LOVE CONQUERS – CHAPTER 29

Chapter 29

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When Iris reflected on the evening they had spent together, all she could remember was the warmth of their togetherness and the feeling that they were right for each other. As she plumped her pillow again that night in her bed, she smiled again. It was past three in the morning and she had been back in her bed since the last two hours, but sleep seemed far away. Happiness bubbled inside her, wanting to be let free.

What a wonderful evening they had had!

The food at Giuseppe‘s was, delicious to say the least. Iris had been surprised by Alessandro’s choice of dining place when he had parked his car and walked to the small place by the side street.

She had assumed he would take her to a richly lavished place, meant only for the “so and so” of the society; instead he had taken her right into the warmth of Siena friendliness and hospitality. The restaurant itself was close to the centre of the Piazza del Campo, on one of the side streets. You might miss it if you were not looking for it. Inside they had been welcomed warmly by the owner of the restaurant, who had personally ensured privacy by giving them a secluded table in one corner. The furniture was all wood, the fittings done in holly green, giving a mystical ambience to the entire place. A strategically placed candle at each table gave a magical glow, and placed in the centre of each table was a small bowl of red and yellow roses.

Iris gave a chuckle as she remembered how she had looked around everywhere at people laughing, chatting loudly and wondered how Alessandro fit in here. Where was his reserve, his severity of expression? Didn’t he say they needed to talk in privacy? She looked at him while she sat down and a smile curved her mouth. Alessandro looked the part of a typical hearty Italian, as he spoke to the owner of the restaurant, his hands and his eyes moving at lightening speed. He clapped the owner and hugged him, before sitting down and joining her. Iris had looked at him in amazement, glad to see this unexpected side to Alessandro’s character. He had smiled at her, and the evening had taken a friendlier turn. They had talked amicably, as they never had before.

Iris plumped her pillow under her chin and continued reminiscing. Not that Giuseppe’s could be called a place where privacy could be maintained for long, if the man was as famous as Alessandro Bertoni was. Time and again, he had been greeted by various acquaintances, male and female. Finally the flow had seem to ebb and they had ordered their dinner.

My son! What do you do here this evening?” A voice had boomed next to their table.

With an exclamation, Alessandro had got up and hugged him. “Uncle Sandro! What are you doing here?” They exchanged pleasantries and spoke a little more. Apparently his uncle was there with some old cronies, to enjoy men’s evening.

Then turning to Iris, Alessandro said, “Iris, come and meet my uncle and godfather, Alessandro Molinelli. He is also a very close friend of the family. Uncle Sandro, this is Iris Florence.”

No other explanation was given about who she was or what she was doing with him, Iris observed- just her name. But then, wasn’t that typical of Alessandro? He must do the same with all his women friends, she was sure.

Signorina Florence, what a beautiful name you have!” Signor Molinelli smiled warmly at her.

Buonasera, and thank you, Signor Molinelli.” Iris got up, and smiled warmly at this complimentary gesture, holding out her hand.

It had been taken and kissed as Signor Molinelli had looked up at Alessandro with shrewd eyes and said, “So finally, you have found a woman who has beauty as well as grace. I congratulate you, son.“

You may also congratulate me on my forthcoming nuptials, uncle Sandro. Iris has consented to become my wife. “ Alessandro said quietly, his announcement startling his uncle.

To give Signor Molinelli credit, he quickly gained his equilibrium and stared hard at his godson. Then, he smiled warmly and said, “Congratulations my son! Happy news indeed! I am glad things have worked out. “

Alessandro saw Iris frown at this statement and quickly said, “Yes indeed, things have worked out from the last time I saw you.” As he said this, he picked up Iris’s hand in his and gave a warning look towards his uncle, “Iris took her time but in the end, everything is alright.”

Saying so, he gave her hand a squeeze and saw the frown disappearing from her face, to his relief, to be replaced by a shy smile.

His uncle understood immediately, of course and made a show of clapping him on the back, saying “Very good! I am glad. Congratulations to both of you. Iris, welcome to the family.”

Saying so, he bent to give Iris a kiss on each cheek and said softly to her, “I am very happy for Alessandro and the boys. The house will now be home.”

