Part 2: Arnav’s Epilogue and a Note

 

 

 

 

 

 

Please  read ‘Khushi’s Epilogue’ first.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

¨Hello and welcome to this week’s edition of the ‘People in Power’! Our first guest tonight is Silicon Valley magnate and the man who made it to  Time magazine’s list of Fifty most influential U.S entrepreneurs, Mr. Arnav Singh Raizada. Welcome, Mr. Raizada!¨

 

 

 

¨Please call me Arnav. And it’s a pleasure to be here…¨

 

 

 

¨Yours’ is an amazing success story, Arnav. Everyone knows the tale by now, of how you’ve gone from entering the States on a work visa to be a security guard, to now owning one of Silicon Valley’s topmost companies, a leader in Internet Security solutions and other ventures. But I’m sure that it hasn’t been all smooth sailing for you, has it? In fact, just three years back, A.R Corp was rumored to be in dire straits. And yet here you stand, with your name on that all-powerful list that so many aspire to. So what’s your secret, Arnav?¨

 

 

¨Just perseverance and a refusal to believe that anything can get me down. Sometimes, that’s all it takes.¨

 

 

 

¨That kind of comment is exactly the reason why many have called you one of the most arrogant men in the business, haven’t they?¨

 

 

 

¨And usually they are those who have lost out to me in some way or the other, of course.¨

 

 

 

¨That’s something else you are known for…A.R has a reputation for being ruthless.¨

 

 

 

¨I just don’t believe in wasting any opportunity that comes my way, Ms. Kapoor. And if someone is weak, they lose out to the strong. It’s the very nature of survival.¨

 

 

 

¨Getting back to your revival  a few years back, tell us more about that time, Arnav. A.R did undergo a complete transformation , did it not?¨

 

 

¨A.R restructured itself and diversified into newer, more profitable areas . And the result is there for everyone to see.¨

 

 

 

¨And one of those ventures  was an enormously profitable Molecular Biology Research Lab set up and headed by your wife. Tell us more about that, Arnav.¨

 

 

 

¨A.R Research is one of our prime earners today, and yes, I credit my wife entirely for it’s phenomenal success. She joined us after a few years of working for another firm, and her experience and initiative have helped us take this research into as yet uncharted areas. She heads that company and now employs over four hundred research and development associates for it’s various projects. We are now contemplating making it global, just as we have done with our Internet Security Solutions.¨

 

 

 

¨The pride in your voice is palpable, Arnav. And of course, we have all heard about the elusive Mrs. Raizada. Given that you are such a prominent public  figure, how do you explain her absence from the social circuit? We see the occasional photograph in a public gathering, but she isn’t always at your side, is she?¨

 

 

 

¨Nor does she need to be, Ms. Kapoor. My wife has a life and priorities of her own, and she prefers to spend as much time as she possibly can with her family, when she isn’t at her Lab. As do I, but there are certain obligations that I have to fulfill, and that is why you will see me out and about much more than her.¨

 

 

 

¨You have been known to be extremely protective of your family. Not much is known about them, and there are virtually no photographs of your son…¨

 

 

 

¨That is by design, Ms. Kapoor. I want my son to grow up in an entirely normal fashion, and exposure to the limelight isn’t something that is going to help with that objective. When we spend time together as a family, we take every precaution to keep things private.¨

 

 

¨Yes, you have a reputation for being ruthless with the paparazzi. But don’t you think that doing so only fuels their eagerness to get the latest scoop?¨

 

 

 

¨It’s their job to do exactly that, and I understand. However, it is my job to protect my own, and I have always done everything I can to accomplish that. If that includes not answering intrusive questions and employing bodyguards at all times, then that’s what I’ll do. Have done, to be precise.¨

 

 

 

¨Does this have anything to do with what happened years ago, when your car was involved in an accident due to a brush with the paparazzi in Tahoe?¨

 

 

 

¨You have excellent sources, Ms. Kapoor. I did not think that something that happened over ten years ago would still hold your attention. But to answer your question, yes, that incident served as a reminder of just what I had to lose. And I’m not willing to let that happen again, ever.¨

 

 

 

¨So what does the future hold for A.R? What are your plans and ambitions for the company?¨

 

 

 

¨As I’ve said already, we intend to expand our research branch and set up ventures in a few other countries. In fact, we are looking at some opportunities right here in Delhi at the moment. ¨

 

 

 

¨Is that the only reason for your visit to India? We have heard rumors that your wife…¨

 

 

 

¨I have never confirmed or denied mere rumors, Ms. Kapoor. And I don’t intend to start now. My family is here on a visit to our ancestral home in Delhi , and expansion is something we are looking into while we are here. That’s all there is to it.¨

 

 

 

¨Finally, we would like to hear more about your gift to Stanford just before you left, Arnav. What was the reason behind that?¨

 

 

 

¨The ‘Devyani Memorial  Scholarship for International Students’ is  a fund we have set up in memory of my grandmother, who passed away this year. The purpose is to help those graduate and doctoral students who may otherwise not be able to afford studies in an exclusive university like Stanford. And we chose that institute because it is my wife’s alma mater. In fact, we intend to take this further and set up an educational foundation that will cover other colleges as well. We will be sending out a press release when we are ready , and in all probability, my wife will lead this initiative as well.¨

 

 

 

¨I’m sure that this will be a wonderful thing for many students who arrive there with dreams of studying at the best institutes, Arnav. We wish you all the best with that! We have more questions for you but before we continue, please join me in welcoming my other guest for tonight, acclaimed producer and head of India’s premier Film Studios, Mr…¨

 

 

 

 

______

 

 

 

I tune out whatever the T.V anchor is saying, and discreetly loosen my tie as the camera swings away from us to pan over the portly man in the kurta who is now entering the studio. The harsh lights of the recording studio are making me sweat, and I cannot wait to get away. 

I realize that freedom is still a good half hour away, and there are  a few more questions that I will need to answer before I am allowed to leave.

 

Once again, I curse my P.R team who thought that it was a good idea to announce the arrival of A.R.Corp in India by my appearance in India’s top-rated celebrity talk show. I usually avoid these interviews, but in this instance, I had been persuaded by my P.R people to do otherwise.

 

I take a deep breath, trying to concentrate on what the host is saying now. She talks to the other man for a few more minutes, and then turns to me with more predictable questions.

 

When the recording is finally complete, I wait only until the microphone wires are detached before thanking the host and walking out quickly. After  a briefing with my P.R head, I am finally led out to the black Mercedes where Dhruv awaits, alert as always to his surroundings and mine. He opens the door and I sigh in relief as I step into the air-conditioned exterior, a welcome relief after the lights of the studio.

 

 

¨Home, ASR?¨

 

 

 

¨Yes. And step on it, I can’t afford to be late.¨

 

 

 

Dhruv pulls out into the late  afternoon traffic, and I find myself cursing the show  again as I recall just why I am late today. The other guest had arrived two hours later than scheduled, and I had barely been able to keep myself in check when he had sauntered past without an apology to me or the production team.

 

As a result of his tardiness, I am pressed for time as we head towards Shantivan, the congested streets offering no respite as Dhruv tries hard to get through.

 

 

I lean back in my seat, closing my eyes as my thoughts go back to Nani. 

Her death has struck us hard, coming as a horrific shock when doctors had given her a clean bill of health just a few months back. 

I find myself  feeling grateful that I had been given those months with Nani. She had started making longer and longer trips to the States after her great -grand kids had arrived, and the happiness in her eyes was something that I will remember forever.

 

But now she is gone, and Shantivan is empty…a desolate reminder of the family that had once lived and laughed here. 

It was Khushi’s idea to come here at this time, and I had decided to add my expansion plans to the agenda at the same time.

 

Khushi…

 

 

As always, even the thought of her puts a smile on my face, and I find myself grinning like an idiot as I recall the plans for today.

 

If I’m not too late, of course.

 

 

 

¨How much further, Dhruv?¨

 

 

¨Ten minutes, I think. If we don’t get held up at these signals…¨

 

 

 

 

I curse under my breath, then pull out my phone and debate calling her to let her know that I’m going to be late. A moment later, I put the phone back in my pocket.

I am still not brave enough to face a furious Khushi, even after a decade of being married to her.

 

 

Ten years…

 

 

It’s hard to believe that ten whole years have passed since I saw her for the very first time, in this exact same city. 

Ten years that have been filled with laughter and arguments and passion…and yes, heartbreak and despair as well.

 

I pull out the phone again, clicking it open to see the family portrait that serves as my wallpaper.

I am standing in front of our home in Palo Alto, and Khushi is seated on the bench before me.

 

And straddling the back of the bench with a mischievous grin in place is our son, Advay Raizada.

 

My pride and joy…and the reason why we went through hell six years ago.

 

 

I look out the window, but this time, I don’t see the heavy crush of vehicles or the passing storefronts.

Instead, my mind serves up the horrified reminder of what it felt like to stand in the hospital corridor on that fateful night six years ago, staring at the middle-aged obstetrician who was explaining what had just happened inside.

 

 

 

¨You know that we had suspected a placental abruption an hour back, Mr. Raizada. The placenta had started tearing away from her uterus and the bleeding was very heavy, so we had decided on an emergency C-section…¨

 

 

¨I know all that! My…our son is fine, isn’t he? The pediatric resident just came out and told me that he was, despite being born a few weeks early…¨

 

 

 

¨Your son is doing well, considering the circumstances of his birth. He will still need to be kept in the NICU, though. But that isn’t what we need to discuss at the moment. What I need to tell you is this: after I had delivered the child, we were unable to get the bleeding to stop. Despite our best measures, your wife’s condition continued to deteriorate and we had no choice but to perform a hysterectomy…¨

 

 

 

The implications of that word hadn’t really sunk in then.

My world had come to a halt when the doctor had told me that they were taking Khushi to the ICU, where she would be monitored through the night.

A night of hell, for me…as I watched her pale, still face through the glass…as I prayed to a God that I didn’t believe in , for the first time in my life.

 

I still remember falling to my knees in gratitude and sheer relief when they had finally informed me that she was out of danger. A week later, we were allowed to take our son home and for some time, we allowed ourselves to bask in the miracle of his presence.

 

Until the truth had hit us, and hit us hard…when we realized that Khushi could never get pregnant again.

 

She had been depressed, could see that clearly, even though she had hidden it bravely and thrown herself into caring for Advay. He had become the light of her life…and mine.

 

Over the years, we have managed to come to terms with the fact that we will not have any more children. Advay fills our lives with joy and laughter, and we have convinced ourselves that he is all we will ever need.

 

Or so I had thought.

 

 

When Khushi had planned this trip to India, she had hesitantly informed me one night that she had an ulterior motive for going there. 

My first reaction had been disbelief when she had asked if we could do what Anjali Di had done all those years ago…adopt a child in India.

 

I did not know if I was ready for that…ready to bring home a child that wasn’t my own. The entire concept was hard to grasp, even though I had known and loved Di’s adopted daughter for years now.

 

And then Khushi had dropped the other bombshell.

 

 

She had told me how it had terrified her when the doctors had asked us to be prepared for developmental delays in Advay, a result of his traumatic birth. We have been lucky enough to escape that consequence, since Advay is now a healthy, happy six year old.

 

But Khushi had never  forgotten that he might have been physically or mentally challenged in some way.

 

The plight of such children concerns her greatly, and she has come to the realization that we might have the means to make one such child’s life normal in some ways, by giving him or her a home and the family that they have never had.

And since coming here, she has approached several adoption agencies looking for one such child, and had finally found an orphanage where a five month old baby girl had just been registered. 

A baby that was born with congenital blindness…

 

I  look down at my hands, only to find that they are clenched tight.

 

Khushi’s heart is set on adopting the little girl,and I am know that I will do anything to give her what she wants…as always.

 

And yet, there is a splinter of doubt in my heart that I just cannot dislodge…

 

 

Am I ready to take up this responsibility?

 

 

Will I even be able to?

 

 

 

Over the years, I have learned to open myself up to all the joys and trials and rewards of being a husband and a father. I have learned to give myself freely , and to accept their feelings in return.

 

I have changed…and I like this new Arnav Singh Raizada, because he is  a man who isn’t afraid of letting go and taking chances.

 

But is this one step too far?

 

 

A child such as this one deserves all the care in the world, and I don’t know if I can do that…

 

I have spoken to Khushi about this, of course. And she has assured me that such doubts are normal when we are contemplating an unconventional mode of action. 

She has the confidence in me, even when I don’t…

 

It has been the same through the years.

When A.R ran into difficulties a  few years ago and I was at my wits’ end, she was the one who stood by my side, willing me on…urging me to fight…and finally coming on board with a plan to diversify into research, something that has paid rich dividends over the years.

 

She was the one who gave me the courage to deal with Nani’s death…yes, she has been there with me through it all.

 

And yet, is this going to be enough?

 

 

Is the little girl going to find a good father in me, or will she find me lacking in some way?

 

I am still pondering those questions when I find that we have pulled up outside Shantivan…it’s back door, to be precise.

 

 

¨ASR, you need to get in there now!¨

 

 

Dhruv’s panicked tone makes me glance at my watch, and I realize that he is right. The drive back home has taken longer than we had expected, and I am now going to be late unless I dash upstairs soon…

 

Wrenching open the back door, I head for the stairs, and start thanking my lucky stars that there isn’t anyone about.

 

 

¨Bitwa?¨

 

 

I stop in my tracks, my mother-in-laws hesitant voice coming from somewhere in front.

 

 

 

¨Yes?¨

 

 

 

¨Are you just coming in now?! Khushi is ready, if she finds out that…¨

 

 

 

¨She won’t. I’m just going to run up and change.¨

 

 

 

She smiles, and shakes her head at me.

 

Over the years, we have developed  a relationship of mutual respect, cemented by her frequent visits every year. She had come down with Nani most of the times, preferring to return to her home in Bangalore despite being urged by Khushi and me to live permanently with us in the States.

 

I find myself grimacing as I remember why.

 

 

Payal.

 

 

Khushi’s sister has had a tough time through the past ten years, and their mother has done everything she could to be by her side. The relationship between the sisters has settled into an uneasy truce, but Khushi hasn’t been able to help as much as she would have , years ago.

Payal has been in and out of treatment for depression, even after the birth of her twins four years ago. Since then, she has confided in her mother that her marriage with Akash has broken down completely, and that they have been staying together only for their childrens’ sake.

Khushi has been worried for her sister, but just like before, she knows that only her sister can mend the relationship with her husband. On this visit, she has even asked her mother to see if Payal and Akash can be persuaded to accompany us to the States, in the hope that they might find the time and opportunity to give their marriage another chance.

Her mother is reluctant to do this, though, and the matter has been put off until a few more days.

 

 

 

 

¨Bitwa, you’d better hurry…¨

 

 

I nod quickly and turn to the stairs, only to find that Di is coming down with a bunch of flowers on one arm.

 

 

¨Arnav! You’re still here!¨

 

 

I sigh. ¨Long story, Di. I’m going to shower and change now. Is everyone ready?¨

 

 

 

¨Samhita and Shyam are outside already. I’m just going there myself, I had just called Jane to check on how Sheetal and Laksmiji were doing…¨

 

 

I smile at the mention of her old parakeet couple. Age has mellowed Sheetal, but Di still loves her just as much as she did all those years ago, and so does her daughter.

 

 

 

¨Gotta go, Di. And stall Khushi if you see her…¨

 

 

Minutes later, I am in my bedroom, undressing on the way as I head into the shower.

I lather up quickly and rinse off in a hurry before toweling myself dry and walking out the closet, where a black bandgala jacket awaits in all it’s Lucknowi glory.

 

 

 

I dress myself quickly and run a comb through my hair, just as the door opens.

 

 

 

¨Dad?¨

 

 

 

I whirl around to face my son, a miniature version of me with his dark eyes and darker hair…or so Khushi claims. Personally, I feel like he has inherited that mischievous gleam in his eye from his mother.

 

 

¨Did you just come home now? Mom thought that you were here in your room hours ago…¨

 

 

 

¨If we don’t tell her, she’ll never know. Now come on, let’s get…¨

 

 

 

¨You’re going to lie to Mom?¨

 

 

 

I look over at him, and yes, that mischief is readily apparent.

 

 

I sigh.

 

 

¨No, Advay. I’m just not going to…tell her the truth. It isn’t the same thing.¨

 

 

 

¨And what about me?¨

 

 

 

¨You?¨

 

 

 

¨I can’t…not tell Mom the truth. She’ll figure it out like she always does. And then, no more transformers for a month.¨

 

 

 

I stare down at him in disbelief.

 

 

 

¨What the hell are you saying?¨

 

 

 

¨Don’t swear, Dad. That’s one more thing on the list of what I can’t tell Mom.¨

 

 

 

His entire body is quivering with mischievous anticipation now,and I glance at my watch again, knowing that I have to play along before it’s too late.

 

 

 

¨I don’t have time for games, boy. Tell me what you want to keep your mouth closed.¨

 

 

 

He strolls down towards me, his mouth quirking in a smile that is an echo of my own.

 

 

 

¨I am not blackmailing you, Dad. I just want something in return for the transformers I might lose out on…¨

 

 

 

¨That’s the definition of blackmail, you little monster. Now out with it!¨

 

 

Suddenly, all the mischief is gone.

His eyes are serious and…sad?

 

 

I go up to him immediately, my heart pounding in concern.

 

 

¨Advay? What is it? What do you want? You know that I will give you anything you ask for, right?¨

 

 

 

He stares at me for a long moment, then blurts out impulsively.

 

 

 

¨Can I have that  sister you and Mom were talking about?¨

 

 

 

I still in surprise, knowing that we haven’t shared this with him yet.

 

 

 

¨A…sister? Do you really want one?¨

 

 

He shrugs, feigning nonchalance.

 

 

 

¨I thought that it would be nice. You know, like Samhita…only smaller. I could teach her to play with my transformers. Samhita won’t, she only likes those barbies and…yeah. It would be fun to have a new sister.¨

 

 

 

In that instant, I know what I have to do.

All  my doubts and fears and insecurities are wiped away in one moment, vanquished by one little boy’s appeal for a sibling…in his belief that this is right.

 

But there’s something else he needs to know.

 

 

 

¨Advay, this sister…she won’t be the same as Samhita. Not entirely, because she is…¨

 

 

 

¨…blind . I know. I heard that word and I asked Nani what it means. I don’t mind, Dad. I can hold her hand until she’s older, then we’ll get her a special dog. They’re cool, I saw it on Kids’ discovery.¨

 

 

 

I smile at his obvious solution, knowing that in his heart, it’s just that simple.

He wants this sister, and nothing else matters.

 

 

I know now that he isn’t like me at all.

His generous spirit is his mothers’.

 

 

¨We’ll talk to your Mom, okay? And then we’ll go see her together and find out if she wants to come  home with us.¨

 

 

 

He nods enthusiastically, and then his eyes light up.

 

 

 

¨Dad? You should see Mom! She’s all dressed up and she looks like a princess! Not the disney one, she looks like a …a rajk…¨

 

 

 

¨…a rajkumaari?¨

 

 

¨Yes! Like one of those paintings in the museum we went to yesterday. She’s awesome!¨

 

 

 

I smile again, then straighten up at the reminder.

 

 

 

¨She’s going to be mad if we stay here any longer. Why don’t you go down to your Nani and I’ll follow in a minute?¨

 

 

Advay nods quickly and rushes out the door, and I walk out too, heading towards the other end of the corridor.

 

My feet take me towards the door at the other end, even though I know that I shouldn’t be here.

 

 

I knock once, push open the door, and all it takes is just one glimpse.

 

Everything falls away, and I forget all the pain of the past, and the uncertainties of the future.

 

 

They just don’t matter anymore… because I have seen the sight that I have been craving all day.

 

 

 

Khushi.

 

 

My wife stands before me, dressed in a  maroon bridal lehenga. The design is simple, yet exquisite. A strand of diamonds rests at her throat, and as she whirls to face me, her red gemstone bangles chime wildly.

 

 

¨Arnav? ¨

 

 

¨Hi.¨

 

 

 

She sighs.

 

 

 

¨You just couldn’t stay away, could you? Even after I asked you to.¨

 

 

 

I walk up to her, then take her hand in mine for a gentle kiss.

 

 

 

¨I didn’t want to do anything too traditional, after all. It doesn’t suit our relationship.¨

 

 

 

¨Arnav…we are just about to go down to the mandap and take our pheras. You can’t get more traditional than that!¨

 

 

 

¨It’s just a small ceremony before our families, Khushi. What are we calling it again? A renewal of vows?¨

 

 

 

¨It’s not a renewal. It’s the first time that we are making them, as you very well know. And I thought that you were okay with this?¨

 

 

 

I smile, then take her in my arms.

 

 

 

¨I wanted you to have this, Khushi. Ever since the day  you said you wanted to.¨

 

 

 

¨I never said anything of the sort!¨

 

 

 

¨Not with words, you didn’t. But do you think I haven’t learned to read you over the years? We may have had an unconventional relationship and broken a few rules to reach where we are today, but I know that you haven’t given up on this one dream. You cannot lie with your eyes, Khushi. When Advay was looking at Di’s wedding pictures and asked why you didn’t have any in a wedding dress, I saw the flash of regret that you couldn’t quite hide. You…you have given me the freedom to do what I want…to be with you the way I want to over the years. And you have liked that freedom too…but there’s still a part of you that wanted it this way. I could see that. And it might have taken me a decade, but I was going to make sure you got what you wanted.¨

 

 

 

¨You did all this because of…a fleeting glimpse you saw in my eyes?¨

 

 

 

¨Yes. You know that I always will, don’t you?¨

 

 

 

¨I…I thought that you were doing this because it was Naniji’s last wish! To see us married in Shantivan…¨

 

 

 

I shrug.

 

 

 

¨Well, there’s that too. But I wouldn’t have done it if it was only for that reason. Nani asked us to consider it, she would never have forced us to do so. I only arranged all this because…because I never want to see that look again, Khushi. The one where you secretly yearn for something…¨

 

 

 

¨You’re a crazy man, Mr.Raizada.¨

 

 

Her eyes are swimming with tears now, and I wipe them away gently.

 

 

 

¨And one more thing. We are going ahead with that adoption.¨

 

 

 

¨We…are? And you are…okay with it?¨

 

 

 

¨I’m more than okay with it. I don’t even know why I had all those doubts anymore. If a little boy can have the strength to do this, then so can I.¨

 

 

 

¨Little boy? What are you…¨

 

 

 

¨Long story, Khushi. Let’s get this ceremony over with, then we can sit down and discuss this in detail. Now come…¨

 

 

 

I take her hand and start walking towards the door, but she pulls me to  a stop.

 

 

 

¨Wait. I didn’t thank you for your wedding gift. And I’m not talking about the diamonds.¨

 

 

 

I grin, thinking about the tiny little excuses for lingerie that I have bought  for tonight.

 

 

 

¨You’re welcome. And you can wear them tonight, when we…¨

 

 

 

Her lips curve into a wicked, enticing smile.

 

 

 

¨Tonight? What makes you think I’m not wearing them right now, Arnav?¨

 

 

 

All the blood in my body rushes south at the image, and I pull her into my arms.

 

 

 

¨Show me.¨

 

 

 

 

Her eyes widen in shock.

 

 

¨Now?¨

 

 

 

¨Yes. Right this minute.¨

 

 

 

¨Arnav, the muhurat is in fifteen minutes and we can’t be late!¨

 

 

 

¨Then it will have to be  a quickie, won’t it? Like that time in the jet…¨

 

 

 

¨You are a lecherous old man, Mr. Raizada.¨

 

 

 

I tighten my grip around her waist, crushing her breasts against my chest and making sure that she feels my growing erection against her body.

 

 

 

 

¨I’m forty, Mrs. Raizada. Still young enough to possess a more than adequate…shaatir dimaag.¨

 

 

 

Her eyes widen further, if that is even possible.

 

 

 

¨You still remember that

 

 

 

¨I haven’t forgotten a single thing you’ve ever said to me, Khushi.¨

 

 

 

She parts her lips to respond, but I stop her by the simple expedient of crushing her mouth with mine.

 

She stills for a moment, but then her arms wind around my neck and she is lost.

 

 

 

 

 

 

We are late for our own wedding.

 

Everyone stares at the bride’s mussed hair and disheveled dupatta, but neither of us cares.

 

 

She looks up at me as we sit down before the fire, and a secretive smile plays on her lips.

 

 

I’m pretty sure that no traditional bride has ever looked at her husband in quite that way, and so I wink.

 

 

 

She looks down at the fire to hide her blush, and I look down at it too.

 

 

Every moment from the past ten years flashes before my eyes, and one single question stands out.

 

 

 

Have I found my love?

 

 

Is this my love…my partner…my wife?

 

 

 

I shake my head, knowing that those words barely even begin to describe what she means to me.

 

 

I look up at her again, and find that Advay is now seated in his mother’s lap, much to the Pandit’s chagrin.

 

 

 

Traditional?

 

 

Never.

 

 

I stare at my little family, and think about the one who will be joining us soon.

 

 

And then I meet the hazel eyes that made all this happen.

 

 

In that moment, I have my answer.

 

 

She isn’t just my wife, or soul-mate…or someone I love.

 

 

 

She is my entire reason for living.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

*****************THE END******************

 

 

 

 

 

 

A/N:


To every single reader who has been with me since I posted my first story, every silent reader who has enjoyed my writing, every new reader who has joined me for a new tale, every single one of you who has taken the time to drop in a comment, to all the members of the Baaraati CC, ..thank you, thank you so very much.
Words feel inadequate here really. Will you all ever know how you have inspired and encouraged someone you have never met to step out of her comfort zone and write fiction, something that she had never ever done before?I really, truly hope that you all are aware that every single word that I have written was dedicated to you, to every single reader out  there.Thank you for the feedback, positive, critical, humorous, and speculative. Thank you for bearing with all the delays, and thank you for giving me the freedom to indulge my creativity. I feel incredibly lucky to have had your support for so long…
It is with a heavy heart that I have to inform you that I will not be writing fan-fiction after my last Tale for ‘ArHi Tales: Khwahishein’, which will be posted within this next week.This decision is not something that I have made lightly. My asli duniya requires my complete and undivided attention at the moment, and this is one of the reasons why I have decided to stop writing ArHi fanfics after the Tale. However, I do have some ideas about some other genres that I am planning to experiment with, if I find the time to do so, of course. If and when that happens, I will come back to this blog and I truly hope that you will support me as you have been doing until now.
But until then, it is goodbye to Arnav and Khushi for me. Saying this is very, very difficult for me, and I can only hope that you will understand. They are the only characters who have inspired me to write, and saying farewell isn’t easy …I know that this will disappoint you all, and I sincerely apologize for doing this. 
I will be taking down all my stories from the forum shortly, and will not be active there after posting ‘A Tale of New Beginnings’. However, I will answer all PMs and scraps for a few more weeks and will not be deactivating my account.
This blog and the blogs for my other stories will always remain open, unless I have to temporarily close them for editing. 
I would love to stay in touch with anyone who is interested in doing so, you can  comment on this blog, follow me on Twitter@patronus31, or email me : expel2012@gmail.com.

The last two ArHi stories that I will be writing are :

‘A Tale of New Beginnings’ for ‘Khwahishein’  here:
 http://arhitalesbyexpelandthemagpie.wordpress.com/


And a deleted scene from ‘Shaadi’ , which will go up here: 
 http://shaadibyexpel.wordpress.com/excerpt-mandap/

Here is the link to my blog index, which contains links to everything that I have written so far:

http://expelspells.wordpress.com/



I will see you all  in a few days with these last stories and will be active on the forum until then.

Will I ever come back to Arnav and Khushi? I cannot honestly answer that at this point. If I ever do, at some point in the future, I hope and pray that my wonderful readers will return and support me as before.
Once again, thank you for being there for me…I think I love you all!


-Juhi.




P.S: For the first time ever, I would like to request each one of you to leave me a comment here , even if it is just one line. It will be an immense source of inspiration to me to have this permanent record of everyone who has read this story.Thank you!

Part One-Khushi’s Epilogue

Khushi’s Epilogue

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

¨Khushi, did you try the crepes yet? I ordered them especially for you, Arnav told me that they were your favorite when I asked him about desserts…¨

 

 

 

I know that I am blushing as I recall just how he knows that, and quickly turn towards the buffet  spread before Anjali Di can see my flaming cheeks.

 

 

 

¨Not yet, Di…but I will. Everything looks delicious and I’m spoiled for choice here!¨

 

 

Di laughs before looking around at her husband who has just joined us.

 

 

¨It wasn’t entirely my doing, Khushi. Shyam was in charge of planning the menu too, and the decorations were entirely his idea.¨

 

 

I allow my gaze to wander around their beautifully lit backyard where the glow of myriad fairy-lights competes with the diffused light of the moon . The white tablecloths and  flower arrangements on the buffet tables are tasteful and elegant, and the menu is impeccable. Couples and families are scattered around the large lawn area, and the murmur of conversation floats around us like the night mist that is just beginning to descend.

 

The entire effect is magical , and I find myself overwhelmed that Di and Shyam have gone to all this trouble on our behalf.

 

 

¨I know that, Di…but really, there was no need. You didn’t have to do all this…not when you are getting ready to leave for India…¨

 

 

¨That’s exactly why I wanted to do this, Khushi! Our India trip starts next week and if all goes well, we will have our little bundle of joy when we return. And God knows that we will never have time for all this then…besides, it is your one year anniversary. How could we let that pass?¨

 

 

I smile back at her, amazed at how much she has come to mean to me in such a short span of time. In the four months since our return from Greece, I have visited her often, and we have grown closer…closer than my own sister is to me at the moment.

 

Payal…

 

The memory of her name brings a strange ache to my chest. I recall the one stilted phone call she made to me a few weeks back, in which she attempted to apologize for her behavior. I had answered her as best as  I could, but it was then that I had finally recognized the startling truth.

 

There was no going back.

 

 

The relationship between me and Payal had been irrevocably altered, and we could never go back to the way things had been between us. And I also realized that both Amma and Arnav had been right, after all.

When she had been forced to handle things on her own, Payal had been left with no choice but to grow up, and grow up fast. The composure in her voice and the very fact that she has called me of her own volition is proof of that fact. That brief call made me realize that she was finally on the right track, one slow, torturous step at a time.

The only source of disquiet comes from Amma, who tells me that although Payal’s treatment has been going well, her relations within her husbands’ home continue to be soured. Her mother in law hasn’t exactly been giving her a hard time, but it seems like the past continues to haunt Payal even to this day. Akash’s mother hasn’t been able to move past what has occurred, and it is unlikely that she ever will. The only ray of hope is Akash himself, who is still a steadfast , dependable presence in my sister’s life.

 

Against all my instincts, I have tried very hard to keep to my decision about not interfering in her life…and I have succeeded. No matter what happens in her personal life now, Payal is on her own. Although this fact still causes me unease, I remind myself that it is for her own good.

 

Her life is now her own, just as it should be.

 

 

¨Earth to Khushi!¨

 

 

Di’s laughing voice snaps me out of my introspection, and I realize that she has been saying something to me all this while.

 

 

¨Sorry Di, I was…¨

 

 

¨Thinking about my brother?¨

 

 

She laughs at my crimson cheeks, and her husband rolls his eyes.

 

 

¨You still think that your brother is quite the catch, don’t you? Don’t worry, Khushi. I know that life with that workaholic brother in law of mine can’t be all that easy, can it? ¨

 

 

I shake my head, marveling at the change in this relationship as well. It appears that the passage of time has done it’s bit in convincing Shyam Jha that I am not a threat to Arnav after all, and he has thawed considerably in his behavior. Although he is still reserved around me most of the time, there are instances like these when he reveals his subtle sense of humor, reassuring me that all is well between us.

 

 

Before I can answer, Di turns to her husband.

 

 

¨He treats her like a queen, can’t you see that? And she deserves it, of course. In all the ways that matter, these two are made for each other. I knew it the first time we met,Khushi…I can’t believe it’s been one year already!¨

 

 

Her bright smiles are infectious, and I find myself thanking the almighty that she smiles so often these days. The past few months have not been easy for them as they tried to start the lengthy adoption procedure here before being disheartened by the wait-time. It was then that they had started thinking about adopting a baby from India, and this trip had been planned after an adoption agency in Mumbai had informed them that a mother of two had signed on for her third pregnancy, a child she no longer wanted. The Jhas had been eager and ready to accept this welcome gift, and had immediately made plans to fly out to Mumbai.

 

But before they did that, they had insisted on throwing us this party on our anniversary, one that was being held at their home. Di has insisted on keeping the details a surprise, and only the guest list was something that we had been consulted on. There were friends of both our families in attendance tonight, along with  a few of Arnav’s colleagues and my friends from University. 

Also at this party is Naniji, who has been here from the past one month and is now returning to India with Di. 

I look across at her now, her ivory silk saree gleaming in the moonlight. Through the past one month, she and I have grown close too, a fact that I am thankful for. The two weeks that she had spent in our mansion were unforgettable ones, and I find myself missing her cheerful voice now that she is spending these last few days in Di’s house.

 

Yes, the past four months have been good for me.

 

I have gained a family, and my professional life has never looked better.

 

But most of all, the relationship that I prize above all else has taken on  a new dimension altogether.

 

 

My eyes meet his across the lawn, and I know that he has been watching me for quite some time.

Dressed in a night-black suit, Arnav Singh Raizada looks like a sleek, suave predator, his gaze devouring me from afar.

 

However, I have no intention of letting myself get caught…yet.

 

Deliberately, I turn back to Di.

 

 

¨Yes, it’s been an incredible year,  Di. And I hope that the coming one brings you all that you have ever wished for…¨

 

 

I lean forward to give her a hug, and she laughs as she holds me close for a moment.

 

 

¨I hope so, Khushi…I really do!¨

 

 

In that instant, I know that someone has joined our little group.

Someone who has the power to make me tremble with need…someone who sets me on fire with a glance.

 

 

¨Khushi?¨

 

 

I turn slowly to face him, and take in a sharp breath at the banked desire in his eyes.

 

 

 

¨There’s someone I want you to meet. Come…¨

 

 

He offers me his hand, and I take it reluctantly.

Touching him at the moment is not part of my plan for tonight, but I no longer have any option.

 

The warmth of his body burns through the silk-chiffon material of my ankle length dress, and I struggle to keep up with him while my feet are strapped into four inch stilettos.

 

The next half hour passes in a daze as he introduces me to several people, and then we meet others who I know already from the party we had thrown in our own mansion. Food and drinks are being passed around again, and I try to sample everything that Di has chosen with such care.

 

But is hard…very hard.

I find it impossible to maintain a semblance of calm when my body is so attuned to every movement of his, and my skin is prickling with his proximity.

 

And judging by his hooded glances and deliberate, glancing touches, he knows it too.

 

 

Taking a deep breath, I make my excuses and move towards Naniji, unwilling to give in so soon.

 

He doesn’t follow me immediately, although I can still feel his eyes upon me , burning on the bare skin of my back.

 

 

I cannot wait for this evening to end.

 

 

An hour later, that moment has finally arrived, and we say our goodbyes to Di, Shyam and Nani after all the guests have left. I sneak in a look at Sheetal and Laksmiji, both of whom are now asleep.

When I walk back outside, Arnav is standing beside the Porsche, and Dhruv is already seated inside.

 

 

¨Ready?¨

 

 

I nod in some trepidation, and then slide inside, leaning back against the black leather as he gets in from the other side. Dhruv pulls out at once, and I wave at Di until she’s out of sight.

 

 

And then we’re alone, and I feel that change in the atmosphere again.

 

 

I resolutely keep my gaze fastened on the passing vista outside, and I sense his growing puzzlement as he tries to figure out just why I am being so elusive today.

 

 

Patience, Mr. Raizada.

 

 

I don’t say that aloud, but I want to.

 

 

I know that he is frustrated…but then, so am I.

 

 

The past four months have been an exercise in patience, to say the least. The leashed desire between us is impossible to ignore, but he has respected my wishes by not demanding more than I am willing to give.

 

And yet, we have come so close to giving in…

 

My face heats up in the cool confines of the car as I recall the one time we had ended up kissing passionately in the back seat of the limo before he had drawn back abruptly, lowering the privacy screen before being overcome by temptation again.

And then there was the other time in my bedroom, where we had found ourselves in an intimate embrace against the door before he had stopped things from going any further.

 

These restrictions aren’t solely mine, of course.

When we returned from Greece, we had talked again about our physical relationship and how it tended to overshadow everything else. It was then that we had made the mutual decision to abstain, at least until we had a chance to allow the other aspects of our relationship to grow and mature as they should.

 

And that plan has worked…to an extent.

 

I have seen the changes in Arnav, subtle…but present all the same. He is back to being the man I fell in love with…and yet, there is a difference. He seems more open, more willing to go with the flow…willing to take chances and allow things to lead where they may. He doesn’t stay back at work later than he has to, and we spend our evenings and weekends together , just like we used to before.

 

And this has led me to realize that my husband is just like an untamed falcon…a magnificent creature who should never be bound, but allowed to fly free at will.

And when I let him do just that, he returns to me in exhilaration, every single time.

 

When I had made my decision in Greece, I has still harbored some doubts, despite the brave face that I had put on for him at the time.

 

Could I really give up on the idea of a traditional marriage for  a while?

 

 

Was I the sort of person who could stay in a relationship that wasn’t bound by any promises?

 

 

All those questions had plagued me then…but not anymore.

 

 

In doing what I did, I have realized that Arnav isn’t the only one who has changed.

 

I have been altered, too.

 

 

The past four months have taught me that my priorities are now different, that what had once seemed like a compromise, now appeared to give me an unprecedented freedom as well.

Now that I wasn’t shackled by rules or a contract, I could allow myself to love him like I wanted to, to throw myself into this relationship with all my heart, knowing that he was doing the same.

 

 

Yes, this freedom has shown me  a new side of myself, an unexplored facet of Khushi Arnav Raizada that I had never seen before.

 

Because I was the falcon’s mate, after all.

 

 

Our relationship is slowly maturing into one where trust  and understanding play the most important roles, and I find that with each step taken along this path, my earlier decision is being validated.

 

 

And tonight, it is time to take the next step.

 

 

The drive home is accomplished in silence, and I step out of the car quickly when Dhruv pulls up by the front door. When we step inside the darkened hallway, Arnav pulls me to a stop.

 

 

¨Is everything alright?¨

 

 

I stare up at him, this complex man who is now my entire world.

And in his eyes, I see that new emotion…one that reassures me about what I am planning to do tonight.

 

I nod once, then head towards the kitchen.

 

 

¨I’m fine. Would you like  a drink before heading upstairs?¨

 

 

¨Sure.¨

 

 

I turn on the kitchen lights, then walk over to the wine cooler before turning to him again.

 

 

¨What would you like?¨

 

 

¨Just some water, I think. I’ll get it…¨

 

 

¨Wait, I’ll do it.¨

 

 

 

He looks at me in surprise, but stops anyway.

 

 

We are separated by the length of the kitchen island, and I surreptitiously wipe my hands on my dress as I walk over to the water jug. Filling a tall glass with water, I walk over to him.

He takes it from me, but doesn’t raise it to his lips.

 

Instead, he stares at me as if he is trying to decode a mystery.

 

 

I gather all my courage and step away again, so that the island lies between us as before.

 

 

I look away for a moment, my heart racing as I brace myself for what I am going to do next.

 

 

When I look back up at him, he has placed the glass aside and is staring at me with a raised eyebrow.

 

I rush into speech.

 

 

¨Take off your jacket.¨

 

 

His eyes widen in shock.

 

 

¨What?¨

 

 

 

¨Your jacket, Mr. Raizada. Take it off, and then undo your tie as well.¨

 

 

¨Khushi? What are…¨

 

 

¨Just do it. Now.¨

 

 

He still looks puzzled, but slowly, his hand moves up to his tie, pulling at the knot before raising it above his head. He shrugs out of his jacket, then takes one step towards me.

 

 

¨No! You can’t come near me…there will be no touching.¨

 

 

¨What? I…¨

 

 

 

I see the instant that it dawns on him…as his own words come back to him.

