Chapter Four


 
 
 
 
 

All the nascent dreams are washed away by the dawning light of reality next morning. 

 
As the ring of my cellphone shatters the early morning silence, I am rudely awakened from a dream that has left me restless and tormented.
A dream in which I have just relived that fabulous kiss for the millionth time since last night.
 
 
My eyes open swiftly as I answer my phone, and realize that it is my sister.
 
 
Finally.
 
 
“Khushi? I’m sorry to wake you this early, but I couldn’t wait another minute! I am so sorry…and excited and happy all at once! I don’t even know which way is up anymore, and last night when you called me I was on the phone with Akash and we were discussing honeymoon destinations, of all things! Can you believe it? It still seems like a dream to me, I’m really getting married to the man I love! Do you know, we…”
 
 
Payal’s excited voice blurs in my ears as she jumps from topic to topic, and I turn over in bed, trying to concentrate on her words.
 
But this proves to be difficult, until there is a lull in the conversation.
When Payal speaks again, her voice is contrite.
 
 
“Khushi…I’m so, so sorry about not returning your call. But you do understand, don’t you? And don’t think that I’ve forgotten that your marriage has paved the way for mine…”
 
In more ways than one, but then she doesn’t know that.
 
“Here, Amma wants to speak to you.”
 
I open my lips to answer, but she has already handed over the phone.
I sigh, then sit up in bed.
 
“Amma?”
 
 
“Khushi, don’t be too hard on Payaliya. She was just caught up in the excitement, that’s all.”
 
I gather my thoughts and try to speak again, trying to reassure her that never blamed Payal for anything.
 
But then Amma starts talking about the wedding date and the preparation, and the moment is lost.
I listen to her as she details the extravagant wedding ceremonies that Akash’s mother wants her to host, and realize that without Arnav Singh Raizada, disappointment would have been her only answer.
 
Suddenly, something that Amma is saying makes me sit up straight as I realize that I have to lie to her.
Again.
 
“…but I’ll get my retirement benefits soon, so there will be no problem in paying off the loan.”
 
 
“Amma, wait! There’s no need for you take a loan. Haven’t I told you yet? My boss has given me a bonus and an advance on my next six months’ salary. Given the current rate of exchange, it should be more than enough to finance Payal’s wedding.”
 
I hope and pray that the lie is convincing, because there’s no way that I can tell her the truth.
I cannot tell her that I have been fired.
I cannot tell her that the money is coming from Arnav, not Aman.
 
I feel horrible at that moment, but I also know that this needs to be done.
For their sake.
 
“An advance? Why did your boss do that?”
 
 
“I…because…I’ve told you before, he was my classmate too, Amma. He’s a…friend, of sorts.”
 
There is a moment of silence, and then Amma speaks with a hesitation in her voice that wasn’t there before.
 
 
“Khushi…I don’t want to use my married daughter’s money.”
 
 
I sigh, then try to convince her that these outdated notions are best left in the past…and in daily soaps.
It takes me  a while, but I finally get my point across and get her to agree.
She still has one objection, though.
 
 
“All that is fine, but…do you think your husband will have any objection?”
 
 
I look up at the connecting door, then shake my head as a wry smile curves my lips.
 
 
“Believe me, Amma, he will be only too happy that I can help you out in this way.”
 
 
“Let me give it some thought, alright?”
 
 
Amma sighs, then continues talking about how she is the luckiest woman in the world, to have both her daughters settled with such eligible men.
 
But I am no longer paying attention.
 
Minutes later, as I place the phone back on the nightstand, I think about what Amma has just said.
 
An ideal marriage.
 
A perfect husband.
 
And I don’t have either.
 
I throw off the covers and climb out of bed, then close my eyes in despair.
 
Why did I do that last night?
 
My reasons suddenly seem foolish when I think about them now.
How could I have forgotten that this was a mere marriage of convenience?
 
How could I have allowed myself to forget just who he was?
 
To me, that had been an incredible introduction to a world of pleasure that I scarcely knew existed.
 
But to him, it was just another kiss in a long, long line of many.
 
He probably hadn’t given it a second thought after last night.
 
I wrap my arms around myself as a chill takes the place of the glowing warmth that was a remnant of last night.
 
I need to remember just why I am here.
 
I can’t allow myself to forget that this relationship comes with an expiry date.
 
Giving in to him will only leave me broken at the end, and I don’t want to think about the possibility.
 
I take a deep breath as I shore up my resolve, then walk over to the dressing room between the two bedrooms. A quick shower is the first order of business, and then I need to make some plans for the day.
 
Plans that don’t involve kissing, or being kissed by the man in the next room.
 
Unfortunately, he is the first sight that meets my eyes as I throw open the door.
 
He is standing before the full length mirror with his tie in one hand, and he throws it on the floor with apparent frustration before turning to face me. The action draws my eyes to his hands, and they widen in surprise.
 
“Your brace! Why have you taken it off?”
 
“The damn thing was irritating me, and my hand felt better, too. But something as simple as tying this knot still eludes me.”
 
 
“The doctor asked you to wear it for a week.”
 
 
“I know that. But I need to head into the office , and I’m not going to wear that as an accessory.”
 
 
“Office? On a Saturday?”
 
 
He sighs, then reaches for  a grey suit jacket. I try to ignore the way the expensive fabric stretches across his wide shoulders, and concentrate on his words instead.
 
 
“There’s a crisis, and I’m needed. A high-risk takeover by A.R has been stalled, and today’s meetings could make or break the deal.”
 
I nod quickly, then step aside as he walks across to the shoe-rack.
 
I want to ask him to wear his brace, but there is an air about him today that is intimidating, almost. It’s as if I am seeing the tycoon in action for the first time. There is an aura of controlled energy and focus that is almost palpable, and I am forcefully reminded of the fact that there’s more to him than flirting and innuendos. I see the man who has built an empire from scratch, and once again, I see the difference between us with greater clarity than ever before.
 