Tears shimmered in her eyes at his warm words. Iris gave him a genuinely warm smile and nodded her thanks.

Signor Molinelli cleared his throat and said jovially, “Well now, Champagne is the drink of the hour then. I will ask Marco to get you his best bottle. On me, my dear boy! Enjoy!”

He bid them both good bye and went to join his friends.

Dinner was served by then. It had taken them a while to get through and finish the huge spread in the front of them. They had ordered garlic Prawns, Ravioli salad, green Gnocchi, chocolate pasta, Ribollita and for dessert, a Tiramisu with Amaretto liquor. It had been a feast fit for the Gods.

There had also been a bit of dancing, and Iris had laughingly joined in when Alessandro had held out his hand to her for a dance. She had been surprised when Alessandro had mocked her for thinking, Siena didn’t offer night life. Granted, it wasn’t anything like Florence, but hey, it was there! Oh, how carefree and handsome Alessandro had looked, with his grey green eyes sparkling with mirth! How he had thrown his head back and roared when Iris had booed his efforts at hip hop dancing when they had been walking back to the car. And how her heart had gone crazy, when he had so tenderly taken her face between his hands and kissed her good night, his hunger and passion evident but in control. He had murmured sweet nothings in her mouth as he kissed her and she – she had kissed him back with all abandon. He had kissed her once more, promising to never let her go, promising to become one soon, and then left her at the door. Oh, she would remember it all, for all her life.

And suddenly, a sob broke through her reminiscences. Astonished, she looked around and found no one. Only then did she realise, she had tears flowing down her cheeks. It was she who had let out a sob of pure despair, at the thought of never seeing Alessandro so carefree again, when she left him. As another sob broke free, Iris hid her face in the pillow and gave a little moan of pain. Why did things have to be like this? She punched the pillow and moaned his name.

Iris, tesoro mio, what is wrong?”

Iris was startled out of her misery by Alessandro’s voice so close to her. Raising her tear stained face, she saw Alessandro standing next to her bed, his eyebrow creased with concern. As another sob rented the air, she saw Alessandro curse and felt a dip in the mattress as he sat down. Next thing, she was picked up and placed on his lap as he cradled her face in his hands and looked into her eyes. He looked worried- for her.

His voice was husky too, as he spoke.

Iris, my darling won’t you tell me what is wrong? Why are you crying like your heart is broken? What has happened?”

To tell him why she was crying was so tempting then! But Iris closed her eyes and shook her head as tears rolled down her cheeks. She was silent now. She was grabbed close with her head against his chest as he leaned into her and spoke softly, “I wish you would tell me. I can’t bear to see you cry like this tesoro! “

Suddenly, he jerked upright and cupped her chin. As she raised her hurt eyes to look into his alert ones, he asked softly, “Was it something about this evening? Am I the reason for these tears? Did I hurt you even when I was trying to be gentle?”

Her throat dried up. What could she say? She tried to move away from him but he held her fast as he asked again, “Tell me Iris. Am I the reason for these heart rending tears?“

Iris looked away as if she couldn’t bear to look at him any more. Alessandro closed his eyes and silently despaired. He couldn’t remember doing anything that might have hurt Iris this evening. But then, – a thought stopped him cold and made him break out in sweat on the cold night. Had she somehow understood the meaning behind his godfather‘s words this evening? Had she suddenly realised how he had plotted and planned to get her to to this stage of their lives?

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LOVE CONQUERS- CHAPTER 26

Chapter-26

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“Buongiorno bellissima! “

 

A soft touch on her shoulder, a kiss on her head along with this softly speaking endearment had Iris sitting rigid in her chair at the breakfast table.

 

She had been enjoying her morning with the children until now. Breakfast had begun a few minutes back, with Antonio and Ernesto vying for who could eat the most strawberry jam on their toast. Iris had requested for some toast and coffee when asked what she’d like for breakfast. Both children had already had milk under Mrs. Whittaker’s supervision. The old darling, bless her, had left children and Iris alone after this, knowing that children wanted some time with their to-be-mother.

