“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.
Khushi sat waiting for Shyam at her favourite cafe that evening, while her mind still turned over Payal’s words. Why did Payal think that she, Khushi Gupta could ever fall in love with an arrogant arse like ASR?
She shook her head vehemently in denial, almost spilling coffee from the mug in her hand. The idea itself was mental. She could never fall for a man who had not even an ounce of humility in him. He was – he was-
“An espresso please, double shot. ” The deep dark voice raised the hair at the back of her neck. Trying to reject the voice in her head that said it knew who the voice belonged to, her eyes opened wide with shock as Arnav sat down in the chair next to her and grinned wolfishly.
“I had not thought of you as a coffee drinker, Khushi Gupta. You sound like you would drink gallons of tea, not coffee. “
Her eyes drank in his grinning face- he looked so devastatingly handsome when he smiled!- and then his words registered. More to the point, his presence by her side registered as she came out of her daze. Her doe eyes sparkled with annoyance.
Arnav saw the moment Khushi’s expression changed and his eyes lit up at the expectation of fireworks. He loved it when she looked ready to spit fire, the passion of her feelings plain on her face. He didn’t have long to wait.
Khushi’s chest swelled with quiet indignation. His eyes rested briefly on the heaving chest and then moved to her eyes. They were now furious at his blatant display of interest.
“How dare you! “Khushi spoke with her mouth barely moving. “What the hell are you doing here Mr Rothwell ? “
“I have been called here, by your – who is he anyway? Is he your associate or your friend?”
Khushi refused to calm down. With gritted teeth, she asked, “I have no idea what you’re talking about, but you had better leave. I have a meeting and I am not going to waste my energy talking to you. “
“Of course. ” Arnav was brisk, his eyes sharp. He accepted his cup of espresso with a polite smile at the waitress, that seemed to turn her into a silly mush. Fluttering her eyelashes, she asked him if he wanted any sugar.
“He is diabetic. No sugar, thank you.” Khushi spat dismissal at the waitress, who went away with a scowl on her face. Looking straight back at ASR, Khushi said, “Did you hear what I said Mr Rothwell Raizada? Leave.”
“You’re pretty adorable when you’re all fire like this. “Arnav observed amusedly, and then huskily added, “Most of the times, I can’t wait to burn with you.”
Khushi had no reply for such a statement. She sipped her coffee and pointedly looked at her watch. Arnav finished his mouthful of espresso and wiped his mouth with a serviette, calming informing her, “Don’t be mad at me. I didn’t come here myself. I was called by your photographer associate, Shyam. “
Her jaw dropping, Khushi retorted, “Shyam? My Shyam called you?”
“Your Shyam? ” Arnav’s eyes caught fire at her reference to Shyam as hers. He was annoyed.
His entire day had been a pain, so why should he be surprised if evening was the finale of all that he found irksome. He had decided to work from home this morning. His morning had begun with Anjali teasing La at the breakfast table. By noon, La had become decidedly panicky, coming to him with the request that he make things clear to his family. She was terrified they would marry her to him tomorrow if they had their way. Highly tickled by her imagination, Arnav had assured her nothing of the kind would happen. She ought to take the teasing in her stride and be indifferent. After all, she wanted the pretence of being his girlfriend to save her pride. But La had been unable to handle things. Post lunch, she had excused herself with the excuse of a prior meeting with an old friend and got out of the house.
Arnav had breathed a sigh of relief as Anjali had turned her attention to her own wedding matters, and he had finally been able to focus on his work. Things had just settled down, when Shyam called. He had been polite and straight to the point.
“Hi Alex, I would like to meet you this evening. Is it possible?” Shyam had asked politely.
Arnav had observed, “A bit sudden, isn’t it? “
Shyam had been just as adamant, “I’ll agree, it is a bit sudden but imperative. I would appreciate it if you could come to the India Cafe this evening. Khushi will also be there.”
