LOVE CONQUERS- CHAPTER 18

 

 

Chapter 18

love.falling

Next morning when Iris woke up, her first thought was – today she was to go to Alessandro’s family home, to meet Ernesto and Antonio. A smile broke through her lips as she thought of the twins and their laughter that rang in her ears. That smile however didn’t stay for long when she thought about their father and her on-going struggle to overcome her emotions for him.

She wondered if Alessandro would accompany her to his house and then go about his business. The thought of him coming to call her like yesterday evening made Iris scramble from her bed and rush into the bathroom to do her morning chores. She carefully dressed into a roll-up sleeve formal yellow tunic with skinny jeans, knowing the boys would expect her to play football with them the moment they’d see her. For the weekend, she packed clothes that were sports-worthy. As a second thought she also packed a frilled tunic in pale pink with a wide belt.

Just as she was tying her hair with a piece of ribbon, there was a knock on the door. At her behest to enter, Maria entered the room. Iris wasn’t sure if she was disappointed or relieved that it was not Alessandro. She surely felt a twinge of disappointment though when Maria informed her that Signor Bertoni had left the place early morning to go about his business in Sienna. His personal assistant; Senora Sandra Milano would be taking her to Signore’s house and would introduce her to Signora Bertoni; Alessandro’s mother.

Nervous at the thought of meeting Alessandro’s mother for the first time, Iris soothed her hands over her jeans and walked to the car. Alessandro’s personal assistant sat in the front of the car, typing on her laptop. As Iris approached the car, she kept her laptop aside and came out. A dragon of a creature, she was as tall as Iris and middle-aged. Though she looked formidable, the smile she bestowed upon Iris was nothing as such. Upon receiving such a warm smile, Iris smiled back at her as she shook hands.

“Come Signorina, from what I know, the children are dying to see you.”

Iris smiled once again as she said, “I’m sure it will be great fun to spend the weekend with them Senora Milano.”

 

“Call me Sandra and I will call you Iris, if I may?” Senora Milano said.

At Iris’ nod, she sat down in the car as Iris opened the door to sit in the back. And stopped.

Just by the seat, sat a lovely bouquet of yellow and red roses. Keeping hold of her nerves, Iris sat down and picked up the bouquet, mentally chiding herself. They couldn’t be from Alessandro surely. He wouldn’t consider her good enough for this, especially after she had rejected him the last time. It must be the work of nice Senora Milano.  She buried her head in it and inhaled its heady perfume. These weren’t hothouse roses!

“Indian roses!” Iris exclaimed. “Thank you Seno-Sandra, they are beautiful. You are very kind to have gone through this trouble. I had no idea you can even get Indian roses here.”

“Indeed.” Came a wry retort from Sandra. She turned back and smiled to show she acknowledged the compliment.  “But the appreciation of this goes to Alessandro, for he found out the one local vendor who sells it and got them for you.”

 

Roses bloomed in Iris’s cheeks as Sandra imparted her the information and looked at her. Trying to sound casual, Iris said, “Oh- how kind of him. Please pass on my thank you.”

“I will. I think there is a card attached to the bouquet.” Sandra said.

With hands that trembled despite her control, Iris picked up the card nestled inside the flowers. It said, “Hope you like them better than you like me. Have fun cara. A”

“All okay?” Sandra asked without looking back, for which Iris was thankful. Her eyes were tearing up and she had to take a deep breath before she replied calmly, “Yes, all okay.”

The car moved forward, but Iris closed her eyes to the world as she tried to calm herself. Oh the wretched heart! Alessandro’s words has pierced her. How could she tell him how much she liked him- loved him without letting him trample all over her? It hurt her to think that he thought he was not in her good books and lamented the fact. On the other hand- a small but sensible voice in her head spoke up- it was good for her because he would realize that she will not play his game.

 

“And here we are!” Sandra said all too soon as the car stopped. Astonished, Iris looked around. They hadn’t gone very far away from the villa where she stayed. In fact, it felt as if it had been mere minutes far. Confused, she looked around.

Perhaps Sandra guessed her confusion, for she chuckled and said, “Ah- you did not know?”

Bewildered, Iris looked at her and asked, “Know what?”

Sandra got out of the car, so did the chauffeur who took her bag out of the back of the car. At Sandra’s nod, he left in a few seconds, leaving them there. Sandra linked her arm in Iris and turned her around, “Let us take a walk, not very far but a short walk.”

Before Iris could argue or mention her bag, she said, “Leave the bag. It will be taken care of.”

Iris had no choice but to walk along. It was not more than 10 minutes or so when they came across a familiar signpost, that Iris had seen before. Still trying to wrap her head around the truth, Iris looked at it and then at Sandra.

Sandra clucked impatiently and said, “Look around Iris. See where you are.”

And Iris gasped. For not too far away, she was sure was the villa where she stayed. She remembered seeing the sign post  on the gravel road that led into a private estate. She had been told not to take the path that led to it, but she had not been informed who owned the private estate. Now she knew. She looked around, her mind still trying to gather and process all the facts.

This was where Alessandro lived? He was but just a few minutes away from her, every second of the day and she had not known. A tidal wave of emotion rose in her. Iris wasn’t sure if it was hurt or anger. She could have met the twins & spent time with them every day after work, had she been informed of their home so near to her, instead of spending the weekend. However, she knew saying anything to Sandra would not be wise so she kept her mouth shut and smiled brightly.

“This is nice indeed! It means I can spend more than a weekend with the boys if they wanted to spend time with me again.”

“Indeed yes.” Sandra acknowledged this statement with a nod and a smile, and continued, “We must go back to the villa. Senora Bertoni is, if I’m not wrong, already waiting for you along with the boys.”

And so together, they went back  to the traditional red brick house where Alessandro lived with his mother and sons. The house was house, consisting of the main house and a barn where Iris suspected, animals were kept. The main house accommodated three floors, as Sandra informed her like an estate agent, comprising of living room that had a huge fireplace, kitchen, laundry room, dining room, study and a guest room on the ground floor, seven double bedrooms with en suite bathrooms, playroom, nanny’s bedroom and the nursery occupying the top two floors.

 

There was also another house behind the main house, that accommodated Senora Bertoni, with three bedrooms and bathrooms, a dining room and a kitchen. Iris was informed confidentially,  that though Senora Bertoni liked spending her time at the main house, she liked her privacy and thus preferred the house at the back.

 

The barn, as Iris had rightly suspected, housed livestock and was also used as a granary. The entire property in total was spread over 9000 square meters of land that also held gardens in the front and back and the forest, parking spaces as well as a Olympic sized swimming pool, a small swimming pool for children and a small pond.

