Khushi sat waiting for Shyam at her favourite cafe that evening, while her mind still turned over Payal’s words. Why did Payal think that she, Khushi Gupta could ever fall in love with an arrogant arse like ASR?
She shook her head vehemently in denial, almost spilling coffee from the mug in her hand. The idea itself was mental. She could never fall for a man who had not even an ounce of humility in him. He was – he was-
“An espresso please, double shot. ” The deep dark voice raised the hair at the back of her neck. Trying to reject the voice in her head that said it knew who the voice belonged to, her eyes opened wide with shock as Arnav sat down in the chair next to her and grinned wolfishly.
“I had not thought of you as a coffee drinker, Khushi Gupta. You sound like you would drink gallons of tea, not coffee. “
Her eyes drank in his grinning face- he looked so devastatingly handsome when he smiled!- and then his words registered. More to the point, his presence by her side registered as she came out of her daze. Her doe eyes sparkled with annoyance.
Arnav saw the moment Khushi’s expression changed and his eyes lit up at the expectation of fireworks. He loved it when she looked ready to spit fire, the passion of her feelings plain on her face. He didn’t have long to wait.
Khushi’s chest swelled with quiet indignation. His eyes rested briefly on the heaving chest and then moved to her eyes. They were now furious at his blatant display of interest.
“How dare you! “Khushi spoke with her mouth barely moving. “What the hell are you doing here Mr Rothwell ? “
“I have been called here, by your – who is he anyway? Is he your associate or your friend?”
Khushi refused to calm down. With gritted teeth, she asked, “I have no idea what you’re talking about, but you had better leave. I have a meeting and I am not going to waste my energy talking to you. “
“Of course. ” Arnav was brisk, his eyes sharp. He accepted his cup of espresso with a polite smile at the waitress, that seemed to turn her into a silly mush. Fluttering her eyelashes, she asked him if he wanted any sugar.
“He is diabetic. No sugar, thank you.” Khushi spat dismissal at the waitress, who went away with a scowl on her face. Looking straight back at ASR, Khushi said, “Did you hear what I said Mr Rothwell Raizada? Leave.”
“You’re pretty adorable when you’re all fire like this. “Arnav observed amusedly, and then huskily added, “Most of the times, I can’t wait to burn with you.”
Khushi had no reply for such a statement. She sipped her coffee and pointedly looked at her watch. Arnav finished his mouthful of espresso and wiped his mouth with a serviette, calming informing her, “Don’t be mad at me. I didn’t come here myself. I was called by your photographer associate, Shyam. “
Her jaw dropping, Khushi retorted, “Shyam? My Shyam called you?”
“Your Shyam? ” Arnav’s eyes caught fire at her reference to Shyam as hers. He was annoyed.
His entire day had been a pain, so why should he be surprised if evening was the finale of all that he found irksome. He had decided to work from home this morning. His morning had begun with Anjali teasing La at the breakfast table. By noon, La had become decidedly panicky, coming to him with the request that he make things clear to his family. She was terrified they would marry her to him tomorrow if they had their way. Highly tickled by her imagination, Arnav had assured her nothing of the kind would happen. She ought to take the teasing in her stride and be indifferent. After all, she wanted the pretence of being his girlfriend to save her pride. But La had been unable to handle things. Post lunch, she had excused herself with the excuse of a prior meeting with an old friend and got out of the house.
Arnav had breathed a sigh of relief as Anjali had turned her attention to her own wedding matters, and he had finally been able to focus on his work. Things had just settled down, when Shyam called. He had been polite and straight to the point.
“Hi Alex, I would like to meet you this evening. Is it possible?” Shyam had asked politely.
Arnav had observed, “A bit sudden, isn’t it? “
Shyam had been just as adamant, “I’ll agree, it is a bit sudden but imperative. I would appreciate it if you could come to the India Cafe this evening. Khushi will also be there.”
