Arnav too was thinking about the same incident while lying on his bed. How mean he had been to her that evening! His remorse knew no bounds as the tears he always kept hidden from everyone came to his eyes. He slowly wiped the tear away from his eye with his hand. He had always been unfair to Khushi. Khushi, who had been innocent of any malice that evening, had suffered at his hands. That was the first time when he had hurt her by doubting her. He closed his eyes and he continued thinking about that evening.
The moment Arnav had seen that tear fall; something had squeezed his heart tight, nearly making him gasp. He had felt as if he had been stabbed with a sharp dagger. When she hastily turned her head and walked away so that he couldn’t see her crying, regret took hold of his heart. He realized he may have been too harsh with her. Maybe his bitterness had been unjustified and maybe she was really an innocent. He knew he had a habit of painting every woman with the same brush due to his past but he couldn’t help it. He couldn’t trust anyone.
Arnav closed his eyes for a moment against this onslaught of emotions, as if trying to reach to a decision. When he opened them, determination had taken hold of his body. Whatever it was that he felt for Khushi, he couldn’t let it control him. He couldn’t let her get close to him. She disturbed him like no one else did. He shook the feeling away, telling himself he had done what was best for the both of them.
He had gone back to the family, where laughter and chatter kept everyone too busy to notice Arnav’s keen gaze on Khushi and Khushi’s avoidance of his eyes. Anjali however had not been too busy to notice that something had happened between her brother and that charming girl Khushi. She had asked him about her after the ceremony was over and Khushi had gone back home with her family. He had preferred not to talk about it and asked her to leave him alone.
He left the next day for London since the project they had been working on had to be executed from there. After the successful execution of the project, he had called up his uncle and asked him to pass on his congratulations to the entire team for the good work done. Much though he wanted to and probably as he should, he had not called Khushi to let her know that it was in fact her ideas and her presentation that had brought forth the best in the project.
Not that he was in the best of the moods these days. Anjali and Dean; who had just entered the scene then as her boyfriend, had both mentioned in the passing that he behaved like a bear with a sore head. Arnav knew he was not himself and he also knew the reason for it. He kept on thinking about a certain doe eyed female with tears falling down from her eyes and a hurt look on her face. He dreamt of her lips under his and could taste her essence when he closed his eyes. Her fragrance had stayed with him, on the suit that he had worn that evening. A week after he had returned, he had given the suit away for dry cleaning and had not worn it since. He worked out fiercely in the mornings and evenings, worked later than usual and dated as many women as he could. He dined them and took them out but he had lost the will to bed any of them. He couldn’t even think about kissing any one of those leggy, delectable models, much less taking them to bed.
His days were filled with work and night with longing. But he resisted- until he accidentally heard that Khushi’s parents wanted her to choose a husband too. His entire being revolted at the thought of Khushi in another man’s arms and a murderous rage took over. On prodding gently, Aakash told him that Khushi’s parents thought it was time they started looking for a suitable guy for Khushi. They had asked Khushi if she had anyone in mind but she had denied. What’s more they were troubled by her tears and her firm declaration that she would never get married. After a lot of back and forth talks, Khushi had finally agreed that she would at least consider any proposals she got before rejecting the offers of marriage out of hand.
It was this news that made Arnav fly to New Delhi the next day itself, on the pretext of upcoming business deal. He knew that Aakash could handle the whole deal himself but hell, what was he to do? He reached there the day after and walked around in the garden to catch a glimpse of the Khushi. He knew the window of her room overlooked Raizada garden. He had seen her once or twice while he jogged past her in the morning, sitting by the window ledge, gazing at nothing in particular and with a silly smile on her face.
To Arnav’s disappointment, Khushi never showed up by the window. She had stopped looking outside. From what he had gleaned after his general family talk with Aakash, she had become very dull since the last few weeks. Gone was her chirpiness; instead she was always frowning and sometimes her face was etched with some painful memory. Payal had tried hard to find out what the matter was but Khushi wouldn’t tell her and of course, it was so difficult to gauge one’s emotions simply over the phone. Aakash was worried about Khushi because Payal was worried about her. Typical lovesick teenager behaviour, thought Arnav smirking.
In the night, he paced around the room after dinner thinking about this conversation. He said to himself, “Of course she wouldn’t. She’d not be the girl I know if she spoke what was troubling her.”
As if they were connected with an invisible thread, memories overflowed Khushi’s mind almost at the same time. Khushi was also thinking about the events following that evening by the poolside.
Arnav had left the next day and she hadn’t heard or seen of him until the weekend when they all went to the golf club. She had known that he’d come back a few days ago but had carefully avoided all the times when she could even see him by chance.
That weekend, both the families had been invited for a party at the Golf Club. The theme of the party was formal vs. traditional. Payal had come down for the weekend and both the sisters had decided to dress up in traditional garb. Khushi was decked in a red sari with long silver earrings whereas Payal wore an orange sari with matching accessories. Both the Raizada and Gupta families had left in their respective cars and were mingling with other guests in the party. Aakash and Payal were being congratulated by their acquaintances and family friends where Khushi mingled with her own set of friends.
