“YOU!” Khushi tried to free her hand. “Let me go. I thought you were in a hurry to go on your hot date.”
“Of course my date is hot, but that doesn’t mean I will leave you here to find an auto rickshaw. I am polite that way. ” Arnav replied deadpan. At her fiery look, he freed her hand, while smirking and continued, “So Khushi Gupta, will you allow me to drop you home?”
“I don’t need to be dropped anywhere, okay? You go where you have to go and leave me be. ” Khushi’s eyes spit fire as she said this. How dare he admit he had a hot date,but was only being polite while suggesting he dropped her off home! As if she was a child that needed his minding. She was not going to have any of this nonsense if they got engaged.
Appalled at where her thoughts had taken her to, she turned away from him, trying to get her brain to work sensibly. Her mind was totally a mess, if she could give even a nanosecond of consideration to that fake engagement. She found herself in the next instant, being gently turned back to face him, as Arnav mocked, “Politeness is a jewel in your crown Ms Gupta, don’t lose it. Say yes, and let me do the right thing. ”
“Alright then. If you insist, thank you. ” Khushi gave in, sighing. As he guided her towards his car, he said, “That is a sad sigh. You won’t have to bear my company for long Khushi Gupta. Just until I drop you home. ”
A sharp retort sprang to her lips, but Khushi held it back and closed her mouth shut, her eyes wide. She was completely mental if she was in angry because he was going out with someone else. She just couldn’t be jealous!
“What, no come back? Not even a tiny retort. ” Arnav mocked her.
“No. ” Khushi gave a clipped reply, and heard his breath intake.
Khushi stared straight ahead, walking on, trying to blank out the smell of him. He affected her in so many ways, more than anyone else. He riled her up, made her smile and he made her feel very desirable too. Not that she was going to give in to this attraction. That way lay destruction and heart break. She was not going to fool herself into thinking she was in love; it was plain and simple attraction.
“What are you thinking about? I can hear your brain engines whirring. ” ASR tried to start a conversation.
“Just thinking something, and I really don’t want to talk about it. ” Khushi replied softly but firmly.
Arnav was amused. She had no idea her face was an open book for him. As if he could read her thoughts, Khushi heard him say, “I go out on dates normally with women who are like myself, looking for a companion for society evenings. It doesn’t end up in bed Khushi. ”
Her face red, Khushi mumbled, “What do I care ASR. You can go out anytime you like, with who ever you like. Humain koi fark nahi padta, samjhe aap!”
“Nahi? Now that’s strange, because if you were going out on a date, I would want to beat the guy to the pulp. When I saw you with Jha the first time, I wanted to break his jaw when he smiled at you and break his hand when he caught yours. ” Pat came Arnav’s reply.
Khushi gaped at him for a second, then shook her head saying with a soft smile, “You’ve lost it Mr Rothwell Raizada. I suggest psychiatric help. ”
Arnav threw his head back and laughed. In that single second Khushi knew she would never ever feel as attracted to any other man as this one. He looked at her with a glint in his eye and simply said, “Maybe Khushi Gupta, maybe I have lost it. All your fault though. Now come along; I don’t want to be late. ”
And Khushi blushed to the roots of her hair, muttering “I knew it was going to be my fault somehow.” and meekly walked along with him to the car.
The journey to Khushi’s house was completed in silence as ASR managed through the heavy evening traffic on Delhi roads. Not that Khushi resented the silence. She felt quite comfortable sitting next to him, not talking. Only once did it happen that she looked out the window, away from him that he promptly said,” No, don’t. ” As if she understood him, she stopped looking out the window and stared straight ahead, to hear him breathe in and smile. She felt in sync with him. They reached the house, and for the first time Khushi wished her journey with him would have lasted longer. The next thought scorned her as she remembered, he was in a hurry to get ready for his date and her profile turned icy again. She heard him sigh as she opened the door and thanked him. An eyebrow up, she enquired with an abrupt, “What.”
For an answer, he leaned across the seat to where she had her head inside the window and gave her a swift kiss on her surprised lips. “See you tomorrow at Anjali’s mehandi, my fake fiancee.”
And he drove away, leaving her outraged and open mouthed at her doorstep.
Meanwhile Payal watched what was happening between Arnav Singh Raizada and Khushi and a chuckle left her as he drove away. That man was devious and Khushi was totally wrapped up in him, just like he was in her- thought Payal. She had her suspicions about him being aware of his feelings, unlike Khushi. Only time would tell though, how things pan out. Sighing, Payal turned away from the window and went ahead to open the door, only to have Khushi knocking her on the nose, lost in her own world.
“Khushi di, for God’s sake! ” At Payal’s exasperated chuckle, Khushi looked up and found her hand on Payal’s nose. Her eyes widened at what she had done and then sense of humour took over. She laughed, and she entered the house after Payal, “You should be glad I didn’t pound the door.” Taking in Payal’s appearance, she asked, “Are you going out somewhere?”
