LOVE CONQUERS- CHAPTER 6

 

Iris knew there was a reason why she was such good friends with Lorenzo. Had it been anyone else, gossip would have spread like wild fire. Her mind was still digesting the fact that her stranger and her boss were the same hateful man. And the nerve!! Wanting a kiss- as if they were on kissing terms! Iris fumed and thumped the pillows of the bed she had been laying in, for her siesta.

Everyone had been informed during luncheon that evening celebrations would be elaborate and formal since their CEO had decided to join them on this weekend. Not only were they going to have a good time out here but they will also be learning more about the well-known vineyard, not very far from where they were located. It was informed to all staff that the vineyard they would be visiting could well be a definite collaborator with the organization in the near future.

Iris had watched Alessandro as he had roamed about among the staff, greeting everyone suavely and sedately, ignoring those women who were drooling over him and trying to catch his eye. Iris squirmed as she remembered the confrontation that had shaken her in the afternoon.

She had been talking to Luigi about the wine production this year. She had been so engrossed in talking about the figures that will be put on the balance sheet that she had been quite startled when Alessandro had spoken just from behind her, “ Still taking shop I see. I’m glad to see that my staff is so dedicated to its work but this is an off, a weekend holiday-Si, Luigi?”

Luigi Matteo looked startled for a miniscule of a second and then his features were calm as he smiled slightly and put his hand on Iris’s shoulder, “Signore is right Iris. You need to enjoy this weekend. You worked hard enough on the last project and I’m sure you will be brilliant again in the upcoming project but for now, enjoy.”

He smiled at her and hugged her, smiling as he left; leaving her in the company of Alessandro.

“So Signora Florence, how do you like the organization? I of course, have only heard good things about you but I’m sure there must something you wish to say to me about my organization. Have you been happy with us?”

Iris kept her eyes lowered to the glass of white wine she had been holding as she replied, “But of course, I am happy working with Bertoni. Had I not been, I’d have made it a point to talk to Luigi- Signor Matteo about it.”

“I hear my male staff admires you greatly. I trust you know how to keep your professional and personal lives compartmentalized or have you been exploring what makes Italian men tick?”

“Why don’t you ask them? I’m sure they’ll tell you all about it.” Iris replied through clenched teeth, the glass in her hand held tight. She so wished she could throw the wine on his face along with the glass but she knew good manners dictated that she behave properly with the boss of the organization. It wouldn’t do to show the chink in her armor that he seemed to have caused. She smiled coolly, her eyes wide open,” If you will excuse me Signore, I must go and talk to—“

“No.” His one word stopped her in her tracks as she looked up at him questioningly, “Excuse me?”

“I said, no. You must stand here with me and talk to me.”

“And why should I do that?” Iris asked, her temper barely in control now. Any moment now, if she didn’t get away from him, she would explode. As if he was aware of her boiling rage, he took her arm and said, “Not the right place to talk, this one. Let’s go to my table.”

“I –“ Iris started protesting but he was already moving towards his table, placed a little away from the crowd, in a secluded area. She tried to pull her hand away but he only kept on walking, his grip on her arm tightening. Iris was sure she would be looking at a red patch on her arm once he let go. She dug her heels in and stood still as soon as they were a little away from everyone. He stopped and looked at her with impatience.   Iris tried to get herself free by pushing his hand with her other one, her nails digging into his hand, “How dare you—!!! Just because you’re the boss doesn’t mean you can manhandle me like a Neanderthal. Be kind enough to leave my arm right now.”

As her nails dug into his hand, he hissed, “Behave yourself, you hell cat!”

Iris looked at him with cold eyes as he held her tight and dragged her with him.

“I have not even begun behaving like a Neanderthal, I am simply taking you to the place where I know we can talk peacefully. I will let you go once you listen to me. ” Alessandro growled quietly and continued, “I hate ugly scenes and I know you do too. Come quietly with me to my table so that we can talk. After I have said what I want to, you can go and do whatever you wish to do.”

Iris hated him for saying it yet knew to create a scene in front of all would look very bad indeed. She clenched her teeth and said, “Fine. Let go of my arm and I’ll follow you to your damned table.”

When they reached the table, he pulled a chair for her to sit in. Iris sat down, without saying thank you to him.

“Stop looking so grumpy. You’re not  being taken hostage. You will be free to go as soon as you’ve listened to what I have to say.”

Iris glowered at him as he ignored her and ordered red wine for both. When the wine came, she ignored the glass and looked straight at him, “Cut the bullshit Signor Bertoni. I don’t want to sit with you and drink wine. Come to the point.”

“You’re one hell of a woman you know that?” His comment coming with a side grin disarmed her. He looked positively edible when he grinned like that, his eyes more green than grey. Iris unconsciously concluded that when he was angry or icy in behaviour, his eyes were steely grey but when he was amused or happy, they turned more green. Then she lowered her gaze to his mouth, still holding the grin and remembered how it had felt like upon her lips.  Iris sat staring at his mouth until he lifted his eyebrow  in question and she blushed deep pink.

“Charming. It’s been a long time since I saw a woman blush.” He said and then continued, as if he had not made a heart stopping comment.  His grin disappeared and his gaze was undefinable, “I want to know how do you like the International Business Management team and also wish to know your point of view on how the team can be grown.”

“Why me?” Iris asked bluntly, thrown suddenly by the change in his manner and the topic and then cursed her wayward tongue! What way was that to talk to your employer when your career prospects could be affected? His question and her reply could well be the door to her promotion!

“I recommended you for the team because I knew you were capable of handling large projects by yourself as well as with the team.”

Her jaw dropped as the penny fell. “You reco—recommended me? The phone call—“

“It was my secretary that had made the phone to the HR with the recommendation after the results were out. Mind you, I had already checked your credentials, spoken to people, checked out your coaching institution and so on.”

“You had me investigated?!” Iris was enraged.

“But naturally. I wanted to know if you were good for my company or not. I had to get you checked out.”

Iris couldn’t really fault the logic even though it was quite horrifying to know that he had had her checked. What else had he found out about her, she wondered. She didn’t have to wonder for long though.