I turn to my own side of the dressing room and look for my new pair of jeans, but his voice stops me before I can even reach the hangers.
 
“Khushi, just one more thing before I leave.”
 
 
I turn around to face him, but not before I school my face into an expression of studied indifference.
 
 
“Yes?”
 
 
“This takeover will keep me busy over the weekend. And then there’s my hand, which isn’t fully functional yet. In these circumstances, I think it’s better to postpone the party to next week. What do you think?”
 
 
“Me? Well, they are your guests, so I’ll go along with whatever you decide.”
 
 
For a moment, his mouth firms and his eyes flash with a hint of impatience, as if my answer has displeased him somehow.
 
But then he shrugs, and turns away.
 
 
“Fine. I’ll ask NK to handle the details. We’ll do this next weekend. It will also allow us to include Di in the celebrations since she gets back tomorrow.”
 
 
“Her flight lands just after midnight, right?”
 
 
“Yes,and about time, too. NK visited Sheetal just once, and he has vowed never to do it again. Not that I blame him, of course.”
 
 
“Who is this Sheetal, anyway?”
 
 
He looks up at me, and a wryly amused grin curves his lips.
 
 
“Has no one told you who she is?”
 
 
“No…”
 
 
“Sheetal is a nuisance. That’s all you need to know.”
 
 
And with those words, he turns back to his room.
 
 
 
As he walks away, I am seized by the urge to ask him when he’ll be back.
But then I remember that it isn’t supposed to be my concern at all.
 
I turn back to my wardrobe, pull out my clothes, then walk into the vast restroom with it’s gleaming marble and chrome finishes.
 
As I undress and step into the shower, it is as if the warm spray clears my head, banishing the foolish dreams and desires as if they have never existed in the first place.
His words and actions this morning have proved beyond all doubt that the kiss hasn’t changed anything for him. If it had, then surely he wouldn’t have been able to be dispassionate and focused as he had been this morning. It is obvious that his business overshadows all else in his life, with the sole exception of his family, and I chide myself for indulging in illicit fantasies about my husband of convenience.
 
Minutes later, I dress myself in the jeans and a new printed silk top, then run my brush through my still-wet hair as I decide to take charge of my life again. Despite the guilt that lingers over what happened with Aman, I know that I need to move on with my professional goals, and that is exactly what I do after breakfast.
 
I email the admissions advisor at Stanford, and ask her if  a meeting can be arranged for Monday. After typing the words, I sit back with a sigh of satisfaction, glad that I am back on track without letting my marriage derail things for me. I need to do this, I need to have my own identity and goals…because if there is one thing that I fear, it is the fact that I will allow my ambition to be eclipsed by my new role as wife.
 
And there’s also the fact that he seems to have no problem in moving past that kiss, and focusing on what’s important in his life.
 
If he can do it, so can I.
 
 
 
With that resolve, I step out into the warm California sun, and walk towards the garage. Lavanya is beside me at once, and I sigh inwardly, wondering when it will finally be safe enough to step out without requiring a bodyguard at all times.
 
 
“Do you need to go somewhere, Mrs. Raizada?”
 
 
“Yes. I need to drive down to a storage facility in Palo Alto and retrieve my belongings.”
 
 
“You don’t need to do that. If you give me the paperwork, I can…”
 
 
“I need to sort through my stuff and decide what I need to bring back here, Ms.Kashyap.”
 
 
She nods reluctantly, and leads me towards a black Audi that I have never seen before. Moments later, we are speeding down the freeway and I am mentally going through the storage boxes as I try to remember what I really need. When I had graduated and accepted Aman’s job offer, I had moved most of my things from my dorm room to a storage facility since I hadn’t found an apartment yet. I had intended to resume the search when I returned from India…but destiny had other plans.
An hour later, I find myself debating the wisdom of taking these inexpensive things back with me to a multi-million dollar mansion.
In the end, I decide to take only my collection of books and music. I think about donating everything else to charity…but a thought makes me pause.
 
After twelve months, I will be back in my old life again.
 
Won’t I need all this then?
 
 
My decision made, I turn away, then walk back to the manager and extend the lease for a year.
 
With Lavanya’s help, I manage to load the boxes into the Audi, and then we are off again.
 
My gaze falls on a store that I frequented before, and I ask Lavanya to stop there. I have just remembered that I need to stock up on some personal items, and I ask Lavanya to wait here for me while I step inside.
 
 
Lavanya hesitates, and then walks over to where I am standing.
 
 
“Mrs.Raizada…the storage facility was one thing, but a store is quite another. I don’t think it’s advisable for you to go in there. If you give her a list, I’m sure Manorama would be more than happy to have someone do your shopping for you.”
 
 
I take a deep breath, and decide that I need to take a stand here. 
I cannot change these commonplace things that I have always done…no matter who I am now.
 
 
“I’d like to do my shopping myself, Ms. Kashyap.”
 
 
Her eyes harden, and I know that I am not going to like whatever she is going to say next.
 
 
“ASR would be displeased if he knew that his wife was doing this. He has high expectations…as well as an image to uphold, Mrs. Raizada.”
 
 
“I’m sure he does. But I’m equally sure that one tiny supermarket visit isn’t going to bring his image crashing down around his ears.”
 
I whirl around and walk inside without waiting for a reply, anger just simmering under the surface of my apparent calm.
 
Lavanya’s disguised hostility is really beginning to bother me now. Without being overt about it, she has managed to make her opinion clear…she obviously considers me as unsuitable for the legendary ASR. When she speaks about him, there is an almost worshipful tone that grates on my nerves, and I wonder just why I am reacting like this at all.
 