“I should have known you’d forget. ” Payal made a face and smiled, “It is quite okay though. We can go another time. ”
And Khushi winced. She could have kicked herself for her absent mindedness. She had promised Payal they would go out tonight; two sisters celebrating life together. Gathering her wits together, she said “Oh no no no. I may have forgotten about our evening plans for a second there, but that doesn’t mean we’re not going! Give me ten minutes and we’ll be on our way. Meanwhile, how about calling for a taxi? I – er may have forgotten to do it this afternoon.”
Giving Payal a sheepish grin, Khushi rushed into her room to shower and change. Twenty minutes later they left the house in the taxi, dressed smart and ready to enjoy their evening dinner at Pind Balluchi, in Connaught Place. While Payal was dressed in a lacy bodycon dress in black and a crocheted cream scarf to go with it, Khushi had opted to go for a sleeveless square neck belted jumpsuit in red with a short jacket in beige. Inwardly she had sighed in relief as she sat down beside her sister in the taxi. At least the restaurant had been booked a week in advance. She promised herself, she would enjoy the rest of the evening with her sister and not once think about Rothwell Raizada.
They paid of the taxi driver and made their way to Pind Balluchi. The doorman at the restaurant opened the door with a greeting and a smile, Khushi smiled back at him and greeted him back. A woman dressed in a saree came up to meet them with a smile.
“Good evening. May I help you?” Said the woman.
“Good evening, we have a reservation for two. In the name of -”
“Arnav Singh Raizada.”
Startled, Khushi turned around and found her eyes meeting the amber ones of Arnav Singh Raizada.
“But that’s not– Arnav Rothwell, you clear this right now!” Khushi was too outraged at Shyam’s statement to not speak out.
Arnav looked at her, his eyes gleaming with amusement. “And what am I supposed to clear exactly, darling? The truth shall remain what it is.” He drawled, much to Khushi’s astonishment. Why was he behaving like this?
“You know what.” Khushi replied back, tight lipped.
Shyam looked at them both and sighed, “Why this pretence, Rothwell. You and Khushi have both been hiding this for a year. I had no idea Khushi worked in your company before she moved out here, didn’t know that she had moved to India because you both had quarrelled. ”
“Well, yes in a way, but it was not like that. ” Khushi blurted out unconsciously giving merit to Shyam’s statement and making Arnav’s head turn. His mind, that could calculate complex financial details in a second was not slow to respond to her statement. It latched on to her honest declaration of running away from London, from him, because of that night. A part of him was elated by this knowledge. She had never said she was immune to him, but this – the fact that she was scared enough to run away from him and the feelings he evoked in her gave him a reason now to pursue this train of thought he had been with for some time. Idly, he gazed into his empty cup and said,
“Our reasons don’t concern you Jha, but I am quite prepared to wait until Khushi is over her tantrum and wants to declare what is in her heart, to the world. ”
Khushi turned fiery eyes full of anger towards Arnav at his statement, but never uttered a word of defiance against him. The reason — she had in that moment found her eyes stuck to La’s tear filled eyes. Slowly it dawned on her that the only reason why Arnav might carrying on like a person demented was because he wanted to help La not feel guilty. It was as if a light bulb lit up in her brain. She kicked herself at her delayed understanding. Of course La had blurted out the first thing she could think of when Shyam might have confronted her. Khushi had realised some time back that La was in love with Shyam, and whatever misunderstanding stood between them, she also knew that Shyam had an equal amount of affection for La.
An enquiring brow and a shake of head was all the communication that passed between Arnav and Khushi at this stage. Shyam looked at them both and said, “Look, you guys wish to keep it a secret and I don’t mind. It is your business what you do with your relationship, but I tell you now, I won’t let your sister talk to La about marrying you, Rothwell.”
A flicker of irritation caused Arnav to say, “If you are so concerned about it, why dont you ask La to marry you?”
Khushi heard La give an inward gasp, while Shyam looked a bit dazed. Suddenly he caught hold of La’s hand and got up from his seat. A look of utter happiness crossed his face as he looked at La and he said, “You know what- I think I will do just that. ” And saying so, he turned to La and simply asked, “Marry me, my dear?”
La seemed to have developed wings of happiness, as she went into Shyam’s embrace without delay. Her tears of happiness were her affirmation of her answer to his question. With La in her embrace, Shyam looked at Khushi and gave her a brilliant smile. “Khushi, will you arrange my wedding? I’d like to get married within a week. ”
About to take a sip from the glass of water next to her, Khushi choked on it and stuttered, “A-a w-week! Impossible Shyam. I have other –”
“Done.” Arnav interrupted her, and before she could protest, put a finger on her lips. His mouth curved in a tender smile as she looked at him, her eyes wide and her travelling between his finger on her lips and his own amber gaze. His own turned molten with desire, as she closed her eyes, unable to face the fire. His head swam and his hand on his thigh tightened. This was no time to succumb to desire! She shook his finger off her lips and spoke firmly, “Shyam, you know these things take time. Especially if you want to advertise to the whole world about your love. Be reasonable! I also have Anjali ji’s wedding arrangements to consider. You know I don’t take two contracts at the same time.”
Shyam and La looked at each other, stars shining in their eyes. Without taking her eyes off Shyam, La said, “Let us get married in a civil ceremony then. We can do that this week, and at a later date let Khushi made arrangements for a grand wedding our families will want to host. We can even go back home and do it! Say yes, Shyam.”
