“Iris, so glad you could make it this evening child. How are you?” Clara Bertoni welcomed her with open arms, kissing her in Italian tradition and then making her sit beside herself.
“I’m very well, thank you Signora—Clara.” Iris smiled a warm smile at Alessandro’s mother. She really was a darling. Looking around for the children, Iris found and met Alessandro’s broody eyes. Hurriedly moving away from them, she came back to Clara, who was observing both her son & herself, her eyes amused. Trying to get the attention back on the boys, she asked,
“Where are the children? I thought they’d be here with you.”
Clara gave Iris a smirk which reminded her very much of the man standing close by. “Indeed! If they had their way, they’d not have had their siesta or done anything much today, what with the prospect of seeing you in the evening. They spoke of you all morning, making plans among themselves. Even Ernesto took time to be persuaded for Siesta. Mrs Whittaker will be waking them up and bringing them down soon.” She put her hand on top of Iris’, saying warmly, “My grandchildren have really taken to you Iris.”
Blushing at such an open compliment, Iris could only smile and say, “You’re too kind Clara. They’re nice kids and all they need is—“
“Mother.” Said Alessandro absently, startling Iris. Clara looked up at her son, not surprised at the interruption at all. She nodded her head in agreement speaking before he could say anything further. “Ah yes, those children do need a mother who would love them like her own. I’m getting too old. ”
Iris turned to stone at her words. She kept her face away from Alessandro’s scrutiny and bent her head, focusing on her skirt, her mind not on anything else but his reply. Had Alessandro been thinking of getting re-married?, wondered a terribly jealous Iris. Her heart tore itself into shreds at the thought of Alessandro married to another woman. If that was the case, she’d—she’d not be able to bear to be close to him at all.
As if reading the thoughts swirling around in her head, Alessandro spoke, “Yes, I’m beginning to realise that Mamma, but—I apologise for rudely interrupting you Iris. What I wanted to say was that I shall be in my study if there’s anything you want.” Her head shot up at that, he noted with savage satisfaction, checking out her expression. He read jealousy clearly enough. Playing it cool, he nodded distantly at her and left the women alone.
Iris gulped down the bitter bile rising in her throat and smiled at Clara.
“Are you alright child? You look a little pale suddenly.” Observed Clara with concern.
“It is nothing. I’m fine, really.” With mammoth effort, Iris controlled her head banging emotions and gave Clara a smile, adding “Shall we take a stroll around the garden? It is quite pleasant today. ”
Signora Bertoni smiled as if indulging Iris, “Why not? I am not so old that I can’t take a leisurely stroll on this bright day.”
And so, both women walked together in the garden, sharing gardening tips and so forth. Tommaso had arranged chairs in the garden, close to the cherub fountain, along with a couple of loungers. It was when they sat on the loungers with hats that Clara insisted they wear, that Iris closed her eyes and fell asleep.
Clara Bertoni looked at sleeping Iris and sighed. It seemed as if things were coming to a head between Alessandro and Iris, and yet something was not right. She sighed, sipping her lemonade. She replayed what she had observed earlier and Sandro’s talk about realisation of the need of a mother for his children. He had looked at Iris’s down bent head as he had spoken.
Her son had been restless these last few weeks and had spent many evenings either working hard or visiting the villa where Iris lived on one pretext or the other. Clara Bertoni had no problems with her son’s choice of bride, if indeed Iris was his choice for himself and the boys, and not simply a conquest he was eager to acquire. She sighed inwardly. If only Alessandro could find the same happiness that she’d found with his father! There was hope, in the form of Iris sitting right next to her right now. If only the boy would be sensible enough to fall in love!
Senora Bertoni, not the one to laze around, decided to bring the matter ahead.
It was not more than ten minutes of napping, but Iris woke up refreshed, appalled that she had slept. She took off the hat and looked at Signora Bertoni, with a rueful smile, “I’m sorry for dropping off like that. It’s this blasted Sun. It makes me sleepy.”