Arnav had tensed at her name, and in a split second made his decision as an unsavoury thought had entered his head. His entire being had rebelled at the idea. As he remembered the thought that had prompted him to come here without a second’s hesitation, his annoyance at his own behaviour grew. He looked at Khushi and suddenly he said, “I might as well tell you since I know you will not tattle tale. I think it is time I got married.”
Khushi looked at him, going pale at his words. ASR planning to get married? To Whom? Or was he simply saying that to annoy her? Well, she wouldn’t give him the satisfaction. With mighty effort, she ignored his declaration and ploughed on, “Why has he called you here?” Then muttered to herself, ” Is he planning to warn you off in front of me or something? “
Arnav’s mind, that had seconds ago been amusing itself at Khushi’s instant reaction and efforts at non-reaction to his statement, was now outraged at this muttered suggestion. How could anyone warn him off Khushi? Khushi was — and he stopped the thought in his head. He liked annoying her, flirting with her. He had already admitted to wanting her badly. Khushi was his — The point was, she was not for Shyam.
Khushi, unaware of his internal debate continued muttering to herself, “I must talk to Shyam. He has been a bit odd lately, but I simply thought it was due to his preoccupation with–.”
“Still talk to yourself, do you? Old habits die hard. ” an amused Arnav drawled lazily, stretching in the chair. “I can’t wait to hear what milk toast man has to say to me.”
Khushi choked on her coffee “Milk toast man? You are calling Shyam a milk toast man?”
ASR shrugged his shoulders, “What else would I call a man who has been playing with fire recently, but is not able to take the heat?”
“What fire? What heat? What the hell are you blabbering on about ASR?” Khushi snapped, forgetting her intention to stay calm.
She drew back as Arnav leaned forward. Suddenly his eyes were drawn to the door and he took a sharp breath. Khushi saw the change in his face, saw the hardness enter into his eyes and looked at the door too.
Shyam and La had entered the cafe; Shyam with a grim look on his face and La with averting eyes. His gaze zeroed in on Arnav and Khushi and his jaw tightened. They all greeted each other politely. La sat between Khushi and Shyam, her gaze averted from Arnav. Khushi observed this and wondered.
Finally Arnav spoke, “So Jha, what is it you wanted to talk about?”
Shyam put down his coffee and looked at Khushi accusingly, saying “I just wanted to make sure we are all on the same page. You have not trusted me enough as a friend Khushi, or you would have confided your secret in me. ” He sighed deeply, unhappily. Before Khushi could ask him, he raised his hand, “I am not finished yet Khushi. Please don’t interrupt. “
Shyam looked at Arnav and a determination entered his eyes. He said, “La tells me your family spoke to her today about her marrying you. Now is the time Rothwell. You must tell them.”
Khushi’s eyes strayed to Arnav, shock evident in them. Without looking at her, Arnav kept his gaze on Shyam, “Tell them what, Jha?”
At this point, La interrupted both men, looking at Arnav with pleading eyes. His eyes hardened and she averted hers, saying “I am sorry, Alex. I wouldn’t have told Shyam about any of it, had he not told me about his intention to marry her.”
ASR being who he was, didn’t even blink at her declaration of innocence. He simply nodded at her and then looked back at Shyam.
A frustrated exhale, and then Shyam said, “You must tell your family the truth Rothwell. Tell them that La is not your girlfriend, but mine. You must tell them about your engagement to Khushi. “
Khushi was in a foul mood and it was the world’s fault, or so she told herself again and again. Had everyone simply gone crazy or was she slowly going mad? She kicked a small stone by the side of the road while pacing on the small section, near a auto rickshaw. The driver of the auto seemed to be busy in changing tyre. The stone wedged in her jutti and refused to be thrown off.
“Arrggh! Devi Maiyya! What is the matter with you ? Lagta hai humne aapko jo besan ke laddooeon ka prasad chadhaaya tha, woh aapko pasand nahi aaya hain. Why else would my day have been such a horrible one? First that La’ad Governor ruining my day, then Shyam acting weird over La and behaving like a fool and now, I am stranded here thanks to this Auto wale bhaiyaji who didn’t check his tyres prior to the journey! Why me Devi Maiyya? Why me?”
