Warm tendrils of awareness unfurled around his mind. Arnav opened his eyes in a state of slight disorientation. Khushi had her back to him. He rose on his elbow to draw back the curtain of her hair and peer into her face, as if to confirm that last night had been real. She slept here…in his arms.
It had been same through the night. Sleep had played hide and seek like it had been its habit for such a long time. But last night, Arnav did not mind. He had been content to play the game; waking up after every few hours to make sure this was not a dream, the warmth, the contentment, the happiness – it was real. Last night he did not mind not being able to sleep. He sighed, falling back on the pillow and turning over to look at the side of her face.
Khushi had fallen asleep soon after he had brought her to the room and made her comfortable on the bed. When he rose to return to the couch, she had held his hand, shifting over, making space for him, asking him silently if he would stay with her. She did not have to ask twice. Khushi wanted him. After spending innumerable nights on the deck chair by the pool and the couch, the bed looked inviting. He immediately took the place and drew her into his arms. She had nuzzled into his neck and fallen asleep almost at once, leaving him to bask in her love. He had woken up repeatedly during the night, drawing her close whenever she shifted away in sleep, moving, adjusting himself so that they were both comfortable. When the nightmare had tried to draw her away, he had whispered the words of love in her ears. And she had relaxed.
So despite being a wakeful one, the night had been beautiful for Arnav. And now it was the start of a beautiful day. Sunlight crept through the curtains lighting the side of Khushi’s face. Arnav watched her as she slept, her soft breath fanning the pillow, her cheek gleaming under the light of the morning sun. Arnav ran the back of his fingers against it, taking in the softness.
The eyes fluttered as she felt the fleeting touch. She knew it at once. A smile dawned even before the eyes opened. Khushi turned around and nuzzled into his neck as she had done the night before. A sleepy ‘good morning,’ was whispered against the skin of his throat, setting the nerves tingling and raising goose bumps all over him. It was only then that Arnav realized that he had been holding his breath. He had been worried if she would remember something – another ugly memory would raise its head to shatter the fragile beauty of the present. It would always be like this till you tell her, his mind sent a reluctant warning, a warning that was ignored in lazy warmth of the present.
‘Good morning, Khushi,’ he whispered in the shell of her ear. She purred, stretching her body lazily his arms. Desire unfurled in the pit of the stomach. With a groan, Arnav shifted slightly, hiding his body’s reaction. Too soon for all that. But he could not resist rubbing his face against hers. Eyes closed, feeling her like a blind man.
‘Oooo…you are prickly,’ Khushi tried to thrust him away. He would not allow it. ‘Arnavji, please.’
‘Arnav,’ he said, the voice was muffled against the side of her face.
‘Arnav. Call me Arnav.’
Khushi was quiet. He raised his head to find her waiting for him. ‘Arnav,’ she whispered looking into his eyes. With a growl, he once again returned to his ministrations. His hands running over her back.
‘Arnav,’ Khushi breathed, his hands and lips arousing strangest of sensations.
‘What the..’ Arnav’s hand stilled as Hariprakash’s voice penetrated the haze of desire. It was accompanied by a discrete knock the door. ‘Akash bhaiyaa has asked me to remind you….about the meeting at nine.’
Arnav raised his head. The dismay on his face made her giggle. She tried to pull herself away as Arnav’s arms tightened. ‘Tell Jeejaji that he is getting ready, Hari Prakashji,’ she called out.
‘Ji Khushi bhabhi’ HP left. Khushi pulled herself away with a mischievous smile as Arnav slumped into the bed trying to gather control.
‘Khushi,’ he called out as she prepared to leave the room. ‘Hamari baat abhi khatam nahi hui hai.’
Where was she? It had been a long day. The meeting in the morning had dragged on. The rest of the day had gone into finalizing the details of the deal. It was only an hour ago that Akash and Arnav had been able to seal it in favour of AR Designs. It had been a hard and tiring but a fulfilling day. Once upon a time it would have given the two brothers a new high to be on the top of their business. Today it only made them restless to rush home.
And now as Payal served them dinner, Arnav waited for Khushi to join them.
‘Khushi is making kheer,’ Payal looked at Arnav before putting down the casserole. ‘I will just go and help her.’ she said to no one in particular before heading to the kitchen.