 

A man old enough to be her grandfather greeted them as they were ushered into the house. He was introduced to Iris as Tommaso; who held the position equivalent to that of a butler in the house. He smiled very little but had warm eyes, concluded Iris while she shook hands with him. Iris took in the surroundings as they entered the living room.

 

A spacious room draped with pale ivory walls, heavy curtains looked as if it was a part of a home magazine, with original wooden beams & arches, terracotta tiled ceilings and floors that held cherubs and angels, with a grand fireplace in the centre of the room. The room was very tastefully furnished as well, with bright coloured carpets and cream coloured sofas. Two lounge chairs were placed next to the fireplace  and some by the sides of the sofa.

 

On one of the chairs sat Senora Bertoni, with a piece of she must have been knitting next to her. Beside her sat the twins with huge grins on their faces, with Mrs. Whittaker close by. Iris realized that Senora Bertoni was a petite gentle woman. Alessandro got his eyes from his mother then, for they were just as sharp and of the same grey-green shade. His hair must be his legacy from his father, for Senora Bertoni was a blonde.

Her nervousness dissipated as Senora Bertoni smiled warmly at herr. They were introduced to each other by Sandra.

 

“So- you’re Iris the angel that the boys keep on talking about, who will play football with them.  Welcome Signorina Florence.” Senora Bertoni said, her smile warming Iris.

 

She shook hands with her and smiled back, saying, “They’re really too sweet to say so. My countrymen love football as much as Italians do.”

Then realizing her mistake, she corrected herself, “Forgive me, I forgot that you’re—I mean, you were also once English.”

 

Senora Bertoni gave a gentle laugh at this and gestured Iris and Sandra to sit down.  She leaned forward and said, “Ah yes! I was once. Now I think I’m as Italian as any other Italian mother would be. I’m sorry it has taken so long for us to be introduced to each other. No doubt Alessandro thought it prudent that you be given time to get adjusted to your work out here before you can meet the boys.”

 

At the mention of Alessandro, Iris felt her cheeks going pink but she held on to her composure as she said, “I’m sure Signore knows the best for his sons. “

 

“Yes, I’m sure he does. May I call you Iris?” Clara Bertoni murmured, satisfied at what she saw.

 

“Of course, Senora Bertoni. ”

 

“You may call me Clara, Iris.” At Iris’s nod, she continued, “And now, I will let the twins come forward.“

 

At her nod, the twins got up from their places and moved forward towards Iris eagerly. “They have been awake since early morning with the hopes of seeing you today. They tell me they have many plans.”

 

Iris took a step forward herself and kneeled down on the floor to come at an eye-to-eye level with the boys. Antonio, with his usual vigour hugged her tightly while Ernesto waited for his turn.

Iris hugged both of them back and ruffled Antonio’s hair, “ So you have many plans, eh?”

 

Antonio nodded enthusiastically and turned towards his brother, “Don’t we Ernesto?”

 

Ernesto nodded and volunteered, “We know you can play with us the whole day today, Papa said so.” Then hesitatingly, “Will you?”

 

Iris gave him a wide smile along with her verbal acceptance to their offer, “Of course!! I’ve missed playing with two energetic young boys.  I’ve absorbed a lot of energy from the Sun these past few days. I’m sure I will beat you both at Football.”

 

“Hah! We will beat you!” Ernesto said with gusto.

 

Iris frowned a mock-frown. “Then I will just have to try harder tomorrow if you beat me today.”

 

“You will stay here for two whole days and spend them with us? You will not want to be with Nonna or Papa?” Ernesto questioned, as if doubting that anyone would want to spend so much time with them.

 

Iris felt her heart squeezing. She knew Ernesto had his problems, but she would make sure this little guy knew she was on his side. She squeezed his hand gently, looked into his eyes and said, “I’m here only because I wanted to be with you and Antonio.”

 

Giving Senora Bertoni an apologetic look, Iris added with a twinkle to her eye, “Of course when you sleep, I will spend time with your Nonna, and find out just how naughty you two are!”

 

“Yes! Nonna can tell you all!” Antonio shouted laughing. Ernesto nodded with a broad smile and started giving ideas of  what they could do in the evening.

 

Senora Bertoni listened to them and looked at the happy faces of her grandsons, approving the way Iris handled them. She seemed to genuinely like them, and even Ernesto seemed to be less hesitant with her. She also seemed compassionate. Yes, she will do very well indeed.

 

She cleared her throat pointedly and addressed her grandsons, “Now my dears, it is time you went into your room and changed for all the fun, while Iris is shown to her room.”

 

Mrs. Whittaker was the one who came forward, saying, “I shall guide you to your room Signorina. It is on the same floor as the boys.”

 

“Oh good.” Iris said and after taking her leave of Senora Bertoni and the boys, went along with her.

 

While on the first floor, she was given a whirlwind tour of the floor, that had three guest bedrooms, the nursery with a small room for the nanny and play room for the boys. The second floor consisted of a master bedroom, a dressing room of sorts, children’s bedroom and next to it, Mrs. Whittaker’s room. Next to Mrs. Whittaker room was another bedroom that Iris was to occupy.

 

Iris loved the room on sight. It was truly a beautiful room; very feminine. The window curtain were a creamy lace and the table and chair under it just as elegant. She supposed, she could sit there and write a few letters while she looked out into the garden and the green hills beyond from the window. The bed was a queen size, with the bedcover of powder blue with white daises printed on it, fluffy pillows and blue satin quilt on top of it. The dressing table looked to be equally royal, rosewood perhaps.

“How do you like your room madam?” Asked Mrs. Whittaker.

Iris couldn’t help but gush, “Oh it’s absolutely delightful Mrs. Whittaker! I wonder who designed it so?”

Mrs Whittaker gave a small smile, “It was meant to be the room for Senora Bertoni once, but she never occupied it. She never liked coming to this house;  preferred to live in Milan and Florence, she did.”

 

“Ah.” Iris couldn’t formulate a reply for this, while her mind tried to sought out answers on why she was being boarded her. Then she shrugged her thoughts. Obviously, this was the only room apart from Mrs. Whittaker that was close to the kids. This was the only reason why she’d been given this room to stay in.  Freshening herself up quickly, she went downstairs again, where Antonio, Ernesto and Senora Bertoni waited for her.

LOVE CONQUERS – CHAPTER 17

Chapter 17

 love.falling

 

 

“Come down at eight. I will be waiting.” He had said, and yet when the dinner gong sounded, Iris was still in her room.

