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. “
” Why is it that every time I try to do something nice for you, it backfires?” Anjali asked her brother, thoroughly put out by his attitude that evening.
Arnav looked at his sister, amusement plain on his face. His sister’s tactics were not unknown to him but to have invited La to be his date for her Mehandi evening without even asking him stretched things a bit far. And he was quite sure that she had no idea what a can of worms she had opened up by inviting Laavanya to India in the first place. He shrugged and said,
“Who knows ? Maybe you should stop thinking you’re being nice to me by giving me unplanned surprises. Unlike you my darling sister, I don’t like them.”
He had been surprised to see La this morning, when she had suddenly come up to his office and announced herself. Politeness and long ingrained teaching of never leaving a friend in need alone had urged him to take her up on her offer of showing him around the city. He had cancelled his appointments for the rest of the day and gone out with her, only to listen to her mooning about the only love of her life- Shyam Jha.
His hand fisted at the thought of him and then the fist tightened when he recollected Shyam and Khushi together, with her hand in his. Unexplained rage had erupted in his head at the sight of Shyam dragging Khushi away from him. He had wanted to snatch her away from Shyam, and keep her by his own side.
It had taken a few moments for such irrational thoughts to fade, and sense to kick in. Recalling Khushi’s behaviour he had realised that she had not objected to Shyam’s hand in hers, nor had she protested when he had led her away. The rest of the day had become unbearable with his head partially filled with thoughts of Khushi and the question of her relationship with Shyam. La had tried to be bright and chirpy but by evening, she had fizzled out; opting out of going to the night club as originally planned.
On arriving home, he had been greeted by Maamiji who had wanted to know if La was coming to the house later on. Initially he had been taken aback by her suggestion, but later on realised if Anjali had organised La’s coming to India, it was quite possible every one thought, he and La were an item again. He had excused himself after firmly dispelling Maamiji’s doubts about his relationship with La.
Once in his room, he shed his clothes and made straight for a cold shower. Unwillingly, he had thought of Khushi. As usual, she had tried her best to ignore him. That had only annoyed him more. Deliberately he had tried to rile her up, only to fall flat on his face as she had dismissed him by calling him ignorant about New Delhi in not so many words. She had even dared to imply that he was one of those men who wouldn’t go out unless he had an escort. Distaste of that thought had left feeling him bitter in the mouth.
Once dressed in casual chinos and a white t-shirt, he had come down to be grumbled at by his sister.
Anjali continued, stuffing flowers into an already neat flower arrangement. Arnav winced for them as Anjali said, ” I thought having La here would cheer you up. I wasn’t sure if you were together any more or if you have moved on to pastures new, but she’s a nice girl. I like her. “
The last was said in a defensive tone. Arnav stopped her from putting a rose in the arrangement, chuckling, “Any more in there and the entire arrangement will be choked to death Anjali! ” He put the rose down on the table and said, “La is a good friend, has always been. But there is nothing of the kind of relationship you think between us. She has her sights set very firmly on a man since she was a teenager.”
At Anjali’s raised eyebrows, he had to defend La, “The time in London was a smokescreen! She needed a fiction and I did too.”
“Did you now? Hmmm.. it must’ve been to keep the horde away I’m sure.” Anjali gigggled at her brother’s frowning face and said, “Imagine that! La prefers someone else to you! Who I wonder is this guy?”
ASR scowled as he recalled Shayam and with him, Khushi. He growled out the name in annoyance, “His name is Shyam; the son of Manohar Jha; the owner of Manchester Cotton Textile .”
Anjali’s face took on a speculative look. “That’s not a bad choice. I remember the guy from the corporate parties I had been forced to attend last year, as a board member. You joined hands with his father for a project, didn’t you?”
“That’s right. His father is a good businessman, so I am quite sure he won’t be averse to the match between his family and La’s. However it is this man himself who has been a bit shaky on commitment.”
Anjali absorbed this and Arnav continued, “Coincidentally he is also here these days and we bumped into him today. He was with that girl; Khushi Gupta.”
The last words came out really bland in tone. Anjali looked at her brother, realising that he was hiding very strong emotions under the bland voice. She pretended ignorance about Shyam being Khushi’s photographer and said, “Our Khushi- the wedding organiser and your ex-employee? How does she know him? “
“I have things to do for your wedding. I’ll see you later, okay?” Arnav said and walked away instead of answering her question. Anjali observed the taut profile of her brother walking away from her and smiled slowly. Things were definitely taking a very desirable turn, small thanks to unprecedented luck on her side. She might just be able to pull off her stint and finally fulfil her mother’s dying wish.
Anjali sat down on the chair by the flower arrangement on the table, her eyes misting. She still remembered her mother’s deep sigh and her words, spoken to her when she was only eighteen and Arnav was twenty-three. Anjali had been crying of guilt because Arnav hadn’t eaten for two days; they had fought bitterly over her latest crush who had been paid off by Arnav. He had shown her tender teenage eyes the real picture hiding behind the object of her infatuation’s charm; a man ten years elder to her and only after her money. It had been too much to bear then and in rage, Anjali had lashed out at her brother.
