Chapter Seven

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“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 that this is my sister…the one I have always protected and cherished.

But now, there is something bigger at stake here, and that realization gives me the strength to continue.

“…one last thing, Payal. That man is my husband, and I’d prefer it if you would refer to him with respect from now on.”

“Khushi, I didn’t mean to…”

“You never do, Payal. But things seem to get out of control very easily where you are concerned. Look, I really wish that we didn’t need to have this conversation on your wedding day, but you were the one who started it…and these things needed to be said. ”

I cup her cheek in my hand.

“I’ll always be there for you, Payal. Just not in the same way as before.”

Before my resolve is weakened by the pain in her eyes, I turn away sharply.

Only to come to a stumbling halt as I run directly into the man who is standing behind me now.

I stifle a gasp as I stare up into the enigmatic gaze of my husband, and then I watch his eyes move past mine to Payal.

I realize that a pillar has blocked our view of him all this while, but something in his stance tells me that he has heard it all.

Uncertainty makes me still until I realize that Payal has turned away towards Akash, and it is only then that I face him again.

But before I can speak, his low voice cuts across the charged silence.

“I need to leave right away for a meeting with a business associate. I’ve arranged for a car for you, just ask the valet out front.”

I grasp handfuls of my lehenga in both my hands in an attempt to keep them from reaching out to him.

I realize then that I have become accustomed to touching him…and being touched in return. Those unplanned touches and caressing glances are something that have become a part of my life, and I have only realized their importance when they aren’t here anymore.

The distance that is suddenly there between us makes me wonder if I have ever appreciated the slowly growing closeness that had been present before.

Have I been taking this relationship for granted?

Am I guilty of more than just not thinking of this marriage as real?

The harshness of reality paralyses me, and I don’t respond to his words at all.

He waits for a moment, then turns around and starts walking towards the stairs.

A sudden, discomforting thought spurs me into action, and I walk quickly up to him.

“Will you…will you be back later tonight? For the reception, I mean…”

His broad shoulders stiffen, and he turns around to face me with a forbidding expression on his face.

“I find that question to be insulting. My presence here at this moment should be answer enough for you.”

And with that scathing retort, he is gone.

The drive back to the hotel seems to be interminable.

When I am finally back in our room, I am immobilized for a moment by the memory of what happened here this morning.

Regret and guilt fight for supremacy as I walk towards the bedroom, but then I stop yet again, stunned by the sight that awaits me.

The wardrobe lies open, just as I had left it before leaving the room this morning. But now I see something that I had never noticed before…something that I must have missed in my eagerness to view the bronze lehenga earlier.

I walk towards it slowly, and moments later, I have pulled down the garment that lies on the shelf behind the main row of hangers.

Glimmering inside it’s transparent covering is a saree in deep shades of mauve and aquamarine, and I open the wrapping with shaking hands.

I run my hands gently along the copper and stone kundan borders, and finally hold up the netted, halter neck blouse that appears to be sensual, yet not blatantly suggestive.

And finally, my gaze falls on the label…and I realize that this has come from the same fashion house that has created my lehenga.

This must have been a gift too…something that my husband had chosen for the reception tonight.

That realization is the last straw.

I crumple to the floor as the dam finally breaks, and all the pent-up emotions spill across in disarray.

Tears stream down my cheeks as I clutch the saree to my chest, and I cry until there no tears left anymore.

When I finally resurface, I realize that I am still holding on to the beautiful saree as if it were a lifeline.

In that instant, my mind takes me back through every shared moment that we have spent together. I recall the teasing and the arrogance…the intimacy and the passion…the care and the respect that have been given to me freely ever since I have entered his life.

Not a real marriage?

I laugh scornfully at myself, wondering how I could have deluded myself for so long.

Yes, it is only for a year…and it might stay that way.

There is always the possibility that it might not, of course.

In a moment of blinding certainty, I realize that it doesn’t matter to me anymore.

I know that I will gladly accept eleven more months of being with him…if only I can get the old Arnav back.

And yes, for the first time, I admit that I crave for this to last for a lifetime.

That thought scares me, but I push the fear back into the dark corner where it belongs.

This long, horrendous day has shown me exactly what I stand to lose by not stepping forward and taking that chance…and that is no longer acceptable to me.

This shaadi may have begun as a contract on paper…but it is going to continue with a bond as real as any other in existence.

And I realize that I will do anything to convince him of that fact.

He has already taken that first step towards me…but I will now go that extra distance to make up for what I have done today…and everything that I have been doing for so long.

I stand up quickly, knowing that tears aren’t going to help me with this.

Grief and guilt aren’t going to move him…not this time.

But what will?

I look up into the mirror, and the answer stares me back in the face.

For the first time since morning, I smile with the confidence of a woman who knows what she is doing.

I am going to fight for him, and I am going to win.

Arnav Singh Raizada doesn’t stand a chance…not when he’s up against Mrs. Raizada.

Hours later, a little of that confidence slips away when I finally face my husband across the sea of people in the resort that is hosting the reception.

I know that the saree is perfectly, and the hotel salon has done a great job with my hair and make-up. The length of my hair has been confined into a loose knot at the nape of my neck, with a few strands left loose to frame my face. Sultry eye-shadow and a pale lip-gloss complete the look, while my jewelry consists of a simple strand of sapphires at my neck, with matching earrings and gemstone bangles.

The entire effect is one of understated elegance and sophistication…at least, I hope so.

I know that I have never looked better, but apparently it isn’t enough to draw my husband’s attention.

To my frustration, he behaves in the exact same way as he did during the wedding. Icy politeness is his only response when I approach him, and the guests clamoring for his attention certainly don’t make it any easier for me.

In the end, I decide to bide my time until I can speak to him uninterrupted, and I make my way to the stage where Payal and Akash stand side by side, flanked by both the mothers.

After a few minutes of desultory conversation, my eyes wander over to him again, and I notice something that I had missed earlier. To him, it doesn’t seem to matter if the guest belongs to his social class…or not. He treats them all with the same graciousness , and it is quickly apparent that everyone is at ease with him.

I find myself smiling at this , and once again, my mind chooses that moment to remind me of the many facets of Arnav Singh Raizada.

I remember the caring employer who sends his housekeeper home in his own car. I recall the injured man who walked over immediately to check on the welfare of the horse who had just attempted to throw him off.

Memories come back of the time when he had handled the matter of rescheduling Payal’s marriage, and of him placing my priorities over his.

And then, there’s his attitude towards me…the contract wife who was never really one to begin with.

I remember the kisses and the caresses… and the little instances where he had gone that extra mile to make me comfortable in his world. I recall that note on the bedside, and the phone call outside the library…

Finally, I look down at the ring on my hand, and everything coalesces into a certainty that shakes me to my soul.

A man like this one is a gift to be treasured…even if he has only been given to me for twelve months.

And if I am able to keep him for longer…well, then there would be no luckier woman on the face of this earth.

All my earlier reservations and inhibitions seem paltry in the face of that truth.

I want to tell him all this, and more.

But the chaos of the reception and the dinner that follows gives me no opportunity to speak to him alone, and I wait with mounting impatience while everyone finally bids goodbye.

When the bidai ritual is complete, I hold Payal close, and am relieved when she does the same.

Amma comes up to us, and puts her arms around us , drawing us together, as we have always been.

Tears blur my eyes , and I barely manage to convey my wishes for a perfect married life to Payal.

When she has finally been driven away, I turn back to my mother again, and rest my head against her shoulder for a moment. But I have to let her go when Nani comes up to us, and tells us that she is leaving for the airport right now. Arnav and I see her off to her car, and then it’s just the three of us, standing outside the now-empty venue.

“Bitiya, you should leave too. You have an early flight back, you should get some rest…”

Before I can respond, my husband’s voice cuts into the night air.

“Mrs.Gupta, you know that I have to leave for the States as early as possible. But Khushi doesn’t have any such constraints, so if she wishes to, she’s welcome to stay here with you for a while.”

My eyes widen in shock, since we have never discussed any such thing before. The plan has always been for me to fly back with him when he leaves the next day, and I am stunned that he is proposing to do otherwise.

Before I can reply, he turns to face me.

“I am leaving now for the hotel. You can stay with your mother for a while, you have your own car so that shouldn’t be a problem. And if you do decide to stay here longer, let me know and I will have your things sent to your mothers’. The jet will come back for you whenever you decide.”

I find myself unable to do anything other than nod jerkily, and watch in stunned silence as he says goodbye to my mother.

And then he’s gone, leaving me with a worried and anxious mother.

“Khushi, is something wrong? Have you said or done something to make him angry? Or is it us, did we…?”

“No, Amma, there’s nothing wrong! He’s just…just preoccupied with his work, that’s all. Come on now, let’s head home.”

“Khushi, you don’t have to…”

“I want to be with you at this time, Amma. Please don’t stop me…”

And she doesn’t.