Arnav had tensed at her name, and in a split second made his decision as an unsavoury thought had entered his head. His entire being had rebelled at the idea. As he remembered the thought that had prompted him to come here without a second’s hesitation, his annoyance at his own behaviour grew. He looked at Khushi and suddenly he said, “I might as well tell you since I know you will not tattle tale. I think it is time I got married.”
Khushi looked at him, going pale at his words. ASR planning to get married? To Whom? Or was he simply saying that to annoy her? Well, she wouldn’t give him the satisfaction. With mighty effort, she ignored his declaration and ploughed on, “Why has he called you here?” Then muttered to herself, ” Is he planning to warn you off in front of me or something? “
Arnav’s mind, that had seconds ago been amusing itself at Khushi’s instant reaction and efforts at non-reaction to his statement, was now outraged at this muttered suggestion. How could anyone warn him off Khushi? Khushi was — and he stopped the thought in his head. He liked annoying her, flirting with her. He had already admitted to wanting her badly. Khushi was his — The point was, she was not for Shyam.
Khushi, unaware of his internal debate continued muttering to herself, “I must talk to Shyam. He has been a bit odd lately, but I simply thought it was due to his preoccupation with–.”
“Still talk to yourself, do you? Old habits die hard. ” an amused Arnav drawled lazily, stretching in the chair. “I can’t wait to hear what milk toast man has to say to me.”
Khushi choked on her coffee “Milk toast man? You are calling Shyam a milk toast man?”
ASR shrugged his shoulders, “What else would I call a man who has been playing with fire recently, but is not able to take the heat?”
“What fire? What heat? What the hell are you blabbering on about ASR?” Khushi snapped, forgetting her intention to stay calm.
She drew back as Arnav leaned forward. Suddenly his eyes were drawn to the door and he took a sharp breath. Khushi saw the change in his face, saw the hardness enter into his eyes and looked at the door too.
Shyam and La had entered the cafe; Shyam with a grim look on his face and La with averting eyes. His gaze zeroed in on Arnav and Khushi and his jaw tightened. They all greeted each other politely. La sat between Khushi and Shyam, her gaze averted from Arnav. Khushi observed this and wondered.
Finally Arnav spoke, “So Jha, what is it you wanted to talk about?”
Shyam put down his coffee and looked at Khushi accusingly, saying “I just wanted to make sure we are all on the same page. You have not trusted me enough as a friend Khushi, or you would have confided your secret in me. ” He sighed deeply, unhappily. Before Khushi could ask him, he raised his hand, “I am not finished yet Khushi. Please don’t interrupt. “
Shyam looked at Arnav and a determination entered his eyes. He said, “La tells me your family spoke to her today about her marrying you. Now is the time Rothwell. You must tell them.”
Khushi’s eyes strayed to Arnav, shock evident in them. Without looking at her, Arnav kept his gaze on Shyam, “Tell them what, Jha?”
At this point, La interrupted both men, looking at Arnav with pleading eyes. His eyes hardened and she averted hers, saying “I am sorry, Alex. I wouldn’t have told Shyam about any of it, had he not told me about his intention to marry her.”
ASR being who he was, didn’t even blink at her declaration of innocence. He simply nodded at her and then looked back at Shyam.
A frustrated exhale, and then Shyam said, “You must tell your family the truth Rothwell. Tell them that La is not your girlfriend, but mine. You must tell them about your engagement to Khushi. “
Khushi was in a foul mood and it was the world’s fault, or so she told herself again and again. Had everyone simply gone crazy or was she slowly going mad? She kicked a small stone by the side of the road while pacing on the small section, near a auto rickshaw. The driver of the auto seemed to be busy in changing tyre. The stone wedged in her jutti and refused to be thrown off.
“Arrggh! Devi Maiyya! What is the matter with you ? Lagta hai humne aapko jo besan ke laddooeon ka prasad chadhaaya tha, woh aapko pasand nahi aaya hain. Why else would my day have been such a horrible one? First that La’ad Governor ruining my day, then Shyam acting weird over La and behaving like a fool and now, I am stranded here thanks to this Auto wale bhaiyaji who didn’t check his tyres prior to the journey! Why me Devi Maiyya? Why me?”