Her mother had been travelling with her father to Paris for a business event that weekend when the incident occurred. Upon return, she had taken the matter into her own hands and had the matter resolved in minutes. She was the only one Arnav ever listened to, without any argument. When he had gone back to his room (after accepting Anjali’s apology with a smile), Anjali had asked her mother why her brother had been so brutal with the truth. Her mother had given a sad sigh and said to her,
“My darling son and your brother is a complicated character. When your father died, I married Sebastian and sometimes I wonder if that is what started his cynicism of relationships. He knew; he was six, old enough to know that I had married Sebastian not because I loved him, but because we wanted companionship, and also because I wanted financial security to raise the both of you. He had already seen what his own father had done to us as a family. Your father had thought he would climb the social ladder by marrying me and he did so too, by squandering my inheritance and betraying my father’s trust. Arnav had loved your father dearly, made him his idol. Sadly his love had never been returned. Your father was not the one to love anyone but himself. One day Arnav realised the truth. Turned out his charming idol had feet of clay. That was his first disillusionment. When I married Sebastian for financial security, it was his second disillusionment. Later on, as he grew up he realised there was a lot more to our relationship that that, but it did give birth to the cynic in him.”
Lost in her thoughts, she had then smiled, and proceeded to say, ” I have never regretted my decision to marry Sebastian, and I was very happy the day you and Arnav decided to accept him wholly and call him your Dad. Sebastian truly loves you as his own.”
Anjali had smiled brightly, held her mother’s hand and kissed it. Her mother had squeezed her hand in return and continued,
” I think its was the greatest sign of acceptance when Arnav decided to accept his new name. I know that he loves being called Alex by Sebastian, but he is also aware of how different his life might have been had he not been given the life and love he has, by Sebastian. When you father died, all I had was you as a toddler in my arms and Arnav, and a whole lot of debts that his womanising and gambling had left behind. My mother couldn’t forgive me for choosing such a man, and I couldn’t forget that I had chosen such a man. Yet I had loved him wholeheartedly. I can never regret meeting him or marrying him, because he gave me you and Arnav.
Anjali, I sometimes wonder if there would a woman brave enough to love him and fall in love with him, despite his weaknesses. I am not blind to his faults darling, nor am I unobservant. He is clever and brilliant at what ever he does, and your father says he will go far when he joins the business next week, as his successor. I have no doubt about it. But I have seen bitterness reflecting in his attitude, made only worse by his broken affair. His eyes are already of a man of thirty, cynical. He is the son of a prestigious businessman, has money and he is aware of it. He knows that girls-women may like him only because of his wealth. So many girls flock over to him, and I have no doubt he has his share of girlfriends and fun. What man his age wouldn’t? My fear is, even if he does fall in love one day, he is so pig headed, he might just screw things up, to run away from his one fear- disappointment. Remember my words, darling. If I am not around at the time, you make sure your brother finds his soul mate.”
Tears ran down Anjali’s cheeks as she remembered this conversation with her mother. This was the last close conversation they had had together. Two weeks after, her parents had been killed in a plane crash, while travelling across the Atlantic. Mr Rothwell senior had happily named his successor, given a party for the occasion, and decided to take a holiday with his wife. They had been travelling to America when the plane had crashed.
Anjali wiped tears off her cheeks and sniffed, going into her bedroom, more determined than ever to ensure her brother’s happiness. She knew what she had to do next.
“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.
“So- where am I to drop you Miss Khushi Gupta?” Arnav asked, his body turned towards her as they sat in his car.
Khushi fidgeted with the seat belt, not securing it and not meeting his eyes either as she softly but firmly replied,” Since Anjali ji is watching us, you may drop me on the street outside. Then you may go where you wish. Personally I don’t -”
“-care to be anywhere next to me. I know that, Khushi. Maybe I frighten you or are you frightened of yourself, Khushi? ”
Khushi looked at him, her eyes stormy. “What? I am not frightened of you at all! Securing the seat belt, she said, “Just drive, will you? ”
“Not until you tell me where it is you wish to go the next.” Arnav retorted promptly, his eyes not leaving her face.
Khushi bit her lip and wondered what to do. She was acutely conscious of his raw masculinity, his unique scent reaching out to touch her senses. Would it be wiser to simply let him drive her to the art gallery, rather than sit here arguing with him? Maybe she wasn’t willing to let him drive her to the destination so easily because she enjoyed these little skirmishes? Maybe she wanted to spend more time with him – a little voice inside her head insinuated. Squashing that voice flat, Khushi decided to ask him to drop her off to the art gallery. It was possible that he might look at Shyam and her together, and decide to leave her alone.
Meanwhile, Arnav wondered what would happen if he leaned in and caught her lips with his. She had this habit of sucking her lower lip into her mouth every time she got anxious. Arnav wanted to touch her lips and release that lower lip from her mouth, taking it in his. His attention was diverted when the lip was released from its hold and Khushi spoke, “The art gallery next to India Gate, please.”