The auto rickshaw driver in question looked at her and then up and himself and muttered to himself, “Not you, I always get the crazy ones at the end of the day. Why me?”
Khushi looked at him and narrowed her eyes, “Did you say something bhaiyaji?”
The manic look in her eyes warned the auto driver- this was not the right time to vent out his own frustrations; instead he smiled and said, “I was just saying behanji that it is the end of the day and my auto has a flat tyre. I wish I could say it will be okay in five minutes but I don’t think so. I think it might be a better idea for you to catch another auto.”
Khushi smiled sweetly, too sweetly and said, “Do you see another auto rickshaw on this road right now Bhaiyaji? I wish I could say I will take another auto, but the sad fact is I am stuck here with you because there is no other auto. I am not walking alone on this road to find one! Would you let your sister walk alone at this time of the evening?”
The auto rickshaw driver straightened his shirt consciously and said, “Never! My sister wouldn’t be out of the house at this time anyway. ”
“Exactly!” Khushi went on, sitting down beside him and picking up the lug wrench he had left by the side. “I wouldn’t be out of the house at this hour either! I would be cosy at home, eating hot roti and aallu mutter subzi this evening. But what do employers know or understand about a common man’s plight?”
She lifted the wrench as if to hit the imaginary person by her side. The driver moved quickly out of the way and hurriedly started working while Khushi continued, “I could seriously bop him on the head with something like this, he is sooo irritating! ” She looked at the auto rickshaw driver and continued flailing the wrench about,
“Rich people don’t understand that we need to get home on time. Especially people like him- that horrible la’ad governer. I am late today because of all the extra work I have had to do. And then there was my friend who went crazy today simply because the girl he fancies, or I think he does, was with that idiot ASR. Why was she with him, who knows? But I had hoped La had better taste than that. Meh. ”
She stopped for a bit then while the driver kept on working, his hands sure of his tools. Khushi watched him and then said, “It is good to see that you know what you do so well. No wonder you are good at this. If only everyone was as good at their work as they should be. ”
The ramble continued for another ten minutes where Khushi told the driver how she had found the staff at a big hotel inefficient and unhelpful. She grumbled on about the hotel manager, the mehandi guy, the florist and finally came back again to La’ad Governer and how all today was his fault.
The auto rickshaw driver moved a little away from Khushi, alarmed and trying to not come in the way of her flailing about. ” Err–yes yes.. of course. This is almost done behanji. If you will give me the wrench, I’ll simply fix the tyre and tighten the nuts and bolts. Okay? ”
A relieved smile lit up Khushi’s face, instantly making the auto rickshaw driver feeling mean about his earlier thoughts. Of course the girl must be worried, this is after all not the safest of cities in the country. With a nod, Khushi got up and moved away, still talking, ” I am so hungry, but then I always am!”
Finally the auto rickshaw was ready for the drive. The driver dropped Khushi and received a warm smile and a thank you.
“You are a nice person bhaiya- the nicest person I have met today actually. Thank you.”
The auto rickshaw driver grinned broadly and waved a cheerio while he left her street, inwardly thinking, that this La’ad Governer who ever he was had made home in this poor girl’s brain. It didn’t look like he was going to get out any time soon from the way she kept on about him. His romantic soul sensed romance. The girl had no idea she fancied this “La’ad Governer” and how much of her thoughts were occupied by him.
A similar suspicion crept into Khushi’s mind before she went to bed. ASR seemed to be constantly in her head and she didn’t like it. The suspicion that her body was craving for another contact with him filled her eyes with horror. She quickly closed them, and her mind to such thoughts and tried to sleep. When sleep came to her, her dreams were full of Alexander Sebastian Rothwell and his eyes watching her walking away with Shyam.
