(CT) Chapter 17: Whatever ‘this’ is

 

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.

‘How many?’

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

‘For?’

‘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?’

‘Why what?’

‘Why did you want to see me? I remember you couldn’t wait to get away that day.’ His gaze pinned her down.

‘that day..’

‘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.

‘Why?’

‘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.

‘Hmm..’

‘We need to talk.’

‘No.’

‘No?’

‘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.

 

 

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(CT) Chapter 16: Impossible Longings

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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.

It didn’t.

 

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.

News: Dust of Ages is out as a paperback. If you wish to read it click here:

DO let me know what you think of the romance between Princess Meera and Captain Richard Smith amid the turmoil of the 1857 uprising

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(CT) Chapter 15: Just a kiss?

Dear all,

First of all, apologies for the delay. I have been on the verge of abandoning this story so many times. But I come back. There is this sense of leaving the task unfinished that doesn’t let me work on a new book. I am really really trying to finish this one. Its not that i dont love this story, just that new interesting things come up, work takes time and so on.

So sorry to all of you who are following this one. I am already working on the next chapter. there are about 6-7 chapters to the end of this one. I hope you guys are still with me when I reach the finish line. 🙂

On the other front, DUST of AGES: An 1857 romance is out – this is the full volume- right from start to the end. please do read and review.  Everyone who hasn’t read it, please do read and review. Would mean a lot to me. You can learn more about it and read the first few chapters here.

And without further ado, the next chapter of Chandrataal.

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His mouth moved over hers in a whisper of a kiss. She felt is the slight roughness of his lips as they lingered around the corner of her mouth, moving on to her cheek. A tingle began in her toes and reached up her spine as Khushi crowded closer, her own arms rising to the side of his neck before she gave up on common sense and let them go around him.

Arnav exhaled sharply feeling the thrill of her arms and her soft body envelope him. He tilted her head a little more and took her mouth in a deep kiss. An exquisite sensation shot through his whole being to feel her response. His own lips parted as unreservedly as he kissed her, thrilled to feel her arms tighten about him in response.  He explored the sweet intoxicating secrets of her mouth before moving on to kiss the hollow in her throat, making her moan with pleasure as he trailed kisses to the shell of her ear. Leaning a bit more on the walking stick, Arnav let his free hand roam across her back before encircling her waist and pulling her flush against him.

Khushi clung to him, straining to get closer, her hands sliding beneath his jacket, the feel of the heat of his body through the shirt.

The sharp ring of his phone penetrated through the haze of desire yet they ignored it. His heart skipped a beat as he felt her teeth bit the soft skin of his neck where it met his shoulder before soothing the pain with an open mouthed kiss.

Whoever was calling him, disconnected and then called again. Both of them groaned together and Arnav heard her chuckle before he raised his head to look at her. Desire shimmering in her gaze made him shudder. ‘You phone is ringing.’ She whispered.

He nodded and bent to rub his cheek against hers, making no effort to take the call.

‘It could be someone important.’ She whispered. ‘It could be Anjili, or Raghav.’

He sighed before stepping back reluctantly and taking the call. Khushi instantly felt the loss of warmth.

‘Yes, Raghav,’ he said in the phone.

Khushi watched as his mouth tightened.

‘I know it is dark. I can find my back.’ He said tersely. ‘You can go to sleep.’

Raghav must have said something about her, for he turned to her and nodded. ‘Yes, Khushi is with me.’ Arnav reached up to tuck a stray lock behind her ear. ‘We will be back soon,’ he told Raghav before disconnecting.

Khushi’s face came up as he stepped closer. Desire beckoned once again. Khushi tried to hold on to sanity this time. ‘He…I mean, Raghav, he must be worried.’

‘yes,’ Arnav whispered as bent to kiss her forehead lightly.

‘Its dark,’ she folded her fingers into tight fists, resisting the urge to reach up and stroke is face.

‘So it is,’ he kissed her ear lobe.

‘Shall we…we must go home.’ She stammered

Arnav raised his head to look into her face. His own eyes were blank except for the remains of the desire that still burnt along the edges.

‘Let’s go back,’ Khushi persisted.

He nodded as he stepped back and without any word, began the trek back to the house.

Unlike their walk to the firefly meadow, this time there was an awkward silence and a distance that opened up between them as Khushi tried to make sense of what had happened. Arnav, on the other hand seemed to be lost in his own thoughts.

In the hallway, he turned to her as if to say something.

