Lunch was being served in the courtyard at the Gupta haveli, with all the relatives and friends sitting on colourful mats on the floor, while the elders were being served seated at the diwans along the periphery.
Khushi stopped near the kitchen door with a heavy plate of hot puri’s and smiled as she saw Buaji regaling a small group of women around her. “Where was Payal jiji?” she wondered as she quickly scanned the open area and veranda running all along it. A small frown appeared on her brow as she recalled the last time they had all collected here like this… how she and jiji were aghast at the dowry demands made upon babuji and how in an emotional fit, Khushi had rushed out to speak to her jijaji… and come to sheesh mahal…” And now she was marrying into that very family. Khushi was aware of the problems that Akashji’s mother had created between them, and knew she had only relented when her son had threatened to remain a bachelor all his life if he were not married to Payal.
“NO NO … I must not remember all that now,” Khushi shook her self. “This is jiji’s moment, I cannot ruin it with thoughts of the past”. Suddenly her lips tingled, remembering her brush with Arnav yesterday in the alcove. A pretty blush stole over her cheeks, and before Khusi could react, she felt a slight push behind her and a naughty voice whispering in her ear … “You’re not planning on eating all those yourself, are you now?”
Aman! Thank god (read, devi mayyia) he was here to take her mind off that awful man, who she had sworn to tolerate for her jiji’s sake. “No, I am not!” she muttered, watching him wink at her and walk out with a big bowl of curried potatoes, and a ladle to serve anyone who wanted more. Khushi shook herself out of her reverie and joined him to serve the guests.
Lunch over, the family was gathered together in the baithak, chatting and planning the rest of the events over hot cups of elaichi chai. Khushi was sitting with Payal admiring her mehndi while Aman was busy chatting with babuji in one corner.
“We have all been invited to the Sheesh Mahal this evening for Akashji’s sangeet”, babuji announced. After a pause, amma refused to go, saying there was too much work here and she had to also prepare for the haldi ceremony the next morning. All the ladies agreed that it was best they stayed back and the men folk could go, as relations had to be, after all, maintained.
“You’re coming with me in the evening”, Aman’s voice made Khushi startle, as he crept up behind her. “I have to speak with you, and I’m not getting a moment alone with you in this houseful of women!” he groaned. “But Aman, I don’t want to go there,” Khushi all but whined… shutting out those horrible memories again. “I want to be with jiji, as much as I can be”.
“No.” He stated forcefully, so unlike the Aman she knew. “I’ve come all the way here, just so that I can speak to someone. You have to come with me.” “And I know no one there, so all the more reason that you have to accompany me,” he added pleadingly. “I’ve already spoken to babuji, and he is okay with it. Says it will be nice to have a feminine presence there, else the samdhi’s might find it awkward.”
Khushi found herself cornered. Very rarely could she say no to the people who were important to her… “I hope I don’t regret this”, she muttered under her breath, as she agreed to accompany them to the cocktail. Seeing Payal jiji’s worried eyes seeking her’s, Khushi gave her a reassuring smile, not wanting to worry her. “I’ll be okay, jiji”… they shared an unspoken communication.
Sheesh Mahal was decked like a palace against the back starlit night sky. As Khushi stepped on to the red carpet rolled up over the grand staircase going up into the hotel, she felt a shower of rose water and petals being showered on them from the young girls that lined the walkway. She looked up to see Anjaliji’s mamaji walking towards them, his hands folded in a welcome namaste. “Oh God! Why did I ever agree to come here … Aman, what you have to say had better be worth it”… she muttered, looking around for that one person that she wanted to avoid the most.
The walk up those red-carpeted steps was the longest and most stressful one that Khushi had ever taken. “Where was he?”; “How could I avoid him?”; “I better have Aman at my side always.”… she kept muttering as she walked along with her family towards the bedecked building looming large ahead!!
The entrance lobby was nothing like Khushi remembered (and why the hell could she not stop remembering, she chided herself!) The twinkling fountain with lotus blooms, the candle-lit chandeliers, every possible corner with an elaborate flower arrangement and glittering fairy lights had transformed the dark and dingy place she had stumbled into that fateful night.
“Just a minute”, Aman pulled Khushi towards the office doorways, “I need to speak to the GM here about some business matters.” “You promised not to leave me alone, remember,” he added innocently! “Uff! Aman,” Khushi smiled indulgently, following him towards the office area.