He gazed at her lips a second longer, than with a silent sigh, started the car. To pass 30 minutes of travel between them was going to be a torture since she was so close and not able to touch her. His thoughts still hadn’t settled down from his musings earlier. He still remembered how he had touched her intimately, the way she tasted in his mouth. His body went taut at the memory, a slight shudder going through him. Khushi, battling demons of her own, missed his reaction when her hand accidentally touched his while she fidgeted with her bag.
“Why can’t you sit still damnit!” Arnav growled from beside her, startling Khushi.
She looked at him, her eyes wide with bewilderment. “What did I do?”
“Just stop fidgeting.”
“Why don’t you just focus on your driving Mr Raizada. I don’t need to sit still like a statue simply because you have been ordered to drop me off.”
“What the– Don’t test my patience and don’t talk to me in that tone of voice, Khushi Kumari Gupta. ” Arnav growled, glaring at her.
“Huh- as if there is any other tone I’d use for you Mr Aranv Singh Raizada or Alexander Sebastian Rothwell, what ever you want to call yourself. ” Khushi glared back, her whole body turned sideways, towards him. She continued, “It is so silly to have two names, really! I have always thought–”
In the next instant, before she could say anything more, Arnav stopped the car abruptly, making her gasp. Khushi looked around and found herself half way through to her destination. It was just a side road, that would eventually merge into the road that would take her to India Gate. He unlocked the door and said, “Get out.”
Khushi gaped at him, her mouth open, her eyes unblinking. Maybe she had misheard. “What?” she asked to clear the air.
“Get out. ” ASR said again, gritting his teeth.” I can’t stand being next to you any longer. You are such an irritating woman.”
So angry at him that she didn’t even wish to look at him at this time, she said, “How dare you!” Getting her bag out of her way and unclipped her seat belt, while muttering, ” I should’ve known you would act like a jerk. What else can I expect from you.”
In the next instant, Arnav pulled her bag, thereby pulling her towards him as he leaned towards her. His gaze brought alive the tangle of nerves in her stomach that she had been trying to subside as he brought his face closer to hers. Khushi bravely met his gaze even though her lips quivered while she tried to keep a tight rein on her emotions. Looking deep into her eyes, he said angrily as if saying it against his wish, “You can expect this–”
Saying this, he lowered his head and brushed his lips evocatively across her own. Khushi’s mouth trembled under his tender onslaught. Without an order from her mushy brain, her lips responded back, moulding themselves to his shape. He groaned quietly and pulled her into him. Khushi’s hand touched his shirt covered hard chest and felt his rapidly beating heart. A beast roared inside her as he muttered, “- expect this. You make me crazy Khushi Kumari Gupta.”
Khushi mumbled his name, her voice husky with want. He chuckled, but his voice was just as fractured with desire as hers. As she repeated his name, he nibbled her lower lip, and said ” I love it when your voice cracks with want over my name. You can use this tone to talk to me any time Khushi.”
It was his words that brought Khushi back with a bump, back to reality. She tore her mouth away and pushed him back into his seat. Closing her eyes for a second to hide herself from the shame of having responded so ardently to his kiss, which was clearly meant to be her punishment, she said hurriedly, “Of course you would blame me for your crazy acts as well.”
Before he could anticipate her move, she opened the door and jumped out quickly. Closing the door of the car hard, she made him wince and felt a little better. Through the window,her eyes spit fire and she snapped, “Go to hell Raizada.” and ran towards the auto waiting a little further away.
Arnav cursed softly as he saw her climbing into the auto and being driven away. Damn the girl, she always made him lose his temper and his mind, he thought irritatedly. He let her get to her too much. This had to stop somehow. But how? Still thinking on it, he drove away towards work.
By evening however, Khushi had forgotten all about Shyam and La. She was at home, dressed in her old favourite T-Shirt and jeans, too busy arranging things over the phone, and muttering curses beneath her breath, about spoiled, rich families who couldn’t understand how any change in plans at the last minute affected organizers.
She had just received an email from Anjali Raizada. Khushi had panicked and called her up, to be told very politely but firmly of the change in her plans. She wanted her Mehandi function to take place in the Taj Mahal Hotel instead of at the Raizada Mansion. No reasons given. To top it all, she wanted Shyam to be the photographer of this entire event; none other would do.
“Truly her brother’s sister, no doubt about it with the amount of arrogance with which she gives those orders!” Khushi muttered, and then got annoyed with herself for thinking about ASR. She focused her attention to the changes that had to be made immediately.
“Khushi, the dinner has been ready for about an hour now. I’m really hungry!” Khushi turned back and looked guiltily towards her younger sister, who had been waiting patiently for more than an hour for her. Sending her an apologetic glance, she begged for five more minutes and tuned back in to the phone call.
“Hum samajhte hai aapki baat Mishra ji, par inn amir logo ke nakhre toh aap jaante he hai. Please accommodate to their needs this time around? Aage se, I will be careful you get plenty of notice.”
Khushi was trying to coax the manager of the Taj Mahal hotel to change room bookings. Nothing but the biggest conference hall would do. After some time, a smile spread across her face. She hailed for her victory by raising a fist in the air when the manager finally acceded to her request. She put down the phone with a sigh of relief. Now to make that phone call confirming the change of venue to Anjali Raizada.