 

 

I want you to be ready and wet for me…without my ever having touched you. I want you to reach that point just by the anticipation of what is going to happen between us. I want to look at you and know that you are ready to take me inside of you…

His biggest fantasy…my gift for him today.
He stills completely now.
¨Khushi…you don’t have to do this.¨
I lean against the kitchen counter, my heart pounding again.
 

¨Don’t you get it, Arnav? I want to.¨

 
Our gazes clash for a long moment, and then he exhales.
 
I know that the battle is won…for now.
 

¨Your shirt…that’s next.¨

 
Keeping his eyes fixed on mine, he unfastens the top few buttons of his shirt. The glimpse of tanned male flesh ignites a slow, warm burn inside me…and for the first time, I gain the confidence necessary to pull this off.
 
The shirt hangs open to his waist, and he pulls it out of his trousers slowly,then drops it to the floor before leaning one shoulder against the wall beside him.
 

¨Awaiting your command, Mrs. Raizada.¨

 
I take another deep breath.
 

¨Don’t move.¨

 
Surprise flashes across his eyes, but it rapidly changes to raw need when he sees what I am doing.
 

 
¨Khushi…¨
 

 
In one swift move, I open the knot at the back of my neck and the halter top of the dress drops to my waist. I tug at the skirt, and soon it lies in a silken puddle on the floor, leaving me clad only in my nude-toned bra and panties.
 

His scorching gaze rakes down my body, and I find myself unable to stand anymore.
Drawing a bar-stool out from under the island, I seat myself on it.

 
¨Your trousers, Arnav.¨
 

He raises his darkened gaze to mine, and then slowly drops his hand to his belt before unbuckling it and pulling it out from it’s loops. His fingers go to the fastening of his trousers, and my own twitch in response.
 
In the next instant, his trousers lie on the floor at his feet, and he kicks them away.
 
My gaze is riveted to his arousal, plainly visible through the boxer brief that struggles to contain it.
Everything inside me clenches in response, and I cross my legs at once, attempting to alleviate the ache between them.
 

 
¨The…boxers go too.¨
 

He stares at me with an enigmatic gaze, then pulls his boxers down to stand before me naked.
 
Gloriously, unashamedly naked.
 

And then he does something that shocks me.

 
I gasp in surprise and my entire body goes up in flames at the sight before me.
 

He stills, then smiles a predatory smile as he continues to stroke himself.
 

 
¨Do you want this, Khushi?¨
 

 
Oh yes, I do.
 

I want to say that aloud, but my tongue won’t cooperate.
The dampness between my thighs makes me squirm against the leather of the bar-stool, and his gaze drops to my legs.
 

¨Imagine this…there. Imagine how it will feel when I finally drive into you…again and again.¨
 

I stand up suddenly, unable to take it any longer.
¨Arnav, I…¨

 

¨One of us is overdressed now, don’t you think?¨

 
I look down at myself, then slowly reach behind me to unhook the clasp of my bra. The material chafes my exquisitely sensitive breasts as it falls away, and then I pull my panties off before straightening up again.
 
His gaze is fixed exactly where I crave him the most, and when he finally looks up, his gaze is black with desire.
 

¨What do you want now, Khushi?¨

 
¨You.¨
 

¨Are you sure?¨

 

¨I…yes!¨

 

¨Are you ready for me? Are you wet and aching like I need you to be?¨
 

Every word raises my need one more notch until I can longer control the trembling that spreads through me.
I wrap my arms around myself, my gaze locked on his.

 

¨I need you, Arnav. Now.¨

 
In the next instant, I find myself backed against the counter, his warm body crushing mine against the cool stone.
 
He doesn’t kiss me, nor does he touch me anywhere else.
His hands go straight to my hips as he lifts me up so that I am now sitting on the counter, and then he spreads my legs apart.
 

He looks down at me, and I writhe against the granite.

 

¨Arnav…¨

 
The blazing eyes are back on mine.
 

¨You are my every fantasy come to life, Khushi.¨

 
With those words, he drives into me, one quick thrust that makes me slide against the slick stone.
He lowers his hands to my legs and pulls them around his waist before sliding out and slamming back inside.
 
I cry out as the pleasure spirals inside me, caught in a vortex of love and desire and need.
 
I clutch him close as he sets up a pounding rhythm, trying to hold on…trying not to unravel…
But it is impossible to stop this whirlwind.

I climax suddenly, my internal muscles clamping around his hard length as he pounds on and on, never letting up, even when I fall back against him, completely spent.
 
A moment later he stiffens, then comes apart in my arms with a deep groan that rumbles through my body.
We lie together in a tangle of sweaty limbs for a long moment, and then he withdraws slowly before lifting me up into his arms. Walking over to the living room, he seats himself on it before drawing me close, then wraps a throw around us both while our breathing steadies.
 

 
¨Why, Khushi? Why this…why now?¨
 

I look up into passion-clouded gaze.

 

¨Because it is time, don’t you think?¨

 
¨Time?¨
 

I lean in close, then kiss his neck once.

 
¨Time to make that promise…with our bodies, before all else.¨
 

 
He winds his hand in my hair and tugs gently so that I am looking up at him again.
 

 
¨And so you made my fantasy come true?¨
 

 
¨It was a gift, Arnav. For giving me one year of incredible happiness.¨
 

Honest as always, he shakes his head.

 
¨It hasn’t been moonlight and roses all the way, has it?¨
 

 
¨No, it hasn’t. That’s what makes this moment so perfect…knowing that we have journeyed together to reach this place.¨
 

¨Do you believe that the worst is over now? Do you…believe in me?¨
 

I take a deep breath.

 

¨Yes.¨

 

¨Why, Khushi? What has changed for you since Greece? I haven’t made any promises yet…¨

 

¨What are promises, Arnav? Are you talking about the ones made around a holy fire? Or the legal ones you tried to create with not one, but two contracts? ¨
 

 
¨Those are the ones that usually define a marriage, Khushi.¨
 

 
¨In the traditional sense…yes. But I don’t think that anything about us can be defined as that.¨
 

¨Where are you going with this?¨

 

¨I’m trying to tell you that a promise can be made in other ways as well. Through a touch that promises to hold you through the night…and to catch you as you fall. Through a gaze that never wavers from you, even when there are a hundred other women in the vicinity who are more beautiful…that is a promise too, Arnav.¨
 

He gazes down at me, then leans down to kiss me briefly.

 

¨So according to you…I have made the same commitment that you have?¨
 

 
¨That’s exactly what I am trying to say, Arnav. It took me a while to see it, but that is only because I was looking in the wrong place to begin with. These past months have set me free too, you know. Free to look beyond the expected and see that I already had everything I ever wanted…I just hadn’t seen it yet.¨
 

 
¨Let me get this straight, Khushi. Are you saying that I have…eliminated the ‘think’, just like you have?¨
 

 
I know what he is really asking here.
 

Love.

 
It is the one word that can still drive a wedge between us…but I don’t intend to let that happen.
 

 
¨What matters is this, Arnav. Do you want to eliminate that ‘think’? Do you believe in the existence of…that emotion now?¨
 

 
He leans back against the couch, taking me with him.
 

 
¨Do you know something, Khushi? I don’t think that there was ever a ‘think’ to begin with.¨
 

 
¨What?¨
 

He looks down at me, then tightens his grasp around my body.

 

¨Do you know what has troubled me about this relationship since day one? The fact that I could never really compartmentalize it. I could never call this lust…because lust wouldn’t explain everything I was beginning to feel, even then. Lust wouldn’t explain why I had gone to such lengths to keep you with me. And so, logic dictated that there was something else at play here…something unprecedented, something new. And when I realized that, it scared the living daylights out of me.¨
 

¨Are you talking about…love?¨

 
¨Am I? I don’t know if that’s what it’s called, Khushi. I don’t know if that’s the name for this need, this desire to be with you at all times. I don’t know if that’s the name for this fear that grips me when I imagine life without you. Is that what all this is? I don’t really know the name…what I do know is that it is powerful…more powerful than lust, or desire…more powerful than my need for control…it’s stronger than anything I’ve ever known.¨
 

If that isn’t an admission of love, I don’t know what is.

 
I lean up and kiss him softly, and he returns the kiss for a moment before pulling away.
 

 
¨So there you have it, Mrs. Raizada. That is what your husband feels for you. So now, on our one year anniversary, would you like to make this official?¨
 

I laugh, throwing my head back against the couch.

 
¨How much more official can this get? We are legally married, even if we have been pretending that we aren’t…¨
 

 
¨That is true, of course. But tonight, the contract ends…¨
 

¨Do you want to go to your study and tear it, just like they do in the movies?¨
 

There’s no answering humor in his gaze.

 

¨No, Khushi. I’d like to keep it…as a reminder. ¨

 
¨A…reminder?¨
 

¨Yes. Years down the line, I want to be able to look at it and see how we are doing the exact opposite of what it says, and laugh at my own foolishness in making it .¨
 

¨The opposite?¨

 
¨Yes. Our rooms will never be separate…neither will our lives. Our relationship will never be defined by legalities or terms…by anything except what we share between us…¨
 

 
¨Then I will keep that second contract too. To remind me that once, my husband was prepared to give me A.R, the company that was everything he had ever wanted.¨
 

 
¨You are what I’ve always wanted. Even when I did not know it…¨
 

 
Another kiss, deeper this time.
Breathing deeply, I caress his lips with my fingers.

 

¨So this is it, then…the beginning of our new life together?¨

 

¨Yes. As partners. As two people who value this relationship above all else…¨
 

I hesitate before broaching a subject I’ve been recently thinking about.
 

 
¨…and as parents, someday?¨
 

 
His eyes widen for a moment, and then he smiles.
 

 
¨Where did that come from?¨
 

¨I’ve been thinking about it lately…after seeing Di…¨

 

He sighs, the rests his face on my shoulder.

 

¨I don’t know if we’re ready for that yet, but yes, someday…¨
 

 
He looks up suddenly, his lips curving into a boyish grin.
 

 
¨Do you remember when I found out that you were at the doctors’? I surprised myself that day, when I found myself actually…happy that you might have conceived. Me, the person who had always been careful about protection…I just couldn’t believe it. I hadn’t even considered children before that point in time…¨
 

¨But you do now?¨

 

¨I think we could consider that…at some point in the future. For now, we have a relationship to build…and you have a career to develop. Wouldn’t you agree?¨
 

¨As long as you aren’t completely ruling it out…¨

 

He cups my face in one warm hand.

 

¨I couldn’t ever say no to you, Khushi. Don’t you know that by now? I would give you the world, if only you’d ask.¨
 

 
I smile, even as my eyes fill with tears.
 

¨Look at who’s being all dramatic now…¨

 

He takes my lips in a kiss, then leans me back until he’s lying on top.
 

 
¨I’m not kidding, Khushi. I’d do anything, give you anything…believe that promise, even if you believe nothing else.¨
 

 
¨And even if you believe nothing else, know that I want you. Just you.¨
 

 
¨Because you love me?¨
 

 
His eyes are hopeful, and filled with a promise that will never be left unfulfilled.
 

 
¨Because you do too, Mr. Raizada.¨
 

 
But even as I say the words…even as he bends down to kiss me without refuting them, I know that it isn’t exactly the truth.
 

Arnav was probably right, after all.

 

This isn’t really love.

 

Because suddenly, love seems like a paltry description for this strong, beautiful, powerful emotion that binds us together.
 

Just love?

 
I don’t think so.
 

 

 

 
*************************
 

 

 
A/N: Arnav’s Epilogue involves another time leap and is now up.
 
Happy reading!
 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Ten- All parts up


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Ten

 

 

 

Part One- Khushi

 

 

 

 

 

 

The strained silence in the room is broken by a deep sigh, and I look up into his tortured gaze.

 

 

 

¨Khushi…can’t you see what’s happening here, right before your eyes? We’ve never really had a fight before. But once you bring these messy emotions into the picture, this is what happens. We develop unrealistic expectations, and when they don’t translate into reality, we lash out at the other person. This is precisely why I never wanted to go there…not with you. Our relationship was well-defined and those boundaries made sure that we knew what the other was capable of giving us, and that left no room for wrong assumptions. And I thought that you knew this, Khushi. I thought that you were a woman who understood the deal and…¨

 

 

 

¨Yes, I was that woman. I came into this relationship exactly as you’ve just described. But things  change, Arnav. How can you not see that? have changed, and so has my view of this shaadi. And for a few, blissful weeks, you had changed as well. So how is it wrong that I want that man back? Why are you being so blind about this?¨

 

 

 

¨Change? Yes, there was change. But it was the destructive kind, and only a fool would continue down that path. And no matter what, Arnav Singh Raizada will not continue to be foolish!¨

 

 

 

¨Foolishness is what you’re doing now, Arnav. For an astute businessman, you are being remarkably obtuse!¨

 

 

 

The tears spill unchecked down my cheeks now, and I cannot bear to be in the same room with him any longer.

Whirling on my heel, I throw open the study-door and walk out of the room before running up the stairs, the moisture in my eyes impeding every step.

 

 

Even as I enter our room, I realize that he has followed me there.

 

His husky, low tone stops me in my tracks.

 

 

¨Khushi…don’t do this. Don’t do this to me…and please, don’t do this to yourself. We don’t need to live like this. We can go back to the way we were, and…¨

 

 

A sudden haze of rage jolts me from my grief-stricken state.

 

 

 

¨Do you even realize just how crazy that sounds?! I am not some tape that you can  rewind and play back, Arnav! We can’t  erase those weeks, or the distance we have traveled, just because you are having an attack of cowardice!¨

 

 

 

¨What the hell…¨

 

 

 

Disregarding his look of furious disbelief, I dash the tears from my eyes and walk up to him.

 

 

¨Yes, you are a coward. You, Mr. Arnav Singh Raizada, are afraid! You are afraid of what you have begun to feel, for the first time in your life. And you are afraid to face the fact that just like hundreds of other businessmen, you are having some bad days at A.R that are completely unrelated to this marriage! And forgetting your family is your fault, not mine! Tell me, Arnav, do you really think that you are the only man on the planet who has to balance a work-life with an emotionally fulfilling family life? There are millions who do just that, and they do it well! And even if they don’t…even if one aspect of their lives suffers at times, they fight back and try to come out unscathed. They do not blame their spouse, nor do they suggest something as ridiculous as forgetting the attachments that have already been formed! ¨

 

 

 

¨Well if that’s the case, then you should have married one of them!¨

 

 

 

The very air vibrates with tension as we glare at each other, and the tears start up again as his words sink in.

 

 

 

 

¨What?¨

 

 

 

He swipes one hand across his eyes, then walks up to me with one hand outstretched.

 

 

 

¨Damn it all to hell,  I did not mean that! Khushi, please…you know that you are important to me…you know how hard I fought to have you in my life! I can’t even bear to think of you with anyone else…I don’t know why I said that….¨

 

 

He takes my trembling hands in his and pulls me close.

 

 

 

¨Khushi…I want you. I have always wanted you…like I have never wanted anyone before. And yet, I knew that I am probably going to make some  mistakes or do something that you wouldn’t like…something that might drive you away. And I didn’t want that to happen, Khushi…but it looks like that’s exactly what has happened here. You wanted the truth…and I gave it to you. But it’s unacceptable to you…while I can see no other alternative. I’m lost here, Khushi. I really don’t know what I am supposed to do or where we should go from here…¨

 

 

 

I draw my hands away slowly, then raise one shaking finger to point at the contract that he has brought into the room with him.

 

 

¨I can tell you where we should not go, Arnav. We don’t need to go down the legal route again, there’s no need for another contract!¨

 

 

 

¨Are we back to that now? I told you, Khushi, it’s just a formality! Did you even read what it…¨

 

 

¨I don’t need to! It’s perfectly clear that you intend to make this marriage all about the legalities again, and reduce it to contractual mumbo-jumbo that has nothing to do with what really lies between us now!¨

 

 

 

¨That isn’t why I had it drawn up, Khushi. If only you would…¨

 

 

 

Suddenly , I’ve had enough. 

 

¨You know what? I can’t do this right now. It’s evident that you don’t want to listen…and I’m not in a position to convince you anymore. Maybe I’ll talk to you again when you’re being a bit  more receptive…and rational.¨

 

 

 

Before he can come up with a rejoinder, I turn around and rush into the restroom, locking the door behind me even as the storm of tears continues unabated.

I drop down to my knees beside the sink, my mind whirling as I try to process all that has happened in the past hour.

 

 

A long while later, I raise myself to my feet, then look up at the mirror to find a tear-ravaged face staring back at me.

 

In that instant, anger at myself takes hold.

 

 

I cannot give up so easily.

 

 

I cannot allow my distress to cloud the real issue here.

 

 

 

My main objective is to fight for what I want, and I will not let myself weaken at any cost.

 

 

Gaining strength from that thought, I quickly run some cold water over my wrists and splash some on my face before reaching for a towel. 

As I step out into the dressing room and head for the drawer that contains my nightclothes, I find myself wondering if my husband has found another bed for the night. After all, the house is empty except for the two of us, and it would be no hardship for him to sleep in one of the guest-rooms.

 

But as I pull the silk nightgown over my head, I catch a glimpse of our darkened bedroom, now only lit by the glow of a single nightlamp.

 

And my husband is there, with his penetrating gaze trained on me.

 

 

I run a brush through my hair and try to calm myself further by smoothing some body lotion onto my hands just like I do everyday, but my heart is pounding as I approach the bed, not knowing what to expect.

 

 

I try not to catch his gaze as I slide into bed, but the awareness thrums between us anyway.

But for the first time since we have started sharing a bed, there is a new sensation that puts me on edge.

 

A discomforting feeling spreads through me…unease makes me tremble all over again as I pull the comforter over my body.

 

 

I hear his sigh, and then there is darkness as he turns off the light.

 

 

 

¨Khushi…it doesn’t have to be this way…¨

 

 

 

A gossamer light touch lands on my neck, and I close my eyes as conflicting sensations take hold.

 

On the one hand, my body is attuned to his every move, and I find myself responding…almost against my will.

But the other , far more rational part of me is wary…and slightly appalled by the ease with which he is able to overcome my barriers.

 

This part grows more dominant as it reminds me of what has just occurred between us, and that this is the man who has just told me repeatedly that he will not allow his emotions to get involved while we are together.

 

 

And for me, intimacy without that involvement now seems meaningless…and vaguely distasteful.

 

 

Before I can say anything, I feel his touch on my hair, his fingers sliding through the thick mass as he moves closer.

 

 

 

¨Whatever else may change between us…we’ll always have this, Khushi.¨

 

 

 

And that is exactly what I am afraid of.

 

All my fears coalesce into a certainty as I realize that if I allow this to happen…if I give in, again, then we will truly be back to square one.

 

I also realize that Arnav is using intimacy as a shield…as an excuse to sweep everything else under the carpet and pretend that all is well between us.

And I cannot allow that to happen.

 

 

In one swift move, I slide out of his embrace, and lean against the nightstand as I fight to regain control of my own treacherous body.

 

He turns on the light and climbs out too, and I realize that anger is simmering in his gaze.

 

 

 

¨So is this your way of righting things, then? By withholding your body  from me?¨

 

 

 

Insulted by that accusation, I glare back at him, everything else forgotten as an answering rage spirals through me.

 

 

 

¨If you can think of it like that, then you clearly know nothing about me!¨

 

 

He takes a deep breath and looks away.

 

 

¨Look, I didn’t meant to say that, Khushi. This night…after all that has passed between us, I clearly have no control over what slips out of my mouth here. But damn it all, why the hell did you just do that? You have never pulled away from me, not even when we first…¨

 

 

 

¨I did not pull away from you, Arnav. I pulled away from what you were trying to  do! Despite all the angry words and accusations and excuses, you obviously still believe that sex is the answer…that sex will make everything alright, don’t you? That is what I am escaping from!¨

 

 

 

¨I’ve told you before, Khushi…sex isn’t all that lies between us. So don’t try and…¨

 

 

 

¨Wait right there, Arnav. If sex isn’t all there is between us, and you don’t want to bring your emotions into play…then what else are you talking about? Do you even realize how foolish that sounds now? You aren’t even making sense!¨

 

 

 

His eyes widen as my outburst hits home, but then he stuns me by choosing to escape as well.

 

Unlike me, however, he doesn’t just move out of reach.

His swift strides take him out of the room and a moment later, I am standing by myself in a cold, solitary bedroom that has no source of warmth or comfort for me anymore.

 

 

Knowing that it is useless to try and reason with him tonight, I walk over to the armchair by the window and sit down listlessly.

 

My gaze falls upon the file tossed onto the sidetable, and I stare at it for a moment, wondering about it’s contents.

 

What new terms has he decided to bind us with?

 

 

I grab hold of it before I can change my mind, and turn quickly to the first page.

 

I scan through the legalese and skip the parts where we are named as the parties bound by this contract, and flip through a few more pages before finally finding the part that lists the terms and conditions.

 

 

And then I sit up straight, my mind reeling in astonishment.

 

 

This cannot be possible.

 

 

This contract is clearly the work of a lunatic, because it clearly states that when this is signed by the concerned parties, Khushi Arnav Raizada becomes the sole owner of half the assets of A.R.Corp.

 

And that’s not all.

 

 

The contract goes on to state that all date restrictions have been removed from this marriage, and termination of the legal Hindu marriage is possible only when one of us files for divorce.

 

And if there is a divorce, then Khushi Arnav Raizada gains all of A.R.

 

Everything.

 

 

 

I read it twice, then close it slowly before standing up and moving towards the window.

 

 

As I gaze out at the moon, a distant part of me wonders if I should be insulted that he thinks that I can be bought off with his wealth.

 

 

But then the other part stills in disbelief, as I remember just what A.R means to him.

 

 

A.R.Corp isn’t just a business for Arnav.

 

 

It is the product of years of hard work and sacrifice , and I know that it is an integral part of his life that he can never live without.

I also know that part of A.R is his legacy to his family, since he has told me about the trust funds he has set up for Di and Nani.

 

 

And yet, he has pledged it to me.

 

 

 

If I sign this, he has agreed to give me what he prizes above all else.

 

 

And if I ever leave him, he wants me to walk away with it all…leaving him with nothing.

 

 

The tears start to flow again, but this time, I smile through them as I realize the truth.

 

 

In his own convoluted, crazy way, this man is telling me that he is committed to me for life.

 

Because there isn’t any other explanation for this insane, over-the-top contract.

 

 

 

 

I look down at the file, and my resolve hardens.

 

 

I need to show that man what is painfully obvious to me now. He is committed to this marriage just as much as I am…and all of him is involved.

 

He just doesn’t know it yet.

 

 

I need to show him the light.

 

 

The game is on, Mr.Raizada.

 

 

 

 

 

Two weeks later, though, I find my resolve being sorely tested.

 

For the past fifteen days, I have tried my best to break through his stubborn insistence on maintaining an emotional distance…all to no avail.

I have tried hard to be my normal self, while balancing the ever-increasing demands of my course-work. I had even taken one day off to go up to his office in San Francisco with a home-made lunch, something that I had hoped might remind him of those early days of our marriage. 

While that lunch had started out well, it quickly became evident that he was impatient to get back to work. And when  I had confronted him about it, the whole thing had deteriorated into yet another argument.

 

I haven’t stopped trying to persuade him to give up on this foolishness…and he hasn’t stopped trying to convince me to sign that damned contract.

 

 

And through it all, the distances between us have grown by leaps and bounds.

 

 

As I retire to bed after yet another awkward dinner , I find myself craving those days when an easy camaraderie and sparkling intimacy defined my days and nights.

 

The tensions and uncertainties are beginning to wear me down, and I know that I am close to breaking point.

 

 

 

And the trigger arrives the very next day.

 

 

During breakfast, Manorama casually asks me if I am accompanying Arnav when he leaves for the airport, and I look up at her blankly.

 

 

¨Airport?¨

 

 

 

¨Yes…he’s supposed to be flying to Canada, isn’t he?¨

 

 

I fight to keep the shock from my face, and quickly excuse myself before running upstairs where Arnav has just stepped out of the shower.

 

At one point in time, the sight of his glistening, muscled body would have made my hormones run wild, but rage paralyzes me now.

 

 

 

¨Khushi?¨

 

 

 

I walk up to him, my body trembling with the force of my anger.

 

 

 

¨Do you have a trip scheduled for today?¨

 

 

 

¨Yes. I’m flying to Canada, to meet with some new clients. Didn’t I tell you earlier?¨

 

 

 

¨No, you didn’t! How could you do this, Arnav? I had to learn about this from Manorama!¨

 

 

¨Calm down, Khushi. I must have forgotten to mention it. It’s not a big deal, really. I’ll only be gone for a  few days.¨

 

 

He shrugs into his shirt before turning towards me again.

 

 

¨And let’s face it…with all that’s been going on between you and me, it’s probably better to give each other some space, don’t you think?¨

 

 

More than his words, it is the detachment in his voice and expression that brings everything crashing down on me.

 

 

I stand there silently as he gets dressed, and barely respond when he kisses me goodbye before leaving the room.

 

 

Once he is gone, I slump down on the bed, realizing one very important thing at once.

 

 

All my efforts have failed.

 

Arnav Singh Raizada is set on his course, and is intent on molding this marriage to his liking.

 

And there’s nothing I can do to change that.

 

 

Throughout the course of that long, endless day and equally painful night, I come to terms with this truth.

 

 

I hear his parting words in my mind again and again…and then I realize something else.

 

Arnav has no idea about the effect his new attitude is having on me.

 

 

He seems to think that all is well…just because he has willed it to be so.

 

 

 

And with that realization, the path ahead is clear.

 

 

 

I don’t quite know whether this will have any effect on him or not…but it is time to give him a taste of his own medicine.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Part Two

 

 

 

 

 

The Stanford library feels like it is closing in on me and I lean back tiredly, closing my eyes as the stress of the past five days catches up with me.

 

The decision I had made then had seemed rational at the time, but now that the moment has finally arrived, I find that I am no longer so sure of myself.

 

Today is the day of his return.

 

 

And I have resolved to stay away from the house when he finally enters it.

 

I do not want him to find me there, waiting for him like I have always done before. This small step is one of many, designed to accomplish my goal.

 

 

This is going to be the moment of truth, one wherein he will realize that I am treading the same terrible path that he is…one of detachment and indifference.

I plan to make sure that he understands that I am giving back what I receive and no more. It is the only way that I can think of to make him see what he is doing to me…and to our relationship.

 

And yet, my heart is weighed with sadness at the thought of what he has reduced this to.

 

 

I open my eyes, looking down at my watch as I realize that his jet would have landed an hour ago at San Francisco. 

 

Was he home already?

 

 

And if he was, had he already seen the changes I had made there?

 

 

 

I have no way of gauging his reaction. Whenever he has called me over the past few days, the conversation had been stilted and restricted to a  few meaningless pleasantries…and always, the chasm between us had prevented us from talking about anything remotely meaningful.

Even his last call this morning had only lasted for all of two minutes, just long enough to inform me that his jet was scheduled to land this evening.

 

And immediately, I had made plans to stay back in the Library until it was late enough to go home when he might already be asleep.

 

My glance at the watch reminds me that Lavanya is waiting outside, as she always does. Feeling a pang of remorse for making her stay back this late, I stand up quickly, intending to go outside and tell her that she could take some time off for dinner  if she wanted to.

 

 

But when I turn towards the entrance, an unexpected sight meets my eyes.

 

 

Standing in the doorway, dressed in a dark blue shirt and black trousers is my husband, Arnav Singh Raizada.

 

 

Immediately, my mind takes me back to another moment just like this one…when he had surprised me in this very library.

 

 

But the very next moment, the look in his eyes bursts my bubble and the contrast between the two instances strikes me full force.

 

 

He looks angry, frustrated…and exhausted, all at once.

 

 

My heart starts pounding in my chest, but I ignore it’s startled beats, instead choosing to focus all my energies on making my gait steady and confident as I walk towards him.

 

 

I stop when I am within touching distance…and wait for him to say something.

 

 

But he doesn’t.

 

 

Instead, he stares at me for a long moment, and then his eyes shift to the table behind me.

 

 

 

¨Get your things. We’re leaving.¨

 

 

 

The harsh order takes me by surprise, and I bristle.

 

 

 

¨I’m still not done here.¨

 

 

 

He looks around, and I know that he has noticed the lack of an audience at this very late hour.

 

 

 

¨Yes, you are. You shouldn’t even be here at this time. Now come with me…or I’ll make you.¨

 

 

That raises my hackles, and I take one step back.

 

 

 

¨I’d like to see you try.¨

 

 

 

With one last glance, I turn around and walk back to my table, my heart racing now.

But even as I sit down , I can feel his presence beside me.

 

 

I steel myself against the insidious pull that compels me to look up even now, and focus on the books before me.

 

There is complete silence for a few moments, and then I hear  a deep sigh.

 

 

 

¨Khushi…this is not what I wanted to come home to.¨

 

 

 

I look up then, and immediately wish I hadn’t when I catch the tortured look in those brown eyes.

 

 

 

¨This isn’t my choice, Arnav.¨

 

 

He looks away, rubbing his hand against his eyes in a gesture of frustration that is familiar to me now.

 

 

¨Look…I don’t want to do this here. Can’t we just go home?¨

 

 

I want to refuse, but right then, I catch a glimpse of the librarian who is now staring at us.

 

 

¨Fine. Give me a moment to place all these in my bag.¨

 

 

 

In stony silence, I zip up my bag and start walking towards the entrance without waiting to see if he is following me. I cross the bridge that leads to the next wing and start down the flight of stairs that will take me to the ground floor.

 

When I finally reach the parking slot where the Audi had been parked earlier, I find the Limo there instead.

 

 

 

¨I sent Lavanya home. We don’t need two cars, do we?¨

 

 

I refuse to answer. Placing my bag on the passenger seat, I slide inside, then wait with bated breath as he steps over to the other side.

As Dhruv pulls out of the slot, I can feel Arnav’s gaze on me.

 

I rush into speech, trying to combat the conflicting emotions that are tearing me apart.

 

 

 

¨So who was it this time? Manorama? Or Lavanya?¨

 

 

 

¨What?¨

 

 

 

¨Who informed you that I was here, Arnav?¨

 

 

 

¨What does it matter?¨

 

 

 

¨Humor me.¨

 

 

 

¨I called home to let you know that I had landed in SFO. Manorama told me that she hasn’t heard from you since this afternoon…and I was concerned. So I called Lavanya, and she told me that she was waiting outside the library for you.¨

 

 

¨And you decided to stop by on your way home and play caveman in a public place?¨

 

 

 

¨I wouldn’t have had to, if you hadn’t decided to play these foolish tricks with me. There was no real need to stay here tonight, was there?¨

 

 

¨That’s none of your business.¨

 

 

 

Another deep sigh.

 

 

 

¨I have told you over and over, everything about you is my business.¨

 

 

 

¨Really? That doesn’t sound like your new policy of detachment, does it?¨

 

 

 

¨Khushi…please. This is getting us nowhere.¨

 

 

 

¨I wasn’t aware that we needed to go somewhere with this.¨

 

 

 

A frosty silence descends over the spacious interior, and I stare out at the passing buildings, fighting against the sting of tears as I realize that this war of words is hammering the final nails into the coffin that is our relationship now.

 

 

He says nothing either…not until we are just five minutes away from home.

 

 

 

¨Manorama told me something else that has me worried.¨

 

 

 

¨Really? I can’t imagine what that would be.¨

 

 

 

¨She said she hadn’t heard from you all day…not since you left for your doctors’ appointment.¨

 

 

I cannot stop the bitter laugh as I realize just where this panic is stemming from.

 

 

 

¨It was nothing. You don’t need to worry about it.¨

 

 

 

¨Damn it, Khushi! I…¨

 

 

 

His words stumble to a halt as we both realize that the limo has drawn to a halt, and Dhruv is now hurrying over to open the passenger doors.

 

 

I step out immediately, slinging my bag over my shoulder as I walk towards the front door.

My rapid pace takes me towards the stairs before he is even at the door, but he manages to catch up when I step onto the landing.

 

Holding my wrist in a firm grasp, he pulls me to  a stop.

 

 

 

¨Let me go!¨

 

 

 

¨Not until you tell me why you were at the doctors’!¨

 

 

 

¨Why do you want to know? I thought that details such as those were forbidden under your new rules!¨

 

 

I manage to free my wrist , but he crowds me against the wall, then cradles my face in his warm hands.

 

 

 

¨Please…just tell me.¨

 

 

 

I don’t know if it is the desire to escape…or the urge to give in to his plea that finally wins, but I find myself reluctantly answering him.

 

 

¨I went for an eye check up because I kept having these headaches. And the doctor gave me a prescription for glasses, that’s all. Now will you let me go?¨

 

 

 

He stares down into my eyes, his own questioning and doubtful as he holds me in place.

 

 

 

¨Is that…really what it was?¨

 

 

 

Incredulous, I push back against him. ¨What else could it possibly be? And why would I lie to you?¨

 

 

 

After another strained moment, he lets me go before closing his eyes and stepping away.

 

 

 

 

¨I just…you aren’t…pregnant, are you?¨

 

 

 

¨What? No! How can I be, given that we haven’t even…what’s wrong with you, Arnav?!¨

 

 

 

I whirl around and walk over to the hallway that leads to the bedrooms, not stopping before I reach my own.

 

But he’s there before my hand even reaches the doorknob, and I know that yet another argument is on it’s way.

 

 

 

 

¨Why are you going there?¨

 

 

 

I open the door defiantly, stepping inside and turning the light on before facing him again.

 

 

 

¨I’ve been sleeping here since the past few nights.¨

 

 

 

The attached second bedroom has become my refuge…my haven where I can escape from memories of his touch and presence.

 

But I don’t tell him that.

 

 

 

¨Well, you can just move right back now that I have returned.¨

 

 

 

¨I’m not going to do that, Arnav.¨

 

 

 

His eyes bore into mine for a long, long moment, and I finally see the knowledge that dawns in his gaze.

 

 

 

¨Khushi…this isn’t going to work.¨

 

 

 

 

¨What are you talking about?¨

 

 

 

¨I see what you are trying to do here. All this…this is you, taking  a step back, right? Fleeing to the library when I am due to return…moving out of our bedroom…everything is designed to mimic what you think have done to you. Am I right?¨

 

 

¨Maybe you are. And even if that is true, it changes nothing. Separate rooms…separate lives. Does that ring a bell, Mr.Raizada?¨

 

 

 

¨Damn it, I never meant for that to happen! And it doesn’t need to be this way, Khushi! Why don’t you understand? You don’t have to change!¨

 

 

 

¨Why not? So that you can keep taking all that I have to give while rationing your own self? I don’t think so, Arnav. If you need your distance…then so do I. It’s the only way I can function.¨

 

 

 

He takes one step forward and pulls both my hands into his. ¨Khushi…you are perfect, just the way you are. I have known that since the very beginning . There’s nothing that I would change about you. You have proved that you can do it all…you can be completely immersed in this shaadi, even while you excel in your coursework. And that makes you a stronger person than I am…because I have discovered that I cannot achieve that balance. I have explained this before, Khushi…I need to back off, if I intend to make sense of the rest of my life.¨

 

 

I step away at once, my hands still tingling from his touch.

 

 

 

¨Fine. You can do just that, Mr.Raizada. But you are  wrong about one thing. Your changed attitude has begun to affect my work at the University. But unlike you, I did not make the decision to change my relationship in order to remedy that. At least, not at first. But now since you seem determined to make this marriage into a true marriage of convenience, then I have no other choice. I will have to do the same.¨

 

 

 

¨You can’t, Khushi… it just isn’t the type of person you are.¨

 

 

 

¨People change, Mr. Raizada. You’ve proved that quite conclusively, I should think.¨

 

 

 

¨So that’s your last word on this? Separate lives? What exactly do you think that will accomplish?¨

 

 

 

¨I think that it’s you who should be asking yourself that question. And you will, after you’ve seen the light. And when you do…we’ll try and talk things out if you can be rational about it.¨

 

 

 

¨I don’t want this, Khushi…and I know that you don’t , either.¨

 

 

 

The tears that I have been battling for so long are now flooding my eyes, and I swipe angrily at the moisture. 

 

 

¨No, I don’t. But there is no other way.¨

 

 

In the simmering silence, I see an answering pain in his eyes.

 

 

And then he is gone, leaving behind an agonizing emptiness that threatens to destroy me completely.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The weeks that follow are some of the darkest of my life.

 

I throw myself into my work, trying to make up for lost time. When I return home each night, I collapse into bed, exhausted…and too tired to think about the empty spot beside me. 

But I never manage to get a full nights rest. Nightmarish visions jolt me out of slumber with sickening regularity, and I have to stop myself from running next door and demanding him to take me into his arms.

 

Of course, the room beside mine isn’t even occupied all the time. Ever since his return from Canada, Arnav has started staying nights at the penthouse in San Francisco. He still comes home sometimes, and the meals we share are similar to those shared between complete , utter strangers.

 

There are a few instances where he attempts to speak to me, but I do not allow him to. 

My own vulnerability holds me captive, and I am apprehensive about the fact that I will allow myself to give in if I listen to him again.

 

I even ignore the bouquets that appear before my door sometimes, a fact that earns me Manorama’s censure.

 

 

I try very hard to keep this from my mother, despite my guilt when I remember how I had promised to tell her if things went wrong between us.

 

But what am I supposed to tell her?

 

 

How am I ever going to explain the complicated situation between us?

 

 

I chose the coward’s way out and say nothing, even when she repeatedly asks me about the reason why I always sound so tired on the phone.

 

Hiding the true state of affairs from Anjali and Shyam requires another level of deception altogether.

 

 

Driving back in the Porsche with Arnav after dinner with them one night, I find myself wondering if Di  has picked up on the tension between us.

 

 

Another, unwelcome emotion rears it’s head as well.

 

 

Jealousy.

 

 

 

Seeing them in their own home with that easy intimacy that comes from being together for years, only places our own broken relationship into stark contrast.

 

As we approach our house, I feel the tears coming on again and try to hold myself together for a few more minutes, not wanting to break down before him.

 

 

How has it come down to this?

 

 

What has happened to the beautiful bond we once shared?

 

 

His voice interrupts my tortured thoughts, and I avert my gaze even as he addresses me.

 

 

¨I’m going back to the penthouse tonight.¨

 

 

 

Nodding swiftly and ignoring the ache in my chest, I grab my purse and step out quickly, then walk towards the door with my head bowed in despair.

 

 

The chiffon saree slows me down as I climb the stairs, and my steps lead me to a room that I haven’t stepped into for a month.

 

 

As I open the door, the memories come back thick and fast, and I find myself crying as I recall those treasured moments of passion and laughter and joy…something that seems so far from where we are now.

 

 

Why was it given to me, and then snatched back?

 

 

 

The sheer magnitude of my loss hits me at that moment, and I fall to my knees, unable to come to terms with the shards of my dreams.

 

 

Unable to recognize myself anymore…

 

 

The tears fall in earnest now, and I clutch the sheets before me, sobbing harder as the harsh reality of my situation dawns upon me .

 

 

I don’t quite know how long I lie there with the tears falling unchecked before I finally realize that I am not alone in the room.

 

 

Even through all the turmoil, it suddenly strikes me that I haven’t yet heard the roar of the Porsche’s engine as it pulls away from the driveway.

 

 

That thought makes me raise my head, but it takes my tear-filled eyes a few seconds before they are finally able to focus on him.

 

 

His eyes hold me captive at once.

 

 

Or rather, the naked agony in them does.

 

 

He says nothing, and neither do I.

 

 

 

But the next moment, I am in his arms…and I still don’t know who took the first step.

 

 

He wraps his arms tightly around me as the storm of grief continues, and I weep against his chest, wondering why he isn’t able to see what he’s doing to me.

 

 

But in the very next instant, he proves me wrong.

 

 

 

¨Khushi…I can’t bear to see you like this…please stop crying…¨

 

 

 

His voice breaks on the last few words, and I look up to see that the agony in his eyes has now increased tenfold.

 

 

 

¨Arnav…¨

 

 

 

He stares at me for a long, long moment, and then gently wipes the tears from my eyes.

 

 

I need to say so much…but I can’t.

 

 

And then, the time for words is past.

 

 

He leads me to the bed and lays me down gently, and I find myself unable to look away from his eyes.

 

 

He undresses me slowly, unraveling the saree as if I am something precious…a gift.

 

 

And I do nothing to stop him.