As she waited, while Aman spoke to the smart gentleman in one corner, Khushi lost in her thoughts wandered towards a small inner atrium from where she could hear soft music. “This place is really beautiful”, she admired in awe, looking at the stained glass windows and be-decked pillars. The music seemed to be coming from outside the bay windows that lined one wall of the atrium. Little did she realize that this was the exact place where Arnav Singh Raizada had insulted and humiliated her when they first met.
As she was walking backwards, taking in all the decorations, she felt herself coming up against a warm presence behind her. Hands, that she remembered only too well, reached out to steady her, as she stopped wide-eyed, with a start against that hard chest. “NO”, she thought to herself… “Not again! It just cannot be...”
Arnav stood rooted, savouring the moment. He had seen her enter the atrium, as he was walking towards the bay windows to check on the arrangements outside. Her pristine beauty had made him stop as he watched her gaze at the decorations with wonder struck eyes. He took in her long hair cascading down her bare back. She had left it open today, just pinned on one side with bunches of white frangipani. Her white sharara and short figure-hugging kurti were running havoc on his thoughts. A net sequin-encrusted dupatta was draped across her neck, trailing behind as she glided across the room looking ethereal. Her pretty pink toenails peeped out of diamond-encrusted sandals that he could just barely glimpse, as she lifted her sharara to walk easily. A lost princess belonging here in this palace, he thought roughly.
She was now backing up to where he was standing, and he felt his heart miss a beat as he anticipated her coming into his arms again. He had not been able to get that soft brush of lips out of his mind all night, and had tossed and turned sleeplessly. As she came to a stop against his chest, his hands automatically went to her waist, as if that was the most natural thing for them to do. To welcome her where she belonged – in his embrace.
Khushi felt his warm breath on her ear, and felt herself shiver in anticipation. “Lost again, Ms Gupta?” he whispered close into her ear, his hands holding her firm against his torso. His lips touched her sensitive lobe where a single diamond droplet twinkled delicately. Khushi felt herself loose her balance further and fall deeper against him, as he held her upright. “No… I…” she stammered, trying to turn around, but not being able to as he had her pinned to him gently but firmly. “You seem to make a habit of landing up at this same spot like a lost kitten”… he jeered, angry at her for his own inability to control his wayward feelings. No one was able to affect him as this chit of a girl could, and suddenly Arnav felt angry with her, for being the cause of his weakness. He felt her stiffen at his comment, and became angrier, as he could sense her eyes well up with sudden tears.
Khushi jerked herself out of his embrace and fell forward against a pillar. Their past encounter at this very place playing on both their minds, Arnav continued to stare angrily at her back as she clutched the pillar to support herself, while gathering her wits. Somewhere in the recesses of his mind he saw a scared young girl hiding her modesty with her opened tresses while small pearls that he had angrily broken were falling all around them. Guilt washed over him, for hurting her once again in the same manner… he reached instinctively out towards her to comfort her and winced as he saw her jerk away in fear and run out of the room in a flurry of white.
“Damn”… he muttered angrily. “What is it about her that neither can I stay near her nor can I walk away”.
“Chote??” Anjali di was looking for him. He turned to watch her walk across a chiding expression on her face. “The guests are all here… Payal’s family too… and you are hiding here instead of looking after them!” she said exasperated at his cool aloof behaviour.
“Yeah, as if I don’t know Payal’s family is here”, he thought to himself, as he walked out into the cool moonlit night to get over the tedious task of greeting and socializing with his guests.
“ASR”… a cool sexy drawl diverted his attention as he watched Lavanya saunter over to where he was standing on the portico. Looking sultry as she always did in a floor length black gown, which was brazenly slit all the way up to her thighs! “Nani is going to have another field day”, Arnav thought to himself as he raised his eyebrows at Lavanya. Having her hanging on to his every word was getting tiresome now! Why could she not be spirited like Khu… “STOP IT”, Arnav chided himself. Lavanya was perfect for him – she understood him, did as he said, was always eager to please, and more importantly kept prospective brides out of his way… an arrangement he liked. Then why was Lavanya’s clinging getting more and more annoying these days.
“Where have you been?” Lavanya pouted, while draping herself on to his muscular frame. “I’ve been looking for you all over. Go get me a drink please. Thank god the party is in a hotel, at least I can have a decent drink here”.