“You speak excellent English; not like other Italians. You don’t have an accent either.” Iris observed. He bowed his head in agreement.

“Si, this is right. I am a child of two countries. My father is Italian but my mother is from Berkshire, England. I went to Cambridge to study International Business and Finance and of course you know where I qualified for my Masters.”

Iris absorbed this bit of information about him. No wonder he’d looked so much at home in her country.

“How is your family?” He asked quietly, his green grey gaze steady on her. Iris paled and then coloured as she realized what the question implied. Of course, he knew about her relations with her family. She cleared her throat and gave a composed reply, to her own astonishment, “Since you already know it, I don’t think there’s any point in me telling you, is there?”

Alessandro nodded and said, “So no contact what so ever?”

Iris shook her head, tears not far away. Her family had not spoken to her, despite the fact that she had told them she would be moving to Italy along with the job. They had wished her well and informed her that she need not come from so far to attend Marguerite’s wedding. She had been glad though when Marguerite had secretly called her and asked for her forgiveness. Iris had promised to visit her next year and that was that. Marguerite had changed to a loving, gentle creature or so it seemed. Love working its way through her heart, guessed Iris.

She took a deep breath and asked, “Is this what you wanted to talk to me about?”

Alessandro sighed and picked up his glass, “Partly. What are your plans for your future? May I call you Iris?”

Iris looked at him sharply but had to accede that it would be silly for him to call her Miss Florence when he addressed all others of her position with their first names. She nodded and he continued, “Thank you. Tell me about your plans for the future.”

Iris looked away from him and beyond where she could see the grandeur of the private wing’s entrance not far away. She wondered for a second what it would be like from inside and then shrugged the thought away. She needed to focus on her reply. She looked at him, her eyes serious as she said, “I have no immediate plans made for the future Signore. I- I am quite content with my job and I see a good career life ahead of me.”

Alessandro sipped from his glass and asked, “And marriage? Children?”

Somewhere in her mind, Iris remembered her cherished dream of a loving man, a happy family, white picket fence house and laughing children. That dream had fizzled away with her decision of not wanting anything to do with men for a long time. Her mind shied away from the fact that she had had dreams of a man like him being her loving husband and protecting her for all that was harsh in life. To compose herself before answering the question, Iris picked up her glass and sipped from it. Her eyebrows raised in appreciation of the wine.

“This is very good!”

Alessandro’s smile nearly floored her. He said, “I’m glad you like it. It shows good taste. This is Poggio Scalette, the best of red wine. It is collector’s item of course.  The yearly wines are aged for 10 months in aged cemented vats and sold after. This is a 20 year old wine. “

Iris sipped it again in appreciation. She knew the wine connoisseurs would love to taste this one. As if he had read her thoughts, he said, “You are right. Wine connoisseurs love it. The Ruffoli vineyard, not far from here, where it is made invites them along with wine collectors and vendors every year to taste and decide the rating of the wine quality.”

He then told her more about the surrounding area and Chianti classic region in particular. Bertoni had been a name to be reckoned with since very long, he said, when it came to wines, olives and cured meat. Similar name and fame was shared by some vineyards in Greve and Panzano, especially Fattoria di Calcinaia owned by the Capponi Counts.

Iris swirled her wine and sipped it at length. Then she pointed to the decanter. “Why has the wine been poured into the decanter?”

“To aerate it, I have to put it in decanter.” Explained Alessandro, continuing, “ You see, a young, intense, tannic red wine is like a young woman in youth; shy and reserved when you first meet them- young red wines need at least 2 hours to open up their flavor.  Like the woman in full flush of her youth, a mature red wine needs to aerate for an hour to get into its complex red, mature and full-bodied mode. A wine like this that is old must be poured into the decanter to contain the aroma and then drunk immediately thereafter…like joys of life that if you don’t enjoy at the right time, may forever disappear. ”

Alessandro was not sure what was happening but somewhere, explaining Iris about the wines had turned him on. As she sipped the wine, her tongue moved over her lips to savour the taste and he felt his groin tighten.  He wanted to pull her onto his lap and kiss her senseless. He wanted to take her to bed-pure and simple. How could a simple, unconscious action of hers inflame him so much?

He looked at the woman sitting opposite himself and wondered what exactly was it that pulled him to her again and again. He had been told by gossip mongers about her since the last few months; of how she kept men at bay, how cold and icy she could be if one attempted a conversation with her that bordered on personal or any kind of flirtation. The only person whom she spoke with freely, the only male was Lorenzo Fachinelli. Alessandro was well aware of Lorenzo’s preferences and he had no problems with Iris being friends with him.

He remembered how enraged he felt when Luigi had patted her shoulder and put his arms around her to hug her. He had wanted to snatch her away from him and beat Luigi to pulp. It had surprised him; his reaction. But then, he had concluded that he desired her and wanted her for himself; Alessandro Bertoni didn’t share his women. He was not sure how she came into the category of his woman but he knew he wanted her.

He wanted to understand what drove him to her. He normally kept his business and private life very different. With Iris, he wanted to break the barrier. Maybe she intrigued him? What other reason could be there ? From the first moment he had met her, he had felt the exploding chemistry between them. He wanted to explore this attraction that hovered everywhere between them.

It had been years since he had been so aroused by a woman. Of course he had lots of female friends-partners; he was hardly a monk. But his partners came to him with perfect understanding that the affair was just what he said it would be- temporary. Lately with the pressure from his family, he had started thinking of a wife who could handle his family and be a good hostess. For himself, he didn’t expect anything much than good sex from her. He didn’t want any more children; he already had two and they were hell on wheels. Romance and love would be kept aside when he married. He had taken that path before and been bitterly disappointed.

“Would you like to visit the private wing?” he asked suddenly and watched as Iris stiffened.

Damn it, he hadn’t meant to come out so bluntly. However, now that the shot had been fired, he waited to see the result. She looked down, blushing and closed her eyes as if controlling her instant response. Then she looked up again; her face composed.

Her eyes were cold and flat with dislike, her voice just as cold as she said, “No thank you. I wish to return to the others.” She got up gracefully and said, “Have a pleasant afternoon Signore.”

