Khushi stepped on to the picturesque lawns, carefully lifting her lehnga so as not to dirty the hem, or trip, god forbid! ‘These heels were a bad idea,’ she scolded herself, missing her comfy jootis, as the spindly heels dug into the soft soil of the lawns.
As she looked around the groups of people already gathered, she realized she was terribly late. Curse you, Arnav Singh Raizada, she muttered, quelling the rush of desire that went through her as she recalled him in her room earlier. It was because of him that she was late… it had taken a rushed trip to the bathroom, to get her bearings back, and also so that the hairdresser could not see her aroused state! She had splashed enough cold water on her face to turn herself frigid, before she walked out composed and sat at the dresser to let the lady do her magic on her long tresses.
Arnav felt her presence even before he turned from the far corner of the lawns where he was standing with a group of business associates, his back to the house.
‘Don’t turn,’ his head warned immediately, as he turned around slowly, with complete disregard for the warning bells. As everything once more faded into oblivion around him, he excused himself from the group and started walking towards her as if being pulled by a magnet. ‘What are you doing?’ a sane voice asked inside his head, ‘where are you going? and what are you going to say to her?’
Ignoring all the warnings, he continued his slow walk, his eyes never leaving her hesitating figure standing on the poolside steps looking about her. She was delicately holding up her lehnga, from which peeped pearly white toenails ensconced in the strappy sandals that he had seen at her bedside. He hair had been swept up very professionally in an elaborate arrangement of curls and glittered as if tiny stars were embedded there. Some stray ringlets had escaped and were sensuously falling around her face and neck. Arnav had a sudden urge to move them aside, to have access to her sensitive swanlike neck.
His careless walk was stopped as he saw Di suddenly appear beside Khushi, taking her by the hand towards where nani was sitting.
‘ASR’, the familiar husky whine, diverted his attention to Lavanya, who was walking towards him in her standard black attire. ‘How do I look?’ she pouted at him, twirling around as she neared him. ‘You always look stunning, Lavanya,’ he answered in his auto pilot mode, his eyes never leaving the other vision in black who had now reached nani’s table and was raising her delicate hands in a ‘namaste’ as she was being introduced around. He remembered those hands on his lips as while ago, and turned sharply away from her towards Lavanya, who was now hanging on to his arm. She dragged him across to where some more business associates were waiting to meet with him.
* * *
The evening progressed slowly for Khushi. She felt totally alone amid everyone who knew each other one way or another. Jiji too was completely monopolized by mami; being introduced and photographed the entire time. Regretting her decision, or rather her parent’s decision, to come here alone, she walked unnoticed to an isolated corner of the lawns and leaned gratefully against a tree to rest her aching feet. And to top it all, she was now getting terribly hungry too!
She took off her sandals and dug her aching feet into the cool soft grass, leaning back against the tree with a sign of relief. Opening her eyes after a couple of seconds, she found herself looking directly into a pair of molten eyes that had been the cause or her torment for some time now. He stood a few yards from her; phone in hand, conversation forgotten, staring unabashedly at her.
‘Great,’ muttered Khushi under her breath, feeling inadequate leaning there against the tree, minus her footwear and hidden from the rest of the party. ‘Is this some conspiracy, devi mayyiya,’ she questioned his presence wherever she went! ‘Am I not be rid of him at all,’ she moaned.
Alarm bells rang loudly in Khushi’s brain, and she fumbled around with her bare feet trying to find her sandals in the dark and make a run for it back into the party. ‘Uff! Where were they,’ she fumed, as she found the scrutiny of his gaze unnerving.
Breaking eye contact finally, she looked down to try and locate them lifting folds of her lehnga slightly. Khushi gasped audibly when she felt his warm hands on her slim ankles, and looked down to where he was now kneeling at her feet, shocked at the swiftness of his movement.
He lifted one ankle gently, and stared at the slim silver chain that encircled it, the small bells tinkling in the still of the night. His other hand reached out for the sandal that was also downturned in the grass beside where they stood.
Khushi stood transfixed as he gently took her ankle and put the sandal back on first one foot and then the other. She was clutching the tree behind her as if her life depended on it, as feelings she didn’t know existed, were erupting in her fuddled brain. Before she knew it both her feet were neatly shod in her sandals and he stood swiftly trapping her between the tree and himself.
