(CT) Chapter 19: A little too late….

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‘You are so much like her. It feels like jeeji has come back’ Shlok’s father ran a hand over her head. Her uncle had been waiting for her on gate when Arnav had dropped her. Khushi’s skepticism about meeting Shlok’s father had dissolved at once when she saw the man, a few years younger than her mother. He was her uncle, Mama, just like Arnav was to the twins. The surprise was soon replaced by wetness as he had remembered his older sister. In the absence of her grandfather, the house seemed much more welcoming.

‘I missed her so much. Sujata di and I were so close.  Sudha was too young only 11 when Di left. I was 15. I missed her for days. When I grew old enough, I tried to find her for years. But she had just disappeared. There was no clue, no hint. Tell me, beta, tell me what did Sujata di do? She was just nineteen and pregnant, with no one to fall back on.’

Haltingly, Khushi told him the story. Of her birth, as her mother had told her. The hardships and penury that she still remembered. The constant moving of houses and jobs as her mother tried to outrun the past and its ignominy, the shame that she faced as the single mother, till she had met Dr. Shashi Gupta, her stepfather who had loved her and her daughter almost instantly.

‘She married when I was 10.  Finally, found someone who just wanted to make her happy.’

‘Must be a great man.’ her uncle nodded as Shlok entered with a tray with steaming cups of tea. Sudha leaned forward to pass her cup and then her brother’s.

‘Do you…you have siblings, Khushi?’ Sudha asked.

‘Yes. Two of them, Amit and Sheena. Here I have a picture,’ Khushi searched her phone to find photos of her family. And handed it over to Sudha. Her uncle and Shlok leaned towards Sudha to see the pictures.

‘Di hasn’t changed at all,’ her uncle murmured.

‘Is that your stepfather?’ Sudha asked as she looked at the picture of her sister with a handsome man wearing stethoscope.

‘Yes. That is papa. He is a doctor. Sheena has just started studying medicine. There she is. About your age Shlok. Amit is studying Economics.’ Khushi introduced them to her family. Shlok, his aunt and his father, looked at the pictures eagerly, asking questions, making comments. They seemed so eager to know about their elder sister, that Khushi felt her voice choke. So much time lost. So much hurt. And Sujatha’s young brother and sister had pined for her as she had pined for them. She couldn’t wait to bring them together.

‘beta, you say you will finish in chandratall in a week. I will be coming to Delhi, in a fortnight,’ her uncle told Khushi.

‘Me too,’ Shlok chimed in.

‘I also want to,’ Sudha said hesitantly.

‘I would like to me jeeji, beta. Can you arrange that?’ her uncle asked.

‘Would she like…to me meet us?’ Sudha asked.

‘Of course, maasi.’ Khushi hugged her aunt who was so unsure of everything that she needed to follow others. ‘Mummy would go mad with joy.’ Khushi told her. ‘But nana?’

‘He need not know,’ her uncle said decisively and then hurried on when Khushi as well as Shlok opened their mouths to argue. ‘He is too old to change. It would be difficult for him to change, to admit that he was wrong to have turned away from his daughter, to have thorwn her out when she needed him so much. To have lived with this hatred that refused to weaken even when his wife asked for their eldest daughter on her death bed. Too much guilt, too heavy a weight for such an old man. Let him live in his illusions, children.  But we must not live in the past. We must meet Sujata jeeji. Khushi beta, you will do that for us.’

Khushi nodded, suddenly unable to speak. It seemed so worthless – all the misunderstandings, all that hatred. She wanted to rush to Arnav and confess truth and ask him to trust her love, give her a chance. She would have rushed back at once had Sudha not insisted on meals. And then there was so much to learn and tell – minutes turned to hours and afternoon faded into late evening when Shlok and Khushi set out for Chandertaal, a little too late.

The lights of the mansion beckoned as she Khushi waved to Shlok and stepped into the gateway. As she walked through the path she taken, now nearly three months ago, she felt none of the anxiety she had felt then. It wasn’t a cold strange place that had shadowed her childhood.

Those feelings had been replaced by warmth, invitation, dreams that she had woven of the future. Chandrataal figured in all of them. It was hers. Not because Arvind Malik had willed it to her. But she no longer felt like outsider. The feeling of being rejected was gone.  She knew her father had missed her and her mother till his last breath. She had found friendship, love and warmth. And above all, she had found a man who loved her and whom she loved with all her heart. The cold air of the mountain brought a pleasant sensation of homecoming. Khushi quickened her pace, almost breaking into a jog.