Shyam let out a chuckle and gave a conspirational wink to Arnav, saying “How our women hold our hearts, eh Rothwell? In that case, we must do what they say.”
“Hmm” Arnav smiled non-committally.
Shyam took La’s face in his hands and said, “Okay, if that is what you want; that is what we shall do. These two can be our witnesses, eh? ”
“Gladly!” said Khushi for herself, without thinking. Arnav looked at her, one of his eyebrows raised in mockery. Khushi flushed pink and continued, “I mean, I will gladly be your witness Shyam.”
Quite deliberately, Arnav picked up Khushi’s hand and kissed it, sending tingles down her spine. Challenging her to argue, he said, ” If Khushi says she will be there, she knows so will I.” Letting go of her hand, he stood up and straightened his cuff links, “Let me know when I need to come down to the court for the ceremony, will you La? I must take your leave now, since I have a date this evening. I would hate to keep my date waiting.”
Not looking at Khushi, he nodded to Shyam, hugged La and made his exit from the scene. Khushi was left prone to feeling as if he had kicked her in the stomach and left her bleeding. What date? With who? A murderous rage seemed to envelop her; she was upset and she was finding it hard from showing it. Shyam looked at her curiously and said, “So until you decide to let your engagement stay in the dark, he dates other women and you date other men?”
Hastily La broke in, “Shyam, don’t be silly! ASR goes out on meaningless dates to fill his evenings, and most of his dates are platonic; they know the score. ”
Shyam looked keenly at Khushi and then softly whispered, “But does Khushi know the score?”
Forcibly Khushi brought a smile to her lips and said airily, “But of course. Now if you two love birds will excuse me, I shall go back home and get Anjali’s wedding into gear. ” Still smiling, she hugged La and got out of the cafe.
Once outside, she gave a huge sigh and looked about for an auto rickshaw to take her home. She was tired and she really needed some space to think. Luckily, Payal won’t be home until later tonight and she could simply loll about and eat jalebis. Thinking so, she had just taken a step towards the auto rickshaw stand, when she felt her hand being pulled from behind and her whole body jerked back. In shock, Khushi opened her mouth to give hell to whoever had done this, with her other hand raised in the air to strike. It stayed mid-air as her gaze collided with ASR’s.
Khushi sat waiting for Shyam at her favourite cafe that evening, while her mind still turned over Payal’s words. Why did Payal think that she, Khushi Gupta could ever fall in love with an arrogant arse like ASR?
She shook her head vehemently in denial, almost spilling coffee from the mug in her hand. The idea itself was mental. She could never fall for a man who had not even an ounce of humility in him. He was – he was-
“An espresso please, double shot. ” The deep dark voice raised the hair at the back of her neck. Trying to reject the voice in her head that said it knew who the voice belonged to, her eyes opened wide with shock as Arnav sat down in the chair next to her and grinned wolfishly.
“I had not thought of you as a coffee drinker, Khushi Gupta. You sound like you would drink gallons of tea, not coffee. “
Her eyes drank in his grinning face- he looked so devastatingly handsome when he smiled!- and then his words registered. More to the point, his presence by her side registered as she came out of her daze. Her doe eyes sparkled with annoyance.
Arnav saw the moment Khushi’s expression changed and his eyes lit up at the expectation of fireworks. He loved it when she looked ready to spit fire, the passion of her feelings plain on her face. He didn’t have long to wait.
Khushi’s chest swelled with quiet indignation. His eyes rested briefly on the heaving chest and then moved to her eyes. They were now furious at his blatant display of interest.
“How dare you! “Khushi spoke with her mouth barely moving. “What the hell are you doing here Mr Rothwell ? “
“I have been called here, by your – who is he anyway? Is he your associate or your friend?”
Khushi refused to calm down. With gritted teeth, she asked, “I have no idea what you’re talking about, but you had better leave. I have a meeting and I am not going to waste my energy talking to you. “
“Of course. ” Arnav was brisk, his eyes sharp. He accepted his cup of espresso with a polite smile at the waitress, that seemed to turn her into a silly mush. Fluttering her eyelashes, she asked him if he wanted any sugar.
“He is diabetic. No sugar, thank you.” Khushi spat dismissal at the waitress, who went away with a scowl on her face. Looking straight back at ASR, Khushi said, “Did you hear what I said Mr Rothwell Raizada? Leave.”
“You’re pretty adorable when you’re all fire like this. “Arnav observed amusedly, and then huskily added, “Most of the times, I can’t wait to burn with you.”
Khushi had no reply for such a statement. She sipped her coffee and pointedly looked at her watch. Arnav finished his mouthful of espresso and wiped his mouth with a serviette, calming informing her, “Don’t be mad at me. I didn’t come here myself. I was called by your photographer associate, Shyam. “
Her jaw dropping, Khushi retorted, “Shyam? My Shyam called you?”
“Your Shyam? ” Arnav’s eyes caught fire at her reference to Shyam as hers. He was annoyed.