The auto rickshaw driver in question looked at her and then up and himself and muttered to himself, “Not you, I always get the crazy ones at the end of the day. Why me?”
Khushi looked at him and narrowed her eyes, “Did you say something bhaiyaji?”
The manic look in her eyes warned the auto driver- this was not the right time to vent out his own frustrations; instead he smiled and said, “I was just saying behanji that it is the end of the day and my auto has a flat tyre. I wish I could say it will be okay in five minutes but I don’t think so. I think it might be a better idea for you to catch another auto.”
Khushi smiled sweetly, too sweetly and said, “Do you see another auto rickshaw on this road right now Bhaiyaji? I wish I could say I will take another auto, but the sad fact is I am stuck here with you because there is no other auto. I am not walking alone on this road to find one! Would you let your sister walk alone at this time of the evening?”
The auto rickshaw driver straightened his shirt consciously and said, “Never! My sister wouldn’t be out of the house at this time anyway. ”
“Exactly!” Khushi went on, sitting down beside him and picking up the lug wrench he had left by the side. “I wouldn’t be out of the house at this hour either! I would be cosy at home, eating hot roti and aallu mutter subzi this evening. But what do employers know or understand about a common man’s plight?”
She lifted the wrench as if to hit the imaginary person by her side. The driver moved quickly out of the way and hurriedly started working while Khushi continued, “I could seriously bop him on the head with something like this, he is sooo irritating! ” She looked at the auto rickshaw driver and continued flailing the wrench about,
“Rich people don’t understand that we need to get home on time. Especially people like him- that horrible la’ad governer. I am late today because of all the extra work I have had to do. And then there was my friend who went crazy today simply because the girl he fancies, or I think he does, was with that idiot ASR. Why was she with him, who knows? But I had hoped La had better taste than that. Meh. ”
She stopped for a bit then while the driver kept on working, his hands sure of his tools. Khushi watched him and then said, “It is good to see that you know what you do so well. No wonder you are good at this. If only everyone was as good at their work as they should be. ”
The ramble continued for another ten minutes where Khushi told the driver how she had found the staff at a big hotel inefficient and unhelpful. She grumbled on about the hotel manager, the mehandi guy, the florist and finally came back again to La’ad Governer and how all today was his fault.
The auto rickshaw driver moved a little away from Khushi, alarmed and trying to not come in the way of her flailing about. ” Err–yes yes.. of course. This is almost done behanji. If you will give me the wrench, I’ll simply fix the tyre and tighten the nuts and bolts. Okay? ”
A relieved smile lit up Khushi’s face, instantly making the auto rickshaw driver feeling mean about his earlier thoughts. Of course the girl must be worried, this is after all not the safest of cities in the country. With a nod, Khushi got up and moved away, still talking, ” I am so hungry, but then I always am!”
Finally the auto rickshaw was ready for the drive. The driver dropped Khushi and received a warm smile and a thank you.
“You are a nice person bhaiya- the nicest person I have met today actually. Thank you.”
The auto rickshaw driver grinned broadly and waved a cheerio while he left her street, inwardly thinking, that this La’ad Governer who ever he was had made home in this poor girl’s brain. It didn’t look like he was going to get out any time soon from the way she kept on about him. His romantic soul sensed romance. The girl had no idea she fancied this “La’ad Governer” and how much of her thoughts were occupied by him.
A similar suspicion crept into Khushi’s mind before she went to bed. ASR seemed to be constantly in her head and she didn’t like it. The suspicion that her body was craving for another contact with him filled her eyes with horror. She quickly closed them, and her mind to such thoughts and tried to sleep. When sleep came to her, her dreams were full of Alexander Sebastian Rothwell and his eyes watching her walking away with Shyam.
“What will you do once I am married and gone? Do you not want to get married Khushi? ”
Payal’s words came back to her the next night while Khushi was brushing her hair before going to sleep. A frown came upon her face that had been scrubbed pink from her recent bath as she thought about it.