 

Iris hadn’t expected Alessandro to join children and her at the breakfast table at all. Thus when she felt a hand on her shoulder, along with a kiss on her forehead and a greeting, she felt shaken to her core. She was not prepared yet, she thought, panicking. She couldn’t face him at this time, that was all she knew.

 

She nodded in his direction, not able to speak a word, as he sat down next to her and the children. He spread his napkin on his lap and said softly, “We must talk.”

 

Without looking in his direction, Iris spoke softly so as not to disturb the kids with the harshness of her voice.

“Not now Alessandro. I agree we must talk, but it has to be away from here. I wish to spend the day peacefully with the boys.”

 

Something cold spread through his stomach as Alessandro heard Iris speak softly yet firmly. Her voice was expressionless. He wasn’t sure why but he had this feeling in his gut that things were as wrong as they could be; his plan might be in jeopardy. His grey green eyes rested upon her bent head for a long moment, processing her body language. Deciding he didn’t wish to push his luck at the moment and thinking he’d find a way to work things out by evening, he picked up his espresso cup and drained it in one gulp, saying “As you wish tesorino. I must go to Sienna today for work. I shall be away all day and return in the evening. We will go out for dinner.”

 

At her nod, he turned away from her and began a teasing conversation with Antonio, who delighted in his father’s attention. Ernesto looked up from his plate and glanced at Iris first and then at his father. A boy too mature for his age, his eyes immediately picked up something of the atmosphere and he anxiously piped up, “Is Mamma angry with you, Papa? Are you going to fight? ”

 

It took all her wits for Iris to not burst out in anger at Alessandro for coming down to breakfast. Instead she smiled at Ernesto and caught his hand in hers, gently reassuring him, “I am not angry at all, poppet and there is no fighting. Do you see any boxing ring? “

 

Normally Ernesto would have smiled at her reference to boxing; one of his favourite sports (as Iris had found out), but he didn’t. Iris squeezed his hand and smiled into his eyes, trying to keep her own sadness at bay. “How could I be when I plan to spend the whole day doing fun things with you and Antonio?”

 

Ernesto didn’t look assured despite Iris’ words. She looked up finally and directly into Alessandro’s stormy grey eyes. Her heart beat fast as he caught her doe like eyes with his, and stared back. Then he dropped his gaze from her and looked at his son, who was looking at him anxiously, his voice holding the old stutter, “C-che cosa, Papa?”

 

Alessandro beckoned Ernesto to get down and come to him. Ernesto got down from his chair and came to stand beside his father. In a smooth move, Alessandro picked him up and sat him on his lap. Ernesto looked at his father, his expression serious. Antonio had quietened down too; his earlier exuberance disappeared, and now stood next to his father, sucking his thumb. Alessandro picked him up too and sat him on the other side of his lap. Three pairs of grey green eyes looked at each other, surveying each other.

Looking at all of them together, regarding each other so seriously, Iris knew she had made the right decision. How would she bear to see them hurt; she couldn’t – ever! Her decision to let Alessandro know that she wouldn’t marry him this evening was a step in the right direction. What’s more she would also let him know that she was going to quit and move away. It may anger him and make him hate her, she knew but it wouldn’t have a devastating effect, as it would on the twins. It was best she moved out and away before she did them any harm emotionally.

 

She closed her eyes at the pain of it all and then opened them up, to see Alessandro gazing at her, his eyes dark and gleaming as green pools of ice. She lowered her own and forced herself to eat a bite of toast from her plate.

 

“Papa?” Antonio’s voice wobbled and Alessandro turned his gaze back to his children.

“Si, mio figlio.”

“I am scared Papa.”

 

Alessandro’s mouth tightened when he heard this. He had had enough troubles with Ernesto and his anxiety. Now, Antonio also felt insecure, thanks to his big mouth and Iris’s reaction to his words. He kicked himself for spoiling it all. The cynical side of him wondered if Iris had planned this scene- her upset face, her cheerful attitude going silent as soon as he was around- as a revenge for how he had made her feel yesterday evening. Bitterness that he had kept at bay returned, making his eyes cold chips of ice. She could go on plotting but he would ensure his children never felt unsure and anxious due to a woman ever again. Even if it meant letting go of Iris. A woman who wanted revenge and used children for it was not for his household, no matter how much his body lusted after her.

