let her go. She whispered harshly, injecting scorn in her voice and trying not to draw too much attention from the boys, “You think you have the world at your disposal, don’t you? Everyone around you is primed to agree with everything you say and do. One of the pitfalls of having too much money I guess.”

 

“Too much money? Is there such a thing?” Alessandro was amused, “I’ve never heard a woman expressing distaste for money.”

“Then you socialize with wrong kind of women.” Finally she was able to get out of his grasp and sit down away from him but she judged it was because he let her go easily. Uneasy, she looked at him from beneath her lashes. He looked privately amused. She looked away and focused on the football play in the miniature ground.

 

She was astonished to find that when he was not being arrogant and not trying to seduce women, he was quite nice. When he laughed, the cleft on his chin became prominent and made him look not just drop dead sexy but also younger by years. He was a natural with his sons, Iris noticed and not at all uncomfortable with how to handle them.

 

Mrs Whittaker arrived a few minutes later and directed the boys to the dinner table on the other side of the room. Urged by Ernesto and Antonio, Iris joined them. Alessandro excused himself and left them alone. Iris found herself missing his presence but shrugged it off and enjoyed with the two lovely boys. They declared that their dinner today was a feast because they had been given an ice cream after dinner.

Soon it was their bed time. They awaited with eagerness for the bed time story once they had their bath and had brushed their teeth. Iris, as directed picked up their bed time story book and read it out to them. Within minutes they were both asleep. She tucked them in and kissed them good night, a motherly feeling taking hold of her heart as she looked at them both sleeping. They looked angelic with no trace of reserve apparent. They looked –content.

 

“Thank you for everything you’ve done. I have never seen them so content before.” Alessandro spoke quietly into her ear, standing right behind her. Iris stiffened as she felt the air from his mouth brush her ear and then-she felt like leaning on him and sighing in peace. That thought was alarming enough for Iris to quickly put a distance between them. She moved away from the beds and him, quickly going towards the door leading her outside and away from here.  He didn’t try to stop her. She turned back and looked at him before leaving and said, “Thank you for letting me be with them this evening. I enjoyed it. You will join us-I mean, the staff this evening?“

Alessandro hid a smile at her nervousness of his reply. His face was a blank mask as she replied, “I’m afraid not. I have a video conference I must attend. It will keep me occupied the rest of the evening.”

 

Iris wasn’t sure why his reply upset her a little but she decided to ignore the feeling. She smiled a little and said, “Well then, it was nice meeting you Signore.”

 

“You shall be returning to Florence tomorrow and in another week leaving for Siena. You are going to be kept very busy Signorina Florence.” He observed.

 

“Yes, that is true. Well then, it was nice meeting –er-er-the boys. Say good bye to them from my side please. Good bye.”

 

He nodded his head in acceptance of her speech, hiding his smile when she hesitated and watched as she left the room. She was a fighter, Iris was. He was quite sure that she will not give in to his plan very easily. Judging from the way she avoided him right now, he was sure he was going to enjoy this challenge. His baser instincts were urging him to run after her and stop her but he controlled those. Time enough for everything. She would leave tomorrow to go to Florence, thinking she’d not see him again. He was going to let her ride with that idea. A shark like smile spread across his face as he knew what lay ahead.   Let the swords be crossed soon!

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.