‘I hear that you and Chottey made up…quite well,’ Anjili breezed in the gallery next morning as Khushi worked on the last of the paintings. Khushi blushed at the knowing smile on Anjili’s face. Nisha must have been quite forthcoming with the details. ‘I just met him going to Chanderpur,’ Anjili beamed, coming to stand next to Khushi. ‘It’s been a while since I saw him so happy. Not since baba’s death. Thank you so much, Khushi.’ She stepped forward to engulf Khushi in a hug.
The two women stepped apart as Anjili looked around the gallery. Over the last two months, Khushi had painstakingly erased every mark of damage and neglect. The gallery now gleamed with new life and colours. ‘You have worked wonders with this place.’ Anjili came to stand before the last unfinished painting. ‘And that is the last one, is it?’
‘Yes, it is all done,’Khushi sighed. It had been in such an exhilarating time. She would miss it all when she left. But more than that, she would miss the man who had just left the gallery a few minutes ago, after kissing her goodbye thoroughly. She had a sinking feeling that she always had when she remembered the secret she was hiding. She had to let him know if they were to have a future together.
‘But I guess, I will still be seeing your around,’ Anjili raised her eyebrows and nudged Khushi before taking her hand. ’I am so happy, so very happy,’ she said with a sigh.
‘So am I,’ Khushi answered suppressing the pang of guilt that lanced through her taking away some brightness of the morning.
‘Keep him happy,’ Anjili told her. ‘Last few years haven’t been pleasant. And both of you deserve it. I told him that, and you know what,’ Anjili returned to her usually chatty self. ‘My brother blushed. Arnav, imagine, all red ears. He might not say it Khushi, but …but I know my brother. He is …is be in love.’
The words shocked Khushi. Was he in love? Was she?
She worked in a daze as Anjili left the gallery humming with happiness. She had to talk to Arnav, somehow find a way to tell him the truth without spoiling their nascent relationship. It would be difficult, she knew. He was so vehement and unreasonably when it came to this house. Not that she could fault him. She had grown quite attached to the house with two months. But she had to clear Arnav’s misunderstanding about the past. Their relationship was too precious, she felt, too precious to waste on a misunderstanding. She remembered the beautiful evening that they had spent together yesterday, after the doctor had left instructing her see him in his clinic at the end of week. Once the doctor left, Arnav returned with her dinner. On her insistence, he asked Raghav to send his food to the room and they had shared a pleasant evening, till the medication took over lulling Khushi to sleep.
Tomorrow, she told herself.
In the morning, he had a met her in the gallery, with a warm good morning kiss and she had had no other thoughts accept the desire to stay close. However, there was a meeting in Chanderpur, he told her before leaving reluctantly. Evening, he told her when Khushi held on to his arms reluctant to let go.
Khushi was having a restless day when she received a call from Shlok.
‘Khushi di, my dad would like to meet you. Come over tomorrow or day after’ he told her.
‘He has gone to Haridwar. Would be back next week. Just come. Sudha bua will leave in a day or two. She wants to meet you properly,’ he insisted.
‘I don’t know,’ Khushi chewed her lip. ‘I don’t like this, Shlok. Going behind someone’s back. If Sudha mausi wants to meet me then, why hide?’
‘Oh Di, I am working on it….but Baba is just a too set. Even if he dying to know about you, he wouldn’t say. And I think Papa and bua have put up with him too long, it has become a habit with them. But they….they would really like you to come,’ he paused for a while. ‘But I would understand if you don’t. I mean papa and bua have not exactly been around for your mother or you. But I would come to see you, when I come to Delhi,’ he chuckled. ‘Do you think Sujata bua would like to see me?’
His eagerness to breach the family divide was endearing. Khushi found herself smiling and giving in despite herself. ‘I have to visit the clinic at Chanderpur in a few days. I shall come over then. Will let you know.’