‘I…I am tired,’ Khushi forestalled him. She needed time to process the event of the evening, before she could talk about it. ‘I will call it a day I think.’

Silence followed her words as Arnav gazed at her through narrow eyes. And then he nodded abruptly and looked away. Khushi sighed with relief as she saw Raghav behind him.

‘There you are. I was worried, Bhaiyya. It is going to rain tonight. Do you want coffee, Khushiji.’

‘No,’  Arnav intervened. ‘She is tired and is going to bed.’ He told Raghav before moving towards the sitting room. Khushi wondered if she had heard a sneer somewhere in those innocuous words.

 

Back in her room, she relived the kiss a thousand times. As she brushed her hair, her eyes were drawn to her lips – slightly swollen and red. She remembered the warm and rough feel of his mouth and brushed her fingers against her lips. How she had reacted? How she had not offered a single word of resistance and flown into his arms? But even the thought of resisting had never occurred to her. There had been a strange sense of rightness in the moment, as if through their spats, fights and endless talks they had been moving to this moment. She felt the same tendrils of desire unfurl in the pit of her stomach as she remembered the sensation of his arm around her, pulling her against his hard of his body. The warmth tingled her.

It scared her too.

It would not be good to get into a relationship with Arnav Singh Raizada. The man carried heavy baggage from the past. He was scarred – from his own accident and his handicap, his father’s death, the hatred for the girl who he thought had come between him and his father. What would happen when he learnt that it was her?

No. She should avoid him and run away.

But the thought crumpled something inside her. It dulled the excitement and aroused a sense of discomfort, almost akin to sadness.

Indeed her reactions to Arnav Singh Raizada were scaring her to no end.  What was she going to do?

 

Hours later as the sunlight broke through the curtains, Khushi was still pondering over the same question. The night had been restless, where she dreamt intermittently of Arnav who kissed her with passion and then told her how he hated her for tarnishing his father’s memories.

Unlike the other mornings, where she would rush to work and put in an hour and half preparing the painting she would be restoring before breakfast, Khushi spent the morning in bed. With her dreams and the last evening still vivid in the mind, she felt strangely shy and reluctant to face Arnav just yet. She would have to soon, but she could take some time, couldn’t she?

It was only when she had heard Anijili’s laughter that she went downstairs to the dining room. Nisha and Aditi were telling their Mamu about their fight in the school while Anjili hovered around the table. But it was the hooded brown eyes that pinned her as soon as she entered. She could feel his eyes on her as she walked to the table and took the chair. He sat straight, barely moving, nodding when Aditi or Nisha asked for something. There was something strange, almost hostile in his attitude. It confused Khushi.

‘I trust you slept well, Ms Gupta,’ he bit out as she took a toast.

‘Yes. Thank you,’ she nodded in confusion and looked away. Khushi’s eyes fell on Nisha, who looked at her mama and then turned to her, her little eyes narrow with distrust. Khushi tried to smile but the girl did not return the smile.

‘Hope all was well, yesterday, Khushi,’ Anjili seemed unaware of the tension simmering around the table. ‘I had to go early. The girls were alone.’

‘Yes…yes. All is well. I was just a little tired and went to bed early.’

‘And delayed the work in the morning. I must tell you Ms. Gupta that you have only two weeks now to finish the paintings and leave.’

Khushi’s eyes flew up in dismay as she heard Anjili gasp. Why was he being so harsh? Did he regret last evening?

‘Arnav, what do you mean by that? Khushiji is working hard and is doing a wonderful job,’ she said to her brother before turning to Khushi. ‘He doesn’t mean that.  We really appreciate what you have done.’

‘But that does not mean that we should forget that she is an outsider, a visitor who would leave us soon. Would be good to remember that and work towards the end of this project, Anjili.’ With that Arnav rose, strapped his walking stick to his hand and left the room.

 

 

For more of my writing, Dust of Ages: an 1857 romance, the full story, only on Amazon

dust of ages full book cover

 

 

(CT) Chapter 13: The Morning

Surprise, Surprise! it is a short one. So I added the precap 🙂 tenor

 

 

 

Arnav felt warm – pleasantly so.  His huge wide bed in the mansion was uncharacteristically cozy. He must thank Raghavan for the warm comforter draped around his leg. He flexed the muscle and felt none of the stiffness that the cold mountain air brought to his leg. He burrowed in and felt the floral fragrance around the pillow. He pulled it closer. The pillow emitted a soft sigh and then a whisper of hot moist air against his throat. The sensation traveled all over his body, jerking him awake.