Inside, as always was pleasant and warm, and eerily quiet. Khushi had seen Anjili’s car outside. That meant she and the twins were still here. How was the house so silent? Khushi felt a thread of tension stir.

There was no one in the salon. Khsuhi was about to turn and leave for her room till she caught a movement near the window seat. It was one of twins. Nisha, she knew. The girl was observing her silently.

‘Hi Nisha,’ Khushi smiled, now used to Nisha’s strange behavior. The girl did not reply as she continued to watch her fixedly. ‘Where…where is mummy?’

‘In the gallery,’ she answered and turned to the window.

‘Gallery? What is she doing there? You aren’t playing with Aditi today?’  this was  getting weirder by the minute. Anjili rarely went to the gallery in Khushi’s absence. Where was Arnav? Khushi cast a look around.

‘He is the gallery,’ Nisha answered shrewdly. ‘So is Kanchan di. I think you should go there.’

With that Nisha picked up the book that had been lying in her lap and turned away from Khushi. Khushi frowned as she walked to the gallery. Her earlier elation was replaced by a  sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach.

The door to the gallery was ajar. It creaked a bit as Khushi brushed against it and stepped into the gallery. The two women standing at the center turned to her. There was strange blankness on one face and malice on the other. But it was the man at the window beyond them who drew her eyes. the tense set of shoulders betrayed his emotions. There was something dreadfully wrong.

‘Khushi,’ Anjili whispered. Khsuhi turned to Anjili immediately. ‘Why?’

‘Why what, Anjili?’ she asked

‘Why did you do this?’

What…what did I do?

‘What did she do, she asks? How innocent. All a façade!’

‘What do you mean?’ Khushi looked frantically at Arnav who had not turned around yet.

What did you mean Ms. Khushi Gupta? What did you mean by coming here, mounting all this drama of restoration, creating relationships making a fool of us. But then we should know that it is all a game – love, friendship – knowing who you are

‘Mind your language, Kanchan. I am working here but that does not mean I am going to put up with this kind of behaviour’

‘Really. But you should be used to it or is this the first time you have fooled…’

‘Enough, Kanchan,’ Arnav’s quite voice put a stop the venom that Kanchan had been spilling. But Khushi was angry now.

‘No!’ Khushi yelled. ‘I want to know what’s wrong. Why Kanchan spewing venom and you and Anjili is are standing here listening to her.’ Arnav did not move. His eyes glittering icily in a stony face. Khushi turned frantically to Anjili. ‘What is wrong, Anjili? Will someone tell me please!’

Anjili drew a deep breath as her lips thinned. She reached out for Khushi’s hand and dragged her to the small alcove where she often worked. Her easel stood near the window. Only this morning she had finished touching the last painting and hung it on the wall of the gallery. There was another painting in the gallery.

Khushi stepped in the alcove to see it clearly and gasped. A woman in red saree standing near the edge on the mountain, smiling at the onlooker with a twinkling almond shaped eyes. She would have known the face anywhere – she saw it every day in the mirror.

But Khushi felt her heart stop as she realized it wasn’t her. She didn’t need to glance at the bottom of the painting to know the name of the model. But the single word ‘Sujata’ told her everything.

‘Anjili’ Khushi reached for Anjili’s hand but Anjili had already withdrawn. She refused to look at Khushi as she moved out of the alcove swiftly muttering something about taking the girls home.

‘Don’t go like this, listen to me?’ Khushi ran after her and held her hand.

‘I need to go, Khushi. Please’ Anjili removed her hand from her arm and moved out. Khushi tried to follow.

‘Let her go,’ Arnav’s loud clipped tone brought her back. Kanchan came swiftly to the door and stood between Khushi and Anjili who was calling for Aditi and Nisha.

Khushi turned around to Arnav. She had to make him listen. But behind those cold eyes, she could see, he had already left her.

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(CT) Chapter 18: Fears

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‘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.

‘Uh…but Nana…’

‘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.’

‘Differentiate between?’

‘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…’

‘Yes?’

‘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.

(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.

 

 

(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

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(CT) Chapter 14: Things of Beauty…

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Khushi drew the shawl closer, savouring the crisp cold air on her face. The mansion gleamed at distance. The blanket of mist was slowly taking over the mountains, shrouding them in the dark. The blurred points of light that lit the driveway to Chandrataal gave it an unreal feel. And like she did often these days, Khushi wondered if it was all real?