“What will you do once I am married and gone? Do you not want to get married Khushi? ”
Payal’s words came back to her the next night while Khushi was brushing her hair before going to sleep. A frown came upon her face that had been scrubbed pink from her recent bath as she thought about it.
Khushi and Payal had gone out today not only to make Anjali’s wedding arrangements, but also to do a bit of window shopping for Payal’s own wedding. Khushi and her had decided that though the wedding won’t be any time too soon, they might need to start preparing for it. Khushi had offered her finances for buying Payal’s modest trousseau as a wedding gift. Emotional at such a gesture, Payal had accepted and also agreed to help Khushi with her current client assignment. This was the only way both the sisters could spend more time together and browse for her trousseau.
While they had been at a cafe, after a hectic afternoon of work on Anjali’s forthcoming functions, Payal had looked into her coffee thoughtfully.
“What is so engrossing about that cup of cappuccino Payalia?” Khushi had playfully asked, to encounter a serious look from Payal.
“I worry about you Khushi. You have been stressed since the last few days and I know it is not work that keeps you on the edge. You have stopped confiding in me.”
“My life is an open book honey! What is there to confide about?” Khushi tried to be as nonchalant as possible.
“Khushi, you know that is not true. I don’t know these days why you insist on being an ostrich, burying your head in the sand as soon as this topic rises. And lately, you have been a lot more agitated. I feel like I am so far away from you these days.” Payal concluded on a morose note.
Khushi immediately hugged her and said in a voice as loving as only an elder sister could have, ” Payalia, don’t you ever think that! I am always with you, there for you. ”
Payal cupped Khushi’s cheek and looked at her imploringly, “Yes but Khushi, I don’t think I am there for you. Or that you even need me. Talk to me please. Tell me what is going on.”
Khushi sighed loudly and let her sister go. Then, closing her eyes, she poured it out all while Payal listened. Khushi told her everything about ASR; his family, their professional history, their antagonism with each other, his previous personal association with her, her meeting him again and then as the client’s brother and their skirmishes. She skipped on the more personal aspects but she did mention some of it. Payal in the meanwhile, made tea for them both while she listened to her sister with total attention.
At the end of her tirade, Khushi said,
“So you see, I am stuck. I don’t know what to do, I don’t even know why I feel the way I do and I see no way out of this. ”
Payal sipped on her tea and paused for thought. Then she said, ” Is it possible there is more to this than just physical attraction towards each other? Do you think you are in love? ”
Khushi stared at her sister in horror, at the direct as well as implied meaning and felt totally outraged. “I AM NOT IN LOVE WITH THAT MAN!”
“What the hell is she doing here for God’s sake!”
Shyam’s outburst startled Khushi. They had been focused on his upcoming exhibition for a solid four hours, with Khushi helping him place the photos in the right order at the gallery. Hunger had made itself known, bringing them thus to Shyam’s favoured Yellow Brick Road, a Taj Vivanta restaurant in Khan Market.
Khushi didn’t mind really because she could eat her fill of Belgian waffles with blueberries, melted butter and maple syrup, though she would have been just as comfortable in a small South Indian restaurant not far away from the art gallery. Normally Shyam would feel better after eating YBR chicken- their signature dish but not today. Something had upset him; or rather someone.
Khushi looked up and about and her gaze rested on Laavanya, who was sitting some tables away, talking furiously with a man sitting opposite her. Khushi looked at Shyam carefully and hid a smile. If that was not the case of a jealous man, she didn’t know what it was! Shyam looked ready to commit murder, his gaze stone cold as it rested on Laavanya and the man she sat beside. He looked away and tried to focus on his food while Khushi tried to get a look of the man who was sitting with Laavanya. She couldn’t see his face but he looked tall and imposing from the back. Surely La was not indulging in a romance with this man, not when she was looking at Shyam with defiance and longing in her eyes. Khushi decided not to let Shyam know.