The events of the night resurfaced in the mind. He opened his eyes to take in the surroundings. They were in the small cramped bed at the back of the SUV. Perhaps it was the cold or just the attraction that had drawn them closer earlier in the night, they lay together in a tangle of limbs. Khushi’s nose was buried in his throat, her soft breath sending small currents of awareness racing down his body. He felt his body stiffen in reaction. He tried to shift and realized that what he had thought was comforter around his leg was actually Khushi’s leg wrapped in the blanket, its pleasant weight shifting caressingly closer as she frowned and burrowed nearer.

For a moment, Arnav closed his eyes and allowed himself to fantasize, letting himself open to the warmth that this girl offered. It wasn’t as if he hadn’t been without women. But like much else in his life, his relationship with women was complicated. Ten years ago, he had bestowed his heart on a girl in his college. She had been his classmate in the MBA years. Later he had heard her joke around with her friends that she was willing to take a cripple if he was a wealthy one.  Funny, he didn’t remember her face, but he had remembered the heartbreak – the pain, as if the world would end. He had been wary since then, skimming through relationships – never assuming much, never offering anything more than a casual relationship, making his injury an armour to protect himself from the heart ache. Baba’s death and subsequent revelations had only proven him right. Letting anyone close was making yourself vulnerable. Arnav was never going to let it happen to him again.

Yet, it was a lonely life. Especially after Anjili’s marriage and Baba’s death, he had yearned for someone. He could not deny that Ms. Gupta would make a charming companion. For one, she wouldn’t make a big deal about his leg. He remembered her thunderous frown when she had told him that he could walk to the gallery if he wanted to see the paintings. She wasn’t afraid of him. In fact, one of the reasons, he had enjoyed sparring with her was the she gave as good as she got.

And yesterday….yesterday had been something else altogether. He had felt a jolt of desire at the sight of her stretching out, as if reaching for the moon.  And now, warm tendrils of desire unfurled in the pit of his stomach as she breathed out against her throat. With his eyes closed, he let himself feel – apart from her leg, her body was half over him, pressing him down. His own arm went around her waist as if holding her there. His palm resting on her lower back. If he moved a little lower…

Not a bad way to wake up in the mornings. From the side window of the car, he could see the faint rays of sun rising behind the mountains. The long road to Chandertaal winding up the hill could be seen clearly.

Arnav savoured the remains of the wonderful night as his fingers unconsciously caressed Khushi’s silken tresses. Soon they would return to the world, and the night and this morning would become a distant dream.

Khushi stirred, and Arnav drew back at once, knowing that the night was over.

PRECAP

‘In that case, Khushi, may I have this dance?’ the smirk on his lips challenging her to stand up with him

‘Sure,’ she put her hands in his, as the strains of music filled the terrace.  Arnav tugged her out of the chair and moved to clear space in the center. She looked into his eyes as smiled, and for a moment he felt his heart lurch. Her giggle brought an answering grin and Arnav felt the last of his inhibitions melt away.

‘We would need some innovation though, if you don’t mind. Can you put your hand on mine here?’ He gestured at the hand resting on the cane. Khushi followed the instructions, her fingers and then the rest of her palm coming to rest against the hair-roughened back of his hand.  His other hand snaked around her coming to rest on her back.

‘And this?’ She placed her other hand on his shoulder.

He nodded. ‘Yes, are you ready?’

It was awkward. Instead of clasped hands raised to the level of the shoulder, theirs rested on the cane, as Arnav and Khushi swayed against the music. With his hand on her waist, Arnav led them through slow graceful turns. If she stepped an inch closer, she would be able to place her head on his shoulder. Perhaps he would never be able to hold her with both his arms as the danced…but this felt good.

He had never really danced with a girl. Never felt the flow of music through the body, or savored the warmth of a woman’s hand resting over his. It was magical, this starlit night on this terrace. It restored a piece of his heart. Arnav felt the ice thaw and warmth steal through his chest.

‘This is lovely’ she looked up and smiled, and for a moment he felt that the sun rose and set on her smile.

(CT)Chapter 12: The night…

Dear readers,

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

1857 Dust of Ages -The Forgotten Tale

 

 

And now, moving to Chandrataal 🙂

 

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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..’

‘Handicapped? Cripple?’

‘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…’

‘But what?’

‘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.’

‘Kachori? Here?’

‘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.’

‘You sister?’

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..we…’

‘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.