Clara gave way to tinkling laughter and said, “No need to apologise, my dear. I myself do the same many times. The smell of sage and other fruits of the season is heady enough to make you sleepy. How about I order some tea while you freshen up? I’m sure the children would be here soon too.”
“That would be lovely, thank you.” Iris smiled and excused herself, saying that she must freshen up. By the time she came back, Antonio and Ernesto were sitting by Signora Bertoni, drinking milk and chatting. They ran towards Iris as she came into the view, chatting nineteen to a dozen.
Iris heard them out, hugging them and giving them appropriate responses. After a while, under her supervision, both the kids started on building a block castle that their father had bought for them. A present from Luxembourg, informed Signora Bertoni dryly.
The backyard garden that they had been strolling in held an organic garden, an orchard and a vast variety of flowers and trees. It was while they sat there, drinking tea that Senora Bertoni spoke out loud,
“Do you like my son Iris?”
Startled, Iris choked on her tea. Carefully so as not to break the porcelain cup that rattled alarmingly in the saucer, Iris put it down and looked at Clara Bertoni. The words of formality already on her tongue dried up in her mouth. With such an straight, intense gaze putting her on the spot, Iris could barely form a lie in her thought. She made do with a nod instead. Senora Bertoni sighed and said,
“If I dared, I would entertain the hope that you like him more than you admit, that you cared about him as much as I can see you care about the boys. “
Iris wrung her hands together in anxiety, “But I mustn’t. I can’t Clara. Surely you can see that!”
Clara sighed, “He is not yet ready I know. My son is very clever and a very successful businessman; but a little dim-witted when it comes to matters of the heart. And yet, I have hope for him.”
Iris closed her eyes, tears very close. What was the matter with her? She felt like crying day and night these days! Taking a deep breath, she opened her eyes again. Her voice was a whisper, “ I have none, not with me. He may like me, desire me even, but – I can’t give in to that. I’ll – I want a man who loves me.”
As if a decision had been made, Clara said stoutly, “And so you should, my dear. You’ll be selling yourself short if you accepted him for anything less than that. However, I do ask you to keep an open mind. He’s not very good with words when it comes to feelings, my son is not. He will need all the encouragement in the world. Will you at least consider that?”
“You really think—there’s –that he would-“ Iris couldn’t think coherently, hardly daring to let herself hope.
“Give it time child.” Clara said softly and then winked. Aloud she said, “Ah there you are my son!”
“Mamma.” Alessandro kissed his mother and sat down on the nearest lounger beside her.
Tomasso got him his coffee. He laid back, rubbing his hand over his neck.
“You look tired.” Observed his mother.
Iris, feeling restless now that he was here, got up and walked to where the kids were building blocks. She had seen the tired lines around his eyes and mouth. She wished she could ask him about it, but it was not her place to do so. Knowing she may give in to the impulse of asking if she could help, she had directed herself towards Antonio and Ernesto, who welcomed her with smiles. She gave in to their demands of help. It was best to ignore what Clara had said regarding Alessandro, at least for now.
Alessandro regarded Iris as she played with his children, her back to him. So- she was still mad at him probably or simply avoiding him. He had worked like a Trojan and cleared his schedule for the next two days to woo her. He was determined that he would wait no longer. He still had to work out how he’d woo her, but he felt certain none of his previous experiences with women would help him with Iris. He had paced about in his room for half an hour in vain. Finally he had accepted that he would think on his feet this evening and see how things go. For now, he sat in silence next to his mother and drank his coffee.
“Sandro.’ His mother rarely called him that these days, unless there was something worrying her.
He looked at his mother and smiled, “Si Mamma?”
“What plans are you hatching my son? I know this look on your face. “
“Nothing that would make you worry. I am thinking on your suggestion.”
“About getting a wife, a mother for Ernesto and Antonio?”
Clara cleared her throat before taking the bull by its horns, “So you think that Iris could fill the position?”
Alessandro looked up at his mother, his expression blank. “What makes you think so Mamma?”
Clara shook her head, clucking, “I’m your mother Sandro. I know something about you surely. Do you care for her?”
