“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 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!”
” 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.
“What nonsense!” With a jerk, Khushi moved out of his grasp at his words, completely rattled. “I’d thank you to keep your hands and your opinion to yourself.”
“But if I remember correctly, you liked my hands on you.” Said Arnav with dead calm, and watched as pink seeped into her cheeks. She whispered, “How dare you! That — that was — I was distraught and I didn’t realise–“
“Bullshit!” Said Arnav, heating up a little. “Why not be a little honest with yourself and say that you liked it? A little foreplay in the corner might not have been what you wanted, but you did want me. I stopped only because I realised we were at work and I was your employer.”
“I am not standing here and listening to this. If you want to get in that car standing there at the car parking, and go to the hotel, do so, or go to hell.” Shaking with outraged indignation and a little shame because she knew what he said was right, Khushi turned away to leave. Her next breath turned into a gasp, as he caught hold of her hand from behind and pulled her towards him.
“Wha—let me go this instant!” Khushi said, her breath coming in short, fast gasps.
Not hearing her, he pulled her with him into the nearest telephone booth and closed the door.
“Open the door this instant, you…. I don’t want to talk to you at all! Let me go.” Khushi demanded, refusing to struggle like a hysterical heroine in the movie.
Arnav pulled her closer and tighter to him, if that was possible. He pulled her ponytail a bit so that her eyes came up to meet his defiantly. His palm could feel the pulse beating frantically in the nape of her neck; he could feel her nipples peaking against his chest. Her heart was beating like a drum roll, just like his was, at this nearness. There was no doubt in his mind. She was as attracted to him, as he was to her and fighting it with admirable spirit too! Had he been right all these months, thinking that she had disappeared because she had felt the strong pull of attraction to him? He was starting to think he was right.
Feeling a kick of satisfaction in his gut, he growled, “You still want me Khushi Gupta, and God help me, but I still want you—very much. “ He bent a little lower, his breath falling on her face, his soft words caressing her face, “Why is it that you always lie about what you feel? Why do you always hide under the façade of coolness or anger? Is this why you disappeared? “
“I don’t want to talk about this! Why can’t you leave it alone?” Khushi closed her eyes and said despairingly.
“Can you leave it alone? Tell me you didn’t think about me all these months. “Arnav whispered, his lips almost touching hers, feeling her breaths.
Khushi could hardly think; much less speak, for the fear of touching his mouth with hers, and igniting herself in the fiercely burning fire of want. She tried to move her head to one side, but his tight grip on the nape of her neck prevented her.
“Khushi..” Arnav groaned against her mouth, and in the next second touched his lips to her. Desire that was just a flame, turned into a raging inferno for both of them as their mouths touched. Khushi kissed him with abandon, opening her mouth for the invasion of his lips and tongue. They kissed like they’d never want to be apart again. Khushi held on to him like he was her rock of Gibraltar, her hands holding his head, her fingers making scissoring patterns in his hair. Arnav pecked at her lips, her eyes, her cheeks, her jaw and she did likewise. His hands moved from the nape of her neck to her back, her waist and then to her hips, where he held on to her as he kissed her. He moved down to her nape, whispering, “I knew you want me. “
Khushi stiffened in his arms as she heard his whisper, horrified at what she was doing. Had she let go of her senses completely? How could she have let him kiss her, and furthermore, kiss him back with such ardent abandon?
She pushed him away from her, breathing as if she’d run a marathon, and he faltered a step as he lost his grip on her. Khushi looked at him, her eyes glittering pools of brown. Angry tears at her own failure to curb her desire weren’t far away. She made to move out of the telephone booth by pushing him away, but he simply pulled her back to him, her back brushing his chest. He moved the ponytail away and kissed the nape of her neck, breathing hard. Khushi ‘s breath hitched in her throat at the touch of his lips there, and her voice wavered when she spoke, “ You let me go this instant. I never want this to happen again!!”
Arnav bit the lobe of her ear lightly and then licked it to soothe it. Khushi felt herself twitching between her legs, her insides clenching with need, as he spoke, his voice gruff with desire, “Never say never, Khushi. You can’t ignore this attraction between us, any more than I can.”
