Arnav swirled the amber liquid in his glass and took a sip. A fire burned down his throat and pumped a little bit of heat into the frozen limbs. Perhaps he should close the window, he thought. The cold air of the mountains was chilling the room. Soon it would be freezing. Not good for his leg. He stretched the offending limb. The cold air had worsened the dull ache from the fall. On the opposite chair, lay the hot water bottle that Anjali had sent through Raghav. Unlike his usual considerate self who would insist on tucking the bottle under his leg in a blanket, this time Raghav had left it on the chair. Khushi madam needed urgent attention; the doctor who had come to have a look was worried about the momentary blackout. Arnav remembered her face after the fall – the chalky whiteness of it. He would have taken care of her – perhaps a little clumsily but he would have.
Arnav looked up as Anjali slid into the chair facing him, holding out the hot water bottle to him as her narrow eyes slid from the glass in his hand back to his face. Arnav took the hot water bottle and put it on the side table carelessly, almost defiantly. Anjali didn’t comment.
‘How many drinks have you had since we brought Khushi in?’ she asked again
Arnav downed the remaining alcohol in a gulp and shrugged. ‘Don’t worry, Anji. I am ok.’
‘No. You aren’t. But that is not what I asked. Anyway, don’t you want to see Khushi? She is feeling much better now,’ Anjali asked.
‘I don’t think so.’ Arnav looked at her nonchalantly and rose to fill make another drink for himself. He needed a little stiffer one. It was taking too long to squash his thoughts into nothingness.
‘Did she get badly hurt?’ he asked. He hadn’t intended to, but this he had to know.
‘No.’ Anjili answered. ‘Just banged her head. A doctor said she might have some concussion. She had a splitting headache just now. But doesn’t seem to be more than that.’
Arnav nodded and settled down with the next drink.
‘I didn’t exactly see what happened, Arnav.’ Anjali said.
Arnav stiffened and slowly leaned back into the chair, his eyes fixed on Anjili. ‘Why don’t you ask her?’
‘Why not ask you?’ Anjili persisted.
‘She tripped. And I could not catch her.’
Anjili stared at him for a few seconds. ‘Oh god, Arnav, You are blaming yourself, aren’t you?’
Arnav continued to look at her. ‘
‘But how could you have caught her,’ Anjili thrust forward and waved her hands.
‘precisely,’ he bit out the word. His fingers tightened on the glass as he looked away.
‘Damn, Arnav,’ Anjili hissed in frustration. ‘I didn’t mean it that way. Everything isn’t about…about your leg.’
‘Really,’ Arnav smiled twistedly.
Anjili pursed her lips for a moment, then spoke as if talking to a child. ‘She was blindfolded with that thick scarf around her eyes. The ground was uneven. And she tripped. Perhaps one of the twins knocked into her.’
‘It doesn’t matter why she fell,’ Arnav took another sip.
‘It does. She was thrown. And so she must have come to you with all that force.’ Anjili spoke slowly as if trying to explain some fine points to a child. Arnav was in no mood to understand or do anything else apart from drinking and feeling sorry for himself and he wished his sister would leave him peace to do just that.
‘Just leave, Anjili,’ Arnav slumped in the chair.
For a moment Anjili was quiet as she watched Arnav, her mouth thin and disapproving. ‘I can see that nothing I say is going to make any difference. So I will let you have this evening. She walked out. ‘I am going home. And I would suggest that till you have some sobriety left, go and visit Khushi. She would…would feel good. Was asking about you.’
And she left Arnav who cursed her sister and her blasted parting words as he wondered what Khushi Kumari Gupta would have been asking for him for.
The sunset brought back the same restlessness that Khushi had been feeling for days. The doctor said she would have a mild concussion and indeed her head had started swimming as soon as she had tried to get up in the morning. SO she had returned back to bed and stayed there for most of the day. But now as her head came back to its own, so did the thoughts that had been going in her mind for days. Yesterday evening she had waited for Arnav to visit her. He hadn’t. Just like that, he had returned to the cold aloof man he was being before the mishap. Although she was blindfolded, she knew he had tried to catch her, had felt the arms come around her to stop but the force was too much. They had both gone down. When he had taken off her blindfold, she had been dazed. But she had not missed the concern and the pain that was etched on his face. He had hurt his leg, she was sure. Yet he had reached out to help her, worried about her. In that hazy moment, she had thought to ask him for the reason he was avoiding her. She would have had the splitting pain in her head permitted. But soon others had crowded around her and Arnav Sigh Raizada had slipped her grasp.
Yet he held her in a thrall, his thoughts, the memory of the kiss, the night in the mountains….they had to talk. Khushi swore to find him and talk, right away. Still descending the stairs had once again turned her head into water. The way to the empty library and drawing room was as much as she could take. Anjili was visiting some part of the estate. She had left soon after dropping the twins with Kanchan. Arnav would be in, she had told Khushi, in case she needed something. But he was nowhere. Perhaps he was out for a walk. Khushi decided to wait and rest in the gallery and have a look at the paintings.