 

He wrapped his arms around both his sons and met their eyes, “Ascolta me, mio figli. No matter what happens, you will always my love. “

“And mine.” Said Iris softly, making both the boys smile for a second, before they became serious again, when their father continued,” No person on this Earth can make you feel unsure when you have the love of your family, like I have of mine. Your mother didn’t wish to become a part of the family, and she is not our family, because she didn’t love you. Just because she didn’t love you doesn’t mean I don’t either. I will do everything in my power to give you no reason to be uncertain of my love, no matter what I have to do.” He said the last with a steely look at Iris, who had had her eyes fixed on the children.

 

With each word that came out of Alessandro’s mouth, her heart had sunk further and further, even the tiniest glimmer of hope dashed. His last statement though brought her head up, recognising his words for what they were- a father’s vow to go through any compromise in life, for the sake of his children and their happiness. They were not the words of a man who wanted to assure his children of their parents’ love; of the love of both a mother and father. They were the words of a man who didn’t trust her to love his children enough.

 

The children nodded solemnly at their father’s words. Antonio looked up with a bright smile at his father and said, “I love you Papa.”

Ernesto said equally fervently, “Me too Papa.”

Alessandro smiled at both his sons and kissed the top of their heads. Then he patted them lightly on their shoulders and said, “Enough with this now. Go on and get Mrs. Whittaker to take you to your room. Iris will join you in a bit.”

 

Both the boys looked at Iris, and at her nod, came up to her, hugged her, got hugged in return and left the room talking amongst themselves.

 

“Iris, look at me.”

Iris looked up and saw herself reflected into his eyes. The eyes that had first captured her when he had saved her from falling on the road mesmerised her with their intensity when they had met accidentally at the University; the eyes that always looked at her with fierce passion, the eyes that were a window to his soul and made her fall in love with him. Today those eyes reflected nothing of the kind. All she could see was his steely determination and no emotion.

 

“I want us to get married as soon as I get the license. I have already applied for a special license. Do you want anyone from your family to come to our wedding?”

At the shake of her head, he looked at her as if puzzled, then tried again.

“You don’t want anyone from your family to be present at our wedding?”

 

Iris shook her head again, not saying anything, controlling the dam of tears that could burst if she was not careful. She wanted to be as cold with him as he was with her. Taking a deep gulping breath as slowly and carefully as she could, she said, “No, I don’t want anybody.”

 

Alessandro looked at her intently. He knew how much she still cared for her family- the family that didn’t care for her. It would be tearing her apart from inside, he was sure, but his Iris was strong. If that was her wish, he would not ask her again and upset her anymore. So he shrugged and said,

“Okay, if that is what you wish. “ Then he paused and said, “I am not sure how you felt yesterday evening, when you came in and heard what you did, while I was talking to Mamma.”

 

She still didn’t look up, so he continued, “I apologise if I have hurt your feelings in any way. I wouldn’t wish to hurt you Iris. But it is the truth.” He gave her a look hot enough to melt her body as he said, “I still want you—badly. In fact if it were not for the respect I have for you, I would have already made you mine.”

Her eyes became hard chips of wood. She stood up and snapped, “I’m not that easy, and you know it Alessandro.”

 

Alessandro laughed softly as he got up to come towards her. With each step he took forward, Iris’s heart beat faster, her insides trembling with anger and perhaps excitement too, but she held her ground, her chin up.

 

He came close to her, his breath caressing her hair as he bent down to growl quietly in her ear, “Si, amore. You are not easy. I will wait until our wedding night, though it is bloody hard to keep my hands off you when you are so close.”

 

As she turned to move away from him, he caught hold of her arm, irritated. “Don’t walk away from me when I am talking to you. “

“You don’t order me around Alessandro Bertoni! Not unless we are at work, and you become my boss. And that perhaps is something that I wish to amend.” With a jerk, Iris got her arm free from his hand. She had a sneaky suspicion her words had surprised him enough to let her go so easily, but she was glad of it.