An icy silence reigns as we drive back to the mansion, and I cannot wait to get away from her.
 
I carry the boxes inside with Manorama’s help, and she leaves me alone while I open them and start sorting. It takes me the entire afternoon and a good part of the evening before I am done, and I feel a sense of satisfaction when I view  the neatly arranged books on the shelves in the study.
I walk back to my room, and realize that my phone needs to be recharged. As I look down at it, I impulsively decide to call Aman and see how he is doing. Despite his behavior on that last day, I am aware that I am guilty of unprofessional behavior as well. No matter what my reasons are, the truth is that I did leave him in the lurch, even if I couldn’t have predicted or prevented the reaction from BioSys. My guilt forces me to dial his number, but the call goes straight to voicemail.
 
I look at the time and realize that dinner is still an hour away, and so I decide to make some calls to my classmates who are now scattered all over the States. 
Before I know it, two hours have passed and Manorama is knocking at my door. She informs me that it’s time for her to leave, and asks me if I will eat dinner now. I follow her out to the front door and close it behind her, then head back towards the kitchen.
A few minutes later, I am eating a solitary supper at the huge dining table, but my appetite deserts me as the loneliness finally sets in.
 
I make an attempt to combat it by flicking through an array of channels on the television, but nothing manages to capture my interest.
 
I throw the remote aside and walk over to the sliding door that leads to the backyard. Stepping out into the mild night air, I walk across the grass and seat myself inside the gazebo. Darkness has now set in, and the play of shadows across the lawns intrigues me for a moment.
The sky is clear and full of stars, and I tip my head back as I let the peace of the moment wash over me.
 
I allow my thoughts to wander…and they go to my family first.
 
I wonder if Amma has reconciled herself to accepting her daughter’s money yet. I remind myself to call her in the morning and find out. I also need to  find out the exact dates of the wedding, since I need to discuss the trip with my husband.
 
I think about Aman, and wonder if his family has found about his company yet. Despite everything, I find myself hoping that he makes it through this setback. He deserves it, after all the work that he has put into building this company.
 
I think about Sheetal, and wonder who she is. Obviously, she must be important to Di if her constant reminders to Arnav are any indication. 
 
Is she connected to Arnav somehow?
 
That thought jars me out of my complacence, and I sit up straight.
Throughout this long day, I have tried hard to keep my thoughts away from him…but it just isn’t possible anymore.
 
I think about the fact that I haven’t seen or heard from him all day.
But why should that surprise me at all?
 
His words come back to me now, and I realize that he really, truly meant it when he said that we would lead separate lives.
 
He has no obligation to tell me where he’s going or when he’ll be back, and yet, I realize that disappointment is a major part of what ails me now.
In a burst of insight, I realize that his behavior of the previous day was partly responsible for this. The man who had tried to get me out from my dejection yesterday…that compassionate man couldn’t really be the same one who has left his brand-new bride alone without a word over her first weekend in their new house.
I realize that my expectations from him had increased without my conscious acknowledgement, and I close my eyes in disbelief at my own stupidity.
 
It’s all my fault, not his.
He has been perfectly clear that this marriage is something that is best left on the peripheries of both our lives, and I have to stop myself from making it the center of my existence.
Kiss or no kiss, I have to stop thinking about him, and obsessing over his every word and action.
 
I stand up quickly, my decision made.
I will be equally dispassionate, equally detached in return.
 
And I will lead my own life, one that has nothing to do with him.
 
But as I turn around to walk back into the house, I realize that there is only one word that best describes this kind of existence.
 
And it is a word that has haunted me today…something that I have never dealt with before.
 
 
Loneliness.
 
 
It looks like this is going to be my constant companion now.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
The next morning, I hurriedly wolf down my breakfast, then walk over to Manorama and tell her that I am going out for the day.
I have made my plans when I first awoke this morning,and I don’t let her raised eyebrows faze me when I inform her of my destination.
 
Lavanya’s reaction is far more blatant, but quickly controlled.
 
“Mrs.Raizada, are you sure you want to go there?”
 
 
“If you have any problem with that, I’m sure that I can go alone.”
 
I know that I am probably being a little unfair to her, but the very thought of having a bodyguard is making me feel stifled today.
Added to that is the fact that I have just been told that my husband never came home last night. Apparently, he has stayed over at the San Francisco penthouse, and he is heading in to work today as well.
This news disturbs me, although I am not quite sure why.
 
In an attempt to escape the implications of my own reactions and fight against the ever-present loneliness, I have decided to go to the most crowded, liveliest place that I can think of.
 
A place that is apparently not very high on Ms.Kashyap’s list of acceptable destinations.
 
She looks away for a moment before replying.
 
“ASR has entrusted me with your security, Mrs.Raizada. I’m not going to let him down.”
 
 
Once again, her choice of words makes me narrow my eyes, but I quickly try to forget what she has just said.
 
Today is for being me…and letting loose, just a little.
And I am not going to allow anyone to spoil that for me.
 
 
An hour later, I breathe in the salty sea air and smile as I walk along the boardwalk on Pier 39. Also known as Fisherman’s wharf, this popular San Francisco tourist attraction is built right along the sea-shore, and has been one of my favorite places to unwind since moving to California.
I spend the next few hours wandering through the Aquarium on the bay, and looking through the various stores selling trinkets and souvenirs that line the pier. I watch the sea-lions for a bit, then walk across to the carousel and find myself laughing at the antics of all the kids there.
 
My stomach rumbles, reminding me that it is way past time for lunch. I turn around and head straight for my favorite little cafe, a specialty store that makes the best crepes in the whole world…at least, according to me.
After standing in line for a few minutes, I finally place my order and walk away with a thin pancake filled with fresh fruits and chocolate, my very own definition of heaven.
 
