Prologue

 

 

Banner credit: Harith25
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
The Leela Palace,
Delhi.
 
 
 
 
 
Red.
It is all around me.
As the doors of the elevator slide shut with an unerring efficiency, my eyes are drawn to the floor numbers above, the numerals glowing with a crimson light.
I start to smile, amused by the direction of my thoughts.

 

 

“There. That’s what I’ve been waiting for, Khushi! That smile just made you look like a bride. Can we please keep it that way? The tension and anxiety on your face was making me nervous, you know.”
I look across at the woman beside me, startled by her voice.
For a moment there, I had almost forgotten that she was in the elevator with me.
 Anjali Jha.
 
She isn’t red, not entirely.
Her deep green saree is embellished with tiny crystals, and only the border is red.
I suppress another smile, and her face lights up again before she moves closer , and takes my hand in hers.
My mehendi-covered hand, adorned with dozens of red bangles to match my crimson silk saree.
The sparkling rubies at my neck and ears are yet another addition to the profusion of red, of course.
I draw my mind away from my color fixation, and focus on her words, spoken with unmistakable sincerity.
“Khushi…I know that all this has been very sudden…and I know you must be overwhelmed by it all. But I’d like you to know that I am here for you, if you need me. You do know that I will practically be your next door neighbor back home?”
I nod, even though this is news to me.
It is reassuring, though.
Anjali seems like  a nice enough person, and her cheerful demeanor might be just the thing I need when I finally enter my new home…
She smiles again as she continues.
“Khushi, do you know that I have the most wonderful feeling about all of this? I just know that you and my brother are going to be as happy as I am with my Shyam, if not more. It’s an instinctive feeling I have…”
I smile at her optimism.
She, of course, knows nothing of the true circumstances behind this marriage.
And  we have decided to keep it that way.
My thoughts wander to something else she just said, about her being happy with her husband.
My smile drops off as I remember my brief meeting with Shyam Manohar Jha. 
The severe, forbidding, reserved Shyam Jha.
He had barely spoken to me for a moment, pausing only to congratulate me on my nuptials before turning back to his wife.
I don’t quite know what to make of him, and I only hope that our paths won’t cross all that often.
As my gaze falls on Anjali again, I realize that she is waiting for some kind of reply. My hand is still in hers, and I look down at it before answering her.
“I’m glad that you think so, Di. “
It’s all I can manage, but it seems to be enough.
And then her attention is distracted by the ping of the elevator as it finally reaches our destination, and she hurries out before me.
I follow her slowly, taking care to lift the hem of my saree so that my new heels don’t trip me up.
And then I stop, confused.
I had been expecting a hallway like any other in this hotel, with multiple doors leading to different rooms.
Instead, there is only a little lobby before me…ending in a set of double doors in the far wall.
My confusion must have shown in my face, because Anjali smiles before drawing me forward.
“It’s the presidential penthouse suite , Khushi.”
Of course it is.
Nothing but the best for my husband, don’t I know this by now?
The doors open to reveal a luxuriously furnished sitting-room, complete with white couches and a massive TV screen in one corner. Most of the far wall is glass, and the lights of Delhi glimmer in the distance.
But my eyes barely register all this, before fixing themselves upon the bouquets of roses scattered around the room.
Red, of course.
I walk into the room, my heels sinking into the plush carpet with every step. As I do, I notice the little kitchenette tucked into one corner, and the small table beside it.
My stomach growls, reminding me that I have barely eaten anything since lunch. The sumptuous spread at the reception dinner was wasted on me, since my nerves had made me almost nauseous at that point. I don’t even remember most of it at the moment. I recall some blurred images of being greeted by numerous Raizada family members, as well as members of my own clan who had come down from  Lucknow for the occasion.
I remember their puzzled expressions when I explain that no, there wouldn’t be any pheras tonight. Our wedding has been formalized in a courthouse this morning, and there aren’t going to be any of the traditional ceremonies because my husband doesn’t believe in them.
And I remember the red, of course.
The grand banquet hall had been decorated in a red and white theme, with exquisite flowers and crystal competing with the shine and brilliance of the massive chandeliers above.
This room has a similar theme, on a much smaller scale.
I walk towards the kitchenette, but pause when Anjali calls out.
“Khushi, come in here! They’ve laid out some orange juice…”
Juice sounds good at the moment, and I follow her voice, stepping into another room that opens off the sitting-room.
The tall, cool glass of juice is in my hand and I have taken a few sips before I realize where we’re standing.
The bedroom.
 