A mass of nerves, she had dressed in the apple green dress she’d found at a boutique in Florence. The satin material of the dress slid silkily over her body, its broad neck emphasising her collar bone and the narrow shoulders. The ruched bodice gave her a seductive look with diamonds glittering right under the side of her under-breasts. The slit at the side of the dress made her look sexy, emphasising the long length of her legs. Her golden brown hair flowed smoothly over her smooth & silky shoulders, playing hide and seek with light.

She wondered if she’d made a wrong choice with the dress. This was the only one she’d got with her on this trip. Maybe she should have gone shopping last week. But how could she have known Alessandro would – no, she shook her head. It was no use lying to herself. She had known he would be here, just that she didn’t know when. And now – with no other option she had to wear it.

What if Alessandro found this dress to be a signal that she welcomed his advances? She didn’t want him to think she was a cheap tart. What if he thought, she was similar to other women who came running into his arms, displaying their bodies, ready for the taking? But most of all, she was scared that if he touched her, he would know how she felt. She was putty in his hands every time he touched her. She had to keep him at arms’ length.
Before she could change the dress however, there was a knock on the door. Iris opened the door thinking it may be Maria to announce the dinner. Instead she found Alessandro, standing there looking like dark haired Adonis.  He wore a dove grey suit that screamed rich, giving him the look of what he was- an arrogant billionaire who knew he looked good and wouldn’t give an inch to anyone.

“What?” Muttered a startled Iris, in her nervousness completely oblivious to the way he was staring at her. She turned her back to him and picked up the hair brush adding, “I was just about to send Maria to you. I’ve –“

“-not got a headache, surely?” mocked Alessandro, his voice belying the way his body and brain had responded to seeing her. She looked absolutely gorgeous in the dress she wore.
Iris stiffened at his words, putting the hairbrush down. She gritted her teeth, mentally frying him in hot oil for putting her through this situation. She spoke, her voice right with annoyance, “I was merely stating that since we have nothing to talk about, it’s best I take my dinner on a tray.”

“After being dressed up the way you are, it would be criminal to eat your dinner on a tray, holed up in your room. Not that food holds any attraction to me after looking at you. “ he came close to her, and before she could suspect what he was up to, pulled her to him, caging her in his arms.

Iris gasped at the contact and struggled in his arms, “Let me go Alessandro. This has to stop!”

“Why?” bluntly asked a husky voiced Alessandro, as he pushed a strand of hair away from her face and cupped it in both his hands, looking intently into her eyes.

Iris forgot what she wanted to say as she met his eyes that glowed like emerald fire. She forgot all else, except him. She closed her eyes as she saw her hunger reflected in his. His breath caressed her face. Slowly he bent towards her and asked again, placing a butterfly kisses on her lips, her eyes, her lips again.

“Why? Why should it stop Iris?”

With difficulty, Iris spoke, her eyes still closed, “Because-“

“-because?” Alessandro whispered against her mouth, kissing it softly, swiftly. Iris moaned at the loss of his lips from hers. Alessandro groaned, “You take my breath away Iris. Do you have any idea how much I want you? “

Not letting her speak, he took complete possession of her lips, kissing her with a hungry urgency. Iris responded in kind. Mouth fused explosively, as they kissed each other, holding on to each other.

Alessandro kissed her throat, murmuring her name again and again, “Iris, Iris. I’ve been thinking about this for months! There’s been not a single night when I’ve slept peacefully since I’ve met you. I want you so much.”

Her insides beamed at the thought of power over him. She wanted him too, right here and right now. All her worries, her anxieties could take a back seat for now. All was forgotten as she fell deeper under Alessandro’s spell, as he molded her body to his, his hands splayed widely on her bottom now. His clean, fresh male scent filtered through her nose and went straight to her head. She felt his hard arousal against her body and shivered with the thrill of it. She had the power to make him mad with desire, just as he had this power over her. They were equals.

She tried to speak, “Dinner-“

His voice was low and husky as he said, “Dinner be damned. I have much better delights to taste.”

It should have given Iris an indication of the things about to come, but she had no inkling of it, as she continued raining soft kisses on his jaw, her mouth trying to capture his wandering one. Seeing her growing wild with want, Alessandro groaned deep in his throat, his feet moving slowly towards the bed.

Unhurriedly he moved her hair on to one shoulder, sliding the strap off  and kissed it as he eased her on to the bed and moved sideways to be with her. She moaned his name as his mouth moved lower, kissing the collar bone and then moving towards her breasts.

Something in her had broken down when he had told her how much he’d wanted her, how he’d spent sleepless nights like her. Her love it seemed, all the antagonism they showed on the surface for each other had caught up with them, leaving them bereft of good senses. All she could think of right now was that she wanted him to make love to her, whatever the consequences.

Alessandro began caressing her breasts, playing with them through the silk of the dress, kissing her at the same time, teasing the nipples into hard pebbles.
“Alessandro.” She moaned weakly, a vestige of common sense trying to make its way through her desire fogged brain. “ We mustn’t!”

“Stop me now if you can Iris. I can’t do it myself.” Alessandro said even as his lips burned a path along her neck, moving to suck her breasts through the silk, capturing first one and then the other in his mouth. She cried out his name, gripping his head as her fingers tangled in his hair, as if urging him to suck harder, while she writhed under his exploring mouth. All this was new but so unbearably erotic ! No one had had the power to arouse her to such an extent in her entire life. She knew she couldn’t stop him even if she wanted to.

His hand moved lower as did his lips. He kissed her stomach reverently and then came back to catch her lips again, while his hand pushed the dress higher up, climbing up her thighs. She gasped in his mouth, as he touched her feminine core through the flimsy slip of cloth covering her femininity. His fingers worked their magic on her as she clung to him desperately, wanting him to give her the release.

The dress rose higher up and his hands pushed aside the flimsy material to feast on her. She said his name again and again like a chant as he devoured her, her body writhing under his mouth, as he held her firm by the thighs. He took her higher and higher, pleasuring her  until finally she bit her hand to mute the scream that rose in her throat, as she exploded.

She was still getting her breath back, as he kissed her there once again before coming up and laying down beside her. She turned to him and laid her head on his chest, listening to his thundering heartbeat, before she moved up to kiss him.

Alessandro could barely keep his control intact. He so badly wanted to tear his trousers off and find solace in her heat. But he must get his breath back first. When Iris rose up to kiss him, he almost lost it. His tongue mated with hers, as his hands roamed over her back, holding her to him, as they began getting lost again.

His loud curse was a shock to her system as he removed his hand and mouth from her body in a swift movement, moving away from her. Her dazed brain registered the knocking on the door and all he desire was washed away in an instant. He got up from the bed and said, “Someone is at the door. You must respond. Or should I? ”

Shame engulfed her at her own actions, her wantonness. She decided to ignore it for the moment, shook his head at him and got up from the bed. Maria was at the door, wanting to know if she would be coming down to dinner. Iris replied in a shaky voice that she would be down soon and they heard Maria moving away.