Khushi felt the ground beneath her feet crumble and reached out to hold on to his arms. His biceps flexed under the dark fabric of his suit, as he felt her clutch at him to steady herself. ‘Get out of my way,’ Khushi whispered, hating herself for that not sounding as forceful as she would have liked it to. Refusing to look up into his eyes, she spoke to his silk tie instead. The heels added enough height, making her fit perfectly into his embrace, as he continued to ignore her wishes and stare at her as if mesmerized.
He lifted his hand off her shoulder and stole it to her neck where there was a ringlet that he felt the urge to tuck behind her ear. When his hand touched her neck, Khushi’s looked up into his face, alarmed. ‘Didn’t you hear me?’ she tried to thump at his chest with both hands to push him away.
‘There seems to be only one way to shut you up, Khushi Kumari Gupta,’ Arnav muttered as he caught both her hands swiftly in mid air and swooped down on her upturned face taking her lips in a savage kiss. A stunned Khushi could only cling to him further as the force of his mouth unsteadied her slight frame. Her eyes widened in shock, and her lips parted involuntarily as Arnav continued his assault on her soft lips.
None of them realized when the brutality of the kiss softened into sensuality and Khushi clung on to him, as feelings she had never experienced before, created a whirlpool inside her. Her hands released from his grip crept instinctively up around his neck and into his short, cropped hair. As he turned his face to deepen the kiss, her hand crept down to cup his jaw, feeling the coarse stubble under her soft palms.
She felt his calloused palm at the nape of her neck, holding her steady while the other crept from her waist to the exposed small of her back. ‘Khushi…’ his raw moan against her lips, registered somewhere in her numb brain. She whimpered her displeasure as his lips moved away from hers and nibbled their way towards her ear now. Khushi threw her head back wantonly, giving him access to her slender neck, where his lips burned a passionate imprint.
It took all of Arnav’s will power to lift his head and stop them from going any further. The thought of where they were, and her welfare brought him to his senses soon enough, ‘though a cold shower would have worked better’, he thought to himself.
‘Khushi’, he said gently. She opened her eyes and gave him a blank look, her glazed eyes trying to understand what was going on. He watched in wonder, as the soft glazed look slowly changed to horror and her hands left his shoulders in a jerk to cover her own blushing cheeks.
‘Khushi…’ he began trying to reach out to her, but her agonized voice stopped whatever it was he was going to say. ‘What did you just do?’ her horrified whisper broke into the quiet night. ‘Is that what you think my ‘aukaat’ is after all?’ she sobbed ‘you…
‘You weren’t exactly stopping me were you’, his curt voice stopped her mid sentence, wanting to hurt her as much as he was hurting.
And before he could take in her hurt expression and tear filled eyes, he pushed her roughly against the tree and stormed off towards the party.
Khushi stood in shocked silence, her world crumbling around her. The tears had miraculously stopped and a chill was seeping into her. This was as much as her ‘never-say-die’ spirit could take. Every time he had humiliated her, brought her down, shown her aukaat, she had bounced back, covered her hurt and moved on without holding any grudges. But this evening was different. She just stood there like a dead statue against the tree, mindless of the time or place.
He had shown her exactly what he thought of her this time – cheap and available. And he had gone ahead and tried to prove that. And what had she done… fallen like a ripe fruit into his arms! She shuddered at the thought and slowly pushing herself off the tree walked towards her room across the lawns.
She didn’t remember how she made it across the crowded lawns, as she walked as if in a trance towards the haven that was her room. She needed to be alone.
She shut the door behind her and leaned against it with her eyes shut, head thrown back. She could feel nothing, at all – no anger, no pain, and no fear – nothing!
Like a zombie she walked towards the dresser and sat there, removing her jewellery one by one. Her eyes went to the reflection of the bed and images of Arnav and her entwined there this evening flashed in front of her. Stricken eyes turned away from the bed and focused on her reflection instead – her beautifully done up curls all a mess, her glazed tear streaked eyes, red nose and … swollen pink lips, bare of the pink gloss that she had applied carefully earlier that evening. As a hand went up to touch her lips, Khushi felt the dam burst inside her and threw herself on the bed, sobs racking her slight frame.
* * *
He had regretted the words the minute they escaped his lips. And like always, his only recourse was to hide behind his stern demeanor. He was aware of her not returning to the party. His eyes kept straying back to that corner where he had just shared the most mind-blowing experience of his life. Her soft responsive mouth had been the sweetest thing he had ever tasted, and letting go of her had been the hardest. If he had not taken charge, there would have been much more she would have been angry about right now, he consoled himself. ‘Where the hell was she,’ he looked worried towards the cluster of trees. It was then that he saw her walk out slowly totally composed moving slowly towards the house. His worried eyes followed her walk across the lawn, with a frown on his face. Something was not okay, he noticed, and stopped himself from following her. Once again he felt inadequate and remorseful of what had transpired. She had just gotten under his skin, and much as he was trying, he could not do anything right. He couldn’t be with her, and he couldn’t be away from her.