I find a place at a small table by the railing that separates us from the sea, and I sit down there with a sigh of relief.
I savor the first few bites of the delicious treat, and laugh at myself when  the chocolate spread dribbles down my chin .
I fumble under the plate,looking for the napkin, but I never find it.
 
My head suddenly jerks up as I feel the imprint of lean, long fingers on my chin, sweeping away the chocolate tracks as their owner steps towards me.
 
“What the hell? You can’t just walk up and…”
 
All my righteous indignation dies a sudden death as I finally get a good luck at the man’s face and realize that he isn’t an obnoxious stranger after all.
 
Arnav stares back at me, a latent heat in his gaze.
 
He seats himself in the chair opposite mine, then slowly, deliberately, sucks his fingers clean, one by one.
 
And all the while, his eyes never leave mine.
 
 
The air shimmers with sensuality and desire, and I cannot believe that this is happening even while we are seated amidst a crowd.
 
 
When he finally breaks the silence, his words make my heart pound against my chest.
 
 
“You do have a thing for chocolate, don’t you? It’s probably something I need to remember. For later.”
 
 
Unbidden,an outrageous fantasy takes shape in my mind…one where he is licking that chocolate again.
Only this time, it isn’t just on my chin.
 
I wrench my thoughts away from the dangerous direction they seem to have taken, and focus on what’s important here.
A question springs to my mind, and I voice it immediately.
 
 
“What are you doing here?”
 
 
“Spending some quality time with my wife.”
 
 
I huff with impatience.
 
 
“How did you even know that I was here on the pier? Wait, let me guess. Lavanya is being paid to report back to you as well?”
 
 
“She is guarding you, not spying on you, Khushi. In fact, it was Manorama who told me where you were when I called the house earlier.”
 
 
“And you decided to join me here, just like that?”
 
 
“Yes. Why does that surprise you? “
 
 
“It’s just that…weren’t you busy with the takeover?”
 
 
“I stepped out for lunch with my team. And when I found out that you were right here, I decided to join you.”
 
 
He leans back in his chair and looks out at the blue waters of the bay.
 
 
“It’s been a while since I came out here. What made you choose this place?”
 
 
I shrug, then turn back to my plate. Reminding myself of my earlier vow to be detached and unaffected by his presence, I decide to act as if this is an everyday occurrence.
 
 
“I like Pier 39. It’s full of life.”
 
 
He smiles.
 
 
“Can’t argue with that. Shall we go down by the water after you’ve eaten?”
 
 
I still for a moment before taking my next bite.
 
What is he up to?
 
 
I have barely reconciled myself to being distant…but now that he is here, all my plans are thrown into disarray.
I don’t even understand why he’s here to begin with. After ignoring me for the better part of two days, just what has made him come out here while he is in the middle of an important takeover?
 
I decide that I don’t really care. We are in a public place, after all. Acting like his loving wife in front of others is part of the deal, and I convince myself that I can do this.
 
 
“Sure.”
 
He looks out over the water again, seemingly pleased by my agreement. 
But I am not so calm inside. Despite my resolve, I cannot stop myself from being affected by every movement of his, and I find that the crepe has lost all appeal for me.
I finish eating in a few minutes, and then I stand up, gesturing for him to do the same. After disposing of the trash, I walk through the crowds towards the end of the pier, acutely aware of his smooth predator’s stride behind me.
 
When I look back, he is looking away from me towards someone, and I automatically follow his gaze.  I recognize the bulky figure of Dhruv, and beside him is Lavanya, looking disgruntled, somehow. 
In a few minutes, I realize why.
 
Apparently, Arnav has asked both of them to keep their distance, and they don’t appear to be very happy about this decision.
 
We are walking by the railing along the end of the pier when a thought makes me pause.
 
 
“So Dhruv isn’t just your driver?”
 
 
“No. He’s my guard too. And that’s what I think we should do for you as well. Lavanya can double as your driver from tomorrow, it’s more convenient that way.”
 
 
“She already did that when I went down to the storage facility yesterday.”
 
 
He removes his aviators and looks at me with a steady, piercing gaze.
 
 
“Ah, yes. She did tell me that. You do know that there’s really no need for you to do these things by yourself?”
 
 
“What if I want to?”
 
 
He stares at me for a moment, then sighs.
 
 

“I don’t want us to argue about this now. I’m only here on a short break, and I’m sure that there are other things we can talk about.”
 
 
I turn away towards the spectacular view of the Golden Gate bridge and the San Francisco skyline behind it, and try to stop myself from blurting out the question I want to ask.
But it’s no use. My tongue doesn’t listen to the edicts of my head, and the question comes out in a breathless rush.
 

“So you’re heading back to work?”
 
 
He has his aviators on again, and I cannot gauge his response to my question.
 
 
“Of course. I still have a few more hours of work to get through today, even though the crisis has been averted.”
 
 
I find myself curious, despite everything.
 
 
“So A.R Corp is going to swallow another small player?”
 
 
He smiles, but doesn’t turn to face me.
 
 

“I wouldn’t call them a small player by any means. But yes, we have them in the palm of our hand.”
 
 
His satisfaction is evident, and it leaves me more curious than ever. 
 
 
“Which company are you taking over?”
 
 
He tells me the name, and I gasp.
 
 

What? But…they are the one of the biggest companies in the area! Why isn’t this in the news?”
 
 
He finally looks over at me, one eyebrow raised in query.
 
 
“You keep abreast of happenings in  Silicon Valley?”
 
 
I shrug, disconcerted by this news and his matter-of-fact way of talking about it.
 
 
 
“I read the news. Big deal.”
 
 
“We have done our best to keep this away from the media. It is our biggest hostile takeover yet, and I didn’t want anything to jeopardize it.”
 
 
“And now it’s done?”
 
 
“Apart from signing the paperwork, yes. And that’s where I’m going now.”
 