Iris wouldn’t look at Alessandro as she  adjusted her dress and trying to blank out the chaos going on inside her mind. Her hair was a mess. She picked up the brush with shaking hands and started soothing out the knots. She heard Alessandro take a deep breath, but she didn’t pay him much attention, trying not to think at all.

“Iris, I-“ Alessandro started, but Iris interrupted him, “Please Alessandro, you need to go down. I shall be down presently. I just need some time.”

Alessandro’s mouth tightened as he heard shame clouding her voice. He caught her from behind and turned her towards him, tightening his hold as she tried to push his hands away,  he said, “NO! Listen to me Iris. What we did was natural. We’re two people, passionate by nature,  who’re attracted to each other. We’ve been fighting this for a long time now.  Why should we not let it happen?”

Iris refused to look at him, lest the tears she had in her eyes betrayed how she felt, as she said, “Let me go Alessandro, please!”

He softened his hold but didn’t let her go. She took a deep breath to control her breathing and said softly, “I know what you’re saying about—about attraction is true. But I do not wish to give in to it. It means nothing and it will only complicate things. It is best to leave this alone.”

Alessandro put his finger under her chin and made her look up. Seeing her tear wet eyes, he swore, frustrated with this entire situation. “Don’t do this to yourself, to me! What do you want me to do? “

Iris pushed him away and he finally let her go. She said, “Go down please. I’ll come down presently. I just want your word that you will keep to your schedule of going away, not come back and certainly not try to touch me again when we- when I spend the weekend – go there tomorrow. I will come there only because I want to see Ernesto and Antonio.”

Alessandro nodded and quietly walked out of the room, closing it behind him, leaving Iris free to let the tears flow down her cheeks.

LOVE CONQUERS-CHAPTER 13

Chapter-13

love.falling

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

LOVE CONQUERS- CHAPTER 11

Chapter-11

Iris tossed and turned in her bed, trying to get her thoughts in order. It had been two days since she had come back from the Villa Bertoni.

She had already met Felipe who had informed her that she was to leave for Siena in about a week once she had handed over and explained some project details to the person taking over it. She had also been told that she would be traveling when required. Iris had no objection if she could travel. In fact she felt it would give her an opportunity to stretch her wings more.

Lorenzo had exclaimed over her move to Siena and decided it was probably not such a bad thing since he would be going away to Cortona himself. He was already laying down plans to come and see her but Iris had no idea how that would pan out. So far things seem to be going well.

She turned to the other side of the bed, trying to eliminate a certain image that had been, since the last two days superimposing itself on her brain in the nights. No matter how hard she tried, no matter how exhausted she felt, her body refused to go to sleep; her mind for ever playing the scenes that had already taken place. Tonight was no different than the last two. Annoyed with herself, Iris switched off the night lamp and snuggled under the covers.

It felt like it must have been just a minute but it was in fact nearly morning when Iris woke up gasping. She looked at the watch disbelievingly. Her sleep didn’t seem to have done her any good at all.  She was breathing hard like she had been running. Which she had—in her dream. She got up to pour herself a glass of water and washed her face too. She felt as if her body was on fire. She vividly remembered her dream and a string of strong curses broke out from her mouth. Damn Alessandro Bertoni!

Her face turned red when she remembered how he had been stroking her body in her dream. Worse was, she had been encouraging him to touch her, moaning for his touch. She remembered how real the touch felt, as if he was there in her bed, stroking her. He had been whispering sweet nothings in her ear. When Iris tried to move away from him and create a bit of space between their bodies, he had pulled her into his body and whispered, “Run all you want but you won’t be going far. I shall claim you.”

And it was on this note that she had opened her eyes, gasping for breath.

Telling herself not to be foolish, Iris tried to calm herself. There was no cause for her to be threatened or to feel as if deeper forces were at work, moving her towards where he was. Nonsense of course. She had been living in Italy for quite some time now and had not seen Alessandro for all this while. Last weekend had been a chance meet; he was the boss of their huge organization and there was very little possibility that they would meet again. Besides, from what she had found out he didn’t live in Siena. He traveled a lot and had a house somewhere else. She had no cause to fear meeting him again.

“And why exactly should I be scared of meeting him again? I don’t like him yes- but I don’t have to be scared of him. Come on Iris, this is not you. You’re brave and you can manage your life without any interference. Just remember your policy of “No men” and you’ll be happy ever after.” Iris tried to give herself pep talk and almost believed it too. A part of her though kept on taunting-reminding her of time spent with Alessandro, in his arms-his kiss…

Iris put a hand over her eyes but the scene of their kiss kept on continuing in her mind, as if it was happening that very instant.

“For heaven’s sake!” Very angry with herself, she flounced off the bed and went to take a cold shower.

 

“What is it you are plotting in your head my son?”

Alessandro was roused from his thinking by his godfather; Alessandro Molinelli. He smiled at him and shrugged saying, “Always something that is challenging.”

His godfather gave a booming laugh and said, “You are so much a man after my own heart. I think your father didn’t realize how many qualities of mine will be passed on to you along with my name. “

They both grinned at each other and then went back to drinking wine. Alessandro had come to his uncle and godfather for a visit.  He visited his uncle every month and brought with himself the best bottle of his vineyard. This was one ritual he never missed since he knew his uncle was not just an aficionado of the wines that his vineyard made but also a shrewd businessman. Alessandro came to him when he was stuck in a particular deal for advice. Today he planned to do the same although it wasn’t business this time.

He looked over fondly at his godfather. Turning 72 next month, Alessandro could see no hints of his uncle backing down from an active life.  A former race car driver, his uncle had always lived a life of leisure; women, parties and in general what her mother fondly yet scathingly termed as “wasting” his life. It was only after he met the love of his life when he was about forty that he settled down. Now his world was actively full of laughter and happiness and his eyes plainly said that he adored his wife and three children.  He still worked hard enough to ensure a more secured future for his children. Alessandro was in turn godfather to his youngest daughter.

Alessandro knew that his uncle was a shrewd businessman too for he had wisely invested his earnings from race car driving days into a chain of restaurants. He catered well to all classes of people and it was no wonder that his restaurants and cafes were now famous all over the world as well as in Italy No tourist who went to Venice, Rome or the Tuscan region would pass by it without visiting either one of his expensive restaurants or budget cafes.