She turned to Shyam and said innocently, “Isn’t that the model you had been shouting at the last time- what was her name?”
“La.” Shyam bit out, and then added, “Never mind with them. I think we must get back to work Khushi.”
Khushi looked at him in horror. “And leave my waffles uneaten behind? Are you mad? I am not going anywhere and neither are you. Finish your chicken. ”
“You are so bossy at times! ” Shyam’s tone was forceful but not overly so. While looking at the couple, he took a bite our of his chicken like it was the head of the man. And choked on it the next instant. Khushi patted him on the back and said softly, “Don’t look now, but La is looking right at you. ”
“I don’t need to look. “Shyam said exasperatedly, and drank deeply from his glass of water, adding “We should discuss our relationship soon, don’t you think? It is time we announced our engagement Khushi. ”
Khushi sighed softly. Men were indeed stupid in the matters of heart and Shyam was fast becoming a prime example of such stupidity. She put her fork down reluctantly and looked directly into Shyam’s eyes. The right time to have her say had arrived.
“Shyam, I love you dearly- as a friend and I think you know that you do the same as far as I am concerned. You and I both know for certain that you are only being stubborn. We both know that I am not the right person. ”
“How do you know that? ” Shyam looked away from Khushi and at La, “How do you recognise the right person then?”
“You just know it- like you do. ” Khushi said softly, touching him on the shoulder and smiling at him. “Go to her when the time is right and tell her how you feel Shyam. I remember the earlier encounter with her and I got the feeling she has feelings for you too.”
Shyam held her hand fast in his and said, “No. That can’t be. We— it’s a long story but we can’t be right for each other; La and I. She is a total five letter word and I am not into such women.”
“Shyam!” Khushi rebuked him sharply. “Don’t be daft! And I know I don’t know what happened between you two but I don’t think she is the kind you describe.”
“Oh yes, she is. She is a tease. I have known her from when we were ye high and she was always the same. She would lavish all her attention at you one time and the next completely ignore you. She is like that. To think that our parents ever thought— She is a total bitch and a tease. She graduated but only because it was fashion. She models for fun, and because she gets to meet men to flirt with. She did the same in London. Went out with me and when she got bored, she didn’t really break it off. Simply went out with another man and splashed herself in the society pages as his arm candy. She might still be with him for all I know and playing behind his back. ” Shyam’s voice was bitter.
It grew sharp as he fisted his hands in anger after catching a look at the man’s face and exclaimed, “Well, I’ll be damned! What the hell is he doing here as well?”
The man in question took La’s hand in his own and kissed it while La looked at Shyam, openly defiant . Khushi was highly amused when Shyam broke into voluble curses under his breath. Khushi could only see La and not the man as he was seated in the other direction from her own chair. She had seen La’s reactions and drawn her own conclusions from when Shyam had looked at her smilingly, and held her hand. That stricken look and sadness in Laavanya’s face hadn’t been the reactions of a tease or a bitch of any sort. Those reactions had been of a woman in love, who knew she was in love and was suffering due to some misunderstanding between herself and her beloved. She opened her mouth to explain this to Shyam when the man sitting beside La turned his head and looked at Shyam with open disdain.
Khushi gasped audibly beside Shyam, turning the man’s gaze towards her. His eyes widened for a second before he looked back at Shyam, plain dislike open on his face now and then turned away from both of them, his back rigid. Khushi swallowed hard, her love of waffles forgotten. Shyam knew him?
When Shyam said, “Let’s get out of here. I feel stifled.”, she couldn’t agree fast enough.
Unfortunately for Shyam and Khushi, they had to pass through the table where La and her companion sat. Khushi couldn’t believe her eyes they were stopped by La. She put out a hand and touched Shyam’s arm while he passed her by. She was pale but determined as she spoke.
“Are you going to ignore us, Shyam?”