“Khushi!” Payal shouted in frustration from the dining room when Khushi was speed-dialing Anjali’s number.
” Give me two minutes darling. Bas do minute! “Khushi replied back to Payal and then gasped when she heard a hiss in her ear and a terse,
“No need to shout in my ear woman, especially when you call someone else your darling.”
Arnav Singh Raizada!
“How was I to know you’d pick up Anjali ji’s phone?” Khushi demanded heatedly and then belatedly realised how that sounded, so she added, “It is none of your business who I call darling anyway. ”
“Wanna bet?”Arnav growled softly over the phone, raising goosebumps all over Khushi’s body. Resolutely, she kept her voice calm, “I don’t like gambling of any sort Mr Raizada. Now if you don’t mind, please hand the phone over to Anjali ji ”
“Why the hurry? Wish to go back to your “darling”, do you? ”
“Would you just bugger off?” Khushi finally got exasperated.
” Make me.” He sounded amused, which made Khushi madder.
“Why should I? I can simply hang up and be done with you. ” She replied with a touch of her own arrogance.
“Do you tremble in his arms too, like you do in mine every time I touch you, every time I kiss you ?”
He delivered this question, his voice going deeper and huskier, making Khushi tremble as he asked softly, “Do you remember that evening Khushi?” and continued, ” I remember that evening Khushi. Just like I remember the morning you came to receive me at the airport. I remember how I took your mouth, how it softened under mine, how your tongue danced with mine. Just thinking about it makes me want to do it again. I remember how your breasts swelled in my hand when I cupped them, how your nipples peaked — ”
“Shut up… stop talking like that!” Khushi gasped, her breath coming fast.
“If it helps, you affect me the same way Khushi. Your breathing has quickened at the thought, hasn’t it? Mine too. ” Arnav growled softly, making Khushi clench her legs together,denying the heat she felt between her legs. She wanted to deny the effect his words had on her, but she couldn’t. So she stayed quiet. After a heart beat, Arnav said softly, “Meet me for dinner tomorrow, Khushi. ”
“It would never do to show him you go weak at the knees when he talks like that, Khushi! Show some backbone!” Some part of her brain that had not turned to mush by his words yet screamed in reprimand. Her mind cleared in an instant, when she recalled the horrible embarrassment she had gone through after those few moments of insanity that evening. She hated her voice for betraying her with its huskiness, but she tried to be cool and dismissing with her words.
“Your ego is astounding Mr Raizada! Let me make something very clear -forget dinner; I don’t want to see you, or even talk to you. You’re mistaken if you think you affect me in any way. Now, either you pass the phone to Anjali ji or I shall hang up.”
“Huh..” Was all he said, and the next second, it was Anjali on the phone saying, “Haan Khushiji, have the changes been made ?”
Khushi breathed deeply to control her anger. When she spoke next, her voice was calm, “Yes, Anjaliji all the arrangements have been made with the changes requested by you. I shall get back in touch with you tomorrow to talk about the arrangement changes needed from your sides for that day. ”
“Come to the Raizada Mansion tomorrow morning Khushi ji if it’s not too much trouble, please? I will ask OP to pick you up from your house and he would also drop you back. I promise it won’t be inconvenient. ” Anjali requested earnestly over the phone.
Khushi could hardly refuse a request made so nicely. Sighing inwardly, she agreed. At least she had to thank Devi Maiyya that Laad Governor was staying at the Taj and not at the Raizada Mansion. She could heard loud voices in the background.
“Come on Anjali bitiya. We are all waiting for you. “A shrill, melodious voice spoke in the background loud enough to make Khushi wince. She knew who it was — another intimidating Raizada; Manorama Mami ji.
“Khushi ji, I shall see you bright and early tomorrow morning at 10:30. ” Anjali declared and with a hasty bye hung up. Khushi sighed loudly and said, ” I don’t have a choice, do I? “
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.
Shyam looked at Khushi as she hung up and put the mobile back in her bag. She looked back at him, her eyes unfocussed. She was already thinking about business; about Anjali’s brother who would have to be picked up from the airport tomorrow because he had made a last minute decision to join in the festivities. Apparently he was against this wedding, and had decided not to attend it earlier. She could cheerfully wring his neck were he not an important part of the client’s family. Now she could have to rearrange everything from sitting positions, cards to family presentation details.
“Khushi! I swear to God sometimes I wonder if you live on another platform!” Shyam’s outraged voice brought her back. Khushi patted on his back in a friendly way, and smiled warmly at him, “You know I am a little like that. But you like me despite my eccentricities. Now be a good fellow and help me out.”
“With what?” Asked Shyam, putting an arm around her good naturedly, his ill humour forgotten with her warm smile.
Khushi looked at him teasingly, “Your grammar is a bit sloppy, isn’t it? “
Shyam gave her a crooked smile, “Well now, you know me honey. I don’t care about such things. And there’s always everyone’s take on how to speak things you know.”