Soon the two sisters were back- Payal carrying a large bowl and Khushi, a smaller one. Arnav took in his fill of her as she smiled at him….a soft smile that lingered in her eyes just for him. She put the bowl next to his plate. ‘Here is your kheer, Arnavji. Sugarfree.’
Arnav half listened to her, watching her as she took her seat next to him, on his left. Nani coughed discretely. Arnav noticed it rather vaguely as he watched Khushi looking around self consciously. Anjili and Payal were suppressing their smiles.
‘Kheer Arnavji,’ Khushi said, drawing his attention to the bowl next to it plate.
‘Thank you, khushi,’ he murmured as he turned back to the table.
Khushi bent over her plate, avoiding Jeeji and Anjali Di’s teasing grin. But before she could raise her hand to the plate, she found it clasped strongly in his warm one. Khushi shot a look at Arnav. He was eating nonchalantly – as if it was the habit, the most normal thing in the world to hold her hand under the table while the entire family was eating together. Khushi shot a startled look around the table. Nobody had noticed them. She tried to withdraw her hand. His grip tightened and her bangles jingled in the effort. Arnav went on eating with his right hand as if there was nothing out of line.
‘What is it, Khushi bititya? Why aren’t you eating?’ Nani asked from the head of the table.
Everyone looked at her questioningly. And much to her irritation, everyone included the infuriating man sitting next to her – the laad governor who still held her hand under the table.
‘I..I am …I am eating.’ Khushi quickly tore the chapatti with her left hand clumsily.
‘Arrey, Khushi why are you eating with your left hand?’ it was Anjili Di
Once again she was the target of everyone’s gaze.
‘Yes, Khushi. Why are you eating with left hand today? Are you okay?’ Arnav asked, his voice all concern, its seriousness belying the twinkle in his eyes as if – as if he did not hold her hand tightly under the table.
‘Because my right arm is tired,’ she shot back irritatedly. ‘Tired of making sugarfree kheer for…for you!’ she said through clenched teeth.
‘Then you should not exert yourself so much. Stay in bed tomorrow.’ He said in a serious ASR voice, all the while his fingers threaded to hers. Khushi looked around in a huff. Di and jeeji looked as if they were going to burst. Arnav went on eating nonchalantly.
Khushi told Nanheji about her days in Sheesh Mahal. What a fantastic cook she was? How she had helped keep Arnavji’s hotel afloat though the senior management did not know what to do? Khushi shot a look at the profile of her husband. His jaw clenched. ‘Devi Maiya, how sweet the revenge tasted…laad governor, acting all innocent holding my hand under the table. Making a fool of me.’ Khushi was all out to pay her husband in kind.
‘Nanheji, I can’t tell you. The hotel only had the food going for it. It was in shambles,’ she said loudly, waving her hands as if demonstrating how the hotel would have fallen down had she not propped it up with food.
‘Of course.’ Arnav could no longer resist the dig. ‘Khushi was the only one holding it together.’
‘Exactly, see what I told you. Nanheji,’ Khushi smiled sweetly at Arnav before turning to NK. NK’s head whipped back from Arnav to Khushi, as if he was watching a tennis match and Khushi now fielded the ball in her court. ‘Even Arnavji has to admit it. He could not manage Sheesh Mahal of Lucknow.’
‘And people only remember it for the sweets Khushi made. She would have soon turned it from a hotel to a halwai ki dukaan.’
‘What do you mean? Halwai ki dukaan!’ Khushi shot up in anger. Her knee cracked and pain brought her down. Arnav was by her side in a blink. ‘Careful, Khushi.’ He helped her sit coming down next to her, massaging the knee worriedly. ‘Does it hurt?’
Khushi shook her head watching her husband. ‘Doctor said it would be better after the surgery. Just in two days.’ He was saying as he tried to rub away the pain.
‘Unbelievable,’ NK muttered as he watched Khushi and Arnav.
‘Why did you not let me sit with, Nanheji? We have met after such a long time,’ came the voice from inside the bathroom door.
‘You needed to rest. You were tired.’ He made himself comfortable and then turned on his stomach, eagerly looking towards the bathroom door, waiting.
‘I was not.’
‘You said you were tired after making kheer.’
‘That was because you were holding my hand.’