 

“Meaning?” Alessandro asked, his eyes narrowing.

“Meaning I wish to give my one month notice now. I don’t wish to work for Bertoni anymore.” Iris said quietly. “Also I would like to go to my parents’ place for two days. I don’t want them to come to the wedding, but I do wish to let them know in person.”

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 24

Chapter-24

 

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Restraint was not something Alessandro was good at, but he always thought he could control himself. However in this instant, control seemed to have slipped him by completely as he kissed Iris hungrily. She in turn, shared his hunger, returning his kiss with equal fervour. As if her agreement to marry him had broken all the bars he’d placed on himself, Alessandro ravaged her mouth, and she clung to him, welcoming the invasion of his tongue in her mouth. Iris arched her back and wound her arms around his neck, as he moved to her throat, his tongue slipping out to lick her jaw, the base of her throat.

 

“Oh Tesoro, it has been a pain all these weeks not being able to touch you the way I want.” Alessandro groaned as he continued kissing his way down. He removed her short jacket and found her almost bare shoulder to nibble on.

 

As he moved the shoe string strap of her top out of the way, Iris held his head in her hand and moaned his name, her need for him apparent. He looked into her face and felt the grip of an insatiable hunger tightening around him.

 

“This is not happening.”

Even as she said this, Iris’s head automatically fell backwards to meet his gaze.

 

Eyes locked on each other, she leaned into him, the tug of attraction so strong, impossible to resist. Like a fish on the hook, she was reeled in by him. Lust as she knew it was in power today, annihilating all her sensible thoughts. Trying to break the hypnotic hold of Alessandro’s burning grey-green eyes was not on the agenda today. Did she even want to succeed?- she asked herself.

 

The debate remain unresolved as her heart rate quickened to a rapid thud when he cupped her breast in his hand, his thumb rubbing the hard nipple. Iris moaned his name while Alessandro watched the reaction, his eyes glazed, hunger roaring in his blood, the muscles in his throat working visibly, as he took laboured breaths. All intellectual debate right now fled his mind; the reasons why he thought he would he wouldn’t seduce her, but woo her. He looked at her mouth, her lips raspberry red and swollen with his kisses, and thought, she was his obsession, a craving that had to be filled.

 

His hand slid down her back, pulling her deeper into him while his mouth worked on hers, nipping softly at the pink fullness of her lower lip. Iris gasped and closed her eyes as she felt the rock hard impression of his erection grinding into the soft flesh of her stomach. She was ready for him, here and now.

 

Suddenly Alessandro put himself away from her, breathing hard. Shocked Iris opened her eyes and found him cursing colourfully in Italian. Her stomach still ached from the impression of his hard male length, her heart and body in pain at this rejection. She moved away, self-conscious and straightened her clothes. Looking at him, she found Alessandro shaking slightly, his eyes closed. As if he could feel his gaze on her, he opened his eyes. They were pool of grey storms this moment, as he moved away and said, “Give me a moment.”

 

But he knew it would take more than a moment to subdue the painful arousal. She had shredded his control with her unconditional surrender. He would have taken her here, in the back garden without a second thought, if he had been a man without conscience. As he came to terms with his lack of control, he turned to look at Iris and paled. Tears slid down silently her cheeks. He groaned, “Cara mia!”

 

Iris flinched and moved a little further away from him, “I’m f-fine. I understand. I’ll just go in and-“

Alessandro swore silently, “Iris, don’t. Don’t walk away. I forgot who you are – I am sorry I rushed you.”

 

Iris shook her head, not sure what she was saying no to at the moment. She simply turned away and walked inside the house.

 

It was later in the evening when she finally came face to face with him again, at the dinner table.

A muscle clenched beside his mouth, his frustration at not being able to talk to talk to her alone was evident. His mother sat calmly, sipping her wine and eating while chatting to Iris, who it seemed to him looked as if nothing untoward had happened at all. She didn’t resemble the woman who had shed tears earlier in the evening. Instead she looked calm and – icy cold. She had not even looked at him yet.