We drive home in silence, and when we get there, we spend an hour looking over old photo albums that bring back all my childhood memories.

Amma makes us a cup of tea, and we drink it out on the little patio.

“Khushi…are you really staying here for a few days?”

A part of me wants to do just that.

I know that Amma is in a vulnerable place right now, and the comfort of having me here is something that would go a long way towards making up for Payal’s absence.

But the larger part of me is being pulled away at this very moment, and I can no longer fight the battle against my own body and heart.

“Amma, I…”

She reads my refusal in my eyes, and speaks before I can continue.

“You don’t have to say anything, bitiya. It’s alright, I understand. A woman’s place is first and foremost by her husband, isn’t that what I have always taught you?”

I manage a shaky nod, then embrace my mother with all the love in my heart. We stay that way for a few moments, and then I stand up slowly, knowing that this is it.

As I walk out towards the car, I get the bizarre feeling that today , Payal isn’t the only daughter who is leaving this house for good.

This bidaai feels real, like it never did before.

Anticipation and apprehension make me nervous on the drive back to the hotel, and I wipe my clammy palms repeatedly against my saree on the ride up in the elevator.

I use the key-card to open the door, and walk in slowly, noticing that all the lights are on inside.

My heart stills as I see him standing by the window, his back towards me as he looks outside.

“So you decided to come back after all?”

I take a deep breath, knowing that my success depends on my refusal to be affected by his cold words.

“There was never any doubt that I would.”

My words make his back stiffen, and then he finally turns to face me.

It is only then that I notice the crystal glass in his hand, half-filled with an amber liquid that glints under the lights.

“Where you are concerned, I’ve learned to take nothing for granted.”

I walk towards him slowly, my heart pounding with each step. I know that clearing the air is the first step towards lessening the distance between us, but his forbidding stance doesn’t make it easy on me.

“I…I’m sorry about this morning. It was spoken in a moment of panic, and I regretted it immediately. I wanted to come back as soon as I’d gotten into the cab, but I would have had to take the ring-road to get back here and there simply wasn’t enough time…I did try to call you, though, and I…”

“I wasn’t particularly interested in hearing anything more from you at that point.”

The words act like shards, piercing through my heart that is already aching with regret. But I know that I have to tell him the truth…it is the only thing that might help me now.

“I…I understand. And…thank you for coming to the wedding and reception…even though it wasn’t something you wanted to do and…”

“I never run from my responsibilities. I know that it doesn’t quite sound like the arrogant jerk you married, but that’s the truth anyway.”

Is that all I am to him now, a responsibility?

My mind shies away from that thought, and I know that I have to keep fighting for him…for us.

“I…I think deep down, I never doubted that you would come. But I knew that I…I had said something unforgivable…and I wasn’t sure. And when I reached there, I knew that it had all been useless in the first place. I did not need to run there…there was no need. Payal’s little drama was over by then, and I…”

“I don’t need this elaborate explanation. You are obviously forgetting the fact that I happened to overhear what you said to your sister this afternoon. But if you are expecting me to congratulate you for what you’ve done today, then you are wasting your time.”

He raises the glass to his lips and drains it in one go, then walks over to the crystal decanter that is sitting on a side-table. As I watch him fill the glass again, I know that I have to keep going, no matter how painful this is going to be.

“You’re right, I don’t deserve praise for something that I probably should have done a long time ago. But when I did those things for Payal over the years, it always seemed right. And I did them out of love for her…and Amma. I didn’t think that it was harmful…not then, anyway. But today I was forced to see that I…might have been wrong. Payal isn’t equipped to deal with the harsh realities of life, and I am responsible for that…”

“So now do you want to congratulate me for making you see the light?”

The sarcasm is cutting, but I refuse to let it affect me.

Taking a deep breath, I take one step closer.

“I was just trying to make you understand what I have been thinking about today. And knowing what you feel about your own family, I thought you’d have some empathy…have you ever thought about what you would have done if it was Anjali Di in Payal’s place today? Wouldn’t you have done anything to give her the happiness she deserves?”

For the first time since I have entered the room, the icy facade cracks a little.

“Di would never be foolish enough to create that kind of scene. And we don’t share that kind of unhealthy relationship anyway.”

“But what if she needed your help? Wouldn’t you have gone to her right away? This is your family we’re talking about…the one you prioritize over all else. You’ve done it over the years…and so have I. I have seen the necessity of maintaining some distance today, but…how do you expect me to change the habit of a lifetime in just one day?”

“If reason and logic weren’t enough to convince you to do that, then you are obviously as foolish as your sister.”

I have tried my best to remain calm until this point, but something in his condescending tone sparks my temper.

“Not everyone is a slave to logic like you are, Mr. Raizada. Some of us allow ourselves to be ruled by our emotions, foolish as they are.”

He raises his glass to me in a mocking toast.

“Here’s to foolish emotions, then. So now I’m ever more curious about what brought you back here. If your family holds the greatest draw for you, then why are you even here at this moment?”

Calm descends upon me again as I realize that this is it.

It’s not about Payal or either of our families anymore.

That has been dealt with…and now, it’s all about us.

I weigh my words carefully, knowing that what I say could tip the scales in either way now.

“I came back because I wanted to.”

My reason is simple, and I know that it holds the convincing ring of truth.

His expression doesn’t change , though.

“Did you come back to add some more venom to your parting shot of this morning?”

I look away for a moment, trying not to let myself be affected by the roiling emotions in the room.

When I look back at him, I raise my chin and look directly into that cool brown gaze.

“I came back because I wanted to apologize, to begin with. I have berated myself for saying those words to you more times than I think…but somewhere during the course of this evening, I realized that those words weren’t exactly a lie.”

The cracks in his facade crack just a little more.

“No, it wasn’t a lie. Not to you, at any rate. You have never thought of this marriage as being a real one, have you?”

“I didn’t, not initially. But what I said this morning…I wasn’t talking about our marriage. A fews day ago, I asked you to move into my room, and that was only because I wanted to see if this could be real. I had crossed that hurdle then, so it wasn’t really about that.”

“So you’ve come back because you expect me to fall at your feet in gratitude for throwing that crumb my way? If the answer is yes, then you’re going to have a long, long wait.”

I take a deep breath, then plunge ahead with every ounce of courage at my disposal.

“You can be as obnoxious as you want, but that isn’t going to stop me from telling you what I meant. And the simple truth is that we might have taken several steps towards making this marriage real, but not in every way. Especially not in the one that counts. And so what I said this morning makes sense…in a way.”

“I have no idea what you’re going on about, and I don’t think I care anymore.”

He takes a swig of the amber liquid, and I walk closer to him before he can do more.

“Did you know that I crave for your touch almost every minute of every day?”

I watch in some satisfaction as my bold words make him choke on his drink.

Wiping his mouth with the back of his hand, he stares up at me with burning eyes.

“Is this your way of apologizing? By telling me some crap about how irresistible I am to you? Thanks, but I already know that, sweetheart.”

The endearment has an edge of cruelty that throws me for a moment, but I rally quickly.

“I know that you are aware of it, Mr. Raizada. All I’m trying to say is that I have stopped fighting that battle against my needs a while ago. ”

I walk up to him until I am within touching distance, and stop while I can still retain some semblance of control.

“Tonight is about surrender, plain and simple.”

His eyes flare in acknowledgement for a moment, but then the icy mask falls back in place.

“I don’t think so. I think that tonight is about guilt. I don’t know what you’ve got planned, but I’m not interested in any of it.”

A few moments ago, I might even have believed him.

But the subtle changes in his body language assure me that he is curious about my intentions. That gives me the courage to go on, and my voice lowers to a whisper.

“This isn’t about guilt. This isn’t about my family…or the contract. This is about what I said this morning. What we have between us…it isn’t real…not yet. You aren’t really my husband.”

He parts his lips with the obvious intention of making a scathing retort, but I forestall him by raising my hands to my hair and releasing it from it’s confines.

His eyes follow the dark , heavy mass as it descends past my shoulders, and I count it as a minor victory.

“Nice. But I’ve seen it all before. So now that we’ve settled that, what is it going to take for you to go away and leave me here to get pleasurably drunk in peace?”

He lifts the glass from the counter, but this time, I’m ready for him.

I place my hand over the rim, stopping him in his tracks.

“I don’t want you to get drunk. Not tonight.”

He lowers the glass slowly, and I take advantage of his momentary distraction.

Pulling off my bangles in one quick movement, I drop them on the counter before him.

He looks down at them, then fingers the blue gems almost absentmindedly.

The earrings and necklace follow in quick succession, and I place them directly in his palm when I’m done.

When he finally looks up at me, I rejoice inwardly to see that the icy facade has crumbled completely.

Smoldering molten eyes meet mine, and a thrill runs through my body when I realize that the time is upon me, at last.