Khushi and Payal had gone out today not only to make Anjali’s wedding arrangements, but also to do a bit of window shopping for Payal’s own wedding. Khushi and her had decided that though the wedding won’t be any time too soon, they might need to start preparing for it. Khushi had offered her finances for buying Payal’s modest trousseau as a wedding gift. Emotional at such a gesture, Payal had accepted and also agreed to help Khushi with her current client assignment. This was the only way both the sisters could spend more time together and browse for her trousseau.
While they had been at a cafe, after a hectic afternoon of work on Anjali’s forthcoming functions, Payal had looked into her coffee thoughtfully.
“What is so engrossing about that cup of cappuccino Payalia?” Khushi had playfully asked, to encounter a serious look from Payal.
“I worry about you Khushi. You have been stressed since the last few days and I know it is not work that keeps you on the edge. You have stopped confiding in me.”
“My life is an open book honey! What is there to confide about?” Khushi tried to be as nonchalant as possible.
“Khushi, you know that is not true. I don’t know these days why you insist on being an ostrich, burying your head in the sand as soon as this topic rises. And lately, you have been a lot more agitated. I feel like I am so far away from you these days.” Payal concluded on a morose note.
Khushi immediately hugged her and said in a voice as loving as only an elder sister could have, ” Payalia, don’t you ever think that! I am always with you, there for you. ”
Payal cupped Khushi’s cheek and looked at her imploringly, “Yes but Khushi, I don’t think I am there for you. Or that you even need me. Talk to me please. Tell me what is going on.”
Khushi sighed loudly and let her sister go. Then, closing her eyes, she poured it out all while Payal listened. Khushi told her everything about ASR; his family, their professional history, their antagonism with each other, his previous personal association with her, her meeting him again and then as the client’s brother and their skirmishes. She skipped on the more personal aspects but she did mention some of it. Payal in the meanwhile, made tea for them both while she listened to her sister with total attention.
At the end of her tirade, Khushi said,
“So you see, I am stuck. I don’t know what to do, I don’t even know why I feel the way I do and I see no way out of this. ”
Payal sipped on her tea and paused for thought. Then she said, ” Is it possible there is more to this than just physical attraction towards each other? Do you think you are in love? ”
Khushi stared at her sister in horror, at the direct as well as implied meaning and felt totally outraged. “I AM NOT IN LOVE WITH THAT MAN!”
” 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.
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.
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.
A special mention- Diksha, my friend from Facebook. Get well soon DSR. 🙂
Please remember, flashbacks are in Italics.
“Khushi, so glad you were all able to make it to the exhibition.”
Plenitudes were being mouthed left, right and centre from everywhere by her acquaintance Jhalak who was a part of the art gallery. Khushi had been the main person responsible for arranging this visit thus she was the one being addressed by Jhalak.
Khushi smiled her reply, nodded at her and moved on with the group that she had come with. She was here with her German class group to study a group of paintings that were being exhibited. Being from an exulted background, most girls behaved snobbishly. They walked with their noses in the air, kissing each other’s cheeks perfunctorily and blabbering about paintings. Some of the paintings were really worth talking about, thought Khushi while the others were simply rubbish to her mind.
“I had no idea you were into art and painting.”
At the deep baritone of Arnav’s voice that made Khushi’s nerves tingle from head to toe, she closed her eyes and willed herself to calm down. She turned around and gave a polite smile, “Arnavji, what a surprise to see you here. Aakash keeps on insisting you have no time for menial pleasure from your work. So what brings you here?”
While her mouth spoke, her eyes were busy taking in the sight of him. It had been more than two months since she had last seen him. He had left for London a few days after their last encounter and come back. According to Aakash, there was no one that was as powerful and dynamic as his brother when it came to closing deals. He could charm the birds off the trees and be as cold as ice when need be. Khushi had no idea he had returned and her heart beat a little faster with him in vicinity as she remembered their last eye contact and how it had stirred a strange attraction towards this man. Those eyes had given her many sleepless nights and she had been irritated beyond limit with his face constantly in her thoughts. It had taken a lot of effort to erase him from her mind. Fine, she had not been able to do so completely but she had been making progress! And now he was back here again. Drat!