 

 

He lies down beside me, gently smoothing his fingers down my face…erasing the tear tracks and leaving trails of fire in his wake.

His mouth is gentle when he takes mine in a soft kiss, and so are his hands as he  caresses my body until it comes alive under his touch.

 

 

At that moment, I find myself giving in…realizing that right and wrong don’t matter anymore.

 

 

Or if they do, I will deal with them in the aftermath of this beautiful moment that is giving me unprecedented joy after weeks of sheer agony…

 

 

When he finally covers my body with his and sinks inside slowly, I wrap my arms and legs around him, trying to hold him close.

 

The climax surges upon me like the swell of an ocean wave, and I hold him closer still…even as he throws his head back with a groan.

 

 

This time, he doesn’t let me go…even after our breathing has steadied .

Holding me against his chest, he strokes my hair over and over until I find myself giving in to my bone-deep exhaustion.

 

 

But even through the fast approaching blankness of sleep, I realize that something dangerous has occurred tonight.

 

 

I have allowed myself to harbor a small tendril of hope…

 

After all, a man cannot be so loving and generous at night without being the same when he wakes up…can he?

 

 

 

 

 

 

The bright light of morning crushes that hope with brutal force.

 

 

As I wake up in a lonely bed, I scan the sheets for a note…but there is nothing there.

A search of the shower and dressing room reveal that he has left already, and when I go downstairs, Manorama tells me that Arnav has left at five a.m for Sacramento.

 

 

Stunned, I can only stare as I process this.

 

 

And then I find myself berating myself for my stupidity and hopes.

 

 When will I learn that some things aren’t going to change, no matter what?

 

 

 

Arnav is determined to do this on his terms…and fighting him on this has left me shattered like never before.

I had thought that paying him back in his own coin will make him see sense, but it has backfired on me spectacularly.

 

He hasn’t changed at all…but have.

 

In forcing myself to behave as he has, I have lost the part of me that made me who I was.

 

I can barely recognize myself in the pathetic, desperate creature that I have become..or the cold, indifferent one that I have been pretending to be for the past few weeks.

 

 

It is as if Khushi doesn’t exist anymore.

 

 

In that instant, fear grips me hard as I realize that I have to hold on to those parts of me that have survived this shattering experience.

 

 

And so I make my decision.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Two days later, when Arnav comes home, I am waiting for him at the front door.

 

And it only takes him one look at the objects beside me before his face pales and he reaches out for my hand…but I elude his touch.

 

 

 

¨Khushi…what’s all this?¨

 

 

 

I looks down at the suitcases beside me, knowing that I have to steel myself to do what needs to be done.

 

 

 

¨I’ve been waiting for you to get back, Arnav. To let you know that…I’ll be moving back into my student accommodation.¨

 

 

¨What?! Khushi, this is just…you can’t just leave! Look, I’ll be the first to admit that things have been bad between us but…this isn’t the solution, damn it!¨

 

 

 

¨On the other hand, it’s the only thing that I can think of, at the moment. I can’t do this anymore, Arnav. I can’t stay here like a stranger while my husband jets in and out without a care. I can’t take these constant fights and arguments anymore. I can’t fight back. I tried to…you know that. But in the process, I lost something precious. I lost me, Arnav. I couldn’t even recognize the person staring back at me from the mirror anymore.¨

 

 

 

He pulls me into his arms, his eyes beseeching now. ¨It doesn’t have to be this way, Khushi. If only you could…¨

 

 

 

¨That’s just it, Arnav…I can’t. Not anymore. And if you…if you ever felt anything for me…if you have cared at all, please let me go.¨

 

 

 

¨For…how long?¨

 

 

I step back and away before answering him.

 

 

 

¨For however long it takes. I need some time apart to think things through…and so do you. You were right when you left for Canada, Arnav. We both need the space.¨

 

 

 

A look of relief crosses his face. ¨So you aren’t just…leaving me?¨

 

 

 

I stare up at  him, knowing that he isn’t going to like my answer.

 

 

¨I…don’t know. That’s something I need to think about. And I can’t do that while you are here…¨

 

 

 

¨So I’ll move out. I’ll go to the penthouse, and you can stay right here. Please, Khushi…¨

 

 

 

I shake my head immediately. ¨I can’t…there’s just too much pain…too many memories here.¨

 

 

He stares at me, unsettled by my resolve.

And then his eyes take on a calculating gleam.

 

 

¨Think about your mother…and Di. Do you intend to tell them about this?¨

 

 

I hadn’t, and that’s something that has been bothering me from the past few days.

 

 

 

¨That’s a low blow, Arnav. You can’t make me stay!¨

 

 

 

¨I realize that. But I can ask you to. And I’m asking you, Khushi. Please stay here in this house where I can know that you are safe. Stay here for as long as you want…and I’ll move out at once. That is what you want, right?¨

 

 

 

I want distance, but I am not sure about this.

 

But the image of my mother makes me pause, and I realize that if I do stay here, she won’t have to know until it’s absolutely necessary to tell her the truth.

 

 

¨¨I…fine. But just so you know, this might only be temporary.¨

 

 

 

¨I know. And thank you…¨

 

 

He pulls me close, and places a kiss on my hair.

His next words make my eyes blur with unshed tears, but I manage to blink them away.

 

 

¨Stay with me, Khushi…don’t leave me alone…¨

 

 

 

I close my eyes tightly to block out the plea in his, and shake my head once, my heart breaking with my own refusal.

 

He holds me tight, then presses a brief kiss against my lips before stepping away.

 

 

¨Whatever you want, Mrs. Raizada. You have only to ask.¨

 

 

 

And with those last words, he steps out and closes the door behind him.

 

 

I lean my forehead against the door as the tears start flowing down my cheeks, and an avalanche of grief threatens to overwhelm me.

 

 

What have I done?

 

 

 

Even as I ask myself that question, I hear the limo start up again.

 

My heart calls out to him…even as my mind urges me to let him go.

 

 

And neither knows that it will be weeks before I see him again.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Part Three-Arnav

 

 

 

 

 

I think I love you.

 

 

 

 

Just five words…uttered all those months ago.

And yet, they have the power to make me burn…in agony and despair as I realize just what I have been doing .

 

 

 

If I am honest with myself, I have been on the run ever since I read those words for the very first time.

I made myself travel halfway across the world to Brisbane then, and I haven’t really stopped running since .

 

Yes, there was a period of time when I thought that I could have it all…when I blindly believed that I could have her love, that we could work together  and eliminate the ‘think’. I thought that I was capable of learning how to return her sentiments, and  I had allowed myself to give in, to let down the barriers and feel…for the first time in my life.

 

 

But that did not last for too long.

Those precious few weeks ended far too soon when I realized what I was giving up in order to make this work.

In a blinding flash, I saw the damage to A.R…the neglect that my family was  being subjected to…and once again, I chose to escape.

 

Except this time, it was much, much harder.

 

Because by now, I had seen what it would be like to have Khushi Arnav Raizada’s complete and utter surrender.

It was an intoxicating feeling, and one that was almost impossible to give up.

 

And yet, I did.

 

Because at that point, I realized that my life was being reshaped by a force greater than anything I had known so far. Control over any aspect had long since escaped me, and that was something that scared me beyond belief.

 

Terror made me run then…sheer, blinding panic that I would soon lose all that I had worked for…all that I had yet to achieve.

 

She fought back, of course.

With words and tears at first, and later, with a coldness that astounded me.

 

 

She refused to sign the one piece of paper that could give me the peace of mind I had lost  at that point, and it was then that I knew that I had no semblance of control over anything anymore.

 

This marriage wasn’t bound by any parameters that I knew and recognized.

It had taken a giant leap  into the unknown, and I couldn’t handle that anymore.

 

I decided to take back the reins, no matter what else I had to sacrifice in return. 

Burying myself in my work, I told myself that this was best for us both. All I was doing was bringing back this shaadi to the framework it had started out on, and this was clearly the ideal thing to do at this point. It was best that Khushi learned not to expect more from me…especially when the very idea of giving in made me break out into a cold sweat.

 

Was I coward, as she had once called me?

 

Maybe I was, but even that realization wasn’t going to stop me.

 

I would have continued down that path indefinitely…if it hadn’t been for one, agonizing night.

 

I still remember the night when we returned from Anjali Di’s house, and how I had been unable to drive away as I watched her defeated form walk slowly inside the house that wasn’t even a home anymore.

I remember how I followed her in…the utter devastation I felt when I saw her naked agony in the room that had once been our own.

 

Up until that point, I had closed my mind to the reality of what I was doing to her.

I had forced myself to concentrate on my life to the exclusion of all else, and although a small part of me knew that she was suffering, I tried very hard to block that out…while fervently wishing that everything would miraculously go back to the way it used to be.

 

But now it all came crashing down on me as I realized how I had broken her.

 

This shattered, tormented woman was so far from the person I had married…so far from the Khushi I had come to care for…

 

Something snapped in me that night.

I could no longer stop myself from giving her what she needed…at least for that moment.

 

Words of comfort wouldn’t come easily, and so I had chosen the best way I knew how. I had allowed my body to say what I never could…and to my relief and joy, she had accepted what I had to give that night.

 

But as I lay beside her the next morning, self-loathing hit me full force as my eyes focused on the tear tracks still visible on her pale cheeks . I realized that no matter what I said or did at the moment, nothing could erase the damage I had wrought so far.

 

No longer able to stay there with the proof of my cowardice before my eyes, I grabbed at the first excuse I could think of and fled to Sacramento at once.

The two days I spent there were the worst of my life.

 

Every inch of me pulled me back towards her…but one question stopped me from going back.

 

What did I have to offer her even now?

 

 

Was I ready to give her everything she wanted?

 

Or was there more suffering in store for her when I returned?

 

 

At the end of the forty-eight hours, I had almost managed to convince myself that when I returned, I would offer to set her free. This relationship was poisonous to her…and that seemed to be the only viable option.

 

Steeling myself against the agony awaiting me when I allowed myself to think about my life if she left me, I had gone back home…only to discover a startling sight.

 

She was leaving me.

 

 

 

 

The sight of her luggage by the door hit me with the force of a sledgehammer, and I realized that I had been deluding myself from the past few days. 

There was no longer any option for me…not anymore.

 

It was in that instant that I finally realized that I could never let her go.

 

needed this woman .

For life.

 

 

But at that moment, she wouldn’t have listened to anything I might have had to say.

 

And so I had done the only thing I could, by pleading with her to stay on in our home while I moved away.

 

 

To my relief, she had agreed.

 

 

But the next four weeks had been torture…torment of a kind that I had never experienced before.

 

 

I had called her every single day, only to be told that she needed more time…more time apart.

 

I had even asked to meet her several times, only to be told the same.

 

 

I am no longer under any illusions, of course.

I know exactly how much I have hurt this woman…the one woman I wanted to protect above all else.

 

I know that I have been responsible for changing her…morphing her into an insecure, fragile woman who is nowhere near the person I married.

 

 

And now, I am dying for a chance to change that…to make things right.

 

 

The only problem is, I still don’t quite know how.

 

 

My insane need for control is no longer the issue, of course.

 

In the past four weeks, A.R has stabilized to  a certain degree. Things aren’t so bad as they seemed to be a  few weeks ago, and I am grateful for that.

 

And yet, I have had to face a painful truth.

 

A.R’s recovery has  had practically nothing to do with me.

 

It has mostly been helmed by my efficient team-members, and only the most crucial decisions have come from my office.

To a large extent, I have been  useless around the office for the past one month.

 

All my thoughts have been focused solely on one woman…one woman whom I have wronged very badly.

 

I haven’t been able to turn back to my family either.

Di and Shyam have been approaching various adoption agencies, and I have found myself unable to help them or support them in any way.

 

It’s just too painful.

The very thought of a child…of making a family with another person brings back memories of the woman who gave me so much…

 

I haven’t been to Di’s house in four weeks for just this reason.

 

 

 

And now, as I sit here in my car, thinking about the past four weeks and the effect they’ve had on me…I come to  a startling realization.

 

My plan has failed…spectacularly.

 

 

Detaching myself from an emotional commitment hasn’t helped my work in any way.

Nor has it helped my family.

 

 

Khushi was right, after all.

 

 

Because the only thing I feel now is a gaping void….an emptiness that governs my every breath.

 

 

I cannot live like this anymore.

 

My life is spiraling out of control once again…but this time, I intend to take the right step.

 

 

The one that leads to her…not from her.

 

 

I start the  car, pulling out of the parking garage below my office before I can harbor second thoughts.

 

I don’t allow myself to think about the reception I am likely to receive when I reach Menlo Park.

 

 

All I know…all I can feel is this need…the need to be where she is right now.

 

 

 
I find myself going faster and faster as I near my destination, my foot is almost glued to the accelerator of the Porsche convertible while somewhere in the depths of my crazed mind, I know that I am being careless in disregarding the need for safety on these roads.
 
In the end, I slow down a little, but only when I can see my target up ahead.
Pulling the car to a screeching halt, I barely wait until the engine has stopped running before throwing open the door and stepping outside, my eyes going straight to the door.
 
 
I have to see her.
 
need to see her.
 
And I need to do more.
 
I need to touch, to have, to hold…and not just in a sexual sense this time.
 
 
The compulsion is making me mindless with a craving that has been unfulfilled for far too long, and I am now a creature of instinct, blindly following my senses towards the one thing that can bring them solace.
 
 
I pause for a moment, closing my eyes in a vain attempt to regain control.
 
This is not how I want to meet her.
 
We need to talk, and I need to be in control when I do so.
 
 
Control.
 
 
Somehow, that word seems bitter on my tongue now.
 
 
Shaking my head against the torturous thoughts that await on the other side, I choose instead to focus on what awaits me behind that door.
 
 
But even as I walk towards it with renewed eagerness, I hear voices on my left, and freeze in place.
 
 
 
¨I…just don’t see why you’re here…¨
 
 
 
It is Khushi’s voice, and for an instant, I wonder if she is addressing me.
But then I turn around and realize that she hasn’t even seen me yet.
 
 
She is standing beside a palm tree, the slender trunk is blocking me from her view.
 
For a moment, I just stand there and let the sight wash over me, reveling in the beauty of the woman before me.
She is wearing white today, a color that I’ve hardly seen on her before.  Her hair is up in a knot and I am suddenly assailed by the need to pull it down until it lies across her shoulders in dark , smooth waves.
 
Clenching my hands against the need, I take one step towards her, only to pause again when I hear a second, unexpected voice.
 
 
 
¨I’m leaving the city, Khushi. And I wanted to  talk to you before I do so.¨
 
 
 
N.K?
 
 
What the hell is he doing here?
 
 
 
A red mist obscures my vision, and I move forward again before restraining myself with great difficulty.
 
My brain finally kicks into gear, and I realize that I need to hear this conversation, far more than I need to slam my fist into N.K’s face.
 
 
¨Yes, I…I heard that you quit your job at A.R. But what does that…I mean, why…¨
 
 
Her soft, hesitant tones make me want to reach out and draw her close, and I force myself to stay back as the scene before me plays out.
 
 
 
¨I know this must seem sudden and unexpected, Khushi…but I couldn’t go before I…well, let’s just say that I wanted to see you before I leave. To see how you’re doing, and whether I…but no, my question has been answered before I could ask.¨
 
 
¨I have no idea what you’re talking about.¨
 
 
She might not, but have a pretty good idea by this point, and sheer astonishment keeps me still as I listen to NK’s next words.
 
 
 
¨It’s simple, Khushi. Now that I am here, I can clearly see that you…you are still committed to him, even though I’ve heard that…¨
 
 
¨You shouldn’t believe all that you hear. And anyway, what does any of this have to do with you?¨
 
 
 
¨It doesn’t. Not now, at any rate. But there was a time…especially when I first met you, that I had hoped for something…something more that might have materialized after your contract marriage came to an end.¨
 
 
Khushi’s gasp makes me look up sharply, but my presence isn’t the cause.
She still hasn’t seen me, and her astonishment is  solely due to her sudden comprehension of N.Ks motives.
 
 
 
¨You thought that I and…and you
 
 
 
¨It was merely a dream, nothing more. I thought that you  were bound by a sheet of paper and nothing else, and you deserved so much more…the two of you didn’t even have anything in common, did you? But despite all the odds, there seems to be something between you both now. Although I still don’t see why you are…¨
 
 
¨It doesn’t matter. I’m still his wife, that’s all you need to know.¨
 
 
Hearing those words from her lips makes my heart slam hard against my chest, and I take a deep breath.
N.K’s voice interrupts, and I open my eyes again.
 
 
 
 
¨Yes, I see that now. Despite all evidence to the contrary, it’s clear that you are still devoted to him. And that means that have no choice but to leave.¨
 
 
¨I…I don’t know what to say…¨
 
 
 
¨You don’t have to say anything, Khushi. There’s no need. I’ve said what I wanted to, and now you…you know.¨
 
 
 
I look up sharply as he takes a step towards her, and I cannot keep myself away any longer.
 
 
 
 
¨Goodbye, Khushi..and good luck with…¨
 
 
 
¨She’s Mrs.Raizada to you, N.K. Now and always.¨
 
 
 
My words make Khushi look up in shock, and N.K stumbles back a step, his face paling as he takes in my presence.
 
 
And yet, he stands his ground.
 
 
 
¨I’m not your employee anymore, ASR. Your rules don’t apply , do they?¨
 
 
 
The rage rises yet again, but it is Khushi’s face that holds my attention now.
 
Instead of looking angry, or shocked…or any of the other emotions I had expected, her expression is one of sadness.
 
 
A heavy, profound grief that is almost tangible…
 
 
It draws me towards her and I raise my hand, intending to touch her…reassure her that everything is going to be alright.
 
 
 
 
 
¨Khushi….¨
 
 
 
Her gaze snaps back towards N.K, reminding me that we have an unwelcome audience.
 
But N.K isn’t even looking at me anymore. Instead, his gaze is fixed on Khushi…and yet, the expression on his face makes it impossible for me to rage at him anymore.
 
It’s clear that he is saying goodbye.
 
 
Apparently, Khushi realizes this too.
 
 
¨N.K, I…good luck with your new position. And I…I’m sorry that…¨
 
 
 
¨There’s no need for apologies, Khushi. I needed to get that off my chest, that’s all. I’m sorry if I made you uncomfortable, though…¨
 
 
He stares at her for one long moment, then turns to me.
 
 
¨I’m glad I met you here, ASR. I didn’t have the chance to say this when we last met…but I cannot leave without thanking you for giving me the chance to work with you. Not many people would have done that for someone who hadn’t even completed his degree at that point. And I’ll never forget that.¨
 
 
Anger over his words to Khushi still simmer beneath the surface, but I try and look beyond that.
Years of working together deserve an acknowledgement, and I might not have this chance later…
 
 
 
¨Good luck with your new job in Jersey, N.K. I…it’s been a pleasure to work with you all these years.¨
 
 
 
He hesitates a moment, and then holds out his hand.
 
A brief handshake…and then he’s gone.
 
 
Both our eyes follow him until he gets into his car, and then we turn back to the other at the exact same moment.
 
 
I allow my eyes to feast once more on her slim , beautiful form…and to my surprise, I find that she is clearly doing the same.
 
And then I notice the tears shimmering in her eyes, and I take a step towards her.
 
Her voice stops me in my tracks, thick with unshed tears.
 
 
¨So that’s what it takes for your facade to crack? One glimpse of another man near me?¨
 
 
 
¨What?¨
 
 
 
¨I’m amazed, Arnav. Here I…I have been…but you never…and now, when you heard what N.K just said, that’s what it took for you to show some reaction?¨
 
 
 
¨He had no business saying what he just did.¨
 
 
 
¨At least he was honest, Arnav! He didn’t try to hide what he really felt and I…¨
 
 
¨Honest?! You want honest?¨
 
 
 
Unable to keep myself away any longer, I walk up to her and take her hands in mine, grasping them hard enough to ensure that her eyes stay on mine.
 
 
 
¨The honest truth is that I can’t take this anymore! I cannot stay away, and you know that! I’ve wanted to meet you for weeks now, but you are the one who…¨
 
 
¨Yes, I stopped you, Arnav! Because I…I didn’t know what we would do when we met again. I was afraid that we’d only end up arguing with no solution in sight…and it looks like that’s just what has happened!¨
 
 
I stare down at her, unable to believe that I am yelling at her when all I want to do is draw her close and keep her there for a long, long while.
 
I take a deep breath, knowing that this is getting us nowhere.
 
 
 
¨I didn’t come here to argue, Khushi. I came here to tell you the truth.¨
 
 
 
¨The…truth?¨
 
 
 
¨Yes. And the truth is that you were right. I was a coward. I ran away from what you were beginning to make me feel…and I’m not proud of that at the moment. And yes, you were right about the office too. Moving away from you hasn’t helped me there…not even one tiny bit. That was a  stupid, irrational reason, just like you said.¨
 
 
 
¨So you’ve finally seen the light? And now you’re back, and you expect me to…do what, exactly?¨
 
 
She draws her hands away, and I look on helplessly as her eyes flash with a mixture of anger and distress.
 
 
¨Do you expect me to forget everything that’s happened over the past few months?Forget all that I have been through and just get back with you like everything is back to normal now?¨
 
 
¨That isn’t what I expect at all, Khushi. I just…I came here for one last chance. One last attempt at making this relationship work…because that is what I want, more than anything.¨
 
 
¨Really? Until when, Arnav? Until the next time that A.R runs into difficulties? Or the next time you feel that you are neglecting your family? When that happens, will you walk out again? How do I believe that you won’t?¨
 
 
 
I grasp her shoulders and pull her close.
 
 
¨I won’t ever do that again, Khushi. Because I’ve seen what lies on the other side. I don’t want that emptiness…I want you. I am committed to do this…I always have been. Please, never doubt that again.¨
 
 
¨And what happens if I do give you that chance? Are you ready to take all the risks that go with it?¨
 
 
 
¨Am I ready to declare my love for you? That’s what you really want to know, right?¨
 
 
¨Yes, maybe I do! Because that is exactly what I have given you…there’s nothing wrong in expecting the same thing in return!¨
 
 
 
¨No…there isn’t. But I won’t lie, Khushi. I can tell you the words right now…but I still don’t  know if I grasp what they mean. I still don’t know if I can open myself up to that and give up control entirely. What I do know is that I want to try…with you. I want to give it my best shot…I’ll give it everything I’ve got and more. Please, can’t you just accept that for now?¨
 
 
 
¨I want to, Arnav…you know I do. If I had given up on you, I won’t still be here , would I? But it’s hard for me to completely forget and move on …it’s hard for me to trust again.¨
 
 
Her eyes are filled with that unfathomable sadness again, and I curse myself again for putting it there.
 
 
 
¨I know it is, Khushi. And I have only myself to blame for that. But…please let’s give this one more chance. Let’s try and move past the hurt…because in the end, it will be worth it. I want what we had once, Khushi…do you remember?¨
 
 
Her hazel gaze looks up at mine , filled with memories…and regret.
 
 
¨I want to try, Arnav…but…there’s just so much that’s happened…how do you begin to move past that?¨
 
 
I realize that she is right. 
Everything around here serves as a reminder of what could have been…but wasn’t.
 
 
In that instant, I come to a decision.
 
 
¨I know what might work, Khushi. This place…this house and the city…everything is steeped in painful memories. We can never move forward…not while we are here.¨
 
 
 
¨What…what are you saying?¨
 
 
 
¨I’m saying that we should go away. To a place where everything is new…and begin afresh. We can work through this….just the two of us.¨
 
 
Her eyes are doubtful, and I step away before continuing.
 
 

“You don’t have to answer right away. I understand if you need some time to think this through , and I’ll…wait . For as long as it takes, because I really believe that this will give us what we need, Khushi.” 
 
 
 
She says nothing, but a single tear makes it’s way down her cheek and I turn away, knowing that I have pushed her too far.
I am disgusted with myself for bringing her to this…and yet, I find that I cannot bring myself to walk away.
 
 
Not this time.
 
Not again.
 
 
 
I turn to face her again, only to find that she is wiping her tears away with the edge of her white dupatta.
 
Her surprised gaze meets mine a moment later, and I realize that she expected me to walk away…just like I had done before.
 
 
 
¨I can’t do this, Khushi. I can’t walk away…not even temporarily. You…don’t have to let me into the house. I’ll just sleep here in the car or the garage…somewhere that I can be close.¨
 
 
An incredulous look enters her eyes, and then she is smiling through her tears.
 
 
 
¨You’re a fool, Arnav Singh Raizada. A stupid, irrational fool who cannot see what’s right in front of him.¨
 
 
I deserve everything she is throwing at me and more, but that’s not what snags my attention.
 
 
 
¨In front of me? What do you mean?¨
 
 
 
¨It means that I have made my decision.¨
 
 
 
 
¨Decision?¨
 
 
 
¨Yes, about going away with you. But before I tell you, I need to know if you are okay with a few ground rules.¨
 
 
 
¨Rules?What do you mean?¨
 
 
 
¨If I go away with you, I want you to know that it doesn’t mean that I have forgotten all that has occurred. Nor does it mean that everything will go back to the way it used to be. because I won’t…won’t be sharing a room with you.¨
 
A surge of relief makes me lightheaded.
 
¨I have no problem with any of that. I know the stakes here, Khushi. And I’m not willing to jeopardize any of that…for anything.¨
 
 
She stares at me for a long moment, and I hope that she can see the sincerity in my eyes.
 
 
But when she finally speaks, she surprises me yet again.
 
 
 
¨I just need to know one more thing….where exactly would we be going?¨
 
 
 
I smile, knowing that I have the perfect place in mind.
 
 
 
¨Greece.¨
 
 
 
Her eyes widen, and then she turns away, just a little.
 
 
 
¨Khushi? I’m waiting for your answer.¨
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Part Four- Arnav
 
 
 
 
The sun beats down on the white walled, blue domed houses that seem to tumble down the cliff-side towards the Aegean sea, and I notice that Khushi’s eyes widen at the sight, even though it is apparent that this is just an illusion.
The settlement of private and vacation homes on the Caldera cliffs situated in the Greek island of Santorini are stable enough , and provide the most spectacular views of the sunset for which this island is famous. As we step out of the  car that brought us up here to the small village of Oia Santorini, my glance falls on the view of Ammoudi port, and I remember the first time that I had come here on the invitation of my friend Nikos. We had come here via cruise-liner then, but this time, I did not want to take the extra time for that since we were scheduled to be here for just five days. And so we have flown down to Athens today, before taking a car to the three bedroom villa belonging to Nikos.
I look over at Khushi, and notice that she is pulling her wrap around her as the cold December air blows around the cliff. I realize that this isn’t the best time to come here to Greece, but we had been left with no choice.
 
It has been two weeks since that confrontation after N.K’s visit, and we have spent that time in preparing for this getaway. It hasn’t been easy, since Khushi wasn’t able to leave until her Christmas vacation began, and I needed to wrap up things at A.R and assure myself that my new executive assistant could handle things during my absence.
 
The intervening two weeks have been hard, to say the least. I had moved back into our mansion, but I hadn’t been able to bring myself to sleep in our old bedroom, even though it was unoccupied at the moment. We had ended up sleeping in two different guest-rooms throughout, and there had been very little opportunity for actual conversation as we both rushed through our commitments before leaving for Greece.
The long flight on my jet was an exercise in patience on my part. Although every fiber of my being longed to take her in my arms and soothe away her visible exhaustion, I had to content myself with watching her sleep in the lounge chair for most of the flight.
 
But now that we are finally here, I tell myself that this trip will accomplish what we have set out to do…rekindle the relationship that has been tarnished by fears , insecurities and separation.
 
As we walk towards the narrow, arched doorway that leads into the traditional low-lying, whitewashed house built in the Cycladic style, I keep my eyes on Khushi, hoping that she likes this house as much as I did when I first came here.
Although Oia is a popular tourist destination, this particular villa is slightly off the beaten path and is located in an area mostly frequented by locals. It’s most attractive feature is the spectacular view of the Calderra, which is the water-filled remnant of the repeated volcanic eruptions that created these cliffs. The sunset from this vantage point is the reason why tourists throng this island during the summer months, but I find myself hoping that the off-season will ensure privacy and allow us to take in the natural beauty of this place that mesmerized me on my first visit here.
 
Khushi takes it all in, and her gaze keeps going back to the indigo waters of the sea behind us…at least, until we enter the door.
 
As the driver moves past us to place our bags by the side table, I smile at Khushi’s look of open astonishment at the sight that meets her eyes. Despite it’s deceptively traditional appearance from the outside, the extensive renovation on the interior has made this house into a contemporary, luxurious space that rivals the best hotels in the vicinity. The warm pastel tones and blue and white furniture offset a fabulous view through the white-shuttered windows that now lie open, offering us  a panoramic view of the Aegean beyond.
 
 
I wait until I have tipped the driver and closed the door behind him before turning back to Khushi.
 
¨So…what do you think?¨
 
 
 
¨It’s…breathtaking. Are you sure your friend wants to place this on the market?¨
 
 
 
¨Nikos has no use for it anymore. He has a house in San Francisco and almost never comes back here, so the upkeep of something like this becomes a liability…¨
 
 
She sighs.
 
¨That’s a shame. No one should have to give up this beautiful glimpse of paradise…¨
 
 
 
I have plans for this place, but now isn’t the time to share them with her.
Instead, I gesture towards the mosaic tiled hallway that leads to the home’s only bathroom.
 
 
¨Sunset will arrive soon enough, and you shouldn’t miss that. I’ll wait out here if you want to shower first…¨
 
 
With one last glimpse through the window, she nods and walks down the hallway, my hungry eyes following her every step of the way.
Taking a deep breath, I throw myself down on the couch, wondering when and how I  can break this barrier that exists between us…one of my own making, no less.
 
 
I still have no answer to that question one hour later, when we have both showered and changed before seating ourselves at the rustic wooden breakfast table where the housekeeper has laid out some Greek delicacies prior to our arrival.
For the next few minutes, I tell Khushi about the famous spanakopita, the traditional pastry pie filled with spinach and feta cheese, followed by the sweet cheese melitinia cookies that are a specialty of these islands.
 
She samples them all, but I notice that her appetite is a shadow of what it used to be. I also note that her glance keeps moving past me to the window, and I wonder if she wants to see the famous Santorini sunset from another vantage point.
 
 
¨Khushi, if we leave now, we can still catch the sunset from one of the walkways in the old town. I know a cafe there that serves the best Greek Frappe coffee, we could walk over after it’s dark and…¨
 
 
My words trail off as I watch the expression on her face, a combination of sadness and determination that I have seen there once before.
 
 
¨Arnav…as tempting as that sounds, that isn’t what I came here for.¨
 
 
Before I can reply, she  stands up and moves away towards the window.
 
 
 
¨All this…it’s beautiful, Arnav. But we need to focus on the issues that have brought us here. We only have five days before we are due to return…¨
 
 
Taking a deep breath, I stand up too.
 
 
 
¨We’ve only just landed, Khushi. I thought that you and I could…¨
 
 
 
She whirls around, her eyes blazing with anger.
 
 
 
¨…could what? Play tourist? Or pretend that this was a honeymoon? I’m sorry, Arnav…that just isn’t possible. I went along with this idea because I couldn’t think of a better way at the time, but if you think that for one moment I have actually forgotten what I have been going through over the past few weeks, then you are sadly mistaken. It’s all I can think about…saving this shaadi is the only thing on my mind!¨
 
 
¨And do you think that it isn’t my priority? Resolving our issues is all that I want as well, Khushi!¨
 
 
The anger dims, and she leans back against the wall as the sky outside the window turns blood-red with the setting sun.
 
 
¨Where do we even begin, Arnav? We always seem to end up arguing…¨
 
 
 
¨No one said it was going to be easy, Khushi. But we need to get through this…together. I will do anything to prevent the events of the past few weeks from being repeated ever again. It was hell, for you and for me, and I never want that to happen.¨
 
 
 
Abruptly, her hazel eyes fill with tears.
 
 
¨Why, Arnav? Why did you go away? And I’m not just talking about the physical separation here…although that was terrible in it’s own way, what hurt me more was the way you distanced yourself from me when we were still living together. Do you even realize what it feels like when your partner gives you a night of tenderness and then walks out the next morning without a word? When you realize that your house-staff know more about his whereabouts than you do? Do you know how it feels when you have discovered heaven in someone’s arms, only to have it snatched away on a whim? Let me tell you, Arnav. It feels like the very air has been sucked out of your existence. And I don’t want to feel that way again!¨
 
 
 
I walk up close, then take one trembling hand in mine, even as her tears torture me with the grief that is evident now.
 
 
 
¨And I don’t want you to. When will you believe that?¨
 
 
 
She pulls her hand away, then swipes it across her streaming eyes.
 
 
¨I cannot even begin to trust you…not until you explain why you did that, and what is going to prevent this from happening again. Please, Arnav…make me understand…¨
 
 
Her plea is my undoing, and I close my eyes as I try to gather  my thoughts, knowing that this might be my only chance.
 
 
When I look over at her again, she is staring at me with those moist, tormented eyes that threaten to ruin what’s left of my composure.
 
 
¨Khushi…what I did…it was the last stand of a man who was running scared…just like you said. I was terrified of what you were beginning to make me feel, the loss of control made me long to escape before it destroyed me completely. I wasn’t really in control of myself then, Khushi. I just perceived that things were spiraling out of control..and I just reacted without giving any thought to what this would do to you. I thought that…that once I explained my stance, you would understand, because you are a practical woman, someone who can identify with what I was feeling then. But I was wrong…so very, very wrong about you…and me. You aren’t that person anymore, and neither am I. You were right then, Khushi…things between us have changed. This marriage is now real, much more than I had ever imagined it could be.¨
 
 
 
¨And now that you have come to this realization, are you ready to embrace this new phase wholeheartedly? Because that’s what worries me the most, Arnav…that you will start out on this new path, but when you realize just what it entails, you will rush to retrace your steps just like you did once before. How can I allow myself to get close to you again, when the shadow of that cold, withdrawn stranger looms in the background? ¨
 
 
Before I can even begin to respond, she walks up to me and this time, it is she who takes my hand in hers.
 
 
¨Look at me, Arnav! Look at me, and understand just what my presence here is telling you! Despite everything, I am here with you in a foreign country, giving us one last chance to get things right. If you had asked me a few months ago, I would never have even dreamed that I would be doing this for you, a man whom I had married in a contract marriage. Everything has changed since then..and I have welcomed it and adapted to it. And I haven’t given up hope yet…but give me something to hold on to. Convince me that you are ready to move ahead in these new circumstances…make me believe, Arnav.¨
 
 
 
The near desperation in her eyes jolts me out of my paralyzed state, and I grasp her hand in mine, knowing that I have to tell her everything that is in my heart and mind…she needs to know it all. I have to lay it all on the line, there is just no other way.
 
The small part of me that is still holding on to the control that has defined my entire life , is still vocal in the background, but the larger part of me knows and recognizes what I need to fight for now.
 
 
¨There’s just one simple truth you need to know before all else, Khushi.¨
 
 
She stares up at me, her eyes damp and anxious…and I know that it is time for her to know the truth, the one truth that I cannot deny any longer.
 
 
¨Arnav Singh Raizada cannot live without his Khushi. And that’s the truth.¨
 
 
For a moment, there is no reaction…none at all.
 
And then the tears start streaming down her face, and she is my arms, weeping on my shoulder as the shivers rack across her slender frame.
 
I draw her close, unwilling to let her part from me even as I know that I haven’t completed what I nee to say.
From the very beginning, this marriage has been based on honesty above all else, and I will not change that now.
 
 
Slowly, very slowly, I pull back until I can look into her eyes.
Wiping the tears away, I push her hair back from her face as she finally speaks.
 
 
 
 
¨If…if that’s the truth, then is that…is all that happened really a thing of the past? Because if someone becomes essential to your existence, you cannot really distance yourself from them, can you?¨
 
 
 
 
¨No…you can’t. And that’s what I’ve been trying to tell you…that’s what I have realized over the past few weeks, Khushi. My behavior was inexcusable, and will never be repeated. I cannot do that again…to either of us. It’s just not in me…not anymore. I need to be with you, in every possible way. Do you understand? I need you, Khushi.¨
 
 
 
¨And I am still in love with you, Mr. Raizada. Nothing has changed there…because I’ve discovered that it isn’t really a matter of choice now. It just is, that’s all…¨
 
 
 
For a moment, the ghost a  smile flits across her lips as she continues.
 
 
 
¨…and I just eliminated the ‘think’, didn’t I?¨
 
 
 
I draw her close again.
 
 
 
¨And so you did. It was…easy for you, wasn’t it?¨
 
 
 
She sighs once before leaning her head against my chest.
 
 
 
 
¨And it isn’t easy at all for you, is it?¨
 
 
 
This truth needs to be told as well, but I find myself apprehensive about her reaction as I begin to speak.
 
 
¨Love? No, it isn’t. ¨
 
 
She looks up at me again.
 
 
 
¨Why not, Arnav? This is what I cannot begin to comprehend. Why is this so difficult for you, when it’s obvious to me that you…¨
 
 
 
¨Obvious? Nothing is obvious here, not to me, at any rate. I can deal with everything else. I can compromise on my need for control…I can adapt myself to make this marriage as real as it can get. I’ll do it for you…for us, because I want to. I want to have that life with you, Khushi. It’s what I want above all else, I can see that now. But as for love…can you just try and see this from my perspective? Can you see how a man is trying very hard to view things in a different light, but there’s one thing that stumps him every time?¨
 
 
 
¨And that thing is…love?¨
 
 
¨ Yes…because for me, it’s new. Think of it like this…what if it’s something completely new, something that you haven’t ever considered for all the years of your existence? Something that isn’t part of your reality at all? And then you find that the one who is an integral part of your life now  wants you to accept this new thought…one that is contrary to all you’ve ever believed in. It’s the person who matters to you the most, and so you try…without much success, because you aren’t really sure about what you are doing in the first place. But you still do it, because it’s what the other wants. Even if it’s against all the beliefs and convictions and choices you’ve made so far…tell me, Khushi, would you be able to do that? All your life, you have known what it is to love…even if you haven’t been in love yet. It is an intrinsic part of you, all you’ve ever known. Would you change that overnight, just because someone you care about asked you to? If they asked you to stop loving and forget all about love, would you make that drastic change for them? Would you be able to make that critical transformation in word and thought and deed?¨



¨That isn’t a fair comparison, Arnav. It’s like the difference between darkness and light. You cannot recognize the brightness because you haven’t ever anticipated it…and I can understand that completely. But how can you compare that to asking me to willingly give up the sun that illuminated my world, and embrace the shadows of the night? Is that what you really want from me? Do you want me to stop loving you, because you aren’t able to see it yet?¨


¨No! That isn’t what I’m saying…I’ve told you this before, Khushi…there’s nothing about you that I would change…including the way you feel about me. I’ve been thinking about that constantly over the past few weeks and believe me, it’s the only thing that’s kept me going sometimes…¨


¨So in some ways, you believe that such an emotion actually exists? You aren’t completely denying it’s existence if you want me to acknowledge it…¨

¨I cannot ever deny that we have very strong feelings for each other, Khushi. That has been evident for a while now…what I have a problem with is the fact that we need to label this. Do we need to give it a name? Do you need me to tell you that I…¨

¨No, I don’t. Because I can see it…well, I can see it most of the time, when you aren’t being an arrogant jerk. But tell me, does it make you feel better if we don’t use that word? Would it stifle your urge to escape?¨


¨I don’t want to escape anymore, Khushi. Not even from love, if that is what this is. All I’m trying to say is that I do not quite understand it yet. At the end of the day, I am just a businessman, Khushi. I deal with cold , hard facts and figures…and this doesn’t fall into either category. I just find it hard to comprehend…and I don’t want to say it out loud as just some words, without really knowing what it means.¨


¨When have I ever asked you to?¨


¨You said it to me, didn’t you? Well you wrote it, anyway. And you even told me that you were tired of giving without expecting anything in return, and so I assumed that…¨


¨…that I wanted those three little words in return? Then your assumption was wrong, Arnav. Because what I want from you is something quite different. ¨

¨What do you mean?¨

¨I don’t want a grand declaration, Arnav. All I want is my husband, the one who made me fall in love with him all those weeks ago. I want that warm, caring man who respected me as a person in my own right, not the one who ignores me and disrespects me by flitting in and out of the house whenever he wants. I want the man who sets me on fire with his passion…and does not leave me alone  the morning after. I want the man who made me want to tear up the contract and give him my all, Arnav. That is what I want…not an ‘I love you’ that is merely  a few words.¨


¨And you have him, Khushi. I will be that man again, if only you can give me that chance. I am here to stay…my commitment is genuine and I will prove it to you. Just let me do it…and be patient while I learn, that’s all I ask from you.¨

¨I’m learning too, Arnav. And I can do it faster if you share things with me , instead of keeping it all bottled up inside where it festers. I will make mistakes too…we both will. The question is, do we want to fight this together? I know that I do…¨

¨…and so do I. ¨


As we look into each other’s eyes, the light in the room changes dramatically, and I realize that the famed Santorini sunset has just occurred beyond the window.
And yet, neither turns towards the window, because something more beautiful has just happened in this very room.

