A quick offer of a download of 1857 Dust of Ages – The Forgotten Tale. This is the first volume of the five-volume series – available free for KINDLE KDP SELECT members and for a nominal and to others. Would be great to have your feedback.
And if interested, I would like some of you to give me feedback for another historical romance I am writing. Try this one first, and if you feel you want more, write to me. Will email you the new story and wait for your reviews.
Here is the pdf copy, click on the file and it will download
And now, moving to Chandrataal 🙂
The din of the downpour did nothing to ease the silence in the car. The grim line of Arnav’s mouth told Khushi that his meeting hadn’t been better than hers with her grandfather. But at least she had made friends with Shlok. Arnav, it seemed had no such consolation. The frown gathered as he navigated the curvaceous road. They had just started the ascending the mountains and Arnav was driving cautiously. But the rain was relentless.
‘We might have to stop if this continuous,’ he muttered.
Khushi nodded and tried to look out. The rain had a cast a heavy curtain between them and the surroundings. The rhythmic movement of the wiper cleared the windscreen for a flash of second before the water blurred it once again.
His stiff leg movement drew her attention. ‘Are you ok?’ she asked hesitantly, not sure of his mood. ‘Is you leg hurting?’
‘What if it is?’ he snapped. ‘Can you drive?’
‘No, I am sure God has bestowed this divine blessing only on you.’ Khushi came back immediately offended by his rudeness. She turned away, refusing to speak further. What was with the man? She was just being polite.
Much to her surprise she heard a soft chuckle and turned back immediately. A reluctant smile on the corner of his mouth had replaced the grimness. He was laughing at her. With a huff, she turned back to the window which was opaque with water.
‘I asked for it, didn’t I?’ he said after a few seconds.
Khushi turned to look at him. The frown had almost cleared. He cast a swift glance at her before peering through the rain to keep driving.
‘Yes, you did.’ Khushi was still chaffing.
‘I didn’t mean it,’ he said.
That was his apology. Not that it mattered to her, Khushi told herslef and nodded.
‘So how was the meeting…with your distant relatives? I saw the young boy had taken a light to you.’
‘Young boy?’ Khushi was puzzled till she realized he was talking about Shlok. ‘Oh, you mean the one in the café. He is my very distant cousin. We just met and were catching up.’
It was Arnav’s turn to nod. ‘You said it was your mother’s family. How long have they been here? What exactly is the nature of the relationship? You must ask Anjili, she knows most of the people of the town.’
‘Of course. And how was your meeting? I take it that yours did not go well.’ Khushi tried to divert the attention. She did not want to him pondering over her family in Chandernagar.
Arnav shrugged. ‘There is no way it could have gone better.’ He muttered before going silent again. Khushi waited for a few minutes before accepting his reluctance to talk about it.
The rain continued unabated as the darkness descended on the hills. Khushi held her breath at each turn as Arnav leaned forward, his hands tight on the steering wheel. Some tense minutes tricked. ‘There is an emergency parking somewhere ahead,’ Arnav murmured. ‘We will stop for a while.’
‘Ok,’ Khushi nodded.
‘There it is,’ Arnav eased the car in the emergency parking away from the road and switched off the engine. ‘It’s a crazy night.’
‘We are quite some way off,’ Khushi peered from the window. A few blurred globes of light dotted the landscape indicated the road that curved around the hills going towards Chandertaal.
‘About an hour away. Anjili would have had to stay back in the mansion. We must message her,’ He drew out his phone.
‘Oops,’ Khushi groaned as the street lights went off and the hillside plunged into darkness.
‘And that was the only thing left to go wrong,’ Arnav shook his head. In the glow of the phone, Khushi saw his handsome mouth purse up once again. He switched the phone off and the darkness reigned in the car. It felt strange, sitting in such close proximity with him, isolated from the rest of the world.
‘Is the leg ok? Answer me and then you can snap my head later.’ Khushi rushed in as he opened his mouth to speak.
‘I wasn’t going to,’ he chuckled at her words. ‘A little stiff. Tomorrow its going to be painful. The cold air of the mountains is not good.’
Khushi nodded a little more at ease at his willingness to talk. ‘Are you always this touchy about it?’
‘Usually, that is the thing people notice,’ he pursed his lips as if remembering some of those unpleasant experiences. ‘And then their whole attitude is shaped by my injury. Even Anjali, Sheetal…do you know how irritating it is – to be defined by your Disability?’
‘Disability? You don’t look disabled in any way….just..’