‘Then why did you lie? You should have told me. I would have left your hand.’
‘As if I could do that with the whole family watching. Anyway, I know why you did not want me to spend time with Nanheji,’ she stepped out of the bathroom.
‘Because you are jealous of him.’
‘What nonsense. I am not jealous of NK!’
‘I am not!’
‘Then why did you come after us on the day of the havan.’
‘You remember? Jeeji’s havan? The day you thought I had an accident and I….’
‘Khushi…don’t….,’ he called out softly.
She was frowning trying to place the memory in her mind.
‘Khushi, Come here.’
She put down her day clothes in the basket and sat at the edge of the bed.
‘Don’t talk about that time. Don’t talk about accidents,’ He murmured.
Jaanti ho kitna darr gaya tha mein…I thought I had lost you.
I looked for you all over Delhi.
I cannot live without you…never.
Khushi turned around to hold him close.
Arnav rushed up the steps excitedly. He had come home early. He stepped gingerly into the room. It was dark. Carefully he took off the blazer, taking out the single red rose that he had got for her, along with a small velvet box. Putting it in his tourser pocket, Arnav looked around.
His eyes were drawn to the poolside. Khushi stood there with her eyes fixed on the sky. Arnav hurried ahead eagerly. But something in her stance made him wary.
‘Khushi,’ he called out as he stepped through the French doors.
She turned towards him and tried to smile. It did not work. Something was worrying her. Arnav stepped forward holding out the red bloom, awkwardly and hesitantly. It was a rare gesture for him, but he wanted to bring her flowers, stars, anything that would make her smile. So he stood there holding out the flower, not knowing what else went along with the gesture. Should he go down on his knees….
Khushi was surprised. Indeed such sweetness did not go with the man. He was doing all this for her. It warmed her heart making her forget the things that were worrying her a moment ago. She stepped forward, taking the flower, leaning her head on his shoulder as her arms went around his waist.
Arnav breathed a sigh of contentment. This is what he wanted …for the rest of his life. The little box was still in his pocket. But before that there was something else. She had been worried about something.
‘What happened, Khushi?’
Khushi shook her head and leaned more into him. He bent to peer into her face. She shook her head avoiding looking into his eyes.
‘Talk to me, Khushi?’
‘I…I…Hari Praksash ji was cleaning the shelves under the almirah and …’
‘I used to sleep near the poolside…didn’t I? You would not let me in room…isn’t it?’
Arnav was dumbstruck. The excitement dispersed in dread.
‘Isn’t it? The matteress was in the shelf. ….why? You were angry, weren’t you? Because of your jeejaji?’
‘I am sorry,’ that was all he could say. How inadequate the words sounded.
‘But you said you loved me?’
‘I do…I always did.’ He showered her face with kisses trying to make her forget, trying to apologise – but how could he…he did not have words, no words would be enough…and he had such a spare store. ‘Khushi, please. Believe me. I always loved you.’
‘So much that you left me here? To sleep outside the room?’ She pushed him away. Arnav wouldn’t let her go. He gathered her resisting form in his arms, trying to soothe her, make her stay and listen.
‘I am sorry. I was a monster, Khushi. But I have changed. Let me…give me a chance. Never again….’
A sound from the door interrupted them. Payal was looking for Khushi. It was time for dinner. Khushi pushed him away more forcefully as she turned to go out and there was little Arnav could do to stop Khushi. As she left the room, his hand went to the little box in his pocket. The sharp edges poked his palm.
For an entire day, he tried to get her alone and talk to her. But she would not listen. Khushi looked through him blankly as if he wasn’t there. The night was painful, especially after the sensous warmth of the previous nights. She lay in her corner. When he tried to talk, she told him she was sleepy and turned away. And like a fool that he was, he stalked out of the room. Only when he was in the car did he realize how pointless the gesture was. He was supposed to convince her that he was a changed man, that he loved her….not leave her in a sulk.
He rushed back in a half an hour only to find her sleeping on the recliner. The big empty cold bed waited for him. He ignored it, walking to the deck chair by the pool.
Khushi woke to the light tentative touch on her forehead. Instinctively she knew it was Arnav. She was supposed to be angry but she had missed him. So Khushi lay with her eyes closed, reveling in his soft touch on her temple. He was touching the scarred tissue.