Hope.

It beats the biggest displays of spectacular natural beauty, hands down.



_______


The next day at breakfast, I look over to find that Khushi appears well-rested for the first time in days.Respecting her wishes, I have spent the night in one of the guest-suites, although sleep has eluded me last night. My mind is occupied by what needs to be done, and I have realized that there’s still a long way to go before I gain her complete acceptance and trust. But a start has been made, and I intend to capitalize on that.

I wait until we have both eaten before following her out onto the balcony where the view of the village stretches out below us. The blue and white buildings set against the backdrop of the shimmering sea is picture-perfect, and yet I sense that Khushi isn’t really taking it in yet.

¨Khushi?¨

She turns to me with a glimmer in her eye that had been entirely absent before.


¨Do you remember Tahoe?¨


I smile at once, the memory of that time never fails to do that to me…at least, until I allow myself to think of the last day.But that isn’t something I want to bring up now.


¨We had a great time, didn’t we?¨


¨Yes…and I was thinking that…you were right yesterday when you suggested that we could look around the island while we were here. Could we do that today?¨

¨Of course. Your wish is my command, Mrs. Raizada.¨


She rolls her eyes.

¨Spouting cliches now, are we?¨


¨That’s insulting. Arnav Singh Raizada is anything but cliched.¨


¨Really? You’re a millionaire on vacation with his wife on a Greek island , and you arrived here on your own jet. That sounds like something out of a cliched romance novel!¨

¨You’re wrong, Khushi. If this was a novel, we wouldn’t have been sleeping apart last night.¨

Her eyes meet mine, then drop to the floor.

¨I can’t…I can’t change that yet, Arnav. Don’t ask me to.¨

I walk up to her swiftly, then raise he chin so she can  meet my gaze.

¨I won’t ever ask you to do something you don’t want to, Khushi. But I won’t lie, either. There’s nothing I want more than to have you back in my arms where you belong…but I am willing to wait until you trust me enough to come there of your own volition.¨

She gives me a tentative smile after a  moment, and my heart soars in relief.


¨So where are we going first?¨


I take her first to the old town of Oia, and we explore the narrow lanes and small cafes that dot the village. Over the next two days, we hike up to the capital of Fira, and then on to the Skaros rock. Khushi enjoys our visits to Amoudi Bay and the museum of Prehistoric thera , and we finally see the ruins of Thera , an 11th century settlement.On the third day, Khushi asks me if we could go over to the Skaros rock again, to view the famed sunset from that perspective.

We set off after lunch, and soon find ourselves hiking up the rock while pausing frequently to feast our eyes on the village of Imerovigli behind us, and the Santorinian coastline in the distance.We come upon a small church that is almost hidden behind the rock , and it seems to fascinate Khushi, who spends some time there, taking in the white building set against the backdrop of the rock.
When we finally reach the viewing area, the time for the sunset is almost upon us. We walk around and still in amazement at the vista before us, an endless expanse of sun and sky and sea that makes Khushi gasp in wonderment.
And then I still for an entirely different reason.Khushi has just placed her hand in mine, and I realize that this is the first time in days that she has done so.
I grasp her hand tightly, but say nothing as we watch the sun go down into the Aegean. The shy is awash in the bold hues that are characteristic of the Santorini sunsets,and we watch in silence as nature’s splendor surrounds us on all sides.

I look over at her, knowing that her beauty surpasses anything I can see out here. Inside and out, she is the most exquisite of all creation, and I find myself hoping that she isn’t ever taken from me…because I cannot imagine an existence without her.
The past few days have been good for us, as we have taken those first few tentative steps towards establishing a new understanding…the foundation for a relationship that will stand the test of time.I know that we still have things to accomplish, but I am now confident that we will be able to deal with this…together.

As darkness descends around us, the sun goes down in a blazing red flame, and the sky is streaked with crimson.Once again, I am reminded of that first time when I saw her in a red saree on the day we were married…and it also reminds me of the gift I am carrying in my pocket.
As she turns to me now, I pull it out , then hold it out to her.
As her eyes widen, I find myself wondering if she will like it at all. Unlike my previous gifts, this one isn’t  very expensive or  even unique. The antique Hellenic gold and garnet necklace has another intrinsic value…one that is recognized by every Greek man and woman out here.

¨Arnav? What is this?¨

I turn her around gently, fastening the slender strand around her neck just as the sun finally sets in a red blaze of glory.


She looks down at the necklace, fingering the intricate knot at it’s center before looking up at me again.

¨This is very…different.¨


¨I know.  It is an ancient Greek knot called the Heracles knot…more commonly known as the ‘marriage knot’.¨

She looks down at the filigreed necklace again, and when she looks back up, her eyes are moist with unshed tears.


¨Sshh…I didn’t mean to make you cry, Khushi. This was supposed to be a gift…and a promise.¨


¨A promise?¨


¨Yes. A promise and a commitment that for me, this marriage is as real as it gets. And it is forever.¨


She stares at me for a long moment, and then her eyes take on that look of determination that is becoming familiar to me now.


¨What if I don’t want any promises, Arnav?¨

¨What?¨


She takes a deep breath.


¨I’ve been giving it some thought over the past few days…and I have come to realize that no matter what, one or both of us will end up compromising on more than they really want to. We are just too different…and so are our expectations. We might be okay with it for a few days…but sooner or later, we might be stifled by all this. ¨

She is giving voice to my unconscious fears, and this realization keeps me silent as she continues.


¨What if we did not follow the rules, Arnav? What if we decided to make our own?¨


¨What do you mean?¨


¨It’s simple, really. We have both agreed that we need time to learn how to handle this relationship and meet the other persons’ expectations. But how will we do that if we find ourselves constrained by all the promises and declarations and compromises that we feel compelled to make? Wouldn’t it be better if we redefined the rules? If we placed no constraints and stopped reminding ourselves of this marriage and all this entails, wouldn’t that give us the freedom to discover what makes us work as a couple?¨


¨What you are basically suggesting is a live-in relationship of sorts…¨


¨Exactly! Except, we are already legally married, aren’t we? To the rest of the world, we can present that image. But between you and me…we won’t ever do what we don’t want to. We will not follow the so called rules of a normal shaadi. If you  can’t admit to your love, then I won’t ever force you to. And if you think I’m crossing some line that makes you want to run in the opposite direction, then all you have to do is ask. Without ever wondering  about reactions or fearing the repercussions…do you see the advantages now? A marriage that began as one that is bound by a  contract…will now continue as one that is bound by virtually nothing except our need for the other.¨

¨But will this make you happy, Khushi? Don’t you want a traditional marriage like anyone else?¨

¨Like my sisters’ , you mean? That’s a disaster waiting to happen. No, Arnav…a marriage with all it’s rituals and boundaries and traditions isn’t guaranteed to give me what I want. And what I want is a life with you…one that I know will give me all the happiness I desire.¨


¨So no expectations? No promises…none at all?¨


¨No…well, just one. One that we  can both agree on…¨


¨And what would that be?¨


¨The promise that we will do this together.¨


I smile , knowing that this is an easy promise to make.
And I have to admit that deep down, her solution makes me feel lighter than I did in days, as if a weight has been lifted from my soul. Although I know fully well that I am committed to this relationship, the fear of disappointing her and having her walk out on me is now gone, and I know that I can give her what she wants and needs with a freedom that I have never had before.
This marriage will be real…without ever being a marriage at all.

I pull her into my arms, and place a gentle kiss on her lips.


¨Together, Mrs. Raizada. ¨


¨Hamesha.¨


The dying rays of the sun touch her one last time, and the red gemstones catch the light, sparkling at her neck with a hidden fire.


Yes, hamesha.

Because it’s what I have always wanted…with her.




*************************************

A/N:

A journey that began in January has reached it’s conclusion today. It was a bittersweet experience for me as I typed the ending I had envisioned for this Arnav and Khushi all those months ago, but I cheered myself up with the thought that their story isn’t quite over yet. 
The epilogues will come next, and there will be two, one from Khushi’s and the other from Arnav’s perspective. Both will be posted within this week, and before we bid farewell to this Arnav and Khushi, I’d like to thank you all so very much for staying with me through all this time, and bearing with the delays with patience and understanding. You truly are the best readers ever!
When I post the last epilogue, I will also reveal the name of the person who challenged me to write this story. I can’t wait for her assessment, and would love to know what you think as well!

If you wish to comment here on the blog, please leave your IF name so that I can recognize you.

If you wish to comment on the forum, here is the link to the latest Baaraatis CC:

http://www.india-forums.com/forum_posts.asp?TID=4040967



PMs for this update will be sent out tomorrow.


Khushi’s epilogue, which features a time leap, will be posted on late Friday night, US time. I do hope to see you then!

-Juhi

Chapter Nine (All parts up)

 

Banner  Credit: Chotidesi

 

 

 

 


Chapter Nine



Part One






From  Khushi <KhushiArnavRaizada01@gmail.com>
To:  Arnav <ArnavSinghRaizada@arcorp.com>
Date:  Tues, June 24, 2014 at 2:55 AM
Subject:  Sheetal



Arnav,

I know what Sheetal said.And I know that you heard it.I was leaving our room when that bird yelled out what she had heard only about an hour ago from my lips.Yes, it was me.And no, this wasn’t  how I wanted you to find out.But now that you have, I find that my only regret is that you never really knew exactly what I’d said and why. And that’s why I am typing this tonight, although I know that you are still on your flight and probably won’t see this until tomorrow at the earliest, when you finally reach the Hilton in Brisbane. Thank you for that text message about the name of your hotel, by the way. 
So before I lose my nerve, here’s what really happened. I had taken Sheetal outside with me because I was tired of staying indoors for three days in a row. Escaping my own thoughts had never felt more pleasurable, you know?And as I walked out towards the stables,  a memory came back to me. The one where you fell off the horse, and injured yourself.I don’t quite know  why and how, but that triggered a reaction in me. I realized that if anything like that were to ever happen to you now, I wouldn’t react the way I had then. Quite frankly, I would be a wreck . I know that now, and I knew it when you walked in with your gun to check if there was an intruder in the Tahoe cabin.And that got me thinking…just why do I suddenly feel this way?
The answer came to me in  a sudden burst of insight, and the words just spilled from my lips.A woman feels as if her world would end if anything happened to her man…only if she loves him.
And that is when I said, I think I am in love with you, Arnav.
Yes, I did use the word ‘think’. Not because I’m not sure of what I feel, but only because the newness of it all still overwhelms me.This is the first time I’ve felt this way, and I am not quite sure how to deal with it.
And soon, an urgent concern overrode my own worries.
I wasn’t sure how you would deal with this at all.
From the very beginning, you have made your expectations and beliefs very clear. This marriage was supposed to be one of mutual convenience, based on a shared conviction in the notion of practicality above all else. On the way, we discovered that passion exists between us as well, and I have to admit that I was swept away by it for a while.
But beyond that, you have never asked for more. In fact, you have made it clear that emotions have no place in your life, and that you believe that they are meaningless.That led me to ask myself…will you think the same of what I am feeling at this moment?
Will you dismiss them as just a reaction to what has occurred over the past few days in my life?Will you think that what I feel is just gratitude for all your help and support?
Or will you put it down to the fact that this realization has happened after our honeymoon, a phase in my life that has taught me about an intense passion that I had never expected or anticipated?
I have no idea how you were going to react to this when I eventually told you.
Yes, I was going to tell you, because I have promised myself that I will not keep anything from you anymore.
But now that you know, I don’t quite know how I feel at the moment.
I did not expect you to suddenly burst out with a declaration. I wouldn’t have believed that, I think.But neither did I expect you to leave, to seek an escape with the urgency you displayed tonight.
Am I disappointed?Yes, I am.Because I expected you to stay, to question..and maybe try to understand why I’d said what I did.
Do I understand why you went away to a conference you hadn’t planned on attending?Actually, I do.
Because sometimes, I wish that I could escape from the intensity of all that you make me feel.I would want to get away too..to think about it, to come to terms with it…to decide what I am going to do about it.
Unfortunately, I don’t have that luxury…but you do.
I understand, Arnav. 
But I want you to know that I would rather have you back as soon as possible, because everything feels empty without you here.And I also want you to know that I don’t want you to feel obliged to say or declare anything, just because I have.
I just want you back, in this home that you have given me…in this room that we have made our own.
In my arms, because that is where you truly belong.

And when you do get back, I want you to know that I will be very, very happy if I could stay with you after this year ends…for as many years as you want me to.
The question now is, do you want that as much as I do, especially after you’ve heard what I had to say?

Come back home and tell me…I’m waiting.


-Khushi.



_________


I pause with the cursor poised over the ‘send’ button, not sure if I really want to do this.In the next instant, I remind myself just why it is so important that I do.
As the email goes through, I sit back in my chair and close my eyes, savoring the wave of relief.
A soft knock at the door snaps me out of this in a hurry, though.Walking over to the closed door, I open it and stare at my mother, who looks tired and very, very anxious.

¨Amma? I thought you were asleep!¨

She comes in , and I close the door behind her.

¨I tried, but I couldn’t, bitiya.¨

¨It’s the jet-lag, Amma. It will take a few days before you…¨

My voice trails off as my mother stares at me with that worried look still on her face.

¨It’s not the jet-lag…we need to talk, Khushi.¨
I sigh inwardly, knowing that this moment was inevitable.

¨I know, Amma. But I thought it could wait until the morning when…¨

My mother steps forward, and cups my cheek in one hand, then draws me towards the chair with the other.When I am seated there, she pulls up the other chair, and I know that the time for the truth is finally here.

¨It has already waited for far too long, Khushi. I wanted to talk to you about this ever since Arnav bitwa told me the truth about your marriage the other day over the phone, but he requested me to wait until I got here. And tonight…I had to wait until I had visited Payal…¨

I look away immediately, unwilling to be reminded of that little detour on our way home from the airport. When Amma had landed at San Francisco airport, she had surprised me by asking me about Payal. I had told her that I assumed that Payal and Akash were back home in Bangalore, but she had then informed me that they had never gone back at all. Apparently, Payal had been admitted to a hospital in Palo Alto , where she was being treated for severe clinical depression and anxiety disorder. When I had heard of this, I had reluctantly allowed my mother to call Akash, and she had then gone to the hospital to see my sister. Although I had accompanied her there, I hadn’t been able to make myself go inside.The wounds were still too fresh, and no amount of  concern for my sister’s well being could make me forget that.
Instead, I had waited in the car for my mother’s return, but a few moments later , I was taken by surprise when Akash had approached me there.My astonishment had mounted when he had gone on to apologize for his wife’s behavior. Even could clearly see that he was overcome with guilt at that moment…guilt for ignoring his wife’s irrational behavior and not following up on her suspicious activities, even when she had suddenly insisted on an American honeymoon that he could barely afford at the moment.I was surprised to feel a tinge of sympathy for him, especially when he revealed that despite everything, he was still determined to stay by her side…even when his own mother had tried to force him to give up on an unstable, irrational woman.
His confessions were interrupted by my mother’s return, and it had taken only one look at her devastated face before he had turned back the way he had come, leaving us alone in the car.
And then we had both wept together…for the wreck that our loved one had become.
Despite the fact that she had almost succeeded in causing irrevocable harm, I still wished that she did not have to suffer…that none of this would ever have happened in the first place.
My mother had felt all the guilt…all the agony of seeing the breakdown too, but together, we had started on the slow, painful road to acceptance and healing.
In that moment, I had found myself immensely grateful to one enigmatic, intuitive man who had arranged for me to have my mother by my side at a time like this.
On our return to the mansion, I had insisted on her going straight upstairs for a shower and some rest, but apparently that wasn’t possible.
As I look over at her now in the muted light of my bedroom, I know that I have no other option but to talk this out with her. After the events of three days ago, there was no way that the truth about our marriage could be hidden any longer…from her, at least. Arnav had told her  about the contract in general terms, but it was upto me now to explain what had happened since.
¨Amma…there are some things you need to know about this marriage…¨

I spend the next few minutes telling her most of the truth about the past few weeks, leaving out the intimate details and focusing instead on why I had initially married him…and what exactly had changed now.
When I am done, she looks at me for a long moment, then shakes her head sadly.

¨Khushi…after listening to all this…and seeing  what has happened to Payal…I know that I have failed as a mother.¨

The guilt on her face is something that I cannot bear.I drop down to my knees before her and pull her hands into mine.

¨Don’t blame yourself for all this, Amma…we…¨

¨What else can I do, Khushi? I didn’t even manage to give you the confidence to share your cherished dreams with me…about the PhD, and about marriage. And Payal…I cannot even count the number of ways I have failed there…¨

¨was responsible for that, too. And you know that, Amma.¨

She looks away towards the open window, and I wait for her to say something…anything.
When she finally does, it is not what I expected.

¨Do you know something, Khushi? I don’t want to fail anymore.¨

¨What? Amma, I…¨

¨No. You listen to me, Khushi. The only thing I can do for Payal now is to stay out of her life. It is the only thing that will allow her to focus on getting her life back on track…by herself. Do you know how many times I questioned myself if I was doing the right thing by visiting one daughter who has made the other suffer? But in the end, I couldn’t stop myself…because I am her mother, after all. But it ends here, Khushi. Thankfully,  she has a loyal life partner…and I will trust him to take care of her. There won’t be any more interference from my side. But then…then there’s you…¨
She runs her hand through my hair, and I rest my head in her lap again.

¨You, Khushi. The daughter who has given up so much…I want nothing more than to help you in any way that I can. And now that I know the truth about your marriage, I only have one question for you…¨

That brings my head up in a hurry.

¨…do you still want to stay in this marriage?¨

Her anxious eyes are fixed on mine, but I answer immediately with no hesitation.

¨Yes, I do. ¨

She stares at me for a long moment.

¨Why?¨


How do I answer this?
How do I put these new feelings into words…the ones that I am still struggling to understand?

And yet, I know that  I have to try.

¨Because I know that this marriage can be the one I have always wanted. We…we may not be there yet…but Amma, I want to try.¨
I take her hand in mine again.

¨This is my shot at happiness, Amma. I can feel it.¨

I wait with bated breath for her reply, but she doesn’t answer me in words.Instead, she reaches out and pulls me into her arms, holding me securely against her heart.

¨If you are happy, then I am too, bitiya. It’s all I’ve ever wanted.¨

But then she draws away before pulling me up as  well.

¨But there’s something I want you to know, Khushi. At any moment, if you decide that this is no longer what you want…please don’t hide it from me. I’m strong enough to handle the truth, even though you think otherwise. So promise me…promise me if God forbid, that ever happens…you’ll come back to your Amma.¨

Tears burn the backs of my eyelids as I hug her close again, nodding my head even though I know that will never happen.

This shaadi is what I want most in the world.
And I am determined to fight for it.




Over the next four days, my resolve is sorely tested.
After I had sent that email, I wasn’t quite sure what I had expected from him.When he had first called me after reaching the Hilton in Brisbane, it had only been for a few minutes, just enough to let me know that he had reached there safely.
But on the next call, he finally acknowledged that he had read the email.I still remember that anticlimactic conversation…

¨Khushi…I just saw your email.¨


¨You…did?¨


¨Yes.¨


¨And?¨


¨I think it’ s something that should be discussed in person…and not when I am miles away on the other side of the world.¨

¨I…that’s fine. I can wait.¨


¨I have to go, there’s a dinner with some of the delegates.¨


¨Sure. Talk to you later.¨



And that had been that.
Following that call, every other conversation of ours had been short and to the point…except that it wasn’t really the point I wanted to discuss. We spoke about the conference that was being held at the Brisbane convention center, and the city of Brisbane.I told him about the only outing that my mother had agreed to, and how the sight of the spectacular Golden Gate bridge had managed to take her mind off her worries for a few hours.
But we never talked about the issue that was looming large in my mind…and hopefully in his.

I have spent the days with my mother, grateful to have this chance to catch up with her .But the nights have been the hardest.I find myself pining for my husband, in a way that I had never imagined.

I know that the conference ends today, and that he is due to return tomorrow. We had spoken in the wee hours of the morning, but there has been no call since then.I have reached for my phone several times through the day, but I have refrained from calling him, knowing that he needs his sleep before heading out for yet another day at the convention center.

But the restlessness continues unabated.Despite my brave words in that email, I know that in my heart of hearts, I do crave for more.
And that might never happen.

Anxiety over his reaction wars with the constant issue of Payal that still tortures me at times.Desperate for relief from my own troubled thoughts, I drag my mother out for dinner at a nearby Chinese Bistro. When we return, it’s almost ten, and my mother heads upstairs at once.

For some reason, I find myself unable to do the same.
I decide to spend some time outside, and turn around to walk back through the front door.As I do so, I catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror by the entryway, and I pause, arrested by the sight.

I had dressed hurriedly earlier, and it is only now that I notice the vibrant beauty of the pale blue tiered chiffon skirt, paired with a sleeveless top in a darker shade of blue. Strappy white sandals and a wide bracelet complete the look, and although it is  a fairly simple one, it is still a new experience for me.
This outfit is one that I had purchased for my honeymoon, although I had never had the chance to wear it then. I don’t quite know what has compelled me to wear it tonight.
I have styled my hair differently too, the long  length now lies in waves down my back.

I suddenly realize that my clothes aren’t the only things that have changed about me these days.
As I stare at myself in the mirror, I know that I look good.For the first time in my life, I allow myself to acknowledge that fact.
And it is all because of one man, who looks at me as if I am the most beautiful woman he’s ever set his eyes upon.Although he has constantly reiterated that he finds me attractive, it is not his words that have finally convinced me.It is his touch…the way he holds me as if he can never let go.It is his gaze…the way he looks at me as if he never wants to look away.
There is no reason for him to fake those things…and now I am sure that he hasn’t.
I realize at that moment that no matter what else happens between us, I’ll always be grateful to him for allowing me to be confident in my own femininity for the first time ever.
I also know that it is that confidence that gave me the strength to bare my soul to him on the Golden gate bridge…and allowed me to give myself to him physically…in a way that I never had before.
The woman I am today is someone I have discovered since meeting him.
Has he managed to erase the scars of my past completely?
I don’t think so…not entirely, at least.
My insecurities continue to come back at unwelcome moments…like this one.His refusal to speak about my email has brought them back to the fore, and I find myself battling conflicted emotions as I wonder if even the new me is enough to hold a man like him.
hope so…and I know that I have seen the evidence in his eyes.
But in the dark hours of a night like this, can one really be sure?

Unable to face the agony in my eyes, I turn away from the mirror and wrench open the door, not stopping until I reach the gazebo. I fall back into an armchair and stare up at the moon, wondering what he’s doing at the moment in Brisbane.
Does he think about me at random moments like this?

Does he wonder what I’m doing, just like I am?

The wind blows across my face and I close my eyes…just for a moment…



My dreams have never been particularly vivid or memorable.Recollections of vibrant colors and patterns are the only things that I can recall when I wake up, and even that is quite rare.
But this dream seems to be breaking all those rules.
The first thing I feel is a gentle caress on my leg, easing the sandal off my foot before moving upwards, my chiffon skirt no longer a barrier as it is raised steadily out of the way.
Yes, strange as it may sound, I know that I am wearing a gauzy blue chiffon skirt that floats across my ankles.Or used to, anyway.
I also know where I am, that knowledge hasn’t been diminished by this unusual dream. 
I am seated in one of the upholstered armchairs in the gazebo outside our home, and it is dark outside. I know that even though my eyelids are closed…
That strangely familiar touch now rests on my waist, a heavy, comforting warmth spreading out from the point of contact. I shift a little in the chair, a new restlessness taking hold as my movement dislodges the hand, and it now moves upwards until it rests right below my breasts.
My breath hitches in my throat as I wait for the hand to move higher, right where I need it the most.
But it doesn’t.
Instead, the warmth is withdrawn abruptly,  leaving  me vaguely unfulfilled.

What exactly is happening to me?

Everything feels so real…and yet I can feel that my eyes are still closed.The yearning is unabated, though.
I crave for something that has been missing for days now, and I know exactly what it is. My mind shies away from giving it a name, knowing that the pain will be unbearable, even if this is a dream.
Instead, my senses focus on what I can feel.
The cool night air blows across my arms, raising goosebumps across the exposed skin.The rustle of the leaves and the sounds of the crickets permeate the surroundings, further giving credence to the theory that I am still in the gazebo, which is were I fell asleep.
But even as my minds takes this in, I am conscious of a presence beside me.
The touch may be absent, but the air shimmers with the vitality and a banked fire.
I hear him move around me , and then I suddenly feel a touch on my hair.I have left it loose tonight, and he takes advantage of this by lifting the heavy mass in one hand before moving it off my shoulder.
And then I shift again as I feel his lips against the bare skin at my neck-line, a fleeting touch that is over before it has truly begun.
His hands let go of my hair, and then slide down my bare arms before he moves away yet again.

More than anything else, this fact convinces me that I am still dreaming.Because in real life, the only man who has touched me intimately is always impatient…always hungry for more.
This gentleness…the fleeting caresses…these aren’t something I’ve ever experienced before.
I know now that this is the product of my hopeful heart…because this is the touch of a man in love.

Even as the thought passes through my mind, he comes back to me again.
His hands hold both of mine in his, and somehow, I know that he is now kneeling before me.As he leans forward, his breath fans across my face and I move towards him involuntarily.
He kisses one fluttering eyelid, and then another.
His warm, caressing lips now move down to the corners of my mouth, the transient touch leaving me wanting…craving for more.
He raises one hand, and I wait with bated breath to see what my dream lover has planned for me now.
But his next move takes me completely by surprise.
He touches my chest, right above my heart.His hand lingers there for a moment, and is then replaced by his lips.

Even in my trance, I know that this means something…that this is significant in some way.

But that thought is short-lived, because now, his lips finally touch mine.
They are gentle as ever, the caress is ephemeral .
When he moves away, his fingers come up to my mouth, touching them for an instant before he moves away completely.
My heart calls out to him, not wanting him to leave.
If I can never have this in real life, I will gladly take the Arnav in this dream…the one who is saying that he loves me without even speaking the words aloud.
He doesn’t need to.
His touch is reverent, he has touched me as if I am precious.
It is all I have ever wanted.
As I acknowledge that fact, a distant corner of my mind also recognizes the pain…the trauma of knowing that this might never come true.
And even as I try to stop that awareness from spreading through my system, the agony supersedes all else.

A single teardrop makes it’s way across my cheek, and it confuses me for a moment.
The moisture is real.
And so is my distress.

For the first time tonight, I ask myself a question…

Was everything else real as well?

As that thought hits home, my eyes fly open.

The disappointment hits hard as I see the empty space before me.As conscious thought returns, I know that he cannot possibly be here.
The last day of the conference is underway, and there’s no way that he can…
The thought stumbles to halt and I freeze as a shadow comes alive before my stunned eyes.

Arnav.

It is him, impossible as it seems.

He steps forward, and I meet his gaze, shock still holding me in place.
In that moment, I am suddenly filled with the knowledge that the dream was real.
As real as the man standing before me now, his eyes filled with shadows and craving and an unknown something…

Before I can process the implications, before I can ask him how he’s here when he’s supposed to be in Brisbane, he holds his hand out to me.
And instinctively, I place my hand in his.
He draws me towards himself gently, and I am reminded of the caresses and touches of a moment before…something that I had never expected from him.
He lifts me up into his arms, never breaking eye contact as he steps down from the gazebo.He walks across the darkened lawns towards the tall evergreens that border one side of the property, the only light coming from the widely-spaced ground lamps in the perimeter.
When we finally reach the furthest tree, he puts me down against it, then leans in close.Neither of us has said a word yet…and somehow, speech becomes superfluous for the moment.
Instead, I focus on his lips as they descend towards mine, continuing where he had left off in the gazebo.This kiss is as gentle as his earlier one, and I slowly raise my hands to wind around his neck, pulling him close.
Time ceases to exist as he kisses me again and again before moving down my body in a journey that is familiar…yet new and unexpected at the same time.
I don’t allow myself to pause and think and analyze just why that is so.Instead, I give myself over to his touch, and the incredible sensations he is able to arouse in me.
When he pulls away, I tremble with a vague sense of loss until I realize that he is taking off his jacket. Laying it down on the lawn behind the tall tree, he pulls me down gently until I am lying down on it,my body shielded from the worst of the rugged ground by the heavy fabric of his jacket.
He pulls down my top before finally placing his mouth on the aching peaks, and I am lost.
In moments, he has the rest of my body aching for his with equal intensity, and I reach for his trousers with urgent, fumbling hands. But before he takes me, he kisses his way across my chest and neck, his mouth leaving trails of fire in it’s wake.
His hands mold my breasts even as he parts my legs with one knee, while his lips take mine again.
This time, when he finally enters me, the fullness is different too.
I clasp him close, determined to make him a part of me…just as I have become a part of him.
He takes my lips in a searing kiss as he begins to move, and yet he is careful, placing his hands below my hips as his pound against mine with increasing force and depth and passion.
The climax hits hard, and I know that I have taken him with me this time as my body bursts into a blinding firestorm of passion.
As I lie back against the jacket breathing hard, I hold him close again, afraid for some unfathomable reason that he might leave me…again.
But my fears prove to be unfounded.
After a while, he helps me right my clothes, then pulls on his jacket before taking me into his arms again. He walks back into the house and doesn’t stop until we are in our room.
There are so many questions begging to be answered…and yet the insomnia of the last few nights begins to catch up with me, my eyes drifting close even as he undresses me before placing me under the covers.
My last thought as he pulls me against his chest is that  I will get my answers tomorrow.

Definitely…tomorrow…

But when I wake up the next morning, I am alone…the only evidence of his presence being a small white note on a pillow.



Part Two






Let’s eliminate ‘think’.


-Arnav.


I stare at those three words for a long, long while, my sleep-fogged mind refusing to allow me to process them immediately.
Holding the note in my hand, I wrap the sheet around my body and walk over to the window, where the first thing that catches my eye is the row of tall trees that were a mute witness to the passion of last night.

The silence hadn’t been limited to the trees, either. No words were exchanged between us last night, I realize that now. There hadn’t seemed to be any need…but in the bright light of the morning, I know that the time for explanations is here.
The sheet slips a little and I draw it up securely, my cheeks flaming as I recall the unrestrained lovemaking on the lawn. I have never thought of myself as a woman who could possibly do something like that…and yet, nothing had seemed more natural last night.The memory of yet another passionate interlude makes my blush deepen as I remember our first time in the log cabin. A sheet of glass was all that had shielded us from the outside world, and yet, I hadn’t given it a second thought until later, when Arnav had explained that boats were prohibited from approaching private property within a certain distance across the lake.
My desire for him has opened my eyes and made me see a whole new side to myself, one that I hadn’t even known the existence of until recently…
The crackle of paper draws my attention and I realize that I have been crushing the small note in my hand.Smoothing it out gently, I read the words…then read them again as I realize just what he is responding to…

And that is when I said, I think I am in love with you, Arnav.


So now he wants to remove the ‘think’ from that sentence…thereby eliminating any hint of uncertainty and making it a powerful declaration and a commitment, all in one?
And just what is he offering in return?

My mind is buzzing with questions, and I realize that only one man can give me the answers.Dropping the sheet, I rush into the bathroom and stumble to  a halt as I realize that the shower is still warm from his recent bath. Hurrying through a quick shower myself, I dress quickly in a cotton kurti teamed with jeans and head towards the stairs without bothering to dry my hair.On my way down, I twist the length up into a knot and secure it with a clip, completing the task just as I enter the dining room.
My mother is seated at the table with a cup of tea in her hand, and she gives me a strained smile when she spots me.

¨Good morning, bitiya.¨

¨Are you alright, Amma? Is something wrong?¨

I hurry across to her and sit down beside her, my gaze moving over the lines of strain on her face.


¨I…no, nothing’s wrong. It’s just that…Akash had called, to let me know that Payal will be discharged today.¨


When I don’t respond immediately, she quickly continues.

¨Akash is going to wait for the paperwork he needs to file for reimbursement of his travel health insurance…and once he has that, they are going to take the first flight out to Bangalore.¨

I look away for a moment, unwilling to allow myself to even feel the slightest concern for Payal, but knowing that my mother may not feel the same.

¨Do you…do you want to see her before she leaves?¨

My mother looks away too, but then squares her shoulders and turns back to me with a determined look in her eyes.

¨No. I’ll probably visit her once I’m back in Bangalore…but for now, I’ll stay right here. This time is for you, Khushi. I’m not going to let anything ruin that.¨

My eyes widen in surprise, and I realize that for the second time in my life, I am someone’s first priority again.

And then my heart stills as I hear the voice of the man who had first given me that gift.

¨Coffee?¨

I look up at him to find that he is holding out a cup for me, while his own rests on the countertop against which he has been leaning. In my rush to reassure myself about my mother, I had completely missed the sight, and now my surprise must have shown on my face because he gives me a wry smile.

¨I’ve been waiting for you to come down.¨

As I take the cup from him, I notice that he is already dressed for work in a navy suit . 
His eyes search mine for a moment, and I realize that he seems to be waiting…for something.

At exactly that same moment, I become conscious of the fact that my mother seems to have withdrawn from the conversation entirely.
Turning back towards her, I notice her stiff stance and wary posture as she looks away towards the gardens framed by the large bay window.

¨More tea, Mrs.Gupta?¨

Arnav gestures towards the gleaming silver teapot, but my mother barely glances towards it before rising from the table.

¨No, thank you. I think I’ll…I’ll just take a walk in the garden.¨

And in a moment, she is gone, walking out through the sliding doors and disappearing into the rows of rose bushes that border this side of the lawn.
And it is then that I realize what should have been apparent earlier.The easy acceptance and developing camaraderie between my mother and her son-in-law has now been ruined by the revelation that a contract was the basis of this marriage. She may have decided to support me in this, but her view of Arnav has changed forever…and I don’t quite know what to do about that.
As always, the man himself has the answer.

¨Give her some time, Khushi. She needs to see how things stand between us, to reassure herself that everything is going to be fine.¨

That gives me the opening I’ve been waiting for.


¨I’m not entirely sure of that myself, Arnav.¨

He looks up in surprise, then moves across to take my hand in his.

¨Didn’t you find my note?¨

¨I did. But I’m not entirely sure what to make of it.¨

He stares down at me for a long moment, then pulls me close.


¨There’s so much I need to say…but now isn’t the time. NK just called me about some rumors regarding the merger that have been floating around the city today, and I need to get there in an hour to attend a hastily-arranged press conference.¨

I look away, dejected.The warmth of his embrace is scant solace at the moment, and he  realizes that immediately.

¨Khushi…you know I wouldn’t do this if I had any other choice. I’ll make it a point to come back soon tonight…¨

I nod once, but he isn’t convinced.Bending down to place a swift kiss on my lips, he raises my chin until I’m looking up directly into his simmering brown gaze.

¨You listen to me, Khushi Arnav Raizada. I didn’t come back a day early from Brisbane just so that I could rush back into the office without talking to you. This is important to me, I want you to know that. Only a crisis at work could have drawn me from your side today, and unfortunately, that is exactly what has occurred.¨

I take a deep breath, calling on all my reserves of patience as I answer.

¨I understand. I may not like it, but I understand. Just hurry back home…and explain that note to me.¨

He smiles, but it isn’t as carefree as before.

¨Tonight, then.¨

And with yet another brief kiss, he turns around and leaves through the front door.
Once again, I find myself immensely grateful for the presence of my mother. When she comes back inside, I ask her if she wants to visit the Stanford campus and thankfully,she agrees.I change quickly, glad to have this chance to escape my own muddled thoughts.
Despite my preoccupation, we manage to spend an enjoyable day on the beautiful campus of Stanford. I show her the famous quadrangle with it’s sculptures and cathedral, and then we make our way down to the art museum. Finally, we stop by for dinner in University Ave, and she appears to enjoy the hustle of the street and the glimpses of student life as we devour our delicious  wraps in a mediterranean restaurant.
Pleasantly exhausted by our trip, we return home at eight, and I am astonished to find that Arnav is already home. Although he had promised to be back early, I had assumed that he would need more time in his office after I had caught glimpses of news shows that seemed to be talking about the troubles faced by the  A.R Corp merger.
But as we enter the house, he is already there, seated in the living-room with his laptop open before him .

¨Arnav?¨

He looks up with a smile, then rises from the couch.

¨Hi.¨

¨I…I didn’t know that you would be back…¨

¨I told you I would, didn’t I? And now that I am here, we can all go out for dinner…¨

¨But we…we’ve already eaten…¨

He looks from me to my mother, and I know that he is disappointed…even though nothing changes in his expression.

¨That’s okay, Khushi. We can always go some other day. Did you like the Stanford campus, Mrs.Gupta?¨

My mother looks up at him reluctantly.

¨I…yes, it’s beautiful. And very well maintained, of course.¨


¨It is. I’d like to hear more about your day…would you like to join me for dessert while I eat?¨

My mother looks torn, and I open my mouth to accept but she turns away first.

¨Not today, if you don’t mind. It’s been a long day and…¨

¨Mrs.Gupta.¨

She already has one foot on the stairs, but something in the implacability of his tone makes her pause.


¨Yes?¨

He waits until she turns back to face him , and I find myself holding my breath.

¨I didn’t want to bring this up…not when you already have so many things to deal with. But I have no other option…¨

He walks over to her, and I follow him, unsure about what exactly is happening here.

¨Mrs.Gupta, I completely understand why things are strained between us now. After being told that her daughter’s marriage is based on a legal contract that she wasn’t even aware of, I’m sure that every mother would have reacted this way. But despite all that, I’m asking you to please…try and see that this isn’t what you think. There is no force or compulsion involved,your daughter is here of her own volition. But this…this is going to affect her, Mrs.Gupta. In fact, this is probably the kind of thing she feared when she decided to hide it from you in the first place.¨

¨I know what my daughter wants, Arnav. It’s the only reason why I’m still here.¨


¨I know that. But your physical presence isn’t enough. She needs more from you, and while I know that this may take some time, I’d like to do anything that might hasten your acceptance of this situation.¨

The ball is now in my mother’s court, and I try to think of something that might make her see things my way…and his.
Her gaze stays on his for a long moment, and then she turns to me, but I am still racking my brains for anything that might ease this situation.
And then she turns away abruptly, breaking my heart .As she climbs the stairs, I realize that it was too much to hope for…this is obviously going to take more than a few weeks, the breach is too wide. She hasn’t figured out how she is going to deal with the man who made a business deal with her daughter, and I have to accept that…
But then she pauses after a few steps, and slowly turns towards us again.Her gaze drops to my hand which is now tightly clasped in his, and then she takes a deep breath.

¨We could go out for dinner tomorrow . Just make sure that it is an Indian restaurant this time.¨

And with those words, she continues towards the landing, leaving me speechless.I know that it’s just a start, but it’s more than I had hoped for and I feel the unwelcome sting of tears in my eyes, just as he begins to pull me towards his study.

¨Arnav, what…¨

My words die down as I finally catch the look in his eyes, and the combination of determination and tender passion there renders me speechless once again . He closes the door behind us and flips the light switch that immediately bathes the room in a soft, white glow.
I have been in this room before, but only for a brief period of time.
A huge mahogany desk is the centerpiece, with tall bookshelves on either side and leather armchairs placed beside a stone fireplace.
He comes up to me before I can say anything, and takes both my hands in his.