Today he was dressed in a formal suit. The white colour of his shirt gave him an ultra-sexy look, making the colour of his eyes shine out. A shiver passed through her body as she met his eyes. Truthfully speaking, if she had the choice she’d rather stare at him than at any painting, he was quite handsome, pity about the manners though- the thought sneaked in from somewhere making Khushi blush.He looked at her in a manner she found disturbing to say the least.
Arnav looked at Khushi with an eyebrow raised at her blush, that polite smile one was supposed to give absent from his face. He scowled as he thought about the cruel jokes fate sometimes played on humans. It had taken him quite a while to get over his impulse to fly back to India once he’d left after their last meeting. Her face had haunted his dreams. Thinking about her had made him ache for many days until he had gotten sick of taking cold showers. He was sure he was in lust with her, he’d never felt it so strongly before. Something pulled him towards Khushi and he sure as hell didn’t wish to give into it without knowing what it was that attracted him so badly to her. He didn’t want to! He knew women and their tendencies to cling. Life had taught him a lesson long time ago.
He had thrown himself into work and in the evenings, dated beautiful women but nothing had captured his attention for more than a few hours. He had not been able to sleep with any of the willing dates he had taken out in the last two months, simply because Khushi’s face kept appearing in front of his eyes. He had snapped at everyone until one day his Anjali di had lost patience, asked him to get his act together and sort out whatever it was that was troubling him. Finally, he had applied immense amount of control on his libido and shut his feelings out. He had firmly decided to not stay at his uncle’s place on his Delhi visit so that he could stay away from Khushi Kumari Gupta. And now, despite all his precautions, they’d met again. Karma was a bitch for sure!
Khushi was wearing a blue dress that showed off her legs to perfection. She had long and slender legs that were encased in heels. She looked adorably young for her years, innocent and fresh. Of course that was the illusion she must want to create, he thought to himself.
“A man needs to relax now and then. I’m here with a friend who’s – she must be here somewhere.” Arnav dismissed his partner with a flick of his hand, encompassing the gallery.
Poor woman, thought Khushi, she may have come with the mighty Arnav but was nowhere to be seen. While she felt sorry for his partner a voice cooed his name, “Oh Arnav darling, you’ve got to see this! How I wish I could buy it!”
Khushi and Arnav both looked in the direction of the voice. A woman stood in killing high heels next to the painting that to Khushi’s mind was an abstract done by a child. She was dressed in a black dress that had no back and reached her knees. It was the kind of dress that curved to the entire length of her body, leaving nothing to imagination. She held out a hand towards Arnav and she cooed again, “Come here darling please. You have to see this! I insist!”
“Close your mouth Khushi Kumari Gupta. You don’t want to catch flies.” Arnav’s barely suppressed mirth came to the fore with his mocking drawl that made Khushi’s mouth close snap shut as she glared at him. “I had no idea you were into piranhas.”
His charming grin disarmed her glare as he said, “She’s good, isn’t she for an arm candy? What do you say? Should I praise that painting and make her happy?”
Khushi could barely keep her dislike for the woman to herself. She was not sure what it was about the woman that made her dislike her on the spot but she didn’t want Arnav to know it. Keeping dislike out of her voice, she tried to act nonchalant as she replied, “By all means, if you think that will sweeten her. To my simple mind, it looks like a dog pooped in there and a kid took to it with a stick.”
“Careful or you may make me laugh and ruin my repute in the society Khushi. I do need to come to Delhi from time to time you know.” He murmured, his eyes glinting with wicked laughter. “Personally I share your view then again, who am I to judge?”
Khushi felt a blush rise to her cheeks. She was being impertinent and as usual, had spoken her mind without thinking first. He was almost a stranger after all and may take offense! She said, “Forgive me, you’re right. I’m no one to judge. If you’ll excuse me, I need to get back to my friends. Enjoy your partner’s company Mr Raizada.”