“I don’t know what you think you’re doing, but you don’t need to return these to me. My gifts are just that…gifts.I don’t expect them to be given back to me at the end of the day.”

I smile , then raise my trembling hands to the brooch that holds my pallu in place.

“I’m not returning your gifts.”

My heart is racing madly, but I know that I need to take this next step.

I want to do this, and for a moment, I savor the incredible knowledge of being free to follow my desires for once.

He stands up now, and his gaze burns into me with an all-encompassing fire.

“Then what the hell are you doing, Khushi?”

The brooch parts ways with the saree, and I allow it to drop to the counter as well.

I take that final step that brings me up against him, and it is only then that I remove the pallu from my shoulder.

Holding his gaze, I place it is his hands before replying.

“Isn’t it obvious? I’m making this real.”

He drops the pallu as if he is burned, and steps away from me.

Instinct urges me to cover myself, and I feel acutely vulnerable as I stand there before him . The net blouse that had seemed so beautiful before now seems pitifully inadequate, and I battle the desire to flee.

“I don’t need a bloody sacrifice! I’ve told you before, if this is about guilt or your version of an apology, then I want nothing to do with it!”

I have already told him that it isn’t, but it’s obvious that he doesn’t believe me.

At that moment, the full extent of this morning’s disaster hits me again.

I fight back the anxiety and focus on what needs to be done.

I need to conclusively prove that I am doing this because I want to…and that it has nothing to do with guilt, and everything to do with what I have desired for so long.

And I can think of only one way to do that.

I close the distance between us and place my hands on his shoulders. Raising myself on my toes, I look up into that burning gaze…and place my lips on his.

My body goes up in flames at once, but I try to hold myself back, conscious that I need to show him just what this means to me.

He doesn’t move at all, and doesn’t touch me in any way.

But after a moment, his lips part for a second, and I immediately take advantage. Deepening the kiss, I wind my arms around his neck, pulling him close. The intoxicating taste of him makes me dizzy, and I close my eyes, lost in the moment.

When I finally feel his response, I step back at once.

I wait for my breathing to steady, and then look him in the eye.

“Did that feel like an apology to you?”

“You’re playing with fire here.”

His voice is low, and throbs with the beginnings of desire. But he makes me no move towards me, and I know that the battle isn’t won yet.

“I’ll take fire over ice any day, Mr. Raizada.”

He stares at me for a long, timeless moment, and then his gaze clears.

I know that he has reached a decision of some sort, but I don’t quite know what it is and that fact makes me nervous.

“Maybe we should test that theory. What do you think?”

He gives me no chance to respond. Bending down suddenly, he picks up the trailing pallu and wraps it slowly around his hand before straightening up again.

Walking up behind me, he begins the process of unwinding the saree.

Shivers of anticipation run down my body and I sway slightly, but I know that this is still a test of sorts. I know that he still doesn’t believe that I am going to follow through on this, and his next words confirm that fact.

“Do you know, Khushi…after this morning, I’m slightly wary of anything that comes out of that delectable mouth of yours. So if you’ll pardon me if I don’t believe you right away. ”

He has come full circle now, and gathers the length of the saree in his hand before giving it one final tug.

“If this really isn’t about an apology, then I can only assume that you are doing this because you cannot stay away anymore. ”

“I can’t. I’ve already told you…”

“I know what you’ve said, Khushi. But now I want proof.”

He drops the saree on the floor, and my eyes go automatically to the discarded silk.

The cool air whispers across my exposed navel and neck, and I cross my arms around myself in an instinctive gesture.

Immediately he pulls them away, then shakes his head.

“No more hiding, Khushi. If you go through with this, there won’t be any more secrets between us after tonight. When I take you, I want it all.”

There isn’t any tenderness in his gaze at this point.

Passion and raw possession war for supremacy, and everything inside me clenches in response.

That shocks me for a moment.

Whenever I have imagined this moment, I have thought of it as being a gentle, slow exploration that will lead to a coming together of two people drawn together by love and passion.

But now I find myself shivering in desire for a man who views me with blatant hunger, and not much else.

“I won’t back down, if that’s what you’re wondering.”

I know that what I’ve said is the truth.

I can’t back down at this point, my own desires hold me captive.

He weighs my words for a moment.

“So you keep saying. Maybe it’s time to test the truth of that.”

I brace myself for a kiss, or a caress of some sort…but he shocks me again.

His hands go to his shirt, and he opens the first button as I watch him with a suddenly dry mouth.

“You have undressed for me…it’s time I return the favor.”

I follow the line of buttons until he reaches the bottom, and then watch as he pulls the shirt open. But when he tries to slide it off his shoulders, the brace gets in his way.

He looks down at it, then tears it off before throwing it on the counter.

With a shrug, he pulls off his shirt with no evidence of pain.

“It was going to come off tomorrow anyway.”

His hands move to his trousers and I find that I cannot tear my eyes away.

He knows this, of course…his husky chuckle is proof of that fact.

“Feel free to touch, Mrs. Raizada.”

His pants hit the floor, and I stare at the black boxers which are his only remaining garment now.

But then he moves, and I automatically take a step back.

He stops too, and his gaze turns serious for a moment.

“Last chance, Khushi. If you don’t want to do this, tell me now.”

I look up at him, then shake my head.

“I want you.”

It’s just three words, but they seem to break the iron grasp of his control.

Pulling me close with one arm around my waist, he takes my mouth in a deep, searing kiss.

His tongue tangles with mine in a sensual dance, and his hands move up to the knots of fabric that hold my blouse in place. A sliver of caution makes it way to my brain as I taste the alcohol on his tongue, and I pull away reluctantly.

“I…are you really drunk?”

I don’t think so, but I can’t be too sure.

And I don’t want our first time to be tainted with the memory of an alcoholic haze…

He laughs, then pulls me close again.

“Why? Are you afraid that I’ll ravish you in a drunken stupor?”

He goes for my lips again, but I turn my head away.

He kisses my neck instead, then trails his lips upwards before taking my earlobe between his teeth.

My knees threaten to buckle, and I clutch his shoulders while pressing myself against him.

He leans away, and his gaze is serious again.

“I had just poured my first glass when you came in, Khushi. I’m not even mildly buzzed. Look, I’ll prove it to you.”

He lets me go, then walks back to his discarded trousers. I have to admit that his smooth, coordinated movements are nothing like what I had imagined, and I know that he is telling me the truth.

He pulls his wallet out from the pocket of his trousers, and betraying warmth spreads through my cheeks as I finally see the objects he takes from it.

With a knowing smirk, he tosses aside the garment and walks back over to me.

“See? I can’t really be drunk if I remember protection, can I?”

My gaze falls on the foil packets in his hand, and my mouth drops open in shock.

“Why do you have so many in your back pocket?”

He drops them on the counter, all but one.

“I’m married to the woman who makes me hard with just one glance. I thought it made sense to be prepared for any eventuality. Or eventualities.”

His teasing grin makes me blush , and I quickly look away.

Awkwardness descends for a moment as I try to understand what I’m supposed to do next.

What does one do when she’s standing before her half-naked husband?

The answer seems obvious…I want to touch him, to caress every inch of that chiseled chest and allow my hands free rein.

But that decision is taken out of my hands when he suddenly grasps my hand in his.

“Come with me.”

“But I…where?”

He looks back over his shoulder, his grin triumphant and teasing all at once.

“We need some water to douse that fire.”

In a few moments, I see exactly what he means.

He takes me into the vast marble and chrome bathroom, and stops when we are standing before the glass-walled shower. For the first time, misgivings overpower me as I watch him step inside and turn on the overhead rain shower as well as the jet sprays in the wall.

“What are we…”

“We’re taking a shower together, of course.”

“I can see that…but why?”

He steps back toward me, then places both hands around my waist.

“I want you to be comfortable with being naked before actually getting down to business.”

I look over dubiously at the shower, even as my heart pounds at his words.

“And you think a shower is the best way to do that?”

“I think what we need is a slow exploration of each others’ bodies. Trust me on this.”

In a moment of clarity, I realize that I do trust him. With this, and everything else.

I shove my inhibitions aside and try not to over-think this. I have to assume that he knows what he’s doing, and I cannot deny the curiosity and excitement about where this is going.

I slowly raise my hands to his naked chest, then trail them over the well-defined muscles, even as he pulls me closer. His hardness presses against my stomach, and a deep, answering need overwhelms me for a moment.

His hands move to the knotted material at the back of my blouse, and it gives way after a couple of firm tugs. The blouse hangs off my shoulders, and I know a moment’s panic as I realize that now, I will be completely bared to his gaze.

He lowers his head to my bare shoulder and kisses it once, making me lose my train of thought.

In moments, the blouse is at my feet, and his hands move to my underskirt.

When that lies on the floor as well, I am left wearing only my white lace undergarments.

He steps back a little, and a wry smile curves his mouth.