Alessandro looked at her for a second and his own eyes went cold grey that made Iris shiver. He nodded his acceptance of her reply and said, “Until later then, Iris.” As she walked away, he called out, “Iris?”

Iris turned towards him, her gaze puzzled. His voice gave nothing away as he nonchalantly sipped his wine and said, “You may run away but remember this- there is something between us that will not go away and you know it too. You will visit me in the private wing yourself. I will not ask you again- this I promise. With her back ramrod straight, Iris left without giving him any response while Alessandro sat at his table, sipping his wine, his thoughts and feelings hidden under the inscrutable mask of his bland face.

LOVE CONQUERS- CHAPTER 5

Iris went into back into the ladies room once her good sense took hold of her. She was shaking; initially with horror and then with remorse self-disgust. How could she have behaved like a slut- kissing that stranger like that! She’d kissed and been kissed before but never like that. Never had she responded to anyone like that. Damn that man! While she refreshed her smeared lipstick after washing her face thoroughly and gargling with tap water a few times, self-disgust was joined by rage. How dare he kiss her like that- as if she was ripe and his for the taking? What right had he to manhandle her like that!

Conveniently forgetting that she had not objected to the kiss then, in fact participated enthusiastically, Iris concluded in her rage that she was right in her assessment of men- and she was right to want nothing to do with them. All of them, especially that one man were lusty pigs and nothing more!

She got out and went straight to the table where people had got up and gathered to say good bye to each other, until the next morning when they would meet at work. Iris bid a cool good bye to all and walked towards the door with Lorenzo.

“What’s got your feathers frazzled mia bella?” Lorenzo whispered, making Iris grin at him.

“Not frazzled, ruffled and no, my er-feathers are fine and in place. They’re not ruffled at all.”

“Excuse my English Tesoro but I don’t believe you. You looked upset when you came back from powdering your nose. What upset you?”

“Not what-who” muttered Iris inaudibly and then said aloud, “Nothing upset me Lorenzo. I wish to go home and rest now. Would you be kind enough to drop me home before you go back to Pieter’s place?”

“Ma certo! But of course darling.”

They nodded good night to the manager who stood on one side of the desk by the door, talking to the guard and were about to get out when their names were called aloud. They turned back to see a harried Luigi rushing up to them. He turned to Iris as he came to them.

“Iris, there’s something I forgot to tell you. The two directors Felice and Felipe Bertoni are going to come down tomorrow to the office. They wish to discuss the new project we are going to work on and take a look at the marketing presentation we have prepared for the promotion of Bertoni Olives.’

Iris was at once businesslike, “Which one Luigi? “Pieno di olio” or “piene di gusto”?

Luigi beamed at her, “Bravo, you pronounce this like a true Italian! I want the presentation of castavetrano olives “Pieno di Olio” tomorrow and maybe later if they ask for it, cerignolas olive presentation-“Piene de Gusto. Si?”

“Bene. I’ll be there in the office a little early to ensure all is as it should be.” Iris informed her immediate superior and with a smile, wished him good night.

Once Lorenzo had dropped her home, Iris worked until later in the night to ensure that the presentation was flawless. She still needed some improvement with her Italian but as long as they understood her and the presentation, it should be alright. She had been told that the twin brothers were very important for the department that she worked in, as the main owner never looked in much into their side of work. It was left to Felice and Felipe Bertoni to be the marketing face for the organization.

She laid out the clothes for herself in the morning that were brisk and businesslike. Checking herself in the mirror, she couldn’t fault the make-up that made her look mature and cool, her attire being soft pleat black trousers with a Nieman Marcus silk shirt in charcoal grey. Slipping on her soft suede made Gucci heeled pumps in black with thin heels, she felt herself getting into the brisk, businesslike mode. The heels gave her height and made her intimidating as she was already tall. Iris found that height became an added advantage in Florence not only in fashion sense but also when it came to looking businesslike and dynamic.

Felice and Felipe Bertoni were two good looking, young and sharp as a tack brothers, assessed Iris when she met them at the meeting. They were also quite incorrigible with their blunt comments on women in the office. They flirted with all women light heartedly yet they didn’t leave the impression of being heart breakers. Perhaps that was one of the reasons why the brothers were the marketing face of the organization.  They were both highly qualified and during the presentation they had asked questions that were directly related to the ad campaign that would follow with the approval of this presentation and its effects. Iris confidently replied to their questions, saw their admiring glances and hoped they approved her language ability and presentation skills along with her ideas. It seemed as if they did for when she had finished explaining the entire campaign, they sat back and Felipe said, “We’re satisfied. You’ve been a good asset to the company so far Miss Florence.  My brother and I agree that you will make a success of this campaign too like you did with the other two before.”

“Thank you Mr Bertoni, to the both of you. I can only say that I like working here and I find the work challenging, interesting and very much to my liking. The team is also very cooperative.”

“Yes, especially Lorenzo, eh?” Sniggered Felice Bertoni and received a quelling look from his brother.

“Forgive my brother Miss Florence. He is quite prone to being straight forward even when he should not be.” Felipe grinned at her as if he knew she would excuse his brother’s behaviour.

Iris smiled coldly and said coolly, “Of course. I realize he’s perhaps the face that keeps everyone grinning and smiling, eh?”

Felice winced and Felipe laughed, “Too true! Our brother and boss Alessandro says the same thing.”

Iris gasped inwardly as she heard the name and then got annoyed with herself. Just because the stranger had the same name, she had no cause to be so upset. She already knew that that was the name of the CEO so why did she have to think of that stranger? This was Italy and there must be thousands of Alessandro everyone out here, including that guy and this one. She smiled and excused herself as both the brothers looked on admirably. When the door closed, they looked at the closed door and smiled broadly.

Felipe said, “I understand why Alessandro thought she’d be good and why she was chosen. She’s intelligent and smart, she’s dedicated to the work and the team respects her but brother, I swear I could see an axe coming down your neck when you tried to be funny with her. I wonder how her and Alessandro met. He handles everything with the sensitivity of a water buffalo most days. Wonder what caught his fancy–”

Felice said, “Do you think—“

Both the brothers grinned at each other. Felice rubbed his hands together with the glee of a naughty child, ”Diamond cutting diamond would be a sight to watch!” They laughed together and immediately started making plans.