“Can I not?” Khushi said through gritted teeth, freeing herself finally.
She quickly opened the door and stepped out of the telephone booth. Arnav stepped out from the telephone booth too and walked towards her. Now that she was free of his enveloping presence, she could think clearly. She moved away from him and towards the parking lot, with Arnav following her. Anger at herself for giving in to her carnal lust, and at him for making her feel so vulnerable made her spat, “I can do what I want Mr. Raizada. You don’t have any hold over me, do you hear?”
His thundered face was the testament of how enraged he felt at her words. But he let her words flow past him silently, and walked to the car park, where the car was standing.
The driver of the car got out and watched the scene unfolding in front of his eyes with avid fascination, but wisely kept his distance. He could smell romance in the air, despite all the arguing that was going on. He was being eaten up with curiosity about this girl who dared to be defiant and give Arnav baba hell. No young women he had seen come in contact with him had behaved with anything less than simpering adoration, and he had known Arnav baba since he was a baby. No one got so much attention or emotion. He gathered his thoughts and quickly opened the back door, as Arnav walked briskly up to the car.
Arnav walked briskly up to the car, knowing that Khushi had walked a bit and now stood outside the car park. He turned around and looked back at her. She was staring at him, her expression confused at his behaviour. Their eyes met and he could feel a huge wave of some unknown emotion rise within him. He felt an overwhelming need to see a different emotion in her eyes, anything but this confusion that reflected his own feelings. He said, “In a way, I am still your employer you know. I am paying for my sister’s wedding. So you see Khushi, I still have a hold over you. See you later.”
The utter horror and shock etched on her face at his announcement must have satisfied him perhaps, because the next moment, he sat in the car and was driven away. He kept on replaying the look he had left Khushi with in his mind until he reached his room, freshened up, had his dinner and stood outside the room balcony, eyeing the city bright with lights, with a glass of neat scotch whiskey in his hand. A smirk came on to his face that turned into a huge grin. He chuckled loudly and then the chuckle turned into a laugh. Still laughing, he lay down on the bed and under the covers. Sighing deeply as if relieved in some manner, he closed his eyes and fell asleep with the same look, his mind occupied with Khushi.
Arnav closed the bedroom door and turned around to face Khushi, who was already sitting on the bed, her legs folded, ready to talk. Her eyes were troubled, her face pale. Constant thoughts plaguing her mind could be seen very clearly in her eyes. As he stood by the door for another minute, Khushi burst out,
“Arnav ji, do come here. I – must know. We must talk.”
Slowly Arnav approached Khushi and sat down next to her on the bed. Taking one of her hands in his own, he smiled into her eyes and said softly, “Let me get ready for bed and you do the same. We’ve got the whole night to talk. “
Khushi made a face, “No we don’t. You have to wake up early and then go to work too. I don’t want you going to work all tired.”
Arnav kissed the palm of Khushi’s hand, making her quiver as he said, “How very wifely of you, my darling.” Humour glinted wickedly from his eyes.
Khushi smiled widely, “That’s because I am your wife Mr. Raizada. But I want to know—“
Arnav laughed softly and put a finger on her lips, “Quiet wife. One of your duties is also to listen to your husband—sometimes at least!”
Khushi giggled and Arnav smirked, then said, “Ab jaao. Get ready for bed my love. Once we’re cosy, I’ll tell you all you want to know.”
And so it happened that 10 minutes later, when they were both under the covers, cuddling that Khushi raised the question, “Arnavji, is it true that Aparna lied to me? That these 5 years of unhappy living and keeping our sons away from your fatherly love was all simply because I’d been foolish enough to believe her? “
Arnav sighed and kissed her hair, “You are a good person Khushi. It is not your fault that you believed in her lies, not your fault that we suffered so much these last years. You did it thinking of a little boy and his happiness. That doesn’t make you a bad person or foolish; on the contrary. “
Khushi stayed quiet, but took refuge in Arnav’s arms by snuggling into him and hugging him even tighter than before. Arnav squeezed her back and continued, “Yes, she lied to you- to everyone who knew her actually at the time we did. “
“I always wondered why she kept on harping on about how she didn’t want anything from life anymore, how her life was content. A person who is content doesn’t keep on repeating it every second, you know. The day you told me about the DNA test and Vishal being born out of wedlock, and accused me of being a neglectful father, I knew a deeper game was at play. To feel the waters, I spoke to Aparna about it. Of course, initially she pretended to deny it all and then gently cried out to me in not so many words that Vishal was my son, and she and he were my responsibility.”