“White lace? That’s very…virginal.”

I don’t quite know what to say to that, and he doesn’t wait for a response.

Taking my hand in his, he steps back into the shower and closes the glass door behind us. With his free hand , he twists the taps so that the shower is now more of a gentle rain rather than a powerful spray.

I look everywhere but him, the intimacy of the moment shattering the remnants of my poise.

But then he draws me under the water, and I find myself lost in another passionate, toe-curling kiss. But it is over almost as soon as it begins, and in a swift move, he turns me so that my back lies against his front. Taking my hands in his, he braces them against the glass wall before me.

The warmth of his body sears across my skin, and I cannot stop myself from pushing back against him.

A small part of me wonders how things have escalated so quickly, but the newly awoken feminine part rejoices in the intimacy.

My eyes fly open as I feel the clasp of my bra being unhooked. I grasp the front in both hands, unable to let go.

He leans closer, then brings his hands up over my bare midriff…until they finally rest just under my breasts.

“Do you know how long I’ve waited to see your breasts? To touch and taste and caress…don’t deprive me now, damn it.”

The need in those words shocks me, even as I feel the impact right down to my toes. My grip loosens and the bra falls to the floor unnoticed, even as the water continues to rain down on us.

I wait for his touch, but he surprises me by reaching across to the shelf in the corner. My breathing is unsteady as I watch him open the bottle of body-wash, and then he quickly lathers up his hands before bringing them back to my body.

Again, he presses himself against my back as his hands go around my body…and this time, he doesn’t stop until he is cupping the weight of both my breasts in his hands.

The slickness of his touch makes me arch back against him, and I barely recognize my own voice as I plead with him for more.

“Please…”

He laughs softly against my ear.

“Begging me already? I thought that would start when I had you under me…in bed.”

The devil goes on to torture me for what feels like hours, never quite giving me what I really want. His fingers move down my torso and then back again to the underside of my breasts, but he stays well away from the aching peaks that crave for his touch.

Within minutes, I have had enough.

I place my hands over his and still his progress, but he isn’t having any of that.

“I’m barely getting started here.”

He removes his hands from my grasp and reaches for the soap again, and I close my eyes in sensual defeat. My body is thrumming with his touch,and every part of me feels alive like it never did before. My breasts feel heavy…leaden, almost. My lips are throbbing for his kisses…but it seems like he has other plans.

He leans away a little, and this time, his hands go down my back. The firm, slick pressure feels amazing, and yet I find myself craving for more.

His next move shocks me out of my daze in a hurry.

“What are you…”

“Open your legs for me. Now.”

His hands leave my back to trail down my front once more, but this time his target is the already aching place between my thighs. He removes the last barrier between us, his hands moving to replace it.I press my legs together, uncomfortable with this even after all that has gone before.

“I…I can’t…”

He lets go immediately.

“Just as I thought. You aren’t really ready for this.”

I whirl around, forgetting that we are in the shower. My feet slip against the wet tiles, and it is only his hold that stops me from sliding to the floor.

“I am ready! I just don’t think…”

“That’s the problem, you’re thinking too much. Just turn off that overactive brain of yours and go with the flow.”

I lean back against the glass wall and stare up at him, noticing for the first time that his eyes are almost black with hunger. His jaw is taut with strain, and I suddenly realize that he is holding himself on the edge.

A surge of power floods through me as I realize that I have brought him to this state.

Tonight might be about surrender, but it is his as well as mine.

That thought gives me the freedom to throw away the last of my inhibitions, and I allow myself to relax against the wall.

He smiles, then leans forward to kiss me briefly.

“That’s my girl.”

He look down at my wet body, and swallows visibly as he moves his hands on their downward path again. I close my eyes, bracing myself for his touch.

But when it finally comes, it unleashes a sharp, blinding streak of pleasure that I have never felt before. I clutch his shoulders for support as his knowing fingers find that hidden spot again and again, their movements relentless as my body hurtles towards an unknown peak.

Then suddenly, he stops.

My eyes fly open , only to clash with a burning gaze that singes me where I stand.

“You are ready for me. More than I had ever imagined.”

His low voiced tone is almost a growl now, and my nails bite into his shoulders as I struggle to return from the precipice. I realize at that moment that his anger hasn’t left him…not entirely.

And instinctively, I know what I have to do.

Taking a couple of deep , steadying breaths, I lever myself away from the wall, taking him by surprise.

“Are you ready for me?”

My words shock him more than my actions, his eyes betraying his surprise before they regain that amused, knowing look again.

“Why don’t you find out, Mrs. Raizada?”

It is an invitation that I hasten to accept at once, my hands going to the bottle on the shelf even as I struggle to come to terms with what I am about to do.

I have no experience with this, but I am going to trust my instincts and hope that it is enough.

When my hands are filled with lather, I rake them down his chest quickly before stopping at the waistband of his boxers.

Do I really have the courage to go through with this?

When I look back up at him, I have my answer.

His gaze holds a taunting, challenging quality that immediately fires up a response within me.

I take a deep breath, then hold his gaze as I slowly lower the boxers down the length of his long, muscled legs.

He kicks them aside at once, then pushes me back against the glass wall.

“So now that we’re both naked…what do you want to do next?”

I close my eyes for a moment, overwhelmed by his proximity. His toned body is an invitation to my senses, but I realize that I have no idea how to proceed.

His husky voice answers that question.

“Touch me.”

I open my eyes, knowing exactly what he means by that.

Before I can rethink my decision, I lower my hands to that hard ridge that has fascinated me for so long.

The water has washed away all the soap from our bodies by now, and I look down at him, my fingers trembling as I touch the smooth hardness.

He groans out loud, then leans toward me to rest his forehead against the glass wall.

That response makes me bolder, and I stroke him once…then again and again.

Suddenly, he pulls away with a jerk.

“Enough.”

As his smoldering gaze meets mine, I stifle a gasp at what I see there.

For the first time since I have met him, Arnav Singh Raizada is not in control…not anymore.

Before the fear can take hold, he takes both my hands in his and raises them above my head before taking my lips in a deep, drugging kiss.

As the kiss turns wild and our tongues swirl and battle for control, I realize that I am rapidly losing touch with reality as well.

The only thing that occupies my senses is the touch and feel and taste of him, and I clench my hands against his as I strain towards him.

From that first moment when I had acknowledged the attraction, I had an inkling that things would be explosive between us.

But what I hadn’t known was just how explosive it would be.

Fire runs through my body as he nips and sucks my lips with tongue and teeth, and when I am finally able to free my hands, I clasp his head to mine, unwilling to let him go.

He lowers his hands to the back of my thighs, and I instinctively know what he wants.

In a swift move, my legs are wrapped around his waist and I find myself pressed back against the wall as his hardness nestles against that damp place between my thighs.

The kiss only ends when we need to come up for air, and I stare up into wild , dilated eyes that hold a limitless hunger in their depths.

He looks down at where our bodies are clasped tightly against each other, and slowly moves forward until the very tip of him is lodged against my center.

I close my eyes, unable to wait…craving for him to fill the emptiness inside.

He thrusts forward, and I gasp when I feel the hard warmth inside me for the first time. I know that he has barely entered me, but the sensation is dizzying and I find it hard to breathe.

He withdraws then, and leans his forehead against mine as he battles for breath…and control.

“Damn you…how do you do this? How can you tempt me to take you here, against the shower wall…without even any protection?”

The words snap me out of my sensual daze, and I slowly lower my legs to the floor as he pulls away from me.

Reaching out to the taps, he turns them off and pulls open the glass door. I try to regain control over my shaking body, and take his hand when he holds it out to me.

Shivering slightly, I watch him as he reaches for the large white towels and proceeds to wrap one around himself before handing one to me. When I have managed to wrap it around myself, he shocks me by bending down and picking me up in his arms.

I throw my arms around his neck and hold on tight, unable to think past the clamoring needs of my body at this point.

In simmering silence, he walks out of the bathroom towards the king-sized bed in the middle of the room, pausing only to pick up one foil-wrapped packet on his way there.

He sets me down by the bed, then unravels the towels from both our bodies before laying me down on the pillow.

I look up at him, drugged with passion and aching with an unfulfilled need.

He isn’t looking at me at this point. His attention is focused on the packet he is ripping apart with his teeth, and I watch in fascination as he dons protection before coming down beside me.

For a long moment, he leans over me with his forearms braced on either side of my head, his eyes swirling with secrets and hidden intents.

At that moment, I have never wanted anything more than to know what he is thinking.

But before I can say anything, he lowers his lips to mine in a kiss that is slow and tender, something that is unlike any caress that we have shared before.

I close my eyes, reveling in the sensations that flood through me again. I remember the feeling of him being lodged inside me for a brief moment in the shower, and I find myself impatient for that again.

But he takes his time with the kiss, gently sweeping his tongue along the seam of my lips before plunging it inside. I follow his lead, holding his head down to mine as the heat mounts in my body again.