By late afternoon a circular was making rounds in the office informing everyone that it had been decided that the team would go to Chianti region the following weekend to attend the festival on Sunday. Everyone was excited. Iris smiled for it would give her a chance to relax after the rigorous weeks at work while finishing the last project. It was being said that a villa was being booked for the team that had a huge garden, swimming pool and was miles away from the hub-dub of the city.

The week went past quickly and Iris was kept busy at work, with very few thoughts to spare to her stranger. Night time was the one time that brought out his thoughts to the fore, when she was asleep. She had been restless and waking up quite early the last few mornings, with her sheets in a tangle and her body wet with sweat. She wished she’d never met the guy and more so that she’d never kissed him back. Trying to push the incident at the back of her mind only worked when she was busy so Iris exercised a lot more, went for long walks with Lorenzo when he had the time and went to the market to window shop.

It was on Thursday; two days before they were due to leave for Chianti, when she  saw a small boutique at the end of the street while walking away from Piazza della Repubblica. She stopped and went to look inside the window, squinting to catch the glimpse of the dress that had stopped her in her tracks And then she saw it- a fabulous creation in apple green. She went inside and enquired after the evening dress. The saleswoman was quite enthusiastic and encouraged Iris to try it on.

Iris felt the satin slide over her body and her legs as she put it on. It had a broad neck and the A-line sweetheart evening dress was supported by two wide straps; ruched and embellished with tiny diamonds, right under the sides of the under-breasts. The dress was slit from one side right up to mid-thigh. The dress curved Iris’s body at the right places and moulded to it like second skin. It complemented her hair and eyes, making her skin glow. Looking into the mirror, she could see a sexy, attractive woman standing, looking at herself with joy. It was tempting to forget that she wanted to look businesslike and not sultry.

She took off the dress and affirmed that she would buy the dress. Iris normally didn’t go for an evening dress, especially one that would make her look sexy but this one, she couldn’t resist. The saleswoman oohed and aahed over her appearance in the dress and Iris felt quite happy with the way she looked. She had no idea when she’d wear it- maybe never, but she just had to buy it. Maybe she’d wear it when she was alone in her flat, simply to give boost to her confidence.  She paid a small fortune for the dress and the satin silver slippers with pointed heels that accessorized well with the dress and came out of the boutique.

On Friday evening, Iris packed clothes keeping in mind that this was an informal event. Summer was here and the weather had already turned warm. She picked up some short dresses to pack and chose two of them to take away. One was a cotton dress with colours like Maroon, purple, white, blue and pink  in block print and the other was geometrically pattered in greyish blue and black. Together, she packed shorts, two light T-shirts and a silk halter neck top in pink along with black silk trousers. In went her toiletries and make-up kit and the bag was packed and ready.

Saturday morning saw her dressed in jeans and a sunny yellow tank top with a wide brim hat to keep the sun away. She was to meet Lorenzo and a few other colleagues and together they will be driving towards Chianti wine region in the cars Luigi had arranged for them. The drive was not more than an hour or so but the way to their destination was amazingly picturesque. Iris had bought a small rough guide to acquaint herself with the Chianti wine region.

When they reached their destination, Iris could only look around awe struck at the beauty. Their destination was just a small distance away from Greve, in the Chianti Classico region of Tuscany.  The place gave the viewer an extraordinary vantage point. She saw green, red and brown vineyards, terraced olive groves and miles of forest around. The villa standing tall- 16th century building unless Iris was mistaken, was where they were to stay.  This country house that had been turned into a hotel since some years fit in like hand in glove. Looking at it, Iris felt as if the villa had been made centuries ago, keeping in mind the vineyards surrounding it and season’s changing colours.

They looked around inside, while Luigi was talking to the hotel manager and the rest of the staff was moving into their rooms. Iris would share the room with Vittoria Terzo, a colleague of hers. Lorenzo made a face when she told him that. At her puzzled expression, he said, “Darling, you’ll see soon what I mean. She’s a bitch, that one. She thinks she’s the only pretty woman around and the others are in no comparison to her beauty.”

“Does it look like I care Lorenzo? If she thinks that, I can happily let her live with that.” Iris shrugged her shoulders, moving towards a painting and examining it.

Lorenzo’s hands moved up and down as he said, his voice anxious, “Yes but Iris, she is bitchy because she always put all other women down. When you wear something, she comment bad on it and then you go –you know, mad.”

Iris laughed and caught his arm again, “I promise you I will not be upset if she says anything. She is hardly going to be interested in my clothes Lorenzo. Aren’t I called the icy one? Why would she bother?”

“For the fun of it?” Guessed Lorenzo.

Iris walked along to the main door and outside, replying, “Even if she does, I have no cause to rise up to the occasion. I dress simple and am happy with being the way I am. Screw anyone else’s opinions.”

Lorenzo grinned, “Si, that is true.”

“This is Bertoni property?” Iris asked Lorenzo who now had his hand entwined with hers and was looking at the hotel and declaring it to a wonderful structure.  At her question, he cocked one eyebrow up and opened his mouth to say something, but then put his hand over his mouth.

“Oh my! I didn’t think he’d be here!” Lorenzo whispered.

“What? Who?” Iris looked at him questioningly.

Lorenzo couldn’t seem to tear his gaze away from the view that had caught his attention as he answered, “Alessandro Bertoni, mia bella Iris. O mia madre, I am going to melt when I see him! Him in his limited edition car that is as sexy as he is- as sin.”

Iris looked at the car that had stopped and literally drooled over it. It was certainly one of the limited edition cars from Lamborghini. The LP 570-4 SUPER TROFEO STRADALE was a model in the lineup of Gallardo and the design was based on one of the most successful race car from Lamborghini; Blancpain Super Trofeo. There were only 150 cars that had come out of the factory in the colour called Rosso Mars.  The guy who must own it must be stinking rich, thought Iris.