His uncle was not only his father’s loyal friend; they were like brothers. It was rumoured that there was not a single thing that they both hadn’t done together in youth, including competing for his mother’s affections. Only his mother had chosen his father and Alessandro had conceded defeat. Since then he was just as dedicated to her as to his friend. As long as Alessandro could remember, their family never spent Christmas without uncle Alessandro’s presence. When he was born, he had been baptised and named after him by Alessandro’s grandmother  who always thought of him as her other son. Alessandro Molinelli lived in a huge villa close to Siena and looked over his business from there. He was Tuscan at heart and always said, “To be born Tuscan is to be born lucky.” Alessandro quietly agreed with this but never said it out loud.

It was his uncle after all who had taught him most of the things in his life. While his father was affectionate, he was always immersed too deep in business to spare time for his son. It was uncle Alessandro who had taught him how to enjoy life, how to be hard at work, how to succeed in business and after his disaster of marriage, how to keep sane. Today Alessandro was back to him because he felt his sanity threatening. He needed his uncle’s advice again.

It had been three days since he was back from Villa Bertoni but he couldn’t find peace. At work, he kept his thoughts at bay knowing Iris would soon be right in front of his eyes, with his plan working seamlessly and successfully. It was at home that his peace was threatened, so much so that he had even considered his own plan foolish and was re-thinking all of it, including Iris’s move to Siena. His sons; although they’d spent only an evening with her raved on about her so much that his mother had questioned about Iris.

Alessandro had declined answering any of her questions yet couldn’t help but hear her comments on how suitable she could be for his sons’ welfare. To his disgust he realized his plan went along the same track but not quite. He wanted to bed her first and then think about using her for his sons. The thought of her being used in any way made him feel guilty and restless. He was used to using people and their services for his own means so what was different this time? He didn’t have an answer to that. Also, Iris kept on intruding on his senses and thought at the most awkward times. The last three days had been a headache where he found his thoughts straying to how Iris tasted when he kissed her during important meetings.

To keep thoughts of how Iris felt in his arms and to curb his desire, to be patient until his plan was in motion, he had taken a known model who knew the score out yesterday evening. She was beautiful but she had been unable to retain his interest past dinner time. He had politely declined her offer to join her for coffee in her apartment and left her pouting in frustration. Back home he had turned to work and phone calls abroad where it was day time when he found himself unable to sleep. It was today morning that he suddenly felt the need to talk things over with his uncle who, he was sure would be able to guide him and get him back into his senses.

LOVE CONQUERS-CHAPTER 10

Chapter 10

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

“You are here!”

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

LOVE CONQUERS- CHAPTER 9

Chapter – 9

“Buongiorno bella mia, Iris! Ready to take a tour of the wine cellar and the garden with me?”

Iris turned to face a chirpy Lorenzo standing by the door and smiled at him. Today she wore one of her short dresses with strappy sandals. A hat completed the attire since they will be out in the sun for long and she had no wish to get a sunstroke. She’d put on more make-up than usual today too, to hide mauve circles beneath her eyes. Vittoria had commented upon it; being bitchy wouldn’t cover it; before leaving the room, going away to lord knew where. Iris could only be thankful that she had been left alone.

True Iris drank more than her usual the previous night, but she had no hangover this morning. What was worse was, she woke up early and remembered with clarity her conversation with Alessandro after he had almost snatched her from the arms of another man. She had been embarrassed to acknowledge to herself that she didn’t remember any of the men she had danced with, apart from Alessandro.

Her resolve today was simple. She would give him no excuse to come to her; in fact she would stay close to other employees and not wander by herself. She would avoid him as much as possible. They would be leaving tomorrow morning anyway.

She looked at Lorenzo who was dressed stylishly in three fourths and a bright yellow shirt and giggled, “And who’re you out to impress here Lorenzo? You look dashing!”

“Why, can I not dazzle you?” Lorenzo pouted and Iris went to hug him affectionately.

“Of course you can but then, I’m just me-your amiga. You don’t need to dazzle me, do you?”

“Ne-si, that is true! I just felt like dressing up. You think people will realize it?” Lorenzo looked worried now, making Iris wish she hadn’t started this conversation.

“Oh no, you look very much the man you know. And even if they do know your status, what’s the harm? I don’t think it is anybody’s business which sex you prefer you know. Your parents know it and so do your friends. So why bother about anyone else?”

“To protect you from sharks bella mia, that’s why!” Lorenzo replied, startling Iris. He continued, “Do you know how many men you danced with and how many tried to flirt with you, without success yesterday evening?” At her blush, he continued, “I’m not criticizing you Iris but- Signore Bertoni kept an eye on you. I don’t know why though. You think he fancy you?”

The blush deepened as Iris remembered the kiss she had shared with Alessandro. She took a deep breath and said, “What utter nonsense you speak Lorenzo! Don’t you know I’m an ice maiden?”

“Pahh!! That is for people who don’t see the fire in you bella mia.”Lorenzo fluttered his hands in air and with a sly raise of his eyebrow said, “I think Signore Bertoni sees this fire.”

“Why are we even talking about him for Pete’s sake! Let’s move on to the tour please.” Iris said, irritated with the fact that she couldn’t control her cheeks turning pink and then red for this once.

Lorenzo tried to soothe her ruffled feathers by agreeing with her hastily and taking her downstairs towards the cellar where the tour was already in procession. The guide was explaining to the crowd about the wine cellar in Italian.

“The wine cellar has been carved from the same bedrock as Villa Bertoni is standing upon. Back in 11th century, it was a dungeon and the villa was a fortified mansion with a watch tower. The structure on which Villa Bertoni stood was the original structure of that time, with modifications done to the cellar and the rest of the place as per the time changes.

Today for lunch and then for dinner, you will be served wines from our special cellar. You see, many hard-to-find vintages and Tuscan wine icons such as Querciabella, Fontodi, La Massa and Poggio Scalette make it to the list of red wines, whereas amongst the whites, we strongly prefer to vote for the northern regions of Alto Adige and Friuli. You will taste it today and tell us how you like it. After all, customers come to you for opinion, si?”

Everyone nodded their heads in appreciation at the guide’s announcement. Iris tried to look enthusiastic. After all, she worked with an organization whose major business consisted of wines. Normally she would have loved to taste them one by one but today- after yesterday’s over drinking and her memory failing her on what happened with Alessandro, she had no enthusiasm for any sort of drinks.

Villa Bertoni restaurant was the next place of visit; the route to the private wing of the villa. Iris tried not to look at the private wing and feel a flutter of nerves. She held on to Lorenzo’s hand as they were explained about the paintings that decked the walls of the restaurant. There was also a large portrait of a haughty man whom the guide introduced as the man who built Villa Bertoni long time back. Iris was startled to realize that Alessandro looked exactly like his long gone ancestor. She averted her eyes from the portrait and walked on.