A vast canopied bed is the centerpiece here, and the crimson sheets almost make me laugh.
But my nerves have returned with a vengeance, and the smile turns to a grimace.
I turn away before Anjali can see the expression on my face, but she follows.
“Khushi…I know you’re nervous…but I meant what I said earlier. If I can help in any way, you only have to ask…”

 

 

Good God, is she offering to give me a birds-and-bees talk at the moment?
 
A strangled laugh escapes me despite my efforts, and I turn back to her quickly.
How do I tell her that I don’t need to discuss this wedding night at all, because that isn’t what this marriage is about?
She stares at me for a moment, but when I remain silent, she sighs before walking slowly towards the door.
“If you’re sure you’re okay…I’ll see you in the morning, Khushi.”
I nod, and she leaves.
Finally, I am alone.
I gulp down the rest of my juice, and place it down on the nightstand.
My heels catch my eye, and I slip them off quickly before massaging the tender soles of my feet.
I wonder if I can change out of this heavy saree, and I look around, hoping to see my suitcases in the bedroom.
But they aren’t here.
I stare at the bed, wondering if I have the courage to sit there as I await my husband.
Husband.
 
The word tastes foreign…alien on my tongue.
I turn away from the bed, and finally stand by the window, awaiting the unknown.
My reflection in the glass shows me a pale, nervous-looking woman, and I take in a deep breath.
This isn’t who I am.
I am successful, accomplished…a woman who knows her mind.
I knew what I was getting into when I agreed to marry him, and apprehension has no place in my decision.
As these thoughts go through my mind, I hear the main door open, and my back stiffens.
I turn away from the window and a moment later, he is there.
He stops at the door to the bedroom , and stares at me for a moment.
And I do the same.
He has been at my side all evening, but I haven’t really observed the details of his appearance until now.
The black three-piece suit is designer, probably Armani. A silver watch glints at his wrist, and I watch as he raises that hand to run it through his hair.
He is very attractive, of course.
I’ve known this for days now, and I have no idea why my mind has chosen to remind me of that fact at this moment.
He probably has girls lining up after him in droves…not that it matters to me.
He steps into the room, and I straighten instinctively.
His eyes fall upon the empty glass of juice, and he looks up at me.
“Hungry?”
I start to shake my head, but my mouth says otherwise.

 

 

“A little.”
He smiles, a little curve of his lips that tells me that he is amused.

 

 

“I noticed that you barely touched your plate at dinner. “
He turns away, and I follow, unsure about what I’m supposed to do now.
Walking over to the kitchenette, he opens a cabinet and pulls out a loaf of bread and a jar of jam.
“Will this do?”
I smile too, and walk over to join him.
A few moments later, we are sitting at the little table, eating a jam sandwich like a couple of kids.
He finishes first, and I am aware that he is staring at me again.
“Do I have crumbs on my lips?”
“What?”
“I…I just wondered if that was why you were staring at me…”

 

 

Now I just sound stupid, and lame.
He leans forward, then touches my lips briefly.
“Just one crumb, right here.”
I jerk away from him immediately, uncertain about what he’s up to.
He straightens too, then takes a deep breath.
“Khushi, let’s get something straight right away.”
I put my sandwich back on my plate, and stare at him across the table.
Where is he going with this?
 