Shyam, to give him credit, smiled at La and said, “How did I ever forget that you hate being ignored ? ” Then he looked at the man who stood up and shook hands, “Jha. Long time no see. You plan to settle down in India? ”
His gaze flickered for a mini-second to Khushi standing beside Shyam, totally ignoring him and back to Shyam.
Shyam was too muddled in his own affairs to notice anything else. He shook hands firmly and said, “Rothwell. Didn’t know you were interested in my personal life. What business lured you to India ?”
“Sometimes it is the pleasure that lures you. I thought you knew that Jha.” Arnav replied back; his retort stiffening Shyam by Khushi’s side.
Utterly uncomfortable with the vibes floating around, Khushi refused to look at any of them despite his taunts, especially ignored ASR. Her brain was bouncing around in her head, a green flame flickering in her heart, a fire in her eyes. Her opinion of him at that moment was at an all time low. The scoundrel! The rat!!! What did the man think he was doing, playing around with La who clearly belonged with Shyam ! She wanted to slap some sense into Laavanya and ask her what madness had driven her in ASR’s company.
La looked at Khushi amidst all the tension in the air, and smiled genuinely, warmly for the first time in all these minutes. She came with her hands held forward and said, “Khushi, it is good to see you again.”
Khushi smiled uncertainly and accepted her hands in her own, giving them a gentle squeeze to tell La she sympathised with her. Out loud, she said, “La, it is good to see you too. ”
La looked at ASR and still smiling said, “Alex, this is Khushi. Khushi this is my –friend, Alex Rothwell.” After hesitating in her addressal for ASR, she then deliberately (or so it seemed to Khushi) put her hand in the crook of his arm and continued gaily, “Alex has come down for a few days. Do you know, he has never been around Delhi much. I thought I’d give him a tour of the city. I remembered you telling me about this place and thought we might start with our lunch here. ”
Shyam looked daggers at Khushi as if she had betrayed him.
Arnav Singh Raizada gave her a mocking smile, his eyebrow raised in question. His eyes went to her lips that trembled as his gaze touched them. He looked into her eyes again, as if silently asking “Should we acknowledge each other as strangers or tell them all about our history?Should we tell them how you melt in my arms when I kiss you?”
Khushi understood the question perfectly but refused to give him the satisfaction. However she couldn’t stop the blush that spread across her cheeks. She looked away from him. She wanted to slap that amused look off his face so bad! Taking a soft deep breath, she controlled herself and made do with a simple acknowledging nod. ASR gestured likewise, his eyes glinting with wicked amusement at Khushi.
Khushi turned her attention back to La and said still smiling, “Glad to have been of service though you could have started with Chandni Chowk; the place that brings both horror and awe to foreigners on their first visit. ”
La giggled softly and Khushi was hard put to smile back at La. She wanted to growl for some reason. She kept on telling herself it was not La’s fault; that La was only trying to make Shyam jealous after all. Secretly she was also horrified with herself for mean thoughts.
At this point, Arnav spoke up, addressing her bluntly, “Did La say this was my first visit Khushi? ”
Since the question was directed at her, Khushi had no choice but to look at him. His eyes burned her just as hers burned him. Her tone was polite but coldly dismissive, “I assumed that to be the case since La said you’re very familiar with the city, but perhaps you didn’t have anyone to escort you around. ”
Her tone plainly suggested that no one would have wanted to escort him. Shyam looked at her in astonishment. This was a different side to Khushi; she was being rude! Confused at her tone of voice, La looked at Khushi for a moment. To diffuse the situation, she said,
“I haven’t lost your phone number Khushi; I just thought I’d call you when you’re a little less busy what with–.” La said and then abruptly stopped and continued haltingly, “–with your –I mean Shyam’s exhibition and–”
“We need to leave. ” Shyam cut in suddenly. Catching Khushi’s hand in his, he nodded towards ASR and ignored Laavanya.
Khushi was annoyed, but kept quiet knowing this was not the time to berate her friend. She smiled apologetically at La and threw an icy look at ASR, who blandly gazed back, before following Shyam outside.
“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.
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. “