It was the complete silence that finally woke Khushi up somewhere in the middle of the night. At home in Lucknow, and also buaji’s house in Laxmi Nagar there was always a multitude of reassuring sounds outside twenty-four hours a day. This dead silence of the night was slightly unnerving. She recalled Payal jiji knocking at her door some time back and not wanting to upset her, Khushi had pretended to be asleep and waited till she left. Now she guiltily hoped that jiji had not gotten too worried about her sudden disappearance.
Sitting up in bed, Khushi looked about her surroundings groggily. A chill passed through her, as the hum of the air conditioner spewed cool air towards the bed. She looked down and saw that she was still in her lehnga, and got up wearily to change and get more comfortable. ‘How to switch of this air conditioner,’ she wondered looking about the dimly lit room. ‘It was so cold’ she shivered.
Changing into her simple salwa kameer that she usually wore to sleep, she went into the bathroom to wash and get her hair out of the tangled mess. Her reflection still showed her swollen eyes and smudged kajal, which she proceeded to rub off angrily.
Taking out her anger on fixing herself, Khushi suddenly felt better and more comfortable. The soft fabric of her kurta, washed a million times, smelled like home, and gave her some consolation.
Walking back into the room, Khushi again shivered – was it the cold or the silence? Or was it the fact that she was alone in this huge room with no one but the dark inky night outside.
Opening the bay windows, she stepped out into the patio leading to the pool. Even though there was a chill in the air, it was definitely better than the air-conditioned comfort of her room. She looked about her warily, as she neared the pool. Stopping at the edge she started vacantly down, wondering if she should venture to locate the kitchen herself and get something to eat. How long had it been since she had eaten? Should I wake up jiji, and ask her? No, there was no one here but them, so she could manage this on her own, she resolved.
* * *
Arnav banged his clenched fist on the large study table he sat at. It was getting more and more difficult for him to concentrate on the spreadsheet open on his laptop. He had been staring at it for the past 4 hours, and not a single figure had registered, as his thoughts were only on the room next door, and the girl who had disappeared within. ‘Damn’, he said loudly for the millionth time. He had deliberately concocted some work and stay back at the farmhouse, ignoring Lavanay’s sulky protests. Yes, a part of him wanted to see for himself that Khushi was ok… a part of him that wanted to be near where she was.
His nerves tingled suddenly and he walked towards the similar bay windows of his study overlooking the pool. He saw her standing precariously at the edge of the pool, staring down at the water. ‘Oh *$#@!’ Arnav cursed, a dread seeping into him. Is this what he had finally driven her to, he scolded himself, opening the windows in one fluid movement and running out on to the patio towards her.
Khushi lost in thought about what she was going eat, and how she was going to manage it, did not notice the sudden appearance of Arnav, and nearly screamed out loud when she felt herself being lifted by two familiar strong arms, and swung away from the pool.
“What do you think you are doing?’ they both shouted harshly at each other, still locked in a tight embrace.
Khushi was clutching on to him tightly, her heart pounding loudly. He had scared the living daylights out of her, and she felt the fear and relief bubble up and rise from her mouth as tears once again started trickling down her scrubbed pink cheeks.
‘You were going to jump,’ Arnav asked cautiously, her tears causing a sharp stab in his heart.
‘Jump’ Khushi looked up into his face, still clutching at him unknowingly. ‘Jump where ... haven’t you done enough already …’, she added bitterly. ‘From the day I have met you, you have only caused me problems,’ she continued muttering into his chest. ‘Broke jiji’s wedding … okay you didn’t directly do that’ she added sheepishly talking to herself, ‘but after that, you …’ she felt herself fall forward in a swoon and he held on to her, listening intently to her incoherent chatter.
He picked her up in one swoop into his arms and strode purposefully towards the study, where he placed her gently on the large leather sofa at the far end of one wall facing his large study table. Kneeling on the floor beside her prone form, he touched her face gently, wiping the tears that stained her cheeks.
Khushi opened her eyes, and look into his concerned ones. ‘Why can’t you just disappear from life,’ she asked softly, not having any more fight left in her. As she shut her eyes to blank him out, she missed the hurt that suddenly reflected on his face. He got up suddenly and walking across to his desk picked up his coat, which was draped on his chair. Walking back to where she lay, he gently covered her curled up form with it.