Khushi had not really wanted to come to the party but second thoughts; she decided she couldn’t avoid people forever. It is possible that she may run into Arnav at some time, since they were a part of the family of sorts. They knew the same kind of people and went to the same kind of places so it was inevitable that they meet each other sometime when Arnav was in New Delhi. It was important that she put the incident at the back of her mind and face him normally.
Still, she hadn’t expected to see Arnav at the party. She had been mingling with her group of friends far away from the lounge bar. But thirst drew her towards it. Walking into the club lounge that was decorated by smart furniture and green walls, keeping in tune with the motto of the golf club, she found Arnav sitting there. To not expect him to be there had been a mistake, she realized with a shock. One smartly clad knee rested atop another while he spoke with Mr Westerly and Martin; her dad’s friends. Her immediate reaction of course was to turn away from where he sat and leave the lounge bar area.
But Khushi was nothing if not determined. She had decided to put the past incident behind her and behave normally and that is exactly what she will do. She was not going to let him affect her in any way. Suppressing the cowardly impulse, she went ahead and sat at the bar table to order a glass of Chardonnay. It was her favourite white wine. She was joined by other people of her acquaintance in a short while and they all moved to sit in the other part of the half-lit lounge.
While a casual smile was pinned upon her face, Khushi straightened her shoulders and made some breezy talk. She was not unconscious of Arnav sitting just a little further away from her group, chatting with his friends or business colleagues. He seemed to be unaware of her presence and that’s exactly how she wanted it. She was thankful of this and at the same time terribly conscious of the fact that her own body was completely attuned to him. She didn’t know how but she felt his eyes on her the moment he caught sight of her. She looked at him and saw him falter in his chat, his smile almost fading away.
To her astonishment, Khushi felt a rush of satisfaction at his reaction. She gritted her teeth and gave a cool smile. Surely this satisfaction she felt was inappropriate for her? She hadn’t wanted him to notice her, did she? She didn’t even want him to falter or stare at her but he had and for the life of her, she couldn’t understand this rush of pleasure that ran through her body at his reaction. Deliberately, she turned her away from him and started talking to the person nearest to her. She had no idea what she was saying. All she knew was, she had gulped her glass of wine in one go and the waiter who had been standing nearby and come forward. She told him, “Can you get me a glass of Chardonnay again please?”
The waiter smiled at her and said, “Sure, Ms. Gupta. Right away.”
Khushi felt as if her smile was stuck to her face, while her heart beat fast. It was literally pounding as it heard Arnav talking to others in the distance. He had seemingly recovered from his shock at seeing her and was not animatedly immersed in a conversation behind her. Khushi closed her eyes. For so many days now, his voice had haunted her, his face a part of her dreams. Her mind constantly kept on going over and over that kiss; the passion in his eyes and later on, the contempt on his face. Her dreams were full of the moment when he had lowered his mouth on hers. His harsh tone when he told her he thought of her as nothing more but a man-trap or a fortune hunter and as much as he was attracted to her, he didn’t want anything to do with her and feelings.
She hated those odd moments in the day when her heart would suddenly speed up from the memory, just like it did now. Khushi took deep breaths; breathe in- breathe out, inhale, exhale. She was determined to calm down so that no one could see her agitation, least of all that Arnav Singh Raizada.
“Here is your glass of white wine Ms Gupta. Are you alright?” The overfriendly waiter asked.
Khushi gave him a bright smile but her eyes were full of ice, “What? Oh yes, I’m fine.” The waiter had the grace to blush. Khushi took a small sip this time, smiling at the person next to her, who was talking about some garden. The wine was excellent but to her it tasted like water, the company was interesting but felt boring; nothing felt good.
She closed her eyes, willing herself to remain calm as she heard the conversation behind her break up. Mr Westerly and Martin were going away to dine with their wife and kids accompanying them this time. Arnav had politely declined going along with them. Khushi could feel her heart beating mercilessly against her chest. For God’s sake, calm down! Arnav would leave too, she was sure. She prayed he would. She felt herself go tense simply in the anticipation that this moment would be over soon. He would leave.
Instead of leaving with others, Arnav walked towards Khushi. She looked ethereal to him. Did she know red was his favourite colour? Earlier when he’d seen her for the first time in so many days, he had felt his heart stop. She looked like his dream come true to him; dressed in a red sari with those silver earrings dangling from her ear as if trying to kiss her cheeks every time she turned her head. When she turned away from him, he had been tempted to leap up and go to her, to pick her up and walk away into oblivion where no one would disturb them. But he had controlled himself and carried on with his conversation after a few seconds.
Goosebumps erupted all over Khushi’s body as she felt his presence right behind her chair. He looked oh, so casual as he sauntered right up to where she sat with her friends. The fiend! She wanted to look at him, she wanted to send him a cool smile, letting him know that he didn’t affect her; she didn’t care at all for him. She wanted to tell him that he couldn’t rattle her- Khushi Kumari Gupta. She was calm, she was cool. But she couldn’t do anything of the sort. She simply kept sitting, staring fixedly down at her glass of wine.