“You’re here with more than one person?” Arnav’s raised his eyebrow again in question. She was starting to get annoyed with that eyebrow. She decided to act cool. Smiling, she said, “Yes, I’m here with more than one person; a single companion would bore me to death you see. If you’ll excuse me- good bye.”
She raised her head high in the air and walked off as Arnav nodded his bye and watch her go with his eyes narrowed, a tick in his jaw. All the way to her group, Khushi could feel the hair on the back of her neck tingling. She could feel him watching. She reached her group that was standing a little apart from others and smiled at them. “Are you guys done? Ich bin hungrig.”
One of the guys from the group laughed, “Du bist immer hungrig Khushi! Wir wissen das und sind nicht überraschend. (You’re always hungry Khushi. We know this and are not surprised.) There’s not a time when you’re not peckish sweetheart.”
Khushi gave him a wide smile, “Du hast das recht. (You have it right) But I can wait for a while. Tell me which painting did you like the best of all?”
While they discussed the paintings, Khushi turned back to where she had left Arnav. He had gone to the woman who had ooh-ed and aah-ed over that silly painting and was talking to her. He had his arm around her waist. She looked like a cat that had just been fed cream. Though the image made Khushi smile, seeing his arm around her waist made her feel uneasy. It made her want to go there and kick his nuts for keeping his arm around that woman’s waist. She dismissed the feeling by turning her back on him and walked off with her friends.
“So where are we planning to go? Do you guys wish to go back to Max Mueller Bhavan or somewhere else?” Khushi asked the group.
A girl from the group called Diksha chirped up, “Oh, how about we go to Delhi Haat? It would be fun.”
Khushi liked Diksha a lot. She was one of those happy-go-lucky girls who always had something nice to say about everyone. Her father was the owner of one of the most prestigious companies in India but she was unlike others, modest about her background.
Khushi smiled at Diksha, “Excellent idea Diksha. What say you guys?”
Sharad; the one who had spoken to Khushi earlier groaned, “No you guys, please not Delhi Haat. The moment we reach there, you girls will vanish into shops and we’ll hate to sit there waiting for you guys like fools. NO. Das passt bei mir nicht!
The girls made faces but agreed. Diksha shrugged her shoulders and took it philosophically. Khushi asked Sharad, “So where do you guys suggest we go?”
“How about going to the Club Bar? It’s not very far away from here.”
The idea seemed to get the general consensus and so they proceeded towards it. The Club Bar was a part of the Oberoi group of hotels. When they reached there, they were greeted with friendliness and courtesy. Most of them were known to the staff since they frequented the club quite often. Khushi smiled at one of the servers who blushed and got flustered, making the other girls giggle.
“Khushi, the guy is probably overwhelmed by your sunny smile. “ One of the girls said, giggling.
Khushi grinned and shrugged her shoulders, “And then they say we’re not polite. What’s a girl to do?”
Pratik, another guy who was a part of her group had his eyes on Khushi since long. He never left a chance to flirt with her, if he could. Now he slithered close to her chair and said, “He may not be able to absorb your brilliant smile Khushi but I always love it when you smile at me. You don’t do that often though.”
Khushi met his eyes and her smiled turned chilly, “Flirting with me doesn’t become you well Pratik since it leaves me absolutely cold. If you want a smile that is meant for you, you need to stop being so desperate. Ask the right girl and she may give you the right smile.”
Pratik’s smile wavered as he looked into Khushi’s cold eyes. He gave her a wan smile and turned towards the girl on the other side.
“Khushi, you’re too mean sometimes.” said Caroline who sat next to her and had heard the exchange.
“I don’t want him to get ideas, Caro. I don’t like him and putting him down gently doesn’t seem to work. This is the only way I can get through to him.” Khushi whispered in Caroline’s ears. As she started to move away, her eyes strayed across the table and clashed with Arnav’s amber ones. He met her eyes, raised a silent toast to her and then turned towards the woman he was with to smile and talk to her. She was the same woman who had been with him at the art gallery.