The subject of her thoughts got out of the car; looking taller than ever, wearing a crisp suit in grey with a dotted tie in dark blue and a light blue shirt inside, Ray Ban Predator 8 sunglasses and walked towards the villa—towards them.

Iris nearly shouted a “NO” out aloud, such was her shock. Her mind refused to believe the image in front of her eyes. Her brain was not able to compute the fact that the stranger of her acquaintance was in actual fact, the head of her organization- Alessandro Bertoni. Maybe he was not? She turned to ask Lorenzo, “He is the company CEO?”

“Si-si! Oh look at the way he walks! Mamma mia!” Iris stood there dumbfounded, watching him stride towards them slowly. He was very close now and Iris could feel her heart booming with fear-anxiety-excitement?-she didn’t know. He took off his glasses and pointedly looked at Iris’s hand that was still holding Lorenzo’s hand and then looked up at her. She forced herself to not snatch her hand away from Lorenzo’s and stood tall. His eyes burned holes in her, as if he couldn’t bear her presence around.  He smiled but it held no warmth as he came forward and said, “Buon giorno Lorenzo. Come stai Signor Fachinelli?”

“Io sto bene, mille grazie Signor Bertoni. Benvenuti a Villa Bertoni.” Lorenzo beamed his welcome to Alessandro Bertoni. Alessandro nodded, acknowledging the welcome and his gaze caught Iris.

“Signorina Florence, I have heard all good things about you. Welcome to Villa Bertoni. how do you like it?”

Iris raged inwardly. He was actually behaving as if they’d never met before! Fine, if he wanted to act like a lofty employer, she would be the employee. She didn’t meet his eyes as she replied, “Thank you for the welcome Signor Bertoni. As for the villa, there is nothing to dislike in Villa Bertoni, Signore. I can only say I have liked very much what little I have seen of it.”

“Bene. You shall have a grand tour of the villa later on. There is a private wing and the rest is converted into the hotel for guests and turisti.”

At this, Iris looked up sharply into his eyes. Her breath hitched into her throat at the look he gave her and she looked away immediately. She felt goose bumps rising all over her body, her composure almost certainly in tatters. He surely couldn’t look at her like that- with so much unleashed hunger!

Her brain screamed at her to move away before she started gasping for breath and Iris immediately reacted upon it. She smiled at Lorenzo, put her hand on his shoulder and said,   “Uhh—Lorenzo, I will return to my room now and change. Meet me later. Si?”

“Ok, buono. I will meet you later.” He turned towards her and kissed her cheek.

“Nice meeting you Signore.” Iris mouthed the formal statement and turned away to go.

“Un secondo, Signorina Florence.” As she turned around to look at him, all suspicious and cautious, he bared his tiger teeth, “You are in Italy. We kiss and part.. like you did with Lorenzo. I must be given the same privilege at least.”

Iris looked at him, her eyes opaque blocks of wood and fire. A lesser mortal would have frozen on the spot and died. Alessandro did nothing of the sort. In fact he looked quite undaunted with her gaze. He looked back nonchalantly, waiting for her to come to him.

Short of making a scene, Iris knew there was nothing she could do. She took a deep breath and came towards him. He bent down; after all he was about six to eight inches taller than she was. She reached up on her toes and barely brushed her lips against his cheek, her heart racing. Unfortunately her feet were not steady and she lost her balance.

She heard Lorenzo gasp as Alessandro caught her by her tiny waist and pulled up to him while she struggled to gain her balance back. His body brushed against her and Iris closed her eyes in agonizing frustration, going red. Her brain had no control over her body where this man was concerned. Her body burned up in his arms, her breasts peaking up and brushing against his chest.  She had to move away from him before she made a fool of herself!

“I’m sorry.” Iris said loud enough and pushed herself away. He let her go instantly, becoming cool and distant as he said, “It is nothing. Not really your fault.”

She didn’t look up but turned around and walked away from the scene as fast as her legs could carry her inside.

“Close your mouth Fachinelli or you’ll catch flies.” Alessandro murmured into Lorenzo’s ears; his lips twitching, his tone amused. Lorenzo went beet red and nodded furiously at him. Alessandro gave a nod and left him there by the door, moving towards the private wing of the villa himself.

 

LOVE CONQUERS- CHAPTER 4

A FEW MONTHS LATER

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

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

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

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

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

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

*flashback*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 *Flashback ends*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

LOVE CONQUERS- CHAPTER 3

Evening saw a bit of celebration. Sunny and Rose came to wish her too; they had been invited by Estelle. She was quite surprised therefore when she felt only a bit of discomfort and no envy watching them together. Not that she had ever been jealous but one did wish for their love story to begin or even come true. She had envied them for that. After watching them together in the restaurant, she was not so sure. She had been right to have broken off with Sunny. Perhaps somewhere her subconscious had already recognized that he was not the ideal mate for her. An image of the tall stranger floated at the back of her eyes. She wondered vaguely what would have happened if she’d said yes to dinner with him. Annoyed with herself, she swiped her hand in front of her eyes as if by doing so, she could wipe him out of her mind.

People who made the party were classmates from M.B.A. classes while some were classmates from her French lessons, some were old friends.  Rose came and kissed her cheek, “Iris, congratulations sweetheart. You’re not just pretty but also brainy.”

Iris liked Rose quite a bit. She grinned at her now and hugged her back, “Thanks for boosting up my confidence Rose. Now if only I’d get a job with employers who think that about me.” She turned to Sunny and congratulated him in return too.

Iris circulated in their small home, mingling with the other students who had passed and discussing their job prospects. Some of them already had jobs lined up while some planned to join their family business. Iris had a twinge of anxiety when she realized she will have to choose her next course of action quickly. Coaching was all well but she didn’t want to make a career out of it. She did wish to look for the steadiness a job gave would give her. Mentally she firmed her mind on searching for good jobs from the next day onwards.

The party broke up at about midnight since everyone had to either go to work the next day or attend their other appointments. Iris decided upon calling her family the next morning since it was too late. To her annoyance, when she closed her eyes, the last image that came to her mind was of that stranger.

“Count sheep Iris and forget that impossible man!” she told herself and promptly fell asleep.