An arm snaked out in front of her and she almost jerked in reaction. He was reaching out to pick up cashews from the bowl on the table.
“Hi Khushi.” Arnav greeted her.
Khushi put up her brightest smile and slowly looked up at him, “Oh hello Arnav. Fancy seeing you here, back in India.”
Arnav didn’t smile back. Her smile faltered. He excused himself and asked the person sitting next to her “Is it okay if I sit here?”
The other person, Khushi couldn’t remember who he was got up and gladly gave him the permission to sit. “I was leaving anyway. Nice talking to you Khushi. Let’s meet up sometime.”
Khushi smiled at him and watch him go. Arnav hadn’t sat down yet. He looked at her, “Okay if I sit here?”
Her fingers played with her wine glass. Act unconcerned Khushi, she told herself. Then she didn’t look at him but she said lightly, “Why should it not be okay? You can sit wherever you want Arnav.”
She saw him sitting down from the corner of her eyes. His eyes were watching her carefully, “I haven’t seen you around in the last few days. Not at the office, not by the house. Been keeping busy, have you?”
“I have my German exams coming up so yes, been keeping busy. Plus I’ve had no time to do anything else with so much to study.”
His voice was so low that only she could hear it as he said, “I thought I’d driven you away from the places that interested you earlier. That you wanted to avoid me.”
Khushi gave a little laugh, as if she was above it all and said, “Oh Arnav, come now. I know we don’t know each other well enough but I thought you’d realize that I wouldn’t let you do that- drive me away from places of my interest.”
Arnav didn’t get into a slinging match. He simply looked at her and she said, “I’m here now, aren’t I? You’re sitting next to me so how can I be avoiding you?”
“Ye-es true. You’re sitting next to me right now.” He conceded.
Khushi waved her hand in the air, as if she had proved her point by the statement.
Aranv leaned on his elbow that was on the bar of the chair, resting his jaw in his hand and stared. Khushi wailed inwardly as she tried to keep her calm demeanour intact. The devil! Did he know how mortifying she felt right now, with his dark amber, amazing eyes boring into her? He broke the silence as she shifted in her seat uncomfortably, “So, if you’re not avoiding me, would you be willing , umm.. to play tennis with me tomorrow?”
“Certainly.” Khushi replied back instantly. It would not do to give him the impression that she wanted to run away from him as fast as her legs could take her. He had started believing in her statement and she would do anything to keep that impression of unconcern intact. She took another sip of her wine, imagining him playing tennis. She could imagine the muscles she had felt when he had held her moving under his shirt as he played tennis. Her heart sped up again as she remembered the kiss.
“And would you dine with me tonight along with the rest of the family?” Arnav asked. Khushi inclined her head in agreement. After all, this is what she wanted. Yes, this would surely establish them on a normal footing, keeping all the other sensations away when the others would be around them.
“Really.” Arnav said. It was more a disbelieving statement than a question.
Khushi couldn’t meet his gaze for long, “Yes, really”, she said.
Arnav reached out with his other hand to snare some more cashews, his eyes lowered so as not to give Khushi any idea of what he was thinking. Khushi watched him, heat filling up her body beneath her blouse as he slowly placed the nut in his mouth, closed his eyes and savoured its taste. He opened his eyes to catch her gawking at him. Khushi hurriedly lowered her lashes.
Arnav continued as if he had not seen her hungry stare, “Strange that you’re so fired up to be cool with me after we shared that kiss; so cool that you could do anything.”
“Don’t give yourself too much credit”, snapped Khushi and leaned closer to him to whisper, her eyes glaring, “just because you kissed me and I allowed you to kiss me isn’t going to change the way I feel about you. It is not going to change my world. I’ve kissed men before you know. It wasn’t a big deal.”
“No big deal, hmm” Arnav’s gaze didn’t leave Khushi’s. She lifted the hand that held the glass of wine and said, “Yes, you heard me right.” She gave him a smile as she sipped on her wine. She had always believed she was immune to the charms of men in general and in particular of Arnav’s kind; the ones who were out on the hunt. In all of her twenty five years, she had never felt as vulnerable as she felt towards Arnav- him of all people! Her blood was singing through her veins, her body felt as if it would instantly combust if she sat next to him any longer. But she had to, she wouldn’t admit defeat.
Arnav was watching the expression that flitted across her face, without her knowing. “Then..” he said, “if you’re so unaffected by that kiss and by me, then I am sure you wouldn’t object going out for walk with me on the club terrace.”
Her eyes widened as she took in his words, “What? Now?”
Arnav nodded and said, “Any problem? If you’re so unaffected by me then you wouldn’t mind it surely? In fact, there is something with regards to the project you worked on that I wanted to talk to you about. In private.”
*Flashback continues to the next chapter*
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