Khushi snorted delicately and gave him a smart tap on his shoulder, “Huh! Just admit you like being a little out of ordinary yourself Mr. Shyam Jha! Now to business- I need your help. This new client has a brother who is arriving tomorrow. I want someone to go and pick him up from the airport.”
“No can do sweetheart. I have an early morning meeting. You need to do this yourself. “ Khushi groaned inwardly, but conceded she would have to do it. Another black mark against her as an elder sister, she thought to herself guiltily. Payal had asked her this morning, if she could keep her diary free for tomorrow, and she had assured her that nothing would come in the way.
Khushi’s face must’ve shown some of her inner regret and sadness, because Shyam held her chin up and said, “Khushi, don’t be sad! Look if you don’t want to go to the airport to receive this fellow, just let them know you can’t. They can’t hang you for simply not going to receive him. After all, it is last moment notice.”
That got Khushi out of her reverie. She couldn’t afford to lose this account, for Payal’s sake. She made herself smile as naturally as she could and said, “It’s alright. I was just thinking about something I’d seen on the TV earlier and it made me sad. That’s all.”
“Khushi!!” said Shyam exasperatedly and they both laughed together.
Khushi was at the airport to receive Anjali’s brother at four the next morning. She had hated getting out the bed and dressing up, but had no choice. Keeping her dress code casual formal, she had worn blue jeans with a pale green Shirt, topped it with an Olive green short jacket. Her hair was tied in a sleek ponytail and her feet were ensconced in green sandals with kitty heels. A pale pink gloss was all the make-up she had put on.
The placard in her hand read Alexander Sebastian Rothwell. She wondered at the name for a minute. Strange for Anjali to have a brother who sounded foreign. Maybe an English mother? She shrugged her shoulders mentally and yawned. What did she care? All she knew was that she was to receive him, drop him to the Taj Palace Hotel and go back home to snuggle down back into the covers for an hour or two, before accompanying Payal to whatever mystery place she wanted to take her to.
Arrival of the flight from New York was announced, and Khushi jerked herself awake. Holding the placard high in her hand, she stood a little apart from the throng of others who were waiting for their guests at the arrival gate. As soon as people starting coming out of the gate, Khushi looked around, hunting for a white Caucasian male to get out and look at her placard. She kept on looking, until almost everyone had left.
Had she missed him ? Had he not come after all? She turned around and checked people passing by. Nope, didn’t look like he was among them either. So where the devil was he?
“Of all the people in the world—Are you here to receive me by any chance?”
The hairs on the back of her neck and hands stood up as Khushi heard the voice she had never wanted to hear again. Slowly, keeping her wits about her, she turned around and nearly fainted. ASR stood there, with his hands in his pockets, his expression unreadable in the faint light. He looked up at the sign she was holding and said resignedly, “It had to be you. ”
He had not changed a bit in the last year, thought Khushi as she looked at him. In his thirty-third year now, he was still broodingly handsome, with a day’s stubble on his face and those amber eyes that seared her body. Her heart beat fast as she tried to get over her shock.
“But I’m here to receive a Alexander Sebastian Rothwell, not you.”
He looked forbidding and bored, as she said, “Take your pick. ASR – Arnav Singh Raizada or Alex Seb Rothwell, I’m still the same person you’ve come to receive at the airport. Now if you’d stop imitating a gold fish, I’d like to go to the hotel please. Or is it too much to hope that a room has been booked for me?”
Khushi flushed pink with anger at his tone and his words. Closing her mouth that had been wide open with shock, and holding her emotions in control, she spoke to him coolly, “A room has been booked for you in the Taj Palace, as per your sister’s instructions. If you will please follow me, I’ll take you to the car that will take you to the hotel.”
His gaze moved to her head where her hair was tied neatly in a ponytail. He observed, “You’ve grown your hair. It is longer than I last saw it.”
Khushi was startled at this piece of observation from him. He had noted the length of her hair and remembered it from last year? She refused to feel that small burst of excitement in her belly and replied with coolness she didn’t feel, “Yes, I have grown it. Now, if you please—“
“Do I disturb you?” He asked and Khushi goggled at him.
“What ? I –“ Khushi started and then, alarmed took a step back when he stepped forward. “What are you doing?”
A couple of inches that had separated them vanished as Arnav came closer. His eyes were dark and searching. Khushi tried to look away from him. In the next instant she felt a hand on her chin, and rough growl, “Stop turning away from me. “ Khushi closed her eyes childishly, refusing to look at him, shivering by the touch of his hand on her chin. He bent a little to bring his face close to her and said softly, “Yes, I do believe I disturb you.”
“Why is it that every time I propose a visit to London, you have another engagement? I am beginning to think you do not wish to meet my parents.”
Khushi look at Shyam; her stable, sensible boyfriend of eight months, with exasperation and despair. Good looking, charming, and mostly fun to be with, he came from a rich family, but was not a snob like others she knew. Two years older to her twenty-eight, he was also a well known photographer, and had worked with her on some of her company assignments, which is how they’d met. His passion was landscape photography, but his bread earner was his fashion photography skills. He was going to have his landscape photo exhibition at the National Art Gallery, which was indeed an honour reserved for few. Soon he would be making his name well known for his passion.