That didn’t stop her from waking up with a start early in the morning. She looked at the clock by her bedside and found it had gone five; almost time to wake up. She wiped her forehead to see herself sweating. She remembered what she had been dreaming about and blushed. Whatever was the matter with her, for God’s sake! Why in the world had she been dreaming of that odious man and dreaming about… she shook her head to take a swipe at the images that had been a part of her dream. She must be going mad. Best she focused on getting a job soon.

Once she finished her morning chores that included some power yoga, morning tea with Estelle, another cup with her breakfast and finally a shower, she decided to call home. Marguerite picked up the phone.

“Marguerite, how are you?”

From the other side Marguerite’s voice came, her tone stiff as she said, “Alright I guess. Congratulations on your post-graduation.”

Iris put a smile in her voice and said, “Thank you dear. Is Dad around?”

“Right here.’ Came the reply.

Her father had been dead against the idea of Iris venturing out of the house and going into the city to study. Since the day Iris had left, her father had not spoken with her apart from the times when her mother had probably insisted on him speaking to her. Tears threatened to choke her up as Iris thought her father must have been waiting for the phone call from her. Maybe he had forgiven her to disobeying him?

“Congratulations Iris.” Her father came on the line.

“Dad.” Iris all but choked up but continued, “I hope you’re happy Dad. I told you I’ll make you proud, didn’t I?”

Her father’s stiff “Yes, well- talk to you mother. I must leave for work. Good bye.” Had her realizing very clearly that perhaps nothing would now bridge the gap that had come between her and her father. Her father was a proud man and he wouldn’t take this slight to his wishes in a forgiving manner. Tears gathered and flowed freely from her eyes as she realized her father still didn’t wish to speak to her. He didn’t even ask her to come home before she found a job for herself.

“Iris, you’re there darling? Her mother’s voice in her ear had Iris coming out of her sadness.

“Yes Mum, I’m here.”

“Have you started looking for jobs yet?”

Iris hesitated before she spoke, “I was thinking- maybe I could come there before I start job hunting.”

Her mother’s refusal was sweetly but firmly given.

“I’d love to have you here, you know but I think at the moment there is no need for you to come here. You should find yourself a job soon or you’d be out of money. God knows we can’t send you any! We are already looking after Marguerite’s needs and she is already on the verge of getting engaged to a very eligible young man. He works with a global organization and is well sought after. With all the hype you created in the society when you left, coming here could spoil her chances. You do understand, don’t you?”

Iris covered the phone with her hand lest the sob that had escaped her mouth could be heard. She said, “I just wanted to come there once Mum to meet you all. Dad—“

Her mother interrupted her, “We’re all very happy that you’ve passed the exams and completed the goal you’d set for yourself when you fought with us and went away. We’re happy for you Iris, truly. I’d rather you didn’t come here at this time. Maybe you could visit us for a day or two some other time once you get a job, hmmm? Take care now, good bye.”

Iris put the phone down, pain too deep rooted in her heart to say anything. She should have known that nothing would make her acceptable in their eyes. When she’d stayed at home and kept a low profile, she’d been acceptable enough; not anymore when she was all ready to stand on her two feet and had already announced her independence. Like automation, she picked up her tea cup and went into the kitchen.

Estelle’s smile vanished as she looked at Iris, laying down her cup in the sink and sitting down by the kitchen table. “Spoken to your family, have you?” she said gently, coming to squeeze her shoulder.

Iris rubbed a hand on her forehead and spoke with difficulty, trying to break up into pieces, “They’re still angry. They wished me well but said I needn’t come home.”

Estelle paled and said muttered under her breath about insensitive family. She looked down at Iris who was trying hard not to howl. She knew how much Iris loved her family; her kid sister for whom she’d many a times argued with her father when he’d refused something she had asked for. Hell, she’d also secretly given Marguerite an allowance every month so that she could buy all that she wanted, without harassing their father. This blunt rejection must have hit her hard.

Estelle said softly, “You are home honey. This is home, isn’t it?”

Iris smiled, mocking herself, “Yes, this is home.”

Estelle flinched at the pain those words held. She looked at Iris whose face was a mask of calmness, her eyes betraying the bleakness inside.

“Iris, honey-“

Iris ran out of the kitchen and into the bathroom before Estelle could say anything else. There she threw up and retched until she could feel her throat burning. Tears began then, and she sobbed hard.

Estelle knocked on the door, “Iris, honey- let me in please!”

Iris opened the door and threw herself in Estelle’s arms, sobbing hard now while she cried, “They don’t even love me anymore Estelle. My family has discarded me like yesterday’s potatoes. They almost regard me as one of the dead. Oh Estelle, they don’t love me!”

Estelle soothed her hair, letting her cry and made comforting noises. It was no use assuring her of course. Iris was crying as if her heart was completely shattered. Estelle guided Iris into her own room, gave her a glass of water to drink while she still sobbed and stayed with her until Iris fell into an exhausted sleep. Estelle covered her up, looking at Iris. Tears were still running down unchecked, even in her sleep.  She kissed Iris on the cheek after wiping her tears away, her own eyes filled up. “Sleep it out darling. You’ll be okay. You’re brave. You will make it.” Quietly she closed the door, her eyes tearing up at the sorrow that reigned Iris’s life at the moment. The time that should have been happiest of her life after getting a gold medal and passing her exams had become the saddest indeed.  She decided to go to church and pray for her.

The scene changed little when Estelle visited Iris in her room in the evening. Iris was sitting by her study table, the night lamp on. She looked up as Estelle came in and said blankly, “I’d forgotten, you’d be leaving me soon too.”

Estelle’s heart quaked as she looked at Iris’s eyes. There was no pain anymore in those eyes. Those brown eyes looked as opaque as wood, the hint of laughter gone from her eyes. She sat there looking like a carved statue. She sat down beside Iris and took her hand in his, replying carefully, “Iris, am about to be married and will leave this house, yes. But I will not leave you, not the way you mean. We’ve been friends for quite some time now. You will always be near my heart and any time you need me I shall be here for you. I promise you that Iris.”