Today she had finished one of the pictures early in the evening and had decided to call it a day. She had been working speedily and this one was the sixth painting that she had managed to finish. Another month and she would be able to finish with the paintings in the gallery. Anjili had mentioned some others in one of the rooms upstairs, Arvind Malik’s room. But she could sense Anjili’s reluctance to go into that room. So Khushi decided to concentrate on the task at hand. As it was, she was becoming more and more tangled in the life at Chandrataal.

Of late, her life here had taken on an enchantment of its own, especially since that trip to Chanderpur two week ago. She could not deny that much of this pleasantness was due to Arnav whose mood had mellowed into something warm, delicious and dangerous. There was something about their new found friendship – an undercurrent that she was always aware of and yet could not really put her finger on. It lay behind the bright anticipation with which she went downstairs these days for the breakfast. Usually Arnav was already in the room, often with Sheetal who would go stone as Khushi entered. But Khushi brushed her aside. It was with his gruff good morning and the teasing smile that started her day.

And then there were those moments of surprise when he decided to visit the gallery unannounced. ‘To check if I am getting the money’s worth,’ he would tease. And she would tell him what a philistine he was that to see art only in terms of money. On these occassions he rarely showed any hurry to leave. HE would sit with his coffee near the window as she worked and Khushi had a hard time concentrating on the paintings.  The sun filtering through the window behind him, would light up the face and Khushi often felt reaching out for her own paint book to draw Arnav Singh Raizada. And then he would turn to look at her suddenly with that teasing smirk and she would hide behind the canvas, a red blush staining her face.

All in all, each night she told herself not to think too much about him, only to forget the admonitions in the morning as he intruded at the most unsuspecting moments of her day.

Like now.

Arnav stood a little way ahead, ready to take the walking lane she had taken about half an hour ago. He stood facing the mansion, leaning slightly against the stick strapped on his hand. There was a stoicism in the stance and Khushi could almost picture the frown on the forehead as he gazed at the house he loved so much. Her heart skipped a beat as she realized that he had come out at the time she usually took her walk.  Today she had been an hour early since she had wound up the work earlier.

Uncomfortable at butterflies that seemed to have found a new home in her stomach, Khushi wondered if she should turn around and hide behind the bend. She would wait till he had left and then go in. But it was of no use. Perhaps he had eyes at the back of his head.

‘Khushi, I see that you have finished your walk early today.’ He said still looking at Chandrataal, his back to her.

‘I..i’ her voice came out all breathless. She cleared her throat. ‘I finished the painting early today.’

He turned with a smile and Khushi felt her lips curve upwards in answer.

‘It’s kind of silent in the house today.  There is no one else,’ he said.

Despite the cold, Khushi felt warm around her ears. Anjili must have left long time back and Sheetal had returned to Chanderpur since her college reopened. Khushi was uncomfortably aware that apart from the servants, they would be the only two in the mansion today.

‘Oh..I ..I just had early dinner. I thought you were in Chanderpur, so I ate and came out. Have you eaten? I am sure Raghavan can make you something quickly. Perhaps we should go and ask…’

‘Relax.’ The teasing voice stopped her rambling. He was smiling widely now. The frown had nearly disappeared. Shoulders appeared a little straighter and the air of grimness was receding. ‘Raghavan had saved some for me. I just had my dinner. But I must say I had been expecting some company.’

‘Then you shouldn’t take it for granted, Arnav.’ Khushi recovered some of her composure. ‘You could have called me.’

‘And told you to wait?’

‘Requested me to wait for dinner.’

‘Ah…thank you for correction. Would you have agreed if I had requested?’

‘I might have. Why don’t you try your luck next time?’

‘No time like now, Khushi. If you aren’t too tired, that is. Would you join me for another round of the grounds. It’s a request.’

‘Request granted, Mr. Raizada.’ She shook her head, smiling at him. There was little she could refuse him, she realized.

They walked on silently for a while.

‘Is everything ok, Arnav?’ She asked as she remembered the tension in his stance when he was watching the mansion.

‘Why? Why do you ask?’ he replied with a question of his own.

‘Just a hunch. I thought you didn’t you look happy over here…that is before I joined you?’ she pestered.

‘Didn’t know you observed me so closely.’ It was his turn. Khushi rolled her eyes and waited for him to continue. He shook his head as if shaking off the lightness that last few minutes had brought. ‘You are right though. The trust is not ready to budge. They are going to turn Chandrataal into a heritage resort. Their plans are in full swing.’