Khushi and Shyam had met at for a work assignment initially, which had later turned to friendship and gradually into a relationship. What Khushi liked the most about Shyam was that despite the fact that they had been going around since the last eight months, he mostly kept his distance- respected her belief in the old fashioned idea of “physical relationship and commitment go hand in hand”. A kiss and affectionate hugs was all they had ever shared between them.
But sometimes, like today, she could scream at him in frustration. She knew he was planning to ask her to marry him, and she understood that perhaps he wanted his parents’ approval. After all, she was a nobody; an orphan with a younger sister to support; she was no catch and would probably not meet his parents’ approval at all. And yet this was the second time in the last week that he had insisted on going to London to meet his parents. Though she appreciated him for his efforts, frankly speaking, she felt like she was being pushed into the deep end, and she was most certainly not ready to take any sort of leap. Marriage was too big a step for her and she wasn’t sure Shyam was the right guy. And London was the last place in the world she would ever visit!
An image of ASR rose up into her mind to haunt her of the past and she shivered despite the fact that she was thousands of miles away from him now. Even after all these months, she could close her eyes and feel the impact of his persona- his soul searching eyes, his aftershave, the way he had closed the distance between them and almost made her break her own rule of never getting involved physically with a playboy. Had she not come to her senses in time, she might have been just another notch on his belt. To shake his thoughts off, she looked into Shyam’s eyes. Yes, Shyam was nice. He was safe. She put her hand on his shoulder and tried to make him understand.
“Look Shyam, I’ve told you before- I am too busy at this time with my work. I’ve just taken a new assignment and I can’t let delegate things because it is too important. If you have to visit your parents, do. I don’t understand why you want me to come to meet them anyway.”
“Don’t be daft Khushi. You know I plan to introduce you to them as the woman I am getting married to.” Shyam said, determination plain in his voice.
Khushi turned to look at him, not surprised really. She had known his intentions after all. “It doesn’t come as a surprise, but I thought you’d ask me first. That’s the way it goes you know.”
Shyam grinned charmingly, his hand playing with his long hair tied in a pony tail. “Now you know baby doll. I want us to get married. You’ve been working hard to get your wedding planner business up, but the best way is to get married yourself.” He winked, “But more to the point, I feel we’re very fond of each other, and we’ll have a lot of fun together. Don’t you?”
Khushi was in a fix. Saying no would hurt Shyam unbearably because he was very sensitive, but saying yes would encourage him to think ahead, which was not something she wanted at this time. Oh why couldn’t she have fallen in love with him or perhaps learned to be a brutal bitch who could’ve heartlessly declined his proposal? She opened her mouth to say something, and was saved from saying anything at all, as her phone rang. Giving Shyam an apologetic look, she said, “Sorry, have to pick this up. It’s the client who’s wedding I’m arranging.”
“Haan Anjaliji? Kahiye.” Khushi said on the phone. Last year, Khushi had arrived back to India with her sister and opened shop as a wedding planner. It had been a struggle in the beginning, but slowly and surely business had picked up.
The feather in her cap would be this assignment she had currently picked up- a billionaire client who was getting married in India, before heading back to the U.S. If things went right, she could get a lot of business simply by word of mouth, Khushi mused within as she discussed next day’s plans with Anjali over the phone. It would solve her latest problem of where to send Payal for her University studies.
Not that Payal, four years younger to Khushi, and an introvert who kept mostly to herself, had mentioned her preferences to her elder sister. But she had spoken to the only close friend of hers, who in turn had let Khushi know. Payal wanted to go back to London, to study Political Science and International Law at the LSE, but understood that lack of funds might prevent her. This assignment would be just the thing that would solve the problem, if things went as smoothly as they had been going the last few weeks. She focused her attention back on the phone call. In seconds, she was frowning as she said,
“You have a brother? But –“ she frowned some more and said, “ Yes, you’re right of course. It’s my mistake and I’m sorry. It’s just that no one told me you had a brother. Is he arriving alone or with his family? ”
She smiled away the frown lines with what she heard over the phone and said, “You don’t need to apologise, Anjaliji. It was an honest mistake on both parts. Don’t you worry. I will make sure someone is sent to pick him up from the airport tomorrow morning, or if not I will pick him up myself. “
ARNAV AND KHUSHI ARE BACK! :)
I don’t think there is a way where I can stay away from two of my favourite characters. So here goes, another story with Arnav and Khushi of the famed IPKKND. Don’t forget to let me know how you like the beginning. ;)
“Khushi madam, ASR ne bulaya hai- urgently.”
Khushi groaned inwardly as she looked at the watch. Hey Devi Maiyya! Ab kya! It looked like she was going to be late reaching home today. And on Payal’s birthday too! Why, oh why couldn’t the Laad Governer have called earlier if he had already something to pick on her today ? Not that these thoughts reflected on her face at all. She looked with a serene expression on her face at the messenger; a special “chamcha” of ASR as she liked to call him and said, “I will be there in two minutes. Thank you.”