¨It’s time, Khushi. This isn’t about Payal or your mother or anything else…this is going to be all about us.¨

Fear and joy battle for supremacy as I realize that I finally have what I have been waiting for…even as I am unsure if I will actually like what I am going to hear.

¨You can start by explaining why you came back  a day early. And why you didn’t tell me about it.¨

He smiles wryly, and I firmly clamp down on the surge of hormones that threaten to overpower my common sense.

¨I didn’t tell you because I didn’t really know that I was coming back…not until the last possible moment. And then, I just knew that I had to get on that jet and come back here…because I finally knew what I had to say to you.¨

¨And you did not know this when you left?¨


¨If I did, I would never have left, would I? I heard what Sheetal had to say and I…I ran from it, Khushi. I felt like I was out of my depth…it was an act of cowardice, one that I am not particularly proud of. But one of the reasons was that I really didn’t know what to say at that point.¨

¨I wouldn’t have asked you to say anything. I don’t want a forced confession or a reciprocation just because you think that it’s something I need to hear, Arnav. I even said so in my email…¨

¨Yes, you were very generous, weren’t you? You even gave me an inbuilt excuse…just why did you do that, Khushi? You have never shied away from fighting for something you want…you even did that on our first night in Tahoe when you got me to admit that it had never been just sex between us. So why now? Why did you express what you were feeling ,but made sure that I did not feel the need to say the same? Why did you give up before it had really begun?¨

¨I gave up on nothing, Arnav. I know that there’s more than sex between us. I think I’ve always known that. But until that night, I hadn’t been able to give it a name. That realization came to me naturally, no one had coerced me into admitting that…and that’s why I wanted it to be the same for you.¨


He shakes his head before walking towards the armchair, and I find myself hating the fact that I cannot see his face.


¨There’s a problem here, Khushi. I don’t think that I can grasp what you are saying, really. That was part of the reason why I ran…I just don’t get it

He turns back to face me before continuing.

¨This notion of love…it’s foreign to me. When I first heard it from Sheetal…and then when I read it in your email, I wasn’t sure quite what I should make of it. Was it just a reaction to the passion we shared, just like you suggested? Was it because of what we’d shared after that incident with your sister? Every doubt that you had written about…those were the things I thought about while I was in the Hilton…and you know what I finally realized?¨

He smiles again, and walks back towards me, not pausing until he has me back in his arms.

¨I remembered that I had married a woman with exceptional intelligence. One who was perfectly capable of telling the difference between mere desire…and a more steadfast, lasting emotion. One who would never say she was in love…if she wasn’t really sure about that fact. If she admitted that she might be in love, then had to accept that such a thing might actually exist, even if I did not understand it yet. And that was when I realized that I needed to get back to her…to tell her that I am willing to try. That I want to try…if she will allow me to.¨

¨Allow you to try what, exactly?¨

¨This love thing, of course. You were absolutely right in your email, I did begin this marriage with the hope that  I had married a woman with the same practical outlook that I had. But things changed between us, and I will freely admit that this took me by surprise. And now…you even have me thinking if I have been foolish to disregard the very notion of love up until this point.¨

¨I was taken by surprise too. I wasn’t exactly expecting to…feel this way about you.¨


¨Do you regret that it happened?¨

I smile up at him for the first time since I have entered this room, a burst of hope flooding through me.

¨No. I wouldn’t give up this feeling for the world.¨

He kisses me once, and then moves away slightly, although he still has his arms around me.

¨Call me selfish, Mrs.Raizada…but I find myself craving that now.  I want you to be a wreck when you think that I am injured. I want you to miss me when I’m gone. I want our room to seem lonely without me there.¨

Another kiss, another shared deep breath.

¨I want you to love me, Khushi. I want it all


¨And that’s why you wrote that note…about removing the ‘think’?¨


¨Yes. Clearly, I’m a selfish jerk, because I want you to give me everything you have…and I don’t even know what I can promise you in return.¨


¨Have you ever heard of the term unconditional?¨


¨Not in the business world, I haven’t.¨


¨I’m beginning to realize that this ‘love thing’ might follow rules of it’s own, Mr.Raizada. They certainly aren’t written in any contract.¨

¨What do you mean?¨


¨It means that even though you can’t promise me anything at the moment, I find that it changes nothing about the way feel . There are no conditions here, I need nothing in return…at the moment, anyway. All I want is for you to accept this and just…keep an open mind and let this take us in an entirely new direction.¨


¨I can do that…but it isn’t going to be easy. I can’t just change what I think overnight and become some kind of mushy, emotional sap who writes you love poetry and…¨

¨Love would change to laughter very soon if you turned into an emotional sap, I think.¨

¨I’m serious here. I want this to work, but I am also going to admit that this is making me very uncomfortable. I don’t quite know what you expect, but I do know that I don’t want to disappoint you in any way.¨

It strikes me then that for a man who says that he knows nothing about love, he certainly seems to say all the right things.That thought makes me smile again, and I wonder just when he is going to realize what is rapidly becoming apparent to me now.
Winding my arms around his neck, I press myself against him.

¨You aren’t going to disappoint me. And I don’t want you to change. I just want you to see where we could go with this…experience this relationship like I am. That’s all.¨

¨For more than one year?¨

¨Do you want it to be?¨

¨I don’t think I can ever let you go.¨

¨Are we renegotiating now?¨

¨I’d give you anything…do anything for you, if you’d only remove that think…¨

His smile makes me laugh, and I kiss him this time.

¨You’ll have to work to make that happen.¨

¨Oh I will. In fact, let me get started right away…¨

This time, the kiss isn’t brief.With an intensity that leaves me breathless, he parts my lips and delves deep, his hands moving down my back as he begins to lower me onto the rug before the fireplace.
When I am lying beneath him, he moves his lip to my neck, then lower.Even as I lose myself in the maelstrom of passion, I realize that now, his caresses are a delicious combination of the gentleness of last night, and a hunger that sets me ablaze.
Seized with a  sudden desire to feel his warmth against me, I reach up for his jacket and pull  it off, barely registering the sight of the white sheet of paper that flies out as the jacket hits the floor.
As he lowers his head towards my aching breasts, I cannot suppress the involuntary gasp of pain as his belt buckle digs into my skin.Rearing up at once, he moves away slightly and begins to pull it off.
I don’t quite know what makes me look toward the floor, but some instinct draws my eye towards the crumpled sheet of paper and I find myself absently reaching for it with my free hand, even as I try to battle the raging need within my body.
But when my eyes focus on the words, all thought flies out the window.

I sit up abruptly, and he looks over at me in surprise.

¨Khushi?¨

I hold the paper out to him.

¨Why do you have this in your pocket?¨




Part Three



He looks down at the white sheet that shows clear signs of wear and tear, and I realize that he has been carrying it around for a while now.
But why?

I wait for his answer, but  he leans back against the armchair before saying anything.

¨Why do you think?¨

I move over until I am able to lean back against his shirt-clad chest, and look down at the paper again.

¨I really have no idea, Arnav.¨

He sighs.

¨It’s very simple. I printed it out because it is the single most important email I have ever received.¨

I look up into his eyes, startled by the obvious sincerity there.


¨It…is?¨

He smiles down at me, then raises one hand to sift his fingers through my hair.

¨Without a doubt. And I wanted it with me at all times because I wanted to read and reread it…because it was almost like deciphering a foreign language to me.¨

I tear my gaze away from his and look down at the paper, trying to understand just why those simple lines I’d written were so very difficult for him to grasp.

¨What exactly were you trying to understand?¨

¨I told you, this whole love business is something that I had never once considered…not in terms of my own life, anyway. And even now, it seems like a bizarre, unfathomable concept.¨

¨But why does it seem that way to you? It cannot be so very foreign after all. You do love your family, anyone can see that. This is just a different type of that same emotion and…¨

¨I respect my family. I trust them, and I will admit that doing things for them and giving them what they want makes me happy. But that’s all there is to that. I have certainly never thought about it as loving them, and why should I? Is it really necessary to give it a name? And if so, is it necessary to use that one? That’s what I don’t get.¨

¨Why shouldn’t that term be used? Make me understand, Arnav. What do you have against it, or any other emotion anyway?¨

The ensuing silence makes me look up at him, only to find that his gaze is fixed on the fireplace.Then suddenly, his arms tighten around me and his gaze turns to mine, and I know that he has reached  a decision of sorts.

¨It’s all about control for me. It always has been, ever since I realized that power and success comes only to those whose self-control and self-possession are second to none. A person who isn’t in control of himself and his surroundings will be trampled in today’s world by those who are. And that’s the truth. ¨

Realization begins to dawn on me.

¨And you think that emotions undermine that control?¨

¨I think that they can destroy it, but only if someone gives them that power. And so I have consciously chosen to stay away from all attachments that threaten my hard-won control. But then…you came along.¨

¨Me? I didn’t do anything to you, at least not in the beginning. It all started out as a contract, remember?¨

¨That isn’t true. You have always made me do things that went against what I had always believed in. I wanted to make you mine from the very first time I set eyes on you…that very thought was something that I’d never had before..about anyone. If I had still been in control, I would have walked away. But I couldn’t. ¨

Astounded by this revelation, I struggle to get my head around it.


¨So you…you have been experiencing some of what I have…and you have been fighting against it too, haven’t you?¨

¨Of course. I did not want to give in then, and I find it very difficult even now. The whole notion of handing over the reins of your life to another makes me cringe and I…¨


¨But why do you think of it like that?¨

¨What?¨


¨Why do you think that giving in to what lies between us equates to ceding complete control? Why do you think that it will diminish you somehow? Why is it all or nothing, Arnav? Can’t you see that there is a middle ground? Feeling this way about someone also means that you know that you are capable of this bond. And giving in requires strength too, you know. It wasn’t exactly easy for me to write what I did, but I went ahead anyway. And that did not make me feel rudderless and out of control. All I felt was relief that everything was out in the open. And now…knowing that I feel this way about you satisfies me on one level. To know that I am capable of feeling this way about my husband…it gives me joy. How can that be bad?¨

He stares down at me for a long, long moment.


¨It can’t be all that bad…especially when it puts that look in your eyes, Mrs.Raizada.¨


The kiss that follows is indescribably sweet, there’s just no other word for it.But when we break the kiss, his eyes are serious once again.


¨I just need time to think about all this…to accept this change, Khushi. You understand that, don’t you?¨

I nod once, then look back down at the note…and so does he.

¨Mind putting that back where you found it?¨

I look back up at him, startled once again.

¨What?¨


¨I still need it. Unless you plan on writing me another  one anytime soon?¨

A surprised laugh escapes my lips as I suddenly comprehend the reason behind his request.Despite all his arguments, there is only one reason why he wants this piece of paper…and it is the same reason why I have hoarded all his notes in my jewelry box.

I fold the piece of paper and place it back in the pocket of his jacket before turning back to him, only to find a wicked smile on his lips now.

¨I’ve just realized that I have yet to hear those words from your lips.¨


¨And I have already told you, you will have to work towards that, Mr.Raizada.¨

In one swift move, he has me pinned under him the way we had been moments before, and the passion simmering below the surface roars back into life again.


¨Have I ever told you that hearing ‘Mr Raizada ‘ from your lips turns me on?¨


¨What? That sounds kind of…kinky.¨

He lowers his lips to mine and brushes them slowly back and forth.


¨And kinky makes me think of silk ties and handcuffs and blindfolds…none of which we have tried yet.¨


His lips move down towards the pulse point at the base of my neck, and I struggle to focus on his words.

¨I am not getting tied down by you.¨

He smiles against my skin.


¨Why not, Mrs.Raizada? Weren’t you the one who was just extolling the virtues of giving up control?¨

¨I…that’s not what I meant!¨


He moves lower, and now his lips close around one taut peak through the fabric of my top, and my breath catches in my lungs as he begins to suckle in earnest.

¨Fine, then. Forget about being tied down for the moment. I still think you’ll like the blindfold, though. You seemed to enjoy my touch last night, even while your eyes were closed…¨

Speech is getting progressively more difficult now, but I force the words past my lips.


¨I…I thought that I was in a dream.¨

He raises his head, and that wicked light is back in his eyes.

¨You must have some pretty explicit dreams, then. Want to tell me about them?¨

I shake my head, my cheeks burning with a mixture of arousal and embarrassment as he moves his hand between my legs. His gentle touch burns through the layers of fabric and I clutch at his shirt, but then my eyes fly open when I hear his low, amused laugh.

¨It’s amazing how you can be so very bold in some ways…yet so shy in others. I , however, have no such inhibitions. Do you want to hear one of my fantasies  that involve you?¨

I narrow my gaze on his amused countenance.

¨Are you saying that only some of  your fantasies involve me?¨

If possible, he looks even more amused at that.


¨No, that’s not what I am saying. You star in every single, explicit, dream, Mrs.Raizada. I just wanted to know if you wished to hear one of those.¨

I realize that he is expecting me to shy away from this as well, and so I raise my chin in defiance.


¨Tell me.¨

His eyes widen, just a little.

¨Are you sure?¨


¨Yes.¨


My heart starts thudding in my chest as he pulls back slightly, then allows his hand to  move slowly down my body.

¨I have thought about it all, you know. Sex with you blindfolded, or tied up. Sometimes, I dream of you with chocolate all over you…that probably started after that time on the Pier.¨

I can feel a startled laugh emerge from my lips, but my body is mostly preoccupied with his wandering hand…while my mind is whirling with the images his words are conjuring up for me.

¨I have fantasized about doing it outdoors..that’s what last night was about, in some ways. And yes, I want you beneath me in the back of the limo…preferably without Dhruv in the front seat.¨

My breathing goes haywire at the raw lust in his eyes…and yet, tenderness tempers the sharp edges, making it something beyond desire.

¨So yes, I have thought about it all. But do you know what my biggest fantasy is? The one that drives me crazy whenever I allow myself to think about it at all?¨

I stare up at him, hoping against hope that it isn’t something that I am unwilling or unable to do.want to give him this…I only wish that I can.

And so I reach up to him, winding my arms around his neck as I whisper again…

¨Tell me.¨

¨It isn’t complicated. I just want to take you…without any preliminaries. Without any foreplay.¨

¨What?¨

He lowers his lips to my ear, whispering his scandalous desires even as his hand moves back to the aching place between my thighs.

¨Yes. I want you to be ready and wet for me…without my ever having touched you. I want you to reach that point just by the anticipation of what is going to happen between us. I want to look at you and know that you are ready to take me inside of you…¨

He bites my lobe gently, and I writhe under his muscular frame, desperate for release.


¨And then, I want to come over,  tear off your clothes and drive myself inside, just like that. That’s my biggest fantasy. Maybe someday…¨
I close my eyes, wondering if such a thing is even possible.His caresses and kisses have always been satisfying and arousing in equal measures, and it is hard for me to imagine that one day, I will be able to do as he has just described.
But the one thing that I cannot deny is that the thought arouses me ,as well.To know that just his gaze can make me mindless with desire…it is a heady thought, and I keep thinking about it even as he undresses me now.

Soon, however, I lose myself in the touch that is so very familiar to me now. His mouth moves down my body and I draw him close, feeling as if I am poised on an edge now.
When he finally rears back and holds my hips down before plunging inside, my release is swift and intense.He follows soon after, his his body shuddering against mine as he collapses against me.
So much has happened between us…so much has been said.My mind is a muddled mess of thoughts and feelings and sensation, yet one clear thought emerges as he carries me upstairs and settles down beside me in bed.
More than anything else, I want to make his fantasy come true.
The only question is…how?



I have no time to think about that over the next few days, as life once again settles into a routine that leaves me  with very little time for myself. Arnav is still working long hours at the office, since the merger is now in it’s final stages and nearing a conclusion even while there are new talks of an international partnership on the horizon.I spend the days with my mother, and we make several day trips to nearby towns and beaches. This is a long-awaited holiday for my mother, and we both make the extra effort to focus on each other and not allow thoughts of what brought her here to invade upon our hard-won peace.

It is really hard, though.Years of caring for Payal cannot be forgotten in a  hurry, and I listen in to the only conversation my mother has with Payal after her return to Bangalore. Payal is now being treated there as well, and she sounds subdued on the phone, leaving my mother anxious and worried for a while. But then she pulls herself together and so do I, and we are aided in this by the return of Anjali Di and Shyam, who are finally back from their trip.
I have invited them to dinner tonight, and Arnav is already home. From the past few days, he has always made it a point to come home early, and although it doesn’t always work out that way, I make sure to tell him that I appreciate his thoughtfulness. We have even gone out to dinner with my mother a couple of times, and things look hopeful on that front as well.
Things between me and Arnav have changed,although the change is subtle and imperceptible to others.There is now an ease…a comfort in our relationship that wasn’t there before. 
I smile to myself as I think about what this had started out as…

Separate lives and rooms?

That is so far from where we are right now that the thought seems completely foreign to me.
I glance across at Arnav, who is busy on a phone call . My mother is seated beside me, looking over some sightseeing brochures while we wait for the Jhas to arrive.
I smile again, and this time, Arnav glances up in time to catch that fleeting expression.
Turning off his phone, he walks over to where I am seated and smiles down at me, just as the doorbell rings.

The next few moments are spent in a flurry of greetings and hugs as Di meets my mother, and soon we find ourselves seated at the dining table, listening to Di’s outpourings of gratitude and sympathy.

¨Oh, Auntyji, we heard that Payal fell sick while she was here and had to go back? That must have been terrible for you! ¨

¨Yes, bitiya. She is being treated in Bangalore now.¨

I look across as Arnav catches my eye, and he shakes his head slightly, reminding me of the falsehood we have agreed to propagate. Although we weren’t comfortable with the whole idea of lying to Di yet again, we have decided to tell her that Payal was sick, and nothing more. The whole story would result in the contract being brought up yet again, and Arnav did not want that to happen.My mother was ever more reluctant to lie, but somehow, I have managed to convince her that this is for the best.

¨That’s good, Auntyji! Oh, and Khushi, thank you so much for taking care of my little Sheetal! I can’t wait to take her home, I’ve missed her so very much!¨

Her husband mutters something under his breath about not missing abominable creatures, and I look away before I give in to the laughter.
The rest of the dinner passes in easy conversation as Di talks to my mother about her family and Lucknow, and soon , it is time for them to leave.
Arnav, however, seems to have disappeared.

Clutching Sheetal’s cage against her side, Di looks up at the stairs.

¨Where is he, Khushi?¨

¨I don’t know, Di, let me go and…¨

But Arnav walks in at that very moment, and to our surprise, he is holding another cage in his hand.


¨Here, Di.¨

Di takes the cage automatically, and then her eyes widen.


¨What is this?¨


Everyone looks at the cage, and then up at Arnav…who arches one eyebrow.


¨It’s another parakeet. A male one. A bird expert told me that Sheetal’s obnoxious behavior could be the result of being a solitary bird, and suggested that we get her some company. So here he is.¨

¨You…bought a husband for my little darling? Oh, Arnav!¨

Arnav rolls his eyes even as Di hugs him close, then looks down at both cages while her husband stares at Arnav in disbelief.


¨Saale saab, this had better work, or we’ll be stuck with two terrors and  not just one!¨

I look over at the other green bird, trying not to laugh.And at the same time, I know exactly why Arnav has done this for Sheetal.

¨Di, what are you going to call it?¨

It takes her all of two minutes to come up with a name.

¨I know! Arnav, do you remember that goat we had back in Lucknow when we were little?¨


¨The one who drowned in the pond?¨


¨Oh God, don’t remind me. But yes, that’s the one I’m talking about. I’ll name this little parakeet after our poor, dead Lakshmikant.¨

I cover my mouth and pretend to sneeze, but I don’t know if I have been successful in covering my grin.Arnav’s eyes are amused too, and I catch my mother smiling as well.


¨So…Lakshmikant and Sheetal?¨


Di smiles, then holds out both bird cages.


¨Yes! Or in true Lucknowi tradition, they can be Lakshmiji and Sheetalji!¨







¨It’s been two weeks, Arnav. Can’t you even admit now that you bought Lakshmikant because of what Sheetal repeated that day?¨


¨I bought it because the expert asked me to. That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it. Now, have you looked over those tickets to New York?¨


¨Yes, everything is in order, and I’m all set to fly out with you next week. And you are changing the subject.¨


¨There is no subject. Both those birds are happy and probably having great sex all the time, isn’t that enough for you?¨


¨Why does everything come back to sex with you?¨


¨Because I’m married to the sexiest woman in the world.¨


¨That’s a little too much, even for you. ¨


¨It isn’t flattery. Don’t tell me that you still don’t believe that, even after I’ve spent most of last night buried in…¨

¨Sshh! We’re almost there!¨


¨Yes, we are. It’s just over an hour before your mother is due to leave for the airport, so can we please drop the parakeet nonsense? And while we’re at it, stop distracting me with sex talk.¨


¨Me?! I wasn’t the one who…¨


¨Bitiya?¨


I look up in horror as my mother rises from her chair, but one look at her face assures me that she hasn’t heard our conversation.
But then I notice the serious look on her face, and so does Arnav.


¨Mrs.Gupta? Is everything alright?¨


¨I have been trying to figure out exactly that from the past few weeks, bitwa.¨

Arnav and I look at each other, unsure where this is going.


¨Both you and Khushi have been very open and honest with me from the time you told me about the contract, so now can I return the favor?¨

¨Of course,Mrs.Gupta. Please feel free to say whatever is on your mind.¨

My mother looks uncomfortable, yet determined. I walk across to her and take her hand in mine, and she rushes into speech.

¨After I found out about the contract…I was disturbed. I didn’t know what to think, or expect. My foremost concern was Khushi, and what this meant for her. But over the past few weeks, I have certainly seen enough to convince me that this isn’t anything like  a contract marriage anymore.¨

Joy blooms in my heart, and I clutch her hand in mine.

¨Amma, I…¨

¨Wait, Khushi. I know that you both look upon each other as true spouses now. But I am a mother, after all…and I can’t help but worry about these things. And so I want to know, what has happened to that contract?¨

¨The contract?¨

¨Yes, bitwa. Does it still exist? After one year, will this marriage still be legal?  Or will you have to remarry?¨

¨Our marriage has been registered under Hindu law, Mrs.Gupta. It is legal and will remain so, until we decide to evoke the terms of the contract. Which we have no intentions of doing, of course. And even then, the contract does provide the option of staying with each other beyond one year.¨

¨If you have no intention of bringing it up, then why haven’t you destroyed the contract? The fact that it still exists concerns me, and that’s why I have brought this up.¨

Arnav looks over at me, and I can only manage a helpless shake of my head.I have no answer for my mother…in fact, I realize that I would like to hear the answer to that myself.

¨And one more thing that worries me…even if you tear up the contract, will you both be able to really move on and forget what this started out as? Will things be…normal, like they are for every other couple out there?¨

My mother cups my face in both her hands, and I am alarmed to see her eyes fill with tears.

¨Khushi…I told you that I am willing to do whatever it takes to help you, to support you in this. But these things plague me, bitiya. I cannot stop worrying, and now that it is time for me to return, I just had to voice these thoughts. You understand, don’t you? It isn’t my intention to cause any problems here…¨

¨I completely understand, Mrs.Gupta. You don’t have to worry, I will handle this.¨

My gaze meets his, and for the first time in weeks, I feel the tiniest tear in my bubble of joy.My heart fills with foreboding and I stand up slowly, unable to understand just why I am feeling this way.

A question makes it’s way to the forefront of my mind, and I close my eyes, unable to shut it out completely.

Were things too good to be true after all?


Or am I just allowing my imagination to run away with me?




Part Four 


By the time we accompany my mother into the airport, I have managed to push the issue to the back of my mind.It is the only way that I can function, the only way that I can focus on my mother, who is growing increasingly teary-eyed as we approach the security line.

¨Take care of yourself, bitiya. I will miss you…¨


¨I will miss you too, Amma.Hopefully you can make more trips out here once you are retired…¨


My mother smiles, but there is sadness in her eyes.


¨There’s still the house in Bangalore, Khushi. And then there’s…¨

Payal.

She doesn’t say the name, but I hear it anyway…because I have been thinking about her too.It strikes me again that no matter what has happened between us, concern for Payal continues to be at the back of our minds.

¨Amma…if you hear any news about Payal, you will let me know, won’t you?¨


¨I…I will. I don’t think I will visit her too often, though…at least not after her treatment is complete. ¨


¨I understand, Amma.¨

I put my arms around her and she holds me close…and then suddenly, it’s time to leave.After a few words of farewell , Arnav steps aside, and mother and I share a final hug before she steps inside the security gate.I watch her until I cannot see her anymore, and then turn around and walk away.After only a few steps, I feel Arnav’s hand sliding into mine, and I look up with eyes blurred by unshed tears.
He says nothing, just grasps my hand firmly as we follow Dhruv into the elevator that leads into the parking garage.
It  is only when we are on the freeway leading home that he finally breaks his silence.


¨It’s going to seem odd now…returning home without your mother there.¨

I try to smile, but my face feels frozen.

¨I’m trying not to think about that.¨


He starts to say something more, but then looks over at Dhruv and presses the button that raises the privacy screen between the driver and passenger sections of the Limo.


¨We need to talk, Khushi.¨


I know what he wants to talk about,but something in me is almost…afraid.And yet, I know that we need to address the issue at hand.


¨About the contract?¨


¨Yes. Will you believe me when I say that until your mother brought it up, I had almost forgotten it’s existence? Since that time in my study when you told me that we would still be together after a year, I never even gave it a second thought. But that was a mistake. Your mother is right, we need to figure out what we are going to do about it.¨


¨Do we…need to do anything at all? I know that we are legally married and the contract will not come into affect until we want it to…so  do we have to do anything at all? ¨
He takes a deep breath, and I instinctively know that I am not going to like what he has to say.

¨It isn’t that simple, Khushi. Our marriage is legal and will remain so, of course. Only divorce could dissolve that…in India, that is. But the contract we have signed has been created under U.S law, and that will remain in force until we nullify it in a proper legal manner, or enter into a new contract. We cannot just put it away and forget it’s existence. Plus, there are some safeguards in there that were put in by my attorneys…mostly to protect my interests and those of A.R.Corp.¨

¨I do know about those safeguards. I have read it too, remember? ¨


¨I know that, Khushi. But there’s one in particular that I am referring to. The one that says quite specifically that this contract cannot be changed or altered in any way until we have been married for a period of six months at the very least. Neither can a new contract be created until then…¨

Those words come back to me now, and the breath leaves my body in a rush.Months ago, I had read that part of the contract but I had barely paid any attention to it at that point, convinced that I was in this for only a year and the question of changing or altering anything would never arise.
But now, those terms have just made our current situation more complicated.

¨So what you are telling me is that we need to wait for a few more months before the current contract can be nullified? And until that happens, the current contract remains in force?¨

¨For all legal purposes, yes. But that doesn’t change anything between us, Khushi. We have decided that the contract means nothing to either of us anymore…haven’t we?¨

He takes my hand in his and pulls me close, and I look up into his questioning gaze.

¨It doesn’t. I want us to…try and make this relationship into what it should have been all along, a partnership that has no expiry date. But still, I would have liked to be able to just tear that contract and forget that it ever existed…¨

¨And you can do just that, after a few more months. It’s just a matter of time.¨

I sigh once before resting my head against his shoulder.

¨I know. Being reminded of that clause in the contract came as a nasty surprise…but it’s just a formality, and I’m well aware of that. But what I did not know was that we would have to actively proceed with the legal process of negating this contract after a period of six months. That was a surprise, as well.¨

¨Again, it’s just a technicality, Khushi. It’s nothing to be worried about. And the only reason why I didn’t tell your mother about it just then was because she was already worried and emotionally distraught, and I didn’t think that it was the right time, not when you both were already anxious about the impending separation. But rest assured, I will call her after a few days and tell her that when we hit our six month anniversary, we will sign the papers that will get rid of that contract once and for all.¨

I look up into his eyes, knowing that the conversation is not likely to be an easy one.I also know that honesty compels me to admit that I am not entirely at ease with this entire situation.

¨Arnav…while I was aware of all these terms and conditions, I also know that…that this whole thing leaves me feeling vaguely troubled. It feels like…unfinished business. And I don’t think my mother will cease worrying, either. Not until the six month mark, at any rate. Isn’t there another way out?¨


¨There isn’t. I know this because I was actively involved in drafting the contract, and my attorneys made that clause so that my financial interests would be protected. Since there was no possibility of changing anything before the six months were up, they could be assured that I would have sufficient time to get to know my bride before altering anything for her. ¨

¨They were protecting you from my gold-digging claws, is that what you are saying?¨

¨never believed that you were after my money, not for a minute. But they didn’t see it that way, and I didn’t want to waste any time in futile arguments. But all that’s water under the bridge now. The bottom line is this:I will instruct them to draw up new papers detailing the end of any contract between us, and we will sign it on our six month anniversary. This is my promise to you…you do trust me to do this, right?¨


Trust?

That is the one thing I have never doubted.Even when it came to believing my sister’s word over his, I had chosen him.

¨Of course I do, Arnav. But I can’t help wishing that we didn’t have to wait…¨


¨It’s just a piece of paper, Khushi. Can’t we forget it for the next few months?¨

I stare up at him, then nod reluctantly before accepting his tender kiss.

Just a piece of paper.

Why do I have trouble believing that?





The matter is pushed to the back of my mind when we fly out the very next day, landing in New York’s La Guardia airport after a long flight that leaves me exhausted. We are here on a week-long trip that Arnav has been planning for weeks now. A group of entrepreneurs he met at the Brisbane conference are here for the next few days, and they have evinced interest in a long-term partnership with A.R.Corp. One of Arnav’s goals for his company has been international expansion, and these meetings will allow him to take that first step towards fulfilling his ambition.When he had asked me to come along, I hadn’t been very enthusiastic to begin with. Staying alone in a hotel room all day while he attended his meetings did not sound like an appealing prospect to me, and I had only agreed when he had promised that his commitments wouldn’t take up more than half his day at any given time.
In the end, it isn’t even a hotel room after all. His Manhattan condo is where his driver takes us, and I am once again reminded that there is so much about my husband that I don’t know yet.

¨Why do you even need a condo in a city you don’t live in?¨

¨It was a sound investment. And it isn’t all that big, is it?¨


¨What does size have to do with it? I’m sure it must have cost a ton, and you don’t even use it all that often!¨


In one swift move, he whirls me around and has me pinned to the massive king-size bed before I can draw another breath.Taking my hand in his, he moves it slowly down his own body.

¨Size has everything to do with it. Haven’t you learned that yet?¨


I roll my eyes, even as my hand makes contact with his obviously aroused flesh.



¨Do we…really have time for this?¨

He leans over and kisses my neck once, and I close my eyes as a rush of sensations leaves me breathless yet again.

¨My meeting with the Prakash brothers is scheduled for later tonight. We have plenty of time for what I have in mind…¨




And that passionate afternoon pretty much sets the tone for the rest of our stay. As he had promised, his meetings take up only a few hours each day, and the rest of the time is spent in exploring New York, a city that is entirely new to me. During the day, I take in the magnificent sight of the State of Liberty, and then we move on to Times Square, a place that I have always wanted to visit. We dine at various top-end restaurants and he even convinces me to buy a ridiculously expensive pair of red Louboutins when we go out shopping the next day.And each night is spent in sensuous exploration that never grows old, and leaves me wanting more…

I am apprehensive after our return, afraid that the magic of those seven days will wane when we settle back into our routines. After the break with my Mom’s visit and the New York trip, I really need to get back to my books and the Stanford library again. And I am also sure that Arnav’s work will occupy all his attention, leaving me alone in my constant battle against loneliness.
But all my worries are unfounded.
Something has changed in our relationship, and it looks like the change is here to stay.And Arnav is the major catalyst for this change.
He makes it a point to come home early every day, and often surprises me in the middle of a working day with an invitation to lunch that I can never refuse. We spend our weekends at nearby beaches and sometimes hike up the trails in the Redwood parks that abound in this part of the State.It is as if he has made it his new aim to spend as much time with me as he possibly can, and I revel in all the attention.
And it isn’t the only change, either.
I sense a gradual lowering of barriers between us as he begins to talk about his work more often, telling me all about his frustrations and hopes as we lie in bed each night. Sometimes, he speaks about those early days in Lucknow, something that still causes him pain.In return, I tell him about my own plans for the future, and share the fact that I would love to teach some day. The painful parts of my own past aren’t hidden from him, either.
There is a certain comfort level in this relationship that wasn’t there before, and that gives me the confidence to share the news that comes in from Bangalore as well. Payal has apparently made tremendous progress, and my mother informs me that she has even gone back to work now.Arnav appears to share my joy and relief, and even takes me out to a special dinner to celebrate that fact.
We receive yet another wonderful piece of news, the fact that Anjali Di has finally decided to go ahead and sign up with an adoption agency makes Arnav and me ecstatic.
Since my term begins soon and I have a meeting with my admissions advisor scheduled for next week, I decide to invite Di and Shyam home for brunch on Saturday before I end up getting swamped with work.
But the day doesn’t work out as I had planned.Since Arnav had taken some time off during the week to take me to a music concert in Santa Cruz, he has had to go in to work today. When I call him around lunch time, he tells me that his meetings are going to last all day. I inform Di that the brunch will now be dinner, but that doesn’t happen either.Arnav is delayed yet again, and I end up having to cancel the dinner entirely when Dhruv shows up instead, calmly informing me that Arnav will have to stay in the San Francisco penthouse and has asked me to join him there tonight.I go there with the intention of taking him to task for missing out on dinner with his sister, but all my plans are derailed when I see just how exhausted he is. We spend the night there and return after a day spent at the Golden Gate park, recharged and renewed for a new work-week.
To my relief , I am accepted into the Stanford PhD program this time, and awash with joy, I call my mother and Arnav in quick succession. My mother congratulates me and I can hear the tears in her voice, making my own throat clog up with unshed tears as well.Arnav surprises me that night with a beautiful charm bracelet, and I laugh when I see that one of the charms resembles a parakeet, while the other is a replica of a box of chocolates.That night which is filled with laughter and passion quickly becomes the pattern for the next few weeks, something that doesn’t change even when my days get busy with my new coursework.
Frequently, I find myself pausing in my daily rush to thank God for blessing me with everything that I had ever desired…including a husband who treats me as if I am the most precious thing in the world to him.
And even though he never says those three words that I still long to hear, there are other things that tell me the truth that he isn’t able to voice.
Like the bouquet of roses that appear on my pillow after we have had an argument.
Or the fact that he waits for me to come down to breakfast every day.
Or even the phone calls in the middle of a work day that serve as a reminder that I am never far from his thoughts.

Or the way he declares that everything I cook is delicious, even when I know that I have forgotten some essential ingredient.

And most of all, I see it in the honest emotion in his gaze…and in the shattering intimacy we share each night.

Yes, my husband doesn’t tell me that he loves me.But I hear it all the same, in everything he does.
Through the weeks that follow, I start thinking of these things as an integral part of my life, something that has now become a part of the fabric of my existence.

Which is why the sudden withdrawal comes as a cruel, unbelievable shock.I feel as if I have been plunged into an unreal , hellish world…after months of living in heaven.

It isn’t really sudden, of course.The changes in Arnav are gradual, and in the beginning, I put them down to the pressure of his increased workload.
The first thing that becomes obvious is the time he spends at work these days, coming home later and later each day…and sometimes, not at all.He calls me to inform me about these delays…but more often than not, he forgets to do so, leaving me on my own in a huge, empty house where I pace around all evening, wondering when he’s going to be home.
And when he does, it is obvious that he is distracted and withdrawn. The easy conversation and shared pursuits quickly become a thing of the past, and I find myself wondering if work is the only cause…
We still go out occasionally, but it just isn’t the same anymore.
The one thing that remains relatively unchanged is the desire that still thrums between us. We still come together each night in a passionate interlude that leaves me confused in it’s aftermath.I just cannot understand how a man can be this intense one moment…and so detached the next.The fleeting touches and embraces are all but absent when we are not in bed, and that makes me apprehensive too.
I find myself thinking about this to the exclusion of all else, and to my horror, my coursework begins to suffer.After a particularly grueling day at the University, I come home to find that Arnav is still not home…and something inside me snaps.
Reminding myself that honest conversation used to be one of our strengths, I decide at once that I will not allow this to go on any longer.The anxiety , apprehension and dismay at the gradual unraveling of this relationship is beginning to take a toll on me, and I know that I have to tackle this head-on…and I have to do it tonight, before my nerve fails me.Turning on my heel, I walk towards the front-door…just as it opens and Arnav walks in.
We stare at each other for a long moment, and I realize just how weary and exhausted he looks.Before I let my compassion overshadow everything else, I decide to take the bull by the horns.

¨Arnav…we need to talk.¨

A cynical smile curves his lips, and I find myself hating it.


¨That’s funny. You just stole my words.¨

¨What?¨

¨Not here, Khushi. Shall we go into my study?¨

Heart pounding with terror and nerves, I follow him into the study and watch him as he shuts the door behind us,and it is  only then that I notice the file in his hand.
A strong sense of deja-vu grips me as I stare at it, and with a sudden lurch of my heart comes the realization that it is six months to the day that we had married.
He catches the direction of my gaze, and sighs.

¨I guess there isn’t going to be any beating around the bush tonight. Here.¨

He hands me the file, and I take it with trembling fingers.
And when I read the first page, my world comes to a halt.



¨What…is this?¨


Another sigh, and this time it is tinged with…pain?

¨It’s a new contract, Khushi. Today is our six month anniversary, remember?¨


¨I know that. But I was under the impression that we had decided to…nullify the existing contract, and not create a new one in it’s place?¨

¨I’ve changed my mind. And if you will read through those terms, you will find that they are more than generous. And in any case, none of it really matters. This marriage is for life, that contract in your hands is just a formality.¨

I throw it down on his desk and walk up to him, anger rising to the fore now.

¨And I refuse to sign. At least until you tell me what’s really going on here.¨

Our gazes clash for a long moment, and he is the first one to look away.

¨You aren’t going to let this go, are you?¨


¨Damn right, I’m not. I’ve had enough , Arnav. I want to know what has just changed between us. I deserve to know why my husband has changed so drastically over the past few weeks. Honesty above all else, have you forgotten that?¨

¨No…I haven’t. Come here…¨

Leading me over to the armchairs before the fireplace, he sets me down in one before seating himself in the other. Leaning forward with his elbows on his knees, he pins me with a forthright gaze.


¨You are right, I have changed. Because I just couldn’t live like that anymore.¨


I feel slightly dizzy, but I force myself to speak.


¨What…do you mean?¨

¨It’s not easy to explain, Khushi. It’s just that…do you remember when I returned from Brisbane all those months ago, I promised to try things your way? To open myself up to the possibilities…to allow myself to feel as you did?¨

I manage a shaky nod, and he continues.

¨Well, I tried that for a while. I gave it my all…and then I realized that I was probably giving too much. My life was centered around you for those weeks, Khushi. You were all I could think about, even while I was at work. All I wanted to do was be with you…do things with you, take you out…it became all about you. You took over my life completely. Not that I minded then, of course. I was perfectly happy and was even beginning to congratulate myself on fulfilling my promise to you…but then I realized what I was giving up to do so. A.R, Khushi. A.R was beginning to suffer. I have made some very bad decisions over the past few months, and my judgement has been questioned more than once. Even that deal with  the Prakash brothers was a wrong decision on my part. A.R’s stock has fallen, and now even N.K has handed in his notice.¨

¨What?!¨

¨Yes. And that’s not all. I have even been neglecting my own family during this time. I cannot even recall the last time I called Nani or spoke to Di, and…¨


¨…and you’re blaming me for all this?!¨

¨Not really. I am blaming my preoccupation with you, to the exclusion of all else. This isn’t me, Khushi. This isn’t the man I am. I can’t just throw away everything I’ve worked for and allow myself to get sucked into an attachment that rapidly takes over all else.¨

¨You have to be kidding me, Arnav. This doesn’t even make sense! What happened between us after Brisbane is something that all newly-weds go through, a period where they exist in their own little bubble and push everything away for a while. I can’t believe that you are blaming this for what’s happening with A.R! Things eventually settle down into a routine for all couples, Arnav. And when they do, we can work together and find some middle ground where you can concentrate on work and family as well as…¨

¨This isn’t just a newly-wed thing, Khushi. I know myself. When I commit to something, I give it my all. And that wasn’t somewhere I wanted to be…not when it meant the destruction of everything I have achieved so far.¨
I stand up suddenly, pointing towards the contract.