When Arnav returned, he found Khushi in bed once again, sleepy and tired. The walk was out of question. Once again the dinner was ordered in the room and Khushi, concussed and greedy for Arnav’s company, kissed the revelations away for another day.
It set the pattern for the next two days. They had breakfast and later parted ways for the day’s work as Arnav turned to the estate matters while Khushi worked on the paintings. They went for walks, returning for dinner. Though they held hands and kissed, and Khushi felt herself on the edge, willing to fall over as they kissed goodnight. Arnav, being a gentleman that he was, was always the first to withdraw.
‘Not now when you are injured,’ he had rasped in her ear.
‘But I am ok now,’ she protested.
‘I can see that,’ he held her wrist, stopping it from wandering into the dangerous zones. ‘But let’s see the Doctor tomorrow.’ he kissed her as she pouted. ‘I want to be sure, Khushi, and I want to do this right. I want to know that you are happy.’
‘I could be happier,’ she whispered.
With a sigh, he had pulled her closer, kissing her throat. ‘You make it so difficult for me.’
‘Then don’t fight me,’ she arched her neck pushing herself against him. ‘Arnav, Anjili thinks we are in love.’
He stilled for a moment and raised his head. His eyes were expressionless as they gazed into hers. Khushi had learnt enough about him to know that he was trying to gauge her feelings before revealing his own.
‘What do you think?’ he asked.
‘May be. I can’t differentiate at the moment.’
‘Love and this…this lust for your body,’ she giggled.
‘Lust.’ He ground his body against hers. ‘Really? Want to slake the lust,’ he waggled her eyebrows.
‘Now you get the gist, Arnav,’ Khushi giggled.
‘I really think you have lost your head, Ms. Gupta,’ he teased. ‘So I must wait for the Doctor’s verdict. Two days,’ he said as he took her mouth once again, leaving them both breathless. ‘I think I should go,’ he drew himself away.
‘Arnav,’ she held him for a moment as he turned to go. ‘I…I need to tell you something.’
‘What is it?’ he stopped seeing the seriousness on her face. ‘Are you ok? Any pain…’
‘No. no. not about the injury’
He looked at her frowning and stepped back near her, tucking a stray lock of hair behind her ear. The fingers lingered on her cheek. ‘Then? What is it, Khushi?’
She looked up at him, trying to gather courage. She saw desire and humor and warmth but there was something else. His insecurities that scared her.
‘That I…that I…’ Khushi tried to gather courage and failed. His hand had stilled and his expression was becoming guarded again. ‘That you wouldn’t be my first. I have been in love before,’ he frowned and she added, ‘when I was six.’
He laughed and brought her close. ‘What will I do with you, Khushi?’
What would she do? Khushi berated herself for being a coward. But the moment had passed and so had another opportunity.
A week later, when Arnav drove Khushi to the doctor’s clinic in Chanderpur, she was still procrastinating. The week had been beautiful in every sense of the word. Khushi had never felt as close to anyone in her life as she felt to Arnav to whom she had told everything about herself apart from the one little truth that would drive a wedge a between them. He had seen the photograph of her family by her bedside and had marveled at the how much she resembled her mother.
‘I can see how you would look when we are old,’ he had chuckled, his voice warming Khushi to the core. It suggested permanence, togetherness for years and years to come. If Arnav had asked anything of her at that moment, she would have said yes. So like every other evening, she postponed the unpleasant task to the next day. She would tell him on the way to the clinic.
It was decided that she would meet Shlok and her family after the visit to the hospital and Shlok promised to drop her back by the evening.
‘You never told me exactly how you guys are related?’ Arnav grimaced as they set out for Chanderpur the next day.
‘Too long a story.’ Khushi told him as they drove around the mountains to the town. ‘But Arnav…’
‘We need to talk…about something?’ Khushi said chewing her lower lip.
‘All ok?’ Arnav glanced at her, quirking his eyebrow before turning back to the road.