His entire day had been a pain, so why should he be surprised if evening was the finale of all that he found irksome. He had decided to work from home this morning. His morning had begun with Anjali teasing La at the breakfast table. By noon, La had become decidedly panicky, coming to him with the request that he make things clear to his family. She was terrified they would marry her to him tomorrow if they had their way. Highly tickled by her imagination, Arnav had assured her nothing of the kind would happen. She ought to take the teasing in her stride and be indifferent. After all, she wanted the pretence of being his girlfriend to save her pride. But La had been unable to handle things. Post lunch, she had excused herself with the excuse of a prior meeting with an old friend and got out of the house.
Arnav had breathed a sigh of relief as Anjali had turned her attention to her own wedding matters, and he had finally been able to focus on his work. Things had just settled down, when Shyam called. He had been polite and straight to the point.
“Hi Alex, I would like to meet you this evening. Is it possible?” Shyam had asked politely.
Arnav had observed, “A bit sudden, isn’t it? “
Shyam had been just as adamant, “I’ll agree, it is a bit sudden but imperative. I would appreciate it if you could come to the India Cafe this evening. Khushi will also be there.”
Arnav had tensed at her name, and in a split second made his decision as an unsavoury thought had entered his head. His entire being had rebelled at the idea. As he remembered the thought that had prompted him to come here without a second’s hesitation, his annoyance at his own behaviour grew. He looked at Khushi and suddenly he said, “I might as well tell you since I know you will not tattle tale. I think it is time I got married.”
Khushi looked at him, going pale at his words. ASR planning to get married? To Whom? Or was he simply saying that to annoy her? Well, she wouldn’t give him the satisfaction. With mighty effort, she ignored his declaration and ploughed on, “Why has he called you here?” Then muttered to herself, ” Is he planning to warn you off in front of me or something? “
Arnav’s mind, that had seconds ago been amusing itself at Khushi’s instant reaction and efforts at non-reaction to his statement, was now outraged at this muttered suggestion. How could anyone warn him off Khushi? Khushi was — and he stopped the thought in his head. He liked annoying her, flirting with her. He had already admitted to wanting her badly. Khushi was his — The point was, she was not for Shyam.
Khushi, unaware of his internal debate continued muttering to herself, “I must talk to Shyam. He has been a bit odd lately, but I simply thought it was due to his preoccupation with–.”
“Still talk to yourself, do you? Old habits die hard. ” an amused Arnav drawled lazily, stretching in the chair. “I can’t wait to hear what milk toast man has to say to me.”
Khushi choked on her coffee “Milk toast man? You are calling Shyam a milk toast man?”
ASR shrugged his shoulders, “What else would I call a man who has been playing with fire recently, but is not able to take the heat?”
“What fire? What heat? What the hell are you blabbering on about ASR?” Khushi snapped, forgetting her intention to stay calm.
She drew back as Arnav leaned forward. Suddenly his eyes were drawn to the door and he took a sharp breath. Khushi saw the change in his face, saw the hardness enter into his eyes and looked at the door too.
Shyam and La had entered the cafe; Shyam with a grim look on his face and La with averting eyes. His gaze zeroed in on Arnav and Khushi and his jaw tightened. They all greeted each other politely. La sat between Khushi and Shyam, her gaze averted from Arnav. Khushi observed this and wondered.
Finally Arnav spoke, “So Jha, what is it you wanted to talk about?”
Shyam put down his coffee and looked at Khushi accusingly, saying “I just wanted to make sure we are all on the same page. You have not trusted me enough as a friend Khushi, or you would have confided your secret in me. ” He sighed deeply, unhappily. Before Khushi could ask him, he raised his hand, “I am not finished yet Khushi. Please don’t interrupt. “
Shyam looked at Arnav and a determination entered his eyes. He said, “La tells me your family spoke to her today about her marrying you. Now is the time Rothwell. You must tell them.”
Khushi’s eyes strayed to Arnav, shock evident in them. Without looking at her, Arnav kept his gaze on Shyam, “Tell them what, Jha?”
At this point, La interrupted both men, looking at Arnav with pleading eyes. His eyes hardened and she averted hers, saying “I am sorry, Alex. I wouldn’t have told Shyam about any of it, had he not told me about his intention to marry her.”
ASR being who he was, didn’t even blink at her declaration of innocence. He simply nodded at her and then looked back at Shyam.
A frustrated exhale, and then Shyam said, “You must tell your family the truth Rothwell. Tell them that La is not your girlfriend, but mine. You must tell them about your engagement to Khushi. “
Khushi was in a foul mood and it was the world’s fault, or so she told herself again and again. Had everyone simply gone crazy or was she slowly going mad? She kicked a small stone by the side of the road while pacing on the small section, near a auto rickshaw. The driver of the auto seemed to be busy in changing tyre. The stone wedged in her jutti and refused to be thrown off.
“Arrggh! Devi Maiyya! What is the matter with you ? Lagta hai humne aapko jo besan ke laddooeon ka prasad chadhaaya tha, woh aapko pasand nahi aaya hain. Why else would my day have been such a horrible one? First that La’ad Governor ruining my day, then Shyam acting weird over La and behaving like a fool and now, I am stranded here thanks to this Auto wale bhaiyaji who didn’t check his tyres prior to the journey! Why me Devi Maiyya? Why me?”
The auto rickshaw driver in question looked at her and then up and himself and muttered to himself, “Not you, I always get the crazy ones at the end of the day. Why me?”