The messenger with the name OP left her with a smirk on his face and muttered, “Fireworks on the way.”
Khushi heard that mutter and straightened her spine. She stood up, smoothed her skirt, and collected her notepad and pen. Not a single time went by when she and the CEO of the multinational organisation didn’t have a clash of –well, it wasn’t words really, since she was in no position to have a clash of words with him. After all, he was the big boss and she was just an office assistant. They generally had no personal meetings- only the end of the year meeting and a review. He found faults with her at times, and conveyed them to her by Email (lately these emails had become frequent)– she had to reluctantly acknowledge– that the wretched man had been right every time. Nothing escaped his attention.
So it wasn’t a clash of words or wills. It was simply a clash of eyes. She shivered as she remembered those amber eyes; the way they bore into her like they would strip her of all her calm. Taking deep breaths, she preached herself, “Stop it. It is high time you stopped with this nonsense. Stop being so affected by him. He’s just a man- not an ogre. Stay calm. Deep breaths..He is not going to strangle you even if you might have made a mistake. ” and she breathed in deep and closed her eyes.
“He just might .” Said an amused but irritated voice from behind, “If you don’t stop talking to yourself and get yourself moving.”
Khushi opened her eyes immediately and turned around neatly on her black pumps. ASR stood there, all six foot two of lean muscle clad in crisp grey business suit. Not even a trace of humour showed on his face, so that she thought she might have imagined his amused tone. He stood in his usual stance, with his hands in his trouser pockets and a frown on his forehead, surveying her like she was an alien specimen. Hayye Devi Maiyya! How long had he been standing there? Had he heard all that nonsense about her being affected by him? She sincerely hoped not! Her heart stuttered as she met his eyes, and then she forced herself to become calm. Her doe brown eyes became as opaque as wood as she said, “I was just collecting my notepad and pen before coming to your office.”
He looked at her, from her sleek neat hair falling over her shoulders, her doe brown eyes, her slightly flushed cheeks, pale pink lips, cream blouse over black knee-length skirt and her feet encased in black stockings and black pumps. She looked exactly as an Office Assistant should look- neat and presentable, calm and ready to handle any crisis. No one looking at her could doubt her ability to run the office with the efficiency she had been running it with, for the last two years. He wasn’t sure how, but he was aware that she was anything but calm most of the times.
“Hmpph.” said he gruffly, turning around to get out of her office and stride with his long legs into his own.
As Arnav left to go to work with a declaration that they must talk soon, Khushi stomach knotted itself. She so didn’t want to talk to him about the past! She also knew the other things that would crop up during the talks. He had tried talking to her about them last night, and then again early in the morning after they had had the shower, but she had closed her eyes and ears to his speech about security for the boys and herself, and asked him to not spoil the moment.
She knew it would not be long before he would bring up the topic again.
“Khushiji?” Anjali called.
“Yes Di?” Khushi replied automatically, her mind still stuck on Arnav as she finished her plateful of Puri with Potato subzi. She had been overjoyed to see her favourite breakfast made for her by OPji.
OPji had gruffly welcomed her in the kitchen earlier. A man not accustomed to comment on his employers and ever loyal, he had been a source of comfort during tough days five years back. He did suitably frown upon her though, by shooing her out of the kitchen when she’d tried to help, haughtily informing her that she was his mistress, and he was there to serve her. He had also mumbled that it was to be hoped she wouldn’t run away this time. Chastened by the long time servant of the house, Khushi had gotten out of the kitchen then.
Now when he came to collect the dishes, Khushi smiled at him and thanked him for remembering her taste. He cracked what resembled a smile and left her.
“Khushiji?” Anjali called again and Khushi looked around.
Anjali sat with Naniji on the sofa in the living room. Payal seemed to be knitting and all three kids seemed to be talking under their breath about something. Khushi’s brow furrowed as she looked at them. They seemed to be conspiring something! Was it not just a day that they’d met? How could they be so pally? Not that she wasn’t delighted with this development, but — She mused as she went to join the others.
She smiled as she sat down opposite Anjali, who seemed to be browsing a magazine now. Anjali looked up at Khushi and said, “Khushiji, we must prepare for the party. Chhote says he plans to give the party next week, on Tuesday.”
Khushi’s eyes widened, “But Di, that’s too early! I thought it’d be another month or so before he’d throw one.”
Anjali laughed, “Have you forgotten what he’s like? Once an idea gets stuck in his head, he’d not rest until he’s executed his idea.”
Sighing Khushi nodded, “I was foolish to think he’d have changed.” Looking at Anjali’s frowning face, she smiled and said, “Not to worry Di. I’ll ensure he changes his mind.”
Nani ji shook her head sadly, “I don’t think you will be able to change his mind darling. He is quite determined to put an end to all those rumours and saga that began five years back with Aparna’s entry.”