‘Stop words in my mouth. Just a weakness….which makes you more human, in a way. Otherwise, you are intimidating.
‘Intimidating? You find me scary? I thought nothing would ever scare Ms. Khushi Gupta!’
‘Why is that?’ she asked.
‘Look at you, coming here and living among strangers just for the love of old paintings, trying to meet old unfriendly relatives who didn’t exactly welcome you, and now here….sitting with a relatively short acquaintance in a car, in the darkest of night with no one for miles – nothing scares you, does it?’
‘It does when you talk about it like,’ she laughed. ‘But we were talking about you. Why is it so offensive when I ask you about your injury?’
‘How would it feel to be reduced to nothing but your handicap?’
‘Stop saying that. As I said, on you, it doesn’t seem like a handicap, just a weakness. So I don’t think there should be any special concessions for you on that account.
Even in the darkness, she could see the half-smile with which he watched her. ‘You must tell that to Anjili then. She is a close friend of yours, isn’t she?’
‘She is. But I don’t think it would right on my part to interfere in the relationship between siblings. Why don’t you tell her yourself? And Sheetal? Even Raghav?’
‘You think I haven’t tried? Ah, I remember. You thought I like being waited on hand and foot.’
Khushi giggled. ‘You never gave an impression you were suffering it.’
‘If I did, they would be hurt. So I let them. Anjili and I meet after such lengths of time. SO I let her be. If that makes her happy then…’ he leaned back.
‘What a coconut you are?’
His head swerved in her direction. ‘Coconut?’
‘All that hard shell, and mushy inside. Don’t deny…’ she forestalled him once again. ‘I have seen you with the twins. You are like putty in their hands.’
He guffawed. ‘They are adorable. I wish…I wish I could spend more time with them.’
‘Then why don’t you? Is it so busy in Delhi that it took three years to visit?’
There was silence for some time and Khushi thought she had overstepped her limit. There was something strange in the atmosphere. The rain had slowed down to a drizzle. Soon it would stop. But she knew they shouldn’t risk the road in the darkness. They would have to wait either for the lamps on the road to light up once again or, in all probablity, for the dawn.
The forced proximity created an intimate atmosphere that had wiped out their earlier hostilities. Sharing confidences seemed natural.
‘Three years…it has been that long. Still, this place is the same as ever…hard to believe that it will no longer be my home in a few weeks.’
Khushi was silent. ‘You love it very much.’ She murmured in the silence, her heart aching at the longing in his voice. ‘Then why don’t you buy it from the trust.’
‘I tried. Earlier, when…when I read Baba’s will, I didn’t want to. Anjili must have told you. It felt like…like buying my way into my own house, into the affections of the only parent figure I knew. But now…now I feel desperate. I want this house. And so does Anjili. But…’
‘The trust doesn’t want to sell it. They…they have come up with the idea of turning it into a heritage resort of sorts. Think, all those strangers in Chandrataal, the house of our childhood. But you can be happy. I am sure they will appreciate your paintings more than me.’
‘You hate them, don’t you?’
‘I used to be fascinated with them. When I was a boy I would stand for a long time in that gallery, trying to copy those poses, wondering how my portrait would look there, where could I ask baba to put mine. Now all those paintings tell me that I never belonged to there. I am not one of them.’
Khushi sighed. There was nothing she could do. Once again she thought about Arvind Malik, that man who had created this tangled mess of relationships. She, the forgotten daughter and he, the adopted son – and yet, neither of them belonged to him. What was Malik thinking when he bequeathed the house to her and the grounds and estate to him.
‘Why did he do that?’ Arnav echoed his thoughts. ‘Even now, it hurts so badly. An anonymous girl, a child who never came to him, never spent nights on the bedside as he died…’
‘She didn’t know…perhaps.’ Khushi offered tentatively, her heart beating at his words. ‘Did he…was he ill for a long time?’
‘For months, he was bedridden. But even before that. Whatever the doctors say, he died of a broken heart and …endless guilt for something that wasn’t his fault eve. The longing for that woman and child who never looked back – it was like a poison in his blood. And nothing, nothing we could do, would ever fulfill it. It was so hard to see him look for them for all those years. I tried so hard to stop him. To tell him that we…we would be there for him. So did Anijili before…before she gave up. For us, he was the only parent, the father whom we loved with all our heart and soul. But we…we were never enough for him. Just two orphans he picked from the roadside.’
