Arnav was avoiding her. There was no other explanation. Once she had overcome her shyness, Khushi knew they would have to talk about what had happened that evening. His hostile attitude had further made it imperative that they clear the air.
But while she had forestalled their talk earlier, now Arnav was bent on evading her. Khushi saw him only during breakfasts when the presence of Anjili or Sheetal or the twins made any private conversation impossible. He spent his days out. There were no more requests for the evening walks that she had come so much to look forward to. The dinner was either taken early as he worked in the library or downtown where he now went every day for work.
Meanwhile, Khushi’s work was fast nearing completion. Another 3 weeks and she would be done. But the work which had given her so much satisfaction earlier, now failed to do so. Every morning she would expect him to be in the gallery, waiting for her to begin work on the paintings he said he really didn’t care about. They would banter and play with words and she would feel that delicious pull towards the man who liked to pretend he was cynical and worldly. But there was another facet that she had glimpsed during the night they had spent out in the mountains. It was a warm and caring man who endured his sister’s mollycoddling because he did not want to hurt her; who spoilt his neice rotten; who loved his childhood home so much that he was heartbroken what he thought was his father’s betrayal. A man who had taken up the small timber business of his father, and grown it beyond imagination; who bristled defensively when people made allowances for him because of his leg and went on prove them wrong.
And then there was that headiness she had experienced when she had been in his arms. It had never happened before. In early days of youth, she had allowed some boys to kiss her and had always wondered what the hullabaloo was about. By the time, she grew up, she had already accepted that sexual chemistry was nothing that it was cracked up to be. Her one single relationship had been practical and levelheaded and had broken when the man she had been dating proposed marriage with the caveat that she would have to give up her career and take up a less demanding job after marriage.
But the way she had responded to Arnav in the firefly meadow, she knew that she would give up a great deal for this man. The evening scared her; it excited her; it confused her. At times she would tell herself that it was good that he was avoiding her. She had a secret that could break both their hearts. Any relationship with him would be too demanding.
But then the image would flash in her mind – his slight smile, the way his eyes challenged her. He would twist his body slightly on his walking stick and murmur in her ear ‘Scared, Ms. Gupta.’ And she would feel the shivers of excitement run down her spine.
Looking for an escape from her confusing thoughts, two afternoons later Khushi found herself with Anjili and the twins in the lush lawns of Chandrataal, all set to enjoy the warm sunlight after days of mist. The twins insisted on playing Blind man’s buff, and after much cajoling, Anjili and Khushi decided to join the game.
Giggles resounded in the gardens as Raghav joined in the fun. Sheetal preferred sitting on her own, watching them, smiling at the twins who ran around their mother, calling out her name and shrieking with laughter as Anjili failed to catch any of them. Khushi hovered behind them, enjoying the play between mother and the daughters. The noise of the driveway distracted her for a moment and she felt Anjili’s hand on her shoulder.
‘Its Khushi di,’ Aditi shrieked. ‘Mumma caught her! What were you doing standing in a place?’
‘You had to run!’ Nisha hollered.
‘Thank god, it’s not me anymore,’ Anjili pulled out blindfold and smiled at Khushi. ‘These girls are so difficult to catch. Now it’s your turn to suffer.’
Khushi pouted and turned around. ‘I will tie it?’ Aditi took the blindfold from Anjili and ran to Khushi who knelt down obligingly.
‘What are you doing?’ Nisha tried to peer into the blindfold. ‘She can see!’
‘No, she cannot?’ Aditi finished the tying the blindfold and joined her sister. ‘Can you, Khushi? How many fingers are these?’
‘Hmm, three I think.’
‘Look she can’t,’ Aditi said to her sister smugly.
‘But Khushi di might be lying?’ Nisha came back at once.
‘No. She never lies. Do you tell lies, Khushi di?’ Aditi asked.
‘Never,’ Khushi assured.
‘She might still be lying,’ Nisha said suspiciously.
‘Ok girls, do you want to play’ Anjili put an end to the argument. ‘Let’s start now.’
‘Alright, Khushi, careful,’ Aditi took her hand and swirled her around before letting go
‘I am here, Khushi,’ Nisha called out from behind her. Khushi reached out to catch but she was already gone. Unlike Aditi whose giggles always gave way, Nisha crept up slowly and ran away as soon as you turned around.
‘Here, here,’ Aditi tugged her dupatta. The twins led her a merry dance. Anjili laughed in the background as Khushi reached out, trying her best to catch one of the girls.
She had just a moment to register another presence, a deliciously familiar cologne when someone tumbled hard into her. She lurched forward, her hands swinging wildly for balance, only to latch on to something – a hand that had come to break her fall.
But to no avail. She fell, on the hard ground, taking the person down with her. The person, she could swear who it was, gasped and muttered an oath as the walking stick clattered down next to them.
She let out a cry as the back of her head hit the pavement. Things blackened out for a moment as breath whooshed out of her lungs. Pain burst through her head taking over her entire body and she held still, waiting for it to subside.
For a moment, Arnav had felt whole again.
He had been walking to the mansion, trying desperately to ignore the sounds of laughter in the lawns. But as Khushi reached around in her blindfold, he had allowed himself to watch and enjoy the game for a while. And then she had tumbled, just a few steps away from him, reaching out for some support.
He held out his arms to catch her. It was the most natural thing in the world, except that he was a man with a bad leg, and men with crippled legs should never forget what they are.
He caught her, or at least he thought he did, but his leg could not support their combined weight or the force of her fall. He did not even have time to feel the discomfort. The muscles simply crumpled, and his leg buckled.
Perhaps she could have saved herself had he not tried to catch her. They crashed to the ground, and he could do nothing but gasp. The fall sucked the very breath from his body, and his leg just folded under him. He bit the inside of his cheek and tasted the blood as he felt the pain as if needles had pierced his leg.
Muttering under his breath, he dragged himself away freeing Khushi who lay sprawled on the ground, still under shock.
He pulled away the blindfold.
“Are you all right?” he asked urgently.
She nodded and tried to sit up. But it was jerky kind of nod, as her eyes remained unfocused. No. She was not alright.
‘Are you hurt? Where?”
“My head,” she moaned.
Arnav tried to kneel beside her, his own leg screaming in pain, demanding attention at once. He had to get her up to the house. She might be badly hurt. He reached out to touch the back of her head to see if there was a wound.
Before he could even touch her, they were surrounded. Anjili came running, followed by the twins. Raghav bent to help Khushi up, calling the watchman for assistance.
Finally, Arnav just hauled himself to his feet and backed away, leaning heavily on his cane.
The muscle in his thigh felt as if someone stabbed it multiple time with a sharp knife but that was a familiar sort of pain.
Raghav and the watchman helped her get up. She reeled as her legs buckled. Raghav carried her back into the house.
Capable and careful.
Arnav watched on as they put Khushi on the couch.
He would never be able to do that. Forget running, forget the pain, forget the bloody walking stick that he had suffered ever since he had injured his leg. None of it seemed to matter.
He would never gather the girl he loved in his arms and carry her away.
He had never felt like less of a man.
The last part of the chapter is not my POV; it is the character’s POV.
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