‘Yes,’ Khushi looked at him closely. Suddenly she felt sure. Her words would separate them. He would not forgive. He would not listen to her excuses. He would send her away. Her heart sank with the sense of certainty. It throbbed with a dull ache as she imagined parting with him. The very thought sucked the life out of her.
She was in love, the answer with blinding clarity as he gazed at his sunlit profile. She was in love with Arnav Singh Raizada and he hated the girl who he thought had stolen his house from him. He hated her. Khushi closed her eyes and pressed her fingers to the temple as she felt the wetness behind her eyelids.
‘Are you ok? Is the head aching once again?’ he asked worriedly. ‘I shall stop at the next…’
‘No…I …I am ok.’ She tried to reassure him, but the voice was weak. How had the things messed up so much? Why didn’t she tell him or Anjili right at the beginning, as soon as she learnt about Arvind Mullick’s will, Khushi berated herself. But then she had never thought she would get so deeply involved. Khushi sobbed.
‘That’s it.’ Arnav stopped the car on the side and reached out. ‘What is it, tell me?’ he ran a hand over her head.
‘Nothing,’ Khushi shook her head, unable to stop another sob that welled up at his tenderness. She tried to bring herself under control.
‘Khushi, Khushi,’ he put a finger under her chin and raised her face. Khushi closed her eyes but some wetness seeped from corners. She felt his soft touch as he wiped the tears. ‘Are you in pain? Shall I … shall I turn back. We aren’t so far,’ he stroked her face. ‘Khushi, please tell me. I will take you back and call the doctor home.’ He turned to the steering but Khushi held the hand against her face, leaning into his palm as she opened her eyes. She had him worried. But this sudden discovery of her feelings had left her emotionally helpless.
He must have seen something in her eyes, for he sat still gazing at her and then said in a soft whisper. ‘It is about us, isn’t it?’ He was looking at her closely, perhaps trying to make out her mood. Close beneath the surface lurked his insecurities, his belief that he would be rejected for his handicap. Khushi wanted to put them to rest.
‘Yes, about us, Arnav. I…I think I am…I have fallen in love with you.’
She heard the quick intake of breath as he sat still for a moment. And then he smiled, a smile that began from his mouth, reaching to the eyes before suffusing his entire face. ‘Is it so bad that you are crying about it?’
Khushi snorted. ‘I don’t want to go away. I don’t want you to….send me away.’
‘Send you away? As if I could do that…send away Khushi, my happiness these days,’ he murmured.
‘These days?’ Khushi wanted him to promise an always, right there and then, so that when she told him the truth she could hold him to that promise
‘Yes, my Khushi these days. And I hope for a long, long time to come.’ He kissed the side of her mouth Khushi savored the kiss before he moved back, cursing the gear stick between them.
‘And what if I say…or do something that makes you unhappy? Or angry?’ she asked. They still sat close as he stroked her head and she held on to the lapels of his jacket.
‘Not possible,’ he whispered.
‘Or make you hate me?’
He leaned back and looked into her face. ‘What’s gotten into you? I think you are still concussed, Ms. Gupta.’
‘Tell me, can you hate me?’
‘No, Khushi. What do you think I am? How can I ever hate you?’ he was puzzled.
Then say it. Say that you love me, Khushi urged silently. But the words did not come. He was frowning at her silently.
‘Arnav, I…I want a promise,’ she finally gathered herself and wiped her face.
‘Anything, Khushi. Anything you…’
‘No, don’t make promises you cannot keep. I just want that….that when I ask…when I tell you something….just …just trust me and listen….try to believe me….believe that I…I love you.’
‘Yes, yes, yes.’ Her words seemed to set something free inside him. Arnav kissed her deeply, tenderly almost as if sealing the promise, that he would never let it go. Khushi clung on to him and to each passing moment with all her might. The two would have gone on and on had Anjili not called to ask them if they had reached the town.
After the checkup at the hospital, where the doctor declared Khushi to be well and recovered, Arnav dropped her at Shlok’s place. He drove off reluctantly after instructing her to be back before the night fell.