When he finally pulls away, I look up to find that deep, compelling gaze trained on mine with a singular focus.

“Before we do this, I need to make something clear.”

I nod jerkily, unsure of where he’s going with this.

He rubs his thumb along my damp lips before he continues, and even that brief touch makes me writhe against the sheets.

“What is about to happen between us…this isn’t about my anger, or your apology. This isn’t about the contract, or what this marriage is or isn’t. I’m doing this because I desire you like no other, and that’s what this night is about.”

I stare up at him, wondering why he feels the need to clarify things at this point.

“This night is about what I desire , too.”

My words make him smile, and I see a glimpse of the old Arnav there.

“I will make sure that your desires get fulfilled. And mine.”

With those words, the time for conversation is apparently over. He comes over me fully, and this time, his kiss is one of possession.

I lift my hands to his hair, then trail them down his back as ribbons of fire run down my body wherever it is in contact with his.I writhe against him, my breasts pressed up against his chest as I find myself reaching for that unknown destination again.

He pulls away slightly, then lowers his lips to my neck before trailing them lower.

I gasp as he reaches his target, his warm lips closing around one aching peak while his clever fingers torment the other at the same time. I arch against him, offering my body up for his touch.

He molds my breasts with his hands and suckles them now, hard.

I grasp handfuls of the bed-sheet in my hands as everything spirals out of control, and moan out loud as his lips move down my body until they reach my navel. Swirling his tongue there, he caresses my thighs with both hands as I arch up against him again.

The need to touch him in turn overpowers me at that moment, and I raise my hands to his muscled back, my nails digging into his flesh as I try to get as close to him as possible.

He rears back suddenly, his face a mask of tightly-leashed passion.

I know what’s coming next, and I part my thighs even as he looks down at my body.

A sharp gasp leaves my lips as he takes his hardness in one hand before guiding it down to where I ache for his possession.

With one sharp nudge, he lodges himself inside me, just a little.

I rake my hands down his back, wordlessly asking for more…and then he gives it to me. Burying his face in my neck, he moves inside in small increments, and I feel the stretching that accompanies his penetration.

And yet, I crave for more.

He is too slow, too deliberate for my liking. I am a slave to my body’s hunger for this man, and I want him to be equally lost at this moment.

I open my eyes, then raise my hips toward him just as I pull him down using my grip on his back.

His careful movements give way to a sharp thrust that sends a dart of pain through my body, and I cry out loud in agony.

He stills, then rears back to look into my eyes.

“Damn it! Why did you have to do that? I was being so careful…damn, did I hurt you?”

Eyes scrunched in pain, I try to roll away from him, but he holds me down beneath him.

“Don’t move, Khushi…that will make it worse!Breathe, sweetheart.”

The endearment makes me still, and I try to do as he says.

And then I realize that he is right, after all. The pain ebbs away before settling down into a dull ache, and when I move my hips slightly, I find that other, more powerful sensations are quickly taking hold.

I open my eyes, and find myself looking into a worried countenance.

Tenderness for this fascinating, infuriating man overwhelms me then, and I pull him down for a kiss, my hands winding themselves into his hair.

We are still locked in the kiss when he withdraws, and I brace myself for what is yet to come.

He eases back into me slowly, and I find that slow isn’t what I need anymore.

He repeats the movements, and my body accepts his with increasing ease.

But then something changes. He stares into my eyes, and I don’t quite know what he is looking for.

But when he moves again, his thrust sends me back against the headboard.

I grasp his back again, and he pulls my legs around his waist before slamming back inside again.

His movements grow rapid and uncontrolled, and I try to match him thrust for thrust, my body slipping and sliding against the sheets as the frenzy mounts between us.

Everything inside me tightens as I climb that final peak, and I strain towards the end, not knowing how to find it. His gaze finds mine, and I finally see that wildness I have been looking for.

Through gritted teeth, he whispers into my ear…

“Say my name, damn it.”

But speech is beyond me at the moment, and I can only stare up at him with parted lips, my chest heaving with the force of my breaths as his thrusts continue unabated.

“Before this night is done, I will make you scream my name.”

I barely grasp his words then, because everything is rapidly spiraling out of control. My inner muscles clamp down on him and I hear him groan, and his movements grow wilder, his hips pounding against mine in the race to the finish.

And then finally, I come apart at the seams, lost in a flash of blinding light. My entire body surrenders to the inferno, and I ride out the waves of unending pleasure, even as I am vaguely aware that he continues to move against me.

And yes, I scream his name.

Many times, with the last one ending in a moan as I collapse against the sheets in a tangle of limbs.

But he isn’t done with me yet.

As I come back to my senses, I feel the hardness within me and gasp weakly, just as he starts thrusting into me again. His head thrown back, his shoulders braced above mine, he is a marvelous sight to my starved senses.

And then he stills, pouring inside me with one last, mighty surge.

His body comes down on mine, and I caress his back with shaking fingers.

What just happened between us was intense, and beyond anything I have ever imagined. Remnants of pleasure still singe through my veins, and I relish his weight on top of mine.

After a while, he raises his head slightly, then leans forward to kiss the side of my neck.

“Sleep, Khushi.”

Exhausted beyond comprehension, I do just that.

“Khushi…”

His voice is the first thing I hear the next morning, and I blink my eyes against the bright light that floods the room.

He is sitting beside me in bed, and I sit up straight with a sudden movement that brings a half smile to his face.

“I didn’t mean to startle you. I waited till the last moment to wake you up, but now there’s no time to waste. The jet has a flight slot booked in less than three hours from now.”

Three hours!

My gaze falls on the clock, and I am unable to believe that I have slept for about eight hours straight after all that happened between us. My body feels sore in places that have never been sore before, and I stretch gingerly before drawing the sheet around me and placing my feet on the floor.

He stands up then, and I realize that he is fully dressed in a black cardigan and dark jeans.

I have no idea what I am supposed to say to him, and his enigmatic gaze certainly offers no clues.

I struggle to my feet, and he looks on with a tinge of anxiety now.

“Are you alright?”

I open my mouth to reply, but his phone rings just then and he turns away with a sharp gesture of frustration.

As he walks out toward the living area, I wind the sheet securely and walk towards the bathroom, conscious that we are running short on time here. It will take us over an hour just to get to the airport, and I know that I have no time to waste.

Dropping the sheet outside the glass shower stall, I step inside and turn on the overhead spray before tipping my head back. The warm water relaxes the muscles that have been sorely abused by the unaccustomed activity of last night, and I lazily reach for the body-wash, just as the door to the bathroom opens.

I still, then turn around to look through the glass . My husband is standing at the door, an arrested expression on his face.

His gaze drops down my body, and I slowly place the bottle back on the shelf. Anticipation runs like fire through my veins, and I watch in fascination as his gaze darkens with an answering desire.

But then he turns around and leaves the room, stunning me with the force of his rejection.

I slump against the glass, unable to make any sense of this.

Last night had been fabulous…or so I had thought.

What if it hadn’t been the same for him?

Doubts begin to plague me as I reach for the soap again, but I have no time to think things through. The next half hour flies by in a flurry of activity as I complete my shower and get dressed before hurriedly packing up, and then we’re off.

Sitting beside my husband, I wait for his eyes to meet mine…but that never happens.

And then I lose the opportunity because my phone rings inside my purse, and I answer Amma’s call with a reluctance that surprises me.

I spend the next half hour talking to her, and when I finally cut the call, it is only to find my phone ringing again almost instantly. This time, it is one of my friends from back home, and the rest of the drive passes as I conclude my conversation with her.

We complete all the formalities at customs and immigration, and then we are being taken along a private walkway that leads to where the jet awaits us.

I battle the feeling that I am walking beside a stranger, and once again, I decide to bide my time until he is free to talk to me.

But that opportunity doesn’t present itself until we are in flight. He is busy with the pilot until we take off, and then his attention is occupied with a file that he pulls out from his bag.

When the flight reaches cruising altitude, he barely waits for the seat-belt sign to go off before walking back towards the cabin.

Anger and anxiety war within me as I try and decipher the meaning of this.

I don’t quite know what he is playing at, but I decide that I will not take this lying down.

I walk over quickly to the cabin and pull open the door, just as he walks out from the adjoining bathroom.

He looks up at me questioningly, his gaze that of a polite, disinterested stranger.

“We need to talk.”

My voice comes out louder than I intended, and his eyes go past my shoulder to the open cabin door.

I turn around and quickly close the door before facing him again.

He stares at me impassively, then shrugs before sitting down on the bed.

“Sure. Is something wrong?”

I take a deep breath, knowing that losing my temper isn’t going to help things. I sit down on the opposite edge of the bed, my body beginning to respond to his despite the undercurrents in the room.