Khushi looked astonished, “What? Why didn’t you tell me about it?”
Arnav looked sheepish for a second and then grimaced, “I think I should have. It might have helped you realize what was happening, and you’d have never left me. But in my arrogance, I thought I’d solve it all by myself and then you’d never have a chance of any doubts in future.
Anyway, when you left, I became absolutely distraught. I tried finding you everywhere obviously, despite all your instructions. But it looked like you’d completely vanished. Everyone was worried. Babuji never said a word to me, but I could feel his accusations every time he looked at me. Everyone looked at me for answers Khushi, and I have nothing to give.”
At the amount of pain in his voice, Khushi grasped his hand and kissed it. She took it between both of hers and held on to him, trying desperately to absorb some of that pain of his, to lessen it. Regret washed her being in waves. She should have realized how everyone else might feel. She shouldn’t have left like that.
A pool of tears formed in her eyes as she mumbled, “I’m sorry.. so sorry Arnavji. I should’ve thought it through. I hurt you and everyone I love so badly.” She raised her tear filled eyes to his, beseeching him to understand, “But believe me, I thought I was doing the right thing! I thought, I was coming in between the happiness that Vishal and you deserved.”
Arnav leaned in and kissed her forehead. Sighing heavily, he placed his chin above her head, as she folded more closely into his arms.
“I know you Khushi. I know you thought you were doing the right thing. I don’t blame you anymore; no one does. Yes, I was distraught. I was angry when you left. But after the whole thing was sorted out, I knew exactly why you’d done it.”
Khushi raised herself up on her hands and kissed Arnav on his lips. “I love you so much. And I caused you pain.” A frown marred her brows, “But what was going on? If I was in the wrong and Aparna was doing something that was—I don’t understand Arnavji.”
Arnav kissed her back hard and smirked, “You’re not as brilliant as you think you are Khushi Singh Raizada.”
At her indignant look, he said, “Alright. I won’t tease you for now, because you do need to know it. We talk about it this time, finish the tale and never speak of it again.”
At a cautious nod from Khushi, he continued,
“ Aparna underestimated my love for you. A week after you’d left, she tried to come on to me. The first few days, she sympathized with me, cursed you for leaving me in such a condition, for leaving “her” in this compromising position where she’d have to “fill a gap you left behind”. That’s what she thought it was, and she said it.
Then one evening, everyone had gone out. I came back from work, as usual and I saw her wearing your sari and cooking in the kitchen, like you do. When I went into my bedroom, she came in after a bit. Said she’d cooked my favourite food to cheer me up. I knew a seduction game was about to roll. I set the record straight that evening, and told her there was not going to be any grand reconciliation. Even if Vishal was my son, Khushi was my wife. I didn’t want any other. She left the room that evening, but not without uttering vile words for me, that I will not repeat in front of you.
She could see her plan failing, and me slipping out of her hands. For the next two weeks, she tried to befriend me. By this time, I had already had investigators working on her case, and the results had just started coming in the evening she had tried to seduce me.
Aparna had spent the last three years at the order of the court in correctional institution. She had already been sentenced once for about six months, for embezzlement, fraud and slander. Another interesting bit also came out. There was a restraining order against her. Do you remember the architect, Arun Varma from the parties we’d attended together ? – he had filed it. Apparently, Aparna had tried to pass herself on as his girlfriend, and created differences between him and his real girlfriend. When he exposed her, she became aggressive towards his girlfriend. In the end, the restraining order had been put in place. “
Khushi listened to this, her mouth open in shock. “She was mentally sick?”
Arnav shook his head in regret, “Sadly not. Women like her are never mentally sick. It was just a way of getting out of tight spots she had gotten herself into every time. She was cunning to the nth degree.”