They went out to the garden that was set as a backdrop for the restaurant, perfumed by a bouquet of roses; Florentine roses as she was informed that twined themselves along the stone walls of the garden. The guide further went on to inform them that most couples loved to come here for a honeymoon and spend their evenings feeling romantic, dining under the stars or during Summers, watch the sun go down behind mossy green and beautiful looking Chianti hills.

Iris absorbed this information absent mindedly while a part of her mind was busy trying to divert itself from thinking about Alessandro. It was lunch time and he hadn’t shown up yet. And why should you care if he wasn’t around? An inner imp asked her the question. Annoyed with herself for not being able to stop thinking of him, Iris excused herself from Lorenzo by saying she wanted to walk around the garden for a bit while everyone else went inside for lunch.

She walked around for a bit, taking in the heavenly perfume of roses in the garden and then sat down by one of the loungers set in the garden. It wasn’t that she was tired but she did feel out of sorts. Maybe should could close her eyes for a bit and rest before joining others for lunch. She laid back her head, stretched her legs and closed her eyes, her hat shielding her from the rays of the Sun.

Something tickled her nose and she tried to swipe it away. It came back again, this time accompanied by chuckles. She opened her eyes to see two cherubic faces with grey green eyes and dark hair giggling at her. Each of them held a blade of grass in hand.

Those eyes!! Iris could barely comprehend what was in front of her in her still sleepy state of mind. Only one man she knew of possessed such eyes around here.  She knew all about Alessandro’s broken marriage and twin sons who lived with their grandmother most of the days.

“You make funny faces when you’re sleeping.” One of those cherubic faces said, laughing as she wrinkled her nose and pulled a face again. The other boy laughed as well at her expression and added, “Why do you sleep here? Have you no bed?”

Iris had barely opened her mouth when the first kid spoke again, “Now that you’re awake, will you play with us? Papa says we can play football if there is a grown-up around.”

That tone of directness was uncommon children so small. Iris judged them to be not more than three or four years old.  But what were these kids doing out here alone? And whose kids were they?

“Are you sleeping with your eyes open?” Another question from them and Iris shrugged her thoughts aside to reply to them mischievously.

“Well, I thought I’d better absorb some energy from the Sun, just in case I was asked to play with two young men. I’d need the energy then, wouldn’t I?”

The children seemed to consider this. They looked at each other and then nodded at each other. Two pair of grey green eyes stared at her curiously, “You would play with us? Our nonna says we are still piccolo and only Nanny can plays with us. Zia Arabella says she would play with us if she had legs. Only il Papa always plays with us.”

Iris felt like an intruder as she asked, “What about your madre?” and immediately wished she hadn’t asked as their faces fell, the smile wiped off their face. “She doesn’t like to play with us. She says we waste her time.”

Iris had nothing to say to that as shock held her speechless. What mother could ignore such adorable children? Why would she want to say that? As her thoughts chased each other around in her head, a voice growled out, “Antonio! Ernesto! What do you think you’re doing out here ?  Mrs. Whittaker has been frantic looking around all over the Villa for you.”

Iris stiffened as she heard Alessandro’s angry voice. She felt him coming closer. She looked at the children to find an expression full of delight on their faces despite his growling.

“Papa!” They ran to him as Iris watched on. He enveloped them in his arms and picked both of them up, a smile softening his features. Iris was arrested by this smile; soft and tender, it held a lot of love for his children. The children were beaming as they both spoke simultaneously, “Papa, let us stay in the garden please! She says she will play with us. She even absorbed energy from the Sun to do so.”

“Did she now?” Alessandro grinned at his kids and looked speculatively at Iris who sat on the lounger, blushing pink. She stood up as he neared her, looking flustered. His glance took in her attire. He did not know how she managed to look sexy, cool and innocent at the same time. She portrayed sexiness with those long sexy legs that he would love to wrap around his waist. Her pouty lips and the sleepiness in her eyes stirred his libido and he had to close his eyes for a second before he looked at her again, to focus on the confusion in her eyes, making her look aloof and at the same time innocent.

“I’m sorry- I-“

“Hello Iris, still hung over?”

Iris looked at him, her voice straight from the freezer, “I’m perfectly fine, thank you.”

He raised an eyebrow in disbelief. “You missed your lunch. I wonder, what were you doing in the garden all by yourself and how did you find these two urchins?” Alessandro observed.

Iris looked at her watch, shock very visible on her face She had indeed missed lunch. She had been asleep for the best part of an hour. Before she could say anything however, one of the children piped up, speaking perfect English as good as Italian they’d spoken earlier.

“She didn’t find us Papa! We found her. She was sleeping. We tickled her nose and she made funny face.” Their faces were wreathed in smiles, “She didn’t sc-scald us-“

“Scold” said Iris immediately and then flushed under Alessandro’s gaze.

The kid who had been explaining looked at her, his eyes serious and repeated, “-scold. She did not scold us and she said she will play with us. Can we play with her Papa?”

He said softly, “I would also like to play with her but she says no to me.” When Iris shot daggers at him with her eyes, he laughed softly and then addressed his son, “Not now Antonio. She has to go and join other grown-ups from the company right now.”

Looking at their wilting smiles, Iris felt bad. Before she could, she said, “maybe later? I-“ Alessandro smoothly intervened, “She can join you later in the evening if you want.”

“And will she read us a bedtime story too?” Three pairs of grey green eyes turned to look at her, each gaze questioning with the addition of Alessandro’s eyes also looking amused.

Iris squirmed under it with discomfort and rage. Damn the man! He had not even asked her if she was willing to spend time with his sons, just taken it for granted. No doubt his mistresses fell over themselves to please him and his sons, Iris thought and then felt mean for it. She could hardly blame the children for their father’s deeds but spending time with them? Not that she had any problem with spending time with children but, why did he have to superimpose his will on her. She looked at him and then at the children who looked at her with an expectant look on their faces. She could not disappoint children, no matter how much she disliked their father.

She ignored Alessandro, gave a radiant smile to the children and said, “If you want me to, I will come and join you for some time in the evening and also read you bed time story.”

The children gave her a wide smile and their father declared, “There Ernesto, now that you know she will come to you in the evening, will you go to your room and put Mrs Whittaker out of her misery?”

The kids nodded enthusiastically. Alessandro put them down and they ran towards the private wing entrance where Iris saw them being received warmly by an elderly lady in yellow overalls. She watched them go away with her and turned around, excuse ready on her tongue to be away from Alessandro.

“Will you join me for lunch? I missed mine too.” Alessandro asked her, smoothly stopping her in her tracks.