 

(CT) Chapter 11: On the Road

Khushi opened the iron gate and stepped on the road.  No one had come to see her out. Pressing her fingers against her wet eyes,  she cast the last glance at the house. She had thought she would heal the breach.  How mistaken she had been. Sujata was right. Some wounds could never heal. Only if her aunt had the courage. She sighed and checked the watch. Arnav had told her that he would take about an hour. She still had time and she needed to be on her own to come to terms with what happened, to collect her thoughts. The trail around the house called her. It promised a long solitary walk up the hill. Perhaps the exercise would do her good.

 

She had taken a few steps when she heard someone call her name. She turned around.

‘Wait a minute!’ it was Shlok,  his long strides eating up the distance between them. ‘There you are. I thought you would be in the market. But then after a meeting like that one can hardly go shopping.’ He made a wry face and gestured towards the house.

Khushi shrugged and turned away. She was angry and disappointed. But what could she say this teenager who hadn’t even seen her mother?

‘Hey, wait! Don’t be angry. Sudha bua sent me after you.’ That made her stop. She looked at the boy through the narrow eyes, wondering whether he was lying. ‘Sudha bua…er…you know, my bua, your mausi.’

Khushi nodded. ‘Why? Why did she send you?’

‘Gawd, how much like Baba you sound! Why are you here? Who sent you?’

Khushi huffed and turned away. She disliked being compared to that bitter old man who had no a bit of kindness in him.

‘Hey wait!’ he called out

Khushi kept walking not wanting to keep up with his juvenile conversation.

‘Ok Ok,’ he joined her. ‘You are angry. I get it. Baba is like that. He is old. One can’t change him now. Too set. And he has been miserable since dadi passed away. Can’t adjust to life without her.’ Shlok went on with the conversation alone, not needing Khushi’s inputs.  ‘He was driving mom and dad against the wall and they called bua. But it isn’t easy on Sudha bua also. She can hardly stand up to him.’

Khushi listened on silently, still unwilling to talk, but his words thawed some of her anger.

‘So we are struggling. And then you turned up and baba blew his fuse. The problem is no one stands up to him. I tried but then dadi and my mom told me it was disrespectful. SO no one has every told him that he is wrong,’ Shlok paused and Khushi felt his sidelong glance. No except Sujata bua years ago.’ The words stopped Khushi in her tracks. ‘And he has never forgiven her for it.’ Shlok finished quietly.

Khushi turned to look at him. He wasn’t as juvenile as she thought. He looked backed into her eyes with uncommon seriousness. ‘You know my mother,’ she asked.

‘Of course, I know. Dadi talked about her, Bua, even father. I planned to come to meet you when I go to Delhi to study two years later. When dadi was on her death bed and I promised I would bring Sujata bua if she lived for some more time. She didn’t believe me.’ His voice broke. Shlok had clearly been close to their grandmother. ‘Even Sudha bua misses her. I think dad would also like to meet her sometime.’

Khushi nodded, not knowing what to say.

‘Come, there is a small cafeteria nearby. We can get to know each other, Khushi di,’ he asked uncertainly. ‘I can call you that, right?’

Khushi smiled, her heart warming to Shlok’s chatter as they made their way to the café. ‘How is Sujata bua? Dadi said she is married?’

‘Yes, my stepfather is a doctor?’

‘And he is a good man? Not the ogre-like stepfather of fairy tales?’

Khushi laughed. ‘No. No. he is the nicest man in the world. Tell me, Shlok, how old are you?’

They had been in the café for about twenty minutes when she received a message from Arnav.

‘Let me know if you are ready. It is going to rain.’

Indeed it was. The clouds were gathering fast and there was a chill in the air. Khushi quickly told him she was ready to leave and the name of the café.

It took him another fifteen minutes. By the time, the breeze had turned into a dust storm. She had been standing out, chatting with Shlok when the SUV rolled around. A frown and compressed line of his mouth told Khushi that Arnav was not in a good mood. After rather terse introductions, she took her leave, promising to be touch with Shlok. As soon as she had climbed into the seat, the car took off. Fat droplets of rain dotted the windscreen.

(CT) Chapter 10: The Ties of Blood

‘Old relatives,’ Khushi told Arnav vaguely when he asked her about the people she was visiting.  ‘My mother’s side.’

‘Your mother belongs to Chandernagar,’ he looked at her in surprise.  Arnav had insisted on taking her to Chandernagar. He had a meeting there, he said. Sitting with him in the confines of the car was intimidating. The smell of his cologne enticed her senses. It was difficult not to. In a white polo neck and a faded jeans, and the sun twinkling through the car window behind him, the man looked gorgeous.