¨And this is how you deal with it? By making a new contract? By withdrawing yourself from me and becoming the man you were six months ago?¨

¨Yes, damn it! I have to withdraw, I have to take a step back! Don’t you see why it’s necessary? I need to detach myself from this…this craziness that I feel whenever I am around you. It’s vital.¨

¨Well, I’m not going to sit back and let that happen.¨

¨What?¨

¨You heard me. I’ve had enough, Arnav. You’ve said your piece, now it’s my turn.¨

He crosses his arms in a defensive gesture, and nods once.

¨Go ahead. But let me warn you, you aren’t going to change my mind.¨


¨That is becoming obvious, actually. But I’m not going down without  a fight. I can’t take anymore, Arnav. I have made one compromise after another…but not anymore.¨

¨Compromise? Is that what you are calling this relationship now?¨

¨No. I’m talking about the compromise I made with myself when I decided to enter into a contract marriage in the first place. And then I compromised by giving in and admitting that I had fallen in love, even when you had never given any indication that you felt the same way about me. I even compromised on your response, and gave you time to try and work towards feeling that way. But you know what, Mr.Raizada? I am not going to compromise on anything anymore.¨

¨Khushi, I’m not asking you to compromise on anything. You were happy before Brisbane, weren’t you? If I could be that man again, what’s wrong with that? We could start over, nothing will change, Khushi. I would still be committed to you and this marriage, it’s just that I would…¨

¨…maintain an emotional distance like before? I’m sorry, but that is unacceptable to me. And do you know why?¨

I brush away the angry tears clouding my vision and walk over to him, pulling him down by  his lapels as I continue.

¨Because I have seen what you are capable of. I have seen the man you can be when you let down those barriers…and that is the man I want. That is the husband I deserve, and I am not settling for less, not this time!¨
He detaches my hands from his jacket and pushes me back into the chair before kneeling in front of me.Taking my hands in his, he enfolds them in his warm, strong grasp.


¨Khushi, please…don’t do this. Don’t make demands that I cannot fulfill. Don’t let this drive a wedge between us. I…I need you in my life, Khushi. I need your laughter and your light and your smile. Don’t take that away just because you want me to…be someone I’m not.¨


¨You seem to be under a misapprehension here, Arnav. I’m not leaving you, so don’t talk as if I am. I am not running away. I am going to stay back and fight for something I want. For something that I have had in my life…for a very brief time. I am going to fight for you…for the real Arnav who’s hiding behind all these excuses and terms and contracts.¨

He lets go immediately, then stands up with an abrupt movement.


¨This is who I really am, Khushi. You’ll just have to learn to live with that.¨

I shake my head, undeterred.


¨That’s called compromise, Mr.Raizada. And I’ve told you already, that word doesn’t exist for me anymore.¨


We stare at each other for a long, timeless moment, neither willing to give in to the other.
And that is when it finally dawns upon me that we have a stalemate.

This shaadi has reached a crossroad.



***********************************



A/N:

Asli duniya commitments will prevent me from posting the next update until the latter half of this week, sorry about that!
Chapter Ten will be the last chapter of this story, and it will be followed by an Epilogue in two parts. I just can’t believe this incredible journey is nearing its end!
I am  unable to decide whether Chapter Ten should be written from Arnav’s or Khushi’s POV. Please let me know what you would prefer in your comments :)

If you wish to comment on IF, here is the link to the latest ‘Baaraatis’ thread #7:

http://www.india-forums.com/forum_posts.asp?TID=4011050#p105879939


PMs for this update will be sent out over the next two days.

Happy reading!

Chapter Eight (All 4 parts up)

Hello everyone!

I apologize once again for the long delay since I posted Chapter 7, it’s something I’ve never done before and I’d like to thank you all for your continued enthusiasm, patience and understanding.

My  unforgiving asli duniya has really made it impossible to complete the update , and I hate making you wait for so long. And so over the last week, I had come up with a solution of sorts.

Chapter 8 was updated over the past week in  4 parts, and it is now complete. To those of you who read it in parts, here’s Part 4, enjoy!

And to those who are reading Chapter 8 from the beginning, happy reading, and do let me know what you think. 

Thank you all again for waiting, your support keeps me going!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dedicated to all the Baaraatis. This update wouldn’t have been possible without you.

 

 

 

 

Part 1

 

 

 

 

 

“F**k you, Arnav!”

 

 

 

“F**k you right back, you miserable creature.”

 

 

 

Arnav!”

 

 

“She started it!”

 

 

I resist the urge to throttle the stupid bird that has been spouting profanities with such ease, and turn instead to my wife. I hadn’t been able to see her when I came in a few minutes ago, but now that I am finally looking past the worthless parakeet that is currently lodged in our living-room, I see that Khushi is seated in the shadowy corner with a cellphone held up to her ear. Her cheeks are red with embarrassment, and her next words tell me why.

 

 

“Sorry, Naniji…I’ll have to leave now. Woh…Arnav is home.”

 

 

I flash an unrepentant grin and make my way towards her before bending down and placing  a swift kiss on her conveniently parted lips. She cuts the call with an audible gasp, and my grin widens.

 

 

“What is wrong with you? I was talking to Naniji and you…and Sheetal…Oh God, what must she be thinking?”

 

 

“She knows all about Sheetal, that won’t surprise her at all. As for me, I was just giving back as good as I got.”

 

She sits up suddenly, forcing me to take a step back as she flings the phone aside.

 

 

“That has to be the worst excuse yet.”

 

 

I shrug with assumed nonchalance and drag her close, choosing to ignore the continued squawking of the pest behind us.

 

 

“I hate her, and I’d strangle her if it wasn’t for Di. You know that, don’t you?”

 

 

She narrows her eyes at me, then sighs as she melts into my arms.

 

 

“I know. She isn’t the friendliest of creatures, is she?  Having her under our roof while Di and Shyam are out of town sounded so easy to begin with, but she’s quickly taxed even my patience. I don’t know how Di puts up with her at all.”

 

 

I tighten my arms around her, knowing that Khushi needs to know the truth.

 

 

“This bird has a special significance for Di.”

 

 

Khushi’s eyes widen.

 

 

“Really?”

 

 

“Yes. A few years ago, Di found out that she…could never conceive. At that time, Shyam was away on a client visit, and he was devastated that he couldn’t be with her when she found out. They took months to recover from that blow, and then he suggested that they could look at other options including adoption. But Di kept stalling, perhaps she was hoping for a miracle? And then, I don’t quite know why…one day, Shyam brought this bird home and that was it. Di fell in love, plain and simple. And that’s the reason why we put up with Sheetal, even when she’s made it her lifelong aim to maim us.”

 

 

Khushi looks away suddenly, and I know instinctively that she’s battling tears. An emotion that feels suspiciously like tenderness makes me hold her close, and I give her a moment before gently turning her around to face me.

 

 

“Hey…it’s okay, Khushi. Di has come to terms with that now…or so we hope.”

 

 

She blinks once, then rests her head against my shoulder.

 

 

“Why do these things always happen to the nicest of people?”

 

 

I smile against her hair.

 

 

“Probably because there isn’t a God up there, who takes care of everyone who’s nice and good.”

 

 

She raises her head, then huffs impatiently.

 

 

“I’m not getting into that argument again. And actually, that reminds me of something else that I’ve been meaning to ask you…”

 

 

“Yes?”

 

 

“Shyam sounds like a…great husband, a wonderful person, really. And yet…I get this feeling that he doesn’t really like me.”

 

 

“Why? Has he said something?”

 

 

“No! I…it’s just a vibe, that’s all. It just…makes me uncomfortable to be around him.”

 

 

I sigh , realizing that somehow, this has turned into a night for truths.

 

 

“It’s probably because he’s still waiting for you to whip out your gold-digging claws.”

 

 

“My…what?”

 

 

“It’s a long story, Khushi. But the gist of it is that he doesn’t really trust you. Or rather, he doesn’t trust my decision in getting married to you in haste. At the time, he even tried to dissuade me from doing this, and when I refused to listen, he insisted that I should at least take some time to get to know you better before committing to this relationship. And when that didn’t work, the lawyer in him wouldn’t let him rest until he had asked me to consider a pre-nuptial agreement between the two of us.”

 

 

“He didn’t know about the contract, did he?”

 

 

“Of course not. No one does, apart from NK and my legal team. All he was worried about was the fact that I was making an error of judgement. But yes, those are his reasons in a nutshell. He is probably still holding back on making a final call, even though Anjali Di has accepted you into the family.”

 

 

“He…sounds very protective of you.”

 

 

“He is. He’s made himself a part of this family and I respect him for that. Just give  him the benefit of the doubt, Khushi. I’m sure that with time, he’ll see that his fears are wholly unfounded.”

 

 

She smiles faintly, and draws away, her gaze now fixed on Sheetal again.

I cast a quick look at my watch, then realize that I have the perfect method to take her mind off these melancholy subjects.

 

 

“You do remember that we have to leave in about half an hour for the Huang’s?”

 

 

By the shocked look on her face, it is apparent that she has forgotten all about tonight’s dinner engagement.

I had informed her about this invite around a week ago, but I know that she wasn’t really paying attention at that point.

I almost grin as I remember why.

 

Before I can follow my lustful train of thought, she goes into full blown panic mode and I stifle my amusement.

 

 

“The Huangs! I’d completely forgotten about them! Why didn’t you tell me earlier?”

 

Before I can reply, she wrenches herself out of my grasp and is halfway up the stairs before I can take my first step. Used to her quicksilver ways by now, I follow at a more leisurely pace and reach our bedroom door just in time to see her dash across to the wardrobe.

 

For a moment, I pause at the threshold.

Yes, it is our bedroom now.

 

A room that we share…along with much, much more.

 

Two weeks have passed since we returned from India, and it seems as if I have learned a whole new meaning of passion and desire….from my innocent wife, of all people.

That fact hasn’t ceased to amaze me yet. Ever since that first night in the Bangalore hotel, I have been fascinated and astounded in equal measures by the response she has managed to evoke in me. I knew when I chose her that the chemistry between us would be explosive, but I hadn’t counted on being consumed by it to this extent.

Even though we have been intimate several times since that night, our first time together is still imprinted on my mind and body. I still recall the thrill of that first exploration…and the deep satisfaction of possessing her for the very first time.

And every time since, that feeling has intensified until it has almost obliterated my control and preconceived notions of what it means to really desire someone.

 

That realization brings me to a sudden halt, and I walk briskly into our room, trying hard to ignore the implications.

 

“Will this do?”

 

 

I look over at her, and nod absently at the black wrap dress she’s holding up for my perusal. Apparently, she isn’t satisfied because she storms over towards me.

 

 

“Tell me honestly, Arnav! Does this look too formal? Should I choose something else? I want to make a good first impression, after all, he’s the head of marketing at A.R and he works closely with you…”

 

 

Inwardly, I rejoice at her reason behind wanting to look good tonight. Not too long ago, she had barely taken any interest in the dinner party I’d wanted to organize. But now, her sole motive seems to include projecting herself as my wife and more than anything else, that tells me how much her priorities have changed over time.

 

I take her hand in mine, and tell her the truth.

 

 

“You’ll look great in it, Khushi. Or in anything else, for that matter.”

 

 

Finally, I succeed in eliciting a smile.

 

“Flatterer. You’re not going to get anything in return for your compliments, you know.”

 

 

do know that.

I remember that fraught moment four days ago when she had haltingly informed me that she would be unable to share a bed with me for the next few days because of her monthly cycle. She had uttered those words with her gaze looking anywhere but at mine, and I still remember the deep pink color that had spread itself across her cheeks then.

Coming from the bold, confident woman who had seduced me with her innocence, this shy embarrassment had amused me to no end.

 

 

“Not everything I do is for profit, you know.”

 

 

“That’s up for debate.”

 

 

With a cheeky grin, she turns back into the dressing room, and I sit back on the bed while I wait for her to get ready.

 

And then, I am hit by the astounding realization that although we haven’t been intimate for the past few days, the pull remains the same…for me , at least. I look forward to coming home to her every day, and holding her pliant body close to mine has become the highlight of my night.

For a man who has only ever viewed relationships with women in terms of the physical, this represents a departure on a massive scale, and I am apprehensive about what exactly this implies.

 

On the other hand, I cannot deny that the absence of  sexual anticipation has allowed me to focus on and discover other aspects of my partner that I had probably overlooked earlier.

As that thought passes through my mind, my gaze goes back to Khushi, who is now back before the mirror in the dressing-room.

I notice the sheer life and vitality in her movements, it’s as if every single part of her is alive. From the eager light in her eyes, to the fast, yet graceful movements of her hands, every part of her body seems to echo with an exuberance and spirit that is attractive in it’s own right. Even her hair seems to be alive, shimmering with  vitality as it flows down her back in dark waves of ebony.

 

I sigh again.

I’m not just a poet anymore.

The woman has turned me into the bard himself, apparently.

 

As I continue to stare, I recall her little quirks that serve to amuse and endear, all at once.

I remember the way she always clutches her pillow to herself as she sleeps, and more than once, I find myself getting jealous of that piece of fabric and foam. I remember how she sways to cheesy bollywood songs when she thinks I’m not looking. I even recall how she always talks to Sheetal as if she were a real person, and not just a crazed menace to all mankind. That stupid bird has even taken to repeating everything she’s ever said, for some reason.

I remember how she always seems to know when I’m around, something that she always puts down to luck and good timing.

 

The woman has gotten under my skin, it’s as simple as that.

Or as complicated.

 

Her presence in my life is rapidly becoming my entire life,and that thought makes me angry.

This wasn’t supposed to happen.

 

This marriage was one wherein I was supposed to retain complete control, not give it all up to the woman who isn’t even sleeping with me at the moment. This was supposed to be all about lust and sex and power…but now, it has transformed into so much more and I’m not sure what I can do to stop it from happening.

 

I push away these thoughts, unwilling to examine them closely at the moment. I focus on Khushi, who is now dressed and ready by my side. I watch as she reaches for her phone, and then feel myself stiffen as her face pales.

 

“Khushi? Is something wrong?”

 

 

She looks up quickly, and shakes her head.

 

 

“Not wrong, exactly. It’s just that it…took me by surprise, that’s all.”

 

 

 

“What is it?”

 

 

“An email from Aman, of all people.”

 

 

“Aman Mathur? What does he want now? I can’t believe he has the nerve to…”

 

She comes up to me, and lays a calming hand on my shoulder.

 

 

“It’s nothing like that. He just…it’s some sort of weird apology for what he did earlier. And he also goes on to say that his company did manage  to pull through the crisis after a small genetics firm sourced their research through them.”

 

 

“Good for him, and good riddance. Although I still wonder what compelled him to write to you today.”

 

 

She shrugs, and moves away.

 

 

“I have no idea. I’m glad that things worked out for him, though.”

 

 

I smile, amazed that she can still be happy about the good fortune that has befallen the moron who fired her for no fault of hers.

 

 

“Are you ready to leave?”

 

 

She nods, then gathers her purse and places her hand against mine in a familiar gesture. As we walk out together, my gaze falls on the suitcase that lies just inside the door.

 

 

“So…you forgot all about the Huangs, but I’m glad to see that the amnesia did not extend to packing for our honeymoon.”

 

 

A blush climbs up her cheeks, and she looks away abruptly.

 

 

“It’s not something I can easily forget.”

 

 

I tighten my hold on her arm.

 

 

“I just wish that we had time for a proper vacation in some exotic country instead of just going out to Lake Tahoe for three days.”

 

 

She looks up at me, and her gaze holds tenderness and something that I have no name for.

 

 

“Lake Tahoe sounds heavenly. You know I’ve never been there, this will be the perfect opportunity to explore…”

 

 

“…among other things, of course.”

 

 

The blush intensifies.

 

 

“Seriously, though, I’m perfectly alright with going to the Lake. You cannot leave the city for prolonged periods while this merger is going through, I understand that.”

 

 

“I’ll make sure the honeymoon part is perfect, even if the destination part isn’t.”

 

For a moment, her shyness is banished and mischief takes it’s place.

 

 

“I’ll hold you to that, Mr. Raizada.”

 

 

I laugh, then pull her close for a brief kiss before leading her down the stairs, promising myself that I will give her a honeymoon that she will remember for the rest of her life.

 

 

 

 

 

Three hours later, I look over at her as she leans her head against my shoulder in the shadowy confines of the limo as we head back from the beach-town of Sausalito. Dinner with the Huangs has been a resounding success, and pride fills me now as I recall how they had been impressed with the intelligence and wit of my beautiful new bride. And Khushi had appeared to be enjoying their company  as well. Michelle Huang is a physician at Stanford, and shared stories of the campus and town had taken them well through dinner and beyond while her husband and I had discussed the worrisome state of the economy.

When it was finally time to say goodbye, I had realized that it was too late to make the journey back to Menlo Park. After instructing Dhruv to take us to the penthouse in San Francisco instead, I had settled into a companionable silence with Khushi as he drove us through the winding roads back to the city.

 

As  I absentmindedly run my hands through her hair, I realize that there is something about tonight that I have been meaning to tell her. But before I can do so, she raises her head and turns to face me with an eager light in her eyes.

 

 

“The bridge! I’ve always wanted to stop there when it’s dark…can we do that now?”

 

 

Smiling down at her, I convey the request to Dhruv.

 

 

“Of course. Aren’t you too tired, though?”

 

 

Shaking her head, she leans over to look out of the window.

 

 

“I’d rouse myself from the deepest slumber to stare at the Golden Gate bridge. There’s just something about it that never gets old, you know? It’s majestic and beautiful…I’ve often wondered what it would look like at night with all the lights of the San Francisco skyline in the distance…”

 

 

“You’ll be able to see for yourself in just a few minutes.”

 

 

She smiles up at me as if I’ve just given her the greatest gift ever.

 

 

“It’s going to be the most perfect end to a great evening!”

 

 

“You liked the Huangs, didn’t you?”

 

 

“Of course! They are intelligent and engaging…what’s not to like?”

 

 

“I’m glad. Peter Huang is not just someone who works for me, he’s also a close associate whom I socialize with often. You’ll be seeing a lot of him, and I hoped that you would get along…and apparently, you did.”

 

 

For a moment, she just  stares up at me.

 

 

“Is that all there is to this? What aren’t you telling me?”

 

 

I still, amazed at the way she has looked past the facade and seen that I had something more to say to her.

This perceptiveness is something that she has been displaying often over the past few days, and I’m not sure how I feel about that anymore.

 

Trying to focus on what I have to tell her now, I take her hand in mine, just as Dhruv takes the turn towards the bridge.

 

 

“Do you remember when Michelle was talking about her cousin?”

 

 

“The one who was just released from rehab? Yes, I do. Although I do think she only wanted you to hear about it. When she realized that I had heard that too, she changed the subject real quick.”

 

 

“You’re too intelligent for your own good, Mrs. Raizada.”

 

 

No trace of amusement lightens her features, and I know that I cannot delay this any longer.

I take a deep breath, and hold her hand firmly in mine as I speak.

 

 

“This is about her cousin. I didn’t tell you before we met them because I did not want you to go in there with preconceived notions. And Michelle isn’t really close to this cousin after all. He’s a distant relative, it’s not like they’re really family.”

 

 

“Why are you telling me all this?”

 

 

I stare into her clear hazel eyes, hoping that she doesn’t react the way I’m afraid she will.

 

 

“Because it was her cousin who pulled a gun on me all those years ago.”

 

 

 

__________

 

 

Part 2

 

 

 

 

 

“Her cousin?! Are you trying to tell me that Michelle is related to the stalker you had told me about earlier? The one whose company was taken over by A.R, stalked you and  then threatened you with a weapon?”

 

 

I grimace, knowing that the truth isn’t going to be easy on her.

 

 

“Yes, he’s the same guy. The one who was apprehended by the police at the time, and released after a few months in prison. And then months later, he was diagnosed with a drug problem and went into rehab.”

 

 

“And he’s…out now? “

 

 

“Apparently. Michelle has been keeping tabs on him after what happened all those years ago.”

 

 

“I can’t believe this! How can you be so unconcerned about all this? And how do you manage to work with someone who…”

 

 

“Peter has nothing to do with this, and neither does Michelle. He’s been working for me since I started A.R, and although it was an unpleasant shock when he found out that I was taking over the cousin’s company, he’s been nothing but supportive and devoted since. And before you ask, I haven’t trusted him blindly on this. I had the couple investigated when all this happened and they came up clean. They’re good friends, Khushi. The fact that they happen to belong to the same family as the person who threatened me doesn’t affect me anymore. And neither should it bother you now. I only told you this because I wanted you to know, so you wouldn’t be taken by surprise if the matter ever came up…”

 

 

My words trail off as I suddenly register the wariness in her eyes, something that doesn’t entirely owe it’s existence to worry and anxiety over this current situation. In a flash of certainty, I realize that I have been seeing this wary, guarded look often over the past few days. It only appears fleetingly, and has barely registered on my consciousness…but when I give it some thought, the realization dawns upon me that she is hiding something from me.

 

Before I have time to pursue that disturbing train of thought, she turns away slightly before replying.

 

 

“He’s out there somewhere…does this constitute a security threat again?”

 

 

My eyes drop to her fingers, and I realize that she is twisting them nervously in an attempt to alleviate her anxiety.

 

 

“Khushi…it doesn’t matter. We have guards with us at all times, remember? I didn’t tell us this so that you would panic. I really didn’t want that. Look, can we just forget about it for the moment and enjoy the rest of the night?”

 

 

She looks out the window for a long moment, then slowly turns to face me again.

 

 

“I…guess. But if there’s any more news about him, will you let me know?”

 

 

“Of course. Honesty, Khushi. It’s what I’ve always promised…and delivered.”

 

 

Again, that fleeting look of anxiety passes across her expressive features…and this time, it is combined with something that looks  a lot like guilt.

 

A sense of unease makes it way down my spine, but just then, Dhruv finally pulls up at the turn-off into the Golden Gate visitor area  and brings the limo to a smooth stop. He steps out and holds my door open for me, and I have no choice but to step out before opening the door for Khushi. I discreetly signal Dhruv and he drives off again until the limo isn’t visible to us , and then we are alone, except for the few others on the other side of the road. The visitor center and sidewalk is closed at this time of the night, and so I take Khushi’s hand in mine and walk over to the side of the road where the tall towers and sweeping high cables soar high above us against the shadows of the night. In true San Francisco fashion, a mild fog obscures the highest reaches of the bridge, but that just adds to the overall mystique of the monument.

The lights of the skyline glimmer in the distance, reflected by the still waters of the bay below. The darkness is broken by the pale colors of the sailboats moored in the docks below the bridge, while the island of Alcatraz beckons in the distance.

 

For a long moment, we stand there in silence, just trying to take it all in.

Unlike her, I’ve seen this night-time view several times before while I had been heading to and from late meetings around the city. But this time, there seems to be something new….something different here.

 

It takes me a moment to realize that this can only be attributed to the woman who stands beside me, her gaze starry-eyed and fascinated as she stares at the man-made glory before her.

I shift a little until I am standing directly behind her, then pull her against my body before placing my hands around her waist and drawing her close. She settles into my arms with a sigh, and I am alarmed to realize that I could just stand here like this for a long, long while, and never feel the urge to move.

 

I look down at her profile, and marvel anew at the range of emotions she brings out in me.

And then I scoff inwardly at myself.

I am a man. 

I am not supposed to talk about my emotions…or even think about them.

We aren’t supposed to be wired that way.

 

And yet, how do I explain the comforting warmth that spreads through me,making me want to stay this way forever?

 

I close my eyes and block the disturbing thoughts one more time , and this time I am aided by her soft, hesitant tones that float across the still night air.

 

 

“What does this do to you?”

 

 

I open my eyes, unsure about what exactly she is asking here.

 

 

“What do you mean?”

 

 

She frees one arm and gestures towards the vista before her.

 

 

This…this beautiful bridge and bay and lights and night…what does it make you think? What does it make you feel?”

 

 

It has made me realize that I can never cross this bridge without thinking of her and this moment again, but I cannot really tell her that.

Instead, I turn the tables on her.

 

 

“We came here for you, Khushi. Did you find what you were looking for?”

 

 

She remains silent for a moment, and when she finally answers, her voice is hushed and almost…reverent.

 

 

“I did…and did not.”

 

 

“What?”

 

 

She takes a deep breath, then turns around in my arms until she is facing me again.

 

 

“I thought that I would enjoy this…and create a memory that I would remember for a long, long time. But what I hadn’t bargained for was…your presence here.”

 

 

“Me? What do I have to do with…”

 

 

She raises one hand and touches my face in a brief caress, her eyes holding a wealth of tenderness that only increases my unease.

 

 

“You have everything to do with it. Don’t you understand? Just the fact that you are here…it makes everything so much more special. I won’t just remember this for a while…I’ll never forget this moment for the rest of my life.”

 

 

Her quiet, honest words touch something deep down inside, and I have to consciously brace myself to withstand the sudden onslaught of emotions that threaten to overwhelm me at that moment.

 

Emotions.

 

There’s that dreaded word again.

 

 

“Don’t you get it, Arnav? Everything is different…because you are involved. I’ve been giving this some thought, you know. If I had signed that contract with someone else, I would have been miserable. In fact, I don’t think that I would have entered into an agreement with anyone else at all. I think that…it has always been you. You have made the difference. I had my own reasons for marrying at the time…but I still don’t think that I would have actually gone through with it for any reason if it had been anyone other than you.  “

 

Speechless, I can only stare as she rests her head against my chest before she continues.

 

You make everyday special. When I stand here and look out at this beautiful sight, I know that it is remarkable because you are sharing it with me. “

 

She looks up at me again, and the naked emotion in her eyes almost hurts me with it’s intensity.

 

 

“I am content with my life today because you are in it, Arnav. I can’t get more honest than that.”

 

 

I finally realize that this is her own way of responding to my revelation from earlier, and the power of speech deserts me as I wonder how I am going to match up to this now. Her forthright confession of my place in her life makes everything I feel for her pale in comparison, and I decide to answer her in the only way I know…the only way I am comfortable with.

 

 

Raising her face to mine, I take her lips in a slow, gentle kiss . She responds immediately, winding her  arms around my neck and parting her lips beneath mine as the kiss deepens.

When we part for air, I find that I cannot just let her go. I kiss her closed eyes, and her pink-tinged cheeks before finally placing yet another kiss on her reddened lips.

And this time when we part, I drag her close to my body, closing my own eyes as I battle the urge to give in to the roiling emotions within.

 

For long moments we stay that way, and then she finally raises her head and smiles up at me.

 

 

“What about you, Arnav? Have I made any difference in your life at all?”

 

 

Hell yes, she damn well has.

She has overturned my existence until I can barely recognize myself anymore, not that I can tell her that.

 

 

Instead, I kiss her one more time before replying.

 

 

“If you knew me at all, you wouldn’t really need to ask that.”

 

 

Her eyes lose some of their hopeful light, and I want to kick myself at that moment.

 

 

But then she rallies, and comes back with yet another question.

 

 

“What is your life all about, Arnav? What do you want from it?”

 

 

“What do you mean?”

 

 

She looks away for a moment, then rephrases her question.

 

 

“I mean…where do you see yourself in five years from now? What do you envision for yourself? If we could look into the future, what would we see you doing?”

 

 

Unbidden, an image flashes into my mind.

In the future, I see myself doing exactly what I am doing at this moment…standing with her in my arms, looking into those clear hazel eyes that hold me captive.

 

 

I look away quickly before she can see the answer in my eyes, and cast about for a different version of the truth.

 

 

“I see myself at the helm of a company that has grown from strength to strength…maybe even one that has expanded internationally. That has been my dream for a while now.”

 

 

“And…that’s it? What about…your family?”

 

 

“My family? I see myself doing exactly the same things with them five years down the line as well. Why would anything change?”

 

 

And us?

 

She doesn’t voice those words, but I can still hear them as if they had been clearly spoken out loud.

 

How am I going to answer that?

 

In increasing desperation, I fall back on the one thing that is a safe constant…the one thing that doesn’t threaten my iron control over this tricky situation.

 

I haul her back into my arms, and with an effort, I inject a lighter, more flirtatious note into my voice.

 

 

“And yes, I see myself spending night after passionate night with my beautiful wife…if she agrees to stay with me for that long, of course.”

 

 

Khushi stares up at me for a long moment, and I wonder just what she is seeing in my eyes.

But years of keeping a tight rein over myself must have come in handy because she finally sighs, then rests against my chest again.

 

 

“I suppose I should be glad that you don’t think that boredom would have set in after five years.”

 

 

“Does that mean you are considering taking this beyond a year, Mrs.Raizada?”

 

 

She looks up at me with a smile, but I see the barely hidden strain behind it.

 

 

“The jury is still out on that one, Mr.Raizada.”

 

 

I smile back at her, hoping to steer this conversation out of the dangerous waters it seems to have drifted into.

 

 

“Starting tomorrow night, I’ll do my best to bribe the jury.”

 

 

“With your body? How sleazy, Arnav.”

 

 

“We’ll see who’s calling me sleazy when they’re writhing under me in bed, naked as the day they were born.”

 

 

“Is that a challenge?”

 

 

“If you want to take it as one.”

 

 

You are a challenge. One that I’ll be delighted to conquer, someday.”

 

 

I lean over and kiss her again before I am tempted to answer that honestly.

 

That for all intents and purposes, her conquest is already complete.

 

 

 

 

During the drive back home and for most of that night, I think about the things that have been said and the words that have been left unsaid tonight. Even as I hold her in my arms that night, I agonize about how I can deal with everything that is happening between us…and how it would feel if she wasn’t there to begin with.

 

As we leave the house and head for the car the next morning, that sense of unease just won’t leave me in peace. Khushi seems to be a little distracted as well, and only speaks up when she notices the changes that I have made for this trip.

 

 

“We aren’t taking the limo?”

 

 

“No, we aren’t. I’m going to drive you there myself.”

 

 

I gesture towards the new Lambhorgini aventador that gleams silver in the early morning light, and then decide to tell her about the other modification at the same time.

 

 

“Dhruv will follow us in his car.”

 

 

She looks up at me.

 

 

“Just…Dhruv?”

 

 

“Yes. I’d like to have some privacy on this trip.”

 

 

She doesn’t blush as I had expected her to. Instead, her gaze goes to a disgruntled Lavanya who is now relegated to looking after Sheetal while we are away.

 

“Do you think that’s  a good idea? Especially after what we’ve learned about Michelle’s cousin?”

 

 

“It will be fine, Khushi. No one even knows that we are heading out to Tahoe. And Dhruv will always shadow us from a distance, don’t worry.”

 

 

She nods reluctantly, then steps away when NK comes up to me for a final briefing before we leave. While I am talking to him, I notice that Khushi has just received a call and I catch a few words of the conversation.

 

Amazed at what I am hearing, I quickly wind up my conversation with NK and hold the door open for Khushi. Settling down into the driver’s seat, I look over at NK , Lavanya and Manorama.

 

 

“Hold the fort, guys. I’m counting on you.”

 

 

With their wishes and goodbyes ringing in our ears, I start driving and wait until we are on the freeway before turning towards Khushi, who still looks more than a little shocked at what she’s just heard.

 

 

“Did I hear that right? Payal is coming to the States for her honeymoon?”

 

 

“Yes…that’s what Amma just told me. Apparently Payal wanted to surprise me with this news and had asked my mother to keep it a secret until she actually got here…”

 

 

“Where exactly are they going?”

 

 

“My mother doesn’t know, Payal didn’t tell her the exact location. I’m sure we’ll find out soon enough…”

 

 

For a few miles, silence reigns in the car as we struggle to come to terms with this news.

And then Khushi makes an attempt to recapture the earlier mood in an obvious attempt to keep to her promise about Payal, and I go along with it at once. She changes the music CD to that of a new bollywood singer she admires, and for the next half hour, she talks non-stop about all his songs and how different they all are from everything else that is being churned out these days.

From there, the conversation turns to our favored bands and then on to movies, and we quickly discover that we have almost nothing in common when it comes to our taste in films and music. We move on to our favorite books, and then wind up debating the merits of a questionable bestseller that is currently topping the charts.

 

Soon, the three hour journey is over, and we stop at a cafe for a quick breakfast.

 

 

“The cabin isn’t too far now. It should take us about ten minutes…”

 

 

“The cabin?”

 

 

“Yes, the vacation home that I was telling you about? It’s in a quiet, secluded alcove of it’s own, I’m sure you’ll like it…”

 

 

“I’m sure I will, but I don’t want to go there right now!”

 

 

“Why not?”

 

 

“There’s a whole list of things I want to do first! There’s Vikingsholm and Emerald bay and the cruise over the lake, and then…”

 

 

“Are you serious? You’re going to play tourist while you are on your honeymoon?”

 

 

“But I’ve never been here before! All this sounds so interesting, how can I miss out on it?”

 

 

I gear myself up to argue, but something stops me at that instant. I recall how I’ve disappointed her by holding back last night, and decide that I will not dash her hopes this time.

 

If this is what she wants, then this is what she will get.

 

 

And so, over the course of the day, I take her to some of the famous spots in the Tahoe region.

We begin with a drive up to Emerald Bay, where her delight over the scenic vista makes me smile at her enthusiasm. The one mile steep hike down to Vikingsholm doesn’t faze her in the least, and she explores the Scandinavian summer castle with all the eagerness of a child at an amusement park. We head back up the trail and drive back to the marina for am all-American lunch, and then it’s time to take the two and a half hour cruise aboard the Tahoe Queen, the only authentic paddlewheeler on Lake Tahoe. Once aboard the 3oo passenger vessel, she quickly befriends a group of young women and chatters incessantly while darting apologetic glances at me from time to time. Content to lean back against a bench as I observe her, I smile to myself as she gasps and exclaims at the breathtaking views as we journey across South Lake Tahoe. The view of Vikingsholm from the water holds her spellbound, and when we approach the nearby shore, I take the opportunity to point out the cabin that is going to be our home for the next three days.

 

 

“That’s just so….perfect!”

 

 

“I knew you’d like it. Can we go there after this cruise?”

 

 

She laughs, and throws her arms around my neck.

 

 

“Of course! I can’t wait to see what it looks like on the inside!”

 

 

In the end, we decide to make one more stop before actually heading to the cabin. Stopping at a large downtown restaurant, we settle on having an early dinner so that we won’t have to leave the cabin before morning.

 

As we enter the bar area , Khushi gestures towards the restrooms.

 

 

“I need just a moment.”

 

 

“Sure. I’ll wait for you at the bar, we’ll go in and order the food when you get back.”

 

 

I watch her until she disappears around the corner, then decide to order a drink while I wait. I’ve barely opened the wine list before I sense someone settling themself on the bar-stool beside me, and I look up with a smile, assuming that it is Khushi.

 

 

“Hello , Arnav. What a pleasant surprise!”

 

 

The auburn-haired woman smiling up at me is most certainly not my wife, but I recognize her immediately.

 

 

“Anna?”

 

 

The petite fashion designer is the woman I had been seeing over the course of the last year, until we had amicably ended our relationship. To see her here, at this moment, throws me for a loop .

 

 

“You remembered my name. I’m flattered, really.”

 

 

“Of course I did. How have you been?”

 

 

“I’m fine, Arnav. And now that I’ve met you here, things are definitely looking up.”

 

 

Her flirtatious smile and teasing manner put me on my guard, and I know that she is a woman on the prowl.

But tonight, I have no intention of being her chosen prey.

 

 

“It’s nice to see you after all this time, Anna. But I have to tell you this…I’m taken.”

 

 

She laughs, then places her red-tipped fingers on my arm.

 

 

“I’m sure that you can rearrange things…for old times’ sake?”

 

 

I know what she is offering, and I am astonished to realize that I am not even tempted.

Not in the slightest.

 

 

I look down at the tight black dress she’s poured herself into, and realize that a year ago, I wouldn’t have hesitated before taking her up on her offer.

 

But at this moment, all I can remember is a hazel-eyed witch who  does not even need seductive clothing to bring me to my knees. I recall her modest clothes that barely hint at the sinful curves hidden beneath them, and the soft, plain night-suits that provide almost no barrier for my hands when I reach for her in bed.

 

That thought makes me smile, even as I shake my head at Anne.

 

 

“You don’t understand. I don’t want to rearrange anything. I’m married now, and I’m here with my wife.”

 

 

She leans away now, and a glimmer of respect appears in her blue eyes.

 

 

“Well well. Who would have expected you of all people to get hitched willingly? And to remain faithful too…your wife is one lucky woman, Arnav.”

 

 

am the lucky one here. And yes, my wife has no reason to feel insecure.”

 

 

She smiles up at me, then steps down from the bar-stool.

 

 

“She may not have reason to be jealous, but find myself envious of her all the same. Regardless, it was nice to catch up after all this while, Arnav.”

 

 

“Same here, Anna. Have a good life.”

 

 

She starts to turn away, then faces me again and leans over for a quick peck on the cheek.

 

 

“For old times’ sake…just like I said.”

 

 

With one last saucy wink she walks away, and I shake my head again, laughing at her antics.

 

Poor Anna.

Little did she know that this man really was off the market, in every sense of the word.

 

 

A sudden hankering for my little hazel-eyed temptress makes me turn towards the restrooms, but then I still in shock.

 

Standing there with a disbelieving expression on her face is Khushi, and I realize that she has witnessed the entire episode.

 

And obviously, she has misunderstood it entirely.

 

I stand up quickly and start walking towards her, but she whirls around and rushes out through the lobby.

 

 

Khushi, stop!”

 

 

 

_________

 

 

Part 3

 

 

 

 

In seconds, I am running through the lobby and out again through the entrance, but I don’t see her until I am all the way into the parking lot. My steps stumble to a halt as I see that Dhruv is standing with her.

Taking a deep breath, I walk towards her at a slower pace and finally reach her side, just in time to see that Dhruv is gesturing back towards the restaurant. 

 

 

“It’s alright Dhruv. Khushi and I are leaving now.”

 

 

Dhruv looks up at me, surprised. But then he leaves us alone after a quick nod, and I watch as Khushi’s shoulders stiffen.

 

 

“Khushi, we need to talk.”

 

 

She turns around to face me, and I am taken aback to see that her face looks impassive. It is not what I had expected, and I suddenly find myself at a loss for words.

 

 

Her gaze shifts to a point beyond my shoulder, and then back.

 

 

“I’m sorry I overreacted back there. I did not want to create a scene in public, that really wasn’t my intention.”

 

 

“Damn the public! Will you listen to what I’m saying here?”

 

 

“Of course. But I don’t think that this is a conversation for the parking lot . You’ve just informed Dhruv that we’re leaving, I think that’s what we should do.”

 

She’s right, of course. But something about her dispassionate words puts me on edge, and I quickly guide her to the Lamborghini before she can change her mind. I check the rear mirror to make sure that Dhruv is right behind us, and then pull out onto the road.

 

 

I wait for a couple of minutes before speaking, unsure about where I need to begin.

But before I can say anything, Khushi speaks in a low, serious voice that captures my attention at once.

 

 

“I don’t know what got into me back there. There is absolutely no excuse for the way I ran out. I apologize again for overreacting.”

 

 

I take a deep breath.

 

 

“You weren’t overreacting. You thought you saw something, and I need to tell you that it wasn’t what you thought it was.”

 

 

I can feel her eyes on me now, but I need to keep my own gaze fixed on the road as the car eats up the miles.

 

 

“And what was it, Arnav? All I saw was someone who was presumably a female acquaintance giving you a goodbye kiss, and part of  a conversation that preceded it. That’s no reason to assume that it was something more, especially not after you’ve told me that fidelity ranks high on your priority list. There really was no reason for what I did, I realize that now. In my defence, it  was  a knee-jerk thing, that’s all.”

 

 

I know it wasn’t just a knee-jerk thing.

The scene she has just witnessed has probably made her feel insecure , jealous…or maybe even both. And I know this because have felt these same emotions when I have seen her interactions with NK. I understand her at this moment because for the first time in my life, I have felt these same things for her.

 

For some unfathomable reason, I need her to come clean on this. I don’t want her to brush this off as just some random, sudden overreaction.