He was there. Gazing at one of the paintings she had finished a few days ago. It was one of the Malik ancestors, a regal and proud lady. Khushi had quite happy with the way it turned out to be. She had wanted it to show him, but he had never been there. She went in, eager to hear what he had to say.
‘Why are you here, Ms. Gupta?’ he asked without turning around to face her. How did he know it was her?
‘I was looking for y….thought of looking at the paintings once,’ Khushi bit her cheek to stop the unreasonable smile that welled up at finding him here unexpectedly….in her workspace. Did he miss her too?
‘You shouldn’t be up and about.’ He turned around but did not make any further move towards her. Yet Khushi felt the air shift drawing the two of them closer. Damn, she was so unreasonable when this man was around.
‘I…I spent a whole day in bed. Needed to get about.’ She replied peevishly. ‘You alsohad a fall, but I can see that you have been walking around.’
‘Or limping,’ he said dryly.
Her eyes flew to his face but he had already he turned away and walked to the window. ‘I am sorry, Khushi,’ he said
‘I could not stop you …from the fall.’
He was blaming himself for the accident. Arnav Singh Raizada was wallowing in self-pity, Khushi was surprised. ‘But I would have fallen anyway,’ she assured him. ‘I think one of the girls bumped into me and I had this…this blindfold.’
He said nothing.
‘Well, in that case, since you are bent on apologizing, there is a stronger case for another one.’ His head turned slightly. She had his attention. Khushi gathered all her courage. ‘You have been avoiding me since that…that day in the meadow.’ She trailed off as he turned and fixed her with a stare. ‘You are never there,’ she swallowed.
‘Why did you want to see me? I remember you couldn’t wait to get away that day.’ His gaze pinned her down.
‘You were so embarrassed that you wouldn’t look at me. Ran away as soon as Raghav appeared and then decided to have an early night. Did not seem you wanted to see or talk to me,’ he spelled it all out for her.
‘But I…I just needed some time to think,’ she blinked at him. He thought she was embarrassed about that evening.
‘Yes. To think. To come to terms with what had happened. Well, I will make life a little easier. Nothing happened. Nothing to remember, think or talk about. Nothing that matters. There you can breathe easy. I can do that much,’ he shrugged.
‘Nothing that matters?’ she repeated. He was angry, Khushi told herself. Still, it hurt, especially when those moments had been the most wonderful ones of her life. Her eyes slid to his lips and those sensations of heat and desire surged once again. He must have seen something on her face for when she looked up, his eyes widened in surprise. ‘But it did. I just needed time to think why it mattered so much.
‘No need to think, Khushi,’ he sighed. The look they had shared had doused his animosity, yet he persisted in pushing her away. ‘No need to beat about the bush. I am lame and that is it. That is why it wasn’t a good idea to kiss me.’
A stunned silence followed the words.
‘Perhaps you can apologize right away,’ Khushi muttered through a clenched jaw. ‘Say sorry and I might forgive you.’
What?’ he frowned
‘Apologize that you think so low of me, Mr. Raizada. Last chance. I am not going to forgive so easily if you do that later.’
Arnav looked surprised. He opened his mouth and then closed it again as if at loss for words. When he spoke, the earlier certainty had gone from his voice. ‘You don’t …don’t have to pretend…’ he began.
‘So you think I was pretending that evening,’ Khushi interrupted, folding her arms and glaring at him. She felt a little bit surer now that she had him perplexed.
‘I ….I think I will go for a walk.’ He shook his head as trying to get a grip on things.
Arnav tried to make his way out, but Khushi was having none of it. She reached out and took his arm. They had to talk. Well, they definitely had to…she told herself as her eyes once again slid to his mouth. There could be other infinitely more pleasant things they could do.
‘I need to go,’ he whispered. All that anger, the firmness was gone. He seemed to be fighting with himself.
‘Me too, back to that meadow, that day.’ Khushi murmured.
‘So that I can do it differently.’
He said nothing. But his whole stance was waiting for her speak.
‘I really did need to think and…and it was not about your leg,’ she told him
He still did not speak. He wanted her to spell it out, Khushi felt the challenge. It annoyed her, it invigorated her.
‘It was about the kiss, and what it made me feel …,’ she watched his eyes widen as the words registered. She stepped back with a half-smile. This time his fingers tightened on her arm stopping her from drawing away. It felt wonderful, this little victory.
‘Feel what?’ he almost growled. Khushi shook her head with a smirk, still trying to withdraw. Arnav’s arm went around her to stop her. ‘don’t play games with me. Tell me, tell me what did you think?’
‘That perhaps it wasn’t about the meadow,’ she went on her tiptoes and whispered in his ear. ‘It was you…you who made me feel so good.’ She nipped at the ear lobe. Arnav gasped and went rigid, before closing in on her as if he couldn’t help it. Khushi had already buried her fingers in his hair as she drew his head to her.