‘Can I get something to eat,’ a soft voice asked timidly, and Arnav stopped mid way. He was walking back to his desk to try and resume some work!
‘Eat?’ he asked incredulously as if it was an alien thought to him. He turned slowly towards her again, caught unawares at her request.
‘Just show me where the kitchen is, and I’ll help myself,’ Khushi started getting up, her hunger getting the better of her resentment right now. Shaking his head in defeat, he walked towards the door, leading her out towards where the kitchen was.
Jalebi’s were out of question, she thought as she stood in the middle of a very modern, well-equipped kitchen and wondered what to make for herself. Arnav stood at the door watching her in fascination, as she went about systematically pulling out stuff from the fridge and opening various cabinets and cupboards looking for stuff. Within a short span of time, the delicious aroma of prantha’s wafted through the kitchen, making Arnav realize that he too had barely eaten at the party.
Khushi swiftly piled up parantha’s on a plate, with curd and pickles. On one side she poured two cups of steaming hot masala tea, careful not to add sugar in one of them. Loading it all on to a large tray, she looked up at Arnav, still silent near the door.
‘Chalo’, she said curtly, as he switched off the lights and followed her meekly back to his office.
Putting the tray down on the coffee table in front of the sofa, she helped herself to the food, and settled back cross-legged on the sofa gesturing to him with her eyes and full mouth, to also help himself.
Arnav sat totally enthralled by her and this entire episode. When she helped herself to the third parantha, she caught him raising his eyebrows at her plate. Ignoring him, as food was uppermost on her mind right now, Khushi continued to enjoy her meal to the fullest. She’d deal with him on a full stomach, she decided.
When she had returned the tray to the kitchen and cleared everything, she curled back on the sofa with her mug of tea, after putting his cup on the table where he had returned and was typing something on his laptop. She gazed at him under her lashes, taking in the absorbed stern look that had returned on his face. Arnav looked up suddenly and caught her gaze. ‘Lavanyaji is not here’, Khushi blurted the first thing that came to her. The thought of Lavanya brought back the memory of his kiss, for some reason, and Khushi touch her lips immediately turning a pretty pink. She had managed to come to terms with their ‘live-in’ situation, but this kissing other women when you loved someone is just beyond me, Khushi fumed. What kind of relationship were they into exactly!
Arnav felt a warm blush creep up his neck too as he watched her recall that kiss and touch her lips, blushing prettily. ‘I had to work so I stayed back alone,’ he mumbled, trying to avoid her eyes and concentrate on his computer instead. Khushi kept starting at him, seeing his embarrassment surprised at seeing him like this.
Suddenly he banged his fist on the desk next to the laptop, making Khushi jump. ‘Khushi…’ he began hesitatingly. ‘er … I… we … earlier … outside I …’ he shut his eyes as if trying to find the right words. ‘I didn’t mean what I said outside earlier…’ he ground out finally.
Khushi’s eyes opened wide as she realized that this was some kind of an apology that he was trying to give. A mischievous look came on her face, as she sat back into the backrest and enjoyed what was a definite first for Arnav. She waited, watching him fumble for words, and was astonished at her own reaction of enjoying seeing him squirm.
‘What I did earlier … outside … when we …’ he again stopped ‘well, I should not have,’ he finished with a rush.
‘Chalo, Lavanyaji ka naam liya toh kuch toh sharam aaye,’ Khushi thought to herself. ‘I won’t tell Lavanyaji, don’t worry,’ she told him reassuringly instead.
‘Lavanya??’ Arnav looked sternly at Khushi, his face melting as he watched her curled up comfortably on his sofa, his coat draped around her shoulders.
‘Haan, Lavanya’, Khushi reiterated. You do remember Lavanya, no?’ she asked with a twinkle in her eye. And before he could respond she started her chatter, ‘don’t worry, I will keep that between us, and may even forgive you. The list against you is quite long actually, so …’
Arnav was not listening, he just sat back on his chair, his arms folded and watched every expression flitter on her face as she carried on about his injustices to her and her family. After a little while, he saw her stifle a yawn and get more comfortable with her head on the armrest. The thought that he should take her back to her room, crossed his mind, but her shy ‘can I lie here only? I’m not used to being alone in such a big and quiet room,’ melted his resolve and he watched her tenderly, as she fell asleep curling deeper into his coat.