‘No. No don’t say that. I am sure he loved you. He left everything to you – the business, other things. I am sure he saw you as his son.’
‘But he took away our home. In the end, I am homeless again…no, not literally,’ he said quickly as she opened her mouth to speak. ‘I have a flat in Delhi. But this…this is home and it wouldn’t be for us in four weeks.’
‘You hate that girl, don’t you?’
‘Yes,’ he hissed. ‘From the bottom of my soul, I do. If it wasn’t for her, Baba would have truly adopted us as his children. I hate her for what she did to him, to us.’
Words rushed to her mouth. Sad words to defend herself, trying to put things straight. She too had belonged nowhere. Despite the love of her stepfamily, she felt like an outsider. She too had been looking for ways and means to meet Arvind Malik. That she didn’t care about the house. She would have been happy to know the man who had sired her.
But it was too late. The truth would destroy this fragile bond once more. The past, dead relationship had no place in the present. She would soon finish her work and move on. What was the use of interfering?
‘But you must find a way to convince the trust,’ she said. ‘I am sure….’
‘I am trying. But they seem to have made up their mind. Even money wouldn’t budge them. They think it would be a profitable resort. They told me they would use the money for their NGO for orphan children and handicaps. I am supposed to give in on that account – orphans and handicaps – who is supposed to know more about their hardships that me….’ he grimaced.
‘Oh. So you…you met them today.’
He nodded. So that was the reason for his bad mood. There was nothing she could say or do, except come out as the girl in question and hand over the house. The way he felt about the girl he didn’t even know, she doubted he would take kindly to her revelations.
Once again silence reigned in the car as they stared out, both of them lost in thought. It was broken by a rumbling sound coming from her stomach. Khushi immediately puts her hands around her tummy and turned to him. Arnav was grinning openly, ready to laugh. ‘What? I am hungry. I haven’t eaten since the morning, except that ice-cream with Shlok.’
‘So your unfriendly old relatives didn’t even offer food. Who are they, Khushi? I don’t like the sound of them.’
‘Neither do. But at the moment, I can think of nothing but food.’
‘then we must do something, shouldn’t we? The bag on the back seat…take that, it has some kachoris.’
‘Got them for Sheetal. She really likes this shop in Chandernagar and their kachoris. Bu I suppose they were meant for you.’
Khushi felt a pang of annoyance. He had bought them for Sheetal and in other circumstances, she wouldn’t have touched those kachoris. But another rumble in her stomach had her reaching for the enticing packet. She opened the packet and smelled the food. It was cold. Yet her mouth watered.
‘Er…shall we go out and eat,’ Arnav said. ‘I could do with some stretching. It has stopped raining and …’ Khushi was out even before he finished speaking. With another grin and shaking his head, he adjusted his walking stick and stepped out.
Khushi was out even before he finished speaking. With another grin and shaking his head, he adjusted his walking stick and stepped out.
It was cold. The rain-laden air of the mountain tingled on the skin sending a shiver down the spine. Khushi rubbed her arms, looking for a dry place on the car to keep the food.
‘There,’ Arnav cleaned his side of the bonnet before offering her the cleaning cloth he had brought out with him. Khushi finished wiping the bonnet as he spread the food and brought out a flask off water. ‘You can sit on the car.’
‘So can you,’ Khushi climbed up the bonnet of the SUV and made space for him. He took his time, adjusting the walking stick and his leg before settling down beside her with food between them.
The cold kachoris were perhaps the tastiest that Khushi had tasted in a long time. Arnav must have been as hungry, for in no time, they had finished the kachoris he had brought for Sheetal.
‘So, you do this often? Buying stuff for Sheetal?’ Khushi asked taking the flask of water he offered.
He pounced on the awkwardness of her words. ‘What might you be asking, Ms. Gupta? About our relationship?’
Khushi snorted. ‘You wish!’
‘Then to put your mind at ease, yes, I do get things for Sheetal. She…she, we grew up together. Malti aunty is like a mother, and Sheetal, for me…for me she is like Anjili.’
He chuckled once again. ‘Do I detect a note of happiness there?’
Khushi rolled her eyes. ‘Just a warning, though it’s not my place and I am risking your sharp tongue, but you need to tell that to Sheetal. She…I think, she….she is…’
‘I know. Anjili warned me a long time back. I had thought that these three years would have put an end to her…her infatuation. It isn’t anything else, you know. Like Anjili, she likes to look after me. It would get over.’