‘It’s bad, isn’t it? ’ Khushi could not help asking. He must compare her with how she was before the accident. The thought worried her often.
‘What?’ He looked at her and then the scar he had been rubbing absently. ‘No. It is just… Khushi, would you…after your leg…would like to go for …for a cosmetic surgery to remove this…’
Khushi was quiet for a moment before she withdrew silently. Arnav felt sharp sense of loss as he watched her rise and slowly move her knee to the ground.
‘I did not realize it was that repulsive.’
‘No,’ he immediately caught her hand. She tried to tug it free. ‘I did not mean that Khushi. I…its just that…that it is a reminder of that accident. I want to erase it all…all the past.’ She did not reply. ‘Forget it, Khushi. It does not matter to me. Seriously.’
Khushi nodded before trying to get up. She would still not meet his eyes. Arnav held her back. He could not take the coldness anymore.
‘Khushi, please. Please help me,’ he held her hands tightly, trying to find words to bridge the distance again….heartfelt, honest words that would help him. ‘I am not proud of the past. You should know that by now. You are right – about making you sleep outside, about the cruel words. I am ashamed….downright ashamed of the monster I was. It has been difficult to live with myself, with this anger and hate that I feel for myself. But loving you, in all honesty, making you happy…that is the only way I can redeem myself. Don’t take that away from me.’
Khushi sat listening to him, once again his earnest words breaking down the barriers she had been erecting.
‘There are many, many cruel memories…they trouble me so much. And I am so afraid that you will remember them too…and turn away from me. … ‘ he spoke as if he was talking to himself, letting out his worries and insecurities, looking at their joint hands but hardly aware of her presence. No matter how much I try, it is never going to be enough. I fear that you would never belief me completelY.’
Arnav stopped abruptly as if the thought was too painful to contemplate. Khushi could no longer watch him hurting. She was still angry. But in face of his confession, there was little she could do to stop her heart from overflowing with tenderness for the man.
‘I will…one day.’ She whispered softly drawing his gaze. ‘I am angry. I cannot deny that. These memories come to me. They upset me. But don’t give up,’ she chuckled trying to lighten the moment. Khushi bent to touch her forehead with hers. ‘They will fade one day. One day these things will not matter. Only we will matter, you and me.’
Arnav had been home since the evening. He needed time to prepare for the plan. Di was supposed to keep Khushi busy…so Payal and Di had taken Khushi for some shopping. Now he stood at the poolside, surveying his handiwork before walking out and closing the room firmly behind him. Soon the ladies would be back. He waited impatiently for the evening to get over, for the time they could shut out the world and be together.
Khushi excused herself as soon as she could. She was tired after the trip to the market. And she knew Arnav had something in mind. He had been restless the entire evening and then as soon as the dinner was over, he had gone to the room.
As soon as she stepped, the spread of colours and lights in the dark corner of the poolside drew her. The darkness was lit with softly shimmering lights. A mattress spread along the side. But there were flowers, the red ones like the rose he had brought for her two nights ago. Arnav sat there working on his laptop. He kept it aside as soon as felt her presence. His hand reached out for the small red box at his side. As awkwardly and hesitantly as he had given her the flower, he held it out for her. A beautiful ring, a small glittering star of diamonds.
Khushi looked at the ring and then the small mark on her finger. A man, an angry one, in a temple, running after her all the way from his home because she had been hurt, just to bandage her finger….his eyes shouting his concern, his care despite his angry words.
She knelt down beside him.
‘Khushi, I want that day to be today,’ Arnav cleared his throat, trying to remember the words he had been rehearsing the entire day. ‘You know, the day you talked about. When…nothing, nothing matters, except you and me. I know you…you don’t…., Khushi, I know I am very impatient. But I can’t wait for that day….’ He tried to find words but faltered, they were so inadequate for all that he wanted to say. ‘I want that day today Khushi.’ Arnav finished unable to say anything else, unable to think of anything else.
‘Today is that day, Arnavji. Everyday is that day.’ Khushi threw herself in his arms pushing him down on the mattress, crushing the flowers and blowing off candles.
Really sorry for taking so long. This one was difficult to write. I was constantly afraid of going over the board with romance. In case that has happened, do let me know. Constructive criticism (and deconstructive as well) — all is welcome. 🙂