“No, thank you. I’m not really hungry.” Iris replied calmly enough but blushed when her stomach strongly disagreed with her by rumbling loudly. Alessandro looked at her, his face devoid of any expression though his eyes were alight with laughter.

“Looks like your stomach disagrees with your opinion Signorina.” He held out his hand, laughter gone from his eyes and he added quietly, “please Iris? I could really do with some undemanding company right now.”

“Vittoria-“ Iris started but was ruthlessly cut off.

“is a pleasant diversion but not important when I want some peace and quiet. I also wish to talk to you about your career prospects. I’m sure Felipe and Felice will talk to you soon about we’ve had some plans for you that require your opinion.”

Iris could hardly say no to him since he wished to speak to her as her boss and not as a man. A part of her was disappointed by this development but she turned that voice in her head off and nodded, “Alright. I’d be glad to join you in that case Signore.”

“You can call me Alessandro.” He said gruffly as they walked towards the side of the restaurant that was adjoined to the private wing of the villa.

“I’d rather not if it’s okay by you Signore.” Iris replied, her voice husky. Just the thought of calling him by his name evoked images in her head that had nothing to do only with his name. Speaking his name would mean intimacy of knowing him and Iris was not ready for such intimacy at all.

“You make me feel old every time you call me Signore. My father was called Signore. I’m known mostly as Alessandro by my management staff.”

Iris had no reply to that so she decided to keep quiet. Alessandro grunted in response to her silence and they reached the table that had been prepared for him. He pulled a chair for her and she sat down. Well, Iris concluded, at least she couldn’t fault his table manners.

They concluded their lunch talking companionably. Iris to her surprise found that they had a lot of interests in common including their taste in music and books. Soon dessert was served in the form of cheese and biscuits and then coffee. Iris had started to wonder if this was all just a pretext or if he really wanted to talk to her about her career. She was a little anxious and a little worried. She had been working like a Trojan on her last project but maybe she had erred somewhere. Why else would the CEO of the company specially pick her to talk to her about her career, when appraisal time was still a month away.

“Your worries are needless as far as your last project performance is concerned Iris. No one could have done it better than you.”

Iris was surprised at how good she felt hearing Alessandro praising her work and yet she was puzzled. She looked at him questioningly and he continued,

“You have gained complete knowledge of Olive side of our business but you’re still a novice when it comes to wines. To handle our international clientele, it is important that you understand and are knowledgeable about all aspects of our business. You agree to that surely?”

At her nod, he said “This is why we have been thinking of moving you out of Florence for some time and bringing you the main center of our wine business in Siena.”

Iris looked at him, panicking inside yet outwardly calm, “And when am I to do that? And the other arrangements?”

Alessandro sipped his coffee and looked at her, “In about three months’  time appraisals will be over and promotions will be declared as you know. Felipe is of the opinion that you should learn something about wine business before this so that you have fair prospects of promotion in your team. Without you knowing or understanding our business completely like the rest of your team does your career cannot grow.

You go back tomorrow and in about a week’s time arrangements will be made for you to travel and stay in Siena for the next three months.  You will stay in our vineyards there and tour around our other vineyards to learn everything there is to know about wines. Capisce?  If you have any objections now would be the time to raise them. If you agree, then I will ask Felipe to speak with you tomorrow.”

Iris sat there in silence, digesting it all. Of course she would have to agree to the proposal that the bosses were keeping in front of her, if she wanted her career to grow. She didn’t really care much where she stayed; as it is she was staying in a foreign country with hardly any friends. She must look at this as an opportunity to learn something more not just for the sake of her career but also country wise. She took a deep breath and said, “Yes, I understand Signore.”

“Alessandro.” He said, the determined glint in his eyes strong now, “Say it Iris.”

“Alessandro.” Iris repeated huskily, not able to look away from his eyes that held her captive. He took a sharp breath as if it hurt and then looked down into his coffee cup, “May be it is best we stick to formality if that is how you plan to call me every time.”

Iris gulped and nodded. She had to get away NOW! She said, “If that is all, I’d like to go up to my room please.”

Alessandro seemed distant and cool as he said, “Yes, of course. Have a pleasant riposino.”

He stood up with Iris and bowed a bit in farewell, “Come to the private wing at five o’ clock. The children have their dinner by about six and go to sleep by six thirty. You can return to sane adult company after that. I will see you with the children.”  At her startled glance, his eyes turned green with fire “I will be there with the kids Iris- to play with you.”

Barely able to give a coherent reply, Iris mumbled a good bye and walked away as fast as her legs could take her, her heart beating a tattoo in her chest.

LOVE CONQUERS-CHAPTER 8

It took her a few minutes to get back into her cool mode but Iris was ready; calm and composed by the time Lorenzo came to escort her down. She felt quite mollified when Lorenzo gushed at her appearance. She remembered belatedly that Alessandro had not even looked at her properly or said anything about her appearance.  She got angry with herself again and gave herself a lecture, “Stop it Iris! Don’t waste your time thinking about Alessandro Bertoni; the arrogant ass. Who cares what he thought of your appearance! You didn’t dress for him Iris, you dressed for Lorenzo. Go ahead and enjoy the party and if you see him, ignore him.”

And she almost followed her advice to the T. She complimented Lorenzo on his appearance and manners and stayed close to him all evening. She danced with him and other colleagues that she was friendly with but kept herself away from the part of the room where Alessandro kept his counsel. She had seen him when she had come down, with Vittoria draped all over him, glowered at his back and wished him to hell.

After that, she tried to ignore her senses that made her aware of his presence. She knew that he was on the other side of the room from where she was; talking to another blonde; a dumb head in her opinion from her staff. The blonde seemed to simper when he smiled and showed his predator like teeth.

Iris shivered as she imagined his teeth nipping her. To get rid of the feeling, she smiled brilliantly at the colleague she was dancing with so that the guy looked a bit dazed and offered her a glass of champagne. Iris accepted it with alacrity. Anything to keep her thoughts away from that odious Alessandro. She gulped down two glasses before she knew it and was still held in the arms of her colleague who’s name she’d forgotten. After that, it was easy to keep up the pretense of pleasure as she drank champagne and danced. She felt a little better now and smiled freely at the other guy who came up to ask her for a dance. She nodded enthusiastically and was about to put her hand in his when Alessandro’s drawl came from behind her, “I think she owes me this dance. If I may?”

He looked pointedly at the guy who held Iris’s hand and the guy immediately let go, looking at Alessandro’s mossy green eyes, sparkling with anger. Without much ado, he caught hold of Iris in his arms. He was unsurprised when she allowed him to hold her and felt instantly at peace.