Khushi looked at him and narrowed her eyes, “Did you say something bhaiyaji?”
The manic look in her eyes warned the auto driver- this was not the right time to vent out his own frustrations; instead he smiled and said, “I was just saying behanji that it is the end of the day and my auto has a flat tyre. I wish I could say it will be okay in five minutes but I don’t think so. I think it might be a better idea for you to catch another auto.”
Khushi smiled sweetly, too sweetly and said, “Do you see another auto rickshaw on this road right now Bhaiyaji? I wish I could say I will take another auto, but the sad fact is I am stuck here with you because there is no other auto. I am not walking alone on this road to find one! Would you let your sister walk alone at this time of the evening?”
The auto rickshaw driver straightened his shirt consciously and said, “Never! My sister wouldn’t be out of the house at this time anyway. ”
“Exactly!” Khushi went on, sitting down beside him and picking up the lug wrench he had left by the side. “I wouldn’t be out of the house at this hour either! I would be cosy at home, eating hot roti and aallu mutter subzi this evening. But what do employers know or understand about a common man’s plight?”
She lifted the wrench as if to hit the imaginary person by her side. The driver moved quickly out of the way and hurriedly started working while Khushi continued, “I could seriously bop him on the head with something like this, he is sooo irritating! ” She looked at the auto rickshaw driver and continued flailing the wrench about,
“Rich people don’t understand that we need to get home on time. Especially people like him- that horrible la’ad governer. I am late today because of all the extra work I have had to do. And then there was my friend who went crazy today simply because the girl he fancies, or I think he does, was with that idiot ASR. Why was she with him, who knows? But I had hoped La had better taste than that. Meh. ”
She stopped for a bit then while the driver kept on working, his hands sure of his tools. Khushi watched him and then said, “It is good to see that you know what you do so well. No wonder you are good at this. If only everyone was as good at their work as they should be. ”
The ramble continued for another ten minutes where Khushi told the driver how she had found the staff at a big hotel inefficient and unhelpful. She grumbled on about the hotel manager, the mehandi guy, the florist and finally came back again to La’ad Governer and how all today was his fault.
The auto rickshaw driver moved a little away from Khushi, alarmed and trying to not come in the way of her flailing about. ” Err–yes yes.. of course. This is almost done behanji. If you will give me the wrench, I’ll simply fix the tyre and tighten the nuts and bolts. Okay? ”
A relieved smile lit up Khushi’s face, instantly making the auto rickshaw driver feeling mean about his earlier thoughts. Of course the girl must be worried, this is after all not the safest of cities in the country. With a nod, Khushi got up and moved away, still talking, ” I am so hungry, but then I always am!”
Finally the auto rickshaw was ready for the drive. The driver dropped Khushi and received a warm smile and a thank you.
“You are a nice person bhaiya- the nicest person I have met today actually. Thank you.”
The auto rickshaw driver grinned broadly and waved a cheerio while he left her street, inwardly thinking, that this La’ad Governer who ever he was had made home in this poor girl’s brain. It didn’t look like he was going to get out any time soon from the way she kept on about him. His romantic soul sensed romance. The girl had no idea she fancied this “La’ad Governer” and how much of her thoughts were occupied by him.
A similar suspicion crept into Khushi’s mind before she went to bed. ASR seemed to be constantly in her head and she didn’t like it. The suspicion that her body was craving for another contact with him filled her eyes with horror. She quickly closed them, and her mind to such thoughts and tried to sleep. When sleep came to her, her dreams were full of Alexander Sebastian Rothwell and his eyes watching her walking away with Shyam.
“What will you do once I am married and gone? Do you not want to get married Khushi? ”
Payal’s words came back to her the next night while Khushi was brushing her hair before going to sleep. A frown came upon her face that had been scrubbed pink from her recent bath as she thought about it.
Khushi and Payal had gone out today not only to make Anjali’s wedding arrangements, but also to do a bit of window shopping for Payal’s own wedding. Khushi and her had decided that though the wedding won’t be any time too soon, they might need to start preparing for it. Khushi had offered her finances for buying Payal’s modest trousseau as a wedding gift. Emotional at such a gesture, Payal had accepted and also agreed to help Khushi with her current client assignment. This was the only way both the sisters could spend more time together and browse for her trousseau.
While they had been at a cafe, after a hectic afternoon of work on Anjali’s forthcoming functions, Payal had looked into her coffee thoughtfully.
“What is so engrossing about that cup of cappuccino Payalia?” Khushi had playfully asked, to encounter a serious look from Payal.
“I worry about you Khushi. You have been stressed since the last few days and I know it is not work that keeps you on the edge. You have stopped confiding in me.”
“My life is an open book honey! What is there to confide about?” Khushi tried to be as nonchalant as possible.
“Khushi, you know that is not true. I don’t know these days why you insist on being an ostrich, burying your head in the sand as soon as this topic rises. And lately, you have been a lot more agitated. I feel like I am so far away from you these days.” Payal concluded on a morose note.