“You tell me. This certainly isn’t the kind of behavior I expected from my husband the morning after we..we…”

“…had sex for the first time?”

The words ‘made love’ had been on the tip of my tongue, but now I realize how foolish that would have been.

“Yes. I…I though that things would be different now that we…”

“Is that why you did that, then?”

“No! You know perfectly well why I…I thought I’d made that clear last night!”

He looks away for a moment, then sighs.

“And so you did. I apologize if I made it seem like I was still punishing you for yesterday, but I wasn’t. I now know why you said the things you said…and if I’m brutally frank, part of the fault was mine, too.”

“What?”

“Yes, it was. Giving ultimatums isn’t really my style, and I don’t know why I did that yesterday when you wanted to go to Payal’s aid. If I hadn’t been blinded my anger, I would have tried to understand your reasons and used logic to stop you…not an autocratic order that made no sense to you at that time.”

His self-realization floors me, and then I realize just what he is saying here.

“So…if this isn’t about what happened last night, then why are you…being so aloof?”

A sudden possibility rears it’s head, and I blurt out the words before he can respond.

“You are bored already, aren’t you? You did say that this was exactly what happened after you were in a relationship for a while…that’s the reason, isn’t it?”

He looks on with a speculative expression, then tilts his head to one side.

“Interesting. Even after you’ve held me inside you and felt me come apart, you still think boredom is what ails me?”

His words send a flash of heat through my system and I look away at once, embarrassed by my body’s response.

He leans forward across the bed, and raises my face to his.

“Yes, boredom was a problem with my earlier relationships. But I find it disturbing that you would think that about us. I want to get to the bottom of this once and for all, Khushi. I am tired of dealing with your insecurity about yourself. It baffles me as to why a gorgeous, sexy woman thinks of herself as being unattractive, especially when I’ve made it clear that you make me lose control…something that no one has ever done before!”

I stare up into his open, puzzled gaze and something within me snaps.

A while back, he had asked me for complete honesty in this relationship, and I know that the time has come for me to share my innermost fears and doubts in the hope that he might understand where I’m coming from.

I lean back against the headrest, clenching and unclenching my fingers in the folds of my peasant skirt as I struggle with the words that might make him understand.

“I…just don’t think I’m the sort of woman who can hold you. Certainly not for more than a short period of time…”

“But why, damn it? Why do you think you are inferior in any way? I’ve noticed this about you from that time in Lucknow when we discussed the contract, so I really don’t think that this is all about me. This insecurity stems from a deeper place, and you’re damn well going to tell me what it is! Who the hell was he, Khushi?”

I look up at once.

“He?”

“Yes. Who was the man who made you feel like this? As if you hold no value for anyone, as if you aren’t good enough? Was he an ex? A boyfriend? Who?”

“I haven’t ever had a boyfriend.”

He straightens up, then runs a frustrated hand through his hair.

“I don’t believe you.”

That makes me bristle.

“I am not lying!”

“Then tell me the truth!”

I stand up quickly, my head spinning as the words tumble out rapidly.

“It was my father! There, that’s the truth!”

He stands up too, obviously shocked.

“Your…father?”

“Yes! He made it clear that mere girls like me and Payal were worth nothing in the grand scheme of things. And then he left. Why would he have done that if there had been something worth staying for? We had nothing…we meant nothing to him. And that’s why he left. There, do you have your answer now? If I was a non-entity to the man who gave me life, how do you expect me to believe that I am suddenly special enough for the bachelor of the year?”

To my astonishment, he throws his head back and laughs.

“I can’t believe this. Are you sure you are a honors student with an IQ that is off the charts? Because there’s no way that you can be that intelligent and still believe in the crap you’ve just spouted!”

“Don’t you dare belittle…”

“There’s nothing to belittle,because your reason doesn’t even make sense. I had you investigated, remember? And I knew then that your father left your mother because he allowed his hormones to rule him. He ran off with his personal assistant, didn’t he? And he did that because he was a bastard who couldn’t be bothered to keep his vows. Not because there was anything wrong with you and Payal!”

I want to believe him, but the reasoning of a lifetime can’t be quelled in a matter of minutes.

But before I can say anything, his eyes widen in sudden realization.

“Damn. That’s why you treat Payal the way you do. Because you’re afraid that if she doesn’t have a reason to keep you close, she might leave you too.”

His words hit close to home, and without warning, I feel the sting of tears in my eyes.

“I…”

I can’t say anything else, and I turn away quickly as the tears start flowing down my cheeks.

“Damn.”

His low-voiced curse is a precursor to his touch, and I resist for a moment as I feel his arms go around me.

“Khushi…I didn’t mean to make you cry.”

I relax against him then, and allow him to sit back on the bed with me on his lap. His arms seem like a haven now, and I wait for the storm to pass.

When I finally raise my head, it is to find his lips close to mine.

The kiss seems natural, and what follows is a natural progression too.

He lies back against the headboard, pulling me across his body as his lips part mine. I lose myself in the kiss for a moment, but the memory of this morning intrudes.

With a sudden jerk, I pull myself out of his arms.

“What’s wrong, Khushi?”

“I…I can’t do this.”

“Why not? Is it because we’re on a plane?”

I look around at the spacious cabin, knowing that it is bigger than most bedrooms in normal homes.

“No…”

“Then what is it? Why can’t we…”

“Because I don’t want a repeat of this morning.”

He smiles, then gathers me back into his arms.

“This morning had nothing to do with you, Khushi. It was all me…my weakness was what drove me out of our bed and away from you.”

I look up into his compelling eyes, unable to associate the word with this man.

“What?”

He traces my lips with his thumb, then lowers it to my neckline.

“Last night was…the best night of my life, Khushi. What I felt with you was unimaginably good, and I wanted nothing more than to stay inside you all night, and well into the morning.”

I shove at his chest, trying not to give in.

“Then why didn’t you? And then when I was in the shower…”

“When you were in the shower, I wanted to continue where we’d left off yesterday. Only this time, I wouldn’t have stopped until I was buried to the hilt.”

The seduction of his words makes me melt inside, but I am determined not to show it.

“If you…wanted me that desperately, then why didn’t you act on it?”

“I wanted to. I lay awake most of last night with a raging hard-on, but I couldn’t do anything about it because I knew that you would be sore. I left the shower for exactly that reason, and couldn’t even bear to be in close proximity with you during the car ride.”

I stare up at him, wanting to believe in his words.

He senses my doubts, and takes my lips in a kiss again.

“Khushi…that is the truth, and I swear it. Look, I’m not telling you that everything is fine between us and life will be perfect from now on. You know as well as I do that we have unresolved issues, and I am willing to work on them when the time is right. But whatever problems we may or may not have, sex isn’t one of them. What we have between us is potent, Khushi. Never doubt that…and never doubt the hold you have over me.”

He pulls me down into another kiss, and this time, I go there willingly.

His honesty warms a deep, dark place inside me, and I wind my arms around his neck, surrendering to this man again.

His fingers move to the row of buttons that run down the front of my shirt, and soon, he has me bared to his gaze.

“White lingerie again?”

I have no breath to reply because he strokes his thumbs against my nipples at that moment, bringing my breasts to life. I arch back, offering myself to him.

His lips replace his hands, and he suckles me through the fabric before rearing back and pulling down the cups of my bra. The warmth of his mouth drives me crazy with desire, and I rock against him in an instinctive caress that seems to inflame him.

He lies back on the bed and pulls me down on top , then takes my lips in another searing kiss.

I feel his arousal against my thigh, and trail my fingers downward until I can caress him through the trousers.

He pulls my legs around his hips, then helps me sit up until I am astride him. I brace myself against his shoulders, my hair falling like a curtain around us.

He pulls out his wallet with one hand, then surprises me by handing me the foil packet.

“Put this on me…but only if you aren’t too sore.”

With unsteady hands, I give him my answer. Fumbling with his zip, I pull it open, then lower his boxers so that his arousal springs free. He raises my skirt until it is bunched around my waist, and I turn my attention to the foil packet in my hand.

The need to have him inside grows with each passing moment, and I drop the packet twice before finally pulling it open.

Just then,a knock cuts through the charged atmosphere.

“ASR? Sir, you need to return to your seats right now. We are going to be flying through an area of considerable turbulence in about two minutes from now, and you both need to be strapped in.”

He stares at the door in disbelief.

“Fine. We’ll be out in just a moment.”

I bolt upright immediately, flushing with the knowledge that the stewardess might have easily have guessed what was happening inside.

His voice is a frustrated growl now.

“Damn it all to hell. We were just moments away from joining the mile high club!”

I look over at him dubiously.

“Don’t tell me that you have never done this before.”

He sits up slowly, his gaze never leaving mine.

“As a matter of fact, I have never brought a woman on board before. You are the first, Mrs. Raizada.”

I cannot stop the smile that spreads across my face, and when I turn towards the door, I find myself wishing with all my heart that I am also the last.