‘No’ she shook her head. ‘No. Just some distant relatives live here. Cousins and all.’ Despite her uneasiness with the topic, Khushi tried to smile

‘Why haven’t you met them till now? You’ve been here for months,’ he persisted.

‘We…we aren’t close. The family fell out years ago. So I had been dithering. Not sure how they would receive me.’

‘Oh. Want me to be with you,’ he shot her an earnest glance.

Khushi shook her head, warmed by his offer. ‘It’s ok. I think it’s best if I see them on my own.’ She was touched by the concern.  Though their friendship was just a few hours old, he was ready to lend her the support. She wondered what would he would say if she told her, it wasn’t distant relatives. It was her maternal grandparents, her nana and nani who had disowned her mother when she had gotten pregnant without getting married. Would he be able to piece the story together?

Khushi gazed out of her window. As they rounded a bend, she could see Chandrataal, bathed in sunshine, on a green hill. She tried to envision the mansion as hers. After all Aarvind Malik had bequeathed it to his lost child. And she could easily prove she was that child.

But the mansion didn’t  evoke any sense of belonging – the one that her little flat brought in Delhi or even the warmth that rushed through her at the picture of her step family’s house in Mumbai. She thought of the man next to her and felt a surge of sadness. Arnav and Anjili- both of them loved Chandrataal. It was evident in the way Anjili had lovingly restored it although she knew it would soon be lost to her. Arnav’s anger in itself showed the extent of his hurt. Her mind wandered to Arvind Malik and Khushi discovered that Anjili’s story had blunted the edge of her anger towards him. She still felt for her mother’s sufferings but now she could no longer blame them on Arvind Malik.

She had already made up her mind. The past was too painful to be raked up once again. She knew her mother would not want anything to do with the Chandrataal. She had moved on. Khushi herself felt ready to leave the past to where it belonged and move ahead.

So she decided to keep quiet. The charitable trust worked for abandoned women and orphaned children and Anjili and Arnav identified with the cause.  No need to cause friction when things in all probability would fall in place. Once three years deadline was over, and the mansion passed on to the trust, Arnav as well as Anjili would soon forget their anger and hurt. And she would finish her restoration work and move back to Delhi.

The mansion disappeared from sight. Khushi took a deep breath and turned away. Arnav was driving smoothly. The car was automatic and the bad leg did not pose much of a problem. The walking stick rested to the door.

‘Whom are you seeing?’ Khushi asked.

‘Some people for business,’ he answered shortly as the lips pursed and a small frown gathered on the smooth forehead.

‘I thought you were on a holiday,’ Khushi tried to lighten the mood.

‘Chandernagar is not my idea of a holiday,’ he said shortly. Khushi bristled and turned away. He wasn’t looking forward to the meeting but that was no reason to be rude. She refused to talk anymore and he did not make an effort to reverse the damage.  Khushi gathered the reserves of her courage as she prepared for the meeting.

The house was on the corner of the street.  Built on a hillside, with pristine white walls and sloping red roof, it wasn’t much different from the others on the road. It was on one of the busiest roads of Chandernagar. There was a lawn beyond the small iron gate that opened on the roadside.  Behind that a closed door and a curtains that had been drawn close. For a moment, Khushi felt like the turing away. She looked around. Arnav’s car had already disappeared.

She pressed the doorbell, Khushi wished he could have taken him up on his offer of support. There was a movement behind the curtains and a middle aged woman stepped out.

‘Yes, who is it?’ A middle aged woman stepped out and walked to the gate. Khushi watched as the eyes, so much like her own, round and hazel, squinted at her and then widened as the woman came to a halt just a few feet behind the gate.

‘Nam…namaste. I am Khushi, Sujata’s daughter.’ The woman stood speechless. Khushi felt her heart dropped. This hadn’t been a good idea. It was clear that the woman was her aunt, mausi, her mother’s sister. Yet there was no joy in her face. Just shock and wariness as she nodded and opened the gate.

‘Come inside.’  She said softly and led the way inside.

The inside was dark and cold. Heavy wood furniture of the drawing room rested against the wall. There were some noises from the inside, a whistle from pressure cooker.

‘Is it papa?’ a teenaged boy entered through the closed door on the opposite side.

‘No. Not papa.’  The woman, her aunt, shook her head and looked flustered.

The young boy looked at her and then at Khushi and back – his eyes catching the startling resemblance between the two women. ‘Who..who are you?’ he asked.