Alessandro had danced with all the other ladies of the staff except- Iris. He had time and again this evening swiveled back to look at her and wondered at her impact on him. Perversely that was also one of the reasons why he had kept his distance. Iris snagged at not only his senses but also his feelings. He had noted the panic on her face and then also seen the panic subsiding when she started drinking without thinking. He had seen the worried look on Lorenzo’s face and her brilliant- over bright smile and still he had stayed away from her.

He had let Vittoria snuggle close to him; knowing he felt nothing for her. Vittoria knew the score and was no problem at all. Iris on the other hand, was not even ready to play. Maybe that was the challenge- the part of hunting the prey that lured him to her. He had told himself that until he had seen the leery look in the eyes of the last man who had asked her to dance and seen her oblivious to it.

Desire was one thing but to feel possessive about her was quite another. Desire he could handle, feelings he couldn’t. This was not a familiar response for the ruthless Alessandro, he acknowledged it reluctantly to himself. He had tried to tell himself that she was just another woman; an employee of his organization. He had his fun from time to time, sure he did- when women like Vittoria Terzo were willing and knew the score.

With Iris, he simply couldn’t control his want to have her all to himself. He cursed his cousins who had asked him to attend this weekend. According to them, it was a good time to mingle with the staff since the time for review and appraisals would soon begin. He had seen the logical side of the argument and come here.

The past few months after Iris had been hired by his organization, he had been so busy with his life and family matters that he had quite forgotten about her and the impact their meetings had had on him. It was only now that he remembered how it had kept him awake for many days before he had decided to recommend her to the human resource and hire her to come to Italy. He had kept tabs on her for some time– until the time he found his sons becoming a constant source of worry for the nannies and his mother. His mother had started telling him off recently and even gone as far as to say that he didn’t really care for his sons since he didn’t spend much time with them. These past few weeks had been hell what with constant arguments with his family who wanted him to choose a bride and get the boys a mother. He had quite forgotten all about Iris—until this weekend when he met her again.

This evening he had followed Iris with his eyes and realized that he had to come up with a plan to satiate his want. She had been ignoring him and avoiding the side of the room where he stood. He had felt fierce anger when she had let go of Lorenzo and started dancing with other men. He didn’t want her to dance with anyone else, didn’t like anyone else touching her.

Iris felt a jolt of awareness going through her, piercing the happy fog that a few drinks had spread on her. He looked up at him and into his eyes and her heart lurched. His hot glance was stuck to her mouth; plundering her. It so much felt as if he’s simply seized her lips with his own; possessing her by the sheer force of his magnetism. She looked away, aware of her shallow breaths and his deep ones.

“Look at me Iris.”

His soft command made her look up and Iris almost forgot to breathe. Time seemed to stand still as he took in his fill of her and she of him as they moved gracefully on the dance floor, oblivious to all others. He looked at her eyes that were brown pools of want; she was at this moment incapable of hiding it; the same golden brown reflected by her long, shiny hair, creating a stunning contrast to the creaminess of her skin. He could sit for hours and count the tiny freckles by the side of her nose that added freshness to her beauty instead of marring it. Her body was amazing, lushly curved where it should be; slender but full breasted with hips one would  want to hold on to. She had kept him at bay from the day they’d met and given him a taste of her sharp tongue; something he found refreshing. She was not just another attractive face; she was devastating and she was meant for him. This thought rang as clear as bell in Alessandro’s head as he moved her closer towards the exit from the party hall.

Iris had put her head on his chest and closed her eyes, listening to the beating of his heart. It was as if it was a call of drums; asking her to join him in a dance so ancient yet new.

“Are you alright?”

Iris opened her eyes and found herself out of the party hall, away from the crowd, with Alessandro standing disconcertingly close to her, still holding her in his arms. She gave him a light push and he let her go. She was flustered and breathless but she tried to bring her voice under control as she said, “Fine. I’m fine. I just want to go up to my room and sleep this madness off.” She moved away from him a bit. Alessandro frowned, irritated by her gesture of flight. He retained the distance in his voice too as he said, “You were becoming drunk and I had to move you away from the guys before you did any real harm to your—“

“I can take care of myself, thank you very much!!” Burst out Iris, her eyes blazing at him. “I don’t need your help, you –“

“Careful Iris. Be careful with what you say to me, my sweet or you may learn to regret it later.” Alessandro’s soft growl warned her.

Iris, still under the bravado of alcohol, looked at him airily, “Don’t bother with the threats Alessandro. I want to go up to my room and that is where I will go. Away from you. So there. Good night.”

She started to walk away from him, her steps faltering when she realized that she had indeed drunk more than she should have. Her legs were shaky. She closed her eyes and felt dizzy for a second. Instantly, she became aware of the warmth behind her and knew that Alessandro stood there, holding her steady by the waist. He cursed in Italian and said, “You’re in no fit state to walk by yourself. I wonder how you stood up between all those men and danced with them!”

“You keep away from me. I can take care of myself- always have. Okay?” Iris snapped at him, trying to move away but his hold on her waist was firm.

“I will take you up to your room. You can sleep it off and thank me tomorrow for saving you from disgracing yourself.” Alessandro picked her up as if she was light weight and dainty and started walking towards the stairs, away from the party hall and towards her room.

“I disgrace myself? Impossible. Don’t you know what they call me? I can’t be disgraced, you big man you!”

Alessandro looked down at her and grinned, “I know what they call you. You’d have ruined your reputation of ice maiden had you stayed any longer, mia bella. And yes, I am a big man but you’re no dainty flower either, are you? We make a good pair.”

“Over my dead body!” Iris flailed her hand in the air in defiance, “I’d rather fight you to death than be anywhere near you Al-saandro. I know men like you. Ruthless and heartless.”

“Indeed.” Alessandro murmured as he opened the tiny purse that hung around her waist and took out the key. He inserted the key in the lock and opened the door, holding her in his arms still. She now clutched at his shirt and said, “Put me down. I can walk.”

“No way am I putting you down to fall on your face, mia bella.”

Alessandro held her tighter and she involuntarily snuggled to get closer but said, “I’m not your beautiful. You didn’t say anything about my appearance this evening before. I don’t care either. I will close my eyes and open them and this dream will be over.”

Her voice was wistful when she said it. Alessandro gently laid her on the bed and looked at her, his voice gentle, “You are a beautiful creamy English rose among fiery Italians. Sleep it off princess. I’ll see you tomorrow- when you’re sane again and ready to listen.”

Iris barely could keep her eyes open but she couldn’t resist asking, “Listen to what?”

“On how I’d make you my bella, Iris. Good night.” Alessandro said to the softly snoring, already asleep Iris. He kissed her on her soft mouth slowly and smiled. His smile, if he had known it was full of tenderness as he covered her up and left her room. He had a plan.

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.