‘Khushi,’ he moaned as he felt her hand roam his back drawing him closer. He kissed her hard and deep, trying to capture and hold on to the moment. She kissed him back with fervor pushing him slightly, making him step back and back, till he leaned against one of the pillars of the gallery. She stepped back, and looked at him. Both of them were breathing heavily. Still holding his eyes, she reached for his walking stick, unstrapped it from his wrist and put it against the wall. He kept watching her warily as she stepped back and lifted his arms to put them around her waist.
‘You can apologize later, Mr. Raizada,’ she reached up nuzzled against his throat, reacquainting herself with the smell and taste of him. He made her forget herself-just like he had done that day. His arms tightened as she placed an open-mouthed kiss at the base of his throat. His fingers reached up to tangle around her hair and pull away from her torturing lips. He tugged her hair so that she looked up at him. So close, she just had to lean a bit and she could kiss him. But Arnav held her tantalizingly just far enough to look into her eyes.
‘Arnav,’ she whispered as she let a finger slide down his spine.
“Khushi,’ he exhaled as if giving up the fight. His hands began roaming on her back again. ‘I have to know. Give me the words. Do you want this?’
Her desire was written all over her face but needed to hear her say it.
‘Tell me,’ he whispered subjecting them both to the torture of being close and yet not enough.
‘Yes,’ she leaned up to whisper against his lips. His body heaved in one ragged exhale before he caught her lips again, this time holding nothing back.
Khushi let out a moan, a husky sound trapped in his mouth. The kiss was hungry, ravenous, full of need. She could feel it in their movements, in the harsh raspy breaths, every touch of the hand, every flick of the tongue, they stoked need in each other. Her fingers slid under his jacket to untuck his shirt, skimming lightly over his skin. She felt the muscles jump and spasm as his breath rustled past her cheek
‘You don’t know what you are doing to me, Khushi,’ Arnav rasped. ‘You don’t know what you do to me.’
The sheer torture in his voice overwhelmed her and made her feel strong at once. ‘Tell me, Mr. Raizada,’ she arched her back to push her body closer.
He wrenched his mouth away and looked at her, their breaths mingling in a heavy bursts of exhalation. He smiled that endearing half smile and shook his head. ‘Shouldn’t give you more ammunition than you already have.’
‘I am not an enemy, Arnav. This isn’t a war.’
‘Then what is it?’
Love, the word flitted through her mind, stunning her, her eyes widened as she saw a similar shock mirrored on his face. But neither was ready to put that in words.
‘I don’t know,’ she said. ‘Don’t know, but it is very pleasant. I could get used to this.’ She put her head on his shoulder and leaned on him. He drew her close and leaned back against the pillar, relishing the stillness in their proximity. The frenzy of passion simmered beneath the warmth but for now, this was peaceful, Arnav thought. Not a good idea to stay in such close quarters, he thought. Khushi was headstrong and he doubted his own control in staying away from her. They had to think where they would go from here, he thought. Perhaps that is what she meant when she said she needed time to think. Had she decided? Is that the reason she had come to pin him down today. Arnav smirked enjoying the allegory and the picture it conjured. He wouldn’t mind being pinned down by her.
Khushi,’ he said softly.
‘We need to talk.’
‘You aren’t good at talking. Always second guessing me. But we are good at this,’ She snuggled closer.
Arnav chuckled. Yes, they were good at this. What was this, he wanted to ask her. But the answer scared him. It was too new, too precious, whatever this was. He kissed her again, and she turned his face to him and parted his lips as she had been waiting for him.
‘Mamu?’ The word was a burst of childish outrage.
Khushi and Arnav sprang apart. One of the twins stood just in the doorway, her hands on hips, glaring at the two of them.
‘Nisha, you should knock’ Arnav said. Khushi tried to step away in embarrassment but Arnav held her in place.
‘The door was open,’ Nisha pointed out her eyes, her fixed on Khushi. ‘Kanchan di told me to look for you, Khushi. The doctor is here to see you.’ she said in a quiet little voice and ran out.
‘She is going to tell Anjili,’ Khushi whispered and turned to Arnav who was watching her speculatively as if waiting for her to go into a panic. She stepped back and folded her arms to glare at her. ‘And no, I am not going to deny this to anyone. You think what you what you want to tell your sister.’
‘I think you have lost your head, Khushi,’ He grinned suddenly.
‘And you too,’ she smiled back, putting her arms around his neck. ‘I think you have lost your head over me.’
Arnav drew her closer. She would never know how much her acceptance of ‘this,’ whatever it was, mattered to him. ‘I think I shall tell my sister that it is my business.’
‘I would love to see that,’ Khushi laughed. ‘In the meantime, help me back to the room. And think of the ways to earn that forgiveness.’
‘What forgiveness?’ Arnav took his stick and walked Khushi out of the gallery.
‘that you could think so low of me.’
‘I think quite highly of you.’
They bantered on. Khushi leaned on Arnav, as he led her upstairs, both unaware of the two little pair of eyes watching them from the hallway – one full of mirth, joy and warmth and the other, with misgivings.