 

But I also know that the car isn’t really the place for what I have in mind, and so I quickly change the subject, resolving to take this up again when we reach the cabin.

 

 

“You can see the cabin now. It’s just over that outcropping of rock on the right.”

 

 

I can sense her surprise, but I force my concentration back to the road and wait for her response.

And after a moment, she gasps in surprise at the sheer beauty of the surroundings. The simple log cabin is a purchase I made on a whim a year ago, and I haven’t made use of it all that much. Perched on the banks of a secluded cove, it gives us access to the waters of South Lake Tahoe while still providing much-needed privacy that is essential to me.

 

 

“You actually own this?”

 

 

I can’t stop myself from glancing at her now, just for a moment. Her wide eyes are focused on the cabin, and I suppress a smile at the success of my ploy.

 

 

“Yes, I do. Why does that surprise you?”

 

“For the same reason that the house in Menlo Park surprised me, I suppose. I expected something more…luxurious and flashy, I guess.”

 

 

“The cabin has every luxury you could ever want…on the inside. But I wanted the exterior to remain the same. It fits in with it’s surroundings, don’t you think?”

 

 

“It’s perfect. But then again, you wouldn’t have bought it if it wasn’t.”

 

 

I cannot stop myself from taking advantage of the opening she has handed me quite unknowingly.

 

 

“I am never interested in acquiring anything that is less than perfect.”

 

 

I hear her gasp of shock and outrage at the insinuation that she is an acquisition, but at that moment, I pull into the narrow path that leads up to the cabin and stop the car. Dhruv is out of his own vehicle and beside us in an instant, and it takes me a few minutes to tell him that his services won’t be needed tonight after he delivers our dinner from a cafe we passed on our way here.

 

Khushi is at the door by now, and I quickly walk over to unlock it. We enter the living room, and I watch her as she looks around the small,yet comfortably furnished room with it’s white upholstery and earth-toned rugs . I guide her into the kitchen, and hand her a glass of water before pouring one for myself.

 

 

“So…what do you think?”

 

 

“It’s really nice. And the view is to die for, of course.”

 

 

She places the glass down and walks towards the hallway, and I show her into the one large bedroom with it’s old fashioned four-poster bed. She stops at the threshold for a moment, and then walks over to the large bay window and throws open the heavy silk curtains to reveal yet another stunning view of the lake.

 

 

I walk up to her and place my hands on her shoulders, but she quickly turns around with  a strained smile that immediately lets me know that she has forgotten nothing.

 

 

“I think I’ll take a shower before the food gets here.”

 

And just like that, she’s gone…leaving me with an empty room and a heart full of foreboding.

 

 

When dinner arrives, she comes into the kitchen where I am laying out the silverware on the small breakfast table. I look up quickly, but her face offers me no clue about the true state of her emotions.

 

“All that sightseeing has made me hungry! What’s for dinner?”

 

 

I take the covers off the gourmet pizza and soup that is still piping hot, and for the next few minutes, we eat in silence. When she has finished her second slice, my patience finally comes to an end.

 

I cannot take this anymore.

I have seen the truth on her face back there at the restaurant, and I need to hear it from her now.

I have to know that the sight of me with Anne has affected her just as much as the sight of her with NK had affected me, all those days ago.

 

I want the truth, and want to be the one to reassure her that there is absolutely nothing to be worried about.

Brushing this under the carpet isn’t something that is acceptable to me.

 

I know that my reasons are illogical and unreasonable, given the reticence that I had shown on the Golden Gate Bridge while she had spilled her deepest secrets. But I don’t care about that at the moment.

 

All I know is that I want to see a reaction…any reaction at all.

 

And so I stand up quickly and wash my hands at the sink before turning to face her again.

 

 

“We still need to have that talk, Khushi.”

 

 

She looks like she’s about to argue, but she must have seen the implacable expression on my face because she finally stands up with a sigh.

 

 

“Alright. So who was she?”

 

 

Her voice is still too calm and controlled for my liking, but I disregard that for the moment.

 

 

“Her name is Anna, and I was in a relationship with her last year. We parted amicably and I haven’t seen her since. So it was a surprise to see her there and…”

 

 

“So she’s part of your past and I have no reason to worry. There, I told you that I had just misunderstood things back there!”

 

The rest of my control snaps, and I walk over to her and grasp her by the shoulders.

 

 

“And that’s it? I tell you that she’s an ex, and you forget what you have seen ? It’s as easy as that for you?”

 

 

I know that I am goading her…almost taunting her to a fight. But even that realization doesn’t stop me.

 

Her hazel eyes flash with anger, and I know that I have succeeded when she shrugs out of my hold.

 

 

“You’re angry because I trust you? Because I’m taking your word for it?”

 

 

“Of course not! I’m angry because you’re still holding back. Why don’t you tell me what really happened there?”

 

 

She stares at me for a moment, visibly struggling for control.

And then she raises her chin, and that single gesture lets me know that I am going to get my wish at last.

 

Fine! You want to know what I really felt when I saw you smiling at a drop-dead gorgeous woman ? Do you want to know what it looked like from where I was standing? And it wasn’t just me, every single person in that room would have got exactly that impression when they saw you sharing that intimate moment with her before undressing her with your eyes! You couldn’t take your eyes off her body, do you want to explain why that happened? And in the end, it looked like you were making an assignation when she left you with a kiss. Do you want me to tell me why?”

 

A strange satisfaction fills me when I finally hear what I have been waiting for.

But at that moment, I also know that I have to tell her what really happened at the restaurant with Anna.

 

 

“Yes, I couldn’t stop looking at her body. Do you want to know why? At first, I was trying to figure out just why there was no attraction there anymore. I was trying to recall why I had even had an affair with her in the first place. I looked at her form-fitting clothes and my mind flew back to the woman in my life…the one who needs no seductive clothing in order to draw me to her like a moth to a flame. The one whom I lust after…to the exclusion of all others. And that was why I smiled. It was the thought of you that did it. And in the end, I was just reacting to a remark she made before leaving, something that alluded to the fact that I had just rejected her advances. Does that answer your question?”

 

She looks shocked for a moment, but then she rallies.

 

 

“So she did make a move on you?”

 

 

I shrug with assumed nonchalance.

 

 

“Woman do that all the time. But in this instance, I refused in no uncertain terms. I told her that I was married, and that nothing would tempt me to stray. “

 

I walk up to her and pull her close.

 

 

Nothing. Do you understand?”

 

 

She pulls away again.

 

 

“I know that. You’ve never been less than honest with me. Although I had made some wrong assumptions there for the space of a minute, I knew deep down inside that you wouldn’t be unfaithful. And thank you for letting me know what went through your head anyway. But now, I have a question.”

 

 

Warily, I take one step forward and close the distance between us again.

 

 

“What?”

 

 

“If there really was nothing going on there and I was prepared to let it go, then why did you just create such a big deal about it?”

 

 

The answer surprises her…and me, because I certainly never meant to say that to her.

 

 

“Because I wanted to know if the sight of it affected you just as much as that little scene between you and NK affected me.”

 

 

“Me and…NK? Are you serious?”

 

 

I am being backed into a corner now, and I don’t like it.

 

 

“Why is that so hard to believe? You’re an attractive woman, and NK could see that too. Any man could.”

 

 

“But I’m not interested in any other man! Why would I be, when I’m…”

 

 

She purses her lips and turns away, and I am left with the craving to know what she would have said.

But she isn’t done yet.

Walking across to the adjoining living-room, she faces me again.

 

 

“So you wanted to know if I was jealous, and now you do. But now want to know why that matters to you. I know that you want this marriage to last beyond the one year time-frame we’d agreed on, but then again, you’ve also made it clear that the physical part of this relationship holds the greatest allure for you. But you know what, Arnav?”

 

The wariness has increased by leaps and bounds, and I find myself holding my breath while I wait for her to continue.

 

 

“I don’t think that…sex explains everything. It doesn’t explain why you want to know everything about my life, and everything that’s going on in my head. It doesn’t explain the things I see in your eyes at times…or the things I feel when you’re near me. Sex isn’t all there is…is it?”

 

 

I don’t want to hear this.

I don’t want to look closely at what she’s just said and hear the unpalatable answer from my own heart.

 

And so I fall back on what comes naturally to me…and in a way, I give her an answer.

 

 

Grasping her by the shoulders, I push her back gently against the floor-to-ceiling window before taking her lips in a hard, demanding kiss. The blood rushes from my head when she responds in kind, her hands pulling my head down as her lips mold themselves to mine.

 

When I end the kiss, we’re both breathless.

 

 

“Sex isn’t something to be disparaged, Khushi. It’s more powerful…more honest than a lot of other so-called emotions.”

 

 

“I’m not saying that it isn’t. I just want to know if that’s all you feel. But you know what? I’m tired of waiting to find out. “

 

 

And with those words, she turns the tables on me.

Her hands wind themselves around my neck as she kisses me this time, and presses her body against mine. 

The sheer intensity of this kiss makes my head pound as unadulterated lust takes over my body. I allow my hands to move from her shoulders to her back, and then further below.

 

The kiss deepens and she falls back against the glass, and I finally take my lips from hers even as her hands go to the buttons of my shirt. The pale skin on the side of her neck beckons, and I cannot stop myself from nipping at her warmth while she pulls my shirt off my shoulders.

 

But then she surprises me again.

Spearing her hands through my hair, she pulls my head up until I am gazing into her passion-clouded eyes.

 

 

“So all this is…just sex?”

 

 

I keep my lips sealed shut, and watch the light of challenge flare in her eyes.

 

In a bold move, she drops her hand to the front of my pants and strokes me through the fabric.

 

I cannot stop myself from closing my eyes as the fire spreads through my groin.

 

 

 

“If this is just sex…then you would have felt the same with all your exes…am I right?”

 

 

That brings my head up in a hurry.

 

 

“What?”

 

 

She strokes me again, and my hands leave her body as I try to keep my balance by placing my hands flat on the glass behind her.

 

 

This. If this is sex, and you’ve done it before…then did you get…hard after just one kiss with the others? With Anna, for example?”

 

 

Shock spears through me as I realize just where she’s going with this.

 

 

“Why the hell are we talking about other women at this moment?”

 

 

Her face is flushed, but her eyes are clear and purposeful.

 

 

“Because that’s logic, Arnav. If this is sex, then it must have been the same with everyone else. I just wanted to know, that’s all. It’s not like I have anything to compare and…”

 

 

I push her back against the glass with my body.

 

 

“And you won’t. Ever. As for me, I’ve told you before that what’s between us isn’t something I’ve experienced before. We’re fire, you and I.”

 

 

“So…still just sex, then?”

 

 

She’s stubbornly persistent, but then, so am I.

 

 

Our eyes clash for an instant, and then we reach for each other at exactly the same moment.

 

 

The kiss this time is a battle for control, and in moments, we are sliding down against the glass until she’s lying beneath me on the rug.

 

But then something finally registers, and I raise my head to gaze down at her .

 

 

“Is it…okay to be doing this today?”

 

 

Incomprehension blanks her features for a moment, but then she quickly nods.

I sigh inwardly and reach down to pull off her top, but her hands still mine.

 

 

“You should see your eyes at this moment. They tell me something different from what your lips always say, Arnav.”

 

 

I look away at once, then reach for her top again.

In moments, I have pulled it off of her and thrown it aside, but then I freeze in sheer astonishment.

 

It’s always been white lace with her, and I have gotten used to seeing her that way.

So the sight of her wearing…nothing below her modest cotton top paralyzes me with lust and…something else.

 

I know that she isn’t someone to go about without every garment in place, and so I know what it must have taken for her to do this…for me.

 

 

I look up into her eyes, and find that she is staring back at me with a mixture of desire and embarrassment in her gaze.

 

 

Hell. Are you trying to tell me that you’ve been sitting before me all this time with nothing under that top?”

 

 

Her lowered gaze and flushed cheeks  are answer enough, and my mind races to the next question immediately.

 

 

“Are you wearing anything below that pant?”

 

 

Her lashes sweep up to reveal a challenging gaze again.

 

 

 

“Why don’t you find out?”

 

 

I want to, but I also know that the sight of her bare skin might drain what’s left of my self-control, and so I quickly raise myself off her body and haul off my own pants and briefs before touching her again.

 

I fumble with the drawstring at her waist, and soon I have it off her long, pale legs.

 

A second wave of shock and lust hits me hard.

 

 

She isn’t naked, but she might as well have been.

A tiny red thong is all that shields her most intimate parts from my devouring gaze, and I cannot stop myself from touching her through the lacy fabric.

 

She moans into my shoulder and that sound threatens my self-control yet again. As I look up at her, my gaze is drawn to her unbound breasts and I lower my lips  to the taut peaks immediately.

Molding her breasts with both my hands, I fill my mouth with the delectable firmness as her body begins to move under mine. I roll the peak of the other breast between the tips of my fingers, and she moans again.

 

I raise my head to look down at her, and that gives her the opening she’s apparently been waiting for.

 

In a swift move, she sits up suddenly, dislodging me in the process.

Her warm hands push me down by the shoulders, and I lie back down on the rug, unsure about what she’s doing here.

 

In the next instant, it all becomes clear.

 

In a lithe move, she climbs up on me until she is seated firmly on my hardness. Her damp heat over that part of my anatomy makes me even more hard…and I grasp her hips, mindless with lust.

 

But she has other plans.

 

Unwinding her hair from the clip, she lets it fall around her in a curtain of ebony, shrouding us both in a cocoon of intimacy.

She bends down over me and now I can clearly see the apprehension in her eyes, and I realize that I know the cause. This isn’t a position we’ve ever tried before, and the fact that she has chosen it makes me burn for her with increased intensity.

 

 

She caresses my lips with hers gently, and I pull her down before deepening the kiss. But then my attention is distracted by the feel of her breasts against my chest, and I pull away slightly before looking down at her.

 

I reach for one breast, but just as I close my hand around it, she leans back and away  from me.

 

 

“This touch…this heat and warmth…it’s all just sex?”

 

 

I cannot believe that she’s still thinking about that.

And if she is, then I must be doing something wrong.

 

To forestall any other questions, I pull her down until I have her peak in my mouth and suckle hard until she falls against me, boneless and breathless. I sweep my hands down her back and pull her firmly against my body before pushing aside the thong and delving my fingers into her hot, wet core.

She sits up suddenly, and I know that for her, it’s still not enough.

The questions on her mind have not been erased yet, I can see that in her eyes.

 

She closes her eyes for a long moment, and then opens them again. I can see the determination there…the courage to keep doing this until she has what she wants.

 

In that moment, I realize that I have never admired her more.

 

She pushes her hair off her shoulder before looking into my eyes again.

Holding my gaze, she runs one hand down her body, past her breasts…until she stops at that part of me that is begging for her touch.

 

 

“Say it now, Arnav. Tell me that it’s all just sex.”

 

 

I open my mouth, but the words just won’t come.

 

 

She smiles suddenly, and then raises her hips slightly.

 

 

“Should I take this off…or will you?”

 

 

I reach for the thong before rethinking my decision, then gesture at her to proceed.

In a swift movement she draws it off, but I barely have time to think or enjoy the view because she presses down on me immediately.

 

Starburst behind my closed eyes makes me mindless for a moment, but then I suddenly remember something that is now ingrained from years of practice.

 

 

“Wait…let me get a…”

 

 

She looks up at me, and shakes her head.

 

 

“I’ve started the pill.”

 

 

Before I can process that startling announcement, she lowers herself on me until I’m halfway inside. I grasp her hips to try and still her progress, afraid that I am going to embarrass myself today. I’ve never felt so out-of-control…ever.

 

I lower her slowly until I’m lodged completely inside her, and we both still as we savor the naked slide of skin against skin for the very first time.

 

I open my eyes, determined to tell her this one truth, even I cannot bring myself to accept the others.

 

 

“Khushi…this is a first for me.”

 

 

She opens her eyes and looks down at me, her chest heaving as she battles for control. Her gaze is drugged with desire, but I know that she needs to understand what I’m saying.

 

 

“I’ve never done this without protection. Ever.”

 

 

Her eyes widen in surprise.

 

 

 

“Never?”

 

 

“No. I’ve never trusted anyone enough.”

 

 

 

For a long moment, she looks down into my eyes, and I am suddenly struck by the fanciful notion that she can see down clear to my soul.

 

And then she places a gentle kiss on my lips, one that I feel right down to where we’re joined in the most intimate of embraces.

 

She straightens immediately, and now there’s a wicked light in her eyes.

 

 

“Then let me take your virginity, Mr.Raizada.”

 

 

She raises herself until she’s barely impaled, then lowers herself suddenly before looking up at me with a slightly apprehensive gaze.

I know then that she is unsure about how to proceed, and I steel myself against all temptation in an attempt to take it slow.

With her hips in my hands, I raise and lower her until she understands the motion, and then she takes charge.

 

I throw my head back against the pillow as the sensations spiral, trying hard to hold on until she has found her release. The sound of her body pounding down on mine as she loses control pushes me to the very edge, but I stay grounded. I reach for her breasts, fondling them roughly as she gasps.

 

But then she pulls herself out of my reach.

 

 

No. Not this time.”

 

 

“What?”

 

 

My voice is hoarse, and I don’t really understand what she’s saying until she leans over me again.

 

 

“This time, we do this together.”

 

 

I know what she is saying, but it is really hard for me to give in to it. To give up control and let myself go…that isn’t something I’ve done before either.

 

 

But then the decision is taken out of my hands.

 

Her internal muscles begin to clamp down on me, hard.

I lose the battle, and lean back as the sensations take control. Pulling her hips down on mine, I feel myself pulsating inside her before climaxing with near violence. She screams at exactly that moment, and I know that she has found what she wanted.

My body continues to quake in the aftermath and I fall back against the rug, dazed.

 

As her sweat-slicked body falls upon mine, I hold her close while our hearts return to their normal rhythm.

 

And it  is then that I answer her, with my lips pressed against her ear.

 

 

 

“It isn’t just sex. It never was.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As the light of a new day brightens the bedroom, I stare down at her sleeping form, and for a  moment, heated images from last night flash across my mind. Never in my wildest dreams had I imagined that she would actually do what she had done last night, and the memories make me smile, even as my body hardens in response.I embrace the sexual thoughts and hold on to them with all my might, even as I realize that this is a conscious attempt to escape the other things she has been making me feel before the sensual feast last night.
I don’t want to remember the tenderness she has managed to evoke in me through the last week.I want to wipe that soul-baring conversation from my memory…the one that I will always associate with the Golden Gate bridge from this point on.
And most of all, I want to shove that confession aside…the one where I told her that sex was never all that was between us.
This isn’t what I had signed up for. I thought that I had been in control of this situation, that everything was happening just the way wanted it to. I had compartmentalized my feelings for her, neatly placing her in the slot marked ‘the wife I lusted after’. To know and realize that the title no longer encompassed all that I felt towards her now is something that makes me intensely uncomfortable even now.Because if I acknowledge that, I will also have to accept that I have to cede control to something that is out of my experience…and miles from my comfort zone.
I’m not ready to do that yet.And I don’t know if I ever will be, despite what happened between us last night.

In yet another attempt to ignore these harsh truths, I focus on her serene, peaceful countenance.

But then my thoughts are derailed again when I remember that the serenity is actually a facade. From the past few days, I have noticed the shadows in her eyes, the ones she has taken great pains to hide. I have noted the anxiety and the worry, and found myself wondering about the cause.In some of my more unguarded moments, I have had to restrain myself from shaking the truth out of her. I desperately want to know what’s bothering her…but I want her to confess the truth. I want that trust…I need it.
I know that this isn’t entirely a rational decision, and that soon, I will have to force the issue and find out what the problem is.
Just as that thought passes through my mind, she shifts a little in bed, and my gaze goes back to her sheet-draped body.
Only, it isn’t completely covered like before.
Her movement has dislodged the white satin from her chest, leaving one rounded breast bared to my suddenly ravenous gaze.  Her arm is flung out above her head, while her lips are still parted in sleep.
I smile, my body tightening as I reach down for her.Keeping my movements slow and unhurried, I grasp the edge of the sheet and bare her to my view. She shifts again, and I still for a moment. But when her breathing pattern tells me that she is still asleep, I continue until the sheet is now down around her knees.
Leaning down over her, I blow a warm stream of air over one budded nipple and am delighted to see the visible response, even while she is asleep. I place my lips over it and kiss it gently, then move my attentions to it’s ignored twin.
The caress makes her writhe, and her eyelashes flutter as she battles the urge to wake up.
I quickly seize the opportunity to make my way down her pale, delectable body, and stop only when my mouth hovers over the juncture of her thighs. Parting them slightly, I detect the faint, yet unmistakable scent of her arousal immediately. Unable to resist, I touch the damp folds gently, testing…teasing until her eyes fly open.
But they close almost immediately, and I relish the low moan that leaves her throat.
I know that she is awake now, and her hands move to my head as if to prove that fact.
I look down again, already anticipating the taste of her against my tongue.
But the moment is rudely shattered when the phone rings abruptly. Before I can process what’s happening, Khushi has reached for the phone in an instinctive gesture, and I realize from the tortured expression on her face that she really didn’t mean to answer the call at all.
Her voice is husky as she answers, and I grin as I allow my lips to reach their target.

Payal?”

That name makes me jerk my head up in a hurry. Her sister hasn’t been a source of worry to either of us for a while now, and I find myself hoping that this isn’t about to change.And more than that, I want Khushi to keep to her promise, and make Payal realize that her priorities have changed.
As I watch Khushi’s face while the other woman continues to speak, I inwardly rejoice when I realize that she isn’t really taking in the words at all. Her eyes are focused on where my mouth hovers over the most intimate part of her body, and I grin again as I realize where her priority clearly lies at the moment.

“P…Payal? This really isn’t the…best time, I…”

Her words end in a gasp as I finally allow my lips to make contact.She grips the phone tight with a white-knuckled hand while the other bunches the sheets, and I return to my task with more vigor than strictly necessary.
But her sister hasn’t apparently gotten the hint.Her voice comes down the line again, and something in me snaps.
I raise my head, even as Khushi’s eyes fly open and she makes a desperate attempt to get through to her sister.

“Payal, I…your voice is breaking up! I can’t really hear you…where are you right now? Can we…do this later?”

She looks up at me, and I know that the last words weren’t directed at her sister.
Everything in me rebels, and I decide to make her forget everything but me for that moment.
Moving up until my lips almost meet hers, I place one hand over the mouthpiece of the phone while I breathe my reply against her mouth.

“Your taste is on my lips, Mrs. Raizada. We aren’t stopping this…not now. But feel free to continue your conversation while I take you…over and over.”

Her eyes widen in shock, and before she can say or do anything, I part her thighs wide and thrust inside in one smooth stroke.
Her strangled gasp echoes through the room, and she drops the phone immediately. 
She meets my eyes with a passion-clouded gaze, and I rest my hips against hers for a moment as she whispers back.

“I…you have to let me cut the call…I can’t talk while I…while we…”

“Too late. You should have done it when you had the chance.”

I withdraw completely, then slam back inside again, and she gasps louder this time.
But when she opens her eyes, they are glittering with need…and a challenge that has nothing to do with her sister, and everything to do with the sultry siren who burned me to cinders last night.

“You aren’t going to win, Arnav.”

“We’ll see about that.”

I wait until she reaches for the phone, then lower my lips to her breast and suckle hard, just before I thrust inside her again.
Her hands move quickly to the phone and she hits the ‘mute’ button.Payal’s frantic voice still comes down the line, and I wonder if she has any idea what her sister is doing at this moment.
I see that  knowledge dawn in Khushi’s eyes as well, and a deep red flush of embarrassment spreads across her face as she looks up at me.
I raise myself on my elbows, pulling out until only the tip lodges inside her.
She looks down at the phone, and her finger hovers over the ‘end’ button.
I see the battle in her eyes, the one where she is caught between the desire to avoid handing me the victory, and her intense embarrassment at the scandalous position she is in.

Before she can choose either way, I grasp her chin and force her eyes down to where we are almost joined.

“Tell me you don’t want that right now.”

I bend my head to her other breast, flicking my tongue across the reddened peak before breathing my next words across her aching flesh.

Tell me.”

The words are barely out of my mouth before she makes her decision.Pulling the phone close, she closes her eyes.

“Payal? Listen to me. I’ll call you back in an hour.”

As she cuts the call, a blaze of triumph goes through  me.

But it is short-lived, because she takes advantage of my distraction by pulling down my hips until I am lodged firmly inside.

“Now make good on your promise, Arnav.”

And so I do.
Over and over, until neither knows where they begin and the other ends.Throughout that passionate morning, I take her again and again, until there isn’t a flat surface we haven’t tried yet. I lose control, and so does she.
And neither of us cares.


In the afternoon, she puts her foot down and insists that we should go out like civilized adults and take in some more sights before nightfall.
I agree, because I know that even my body could use some respite from the passionate demands of my very own siren.
As we approach the car, her steps slow down until she pauses and looks up at me.

“I…wanted to ask you something.”

After her bold, confident manner of last night, this hesitant approach throws me for a moment.

“Sure. What is it?”

“Can I drive this car? Just for the afternoon?”

“You want to drive? But…”

“I have a license , you know. I’ve just never used it. And I’ve been driving the Audi sometimes…”


“I know that. I saw you once when I entered the house early.”

She looks away as the color mounts in her cheeks.

“I had to bully Lavanya into it. I know I probably shouldn’t have, but…”

“Khushi…you can certainly drive anything I own. It’s all yours too, you know. Here.”

I toss her the keys and a surprised smile breaks out on her face.

“Really?”

I laugh, then open the car door for her.

“Yes. I’m right here with you, how much trouble can you get in?”

Hours later, I know that I was so very wrong.The woman is trouble with a capital T, only, it has nothing to do with the car.
As we tour the Tallac historic site which consists of perfectly preserved mansions along the banks of the lake, passionate echoes of the previous night have us reaching for each other, again and again.
I pull her behind a  giant redwood tree as my lips find hers, and she responds with equal fervor.

When we finally leave the site, I find that I cannot keep my hands off her. She’s wearing a long, flowing skirt today, and I push it up until I can caress the bare skin of her upper thighs.
But then the car swerves, just a little, and I remember that she’s not very experienced at driving this.

“Pull over, Khushi.”

She looks at me and I see the same desperate need mirrored in her eyes.She pulls out of the lane and stops the car in a pull-out meant for stranded vehicles. I know that we don’t have much time, and I quickly pull her close for a deep kiss even as my hands make their way down to her breasts.
As we try to get closer, I quickly realize that the front-seat of  a Lamborghini isn’t really conducive for what I had in mind.Pulling away reluctantly, I hold her face in my hands.

“We’d better get back to the cabin.”

She nods once, then reaches back for the steering wheel just as her phone pings with an incoming message.
She reaches for it absently while I turn my attention to my unfastened seatbelt, but her gasp draws my gaze back to hers.

“Khushi? What’s wrong?”

And I know in that instant that something is very, very wrong.Her face is pale and the hand holding her phone trembles until she drops it suddenly, her gaze swinging wildly around as if she expects someone to jump out at her at that very moment.
I hold her back against the seat to still her frantic movements, and decide that I will not rest until I can get to the bottom of this.

But the words spill from her lips before I can say anything, and the blood chills in my veins.

“It’s…it’s that person, Arnav. The one who…the one who sent those notes! They’ve gotten my phone number now and…”

“Wait a second. What notes? What are you talking about?”

Alarmed, I watch as as her eyes fill with tears.

“I’m so, so sorry. I should have confided in you earlier…”

“What is this all about, Khushi?  Tell me, damn it!”


Part 4 (Last part of Chapter 8)

 

 

 

Haltingly, she explains it all over the next few minutes, and I battle conflicting feelings of anger, anxiety, and a sense of betrayal.

She tells me about the first note consisting of newspaper clippings , and my blood chills at those vicious words. She doesn’t know where it came from, because Manorama had apparently thrown away the discarded envelope before Khushi had the presence of mind to examine it for the postmark. The next two messages were sent from an unknown email address to her old University student email, and contained similar messages with warnings about how she was going to suffer in this contract marriage.

I try to control my anger as her words stumble to a halt, knowing that I need to focus on what needs to be done at the moment.

 

 

¨Arnav…I’m truly sorry! At first, I…I thought that it was just a prank, especially when they used my student email…and the last one came in a week ago, and I…it slipped my mind with all that’s been happening….and now…now there’s this…I’m really sorry that I didn’t tell you before! This person clearly knows where we are and I…¨

 

 

¨There’s no need to panic,Khushi. I’ll deal with this.¨

 

I can feel her eyes on me as I force my gaze back to the phone display, reading the words for the third time in succession.

 

 

 

Enjoy your Tahoe honeymoon while it lasts.

Your privacy is about to end, Mrs.Raizada.

 

 

 

 

The last line jumps out at me, and I know one thing for sure.

 

I have to get her to a safe place, and now.

 

 

With that thought in mind, I look up at her and make a quick decision.

 

 

¨Step out and let me drive, Khushi.¨

 

 

She stares at me for a long moment and then steps out, and I quickly walk over and take her place. My eyes scan the surroundings for signs of an intruder but I find none. I regret the absence of Dhruv, who had driven past us a few minutes ago after I signaled him to give us some privacy, but I know that he will catch up to us when we get back on the freeway.

 

I start driving with that thought in mind, knowing that I have to get back in touch with my guard as quickly as I can. I fumble in my pocket for my phone, but my hand comes up empty and I realize that it must have fallen under the seat. I turn swiftly to Khushi instead.

 

 

¨Khushi, call Dhruv, here’s his number…¨

 

 

She dials twice in quick succession but she gets a busy signal. 

Knowing that it’s only a few hundred feet before we reach the safety of the cabin, I focus on driving fast and take the last turn at an unsafe speed. 

The tall redwood trees block my view of the lane leading to the cabin until the last possible moment, and I keep looking back in the rear-view mirror to see if Dhruv has caught up yet.

 

Which is why I fail to see the persons waiting for us in the lane.

 

The flashing cameras catch me unawares, and for one agonizing instant, I am blinded by them. In my current state of distraction, I lose focus and the car swerves for a split second, but it is enough to make me lose control at the speed at which I’ve been driving.

 

I see the tree in front and slam on the brakes, avoiding a direct collision. But the edge of the hood hits the tree anyway, and the car shudders to a halt at the end of the lane.

The front and side airbags inflate immediately, hiding Khushi from my view.

In a moment of sheer, blind panic, I shout for her at the top of my lungs, desperate to know that she is alright.

 

¨Khushi!¨

 

 

As the airbag deflates, I hear her panic-stricken voice.

 

 

¨Arnav! ¨

 

When I finally see her, my first bizarre thought is that I have seen her look this way once before.

The thin, red streak of red on her forehead is something that I remember from our wedding night, and the sight holds me captive for a moment.

 

 

Until I realize that this time, the red isn’t a symbol of anything that’s good.

 

 

¨Damn it, you’re bleeding!¨

 

As she lowers her hand from her forehead, I realize just what has happened here. In an instinctive gesture, she had put her hand up when the car swerved off the road, and the ring on her finger has caused the cut that is now bleeding onto her forehead.

 

 

I reach across for a tissue and hold it to the wound, and then she takes it from me.

Anger overriding every other emotion now, I wrench open my door and walk across to her side before lifting her out gently.

 

 

¨I…I’m fine…you can put me down.¨

 

 

I pay no heed to her feeble protest, concentrating instead on the four photographers who are now huddled on the other side of the road, looking appalled at what they’ve just wrought here.

 

One of them steps up when they see me walk out, and approaches me with an outstretched hand.

 

 

¨Mr.Raizada…are you okay? Do you…need any assistance? Look, I’ve already called 911 and the paramedics should be here at any moment…¨¨

 

 

My rage boils over.

 

 

¨Making sure that your trespassing didn’t actually injure us, are you? Well, it really doesn’t matter.  My attorneys are going to sue your asses off for this. If you escape this with your jobs intact, I’ll be damned.¨

 

The threat works, and he takes a step back before starting with the pleas.

 

 

¨Sir, please! It’s not like we planned for this to happen! We were just following a tip that said that the newly married tycoon was coming here to his love-nest with another woman!¨

 

 

I have already moved past him with a pale faced Khushi in my arms, but I turn back to face him when I hear that.

 

 

¨As you can clearly see, this woman is my wife. So you and your source can go to hell. When I find out who that is, they are going to wish they had never been born.¨

 

 

I ignore his continued protests and walk steadily around the cabin until I reach the back door, then place Khushi down before reaching for the door.

 

 

¨Arnav…what if there’s someone in there?¨

 

 

I look over at her, knowing the likelihood is very low. But one glance at her trembling form lets me know that allaying her fears is essential at this point, and so I gesture her to stay back while I pull the loaded weapon from my pocket. I know  that she has seen me pull it out from the glove compartment before we left the car, but her eyes widen anyway.

 

 

¨No! I didn’t mean for you to…wait for Dhruv!¨

 

 

I walk into the house , knowing that I need to get this over with before deciding on my next course of action.

Stepping back into the stance of someone who’s familiar with weapons,I look around each corner before walking into a room, and I know within seconds that there’s no one in the small cabin.

 

Looking back towards the hallway, I see that Khushi has already followed me inside.

 

 

¨Damn it, can’t you wait until I give you the all-clear?¨

 

 

She parts her lips, but before she can reply, we hear the sound of vehicles pulling up before the cabin.

 

Dhruv runs inside, closely followed by the paramedics.

 

 

¨ASR, what happened?! I drove on past the turn-off where you’d parked and then got stuck behind a trailer, but how…¨

 

 

His words come to a halt when he catches my eye, and I know that he has understood my silent gesture to remain silent before the authorities. I have made the decision to tell the cops about the paparazzi and keep the matter of the notes to myself. I know that I have the resources to find the culprit myself, and a police inquiry will only slow things down and make life hell for Khushi.

 

And so I wait for an excruciating thirty minutes while the medics examine me and Khushi before bandaging her wound and declaring us fit. We give our statements to the cops who have followed them, and then they finally leave us in peace.

I waste no time in bringing Dhruv up to speed, and watch his grim face as he decides that we need to get back home as soon as we can.

 

In moments, he has seated us in his Mercedes and we are off to South Tahoe airport, where he charters a helicopter that will take us back to a helipad in  Palo Alto.

As we wait for the chopper, he leads us to  a  lounge where he finds us chairs that are well away from everyone.

 

 

 

¨ASR, you know as well as I do that getting to the bottom of this is our priority at the moment. So if you will excuse me, I need to get some details from you that might sound intrusive….¨¨

 

 

¨Go ahead, Khushi won’t mind, will you?¨

 

 

I look over at her, and she gives me a weak nod. Wishing that I had the time to reassure her, I content myself with wrapping one arm around her while Dhruv starts by asking her for details about her email account and cellphone.

 

 

¨ASR, I’m going to get our internet security team on this right away. But before that, I need a list of possible suspects so they know what they are looking for. Have you given some thought to….Chang? The Huangs did say that he had been released…¨

 

 

¨Yes, from a rehab center in Singapore, where he now lives with his parents. It can’t be him. Besides, it’s someone close…someone who knows the details of our marriage.¨

 

 

He hesitates before voicing his next doubt.

 

 

¨NK?¨

 

 

¨What could be his motive?? I don’t think so, Dhruv.¨

 

 

He looks even more uncomfortable now.

 

 

 

¨Lavanya has a motive….¨

 

 

 

Khushi looks up at me questioningly.

 

 

 

¨She’s always acted as if…as if I’m not worthy of being your wife, Arnav. Could that be why…¨¨

 

 

I sigh.

 

 

¨At one point, she wanted to go out with me. But I never took her up on her offer. I have a hard time believing that she’s harbored a grudge for this long.¨

 

 

 

I look down at her warily, wondering if she’s going to take me to task for keeping this from her for so long. To my amazement,  there’s a glint of humor in her hazel eyes.

 

 

 

¨So you were right, after all. Women do throw themselves at you all the time.¨

 

 

I laugh, and even Dhruv chuckles as the tension is broken.

 

 

 

¨I’ll still keep her on the list.¨

 

 

¨Arnav, I…I was wondering if…if Shyam…you did say that he didn’t trust me….or even Aman, who went through so much…¨

 

 

¨Was that why you were asking about Shyam?It’s highly unlikely, Khushi. Although Aman should definitely go on that list.¨

 

 

Dhruv asks us a few more questions, and then it’s time for us to leave.

As we strap ourselves into the helicopter, it hits me for the first time that I have come so close to losing Khushi today. In the events that followed the accident, I seem to have lost sight of that.

 

 

The thought makes me pull her close as we soar above Lake Tahoe, the silence only punctuated by Dhruv’s phone calls as he gets  the investigation underway.

 

When we land in Palo Alto, he tells us that the emails have been sent through a new account that is currently being monitored by my team. The results could still take some time, but they already have a lead on the phone number from which the text message was sent today. Dhruv tells me that it is no longer in service, and the team thinks that it was a pay as you go phone that the stalker discarded after using . Their next aim is to track down the payment and call history through the service provider, and all we can do is wait for the results.

 

 

In half an hour, we are on our way to Menlo Park in a hired limo, and Dhruv calls ahead for extra protection at the mansion.

 

But when we turn into the driveway, we are in for a surprise.

 

Even at this distance, we can clearly see the couple waiting for us at our door with Lavanya by their side.

 

 

 

¨Payal?¨

 

 

¨Looks like your sister’s American vacation starts here, Khushi.¨

 

 

She looks up at me incredulously as the limo pulls up before the pool, and  I shrug before stepping out. Dhruv walks over to open Khushi’s door, just as as his phone rings.

 

 

Khushi is now slowly walking towards her sister, and I start to follow before Dhruv pulls me to a stop.

 

And when I hear what he has to say, the blood freezes in my veins.

 

 

Payal is just a few feet from Khushi now, her gaze fixed on the white bandage on her forehead.

 

 

¨Oh my God, have you been hurt, Khushi?¨¨¨

 

 

 

She reaches out, but I am faster.

With fear and anger fueling my movements, I pull Khushi to a halt and position myself before her, just as Dhruv comes up on her other side. 

I notice his gesture to Lavanya, and she moves silently until she is beside Payal, who is now looking at me, apparently astonished.

 

 

 

¨What are you doing? My sister is hurt and I…¨

 

 

Khushi places a hand on my arm.

 

 

¨Arnav, she’s just….¨

 

 

Ignoring everyone else, I place my hands on Khushi’s shoulders, knowing that this is going to be hard on her.

 

 

 

¨Khushi…Dhruv just received some startling information. Apparently, it was easy to track down the call history of that phone because there was only one call made from it since it was purchased. And that was to you….this morning.¨

 

 

I watch as the truth begins to dawn in her eyes, as she remembers the phone call that interrupted our time together this morning.

 

 

 

¨No. That isn’t possible. Why would Payal…¨

 

 

Akash steps up beside his wife, seemingly bewildered  at the turn of  events.

 

 

 

¨What’s going on here?¨

 

 

 

Payal throws up her hands.

 

 

¨I don’t know! Possibly  an attempt to poison my sister’s mind against me, I guess.  Don’t listen to him, Khushi. I don’t know what he’s trying to tell you but it’s obviously not true.¨

 

 

I look down at Khushi, who looks torn.

 

 

 

¨The evidence is absolute, Khushi. Dhruv has the proof.¨

 

 

 

For a long moment, she looks up at me, and then her gaze veers to Payal.

 

And then she takes a deep breath before speaking the words that almost bring me to my knees.

 

 

¨He would never lie to me, Payal. He never has, and he has no reason to start now.¨

 

 

 

I slip my hand into hers, and she grasps it tightly, although hers continues to tremble.

 

Payal’s gaze takes this in, and the carefully cultivated facade begins to slip.

 

 

 

¨I can’t believe this! You would take his word over mine? I’m your sister! And you have just known him for a few weeks, Khushi!¨

 

 

 

¨He says that he has proof, Payal.¨

 

 

¨And you are just going to believe him? I expected better from you, Khushi. Or have you been blinded by all his wealth and glamour and you really can’t see the truth?¨

 

 

¨What is the truth, Payal? Why don’t you tell me the reason why you…¨

 

 

 

¨Exactly! Why would I do this? Why would I call you and send you threatening notes?¨

 

 

 

She clamps her lips shut immediately, but it’s too late.