Iris smiled for the first time since the telephone call; ghost of what he bright and cheerful smile was as she said, “Thank you Estelle for your support and care. I do love you for saying this and I also know you mean it. Sorry for being such a pain in the ass this morning.”

Estelle smiled brightly, hiding her own emotions, “What are friends for chérie? “ and Iris grinned at her slowly. Though…as if sensing Estelle’s worries, Iris smiled sadly and said, “Do not worry Estelle. I will be all right. I think I have cried the sadness out of my system now; especially with regards to my family. I must face reality, right? Facts are facts and I must stand up to them and accept them as they are. So what if they don’t love me? It should be enough for me that I still love them. I shall continue paying the allowance to Marguerite and I’ll be damned if I let myself change simply because they have changed towards me.”

She got up from the chair and picked up the hair brush, “Oh well, you learn from life, don’t you? God sent us alone in this world and we must learn to leave it alone. At least they wished me well. I should be content with that.”

Estelle admired her friend as she brushed her hair. It looked as if Iris had mentally closed herself to the episode. She will be calm from now on, not mentioning the incident again, even if it had scarred her heart somewhat. From what she knew of Iris, she would not ever raise the topic again or let her hurt show. Sighing Estelle got up and went on to get ready to meet Rajiv.

Days flew by very quickly. Iris had applied for jobs at several places and given quite a few interviews by now. She was accepted at almost all the places, only she politely denied the offers. She had not yet found the job that would brighten up her career and bring her forth. She had also started wondering if the kind of job she was looking for existed.

A phone call roused her from her musings as she sat with her afternoon cup of tea.

Love conquers- Chapter 2

Chapter—2

“Good morning lazybones! Get up, it’s almost eight now!”

Iris muttered a curse and hid her face under the pillow, snuggling deeper into the covers.

It was rudely snatched off as Estelle’s voice rang out, “You get up right now Iris Florence! Let me throw some cold water over your face. It’ll surely help.”

Giving a groan of frustration, Iris came out of the covers, “Oh God, what is it with you Estelle? I think today is Saturday, the day I can sleep as long as I like.” Then a sparkle of mischief lit her eyes as she said slyly, “Got up the wrong side of bed, have we Estelle or maybe that’s a wrong question. Did you go to bed at all?”

“Why you- !!” A pillow fight took commencement and as usual Iris won the round and escaped into the bathroom before she was hit any more.

The morning chores done, Estelle and Iris sat down for breakfast. While buttering her toast and plying it with jam, Iris asked her, “So what happened last night?”

At the bright smile and blush that Estelle bestowed upon her, Iris screamed in delight, “He proposed? Oh My God! Tell me all!”

Estelle quietly took her left hand out and showed off her engagement ring which was a lovely diamond solitaire. Iris hugged Estelle and pumped her for information to find that not only had they become engaged but Rajiv and Estelle had decided to tie the knot two weeks later. They had lots of friends but both were orphans so they had no family to take permission from. Estelle’s eyes got wet as she said this and was assured by Iris that she would be standing right next to her, no matter what.

Together they started discussing the cost of the wedding, invitation and dresses for trousseau that will have to be bought. The matter remained under discussion all throughout the afternoon where three of their other friends also joined in. It was decided that the next day all girls would go out shopping since there was hardly any free time during weekdays.

The next day was spent shopping for Estelle where they bought the wedding dress. Rajiv wanted Estelle to marry in traditional Indian attire and Estelle had agreed so white had been dropped. However that didn’t stop them from buying a lovely white smocked cotton-silk dress that had halter neck. She could wear it during the going away party. This was gifted by Iris to Estelle.  Once back home, they caught up with an old movie on the telly and then went off to sleep. A tiring but completely enjoyable day, thought Iris sleepily as she lay in her bed. Let us see what tomorrow brings.

The first day of the week saw Iris working hard as usual, busy with her coaching classes and waiting for her results with baited breath. She had almost reached the stage where waiting had become a painful act. In her free time in the evenings, once she was back home, she baked tiny cakes and muffins for the week. She knew Estelle loved them and no matter how much she moaned about gaining weight, she never gained an ounce. The week passed by her in this manner, with the only addition being Iris visiting her relatives staying the same city for dinner.

Basically a small town girl, Iris had always been attracted by the city lights. She loved the country; not that she didn’t love the house her parents had in the country but the city held its own charms for her. She loved the busy, hectic trend of life.

The week after the next saw her back at the University, looking worried and tense as she waited to know what her score was. To pass the time, she went into the library where the librarian gave her a broad smile, welcoming her. A little taken aback by such a dazzling smile, Iris being polite smiled back only to drop into the chair with the librarian saying,

“Congratulations dear. You’ve done us proud. “

A little slack-jawed, Iris looked at her stammering, “Y-You mean the results are out?”

The librarian laughed softly, “Oh yes, my dear. You passed and you passed with very good score indeed. So much so that you’re a gold medalist now in your subject.”

Iris heard all this and could only say, “Wow.” It is true that joy rendered people speechless, she discovered. After a few minutes when her brain had finally digested the fact, she whooped with joy. “My goodness! Oh thank you God, I passed! Any idea when I’d get the mark sheet?”

The librarian shrugged her shoulders and said, “Best you go to the  head office and find out more. All I know is that you, Raj and another guy I can’t remember the name of; someone foreign who gave the exam as an external candidate- you three stood out. Mr. Francis is overjoyed.”

Mr Francis, being the head of the department was widely respected and acknowledged with admiration by students.

Iris positively glowed as she reached the office. Her classmates stood around the office too and as soon as they saw her, they rushed towards her, hugging her and congratulating her. She wished them as well in return since it seemed as if almost everyone had passed the exams. She saw a dark head turned away from all the commotion; a tall man standing out but she couldn’t see much since she was surrounded by others. Probably the foreigner that the librarian had been talking about, she guessed and didn’t bother much.

There was a telephone booth not far away from the office of the head of the University. Once Iris had received her mark sheet with the score, she made a beeline for it. The first call went to Estelle who crowed with delight and promised to come home early. Next phone call was to her parents.