 
“You and I both know what this marriage is about. We’ve signed the contract, we know what we have done, and why.”
“Mr.Raizada, why are we…”
“You can’t possibly call me by my surname now.”
I take a deep breath, unsure if I’m comfortable with even that small hint of intimacy.
“I…I know why I’m here. And like I’ve told you earlier, I made my decision and I’m sticking with it. But why are we even talking about this again?”
He stands up , and walks over to my side of the table.
Leaning down over me, he places one arm on either side of my chair.
I inhale sharply, then wished I hadn’t.
A whiff of some expensive cologne assaults my senses, leaving me dizzy for a moment.
I refuse to consider the possibility that my dizziness has anything to do with his proximity.
It’s the cologne, that’s all.
“We are talking about this because…I’ve just realized something, Khushi.”
“You…have?”
“Yes. I knew it this evening, and when I entered this room, I was certain.”
“What are you talking about?”
He’s still not touching me, but his eyes trail over my face like a caress.
I shrink back further into my seat, but his next words freeze me in my place.
“I’m sexually attracted to you, Khushi.”

 

 

I stare at him, unable to believe what I’ve just heard.
What?”
 
 
Him, Greek God and millionaire…attracted to pale, nerdy Khushi Kumari Gupta?
Nothing could be more absurd, and I need to know if this is his idea of a sick joke.
“Is this supposed to be funny? Because I can assure you, I’m not laughing.”
He straightens, then leans back against the table.

 

 

“In case you haven’t noticed, I’m not laughing either, Khushi.”
And he isn’t.
I stare at him, trying to find a glimmer of devilment in his eyes…but all I find is a serious gaze.
A seriously sexy gaze.
Stop!
 
I can’t think this way.
It doesn’t matter if he’s spouting nonsense,but I can’t let myself think of him like that.
Not now, not ever.
He starts speaking again, and his voice has dropped into a low, husky tone that I’ve never heard from him before.
“I’m attracted to you. And I think that you are to me, as well.”
I stand up quickly, astonished at his arrogance.
“I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
He shakes his head, then smiles.

 

 

“I expected better of you, Khushi. I thought you were always honest…with yourself, at least.”
“Look, I don’t…”
“Fine. Lie to me if you must, but I know what I saw when I entered this room tonight. “
Before I can say or do anything, he takes one step closer so that I’m forced to look up into his eyes.

 

 

“This changes things, Khushi.”

 

 

“In…in what way?”

 

 

“In every way. “

 

 

“What…do you mean? We agreed that…”

 

 

“I know that. But I also know that now, there’s no way that I can just go into that room and share it with you all night…not without wanting to be inside you.”

 

 

Shock paralyzes me for a moment, and then I stumble away from him.

 

 

“You…you’re mad! This isn’t what I signed up for, you can’t make me…”

 

 

“Relax, Khushi. I’m not going to make you do anything. I’ve never forced a woman into my bed before, and I’m certainly not going to start with my wife.”

 

 

His words are a poor consolation now. My pulse is still hammering with the memory of his previous words, and  an alien heat is making it’s way through my body.
I try to tamp it down…I have to focus on what he’s saying again.

 

 

“You’ve been so practical and level-headed through all this, Khushi. Don’t disappoint me now. All I’m asking is for you to acknowledge that there is chemistry between us. We’re consenting adults, and it is our decision to act on the attraction…or not.”

 

 

I push my hair behind my ears with a shaking hand, then take a deep breath.
He’s right, I am practical.
And sensible.
About most things, at least.
He expects me to take this in my stride and make a rational decision, and despite my fears, I must do exactly that.

 

 

“I refuse. I want to stick to the terms of the original agreement.”
He inclines his head briefly, then looks up at me with a calculating expression in his eyes that I’ve never seen before either.
I suddenly remember that I barely know this man…
“If that is what you want, then of course, I will honor it. “

 

 

I sigh in relief, and quickly turn away towards the bedroom.
This day has been exhausting enough already, and this last bomb has frazzled my nerves and pushed me to the limits of my endurance.
His low voice reaches me just as I enter the room.