 

The silence is deafening until I break it.

 

 

 

¨No one said anything about any notes, Payal. ¨

 

 

Khushi leans against me as the truth sinks in, and I draw her close.

 

 

Realizing that the game is up, Payal goes on the offensive.

 

 

 

¨Yes, I sent her those notes! And the text message! And do you know why? I did it because I wanted her to realize that marriage to you wasn’t good for her! Her place was with me, back in India! And if it wasn’t for you, she would still be there, helping me through all this!¨

 

 

Astonishment at her delusions holds me paralyzed for a  moment, but Khushi replies at once.

 

 

 

¨Are you insane? You want me to break my marriage and come back just so that I can be there for you? Do you realize that you sound like a five year old? Did you even once consider how terrified I was when I got those messages?¨

 

¨I wanted you to be scared. Maybe then you would know that the only safe place for you was back home, by my side. You belong there, Khushi. Do you know how terrified have been with you gone? I can’t handle all this by myself, Khushi! It’s different for you, you have always been the independent one. But me…I need you  there. I can’t do the whole daughter-in-law and wife thing without your support. Whereas he…he can find a replacement for you quick enough. He doesn’t really need you….not like I do!¨

 

 

Something in her words trigger a memory, and I remember the very first note.

 

 

¨How the hell did you even find out about the contract?¨

 

 

She faces me with a malicious smile.

 

 

¨You thought that you were so clever, didn’t you? When you sent us all off to the temple so that you could meet Khushi alone, you thought that you had taken care of everything….but I came back that day, Mr.Raizada. I came back because I suspected that something was up, and when I did…I heard you explaining the terms of the contract.¨

 

 

Khushi’s voice breaks across her insane explanation, and it is thick with unshed tears.

 

 

¨¨I…I just don’t get it, Payal. You knew that this was a contract marriage and yet you let me go ahead then? And now…now you want me to come back to you?¨

 

 

 

¨I did not stop you from marrying him because it gave me what I wanted at that time. I got Akash, and you…you came here. But I was prepared to wait, knowing that you would be back after a year when the contract was over. But then…then I found out that you were taking a job that could keep you here for years…and I wasn’t prepared to let that happen. I had already lost a lot of time with you when you were here for your studies…it was hell for me then, Khushi! I couldn’t let that happen again…¨

 

 

Another piece of the puzzle fell into place.

 

 

¨And so you called someone at Gensys and told them about our marriage…but how did you know about her job at all?¨

 

¨Once again, you presume that only you can be shrewd and clever, Mr.Raizada. I saw the job offer in her email inbox while she was in India. And yes, I indirectly caused her to be fired. But then…she began showing signs of actually becoming attached to you, and committed to this marriage…and so I…¨

 

 

¨…you started sending those hateful messages to me?Payal, this is unbelievable! I told you when I came back to India that you were on your own now! I know that you were dependent on me, but I also know that it was an unhealthy way to live, and  it was no way to start your new married life. It was for your own good, Payal…why can’t you see that?¨

 

 

¨My good? His good, you mean! It’s become all about him for you, Khushi! He’s poisoned your mind against your own family, he’s changed you completely! You don’t see it now, but he’s just going to dump you after he’s taken all that he wants and then…¨

 

 

My fraying control snaps.

 

 

 

¨Enough! The only poison around here is you! Did you even stop to think about the consequences of calling the paparazzi today? Your sister was injured, and it could have been worse!Do you even care?¨

 

 

She turns a tearful gaze to Khushi.

 

 

 

¨Khushi…I really didn’t mean for that to happen…you have to believe me! I only did this because…¨

 

 

 

Khushi stands up straight, leaning away from my body but keeping her hand firmly in mine.

 

 

 

¨I know why, Payal. I now know why you did all this. You wanted my help…and I’m going to give it to you.¨

 

 

I look down at her, alarmed.

But then I remember the trust she bestowed on me mere moments before, and I know that I owe her the same.

 

 

And so I watch as she takes a deep breath.

 

 

¨My only piece of advice for you, Payal…please, please get some help.  There are counselors out there, and therapy if you need it…if not for you, do it for the baby’s sake. It deserves a mother who is in control of her own life…¨

 

 

Akash’s voice cuts across her words.

 

 

¨Baby? What baby?¨

 

 

¨She told me she was pr…¨

 

 

She senses the truth even as the words leave her lips, and it dawns on us that Payal had been lying all along…just to get her own way.

 

But now it as if the words are a trigger and Payal collapses into a pitiful, sobbing heap, supported only by her husband.

 

He looks up at me as I hold a tearful Khushi close.

 

 

¨Are you going to press charges against her?¨

 

 

I look down at Khushi, every instinct urging me to say yes.

I want Payal to be punished…but something greater than my instincts holds me back as I look down into trusting hazel  eyes.

 

 

 

¨Not if you take her back right away and get her help.¨

 

 

He nods once, and I quickly take Khushi inside.

We  have barely reached our room before she turns to me, holding me tight as she finally gives way to the storm inside.

 

And at that moment, I am only grateful that she has turned to  me…and not from me.

 

 

 

 

The next three days are hard, as I try to combine the demands of work with my desire to be with Khushi when she really needs me. Things with the merger are coming to a head, and I try to finish as much as possible before rushing home to be with my wife.

 

 

Khushi is clearly in turmoil, and has lost her appetite. Late at night, she lies awake in my arms, alternately berating herself for allowing things to get to this point, while venting her sorrow at the same time.

I try to make her understand that it’s not all her fault, but I’m not really sure that I am getting through to her.

 

These three days teach me a whole new definition of being a husband. I find myself grieving for her…and with her, sharing the emotions as if they were my own.

 

And yet, I realize that she needs additional support. Having already arranged for her mother to get a U.S visa weeks ago, it is now just a matter of sending out the jet for her, and she is due to arrive tonight. I am hoping that her three week stay will provided much needed closure to both women, and I am planning to take Khushi out for dinner before she arrives. It will do her good to get out of the house, although she has only agreed to my plan with great reluctance.

 

I listen to N.K as he goes on and on about how important the Brisbane conference is and how essential my presence there is, since A.R corp is one of the sponsors. But I refuse him again, knowing that there is  no way that I can leave Khushi alone for any length of time at this moment.

 

I enter the house with a smile on my face, and even the presence of the screeching bird doesn’t faze me.

 

Until I hear the words it is now repeating on a loop.

 

For the first time, those words aren’t profanities.

 

 

I stand there stunned, knowing that there is only one person in this house who could have uttered those words.

 

I did not want to hear those words.

 

I wish I never had.

 

 

Even as I stand there, frozen, Khushi comes down the stairs, looking ravishing in a red dress.

 

 

 

¨I’m ready.¨

 

 

I look up at her, knowing what I have to do, and despising myself for doing it.

 

And yet, I cannot bear the thought of facing her with the knowledge that I have now…not until I can think things through.

 

Am I running away?

I probably am…but I don’t see any other way.

 

And so I go up to her and gently inform her that my presence is needed at the Brisbane conference.

 

 

Her smile falls off her face, but she reaches up and kisses me once.

 

 

¨How many days?¨

 

 

 

¨Just three.¨

 

 

 

Three days.

 

 

Three days in which I have to get rid of this suffocating feeling that is weighing me down with guilt, despair…and something else, something unexplained.

 

 

She smiles up at me now, oblivious to all that is driving me away.

 

 

 

¨Come home soon, Arnav.¨

 

 

 

I kiss her again, then turn around and leave  through the still open front door.

 

I try to forget the parakeet’s echoed words as I instruct Dhruv to pack a bag for me and bring it to the airport, where I will take the next available commercial flight to Brisbane.

 

I try to forget those words as I drive to San Francisco in the limo.

 

A crushing sense of guilt at leaving her at her time of need almost paralyzes me, but I try to fight it off with the realization that she will have her mother with her.

 

Those words haunt me as I enter the airport, and I am only distracted by the sudden flash of cameras at the curb. 

For an insane moment, I wonder if the paparazzi from Lake Tahoe are back again.

But when I look up, I realize that the flashes and shouted questions aren’t for me this time.

 

Instead, the focus of the media is the man who has arrived just behind me, and I know from the questions that it is someone who is a favorite of Khushi’s.

 

But even the presence of Chris Evans  cannot distract me from what is eating me up inside.

I allow him to walk past me, and then walk on towards the Qantas counter.

 

 

It is only hours later that I allow the bird’s overheard words to play back in my mind when I am seated in the business class section of the early morning flight from San Francisco to Brisbane.

 

 

I close my eyes and lean back in my seat as the words play over and over in my head, making my heart race with every remembered syllable.

 

 

Think I love you, Arnav!

 

 

 

Think I love you, Arnav!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A/N: 

 

I have added some pictures to the ‘Wedding Album’ tab above, do check it out.

 

PMs for this update will be sent out tomorrow.

 

If you choose to comment, you can do so right here on the blog. Please mention your IF name so I can recognize you :)

 

If you wish to use the forum, here is the link to the new CC thread for all my readers:

 

Baaraatis CC Thread 5

 

The CC is a fun, lively place where the speculations and wild guesses make my day, so do check it out!

 

 

The next update will be posted in parts like this one, and I will start doing so by Wednesday. Please click on the blog follow button or follow me on Twitter @patronus31 for update alerts. I will only send out PMs after the entire update has been posted.

 

See you soon with Khushi’s perspective in Chapter 9!

 

A Note and an Excerpt (07/04)

A/N:  Thank you all for your wishes for the journey, I did return home a few days back, but the jet lag has been worse than I expected and I find myself unable to write for long stretches at once. In addition to that, several matters on the home front have been keeping me busy since my return.

I really wanted to give you an update as soon as possible, but since I haven’t been able to add too much to what I had already written in India, I will have to leave you with an excerpt for today, and a promise to post Chapter 8 before the end of this week.

Once again, please accept my apologies for making you wait, I would never have done it if I had any other choice.

Thank you all for your patience!

 

 

 

 

Excerpt from Chapter Eight

 

 

 

 

I stare down at her sleeping form, and for a  moment, heated images from last night flash across my mind. 

Never in my wildest dreams had I imagined that she would actually do what she had done last night, and the memories make me smile, even as my body hardens in response.

I embrace the sexual thoughts and hold on to them with all my might, even as I realize that this is a conscious attempt to escape the other things she has been making me feel before the sensual feast last night.

 

I don’t want to remember the tenderness she has managed to evoke in me through the last week.

I want to wipe that soul-baring conversation from my memory…the one that I will always associate with the Golden Gate bridge from this point on.

 

And most of all, I want to shove these new feelings aside…the ones that tell me that sex was never all that was between us.

 

This isn’t what I had signed up for. I thought that I had been in control of this situation, that everything was happening just the way wanted it to. I had compartmentalized my feelings for her, neatly placing her in the slot marked ‘the wife I lusted after’. To know and realize that the title no longer encompassed all that I felt towards her now is something that makes me intensely uncomfortable even now.

Because if I acknowledge that, I will also have to accept that I have to cede control to something that is out of my experience…and miles from my comfort zone.

 

I’m not ready to do that yet.

And I don’t know if I ever will be.

 

 

In yet another attempt to ignore these harsh truths, I focus on her serene, peaceful countenance.

 

 

But then my thoughts are derailed again when I remember that the serenity is actually a facade. From the past few days, I have noticed the shadows in her eyes, the ones she has taken great pains to hide. I have noted the anxiety and the worry, and found myself wondering about the cause.

In some of my more unguarded moments, I have had to restrain myself from shaking the truth out of her. I desperately want to know what’s bothering her…but I want her to confess the truth. I want that trust…I need it.

 

I know that this isn’t entirely a rational decision, and that soon, I will have to force the issue and find out what the problem is.

 

Just as that thought passes through my mind, she shifts a little in bed, and my gaze goes back to her sheet-draped body.

 

Only, it isn’t completely covered like before.

 

Her movement has dislodged the white satin from her chest, leaving one rounded breast bared to my suddenly ravenous gaze.  Her arm is flung out above her head, while her lips are still parted in sleep.

 

I smile, my body tightening as I reach down for her.

Keeping my movements slow and unhurried, I grasp the edge of the sheet and bare her to my view. She shifts again, and I still for a moment. But when her breathing pattern tells me that she is still asleep, I continue until the sheet is now down around her knees.

 

Leaning down over her, I blow a warm stream of air over one budded nipple and am delighted to see the visible response, even while she is asleep. I place my lips over it and kiss it gently, then move my attentions to it’s ignored twin.

 

The caress makes her writhe, and her eyelashes flutter as she battles the urge to wake up.

 

I quickly seize the opportunity to make my way down her pale, delectable body, and stop only when my mouth hovers over the juncture of her thighs. Parting them slightly, I detect the faint, yet unmistakable scent of her arousal immediately. Unable to resist, I touch the damp folds gently, testing…teasing until her eyes fly open.

 

But they close almost immediately, and I relish the low moan that leaves her throat.

 

I know that she is awake now, and her hands move to my head as if to prove that fact.

 

I look down again, already anticipating the taste of her against my tongue.

 

But the moment is rudely shattered when the phone rings abruptly. Before I can process what’s happening, Khushi has reached for the phone in an instinctive gesture, and I realize from the tortured expression on her face that she really didn’t mean to answer the call at all.

 

Her voice is husky as she answers, and I grin as I allow my lips to reach their target.

 

 

Payal?”

 

 

That name makes me jerk my head up in a hurry. Her sister hasn’t been a source of worry to either of us for a while now, and I find myself hoping that this isn’t about to change.

And more than that, I want Khushi to keep to her promise, and make Payal realize that her priorities have changed.

 

As I watch Khushi’s face while the other woman continues to speak, I inwardly rejoice when I realize that she isn’t really taking in the words at all. 

Her eyes are focused on where my mouth hovers over the most intimate part of her body, and I grin again as I realize where her priority clearly lies at the moment.

 

 

“P…Payal? This really isn’t the…best time, I…”

 

 

Her words end in a gasp as I finally allow my lips to make contact.

She grips the phone tight with a white-knuckled hand while the other bunches the sheets, and I return to my task with more vigor than strictly necessary.

 

But her sister hasn’t apparently gotten the hint.

Her voice comes down the line again, and something in me snaps.

 

I raise my head, even as Khushi’s eyes fly open and she makes a desperate attempt to get through to her sister.

 

 

“Payal, I…your voice is breaking up! I can’t really hear you…where are you right now? Can we…do this later?”

 

 

She looks up at me, and I know that the last words weren’t directed at her sister.

 

Everything in me rebels, and I decide to make her forget everything but me for that moment.

 

Moving up until my lips almost meet hers, I place one hand over the mouthpiece of the phone while I breathe my reply against her mouth.

 

 

“Your taste is on my lips, Mrs. Raizada. We aren’t stopping this…not now. But feel free to continue your conversation while I take you…over and over.”

 

 

Her eyes widen in shock, and before she can say or do anything, I part her thighs wide and thrust inside in one smooth stroke.

 

Her strangled gasp echoes through the room, and she drops the phone immediately. 

 

She meets my eyes with a passion-clouded gaze, and I rest my hips against hers for a moment as she whispers back.

 

 

“I…you have to let me cut the call…I can’t talk while I…while we…”

 

 

“Too late. You should have done it when you had the chance.”

 

 

I withdraw completely, then slam back inside again, and she gasps louder this time.

 

But when she opens her eyes, they are glittering with need…and a challenge that has nothing to do with her sister, and everything to do with the sultry siren who burned me to cinders last night.

 

 

“You aren’t going to win, Arnav.”

 

 

“We’ll see about that.”

 

 

I wait until she reaches for the phone, then lower my lips to her breast and suckle hard, just before I thrust inside her again.

 

Her hands move quickly to the phone and she hits the ‘mute’ button.

Payal’s frantic voice still comes down the line, and I wonder if she has any idea what her sister is doing at this moment.

 

I see that  knowledge dawn in Khushi’s eyes as well, and a deep red flush of embarrassment spreads across her face as she looks up at me.

 

I raise myself on my elbows, pulling out until only the tip lodges inside her.

 

She looks down at the phone, and her finger hovers over the ‘end’ button.

 

I see the battle in her eyes, the one where she is caught between the desire to avoid handing me the victory, and her intense embarrassment at the scandalous position she is in.

 

 

Before she can choose either way, I grasp her chin and force her eyes down to where we are almost joined.

 

 

“Tell me you don’t want that right now.”

 

 

I bend my head to her other breast, flicking my tongue across the reddened peak before breathing my next words across her aching flesh.

 

 

Tell me.”

 

 

 

*************************






On hold note

Hello!
 
 
I’ve been trying to write Chapter 8 from the past few days, but it’s proving to be an impossible task. The chapter requires some extra effort since I am writing it from Arnav’s POV, and also because there are some revelations and loopholes that need closure in this chapter.
Since I will be taking a flight home in the middle of the next week, last minute goodbyes and packing is taking up a lot of my time. And once I return , jet lag will undoubtedly affect my writing.
 
Since I want to ensure that I do complete justice to the chapter and I did not want to keep you waiting indefinitely for it, I’ve decided to do something I’ve never done before.
I’m placing this story on hold until the 6th of April. When I get over the jet lag, I will come back here and post a note about Chapter 8.
 
I’m really, truly sorry for doing this, and I wouldn’t have done it if I had any other choice. Rest assured, I will come back and complete this story in three more updates + one epilogue.
No matter what, I will never discontinue this incredible journey.
 
 
Once again, my apologies for the long wait. I do hope that you all will join me when I get back after the 6th of April!
 
 
P.S: For the most part, I will try and read through all responses on the CC and this blog during my break. PMs and scraps will be answered too. If there is any delay, I apologize in advance.

 

 

-Juhi
 
 

Chapter Seven

Banner Credit: Harith25

“I need to get back to the hotel! Please turn around!”

I almost yell the words at the taxi-driver, my need to return overpowering every other thought in my head.

My eyes aren’t really able to focus on him, though. The memory of the devastated look on Arnav’s face makes me blind to all else, and panic renders me incapable of movement.

I cannot believe that I have said those words to him.

I have never said such a blatant lie before, so why did I have to say that, and to him?

My incoherent thoughts manifest themselves in yet another burst of panic, and I reach for the door lock without thinking.

“Madam! What are you doing? You can’t get out while the car is moving!”

“Then stop it, now! I need to get back and…”

The driver turns to face me briefly.

“Haven’t you taken a look outside, Madam? We are stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic on a flyover! I can’t pull over to the side until we find a gap in the traffic, and that is unlikely until we have cleared the flyover. And once we have done so, it will take me at least half an hour until I am able to circle back and take the ring road that leads back to the hotel. Is that okay with you?”

The mention of the time focuses my thoughts as nothing else could, and I look down at my phone, startled to realize that the muhurat is just forty-five minutes away.

My panic escalates at the thought that I might miss the wedding altogether, if there is going to be one in the first place.

I look out at the crush of vehicles, and know that it is hopeless.

My voice sounds defeated and weak when I finally reply.

“No…just keep driving to the wedding venue.”

I dash a shaking hand across my eyes and look down at my phone again, knowing that I have to regain control over my tears before calling him.

Moments later, I listen to his phone ringing multiple times before finally diverting to voice-mail. I cut the call, then fish around in my purse until I find the number of the hotel.

But when I finally call our room, he doesn’t answer that phone either.

My phone drops unnoticed to the seat beside me as I collapse against the seat, tears streaming down my face now..

The thought that he is deliberately avoiding my calls is devastating, yet nothing more than I deserve.

A horrible feeling crowds the breath from my lungs as I realize that I might just have crushed something new and pure and precious…

At this moment, that thought overpowers everything else…including my worries about Payal.

My phone rings and I snatch it up quickly, hope bursting into life again.

” I was just trying to reach you!”

“Bitiya?”

The sound of my mother’s voice makes my heart drop to my knees, and my voice is a mere whisper as I reply.

“Amma?”

“Where are you, Khushi? You should have been here by now!”

“I’m on my way, Amma. The taxi is…”

“Taxi? Why are you taking a taxi?”

I take a deep breath, knowing that I would have to explain Arnav’s absence sooner rather than later.

“I’m coming by myself, Amma. He’ll…follow later.”

At that moment, I realize that he might not even turn up for the wedding. A stab of pain makes it hard to breathe, but I forces myself to concentrate on my mother’s words.

“I just hope that both of you make it here in time, Khushi. I’m taking Payal down to the mandap in half an hour.”

That snaps me out of my despondent state for a moment.

“You…are? How is Payal? Is she…alright?”

“Why wouldn’t she be? She’s wearing her jewelery right now, and then she’ll be done…”

Unable to believe what I’m hearing, I cut across the rest of my mother’s words.

“But…she called me just a few minutes ago and said she wasn’t going to go through with the wedding unless I came there and spoke to Akash’s Mom!”

“What? Why didn’t you tell me?”

“Amma…I thought you knew…”

“Tell me exactly what she said, Khushi.”

I spend the next few minutes telling my mother everything, right from Payal’s tearful visit before the sangeet, down to the panicked phone call that drove me to say those hateful words to a man who didn’t deserve them.

I leave that part out, though. It isn’t something I’m proud of, and shame burns through me as I remember that again.

“Oh, Khushi, I wish you had told me all this yesterday! I had no idea that this was going on, I would have put an end to it immediately!”

“What? But Amma, I…”

“Listen to me, Khushi. Do you think this is the first time she has threatened to call off the wedding because of Akash’s Mom? She has been talking about her ever since the date was fixed, and I have tried to drum some sense into her since then. And that’s not the only excuse she has come up with, either. She starts off with her ultimatums every so often, and it’s usually over something very trivial. I have to keep reminding her that this marriage was her idea, and that she should actually be grateful that everything is progressing so smoothly. I thought I was succeeding…but it looks like she just turned her diatribe from me to you, once she knew that you were in India again. But it was really nothing to worry about, Khushi. She usually rants and raves for a while, and then it’s back to normal with her. That girl’s immaturity is driving me crazy, I don’t know how she’ll fare in her sasural…”

“Amma! If all this has been going on for a while, then why didn’t you tell me? I never knew about any of this until she turned up at the hotel yesterday…”

I hear my mother’s sigh, and she takes a few moments before she answers.

“Because I didn’t want to burden you with this at all, Khushi. It’s bad enough that I have to use your money to finance this wedding…I wasn’t going to ruin the first days of your marriage with all this talk of your sister’s foolishness!”

I still, unable to believe my ears.

“But Amma, I have always been the one who handles Payal! If you had confided in me earlier, maybe I could have done something to…”

“Maybe you could have…or maybe you couldn’t, Khushi. The point is that I didn’t want you to be involved in all this…not any more than you had to be. I accepted your help, and I took Arnav bitwa’s advice about the wedding date…but solving your sister’s trivial issues isn’t something that I wanted to burden you with.”

“Amma, you’ve had to deal with all this on your own, while I…”

“…while you what, Khushi? While you finally lived your life the way it should have been, if I had the strength to do all this years ago?”

“What are you talking about?”

She sighs again, and this time, her voice holds a wealth of self-remorse as she continues.

“Don’t pretend that you don’t know what I am talking about, Khushi. Ever since your father left us, I have allowed you to become a second mother to Payal. Do you think I haven’t realized that she is now a spoiled, immature person, while you have always been the responsible one? I should never have allowed this imbalance to develop…my only excuse is that your father’s…”

She stops speaking, and I know from the muffled sounds that she is battling tears.

My own eyes burn as I whisper.

“Amma…”

“No, Khushi, let me do this today. Let me apologize for not being there for you…not in the way I should have been. Your…father’s desertion and my subsequent struggle took all of my energies, Khushi. I saw how you took over Payal’s care and…it was almost a relief, at that time. And later,I fell into the habit of indulging Payal too. I should have known better…should have seen how this was affecting you both…but there’s nothing I can do to change the past.”

She takes a deep breath, and when she speaks again, her voice is stronger, more determined.

“But I can change the present, Khushi. By Devi Maiyya’s grace, you have been given a very good husband, and you deserve to have a perfect married life. And I have decided that from now on, Payal’s problems will be mine, and mine alone. I was determined to keep her troubles away from you…I had never once imagined that she would go behind my back and cry on your shoulder when you returned to India. What must your husband have thought of her! I will apologize to him too, Khushi. When is he getting here?”

I blink back my tears as I try to take in everything my mother has said. Her explanation of the past has helped me to come to terms with some things that have always bothered me, and I can almost feel the snapping of the chains that have held me back for so long.

But then I remember her last sentence, and my eyes start burning again.

“He…he said he’ll be there soon, Amma.”

“I hope he gets here in time…and Khushi, I’m really sorry that you had to go through all this. I wanted this to be a joyous occasion for you both, but it looks like I could not even achieve that.”

“Don’t blame yourself, Amma. I am guilty here too. If I hadn’t rushed to Payal’s help whenever she called, then maybe she would have learned to rely on herself, not me.”

My own words remind me of something he has said moments before, and I shut my eyes against the pain that threatens.

“Don’t think about all that now, Khushi. Payal is fine, she’s ready now and I’ll take her to the mandap soon. When you get here, you’ll see that all is well. How far are you now?”

I open my eyes and look past the blur of tears to notice that we are on a less busy street now.

I lean forward towards the driver, and when I ask him, he assures me that we are only five minutes away.

“Five minutes, Amma.”

“I’ll see you soon, Khushi. And I would have spent those five minutes berating Payal for what she’s done, but I’ll save it for later. I don’t want her to go down to the mandap with red eyes.”

I smile to myself, knowing that the habit of worrying about Payal is never going to leave us, not completely.

After I cut the call, I dial Arnav’s number again and again, my heart sinking when there is never any reply.

A few minutes later, I walk quickly into the wedding hall, folding my hands in a namaste as I run into various assorted relatives before I make my way down to the dressing-rooms.

When I find the one labeled ‘bride’, I pull it open and I am immediately engulfed in Amma’s welcoming arms.

She says nothing, but the sheen of tears in her eyes says it all.

I swipe at my own eyes discreetly, then look past her to where Payal is sitting.

I sigh as I realize that Amma was right, after all. The Payal before me has nothing in common with the hysterical woman I heard over the phone earlier,and I sink back into despondency as I realize that her foolish behavior has cost me plenty.

I cannot bring myself to talk to her, and she doesn’t notice me, either. Surrounded by her friends, she looks the very picture of a glowing bride, and I wonder how much of that is due to the glow of her pregnancy.

Turning away, I walk out again, looking out through the crowd for the one person my heart is clamoring for.

I have no idea what I will say when I see again…if I see him again.

Instead, I run into Akash’s Mom, and spend the next few minutes answering her questions about my dress.

Some other relatives claim my attention as well, but then I slip away quietly. Hiding behind a pillar, I call my husband again…but there is no reply.

“Khushi!”

I look up quickly at the sound of my mother’s voice, and realize that it is time to take the bride to the mandap where the groom has now been seated.

I walk up to Payal, and she gives me a slightly sheepish smile.

“When did you get here?”

“A few minutes ago.”

I walk up behind her, unable to say anything else.

My mother comes up on her other side, and Buaji takes the lead as we head towards the mandap.

Soon, Payal is seated beside Akash, and the Panditji begins the preliminary chants.

I look out over the crowd again, dying a little inside as I realize that he’s still not here.

But then a woman catches my eye, and I step off the mandap quickly .

Walking towards the older woman who is seated in the front row, I bend down to touch her feet. She pulls me into a hug instead, and I look up into wise, loving eyes.

“Naniji, thank you so much for coming…”

“I wouldn’t have missed it for the world, bitiya. Your family is now mine, after all. How have you been?”

Her question makes me realize that I have hardly spoken to her since our marriage. As the eldest member of the Raizada family, surely she has the right to expect more than that?

I am humiliated at this reminder that I have been derelict in my duties as her bahu.

How many more blunders have I committed?

How could I have been so blind, for so long?

Was this what it took to remind me that this marriage was real…in the eyes of others, if not mine?

This loving woman surely deserves better, and I resolve to try and achieve that…if I am given the chance to do so.

“I’m fine, Nani. Things have been a little busy back home…”

“I understand, Khushi. Setting up a new home, adjusting to a new life can be overwhelming..and then there was Arnav’s injury , as well. It takes time to get used to dealing with all this…but I do hope you won’t entirely forget this old woman who would love to hear your voice from time to time!”

Shame makes me lower my eyes, and I vaguely realize that the Panditji behind me is now calling for the jayamalas.

“I’m sorry, Naniji. I know that I have been remiss…but I promise that I will keep in touch from now on.”

She raises a weathered hand to my cheek, and I look back up at her again.

“There’s no need for apologies, bitiya. It’s just that you are the wife of my only grandson…and I would love to know what’s happening in your lives, that’s all.And speaking of my grandson, where is he, anyway?

My heart stops for a moment as I realize that time has run out now.

I can no longer keep up the pretense that my husband will join us soon. I have to accept the fact that he isn’t here yet…and that probably means that he isn’t going to be here at all.

My biggest worry now is the blatant falsehood I have to propagate. My mind is a swirling mess of emotions, but I hold on tight to my grasp on the tiny thread of sanity that reminds me that I have to keep up appearances at all costs.

My family…and his, deserve no less.

I shore up my courage and take a deep breath, deciding at the last moment to lie to his grandmother and tell her that he has been held up by an important call. I realize that this excuse might not be enough, but it may buy me some time…

I part my lips, but then all the air leaves my lungs in one choked gasp as I hear a deep male voice behind me.

“I’m right here, Nani.”

I whirl around to face him, tears burning my eyes again as I realize that he really is here, after all.

He isn’t looking at me, though.

All his attention is focused on his grandmother as he hugs her briefly before stepping aside.

“I was held up in traffic, that’s all.”

“You almost missed the pheras, Arnav! As the eldest son-in-law, you do know that you will be required for some rituals? Now take Khushi and go up there to the mandap quickly!”

He looks up towards the flower-bedecked mandap, and his eyes narrow imperceptibly.

But then he nods, and starts walking briskly towards the mandap.

I hesitate for a moment, then follow in his wake.

A combination of haste, anxiety, and blurred eyes join together to make me trip on my lehenga, and I gasp sharply as I start to tumble towards the floor.

In an instant, I am aware of several things.

I see the pillar on the side of the aisle that offers the only support in sight, and I lurch towards it in a last-ditch attempt to avoid a fall.

At the same time, I notice that the man in front of me has stilled, his progress halted by my audible exclamation of distress.

I straighten up quickly, conscious of a hundred eyes trained on me.

But most of my concentration is attuned to the man standing before me…

He is close…so very close.

I take a deep breath, anticipating the moment when he is going to turn around and ask me if I’m fine.

I steel myself for the impact of those husky tones and that deep, compelling gaze, even as I check my dress for any damage.

After a few, tense moments, I finally raise my eyes to his frozen form and watch his shoulders stiffen…but he doesn’t turn back.

Without looking at me even once, he takes one step towards the mandap…then another, and another.

It is so uncharacteristic of him that it leaves me in shock for a moment.

And then my heart starts pounding again as I recognize the deliberate insult in that action…or lack of one.

Apparently, he doesn’t even care about appearances anymore.

A small part of me takes hope from the fact that he is here, when he needn’t have been. But that part is increasingly eclipsed by the realization that something fundamental has been changed in our relationship.

I look down at my trembling hands, trying to master my emotions for the moment.

When I look back up again, I see that my mother is gesturing frantically.

I take several deep breaths and finally force myself to move until I am climbing up the steps of the mandap.

Amma hands me a silver platter filled with flowers, and whispers in my ear that I should pass it to Arnav as well.

I don’t know if I can do this…but I also know that I have to.

I will myself to stay in control, at least for the next few moments.

No matter what else Payal has done today, she is my sister and I want this wedding to proceed without a hitch. Determined not to let her or my mother down, I encase my fractured emotions in a layer of ice and walk slowly towards my husband…towards the man who has come to mean more to me that I had ever thought he would.

Why else would my chest ache with this unprecedented agony?

I hold the flowers out to him and wait until he has taken a handful, but neither meets the other’s gaze.

The ceremony continues , and I find it hard to believe that not one other person can see the wall of ice that exists between us. Guests smile at me and I try to respond, but the pretense is beyond me.

Arnav seems to have no such problem, though. Apparently, his coldness is reserved for me because his smile is warm and natural as he responds to everyone else.

The pheras are now complete, and the bride and groom sit down again amid a shower of petals.

Soon, the sindoor and mangalsutra rituals are completed too, and the couple come to their feet while the close circle of relatives cheer them with fervor.

I look at Amma and find that she is in tears, and I hasten to pull her into a comforting embrace.

Over her shoulder, I stare at the stoic man whose gaze is still turned away from mine…and for the first time, I wonder how things would have turned out if we had been married in this fashion.

But then I think about the rocky start to Payal and Akash’s relationship and the upcoming challenges they face, and I know that mere rituals are no guarantee that a marriage will turn out to be a bed of roses.

My contract marriage, on the other hand, has been everything that I had never hoped for, or imagined in my wildest dreams.

The destruction of that fragile bond is what it has taken to make me realize that I have been ignoring that simple truth for so very long…

The moment is shattered when Amma leans away and wipes my cheeks with a teary smile, and I smile back at her as well.

Payal and Akash are before us now, and I stare at them for a moment while they seek my mother’s blessings.

I remember all our shared moments from childhood until now, and I feel a moment’s intense satisfaction that I have finally been successful in giving Payal what she wants…what she has dreamed of for so long.

But that satisfaction is tainted by the realization that in doing so, I might have ignored yet another truth.

Has my behavior stunted her growth as an individual? Am I responsible for much of what ails her at the moment?

Hard as it to admit it to myself, I know that the answer is yes.

Amma was right, after all…and so was my husband.

That thought makes me look up at him again, but he is now busy with Akash, and Payal claims my attention as she embraces me with a watery smile.

“Khushi…thank you…for everything!”

Her soft voiced exclamation makes me smile too, but it is a smile tinged with sadness.

Confronting the truth has been hard, but I know that this is only part of it. Making Payal accept that things are going to be different from now on isn’t going to be easy, but I know that I will have to make that effort.

Because now, so much hinges on getting this right.

I pull away slightly, then straighten her dupatta and turn her around to face her mother-in-law who has come up to greet her now.

Amma pulls me aside then, and tells me that we need to go up to the banquet hall to oversee the arrangements for the lunch that is set to follow.

I nod absently to her, my eyes still trained on the tall man who is now speaking to Akash’s mother. I realize that once the guests are taken upstairs for the lunch buffet, things are going to be chaotic, to say the least. This might be my only chance to speak to him for a while, and I step back from the mandap until I am standing right behind him on the steps that lead towards the aisle.

After a few fraught moments, my patience is rewarded when he finally turns around towards the steps.

He stills immediately, and so do I.

Standing directly below him like this, there is no way that we can avoid each other’s eyes.

I don’t quite know what I am expecting when his gaze meets mine…but it certainly isn’t the blank nothingness that freezes me out completely.

Trembling deep inside, I stand my ground nonetheless, knowing that I owe him an apology.

He takes one step forward, then pauses before me, clearly expecting me to make way for him.

Instead, I move closer, and take a deep breath.

I know that I have only seconds before he moves past me, and the words tumble out in a rush.

“I…I wanted to come back. But I was stuck in traffic and there was no time…”

My voice stutters to a halt and I stare up at him, waiting for a reaction of some sort.

But he looks back at me with an impassive countenance, and I realize that he isn’t going to make this easy for me.

“I…I apologize for what I said before I left. It was out of line and just not true, and I’m…I’m really, truly sorry that I…”

“This isn’t the time or place for this.”

The ice in his voice renders me speechless, and I can only stare up at this man who is suddenly a stranger to me.

“I came here to fulfill my responsibility, and I will do so. While you, Mrs. Raizada, better play your part. And that role does not involve washing our dirty linen in public, do you understand?”

His low voiced words are inaudible to the others, but each syllable falls with a crushing weight against my already aching heart.

Before I can think of a way to respond, he moves past me and walks away towards the stairs leading to the banquet hall, and I lean weakly against a pillar, devastated anew by the memory of his words.

But there is no time to give in to the tears that threaten again, and I am swept along with the tide as everyone now heads towards the staircase.

The next two hours pass in a flurry of activity as the food is served and consumed, and I am kept busy with all the relatives and the new guests who have arrived just now.

But throughout the meal, my eyes keep going back to the man who plays the perfect, gracious host, his charming smile in place as he walks from person to person before finally settling down at the bride’s table for his own meal.

During lunch, I am seated beside him, but I find it difficult to swallow anything past the tight constriction in my throat.

He isn’t ignoring me now, though.

Apparently reminded of the necessity to keep up appearances, he passes me dish after dish, even though I refuse most of them.

Finally, he leans towards me in a gesture that brings a smile to my mother’s face, but that is only because she is oblivious to the undercurrents at play here.

Grasping my wrist in one hand, he whispers in my ear, a hissed instruction that almost paralyzes me with it’s deliberate cruelty.

“Grit your teeth and smile, Mrs.Raizada. If I am being forced to do this, then you can play the role too.”

I close my eyes for a moment, then open them and smile back at him with blinding insincerity…the only thing possible as I struggle anew with tears.

He appears not to notice this, and goes back to his meal immediately while I am left wishing for a speedy end to this meal from hell.

When it is finally over, most of our relatives leave for their respective homes and hotels in order to change and get ready for the reception which is due to be held in a few hours from now.

Unsure of what I am supposed to do now, I walk up to my mother who immediately assures me that there is no need for me to stay here, since the wedding planner has everything well in hand.

When she is called away by Akash’s Mom, Payal takes her place. For the first time since I came here, we find ourselves alone for a moment.

She moves closer and places her mehendi-covered hand on mine.

“Khushi…I…I know you must be wondering about that phone call this morning…”

“Payal, it’s fine. Amma explained everything to me, and I…”

“Explained what, Khushi? Oh, I can guess what she has told you. Probably the same thing she told me, right? That I was being immature and that I would soon adjust to things at my new house…”

I look around quickly, but there is no one near.

Still, there is no reason to take chances.

“Payal, this isn’t the best time to…”

“There will never be a good time, Khushi! I just need to tell you this…look, I know that I may have overreacted to things yesterday, and today as well. You have to believe me, I only made that call in a moment of panic, I never had any intention of calling off this…”

“It’s okay, Payal, I believe you. Everyone panics once in a while, and we often say things we don’t mean to…”

The memory of my own terrible words comes back to me for a moment, but I push that thought away. I can’t deal with that as well…not right now.

“But Khushi, try to understand! I may not have meant what I said back then, but she…she does scare me, you know. There are times when I wonder how I am going to survive there, but then I remember Akash…”

“Payal, we really shouldn’t…”

She takes a deep breath, then looks over her shoulder at Akash before continuing.

“I know we have very little time, Khushi…so I’ll get to the point. What I’m trying to say is…if things get bad there and I need help, you’ll be there for me,won’t you? You’ll take care of things like always, right?”

I still for a moment, her words stunning me with the turmoil they evoke within me.

Even at this moment, there is a part of me that wants to give her the reassurance that she desperately needs, something that I have always given her.

But the larger part wonders if doing so would be right for her…and for me.

I close my eyes, knowing what I have to do now.

When I open them again, I brace myself for what is sure to follow.

“Payal, if you ever have any problems in your new house, you are more than welcome to call me, and I’ll be happy to advise you if I can. But…”

“Oh, thank you! I knew I could count on you!”

I grasp her hand now, and force her to listen to the rest of my words.

“Listen to me, Payal. Advice is all I’m offering you…now and forever. Don’t assume for one moment that I will come running to your aid whenever you think there’s something wrong. This is your life now, and you are the one who has to deal with everything that comes your way.”

“But Khushi, you’ve always…”

“I know what I have done before. But today I realized that I might have been wrong. And I won’t do it anymore, Payal.”

Tears blur her eyes and once more, I battle the inbuilt urge to give her what she wants.

“I know why you’re doing this,Khushi. That man has told you to do this, right? He is the one who is taking my sister away from me!”

I take a deep breath, unmoved by her anger.

“He has done nothing, Payal. In fact, you need to remember that you might not even be getting married today if it wasn’t for him. And one more thing…”

I take a step back, ready to end this conversation for the moment.

I steel myself against the tears and the guilt, but the battle leaves me wounded inside as I remember