“I –“Alessandro hesitated, then replied, “I like her of course. The best part is, she is good with Antonio and Ernesto. It is only with her that Ernesto is so open.”
“And yet, that is not the basis to marry. It is not only for children that you will marry. You will have a wife who will need your love and care. You must feel something for her too.” Clara said softly. She looked Iris and said, “She’s a girl who would dream of a husband who cares for her, loves her, gives her more children. She will be a good wife to a man who would be lucky enough to get her love. Can you offer her that?”
Alesssandro, irritated at his mother’s vision of Iris falling in love with a man and having his babies; someone other than himself, shook his head, “Mamma, I know what you are trying to do. Stay out of it. I want a mother for my children. She will get financial security and a family in return. I will look after her interests and protect her. Surely she can’t ask for more than that.”
Clara looked at her son with disapproval. She got up and laid a hand on his shoulder, “Then you have a lot to learn about women my son. A warning. Tread carefully. One poisonous woman’s deeds can’t be laid at the door of another innocent woman.”
Alessandro looked in astonishment at his mother as she walked away. Of course he didn’t look upon Iris as a second Flavia. He only meant that falling in love with Iris, like his mother wanted him to, was not in his books. His eyes drifted to where she played with the children. Ernesto said something and she laughed, replying back to him and ruffling his hair. He saw how Ernesto and Antonio crept closer to her as she said something, with wide grins on their faces. He may not love her, but he definitely desired her more than anything else. And he was confident that she wanted him just as much. Hearing another bout of laughter, he got up, deciding to join them in their fun.
“Can anyone else join in the fun?” Alessandro’s lazy drawl brought shrieks of laughter from the boys. Iris kept her head firmly fixed on the blocks with which she was building a wall.
“Papa, you can join us in the fun. Right Iris?” Ernesto said smiling, as his father came to sit beside them.
Iris was forced to look up, right into those stormy grey green eyes. They were more of grey right now than green. She looked at the boys who were waiting for an answer and smiled, “Of course. More workers means the castle will build quickly.”
“You’re very good at putting up walls.” Said Alessandro softly as they worked together in symphony, talking to the kids who sat on either side of them.
“No more than you.” Muttered Iris, then made a window in the wall.
Soon the castle was built and ready, extracting awed exclamation at their own handiwork from children. Iris shooed them off to wash their hands and get ready for dinner. Too late she realized she should have gone with them when she found herself alone with Alessandro. Before she could think of an excuse, Alessandro caught her hand and said, “Sit with me Iris. I want to talk to you.”
Knowing it was useless to resist, Iris sat on the edge of one lounger he had guided her to, and looked at him warily. Instead of sitting on the lounger opposite, he sat beside her, not touching her.
“What is it?” Iris asked, not wanting to, yet not being able to resist.
“I understood from Felipe that you met my ex-wife on your trip.”
Iris stiffened. She had not thought it prudent to mention it to him before. Now she nodded soberly and said, “I can understand now why you didn’t want the boys to be influenced by her, or even be near her in any way.”
“Yes. She is a threat that has been almost eliminated from my sons’ lives and yet, sometimes I fear she may try to – get more from this debacle of a relation.”
“What do you mean?” Iris asked, puzzled.
Alessandro looked far off in the distance and said, “She will try to contact the kids sooner or later, playing the “I’m your poor mother” card. Since I’m not married and my children have no mother, it could be easy for her to confuse their feelings.”
“Surely not! She can’t do that! “Aghast at this information, she looked at Alessandro with horror and uncertainty. “Can she Alessandro? “
“I don’t know for the moment cara. But I think in future, it is possible.”
Iris closed her eyes in despair for him as well as children. Oh, to be cursed with a woman who would use you only for your riches, even stooping low to manipulating her own children. She whispered, “You can’t let her Alessandro. Stop her.”
“There is a way she can be stopped.” Alessandro stated quietly, making her eyes fly open.
“How?” asked Iris.
“I get married.” Alessandro stated simply.