 
I suddenly remember why this particular company had been in the news recently.
 
 
“I do know that they were  in dire financial straits. But wasn’t there something about a last ditch attempt to save the company?”
 
 
He smiles again, but there is an edge of ruthlessness evident now.
 
 
“I know that. And that’s why we had to step in soon, before they could recover.”
 
 
I take in a deep breath, aware that I am in the presence of a shark now. Because that’s what he is, when all is said and done. Capitalizing on someone else’s distress is something he does on a daily basis, and I can hardly reconcile that image with that of the flirtatious, seductive man I’ve known so far.
 
And then I’m aware of one more thing as well.
This news is explosive, and has been kept under wraps so far. The very fact that he has chosen to confide in me tells me that he trusts me, on one level, at least.
And I’m not sure how I feel about that.
 
I turn towards the water, and watch a couple of sea-gulls flying away together.
Abruptly, that sight reminds me of the desolate feeling I experienced last night, and I remind myself that there is likely to be a repeat tonight as well.
This interlude by the sea is temporary,and this knowledge steals all my joy at being here.
 
He waits for a response, and when there is none, he gestures towards the boardwalk.
 
 
“Let’s walk out there.”
 
 
And so we return to the crowds again, immersed in a silence that neither is willing to break. We stroll by the shops for some time, and then he steps away to answer a call.
When he returns, Dhruv is back by his side.
 
 
“I have to leave now. Are you planning to stay here till the evening?”
 
 
It had been my plan when I first came here, but now I’m not so sure.
 
 
“I might.”
 
 
He nods, then turns away.
 
 
“I’ll see you later, then.”
 
 
I watch him until he’s lost in the crowd, and then confusion sets in again.
 
I don’t understand him at all, and I certainly don’t understand my own see-sawing emotions when it comes to him.
The only thing I know for sure is that I am facing a long, lonely drive back…and an equally lonely evening when I return.
 
I rub my hand over my eyes, and look back at Lavanya.
There is no use in delaying the inevitable.
 
 
 
A few hours later, I am seated in the comfortable armchair in my room, trying to read a new book that I have bought recently. The engaging plot fails to hold my attention, and I place it down with a sigh.

 
I haven’t been able to stop thinking of those moments by the water throughout the evening, and it is driving me crazy. I barely remember what I ate for dinner, and I escaped to my room as soon as I could in an attempt to get away from any reminders of him.
It has been a futile attempt, though. Memories of his words and my own reactions are never far from the surface, and my only respite came when I received a call from my mother. She has agreed to accept  my help, but only under the condition that I will accept her repayment over the next few years. I did agree to this, although I have no intention of doing so. When the time comes, I will come up with something to stop her.
 
I should have been ecstatic, this is the biggest reason for this Shaadi, after all. But my own confused reactions and thoughts are overshadowing everything for now, and I don’t know what to think anymore.
 
I lean my head back and close my eyes, trying to make sense of it all…
 
 
 
 
The next thing I know, I am jerked awake from a restless slumber by the ring of my cell-phone. I sit up abruptly and scramble for the phone, finally finding it on the sixth ring.
I don’t know who I expected it to be at this time of the night, but I certainly didn’t think it would be Anjali Di. When she tells me why she is calling, my sleep-dazed mind is rudely brought to awareness. She tells me that she has just taken the exit from the freeway that leads to our mansion, and I try to focus on the implications of what she is saying.
When she finally cuts the call, I close my eyes for a moment. My restless dreams and troubled thoughts have taken their toll, and I can no longer trust myself to behave with any semblance of sanity…not right now, when my defenses have been shattered by everything that I have been thinking.
 
do know that I need to get to the door, though. Hanging on to that thought, I open my eyes quickly.
 
I jump out of the armchair and run straight for the door before  realizing that I’m not even wearing my slippers. 
Whirling around, I spy them under my chair and quickly slip them on.
 
By my calculations, it only takes two or three minutes to come up to the house from the driveway. And since it’s already been one whole minute since Anjali Di called me, I don’t have much time left.
 
The mirror over the vanity catches my eye as I fly past, and I realize that I am still in my soft, worn violet kurta…which is completely unsuitable for greeting guests.
I have no time to change, and so I grab my jacket from the wardrobe and pull it on as I open the door.
 
My gaze darts to the connecting door, and I suddenly realize that I have no idea if Arnav has returned home at all.
 
What if Di asks me about him?
 
 
But I don’t even have any time to ponder that , because right now I am almost falling down the stairs in my hurry to get to the door. I wind my hair into a loose knot at the nape of my neck as I finally reach the door, and pause there to take  a deep breath.
I steel myself to forget everything that has unsettled me, but I don’t know if I’ll be successful.
 
The soft knock startles me, and I quickly unlock the door and wrench it open.
 
 
Khushi!”
 
 
Looking pretty and fresh even after an overnight flight, Di envelops me in a perfumed hug, even as her stone-faced husband hovers in the background.
 
She pulls away, then looks me up and down.
 
“It’s good to see you again, Khushi! You look beautiful, marriage obviously agrees with you! Don’t you think so, Shyam?”
 
Her husband throws me a cursory glance, then murmurs a non-committal response.
But his wife obviously needs no encouragement to continue.
 
“I’m so sorry for barging in on you at this time of the night, Khushi! I know that you are newlyweds, and I would never have dreamed of invading your privacy like this if there had been any other choice. But like I told you earlier, the freeway leading home has been blocked by an accident and we just couldn’t bear to wait there…not when we have just gotten off a twenty-four hour journey!”
 
 
“Di, it’s fine. It’s no problem at all. Let me show you to the guest-room, I’m sure you must be tired…”
 
 
I usher them in and lock the door behind them while Shyam carries their bags towards the staircase.
 