Khushi immediately hugged her and said in a voice as loving as only an elder sister could have, ” Payalia, don’t you ever think that! I am always with you, there for you. ”
Payal cupped Khushi’s cheek and looked at her imploringly, “Yes but Khushi, I don’t think I am there for you. Or that you even need me. Talk to me please. Tell me what is going on.”
Khushi sighed loudly and let her sister go. Then, closing her eyes, she poured it out all while Payal listened. Khushi told her everything about ASR; his family, their professional history, their antagonism with each other, his previous personal association with her, her meeting him again and then as the client’s brother and their skirmishes. She skipped on the more personal aspects but she did mention some of it. Payal in the meanwhile, made tea for them both while she listened to her sister with total attention.
At the end of her tirade, Khushi said,
“So you see, I am stuck. I don’t know what to do, I don’t even know why I feel the way I do and I see no way out of this. ”
Payal sipped on her tea and paused for thought. Then she said, ” Is it possible there is more to this than just physical attraction towards each other? Do you think you are in love? ”
Khushi stared at her sister in horror, at the direct as well as implied meaning and felt totally outraged. “I AM NOT IN LOVE WITH THAT MAN!”
“What the hell is she doing here for God’s sake!”
Shyam’s outburst startled Khushi. They had been focused on his upcoming exhibition for a solid four hours, with Khushi helping him place the photos in the right order at the gallery. Hunger had made itself known, bringing them thus to Shyam’s favoured Yellow Brick Road, a Taj Vivanta restaurant in Khan Market.
Khushi didn’t mind really because she could eat her fill of Belgian waffles with blueberries, melted butter and maple syrup, though she would have been just as comfortable in a small South Indian restaurant not far away from the art gallery. Normally Shyam would feel better after eating YBR chicken- their signature dish but not today. Something had upset him; or rather someone.
Khushi looked up and about and her gaze rested on Laavanya, who was sitting some tables away, talking furiously with a man sitting opposite her. Khushi looked at Shyam carefully and hid a smile. If that was not the case of a jealous man, she didn’t know what it was! Shyam looked ready to commit murder, his gaze stone cold as it rested on Laavanya and the man she sat beside. He looked away and tried to focus on his food while Khushi tried to get a look of the man who was sitting with Laavanya. She couldn’t see his face but he looked tall and imposing from the back. Surely La was not indulging in a romance with this man, not when she was looking at Shyam with defiance and longing in her eyes. Khushi decided not to let Shyam know.
She turned to Shyam and said innocently, “Isn’t that the model you had been shouting at the last time- what was her name?”
“La.” Shyam bit out, and then added, “Never mind with them. I think we must get back to work Khushi.”
Khushi looked at him in horror. “And leave my waffles uneaten behind? Are you mad? I am not going anywhere and neither are you. Finish your chicken. ”
“You are so bossy at times! ” Shyam’s tone was forceful but not overly so. While looking at the couple, he took a bite our of his chicken like it was the head of the man. And choked on it the next instant. Khushi patted him on the back and said softly, “Don’t look now, but La is looking right at you. ”
“I don’t need to look. “Shyam said exasperatedly, and drank deeply from his glass of water, adding “We should discuss our relationship soon, don’t you think? It is time we announced our engagement Khushi. ”
Khushi sighed softly. Men were indeed stupid in the matters of heart and Shyam was fast becoming a prime example of such stupidity. She put her fork down reluctantly and looked directly into Shyam’s eyes. The right time to have her say had arrived.
“Shyam, I love you dearly- as a friend and I think you know that you do the same as far as I am concerned. You and I both know for certain that you are only being stubborn. We both know that I am not the right person. ”
“How do you know that? ” Shyam looked away from Khushi and at La, “How do you recognise the right person then?”
“You just know it- like you do. ” Khushi said softly, touching him on the shoulder and smiling at him. “Go to her when the time is right and tell her how you feel Shyam. I remember the earlier encounter with her and I got the feeling she has feelings for you too.”
Shyam held her hand fast in his and said, “No. That can’t be. We— it’s a long story but we can’t be right for each other; La and I. She is a total five letter word and I am not into such women.”
“Shyam!” Khushi rebuked him sharply. “Don’t be daft! And I know I don’t know what happened between you two but I don’t think she is the kind you describe.”
“Oh yes, she is. She is a tease. I have known her from when we were ye high and she was always the same. She would lavish all her attention at you one time and the next completely ignore you. She is like that. To think that our parents ever thought— She is a total bitch and a tease. She graduated but only because it was fashion. She models for fun, and because she gets to meet men to flirt with. She did the same in London. Went out with me and when she got bored, she didn’t really break it off. Simply went out with another man and splashed herself in the society pages as his arm candy. She might still be with him for all I know and playing behind his back. ” Shyam’s voice was bitter.
It grew sharp as he fisted his hands in anger after catching a look at the man’s face and exclaimed, “Well, I’ll be damned! What the hell is he doing here as well?”
The man in question took La’s hand in his own and kissed it while La looked at Shyam, openly defiant . Khushi was highly amused when Shyam broke into voluble curses under his breath. Khushi could only see La and not the man as he was seated in the other direction from her own chair. She had seen La’s reactions and drawn her own conclusions from when Shyam had looked at her smilingly, and held her hand. That stricken look and sadness in Laavanya’s face hadn’t been the reactions of a tease or a bitch of any sort. Those reactions had been of a woman in love, who knew she was in love and was suffering due to some misunderstanding between herself and her beloved. She opened her mouth to explain this to Shyam when the man sitting beside La turned his head and looked at Shyam with open disdain.