The day she came to live into the city and study further, her relations with her family were strained. They spoke not very often like other girls did with their parents. Iris was hurt the day Marguerite had been given the go to study fashion designing away from home. Of course it made all the difference that Marguerite was golden haired, blue eyed daughter of their parents just like their mother had been of her parents; a beauty that made Iris looked like muddy water beside her but she never minded that.

However they were not able to deter Iris from her decision to study M.B.A. and that had displeased them immensely.  Iris knew her mother wanted her to simply keep the house and one day eventually get married but she had other plans. However, today, all was forgotten. Iris only wanted to share her happiness with them. It was her sister Marguerite who picked up the phone.

Iris cheerfully spoke in to the phone with her sister, asking after her health and so on. Then she said, “Could you possibly get Mum on the phone darling? I wanted to speak to her.”

Mrs. Florence came on the phone and Iris all but cried, “Mum, I passed the exams!”

A befitting reply came from the other end, “To be expected of you of course. Congratulations Iris; you’ve done us proud. Wait till your father hears this news.”

Iris could have chatted on happily but she could see a queue forming for the phone. She said, “Mum I shall call you tonight. Until then, take care.”

Wiping happy tears, Iris smiled at the next person waiting for his chance to phone and walked off. Her head down, she thanked God. Things will work out in her life now. She would look for a job with handsome pay and then, she’d make a lovely life for herself. Sure, she still wanted a doting husband and happy children but that will just have to wait with no man on the horizon for her to love and cherish.

The next moment she found her face into a waistcoat, her exclamation smothered. To steady herself she caught on to the waist of the waistcoat. She was after a second or two mercilessly pushed off with a soft curse. With an apology on her lips, she looked up and her words died in her throat as the wearer of the waist coat rasped,

“Can’t you ever watch where you’re going?”

Those grey green eyes looked stormy at the moment, making Iris’s blood boil. She knew it was her fault, she knew she should have looked where she was going but at the moment, that was all forgotten as she gasped at this attack and retorted coolly, “You could have always moved aside instead of banging into me yourself. Practice what you preach mister.”

And with her nose high up in the air, she started walking away from there only to stop and turn back in outrage as she said, “Maybe you’re bumping into me deliberately? Not that I’m averse to holding a female body in my arms but there are other ways of making yourself visible.”

“How dare you insinuate–!! Your ego is astounding, but you know that of course.” Her disinterested tone gave no indication of the anger she seethed with inside but the look she gave him could sure have killed him on the spot had been a lesser mortal.

She almost vented out her anger when she saw that he looked amused instead of shameful.  She felt like hitting him and that in itself was shocking since she never ever hit anyone. She was the one who always played it cool and icy rather than giving in to her temper aggressively. She deemed it best to move away from the man as quickly as possible.

She turned away from him, only to be turned around again as she caught her wrist in his hand. Her entire body went into shock at his touch, his touch creating a fire somewhere in her belly. She decided to ignore it and focus on her anger instead.

“How—let go of me at once!”

His eyes narrowed at her tone but he didn’t say anything, rather looked at her closely. Iris squirmed as she tried to free her hand, “Let me go damn you!”

“You’re the girl, who topped in International Business, aren’t you?”

The penny dropped and she made the interested observation, “You’re the foreigner who is in the top three of course. You were the one standing by the Head Principal’s office.” and then blushed. Oh for the love of—curse her wayward tongue!

He raised an eyebrow, mocking her, “Ah, so you do know who I am. Now I think those bumps into me were deliberate indeed.”

Iris gave him a look cold enough to free Iceland, “Just because I know of you doesn’t mean I know you. Colliding with you was at best ignorance in not watching where I was going; just like you and that is all. I heard that some external candidate; a foreigner was one of the toppers. Since you’re an outsider the logical conclusion is that you’re that person.”

“Clever of you.” He replied, his tone mocking. Iris wondered why she was bothering to give any kind of explanation about what she thought and then got exasperated with herself and him. She was still struggling to get her wrist freed.

“Would you stop this manhandling and let me go or would you rather you be slapped!”

“A bit tough since I’m a head taller than you surely?” She was coming to hate the mocking tone of conversation he insisted on using. “What are you doing this evening?”

For a moment, Iris simply looked at him, her mouth open while she digested the fact that the man had a sense of humour along with top level arrogance.  Then her brain whirred and began functioning again. She looked away from him. Somewhere inside there was a voice tempting her to say “I’m not doing anything this evening” and see where it all went but the sensible part of her brain was ringing alarm bells. Taking a deep breath, she gave him a cool reply, “Nothing that may concern you. Now let go of my wrist.”

“I think it may be a good idea if we went out for dinner, don’t you?” He observed in an interested tone, still not letting her go.

“I’d rather go out with a three faced cobra so no thank you.” Iris kept her tone just as his was, observational.

He let her go then, his eyes amused. “You sure have temper lady.”

“ You’ve seen nothing yet.” muttered Iris, rubbing her wrist now that it was free. It tingled and burnt. It shocked her to feel a sense of loss as he let her go. Aloud she said, “Good bye.” and walked off.

He watched her go, his eyes now hard as flint. A part of his mind debated why he felt intrigued with her. He liked his women petite, blonde, voluptuous and with brains filled with cotton wool and she was neither. He was not a keeper and he knew that. He chose the women he went out with carefully so that when the time came to sever a relationship; all he had to do was gift a piece of expensive jewelry and be done with it. Indeed she was most certainly not his type. But she had felt right in his arms, a part of his brain argued silently and his body agreed.

He rubbed his jaw absently. He wasn’t sure what about her had interested him but he had felt electricity zinging as he had bumped into her. It had turned into raging desire when he’d caught hold of her wrist. He had felt his caveman urges instincts rising within him for her, as if he’d like to manacle her to his side. Desire is what had prompted him to ask her out as he’d worked out who she was.  Or maybe that fact that he could use her brains for his company? She would prove to be a good manager, he felt sure of that. But since she’d rejected his invitation offhand, he wouldn’t think about her. He sure was not one of them men who’d run behind a woman. If she wasn’t interested, so be it. He walked into the parking lot where his Mercedes was parked, his mind already busy with a business deal, Iris out of his mind–for now.