Arnav was in no mood to get into an argument with her over this. If she wanted to do this again, after that fiasco on Di’s anniversary, let it be between her and nani. He was done, with them and their constant squabbles. He motioned a waiter for a drink for Lavanya and left her to mingle with his guests, walking towards where Akash and Di were speaking to Khushi’s father and some other relatives. And thankfully ‘she’ was not with them, so this seemed like a good time to go and welcome them. “And where the hell is she?”… he wondered unwillingly, hoping that she was okay.
At another end of the lawns Aman sat with Khushi wondering what happened to his friend again. He found her all distraught and silent when he returned and no amount of questioning could get the reason out of her. “Women!” he thought with exasperation… he would never understand them! Which reminded him of his own pending talk with Khushi… was this the right time? She looked pale and upset and was refusing to say anything at all. “I need to eat something”, he heard her say suddenly. “Okay, she is upset”, Aman confirmed his own chain of thought. Eating means very upset or angry, as far as he knew her. Of course, she was not going to storm into the kitchen and start cooking here, but he could certainly get her something to eat to calm her. He looked around and motioned a waiter carrying snacks towards them. Requesting the puzzled man to leave the entire tray in front of Khushi, he watched as she gobbled one paneer tikka after another without a single thought. “Women!”... he raised his eyebrows once again.
“Okay, so you wanted to talk to me”, her sudden change of subject startled Aman. He started at her incredulously. WOW, that was a fast recovery, he thought with smile… food always worked! “Hmm… but are you okay now”, he asked gently. “Yes, lets go somewhere a little quiet”, Khushi suggested, walking towards a gazebo she spotted at the end of the lawn. She needed to get away from here. That monster may appear anytime and break her resolve to remain calm for her jiji’s sake.
Arnav sensed her presence amid all the noise and people he was surrounded by. His sharp black eyes searched for her longingly and a frown appeared on his brow when he finally spotted her at the far end of the lawns walking towards the secluded gazebo with none other than Romeo from yesterday. His blood rushed into his head and fists clenched around his glass of whiskey… he abruptly ended his conversation with his guest and strode towards the gazebo purposefully.
“REALLY?????” Khushi all but screamed… “you are in love”…. She jumped at Aman and gave him a bear hug, forgetting all her own issues and where she was. She was thrilled for her friend, who deserved all the happiness he could get, wonderful person that he himself was. “Khushi, Khushi…” Aman’s muffled voice came from somewhere amid her dupatta and tight hold… “you don’t understand… she’s not speaking to me… we had a one night stand … she was a batch mate… a good friend… and I proposed in the morning … and she stormed out in anger… and is not taking my calls or messages or anything … women!!! I’m at my wits end… what was wrong in proposing … I thought you guys liked that sort of thing!
“Uff, Aman, you dumbo! … did you tell her you love her,” Khushi asked him affectionately, her arms still around him. “Love her … of course I love her… isn’t it obvious… why will I want to marry if I don’t love her”, asked an irritated Aman looking quizzically down into Khushi’s laughter filled eyes.
Both of them did not notice a furious figure walking towards the gazebo his piercing black eyes taking in the scene in front of him. The romantic flower decked gazebo with its dim lighting, Khushi listening to something Romeo was saying and falling into his arms like a ripe fruit. Arnav did not even notice when the glass of whiskey he was clutching angrily shattered into pieces with the force of his clenched fingers. All he saw was that she was smothering Romeo with all her might and laughing gleefully, while he, surprisingly, looked peeved. He heard the words “love… marry …” as he neared them and completely lost his mind.
“So you have found a new scapegoat now, to make more money”, he snarled as he watched them break apart in surprise. “And he’s even willing to marry you, you little gold-digger.”
Everything happened in slow motion after that as a shocked Khushi watched a furious Arnav mouthing obscenities at her while walking into the gazebo. A part of her registered that his hand was bleeding and wet. As she looked towards a startled and then livid Aman who suddenly loomed in front of her, protecting her from the oncoming monster, she heard his lethal, soft voice, “What did you say?”… Aman!!!!, her happy-go-lucky friend, who she never saw loosing his cool…. Was that his voice?? Khusi looked from one to another as a hysterical giggle rose in her throat.
She watched stunned as Aman lifted his knuckled right fist and gave Arnav Singh Raizada the meanest upper cut across his lip. She watched horrified as Arnav reeled back equally stunned clutching his bleeding upper lip… was that blood from his hand or his lip, Khushi thought wildly … she watched as Aman took her by her hand and stormed out of the gazebo, pulling her along, while she turned to look back at a shocked Arnav Singh Raizada wiping his lip and staring after them with a mixture of shock and anger all over his face.