Khushi looked away and then back again. Something inside her rebelled at the idea of seeing him with another woman. The woman put her hands on Arnav’s hands that lay on the table and licked her lips.
“Ugh! Disgusting display of seduction.” Khushi muttered to herself, “What does she think he is- a dessert dish? Her hands almost look like claws to me. What does he even see in her, for heaven’s sake!”
“Whom are you talking about Khushi?” Caroline looked at Khushi, puzzled.
Khushi shook her head and said nothing. She couldn’t believe the rage that was developing inside her simply by looking at the pair of them sitting a few tables away from her. She decided to distract herself. She smiled at Sharad who sat across the table and said, “So Sharad, what are your plans for this evening? Partying hard as usual with your playboy lot?”
Sharad grinned at her and winked, “You know me well darling. If only you’d decide to accompany me to a restaurant one day, I’d leave all the partying aside.”
Khushi laughed genuinely this time. She was well aware that Sharad had no more interest in her than she had in him. He was in love with a nice girl and the families were about to fix his engagement to her. It was an old joke between them when she teased him about his playboy status and he flirted shamelessly but harmlessly with her.
“One of these days, I will say yes to you Sharad dahling, you’re going to go running off into the hills.” Khushi grinned at him. He leaned across the table and caught her hand that was lying on the table and said, “Try me sweetheart, I won’t run off. I promise!”
Khushi giggled and was about to slap his hand away when her gaze involuntarily skittered towards where Arnav was sitting. To her shock, she saw that he was glaring at her, his eyes spitting fire. His eyes moved and fixed where Sharad’s hand held Khushi’s on the table and his mouth tightened. He was not paying any attention to what the woman beside him was saying and she seemed to be put out by it. Thus Khushi found herself to be a prisoner of two pairs of hostile eyes. Aranv looked at her hand on the table again and clenched his fist.
Khushi’s eyes widened at this gesture from Arnav. What was his problem? She raised her eyes to him as if posing that question. He looked away uncomfortable and didn’t look back at her again. Confused Khushi averted her eyes from his table and looked at Sharad. “Er- well I -“ she had completely lost the track of the conversation.
Then she closed her eyes, mentally pulling herself away from what had just happened and remembered what she had been talking about with Sharad. “Well Sharad, we’ll just see when that happens.”
They didn’t stay long afterwards. While leaving Khushi looked at where Arnav was sitting, she found that he was totally focused on his companion. She was not sure why that upset her but it did. She left with the rest of the party.
It was much later that she had realized that it had been the first stirrings of jealousy that had upset her that evening. Something seemed to squeeze her heart tight at the memory of that evening. It was no use thinking about Arnav she thought had fallen in love with her and had been murderously jealous that day simply because Sharad had placed his hand over hers. He had later confessed that at the time he wanted to come to her table and punch Sharad for touching her.
The same Arnav who had declared such protective feelings towards her had not believed her and accused her of loose character when Shyam had almost raped her. Where had his protective instinct gone off then? He may have learnt the truth now and apologized but she could barely get over the hurt she had gone through. Khushi controlled a sob at the thought and berated herself for thinking of him. What good did it do thinking about him. He had apologized, and decided he wanted to take up from where they’d left off. When she’d rejected his plea and his advances, he had not even bothered to talk to her again and walked off. Her heart had wanted him to come back and beg for her forgiveness; she had wanted him to woo her but he had simply left. Since the day of Mallika’s engagement, he had not even called her once and apologized again or shown any signs of remorse.
A part of her mind mocked Khushi, “Why would he apologize again Khushi? Have you forgotten the humongous ego he carries around with him? He would have decided you were not worth the trouble and left off to pursue greener pastures. After all, he never loved you.”
Tears formed in her eyes and she wiped them away angrily. No, she would not cry, not for that unfeeling man. She should think of the task on hand for tomorrow. She was supposed to leave the house by seven for the camp. With grim determination, she left the garden and went up into her room.