 

Wishing them both a good evening, Alessandro sat down at his seat at the head of the table. He picked up the serviette and filled his plate with food. He didn’t speak until he was finished while the women kept on talking. He wasn’t sure what was being discussed but it sounded nothing more than fashion trends.

 

He thanked Tomasso as he finished his dinner and they adjourned to the drawing room for coffee. Clara and Iris sat next to the fire place while he went and stood by the window. And then he cleared his throat. Both women looked up, their talk interrupted. And that was when Alessandro knew Iris was fiercely angry. The eyes said it all. The brown gaze was fiery and accusing before Iris lowered her eyes.

 

“What is it my son? Do you wish to say something?”

 

Abruptly, he looked away and at his enquiring mother, his voice harsh when he blurted out, “I have asked Iris to marry me and she has consented.”

 

At Iris’s gasp of disbelief, Alessandro looked at her enquiringly. She squirmed in her seat and sat silent, her eyes promising retribution. Alessandro grinned inwardly. He would welcome her anger if it meant she would speak to him. Clara looked from one to the other and sighed. Then she placed her hand on Iris’s and said, “Child, would you go into the kitchen and get me some milk to go with my coffee? It seems Tomasso forgot to get me more.”

 

Glad to escape, Iris smiled at Clara and went away. Clara patted the seat beside herself and said, “Sit with me Sandro. “

“What is it Mamma?” Alessandro sat down beside his mother and took hold of her hand in his.

Clara Bertoni patted his hand and sighed heavily. She looked at him and said, “You are like your father in many ways, but when it comes to life you forget one important emotion that should rule your hearth and heart both.”

At her son’s frown, she said, “Love, my son. If love is the basis of marriage, the relation lasts forever.”

Alessandro snorted, “Mother, you had an exceptional relationship with Padre. It doesn’t mean everyone is so fortunate. I have learnt well from experience. It is not love, but a relationship based on mutual attraction, financial security and understanding that lasts in the world today.”

Clara sighed as she looked at her son, making him frown. “Has she agreed willingly or did you seduce her into it Sandro?”

Alessandro, with his cheeks tinting with the faintest of pink tightened his mouth. What could he say? He didn’t wish to lie to his mother, and yet—he had his doubts. Clara Bertoni sighed deeply. “My son, you must learn to trust again, especially if you wish to make a woman your wife.”

Alessandro got up, going back up to window to look out, and spoke in a firm voice, “No mother, this will not happen. I can’t trust any woman completely- even the one who becomes my wife. Iris will have everything else- my respect, my passion, and be mother to my children, but I can’t promise love even though I care for her very much. ”

A sound of distress from his mother had him turning around. Iris stood by the door, with a stricken look on her face. He could’ve sworn he saw pain in her eyes, before her expression became completely wooden. She looked at his mother, straight through him and said, “Clara, if you don’t mind, I will say good night. “

Clara looked at Iris keenly, gave an inward sigh and said, “Of course, my child. Good night.”

 

Before Alessandro could speak up, Iris turned away and left the room. Her heart had torn itself into shreds at his words, slowly bleeding itself to death. He may have proposed to her out of passion, but she now knew that he didn’t feel the same way. Her mind was numb with shock; refusing to think any more on it, while a part of her brain was constantly castigating her for ever having thought he might have had some tender feelings for her. She should’ve known better. She should’ve listened to the cautious voice in her head that had kept on warning her to stay away from him. Tonight, she refused to listen to the reprimanding voices and quietly turned off the light, after getting into bed. That’s when the tears arrived.

LOVE CONQUERS-CHAPTER 23

Chapter 23

love.falling

Alessandro bit back words of frustration as he realised what he’d just said. He didn’t mean to blurt it out so simply. He had thought of proposing in the evening, after he’d  slowly germinated the seeds of this idea in her head. The pallor of her face reminded him of his boast of never getting married again unless he was sure of the pedigree of the woman. How was he going to explain to her that pedigree be damned, he wanted her more than enough to want to make her his wife?