Khushi gasped audibly beside Shyam, turning the man’s gaze towards her. His eyes widened for a second before he looked back at Shyam, plain dislike open on his face now and then turned away from both of them, his back rigid. Khushi swallowed hard, her love of waffles forgotten. Shyam knew him?
When Shyam said, “Let’s get out of here. I feel stifled.”, she couldn’t agree fast enough.
Unfortunately for Shyam and Khushi, they had to pass through the table where La and her companion sat. Khushi couldn’t believe her eyes they were stopped by La. She put out a hand and touched Shyam’s arm while he passed her by. She was pale but determined as she spoke.
“Are you going to ignore us, Shyam?”
Shyam, to give him credit, smiled at La and said, “How did I ever forget that you hate being ignored ? ” Then he looked at the man who stood up and shook hands, “Jha. Long time no see. You plan to settle down in India? ”
His gaze flickered for a mini-second to Khushi standing beside Shyam, totally ignoring him and back to Shyam.
Shyam was too muddled in his own affairs to notice anything else. He shook hands firmly and said, “Rothwell. Didn’t know you were interested in my personal life. What business lured you to India ?”
“Sometimes it is the pleasure that lures you. I thought you knew that Jha.” Arnav replied back; his retort stiffening Shyam by Khushi’s side.
Utterly uncomfortable with the vibes floating around, Khushi refused to look at any of them despite his taunts, especially ignored ASR. Her brain was bouncing around in her head, a green flame flickering in her heart, a fire in her eyes. Her opinion of him at that moment was at an all time low. The scoundrel! The rat!!! What did the man think he was doing, playing around with La who clearly belonged with Shyam ! She wanted to slap some sense into Laavanya and ask her what madness had driven her in ASR’s company.
La looked at Khushi amidst all the tension in the air, and smiled genuinely, warmly for the first time in all these minutes. She came with her hands held forward and said, “Khushi, it is good to see you again.”
Khushi smiled uncertainly and accepted her hands in her own, giving them a gentle squeeze to tell La she sympathised with her. Out loud, she said, “La, it is good to see you too. ”
La looked at ASR and still smiling said, “Alex, this is Khushi. Khushi this is my –friend, Alex Rothwell.” After hesitating in her addressal for ASR, she then deliberately (or so it seemed to Khushi) put her hand in the crook of his arm and continued gaily, “Alex has come down for a few days. Do you know, he has never been around Delhi much. I thought I’d give him a tour of the city. I remembered you telling me about this place and thought we might start with our lunch here. ”
Shyam looked daggers at Khushi as if she had betrayed him.
Arnav Singh Raizada gave her a mocking smile, his eyebrow raised in question. His eyes went to her lips that trembled as his gaze touched them. He looked into her eyes again, as if silently asking “Should we acknowledge each other as strangers or tell them all about our history?Should we tell them how you melt in my arms when I kiss you?”
Khushi understood the question perfectly but refused to give him the satisfaction. However she couldn’t stop the blush that spread across her cheeks. She looked away from him. She wanted to slap that amused look off his face so bad! Taking a soft deep breath, she controlled herself and made do with a simple acknowledging nod. ASR gestured likewise, his eyes glinting with wicked amusement at Khushi.
Khushi turned her attention back to La and said still smiling, “Glad to have been of service though you could have started with Chandni Chowk; the place that brings both horror and awe to foreigners on their first visit. ”
La giggled softly and Khushi was hard put to smile back at La. She wanted to growl for some reason. She kept on telling herself it was not La’s fault; that La was only trying to make Shyam jealous after all. Secretly she was also horrified with herself for mean thoughts.
At this point, Arnav spoke up, addressing her bluntly, “Did La say this was my first visit Khushi? ”
Since the question was directed at her, Khushi had no choice but to look at him. His eyes burned her just as hers burned him. Her tone was polite but coldly dismissive, “I assumed that to be the case since La said you’re very familiar with the city, but perhaps you didn’t have anyone to escort you around. ”
Her tone plainly suggested that no one would have wanted to escort him. Shyam looked at her in astonishment. This was a different side to Khushi; she was being rude! Confused at her tone of voice, La looked at Khushi for a moment. To diffuse the situation, she said,
“I haven’t lost your phone number Khushi; I just thought I’d call you when you’re a little less busy what with–.” La said and then abruptly stopped and continued haltingly, “–with your –I mean Shyam’s exhibition and–”
“We need to leave. ” Shyam cut in suddenly. Catching Khushi’s hand in his, he nodded towards ASR and ignored Laavanya.
Khushi was annoyed, but kept quiet knowing this was not the time to berate her friend. She smiled apologetically at La and threw an icy look at ASR, who blandly gazed back, before following Shyam outside.