‘Khushi,’ the woman answered quickly. ‘And this is Shlok, my nephew, my brother’s son.’ She looked from Khushi to Shlok, still unable to decided what to do.

‘Hello, Shlok,’ Khushi offered a smile. It was her cousin, Khushi realized, the son of her mother’s brother. If things had been well, they would have grown up together.

‘Hi, Khushi. You…you look very familiar,’ Shlok moved towards her with an extended hand and a charming smile.

‘Go inside, Shlok. And send your baba.’ Their aunt’s voice was soft with a note of worry.

‘Bua,’ Shlok looked from her aunt to Khushi. ‘Is…is everything alright?’

‘No. Just send your baba. At once.’

‘Uh…sure,’ Shlok cast an apologetic glance at Khushi and left.

‘Sit, beta.’ Her aunt turned to Khushi. ‘Do you want something? Water?’

Khushi shook her head on the couch. The woman took the seat on the opposite sofa. ‘How is jeeji? Your …your mum?’

‘She is good. You are mausi, right?’ she asked tentatively trying to see if the woman acknowledged their relationship. The woman nodded. ‘You live here?’

‘No. In Shimla. It is two hours away. I am here on visit. Mum…our mother…she passed away ten days back.’ She gestured to the photo in the corner. Khushi had been so surprised that she hadn’t noticed much in the room. There was a large photo of an old woman in the corner. She looked like older, much older version of herself. It was uncanny, how the resemblance had carried on from the mother to the daughters. A stick of incense burnt in front of the photo.

‘I …I am sorry,’ Khushi whispered.

‘She would have wanted to see you,’ her mausi whispered still looking at the photo.  ‘Talked a lot about Jeeji in her last days. She wanted to meet her so badly.’

‘Then…then why did no one call us. I was just here….’

‘Who is it, Sudha?’ the words from the other side were followed by an old man who entered the room and stopped short at the sight of Khushi.

‘Baba, she is Khushi. Jeeji…’

‘I can see who she is? Why has she come? Did you ask her that, Sudha?’  with each word the hopes of reconciliation receded further. It was her grandfather, Nana, the man who thought he had lost his job and his name due to his mother’s transgression. The man who had broken all the ties and vowed never to see his older daughter, Sujata, ever again. He stood firm on his words.

‘Baba…’ Sudha began. The man raised a hand putting a stop to the soft words as he turned to Khushi.

‘Why are you here?’

‘Nam..namaste, Nana,’ Khushi tried. Neither the words nor the relationship was acknowledged. ‘I am…am sorry about Nani. If anyone had told mummy, she would have…’

‘She was not your Nani. And Sujata has been dead for us for years.’

‘Baba,’ Sudha tried to intervene. ‘Khushi is not jeeji. She is your grandchild, like Shlok.’

‘No. Shlok is from my son who has looked after her grandparents and cared for them. Don’t lump him with Sujata.’

‘Nana, it has been so many years. I just …’

‘Yes. It has been so for so many years. Then why are you here?’

‘I just thought…I am working here in Chandrataal and…’

‘Oh, it is Chandrataal again,’ her grandfather stepped towards her aggressively. ‘Sujata is determined, isn’t she? If not her, her daughter. Will her greed never change.’

‘Nana,’ Khushi rose for her mother. She had not come for this. Perhaps the earlier she left, the less hurtful it would be.

‘For the last time girl, I am not your Nana. Like mother, like daughter. Who is it this time? Arvind Malik’s lame boy whom he picked up from the streets? You wouldn’t mind him, isn’t it? Such hunger for wealth.’

Sudha gasped. Yet she stood in the corner, silenced by the father’s anger and Khushi knew why neither Sudha nor any other member of the family had every made a contact with Sujata. Her grandfather was a bitter old man.

‘I think I should leave.’ She stood up tightly.

‘Beta, have something…how can you…’

‘Sudha,’ the grandfather roared. ‘Let her leave. Let her not tarnish the memory of your mother, the good woman we are mourning. Leave girl,’ he turned to Khushi. ‘And remember,  Sujata is dead for us.’

Khushi nodded. Her eyes met Sudha’s wet ones and then her grandmother’s in the big photo behind her. Suddenly she noticed the difference, between their eyes and her mother’s. There were fire and determination that glittered in Sujata’s eyes instead of the helpless tears that she saw in Sudha’s.

Once again Khushi folded her hands and bowed her head. Her grandfather averted his head while Sudha timidly raised a palm in blessing before dropping her hand at her father’s scowl.