There was nothing that could express the shock that Iris felt, upon hearing his simple declaration. Alessandro planned to get married- no doubt he had already in mind someone from his elite background, who would be ready to be his wife. But would she be a mother to Ernesto and Antonio? Her heart screamed in agony, shouting “I’d be a mother to them, if only you’d let me!” How was that possible, cried out her brain, mocking her heart. Had she not known that Alessandro was galaxies afar from her?

What was even the point of such thoughts, said she to herself. Still in shock at his words, she forgot to excuse herself, as she walked away from him, and into the house. She walked speedily, going straight to the playroom where Ernesto and Antonio were eating their dinner after their baths. They welcomed her profusely, which acted as a soothing balm to her aching heart. Forgetting everything else, she joined in the chatter, talking about this and that with both of them, until they reached their bedroom and demanded a bedtime story.

Normally not reluctant, Iris hesitated. Bedtime story time was a private time, something she had been sub-consciously doing for the children. Somewhere she had forgotten her boundaries and started treating them as a mother would- reading them a bedtime story, giving them the last cuddle and then kissing them good night. Switching the light off and turning back once to look at their faces as they slept. She shouldn’t have done all that! And yet, it had all felt so right.

Aghast at the crowding consciousness of her motherly treatment of them, Iris hesitated.

“Perhaps your Papa should do it today. I’m sure you don’t want him to feel left out, do you?”

“He wouldn’t. Not if you do it when he’s with you. How about that, eh?” Alessandro came to stand beside her, deliberately moving forward and holding her hand while saying this. The last question was directed towards children, who shouted in agreement.

“I don’t think—“ Iris began, but was shocked into muteness when Alessandro put a finger on her lips and said, “Don’t think, just do what you feel, tesoro mio. Come with me.”

Holding her hand, Alessandro entered the children’s’ bedroom. While he tucked in Antonio, Iris tucked Ernesto in his bed and then sat down beside him.

“Iris?” Whispered Ernesto

Iris bent down and said, “what is it sweetheart?”

Ernesto looked up at his father who was tousling Antonio’s head and then looked at Iris and said, “Would you lie down beside me and do what Papa is doing to Antonio? I will go to sleep quickly if you do it—like a Mamma does.’

Iris hugged him tight before she thought to make it clear, “I would love to cuddle you- as a mother, but you do know that your father—“

“-is already planning to make her your Mamma.” Alessandro spoke from the other side of Antonio’s bed, his voice firm. At a yelp from both the boys, he smiled at them and looked at Iris, “You don’t mind if I tell them, do you darling?”

At her initial shocked and then outraged look, he winked at the children, “She thought she was going to tell you but I beat her to it!”

And the kids burst into a fit of giggles. The next moment Iris could feel Ernesto snuggling into her and saying, “My mamma!” and Antonio slipping off his bed to join Ernesto with a wide grin on his face.

Strongly curbing the red mist of anger unfurling in her mind, Iris gave them both a kiss and hug and said, “Now off to sleep my dears. You’ve had quite enough excitement for the day. We’d make plans on what we do tomorrow in the morning.”

Ernesto and Antonio both smiled and said, “Si Mamma.” While getting under the covers. In a minutes the eyes were closed and they were sleeping. Iris looked at them both with quiet despair in her eyes and then turned to Alessandro. He was watching her, his eyes searching for reactions. Anger erupted within her and she moved close to him and hissed, “Outside where we can talk in private, if you please.”

“You mean where you can vent your anger out on me? By all means, let’s go into your bedroom—or mine?” Alessandro said, not an inch of him showing anything else other than superior male authority.

Iris gritted her teeth and said, “Let’s make it the back garden Signore before I murder you with my bare hands for that outrageous lie you’ve fed to the children.”

Her posture rigid she walked fast and ahead of him and got out of the villa. As soon as they were out of the earshot of the house, she said, “What the hell were you thinking about damnit! How could you say—how dare you!”

“Calm yourself down Iris. You’re getting hysterical.” Alessandro stood by the trunk of the tree, hatefully calm himself.