Khushi was having a tough time. Her day that had begun with the nightmare of coming face to face with ASR, had worsened by afternoon by onslaught of guilt and doubt. They had just come back from their meeting, and to say Khushi was astounded by the turn of events was an understatement. She had been mystified by the whole thing when she had set out with Payal this morning to the mystery meeting. She had no idea where they were going, who they were meeting. And when the surprise had been revealed, she had felt thoroughly shocked, somewhere hurt, guilty, regretful, and happy all at once.
Payal, apparently had been seeing her childhood friend and school classmate from England. She had been dating Angus McFarley since the last two years. “Hay Devi Maiyya!” she had muttered to herself, a bit hurt that they’d fallen so far apart that they’d stopped sharing confidences. Not that she blamed Payal one bit from keeping this news from her. She was a grown woman of twenty four, she could maker her own decisions. And of course, Khushi realised that she had never been told because of her own preoccupation with herself. Payal was not the kind of person who would lay down burdens on her sisters’ head, especially when she could see her sister struggling with some of her own.
Khushi felt horribly guilty. After the “brain going dead due to sensual overload” incident with ASR, she had clammed up. She had ignored everything except the need to get away from England. She had never discussed any of it with Payal, but had brutally removed her from her comfortable surroundings, and dragged her to India, without even once asking her if she wanted to relocate. She had ignored the needs of her younger sister and put herself first. She was a horrible elder sister! Not that Payal or Angus saw it that way. They were very understanding of her, and didn’t blame her at all! Angus wanted to ask her permission to marry Payal and take her back to England, where she could continue with her studies if she wanted to, or they could set up a house.
He was a nice bloke, was Angus, Khushi mused. His family had lived next to theirs for years, before his parents died in an unfortunate car crash. She had known his parents- nice people who hadn’t been very social but always had a kind word to say about everyone in the neighbourhood. Angus had been their only child and she was well aware of the pain of becoming an orphan. Perhaps that is how they had first bonded, concluded Khushi, though she remembered Angus had overcome the grief and dedicated himself to making a career. Today, he was financially secure; worked in a bank at a good position and had no hang ups about their culture. Payal was a religious person and like Khushi, prayed to Mata Rani. Angus was a Catholic, but had no aversion to Hinduism. Khushi could hardly say no to Angus after knowing this all.
But stalled them she had. She had requested for time and space to speak with her sister, but really wanted time to get used to the idea of Payal going away from her. After all, she was her only living relation in the world. Right from 12 years back, the time their parents had died, Khushi had taken over as Payal’s legal guardian. They had stayed with their father’s sister who had been declared legal guardian for both the sisters, until Khushi had turned eighteen and found her feet with her first real job. Since then, she had been acting as a guardian for Payal. She had thought she’d been doing a good job, but wasn’t sure anymore. Doubts assailed her from all directions. Would Amma-Babuji have approved of Angus? What would they have said and done had they been alive? Thoughts circled her head all afternoon, like sparrows chirping in a circle, until she felt a headache taking space of the doubts.
“Khushi di, kya baat hai? Are you worried about me? Are you not happy about–”
Speaking from the heart, Khushi blurted out ” Nothing of the sort. I am very happy for you Payal. But I am thinking of Amma-Babuji. They would’ve been so happy. They should’ve been here to take these decisions. How can I decide such things? ”
Tears gathered in Payal’s eyes. She caught her elder sister’s hand and held it lovingly next to her face. “You are my Amma-Babuji Di. You cared for me when they were gone. How can you not be the person to help me decide about my life? Did you not like Angus? Do you think I’m too young to marry?”
Hearing the worry in her sister’s voice, Khushi cursed inwardly. Drat! She didn’t want Payal worrying about things. She shrugged her doubts aside for Payal’s sake and smiled brightly, “You are old enough to marry. Had our parents been alive, they’d have married you off at the same age too, you know. And Angus is a good man. He will keep you happy. If you wish me to bless you guys, then it’s done.”
She was relieved to see a smile on Payal’s face, her eyes twinkling with happiness. Payal hugged her and said, “Thank you Khushi Di. I wouldn’t have felt right had you not been happy for me.” And then the smile turned brighter and she said, “Now that you won’t have to worry about me anymore, you may focus more on your love life. Maybe Shyam –”
Khushi frowned with annoyance and firmly declared, “Oh no. That is one boat that won’t sail at all. He is a good friend and that is who he will remain. ”
“Good, I’m happy with your choice. You need a man who can be your equal Di.” Payal shot this last remark at Khushi’s turned back and went into the kitchen.
And in that moment, Khushi knew she had made the right decision. She was going to say no to Shyam’s proposal. He was a very good friend and a very nice person, but truthfully speaking she couldn’t see herself spending years of companionship with him. She wanted to fall passionately in love and get married to the man of her dreams. A vision of ASR rose up and she gave a horrified gasp. Not him! No! She didn’t mean him as her man of dreams. He was the monster perhaps, said her head, but her accelerated heartbeat and throbbing pulses suggested otherwise.
“Get lost from my head, Alexander Sebastian Rothwell, Arnav Singh Raizada, or whatever it is you like being called, you ASR !” she hissed to herself, moving away from the window facing the roadside.
At the same moment, in one of the several meetings he was to attend that day in his company’s Indian headquarters, ASR looked up from the file he was reading, astonished to hearing his names being hissed.