“How did you expose her then? And where was Vishal all this time that she was facing all these charges and in the mental institution?” Khushi asked, her frown pronounced.
Arnav took a deep breath and said, “Vishal was where he had been happy, even if alone. He was in the orphanage, where I officially adopted him from after the whole fiasco had been sorted out.”
At her dazed expression, Arnav nodded to himself, “Yes, Khushi I know. For you this all seems incredible, but the thing is, not everyone is as decent as you are, my love. Aparna had planned very carefully. She had adopted Vishal and trained him as befitting my son a few months before she accidentally bumped into us. The DNA reports that you’d seen after you’d sent the sample were fake, because the samples had been switched by her.
I could’ve let go of the whole thing, even let her leave after all the destruction she’d caused, had it not been for the fact that she’d included an innocent child into her game plan and used him, almost killed him to achieve her goal- me. “
Khushi looked up alarmed, her hackles rising, “What do you mean Arnavji? “
Taking a deep breath, Arnav said, “She tried to poison Vishal to get family sympathy.”
Ignoring Khushi’s horrified look, Arnav continued, “Vishal went through a tough time, with you leaving us, and he felt he was to blame to some extent. I had tried to cheer him up at times, but he had started getting morose. Then one evening, when I came home, I heard Aparna tried to force feed a medicine. He kept on saying it smelled vile, but she wouldn’t listen. When I tried to intervene, she told me that Vishal was a sensitive child, and according to the doctor, he needed a sedative to help him get out of low moods. What a load of rubbish! When I asked her to show me the pill she wanted to feed him, she snapped at me and told me to mind my own business.
Vishal had started crying by then, refusing point blank to take the medicine. I could see Aparna starting to become aggressive in her stance. To cool off the atmosphere, I told her, I’d give Vishal the medicine prescribed by her doctor. For my sins, I helped her feed him poison.
Khushi, that pill had been coated with rat poison. Aparna left him with me, saying she had to go out for a meeting with a prospective client. In an hour, Vishal had started vomiting and was showing severe signs of poison. Without any delay, I took him to the hospital. He was there for two days, since the poison had affected his body severely.
Investigation proved that the pill had been coated with rat poison. Aparna came to the hospital teary-eyed and accused me of trying to kill her son. What she didn’t realize was, I had already gathered all the evidence to prove her guilt. A short court battle ensued, where needless to say, I came out the winner. She was sentenced for five years, with attempt to murder. “
Khushi’s eyes were wide with shock, her voice locked in her throat as she heard the entire story unwrapping. It was almost like a TV drama, except it was real, especially since it happened with herself and her family. Had it not been for her own foolishness, none of this could have happened – she cursed herself for having being so gullible.
Silence reigned for minutes, until she let out a long breath and in a tearful voice said, “Oh my God. All this, because she wanted you, and I was foolish enough to believe all that I heard and saw.”
Arnav cupped her face between his hands and said, “No Khushi. She never wanted me. She wanted the wealth and fame that came with Raizada name. I had nothing to do with it. And you, you my love, were foolish- yes. But it was not because you were stupid. It was because you believe people are good. And that is one of the things I adore about you.”
Khushi sniffed, her nose turning red as she snuggled against Arnav, her voice breaking, “Poor Vishal. What he went through!’
Arnav soothed her, his hand moving gently in her hair, as he said, “He knows he would never have to be through anything like that ever again. He knows he is loved. I adopted him after all this, and last year we got his leg sorted out. For him, the mother that has been, the mother that is, is you Khushi. You know that. “
“Yes.” Said Khushi, glad to have the past sorted out. She looked up and smiled, the calmness in her husband’s eyes soothing her, “ I am so glad you didn’t give up on me.”
“NEVER.” Arnav vowed as he held the most precious gem of his life in his arms. “I did not know what love was before I met you, and I will never be able to love you any less for who you are. You and our children are my biggest wealth, and I am only thankful to God that you came back to me with our sons. “
Khushi smiled with her eyes at him, curving her hands around his neck, as she reached his lips and whispered, “We are not two worlds apart anymore, darling husband. If I am your wealth, I am ready to be spent– on you, by you.”
“In that case…. ” Arnav said huskily, as their passion took over.