Khushi’s head snapped right at Vishal who was busy with his younger brothers and looked back at Naniji. Mrs. Raizada senior smiled sadly and said, “Yes, Vishal was acknowledged by Arnav long back as his adopted son, but now you must acknowledge his acceptance in front of the society. You have to show people that you accept him as well. Only then will this family be able to live in peace, and Vishal bitwa will get his place in the society. Much as it pains to say it, he still feels left out. ”
Khushi frowned, “Arnav accepted him as adopted son? But naniji he is.. Vishal is Aparna and-“the words stuck in her throat but she carried on bravely, swallowing their poison, “ Aparna and Arnav’s ji son. Why was he not acknowledged accordingly? And I have another question about where Aparna is as well.”
Naniji raised her hand to stop her, and said in a firm voice, “I’m afraid I can’t answer any of your questions regarding that woman’s whereabouts. However I can tell you this- Vishal is not her son. Vishal has been officially adopted from the orphanage where he spent his childhood after his parents died.”
Seeing the bewildering expression on Khushi’s face, Naniji explained with an earnest expression, “Aparna had conspired against Arnav, and forced the child’s hand, Khushi. Granted, during their University days, they had dated but that’s all that had happened. Arnav is no fool to not realize he could have slipped and a child could’ve been born. He had his suspicions earlier on, but it was only after you left that things came into light. He investigated the whole story and found out the truth.”
A huge hole opened up under Khushi’s feet at this news. Trying to refute it, she shook her head vigorously, saying, “No. This is—how can it be possible? I saw the proof myself. I know the truth.”
Her eyes filled with tears as she saw Naniji and Anjali looking at her with a tragic expression. The world blurred into nothing as Khushi went back into her past and remembered the day DNA test results had come in. She had seen the reports, where Arnav and Vishal’s DNA had been claimed as a match.
“Aparna was a cunning woman. She played on our good nature, especially yours and gained entry in the house. It was only after you left and Chhote became inconsolable with your absence, that she started showing her true colours. Khushi ji, let Chhote be the man to tell you how things came out.”
“We spent all these years apart because I believed a lie?” Khushi’s mind boggled at the picture that was emerging.
Anjali squeezed Khushi’s shoulder in sympathy. “We all did believe her, didn’t we? It wasn’t just you. Had it not been for the near tragedy, we’d never have found out.”
Khushi’s hackles rose at the meaning behind Anjali’s words. Almost scared to ask, yet curious, she said, “What near tragedy Di?”
When Anjali looked reluctant to continue, Khushi pressed, “Please Di, you have to tell me. Nahi toh hum abhi Arnav ji ke office jaa kar unse puchenge.”
But Anjali shook her head, tears ever present in her eyes. She looked away, took a deep breath and faced Khushi, “It is best that Chhote tells you about it Khushiji. Come Nani, Mami, Payalji we must prepare lunch.”
All of them rose together, giving Khushi a pitying glance and left for the kitchen, leaving behind a very troubled Khushi.
It was Vishal who roused Khushi from her troublesome thoughts. He laid his head on her lap and closed his eyes.
“Yes my son?” said Khushi, putting one hand lovingly on his head. Aarush and Ayush came to sit beside her and she took them in her arms too.
“Let the past remain where it is; far behind us. I don’t want you and Dad fighting at any time. I hated it when you did that before you left. If you leave this time, I will come with you and my brothers.”
Tears nearly flooded Khushi’s eyes at his words. She bent down and kissed his forehead, saying, “I promise we won’t fight. I will not go away anywhere, son. But I must speak to him. I must know.”
Khushi was impatient to get to their room tonight, Arnav observed with some amusesment. He had already been warned by both Akash and Payal about the conversation that had taken place in the afternoon. Khushi had put on a calm face, but those who knew better were aware that she was in an agitated state. No one had tried to console her or ask her to calm down, he was told, because they all knew it was only Arnav who could do it.
With the boys in bed since long, and dinner with family done, they all sat around eating dessert of gulab jamuns. Arnav was eating his share of sugar free gulab jamuns and finalizing the details about the party with Akash. They had all given their inputs, including Khushi who insisted that food should be Indian- be it Indian or Non-vegetarian. Arnav had seen the happy smile on her face when everyone had agreed, and he’d added that he’d make sure there were panipuri, lassi and jalebi stands.
After a while, Khushi yawned, stood up and said, “Well, I’m tired. I’m not used to keeping late nights anymore.” Looking at Naniji, she said, “We used to sleep at about 9 every night; the kids and I, already close to midnight is half the night of sleep gone for me.”
Payal laughed at this and said, “Khushi, you always did have a penchant for finding ways to sneak off to bed and snore your head off.”
“Jiji!” Khushi sounded offended but smiled at her sister, saying, “I know that I was like that before, but it’s just that—well, after putting a long day at work, I used to be tired and sleep is sweet when there’s dreams waiting.”
“No need to go to sleep and dream about a white knight anymore Khushiji. Just order Arnav and he’ll get your dreams fulfilled.” Anjali winked at Khushi.
Khushi looked up at Arnav and found the lusty fire of his eyes burning her up. She looked down, nervous, “Maybe I can stay up a little longer.”
“Nope. We go to bed now. Good night everyone.” Arnav stood up with that decision, wishing everyone good night, winking at Anjali and Akash as he took Khushi by the arm before she could open her mouth.