Khushi doubted that, but as she said it wasn’t her place. They cleared the food and leaned back against the windscreen. With the rain over, the sliver of moon had emerged between the clouds. Nascent moonlight lit the shadows in the darkness.
‘So does that rest your mind about Sheetal,’ he egged her.
Khushi refused to answer, yet a smile crept on her mouth.
‘What no reply? That’s not like you, Ms. Gupta.’
‘I am kind of speechless. Wondering if the same nasty man who bit my head off every time he saw me, is now trying to flirt with me.’
‘And what if I am? What other entertainments can I offer?’
‘Sing for me.’
He laughed out loud. Khushi was startled for a moment at the rumbling soft sound and then she was giggling. ‘Then you should try working harder on your charms, you know,’ he told her.
‘Just trying my luck.’ Khushi settled back once again. A gust of cold wind blew across the mountains, its sharpness penetrating through the light sweater she had worn in the morning. Khushi shivered.
‘Perhaps we should sit inside. Shouldn’t catch cold tomorrow.’ Arnav slid off the bonnet.
Khushi looked up, stretching her arms as if reaching towards the moon. Her body arched as the wind played with her hair. The moonlight lit her features as she felt the cold wind on her face. She opened her eyes and looked around the mountains, trying the imprint the night on her mind. She knew she would never forget these strange exhilarating hours as long as she lived. Her eyes fell on the man standing near the car. Arnav leaned slightly on the bonnet, his eyes fixed on her with a strange glittering intensity, so different from the once over that he had given her when they had met that first night. His eyes took in her stretched hands, her taut arching body, the moonwashed face. Khushi put her hands down at once and smiled sheepishly. As slid downwards on the bonnet, his hands reached to hold her by the waist. The warmth from his hands penetrated her clothes. She felt his body heat closely in the cold of the night. Suddenly she had this urge to push aside the lapels of the jacket he had worn, to burrow deeply into the chest. It must have shown on her face, for his hands tightened, tugging her closer. She slid down the bonnet, her body rubbing against his – a pleasant warm friction that neither of them wanted to let go. They stood close for a few minutes as Khushi felt his warm breath rustle her hair. She felt the goosebumps on her skin and wondered if was just the cold. They were so close, his hands still hold her around her waist. She raised her head and was caught in a whirlpool of a gaze that burned through the darkness of the night. Their breaths mingled and Khushi’s eyes fluttered close and she saw his gaze slipping to her mouth.
Khushi put her hands down at once and smiled sheepishly. As slid down, his hands reached to hold her by the waist. she felt the warmth of his palms right through her clothes. His body heat enveloped her dispelling the cold of the night. Suddenly she had this urge to push aside the lapels of the jacket he had worn, and burrow deeply into his chest. It must have shown in her face, for his hands tightened, tugging her closer. She slid down the bonnet, her body rubbing against his creating a pleasant warm friction that neither of them wanted to let go. They stood close for a few minutes as Khushi felt his breath rustle her hair. She felt the goosebumps on her skin and wondered if was just the cold. They were so close, his hands holding her around her waist. Khushi raised her head and was caught in a whirlpool of a gaze that burned through the darkness of the night. Their breaths mingled and Khushi’s eyes fluttered close and she saw his gaze slipping to her mouth.
‘We…?’ His husky voice washed over her.
‘We are …cold.’ she whispered still caught in the gaze, her body straining towards his warmth.
‘Are we? There is a blanket in the boot.’ He whispered back making no effort to move.
‘Then we should get it and go in.’ She tried to be as practical as this closeness would allow.
Arnav pulled himself away and nodded before turning away. ‘Perhaps the back seat would be better for you. We must catch some sleep.’ He moved to get the blanket.
Khushi climbed in the back of the SUV and pushed the lever to recline the seat. It flattened out, creating a small uncomfortable settee. she settled in her space as Arnav opened the opposite door and handed her the blanket. He stepped back, ready to make his way to the front seat when she called out.
‘Wait. I…we can share. This …this looks a little bit more comfortable than the front seat. ….and there is only one blanket.’
Arnav watched her, his gaze alluring her and frightening her at the same time. ‘Are you sure?’ he asked.
Khushi nodded. ‘What?’ she asked when he didn’t move. ‘Do you find my charms irresistible, after all.’
He grinned openly in reply and climbed in, carefully settling down next to her, keeping his walking stick next ot the close door and adjusting his leg in a comfortable position before turning around, only to find Khushi Gupta, burrowed in the blanket and snoring softly.