Two days later, I walk down the corridor that leads to the conference room at A.R.Corp, smiling to myself as I imagine my husband’s look of surprise.

The past forty-eight hours have been the most heavenly of my existence…barring one small thing that bothers me whenever I allow myself to think about it at all.

I turn my thoughts away from that direction, and think about my husband instead. We have spent two nights together now, and none of that time has been wasted in sleep…not until the wee hours of the morning. He has taught me about pleasure and desire and passion, and I cannot stop myself from craving for more.

Last night, he had taken me out to dinner at yet another fancy french restaurant. While the food was excellent and we had a wonderful time there, I woke up this morning with the intention that I will do something better for him…something different.

And so I’ve spent most of the morning cooking him lunch, and now I have persuaded his secretary to let me meet him without him knowing about it in advance.

Not that his secretary took much persuading, of course. Apparently, the boss has given standing orders that I should be allowed in whenever I want, no matter what he is doing at that moment.

I knock once at the door before going in, anticipation buzzing through my veins.

He looks up from the cup of coffee in his hand, his face reflecting his pleasure and surprise.

“Khushi?”

“Surprise! I’ve brought you lunch today.”

Smiling at me, he speaks briefly to the man seated across him at the table, and the man leaves immediately. I take his place, then place the bag on the table and begin pulling things out.

“I made parathas , aloo sabzi, and paneer.”

“Sounds delicious, but I didn’t know you could cook.”

I lean across the table, placing my chin in my hand.

“There’s a lot that you don’t know about me, Mr.Raizada.”

“Arnav.”

“Arnav. I still have some secrets, you know.”

The truth behind my flirtatious words makes me look away for a moment, but then his words draw my attention again.

“I look forward to unraveling them all.”

“Finish your lunch first, Arnav. Then if you are a good boy, we’ll think about it.”

“I’m hardly a boy, Mrs. Raizada. And you should know that better than anyone else.”

The back and forth banter continues throughout the meal, and I find myself getting turned on without a single touch. When the last dish has been cleared, he walks over to my side and pulls me up into his arms.

“You’ve forgotten dessert, you know.”

I smack myself on the forehead.

“I knew I’d forgotten something! I made halwa, but I left it in the fridge!”

“It’s fine, Khushi. I have a far better idea.”

His kiss gives me a clue, and as always, I lose myself in his intoxicating touch. In moments, he has thrown his jacket aside and unbuttoned his shirt, while mine hangs loose across my chest.

He lowers his lips to my breast, but I suddenly realize where we are at that moment.

“Arnav! We’re in your conference room, anyone can walk in on us!”

“They wouldn’t dare. Not when they know that I’m here with you.”

His logic seems flawed, but I lose my train of thought as he takes the aching peak in his mouth. His hands are everywhere, playing me like an instrument with finesse borne of knowledge.

I writhe against him in abandon, lost in the throes of my passion. When he suddenly straightens up and turns me around before pressing me against the table, I look over my shoulder, puzzled.

Until his intention becomes clear.

He unzips his trousers and takes care of protection before raising my linen skirt to my waist, and I gasp as I feel him nudge against the damp place that aches for his possession.

I lean over the table as he thrusts into me from behind, his hands coming up to cover my breasts as we lose ourselves in a maelstrom of desire.

My body hurtles towards completion before his, and the rapid pace of his continued thrusts soon pushes me over the edge. He follows soon after, and leans against my body as we both gasp for breath.

After a few moments, he withdraws from me and straightens both our clothes before turning me around to face him.

“That’s what I want from you. Pleasure and satisfaction, unfettered by any boundary. I want it all…no secrets, nothing hidden. You are mine, Khushi.”

I smile up at him shakily, then bury my face in his neck.

How can I tell him that I am harboring a secret?

How can I confide in him without knowing if it’s really something to be concerned about?

I think back to the note has been addressed to me , something that I received when we got back from India. Using words cut out from a newspaper, the ugly words had been pasted across a thick, yellow card.

I don’t know if it was a prank, or if I should be taking it seriously.

I don’t even know why I am hiding it from Arnav, of all people.

As I press myself closer to him, all the warmth from our intimate encounter leaves my body to be replaced by a chill as my mind throws back the image of those words, and I shiver in his arms.

 
 
You should never have entered into this contract marriage   with  him.
You are going to suffer, bitch.
 
 
 
 
*****************
 
 
 
 
A/N: This is my longest update, ever! Just hope it didn't put you all to sleep ;)
I'll be traveling this weekend, and so I cannot pinpoint the time of the next excerpt and update. As soon as things settle down, I'll be sure to let you know.

And before I go, just wanted to let you all know that Chapter 8 will be from Arnav's perspective.

Hope to see you then!
 
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238 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Bibliobibulus
    Feb 25, 2016 @ 06:21:18

    Fantastic chapter. The intensity, the passion, the surrender.. All amazingly written. And what an intriguing end to the chapter.. I’m looking at NK. Lavanya was the obvious choice, but that NK seems a bit shifty to me.. Looking forward to the next chapter.. 🙂

    Like

    Reply

  2. scrapbooker10019
    Oct 17, 2015 @ 22:22:37

    So I hate phones, and Aman… Oh wait Aman does not have that role in this story, and knock and people who knock on doors….

    Now on a more serious note… be careful of the words you speak coz one day you might have to eat them… don’t remember who said that or something along those lines… Oh boy! Major groveling on Khushi’s part… It would have been too one sided if she hadn’t done that… It has been all Arnav doing everything so far… I know they are okay now, but it still feels like something precious has been damaged… irrevocably? No please…

    Another twist in the tale huh? I am enjoying this so much! What’s the story with NK? I know he wasn’t there in this chapter… but the end of last chapter threw me for a loop!

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply

  3. jasbinji
    Apr 30, 2015 @ 20:51:55

    That was awesome
    Mind blowing update

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply

  4. kathyarsh
    Dec 03, 2014 @ 01:46:18

    u broke the promis !!! U said no cliff hangers 😥 well hopin for the bst !!! Cant rlly guess any1 now !!! Gtg ! Stay blssd 🙂 luv ya loaaaaads !!!
    -kitty

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply

  5. irshada
    Sep 18, 2014 @ 16:31:22

    great story. I love your style of writing. So mesmerizing.

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply

  6. bluemystique
    Aug 29, 2014 @ 21:29:50

    I’d like to send you a bill for all the thanda thanda pani I just needed to purchase.

    You know, you could have just told us you didn’t like the name Steamiest, that you wanted a traditional name for the FF. And here I was, thinking, you didn’t want to write stuff like that. #FansSelf

    First of all, what a rollercoaster of a ride! From angst to heartbreak to worry to sadness to hope to eagerness to sighhhhhhh

    I was so so worried at the beginning of the update. What Khushi said drove a wedge between them and I wasn’t sure Arnav would come out of it anytime soon.

    But him coming to the wedding gave me hope.

    And then the hope broken when he said she was a responsibilty.

    ASR has may shades, but I was terrified of this one. I saw the ruthless businessman in him, and my god is he scary!

    BUT Khushi is no less, is she?

    She chose to fight for him, with him, and she won! But it wasn’t like she was making the decision for the wrong reason either. She is practical and level headed, and took the decision because she wanted to. I loved that.

    And then…kya bolu ab? And DAN DAD FAINT THUD!

    But then I was worried again! AGAIN JUHI! IN THE SAME UPDATE! Is it fair, I ask you?

    But then you make me swoon. This is so not good for my heart. All these rapidly changing emotions.

    Ab yeh note kya hain!? You said no secrets! Ramanchi! Total Ramanchi!

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply

  7. Naishi
    Jun 07, 2014 @ 11:16:21

    Hey, the story is really engaging. I love the simplicity in it. However, the language used seems um, inappropriate? I wish you wouldn’t have Arnav use words like “ails me”. It seems old fashioned and I imagine him as a pot bellied 50 year old man in the middle of an intense scene and that makes me laugh. PLEASE, PLEASE don’t take this the wrong way! I love all of your work and think you are brilliant, it’s just this one nitpick

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply

  8. Fuzzy
    Jun 02, 2014 @ 22:26:17

    Nk wrote that??? OMG……..

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply

  9. namendra60
    May 27, 2014 @ 13:12:30

    That was combustion! You really know how to up the chemistry between these two. But nothing is a cake walk for them, it really required a lot of resilience & perseverance on Khushi’s side not to buckle under Arnav’s salvos. Even the day after was not easy, with Khushi having to confront her inner fears of inadequacy. Felt Arnav was a a little heartless here.

    Now this threat in no uncertain words, especially about something which is privy to only Arnav, Khushi & NK. Knowing your penchant to completely play out your characters contrary to expectations, is NK behind this?