 
“This house looks beautiful, Khushi! I told Arnav that this would be perfect for his new wife when we first saw it, and I was right! “
 
She beams at me as we climb the stairs, and then drops the bombshell just as we turn into the hallway that leads to the bedrooms.
 
 
“Speaking of Arnav, his hand must be better, right? The guard just told us that he had just returned from the office a couple of hours ago…”
 
At those words, my mind freezes in panic.
 
Because we are now steps away from the bedroom.
 
My bedroom, which is the larger of the two interconnected rooms, presumably the master.
 
A bedroom with a pristine, unruffled bed that obviously hasn’t been slept in.
 
An empty bedroom…and I have foolishly left the door wide open as I flew down the stairs.
 
 
In mere moments, a glimpse into the bedroom will throw all our carefully laid plans into disarray.
 
I know that I should probably be doing something…anything to stop this from happening, but my mind is blank.
 
“This part of the house is so warm and welcoming! I remember the master-suite, I bet you both are using the room on the right because it’s bigger?”
 
Before I can stop myself, I foolishly nod.
 
And then I mentally slap myself for my stupidity.
It’s no good, I have never been any good to people’s faces. I always have great difficulty in doing so, and I can only manage it when I have prepared for the eventuality beforehand.
 
But now, I have been blindsided and my panic is landing me in more trouble with every word.
 
 
All my thoughts grind to an abrupt halt as I see the beam of light from the door ahead.
 
Disaster is just seconds away.
 
 
I take a deep, shuddering breath, knowing that there’s no way out now.
 
As we pass by the open door, I cannot bring myself to look inside.
 
Anjali Di obviously has no such inhibitions, because she suddenly stops.
 
I turn around slowly to face her, my heart pounding in terror.
 
Her look of surprise makes me close my own eyes for a moment, before I finally follow her gaze.
 
 
And then  I still in surprise too.
 
 
 
Arnav is sitting in my bed, leaning against my headboard, looking completely at home. He is holding his phone to his ear, and his laptop is open beside him.
 
I try very hard to hide my surprise, and I think I know exactly what is going on here.
Somehow, he has figured out that Di is on her way, and he has arranged things to look like he has been here all the while.
And now it’s up to me to keep up the charade.
 
But before I can say anything, Di’s shocked tones cut across the silence.
 
 
“Arnav! I can’t believe you’re still working at this time of night! Have you forgotten that you are a newlywed?”
 
He looks up in apparent surprise, and I have to admire his acting prowess. He quickly cuts the call, throw back the covers and walks over to Di.
 
 
“Di? “
 
 
He gives her a quick hug, then shakes hands with her husband. Di explains just why they are here now, and he startles us with a sudden laugh.
 
 
“You must be devastated, Di. That’s one more night you have to spend away from Sheetal.”
 
 
She smiles too, but then shakes her head.
 
 
“Arnav, didn’t you hear the call I made to Khushi a few moments ago?”
 
He glances at me swiftly, and I sense the warning in his look.
 
“No, I didn’t. I was in the restroom, Di.”
 
 
“I see! And now I’m sure you wouldn’t have heard us coming up because you were on your call.”
 
 
Arnav nods, and then Shyam Jha’s voice interrupts the investigation.
 
 
“Give the man a break, Anjali. I’m sure he must be tired after an exhausting day at work. And I’d like to get to bed too, so if you’ll excuse us?”
 
He nods briefly at me and Arnav, then continues walking down the hallway. After a moment’s hesitation, Di follows him, and I start to walk too.
But Arnav’s grasp on my wrist stops me.
 
 

“It’s okay, Khushi. I’ll show them to their room.”
 
 
I nod quickly, glad to be away from this farce.
Turning around, I walk into my room, shed my jacket, and climb into bed. After moving his laptop to the nightstand, I pull the comforter to my chin, just as he walks in again.
 
To my astonishment, he closes the door behind him and walks over to the bed, a faint gleam in his eye.
 
I sit up, bewildered.
 
 
“Have you come back for your laptop?”
 
 
He gives me a predatory smile.
 
 
“Not exactly.”
 
 
He strides across the room, turns off the light and sits on the other side of the bed.

I scramble for the lamp on my nightstand and turn it on, unprepared for the intimacy the darkness would force upon us.
 
 
“Are you…planning to sleep here?”
 
 
He leans against the headboard and turns towards me, a serious light in his eyes.
 
 
“I thought it would be wise. We can’t take the chance, not when they are sleeping right down the hall from us. What if they see either of us exiting from the wrong door in the morning? After our close shave tonight, I’m not in the mood to take any more risks.”
 
I close my eyes in defeat, knowing that he is right.But then I remember something.
 
 
“How did you even get here so soon?”
 
 
“I was in the dressing room when I heard your door slam open. When I came here to check it out, I heard their voices downstairs and did what I could to make them believe that I had been here all the time.”
 
 
“I don’t get it. Why didn’t you just come down?”
 
 
“And leave this room looking pristine and untouched?”
 
 
I grimace, seeing his point.
 
 
“Relax, Khushi. We’ve dealt with it for now. And it’s going to be just one night…half of which is over, already.”
 
 
“What if…Di decides to stay over?”
 
 
He laughs, then pulls the covers over himself.
 
 
“She’s going to leave as early as she can, there’s no doubt about it. She won’t like being away from Sheetal longer than is absolutely necessary.”
 
 
There is that name , once again.
 
 
“Why can’t you just tell me who Sheetal is?”
 
 
“Just ask Di. She’ll tell you. Or better yet, show you.”
 
 
I sigh in frustration, then lie back on my pillow.
 
At   that moment, I am suddenly aware of several things at once.
 
First off, I am sharing a bed with my husband for the first time since our wedding night.
 
The man who is way too close for comfort.
His scent wraps itself around me like a caress, and every inch of me is aware of his male form lying beside mine on this bed that suddenly feels too small for comfort.
 