‘Is there nothing you can do?’

‘Not much. I just own these lands. And today they offered me money to buy that. An MNC is ready to back the up their plan. That’s the reason they aren’t open to negotiation.’

‘So there is no way out?’

He pursed his lips and shook his head. ‘Not for us. But maybe, if the girl is found.’

‘You are still looking for her?’

He shrugged. ‘The lawyers think she is in Mumbai.’

The lawyers were obviously on the wrong track then. Her heart had leaped up on hearing Arnav mention the girl.

‘She could be our only hope, if she agrees to sell this to us,’ he continued. ‘But then the trust and the MNC would be making their offer too…all depends on her, that is, if she is found.’

‘And what if she falls in love with this place too.’

‘NO. she wouldn’t,’ he said cooly.

‘She wouldn’t? how do you know?’ Something in his tone annoyed her.

‘Its obvious, isn’t it? For her or her mother, this house was never important. Neither was Arvind Malik. Not once did she look back at the heart break the left in their wake. I don’t think such people can love. I am sure she would prefer taking the money and…’

‘You are being unfair to them.’ There was a ring of anger in her voice. Arnav looked at her curiously.

‘I am being unfair to them. On what basis? And you think they have been fair…’

‘But they had nothing to do with this, Arnav. It was your Baba, who…’

‘Who was a fool. The woman obviously was happy to take the money that Arvind Malik’s family offered her to leave.’

‘Offered her money? She was thrown out of the house. Pregnant. No place to go. What if she took the money? Can you blame her? There was no one with her.’ Khushi argued rashly.

Arnav gazed at her silently through narrowed eyes. ‘Why are you defending her? How do you know so much?’

‘I…I ..heard the rumours. I just feel sorry for her.’

‘Oh yes…the rumours that you find so interesting that you are hearing them all the time,’ He muttered.

Khushi stopped walking. The earlier excitement had all but faded. Her heart beat fast. She had committed a major faux pas. Yet Arnav’s tirade rankled and she could not help but defend her mother.

‘I feel tired. I …I think will go back.’ The walk would deteriorate into a fight if they continued. As she turned to walk away, Arnav reached out, with a hand on her shoulder to stop her.

The heat of his palm seeped into her skin, warming her body. Yet the anger did not recede.

‘I am sorry, Khushi’ he whispered. She remained silent, surprised by his apology. But he continued. ‘I am being unfair by taking it out on you. Please, forget it.’ She turned around to gaze at him, refusing to budge.  ‘Ok. If you…if you come a little further then….’

Then?

Well, I can show you a place. My secret getaway,’ he coaxed.

You secret getaway?

‘I often escape Anjili’s and Sheetal’s prodigious attention by just going there. Come.’ His eyes twinkled and he looked boyish.

‘Is that a bribe, Mr. Raizada?’

‘If you think of it that way’ he smiled back. ‘Come.’ this time the hand on her shoulder slipped into hers and tugged her down the lane. At the end, instead of taking the turn to continue down the lane she took everyday for the walk, Arnav pulled her on a rough mountain trail. It was a narrow trail going away from the house. They negotiated through the trail, Arnav going on clumsily over the roots of trees in the path, testing the ground with his walking stick as he his other hand held on to Khushi’s.

They came to a clear patch and Khushi gasped and then rushed ahead. In the dark of the night, the small clearing glittered with thousands of fireflies. In the mist of the mountains, it seemed they walked in clouds, with stars glittering all around lighting up the small patch with an unearthly glow. A firefly buzzed near her and Khushi reached out to touch. The creature, buzzed away, escaping her fingers. Khushi pouted and then giggled, delighted at the beauty spread before her. ‘It’s beautiful.’ She breathed.

‘Yes. Very beautiful,’ the roughness in Arnav’s voice drew her attention away from the scene. His eyes were fastened on her.

‘Th..thank you for showing me…this..this place.’  She murmured, her heart racing.

Arnav smiled and extended his hand. Khushi looked down. Between the closed fingers, there was faint light emanating in his palm. Khushi extended her hand beneath his but before she could close her fingers around the firefly, it had already floated away.

‘You missed it,’ he whispered, his warm palm now on hers. She felt reluctant to take hers away. So she did not.  Khushi took a step closer and felt the hand move up her arm to her shoulders and then up to cup her face. Khushi looked up, spellbound by the intensity of eyes, the beauty around her and then as his head lowered, she closed her eyes and lost herself.

(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.