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply

  10. Pinky
    Apr 27, 2014 @ 17:30:43

    Love making was hot and sensual. I was worried in the beginning about Khushi hurting Arnav. But they made up, and how… oh, who is threatening Khushi. Is that Lavanya or NK or Aman?

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply

  11. Prachi
    Apr 11, 2014 @ 15:15:21

    This is one of the most intense story I have read on arhi. And I must say I loved it to core. The way you have used each character names from original show but changed their characteristics to such an extant that every time I have an perfect O expression like Khushi.

    THanks for such a nice story. Keep up the nice work.

    ¬abcdefg1234567 from IF

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply

  12. arjuhisis
    Apr 06, 2014 @ 15:49:12

    aaah finally today is the 6th of april – the much awaited day

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply

  13. pallavi24
    Apr 05, 2014 @ 10:14:53

    Loved reading the chapters..this is an amazing piece of work…loved reading the Prev chapter from Arnav’s point of view…knew he had his own reason for marrying khuhsi than what he stated . love how their relationship is progressing…at times they fight like a real couple but then at times they behve like they’ve just started dating..its nice to see khushi starting to give her best to make this marriage work..and whoa the chemistry and intensity they share is so explosive..
    love the way you write..you make us feel each and every emotion the character feels as we read it…when i read your stories I go through a wide array of emotions.

    and I knew you wouldn’t be able to resist adding cliffhanger somewhere in your story…now need to wait for the next update to see how this proceeds

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply

  14. lazylassie
    Mar 30, 2014 @ 10:43:52

    Sorry, couldn’t comment earlier because of a busy AD.

    This is a very beautiful story. Simple and sweet. Yes, it is very different from your other stories but has an exclusive Expel’s touch to it 🙂

    The chemistry between the two is explosive. They will be aware of each other even in a very large crowd.
    Payal and Khushi’s relationship is quite interesting. It’s high time and Khushi realised that Payal should be left to tackle her own problems.

    And I just can’t stop myself from falling for this Arnav. I’m glad that you decided to write this from Khushi’s POV. From the first time I didn’t want to read what was going on in his mind. 😛

    IF Name- Mini17

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply

  15. mishtysengupta
    Mar 29, 2014 @ 14:05:37

    awesome update!!!! truly loved it….<3 ❤ blush… blush…blush..<

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply

  16. mishtysengupta
    Mar 29, 2014 @ 14:05:37

    awesome update!!!! truly loved it….<3 ❤ blush… blush…blush..<

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply

  17. xyzsm
    Mar 27, 2014 @ 21:13:07

    its a beautiful story with a beautiful style of writing…:)

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply

  18. sarahjac12
    Mar 26, 2014 @ 15:44:16

    a) I really love the long chapters 🙂 how could you even think that we could fall asleep through that???
    b) essence of the chapter : Khushi is finally beginning to live her life. I am so glad that Garima came forward and had the much needed conversation with her…. Ja Khushi ja jeele apni zindagi 🙂
    c) Although Arnav has done his best to wipe out all of Khushi’s insecurities but I have an inkling that they may rise again….*ponders*
    d) next chapter from Arnav’s perspective….and it’s a honeymoon …..am holding my breath now
    e) you CANNOT, I repeat you CANNOT stay away from cliffhangers, can you?

    Sarahjac IF

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply

  19. shay.sana
    Mar 26, 2014 @ 09:03:46

    I love it when they have conversation…it is mostly heart to heart,no hidden feelings ,clear..chap was very descriptive passionate 😉 ..
    who sent that note waise,it sounds like warning for difficult life with arnav…or warning dat someone might hurt her…my mind rounds up on lavanya for taking away arnav or aman for his business loss..only updates can confirm..till then scratching my head

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply

  20. aayt
    Mar 26, 2014 @ 03:33:01

    khushi surrendered to his desire after that blunder she made it completely it seems she is falling hard curious about Arnav’s POV his want him feel the same way like her desire is not enough for a successful married life sex is awesome but not enough for life time commitment who was the person LA or NK khushi’d discuss with him all that teaser is interesting can’t wait for Saturday

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply

  21. amv63
    Mar 26, 2014 @ 02:11:49

    Khushi, Khushi yeh kya bol diya tunay? Often we say things in anger that can cause irreparable damage. And Khushi’s words to Arnav definitely fall into that category today. All her life she has focused only on Payal and her happiness but its time she realized, as Garima said, that there are times when a woman’s husband must come first.

    Arnav, despite all his BS about not believing in marriage and it’s confining bonds, has proven to be the pretty close to the perfect husband and partner…loving and supportive while letting Khushi set the pace in this relationship.

    Still her realization of this is the first step toward setting things right between them, whether it is for 12 months or a lifetime. And boy, talk about make up sex, Juhi!! 🙂

    Payal…she has this sense of entitlement about both Khushi and their mother. That they will always be around to clear up her mess and mop her tears. Hopefully she will grow up before the baby is born.
    It was good to see Garima showing some backbone here and owning up to her own mistakes in shaping Payal’s personality while helping Khushi realize her own role in it.

    And now this little note to Khushi…I hope it’s not NK because he seems like such a genuinely nice person. For Arnav’s sake I hope not because there seems to be a lot of faith I NK. Lavanya? Again, for Arnav’s sake I hope it isn’t her because then he’s going to be devastated that he trusted Khushi’s life with the very person who wanted to harm her.

    Juhiji, hurry back. Our heroine is in danger and you’re on holiday? Blasphemy. 😉 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply

    • amv63
      Mar 26, 2014 @ 05:47:51

      Forgot to add…Despite his desire-addled brain Arnav did the responsible thing by taking care to use protection. I’m glad you focused on that, Juhi, as did Khushi herself 🙂
      He was obviously prepared (or hopeful) for any eventuality! Good going, ASR.

      Like

      Reply

  22. dsbj
    Mar 25, 2014 @ 19:58:07

    wow!! what a wonderful chaper.. wonder who might be threatening her.. cant wait to see what happen next.

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply

  23. mayabhi
    Mar 25, 2014 @ 18:45:50

    That was an amazing update. Though the passion n intimacy was sizzling, the part i liked the most was where arnav was not giving in too easily wen khushi came back n started apologising. Wen we see things from his standpoint, wat khushi said n wat she might still consider this marriage to be wud be heartwrenching for him..

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply

  24. Pankti
    Mar 25, 2014 @ 18:12:38

    You make my toes curl, girl! The love making was intense, and passionate…and much needed respite to all the sadness and anxiety of the earlier part of the update. These two are hell sexy…wow!
    I am glad Khushi got a chance to understand her own sheltering, and the reasons behind it, from Amma and later on from Arnav. Yes we do behave that way, when some of our insecurities rule us,…try to over compensate our insecurities by over protecting others…or fearing they will leave us if we dont do that. Its just natural for her to feel that, but the way she handled it….with Payal, her Amma and lastly with Arnav was excellent. Especially how she made Arnav believe that she wanted what was real, and physical intimacy is as real a part of marriage as any other emotional bonding can be. I am happy Arnav was up for it..lol. Good for us.

    Aaah and this note! This makes me curious. Feels like someone she knows from first is sending this….or someone he knows that hates his new wife. Dont know but I have a fear if she doesnt share this with Arnav, things can turn bad for both of them.

    You cannot stay away from secrets, can you sweetheart? I am loving the intrigue and enigma behind these two even after 7 updates, and I am already enjoying the predictions on the note.

    Cant wait for next,
    Thanks 🙂
    Pankti

    Liked by 2 people

    Reply

  25. Sami
    Mar 25, 2014 @ 01:43:48

    Chapter seven was awesome! The long chapter was a real treat and one that I read more than once.
    Loved Arnav’s devilish ways and the fact that he took him then in the shower first. The slow exploration was bang on and glad that they have crossed this next phase in marriage. Consummation was written well and definitely one of the perks of having a blog 🙂
    I was surprised about Khushi’s issues regarding his father, but Arnav was smart enough to catch on. Hopefully she will overcome her issues but now a new twist regarding the note. Why is she hiding this from Arnav?
    I will not make any guesses since they will probably be wrong but am curious as to who is threatening her..

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply

  26. pk2500
    Mar 24, 2014 @ 23:04:52

    Amazing update and very interesting too… And I so wanted th get Arnav’s pov as their relation has moved to another level…and you granted my wish 😄 without me even asking , thanks.
    I just love the way Khusi is realizing the different facets to Arnav, and accepting that she is attracted to him and that he is someone who has become important to her…. It was dishearting when they fought and Khusi said hurtful words to him but then her senses prevailed and she apologised and in a way which was passionate and worth remembering.
    In your stories it is difficult to predict what will happen next and the threatening note is not comforting as well as the fact that Arnav does not know about it
    Thanks for the mail to let me know of updates
    Poonam

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply

  27. parimaap
    Mar 24, 2014 @ 22:21:24

    Amazing update

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply

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