And lastly, I realize that the look in his warm brown eyes has suddenly changed from amusement to…blatant hunger.
 
There’s just no other word for it.
 
Mindful of my earlier resolve, I reach over to turn off the light again.
 
His soft , smooth voice stops me in my tracks.
 
 
“Khushi…I have a suggestion.”
 
 
I don’t trust that inflection in his voice for an instant, but I look over to face him anyway.
 
 
“Yes?”
 
 
“I know that we have to sleep together because we have to…but that doesn’t mean that we can’t take advantage of the situation. To further your education, I mean.”
 
 
“My…education?”
 
 
In my sleep-deprived state, I wonder what my PhD has to do with this.
But his next words snap me out of my daze, and I freeze.
 
 
“Yes. Lesson One was that kiss, remember?”
 
 
I can feel the blush that warms my cheeks, but I remind myself that I need to stay in control of my wayward reactions at all times.
 
 
“I’m not interested anymore.”
 
 
He doesn’t believe the lie, I can see it in his eyes.
 
 
“Coward.”
 
 
I roll my eyes.
 
 
“Reverse psychology isn’t going to work either.”
 
 
“I don’t want to coerce you, Khushi. I want you to want it, just like that night. That’s what made it so…explosive.”
 
 
I can’t believe the calm voice with which he is discussing this.
And yet, isn’t this more evidence of his detachment?
 
To him, furthering this intimacy isn’t really an earth-shattering decision. It is all part of the game, one that he has obviously perfected over the years.
 
So why can’t I do the same?
 
I can’t deny that I want him, desperately.
If I can achieve the detachment and control that he has displayed until now, why can’t I enjoy this time together?
 
A part of me realizes that this is mere rationalization,but I crush that thought immediately.
 
 
I take a deep breath.
 
 
“Just what do you have in mind?”
 
 
A slow smile curves his lips, and heat shimmers in his gaze.
 
 
“I’d rather show you, if you don’t mind.”
 
 
I force all my doubts to the back of my mind, and decide to give my feminine side free reign tonight.
 
I nod jerkily, then still when he leans over me.
 
His thumb caresses my lower lip for a moment, and I close my eyes in anticipation of another hot, bone-melting kiss.
 
But it never comes.
 
Instead, I feel his lips on the side of my neck as he gives me a warm, open-mouthed kiss there.
 
My eyes fly open.
 
“What are you…”
 
 
He raises his head, and his gaze singes me.
 
 
“Kisses aren’t always on the lips, you know.”
 
 
Speechless, I can only close my eyes in surrender as he lowers his head again, this time placing a kiss on the pulse-point at the base of my neck.
Sensations flood through my body with a dizzying intensity, almost blinding me with need.
 
I fist my hands in the covers as his mouth travels down to my neckline, laying a string of kisses there.
 
He picks up my hand next, and smooths it out before laying a kiss in the center of my palm.
 
At this point, I have stopped anticipating his next touch. I am a slave to my senses, and I revel in that realization for a moment.
 
Until I feel his mouth on my navel.
 
Even through the thin barrier of my kurta, the heat of his caress sizzles through my blood.
And then, without warning, he places another kiss between my legs.
 
My eyes fly open and I stiffen, but he is there immediately, soothing me with his hands on my cheeks.
 
“It’s okay…just let yourself feel.”
 
 
Before I can respond, he lowers his head again.
 
 

This time, he kisses each of my breasts in turn. The straining peaks chafe against the material of my dress, and I know that I want more.
I crave it with all my being…and all my inhibitions fly out the window as I clutch his head with both hands, holding him down to me.
 
I realize that I am truly helpless, a willing victim to his brand of seduction.
 
And that thought brings back a tiny glimmer of sanity to my overheated brain.
 
I don’t want to be helpless.
I want to wrest control…or at least, be an equal participant in this.
My pride is on the line here, and I know what I have to do.
 
Using my grip on his head, I pull him up to face me.
 
The look in his eyes is molten, and my insides melt with the intensity.
 
I stare at him for a moment, and watch his chest rise and fall with the force of his breaths.
 
And then I pull him down slowly to meet my lips.
 
His eyes flare with the acknowledgement of what I am doing. But then he groans, and I know that it is a sound of surrender.
 
The inferno inside rages out of control as my lips meet his, and I gasp into his open mouth.
He isn’t in control now, and I exult, even as my own reactions make me writhe against his hard, warm body.
 
I try to mimic his actions, and my tongue spars with his , tasting…devouring. He holds my head between his hands and tilts  it to deepen the kiss, and I hear a high moan…then realize that it is mine.
 
But the next sound bewilders me.
 
It is a gasp…but one of pain.
 
My eyes fly open to see that Arnav is sitting up now, cradling his injured hand with the other. His face is contorted in agony, and I suddenly remember that he hasn’t been wearing the brace for two days now.
 
I sit up too, my gaze fixed on his hand.
 
 
“Is it very bad?”
 
 
A grunt of pain is my only response, and I step out of bed, knowing what I must do. I take a moment to steady myself, feeling as if my legs have turned to jelly.
And then I run to my handbag, which has the number of the advice nurse that we were given in the E.R.
 
I dial with shaking fingers, then explain his predicament to the operator. While I am waiting for the call to go through to the advice nurse, I find myself hoping against hope that he hasn’t aggravated the injury. Guilt rears it’s head too, and I wonder if I should have been more insistent about the brace.
 
I take a deep breath, then steel myself to look him in the eyes.
And when I do, I find his gaze fixed on mine.
 
There is pain in that gaze, but there is also the knowledge of what would have happened between us if this hadn’t occurred.
 
My fingers clench around the phone as I read the answer in his eyes.
 