“I will be hysterical if I want to, damn you! To say such things..” Iris swallowed a sob, her heart broken. How could Alessandro have said something as important as making her his wife in jest? A horror crept up in her heart as she wondered if he’d seen her feelings for him and used them to mock her. Tears were not far away as she considered her actions and the fact that she might have betrayed herself.

Taking deep breaths, she spoke, her voice softer and full of sadness, “How could you Alessandro? Do you not know that saying things like that would be catastrophic? What if the children expect—“

Alessandro left the side of the tree to come and stand beside her. “Iris, look at me.”

When she didn’t, he turned her to face him and lifted her chin up with his long, tapered fingers. His eyes were stormy green, his expression serious, “Do you think I would joke about a thing like that? “

“I don’t know you, do I?” Iris said, her voice broken.

Alessandro looked in to her eyes, “Don’t you Iris? You know I love my children, and I know you like them just as much as they do you. I did tell you I wanted to get married this morning, did I not?”

Iris moved away from him, glaring at him, “And so what? Should I have thought you were propositioning me? “

She turned her back on him and abruptly he said, “Don’t do that! I hate it.”

Bewildered she turned back to him, “Do what? “

“Turn away when I’m talking to you.” Said he.

“Well, that’s too bad because I am turning away from you Alessandro. I work for you and I will wait for a man to come and propose to me because he loves me, not because he wants a substitute mother for his children.”

“You are turning me down?” Asked an incredulous Alessandro.

Iris, with tears that wouldn’t be held back anymore said firmly, “Yes, I am turning you down Alessandro. We don’t have anything that will ever make a marriage work.”

“Yes we do.” Saying this Alessandro pulled her close. Iris wriggled in his arms, but his hands were like steel vice.  Holding her face in his hands, he wiped her tears, his eyes tormented. “How can you say there is nothing between us? Can you not be honest for once and admit that no matter how hard we try, we can’t douse this attraction we feel. I can’t fight it any more, I don’t want to. We can want each other without having to restrict ourselves and make a life together.”

“Sex.” Iris struggled in his arms, “That is never enough and you know it. Marriages have to be based on stronger foundations. What when you tire of me, or I of you?”

He let her go then, to her astonishment. When she stood still, without trying to move away, he said, “There’s more to us than just attraction, don’t you think?”

Iris opened her mouth and closed it. What was he trying to say? Her heart beat rapidly like a tattoo in her chest. Was he saying he loved her? She waited.

Alessandro tousled his hair and looked at her, his eyes grey and solemn. “Love is something I don’t think I can do. But I do care for you. We could have a good life together. I like you. I can give you financial security, all the material things you may want from life. We could be friends outside the bedroom –“ his voice turned husky with desire, making the hairs on her arms stand up as he came closer again, “- and in the bedroom we could share our passion.”

Iris looked away then, unable to hide her own want for him. He took her chin in his hand and said, “Tell me you don’t feel the same.”

Unable to speak Iris shook her head. Gathering her closer to him, Alessandro leaned into her, kissing her jawline & whispering,” Tell me you don’t like me.”

His lips moved to her cheek,” Tell me we can’t be friends.”

He moved closer to her lips,  “Tell me.. tell me you don’t want me.”

Pecking at her lips, sipping slowly from them, while Iris opened her lips for more of his touch, he murmured, “Tell me, tesoro mio, tell me.”

Iris could only moan his name before his lips took hers completely. They kissed passionately, moving together, until Iris stood with her back to the bark of the tree. They kissed and kissed as if they had hungered for these kisses for a life time. Eyes closed, all Iris could think of was Alessandro, his scent surrounding her; his warmth, his lips, his legs entwining with hers.

Again he whispered, “Amante, mi amore. I want you so much. It has been a torment staying away from you. End my torment cara mia! Marry me.”

Defeated by her own heart and her feelings for him, Iris couldn’t deny her feelings any more. She would make do with what affection she could get from him and she would be with his sons she now adored. The hope that he may fall in love with her one day after marriage made her only whisper while she put her hand on his heart, “I’m yours Alessandro. Take me.”

LOVE CONQUERS- CHAPTER 22

Chapter-22

love.falling

“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?”

“Si.”

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.

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.