 

 

“It isn’t going to be easy to keep to our original decision. If you ever change your mind, I’ll be waiting.”

 

 

I resist the urge to slam the door in his face, and walk over quickly to search for my bags again.
But they haven’t magically appeared while I was out there with him, and I stand by the bed, unable to understand why my clothes aren’t here yet.
He walks in at that moment, then stops on the other side of the bed.

 

 

“Problem?”

 

 

I don’t even want to look at him after all that’s happened just now, but I have no choice.

 

 

“My bags…I can’t find them.”

 

 

He says nothing, just walks over to the wardrobe and throws it open to reveal rows of my own clothes.

 

 

“The maid must have hung them here earlier.”

 

 

A maid?
 
I’ve never had one before.
His words remind me yet again that I’ve married a millionaire, and I know that it’s going to take me a while before I get used to that fact.
I walk over to the wardrobe, and wait while he pulls out his own clothes.

 

 

He looks at me for a moment.

 

 

“Do you mind if I go first?”

 

 

I shake my head, knowing that it is going to take me a while before I find all my clothes and undergarments.
Minutes later, I wish that I had gone first.
I wish that I was lying in bed with my eyes firmly shut, so that I wouldn’t have to see the sight that now meets my eyes.
My husband walks out of the restroom, dressed only in a pair of low-slung grey sweatpants.
I stare at him, my hands clutching my own nightdress against my chest.
He obviously works out, the muscles in his chest are testament to that…
I tear my eyes away, appalled at the direction of my thoughts.
Not quickly enough, because I hear his low, husky laugh behind me.

 

 

“Staring at me again? What would you have done if I came in here in what I regularly wear every night?”
I look up at him, curious despite myself and determined to show him that I am not reduced into a puddle of hormones at the sight of his bare chest.

 

 

“What do you wear every night, then?

 

 

Nothing, of course.”

 

 

I don’t know if he’s having a laugh at my expense, but that doesn’t stop the blush that spreads across my cheekbones.
I turn away , walking quickly towards the restroom.
Closing the door behind me, I walk to the shower, and undress quickly before stepping under the warm spray.
The shower clears my head, and when I finally dry myself, I have managed to come to terms with what has just happened.
I have never been one  to run away from my fears, I prefer to face them headfirst.
And so I admit to myself that I am attracted to him, in a way that I’ve never been attracted to any man before.
And yes, the fact that he feels the same is incredibly flattering.
But I am not going to take him up on his offer.
And I’m never going to think about this again.
I take  a deep breath, before pulling on my pale blue kurta.
Once I am dressed, I pick up my saree from the counter and fold it, and as I do so, I marvel at it’s expensive texture yet again.
And yet, despite the designer label and it’s undeniable beauty, I know that this isn’t really bridal attire.
For a moment, a vision swims before my eyes.
 
I am dressed in a red bridal lehenga, and a ghoonghat covers my head.
My mehendi-adorned hand is held in a warm, firm grasp by my bridegroom as we circle the holy fire…

 

 

The cold feel of the rubies on the counter brings me back to my senses.
Where did that come from?
I’ve never cherished dreams about my wedding, and I have no idea why I’m thinking about a traditional ceremony now.
I am legally married, it is done.
I banish the nascent dreams to the back of mind, and reach for the earrings and bangles that I had left on the counter.
My eyes focus on my reflection in the mirror over the marble vanity, and I stop, arrested by the sight.
It looks like my brief shower hasn’t managed to get rid of one last fragment of red…one last reminder of this exhausting, bewildering day.
My hands rise to the parting in my hair where a faint trace of red still lingers.
I rub at it, but it looks like it’s here to stay.
Red.
I think it’s going to be with me through the rest of my life.
The rest of my married life.
A wry grin twists my mouth as I whisper the words at my reflection.

 

 

Shaadi  Mubarak, Khushi Arnav Raizada.”
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
*************************
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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54 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Anonymous
    Jul 21, 2017 @ 19:03:15

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