I would have been naked by now…and so would he.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
As I walk to the front door the next day, the events of last night play on an endless loop in my mind. My gaze falls on the closed study door, where Arnav has been closeted since morning. After calling the nurse last night, he has put the brace back on. Repeated applications of an ice pack and a painkiller have taken the edge off, but the nurse has advised him to see the doctor today. The appointment is set for later this morning, and Arnav is working at home until then.
I didn’t really want to leave him now, but my own appointment has forced my hand. I found myself hoping that Di would stay back today, but Arnav was insistent on keeping this from her and she has gone back to her own home this morning. Before she left us, she has asked me to visit her this afternoon since I am going to be in Palo Alto anyway, and I have reluctantly agreed.
 
I look back at the study door, torn.
But Arnav has given me no indication that he needs me. This morning, he was back in his ASR persona again, and barely responded when I told him that I was heading out.
 
I sigh, then pull the door open, startled to find NK on the other side.
 
 
“Good morning, Khushi!”
 
 
“You’re here bright and early.”
 
 
He shrugs.
 
 
“There is a press conference scheduled for this evening. It’s about the merger…do you know about that?”
 
 
“Yes. Arnav told me about it.”
 
 
He seems surprised for a moment, but then nods.
 
 
“So you know that this is an important day for us. “
 
 
“Yes, I do. I only hope that he doesn’t forget about the doctor today.”
 
 
“Why aren’t you staying here to ensure that he doesn’t?”
 
 
It is said with a teasing tone, and I almost smile.
 
 
“I would if I could. But I have an appointment with my admissions advisor at Stanford this morning”
 
 
“Ah. Well, good luck then. And we really need to stop meeting each other at the door while you’re leaving. Maybe we could share a cup of coffee sometime?”
 
 
“Sure. But I’m going to be late if I don’t leave now.”
 
 
“Bye then, go get that PhD!”
 
 
I laugh, then walk across to where Lavanya is waiting with the Audi. As I settle into the passenger seat, I glance up at the house, then still.
 
NK is standing by the doorway, his gaze fixed on mine, an enigmatic smile in place.
 
And that unsettles me…for an unfathomable reason.
 
 
 
 
 
Hours later, Lavanya drives me to Anjali’s Palo Alto house, which is a more modest affair,compared to the luxuriousness of our mansion. And yet, the bright flowers in the front-yard give it a welcoming feel, and I smile through the disappointment that threatens to overpower me. 
The Stanford advisor has informed me that I am too late for this term, and barring a new grant, I can only join their PhD program in the fall semester which is three months away. The news has disheartened me, and I don’t know if I am going to be good company for the Jhas. 
The only bright light on the horizon is the news that the doctor has told Arnav that rest and a new brace should take care of his injury. I called him earlier today, but it was a brief conversation.
 
As these thoughts go through my head, I walk towards Anjali Di’s front door, which is suddenly wrenched open.
 
 
“Khushi! I’m so glad you came!”
 
 
Her exuberance raises my spirits…until her taciturn husband comes into view. After a nod in my direction, he turns to Di.
 
 
“Anjali, Sheetal is driving me crazy. If you don’t settle her down, I’m going to have to put her out.”
 
 
Di sighs, then turns to me .
 
 
“Come, Khushi. I don’t know what it is with these men. They just don’t seem to be able to get along with Sheetal.”
 
 
She leads me out to a little courtyard, and her husband follows.
 
 
“That’s probably because she has bitten us all. Including your brother.”
 
 
“It was just a friendly swipe!”
 
 
“He bled all over this very courtyard, Anjali.”
 
 
“That’s an exaggeration. Don’t listen to him, Khushi. Sheetal is really very friendly, once you get to know her.”
 
 
At this point, I am barely listening to her, because my gaze has landed on…Sheetal.
 
From the past few days, I have imagined every possibility. I believed that she might be Arnav’s ex…or Shyam’s relative. In wilder moments, I also thought that she might be a baby.
 
But never have I ever imagined her to be this.
My voice is high-pitched with disbelief as I gesture towards the creature.
 
 
“Sheetal is a…parrot?”
 
 
She isn’t a parrot. She is an African grey parakeet. Also known as a budgerigar.”
 
Anjali’s pride rings through her voice, but her husband’s caustic tones cut across hers.
 
 
“It’s a dumb bird who attacks people, that’s what she is.”
 
 
Anjali sniffs delicately, then turns to me.
 
 
“Don’t listen to him, Khushi. Sheetal is a highly intelligent parakeet, and she has a vocabulary of over fifty words.”
 
 
“Most of which are swear words.”
 
Her husband’s addition is the last straw.
 
After everything that has been happening over the past few days, the ridiculousness of the situation strikes me full-force.
 
I imagine Arnav at the mercy of this tiny, swearing parakeet, and I finally lose control.
 
 
I laugh.
 
And laugh some more.
 
 
And it feels good.
 
 
 
 
 
 
*************
A/N:

 
 
Thank you all so much for joining me here!
I do hope that this blog and the new CC on the forum works out well for all of us.
 
A spoiler for you all: Chapter Five will be written entirely from Arnav’s POV, would love to know what you think! It will be up by Thursday next week.
 
A round of applause for ‘Kclovearshi’ for accurately guessing Sheetal’s identity!
  
 
If you wish to receive PMs, please add me to your IF buddy list. Or you can follow this blog, or my twitter account @patronus31.
 
Thank you all for reading!
 
 
 
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307 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. A_wanderer
    Jul 22, 2017 @ 18:04:53

    A parrot! ? Oh My God! I seriously thought that she is going to be an important character in the story. But this is more satisfying! Haha. Loved it so far.

    Like

    Reply

  2. sansid123
    Mar 02, 2017 @ 12:29:32

    sweet revenge love what you did to sheetal .. a parrot , i always felt she ws so unnecessary in the show

    Like

    Reply

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